Masons in the sun

Freemasons - Brotherly organization or bizarre secret society? You decide.

North Shore Sunday/September 19, 2003
By Joel Beck

They've been called mysterious, secretive, even cultish. But as a people-friendly PR campaign gears up, is Freemasonry finally ready for the mainstream?

The average Joe who peeks inside a Masonic temple is a daring soul. Taking into account the secrecy that has surrounded the ancient fraternal organization of Freemasonry, an outsider half-expects the likes of Brad Pitt's "Fight Club" character to greet you at the door and lay down the law.

"The first rule of Freemasonry is you don't talk about Freemasonry," he might say - with that declaration followed up by an even more ominous assertion.

"The second rule of Freemasonry is YOU DON'T TALK ABOUT FREEMASONRY!"

Yes sir, Mr. Pitt, sir.

Chances are you won't actually find Brad Pitt wandering the halls of a Masonic lodge - most of them are filled with men with graying hair and significantly softer midsections - and you certainly won't find anything as shocking as a covert society where people beat one another for sport. What you will find, rather, are men (45,000 of them in Massachusetts alone) who believe deeply in a supreme being, are philanthropic in nature and have dedicated themselves to a centuries-old brotherly league.

Still, since whatever happens inside a Masonic lodge has historically tended to stay inside a Masonic lodge, it's easy to see why Masonry has earned a reputation for being secretive, mysterious and, let's face it, downright weird.

"People think we're some kind of cult," admits Lynn resident Dick Parker, who is better known to his fellow Masons as the Worshipful Richard D. Parker, deputy grand master of the 9th Masonic district grand lodge. "There was a guy parked out in front of the post office in Lynn one day and he was wearing all these anti-masonry things. He was telling me that I was a demonic ritualist or something like that. I just said, 'Wow.' How do I even defend against that?"

Parker can only shake his head and laugh when he hears stories of what people believe about Masonry, mostly because he knows there is no shortage of wacky rumors - like the ones that say Masons are responsible for the assassination of JFK.

He has also heard the theory that Masons are part of a Satan-worshipping new world order that performs animal sacrifices and is bent on controlling all governments. There is even word circulating on the Internet that Masons are building a concentration camp under a leading U.S. airport. It's difficult to imagine such an effort would go unnoticed by the security folks at Logan, for instance, although it may explain why the Big Dig won't end.

Assuming those accusations aren't true - and good luck trying to find a Mason who'll say that they are - it's no wonder Masons have come to the realization that their organization is in need of a vast, public makeover.

It was fairly unprecedented when the Beverly Masonic Building on Washington Street opened its doors two weeks ago for an open house event designed to teach people about Masonry. The event was touted as being a "day of fun family activities reinforcing the critical role the Masonic Lodge plays in each community."

Doesn't sound like controlling world governments was anywhere on the agenda. Small farm animals could also breath a deep sigh of relief.

It was also distinctly out of character when the Grand Lodge of Masons in Massachusetts announced it will hold one-day membership classes later in November as a way to recruit more people to the organization. Even more jarring were the radio spots that began airing last week promoting the group. For a club that has long had the reputation of being clandestine, it certainly appears that there's a growing desire from within to shed some of the secrecy.

"It's difficult to say what the biggest (misconception about Masonry) is," says Donald G. Hicks Jr., grand master of the Massachusetts Grand Lodge of Masons. "People think we're a secret organization, but we're not because if we were, you wouldn't even know we existed.

"We're trying to let people know that we have plenty of lodges and we welcome men of good character who would like to participate with us," Hicks adds. "That's why we're trying to open up."

Not a secret, but a little strange

Hicks knows a Freemason when he sees one. Or at least after making the person jump through a few Masonic hoops. Masonry, Hicks explains, may not be a secret organization, but it certainly has more that its share of secrets.

"If you told me that you're a Mason, then I'd tell you to prove to me that you're a Mason," says Hicks. "I'd tell you to give me the signs and if you couldn't give me the signs, then I'd know that you're not a Mason."

