I’m Emily Ann Zimmerman and I was born in Night Station which is just a little bit north of Plant City, but I grew up from age six in East Palatka in Palatka, Florida.
I’m Gene Zimmerman. I was born in Crystal Beach which is about five miles south of Tarpon Springs on the coast. My family home, the generational home was at Dunedin fives miles south and that’s where some of the other family members were born. But, that’s the location. I grew up on the coast. Loved it.
Listen as Florida natives Emily Ann Zimmerman and Gene Zimmerman detail their life of service in the Methodist Church in Florida in this oral history interview with the Zimmermans on July 25, 2016 at Orlando Lutheran Towers. Reverend Eugene Zimmerman served as Superintendent of Methodist Churches in Florida and Emily Ann Zimmereman served on the Board of Ministry and in lay ministry.
Mr. and Mrs. Zimmerman on their wedding day.
LISTEN Part I (20:13) (Text highlights from audio recordings.)
What is your earliest memory of Orlando?
Emily Ann: We moved here in 1969 and that was the first time we’d ever been here, but we knew about Orlando, of course, but that was 1969 before Disney came. We lived in a parsonage which was over in Lancaster Park because Gene was the District Superintendent of this area of The United Methodist Church.
Gene: Which means that I supervised all of the Methodist Churches from Tavares all the way to Kissimmee and a whole circle, there were probably 45 or 50 of them.
What was a typical Sunday like for you both growing up?
Emily Ann: We were Methodist. It became, you know, United Methodist later on. We went to church every Sunday for a while at a little frame church in East Palatka. But then that soon closed maybe after two to three years so we went across the river to St. James Methodist Church. So Sunday was the day to go to church and most of the time stay for church. I’m one of seven and we were all still at home at this time. When the war started two of my brothers went almost immediately. So my sister and the rest of us would go to Sunday School and church. But as long as everybody was home everybody went. We always had a big lunch. We called it lunch or Sunday dinner, I guess because it was the middle of the day… But anyways always a really big Sunday dinner. And many times somebody came home with us or some of the neighbor boys and girls dropped in. There were always a lot of people around our table Sunday.
Many times in the winter we would go by the ice house and get a 50 pound block of ice which we took home and made a freezer of ice cream, which, of course, you had to chip the ice with an ice pick to get it small enough pieces to churn and by hand. We did not have an electric ice cream churn. And as the older ones left, many times on Sunday afternoon we would go on a country drive. Daddy and mama would take the four youngest and we would go through the country….
Gene: I grew up as a child in Dunedin, FL. I went to grammar school there… this was right in the middle of the Depression and finding work was quite difficult for a lot of people including my dad. And so we moved to Miami I think sometime in the mid-30s. And in terms of church, my father was a good man, but not a church man. My mother was a lovely lady with a deep spiritual heart and that sort of thing. And so, I got more of my religious feelings and faith from her. But going to church was not easy sometimes in moving about….
In Rivers of Living Water: a History of First United Methodist Church in Orlando, Florida they noted that in the newspaper you were known for being able to articulate complex religion in a way that was very accessible to everyday people…. this is a mini-sermon by you… they’ve republished it here. It’s very short. I wonder if you wouldn’t mind reading it for us? (This mini-sermon was done in June of ’73.)
Gene: Down the street from where we once lived was a life size cast iron dog that stood watch over a two story house. We became so attached to him we named him Ironsides. And out daughter would shout and wave at him as we went by. Ironsides was an admirable dog and represented the highest loyalty to his breed. For he guarded the house night and day and let nothing alter his stance neither a bone nor a lady dog not even a well placed cake. He was a veritable Gibraltar. I like that kind of loyalty. It’s both comforting and encouraging to go by and always find him at his post.
However, one thing spoiled the picture of his loyalty. Ironsides was hollow inside. He stood there because somebody poured him in a cast, placed him in a fixed position and brought him to rigid attention in the front yard. Man could have been created this way. He could have been molded into a fixed position made to be good and pointed in whatever direction God chose. But like Ironsides we’d be hollow inside. Good is only good when a person has a choice of doing evil. Love is only love where the possibility of hate exists. God took a terrible risk when he gave man a will of his own, but that’s the only way we can ever be truly alive. What a joy it must be to him who took this risk when we choose to be loyal, to be steadfast, to be loving, to be good.
Coming to Florida to Serve in the Methodist System
Gene: In the Methodist system, it’s divided up in what’s called conferences and they’re about the same as a state. And when you become a part of one you become a part of a Methodist system where a bishop appoints you where he wants you.
Emily: You join the conference. You choose what conference and if they want you. That’s part of the Board of Ministry business.
Gene: So I joined the Florida area before I went to seminary. And that meant when school was over I came back to Florida and they assigned me wherever they wanted me to go. And so when seminary was over in the spring of ’54 we came home to the annual meeting of the clergy and the bishop and I was assigned to Chiefland, Florida which is over in Levy County. And then, let’s see we were there two years and fortunately we got moved to Gainesville and that we liked very much.
