Does History Just Happen?
Distinguished Alumnus Address by Dan B. Genung July 1993
Distinguished Alumnus Address by Dan B. Genung
Dan B. Genung (1938) received the Distinguished Alumnus Award at the Disciples Divinity House Luncheon at the General Assembly meeting in St. Louis. He was commended “For your outstanding contributions to the ministry of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) as a pastor of grace and prophet of justice; for your lifelong commitment as a pioneer in an ecumenical and multi-ethnic church and your vision in establishing the All Peoples Christian Church and Center; for your service as a counselor and reconciler on the front lines of social action; for your clear expression of truth and beauty in poetry and prose; and for your untiring commitment to others and your unceasing prayer before God.”
Alumni/ae Council President J. Marshall Dunn introduced him:
“Dan Baldwin Genung was born in Prescott, Arizona, in 1915. By the time he was ten years old, he had a colorful past: he spent five years in a mining camp town and five years on a ranch. Dan became a journalism major at the University of Arizona and in 1938 he graduated with honors. He then went east, all the way to Chicago, where he spent five years as a Disciples Divinity House and the University of Chicago earning the A.M. and B.D. degrees. He was ordained as a Disciples minister in 1940. During his years at the House, Dan claims to have regularly beat Art Azlein in ping pong, but in a letter to me also recalled that quite a few onlookers saw Art and Dick Golden clobber Riley Pittman and him ‘one sad Sunday afternoon.’
“In 1942 Dan married Frances Ulrich and went to work establishing the All Peoples Christian Church and All Peoples Christian Center in the gang-ridden district of south-central Los Angeles. Cathedral Films based a motion picture on the Genungs’ fourteen year ministry there. In 1979 the Christian Church in Southern California presented Dan with the Martin Luther King Jr Award for his contributions to human relations. All Peoples named its newest building ‘The Dan B. Genung Family Service Center.’
“From 1956-70, Dan served two more Disciples congregations in southern California, First Christian Church of Oceanside and Foothill Christian Church in La Crescenta. In 1970 he began service to the Mount Hollywood United Christian Church. He retired from there in 1984.
“Dan stands out as very different from most of his Chicago colleagues in that he is truly humble and is humorous. Let me quote from his response to my letter notifying him of his selection as our Distinguished Alumnus: ‘At the Des Moines Assembly a sermon I preached on World Peace Sunday received first place from the Disciples Peace Fellowship. Ron Osborne, whom I greatly admire, was second. I felt like a high school sophomore winning a beauty contest with Elizabeth Taylor.’ Dan goes on, ‘one other distinction: in the fifth grade I was a semi-finalist in a marbles contest. Have you ever won such an honor?’
“One of Dan’s most recent joys and accomplishments was the 1992 publication of his book, Death in His Saddlebags: A History of Arizona. It is a biography of his grandparents’ lives from 1863-1916 and he especially tries to do justice to the Yavapai people and to pioneer women. Typical of Dan Genung, he receives no profit from the sale of his book but gives the proceeds to two great causes, Habitat for Humanity and the Disciples Divinity House.
“Sadly, standing and walking are very painful for Dan now. His doctor ordered a hip replacement which Dan has put off until August so he could be with us today and do several other things important to him.
“Dan, how I wish I had known you years ago. You are an inspiration to all of us, but especially those who serve in congregations. Your commitment to Christ’s church, your love for people, your passion for justice, and your lifelong quest as a scholar make you an absolutely perfect choice as this year’s Distinguished Alumnus of the Disciples Divinity House. It is a privilege to introduce you and to be able to present you with this well deserved honor.”
I do not mind admitting that I am as thrilled as a kindergartener to receive this honor. I thank the Alumni/ae Council. I am sure that Dennis Savage twisted arms on my behalf. Forty-eight years ago I introduced Dennis to a dynamic college girl named Mary Lou; he has been trying to repay me ever since!
You are being loaded, probably overloaded, with wisdom through addresses, sermons, and presentations this week. Therefore, I will share only a few stories with you. I have noted that while often young pastors take notes at convocations, many veterans sit like drawn carcasses in a refrigerator plant, springing to life only if they hear a new joke or a fresh sermon illustration. My hope is to keep you fifty-year plus folks unfrozen!
If I were to begin with a text, it would be Matthew 4.34: “All this Jesus said to the crowd in parables, indeed, he said nothing to them without a parable.”
There are two periods of life when you know it all: first, when you have just finished seminary and, second, when you have retired. I have been deprived of both opportunities.
Fran and I were married many years ago in the Chicago Theological Seminary chapel. Afterward, we packed our goods in a Plymouth coupe which we delivered to a used car dealer in California. When we arrived in Los Angeles, five youngsters helped us unload the car. One was a five year old Chinese boy with a cleft palate. Several months later, that boy and his sister became our entire congregation. Fifty years later, Leo is both a physician and an attorney at law and comes back to 20th Street to give medical examinations for children so they can go to camp.
Two Armenian brothers helped us unpack that Plymouth. One was eight year old Sammy, whose hand-me-down trousers dragged on the sidewalk. Sammy and his brothers now own three blocks of factory buildings. Sammy’s shopping center, a block from All Peoples, was completely destroyed in the riots las may. But that will not stop Sammy, now Sam Makhanian, business man and a member of the All Peoples Christian Center Board.
