The Rev. Rock Schuler's Beliefs Are As Firm As His Name. That Gains Admirers - And Critics. Feisty Lansdale Rector Offers Both Comfort And Challenge

Posted: July 13, 1997

Seven years ago, fresh out of the seminary and barely into his stint as a small-town priest, the Rev. Rock Schuler sat up late one night struggling with a eulogy for a double funeral.

A drunken father had shot his teenage son and then himself. Their hometown of Meeteetse, Wyo., (population 300) was reeling.

Father Schuler knew his job was to heal. It was also to lead, to find the good in an evil act, and to address the real-life issues that helped create the tragedy. But how, he wondered, does a 25-year-old out-of-towner broach gun control and alcohol abuse in the rural West - and still comfort the afflicted?

``I thought these things had to be addressed, and I knew nobody was going to do it if I didn't,'' he said last week in his office at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Lansdale, where he is now rector. ``I was scared of not being a healing presence, but I didn't want to let the community off the hook.''

The approach was quintessential Schuler: Hold people to a higher standard; work for change; don't be too comfortable.

Part ideological pugilist, part crusader: In his three years in Lansdale, Father Schuler's style and substance have earned him a growing public presence, a rapidly increasing congregation - and a 6-inch-thick manila folder filled with hate mail.

``I have a vision of this parish being a beacon of light,'' he said. ``Sometimes that means challenging the status quo.''

An unreconstructed liberal since his college days, when he flirted with the idea of entering politics, Father Schuler, 32, finds himself an increasingly recognized progressive voice in an overwhelmingly conservative area.

The Wyoming native inherited his first name from his father, who had been nicknamed ``Rock'' because of his stubbornness. In college, the younger Schuler was attracted by the progressive and activist bent of the Episcopal Church and converted from Lutheranism. He moved to Lansdale with his wife, Patricia, and their two daughters after two years in a parish in Casper, where he had gone after leaving Meeteetse.

In Wyoming, Father Schuler consistently found himself preaching against the norm and drawing fire. In Lansdale, his introduction to controversy came in 1995, when North Penn school-board member Donna Mengel was accused of gloating that as a Christian who had found salvation, she would watch a Jewish school-board member with whom she was politically at odds burn in hell.

Mengel, now president of the school board, has consistently denied making the remarks.

The allegations hit the newspapers in June that year. As the treasurer of the North Penn Ministerium, a local clergy association whose members were mostly away on vacation at the time, Father Schuler spoke out at the next school-board meeting against the remarks attributed to Mengel. Most area clergy distanced themselves from him immediately, he said.

``They wanted to sit back and see what would happen, but I wanted to refute the claims. They were out there. Whether or not she said them became almost immaterial at that point,'' he said. ``They needed to be addressed.''

To do that, he said, he helped organize the Coalition for Human Dignity, to get out the word that the sentiment - if not the woman accused of uttering it - was wrong. In the process, Father Schuler said, he came to personify religious liberalism for many conservatives. Screeds against his ``devil's work'' starting arriving in the mail.

When an independent counsel concluded that Mengel had made the remark, the Coalition for Human Dignity called for her to resign. She refused and went on to win a second term.

Father Schuler's outspokenness cut both ways. Though many came to see him as a strong voice against intolerance, others viewed him as an intolerant voice against Mengel.

``I found his total judgment that he wagered against Donna to be very unjust and very intolerant,'' said school-board member Charisse Krieger. ``I thought in this country you were innocent before proven guilty, and it just seemed that for a man of the cloth, he was really judgmental. Frankly, he is the last person I would go to for spiritual guidance.''

Father Schuler has remained a controversial figure, and it has both hurt and helped him. Since his arrival at Holy Trinity, 120 members of the congregation have left, and 260 new members have joined. Contributions have doubled. The church has bought several properties and has started some youth programs, many of which have that same progressive, activist bent that so appealed to the young Rock Schuler.

He has challenged his congregants to become activists. The parish has joined a program to provide meals for AIDS patients and is organizing a shelter for homeless men in Lansdale, a $400,000 project that he hopes will be completed by January. He has spoken out in favor of discussing homosexual marriages within the church.

``People are responding, because we're touching something important here,'' Father Schuler said.

In May, he was awarded the Sylvia Cohen Award by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Philadelphia. The award goes to an individual who has worked to bridge gaps between communities.

``He is a young man, and he is new to the community, but he is not afraid to speak out,'' said the council's Judy Greenberg.

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