“Among the Cloud of Witnesses: David O. Rankin”  by Mark W. Harris

 First Parish of Watertown – February 10, 2019

 Opening Words – “Believing” by David O. Rankin

 I believe in the Holy,

                 lifting, sustaining,

                 among us, within us,

                 around us.

I believe in Living,

              with a song to sing,

              in awe, in adoration,

              out of joy, out of praise.

I believe in Loving,

              in intimate communion,

              of gentle compassion,

              and the giving of roses.

I believe in Seeking,

              daring to explore,

              doubting without fear,

              cautious in certainties.

 I believe in Prophecy,

              the spirit of outrage,

              clapping like thunder,

              healing the world.


Responsive Reading – “What Do Unitarian Universalists Believe?” by David O. Rankin

 We believe in the freedom of religious expression. All individuals should be encouraged to develop their own personal theologies, and to present openly their religious opinions without fear of censure or reprisal.

We believe in the toleration of religious ideas. All religions in every age and culture, possess not only intrinsic merit, but also potential value for those who have learned the art of listening.

We believe in the authority of reason and conscience. The ultimate arbiter in religion is not a church, nor a document, nor an official, but the personal choice and decision of the individual.

We believe in the never-ending search for Truth. If the mind and heart are truly free and open, the revelations that appear to the human spirit are infinitely numerous, eternally fruitful, and wondrously exciting.

We believe in the unity of experience. There is no fundamental conflict between faith and knowledge, religion and the world, the sacred and the secular, since they all have their source in the same reality.

We believe in the worth and dignity of each human being. All people on earth have an equal claim to life, liberty and justice – and no idea, ideal, or philosophy is superior to a single human life.

We believe in the ethical application of religion. Good works are the natural product of a good faith, the evidence of an inner grace that finds completion in social and community involvement.

We believe in the motive force of love. The governing principle in human relationships is the principle of love, which always seeks the welfare of others and never seeks to hurt or destroy.

We believe in the necessity of the democratic process. Records are open to scrutiny, elections are open to members, and ideals are open to criticism – so that people might govern themselves.

We believe in the importance of a religious community. The validation of experience requires the confirmations of peers, who provide a critical platform along with a network of mutual support.

 Reading -“Tea and Cookies”

 When would they ask the questions? We were sitting in the living room of a beautiful home on a Sunday afternoon. It had been the headquarters for George Washington during the meeting of the Second Continental Congress. Antiques were everywhere.  When would they ask the questions? We were sipping tea and eating cookies in a small circle around the fire place. All of the people were old New Englanders – members of a Ministerial Search Committee. I was seeking my first position. When would they ask the questions? We were discussing the home, the weather, and the history of the town. One of the members fell asleep in her chair. For the next two hours it was tea and cookies, polite conversation, silence, and an occasional snore from the chair. When would they ask the questions? Finally, as the shadows lengthened on the wall, the Chairman put his cup on the table. They all put their cups on the table. He said: “We would be pleased to have you as our minister.” I said: “I would be pleased to be your minister.” Never under estimate the sipping of tea.

 2ndReading: “Smile Mrs. Wright – Wherever You Are!”

Source: Portraits From the Cross, A UUA Meditation Manual, 1978

I was standing in the reception line following a service early in my ministry, when she approached with her hand extended. She said: “Mr. Rankin, I have attended this church for 70 years. I have never laughed in the sanctuary. I was taught not to laugh in church. Today, I laughed. Good day.” They were the words of a strong-willed Puritan woman, who often disagreed with the conduct of my ministry. But was it not a significant event? Perhaps I had touched some hidden spring, or stirred some primordial feeling or broken some pattern she had secretly detested. Perhaps she was saying: “Thank you for the life in this old church; thank you for the spirit in this old service; thank you for the laughter in this old body.” Or perhaps she recognized that an era was over. That the somber, rigid, disciplined religion of her ancestors had ended – and that a whole new era was about to begin. Who knows the complexities of the heart? In any event, she smiled more frequently in the years ahead – and asked that I speak at her grave.

Meditation – “Winter”  from Dancing in the Empty Spaces,  UUA Meditation Manual, 2001

 I refuse to wish away the winter.

It is a glorious season of the year and not simply prelude to spring.

            The winter air is pure and refreshing.

            The winter sky has a clarity and brilliance at night.

            The winter trees are penciled in the dawn and sunset

            The winter birds give shows of strength and endurance.

            The winter fields hide rare and mysterious truths.

            The winter winds sweep friends and family together.

            The winter snow invites fun, sport and play.

