This is not to say that we should turn our backs on basic tenets that make us uniquely “Odd Fellows”. Friendship, love and truth will never go out of style and we should do our best to live up to these ideals. If we are real and honest friends to the members of our Odd Fellows Lodge and fraternal Order, if we truly love other human beings and treat them as we wish to be treated, and if live our lives with truth and honesty – we will be true Odd Fellows and proud of it.
However, beyond the principles inherent in our three links, there are many aspects of the Odd Fellows that have important historical context in Odd Fellowship, but little if any relevance to the 21st Century. A prime example are the admonitions emphasized by Thomas Wildey when he brought Odd Fellowship to North America and spurred its growth across the continent. In the early 1800’s we were “commanded” to “visit the sick, relieve the distressed, bury the dead and educate the orphan.” These were certainly worthy admonitions for the 19th Century. That was a time when many cities were engulfed in illness, and few medical facilities were available; when people would pass away with no person or agency available to bury the remains, and when widows and orphans (and orphanages) were prevalent – particularly during the wars that swept the continent during those early years. But in the 21st century, men and women scratch their heads in puzzlement when hearing these ancient admonitions. A more relevant set of admonitions might be to “feed the hungry, help the homeless, protect the environment, and educate the children.”
Further, we are an Order that professes to be “non-sectarian”, yet our ritual is replete with Judeo-Christian teachings which make it difficult for persons who are Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Sikh, and numerous other religions and beliefs to feel comfortable in the Lodge. Clearly, we are anything but “non-sectarian”. Why would we turn our backs on a majority of humans living on the planet?
Additionally we are an Order that professes to be equally open to both men and women, yet there are Odd Fellows Lodges today that have no women in their membership. It’s been almost two decades since Odd Fellows Lodges were opened to women. How can any Lodge today justify not ever having had any women in its membership rolls?
And as we take the tally of our Lodges, we see that most of them are slowing withering as a result of declining membership. At the very same time, however, there are a few Lodges that are growing and prospering. How can that be? We are all in the same Order? Why are many Lodges diminishing and failing, while other Lodges – sometimes just a few miles apart – are active and increasing in membership?
The answer is pretty plain., if you take the time to look at it. The successful Lodges are the progressive and modern Lodges. Those successful Lodges do the following:
1. Successful Lodges open their membership to the community, in all its ethnic, racial and gender splendor. A Lodge composed exclusively of older Caucasian men is unsustainable.
2. Successful Lodges make sure that Lodge members enjoy an active social and fraternal life. The Lodge has events, activities and functions that the members (and families of members), as well as potential members, can enjoy.
3. Successful Lodges reach out into the community to do good works. Doing such good works is good for the community and is very satisfying to members, and potential members.
4. Successful Lodges have social meetings. Not every meeting of the Lodge must follow the ritual with formal openings and closing and the use of unwritten work. A Lodge need only have one such formal meeting each month. There is no prohibition to having a social meeting once a month as well.
5. Successful Lodges have a person in charge of publicity. We have all heard the interesting philosophical question, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” It applies to fraternal orders. If a Lodge does not inform the community of its activities, then the Lodge is invisible in that community.
6. Successful Lodges have a dedicated Membership Committee. Successful Lodges find that one member (perhaps even two or three) who are membership “rainmakers” and have them focus on membership development.
7. Successful Lodges put a damper on negativity, bickering, and rumors. The fastest way to create Lodge dissension, bad feelings and turmoil, is to allow members to be negative, to bicker or to spread rumors. This sort of negativity is toxic to a Lodge and will result in members not attending meetings and events, or even leaving the Lodge. It is important for Lodge leaders to step in immediately to but a stop to it.
8. Successful Lodges find a way to say “yes” rather than always saying “no”. The fastest way to discourage and turn-off new members is to always say “no” to their ideas, or “that won’t work”, or “we tried that in the past and it didn’t work”, or “that’s a dumb idea.” Successful Lodges find a way to channel that new member energy into positive outcomes.
9. Successful Lodges take pride in the Lodge Hall. Many of our Lodge buildings are old, often historical. Just because a building is old, doesn’t mean that it has to be musty or dirty or shabby. Successful Lodges clean up and spruce up their Lodge Halls. The Lodge building, after all, conveys a message to the community. And successful Lodges make sure that the building signage clearly identifies the building to the world as a Lodge of Odd Fellows.
