Volume 75, Number 44 | March 22 -28 2006

New Judson minister says job was made in heaven

By Albert Amateau

“I’ve always wanted to be at Judson. I longed for it in a very greedy way,” the Reverend Donna Schaper told The Villager in an interview last week at Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square South.

Her appointment as senior minister in January was in the 40-year tradition of progressive social activism and inclusion of Judson. “No place is as progressive — Judson occupies the edge of the spectrum,” she said.

From 2000 to 2005, Schaper ministered to the Coral Gables Congregational Church, a Florida church that has been transforming itself into a socially and theologically liberal congregation reminiscent of Judson.

“We were half gay, racially mixed and we boasted that we had as members all 600 liberal Cubans in Miami,” Schaper said. A congregation in transition, it was just right for Schaper except for one serious drawback. It required her husband, Warren Goldstein, chairman of the University of Hartford History Department, a weekly commute between Hartford and Miami, which he did for five years.

So Schaper and her family — two sons and a daughter are young adults — decided to move to Amherst, Mass., where the family had spent several years. She left her Florida post without a new job lined up. However, at about the same time, the senior ministry of Judson became vacant. “We got lucky in terms of timing,” she remarked.

Schaper also became deeply involved in the United Church of Christ’s “God is Still Speaking” campaign to bring people to church. A controversial 2001television commercial for the campaign that included two gay men was refused by CBS and NBC. Schaper said that CBS acknowledged in e-mail that the network declined the ad because it believed the Bush administration would view the ad as endorsing gay marriage.

“People of progressive faith are absolutely engaged in cultural battle with fundamentalism,” she observed, “and Judson has been fighting right-wing interpretation of the Gospel for years.” She is also puzzled by the rejection of evolution by some fundamentalists. “To me [evolution] is a pathway to God,” she observed.

Schaper’s installation as Judson’s senior minister is to take place March 26 at a ceremony following a procession of the congregation back into the historic 1890 building designed by Stanford White, on which an 11-month renovation was recently completed.

On April 30, a special program at Judson will feature a performance by a “Reunion Choir” composed of performers with connections to Judson. “We’re inviting those performers to come and sing an Al Carmines piece,” Schaper said. Performers who have been part of Judson programs may phone Chanelle Schaffer, the church’s music director, at 212-477-0351 or e-mail musicdirector@judson.org.

Founded by Edward Judson to honor his father, a Baptist missionary, the church later became affiliated also with the United Church of Christ, organized by Congregationalist churches.

Schaper, born in New York City, spent her childhood in Kingston, N.Y., where her father was a supervisor in a garment factory. “When I was 11 the company sent him to the South to train black women to use machines for plants that fled New York to escape labor unions,” Schaper said. “We lived in Camden, S.C., and he traveled around. But when he was 60, they fired him without a pension,” she recalled.

Schaper went to the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg, Pa., and then to the University of Chicago Divinity School. She was the first woman trained by the late Saul Alinsky, who organized urban development projects, and she served as executive director of the Urban Academy in Chicago.

A United Church of Christ minister for 30 years, Schaper has been part of the radical transformation of the denomination of the Pilgrim Fathers. “Congregationalists didn’t wear red to church. The color was associated with fallen women — ‘The Scarlet Letter’ — until 1828, when a minister’s wife wore a red sweater to church on Christmas. She played Christmas carols on the parish house piano too — It was noted with some alarm in church records,” Schaper said.

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