By Adam Edelman
Shortly after World War II when Gary Connors-Boe’s parents were not getting pregnant as quickly as some of their friends, Gary’s pious Lutheran mother made a deal with God. She promised that if God would allow her and her returning G.I. husband to have a son, she would, like Anna in Hebrew scripture, dedicate the boy to the service of God. Soon after, for the usual reasons, she became pregnant and Gary was born. He grew up with frequent reminders of this “miracle” and the obligations that came with it, obligations that he accepted initially.
Gary had the “Leave It To Beaver” version of a normal 50s childhood. Kind and loving parents, he did well in school, and had no lack of friends to ride bikes with, play baseball and football, and occasionally make mischief. It wasn’t until the eighth grade that Gary had any experience that challenged his middleclass American enculturation, that was when he walked into the biology class taught by Jim McDowell, one of those rare and gifted instructors who could do more than just teach a subject, he could teach young people to think for themselves. Many years later, Gary would realize McDowell’s pedagogical method as Cartesian. He told his students to ask, “under what circumstances might what an authority figure has posited be NOT true.” At the same time and contrariwise, Gary’s Lutheran pastor and confirmation teacher, a stern and humorless vicar who held Gary and other adolescents captive for two hours every Sunday morning, was laboring diligently to render the sin of curiosity from each of his students. Memorization was his game, and he allowed few questions other than timid requests for bathroom breaks. He was a wooden fundamentalist who believed the Earth was created in 4004 B.C., beginning on October the 23rd, at the sensible hour of 7 A.M.
That’s what Gary was served up for confirmation class on Saturday and church on Sunday. For the rest of the week he was under the exhilarating spell of scientific discovery in Mr. McDowell’s class. There he was fascinated by what the Leaky family had discovered in Oldivae Gorge in Africa. Australopithecine, the five foot tall, tool making, three million year old antecedent of us all. It was a humanesque bi-pedal savanna dweller that possessed a brain one-third the size of ours, yet it was large enough to sustain its species far longer than we Homo Sapiens have sustained ourselves to date. What Gary learned in biology class just seemed to carry more weight as an explanation for the origin of man than his pastor’s interpretations of the Old Testament, not to mention it was a lot more interesting. Gary’s pastor once claimed that the Bible was either all true or all fraud, and it soon became clear to Gary that Christianity was a fool’s errand. At the beginning of the two year Confirmation process he had been hands down the pastor’s best student, being a prodigious memorizer, but by the time graduation came around Gary was “just doing it for the Bulova watch and the money gifts.” So much for serving God.
Years later, Gary WOULD end up in seminary after all, having found that it was possible to believe in both Darwinist and Christian theory. In the second of his four years in graduate school he discovered Paul Tillich, the polymath existentialist German theologian who fled the Nazis during the war and wrote “The Courage To Be,” a book once referred to as “a grown-up’s ‘Catcher In The Rye’” by John F. Kennedy. Tillich says it is foolish to ask the question, “Are you religious?” since the word “religion” derives from the Greek “religio,” meaning that which ties together, as in “ligament.” Everyone has something that ties things together for them, and whatever that thing is, is their ultimate concern, or god, in Tillich’s view. He further proposes that some concerns/gods are better than others. The way Tillich defined an adequate god is a god that does three things for its devotees. The first is it gives a sense of identity. The second, it protects from evil in the profound sense, and the third is to provide “the good life,” a life that is satisfying.
Through Tillich Gary realized that after leaving the God of his upbringing, his new god, what tied things together for him, came through what he learned from the natural sciences, and from the friends he was surrounded by. His friends gave Gary their group identity, protected him from the teenage evil of having no friends and thus being labeled a “nerd,” and with his friends he engaged in many pleasing activities. But the problem with gods is they can break down. Friends disperse after graduation, but opportunities for a new god always arise when the old one is gone.
“I graduated from high school and some of my friends went to the University of Nebraska, others went elsewhere, and suddenly the group breaks down. So I have to find another God. At one point my God was being an army aviator and a captain. I felt, who am I? I’m captain Gary Boe, United States Army, helicopter pilot.”
