Some weeks ago, I met the Rev. Adam Nicholas Phillips in his office in Northeast Portland to talk about our memories of the Rev. Douglas Cedarleaf. Adam recorded that conversation, and it became the core of the post that follows.
It is peculiar that Adam and I, separate by two generations, have been remarkably influenced by this same person. I first heard Doug Cedarleaf preach in 1952 in Spokane, WA, and in the early 1960s was a parishioner of his for three years in Chicago. From 1967 to 1970, I worked with him on the same church staff. He died in 2000, and Adam had not spent a moment in personal contact with him. All the same, he considers Doug Cedarleaf to have had momentous influence upon his life and ministry. In 2006 as part of requirements for the Master of Divinity degree at North Park Theological Seminary, Adam published an authoritative biography of Doug entitled, “Trumpet of the Covenant.” “Covenant” in this context implies the denomination, The Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC), in which Doug, Adam, and I served as pastors, Doug for 50 years, I for 43 years, and Adam for far fewer years due to his unhappy—many of us would consider needless and roughshod—departure from the ECC.
Adam and Sarah Phillips moved to Portland in 2014 committed to planting a Covenant church, which they did as planned. Christ Church gathered for most of a year in a vacated Catholic school in North Portland near where Annette and I were living, and we attended services there steadily. The absurd ending of Adam’s relationship to the ECC came about when district leaders of the ECC, who had once warmly approved and supported that church planting effort, abruptly withdrew financial support and censured Adam for his—and the church’s—clearly stated intention for Christ Church to be open and affirming of LGBTQ persons.
Gladly, Christ Church lives on with Adam as pastor, a thriving expression of fully-affirming ministry in Northeast Portland. He and Sarah have a two-year-old son, Desmond, and live in North Portland. Recently Adam published his first book, “Love, Light, Joy & Justice: How To Be A Christian Now.” In the blurb: “Reflecting on history, theology, the Bible and the life of Jesus, Adam Nicholas Phillips offers four ways to reflect on how to be a Christian now. In short, it’s about love over fear, light amidst the darkness of alternative facts, joy after grief, and justice for all.”
Jim: What was it that first attracted you to Douglas Cedarleaf as someone who would become of great interest to you and eventually the subject of a major paper?
Adam: In seminary, I was looking for a pastoral model. I wanted to be sure that I could be a pastor, that I was equipped and called. This was 2002 and 2003, and I was really concerned about the rise of overall sentimentality of evangelical Christians while the country was going to war in Iraq, while we were looking at extreme poverty around the world, HIV/AIDS in Africa. I began to hear about Douglas Cedarleaf and how he confronted the issues of his time. We were involved then at North Park Covenant Church [in Chicago], and it was Art Nelson, the pastor, Burton and Grace Nelson, Richard Carlson, and they told me to look in the archives for information about him, like the Time magazine article that he was featured in after he led a demonstration against racism in the neighborhood of Erie St. Chapel in 1945 when he was pastor there. I was really drawn to this minister who stayed true to his calling while staying in his pietistic denomination. To me it was all about integrative approach to pastoral ministry, gospel and justice of one piece, not an afterthought.
Jim: Okay, so you’ve heard those recommendations and you’ve read a few things about Doug, I’m wondering how that prodded you to get to know him thoroughly. How did he become a real person to you whom you knew you could trust to be the model you sought?
Adam: I spent a lot of time in the library, digging through newsprint, old minutes from annual meetings, a nerd in that way. When I decided to write my senior thesis about Doug Cedarleaf, then I really dug in. I found boxes and boxes in the church archives of service tapes from his 12 years at North Park Church. I read the minutes of official meetings and his annual reports to the church. It became abundantly clear that he was quite different from most other pastors. I know there were other pastors, like Dewey Sands and others, but I just hadn’t come across many like him, and honestly, I don’t see it much at all now in the ECC.
Jim: What was the uniqueness you picked out? I suppose I’ve heard it in what you’ve already said, but . . .
