The Rev. Steve Crump has never been one to dodge a controversy.
Three weeks after he began his pastorate at the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge in 1983, the church held an event recognizing the 10th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion. When protesters showed up outside the church, Crump invited them in to discuss the issue.
“That's an example of an inexperienced minister doing something he probably should have thought twice about,” Crump said. “There wasn’t dialogue. There was a shouting match on our property invited by the new minister.”
His reaction might explain why he remained the church’s pastor until last Sunday.
“Steve thought on his feet very quickly as these people were haranguing us and started singing ‘God Bless America,’” said longtime member Holley Haymaker. “So, we all started singing ‘God Bless America’ and left in peace. I thought that was a great example of fast thinking and uplifting thinking.”
Crump, 69, has retired from the ministry, receiving a send-off reception Jan. 6 at the church on Goodwood Boulevard. He was by far the longest-serving pastor in the church’s almost 70-year history.
“He had a very successful ministry in terms of relating to the congregation,” said member Rebecca Cureau. “His leadership, both spiritual and his administrative leadership, has just been very effective. The fact that he’s been here 36 years speaks volumes for not only how well he’s beloved by the congregation but his effective relationship to the community as well.”
That relationship to the community often came in stances that were unpopular outside the walls of the Unitarian church — and not unanimously supported inside.
He spoke out against U.S. aid to the Nicaraguan Contra rebels in 1986 and invited anti-Iraq War activist Cindy Sheehan to speak in the church in 2006. Crump blessed a same-sex marriage in the 1980s — long before such unions were legally recognized — spoke against capital punishment and advocated gun control after Japanese exchange student Yoshi Hattori, who attended the church’s youth programs, was shot to death in 1992 when he showed up at the wrong house for a Halloween party and the homeowner mistook him for an intruder.
“For me, his political courageousness has been an inspiration,” said Haymaker, whose family hosted Hattori. “Steve took on the issue that needed to be taken on."
“The church was overflowing on the memorial service three days after Yoshi was shot," she said. "Steve led the service, and his opening words were, ‘Guns, guns, guns. How could this not have happened here?’ That really inspired us and reassured the Hattoris that these were people who would take action, and we did.”
Crump doesn’t take all the credit.
“Social justice was in the DNA of the founding of this church way back in ’51, long before I arrived,” he said.
Crump arrived after spending most of his life in Illinois. He was one of five children in a farm family near Bloomington who attended a Methodist church, but he left while in college because it became too theologically conservative for his taste.
“I thought religion should be a wide place, a broad place,” Crump said. “It’s full of mystery. No one knows for sure, in my opinion, what is beyond this life. No one has a Polaroid shot of God.
“I thought if anything should be open to inquiry and study and conversation without judging people wrong for whatever ideas they may have about these religious questions, the biggest questions of life — where did I come from, where am I going, how shall I live my life — it ought to be religion.”
After graduating from Indiana State University, Crump worked both on-air and selling ads for a radio station. But he felt drawn to ministry and thought his training in music and theater and his speaking ability made that a good career choice. He received theological training at the University of Chicago and Meadville Lombard Theological School and simultaneously led two churches in Illinois and Iowa before the Baton Rouge church hired him as its pastor.
Crump was one of a group of community leaders who started The Greater Baton Rouge Federation of Churches and Synagogues in 1986, now called the Interfaith Federation of Greater Baton Rouge.
His leadership has been more than just taking on social issues. Church members credit Crump for greatly enhancing the worship experience.
“He brings music and drama and optimism,” Haymaker said. “My husband, who is not a church guy but did join the church eventually, said even when he falls asleep, he wakes up inspired when he goes to one of Steve’s services. His services really do inspire you. So much of it is because he is persistently optimistic.”
Crump plans to remain in the area but, in keeping with denominational tradition, will not attend the church so its next pastor will be able to lead without his predecessor’s interference. His optimism extends to the church’s future, both in its internal relationships and connection to larger issues.
“Out of all of this, since we’re not going to agree politically, we’re not going to agree theologically, we’re not going to agree on who should marry whom, then what are we going to agree on?” Crump said. “We’d better agree on how to love one another and how to be a face-to-face community.
“Any good church has a great future because it will be more imperative to be face to face in a high-tech, low-touch world, which is the kind of world we’re living in.”