Jack Mendelsohn: A Life Worth Celebrating

There’s an old saw among the clergy. If you want a good funeral, die young.

Of course there are exceptions, and yesterday my colleague Cathy our Religious Educator and I drove up to the First Parish in Bedford, MA, where we joined an overflow crowd gathered to remember and celebrate the life of someone who had died at the age of ninety-four.

Jack Mendelsohn was born in Cambridge, MA, in 1918. He had a BA from Boston University, and a theological degree from Harvard. He would also be awarded an honorary doctorate along the way.

Among the churches he would serve were Arlington Street Church in Boston and the First Unitarian Society of Chicago, two of our flagship congregations.

He was a firebrand. One of the great lions of liberal religion during the middle of the twentieth century.

Among the first books I read about Unitarian Universalism was his Why I am a Unitarian.

Not long after that I found myself deeply moved by his Being Liberal in an Illiberal Age.

Later I would find his biography and reflection Channing: the Reluctant Radical a particularly compelling study of the complexities of spirituality and manifestation in the world.

He was not always an easy person to live with. Several of the speakers suggested how while they loved him and admired him, there were those moments when they might have strangled him…

I myself a few years back was involved in organizing a legislative ministry for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. At a public gathering he reamed me out for invading the territory of another social justice project, with which he was closely involved. After the ordeal an old friend of his and one of my mentors put an arm around me and said, “James, you’ve now been officially initiated as a full Unitarian Universalist minister.” Without being touched by his fire one had a hard time saying they were really a part of the liberal clergy. Whether just a kindness or not, I have taken it as a blessing, and feel the wound as slight as it is as a mark of belonging to something wonderful, a band devoted to something worthy…

His influence is probably impossible to calculate. But here’s one good example. Among the admirers invited to share a few words were Governor Michael Dukakis. While Greek Orthodox, the governor’s wife is Jewish, and with that mix in their youth they on occasion attended services at Arlington Street. The governor freely acknowledged Jack Mendelsohn’s influence in his decision to devote his life to public service and the work of justice.

For a bit more on this terribly important figure in our liberal religious tradition, I suggest this appreciation from his minister for the last number of years.

A life worth celebrating.

No doubt…

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