Adam: There was simply no bifurcation between social action and the gospel . He was preaching on race, he was preaching on war, on Vietnam, on what was going on at the time. So, I’m reading this book by Gary Olson, a historian from Union Seminary in New York, called “Breaking White Supremacy,” and he’s talking about the Civil Rights movement and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the theology behind it, the black social gospel, and I see Doug, although from distance, doing his part to dismantle white supremacy, and I’d be curious to see if he were around today what he’d be saying about ICE and immigration justice, I’d be curious to see what he’d be saying about Black Lives Matter, I’d be curious to see what he’d be saying about the Me Too movement, I’d be curious to see what he had to say. I know we need to be careful about reading back into history. We’re talking about the 60s and 70s and now we’re well into the 2000s. I have to be careful not to read my version of where the church ought to be back into that earlier time, but I think you’d see a connection to what was Doug was doing. I got arrested outside ICE last year, and I’d not have done that without models like Doug Cedarleaf.
Jim: So now comes the responsibility to write a thesis to complete your seminary work. What were your motives in the choice of Doug Cedarleaf as your subject?
Adam: I think I was trying to reconcile my pastoral call, my call to vocational ministry, trying to figure out my place in the ECC, and I found a little pocket where I could hang out with Doug’s story. I interviewed people like Jim Sundholm and Glenn Palmberg, for my thesis, and I felt there was a home for me, but obviously I was just getting started in the journey of understanding my call and my place in the denomination. (Pause) I don’t know if there’d be room for Doug today.
Jim: You know, I’m sure, that Doug was eventually elected to the executive board of the denomination–in the late 1960s, I think. He was respected . . . but maybe feared is appropriate, I don’t know. . . .
Adam: What was that all about?
Jim: Well, he found his model, partially at least, in Old Testament prophets, who get pretty scary sometimes, and of course there was Jesus, Doug’s center in his life and preaching, and the Sermon on the Mount as a summary of Jesus’ intention. Which reminds me of Doug’s confirmation classes and his insistence that students learn the entire Sermon on the Mount.
Adam: We don’t have confirmation at Christ Church (we don’t have any kids quite confirmation age yet), but I’ve often thought of the value of knowing the Sermon on the Mount, at least the Beatitudes.
Jim: For Doug, it was the whole thing. I recall confirmation services when students struggled to recite the section of Matthew 5-7 they’d been assigned, and I’ve wondered if that really sank into who they were—but it really did express who he was . . . You know, I’ve been wondering a lot as I’ve thought about this conversation you and I were going to have: what it really was about this man, Douglas Cedarleaf, that would influence you four or five decades later, never having met Doug, in very much the same way as for me being right there listening to him and then working with him. What was it really about him that was so different? There were all kinds of people into racial justice in those days, in and around North Park Covenant Church and the college and seminary—Bill Fredrickson, Zenos Hawkinson, Burton and Grace Nelson, Wesley Nelson, others—there were so, so many—yet we pick out Doug as unique somehow. Why?
Adam: I remember hearing stories, reading stories, discovering his childhood in Rockford, the influence of Bethesda Covenant Church, led by Harold Carlson and noted for its progressiveness moving out of Swedish roots into the broader English-speaking world, which was profound. I think too about the influence of his mother and father, which must have been significant, and there was his brother, Wally, too. . .
Jim: Indeed, Wally lived out much the same concerns as Doug. During our time in the Boston area, Wally and Ethel became close friends and certainly influenced our lives, but I also saw first hand his influence on younger pastors as he directed the seaman’s mission with similar passion and caring.
Adam: There definitely was something special going on in that family.
Jim: Only recently did I become aware of that Erie House incident which was written up in the Chicago Tribune and Time magazine back when I was still in high school. I’ve known that Doug was an activist when he was at Erie House, but it was a surprise to realize that still in his 20s, he was leading an anti-racism protest on the streets of Chicago long before concern about Civil Rights had gripped the rest of us white folks. It was just built into him somehow, who he was. His pacifism had of course, come out front well before that, all part of the same person.