            The winter ice calls for skill and alertness.

            The winter cold inspires hugs and cuddling.

            The winter needs elicit gifts and sharing.

            The winter silence assists in thought and meditation.

            The winter kitchen has deeper smells and finer tastes.

            The winter fog and darkness stir joy and merry making

I refuse to wish away the winter.

It is a season rich in meaning and pregnant with the colossus of hope.



The name David Rankin was legendary among Unitarian Universalist ministers in the late twentieth century.  Yet, I don’t think we have ever met face to face. It is odd because when I traveled to the West Coast for seminary he was serving the First Unitarian Church of San Francisco, but I never went to church there because I was always serving as an intern elsewhere.   Oddly enough I have met his wife Virginia or Ginger, who was a guest lay preacher in Davis one Sunday, but he was not with her. Years have passed, but our paths never have at GA or at UUA.   I don’t know him, and yet I feel as though I do.  I know him because I have always admired his writing, that is generously flavored with personal stories and great humor. He comes across as very real and never pedantic or fake. He was also an athlete, an outstanding schoolboy basketball player.  He feels like a friend.

Long before he became one of the leading Unitarian Universalist preachers, David O. Rankin knew first hand what a hard scrabble existence was.  His parents, Oran and Reba (George) Rankin came from McKeesport, Pennsylvania, where Oran spent his work life toiling in a steel mill. Beginning with U.S. Steel as a waterboy at the age of 16 to support his mother and sister, the elder Rankin remained there for 44 years. David, born on June 10, 1937, was one of three sons. When he wasn’t playing basketball, Rankin worked in the summer at the steel mill as a sweeper, laborer, and driller.  He wrote lovingly of his working class father in the sermon, “Honor thy Father.”  He told his college educated son once that people don’t care about your intellectual theories. “They want you to be reliable. They want you to be honest. They want you to be fair. They may even want you to be brave.  But a theory and a nickel will not even get you a cup of coffee.” Rankin, repeats the line, “I never knew him well,” but juxtaposes that with details of the life of this tough and hard workingman who never uttered an unkind word against minority people, and was devoid of male chauvinism, treating women with great respect. The man he never knew very well, and his mom gave Dave all the tools he needed for a life of great achievement and meaning.  

After growing up in PA, Rankin became, in the words of his father, the God damn college kid, who graduated from Westminster College with a B. A. in 1959. He received an M.A. from the University of Idaho in 1961, and became a political science instructor at Cornell College in Iowa. He was unhappy with academia, partly because he didn’t want to be confined by one disciple, and wanted “more depth in teaching and in dealing with people of all ages.” He felt the ministerial call and enrolled at the Tufts University School of Religion, and received a B.D. in 1965.

Then the Watertown legend began. This was the first church settlement that Rankin was called to serve, and he remained only three years. What is clear especially from today’s readings is that he chose what appeared to be a declining, dying small congregation. I have heard people say that there were 20 members at most. The church building next door, built in 1842, was rotting and creaking, and a stray cat once gave birth in the pulpit. Somehow he breathed life into the old parish with his charismatic style.  We also know that most of the congregation was old. Rankin tells us that in the search committee interview, “One of the members fell asleep in her chair. “  Old and dying, and like Mrs. Wright in our other reading, unwilling to laugh in church or see the church change its style to attract new people. That is until David Rankin came along.  The larger than life myth is that Rankin went door to door here in Watertown asking people to come to church. He somehow convinced the unchurched that something was happening here that deserved their attention. And so the ex-Catholics, the Muslim, the atheists all began to walk through the doors to hear this young man preach a liberal message like you heard in the responsive reading – freedom of expression, and the importance of the search for truth. It worked, at least for the three years he was here, and perhaps if the people kept on inviting others to embrace this liberal faith, it would have continued to work.  And yet, as we all know, six years after he left, the congregation tore down the old Gothic edifice next door, and moved here. And while it may sound like defeat, tearing down the church, saved the church.

