Odd Fellowship is not strange to members

Order continues to help needy even as participation declines at a `crisis' rate

August 26, 2007|By New York Times News Service

DENVER -- As with most matters of Odd Fellowship, nearly every aspect of the annual convention of the Sovereign Grand Lodge of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows must adhere to protocol. The dais for the officers' banquet, for example, must be two-tiered and able to accommodate 50 people - important on the bottom, really important on the top.

Seats for the sovereign grand master, the deputy sovereign grand master, the sovereign grand warden, the sovereign grand secretary and the sovereign grand treasurer.

Seats for the leaders of the two uniformed branches, the Patriarchs Militant and its Ladies Auxiliaries. A seat for the president of the International Association of Rebekah Assemblies, established when the Odd Fellows long ago recognized "the need for a woman's touch."

Here they are now, the officers and their escorts, proceeding solemnly through the grand ballroom of the Adam's Mark Hotel as the sovereign grand musician plays "Pride and Gallantry" on the piano. Six hundred people rise to their feet, more than a few with some difficulty.

Robert Robbins, 69, the soft-spoken sovereign grand master whose yearlong tenure ends with this convention, takes his honored place.

Gazing out upon this gathering of Odd Fellows and Rebekahs, he sees a bobbing sea of gray and white. Since his installation as top Odd Fellow, Robbins has warned that this order, dedicated to caring for the widowed, the orphaned and the needy, is in a "state of crisis."

Members are dying by the thousands, local lodges are closing by the dozens, and actual participation among the 289,000 members is dropping.

"Unless we can do something to turn the membership losses into significant gains in the next couple of years," he says later, "we may be at a point where we can't recover."

In many communities, you can still find an old IOOF building, a place of some mystery, where the rituals would include acting out the story of the Good Samaritan. Members were to apply that story to real life by aiding their brothers and sisters, chipping in to pay burial costs, for example. You merely had to express belief in one Creator to be eligible.

Then came social changes to dull the appeal of fraternal organizations. Tighter government regulations forced the Odd Fellows out of their signature cause, orphanages.

Several years ago, after contentious debate, the Odd Fellows allowed women into their ranks, but that has done little to stem the decline.

It's gotten so bad that many members of the Patriarchs Militant are too old to march anymore.

Still, here the Odd Fellows are, in Denver, 1,000 strong and not so, coming together from many states and a few countries on an expansive hotel concourse.

Facing his brothers and sisters at this night's banquet, the grand sovereign master cannot help but wonder what will become of his beloved order. Here is Hank Dupray, 63, a former sovereign grand master from North Carolina who guided the order into establishing an orphanage in Cambodia.

A toast then, to all national leaders of the world, as is Odd Fellows custom. Another toast, to all fraternal leaders of the world. Dinner, remarks, benediction, recessional to the strains of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic." Odd Fellows and Rebekahs everywhere, good night.

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