A few days ago I was riding a #15 bus across southeast Portland and reading Ann Lamott’s latest book, “Almost Everything,” and in her chapter on writing, I came across a dazzling paragraph describing her teaching writing to young children, and she told about great writers, that they see life differently, broadly, a bigger swath of truth–I think she used “bandwidth”–and she said that when they put all that into words truth seems more simple–and it was an “aha” moment for me.
I’d been asking myself over and over, “What really made Doug different?” and I saw a likely answer there. He was such a large-scale thinker, took all his experience, all the wise words he’d heard in early life from home and pulpits and seminary—saw all that expanse and then saw the simple focus of it all, what absorbed it all, and it was the being, the life, the teachings of Jesus, and directly, out of that perfect center, came everything he did as pastor, preacher, activist. It was a great lesson for a young pastor: Make it simple, home in on that good news, and let it transform your life and the lives of those who listen to you, and he really managed to do that, Sunday after Sunday–Saint Paul’s words, “knowing nothing among you save Jesus Christ and him crucified”–and then working out the impact of that on how you confront the world in between Sundays, well, maybe even Sunday afternoon . . .
Adam: That’s what I attempt to do here. I used to be so worried about preaching correctly, and then I found my freedom to just get up there—I prepare, I mean I prepare more than ever before—but it’s been much more effective. I preach from an outline. I preach from what is happening in the text and what is happening in the moment around us locally, nationally.
Jim: So you heard a whole lot of Doug’s sermons from tapes. What struck you most clearly?
Adam: (Significant pause) I listened to at least 50 sermons, sometimes three a day, and most of them, the great majority of them, were relevant to our time or any time. Of course Doug was reflecting on Kennedy’s assassination, race matters in Chicago, and Vietnam, but there was a universality to them. Like the prophets you mentioned earlier that he was inspired by. They were deeply contextual in their time, of the moment, but very meaningful to me.
Jim: Did you hear the gospel?
Adam: Yeah, but it wasn’t a saccharine gospel. It was a lot about the fear and wonder of God, not the fear and terror of God that seems to be cultivated by many evangelicals. There are lots of folks in our church in their 20s and 30s who are afraid of God, terrorized by God, and God is out to get them, and Jesus died on the cross to save them from the punishment of that God, their atonement. But as we know Doug preached out of the prophets; Jesus and the prophets were the window into the divine, and there was a real sense of awe and wonder there, and a real sense of urgency.
Jim: Did you hear a Pietist preaching?
Adam: Yes, yes. I heard someone who fervently believed that one must respond to God with heart conviction, that one must be compelled by a living relationship with God in the world. I have spent so much of my life trying to both articulate in my preaching and living out in action that pietist anthem “God’s glory and neighbors’ good.” But I kind of believed in a textbook version of it, vivid but bottled up. What does it look like to honestly preach “for God’s glory and neighbor’s good” today? I think it isn’t something easily bottled up. You see that anthem proclaimed consistently in Doug’s preaching, whether the context was about Vietnam, Civil Rights, or how to be a good neighbor in the city. As I pored over meeting minutes and reports in the church and denominational archives, it was clear that for Cedarleaf it was a holistic commitment for all of life, not just Sunday, and his leadership was dynamic in its pastoral approach.
A lot of folks are giving up on Evangelicalism. I think that’s fine. It’s too synonymous with the Trump-Pence agenda of exclusion, division and hate. But I haven’t given up the fight for what Pietism really is – this integral, Lutheran/catholic conviction that God’s love was not for God alone, but for the love of our neighbors. And somehow we love ourselves as well—and by that I mean we are truly who we are made to be in God’s image: companions of all who love God and God’s hope for the world. Yes, I believe Cedarleaf was a quintessential Pietist. The word of God can renew the world. A heartbeat for God can be a force for social change and transformation. I was at Iona attending a retreat with John Philip Newell who’s a brilliant teacher and Scottish Presbyterian, although he’d likely not call himself that now, and he was teaching us about Celtic Christianity. I saw a linkage with my roots in Pietism, and I think that had Covenant Pietists in the 60s found Celtic spirituality they may have found even deeper roots theologically to continue what they were doing. I think of the Celtic commitment to the earth and to a heartbeat journey, and I’ve thought a lot about those connections and what might have been different.
