Posted by: Mark Nielsen | August 16, 2007

RPC Part 3: Fifty Ways to Lead Your Brother

  Easter praise

I will wrap up my reflections on Reba Place Church’s 50th anniversary celebration shortly, hopefully tomorrow. Meanwhile a few of the links below –notably to a recent WTTW broadcast and to last week’s Tribune article on the reunion — will give a broader, outside-the-fold perspective for those who wish to have it, and link readers to several other like-minded ministries.

So consider this post just another experiment,  an amusing interruption…

My apologies to Paul Simon for ripping off his song title above (Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover), and for twisting it around. It’s just that it struck me today how this singer-songwriter’s varied career parallels developments at Reba Place Church, and in American culture, over the same fifty year period. I was quite moved earlier this summer by the star-studded PBS special featuring Mr. Simon, in which he received the first-ever Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song

 Bridge Over Troubled Water was Simon and Garfunkel's last album; the title track was one of three number one hits in the United States but their only number one hit in the United Kingdom.      Paul Simon is the first recipient of the Library of Congress's Gershwin Prize for Popular Song.

Hopefully without overstating my case too badly, here are three fundamental Simon-RPC similarities, which put my own creative spin on this church’s history, in a broad social context:

1) Origins: Both Reba Place [click for 8/10/07 Tribune article on RPC] and Simon & Garfunkel started their influential work in 1957. Recording as Tom & Jerry, S&G had their first hit in 1957 (a No. 49 single on the pop charts called “Hey Schoolgirl” ). This was the same year that John Miller and other Mennonites started their Evanston house church. As Eisenhower’s America then gave way to the turbulent Sixties and beyond, the social conscience and loss of innocence exhibited in the folk music renaissance could also be seen in places like Evanston’s Reba Place and Chicago’s Jesus People movement (originators of the still-blossoming Cornerstone music festival). These were people who took the world-changing words and ideas of Jesus seriously and sought to radically put them into practice, especially in relation to the poor in our midst. Reba’s efforts over the years in the name of affordable housing, peacemaking, civil rights (both here and abroad), homelessness, education, mental health, disability-awareness, racial reconciliation and Christian service have been far-reaching, and at times quite costly –from a spiritual standpoint as well as a monetary one [click for Real Player viewable video of a recent WTTW/PBS story on communal living in Reba Place Fellowship, a significant core ministry to which RPC owes its roots] .

2) Global Vision/Cross-Cultural  Celebration: As early as “El Condor Pasa” (a traditional Andean folk melody used by Simon in 1970), Paul led the way in the growth of “world music”. With influences coming from South Africa, South America (especially Brazil), Jamaica, black gospel music, Cajun zydeco and other traditions, Simon led the way in expanding both America’s musical vocabulary and our concern for justice. At roughly the same time, Reba Place was finding and using similar music in a worship context, such as the South African song “Oh Freedom”, sung in heavy rotation during the late 1980s (and reprised wonderfully by Lois Shuford and others at our recent celebration). Other international traditions, like the songs of Taize, have also been a steady influence on our life together — as have the sustained international ministries RPC church members have worked with in El Salvador, Colombia, South Africa, Angola, France (through L’Arche), Israel/Palestine, Iraq (through Christian Peacemaker Teams), Iran and other far-reaching locales.

3) Transitions, & The Courage Not To “Settle”: Whether parting ways with Art Garfunkel (somewhat amicably, but not without conflict), facing personal struggles and poor health (Simon reportedly was near death a few years ago with an infection or illness), or doggedly pursuing a vision through periods when he was out of step with the mainstream (1983’s excellent but little-known Hearts & Bones sold poorly… a frustration that led to the inventive departures of Graceland), Simon has conscientiously pursued a course that sought to elevate humanity while still staying true to himself and his unique artistic vision… his “gift” or “calling”, if you will. Similarly, Reba Place Church has maintained its distinctiveness and independence through both booms and lean years. We have redefined certain structures and practices, maturing and broadening our scope, sometimes messing up along the way, even as we tried to stay true to the original vision and calling God put on the hearts of our founders (and on earlier “heroes of the faith”, especially Mennonites and others who also sacrificed, or flew in the face of the mainstream, both Christian and secular).

Mennonites and Anabaptists like to call that hard road “The Third Way” (Roman Catholicism and historical Protestant movements being the first and second ways). Of course, it would be foolish and prideful to assume that the manner in which RPC has walked that road is the only way, or even the best way, just as it would be foolish to claim that Paul Simon is the only artist representative of growth and social change in America over these fifty years. Nevertheless, the beauty of how the Holy Spirit has guided a group of like-minded but imperfect believers, over rough terrain, is one of those sacred mysteries that points toward the unity and grace we will experience in heaven. Music itself is a hint of that grace and mystery as well, in how it uplifts the human spirit. I’ll let Mr. Simon make the point for me, as he put it in an interview when he received the Gershwin Award:

 “That’s one of the challenges as you get older. It isn’t ‘How am I going to have a hit?’ but ‘How am I going to express myself as clearly as I can while at the same time leading people into a mystery which is always entertaining and possibly moving as well?’ That’s what I’m interested in. I want to know about the mystery. Then I have to think: ‘Do I solve this mystery, or do I just embrace it because of the pleasure of the mystery?’ That’s the mystical.”


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