An Unlikely Friendship
A very unlikely friendship began when I was a student at UMASS Boston in the 1970s. Dr. John Dickinson was my teacher for three courses in Sociology—all of which challenged my thinking. Books on how society can “blame the victim” or theories that “people will not act in a mob against their own beliefs” made me think more deeply about how society and culture are formed. Dr. Dickinson eventually revealed to me that he was an atheist, and he struggled with depression. That said, he was very supportive of my journey in faith, and he even would read all of my papers that I prepared for ordination to examine them from a sociological position. We exchanged many letters over the span of about thirty years, and I was honored to be invited to lunch at his home with his lovely wife, Lenore. They even visited with Andy and me in our home in Maine.
Our conversations were deep, and his intellectual brilliance was often beyond my ability to comprehend—but he would patiently listen to me and share with me his thoughts. When I went through rough times in the ordination process, he would point out that the cultural and sociological barriers I faced were normal for a woman in Virginia from the North who was formerly Catholic. He encouraged me not to give up.
When Andy and I were invited to attend his 90th birthday, he was in the later stages of Alzheimer’s disease, however when we arrived, he seemed to remember me and invited me to sit by him.
We made small talk, and I could see that his friends were puzzled that he had anything in common with Andy and me. Lenore was most gracious and assured us that we were welcome. She appreciated that I would tell her husband how I used what I learned from his method of teaching. As we were preparing to leave, Dr. Dickinson held my hand and said, “The church is am important institution. Society needs churches and people of faith.” Then he smiled and we went on our way. I woke up this morning with this memory on my heart. I think his message to me was not just for me. The church is much more than a place for like minded people to gather. Churches will help many people through days of crisis without any need to be compensated and without asking if the person each church helps believes as each church does. Dr. Dickinson supported me when some people of faith did not. Dr. Dickinson never doubted that a God in whom he did not believe would help a young woman he taught. We need to embrace each other, not because we hold the same beliefs; we need to embrace each other because we can learn from everyone. Each of us needs to be open to listening to each other.