Jim: So you see no contradiction between your Celtic awareness and what you heard from Doug and others who represent what you see to be the best in Pietism? Celtic spirituality and Pietism have both been resources for your personal journey, but you see those to be more parallel than contradictory?
Adam: No contradiction at all. A true belonging. A true ecumenism. Cedarleaf definitely helped me find my footing, and although I’ve not been imitating Doug I see that he’s provided me a clear model that tells me there is a way to be a pastor and not give up my commitment to social transformation, that I could preach and act prophetically. And in some ways he still inspires me: his withholding of war taxes was a profoundly courageous action.
Jim: There was another crusade of his that I considered quite courageous. He became animated about the gulf between incomes of the highest-paid Covenant leaders and pastors of small, mostly rural churches, and he began a lonely one-man—oh, that’s not true, others did support him—but it was his crusade for a standard pastor’s salary, with an allowance for differences in cost of living, and although it was of one piece with his other efforts on behalf of people who were oppressed, it went nowhere.
Adam: My personal experience when I was being run out by Covenant leaders who at one time in their ministry might have also claimed someone like Doug as a model for social gospel, social change, had become dependent on their career to get into those jobs. I have no problem with those guys getting paid six figures—pastor and teachers don’t make enough—but you could see the trade off with their conscience: ECC leaders got stuck and needed those jobs, so I think if Doug had prevailed that would have been fascinating to see how that affected how the denomination understands its shared ministry.
But in the end the Covenant probably actually died during the rush to adopt church planting methodologies in the 1980s and into the 90s into today. It first started out with planting churches around the homogeneity principle—like meets like, white suburban churches grow because of white suburban attractional things. That kind of church planting strategy is rooted in and rusted out by Empire. Doug would’ve balked at that. That’s why some of us call the Covenant the ECC now—the pietist, missional Covenant as pastors like Doug knew, it is dead. Did he introduce that idea of a standard salary late in his ministry?
Jim: I really don’t remember, but I wonder if it didn’t coincide with his getting elected to the executive board of the denomination. I can recall, though, my surprise to learn when I was on staff at North Park Covenant Church how modest his salary was then as the pastor of a large church, but that was so much in keeping with who he was. Looking back now, we can see that effort to change standards for pastoral salaries was part of a whole, his vision of equality, whether it was racism or poverty, or whatever, and he cared about the poverty, the inequality of rural pastors and the chasm between how their work was paid for compared to Covenant leadership. Well, moving on, I’m wondering what you might have found out about his relationship with his own family. I thought of him as a tremendous family man, but what did you find?
Adam: I talked with most of his daughters, especially Janine. I spoke with some of his grandkids, too. They were fantastic and are still inspired by his witness and work today in their own lives.
Jim: They lived a few doors north of the church on Christiana Avenue in a community where they were highly visible. At that time I’d say 85% of us attending Sunday worship walked to church. Children attended the same schools. Families were on display seven days a week. I always thought of Doug and Carolyn and their four daughters as a model family, representing for the rest of us what family life ought to be. I don’t know how that would hold up in today’s “family always first” view of pastoral ministry. His calling to be a pastor to the people of his church—there were about 750 of those on membership rolls at that time, a large church then—meant the care of those folks was high priority, in preaching and pastoral care, which had to have been very time consuming. Yet I’d guess that were you to talk to anyone in his now much-extended family, that he would be remembered as a loving, caring husband, father, grandfather.
