This I Believe: Betty Jo Perlich (1980-81)

I’ve probably been affiliated, to some extent, with more Christian religions than most of you. The first time I remember religion rearing its ugly head was in the first grade when Mildred Willie told me that Archie Nelson had died and gone to hell. I pretended to know all about it because I knew all about Archie; he was one of my dad’s best friends. The two of them argued and drank and laughed in our kitchen many nights. Archie sat on the steps with my brother, Bill, and pointed out the stars and constellations. We swam in the river together. He did not go to church.

When I was in junior high school, I chose to be confirmed and baptized at the same time, in the Missouri Synod Lutheran church in Washburn, North Dakota. I suppose I was an average Lutheran in that sin, heaven and hell- the favorite topics on a Sunday morning – were nothing to ponder during the week. But I was quite a pray-er. I prayed best alone, and what soliloquies: like when I thought our church was going to burn down, when President Roosevelt declared war, and the quick, frantic ones like when Washburn and Underwood were tied in the final minutes … in the county basketball tournament.

During college, somehow I learned a few rather startling thoughts concerning the Christian religion. I learned about the good Quakers. One of them, George Fox, was whipped and put in a dungeon, beaten, scarred, and trampled upon for teaching the doctrine, “Thou shalt not resist evil with evil;” concerning the Presbyterian church, it was founded by John Calvin, who inaugurated human torture; the Episcopal church was founded by Henry the VIII, now in heaven. Some Episcopal churches have gone so far as to say that people can play cards. I was inclined to favor this church if I had a choice. Eventually they might stretch their rules to include smoking, dancing and the wearing of lipstick, which would certainly save me a lot of grief. What a sinner I probably was.

Being a student of music, though, I had little time to fret about religion in those days. Many of my friends were Catholic. The idea of saints making constant communication with heaven possible was new and practical. Confession and not eating meat on Fridays would be fairly miserable and dramatic. And they were so sure of themselves. The Catholic church was infallible.

My serious life as a born-again Christian with the Baptists, and I don’t tell this too often, came about as a result of a luckless car trip to Denver one winter. Four of us took a shortcut from Bismarck, North Dakota one bright Sunday morning in January and ran into the storm of the century. To make a long story short, the car was finally stalled and we walked to a town about two and a half miles. It was 40 degrees below zero with a wind in back of us, luckily, of 90 miles an hour. My destination was California, so I was decked out in an in-between coat, high heels, nylons, kid gloves, no hat- a page out of a magazine. It wasn’t long before my feet and legs were both frozen, making walking next to impossible. So guess what I did. I prayed. I promised God that if I lived, I would be a real Christian. Well, I lived. And later on in Oakland, I met a woman who was a choir director in a Baptist church. I loved to sing, so I jointed the choir and realized that this must be a prelude to fulfill my promise to God.

I know what it’s like to be born again. I belonged to a group of young people who did not live in reality. Nothing bad ever happened. I memorized Bible verses, we went around the neighborhood, inviting people to come to our church, the only church. And nobody sinned; I quit smoking, dancing, playing cards, wearing lipstick. I felt so superior. I felt superior to everyone who was not in my group.

One thing bothered me. God had revealed himself to everyone in that church except me. People told about these revelations on Sunday nights. I sat night after night, early morning after early morning, on the beach in Alameda where I lived. It would certainly be easy for Him to appear there … but it never happened. I felt that I guess I wasn’t worthy enough for that sort of thing, hadn’t done enough. I never told anyone about not seeing God. Nobody ever had asked.

I was jolted back to reality by my father’s death. He died very suddenly. The Lutheran church for which my mother had been organist and choir director for 20 years, where my brother and I had been confirmed and baptized, decided that this was a good opportunity to show the people the power of God, I guess. Since my father had not been a member, only came to church when we kids were on the program performing- the church refused to have a funeral said. No body in Washburn had ever been without a church to bury it. This was a first. And my mother, not suffering enough at the death of her healthy 51-year-old husband, was beside herself. We called a college friend of my father’s in Grand Forks, a Methodist minister, who had performed their marriage ceremony some twenty years earlier and he held the service in the high school auditorium. The Lutheran church wouldn’t have begun to hold the number of people who came to my father’s funeral.

