In the early days of the often-violent struggle for civil rights in the American South, the Rev. Dr. Richard Ellerbrake wielded a special weapon: marshmallows.
While pastor-director of the Back Bay Mission in Biloxi, Miss., from 1958 to 1962, he kept marshmallows in the office and at home. “If they burned a cross on the lawn, we could put the marshmallows on coat hangers and toast ’em,” he says. “You had to find ways to deal with the violence that was not going to provoke more, but would maybe add some levity.”
However, he needed more than humor to cope with the persistent danger. Without the encouragement, fellowship and support — both financial and emotional — of the whole church, including the organization that would become CHHSM, Rev. Ellerbrake says it would have been almost impossible to do his educational and service work at Back Bay Mission, much less participate in the struggle for civil rights.
Today, Ellerbrake, president emeritus of Deaconess Health System in St. Louis, is chairman of CHHSM’s 75th anniversary committee. In a sense, his personal timeline parallels that of the United Church of Christ, which was formed the year before he arrived in Biloxi in 1958, and CHHSM itself.
While in Mississippi, he was called to Deaconess St. Louis, a CHHSM ministry. Deaconess paid for him to earn a graduate degree in health administration, and he spent three decades at Deaconess.
He, his wife Johann (pronounced “Joanne”) and their extended family live on a 120-acre farm community near St. Louis.
Ellerbrake, 78, spoke at length about CHHSM’s influence and his hopes for the future.
Why did CHHSM and its predecessor, the Commission on Benevolent Institutions (of the Evangelical and Reform Church) matter so much to your work in Mississippi?
“The fact that we were a member of CHHSM, or its predecessor at that time, meant we were not alone. You had a sense that you were part of a family. It was a very violent time, it was a dangerous time, and it was very tense. And so our staff down there, there were seven of us, became very, very close. We were emotionally supportive of each other, but we were also part of the larger church, and without that sense of others around the country being on our side, being understanding of what we were doing, it would have been very, very tough.”
What does the 75th anniversary say about CHHSM’s importance today?
“Frankly, it’s an arbitrary number. It could have been the 150th anniversary or the 2,000th anniversary, because CHHSM’s roots go back to the early New Testament days. So, 75 really represents the 75th anniversary of CHHSM in its current organized state.
“There’s an opportunity here for two major things to happen. One, for CHHSM members to be strengthened, encouraged, informed and inspired by all the stuff that has gone before. It’s a chance for the current leadership, many of whom are relatively young, to reflect on where they came from. Two, because CHHSM has been so very important in maintaining that historic connection between the church and its health and human service work, the goal is to try to use the 75th as an opportunity to support, encourage and expand the degree to which we are trying to find new leadership that is committed to the same values that have fueled these organizations in the past.
“It’s very easy for church organizations to say, ‘OK, so we came out of some church group a long time ago, but right now we’re being funded by the state, and it doesn’t make much difference what church we’re affiliated with, if any, because we don’t get any support anyway from the churches, and so we can become a secular institution. We can lose our heritage and forget our background, and just be professional child workers,’ for example.
“Well, that’s true. That can happen. And there’s a danger and a temptation that it could happen. But when it happens, the CHHSM attitude is you lose a whole dimension of life that’s very important, not the least of which is important to people who work in those organizations, who think of their work as a ministry, that they’re called to do something special.”