10. Successful Lodges open their Lodge Halls to the community for community use. These buildings are an asset to the community (often in the very center of the town), and should not be locked away to be used only once or twice a month for a meeting. Whether the Hall is provided free or as a rental, successful Lodges open their doors and windows to the town. And successful Lodges do their best to make their Halls accessible – if the funds are available for an elevator, this creates a new dimension in public accessibility and Lodge visibility.
F – L – T
Past Grand Master
Jurisdiction of California
Dear Dedicated Members for Change,
When the Rebekah Degree was authorized by Odd Fellowship in the 19th Century, it was a huge breakthrough for women. Odd Fellows became the first fraternal order to admit women. Well, initially Odd Fellowship didn’t exactly admit women on the same par with men. The Rebekah Degree was created as an “honorary degree” than men could confer on their wives and daughters. Women were still not admitted into Lodges of Odd Fellows. But eventually, the honorary degree evolved and became a full-fledged degree, and Rebekah Lodges were formed. But while men could join a Rebekah Lodge (and some, particularly husbands, did) women were still prohibited from joining Odd Fellows Lodges. Essentially, the Odd Fellows Lodge became known as the “man’s Lodge” and the Rebekah Lodge became known as the “woman’s Lodge.” In fact, even today, some of the most senior members of the Order still refer to the Lodges in this fashion. That changed (thankfully) around the turn of the 21st Century, when membership in Odd Fellows Lodges was finally opened to women.
Yet is Rebekah even an appropriate role model for women in the 21st Century? Rebekah is a character out of the Old Testament. And her claim to fame is the following: Abraham was looking for a wife for his son, Isaac. Abraham and his family were living in Canaan at the time, and he didn’t want Isaac to marry a Canaanite. So, Abraham sent Eliezer, his servant, to his own kinsmen in the town of Nahor to find a wife for Isaac. When the servant came to a well in Nahor he prayed that God would give him success, and in particular, he prayed that whichever young woman provided water for him and his camels would be God’s choice to be Isaac’s wife. As the servant was praying, a beautiful young virgin named Rebekah came to the well. She not only gave the servant some water, but she also watered his camels until they were sated. This was the sign for which the servant had prayed. The servant gave Rebekah a nose ring and two bracelets, spoke to her brother (Laban) and her father (Bethuel), and all was settled – the marriage was arranged. So, Rebekah traveled with the servant to a strange house in a strange land, to Abraham’s house and wed Isaac. A quaint story, but not exactly compelling to and inspiring for 21st Century women. Rebekah was beautiful and kind (giving water to a stranger and his camels) and obedient to men (she dropped everything to go with a stranger to marry a person she had never met). What message does this send to the modern woman?
The irony of all this is that both ancient and modern history is replete with stories of strong, influential, powerful, caring and kind women – including Cleopatra, Boudicca, Artemisia, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Catherine the Great, Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, Helen Keller, Florence Nightengale – these are women whose lives impart important lessons and who can be important role models to potential members in this new century.
Men and women in the 21st Century are quite different than men and women of the Bible, or for that matter, men and women of the 19th Century when the Rebekah Degree was launched. And in my opinion, the continuation of a separate Branch of Rebekahs is incompatible with modern society. I firmly believe that the Rebekah Degree should be retained, rewritten and modernized (and given a new name – perhaps the “Degree of Equality”), but that Rebekah Lodges and Odd Fellows Lodges should merge. The future of Odd Fellowship, in my view, is one Order with many advancing Degrees. I do not say this lightly, as I am active in my Odd Fellows Lodge, my Rebekah Lodge, my Encampment and my Canton.
I have raised this issue in some of my earliest writings. I joined the Order in 2004, and by 2005 had come to the realization that (1) we were shrinking as an Order, (2) to reverse the trend we needed to attract new members, (3) and the only way to attract new members was to change the way we operate. In 2006, I wrote my “Ten Principles” (which you can find at pages 6-8 of my first book “The Future of Odd Fellowship – To Be or Not To Be”). In those principles, I suggested that while the Rebekah Degree was trend-setting in the mid-1800’s when it was founded, in the 21st Century there is no need for “separate but equal” Lodges – and that a plan must be developed to unify Rebekah Lodges with Odd Fellows Lodges. I further suggested that the various Branches of the Order must be consolidated and unified as well.
