Call of the Valley: Bob MacDicken, Unitarian minister

Shelly Frome
Special to The Black Mountain News

Like many a Black Mountain tale, Bob MacDicken’s journey encompasses many forks along the road. Otherwise, perhaps, he would not be a Unitarian minister today but back in Washington State at a seminary, or working for the government, or engaging in the word of music.

There is one constant however, and it all stems from being raised in a welcoming Baptist community and “being taken with something about religion,” as he said.

At the age 12, MacDicken came upon the social gospel of Pastor Harry Emerson Fosdick, an outspoken opponent of racism and injustice and an advocate of responsible Christianity. At the same time, MacDicken had had an urge to be like Albert Schweitzer, to become a medical missionary and take care of all the sick people who desperately needed help. But by the time he later confronted the realities of pre-med (cutting up frogs made him ill), he realized he he had to find some other way to do good in this world.

Studying at University of California Berkeley’ Baptist Divinity School during the free speech movement days, he was in an anti-war play when he came under the influence of Bernard Loomer, a theologian at the college who delighted in diversity and the wonder of existence. Loomer loomed large in MacDicken’s final college thesis.

“I was told to write my own theology,” MacDicken said. The exercise forced him to examine his assumptions and the results of those assumptions on his life. The examination changed him in a profound way. “I still went into the ministry,” he said, “but I was now on a very liberal end of the spectrum.”

In his first post in Port Townsend, Washington, he was engaged in ecumenical activities of all faiths and with an anti-poverty agency. After that, he moved to Virginia and became involved in a host of social welfare programs. He was also employed in supply ministry for Methodists and Presbyterians and even stepped in as a rabbi for a small Jewish temple.

A few decades later, he became affiliated with the Quaker movement, found himself missing music as an integral part of church services and, in relatively short order, began serving as a Unitarian minister in Hickory. All of this led to his finally settling down with his wife Eileen in what, for the two of them, proved to be the most ideal setting possible, right here in the Valley.

Enter Joe Hemphill, the first police officer in Black Mountain, and a chance encounter as one thing led to another. As it happens, Hemphill and MacDicken’s wife got into a deep discussion about politics and got along so well that Hemphill offered the couple a house he’d recently purchased in Christmount at cost plus one dollar.

Asked why he moved here, he said:

“For a small town, Black Mountain has a hugely diverse social structure that’s amazing,” MacDicken said. “We could literally not go out our door without finding a kindred spirit somewhere. Wherever we go, we find people who understand what it’s like to be us because they too have a variety of interests. Different reasons, different people, but we all find some point where we can connect.

“Moreover and as it happens, the first principle of Unitarian Universalism is a belief in the inherent worth and dignity of all human beings. I can take that assumption into 90 percent of places in Black Mountain, greet people and get the same in return. For everyone who values the uniqueness of this community, it’s worth any struggle to maintain this wonderful quality of life.”

Call of the Valley is writer Shelly Frome’s periodic profile of people who find themselves drawn to the Swannanoa Valley.