The Revolutionary Church
By Tony Palmeri
from the August, 2005 issue of The
Chippewa Falls citizen activist Jody Thompson manages “The Side Street” (www.thesidestreet.com), an edgy site featuring one of Wisconsin’s best blogs. Recently Jody recommended to me the book Crisis in Watertown (The University of Michigan Press, 1972). Subtitled “The Polarization of an American Community,” the book was author Lynn Eden’s University of Michigan undergraduate senior thesis. In 1973 Crisis in Watertown earned a national book award nomination.
In May of 1969 minister Alan Kromholz was fired as pastor of Watertown’s congregational church. Youthful, articulate, passionate about social justice, and an active participant in the then controversial protest marches led by Milwaukee’s Father James Groppi, Kromholz upset the sensibilities of the congregation's conservative majority. A resident told Eden that “a minister has to decide in this day and age whether he’s going to play the politics game or the religion game . . . They don’t mix.”
Following the lead of Father Groppi, Kromholz in 1968 attempted to stir up support for an open housing ordinance. Watertown, located between Madison and Milwaukee and with [at that time] a population of 15,000, had literally one black family living within its borders. The establishment politicians insisted an ordinance wasn’t needed because “we don’t have a problem here.” As Kromholz became increasingly passionate about the issue, some church members accused him of not meeting his ministerial duties such as making hospital visits to the ill and calling on spouses of the deceased.
The late 1960s were a high point for alternative media activism, especially the “underground” newspaper. The appearance in November of 1967 of Soul, a newsletter that grew out of a senior high school discussion group advised by Kromholz, became for many in Watertown the decisive factor in why the minister had to be removed. The first issue contained three articles perceived as so radical that key community and church leaders told Lynn Eden they were convinced Kromholz authored them. The lead article “Open Your Eyes” said in part: “Teachers and administrators on the whole feel that free-thinking has no place in school . . . But what happens to those students when it’s their turn to lead? Is it a school’s right to deprive a person of developing good leadership abilities because they don’t want any trouble?”
The second article, “Spies, Spies, Everywhere!” lamented the tyranny of Watertown High School: “The empty formal democracy of WHS is not only a frustrating experience, it has become the training ground for the acceptance of the false democracy in which political machines determine the choices presented to the voters, and a willful executive can ruin the Constitution by turning the legislature into a rubber-stamp body.”
The final article contrasted youth with the “Mr. Adult” of Watertown: “We’re striving to develop ourselves into well rounded persons with open minded attitudes. We’re striving to stay out of the local egotistical mindset into which many of you wonderful ADULTS have fallen. The world calls for change. Change calls for involvement.”
The Watertown establishment interpreted the articles as a frontal assault on everything good and decent in the community. Kromholz became the scapegoat, leading to the proliferation of trumped up charges and accusations that became the rationale for his removal. Betty Ebert edited the church newsletter at the time. She told Lynn Eden that the expectations of the congregation were different from what Kromholz delivered: “They wanted to hear about how we are God’s chosen people and we are storing up treasures in heaven and to heck with the poor people. I mean, that’s the sort of thing they wanted to hear. They wanted a tranquilizer and they wanted to be assured that everything was all right. When a minister comes in and sets you back on your feet you don’t like that, it takes away your security. And they don’t like that, they didn’t like somebody upsetting the apple cart.”
Kromholz upset the congregation because he introduced to them a Christianity rooted in a dynamic vision of the church as a change agent in the push for social and economic justice. While such a vision survives, it has been dwarfed by the legions of ministers for whom issues of personal morality trump everything else. The epitome of this shift was former LaCrosse Bishop Raymond Burke’s edict last year that Catholic politicians who support a woman’s right to choose in the abortion debate should not be allowed to receive communion. The church supports living wages, is for national health care, opposes unjust wars, and stands against the death penalty, yet a Catholic politician in disagreement with those views can receive all the communion s/he wants.
In the Fox Valley we have some ministers that share Kromholz’s vision of the activist church. Father Joe Mattern of St. Mary’s Church in Omro, Reverend Roger Bertschausen of the Fox Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, and Ralph and Carol DiBiasio-Snyder of the First Congregational Church in Oshkosh are four outstanding examples. Each has a passion for social and economic justice, peace, equality, and human rights. Each not only talks the talk, but walks the walk. We need more ministers like them.
Alan Kromholz told Lynn Eden that in Watertown he aimed to create a “revolutionary church” that would not “simply mouth platitudes,” but would “commit itself to action.” Amen.
Tony Palmeri (www.tonypalmeri.com) is an associate professor of communication at UW Oshkosh.