But Hicks also knows that it isn't just a series of secret handshakes, funny hats and unorthodox outfits that give Masonry its air of mystery. The elaborately decorated ceremony rooms - complete with altars and leaders wearing priest-like ceremonial robes - are distinctly religious in nature. Equally as perplexing is the Masonic cipher, a book that is used during Masonic ceremonies and is written in a puzzling code that is only understood by other Masons.

Still, Hicks continuously denies that Masonry is a secretive good-old-boys network, even if it does come off as being a little strange to those unfamiliar with it. If it were, he says Masons wouldn't have such a long history of charitable works.

For instance, Masons are responsible for 80 - that's eight-zero - percent of all the blood that's donated to the Red Cross in the Massachusetts each year, and the group also donates nearly $500,000 annually in scholarship money to graduating Massachusetts high school students. Moreover, Hicks points to Mason-created efforts like the Child Identification Program and the Masonic Angel Fund (see adjacent story) as clear-cut indicators that the interests of Freemasons are pure.

"I like to hearken back to a period of time when people's activities really revolved around their communities," says Hicks of the Masons' philanthropic efforts. "We're all members of the community and when we see a need, we try to fill it. We do it because it's the right thing to do."

That's fine, but an outsider would argue that are plenty of other opportunities to get involved with philanthropy without having to go through the pomp and circumstance that comes with Masonry. Anyone can donate to charity or give blood to the Red Cross. You don't even have to wear a funny hat or attend monthly meetings.

So why bother? If the Masons have a reputation of being secretive and bizarre, then what could be the group's selling point to those who have no connections to the group?

Jason Polonsky thinks he has an idea. A Peabody native who at age 22 is among the youngest Masons in the state, Polonsky falls into a demographic of young men that is typically hardest to attract to Masonry - especially when his peers are prone to e-mailing him clips of "Simpsons" parodies poking fun at the Masonic lifestyle. But Polonsky says once you get beyond the stereotypes and the misconceptions, it's an organization that he believes is well-suited for nearly all men.

"I hear the same things everyone else hears," says Polonsky. "About how it's a secret organization and all that. But I also see why the guys who are members do it. They see that same camaraderie and friendship that a college fraternity sees.

"They're a close-knit group of friends but on top of that, they're out for a common purpose - to help each other succeed in life," Polonsky adds. "They want to create better men, better families."

Changing the misconceptions

Parker says he's recently encountered some longtime Masons who liked things better back in the good old days. Years ago, you never would have seen Masons recruiting new members during Sunday open houses and family-centered events like the one in Beverly earlier this month. Back in the day, the only ones who knew what went on behind closed doors at a typical Masonic meeting were the Masons themselves.

But those days, Parker says, are gone. The new age of Masonry is a lot more welcoming than the old one.

"We've got a lot more younger people in and the lodges are more active than they used to be," says Parker. "We have more ladies' nights and family activities. That way, the wives can see what their husbands have been up to.

"We still have some of the older guys who don't like to see some of the change," he continues. "But as the younger guys get involved, they want the change."

That may be true, but then the question becomes "why now?" Why is it that in 2003, an organization like the Masons - after centuries of reclusiveness - finally feels the need to go public?

The way Parker sees it, it simply boils down to a matter of changing times.

"I think for so long, it had been called a secret organization and the people who belong to it don't really consider it a secret organization," says Parker. "If I'm involved with this, I don't want people to think (of Masonry) the way the public perception is. There is a lot of public perception about what Masonry is and does."

Polonsky says most people just can't get past the connotation that Masonry is cult-like in nature. Ultimately, he knows there isn't any real way to convince people otherwise other than through a full-scale public relations overhaul.

The time for the overhaul, Polonsky says, has arrived. But Masonry hasn't changed a bit.

"The more people are familiar with it, the less (that perception) will be around," says Polonsky. "I just hope more people will stand up and not look at it like a good old boys network. They should know that it's an opportunity to get active in the community and enjoy the fraternal bond that you might have had in college."

And wear funny hats.

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