Something Out of the Ordinary: Recalling Gordon McKeeman


For simple things
that are not simple at all

For miracles of the common way…

Sunrise…Sunset

Seedtime…Harvest

Hope…Joy…Ecstasy

For Grace that turns

our intentions into deeds

our compassion into helpfulness

our pain into mercy

For Providence that

sustains and supports our needs

We lift our hearts in thankfulness

and pray only to be more aware

and thus more alive.

Gordon B. McKeeman

I’ve just learned that Gordon McKeeman has died. He was ninety-three.

I heard of his death and I wept.

When I decided I had to go to seminary, my spouse informed me it was fine and that I could attend any theological school I wanted, so long as it was in Berkeley, California. This meant I had two possible schools, the pan-denominational Pacific School of Religion and the Unitarian Universalist specific school Starr King School for the Ministry.

I ended up at PSR as what at the time seemed a better fit for my needs. But, the high point of that stop at Starr King was that I got to meet Gordon McKeeman. Gordon (called Bucky by some old friends, although in later years it was obvious to me he came to prefer Gordon) was president at Starr King and he personally gave me the tour. While Starr King’s program at that moment wasn’t the best fit, I was enchanted with Gordon. There was something about him that was unusual in the academic religious community. He had a hint of the holy about him.

Gordon McKeeman was born in Lynn, Massachusetts in 1920. He attended college at Salem State, then Salem State Teachers College, and then off to Tufts University’s school of theology. In later years he would be awarded an honorary doctorate from Meadville Lombard.

Gordon was one of the founding members of the Humiliati, an important group exploring the newer directions of universalist theology in the middle of the twentieth century.

Gordon was ordained a Universalist minister in 1945. He first served the Universalist Church in Palmer, MA, and then, for twenty-two years at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Akron, Ohio. From 1983 to 1988 he served as president of Starr King School for the Ministry. Gordon served two terms on the Unitarian Universalist Board of Trustees, as president of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee and made an unsuccessful run to become president of the Association.

When the Humiliati disbanded he and most other Humiliati joined the Fraters of the Wayside Inn, now a Unitarian Universalist clergy study group, but originally founded for Universalist clergy in 1905. It was in my first years as a frater that I came to know a number of former Humiliati and most especially Gordon. I learned much from them and from him.

Years later, Gordon would write of the nature of ministry, a brief reflection that has been widely reprinted. It points to his heart, I believe, and to the heart of our liberal ministry, certainly the ministry within our new Universalism.

“Ministry is a quality of relationship between and among human beings that beckons forth hidden possibilities; inviting people into deeper, more constant more reverent relationship with the world and with one another; carrying forward a long heritage of hope and liberation that has dignified and informed the human venture over many centuries; being present with, to, and for others in their terrors and torments, in their grief, misery and pain; knowing that those feelings are our feelings, too; celebrating the triumphs of the human spirit, the miracles of birth and life, the wonders of devotion and sacrifice; witnessing to life-enhancing values; speaking truth to power; speaking for human dignity and equity, for compassion and aspiration; believing in life in the presence of death; struggling for human responsibility against principalities and structures that ignore humaneness and become instruments of death. It is all these and much, much more than all of them, present in the wordless, the unspoken, the ineffable. It is speaking and living the highest we know and living with the knowledge that it is never as deep, or as wide or a high as we wish. Whenever there is a meeting that summons us to our better selves, wherever our lostness is found, our fragments are united, our wounds begin healing, our spines stiffen and our muscles grow strong for the task, there is ministry.”

He &, very much, Phyllis were friends and mentors to many of us who came in the years following.

Gordon taught that everything was a miracle.

Universalism.

He pointed to the holy.

A Universalism ancient of days, and as bright and new as our most recent breath.

And Gordon told us just exactly where we could find it.

Exactly.

Here.

Right here.

(A picture of seven Humiliati & the Massachusetts State Superintendent for the Universalist Church of America taken at Frederick Harrison’s 1949 ordination. From left to right: Earle MacKinney, Gordon McKeeman, David Cole, Superintendent Clinton Lee Scott, Frederick Harrison, Albert Zeigler, Raymond Hopkins, & Keith Munson)

We all owe him so much.

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  • Fred Wooden

    Don’t post a picture like that and not tell us who and when and where…

  • Tom Tucker

    In 1980 I sat on a hillside and heard Gordon McKeeman give a vesper sermon about a Steam Engine called Pufferbelly. It was the first evening at the Ohio Meadville Summer Institute at Kenyon College. I was so moved by the experience that when the service ended I stayed seated while most of the others left. One other person, just behind me, also remained and we began a conversation. It turned out that we had much in common although we had never met until then. We were both leaders of our UU congregations, both lived in Columbus, both grew up in the Akron area, and, as another instituter recognized, both ‘soul mates.’ It is too simplistic to say that it all started then; life is complicated and there were many turns along the way. But I can say that that hillside conversation has never ended. Jeanne Desy, author, poet, and blogger, and I will celebrate a 30-year marriage next October. And the traces of Gordon McKeeman are threaded through our life together and remain vibrant, even now. Tom Tucker

  • Dave Boyer

    Thanks for this. Not to nitpick but I am pretty sure that Gordon was in a church before St Paul’s Universalist Church in Palmer. He once told me a fairly engaging story about how they recruited him. (He said “No” the first time) Stoughton perhaps?

  • jamesiford

    Fixed, Fred…


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