Dick Madden Recalls

The 1960s and 1970s

 (The Rev. Richard D. Madden served pastorates in Alaska on two different occasions, first at the United Protestant Church, Palmer, from 1967 to 1972, and second at Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Anchorage, from 1981 to 1990. He is currently the pastor at Community Presbyterian Church, Pinetop, Arizona. What follows are comments made by the Rev. Madden focusing on the turbulent times in the 1960s when he was serving the Palmer church and his observations regarding the Rev. Bill Pritchard, controversial associate synod executive at the time.)

It was the mid-sixties and the early seventies. As Dickens would say, “the best of times and the worst of times.” Alaska was not immune to the issues and effects of the era. The “war” in Indochina pit Hawks against Doves. Palmer, Alaska was ostensible “headquarters” of the John Birch Society and the area attracted lots of “hippies” espousing more liberal views. Clearly such polarities did not leave the church unaffected. 

The civil rights struggles had not abated and racism remained an issue for all of Christendom and community. I recall a local barber who refused to cut the hair of African Americans and patrons who supported his stance because they didn’t want their hair cut with the same implements. Was there racism in Palmer back then? You bet! 

The drug culture -- flower children -- long hair -- phenomenon had a presence in the Matanuska valley. Marijuana became a crop along with those giant cabbages and incredible potatoes. I recall performing a wedding in which an Alaskan State Trooper participated. After the rehearsal, he pulled me aside and pointed out a handful of sprouting plants in the church lawn. “Do you know what those are?” he asked. “No,” I replied. “Well, pastor -- you got ‘grass’ in the grass. 

As it turns out, we’d been encouraging people to throw birdseed instead of rice at weddings -- a rather common practice. At the time, most commercial birdseed came from Mexico where weeds were simply gleaned from local fields, bagged up, and exported to the U.S. Cannabis grows in Mexico just about everywhere. Soooo.... birdseed equals some portion of marijuana seed. Thus: a wedding plus a bride and groom leaving the church, plus a crowd of well-wishers throwing birdseed from Mexico, equals “grass in the grass.” So it went.

When I received and accepted the Call to be pastor of the “United Protestant Church” of Palmer (also called “the Church of a Thousand Logs”, my family and I were ecstatic at the thought of living on The Great Frontier. We conferred with Dr. Bill Pritchard, then executive of the two Alaskan Presbyteries. Bill tried to prepare me for the realities of our new charge. 

It seems that the United Protestant Church was aptly named having been the first permanent building erected in the old Matanuska Colony days. The church was built in a quadrangle divided among three religious persuasions -- Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and “United Protestants” of several denominations. The UP Church however, was always supported as a Presbyterian Mission and was served by Presbyterian clergy. 

Trouble was, even though the church was supported by Presbyterian dollars and Presbyterian personnel, its local structure was anything but Presbyterian. Most out of synch was the fact that a “Board” was elected by the congregation with the power to overrule the actions of Session. Bill made it quite clear that the church needed to be brought into conformity with the Presbyterian Book of Order, otherwise, it would be difficult to retain it as a bona fide Presbyterian mission. Suffice it to say this was no easy task given the “history” involved. Nonetheless, by the time I left the church five years later, the sign out front read: “United Protestant Church (Presbyterian).” 

I remember Bill Pritchard with great fondness and respect. Bill was a “real person” who didn’t care to play pietistic games. Some might have interpreted that to mean he was not a pious Christian. Nothing could be further from the truth. Bill’s religion did not contain an ounce of false piety, however. In reality, I have seldom encountered one such as he who took his religion into the marketplace as well as the sanctuary. He dealt effectively with Christians of every ilk and non-Christians as well in a non-threatening, cooperative and tolerant manner. His commitment to ecumenism was unquestioned, particularly at a time when interdenominational suspicions were rife. 

It was Bill’s idea that we embark on an interdenominational venture with the church in Valdez. The Episcopalians and Presbyterians met in a shared sanctuary -- newly built after the devastating earthquake and Tsunami that effectively leveled what might now be called “Old Valdez.” As an ecumenist myself, I was eager to accept the assignment as “visiting co-operative pastor” with the charge to take up worship, sacramental, and visiting responsibilities once per month through the year.

The Episcopal priest and I got along really well and we learned a great deal about each other’s communions. That relationship lasted for several years. The monthly trips to Valdez were not always easy or uneventful. I recall sliding uncontrollably down Seventeen-Mile Hill from Thompson Pass onto the Valdez Valley floor. I kept one door open all the way down, ready to abandon the car rather than take a 5,000-foot shortcut with a rather abrupt terminus. Reaching bottom safely, I uttered a thankful prayer and met a jackknifed 18-wheeler in the middle of the road. I suspect the driver was saying a few prayers of his own at the time, though, as we shared experiences, his “trucker language” was anything but religious (though some words may be found in the Bible.) 

Always alert to the needs of clergy in the field (Bill took his “pastor-to-pastor” function very seriously), Bill asked how my car was holding up with the additional driving. I said things were okay, but the trip was a bit tough on the tires. The next day, after Bill left for his office in Juneau, I received a phone call from a local garage instructing me to get down there. A set of new tires was waiting for me, a gift from Bill! 

Back to Palmer: I called those days “the best of times and the worst of times” mainly because, in the “best” sense, our faith was tested in the human arena where people differed and moral equations varied. We Presbyterians took stances: Vietnam -- the Counterculture -- Civil Rights -- The Confession of 1967 -- Angela Davis. Explosive issues all. But we survived and, I think, thrived. Like Bre’r Rabbit, we were “born and bred in a briar patch” doing what Presbyterians have historically done since John Calvin stalked the streets of Geneva, Switzerland. These were “good old days” despite those who still see them as the moral equivalent of Sodom and Gomorrah. We endured! 

It was the “worst of times” in the sense that dissent and disagreement led some to paths of outright hatred for the opposition. Judgementalism and intolerance was the order of the day for some, and unfortunately, Bill Pritchard took the brunt of it at the Presbytery level. Today, hardly anyone lifts an eyebrow if clergy sip a few brews with their colleagues or parishioners. Back then, a segment fairly ripped Bill to shreds with intolerance and invective over this and other “issues”. 

Liberals and Conservatives often think of themselves as “enemies”. Too bad, because in the church, we may have idealistic adversaries, even opponents on various issues, but “enemies”? In the words of Paul, “That ought not to be.

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