“Remembering Fred Taylor” by Marjory Bankson

Fish and anchor inscription from catacomb of St Priscilla (Rome)
Fish and anchor inscription
from catacomb of St Priscilla (Rome)

January 19, 2020

The Second Sunday after the Epiphany

Yesterday, there was a fine memorial service for Fred Taylor at St. Marks Episcopal Church on Capitol Hill. We will not try to repeat that here. The first Washington Post obituary, which is posted on the bulletin board in the hallway, made much of his role as Executive Director of FLOC (For Love of Children), but it made no mention of Seekers, and there was barely a mention of Church of the Saviour, so I will try to fill in some of those details. A second obituary did mention that he “co-pastored Seekers.” That’s the story I want to share with you today.

Starting with our practice of sharing the worship leadership every Sunday, Fred had a profound influence on who we are today. In Fred’s own words, from his book Roll Away the Stone, FLOC began with prayer: One of the clergy at Selma was Gordon Cosby, founder of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in Washingotn, DC. When he returned from Selma, he committed an hour a day to meditate on both the Bible and the newspaper in order to discern a direction for himself in the freedom movement. (p. 100)

Fred then described how a vision becomes generative, producing action:  Gordon Cosby shared a tangible vision of a home for every child. This was specific enough to be compelling and large enough to stretch people’s hearts. And he invented the vision through solitary reflection and participation in a larger social movement. He listened for what the events of his time were saying. Then he deliberately opened his mind and heart to see an alternative vision and to hear the word calling him to action. (p. 120) Fred claimed that process throughout his life.

Like Gordon, Fred was an ordained Baptist minister. Born in Kentucky, Fred had graduated from Vanderbuilt and Yale Divinity School, where his Southern roots were watered by progressive mentors. Married to Anne Jarman, they had three young children, and lived in Falls Church, Virginia. Fred had resigned from his church to get more involved with Church of the Saviour just as FLOC was beginning to form. When he was hired as FLOC’s first director in 1966, Fred offered 12-week classes for volunteers from many different churches, underpinning their social action with a spiritual base that was not credal or denominational. That experience shaped Seekers as an inclusive church.

The FLOC office was on the third floor of the old brownstone headquarters of Church of the Saviour, affectionately known as “2025.” It gave Fred and Gordon daily contact — like a father-son relationship. FLOC was soon focused on the effort to shut down Junior Village, a DC orphanage which had become a dumping ground for nearly a thousand abused and neglected children. When the city spiraled into violence after Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1969,  The Potter’s House became a hub for change along Columbia Road and FLOC’s effort to close Junior Village became even more urgent.

In 1973, with an amazing confluence of publicity and cooperation by city officials, FLOC achieved its stated goal of shutting down Junior Village. I suspect there was something of a let-down after that, although there was still much work to do for FLOC families. Maybe it opened a space for Fred to think about church again. Meanwhile, Gordon turned his attention to low-income housing along Columbia Road and several new mission groups sprouted from meetings at the Potter’s House.

Within a year, Gordon announced that he felt some new form of the church was needed to allow space for new leadership to emerge. Gordon suggested that there might be three centers for worship, one at 2025, one at Potter’s House, and a third at Dayspring Farm, but it wasn’t clear where FLOC might find a home.

Most people in Church of the Saviour were uncomfortable with Gordon’s suggestion of separating into three congregations, but Fred became Gordon’s defender. On January 19, 1975, Fred preached an important sermon which is ascribed to an “unknown speaker” in the InwardOutward archives. [I will see to it that Fred’s name is inserted.] Using a text about Abraham’s call to “go forth to a land I will show you,” Fred equated Gordon’s decision with Abraham’s call to an unknown future. It was an invitation to relationship rather than result.   

Following that sermon, Fred and Sonya Dyer were appointed to the New Lands Study Group as representatives from FLOC. Sonya had found her voice as the volunteer coordinator for FLOC’S Hope and a Home program, and they joined representatives from Potter’s House, Jubilee, and Dayspring, as well as Gordon Cosby and Elizabeth O’Connor, to discern the future shape of Church of the Saviour.

