RevDaveJohnson Aug2014aSmStuff-That’s-True, and Stuff-That-Matters: Fifty-Seventh and Woodlawn: The Emerging Landscapes   

Exactly thirty years ago, in mid-November of 1984, I made my first visit to Fifty-Seventh Street and Woodlawn Avenue, in Hyde Park on the University of Chicago campus. The buildings at that intersection were a central focus for Unitarian Universalism. Hundreds of UU ministers, students, scholars, community activists, and lay leaders traveled there from all over the world for academic study and continuing education events at Meadville Lombard Theological School (MLTS). Since then I’ve had occasion to return on dozens of occasions, ranging from all-day study at the MLTS library, to serving a three-month appointment as Minister-in-Residence at MLTS during the winter of 2002. The staff and students with whom I met on the MLTS campus over the past 30 years remain among my most treasured professional colleagues.

But those days are over, amidst rapidly changing landscapes.   Meadville Lombard has re-located to a high-rise office building in downtown Chicago. I recently had occasion to return to Fifty-Seventh Street and Woodlawn, and was curious what might remain of Unitarian Universalism at that time-honored location in Hyde Park.

On the northwest corner of 57th and Woodlawn, the First Unitarian Church still remains as a beacon of our free faith in greater Chicago.   This flagship church has hosted Meadville Lombard convocations, commencement ceremonies, and conferences since early in the 20th century. Today, passers-by on the street are welcomed by prominent colorful banners reading:   “We Embrace Multi-Cultural Unity”; “Many Paths / One People”; and of course “Standing on the Side of Love”—with a prominent rainbow across the banner. The signboard announcing the upcoming sermon title reads: “Spiritual But Not Religious”—another compelling sign of the changing times.

On the southeast corner of 57th and Woodlawn, the five-story stone building that once was home to Meadville Lombard is now completely surrounded by scaffolding. The windows are boarded, and back-hoes excavate deeply near the foundation.   What might happen to this venerable old building? After renovation is completed it will become the Neubauer Family Collegium for Culture and Society. Smaller buildings nearby, which also were formerly part of the MLTS campus, now have new tenants: The Institute of Politics; the Paulson Institute; the Newberger Hillel Center; the Rohr Chabad Center for Jewish Life and Learning; and the University of Chicago’s Office of Multi-Cultural Student Affairs.

Do I regret these changes? Not really. Financial realities have prompted MLTS (and many other graduate-degree programs) to bring education costs and methods into alignment with the modern era: Where the pacemakers are on-line databases, social media, and education-by-Webinars. During a recent trip home to Kansas, I counted seven (7) colleges located near just one exit-ramp from the I-435 beltway. From the highway I noticed glass office buildings which may represent those seven colleges. I was tempted to drive up to one of these “colleges” and naively inquire, “Where is your Student Activities Building.”   I can’t help but wonder: Might such people-friendly campus venues become quaint artifacts of a by-gone era?

I departed from 57th and Woodlawn, grateful for the past three decades of camaraderie that challenged and sustained me there, yet knowing that I must discover new venues that foster camaraderie and hanging out with colleagues. For me, on-line schmoozing just isn’t the same as slow, face-to-face pondering and ruminating—with electronic devices in the OFF-mode.

The heavy snowfall outdoors invites hunkering down. Drive safely, if you must be out and around.   Best wishes, as winter arrives.   See you in church. Rev. Dave Johnson, Interim Minister, People’s Church of Kalamazoo, 2014-2015

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