Calvary Troublemakers: Fred Schwengel

by Rev. Leah Grundset
As we continue our series on Calvary Troublemakers, this week we turn to long-time Calvary member Fred Schwengel. We are especially honored and thankful to welcome Fred’s wife Ethel, a long-time Calvary member and Fred and Ethel’s daughter, Dot to worship this morning. We hope that everyone will take a moment to welcome our special guests today.

As I began conducting my research this week on Fred Schwengel, I quickly learned that everyone I talked with had a story about Fred. Some of them I can repeat during worship and some you can ask me about after worship. But in all seriousness, everyone loved and admired this Calvary troublemaker.

Fred and his wife Ethel were from Iowa. They moved to DC when Fred began to represent his district in Iowa as a Congressman. But he was making trouble and standing up for what he believed in long before that. Fred’s parents were German immigrants who moved to the United States so many years ago in search of religious freedom and a better life for their family. To say that separation of church and state and welcoming the stranger was in Fred Schwengel’s blood would be an understatement. He was a direct descendant of the great Reformer- Ulrich Zwingli. Besides having an amazing last name, Zwingli was a staunch supporter of the separation of church and state and the reformation of the church.

As I spoke with Dot this week, she told me she remembers sitting around the dinner table on more than one occasion when Fred would be having an intense conversation about Baptist principles and the separation of church and state.

Fred’s assistant Allan Schimmel, told me this week that Fred was a great statesman, but everyone else didn’t necessarily appreciate his commitment to separation of church and state. In fact, a billboard in his Iowa district was put up, which attacked him for opposing prayer in schools. He supported the supreme court decision that said school boards could not write prayers for students. He believe that people could pray wherever they wanted, but opposed the state acting as representative of the church.  Prayer was an individual determination- he held a strong position on this.

As Fred and Ethel became more and more involved at Calvary, Fred also became a staunch advocates for DC home rule. Fred served on the DC Committee of the House and often he heard from people back home that they couldn’t understand why he was so committed to working for the people of DC.

His assistant also told me that it was a joy to work for Fred, but that they were long, long days, weeks, months and years. He always had energy and devoted himself to whatever project was coming next. He delved into the Baptist Joint Committee and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

And at Calvary, he was always up to something here. Teaching Sunday School, serving on committees or taking furiously scribbled notes on all the sermons–he was present and engaged in the life of this place. Our own Dee Robbins, told me this story about Fred:

Fred was always taking people from church on tours of the Capitol building. In particular Dee remembers her nephew coming for a visit, a historian himself, studying at UNC. He was blind and knew every inch of the Capitol building that he had read about. Fred took him on a tour and Dee says she remembering vividly how wonderful it was to see the two of them walking the halls of the Capitol, discussing church and state. They were in their own little world full of the politics of the day and visiting the chambers of the house and senate. Fred’s passion and commitment to the church moved her. And this simple action of giving someone a tour meant the world to her nephew.

This Calvary troublemaker, Fred Schwengel left quite the legacy for all of us here today. Calvary is honored to have called him a member and we are so blessed to know that a larger glimpse of the kingdom of God was gathered through the voice of Fred Schwengel. This Calvary troublemaker can inspire us to hold on to our core Baptist belief of separation of church and state and live it out in tangible ways.  Makes me think that Fred always knew he was…a different kind of Baptist.

Next week: Brooks Hays

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