On Wisconsin!

As a child, I remember with deep affection the church where I grew up in Missouri. And although I was too young to clearly remember his face today, I did know of the tremendous influence of a pastor who served that congregation for over 50 years. In those days of the last years of his call, I can remember visits from Santa Claus in the church fellowship hall. I can also distinctly remember that following the monthly potlucks, we would have inter-generational bingo with prizes awarded. They were good prizes too. Kitchenware for the women, tools for the men, bottles of bubbles to blow for the children. [Presbyterians don’t allow that kind of gambling or visits from Santa anymore.] There was a keen sense of fellowship in the church in those days. It was a large congregation. And we didn’t just play together, we studied together. Dr. Whitcomb always led the older adults in a study on Sunday mornings. A younger adult group who Christ Window at Westminster Presbyterian, editedcalled themselves the “Coffee Couples” had another class and fellowship. And we had a large Sunday School for children and youth, Vacation Bible School, and wonderful teachers.

When Dr. Whitcomb retired and then died within a few years, a new set of absolutely gorgeous stained glass windows were placed in his memory into the sanctuary of the beautiful old church. And the Dr. Whitcomb class always continued to be called the Dr. Whitcomb class. But through the years, things changed. Attendance dropped off. People were hired to sing in the choir because not enough people volunteered for the task and there was an emphasis on proficiency rather than on simply praising God. There were fewer fellowship activities and youth groups came to a halt. My folks were members of that church for 50 years and when they died I was amazed to find out that no one in that church knew of my older brother’s schizophrenia or of the dysfunction and financial distress that the family suffered. Nor did anyone in that congregation – even after I related the story – step forward to extend the light of Christ’s love to my brother who continues to live in that community and who, for years, maintained his membership and even attended worship there on a regular basis. No one called on him in his group home. And then he got an impersonal business letter saying they intended to move him to the inactive rolls of the church.

It is with some grief, then, that I tell you that the church of my childhood has closed. And it is with grief that I must also acknowledge that the light of Christ was extinguished in that place many years before it did.

When Terry and I moved to Wisconsin 15 years ago, we were thrilled to locate in the Madison area because, at long last, we could take advantage of cultural and athletic activities not available out in the middle of South Dakota from where we had moved (Terry after an entire lifetime and I after over 25 years). So among the first things we did was attend the annual University of Wisconsin band concert. The UW band is an

enthusiastic bunch and fun to watch. Usually, you will find the band on the football field during half-time or at the end of the basketball court during that season. But for the annual concert, they gather at the Kohl Center in Madison, a field house where the basketball games are played, and they put on quite a show for several nights running.

I am reminded once again of that concert as the Wisconsin Badgers basketball team moves on to the NCAA Final Four tournament this weekend in Indianapolis.

It was the first time that either one of us had attended a UW event. We were thrilled with the excitement and took note of the fact that what the band lacked in quality, they made up for in performance. It was fun. It was huge. And we rapidly fell into the unreserved appreciation shared by the rest of the crowd.

Toward the end of the long show, the band began yet another song. We were unfamiliar with this tune but it was clear that it was an important number for the rest of the crowd as they suddenly came to their feet. So we joined them. As the band moved into the first few bars of the more melodic, quiet tempo, I felt the arm of someone beginning to approach my waist and wrap around my back. It wasn’t my husband. So I looked to the other side of me to see a very nice-looking young man, perhaps 19 or 20 years old, olive-skinned, who smiled at me. The music continued and the crowd had begun to sing: “Varsity! Varsity! U-rah-rah! Wisconsin! Praise to thee, we sing! (We sing!)”

Now all of this happened rather quickly, but I did look around and noted that in the rows ahead of us, these people, too, had their arms wrapped around the waists of the people next to them and they were swaying back and forth to the music. “Praise to thee our Alma Mater. U-Rah-Rah! Wisconsin!” So I quickly looked back at the young man and smiled at him and raised my right arm as everyone else had done to also wave back and forth to the music, put my left arm around my husband’s waist, and the band repeated the piece. By this time Terry had gotten the hang of it (although he was sitting at the end of the row so there was no one for him to reach out, but he had raised his right arm too (which was a good thing, because had he put that arm around my waist, he would have found the arm of the young man there).

Bucky Badger, ©UW-Madison University Communications

Bucky Badger, ©UW-Madison University Communications

Nothing, in my history as a South Dakota Coyote had prepared me for that moment. Suddenly, I was transformed. I had become in heart and in spirit, a Badger.

Had that young man not reached out, so innocently, and accepted me as a fellow Badger without knowing my name or from whence I had come, without knowing that we had no family or friends at that moment in Madison, it probably would not have had the impact on me that it did. Tears welled up in my eyes. I felt accepted. Accepted as just a fellow citizen sharing a path and a song.

What a wonder it would be if we could find such acceptance and such comfort in the church or our communities! Whether we come just to scope the place out or whether we have been members for years to the point of just blending in with the rest of the assembled multitudes even to the point that we have, unfortunately, become invisible, what a wonder it would be to feel such complete acceptance among people. No explanations as to what we do for a living or why we don’t have kids or why our kids turned into such scoundrels or why we chose to live in a particular neighborhood or could afford only to live in a particular neighborhood. None of that. What a wonder it would be to know that you could walk into a place and feel the safety of fellow travelers sharing a path and a song.

