As he prepared in 1987 to leave Boston, his once and future home, the Rev. Victor Carpenter was rueful that not all of the city’s clergy shared his outspoken devotion to social justice. “The religious community is so quiet it is catatonic,” he told the Globe.
His decades as a Unitarian Universalist minister were considerably less passive. In Boston, Norwell, South Africa, San Francisco, and Belmont, he spent about 50 years advocating on behalf of the poor and the disabled, supporting those who oppose war and comforting those diagnosed with HIV and AIDS. He preached in the pulpit against racism and demonstrated on the streets, losing count of how many times he was arrested for acts of civil disobedience.
“Every human being is the incarnation of the holy,” he said at the 1991 Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly, during a speech in which he spoke eloquently about disabilities and took to task the arrogance of ableism. “We all have the potential to live that holiness.”
The Rev. Carpenter, who in 2011 received the association’s award for Distinguished Service to the Cause of Unitarian Universalism, died of cancer last Friday in his Jamaica Plain home. He was 88.
Delivering sermons, “he was an extremely good speaker. He was articulate, he was clear,” said the Rev. Carl Scovel, a friend since they met at Harvard Divinity School.
During protests, the Rev. Carpenter was equally articulate and often made sure the demonstrators treated with respect the police who arrived to cart them to jail.
“I asked him how many times he had been arrested. He said, ‘I don’t know, 15 or 20, I can’t remember,’ ” said Scovel, a retired Unitarian Universalist minister who was pastor of King’s Chapel in Boston.
The Rev. Carpenter did more, however, than make handcuffed trips to jails. After graduating from Harvard Divinity School, and initially serving as minister at First Parish of Norwell, he took his family to Cape Town for about five years during South Africa’s apartheid era. Through his role there, he helped secretly bring money into the country to pay lawyers representing prisoners and to fund the then-banned African National Congress.
“He was willing to do anything for people in need, whether that was for people with disabilities or people who lived under oppressive and authoritarian regimes,” said his son, Tyler of Jamaica Plain.
“And when he had disappointments, he always seemed to say, ‘OK, here’s the situation, and we will find a way beyond the setbacks. The setbacks are temporary, while the gains can be subtle and permanent,’ ” Tyler added.
Among the unanticipated challenges the Rev. Carpenter and his wife, Cathe, faced in South Africa were the births of their two daughters.
Gracia initially was diagnosed with autism, but a decade later, the diagnosis “was changed to severe retardation,” he recalled in the 1991 speech. Some 13 months after Gracia’s birth, Melissa was born during a worldwide rubella epidemic. Within three years she “was diagnosed as deaf and severely language and learning disabled,” he said.
“We are parents of two daughters with disabilities,” he added. “That fact has shaped us in every imaginable way and in some ways that are unimaginable.”
The Rev. Carpenter also wrote about his family and the issues dear to him in “Stations of the Spirit,” a collection of his essays, speeches, and other reflections. He said those unaffected by physical and mental disabilities often engage intentionally or unintentionally in a kind of discrimination that is akin to racism and sexism. “Ableism,” he said, is “the last and most deeply embedded ‘ism’ to attack the psyche and demean the humanity of other human beings.”
Victor Howard Carpenter Jr. was born in Boston, a son of Victor Sr. and the former Pauline Bradley Eames. A prominent dentist, his father invented what was known as an air-conditioned dental drill designed to reduce pain, and he counted among his patients Ted Williams.
The Rev. Carpenter attended Boston Latin School, graduated from Deerfield Academy, and went to Boston University, where his studies were interrupted by service in the Marine Corps during the Korean War. Serving in the Marines, he would later tell close friends, gave him a sense of self-worth and self-confidence.
While finishing his bachelor’s degree at BU, he attended a church service and noticed a plea in the program for Sunday school teachers. After he volunteered, the pastor saw potential in him for something more, and arranged for the Rev. Carpenter to temporarily serve as the minister at a Universalist church in tiny North Fryeburg, Maine. The experience helped lead him to Harvard Divinity School.
“In his words, ‘I loved the people and they loved me and I was hooked,’ ” Scovel said.
While at Harvard, the Rev. Carpenter met Catherine Ann Larrabee, who is known as Cathe, and was then a secretary at the divinity school. They married in 1957. She later was an education consultant.
During his studies, he served at Christ Church in Dorchester before being called to be the minister in Norwell after graduating.
They were in South Africa for about five years and helped found an organization to assist autistic children before leaving in 1967 for his ministry at First Unitarian Church in Philadelphia.
He subsequently was the minister at Arlington Street Church in Boston for more than a decade until 1987.
Moving to California, he was the minister at the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco and at Pacific Unitarian Church in Rancho Palos Verdes until 1994, when he returned to Massachusetts and served at First Church in Belmont.
The Rev. Carpenter officially retired in 2002 but served a series of interim ministries. “It was a running joke among my children, ‘Oh, he’s retiring again,’ ” Tyler said.
The call to inspire others never faded.
“He has seen the worst of humanity and has never lost faith. I find that to be truly inspirational,” Tyler said. “He has seen far worse things than I have ever seen and has not lost faith.”
The Rev. Carpenter’s daughter Gracia died in 2005. In addition to his wife, Cathe, their son, Tyler, and their daughter, Melissa, all of whom live in Jamaica Plain, the Rev. Carpenter leaves his brother, John of Boston, and two grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday in the First Church in Belmont.
“Victor was a wonderful conversationalist. He saw the humor in things,” Scovel said. “We spent a lot of time at JP Licks when he finally retired, drinking coffee and just hooting at things — laughing at things we used to take seriously.”
As the Rev. Carpenter’s health failed, and some dementia set in, he retained his sharp humor, his wise perspective, and at times his keen memory. While visiting a month ago, Scovel began reciting Dylan Thomas’s poem “Do not go gentle into that good night.”
“And Victor said the whole thing — we said it together,” Scovel recalled.
The Rev. Carpenter “had been talking about how boring it is to die — ‘There are so many things you can’t do,’ ” Scovel added. “I said, ‘Victor, are you apprehensive about dying?’ And he said, ‘If the grim reaper showed up in that doorway right now, I’d say, “Honey, where have you been for so long?” ’’’Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.