Thursday, November 5, 2015

Article 5: W. Edward Harris

I met Reverend W. Edward Harris in late 1970, soon after he began to serve as minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Urbana/Champaign (UUCUC).  At that time, UUCUC owned the Channing-Murray Foundation (CMF), an on-campus student foundation at the University of Illinois.  That foundation housed the very popular Red Herring Coffeehouse and was run by several full- and part-time staff members.  Ed Harris visited CMF several times a month and held monthly staff meetings there.  That's where I first met Ed and began to talk with him.

Ed Harris was from the South, born in Florida and raised mostly in Alabama.  He had an affable, Southern accent and was a mix of homespun hospitality, empathy and kindness.  I believe he was raised a Southern Baptist, but after getting his masters at Tufts University, he began working at the Arlington Street Unitarian Universalist Church in Boston, where he was ordained in 1968.  The Arlington Street Church is one of the most prominent U-U churches in the country--liberal and community-oriented.  (In 2004, it was the site of the first same-sex marriage in the United States.)  Ed began working at the UUCUC immediately after his work at the Arlington Street Church.

Consistent with his Unitarian beliefs, Ed was a passionate civil rights and political activist. He served on the board of the American Civil Liberties Union and had been president of the Alabama Civil Liberties Union.  He pioneered voter registration campaigns, served on the Birmingham Anti-Poverty Committee and worked extensively on the campaigns of Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Carter.  He also served on the Democratic National Committee.

I began to visit Ed frequently at UUCUC to have one-on-one conversations about a variety of things.  I really enjoyed the work of the foundation, which not only provided many student services, but supported several community programs, such as a drug hotline, Alcoholics Anonymous, Big Brother and a farmers market.  The full-time staff members were all conscientious objectors, and when I talked with them about their beliefs, I soon realized that they coincided with mine.

Ed pushed me to live by my values and take a political stance.  Before I met Ed, my political views drifted back and forth between the Democratic and Republican Parties.  My parents and friends had mostly been Republicans during my youth, but as I got into college I met more people who grew up as Democrats.  One's party choice was up for grabs as the Vietnam War era began to unfold, as early as 1962.  The first U.S. anti-war demonstrations were in 1964.  By 1968, I was so much against Lyndon Johnson's policies in Vietnam that I preferred Nixon in the 1968 election.  My voting preference was completely out of sync with my personal beliefs and values.

Ed Harris began to clarify the issues for me.  I soon discovered that the man voiced his opinions, and that those opinions were based on deep beliefs.  I had never met anyone who was passionate about civil rights; the extent of my civil rights knowledge came from what I saw on television and read in the newspaper, plus a few lessons I had learned from my father (such as driving through the streets of Detroit and seeing the immediate aftermath of the 1967 race riots).

Ed pressed the issues much further for me and others.  For the first time in my life, I began to see that civil rights are fundamental to our existence as a civilized democracy.  Voting rights are a vital part of those civil rights.  It is important to stress that Ed did not flaunt his political affiliations in our discussions; he spoke only about his beliefs and actions.  As a Unitarian minister, he was used to hearing all sides of an issue and speaking clearly and convincingly about what he thought was right.

Ed was a storyteller par excellence.  Everyone in our little community had opinions about the Vietnam War and all of the different movements taking place in  the 1960's, but none of us had seen the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement first-hand, led by Dr. Martin Luther King in 1963, as Ed had.  He helped shuttle people from the Birmingham Airport to the site of the Birmingham march.  And on Sunday, September 15, 1963, Ed was one of a handful of white men who visited the homes of parents who had lost their daughters that day in the infamous 16th Street Baptist Church bombing [as told to me by his wife, Sandra].  Ed's stories could top anyone's, because they spoke of pivotal events in this country's civil rights movement.

Ed pushed me and others to live by our values and to take a political (and often moral) stance.

Ed pushed me to be aware of and act on my conscientious objector views.  Ed had served in the United States Marine Corps, but he was very supportive of the nationwide Unitarian Universalist policy of providing alternate service positions to conscientious objectors.  When the subject of military service (and the Vietnam War) came up between us, I readily voiced my scattered, unstructured beliefs that I was against wars and violent means of solving problems.  Ed helped me place structure to those beliefs.  He taught me what it was to be a conscientious objector, and questioned me extensively about what I thought and felt.

Ed knew I'd been in ROTC for four years (three in high school, one in college) and had even fired on a rifle team for three years, but he also knew about the transformation I'd experienced after my father's death in late 1968.  During our talks, Ed was a counselor more than anyone else had been for me.  After it was clear that I was, at heart, a conscientious objector, he provided counseling on how to apply for full CO status.  Our discussions were the basis for my answers to the four questions each applicant must answer on their CO application.  He reviewed my answers and wrote a wonderful letter to the draft board in support of my sincerity.

My CO status was approved in the late spring of 1971.  I was the first person in my draft district to achieve full CO status without having to appear before the draft board.  Part of the reason was that I had already begun my alternate service with Channing-Murray Foundation and had informed the draft board of that.  I was sincere in my beliefs and sure that I wanted to commit to two years of alternate service, whether or not my draft number was reached for that year.  (It wasn't.)  But a big part of the reason was that Ed Harris pushed me to be aware of and act on my beliefs in the first place.

And Finally.... Ed Harris died on August 10, 2012, at the age of 77.  After leaving Urbana Champaign in 1983, he led Unitarian Universalist congregations in Indianapolis, IN, Bethesda, MD, Evanston, IL and Manhasset, NY.  We kept close contact through the 1980's and infrequent contact after that, mostly via Christmas letters.  (Recently I renewed contact with Ed's wife, Sandra Harris, and it was great to speak with her again and talk about Ed.)

Ed became a wonderful writer and poet in the last third of his life.  He had seven books published, including the acclaimed Miracle in Birmingham: A Civil Rights Memoir, 1954-1965.  In 2000, he sent me a booklet of his American Sijo poems, called Still My Love for you Increases.  His hand-written note to me said, "I am still working on my civil rights memoir - No Flame Like Birmingham [the original title?].  Got interested in sijo and put this little book together for my friends."  He was a dear friend, beyond being a remarkable person in my life.

When I think of Ed, I can't help but think of the time at a CMF staff meeting, when several of us complained about the next-door sorority, whose members kept filling our parking lot spaces with cars and trash bins with garbage.  He paused for effect and blurted out, "We're going to bomb that f*****g sorority."  We were all stunned by his candor, considered his practical solution, and then burst out laughing.  He made one phone call, and the problems were solved.  Ed was a soft-spoken, humorous, humble person who knew how to get things done.

Ed did a lot of good things for a lot of people in his life. He certainly changed my life in profound ways.  In our last communication, in 2001, he recommended a Unitarian minister in Dayton, Ohio, to perform the wedding ceremony for me and my wife, Suzanne.  As with just about everything from Ed, that was pretty good advice.

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