Editor’s Note: The Rev. Charles Van Ausdall has retired from the First Congregational Church of Great Barrington (see accompanying article). Below are his reflections on his life and his ministry:
Much of Pastor Van’s approach to the ministry — he calls himself an “old-school traditional Congregational Minister” — is influenced by his youth in the 1950s, which he views with a mixture of sepia-toned nostalgia and disappointment. He looks back fondly on the way America once viewed Sunday, he said, during a later wide-ranging interview.
“Churches were all packed,” he said. “It was all you could do on a Sunday. The minister had a captive audience. You couldn’t buy a car, or buy liquor. All the stores were closed. All you could do was go to church and then visit with relatives. We didn’t even play sports because we didn’t want to dirty our Sunday clothes. Fathers worked, moms kept house. Lines were drawn and everything was clear. When you got spanked, they put a telephone book in your pants so it wouldn’t hurt too much.
“Then again, segregation was rampant, and many of us were blind to all that. We didn’t know what was happening as teens. Our struggle was between Catholics and Protestants, between Germans, Italians, and the Irish.”
Church doctrine also differed. “If you married outside the church, you weren’t really married in the eyes of the church. If you committed suicide, you’d be buried outside of the area reserved for other members of the church, outside of the consecrated ground. Suicide was a mortal sin because there was no way you could recover from it, no way to confess and come back into the grace of the church. And if you had a disabled child you kept him at home.”
Pastor Van’s first unavoidable glimpse into racism came when he accepted a job ministering in the suburbs of St. Louis. “The sheriff knew I was from back East and warned me that if I had a black friend visiting, that I should call him and let him know. Otherwise he’d be arrested and that’d be an ‘embarrassment’ so I should just ‘call and let [him] know.’ When some black Christians attempted to attend our church, they were kept distracted while the white congregation left the church through another door.”
“At times, I saw that the church was for the well, not the sick, which is the opposite of what the bible says. Gays, people who divorced, recovering alcoholics, kids from reform school — they weren’t welcome. Back then churches were so crowded and full, that they could be discriminating about who they let in. Those were different times. It was a great time if you were a white Christian family, lived within the tribe and played by the rules.
“Today, we need to be cognizant of where the main body of members are. These are different times. Church attendance in parts of the country is way off because the church has floundered on a lot of these issues. Society has gotten ahead of us. The church has always been hung up on issues of sexuality. The Bible was written at a time when the institution of marriage wasn’t fully developed. To me it’s a record of centuries of social revolution. It’s the word of God, but man is in there, too.
“I’ve never doubted the existence of God, but I’ve had concerns with the church of being out of step. Would Jesus allow a homosexual in his church? Of course he would. If I’m out of step with the church, but in step with God, I’m okay. I’m divorced myself.”
Pastor Van arrived in Great Barrington divorced, and hasn’t remarried. “I wasn’t really good at marriage,” he explains. “At the time, I was very traditional and wanted my wife to stay at home.” He remains very close to his two sons and five grandkids.
When it comes to the church and ministering, Pastor Van says that “healing is the main thing. People go through so much hurt. If they don’t heal, then they’re in trouble. Healing, helping to heal, that’s what’s important.”