Preaching Morality in the here and now Ethics: People concerned about doing the right thing right now meet weekly to pursue a better world.

February 25, 1997|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

It's early and the full complement of do-gooders has yet to arrive. They come every Sunday morning to the Baltimore Ethical Society to figure out how to make the world a better place.

Bernie Brown, a hesitant man with a wild metastasizing beard that by now almost conceals his blue sweater, greets members, their guests and those who just walk in off the street.

Harold M. Wasson, a formal man in a blazer, is arranging chairs for the day's lecture. He straightens up a row of Pepsis on a table near the door. He turns his attention to arranging pamphlets on ethical culture in a rack by the table.

Chapter president Alex Sater arrives. He, too, has a bushy gray beard. He wears a plaid shirt and a Flintstones tie. "We are religious humanists. We find our fulfillment in the here and now," he explains. "We are basically a religion for the non-affiliated," a church for the unchurched.

More people trickle in. They throw off their coats. February has introduced itself with uncommon sweetness. The sun flows through the blinds and lights up the ivory rooms at Mount Royal Avenue and Calvert Street, the Ethical Society's home for the past three years.

Somebody brings in a chocolate cake.

The Baltimore chapter of the American Ethical Union has 56 members. The 20 chapters nationwide claim a total of 3,000, according to Margaretha Jones, the AEU administrator in New York. She is not happy with that figure.

"We are trying very hard to grow," she says. "There are people out there who are humanistic in outlook and would benefit from exposure to us."

Nor is she satisfied with the racial mix. "I think it is still quite white," she says.

It wasn't always. Not here. In 1950 the ethical society was established in Baltimore specifically to oppose racial segregation. The first public meeting was in the fall of that year, in Levering Hall, on Johns Hopkins' Homewood campus.

"It was one of the few places that would accept us," recalls Shirley Dale Patterson Adams. She was only 5, and there with her father, Roy Patterson Jr., a founding member. He was a Baltimore shoemaker, steeped in the study of philosophy and ethics.

"A philosopher king," his daughter calls him.

Long before most mainstream churches mobilized against segregation, ethical society members assailed the legal barriers that kept the races apart. In Baltimore they sought to integrate swimming pools and movie houses. Groups in other cities were similarly animated.

"We were on the first buses south," recalls Lois Kellerman, the "leader," or minister in the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture. Kellerman recalls the 1950s and '60s as a time when many blacks were in local ethical society chapters, not just Baltimore's. They left because they wanted their own organizations.

"It was the time of Black Power," she said. "We encouraged it."

Kellerman doesn't think a national membership of only 3,000 is worrisome. "Would I like more? Yes. Would I like many more? No! Then you're into head counting. We've never had more than 6,000 members in our whole 120-year history."

The high point came during the McCarthy years. "Institutions like ours always do better when there is some repression," she explains.

These days some members of the Baltimore Ethical Society feel like victims of their own success, particularly the older ones. Many of the issues they militated behind -- public housing, integration, medical care for the poor -- today rest in the larger hands of the federal government. Which is not to say they're not busy.

"We're working with the Fellowship of Lights to offer space for their [youth counseling] programs," says Alex Sater. "They are talking about outreach programs and we have some space."

He adds: "A couple of years ago we adopted a grade in the elementary schools and did work as teachers' aides."

Started in 1876

The ethical movement was launched in the United States in 1876 by Rabbi Felix Adler. His aim in creating the New York Society for Ethical Culture was to give "supreme importance to the moral factor in all relations in life."

Dr. Jerome D. Frank, another charter member of the Baltimore chapter, said Adler believed religions were divided, one from the other, by theology, but "could come together on ethics."

Though it has no supernatural dimension, ethical culture hews to the conventions of formal religion. It has no priests, but there are "leaders," people like Lois Kellerman. They are trained in pastoral counseling; they perform weddings, preside over "naming ceremonies" (an African tradition) and memorial services.

Most of those at the Sunday meeting are men, though the chapter membership is evenly divided between the two sexes. Ron Solomon, a bearded health-care actuary, a former president of the local chapter and of the American Ethical Union, is asked why so many have beards. He doesn't think there is anything emblematic about it. Probably a coincidence.

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