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Evan Golder, founding editor of United Church News, dies at 82

    Written by Hans Holznagel, original article at United Church News

    The Rev. W. Evan Golder, who edited the United Church of Christ’s monthly newspaper, United Church News, from its start in 1985 until his retirement in 2003, died Monday, Sept. 7, in hospice care in Westlake, Ohio. He was 82.

    Under Golder’s leadership, the newspaper won awards for news and feature coverage of the church’s ministries – locally, globally and everywhere in between – and for his eclectic regular column, “Current Comment.”

    A skilled photographer, he served for decades on the news team at the UCC’s biennial General Synod, contributing multiple film rolls per day, and, at several Synods, editing a daily edition of UC News.

    Colleagues remember him for a combination of joyful energy, focus on detail, and commitment to telling the truth, even when doing so was controversial.

    Seminary misfit’ and community organizer

    Born May 6, 1938, in Taunton, Mass., Wendell Evan Golder received a bachelor’s degree from Boston University in 1960 and an M.Div. from UCC-related Pacific School of Religion, Berkeley, Calif., in 1964. Ordained in the United Church of Christ that year, he served in the East Bay Area of Northern California for the next 20 years – in an urban ministry he helped start and at First Congregational UCC, Alameda, where he was associate pastor.

    Community organizing was his first ministry.

    His friend for life from PSR, the Rev. Hector Lopez – now emeritus Conference minister of the UCC’s Central Pacific Conference – remembered how Professor Charles McCoy “gathered a whole bunch of us misfits, Evan and me and some others,” for weekly meetings. “Then it came time to graduate, and he said, ‘What are you going to do now? You talk about the East Harlem Protestant Parish. What could we do in this area?’”

    The result was West Oakland Christian Parish, founded by Golder, Lopez and a Presbyterian friend, Les Larson, in a building vacated by the move of Sycamore Congregational UCC to El Cerrito. Attracting support from regional bodies of the UCC and other mainline denominations, the agency took a three-pronged approach: working with youth (the responsibility of Lopez), political systems (Larson) and the community (Golder).

    Inspired by seminars with Saul Alinsky, the famous Chicago activist, Golder listened to impoverished West Oakland residents about their needs. Health care emerged as a major concern, and Golder helped them start West Oakland Health Center, “in which the community would help set the standards and the needs and the outreach,” with money raised from multiple sources, Lopez said. “It still exists. Evan helped create what became a multimillion-dollar health center that, after we had gone, helped serve the whole city.”

    Golder was already honing his journalistic skills, taking photos around the city and producing a monthly West Oakland Christian Parish newsletter.

    Insistence on editorial freedom

    After the UCC’s first news magazine, A.D., ceased publication in 1983, the denomination’s Office of Communication decided to launch a monthly newspaper. Its director, Beverly Chain, hired Golder as editor in 1985. He worked with a committee to develop the paper’s concept and to name it. He moved from California to northern New Jersey, commuting daily to the UCC offices in New York City’s Midtown – and later himself moving to Manhattan. (The top picture shows him in 1986 in front of a wall he painted in the Office of Communication in New York City.)

    Early deliberations that shaped United Church News included what Golder would include in his column, and how free the newspaper would be to tell controversial stories as well as “good news.” He described this in his book, “The Best of Current Comment” (The Pilgrim Press, 2003).

    “Avery Post, UCC president at the time, also gave me good advice when I naively asked him what sorts of issues I should or should not write about, especially in my monthly column,” Golder wrote. “I can still seem him standing in the hallway outside the office on New York City’s Madison Avenue, jabbing his finger in the air and lecturing me about freedom of the pulpit and freedom of the press. ‘You are responsible to God and to your own sense of conscience,’ he said, remonstrating with me for even thinking that an editor should seek permission to editorialize on something he or she considered important.”

    A first test of editorial freedom came when the newspaper was barely a month old. Golder, with Chain’s support – and over the objections of a UCC mission agency executive – reported on the termination of 10 of that agency’s professional staff members.

    Zeal for the UCC

    But church controversies typically occupied few column-inches in UCNews. The paper focused on telling stories of the work of the UCC’s local churches as well as of the wider denomination to which they belonged. That mix, and Golder’s genuine love of the UCC, contributed to the entire UCC communications operation, said his colleagues.

    A signature of UCNews under Golder’s leadership was a system of “wraparounds,” in which Conferences of the UCC – and, in a few cases, congregations – produced their own localized editions, which physically wrapped around the national paper.

