Sending a message: Rev. Mike Burr blends religious, social sentiments
S o many things began making sense that day on campus, but to put them in perspective, head farther back, to the Sunday School room of a conservative Baptist church in Jerome, Idaho.
Mike Burr’s mom had dropped him and his two older brothers off. It was 1952, and this was the sort of congregation that thought Billy Graham was a communist. There was a lot of fire and even more brimstone, and “according to the preaching, it seemed like there were only going to be about 35 people in heaven,” Burr recalled.
But then in Sunday School, the message was that Jesus loves the children. Even at age 5 and 6, Burr was touched deeply by ideas of loving kindness and peace.
“Just from really early time, as I read the Biblical narrative of what Jesus was about, He loved people and He wasn’t judgmental,” Burr said. “On the one hand, I was getting all this fire and brimstone stuff, but then I had this very deep, internal sense that this is not what Jesus was about.”
That internal sense has guided him through almost 40 years of ministry, most recently at Koinonia, a Spiritual Community, prompting him to advocate for social causes at home and abroad, to personally and with his congregation extend a hand to the downtrodden and to set an example of merging spiritual belief with social conscience — the idea that faith and love require action.
“I think he weds his religious sentiments with his social sentiments very well,” said Sister Karen Bland, executive director of Grand Valley Catholic Outreach who has worked with Burr through the Grand Valley Interfaith Network. “He’s very passionate about justice and peace and he doesn’t just talk about it with his congregation, he leads them in terms of getting involved.”
So, back to that day during his freshman year at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash. He was walking down the street and passed a group of students having some kind of gathering. He stopped to chat and they invited him inside, where they were painting signs for a civil rights protest march.
It turned out they were members of a campus ministry, and Burr, now 66, found “a spot that worked for me in terms of my world view and my faith.”
All along, the seeds had been growing. He was shaped by the brown earth and stark horizons of Jerome, where previous generations of his family had moved from Arkansas to work on a water project. His father, a World War II veteran, drank and left the family when Burr was 3, but there’s little bitterness because “I’m sure he had serious PTSD from the war,” Burr said. But that left his mother alone with three sons and a dollar-an-hour job clerking at the grocery store.
Eventually, she met and married a man who owned a farm implements business, and it was through his stepfather that Burr’s social conscience began growing. Jerome is a few miles from the Minidoka Japanese internment camp, and Burr’s stepfather did some work nearby so Burr sometimes accompanied him.
“Seeing the fences and the guard posts,” Burr recalled, “seeing the tar paper barracks people were forced to live in, that really opened my eyes.”
Before fourth grade — and just before he would have had to have the meanest teacher dreaded by his mother and brothers — the family moved to Auburn, Wash., after the farm implement business failed. Through junior high and high school, Burr continued his philosophical and spiritual questioning.
“That’s when Martin Luther King Jr. really came upon the scene,” Burr said. “His message really resonated with me, which really set me apart from my family. My whole family is very conservative, so I’ve always been the black sheep.”
His relationship with his stepfather was fraught, and he left home at 16, living with a youth pastor from his church while he finished high school. Then it was straight into college, in the early 1960s, when the world seemed aflame, when his spiritual questions seemed wider and more confusing and no closer to answers. Through his life, though, he would learn that often the questions just as important as the answers.
After that day when he met members of the campus ministry, he threw himself into involvement. They marched and protested and were part of the underground network that got boys facing the draft into Canada. And that was something Burr himself faced in 1966.
His Selective Service board wouldn’t grant conscientious objector status, he said, “and I was 1-A, I’d run out of money for college, and I’d already had friends go (to Vietnam) and come back basket cases.
“So, when you’re surrounded, attack. I looked at all the military branches and signed up for the Air Force, and crossed my fingers I wouldn’t be drafted before I could join.”
After three days of basic training, he crawled into a closet with a blanket and sat in the lotus position until superior officers found him. He was discharged.
“I could have resisted the draft and gone to jail,” he said, “so I’m ambivalent about how that happened.”
But at the same time, his beliefs were beginning to coalesce. Through study across world religions, through poring over scripture, through entrenchment in history-making events, he said he began to have a clearer view of the “compassionate nature of God,” he said.
He wasn’t sure about his place in an institutional church, but was inspired enough after graduating to attend the American Baptist Seminary of the West in San Francisco. It was across the street from People’s Park, a central spot for revolutionary ideas and talk of change, so his religious studies were balanced with the further development of his passion for social justice and practical charity.
Burr was greatly influenced by liberation theology, which interprets Jesus Christ’s teachings in relation to the suffering of the poor and oppressed. He also was influenced by Gestalt psychology, which he studied for several years, initially to help with a lifelong stutter.
From his studies came this: “I got the sense that all of creation is the word, the expression of God,” he said. “To separate off one little piece, to separate out the Bible or the Koran, for example, and to separate it from the rest of creation is a mistake. All of creation has to be taken as a piece. I find as much holy writ in quantum physics as there is in the Bible.”
At age 28, after graduating seminary, he began working in the counseling center at Seattle First Baptist Church and then for Fremont Baptist Church in Seattle. The neighborhood was sketchy, to say the least, and he spent a lot of time working with teenagers in bad situations, people persecuted for their sexuality or hard luck cases who needed a break.
The best religion, he learned, is often an extended hand, a kind word, a willingness to push for change.
Because he had a wife and a daughter by this point, and though he’d loved his six years at Seattle churches, he couldn’t get by with half-time pay, and the family moved to Moscow, Idaho, where he lived for 13 years as pastor of an American Baptist and Disciples of Christ church.
When he and his wife divorced, the church ladies rallied, allowing him to bring his daughter, Ruth, to work. Several years later, he met a lovely woman named Barbara, now his wife, and they raised her two sons and Ruth together.
Change came when Burr’s Moscow congregation got caught up in church politics and he knew it was time for new challenges. The family moved to Issaquah, Wash., and lived for more than nine years and then, in 2004, to Grand Junction, where Burr became pastor at Koinonia, a Spiritual Community.
He’d had experience living in conservative areas, he said, but he didn’t know what to expect coming to the Grand Valley. Would his passion for gay rights be a problem? His belief in fighting for, he said, “what Jesus called ‘the least of these’”? What he found, then, was this: a congregation of open-minded action takers and willing advocates for social justice, an ecumenical community of cooperation and a home.
His approach at Koinonia has been one of collaboration, he said. Somebody had an idea for a community garden, so they worked together to make it happen. Someone else suggested a helping relationship with a town in El Salvador, so as a congregation they got to work. Meditation classes, study groups, a preschool, active involvement with the Grand Valley Interfaith Network — Burr oversaw it but a community of believers made it happen.
It was this commitment that led to him being named the Western Colorado Atheists and Freethinkers’ Person of the Year in 2011.
“Mike is a very fine man as well as a humanist,” said Earle Mullen, former president of Western Colorado Atheists and Freethinkers. “He’s an advocate for the poor and the exploited at home and in other countries and he pushes for separation of church and state, which aligns with our group’s wishes and goals. His congregation is progressively Christian and places a strong emphasis on social justice. He’s a progressive, open-minded man.”
He plans to retire in June, but sees no end to need and, therefore, to the work he can do — advocating for justice, preaching peace, listening, gently guiding, living his beliefs as an expression of love.
“My purpose in life is to leave the world better than what I found it,” he said. “To meet people and come away knowing that they and I are better for it.”