History buff creates videos of denomination's 'Long Strange Trip'

History buff creates videos of denomination's 'Long Strange Trip'

Six-DVD series traces roots of Unitarian Universalism from 1st century to present times.
Donald E. Skinner
Ron Cordes
Ron Cordes
Ron Cordes


Ron Cordes has always been interested in history and videography. Still, after a long career as an electrical engineer and software developer, he never expected to be the author of what is becoming probably the most important video resource for teaching—and learning about—Unitarian Universalist history in our congregations.

In October, Cordes, 71, of Bedford, Mass., completed the sixth and final DVD of a comprehensive history of Unitarianism and Universalism. Titled Long Strange Trip, the DVDs start with the beginning of Christianity and carry through to current times.

The UUA Bookstore has been selling the first five DVDs individually since the first one came out in 2011 and has sold around 1,000, said bookstore manager Rose Hanig. All six are available as a boxed set for $125. They are also sold individually for $25. The boxed set and the sixth DVD will be available on November 20. Either can be preordered.

Mary Miles, of the UU Church of Spartanburg, S.C., has been using the DVDs in Lifespan Faith Development courses. "This video story of Unitarian Universalism is a first, in my opinion, and such a gift to our movement," she said. "So many people have no idea about our long history and that our concepts go back to the first century. I'm learning a lot as well, even as a lifelong UU. I'm very enthusiastic about this information, and I think all our congregations need to know about it."

She said the DVDs, which are each an hour long, are shown in half-hour increments at Spartanburg, with time for discussion.

Cordes minored in history at Louisiana State University, where, he said, "I had a professor who absolutely lit me up not just about history, but about oral history. All my life when I did recreational reading it was about historical subjects." When he and his wife Cathy (now executive director of the Unitarian Universalist Partner Church Council) had their first child, he did one of his first oral history projects, on old African-American midwives. "Whenever I'd find someone with an interesting story, I'd stick a microphone in front of them," he said.

After college he worked on the Apollo program for NASA, then worked in software development until he retired nine years ago.

Cordes's own journey with Unitarian Universalism began in the late 1970s on the porch of the Oceanic Hotel on Star Island, a UU camp and conference center off the coast of New Hampshire. As he tells it, his son is responsible for leading him into the faith. "The summer before, my mother-in-law went to Star Island and took our nine-year-old son, Erik. Our son had a great time. He came home and said, with all the authority a nine-year-old can muster, 'We are going next summer.' And so we did.

"On Star Island I met a UU minister, the Rev. Deane Starr, who has since died. He and I sat on that front porch for a week. He made a comment that opened my eyes. I'd been raised in a very conservative, and racist, German Lutheran church in New Orleans and I hadn't been in church since I walked away from that one after high school.

"Rev. Starr told me it was okay to look for a religion that fits you. He said finding a religion is like finding the right pair of shoes. You keep trying them on until one fits your soul."

Cordes attended Rev. Starr's church in Sherborn, Mass., and then moved to First Parish in Bedford, Mass., when the Rev. Jack Mendelsohn was minister there. In the '90s he served on the Mass Bay District Racial Justice Coordinating Council. He became interested in the Black Empowerment era of the sixties and did some oral histories and then a video, Wilderness Journey, about that period of UUA history.

"I finished that, and that's about when people began asking me what I was going to do next," Cordes said. "And about that same time [the] Rev. John Gibbons at Bedford, where I still attend, expressed a need for a good video to use in teaching UU history.

"So when I retired I started in on that and it turned out to be a richer story than I realized in the beginning," Cordes said.

Cordes got grants totaling around $65,000 from the UU Funding Program, Lay Theological Education Fund, and private sources. He used most of the money to travel, bringing historical figures to life by standing in front of their statues, houses, and churches throughout Europe and the United States.

"I want people in the pews to understand we have as broad and deep and interesting a history as any other religion," Cordes said. His narration is done from notes rather than a script. "I tried to collect as many anecdotes as I could–funny stories people had never heard before. I spent an awful lot of time at the UUA archives at Harvard and in talking to historians who were each very familiar with one little part of our history."

Why did he do videos rather than a book? "Filming is one of my skills. And many people would rather watch a film than pick up a book," Cordes said. He tried to make each DVD so it would stand alone.

So, what's next, now that this project is almost done? "I used about half of the information I had," Cordes said. "Maybe I'll write a book. Who knows?"

There has been at least one review of Long Strange Trip. The Rev. Dr. Phillip Hewett, minister emeritus of the Unitarian Church of Vancouver, B.C., writing in the 2013 issue of the Journal of Unitarian Universalist History, reviewed the first three DVDs–all that were available to him. Hewett calls Long Strange Trip "lively and engaging," adding, "Although almost entirely an illustrated monologue, it never grows tedious. Such a resource is particularly valuable in a UU movement so dependent upon an influx of newcomers with no previous knowledge of its past."

Hewett does suggest some historical errors—a date off by a few years in the 1600s, a monument maybe misplaced by a few feet in Poland, Joseph Priestley taking refuge in the wrong church in England, whether a humanist Polish queen was tolerant of, or simply indifferent to, religious liberals. Hewett also raises a question about some of the links that Cordes makes in attempting to trace liberal religion back 2,000 years, saying that to do so is challenging and creates a danger of distorting historical evidence. Cordes accepts some of Hewett's observations and stands by his own research on others. The review will be posted on the UU History and Heritage Society website.

Cordes' minister, the Rev. John Gibbons of First Parish in Bedford, is enthusiastic about Long Strange Trip. "Ron's project is nothing short of amazing. Ron's a retired electrical engineer, a layperson, and yet he's caught fire as an amateur historian. He produced the signature video documentary of the ‘Black Empowerment controversy.' Now, having been introduced [to] and fallen in love with Unitarians in Transylvania, Ron has connected the historical dots of Unitarian history from ancient history until the present."

Gibbons noted that Cordes filmed in the United States, Spain, Italy, Transylvania, and elsewhere. "He's visited and filmed places that no one has visited in decades. Most importantly, he's made this history accessible, not dry and abstract, but lively and present."

Gibbons added that the title—an homage to a Grateful Dead song—reflects that Cordes is a "Deadhead" or fan of the band. "Ron is no dry historian," Gibbons said. "He's wet and wild. Congregations should use his films to stir their enthusiasm!"

Photograph (above): Ron Cordes has created a six-DVD set of the history of Unitarian Universalism (Carlton SooHoo).

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