Sunday, November 4, 2018

2018.11.04 Risky Grace: An Amazing Story of True-Grit Grace, Part I

We in 2018 live in a precarious time—a time of moral failure and moral awakening together. We feel vulnerable and confused, yet such feelings always precede radical change for the good.

The threat of climate change is real, scientifically validated, and, uninterrupted, as implacable as persistent and increasing social injustice—collapse of the social fabric of human interaction. In biblical language, we face the end of the world—apocalypse. It’s ironic that so many Americans reverence science as if it were God, while at the same time ignoring the easily verifiable wisdom of Science itself AND rejecting the idea of God whose grace enhances human gifts. Confusing times are times when risking one’s life, spiritual or biological, and the lives of many others is more urgent than ever. The Civil Rights Era was one such time. So is now.
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That’s a long preface to a very old story, a story of costly grace, a story my husband Dick told me years ago that stuck with me, because it was so wildly out of sync with expected behavior in the church, and beyond. The story reminds me once again that radical change happens, but never without risk, risk greater than a few risky comments or pushing the envelope occasionally. True-grit risk is: Do something unheard of in the name of God, with God’s help. 

On Friday, January 13, 1961, on the front page of the New York Times, just below the fold, appeared a black-and-white photo of The Rev. George F. Kempsell, Jr., rector of the Episcopal Church of St. James the Less, Scarsdale, New York, with the caption: “Scarsdale Parish Rector Limits Communion Due to Anti-Semitism.” The headline stated: “Youth Who Is Convert From Judaism Barred as Escort to Country Club Dance.”  The context was elitist and privileged. Kempsell’s action transcended the context—just like crucifixion being contextually run-of-the-mill in Jesus’s day, resurrection not so.

Kempsell had been upset that nineteen-year old Michael Cunningham Hernstadt, a young man whom he had baptized two years earlier, had been rejected as an unsuitable escort to the annual debutante Holly Ball at the Scarsdale Golf Club. On Sunday, January 8, Kempsell preached about the incident, explaining that a young woman in the parish withdrew from the Holly Ball when the dance’s subcommittee rejected her escort due to his “Jewish parentage.” Kempsell then asked his congregation to “face facts boldly,” to understand this: “If our Lord Jesus Christ had come back to earth in Scarsdale in time for the Holly Ball, he would not have been allowed to escort a young lady of this parish to that dance.” Then Kempsell rendered his judgment: “This is a sin against God and against a member of this congregation, and no one dares to come to the altar to receive the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ unless he repents himself of this sin, and is in love and charity with his neighbor, and intends to lead a new life, following the commandments of God and walking before him in his holy ways.”

So far the risk was in words. People could get fussed and curse their rector, maybe even leave the parish, grumbling as far as the parking lot—unless Kempsell followed through. Kempsell had publicly shamed many members of his congregation in an effort to call attention to a serious problem in the community: racial and religious bigotry. Would he excommunicate parishioners who were members of the Country Club where rules banned Jews? Would they repent? 

As Dick told me this story I hung on his every word. “Did he do it?  Did he actually excommunicate all those parishioners?”  (See the disciplinary rubrics regarding Excommunication in the Book of Common Prayer, p.409. It’s scary stuff, never taken lightly!)

“Damn right he did!” said Dick. “But not of course before he let his Bishop in on it.” Horace W.D. Donegan, Bishop of New York for ten years and himself a civil rights activist, had called for the church to recognize its “sins of segregation.” He supported Kempsell. A group of parishioners paid the bishop a visit requesting that he “call off” Kempsell. Donegan refused.

“When I was at General Seminary in New York,” Dick told me, “we were all given this story as a model of Christian behavior, and hoped to hell we’d never have to do such a thing.”

But I thought Dick was so lucky to have church heroes with true voice and courage—grit.

Kempsell was no fool. He knew the dangers. He knew the hell that this action could unloose. He knew that Scarsdale was one of the wealthiest towns in the world’s wealthiest nation. He knew that previous rectors had turned down the Scarsdale Golf Club’s honorary membership, because it was an open secret that the club discriminated against non-Protestants. He knew that he had himself enjoyed dinners at the club. He knew he might have to leave this parish that he and his family loved and where he’d been the rector since 1953.  He also knew his choices could alienate parishioners at a time when record levels of growth in church membership strengthened both vitality and viability of parishes. However, the choice to remain silent and ignore social injustices was an option Kempsell found intolerable.

George French Kempsell, Jr. grew up in Glen Cove, New York. He was a dynamic person who spoke several languages, played tennis, and was an accomplished musician on his way to becoming a concert pianist when he received his vocational calling in the Episcopal Church. His father was the son of English house servants and may very well have worn a “robin’s egg blue” chauffeur’s uniform, like the one Fitzgerald described in The Great Gatsby. His mother headed up the household staff for the French family. Mrs French admired the Kempsells so much she built a cottage for them, and Mrs. Kempsell gave her son George a middle name of French.  George paid his way through Hamilton College and New York Theological Seminary by playing the organ at local churches. He married a piano teacher Ruth Archibald in 1946. They had six children: five sons, including a set of twins, and one daughter, during the 1950s.

I was growing up in Darien, Connecticut in the 1950s and still remember the jokes about railroad conductors who lowered their voices in mock deference when calling out the sacred stop of Scarsdale, saying: Sc-aaahz-dale. Darien itself, along with other shore towns, got a reputation for being one of the towns in which realtors, by “gentlemen’s agreement” tacitly refused to show homes to Jews. And the broadway show, “Auntie Mame,” had a reference in one of its songs, written by Jewish lyricist, Jerry Herman, about the “Aryan from Darien.” Even as a teen I’d shrink, and that was before I found out my mother’s father was Jewish. No wonder she didn’t tell us. 

Kempsell had failed to convert the son of Irving Moscovitz, board member of the Westchester Orchestral Society, but he did better with Michael Hernstadt. Kempsell perhaps had a slight overdose of Christian zeal, but it was the fifties after all. Hernstadt, nevertheless, had never been Jewish in the sense that he did not practice his religion. His father was Jewish and his mother Roman Catholic. They told Michael to choose his own religion. He became an Episcopalian and at seventeen was baptized by Kempsell. 

Apparently, according to Scarsdale’s Holly Ball Committee, Hernstadt’s Jewish pedigree had more weight than his W.A.S.P. pedigree—or his Episcopal one. I’d nominate Kempsell for sainthood, but then I have no voice in such matters. I can, however, remember Kempsell’s saintly grit nearly sixty years later, declare him a Saint on my soul’s calendar, and blog about him on All Saints Sunday.

Would privilege and power win the day against the Christian prophetic action of George Kempsell—and if so, what would happen to Kempsell?  See Part II of this story in next week’s blog post:11/11/2018.

(I am indebted for some of this research to Thomas Quirk, who grew up in Scarsdale in 1953-1961, and now is a teacher of high school English in Lexington, Massachusetts.)