Rev. Robert L. Zoerheide, 89, First Unitarian Church minister

November 04, 2003|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

The Rev. Robert L. Zoerheide, former minister of Baltimore's historic First Unitarian Church, died of respiratory failure Sunday at Roland Park Place. He was 89.

Mr. Zoerheide was born and raised on his father's farm in Kent City, Mich., near Grand Rapids.

"He grew up in a large family that loved discussing politics and religion, and as a young man he was actually an atheist," said his wife of 66 years, the former Jean Spaulding.

While working his way through Western Michigan College, where he earned his bachelor's degree in 1940, he and his brother owned a butcher shop and smokehouse where they made sausage.

"We used to drive by a Unitarian church in Kalamazoo that had provocative messages posted along the wayside. Then one Saturday night, the pastor came into the shop," Mrs. Zoerheide said, adding that her husband was impressed by the minister, that his church was interested in the co-op movement, "so the next day we began attending his church."

"Also, my husband's point of view was that of a very poor farm boy. He had seen the effects of the Depression and wanted to help people," she said.

Mr. Zoerheide was a 1943 graduate of the Meadville Theological School of the University of Chicago, and took additional graduate courses at Harvard University. He received an honorary doctorate from Meadville in 1975.

During World War II, he was director of a Unitarian service committee project that assisted Japanese-Americans who had been relocated to internment camps. After the war, he and his wife moved to Czechoslovakia, where they established work camps that assisted European Unitarians in restoring bombed villages.

Mr. Zoerheide served at Unitarian churches in Peterborough, N.H., and Syracuse, N.Y., before moving to Maryland in 1961 as minister of Cedar Lane Unitarian Church in Bethesda.

As he had in Syracuse, Mr. Zoerheide pushed for racial harmony and integration.

In 1963, he attacked what he called the "polite prejudice of the North" and challenged fellow churchmen to integrate their houses of worship while asking congregations to work for better housing, jobs and educational opportunities for blacks.

"Polite prejudice" was akin to fallout that has "settled almost invisibly across our northern lands. It has found its way into our bones and blood," he told The Washington Post in 1963. "In face of these basic and stubborn problems, this is no time to sit on the meager laurels of token public accommodations and integrated education."

In 1978, he was named minister of the First Unitarian Church in Baltimore. Its landmark building at Charles and Franklin streets was designed by Maximilian Godefroy and dates to 1817.

In an interview with The Sun shortly after arriving in Baltimore, Mr. Zoerheide explained his religious perspective.

"The Unitarians are not a creedal church. The church is a place to work out a religious belief in your own way. We believe that each person is unique - each has individual needs. We try to provide inspirational resources to let each person work out his or her own salvation," he said. "I believe that reason, intuition and science are human qualities, valuable in the quest for religious faith. Our horizons are always expanding with knowledge."

Other issues that he concerned himself with included the United Nations, feminism, mental health and gerontology. He helped establish and served on the board of Pastoral Counseling Services in Baltimore.

Described as outspoken and strong-minded, Mr. Zoerheide did not shrink from speaking out on controversial subjects.

When Pope John Paul II issued his views on abortion in 1979, Mr. Zoerheide wrote in a letter to The Sun: "If he sees as his role to put his stamp on divisive issues, we have a new and dangerous force in the world to deal with."

"He read widely and was intellectually curious. His sermons were characterized by his challenging us to be better individuals and active in the civic arena. He wasn't an orator. They were more like conversations," said Dr. Richard L. Humphrey, a longtime church member. "He was a very thoughtful person who was willing always to take on the issues that divide our society. And he always came down on the right side."

When a debate arose in his church over the issue of accepting federal money for restoration, he worried over the separation of church and state. In the end, the church turned down the grant money.

"He was able to get us through that without loss of life, limb or members. When you're a Unitarian minister, it's like trying to herd cats. Everyone is independent and they all have strong opinions," Dr. Humphrey said. "And getting a group like that through any controversy is a real achievement. And he was able to do that."

During his tenure at the church, he was also credited with keeping its congregation in downtown Baltimore.

"He was easy to work with but he was awfully persistent. I think his wife exerted a powerful influence on him. She kept him sensitized to issues," said Clare Milton, a longtime church member and friend.

When he retired in 1985, he was named minister emeritus.

Before moving to Roland Park Place in 1996, the couple lived in the Roland Springs Community on Cold Spring Lane.

Plans for a memorial service were incomplete yesterday.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Zoerheide is survived by two sons, Todd K. Zoerheide of Brewer, Maine, and Mark E. Zoerheide of Alum Creek, Pa.; a daughter, Vickie J. Dykes of Ionia, Mich.; a brother, the Rev. Jack Zoerheide of East Swanzey, Mich., who is also a Unitarian Universalist minister; a sister, Betty Goodman of Beverly Hills, Calif.; six grandchildren; and two great-grandsons. Another daughter, Robyn L. Reklitis, died in 1996.

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