I learned a demanding work ethic from him.. Six days a week, with Mondays a sacrosanct day off, only emergencies allowed to interfere with that. I’ve told you about late at night Saturday walking past the church and seeing narrow slits of light coming from his tower office where he escaped for sermon preparation. He likely didn’t begin preparing that sermon until earlier that evening, but he was finishing it. There was a couple of winter months when our son, Mark, was ill and couldn’t manage his morning Chicago Tribune route, so I delivered his papers, and I’d see those same slits of light Sunday mornings. Had he been there all night? I doubt it, but at 8:30 a.m. he’d deliver one of those blockbuster sermons you’ve listened to—and again at the 11:00 a.m. service to a packed church. And then there was a Sunday evening service at which he didn’t ordinarily preach—visiting missionaries, others would speak—but he was there and those services had been an administrative responsibility. Weekdays, he’d be in his office, beginning at 8:00 a.m. or before, then we had a half-hour devotional time in the chapel, then he was in his office the rest of the morning, which was public, just off the street. He was a hands-on pastor, conscious of most every detail of that church’s operation. He had superb assistance from church secretaries, as we called them then, like Lois M. Johnson and others, but I recall his personal interest in my work, aware of the details, ready with guidance for me–never orders–and for others on the staff likely the same. Then a lunch break at home, and he’d be off on an afternoon of pastoral calling, a half-dozen or more contacts with people in hospitals, others who were shut-in at home. I remember talking to Annette about those calls on her when she was having babies or observed when she was working as a nurse. Did he just drop in, say hello, and leave? “Indeed not,” she said. He was really there with people, and she herself had experienced with much gratitude the spiritual sustenance of those visits. She remembers especially his prayers. There was a conventional wisdom back then that you earned your right to be heard from the pulpit by that sort of personal attention to your people, and he certainly did earn the right.
Adam: How did he do that and stay, well, healthy?
Jim: I thought he was extremely fit—and then there weren’t gyms where one could spend an hour a day with machines making that happen. I recall dropping by his house on a Monday. It must have been something very pressing, because we respected his day off—and finding him in the back yard with a shovel, shirtless, and being impressed by his lean, taut torso—from lifting weights, maybe. Then there’s the anecdote told about when later on he was living in a retirement community: his daily push-ups, dozens of them, next to the swimming pool.
Adam: Did he have hobbies or sports he enjoyed? Did he play baseball? I know Chicago Covenant churches had their sports leagues.
Jim: I don’t remember his spending much time at Wrigley Field or Soldiers’ Field, or unique hobbies. Well, yes I do. Printing. I think he’d once been a printer as a youth in Rockford. The church was plagued with the ever-so-common mimeograph machine, run by Lois Johnson or other office assistants. Doug came across a used A.B.Dick 350 offset press that he convinced the church board to buy. It got its own room near the rear entrance of the church, and Doug loved working with it. I’d go looking for him now and then, and I’d walk through the church sanctuary and begin to hear the thunk-thunk-thunk of that machine and know I’d find him in an ink-spotted denim apron, shirt sleeves rolled up, fingers stained, and he’d shut down the press and we’d talk. He’d also come up with an IBM Executive typewriter that produced proportional spacing, and it all looked so professional back then. Yeah, I’d say producing beautiful results in that little room was a beloved hobby—just as he produced those magnificent sermons you heard in another out-of-the-way room, and he loved doing that, too.
Another strong memory of a hobby: Sometime around 1967 Doug heard about a large, old warehouse in one of the industrial districts of Chicago that was giving away wooden shelving and supporting beams. He got ahold of that lumber, got it onto a flatbed truck with the help of several friends and got it to Golden Lake in Upper Michigan where the Cedarleafs owned lakeside property, and there he worked whenever he was free to construct a lovely summer home that’s still in use and enjoyed, now by the fourth generation of his family.
He and Carolyn left Chicago for his next assignment in Rochester just two weeks after our son Philip was killed in June,1970. He’d been a marvel of caring those awful days. His sermon at the funeral was so beautifully fashioned and emotionally delivered and deeply relevant to our need and the need of that congregation that shared our grief—and then he was gone, and I thought I’d die. Not only was it the grief, but there was the leadership of that congregation in the earliest weeks and a fledgling outreach program for which he had been the inspiration and impetus and it all seemed so overwhelming. But NPCC was an amazing congregation, so abundantly supportive in our grief, readily available to fill in and accept gaps of leadership, and the community outreach plans had been well-founded, and thrived. It was a good time.
