Extra-Curricula Learning at Amherst – Enter Bill & Alice Wimer

My participation in the Christian Association at Amherst, introduced me to Bill Wimer, and his wife, Alice. Bill, when I entered Amherst, was a staff member of the New England Student Christian Movement, and came to Amherst to speak at a student meeting at the Congregational Church., where I served as President of the college group. That first meeting with Bill brings a memory of the amazing mixture of humor and grace which is characteristic for him.

The meeting at which Bill was to speak was held in the church, in a hall appropriately set for a dinner gathering. The head table included a place for the Minister, myself, and other Officers of the group. On that evening I had a student obligation on campus which meant that I would have to leave the session before Bill spoke, so I had “begged off” doing the introduction. The group insisted that as President I must introduce Bill; I then explained to him that after the introduced I would quietly slip out of the room and exit; we agreed that it could be done with little notice. When the dinner was over I then did the introduction, and proceeded to leave with as “little notice” as possible. As I was leaving the room, at a point visible to all, Bill, in the midst of his first sentences of his talk, then called out to me, “Horace, it gets better!” Later in the evening, and many times since, we have enjoyed rehearsing that “introduction”.

Subsequently I became active in the SCM, and became the student co-chair of a planning committee on which Bill served as staff advisor. That committee planned and implemented a Churchmanship Conference, involving eleven denominations, bringing several hundred students from New England to Boston for a full week-end conference. It must have been 1948, not sure. Since my co-chair, a woman from Wellesley College, was in academic trouble, she was not able to provide much help, so a large part of student responsibility fell to me. What a wonderful experience it was! It was the beginning of many years of working with Bill Wimer, still a rich relationship.

Amherst was also the time when I began to feel the influence of two men, whose lives/spirits/wisdom still modestly echo in my own. John Coburn, was Rector of Grace Church, and the College Chaplain; the Assistant Chaplain was Robert McAfee Brown, also a pastor at the local Congregational Church. Both were Advisors to the Christian Association; work in that group really was my “major” at Amherst. Neither man was a great deal older than I, but each occupied a position of authority, and each brought to my mentoring a wisdom beyond their experience.

John Coburn later became Bishop of the Massachusetts Episcopal Diocese, and was also Dean at the Episcopal Divinity School. I remember visiting him when he was the Dean, and he shared with me his decision to leave that position, to teach in the East Harlem Protestant Parish. He was teaching people to “get out in the world”, and knew that he had to do what he preached to and for students. He wanted to have his faith grounded in an experience which was different from all that his life had been until then. He did leave the Deanship, and went to Harlem to teach. That conversation was perhaps one of the moments when I learned most from John.

Bob Brown, of course, became the great liberation theologian, anti-racist and anti-war activist, whose life and witness has influenced thousands across the world. While I did not remain in contact with Bob, on countless occasions across the years I have used his work and words as points of inspiration and sustaining grace.

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