For 19 years, my friend Steven Epperson has been the minister of a congregation of Unitarians in Vancouver, British Columbia. Yesterday he led the services there for the last time and I attended church for the first time in who knows how long — the live-stream of the event.
I watched Steven speak eloquently and emotionally about fathers, witnessed an outpouring of love from parishioners he had served with words and deeds for nearly two decades. Here’s a photo of my screen, sectioned by refractions of light, haunted by my own face, and catching the sharp intelligence and self-deprecating wit of a man I have known for four decades:
The previous week, Steven devoted his part of the service to questions: Ask Me (Almost) Anything? Children and adults asked about his favorite movie (I think the answer was the Russian War and Peace, 1966-67, although the answer was so erudite and far reaching that I wouldn’t swear to that), about what he would do now that he won’t be the minister (more folk dancing with Diana was the quick response), and about what the most important theological question is (“Is it good for children?” — a surprising and perfect answer).
I met Steven and Diana (and Dietrich and Gabe) in Princeton in 1979 or thereabouts.
Years passed and our families grew.
We wrote long letters and co-authored an essay published in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought (“House of the Lord, House of the Temple: A View from Philadelphia,” Fall 1987).
Steven’s book Mormons and Jews garnered attention and prizes and he joined the BYU history faculty to teach American religious history. We talked often in the same office where Michael Quinn and Martha Evans had offered their own takes on the subject before leaving a university that obsessively infringed on their ability to do so. Steven’s Waterloo came when he reviewed a book by two prominent members of the religion faculty and pointed out that their argument was based on scientifically debunked racist theory (that leaders of the Mormon Church shared the same “blood” as Jesus Christ). When he told Diana that he had been fired she uttered words that still make me quiver with delight: Steven! We can be Americans again!
So, they became Canadian Americans and Steven a Unitarian minister.
Steven’s final sermon reminded me what BYU and the Mormon Church lost when they banished Steven from their community. He titled it “The Individual and the Community” and you can watch him deliver it here: https://vancouverunitarians.ca/services/the-individual-and-the-community/
A couple of excerpts:
Four months ago, who would have thought, or even dreamed we were about to get a global pandemic, something like the Great Depression and a world-wide civil and human rights movement at the same time, and now? Until just recently, what was thought impossible became fact: once bustling city streets turned empty and quiet; daily, matter-of-fact airline travel ground to a halt; kids were told not to go to school; places with some of the worst air pollution in the world suddenly became smog free; wild goats roamed the streets of a sea-side town in Great Britain; and dolphins swam freely in the waters around Venice;
Economies began to freefall and so, after decades of slashing the welfare state and worshipping at the altar of the market, governments that until only recently had poured scorn on the idea, abruptly started moving trillions of dollars into cash assistance, workers’ benefits, and grants and loans to tanking businesses. And beleaguered Black Lives Matter activists, who’d been waging a thankless campaign for years—one that was almost wholly invisible to the media, the wider society and the centres of power, and us—have suddenly, spectacularly found their cause, their truth and pain brought to the horrified, rapt attention of the world, which, instead of tuning out and looking away, is responding with on-going, mass protests and a movement for radical change that’s shaking the very pillars of power. (Not that that power is going quietly, and without a struggle!)
I try, without success, to imagine this sermon in a Mormon setting: in a sacrament meeting, in a session of General Conference. Steven continued:
Several stand-out, home truths have been laid bare, revealed and illuminated for all to see. The first, is the seriousness of truth. “Accurate scientific, economic, political and social information about what is happening somewhere,” writes Cambridge historian Bill Foster, “is suddenly valuable everywhere. It’s literally a matter of life and death. We just might be compelled now to remember what we lost when we started to abandon trying to find truths together.” Without truth there is no trust.
Second, the pandemic has proved that governments can act decisively to alleviate massive economic and social privation when the will is there. After having been preached at for decades about the benign supremacy and efficiency of the neo-liberal market state, after having endured decades of job precarity and cuts to social services, child care, public education and housing, suddenly we see that the decimation of the public realm, of the public good, was not a dire necessity, but the calculated, decades-long, political choice engineered by ruling political elites. (Our children have hardly known anything else. This has been the world we bequeathed to them.)
Steven is and always has been a social activist:
I am sick and tired of hearing that we have an affordable housing crisis; sick and tired of food banks and food insecurity; wearied beyond words about the tax evasion and the billions lost to Canada yearly due to off-shored wealth; heartsick and pained about the missing and deaths of untold hundreds of Indigenous women; mad beyond words when I read of yet another young person incarcerated or killed by police as a result of a so called mental health crisis or “wellness check;” confused and angry about our own home-grown, insidious systemic racism. And wearied by the rhetoric that lets us off the hook when we say, “well, at least it’s not as bad here as in the States, or elsewhere.” I just don’t want to hear it any more!
And I’m just going to say it: We don’t have a housing crisis, a food crisis, a crisis of indigeneity and race, a mental health crisis, a policing crisis, or a budget crisis—no! We have a crisis of collective and political will. We have more than sufficient wealth, Canada!; and we have uncommon, untapped reservoirs of goodwill and a wild hunger for fairness, justice and decency if only we would forthrightly demand that we and our leaders commit resolutely to build this, our beloved half-built nation; and then, persist and keep at it until it’s more fully achieved. “Even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination.” And I’m dying for some light.
The penny has dropped; our well-being is social not individual; it’s grounded in the priority of the community not the consuming ego; it’s fed by righteous confrontation not the quiescence of “realism” and distraction; it’s nourished by the well-springs of justice and the bread of compassion.
May these times be truly different, with no going back; and may we, the many beloved communities, find strength in our resolve to be generative and fiercely hopeful for the sake of those we love and the kind of world we long to see break forth into the light of day. And may it be so.
My kind of church. My friend of forty years.
Later this year or early next year, By Common Consent Press will publish a book of my essays with the title “Dwelling in the Promised Land as A Stranger: Personal Encounters with Mormon Institutions.” Steven haunts those essays like I haunt the photo I took of his service on Sunday. I’ll dedicate the book to him and to Sam Rushforth, another activist I’m grateful to call my friend.
Steven’s congregation has published a book of selected sermons in his honor. I ordered a copy and trust it is on the way.
A few days ago I was listening to Minnesota Public Radio and past presidents were speaking at a civil rights conference. I don’t recall who was speaking but they shared the following quote from LBJ, “ We would rather have him inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in.” I laughed, LBJ was talking about Hoover, but I thought of all the people I know who were forced out of the church and that the church would be in a much better place today had they not been driven out …
makes good sense to me too