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How Richard Emmanuel became reverend of a church with a mission but no members

GLOUCESTER – If you remember the Sixties, it’s been said, you weren’t really there. Richard Emmanuel remembers the Sixties, though. Vividly. Not only was he there — man, was he there — but in 1968, when he was 22 and the counterculture was in full freak-flag-waving bloom, he founded his own church in Gloucester, the blue-collar fishing town where he’d spent summers as a youth.

The Church, as it became known, has been many things — meeting house, art gallery, counseling office, meditation center — to many people for the past 44 years. Now, threatened with foreclosure by the bank, it may soon join Ken Kesey’s Merry Prankster bus as a mothballed relic of the flower-power 60s.

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If so, the church and its founder — part gadfly, part spiritual counselor, a free-spirited exemplar of a bygone, trippy era — will bring a unique chapter in Gloucester history to a close.

Emmanuel, who is 66 and underwent major heart surgery a year ago, says he knows three things to be true: “One, nobody gets out of here alive. Two, your collection stays here, because shrouds don’t have pockets. And three, there is no meaning to this life unless you create it.”

Also, he adds with a laugh, “If you come across an organized religion without a sense of humor, run for your life.” Perhaps that explains the sign outside the building that reads: “Come Participate in Nothing.”

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Organization of any kind has seldom been Emmanuel’s strong suit. And now health issues and financial woes have put him in a bind not even prayer, or humor, may get him out of.

Since his surgery, Emmanuel has been unable to work in his only income-generating capacity: as a consultant to firms like General Electric, advising them on how to market their products using iconography and narrative, religious and otherwise. With few donations trickling into his church — which has never had any membership per se, or worship services, either — he’s fallen six months behind on his mortgage.

He’s now negotiating a repayment plan with his bank. Meanwhile, he’s trying to raise money by selling off pieces of artwork he’s made over the decades. And if he’s unsuccessful?

“I hate asking people for money,” he says with a shrug. “I guess I have a different view of reality from most. Maybe I’m The Fool in the Tarot deck, but that’s who I am.”

Pegging Emmanuel, and how serious he is, really, about religion or anything else, has never been easy, even among his friends and admirers.

Is he a man ahead of his time (pro-environment, anti-mainstream religion)? Of his time? (Church visitors once had to burn a $1 bill upon entering.) Or is he out of step with modern times, having no reliable income source or solid financial plan? It’s hard to say.

Some locals have viewed Emmanuel as a survivor, but also as a gadfly who’s taken unpopular positions on civic issues. In the ’70s, the church was firebombed after Emmanuel questioned a sweeping urban-renewal initiative and whether allowing a fish-waste processing plant to continue polluting Gloucester Harbor was wise policy. A bid by the city to seize private property in his neighborhood to industrialize the harbor area also incurred Emmanuel’s wrath.

His refusal to pay property taxes — Emmanuel claimed constitutional protection as a religious institution — resulted in a prolonged fight to achieve tax-exempt status. With city officials pressing him for payment, the matter took nearly 10 years to be resolved in his favor, aided by the ACLU and a state Supreme Court ruling.

To those who’ve accused Emmanuel of running a “hippie church” or questioned his value to the community at large, that outcome wasn’t necessarily a landmark victory for religious freedom.

“I’ve always thought he was doing this not for humanity but for himself,” says Gordon Baird, a longtime Gloucester resident and cofounder of Musician magazine. Operating a tax-exempt church may have helped support Emmanuel’s countercultural lifestyle, notes Baird, but what it’s done to help Gloucester’s wider population is not so clear-cut.

Emmanuel’s art installations, which fill much of the church building, do not aim to soothe troubled souls. Pieces range from the playfully humorous, like a Mickey Mouse-themed sculpture in the front courtyard, to the graphically phallic and blood-soaked, objects meant to shock and provoke thought about humanity’s darker impulses.

His church is certainly not a house of worship in any conventional sense. Though deeply serious about spiritual matters and concepts of God, Emmanuel is appalled by what he sees as organized religions’ failings. In that regard, and with young people turning from mainstream religion in record numbers, according to recent surveys, his message of find-your-own-path spirituality could hardly be more timely.

From the Middle East to the United States, he points out, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are at war with one another, causing a younger generation to become both weary of global conflict and wary of hierarchical institutions.