The following year I taught in a small town of about 600 people. I roomed in the home of a Catholic family. I threw myself into teaching and doing all sorts of things I felt the students would appreciate and need. I started a library in the school, I started an orchestra, I started school parties and dances. We really went wild with social life. Parents were willing to be chaperones, the newly organized band played a few numbers at one of our dances. In the midst of planning our gala celebration for our students and alums for the Christmas holidays, the Lutheran minister, who had a radio program every Sunday morning in the nearby larger town, spent one whole program talking about the evil influence that had come to their community. He was referring to me. The town was in an uproar. The Lutheran’s didn’t say much. The Catholics did, and the Catholics outnumbered the Lutherans. They had their bingo nights, big huge dances at weddings. So they were used to this kind of carrying on. And If they did consider it sinning, they had ways of atoning for it. And there in the household in which I lived, was the president of the board. When I did go to church that year, it was to the Catholic church. I was often invited to have dinner with Father Vincent and his housekeeper. He liked music. But I found it very depressing. Father Vincent, like all the other clergy, was convinced of the utter depravity of humanity.

I tried being a Christian Scientist for a day. I worked part-time at Wendt’s Floral Shop. Mr. and Mrs. Wendt were Christian Scientists. One day I came to work with a terrible toothache; it was bad. Since I was once again a student and away from home, I didn’t know a dentist. Mr. Wendt said, of course he didn’t know one; it was against his religion. Perhaps I can just think about something else and make the toothache go away, if it was a toothache. I sat in the cold little office there in the back of the florist shop and stared at a picture on the wall. It was a pastoral scene, and I imagined that I was in that picture tripping around over those beautiful hillsides, among the daisies, picking one or two of them. I even imagined I could smell them. So my imagination was working. But no matter how long I was on those hillsides and no matter how many daisies I picked, I still had that toothache. I’d be the first one to admit that that’s not a fair trial for any religion.

One beautiful September day, I went to hear Carl Storm at the Unitarian Universalist Society in Minneapolis. He talked about Voltaire and Thomas Paine, Florence Nightingale. He talked about people who believed in intelligence and in education. He talked about justice and liberty. He suggested that “humanity” is the grand religion, that intelligence must be the savior of the world. And there was the revelation I’d searched for. All the questions I had would not be answered by a great Santa Claus in the sky. The churches would ask, “Have you the right to inquire?” I dared hope I did. But now I knew I had the right to inquire and to investigate, the right to accept and reject. Millions of men had been trying to govern this world by means of the supernatural. The result? Why have they failed to survive this world? Why aren’t Christian people better than other people? Why is it that ministers, as a class, are no better than doctors or mechanics or artists or musicians or lawyers?  Why does each little Christian sect “know,” not “think,” and consequently have no patience with the honest doubter?

Robert Ingersoll said this, and this the way I feel: “I’m through with wracking the brain over the vexatious nonsense of theology, but I’m not through studying the laws and the science of life and nature. I’m through with gazing at the sky with the misdirected eyes of a blinded faith but not through looking at it with the telescope. I’m done with sermons, but I’m not done with rational and entertaining lectures. I have ceased to fight a ghostly devil, but I will fight the devilish spirit of bigotry and chaos as long as an unjust law remains, as long as thoughts are not as free as birds, as long as any person has a temptation to be a hypocrite for ‘policy’s sake,’ as long as there is a shred or a patch of superstitious ignorance left.”




Andy Spatt, 1980/1981

I was at Bob and Jean Stow’s the other evening, for dinner, and I was seeking some ideas from them on the “This I Believe” program. After I finished doing all the talking, Bob finally told me, “Andy, it sounded very good.” So, I wanted to briefly share some of those thoughts that I had spoken to Bob and Jean about with you today.

One thing which immediately comes to my own mind as far as Unitarianism is concerned, or the value that it has for me, is twofold: One, it’s a religion and one, it’s also sort of a guiding force in terms of the way I deal with people, both in the church and with my friends outside of the church.

I feel pretty comfortable coming to a church that doesn’t say to me, unless you believe such and such you’re going to be ostracized. Now, I’ve gone to some other churches in the Twin Cities since I’ve lived here and since July of ’70, where that seemed pretty evident to me. Churches had set beliefs, the people that went there had set beliefs, and it seemed if you deviated from that you were pretty much ostracized and that wasn’t the environment in which I felt particularly comfortable. I stayed friends with the people that belonged to those churches, but I told them very frankly and as diplomatically as I could that I’d just as soon stay Unitarian because that’s where I’m most comfortable.

I think, while each one of us has different personal values, we’re here for some common reasons, per this book which I picked up downstairs in Ted’s office – some of the ideas in there which are common to all of us such as the enjoyment of life, the right to make up our own minds, whether to believe in God or not, and if we do decide to believe in God, what sort of God we believe in, the idea of prayers, so forth and so on. It’s an individual sort of thing, which I think is very nice. You’re not forced into believing a certain thing; you can pretty much believe what you want.