Have I told you about my last meeting with Doug? It was a few months before his death when Annette and I were visiting the retirement community where he and Carolyn lived. He was confined to the skilled nursing unit, and when I told Carolyn we’d like to visit Doug, she said that of course we could do that, but, she said, “You realize he won’t know you.” “Yes,” I reassured her, “but I still want to spend time with him.” Since he enjoyed having coffee and goodies, she’d brought him to the dining room, and that’s where we met with coffee and homemade cookies. There seemed to be no recognition on his part, but after some time together, we sensed he was struggling to talk, and so we waited, and then, as clearly as if we’d been talking in his office years before, he said, “We had a good time working together, didn’t we?”
Adam: I think people don’t often realize that he was not only a profound social voice but also a highly-effective pastor: I’m thinking about those afternoon calls, the care of people in crisis. . . (a long pause)
Jim: Adam, I’m wondering how all of this—your research, all of those sermons you heard, the person you’ve found out to be Douglas Cedarleaf—has informed your ministry over the past five years or so. I know we agree that we can’t be sure how anyone would deal with the issues of a generation later . . .
Adam: Yeah, yeah, I think that regardless of what position he would take we could gather that by his very pietist view of God, as you have just said, is no longer beyond dignity or care or embrace at some level, and the call for each of us was, and is, to be a people of solidarity, that God is love and that through Jesus we see the true heartbeat of God, not an angry Father remote from us but with us in the thick of it, muck and mire, right? I just can’t fathom a God who is removed from us, arms crossed, judgmental, cold—the God of Jesus is the God of fierce love for others. Or as we say in Communion every Sunday, “all people.”
Here’s something I must say: Do you remember Doug’s use of “comrades in Christ”? What I picked up on was especially in the 60s when the cold war was going on the idea of communism, the red fear, and Doug just kind of cut through that and I remember reading pastoral reports to the board and he’d start out, “Dear comrades in Christ.” I just found that to be really creative—and also, agitational.
Jim: You can’t realize how much during that cold war time the word “comrades” was a red flag.
Adam: But the social implications of being companions, comrades in Christ! I just love that he was agitational in that way—that’s an act of pastoral care.
Jim: “We are companions of all that fear thee.”
Adam: That’s right. I don’t know if Doug would’ve agreed with me on my stance for LGBQT inclusion in the ECC. But I think he would’ve engaged with me—I think he would’ve taken the argument seriously. Do you know that no ECC leader actually challenged me on my biblical position or joined me in any kind of prayer or discernment? Policy rules ECC leaders, not a Pietist’s heart for the gospel. Anyways, I like to think that he would’ve seen a consistent thread line from the Civil Rights movement to women’s rights to LGBTQ rights. He wouldn’t have talked about intersectionality, but that’s the call of our moment. In the end I think it’s the root question of what that verse in the Psalms actually means. If we are a companion of all who fear thee—in the poetry of that older translation—then we must stand with any and all who are marginalized, hurt, oppressed and kept down. That’s where I believe Christ would be.
I’ll give you one last example. There’s a vivid black and white photo of Doug carrying the American flag in a procession in Chicago at the height of the Vietnam War—he was rallying with students who were peacefully in opposition to the War. I have that photo in my office. But more importantly I have that photo emblazoned in my mind’s eye. I can feel the day when I think of that scene. When I walked in my first Pride parade, weeks after being kicked out by the Covenant denomination for my stance on LGBTQ inclusion, I carried a sign that said I was sorry for all the things done to the gay community in the name of God. I thought of Doug and that flag.
Doug could’ve given up on the flag. Doug could’ve even given up on Christ to make his stand. But he found the logical conclusion of his identity in Christ as an American to get out there and make a stand for peace. Carrying that sign at Pride for me was doing my imperfect best to walk in the footsteps of Christ who lived inclusion, equality and forgiveness. Which is about justice and freedom. And I think that’s what Doug was truly about in the end—a radical, just freedom in the kindom of love. That kind of love is certainly found in denominations and in nations. . . but thank God it isn’t determined by them.