Webster Kitchell

I was visiting one of my favorite blogs when I learned that last week Webster Kitchell had died.

At the UUA bookstore there’s an unsigned biography that’s both good and brief.

Webster Lardner Kitchell

The Reverend Webster Lardner Kitchell died on February 9, 2009 of complications from Parkinson’s disease. He was 71.

Rev. Kitchell was born in Newburyport, MA, on May 21, 1931, to Francis Robert Kitchell and Jeannette Abbot Kitchell. He was the youngest of four brothers, following Frank, Sam, and Peter.

He graduated from Amherst College in 1955 and Harvard Divinity School in 1957. He received his doctorate from Eden Theological Seminary in 1972. He served in the Marine Corps during the Korean War and was honorably discharged in 1951.

His first position in the ministry was as assistant minister at All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City, from 1957 to 1960. Rev. Kitchell then moved to Eliot Chapel in Kirkwood, Mo., for 13 years. From 1973 to 1981 he served as minister at First Unitarian Church in Houston. He continued his trek west by becoming the first minister at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Santa Fe, where he served until 1998. Following his retirement, the Santa Fe congregation named him Minister Emeritus.

Rev. Kitchell was active in various UU related organizations, including as chair of the Central Midwest District Personnel committee, editor of the Midwest Liberal Minister’s Newsletter, and member of the nominating committee of the UU Historical Society. His community activities included The Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, the Kirkwood, Missouri Ministerial Alliance, and president of the Committee for Responsible Citizenship.

He was known for his sonorous voice and the humor in his sermons. His “Coyote” sermons became a tradition at the church in Santa Fe. Coyote, the “trickster” symbol in Native American mythology, was his fictitious partner whom he met at doughnut shops to discuss current events, matters of theology, and the wonders of life.

There are several things to comment about regarding Webster Kitchell. One is how readable his sermons are and how successful within the bounds of our denomination were his collections of sermons. At least, that is, those that featured his conversations with Coyote.

Another passing thought, at least as a writer, is how capricious the literary gods are. In recent years only one UU minister’s ruminations, bits of newsletter columns and sermons have parlayed into a successful literary career. It wasn’t Web Kitchell, but rather Robert Fulgum. I have nothing but admiration for Mr Fulgum, well admiration mixed with a large dose of jealousy. But, I ruminate on how Kitchell’s genuine and sometimes startling insights never made it to that larger readership. He always lived within our little spiritual ghetto. Just the luck of the draw…

Not, I suspect, that he would have particularly minded. This is our garden, and he tilled it with skill and insight, and brought forth a rich crop.

Most important for me is his possible influence as a theologian. The Wikipedia biographical sketch summarises it nicely. “‘For Coyote and me, faith means that we have to live our lives as if the cosmos, the planet, life, our fellow creatures, and ourselves are sacred,’ says Kitchell in Get a God: More Conversations with Coyote. ‘That is the myth Coyote and I have returned to.'”

He drew upon the inspiration of Native American trickster stories to do this. And, I think he addressed the insights of our radical interdependence, of our profound interrelatedness in a peculiarly “American” way.

UUA Bookstore manager Rose Hanig wrote. “A favorite passage of mine from God’s Dog: Conversations with Coyote goes like this: Coyote wanders in to find Reverend Kitchell reading Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. Coyote asks about the book, and Kitchell responds with Hawking’s theory that the universe is finite, but without boundaries.

Coyote studies his nails and says, ‘That’s news?’

‘The animals,’ he says, ‘know the universe is finite, but without boundaries! You humans don’t seem to know anything until some mathematician says it’s true, and even then you’re just believing what he tells you. You aren’t experiencing for yourself what it means to say the universe is boundless but finite.'”

Important stuff…

Worth a visit, I suggest…

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