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Interview: Dale Rominger, former URC world church secretary

14 March 2012

‘I’ve lost count of the number of countries I’ve visited’

I spend my time reading — a lot — and writing. I’ve published a book, Notes from 39,000 Feet, about some of my international experiences, and will publish a novella, Alien Love, this spring. I’ve also created a website, the Back Road Café. On the site I share some of my writing — I guess blogs are obligatory now — with a place for other people to contribute.

There was the desire to get off the treadmill and have the time and energy to be more creative. The changing nature of church organ­isation and attitudes left me feeling more like an administrator and less like a minister.

I was a United Church of Christ minister in the United States. When I decided I would like to serve for a brief time in the United Kingdom, I naturally turned to the United Reformed Church, a partner of the UCC.

Both the UCC and the URC are middle-of-the-road to liberal de­nom­inations. I tend to sit most com­fortably in the liberal and pro­gressive traditions.

What does the URC offer the wider Church? A degree of inclusiveness that may have a different sense, or spirit, or “intentionality”, than other denominations. Ecumenism is in its DNA — to the point of distraction, in my opinion. And it has some freedom of worship and organ­isation that is good.

The point of our international programme was to involve people in our local churches. We provided individual and small-group oppor­tunities for people to visit our international partners, and to host partners who are visiting the URC. These were various exchange pro­grammes to learn about each other’s lives: educational pro­grammes, solid­arity visits, and micro-developmental programmes.

It was always my hope that it would open people’s minds and hearts — would allow them to see themselves, their Church, and their society with new eyes, and that relationships would be formed. It was also my hope that the programme would revitalise the URC. In all but that last hope, I think, we succeeded.

In all the years of working in international relations, I only had one person tell me her visit was a waste of time. That’s not bad for the ministry.

I’ve lost count of the number of countries I’ve visited, but it must be well over 50 or so.

I have felt in danger in El Salvador, Palestine, South Africa (during the first election), and Zimbabwe — this due to the reason of my visit and the political situation, though I don’t think I was ever in real danger. I have felt in danger, at times, in India because of the person driving the car — I always told Roberta [his wife, Back Page, 9 March] if I died on the job, it would be in a car or minivan accident; in South Korea when I got involved in a demonstration; in Costa Rica, when I was held by the police; and in Angola, because of poverty and crime. But my hosts always took very good care of me, and minimised any danger.

I loved Cuba and Taiwan perhaps more than any of the other places I have travelled. My visits to El Salvador and Nicaragua stand out because they were my first experi­ence of Third World poverty, and the place of faith and church in that situation. If I were to go to those two countries for the first time now, the impact would be very different. I like travelling to warm, sunny, com­fortable places now.

We fought the notion that these visits would benefit the people in poorer countries. We wanted to show people here that they could learn from partners in other situ­ations: we could be inspired, and more celebratory, and actually less despairing about our own context.

Sometimes, though, they could learn from us. The Church in Bangalore had seen their young people’s lives changed dramatically after the advent of call centres, which meant they were working unsociable hours and losing touch with their families and churches. They could talk to us about this, because this has been part of our culture for years.

We have to be open to the differ­ences in other countries. By that I do not mean we have to always accept them as right or good over and against our own way of doing things, but we need to see them with fewer assumptions and filters. I think we should stop dropping bombs on people so frequently and eagerly.

Particular contexts can have an impact on a visitor’s theological perspectives: desert theology in Cuba, liberation theology in South America, creation theology in Taiwan. . . All these have changed my perspectives.

The places and people I meet while travelling feed me spiritually. I don’t always agree with them, or under­stand them, but they fill me in different ways. I did miss having a fixed community; I haven’t been in a church community in the UK in years. I was always worshipping, preach­­ing, teaching, and praying with someone somewhere.

At times, worship in some places drove me crazy, but often it was less about doctrine and more about spirit. And when you travel several thousand miles to be with people, you really want to like it.

My family is my wife. My parents died some years back, and my two sisters live in the US.

My childhood ambition was to survive school. I am slightly dys­lexic, and that was before the word was known and thousands of dis­sertations had been written on the subject. I wanted to be creative — whatever that means. It seemed fundamental to being a good human being. From time to time, I wanted to be an artist, an author, a doctor, a philosopher, a farmer, a furniture-maker, a psychologist. . .

I guess moving to the UK was the most important choice in my life. It fundamentally changed my view of my home country, of the Church, of faith. I left friends and made new ones. I lived, and still live, as a foreigner. I married this person instead of that person. I have no root home, but two moving homes.

My greatest regret is not finding peace. I’ve pondered this a lot. I feel I really should know a bit more about this living business. I’ll never be the Dalai Lama.

I pray for peace of mind and spirit, liberation from anger. On the other hand, I’ve seen so much that is hor­rible, I don’t want to find a peace­fulness that doesn’t somehow embrace the horribleness.

I plan to keep reading and writing books; have a better vegetable gar­den; relearn how to play the guitar — not sure that will happen; keep the website alive; learn to cook — that’s more obligation than joy.

I’d like to be remembered for standing alongside those who are excluded for some reason or an­other. Parts of the Bible which are important to me are some of John about friendship; Galatians about “neither Greek nor Jew”; Hebrews, standing outside the gate with Jesus; Hosea and Isaiah.

Gerry Schumann — he’s a personal friend — has been a huge influence on my life; and the books of Kurt Vonnegut.

You can’t forget that I’m an American, though I’ve been here for 28 years now; so I get weary of UK Christians saying they are op­pressed. What utter insulting non­sense! I have been with people who have had their children taken away and killed because they are Chris­tians. That’s oppression.

On the other hand, I do recognise that it is more difficult for Chris­tians here than in the States. Some visiting Zimbabweans were shocked when they talked to the chaplains in a shopping mall and discovered that they don’t evangelise shoppers. We had to explain to them that, in certain situations in this country, you have a choice between serving and evangelising, but you can’t do both.

If I had a choice between living in a theocracy or a secular state, I’d choose a secular state every time. If you are only guaranteed equality by being in with the theological in-crowd, you may be in trouble.

I’m happiest when I’m in my study, reading and writing; having a meal with friends.

I’d like to be locked in a church with Wilbert Sayimani. Wilbert is a friend from Zimbabwe. We are very close and have very different experi­ences, perspectives, and faiths; but, because of our friendship, we’re both not only willing but eager to explore.

Dale Rominger was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


Notes from 39,000 Feet is pub­lished by Xlibris, £13.99; 978-1-4568-0245-5).

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