by Karl Perrin
When I was 14, I had the spiritual experience of my life. In those years, the late Fifties, the world was waking from the long sleep that came inevitably after the long exhaustion of World War II. The Cold War had settled in, but the rabid anti-communism of Senator Joe McCarthy had waned enough that liberals were once more speaking out. In Detroit, the United Auto Workers under Walter Reuther had never been stronger. Auto workers were voting Democrat and liberals were doing well politically and religiously.
My church in downtown Detroit had just changed its name from “Church of Our Father” to “First Unitarian-Universalist Church of Detroit”, and at 14, my mentor was our Assistant Minister, Scott Mitchell. I asked him once what his religious sources were and he said Buddhism and Existentialism. That made a lot of sense to me. Once I learned what the Beatniks knew about Buddhism and Existentialism, I could imagine Scott with a beret and a goatee. He was a non-conformist among non-conformists.
My church was home to about ten teenagers. We mocked grownups in a friendly way, imagining their disdain for all teens, “Teenagers! Rotten to the core!” we said in our mock adult voices. In fact, we were proud that as teens we had exceptionally good relationships with the grownups at our church—if not our parents, who were sometimes our natural enemies too concerned about “sex, drugs, and rock and roll.” But aside from our incessantly worrying parents, we were very free at church, freer than anywhere else in the world.
We were the new wave of heresy in our heretical church, or so we thought. We thought we had discovered atheism, and that gave us tremendous freedom. But we also had profound respect for the brave men and women in our congregation who were teaching us about Gandhi and social justice. And even in the late Fifties we were fully integrated, black and white, while the rest of the city seemed still asleep to the racism that infected North America. We were ready for a Brave, New World, a world that we, the leading-edge baby-boomers, would soon be building in the very Unitarian Sixties.
Our name was Liberal Religious Youth, or LRY, and we felt precocious. Some of us were bright, or talented, or both. I tagged along, in awe of my LRY buddies and proto feminist girl friends. Gorgeous? You bet. But they were friends who were girls, not “girlfriends”. Sex was on our minds, but it was a bonus, if it ever happened. We loved each other the way that friends love each other, with great respect and affection, never domineering—that wouldn’t be Unitarian. We only vaguely suspected that, in terms of social justice, we were twenty years ahead of the times. We were encouraged to organize ourselves. A token adult might hang out in the hall while we had our meetings but we raised our own money, organized our own conferences and our own summer camp.
That summer camp is what I’m getting to. It was called Bridgeman, the summer camp for Unitarian teens from Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and all the campus Unitarian-Universalist congregations dotting the U.S. Midwest. Every summer about a hundred of us would bus or be driven to Bridgeman on the shores of Lake Michigan, a hundred miles across the lake from Chicago. Bridgeman was a church camp without crosses—just plain wooden buildings. There were two giant dorms: one for the boys and one for the girls—and yes, we did have a curfew.
It was such a thrill to be back at Bridgeman, with the best one hundred teens in the whole world, smart and/or talented, and our own chosen chaperones, some of the most radical, smart and talented Unitarian ministers and youth leaders we could find. This was a nursery for the Sixties: the Civil Rights Movement, the Anti-War, Anti-Nuclear Weapons Movement, the Feminist Movement, and the artistic environment that made it all fun. We memorized the progressive comedians of the day: Lenny Bruce, Shelley Berman, Mort Sahl. Our banter was peppered with quotes from all of them.
That’s where it happened, one summer day. We had just arrived, anticipating another summertime week of “sex, drugs, and rock and roll”—figuratively speaking. As for drugs, the only illicit one was tobacco. As for rock and roll, we made our own by singing. Four of guys from Detroit, including my best friend Ross, me, and two older guys, made up a quartet. We called ourselves “The Sextones”. We called ourselves by that name with our ever present tongue in cheek, for we had high hopes of kissing, hugging, and who knows what lay beyond first base in our 14 year old imaginations. But as a group we were good, doing a little a capella doo wop and Buddy Holly teen heart throb songs. Everybody knew the songs. All of us sang a lot at Bridgeman, especially the irreverent songs of Tom Lehrer, and eventually, the more upbeat Pete Seeger and Kingston Trio stuff.
The whole place was built on sand dunes, so we could lie down on the sand anywhere, with or without friends. The sand dunes were immense and weird to those of us who lived on very flat floodplains turned into cities. They were steep, but forgiving. You could run, fall, roll to the bottom and never get hurt. Getting back up was hard because the sand gave way beneath your feet, so once down, you stayed down, which wasn’t bad because down was where the beach was. To get back up to camp and the dining hall, we climbed a wooden stair case that zig-zagged up five stories.
Back in our flat cities, landscapes were limited. Sight lines were blocked by trees and houses, and there wasn’t anything to see but more trees and houses. We could ride our bikes for an hour to get to the Detroit River where we could see a mile or two across to Windsor, but vistas were not part of our lives. When a storm came up we could hear the thunder, and see the flash of light. But you were lucky if you could even see a big piece of lightning.
Not so at Bridgeman. From the dining hall, five storeys above the beach, we could see a seemingly endless lake across the western horizon. Even Chicago was below the furthest horizon, glowing faintly into the sky, on clear moonless nights. This was part of the romance of the place. Beautiful girls, smart and talented, and Nature in all her power and beauty, laid out before us like a treasure waiting to be found.
And then, on that one summer day, the clouds rolled in. We weren’t scared, because our buildings had weathered years and years of Midwest thunder storms. Even tornadoes could whip across the lake without shaking our sturdy buildings. But this was better. This was true “Sturm und Drang”, a storm at sea, with us buddies and girl friends safely ensconced in our well-worn Bridgeman buildings.
As the storm built up, we went out onto the stairs and landings, all hundred of us, to see the light show that was coming. A mile out to sea the clouds were turning black, and the rumble was starting like the earth purring. Or would I then have said, like “a chopped down Buick with wide open mufflers, gunning its engines at the start of some street race”? That was the thunder getting ready to rock and roll. Then came the sheet lightning turning the heat of a hot humid day into a furious night-time symphonic finale. Some of us knew Beethoven, so we could appreciate the musical qualities of this storm at sea. Then that flash. That brilliant flash, that left us screaming—even tough teenage boys wanted to scream—but didn’t, because the girl were screaming as if Elvis had appeared. We knew the show was just getting started.
And it was quite a show. More thunder, so loud across the water that it seemed to cry out from the bowels of the Earth. More lightening, as if God were speaking in light flashes. “LISTEN, YOU IDIOTS. THIS IS NOTHING.” Then as those words sunk into our atheistic brains, God spoke again, “You think you’re something. This is nothing. I could have you begging on your knees. You’d be believing whatever I demanded.”
Then we were afraid, because the weather had never spoken to us so clearly. “I COULD CHEW YOU INTO BITS, IN AN INSTANT.” KABOOM! FLASH! And then we laughed because this was really real, but still we were safe with each other, with our chaperones, with our trusty buildings. We were SURVIVING, with nary a hair out of place. It was WONDERFUL, in the literal sense of WONDERFUL, so full of wonder, and awe, and reverence for the power that was only partly unleashed. We were so grateful to be alive.
There we were. Alive, extremely Alive! with our best friends, gorgeous girls and shining boys, at the peak of our beauty, smart and talented, preserved by God for better things to come. We were needed, and God had plans for us–the God we didn’t believe in. That God was there, parting the Red Sea in front of us, as we huddled together, at Bridgeman dining hall, waiting for the Sixties to start, waiting for Love.