Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Robert Senghas

My great grandfather was a Unitarian minister and my family attended that church throughout my time living at home all over the South and Northeast.  I was active in the Unitarian Universalist youth group (LRY) in junior high and high school.

After that, though, I spent 16 years not attending any kind of church, too busy with work, children, day to day concerns.  When I moved back to Vermont in the early 1980s, I rejoined my family church in Burlington and was lucky meet and get to know Bob Senghas who was the minister there and his wife Dorrie.  After living in the West for many years, it felt great to return to a community of thoughtful people who, for the most part, shared my inherited liberal secular humanism.

Bob Senghas was born in Cleveland in 1928.  In his third year at Harvard Law School he married Dorrie who had just graduated from Radcliffe (or Harvard, as she preferred to call it).  He joined a large law firm in San Francisco and practiced estate planning law for five years.  He became restless, feeling he was saving a lot of money for people who had plenty.  He began attending a UU church with Dorrie who was brought up in Concord, Mass., the seat of modern Unitarian Universalism.  One day, after listening to the sermon he said, "I can do that."

Bob spent the next three years at Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, CA while Dorrie taught at a local high school.  After receiving his degree Bob served as minister in Davis, California, Wellesley Hills, Mass. and at the UU denominational headquarters in Boston before coming to Burlington.

One of the most significant periods  Bob remembers was his involvement with the American civil rights movement in Alabama in 1965.  In those years, African Americans in the South faced tremendous obstacles to voting, including poll taxes, literacy tests, and other bureaucratic restrictions to deny them the right to vote. They also risked harassment, intimidation, economic reprisals, and physical violence when they tried to register or vote. As a result, very few African Americans were registered voters, and they had very little, if any, political power, either locally or nationally.

Like so many Americans, Bob and Dorrie watched the violence unfolding on TV.  When James Reeb a UU minister was murdered while marching in Selma, Martin Luther King, Jr. asked ministers from around the country to join him in protest marches.  Despite having a family, Bob felt he had to go since the Unitarian Universalists had taken a strong stand on integration.  The ministers stayed with local UU families and in an African American housing project.  Bob remembers the marchers, mostly middle class people - many women, including Catholic nuns, men in suits and ties, and the realization of the danger they faced.  He says he had never experienced and emotional moment quite like that before or since.

The deadliness of the situation in Alabama hit home when, after Bob returned to California,  his friend Jonathan Daniels, an Episcopal seminary student from New Hampshire, was murdered shortly after picketing whites only businesses.  Bob visited Alabama again as part of the effort to keep state officials and police in compliance with Federal law after the TV camera crews had left.  During and after the marches President Lyndon Johnson advocated for and soon signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Bob's commitment to learning, philosophy and social justice directed his life and led him to write very moving, powerful and thought provoking sermons in the years I knew him.  Bob told me his 20+ year practice of Zen Buddhism at the Zen Mountain Monastery in Mt. Tremper, NY has changed the way he lives and relates to the world.  One important aspect of this serene practice was to help him overcome the frantic end-of-the-week stress of writing his sermon.  He was able to slow down, spread out and organize the process, approach it calmly, let it go in the hours he was not actually working, spend more time with his family and let the thoughts come without feeling frantic about a deadline.  Bob says he never rewrote a sermon.

Bob told me he thinks a primary responsibility of a minister is to earn and deserve the trust of the congregation.  One should be emotionally open and able to accept, if not agree with the differing opinions of people of goodwill.  simply reinforcing the beliefs of those we agree with is not the path of a true spiritual leader.

Cycles of Reflection: On The Mystery And Challenge Of Living, a selection of Bob's writings, collected by Julia Blake is available at the Northshire Bookstore or by emailing Julia.

Bob is a student of Zen Buddhism to this day and also enjoys time with family and friends, tennis, billiards and his viola, taken up later in his life.  He plays with the Amateur Musicians Orchestra and says he feels active, connected and happy. 

Beautiful, quick and courageous Dorrie Senghas died in 2002.  They were married 50 years.  Bob is the father of three children, a grand father and great-grandfather.

I know my own life has been enriched knowing both Bob and Dorrie.


  1. This is a wonderful blog and a touching reflection on Bob Senghas' life and work. I remember Bob from his days at the UU in Burlington and felt touched by his caring.

  2. Bob's life, both present and past, has been both an inspiration and gift to me. Eyes wide open with such wisdom and compassion. I have been fortunate to have been touched by both Dorie and Bob Senghas.

  3. I just happened upon your blog, Gillian, while looking up Bob. The photos of him are wonderful! You've captured the essence of, and the many faces of, a very dear man. What a delightful moment spent with the "blog Bob"... and I always appreciate anything that causes my memories of my dear sweet friend Dorrie to resurface. Thank you! Pam MacPherson

  4. I too happened upon your blog while searching the web for someone else. I was interested in the artwork of Maize Bausch and there you were. Great photos and story about Maize. Also loved the story and Photos about Bob Senghas. After I moved away from the Burlington area I realized how much I missed Bob's sermons. Having been raised Catholic I was not used to sermons that were as touching or as challenging as Bob's. I felt like I had suddenly found a real reason to attend church every Sunday!
    Great blog you have. Check out my latest artwork at or on my blog at