So the first historic challenge of Rankin’s ministry is whether we will invite others to share our faith. Will we tell others to come to our church because we have something good here, or do we keep our light under a bushel, like Unitarians of a bygone age? The other legend of Rankin’s time here has to do with the parsonage where my family lives now, and his belief in justice for all.  In the sermon, “A Fugitive in My Attic,” Rankins tells how in July 1968 a young man knocked on his church office door.  The 19 year old was nervous and mentally confused, dressed in soiled clothing with unkempt hair and beard stubble. Mostly in tears, he related how he had enlisted in the Marine corps because he had no other obvious options for his life. But military life had become a disaster, and he had gone AWOL. Rankin helped young Jim sort out what he should do with his life – surrender to authorities, or flee to another country.  He stayed for three days in the parsonage, gaining the trust and friendship of the Rankin family.  Ginger Rankin remembers his last day: “Around midnight we woke him. I handed him a peanut butter and jam sandwich wrapped in wax paper, and an apple. A car waited outside. We watched as he slowly moved away. The car would take him to the Canadian border where he would be met by yet another member of the underground railway.”   He was the first of 300 fugitives that David came to know. It became a modern underground railroad for draft resisters. He provided counseling, food, clothing and shelter, and organized a group called Parents Opposed to the War (POW).  Rankin recalled the abolitionists of 100 years before who defied the authority of the state. He started what he called a conspiracy of love for modern victims of war.

During these early years in Watertown, and then New Bedford, Rankin became involved in social justice work in addition to draft counseling, including drug rehabilitation, prison reform, and work with senior citizens.  In 1971 while serving in New Bedford (1969-1973), he received the Clarence R. Skinner Award for the best Unitarian Universalist social action sermon, “The Salvation of New Bedford.”  In UUA files at Harvard,  there is a Rankin sermon called  “Even Sinners Lend to Sinners” from 1972. In the early months of 1971, a Community Assistance Project was established in New Bedford, with a bail fund so that poor people did not have to spend time in jail simply because they were poor. Rankin found other churches were unresponsive.  The Catholics declaring they would have to study the matter. Rankin wrote: “What else is religion? Is it not concern for the poor and afflicted? Is it not to relieve pain and suffering? Is it not to care for all God’s children – for all sorts and conditions of men [and women]? Is it not to be in the streets, the alleys, the homes, the bars, the jails? Is it not risking oneself in the service of others? I mean really walking that extra mile.  What else is religion?” (“Even Sinners Lend to Sinners,”  p.  7)

While serving in Watertown, Rankin became aware that there were unspoken assumptions in UU circles about where churches should grow and flourish. Urban industrial places filled with immigrant populations, or persons of color were not seen as likely successes for the historically white, upper middle class well educated Unitarians. This was the time of white flight to the suburbs so that the cities were abandoned.  Even when UU ministers applied to the UUA for jobs, the ministerial survey asked the question would you serve an urban church, as if it were some kind of alien unfriendly place to practice ministry.   In an editorial called “The Cry They Do Not Hear, ”  Rankin reacted to the UUA’s Committee on Goals report which stated that extension efforts should be targeting the suburbs. He wrote: “Unitarian-Universalists have done everything possible to discourage inner-city ministries and inner-city churches.”  Becoming an inspiration for my later work on classism, Rankin went on: “The denomination has a very strong class orientation that cannot be concealed behind such phrases as “emerging religious liberalism and “universal free faith.”  What was universal about it? Rankin said that “a profound class prejudice . . .has always characterized Unitarians.”   The old social superiority of the New England Yankee has been superseded by the social exclusiveness of the wealthy, well educated suburbanites. Segregation then, segregation now.  Will it be segregation forever?  This was a narrow church, Rankin proclaimed, how can it “be expected to develop broad sympathies and understanding.”  He challenged the Committee to consider the implications of these goals.  Will we live out the full potential of Unitarian Universalism?  He gave us all a  challenge for the future of our free faith. 

Rankin left the confines of New England in 1973 when he was called to serve the First Unitarian Church in San Francisco, California, where he remained until 1979.  During this time he published a sermon collection, So Great a Cloud of Witnesses(1978). He was also the author of the annual denominational meditational manual in 1978, Portraits From the Cross.  The San Francisco church has always been a challenge.  The story that used to circulate at Starr King was about the person with mental illness who arrived at the church for service, and walked down the center aisle with a gas can and matches in hand ready to ignite the historic structure. So much of David’s ministry was helping the derelict, holding the hand of the ill and counseling the troubled. Perhaps the most troubled soul he encountered was Jim Jones, head of the People’s Temple, and the progenitor of the mass suicide in Guyana. Rankin chronicled this in his Berry Street Essay of 1981, “A Silent Witness to Evil.” acknowledging the agony of human life. In that essay, he said he identified with the frightened Jonah from the Bible. “In the ministry I learned to cry. Weeping not only for the pain of others, though that was difficult enough for a male in the middle 20thcentury; but also for the hurts and wounds of my own life, which like Jonah I had tried to escape.  It is good to cry. Even the tears of frustration.  It is the highest form of confession.” 