Of course, that God broke down too when Gary returned to civilian life. He then became a successful salesman. It felt good, for a time, just to make money and excel in his career, Gary said, but he began to realize that way of life was not going to be sustainable for him. He desired protection from being unsuccessful, but he also wanted protection from the sense of meaninglessness that kind of life can bring. There was no earth-shattering event in his life that led him to rediscover his faith, go to seminary school, and become a pastor. Instead, the change came as an increasing desire to bring meaning to his identity.
“I don’t like to sound like some fanatic, although I probably am on some level a fanatic, but the whole idea is that for me the Christian story frees me from worrying about myself so much, and frees me to give a hoot about others.”
Gary is now a retired pastor, and he works as the Family Support Specialist and Program Coordinator for Four Oaks, a non-profit child welfare, juvenile justice, and behavioral health agency based in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. It is the largest child welfare agency in Iowa, and serves almost fifteen thousand kids a year. Four Oaks has also partnered with the Iowa Youth Writing Project to provide literacy education to some of the children who receive services from Four Oaks.
Anyone who sits down with Gary and discusses faith and religion will quickly realize he is not a common Christian apologist. For one thing, he said his religious reawakening could have just as easily brought him to Buddhism or Judaism, which, Gary said, are wonderful traditions too. It just so happened to be the Christian tradition that he had grown up around and it was therefore that tradition that he reinvestigated and got caught up in. Gary also believes that Jesus didn’t do a whole lot that was new and different. Jesus is significant for Gary because he repristinated the prophets of the Old Testament who spoke about distributive justice and working on behalf of the widow and orphan. It is this spirit of social justice that inspired Gary to utilize his talents as a salesman and as a theologian to give back to his community through the Four Oaks organization. He points to a passage in the book of Mathew, chapter twenty-five, as particularly inspiring to him.
“I was hungry, and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty, and you gave me drink. I was a stranger, and you took me in. I was naked, and you clothed me. I was sick, and you visited me. I was in prison, and you came to me.”
Gary has spent time working with people in prison, he has been involved in world hunger issues for thirty years as a donor and as a letter writer to congress. He’s a member of Bread for the World, a hunger lobby group. He has also been involved in gay and lesbian issues, women’s issues, and refugee issues. However, Gary wants to distance himself from the viewpoint that these kinds of “good works” are rewarded with paradise in the afterlife.
“I enjoy doing it, I don’t feel like I have to do it in order to get some post-life reward or avoid some post-life punishment, I’m not sure what I believe about what happens when a person dies. I’d like to think that the God who Jesus revealed loves us enough that he doesn’t want death to end the relationship, but beyond that I don’t know.”
By Drawing on his own experiences of personal growth, Gary is able to connect with the children and families who are served by Four Oaks. Gary noticed that the ultimate concern for many of the youth he works with is their friends, just as it was for him after he began to seek an identity that he wasn’t born into. Gary said friends are not a bad God to have for teens because it’s a functional God. Through the time spent hanging out with other teenagers they discover an identity independent of their parents at a time in their lives when that is very important to them. It allows teenagers to make a break with their family’s values, even though they can’t yet break physically by moving out. Having friends while undertaking the adventure of breaking with family values makes the adventure less frightening. Observing the importance of friends to the teenagers he works with has, in turn, helped Gary to understand his own journey to find a fulfilling identity.
“There are a lot of people who do the kind of thing that I do not because it’s the only thing we can do, not because we’re stuck in some way, but because we see it as a mission. The money isn’t good, the possibilities of burnout are high, because we don’t always get the results we would like to get, but nonetheless I think that I am paradigmatic of a lot of people. It’s a cause. If not a religious cause as it is in my case, it just comes out of the fact that they have hearts as big as Iowa barns. It just seems to be a good and redemptive thing to do.”
Whether Gary’s passion for his work at Four Oaks is the result of divine inspiration or biological hard wiring, he doesn’t seemed to be disturbed by either possibility. Gary has no delusions of grandeur about having a monopoly on what might be ultimately true. What is most important to him is that he has chosen his way for himself. Gary claims his identity, his God, and enjoys what he does for a living. Through his work at Four Oaks and beyond, Gary continues to help others find “the good life” for themselves.