This is, frankly, inevitable if our Order is to survive. If we truly believe in non-discrimination and equality, these separate units for men and women make no sense. The numbers of persons joining the Rebekah Lodges – and Ladies Encampment Auxiliaries, and Ladies Auxiliaries Patriarchs Militant – is shrinking. Per SGL statistics, our Order is collectively shrinking. Rebekah Lodge membership is diminishing by 2.99% per year; LEA membership is dropping at 6.48% per year; and LAPM membership is declining by an astonishing 9.21% per year. This is damaging, debilitating and demoralizing. There are 20 jurisdictions in North America that now have less than 300 members in the entirety of the jurisdiction. We are dying as an Order by the “death of a thousand cuts” – a slow, painful demise. While our numbers are decreasing, the average age of members is increasing. Very few young women (and even fewer young men) join the Rebekahs, or LEA or LAPM today. A long-time and respected member of the Odd Fellows, Rebekahs, Encampment and Canton recently said to me: “It’s ridiculous to have to carry four dues cards for the same organization, and to have to make four dues payments.” And it’s true. We are, as a fraternal order, much too diffused. We are shrinking in membership at unsustainable rates, and every year we close and consolidate Lodges, Encampments and Cantons. Even Sovereign Grand Lodge has discussed the need to merge our diffused branches. This discussion must be more focused and must proceed at a faster pace. We are running out of time. LAPM and PM need to merge. LEA and Encampments need to merge. Ultimately, Rebekahs and Odd Fellows need to merge. And then we can have one unified fraternal Order with nine degrees: The Initiatory Degree (or as it used to be called, the Degree of Trust), the Degree of Friendship, the Degree of Love, the Degree of Truth, the Rebekah Degree (or, as I suggest it be called, the Degree of Equality), the Degree of Faith, the Degree of Hope, the Degree of Charity, and the Degree of Universal Justice. All under one tent.
This, in my view, is the future of Odd Fellowship. And the sooner we come to grips with this reality, and deal with it in an intelligent and thoughtful way, the better and stronger our Order will be. The ball is in the court of Sovereign Grand Lodge.
F – L – T
Past Grand Master
Jurisdiction of California
Although many of you are aware of my deep concern for the survival of our Fellowship due to the steady decline of our membership and the loss of Lodges, let me hasten to say that I believe that we can stop the erosion of the Order and brighten this beacon of Friendship, Love and Truth. I have a vision of the Odd Fellows and Rebekahs growing again and re-establishing itself in our Lodges’ respective communities as a force for civic goodwill, social cohesion, personal support and relevance in the world we live in today.
The basis for this optimistic vision is not just wistful thinking but rather the quality of many of the people we have in our Fellowship, people who understand the challenge our Order faces and have taken steps and given the leadership that has made a difference.
An example of this kind of thoughtful leadership that has led to a Lodge’s resurgence has been the work of Brother Dave Rosenberg and his team at Davis Lodge # 169 which promoted the Fellowship and their Lodge with imaginative events such as live music nights with local bands, local business expos, and even a chocolate festival, promotions that attract hundreds and have led to a steady increase in applicants and Lodge membership, with 39 new members this year alone! They have made the IOOF the place to be in Davis.
Another example of the spirit and effort that has invigorated a Lodge comes from Brother Peter Seller’s Yerba Buena Lodge # 15. Their promotional efforts revolve around arranged overnight excursions to destinations such as Disneyland, the Bodie ghost town, Columbia State Park’s early California preserved town, and others. In addition they do monthly social events such as Giants games, museum tours and dinners and their annual, very popular, Day at the Races. These things stimulate the interest and participation of existing members and bring in at least 10 new members every year.
My own Home Lodge, Morse Lodge # 257, regular promotional efforts include events with a delicious multi-cultural flavor such as “Fiesta Mexicana”, the “Polynesian Luau” Party, and the “Vita Bella Italian Night” dinner and dance. These things and the welcoming atmosphere of the Lodge regularly bring in up to a half-dozen new numbers.
Certainly the most dramatic example of the spirit and effort that will lead to the resurgence of the Odd Fellows and Rebekahs is the incredible job being done by Sister Roberta Prosk and her Float Committee in creating the fabulous Rose Parade float every year that gives us national and international exposure in an elite setting.
