Friday, January 25, 2013

A Story of Courageous Love—Rev. Dan Larsen

Rev Dan Larsen (lesft) Protesting the Minute Men 2008.

I had lunch today at Angelo’s on the Square in Woodstock.  Locals all know the joint, the classic Greek-American family style restaurant where folks gather for a reasonably priced meal and a chance to chat leisurely without being rushed.  Business and social chatter at the tables was the order of the day as the carillon in the Opera House tower rang the noon hour.
I was joining my old minister, mentor, and collaborator on twenty years’ worth of social justice projects and causes, Dan Larsen.  The occasion was social, of course, two old cronies catching up.  But there was also some business at hand, some fences that needed mending, and some boundaries established.
We had butted heads pretty seriously lately at meetings of the Social Justice Committee of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation now in McHenry which I now chair.  It not that we disagreed about issues so much as differences of leadership styles and over process fueled by our mutual passion.  Dan was having a hard time adjusting to no longer being in charge and as I grow older I find I am becoming a crankier old coot with less patience than I should have.
Anyway, we talked it out like grownups, each made agreements to do better, and we found our way ahead.  There’s lots of work for the Committee and the Congregation ahead—new Second Sunday collections to support the work of local partner organization, social service and volunteer opportunities with some of those same groups, and getting down to work on serious advocacy in some critical areas—marriage equality, immigration, and gun violence.  We parted warmly, eager to resume a long and fruitful collaboration.
When I got back to my basement office, I took a moment or two to search out potential topics for this daily blog post.  In the process  I discovered that it was exactly two years ago today, January 25, 20ll when The  Standing on the Side of Love  campaign asked for Stories of Courageous Love  to fill a map on their web page with inspirations in advance of Valentine’s Day.  I was delighted to share the story of the Rev. Dan Larsen who has been standing on the side of love for a very long time and posted a version on this blog.  What follow is a slightly edited version of what I sent in which was posted to the SOSL web site.  Then a brief update follows.
The Rev. Dan Larsen is the usual suspect.  Recently retired from a 19 year ministry at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Woodstock, Illinois and named minister emeritus, Rev. Larsen was the one person the local media knew that they could count on when issues around social justice and discrimination of any kind arose.  They knew that one way or another Rev. Larsen and his church would be involved.
Dan Larsen has been Standing on the Side of Love for a long time.  In conservative, overwhelmingly white McHenry County, located in the far northwestern corner of the Chicago Metropolitan Area, he stood for love and justice when few others dared to.
Almost immediately upon assuming the Woodstock pulpit he reached out to the Latino community creating the first county-wide Hispanic Concerns Task Force and battling housing discrimination and other hurdles faced by that community.  As numbers of Latinos in the county swelled, so did an ugly racist backlash and in recent years a virulent anti-immigrant sentiment fueled by groups like the Illinois Minutemen.  Rev. Larsen helped organize and lead the county’s first big immigration reform march and organized protests to Minutemen meetings.  At church, he developed special outreach and service programs for the community, including a weekly group for Latino women that combined help with learning English with support in finding employment and, when necessary, assistance.
When a faction of the Ku Klux Klan targeted McHenry County in 1997 with a rally at the County Courthouse, Dan Larsen helped organize an interfaith alternative event on historic Woodstock Square.  That event eventually became the Diversity Day Festival which ran annually through 2010, intentionally bringing together people of different racial, ethnic, religious, language, physical and mental challenges, gender, and sexual orientation.  The Festival, held in late September or early October, helped local Muslims introduce themselves as a human community in the dark days after the 9/11 attacks.  It was also the first public forum in the county in which Gays and Lesbians felt comfortable in participating.
Starting with work educating the public about the real truth about the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the early 1990’s when local media and authorities were spreading both panic and blame on the Gay community, Larsen has been an advocate for Gay, Lesbian, Bi-sexual, and Transgender community.  He offered the church building as the only safe haven in McHenry County for Gay and Gay ally groups to meet.  A support group became McHenry County Pride, the first openly gay organization in the county, which continues to meet at the church.  The church also housed a pioneering counseling program for Gay teens, who were often the objects of bullying and violence in their high schools, and is the home for the county chapter of PFLAG.  Larsen helped the Congregation become certified as a Welcoming Congregation and becoming a comfortable home for Gays and Lesbians.  He pioneered in performing religious union ceremonies in the county and forthrightly advocated marriage equality.  When a proposal to bring the rowing events of the Gay Games to nearby Crystal Lake, Larsen publicly spoke out at meetings packed by screaming protesters of the Park District’s decision to allow the use of the lake.  All of these activities have frequently drawn public and private threats of violence against Larsen and the Church.
This just skims the surface of a remarkable dedication to justice.  It fails to mention his outstanding work in the peace movement and in advocacy for health care reform, among other issues.
Just after announcing his retirement, Larsen was diagnosed with advanced throat cancer.  After several months of intense treatment, he is on the road to recovery with a good prognosis.  And he is back in the saddle working with many of the same groups he reached out to as an active minister.  He was recently elected president of Principled Minds, a local non-profit that partners with other organizations to develop documentary and educational programs designed to fight racism and discrimination.
Since I finished the paragraphs above, Dan has had some hard times.  Is beloved wife and support Pat succumbed to a long battle with breast cancer.  He was naturally overcome with grief and has had serious problems with depression.  Despite surviving the throat cancer, Dan developed several other health problems himself.  He has lost a lot of weight and sometimes looks, well, frail.  Even his loyal companion, the Boxer Snoop Dog had his own brush with cancer and nearly died last fall.
Meanwhile Dan had to adapt to a new relationship with his old congregation, which among other things physically moved away to a new building in McHenry.  That meant backing away from involvement at the church to facilitate a transition to new leadership and to let our new minister, the Rev. Sean Parker-Dennison, settle in without having to look over his shoulder.  But that distancing came just as he needed the support of his old friends and community the most.
Dan eased back into things by re-joining the Social Justice Committee just about the same time I was elected Chair last fall.  The ability to work on issues he cares deeply about gives him purpose.  I’ve watched him improve physically the more he became engaged.
So I am so glad that we have been able smooth over our difficulties, that we have the opportunity to press forward again, and that I can again remind myself, and you, of just why he has been so important in this little corner of the world.

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