Getting divorced and moving from my big suburban house to a tiny apartment in Brooklyn Heights in 1986 was part of a major transformation that began when I had stopped drinking alcohol a few years before. When I got settled in, I thought that joining a church would be a good spiritual and emotional booster for me, and there were plenty of churches in my neighborhood to choose from.I attended services at those closest to my building and settled on Plymouth Congregational Church.
It is an historically important institution, founded in 1850 by fiery abolitionist minister Henry Ward Beecher. His leadership helped create the Underground Railway, the secret network that enabled escaped slaves to go north before and during the Civil War. The Plymouth Church basement beneath the sanctuary became known as the railway’s northern terminus.
President Lincoln liked Beecher and frequently traveled from Washington to hear his sermons. To this day you can sit in the Lincoln Pew where he always sat.
Meet Frank Goodwin
But the most compelling reason to join Plymouth Church was its minister, a retired Welsh preacher named Frank Goodwin. He chose to spend his retirement years as a circuit minister, taking on short-term calls at churches around the world. It was my good fortune that he had answered a call at Plymouth Church shortly before I arrived.
Frank’s sermons were straight from the wonderful combination of his heart, his brain, and his extensive ministerial experience. They were rich in emotion, spirituality and religiously uplifting, and with real life meaning, all sonorously delivered in his wonderful Welsh-accented version of British English. I loved what I heard, and it was clear that the congregants did as well.
As soon as I joined, I was welcomed by the congregation, and Frank invited me to join him for a chat a chat in his office. That first chat turned into about two hours of great conversation in which I told him my story. Those hours were the first of many we were to spend together during the next few years. Among other things, Frank was very interested in my sobriety.
“I need to know more about this Alcoholics Anonymous program you practice,” he said, adding, “we have a few members here who I know to be in some trouble with alcohol.” That topic alone was the subject of many discussions during which I would read a passage in a book from the AA program, and Frank would open his well-worn Bible to read from anywhere he thought would be helpful to our conversation.
A Minister Who Ministered
The word “minister” is both a noun and a verb and our conversations led to a relationship in which minister Frank ministered to me in a time of my life that was filled with transformation and spiritual growth. He gave thoughtful advice that came from years of experience in church ministries, and our relationship became very close.
Frank helped me to understand and accept that my sobriety and the changes the AA program brought to my life were a resurrection experience. He was clear that it was no coincidence my transformation had begun in the Easter Season a few years before we met, and our conversations and readings led me to a much deeper understanding of my story from childhood to the present day.
Frank was not shy about his affection for me and his knowledge of my story. As he receded from the pulpit at the end of one Palm Sunday service he stopped at the pew where I sat, reached over to touch my shoulder, and said, “You’ve come in from your wilderness, too.” I was so overcome that I could not speak to thank him.
Baptism by East River
Like other mentors in my life, Frank was full of good humor. When Plymouth Church elected me to the Board of Deacons, I told Frank that I had never been baptized and wanted to be but was concerned that the other Deacons might be upset when they found out I was not baptized. “Don’t you worry about them,” he said, “the East River is just over there, and I shall just toss you into it if I have to!”
Frank’s sermons and friendship continued to inspire me even as the church continued its search for a new permanent minister. When the new minister was found and answered the call, it was time for Frank to move on.
Frank had become an essential part of the Plymouth Church community, and when the day came for his last service, the very large sanctuary was packed. As head usher I had prepared the bread and grape juice for Eucharist, and as we passed out the bread it became clear that we were short. We needed just a bit more for the ushers, so Frank blessed us after the service using some stale crackers he found in the kitchen.
I liked the new minister, but he was not well accepted by most of the congregants and left after only two years. I cannot help but think that he was not accepted simply because he was not Frank Goodwin.
I lived in Brooklyn Heights, NY, from 1985 through 1989.