Saturday, September 24, 2011

Elders and Waterfire

I'm writing from the Renaissance Hotel in Providence, RI. I've been attending a conference for Annuitant Visitors of the Pension Board of the United Church of Christ.
Renaissance Hotel

The Hotel is a renovated Masonic Temple, and is immediately across the street from the RI State Capital, as you can see. It's pretty posh, but our expenses are all paid by the Pension Board.

What is an Annuitant Visitor? There are about 150 of us spread across the United States. We are charged with keeping in touch with about 6000 retired ministers who are receiving a pension from the United Church of Christ. I myself have about 50 such retirees under my care in Vermont. I try to visit or call them regularly, and am available if they have a specific question or concern. Once a year, these 150 Visitors, all of whom are themselves retired ministers like myself, gather for a three-day Seminar to get caught up on the information we need to know. This year's conference was particularly interesting.

First of all, let me introduce you to Michael Downs, CEO of the Pension Board.
Michael Downs is a remarkably gifted manager. He has been head of the Pension Board for nine years, and it is considered one of the best managed pension funds in the world, with assets of $2.6 billion. Its administrative costs are 3/4 of 1% (0.75%) - one of the lowest of any fund, anywhere. Auditors of the fund regularly give it the highest ratings. Despite some very rocky years, the fund is growing, and UCC pensions have not decreased one penny in the last three difficult years; some have increased (depending on the balance of stocks and bonds in your retirement package). He is a very wise person when it comes to financial affairs, and we always look forward to his presentation every year. He does not see the economy getting better soon. He thinks Greece will default in October; Europe is going to have a difficult time, and that will affect our markets, since Europe is our largest trading partner. Nevertheless, over the long haul, he is optimistic.

One of the AVs from California gave a pep talk about being an "elder." It was funny, poignant and wise. I liked the story of the "elder" single man and woman who happened to meet at a conference. They sort of hit it off and went for a walk together, and then had dinner together, and then she invited him to her room. In the room she said, "You remind me of my fourth husband." "Good grief," he said, "how many times have you been married?" "Three," she said.

One of the most substantive presentations for me had to do with the role and calling of a retired minister. A very articulate retired woman minister, The Rev. Marti Baumer, held us in thrall while she led us through a comprehensive overview of what it means to be called to ministry, and particularly what that means in these later retirement years, when we are not actually serving a church. I think she stimulated every one of us to think more deeply about what we are really about.

So, we got a lot of intellectual and spiritual nourishment. And the hotel food was remarkably good too. About the best I've ever experienced in a hotel. Needless to say, the room is posh. They've done a great job transforming this historic Masonic Temple into a hotel. It would be $129 a night if I had to pay for it. But I don't.
Room 436

Tonight, after supper, we were free to wander. It happened to be the night of one of Providence's spectacles - the WaterFire. It is quite a sight. The Providence River (which was sort of a cesspool when I lived in Providence in the 1960s as a grad student), has been cleaned up, opened up, and made accessible downtown by creating a park on both sides. There is a promenade which ends in a large lagoon surrounded by an amphitheater and bridges. Every month or so, they stage a ritual in which Venetian-type gondolas filled with folks in medieval costumes go up the river and around the lagoon with huge torches and light pyres of wood that are located on rock pilings in the water - maybe thirty or more such pyres in all. There were thousands of people gathered to watch this spectacle, and with the city-scape behind, people of all kinds walking along the promenade, sidewalk cafes, music being played over huge speakers in the background (sort of mellow pop classic and jazz), it created quite the ambiance. It made Providence seem like a very lively and interesting city. Which I think it is.
WaterFire in Providence, RI

I lived here from 1960-1967, and it was going through a depression then. Department stores were closing, the downtown was seedy. I was happy to be here tonight and see the transformation. After watching the WaterFire I walked up the hill to the Brown University campus and in the lovely, warm evening, I walked by places which had been so familiar and deeply meaningful to me 45-50 years ago when I was in graduate school. Memories galore came flooding back. E.g., as I stopped to get a drink from a water fountain in the student union, I realized that I was standing on the spot where, 48 years ago this coming November 22nd, I had looked up at a TV monitor and seen my first glimpse of news that President Kennedy had been shot.

I did all of this by myself. Ellen is in Maine this weekend with her brother Jim and his new wife, Mary, She is attending the Common Ground Fair in Unity, ME, sponsored by the Maine Organic Growers Association. That too is a wonderful event, and at just about the other end of the spectrum from what I witnessed here in Providence tonight. It would have been fun to have her here with me, but it will also be fun to share our respective experiences when we are together again on Monday.

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