These are just a few of the people and programs that can, to copy a phrase, “Make the Odd Fellows Great Again”. Now let me hasten to say that I believe the Odd Fellows and Rebekahs, though troubled by membership decline, ARE ALREADY GREAT! We are great because of our people and our principles.
I believe that this painfully documented decline can and will be reversed because our Order offers something particularly relevant and valuable in to today’s world. It is widely recognized by social scientists and medical professionals and so reported in the media, that social isolation, alienation and chronic loneliness are serious and rising problem in our society. The substitution of electronic communication and entertainment for human contact is part of the problem. “Friends” for many means keyboard strokes rather than human faces, human touch, human conversation. Sad.
Our Fellowship has an answer for this: our fellowship. The first clue is in the first word of our motto: Friendship. When the IOOF was rising to its peak a century ago, in addition to being a social safety net, it offered an environment, a place, people and programs for friendship and fun. And the de-humanizing of today’s technically-advanced but socially repressed America offers a major opportunity for rebuilding the Odd Fellow/Rebekah franchise because our Lodges can give that which is missing in so many lives today. Now, more than ever, the world needs us.
So I believe the IOOF can return as a growing and vital part of 21st century life in California because of the ideas, energy and commitment like those I mentioned, and because of the social life we can provide. I believe we can reach out with imaginative efforts to those who value our values and would be enriched by our environment of Friendship, Love and Truth, and fun! Among other things, I think we should promote the idea and slogan: “Odd Fellows have more fun!”
I believe my vision is founded in reality and that we will rebuild the Order. We will do it together, and though it will be hard work we will have fun doing it.
Non-Discrimination for All…
Recently, due to a misunderstanding that grew into a sequence of unfortunate events, our order was compelled to adopt a non-discrimination policy. This was a good move and a crucial step in becoming part of modern society. No one in their right mind should seriously believe discriminatory views of any type are permissible. Whatever one’s political or personal beliefs, we as an order have chosen to banish discrimination from our lodges and public venues, and must expect the same from those who chose to represent us. No one among us are perfect. None of us should discriminate against anyone else, nor should we find ourselves the subject of discrimination. This, of course, is the implied meaning of a non-discrimination statement. Some of us seem to think that the idea of non-discrimination is merely symbolic, a token response to a series of unfortunate events. Hardly. If anything, prejudice, sexism, hatred of any variety is anathema to today’s world and must be expunged from our thoughts and deeds.
Of course, all of us have heard discriminatory statements many times, and from many members, but just because some poor souls are still harboring hatred in a world that claims to be about friendship, love and truth, because they secretly believe their race, sex, religious beliefs are somehow superior to anyone else’s is so ludicrous and has become so incongruous that it calls into question the sanity of the person bearing such hatred. In truth, many of us grew up in an era when hatred, or suspicion of another culture or physical stature was somehow accepted behavior. For years I personally received racist cartoons sent thru Facebook by one misguided long-term member who thought it was fine to laugh at others while being unable to see the absurdity of his own point of view. If we can’t succeed in letting go of our hatred, prejudicial statements, slurs, stupid off-hand comments, and other random behaviors that are the products of unthinking moments may in fact doom our order forever. We should look around us. Many orders, cultures, and even countries have been decimated by stupid or inane statements and subsequent decisions. It is truly time to stop it. Personally, I have decided to try and gently remind anyone who tries to imply their white Anglo-Saxon attitude is the only one permissible the patent absurdity of this belief. I am not perfect. I am trying to battle my own demons within and attempting to banish hatred and ill-feeling towards anyone. This should be a prime endeavor for all of us. When we talk about friendship, love, and truth, that should mean for all those we encounter, not just some splinter of the whole spectrum.
Our order, like almost all fraternal groups, has a history of what one might call, congenial discrimination, in other words, a discrimination that mirrored societal precepts at the same place in time. Women were not allowed in the Odd Fellows until the turn of this century. In the 1800’s, almost all members were white Anglo-Saxon Christian men. Many would defend this by stating that society at large at that time shared the same prejudicial bent. But, of course, that is true only from our own vantage point, since even at that time, other cultures, races, sexual orientations existed as well, but were banned from our lodges. Clearly, times have changed. No person who enters our environs should be subject to derision, no religion, no sexual orientation, no race, no physical disability, no political belief. If we continue to say things publicly that deride any personality trait, belief, sexual orientation, disability, or race, we endanger our own right to co-exist with society at large. Clearly, we have made progress, but there are still miles to go before we can be equal to our own idealistic precepts. Lastly, while I applaud the idea of a non-discrimination statement, the act of non-discrimination itself should be ingrained upon our very hearts and minds. We should not have to refer to a piece of paper to know what is proper human behavior.