Yet the question remained: how could I display my vast theological knowledge to these youngsters? Or to the dozens who came to play football and basketball on our playground? Or after the Zoot Suit Riots broke out the following February and dozens of gang members came to our facilities, calling All Peoples “the hideout,” how could I share my wisdom with them? We did our best to keep them busy, stood guard after closing time, hoped and prayed.
After two and one-half years, we began worship services. Twenty-two persons received communion. In four years, the church was organized with forty-six charter members. Now that I had an audience, I no lnger knew it all.
My favorite story from the work at All Peoples is of the nursery sandbox, which has appeared in a number of publications. Last week a United Methodist minister raved to me about the mileage he had achieved out of that story. Do you remember? I had ordered a truckload of sand for the large nursery sandbox. The driver dumped it in the alley. While I was wondering where I could borrow a wheelbarrow, Chinese and Japanese and Korean and African American and pale-faced children, unconscious of race, sang happily and moved that truckload—a mountain of sand—using sandbox buckets and dozens of little painted cans. A joyous singing faith can move mountains. You can hunt up the scripture.
But after retirement—the second chance to know it all. What happened?
Consider my problem: We live at a retirement community for missionaries and religious workers. How can I show off my vast knowledge of theology when I am at a table with John Coleman Bennett or John Cobb? Or of the Bible with scholars as David Napier? Or of the Disciples, with T. J. Liggett and Les McAllister seated on either side?
Moreover, on retiring I began to live in the last century. For years I had wanted to tell the truth about the Yavapai Indians of Arizona, who had been forced into a culture not their own, with the enemy, the Apache. I plunged into writing a history of Arizona territory based on my grandfather’s memoirs. Life among the Yavapai from 1863 to 1916 sounded too dull for a title, so I chose instead Death in His Saddlebags. Death persisted on Charlie Genung’s trail.
But it is a little difficult to work that knowledge into a table conversation. Even though over forty members of the community have bought my book, some getting extra copies for gifts, they seldom ask,” Who was that mountain man who told the Mohave to shout ‘Hooray for Dixie!’ as peace words” or “what were those swear words he taught your grandmother when she was a child?”
Let me challenge you with a question: how does history happen? Consider the two following illustrations.
An undersized Chinese high schooler, proud of his nickname, Gremlin, came regularly to our playground. He slept in a room behind his father’s café, supposedly on guard duty, but often went to all night theaters where he was not lonesome. One day he asked me to come to the school for the problem students which he attended and to sign his release papers. I did so, fearful of the responsibility I was accepting.
Months later Gremlin, his brother Loren, and another man burst into the middle of my meeting with authorities from the United Christian Missionary Society. His brother, a Purple Heart veteran, had bought a house. They had received threatening letters from neighbors and from a lawyer, and that night a cross was burned on their lawn.
The next morning, I took them to meet A. L. Wiring of the American Civil Liberties Union. After he called a prominent Black attorney, he practically shouted, “This goes straight to the Supreme Court. Loren is fighting restrictive covenants. This case goes on top of five hundred cases, all black purchasers, but this is new: a Chinese man, a Purple Heart veteran, and China is our war ally.”
So Gremlin’s brother’s case went to Washington. Is this how history happens?
A second instance occurred when newspapers and television were screaming that Iran had taken U.S. citizens hostage. Late that very day three large men, smelling of cigarette smoke, barged into my office at Mount Hollywood Congregational Church. Their long hair was decorated with eagle feathers, and their buckskin jackets with silver conchos.
“Rev. Genung, we heard we can trust you.”
“I’m Dan Genung. Who are you?”
“I’m Mohawk.” “Paul Skyhorse.” “I’m Thundershields.”
I knew those names. Three men, highest on the FBI most wanted list . . . for murder.
“We have letters from hostages in Iran. They must be delivered in person. We do not have the time. Will you do it?”
“How did you get them?”
“We got them. Here.” They sounded rude. And they were gone.
One was a letter from the sone of Earl Lee, a Pasadena Nazarene pastor. I kept telephoning until his line cleared about midnight. I introduced myself and began, “I have a letter from your son.”
“No, I haven’t heard a thing, only what’s on the news.”
“You don’t understand. I said I have a letter from your son.”
“How did you get it?”
“Uh . . uh . . . some Indians brought it to me.”
A pause . . . . “Who did you say this was?”
Again I identified myself, named my church, told where I lived, and gave the overseas number on the envelope.
“That is my son’s number all right.”
At dawn, Rev. Lee showed up. I gave him the envelope. He stared at it for what seemed like a long time, and departed without a word.
I had, and still have, questions. Did I have a duty to report the three messengers? Should I give them time to escape? How long?
The news broke that Rev. Lee had the letter. I was afraid that he would name me as the source. Could I avoid questioning by newspapers or FBI? Should I try to build church attendance by playing up the mystery, then make an announcement some Sunday? Rev. Lee kept my name out of it. Perhaps the story was too strange to be true.
Lastly, let me share a sequel. Weeks later I was on NBC, “Religion in the News.” The interviewer, Janine Tertaglia, asked me to stay after the program. She was beautiful and charming, so I stayed. She had been covering the news of the hostages that Sunday when Rev. Lee read the letter from the pulpit. The whole experience moved her, and she wanted to serve the Lord. She was starting to work for that church. Today, years later, she is in full-time Christian work. In fact, she preached for me one Sunday.
Is this how history happens?
My text could be read from Matthew 4.34: “Jesus spoke to the crowd in parables. Indeed, Jesus said nothing to them without a parable.”
Say nothing to your crowds without an illustration.
Thank you again, and the peace of God be with you.