Last night I dreamed about a youth trip that didn’t turn out so well, but often I think about the scores of trips that I led (with the assistance of many helpers!!) that went better than I had any right to expect, and the first trip (led by others when I was seventeen) that set the stage for all of the rest. It was 1963, and a couple of Methodist minsters had a brainstorm that the Central Illinois Conference would send a bus-full of high school juniors and seniors to New York City and Washington, D.C., in January of 1964, to experience a seminar on religion and current events. With their plan, they were braver than I ever became, but I was privileged to be on the bus. This was entirely due to the benevolence of my pastor at the time, Rev. Glen Sims, and a generous older member of my congregation at Paxton Methodist Church, Gladys White. All of my expenses were paid.
Many of the teenagers on board that week knew each other from camps and youth fellowships, but we all got to know each other, and at least one became a friend for life. The bus travelled all day and night, and those couples who knew each other found not-so-quiet corners of the bus to expose their raging hormones during the long dark hours, but that was not me (or the aforementioned friend). I just noted the consternation of some of the adults who didn’t foresee this aspect of packing so many teens so closely together for so many hours.
We arrived in New York in time to attend worship and the site chosen was Marble Collegiate Church where Norman Vincent Peale was continuing to share his “power of positive thinking.” Peale’s center-stage style and the white-gloved, tuxedoed ushers made an impression. There, too, some of the adults had preferences in other directions that were fulfilled when we visited Riverside Church and the Interchurch Center, headquarters at the time of the National Council of Churches and several denominational offices, and a Methodist Church in Manhattan that sponsored many outreach services to needy people.
The next two days saw us spending time at the United Nations and the Church Center for the United Nations, where we heard presentations and engaged in discussions about current affairs involving church interests, especially the Conventions on Human Rights that were in the process of development. We stayed in small crowded rooms in a hotel just off Broadway, and we must have eaten somewhere, but, surprisingly for me and my appetite, I do not remember any food. I do remember our exposure to Charles Wells, a Pennsylvania Quaker who posted a newsletter to which I promptly subscribed until he retired years later and my subscription transferred to his compatriot , I. F. Stone.
We again boarded the bus for the shorter trip to Washington, D.C., where our itinerary took us on a tour of the White House and several sights—the Lincoln Memorial, of course—and we listened to church lobbyists at the Methodist center across the street from both Capitol and the Supreme Court. Desegregation, plans for the war on poverty under the new president, Lyndon Johnson, and international affairs in the Cold War were high on the agenda. We went across the street for a meaningful discussion with Illinois Senator Paul Douglass, who supported the U.N. Conventions, but did not see a path for their early approval, and another but less meaningful meeting with Senator Everett Dirksen, whose memorable words focused on his sympathy for us being there in winter and missing the cherry blossoms in bloom. The Soviet Embassy provided an interesting stop, and I was impressed with the many publications in English and the ambassador’s efforts to impress us with how friendly and progressive Russians could be. In the light snow of a gray afternoon, we visited Arlington Cemetery, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers, and freshly turned earth and eternal flame of President John F. Kennedy, whose efforts I had just begun to appreciate when he was assassinated.
I did not realize at the time how much of my world shifted during that week, how much larger it became, how many of my thoughts about church, state, national and international concerns began. We talked for a while as the bus turned toward Illinois, but mostly we slept. We were very tired.