Following a new calling

Unique congregation in Columbia says goodbye to pastor

June 28, 1999|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

When he came to Columbia in 1970, the Rev. Gerald H. Goethe didn't expect to stay long.

Then he became an executive at the Columbia Cooperative Ministry and helped start the famed interfaith centers in the Howard County town.

He was pastor of the church that Columbia founder James W. Rouse attended and got swept up in the idealism that fueled the founding of the planned community.

The farm boy turned peace and civil-rights activist never did go back to his native Midwest and never did become a veterinarian as his father, a dairy farmer, had hoped. Instead, he stayed and helped shape the religious life of Columbia.

Now the 62-year-old pastor is ready to make an impact in a different way. Yesterday, after 26 years as pastor at the Kittamaqundi Community church, one of Columbia's oldest and most innovative congregations, Goethe gave his last sermon, said good-bye to his congregants and set out to open a new chapter of his life.

He's not calling it "retirement." That makes him feel old. He prefers to say that he is "re-engaging in life." He plans to stay active: to write books, to spread the Kittamaqundi vision so it can take root in other places. And he wants to spend more time with his family and to sail on the Chesapeake Bay.

"I've been a rebel all my life," he says. "I'm always into changing images, and changing the image of aging is one of the things I want to do. I'm not moving to Florida and becoming a prune. I just won't do that. It's not my thing."

Big dreams

Goethe moved to Columbia two years after its founding to serve as a youth pastor. Not long after he arrived, he began to work with other Protestant ministers and Jewish and Catholic leaders to start the interfaith centers.

The idea was not just to have different religions meet under one roof, he said. A movement was afoot to dissolve the boundaries between Protestant denominations, to have all Protestants worship and work together as one.

Of course, that never happened.

"It was the loss of a real dream, a real movement," Goethe said.

A smaller version of the dream survived in the form of the still-operating interfaith centers.

"Jim Rouse said that about the whole development of Columbia," Goethe said. "You dream big dreams, because soon enough reality will set in and it will become less than what you dreamed. The religious community took a hit, same as everybody else."

But Goethe didn't lose all his ideals. He still had Kittamaqundi, a nondenominational church that Rouse had helped found. It was a congregation as experimental as the planned community itself, and born of the same liberal '70s ideals.

Members snubbed hierarchy, were deeply committed to social issues and wanted to explore nonmainstream ways of worshiping.

Goethe, who became the church's first pastor in 1973, led them in their quest.

Church philosophy

At Kittamaqundi, which is a Native American word for meeting place, people sit in a circle on Sundays, or around a table, so they don't have to look at the back of one another's heads.

They are allowed to call God "Mother" if they feel like it.

They aren't allowed to become members unless they promise to make the church a part of their everyday lives, rather than just a Sunday-morning activity.

Goethe said about 200 people attend the church but only 60 are full-fledged members. That's because before they can become members, people must promise to pray and read Scripture regularly, to attend church every Sunday, to give substantial amounts of money to the church and to join a "mission group" that meets once a week to address everything from environmental destruction to homelessness to human sexuality.

Kittamaqundi members call the historic building where they worship "Oliver's carriage house," rather than "the church," because they believe strongly the church is about the people and not the building, once part of the 2,300-acre estate of 19th century English hunter Robert Oliver.

`Original blessing'

They prefer to talk about "original blessing," rather than "original sin."

They called Goethe an "enabling minister," rather than a minister, because his role was not so much to lead the church as it was to encourage leadership in others.

Goethe is a man almost universally loved by his congregants. A slightly scruffy intellectual, he wears a short, white beard and mustache, laughs a lot, and by turns spins yarns and waxes philosophical about life.

"He's been able to carry out the role of enabling minister without being too directive or too much in control," said Carol Dunlavey, a member since the mid-1970s. "I think it's a hard role he's had over the years to help the community be an end unto itself, to sort of not need him."

`Regular guy'

She described him as "a regular guy" and "a friend." "He's a person you can go to with your problems," she said. "He's fun."

The church is looking for an interim minister to take Goethe's place. He or she will, as Goethe put it, "help them deal with the separation and joy and grief of my being gone."

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