He did not forget his time in Watertown.  He maintained friendships here and wrote in his Berry Street essay that after he moved from San Francisco to Atlanta, he received a phone call from his friend.  “We talked about the old days in Watertown, the health of our families, the opportunity to meet again. The man’s sister had been part of the People’s Temple, and near the end of their conversation, Rankin asked, “’How is your sister? Is she okay? . . “  “Oh, she left the temple. She’s living in Ohio.” Thank heaven! I sighed to myself, there were those who escaped.’ ”  In their correspondence with me the Rankins recalled their lifeon Marshall Street. Ginger said, “A great memory was that in those three years we adopted two more babies to add to our three year old, Mark, so we certainly had a full house!  Our last Christmas Eve in Watertown I remember scrambling them altogether and making it to the church on time to have them all dedicated by their dad.She concluded, “David has always thought of First Parish as the most significant church he served. I agree.”And David himself adds: “I think of it as the most meaningful of my ministries.”

The People’s Temple experience brought on a crisis of faith, and Rankin says that for two years he “thought deeply about the profession of ministry. Is this my calling? Can I really help people?”  He said he had assumed a knowledge of the real world having come from a steel mill town, but Jonestown revealed his ignorance of how much evil was possible. Yet he found in the wake of this challenge that he was newly committed to ministry. Following his ministry in San Francisco Rankin served what was then the largest Unitarian Universalist church; Atlanta, Georgia.  Then for the last 16 years of his active ministry, he served an independent liberal church, the Fountain Street Church, in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  His assistant minister in San Francisco, Diane Miller, characterized his ministry as a blend of contrasts:

“You combine the manner of a humble cleric with the worldly sophistication of an urban scholar.

You have the work ethic of a nineteenth century Calvinist along with a zany playfulness of the Marx brothers.

You practice the discipline of daily meditation and emerge full of the renegade ideas of a free thinker.

You hold to Christian Faith but let go of self-righteous pieties.

You have an inviolate sense of privacy, yet reveal from the pulpit the deeply personal core of your life.

You espouse the ideals of faith and the religious tradition, fully understanding human frailty.

You are biting and harsh in your condemnation of the evils of our time, while compassionate in your dealings with every human being.”

You may have noticed the reference to holding a Christian faith. Rankin has always considered himself a UU Christian, and was the author of the pamphlet, “Confessions of a Unitarian Universalist Christian.”  It often feels like a confession when explaining this faith among a roomful of UUs, who as Rankin explains will listen to a dry intellectual, an Eastern guru, a chic revolutionary, but a Christian?  This is too personal, too threatening, and too close for some. All tolerance is forgotten. He tells the stories of a search committee who reacted to his confession that he was Christian by saying, “well, maybe we won’t have to tell anyone.” And another congregation in Philadelphia where he preached a sermon and then arrived in social hour to find a man screaming and pounding on a table, “We have a free pulpit in this church, and we don’t want any of that Christian garbage.”  Yet this is where Rankin found his faith, saying “I would identify a Christian as a person who demonstrates their love of God and the world through the example of their life.” Thinking of the man Jesus as a protestor, a heretic, a third world resident, a hipster, a radical, a hero, and a martyr, Rankin followed the example of the theologian Kierkegaard who said, “we never become a Christian – we are always in the process of becoming.”  Even though he rejected the church of his youth, and rejected church altogether for a time, Rankin returned to remember with affection, his former home, and to carve a new faith from what he had abandoned. “Out of the emptiness and despair of the secular world, out of the weariness and boredom of daily routine, out of the desire and the need to relate to community; out of the wonder and the mystery of my own existence,” he returned. He said his reality is the original Jesus: to arouse the indolent, the dull and the conventional with freedom, truth and love.

David Rankin preaches a “Good News”, which is the Christian message, but was also the title of a sermon he gave about his experience here in Watertown. He came here when the church was on the edge of virtual collapse.  When he returned in 1992 to conduct Polly Everett’s memorial service he wrote about her and her husband Walter, who was chair of the search committee which drank the tea and had the sleeping member.  He said he had good memories of supportive and strong-willed people, who kept the church alive when it was nearly gone. Walter had ordained him into the ministry, administering the oath. “He is to blame for everything,” Rankin said.  But the church Polly and Walter labored for was nearly defunct in 1966. At that time Rankin said the old church stood like a gray ghost on a knoll behind the square. The boards were cracked and broken, and the steeples leaned in the wind. Twelve to fourteen people were present, and the church school had three pupils. “Their thoughts could only linger on the past as they sensed their history was soon to end. “ He compared this congregation with other urban churches. Yes, some of it was demographics, but there was also “poor leadership, untrained ministers, congregational conservatism and inflexibility. Limited vision. Despair. Lack of denominational sympathy and support. An anti-city bias. An irrelevant theology. Inadequate programs And the list can go on and on.”  He says there were no professional or institutional standards here.  He went on to talk of the lack of committee structure, newsletter, fundraising drive. “Nearly every aspect of church life had disintegrated.” It was,” he said, “like starting from the very beginning.”