“Messianic religions will take you to terrible places because they all claim to be The One,” says Emmanuel, a stout, bald man who dresses in black robes and bears some resemblance to Marlon Brando’s enigmatic character in “Apocalypse Now.”

When asked how many members his church claims, Emmanuel laughs. “We have a perfect score — zero,” he replies, eyes twinkling. “Because the minute we get a membership, I’ve failed.”

As for the appellation “reverend,” which he freely uses: He took it only after the phone company listed him in the white pages as such, back in 1968. That’s right: He’s ordained by Ma Bell.

In the past, Emmanuel says, donors who share his environmental views and applaud his work with youth groups have quietly (and mostly anonymously) written checks to support the church. But a fragile economy has hurt him, too, choking off the $25,000 that once rolled in yearly. With coffers dry, he may have to move on.

Jeremy Jayne , 21, a Boston University senior who’s making a film about Emmanuel, sees a big loss if that happens. Emmanuel, he says, is a “matured version of the hippie ethos,” one that’s undergoing a generational revival among young people like himself.

“Richard’s like a living time capsule who’s remained very young in many ways,” says Jayne, who was introduced to Emmanuel by B.U. professor Carl Ruck, an authority on the religious use of psychoactive plants. “He’s a cultural artifact and living legend who’s gotten almost no recognition, though he should.”

According to Mac Bell, 60, a local businessman and former city councilor, Emmanuel is an integral part of Gloucester’s unique makeup of working people and working artists.

“Richard’s brilliance comes from having the courage to stand up and say something,” says Bell. “Many people are unwilling to risk their popularity and security, but Richard has always been willing to put it out there.”

Anthony Petro, a B.U. religion professor and authority on religion in American, sees a connection between Emmanuel’s church, such as it is, and other idiosyncratic religious movements that sprang up in the ’60s.

“You get a huge number of spiritual awakenings back then, a moving away from the mainstream toward the New Age that really builds on the Transcendentalists,” says Petro.

Part of that era’s legacy was a focus on the spiritual but not the religious, Perto adds, and on creating artwork that tapped into those energy sources, much as Emmanuel has.

An appreciation for art and a restless, questing consciousness have been part of Emmanuel’s makeup for decades. He grew up in Lynn, where his father worked as a mechanic for General Electric and his mother, a portrait painter and teacher, was liberal-leaning member of the Catholic Church.

Emmanuel attended The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., studying comparative religion, philosophy, and architecture. After concluding that Christianity was “a story that didn’t fit me,” he dropped out and used his remaining college tuition to purchase a gothic structure built in 1886 on Gloucester’s eastern shore and abandoned by the Methodists in 1957. Married at the time, he and his spouse split up long ago, and he has no children.

His growing interest in Eastern religions, mysticism, psychedelia, and theosophy, came to him naturally, he says, his church reflecting all those interests — and more — as it’s evolved.

Years ago, Emmanuel removed the pews from the second-floor sanctuary, painted it black, and turned the space into a walk-in gallery filled with his own artwork, pieces that turn traditional religious iconography on its head. One piece, “Stillborn Jesus,” was shown at Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum in 2007 exhibit. A Washington Post review likened it to Andres Serrano’s notorious “Piss Christ.”

In 2006, Emmanuel created a walk-in installation, “Between Iraq and a Hard Place,” filled with dozens of works representing the savagery of warfare. A third-floor area serves as meditation room and counseling office, where Emmanuel meets with individuals and families. He does not charge for these sessions and refers individuals to other counselors or healthcare professionals when the situation warrants.

For decades, Emmanuel spoke out about the folly of warfare and against environmental mismanagement in and around Gloucester. Those battles wearied him, he now concedes. He basically stopped fighting them 20 years ago.

“I’ve been a pariah at times,” he acknowledges, “but I don’t want the attention, personally. People are supposed to become conscious that what you sow is what you’re going to reap. And I have not been successful in getting that across.”

By offering his artwork in exchange for donations, he’s hoping to raise $250,000 to shore up his finances. Should he fail, he’ll likely lose the adjacent rectory building first. That’s where he lives, yet he’s resigned to that loss, too, if it’s inevitable.

“I tell younger people this is life, and life’s about struggles,” Emmanuel says. Rather than “Lead us not into temptation,” he adds, “I say, ‘Lead us into temptation and really find out. Because if it isn’t tested, what is it worth?”

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com.
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