From the beginning, Fred had wanted an outside facilitator for their discernment process. Others wanted a “more spiritual” approach. Late in their time together, Fred got Robert Greenleaf, author of Servant Leadership, to meet with the group. Greenleaf noted that the C of S staff operated in a highly centralized way while the mission groups operated more organically, usually by consensus. He thought their structure was inadequate for the missions they had started. Both Fred and Sonya responded positively to Greenleaf’s critique and they later chose the name, Seekers, from his description of “seekers who make prophets … by the quality of their listening.”

When I interviewed Fred for my book on Seekers, Stalking the Spirit, he told me that although his daily work at FLOC was challenging, he missed having close relationships with a congregation and he missed preaching. That prompted him to approach Sonya about the possibility of forming a new church as co-pastors. Fred told me he was also convinced that capable women were being shut out of leadership positions in the church and he wanted to help change that situation.

It’s hard now to remember how sexist most churches were in the mid-70s. At home and in the workplace, men made most of the decisions about money and management, and the push for equal rights was just gaining traction.  Mainline denominations did not yet ordain women and seminaries generally channeled women into religious education for children. Because of its emphasis on call and gifts instead of formal credentials, there were opportunities for leadership by women in the mission group structures of Church of the Saviour, but the worship service was still quite traditional: Gordon preached and Mary Cosby provided the music.

At age 44, Fred was ready for change, but I suspect he never imagined how he would be stretched by partnering with Sonya. They knew and trusted each other, both as committed members of Church of the Saviour, and as advocates for marginalized children in Washington, DC. Sonya did not have the credentials of seminary and ordination, but she had lots of creative energy and experience. Born in Kansas, Sonya came from a Church of the Brethren tradition. Married to Manning Dyer, a businessman in Arlington, their three children were slightly older than Fred’s, but both families recognized that God’s call must include family life, paid work, and citizenship, along with the dedicated but unpaid commitments which Church of the Saviour emphasized.

Both Fred and Sonya belonged to the Bridger generation, that smaller cohort of Americans born during the Depression and World War II. They were old enough to temper change with practical experience, and young enough to embrace real dialogue, so valued by the upcoming Boomer generation. They honored the discipline and commitment of Church of the Saviour, but did not want to be trapped by its orthodoxy that all groups – and now the new churches –should have a single mission.

Without Fred, I doubt that Sonya would have started Seekers. He gave us legitimacy and a social-justice reading of scripture. The initial call for Seekers, which they wrote together, was rejected by the Council of Church of the Saviour because there was no single mission. It would have been easy to claim FLOC as their mission, but, as Fred told me later, “I thought a single mission was too small for one church. We needed more flexibility.”

Over the summer of 1976, Fred and Sonya gathered a strong group of people who had been shaped by the membership commitments of Church of the Saviour. Fred began preaching more regularly at the early service, and Sonya stepped into the role of liturgist because she saw the whole worship experience as spiritual formation. From the beginning, Sonya also invited others to participate in writing prayers and designing bulletins, sowing the seeds of what became the Celebration Circle Mission Group.

In the Fall of 1976, they submitted another call — which was rather grudgingly approved by the Council. They toned down some of their social critique, but they did not change their call “to be church” instead of focusing on a single mission. They claimed God’s call to “ministry in daily life” in four categories: work, family, volunteer activity and citizenship. 19 former members of Church of the Saviour signed the initial register as founding members of Seekers and the work of becoming church together began.

Fred’s position at 2025 helped to ease tensions with the staff as Seekers took over the early service on Sunday mornings. His FLOC office was still on the third floor, so he was in and out of the building on a daily basis. He had a friendly relationship with Gordon and a regular parking space behind 2025. Sonya was the newcomer, and she struggled to find her place as an equal partner.

In an effort to treat them equally, the founding members of Seekers decided to pay Fred and Sonya the same amount for whatever time they put in. However, Fred was still working full-time for FLOC, and Sonya was spending most of her time on Seekers, so Sonya became the de facto pastor and Fred focused more narrowly on preaching and teaching In the School of Christian Living. At first, their equal pay seemed just.

Those traditional gender roles became a source of discontent when Fred took a leave of absence for travel to South Africa, where he befriended Trevor Hudson, a Methodist pastor with a multi-racial congregation during Apartheid. Fred wrote about wanting Seekers to be involved with resettling refugees from South Africa’s apartheid policies, but, according to her journal, Sonya felt that the real work was still about developing the community at Seekers, not a mission overseas. Although the Taylors did host a couple from South Africa later that year, Seekers’ link with South Africa did not really take root until much later. To balance Fred’s time away, covenant members later approved money and time off for Sonya to attend the opening meeting of the UN Decade for Women in 1980, and that fueled her feminism at a crucial time for Seekers.