Emily Ann: And that’s how I was able to finish my degree because we were living right there in Gainesville.
Gene: Let’s see we were in Chiefland two, Gainesville four, Greencove three, Miami six, and Miami to here to be the superintendent of this area.
Emily Ann: Then from there to the Pastor of First Methodist.
Gene: From superintendent into this church here. [Orlando].
Emily Ann: And then Tallahassee to Jacksonville. Then another superintendent in St. Petersburg and then you retired in St. Pete. And we moved to Jacksonville where you took over several churches when the ministers left in the middle of the year. And we also, after he retired, the Trinity Methodist Church in Nassau asked him if he could serve their church every other weekend. They had a minister that could serve every other weekend, but he couldn’t come on the others. So for five years we would fly over to Nassau Friday morning and come home Monday night. And they had a parsonage, which is a home provided to the minister, had a car for us, and we just got to know all the people in that church and a lot of the Methodists in town because there’s about five Methodist Churches in Nassau. And we really had a good time there. And we’d been going to the Bahamas since the sixties for him to serve small churches in the Bahamas especially Abaco. So those were fun times in Nassau….
What does a Superintendent of the Orlando District do?
Gene: The bishop of an Orlando area of a conference is the authority and the top person. I mean, if the bishop called you, you don’t say, “I’m busy.” You know, you go. And the superintendents are his assistants. We are, maybe the Episcopalians call them Bishop Coadjutor or something like that… We are personally in touch with every pastor in an area and every church. And once a year we go to that church to have them give an accounting of their year. How much money they have raised, how many buildings, how many people have come, and so on. So we’re sort of on the job managers. And we have an authority passed down to us through the bishop so if some minister gets in trouble, you know, like some kind of scandal, the minute I hear about it I go to this fellow and say, “For now, you need to step out.”
And that’s one thing I really like about the Methodist system: We are accountable up the line. When scandals get started or even the thought of them, I would have the authority to move you out temporarily. I would take it over, probably take it over for a time until we got somebody else.
Emily Ann: But also you serve as counselor, happy times and sad times. If there’s a death in the family, you are their pastor. You become the pastor of all the ministers and their congregation. Because you get to know the congregation too because it is that leadership that is so important to the ministry of each church. So that was one thing that you always did. You got to know the laypeople as well as getting to know the clergy.
Did you work in lay ministry on your own at all?
Emily Ann: Yes, I would sometimes speak at United Methodist Women Gatherings. And I’m very active in Circles and I’ve always been in a Circle within our local church. And when he was a superintendent I would join a church which this time was First Methodist. So I would give leadership there and as he had said earlier, I was on the Board of Ministry where you interview people. They have to fill out a lot of paper work on their theology, on their commitment to their ministry, to their understanding of the United Methodist Church. And as a member of the board, you read those papers and then you interview the candidates. And there’s one in each district and then there’s another one for the whole conference. And I served on both of those: the district and the conference. So I did things like that.
Every now and then I would do a retreat for a group of women somewhere. I did that when we were in Fort Myers. He served the district and the conference so I did things like that. And every now and then I would do a retreat for a group of women somewhere. And I did that when we were in Fort Myers. He served in a church in Fort Myers for over a year because the minister left in the middle of the year. So, I’ve done that kind of thing…
Are women allowed to teach equally in the Methodist Church?
Emily Ann: Oh yes, yes. Nothing stops that….
Gene: The Women’s Society in the Methodist Church has always been a strong, very strong group. A highly respected group. Did a lot for children and youth.
Emily Ann: And still do. United Methodist Women that’s our main thing: Children’s needs.
Gene: You know what’s interesting here in our First Methodist Church we have one senior pastor who’s a man and two associate pastors who are women. And a young woman who’s kind of a novice or student. The male is gone for his vacation for two to three weeks and the two women associates run it and their summer assistant. So I was sitting there thinking Sunday, hey, that’s neat. And the preacher was very good. Both women are very good preachers.
Emily Ann: And they had four funerals in one week. Gene took one of them. And the other minister took three which is really hard to do.
What are the names of the pastors?
Gene: The senior minister is Tom McClosky. The two associates are Shelly Denmark, Emily Edwards….
How do you feel about women in the church?
Emily Ann: My goodness, the church wouldn’t run without us.
Gene: Absolutely. They were the kitchen workers. I mean, thy did the women’s thing all this time and very few got into ministry.
Emily Ann: For a while. We’ve overcome that. That’s in the past. And I would have to look up the date when the first woman was allowed to be a minister. It took the men a while to figure it out. But now our church- the Chairman of the Finance Committee is a woman. There’s no position in our church that could not be filled by a woman and that probably has not been at some time a woman except we’ve never had a senior minister. But other than that everything else has been filled by women.
