Beneficent Church, Beneficent House, and God’s Providence: 50 Years of Witness

Beneficent House 50th Anniversary, September 17, 2017
Psalm 127:1-2
Rev. Dennis R. Knight

 

History as a Helix

I recently offered an informal tour to a woman unfamiliar with the church building where I serve as minister.  Along the way, she asked me how long I had been minister.  I stopped, pointed to my face and said, look closely at this face, which she did.  Then I said, I’ve been here since I was thirty, to which she replied without pause, “Oh my, you must have dug the foundations.”

The same can be said in regard to Beneficent House.  I, along with only some few others, have been a firsthand witness to all that was and is Beneficent House, from its first conceptual framing to the final course of bricks that was laid upon its walls before its doors opened, and its now fifty years of occupancy.

I stand here today, gratefully to be sure, because I am one of those persons, perforce fewer and fewer in number, in possession of personal remembrances of this story of this building.  I want to acknowledge that Irene Hope is the one most possessed of an institutional memory of Beneficent House, but our time frames and connections are similar.

To be sure, I do not intend simply to offer nostalgic reminiscences from the past, although so much of that remains within me.  History, I believe, encompasses much more than that.  Having grown up in a setting like Beneficent Church, I came to understand early on that history is not just reminiscence, but is in fact a source of identity and self-understanding.

Furthermore, I see history not as linear, that is moving in a single progression from point a to b to c to d, but more accurately, history follows after a helix, as does our DNA.  It twists and turns and intertwines with itself such that past and present and future often converge in unexpected and revealing ways.  The past shows itself in the present, and the present foreshadows what is to be.

Often, what seems incidental or random in the moment shows itself to have been purposeful or, apropos of this city, providential, when viewed in the context of time.  Seemingly disconnected events reveal an interwoven pattern when viewed in a broad perspective.  What happens in the moment may not show its full consequence until long after that moment.  Hence the notion of a HELIX.

From the Very Beginning

Let me tell a first story to illustrate my point.

Imagine yourself standing with a young man in the 1920s.  He is a student at the Hartford Theological Seminary and one day his dean comes to him and says, there is a businessman in New York who is interested in finding an intern for a yoked ministry program in northern Maine called the Aroostock County Larger Parish, which was organized to support the numerous small churches in that area.  The dean adds, this businessman has contacted this Seminary for leads on potential candidates, and I think you are potentially a good fit.””

So the young man agrees to an interview and on the appointed day for that, embarks on a train to an office in New York City.  He is dressed in a morning suit, as befitting the occasion and the custom of the times, and undertakes his interview, in I expect, an auspicious-looking, wood-paneled office.  Sometime after his return to Hartford, he learns that he apparently made a favorable impression and is offered the opportunity to serve in the program in Maine.

That student in this real life story was Arthur Edward Wilson, who became the eighth minister of Beneficent Church in 1933, and served in that role until 1967.  And of that businessman in New York…?  He was John D. Rockefeller Jr., and his place in history needs no disquisition on my part.

The connection that was first set between these two men in an office in New York City developed into a lifelong association.  Indeed, Arthur Wilson’s first full charge as an ordained minister was with the Bar Harbor Congregational Church, which the Rockefeller family supported and attended in the summers.

Now, and here is where the story takes another turn, where another twist in that HELIX shows itself.  The family of John D. Rockefeller’s wife, Abby Greene Aldrich, were members of Beneficent Church, indeed the minister of Beneficent Church officiated for their wedding in 1901.  Given this connection, need anything more be surmised of how it came to be that Arthur Wilson became minister of this Church?

Connection Points

Many years on, long after Dr. Wilson had retired from Beneficent, he returned to the Bar Harbor Church as a guest preacher, a tradition he maintained throughout his life.  He told a story as a sermon illustration on that day, about church meetings frequently held at John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s house on an outcropping by the shore.  He spoke of how, when people were leaving, Mr. Rockefeller would hold the front door of his home open to cast light on the path, and always say, watch out for the birdbath,” which was carved out of the stone along the walkway.

After the service, a man who was in the congregation came up to Dr. Wilson and said, you know of course that the house is now gone, but the birdbath is still there, and I would appreciate it if you would go out to the site and visit it.””  That man . . . ?  David Rockefeller.  HELIX

I believe the mark of a spiritual leader lies in his/her possession of the abilities, skills, and insight, to call forth the stories that enlighten and inform our individual lives and help us to situate ourselves on the great arc of meaning that ties us all together, generation to generation, age to age

An able leader knows about the birdbaths that lie along our pathways, and what they represent in transcendental terms, and when he or she utters the tales of them, we are stirred and enlightened, as David Rockefeller was that particular summer Sunday.

 

A Vision Made Real

In addition, and this is a second mark of able leadership, the leader knows how to summon together the gifts of those in his or her charge into one purposeful, directed, impulse that at its fullest become visible manifestation of faith.

That is exactly what Beneficent House represents, a vision made real.  It was born of the vision of a man whose gifts were recognized early-on in an office in New York City, and brought to full flowering at Beneficent Church among a congregation that itself was imbued of a sense of destiny born of its very nature.  Dr. Wilson cast light on the path into a new and expansive future, and the people of the church walked the way with him, all to make Beneficent House a reality.

For Dr. Wilson, and those who joined cause with him, Beneficent House wasn’t simply a “good idea,” but represented a heard call, a divinely inspired commission, to demonstrate in visible fashion our collective sense of who we were as a pilgrim people, called to serve all of God’s creation in new and, literally in regard to Beneficent House, groundbreaking ways.

I so vividly recall the sermon preached the Sunday before the vote was taken to move forward with this project after several years of study.