But contingent with that, is also the fact that I don’t feel any one of us tries to impose something upon each other, and I think that’s a very important part of Unitarianism, that we can believe what we want and that’s why we can stay individuals. I think it’s great that we can appreciate each other for differences that we do have as well as our similarities. I like to apply this to my relationships with the friends that I have out of church in business and just in basic socializing. Again, this whole idea of not trying to impose something on them and vice versa keeps the relationships good.

My own religious background is Unitarian. I lived out East for many years. I went to school in Pennsylvania I grew up in New York. My mother was originally Lutheran; she grew up in a Scandinavian family in Denmark, and my father, in his own blunt way, told me that he was never very religious but would suffer through the benefits of a bar mitzvah. He was originally Jewish. (I’m only kidding of course, but that was his way of telling me.)

When I lived in New York, I attended a Unitarian church called the South Nassau

Unitarian Church. It’s in Freeport, which is a small town on Long Island and very coincidentally, Derek is talking there today. He had dinner with my parents last night and I spoke to him on the phone to make sure everything was going okay. The only thing I warned my mother about was that he didn’t delete their supply of Scotch- drink half a bottle back here …

Getting a little more serious – I can recall when I first moved here from New York in July of ’79. I really didn’t know anybody, I didn’t know anything, and those of you who have known me since I first did move out here at that time knew I was scared. Everything was totally foreign to me. In essence, it was the first time I was on my own. I had been on my own; I went to school but it was a little different- not only the financial aspect of supporting myself but just moving 1500 odd miles or so away from some place I had been for so long.

When I got out here I did want to join a Unitarian church but I had no idea where to go. So like a salesman who’s doing cold-canvassing when he gets to a new city, I looked in the Yellow Pages under churches and I saw some Unitarian churches. One was in downtown Minneapolis, one was in downtown St. Paul, according to the addresses. I didn’t know anything about them. Then I saw one that was listed out here. So I looked on the map to find where Mahtomedi was. It looked like it was pretty much out in the country, which would be a nice setting for a church, and sure enough, when I drove out here one day it was very much out in the country.

In fact, I thought it was a very pleasant reception from the first day I came in here. Bob Stow, not literally, grabbed me – he subtly grabbed me. He said, “You will be going out to lunch with my wife and I today.” And I didn’t refuse – I didn’t fight it, I just basically said, “Fine.” And when he put my name down in the books, I knew I was marked forever.

No, really, it was a very nice welcome and after attending a few services and getting to know the members, I said to myself quite frankly, “If you’re comfortable here and you like the people that you’ve met, there’s no point in going to any other church, which makes sense. I hadn’t even been to any of the other Unitarian churches. I might go just to see what they’re like, but I’m quite happy here.

It’s been important to me to belong to the church, basically because I’ve gotten to know a lot of my friends through here. I’ve gotten to know a lot of my friends through here. I’ve gotten to know a lot of people who I didn’t know very well much, much better. Now I feel more comfortable with them. It’s very important for a person to have that sort of source – and I think that the church is a good place to get it. For me, it’s been really good. I would like to see a lot more younger people in the church. I understand that some of the other churches in the Twin Cities have single groups that I might participate in, but the people here are really nice. I only wish I had more time for some of the other classes that Jeannie offers on Tuesday night.

Another thing is, as far as the environment in Minnesota is concerned in many ways it was a very sort of sudden change, in many ways a very, traumatic sort of change. But it’s also been a very comfortable kind of change in that, you know, I like being in downtown Minneapolis or being in down St. Paul, and literally within a few minutes you can be in the country. Out East, the metropolitan area stretches forever and ever and ever, and you wonder if it’s ever going to end. Out here, it’s a really peaceful sort of thing. I can remember when, a couple of weeks ago after work one day, I drove out here for a yoga class and I smelled the wood burning from someone’s fireplace in a house- it was just beautiful, it really was. I think that I have found, as far as Minnesota is concerned, pretty much the best of both worlds in terms of geography, and the things that Minnesota has to offer – an integral part of that- people, as well.

People out here have been very friendly. I’m very glad that they like to spend time with one another and give each other the time of day. I feel, if you don’t have that, no matter what you do for a living, that life really isn’t worth living – if you can’t do things for people, and vice versa.

My own attitude towards life in general has become more relaxed and less serious. As a result, I’m happier for it. Those of you who did know me for a while knew that I was very intense and very uncomfortable and very uptight in the beginning. I’m still intense but I can say that I’m very glad to be here and I think I’ll be here for quite a while. I want to thank all of you, especially those who I do know pretty well but those I don’t know very well, I would like to get to know better, and for the church and the things it’s given me.