Paul Sawyer died last month. He was the minister of the Valley Unitarian-Universalist Church for ten years starting in the mid-fifties during which time I was actively involved in their program. After Peggy, I would say that Paul had the greatest influence on the course my life would take. He appears in my dreams and is a frequent voice whispering in my ear. Though we had emailed and spoken on the phone I'd not seen him since he married Peggy and me 24 years ago.
When I joined the church my wife was pregnant with our oldest daughter We were new to the area and eager to find some kindred spirits. I was quite politicized, already in flight from Judaism and possibly the most obnoxious guy in the room if you happened to disagree with me.
Paul had recently graduated from Harvard Divinity School and Starr King, the Unitarian Theological Seminary. I credit him with turning me around.He channeled my political idealism (some might say dogma) from macro to micro. A small group of us started the San Fernando Valley Fair Housing Council. There were many other social action projects, vigils, letters to editors, arranging for speakers and acts bearing witness to our core beliefs.
But the door he opened for me was an introduction to the endlessly wide cultural canvas. Kenneth Rexroth, Wallace Stevens, Whitman, Emerson and Thoreau became household names. Their words were our Sunday morning litany. I was introduced to Martin Buber, Reinhold Neibuhr and Paul Tillich along with Ken Kesey, Alan Watts, Camus and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. We had programs of interpretive dance, chamber music, theatre and art exhibits.
These were the turbulent years of civil disobedience, anti-war demonstrations, Love-ins, drugs and new sounds in music. Paul Sawyer had made the leap into that world and pulled the congregation along with him. He was, as I remember, always a significant distance ahead of the pack and often around the next corner.
One Saturday afternoon I dropped in at his house. His dog was barking, the radio and TV were playing and he had some tapes going. He was writing his Sunday sermon. From out of the cacophony he found a core.
He tapped into something latent in me. At one time he even suggested I consider the ministry as a vocation. The closest I got was leading the youth group. Typically, our curriculum was an investigation of other religions. Of course our kids couldn't articulate what Unitarianism was but that was alright because I couldn't either. In fact I still hold to the idea that it is experiential and just beyond verbalization. It's a way of being, not of saying.
As for Christian theology, the last time God was mentioned in the church was when the janitor fell down the stairs. Paul preached that Jesus was a man, nothing less. This was a church where you didn't have to park your brains outside before entering. If there was a fault it was that we were too intellectual. When a Unitarian died he didn't go to heaven; he went to a discussion of heaven.
Paul was well aware of this inclination towards the cerebral and he did everything possible to lead us into a world of the senses. The religious experience is in the discovery of that transcendent dimension embedded in almost every aspect of life. Nature, certainly. The Arts, to be sure. In relationships, I/Thou, also in socio political issues of the day as well as the seemingly mundane.
Paul Sawyer was my Moses guiding me across my own desert. Ironically, down through the years, as I got more engaged in literature and poetry, he became more radicalized. He lived the counter-culture life. He was arrested over sixty times in acts of conscience in support of or protest against various causes.
Our trajectories had crossed. I didn't disagree with him but couldn't give myself over, as he did, to the barricades. I regret how we grew apart in recent years. Still, I hold his memory close and find myself, at times, speaking with his voice.