I don’t normally watch college sports through the regular season, but there’s something about March Madness that draws me in. Maybe it’s the $5 stake I have in the tournament. Motion WAlas, my bracket is broken this year – that is, except for the Wisconsin Badgers. I have them going all the way to win the tournament. Whether they do or not, I am and will remain a devoted Badger – just because I was accepted by an unknown young man at a band concert 15 years ago.

Churches and communities can take a lesson from that. No need for beautiful stained glass windows (in fact, concentrating on windows and their maintenance detracts from the time and effort that could be extended to real human beings). No need to vet anyone’s political or religious beliefs. No need to find out in what part of town or country they live or what they do for a living. No need to see if folks live up to our standards.

Just reaching out to a stranger (with or without music) can make them feel like part of the family. Even when they have one of their own (by blood-line), we never know how much folks are longing to belong to something not necessarily bigger but more intimate. A family where they are accepted just as they are.

Share here:

9 comments for “On Wisconsin!

  1. Susie Thornton
    April 1, 2015 at 12:47 pm

    I was saddened to read that you felt your family’s struggles and your brother’s illness were not really known by your former congregation. My feeling is that back in our growing up years, those kinds of things were kept “to ourselves”, rather than show signs of weakness or failure to others, including– or maybe even especially– at church. I must confess, I had no idea about any of these issues until we reconnected as adults. Also, I’m wondering if the folks in your congregation had no idea how to approach someone suffering from mental illness. I know your brother does not know us, but what would you think about having someone from our congregation attempt to reach out to him and even offer to bring him to church? If you think it’s a worth a try, I would be willing.

    • April 1, 2015 at 1:30 pm

      First, thank you, Susie, for your compassion. I’ll private message you about my brother. I know you’re right that back in those days we all tended to keep our problems to ourselves both to our personal detriment and progress. Speaking as one with background in private business, politics, and the church I can speak from experience when I say that even today many do not want their private struggles known. Think about the Germanwings pilot who took all of those passengers with him last week when he decided to commit suicide. He had all kinds of doctors’ notes to let his company know what was going on, but he was fearful of what might happen if his vulnerabilities were known. I think all churches and all communities take folks for granted, thinking that if they’re a known quantity then everything must be all right. And then there are the unknown quantities — those folks, like Terry and I were at that band concert, that are hoping for a sign of God’s presence in their midst and looking to other people for that. I think we dare not overlook those who stand right beside us, whether we think we know them or not, and allow God to use us to reach out with a word, a hand, even a smile to reassure one another that we are all in this together. Thanks so much for your thoughts.

  2. Merrie Miller
    April 2, 2015 at 6:45 pm

    Once again…beautifully done, Gretchen. Until I had two schizophrenic nephews, I have to admit to being a person who was uncomfortable approaching those with mental illnesses. We do overlook them at church because we just don’t know how to respond and it is a symptom of the loss of a viable Christian institution.

    Your messages are so on point, my friend, and I will take them to heart to do better by my fellow congregants,”in sickness or in health”.

    • April 2, 2015 at 6:56 pm

      Thank you, Merrie, for your kindness (of which I know you have an abundance). We are all guilty of being afraid or overlooking others. But as the UW band concert taught me, sometimes all it takes is a smile and a touch (and sometimes just a smile if the touching thing bothers you). Have a blessed Holy Week.

  3. Julie Overman
    April 3, 2015 at 8:10 am

    Oh wow full body shivers – combination of patriotism, Badgerism, love and hope for the church. Absolutely exciting. What a vision, and how simple the plan. Beautiful. And what a great time of year for this piece. Perhaps we could adapt the words to the Varsity song for use at church and end every worship service with that!

    • April 3, 2015 at 8:46 am

      Laughing. Julie, I used parts of this piece for a sermon when I was asked to preach for a Presbytery meeting (our church governing body) and I had everyone who knew the words to “Varsity” stand up and sing it in the middle of the sermon! It was a hoot! People said afterwards, “I never thought I’d be singing “Varsity” in church!” I think you’re on to something…writing new words to the tune. We need to work on that for church.

  4. Susan Norby
    April 3, 2015 at 10:35 am

    Love this. Would give my eye teeth to have your arm around my waist on Sunday morning…..anyone’s arm for that matter. I’m all for it!

    • April 3, 2015 at 11:27 am

      Sue, we’ll have to look to see who wrote the music and whether it’s in the public domain. With the right words, it would be a great way to end each service. 🙂

      • April 3, 2015 at 12:16 pm

        Just to quickly quash the idea of putting new words to the tune of “Varsity,” the song was adapted from “Domine Salvam Fac,” written by French composer Charles Gounod. I think he might have written “Ave Maria.” You would think that might be in the public domain and probably is by now, however, the tune we know was adapted specifically for the University of Wisconsin and is copyrighted by UW. So the answer is, nope, we can’t use it for another purpose. Anyway, the idea, of course, is to allow ourselves the flexibility to reach out to others whenever the time is right — and, specifically, to those we may not know or might otherwise ignore. And we may not even be aware that we are touching someone so deeply — as that young man touched me.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Share This