In Friendship, Love, and Truth,
Dear Dedicated Members for Change,
Several years ago I had a discussion with a long-time, respected member of our fraternal Order. The subject was the decline in membership and the concomitant collapse of Lodges. I suggested that change in our approach was necessary to save this Order. He contended that we must stay the course and that change was not welcomed. He was against any change to the ritual or the way we do business. I responded that this Order would surely die unless we modernize, become relevant to 21st Century men and women, and change our ways. Ultimately, he said the words that I found truly remarkable at the time, and which have stayed with me to this day. He said: “I would rather this Order die, than change.”
And even today I talk to members who seem to equate any change as sacrilege. These anti-change members are wrong at two levels.
First, a more modern approach to Odd Fellowship works. I have proven it. In this regard, I have used my own Lodge – Davis #169 – as a sort of “laboratory” of change in Odd Fellowship. In the past 10 years my Lodge has grown from less than 30 members to close to 300. We have 23 current applicants for membership. Because of our visibility in the community, we no longer “recruit” new members. Potential members contact us expressing an interest in joining the Lodge. I imagine this is what Odd Fellowship was like in its heyday in the late 19th Century. For the past decade, my Lodge has experienced a net gain in members year after year. We have 55 committees covering a wide range of endeavors, aligned with the interest of members. Some of the committees are active in the community, providing support at many levels. Other committees are all about fraternal interaction and social fun for the members. Our Lodge Hall is busy about 20 days every month with some meeting or activity or event. We have done all this by re-focusing our Lodge. Yes, we hold meetings and follow the ritual of the Order like every other Lodge. But if we did only that, we would be a one-dimensional Lodge. We also provide two other dimensions: Our members (and applicants) reach out into the community and are very visible doing good community works. And we plan a plethora of fun activities for our members, family and applicants for membership. This is the viable future for Odd Fellowship. Lodges that are three-dimensional Lodges have adjusted to the 21st Century – they will flourish.
Second, “change” is the one constant in the history of Odd Fellowship. It is part-and-parcel of the Odd Fellows experience, and we have seen it from the very beginnings of our Order. Originally, Odd Fellowship in England was little more than a gathering of men in pubs, drinking, eating, and telling tales. It was all about having a good time in fellowship. But the organization morphed. It became a “beneficial society” which tried to render aid to every brother who applied, through sickness, distress or otherwise. When Thomas Wildey originated Odd Fellowship in the United States, its main objects were to “relieve the brethren, bury the dead, and care for the widow and orphan”. And then, a huge change occurred. Brother Wildey and the American Lodges simply broke away from the English Lodges and went their own “independent” way. In time, however, the Order changed again. Initially, Wildey was all about the social and physical needs of the brothers and their family members. But over the years, the Order became much more “moral and spiritual” and the teachings evolved to emphasize the “elevation of the character of man.” Notwithstanding this noble purpose, the old books and records of the Order revealed that there were times in our history when Odd Fellowship was absolutely denied to women, people with certain disabilities, men with chronic diseases, “an infirmity which may prevent a man’s gaining a livelihood”, and people of color. Thankfully, that has all changed, but it took many years – in fact, women were only admitted into Odd Fellows Lodges in 1999-2000. There was a time when members had to memorize the ritual or they were not able to advance; such memorization requirements eventually went the way of the horse and buggy. At one time, just three black cubes could exclude any candidate from admission. That has changed – now only a majority vote can exclude a candidate from membership. I could go on and on, but the point is that “change” is a hallmark of the Odd Fellows experience and history.
As we approach the Bi-Centennial of Odd Fellowship in North America, we must come to the realization that we are in the 21st Century and the next evolution of our Order is necessary and inevitable. We must become relevant to men and women of this 21st Century. Those who battle the inevitable will surely falter (the trail of failing and closed Lodges proves the point). Those who embrace the change, will survive and flourish, and will ensure that our great Order can continue beyond our lifetimes into the future of our children and grandchildren.
F – L – T
Past Grand Master
Jurisdiction of California