    When the UCC’s national offices moved to Cleveland in 1990, Golder was proud to be the first staff member to occupy the 700 Prospect Avenue building, setting up a work table there in December 1989 and putting out the next edition of the paper from there.

    The Rev. Arthur Lawrence Cribbs Jr. remembered leading the Office of Communication through a reorganization in the late 1990s that had “a rough and somewhat rocky start.”

    “Evan had considered leaving but stayed with us,” Cribbs said. “One day he came to my office and said, ‘This is great! I was able to change jobs without leaving my job.’ Evan led our efforts to colorize UCNews and elevated the spirit of the staff and helped to raise the standard and quality of our production in every area of our diverse responsibilities. … Evan helped to move all of us into new ways of working and being together.”

    “Evan was the consummate professional,” said the Rev. Robert Chase, who headed the Proclamation, Identity and Communication office, home to the newspaper in the early 2000s. “While never flagging in his zeal for the UCC, his deeper commitment was to the truth and, while this sometimes put him at odds with the denomination’s leadership, his work was always honored and respected.”

    The paper and Golder’s columns frequently earned best-in-class and other honors in annual competitions sponsored by The Associated Church Press and the Religion Communicators Council.

    Thumpa, thumpa, thumpa

    The editor who succeeded Golder in 2003 also valued his leadership. “From the moment I joined the UCC’s national staff 20 years ago, Evan quickly became a fast and dear friend, trusted mentor, fellow local church member, and occasional running and singing partner,” said the Rev. J. Bennett Guess, who now heads the Ohio chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “When he learned I had a journalism background, he generously invited me to write often, work with him closely, and mentored me to succeed him as editor of United Church News.

    “I will never forget the care and precision he gave to ensuring the best transition, after his long, respected tenure, to ensure UCNews would continue to serve the UCC well. We had a mutual commitment to a free, objective, and independent press, believing it essential to a democratic church. Evan lived and breathed unrelenting commitment, even when the push-back to his honest reporting could become personally difficult for him.”

    Golder’s partner along the way, with whom he celebrated 60 years of marriage in May, was Deborah Munsee Golder. A registered nurse, she worked in hospitals – often night shifts in emergency rooms and intensive-care units – in Berkeley, Calif., at New York’s Bellevue Hospital, and in Cleveland. Several colleagues said they still remembered Golder’s 2000 column – “After 40 Years, Still Thumpa, Thumpa, Thumpa” – about his love for her.

    They traveled the world together before and after they retired, and Golder continued to contribute articles and pictures to UCC publications after retirement, including United Church News, which eventually moved entirely online. He was also co-editor, with former A.D. editor J. Martin Bailey, of  “UCC @ 50 – Our History, Our Future,” published in celebration of the UCC’s 2007 anniversary.

    Running was another of his passions. In New York City, he took part in the Empire State Building Run-Up. In 2018, writing for the newsletter of the Cleveland West Road Runners, he looked back on 50 years of running, including 20 marathons.

    Services to be announced

    Golder was an active, 30-year member of Pilgrim Congregational UCC, Cleveland, where he sang in the choir for years and was newsletter editor for a time. Because of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the church will plan a memorial service to be held at a future date. Immediate arrangements are being handled by Malloy & Esposito of Rocky River, Ohio, where the Golders have lived since 1990. An online obituary will soon be posted at the funeral home’s website.

    He is survived by his wife, Deborah; by a son, Ian, in California; and by several grandchildren. He was predeceased by a son, Duncan, in 2015. (The picture at left shows the family in 1988.)

    The Rev. John Dorhauer, UCC general minister and president, praised the “standard of excellence” that Golder set as the paper’s founding editor – and that lives on today in the news section of the denomination’s website. “The United Church of Christ has long been known for its contributions to love and justice in the world,” Dorhauer said. “Through United Church News, the national setting has worked hard to tell the stories of those contributions; as well as to the many challenges that those who work for love and justice must face every day.

    “He was a brilliant man with a tender heart and a gentle spirit. I give God thanks for his life, and his life’s passion – making sure UCNews remained a hard-working, high-functioning news outlet for a denomination he cared a great deal for. We who work in the Church today owe him a deep debt of gratitude. May he rest in peace.”

    “Evan was a principled man of truest, purest devotion to the church and deepest commitment to the First Amendment, especially a free press,” Guess said. “He told me early on, and often, that he and the great love of his life, Deborah, divided their tithe equally between the UCC and the ACLU. 

    “He was brilliant, hard-nosed, yet kind, forever inquisitive, a wonderful father and perfect grandfather, and a gifted pastor who preached words of grace and grit in the form of accurate, accountable editorials and news stories. I will miss him so!”