I think this was also the period when the Young Mothers Group began at Seekers. As more women tried to balance work and family responsibilities, they wanted time to share their experience rather than forming yet another mission group. It’s interesting to me that the Young Mothers group has continued all these years – a testimony to the deep connection that they formed four decades ago, though they are not young any more.

By the early 80s, FLOC was an established voice in the city, advocating for new models of child care and education. The FLOC Wilderness School was pioneering outdoor education for troubled teens, and Hope and a Home was becoming a more professional organization and in 1981, the FLOC office moved out of 2025, which effectively ended Fred’s daily contact with Gordon Cosby.

At the same time, criticism of Fred’s role as the solo paid preacher for Seekers began to rise. Fred had thoughtfully asked a few women to preach when he was away, so we had experienced the excitement of hearing other voices from the congregation. Sonya quietly invited a Feminist Theology Group to study new texts now that women were being ordained by Presbyterian and Episcopal churches and other women began taking classes at Wesley and VTS. Then the men began asking for time to preach as well. Seekers had attracted several ordained men who were working in justice-oriented positions, and our Tuesday night school became a crucible for those conversations. Fred was a regular teacher in the school, so he was part of that mixture and tension. In those years, change and turmoil were close cousins at Seekers.

By the mid-80s, there were roughly 60 adults and about 40 children attending Seekers. [Add 40 children to this room full of adults and you will get the feel for Seekers then.] Sundays were often raucous between the earlier Seekers service and the later service where Gordon was still preaching. We tried a number of different solutions for including the children, but nothing seemed to last for long. Neither Fred nor Sonya had more time or energy to give, so there was talk of adding a part-time paid staff person who could concentrate on developing a creative curriculum for children. Once again, discussions about money and gender roles swirled around Seekers, along with debates about who could or should make those decisions, and in the midst of the discussion about adding a staff member, Fred married again and announced his resignation from the paid staff of Seekers.

Fred’s resignation in 1988 plunged Seekers into a maelstrom of self-reflection. Sonya remained as our one paid staff person, and Celebration Circle became the authority for deciding who would preach. In order to maintain the male-female pattern at the altar which Fred and Sonya had set, Peter was always the liturgist when a woman preached. For 12 years, they held the space while preachers came and went. The decision to have an “open pulpit” was revolutionary then, and it remains distinctive mark of Seekers to this day. Shortly thereafter, we selected a Servant Leadership Team [notice the shift from “co-pastors” to a servant leadership team] of two men and one woman in addition to Sonya.

Fred resigned from the core members’ group in 1991 when he and Sherrill moved to the Shaw neighborhood, but that was not the end of his leadership within Church of the Saviour. When Gordon urged the sister churches to incorporate separately in the mid-90s, Gordon saw it as ending Church of the Saviour – even though we still owned 2025 and Dayspring as a church together.

Like Seekers, Fred was one who raised his voice in favor of staying linked, albeit with a new form. By then, he was worshipping with the 8th Day community. When Kate Cudlipp became chair of the C of S Council, Fred found a solid partner for his vision of continued connection. By then, Kate was on the Servant Leadership Team at Seekers AND she was chair of the FLOC Board, where their efforts were intertwined with advocacy and God’s call to justice and mercy.

It was Kate who managed the Church of the Saviour constitutional revision from individual membership to churches as members, and it was Kate who guided the sale of 2025 after Gordon finally decided to retire from preaching. Fred advocated for using the whole amount on a single big project, but the money was divided among the eight C of S communities instead.

Fred never stopped holding up a vision of who we might be together as Church of the Saviour. Just two years ago, Fred called for a discernment retreat at Dayspring, to chart our future together. Partnering again with a woman, Cheryl Hellner this time, Fred designed a retreat that included silence and introspection along with gathering data about God’s dream for our future. Once again, he was willing to step out in faith, calling us to a new land, trusting that God would show us the way.  Once again, he urged us to claim a vision and move forward into an unknown future with hope and determination.

Without Fred, I doubt that Seekers would be here today. Without FLOC, advocacy would not be stamped in our communal DNA. I am deeply grateful for the gift of himself that he gave to us.


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