Gene: We’ve had women lay leaders a lot of times and we’ve had a lot of young women come in the ministry lately.
Reverend Zimmerman, because this was your life’s work, did you witness some of these changes? Women coming into ministry or was it more just a gradual societal change so there was no dramatic moment of confrontation?
Gene: I saw the change and it seems like it came to the church pretty early…
Emily Ann: But there was no big – Let’s stop this thing. You didn’t see any barriers put up to suddenly stop it. It was a gradual thing.
Gene: We had no prohibition. None that I know of about women being ordained.
Emily Ann: It took a while before women were ordained. It happened in our lifetime. There were no women ministers when I was growing up. Were there in the Presbyterian Church?
Emily Ann: But it was kind of a gradual thing. That’s a good question. I would have to stop and think about what year.
Gene: Yeah, when did it start for us. But it became pretty natural….
What do you see as the future of the tradition? Because just as we’ve talked a little bit about societal changes with regards to gender, the gradual changes, do you see traditions as having changed somewhat maybe even in Sunday traditions or the traditions in the church? What do you see as the future of church in our society?
Gene: What I see in the church for most of it is that congregations were part of a stable community. And maybe half of our ministry was like that. The people in town, these people went over here, the Presbyterians, these people are over here. They represented the leadership of a community and so on and so on. And so they came to church because that was part of their community life and their social life not necessarily because of theological opinions. Basically I saw people coming to church because they believed in goodness and decency and they wanted their kids to be raised that way. And in some way they believed in God. That would pretty much describe, I think, a lot of the churches. And actually, if you didn’t go to church people thought a little down: “They just let those kids run on Sunday”, and so on. The shift to me, the social shift of people, uprooted all kinds of down home practices. People would leave Wisconsin and come to Orlando and not even bother with church. So the pressure to go to church is simply not in the community any more. That’s gone….
Emily Ann: Well, I wish I knew what the answer is because our First Church which is the downtown church looked so slim this past Sunday. I know it’s summer and a lot of people are gone, but the number of members right now is very, very low compared to what it was ten, fifteen, twenty years ago. And what people are looking for I’m not sure. We have a Sunday School class that is a progressive class. We look at our faith from a little bit different perspective from some others in church. But we have some 90 people who are active. They’re not always there at the same time, but we have 50 easily almost every Sunday. And we don’t hear that kind of sermon preached; progressive understanding of the faith that you don’t have to believe in miracles or whether or not Jesus is born of a virgin doesn’t make a bit of difference. And those kind of traditions were so important for a while….
We do not have all the pat answers for what is troubling the world. Our answer for what’s troubling the world is to be faithful to each other and be peaceful and work for social justice for everybody. And that doesn’t ring a bell with everybody. So I don’t know what’s ahead for the Methodist Church. I wish I did.
Gene: There was a time fifty yeas ago that most all churches were kind of traditional. If not, conservative. Baptist were always conservative. You know, you’ve got to believe that God handed us the Bible straight from heaven. Although it isn’t. You have to believe and still do in the Baptist Church that Jesus will save you from your sins, there’s a heaven and hell. I doubt if you could stir up much interest in heaven or hell on a college campus anywhere. Our church never was – it was never threatening. And, you know, this impetus to go to heaven was pretty much lost all around. But, even so, when we were kids the tradition was pretty much agreed to. Even if you wondered how Jesus could walk on water or anybody could walk on water you didn’t question it. But nowadays some kid will say, “Reverend Zimmerman I don’t believe Jesus walked on water.” And I’d say, “Yeah, I don’t either.” So the thinking has shifted. There’s no social pressure. What has happened at this point is for a person to realize not going to heaven, but there’s a hole in here. There’s something missing here that’s not complete. And it may be a commitment to a religious life of some kind…. Many people don’t feel the need to come to church particularly to hear some pabulum about something or another. That’s why our class is so full. You know, we’ve got people in there pushing your brain…
Living in Downtown Orlando
Emily Ann: We can walk to church. We can walk to Lake Eola. Wonderful place to walk all around. We can walk to the library. We can walk to the History Center. We can walk to Publix. There’s a bus that takes you around. You can jump on and be anywhere in town. You can ride, the other bus, that costs for a dollar, to the airport and be there quicker than you could drive yourself, get a parking space and pay that money for one of those parking spots. And that’s one dollar if you’re a senior. You get a little card and you can ride anywhere for a dollar. There’s nothing not to like about living in downtown. And we love being a part of the Towers [Orlando Lutheran Towers]….
And the First Methodist Church plans to stay downtown?
Gene: Yes, they will. You know, the downtown it seems to me is going to stay pretty much like it is. And it’s a small enough downtown that a person can just walk down there and wander around and so on. So we like it….
Interview: Emily Ann Zimmerman and Gene Zimmerman
Interviewer: Jane Tracy
Date: July 25, 2016
Place: Orlando Lutheran Towers