Dr. Wilson used today’s text, “unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.”  He invoked the imagery of a City set on a Hill, exhorting us to conceive of Beneficent House as not just an assemblage of steel and bricks and cement, but as infused with a sacred spirit that would shape it and sustain it, perhaps in that regard unlike any other comparable facility in Providence.

We were encouraged to believe that we would be standing forward in innovative ways to create safe, inviting, affordable housing that would join all ages, races, creeds, and economic groups together, at a time when this particular mix did not exist.  That commission still shows itself fifty years on, as Beneficent House continues to fulfill its original mission.  HELIX

 

Laying the Cornerstone

The meeting which authorized the charter for Beneficent House was held in Round Top Center of a weekday evening.  I was there with a group of other youth, being sixteen at the time– talk about digging the foundations—among about I suppose 150 members in total.  The discussion went on at length, with concerns raised all around whether or not to proceed.  Many cogent words were uttered, many of which linger with me.  I still hear Bob Hanson, church Treasurer, saying, “the business of the church is not business,” and that really framed the question: was Beneficent House to be understood as a commercial enterprise, or a bold statement of Christian mission.  One other speaker’s words in particular linger with me, and they were offered by Ruth Foss.

She was an elegant and gracious woman, well respected, and possessed of keen leadership skills.  She spoke about being with friends, and we all knew that her circle of associations and involvements was broad, and she said conversation often shifted to Beneficent Church, which was a prominent institution in the City at the time, and her role was known.  She said then that her friends were asking, “What is Beneficent Church doing these days?” meaning, what new project or effort might it be undertaking that might have an impact on Providence.  She summoned up her remarks that evening by saying that the time for Beneficent House was at hand and that we should go forward with it, that Beneficent House should be Beneficent’s newest consequential undertaking for the betterment of the citizenry of Providence.

I sometimes stand in one of the parking lots on either side of Chestnut Street and think as I look up, “you were right then Mrs. Foss, and you’re still right this many years on.”  HELIX

 

Leaving Tangible Legacies

While he was alive, and whenever Beneficent Church was in need or embarking on a major undertaking, Dr. Wilson would connect with the Rockefeller and Aldrich families and they were always forthcoming in assisting the Church.  If there be any question of that, I would invite you, if you have not already, to acquaint yourselves with the plaque that adorns the organ, or that which rests on the exterior wall of the parking lot side of the meeting house or the small one that is affixed to the wall outside the kitchen.  Those memorials all attest to the largesse that has always been a part of the life of Beneficent Church, specifically in regard to the Rockefeller and Aldrich families.

Likewise, the stone marker that hangs on a corner wall of Round Top Center attests to the charitable inclinations of another Beneficent benefactor, Henry Steere.  He built Round Top Center a century and a half ago to be used as a chapel for this church.  Indeed the organ that sits in the balcony of this meeting house was first located in Round Top Center.  His measure as a principled man, a successful businessman, and as a benefactor of the City of Providence and Beneficent Church was immense, and again, his gestures on behalf of Beneficent stand as a demonstration of the forth giving ways of the people of this congregation, stretching back generations.

It was this kind of expressed seeking after the common good, extending well back before Beneficent House was even a concept, that created the kind of fertile soil, enriched by generation upon generation of the faithful, in combination with a clear vision in its time, that gave natural rise to such an enterprise as Beneficent House.

There are countless souls whose spirits are poured into that structure at 1 Chestnut Street, immense vitality with which it is infused, and much human capital that undergirds it.

I would speak of one more person today, unknown to you and only indirectly known to me.  Her name is Roxana Cady, and I came upon awareness of her when perusing this little volume bequeathed to me by Arthur Wilson.  It is a book of song texts printed in Providence in 1820, and inscribed in pencil, “used at Rev James Wilson Church (Round Top) when he was pastor.  When deacon Wardwell led the choir”.

Otherwheres is written, “Roxana Cady wife of David and parents of S.W. Cady.”  There is a last inscription that indicates the book was given to S.W. Cady April 8, 1874.  S.W. Cady was Shubael Hutchins Cady, and like Henry Steere a prominent name in 19th century Providence business and civic associations.  Among other lasting marks of his life, he was the founder of the Squantum Club in East Providence.  And now that book has somehow come to rest with me, knowledge of it to share with you on September 17, 2017.  HELIX

I have to believe that there were times that Shubael sat with his mother in pew 71, and that he, as all of us, and as Abby Greene Aldrich, and as Henry Steere, and as Ruth Cushing Foss, and as countless others, walked these aisles finding themselves infused by a vision of a better life for all.

 

A Milestone along the March

My point is that, fifty years is but one marker in a long, continuous record of service of a faithful body that was from its beginning beneficent in character as well as in name, and that Beneficent House can be seen to have issued not just from a vote that was taken in 1963, but traces directly to that first impulse that brought a band of seekers to this very site 274 years ago, here to found Beneficent Congregational Church.

We are all part of one march.  I can speak of the expressed faith of those I knew, as they could speak of the faith of those before them they knew, and you in turn can speak to those yet to come.

Which brings me back to the place where I began.  History affords us an opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with our central identity, to receive anew from those who have gone before an untarnished vision, and to embrace our role as caretakers of that vision, that it might be offered over, pure and unalloyed, to the future.  HELIX

 

A Lasting Impact

As I stand here a half century after the dedication of that building, and fifty-four years on from the vote that launched it, and perhaps fifty-seven years on from the time the concept first raised itself, and having witnessed it all first hand, and having been a part with so many others of its custody, I think of the richness with which that building is imbued.

Truly, the Lord did build that house and abides it even still.  May that ever be so, for Beneficent House and for Beneficent Church and for the City named after God’s Providence, whose people both Church and House have always sought to serve.

Amen.