He had a plan, but his dream of starting exciting new church programs was ludicrous. Ambitious plans gave way to reality. What did he do?  He was more devoted to saving this institution than I ever could have imagined. He writes: “For an entire year I walked the streets and sidewalks, distributing literature to 6,000 families, talking to hundreds of people, simply trying to make them aware that there was a Unitarian church in town. “  He recalled the old prejudices of missionary efforts, but the idea of a church that should exist only for the people who went to it was not going to work. “It was convert or perish.”  . . . “And the people came.” One or two, then more. But moreover, they wanted to participate and give time and energy.  They wanted to paint, and buy furniture. They wanted a newsletter. They wanted something for their kids. They wanted adult education. They wanted a faith. All kinds of people came .  Would it last?  Will it last? Is it just about you, and fulfilling your needs?  The good news is in spreading the word. Do we have a sense of mission? Are we going to be inner focused or find a vision for what we can be in the community? The challenge is still before us. Do you see what happens when young families invite other families in?  We grow. We reverberate with life.  When we gaze at ourselves our boards creak and paint peels.  David Rankin’s energy still lives in the bones and marrow of this church. Let the good news of your faith catch fire, and spread the word. Do something for others. Make a difference in your community. Make it an exciting place. Make it a great church. Will the ancient parish last 400 years?  450?  David Rankin concluded his sermon “Good News,” I cannot tell you how it will end. The good news is in the effort, the quest, the adventure. I pray there is no end.”

Closing Words –   “Conclusion“ by David O. Rankin  

So let me tell you of a lesson I have learned in the ministry:

I have learned not to take my position too seriously. Or my image too seriously.

Or myself too seriously.  I have learned that the most important item in the religious community is the people of the religious community. And I have learned that the real church can be defined as the most intimate relationships.

How we smile and trust each other.

            How we talk and touch each other.

            How we share and protect each other.

            How we welcome new friends and forgive old enemies.

            How we love each other – in all the myriad ways that love can be expressed.

            That is the church!”


 So Great A Cloud of Witnessesby David O. Rankin.  San Francisco: Strawberry Hill press, 1978.

“Guest Editorial: The Cry They Do Not Hear,” by David Rankin, Unitarian Christian, Vol. 23/No.3 Fall 1967.

UUA Communications Department, Correspondence: Rankin, David O. “Even Sinners Lend to Sinner, 1972,  Andover Harvard Theological Library, bMS 1062-6.  On pp. 5-6 Rankin adds:

“But the most galling pill to swallow is the clergy. Who tell me they are not interested in social reform. Who tell me it is too controversial. Whom tell me they will lose church members. Who tell me they will not lift a finger to help “those people.” I have heard it all. It is the ultimate frustration.”


“A Letter to a Colleague” by Diane Miller, March 18, 1979, San Francisco, manuscript collection of David and Virginia Rankin.

“His Name was Jim,” by Virginia Rankin, manuscript collection of David and Virginia Rankin

“Good News,” by David O. Rankin, A sermon given at the First Parish in Lexington, MA, March 24, 1968. Collection of the First Parish of Watertown.

Additional Bio:

During his later years in the ministry he has published, Theology Through Humor,My Ending is My Beginning, and in 2001, another denominational meditation manual, Dancing in The Empty Spaces.  Rankin has also served the denomination in a number of capacities. He has been a board member for the Starr King School (where he also taught homiletics), and served on the Unitarian Universalist Task Force on Urban Ministry.  He has also maintained strong community involvement wherever he has ministered. He has served on the national board of Planned Parenthood and also been involved in fair housing, bail bond reform, prison chaplaincy, ERA Georgia, abortion rights, gay and lesbian rights and suicide prevention.  He is married to Virginia or Ginger (Minor) Rankin, and they have three children,  Mark, Oran and Jean and four grandchildren. In retirement, they live in Moscow, Idaho (Salt Lake City?).  In 1998-99, he briefly served the Unitarian Church in Auckland, New Zealand. Rankin is also the author of a popular wallet card, “What Do UUs Believe.”