Mourning the Loss of George MacLeod: Most Assuredly & Absolutely No “Brady Bunch Dad”

GeorgeBy Oz Cole-Arnal, former professor emeritus at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary

George and Julie MacLeod have now both crossed the Jordan to rest and enjoy full and complete embrace with the God they served so faithfully and courageously this side of glory. And this very God so embodied in Yeshua bar Miriam/Joseph sided outrageously and gloriously with those discarded by our society—people of color, indigenous folk, immigrants, Hispanics, women, LGBTQ+, street folk, the homeless–indeed all the poor. But today I remember with tears the impact they had on my life. They were absolutely key in transforming me and wife “Bunny” (and ultimately our two guys by dint of attachment to us) from well-intentioned liberals, who believed naively that reasonable and calm discussion over time could solve all problems, into radicals determined to follow Christ through “thick and thin.”

As mentioned in my earlier piece on Julie, both of them were quite ready to take on local institutional racism, both inspiring “Bunny” and I to do the same. From our adult education group, after studying Doing the Truth, a study on Christian Ethics by Bishop James Pike, we decided that it was time to racially integrate our congregation by teaming up with nearby steel-town Midland’s prominent “black” congregation. Initially things went well via a pulpit exchange, followed by a coffee/tea and cookies event for adults from both churches and finally by a mixed worship service with a joint choir.

Then, as the saying goes—“the FIT hit the SHAN,” on a date easy to remember (April 4, 1968), when the assassination and martyrdom of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. rocked the nation. The outpouring of his blood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee not only radicalized “Bunny” and me, but even more important demonstrated both the cost of joining the movement as well as how deeply racism defined the American experience on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. Over the next year a handful of the members of Ohio View Lutheran Church (roughly 10%) rose to the occasion, by pursuing a “take-to-the streets” radicalism against the mostly covert racism of our local communities. And, no great surprise to either “Bunny” or me, it was George and Julie MacLeod who pushed and proded our congregation consistently in this effort. It was they who lead a handful of us local “whites” into Midland’s NAACP which helped our black neighbors take on the white political establishment.

We marched on Midland’s city hall, about seventy strong surrounded by gun-toting police both state and local, to demand that the city government integrate the local water-works, close down the segregated dance hall run by the mayor’s aunt and pressure the local bank to integrate its employees. From there we (especially under the bold leadership of the MacLeod team) fought segregated housing on the western edge of lily-white county seat Beaver, integrated our congregation’s youth group, protested the war in Vietnam both locally and in a mass march in Washington, DC), closed down yet another segregated dance hall at a local VFW and formed a cutting-edge group called the Lutheran Direct Action Committee (LDAC). When an anonymous caller threatened to burn our home and kill the three of us, including our oldest boy Bill (barely two years old), we turned to the MacLeods.

And, in the years to follow, we could count always on George and Julie to be there for and with us—whether during my graduate school days (1970-1973), my brief stint as a social worker in Meadville, Pennsylvania and during our first decade in Canada. In fact, I urge the reader to read yet another “Radical Discipleship” entry entitled “Celebrating the Resurrection—Pittsburgh Style” (posted this November 22nd), which I penned immediately after that event. Here yet again we joined George and Julie at yet another “Jesus on the Street” event.

Typical George Memories:

Confronting Raw Power on the Streets: Of course I could list numerous examples where George and I faced off the ugly and brutal side of establishment power in the form f baton-swinging police, but the one that comes immediately to mind was the second mass demonstration, of the so-called “Black Construction Coalition”, under the direction of lawyer Byrd Brown and Nate Smith, the working-class leader of this effort to integrate the Building Trade Unions against its de facto segregation policies. So there we sat while police taunted us with hateful grins and threatening billy-clubs daring us to move forward. And during this brazen threat our sit-in was succumbing to rocks and bottles hurled down upon us by construction workers putting together the United States Steel building via all-white labor. Since our “sit-in” protest was at the very front door of one of our prominent local Lutheran Churches, George, “grinning-imp” that he was suggested that surely an appropriate show of religious solidarity should involve that church’s opening of their washrooms to us and our protesting comrades. Made sense to me! So George and I banged on the door where we insisted on making our plea directly to senior pastor John Braughler. We made our case to him, so much so that he relented reluctantly. To this day I remember his cringed looks as so very many of us trooped into his pristine rest rooms, but I recall even more George’s grin though the entire process.

Taking on the Church Establishment:   Typically I’ve noticed over the years how, with rare exceptions, lay people defer to clergy, especially when said ordained folk represent the highest echelons of the ecclesiastical establishment. No grand surprise that George acted as if respect had to be earned. To put it bluntly, George believed firmly (as do I) that establishment ecclesiastics are guilty until proven innocent. When my ministry was on the line “officially” once again George was there for me. I cite two examples: 1) at the yearly synodical church assembly that was about to determine my fate (continued employment at the Ohio View congregation after our local church council voted 5-4 to terminate my pastorate) George as our lay delegate took the “mike” to defend my ministry stating with great clarity that any termination would be a capitulation to racism. During a post-meeting bar discussion, one of my pastoral colleagues proceeded to patronize George by telling him he didn’t understand how power operated, as well as instructing him on how to change his behavior. After said discourse was done, Gorge took a strip off him in no uncertain terms beginning with “You little “pip-squeek”, I was taking on the powers while you were still in diapers, etc., etc.” As soon as his interrogater could leave without any hint of “cowardly shame”, he hastened away. I remember so very well that while this young puffed-up pastor was holding forth I was internally cringing, knowing full well that George would take only so much BS before he would launch an appropriate rebuttal. 2) The other example brings an immediate smile to my face. This particular instance involved the official post-synodical visit to our congregational members to hear what they had to say about our Ohio View ministry, increasingly identified with the local civil rights movement. Led by Dr. William Hankey, our synodical president (today called bishop), a profoundly decent man, he and his colleagues were there to listen in order to discern whether I would remain as pastor with funding assistance from the wider church. After hearing from numerous supporters for our ministry (often with some timidity and continuing anxiety), George spoke up. He said, “So many of our members find Oz too radical.” Well, Dr. Hankey fell into George’s impish trap by stating that: “Yes, Mr. MacLeod, we are concerned with Oz’ radicalism.”   I could barely cover my grin, when George stated, “I don’t think he’s radical enough.”

Time to say “Good-Bye”: Good-Bye George for now! Do embrace Julie for all of us—especially for “Bunny”, for Bill and Brad & for me, dear, dear friend. You have been my teacher, leading me into the streets to meet that real “Christ of the poor and marginalized.” Even better you have been for virtually a half-century that “bon ami profound” that is embodied in the following quote—“a friend is one who walks in when the world walks out.” You tutored me in Christ’s street radicalism,, but even more you were there with me and always had my back. Good-bye, dear friend, for now! Adieu! A bientôt, j’espère!

                 Oz            

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