Monday, December 31, 2012

The Very Reverend John Fuller Mangrum

The Very Reverend John Fuller Mangrum

The "Very" part, in case you wonder, relates to his once having once been Dean of the Cathedral in Jacksonville Florida.  

But our story began years earlier, in Tampa Florida, 1968.  I was a freshman at the University of South Florida, and a "fallen away" Episcopalian.  The parish I had grown up in had turned me off to church.  It was steeped in it's own issues, difficulties with justice, changing times and the Civil Rights changes that had swept the South, often grudgingly by ensconced institutions.  And my church in Dade City was no exception.  So "church" had become irrelevant to my world, more importantly my world view of a more "just" society.

I was popular at USF because I had a car.  A friend who I sang with, Barbara Perry, asked me to drive her to St. Petersburg for her younger sisters "first communion."  She was Roman Catholic, and like most of St. Petersburg, transplanted from the north.  So I said "yes."  We went to her church in St. Pete, which felt more like a "Mass Factory" than a church.  I had not been to a Roman church before that, and the experience was bleak.  Only the "host" (bread) was offered, in assembly like fashion, lined up like at a bank teller, we stood for a moment while the priest popped the Body of Christ into our gaping mouths, the sermon was about not donating enough money to the church, and when it was over, no jovial clergyman greeted us at the door.  

After the kisses and photos of the sister in her new communion dress were made, we got back into my Rambler American to drive back to Tampa.  Babs had never seen the old Gandy bridge, so we came back to Tampa into the "Interbay" section of the city, and I thought, "There's a church here somewhere, St. Mary's."  I had been as a teenager to youth group events.  As I rounded the curve from Manhatten Ave. to Euclid Blvd, I spotted a familiar "The Episcopal Church Welcomes You" sign with an arrow pointing to St. Mary's, a block away.

We walked in like two road warriors, and Fr. Mangrum came up to greet us.  He remembered my father and mother from meetings, welcomed us both, and the rest (as they say) is history.  

John Mangrum was a type of priest that sadly, rarely gets into the clergy today.  He had returned from World War Two, and lots of insane bloodshed, determined to find some meaning for his life.  Like most war survivors, if he had any caution or fear, he pushed it down and proceeded forward against all odds.  

A link to his full obituary is below, some of the high spots that are not included related to his being a closeted gay man.  Most of his career was spent in jobs that were at the edge of the establishment or civilization.  He ran the Detroit Boys Home in the early 50s.  He was an assistant at Bethesda by The Sea in Palm Beach, probably the wealthiest (per capita) church in the United States.  He hated it.  He married a long time friend and choir director, Shirley, but even that didn't' make Palm Beach less lonely.  So he took to small mission churches in the interior of Florida, the most notable being St. Edwards in Mt. Dora.  Mt. Dora was also the home of Pat Frank, who wrote the doomsday novel "Alas Babylon" in the early 1960s.  Pat and John were breakfast buddies at a local cafe.  Pat was working on his novel about the end of civilization from a nuclear war, and a small group of survivors in rural Florida.  His "Fort Repose" was in fact Mt. Dora.  He played revenge with various civic leaders, the banker who had once turned him down for a loan (because Pat was Jewish) was portrayed as an idiot and a coward who committed suicide in the book, etc.  Pat wrote the Episcopal Vicar out of the book, he was in Tampa when the bombs dropped, blessedly incinerated.

At the baptism of my first God Child, John Emery Jr. with parents Gail and John Sr. 1969

We once discussed the problem of parents who seem to have no regard for their kids dreams or desires.  He told me that when he came to St. Mary's in Tampa, it was his first big and well funded church.  He told me he called his mother to tell her the good news, her response was, "Oh John, when are you gonna give up this priest thing and come back home and teach music?"  John had a booming baritone voice and was an accomplished cellist, and played in various symphonies close to wherever he might be.  

"Father Mangrum" became the brother and uncle I had always longed for.  He encouraged me to bring the young kids I was tutoring to church so they could improve their reading skills by following along in our prayer book.  Those kids became three of my God children.

Wendell Dale Glenn and Kendall Dean Glenn, fraternal twins, my second and third God Children.  John Mangrum and a retired bishop (name not remembered).  Circa 1970

The daughter of Dale also became my God daughter, who lived with me for 17 months in her early childhood.  By his example, I learned to champion justice, and that doing so was central to the Gospel of Christ.  

Ruthenia Nicole Glenn-Ramirez and I at St. Stephen's church in Coconut Grove (Miami) circa 1982

What John had was courage.  He once preached a sermon about being called by a frantic wife to come to their very high society home.  When he arrived, the husband was drunk, brandishing a gun, threatening to kill her, and the children.  The wife had called him, because if the police had come, they would have lost their social position, upon which their lives and income depended, so she called a him instead.  John had to talk him "down," recounting the eternity between his saying "come on, give me the gun" while extending his hand to the man, extending his arm and open hand, and waiting for the gun to be passed, hoping it would not be discharged at him.  He told me privately that after it was over, he sat in his car outside and shook like a leaf for ten minutes.

John's strong sense of self, and his ability to translate his personal power into the daily life of being a "Christian" was what drew people to St. Mary's, and packed the place.  He was exactly the opposite of what people expected a priest to act like.  He often quipped, "I say short prayers, so I'm asked to say lots of them."  He quickly became the favorite chaplain of all sorts of community groups.  He even had a "gig" signing off the local ABC TV affiliate, WLCY.  He had met the owners at some civic function, and they engaged him to do a short prayer and thought for the day when the station signed off the air at night.  The man who ran the transmitter, Charlie Marks (a member of the parish, who had fallen away due to a cancer diagnosis) would stand and watch the feed every night, shutting down the towers when the test pattern came up after John spoke.  John had heard of Charlie's torment, the cancer had returned after years of remission, and it was "Stage 4" so he felt like God had cheated him.  In his anger, he had isolated himself, pulling away from everyone, even his family.  

In a bold move, John looked into the camera one night and said, "Folks, normally I say goodnight to all of you, but tonight I have a specific message for one person.  Charlie Marks, God loves you, your wife and kids love you, people in the church love you, and I love you.  I know you're hurting, but now is not the time to pull away in your pain, now is the time to bring your pain back to us who love you, so we can share your burdens and lighten your load."   A tear filled Charlie almost forgot to shut the towers down, and he and his wife returned the following Sunday.  

From John I learned that love requires courage.  Almost every Sunday, he reminded us that Jesus was no shrinking violet, and a great lover of souls.  His example and words set the stage for my own recommitment to my life as a Christian, and that being a Christian meant living courageously, larger than life, for to do so is to honor the life that God gives us all.  He was a great spirit.

He was the first person I ever told about my attractions to men.  Sadly, he lived in his own closet, so he could not come out to me, or encourage me to feel good about my feelings.  In his day, and in his world, being Gay was a curse, a profound social impediment, that relegated one to the outer edges of society.  Even with a wife, he has spent most of his career at the edge.  He wished better for me, and like most Gay people in his day, hoped that somehow I could "change."  

When our part of Florida split off into a separate diocese, and our first bishop retired, John almost became our bishop.  But a group from the southern end of the diocese stonewalled the election, determined to elect "their man."  John  finally dropped out of the race.  The bishop they forced upon us turned out to be a raging alcoholic, driving dozens of clergy out of the diocese from his demented rants and paranoid delusions.  

John went to Jacksonville, hated it, came back to South East Florida to the only church that had an opening, in another very remote part of the state.  The town was at least 90 miles from anything, and the church was quite isolated, more of a reflection of it's evangelical neighbors than usual "Episcopal" customs.  They were all "neo-baptists" including an immersion baptism font.  His only respite during those years was driving to Palm Beach to play in the symphony there, a 200 mile round trip.

He came to do a "Quiet Day" during that time at the church I was attending in Miami.  It is the same church that spawned current bishop Mary Gray-Reeves.  His theme, the "deserts" we cross in our lives, those empty times when there is not much to celebrate, just the daily plodding to get to the other side.  He shared about how in those most bleak periods, we have the opportunity to grow closest to God.

Years later, I had breakfast with him in Wellington Florida, part of the then burgeoning Palm Beach county.  He had gotten himself elected to the city commission, while serving as rector of the local Episcopal church, the ultimate marriage of church and state.  

At our breakfast, he congratulated me on being "out and proud" as a gay man.  He apologized for his earlier reticence, "Some of us had no choice.  If we were to do what we were called to do, we had to keep that part of our lives secret.  I'm glad you were able to help change that, both for yourself and others.  It's a different day, thanks to brave people like you."  I reminded him that I had learned that courage from him.   He went on to say, "I still hope you get to be a priest someday."

John was remembered by many, he was Polo Priest for the Wellington Polo Club, Chaplain for spring training with the Cincinnati Reds and Atlanta Braves Baseball Clubs and played in the Symphony Orchestras of Tampa and Jacksonville. He was active in the Elks, VFW, Rotary, Kiwanis and Fellowship of Christian Athletes.  

If there was ever a single man who had an impact on literally thousands of people, it was John Mangrum.

Near the end of his life, John in Del Rey Beach, FL

Sadly, the Episcopal Church  no longer has men like John.  The church seems afraid of anyone who is larger than life, who inspires people, who reminds us that we can do more, if only we surrender our fears, and live a courageous life.  If it was important, John Mangrum would just say it.  He made enemies, but he made many more friends.

Since my life is basically the same, I guess more than a bit of him rubbed off on me, and for that I am grateful to have known such a great spirit early in my life, who helped shaped my response to life and inspired me to do better.

"I have the nerve to walk my own way, however hard, in my search for reality, 
rather than climb upon the rattling wagon of wishful illusions."
      Letter from (fellow Floridian) Zora Neale Hurston
 to Countee Cullen

Edward Garren, MA, LMFT

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