Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Celebrating 75 Years of Liberal Religion in Charlottesville

This is the text of the reflection I offered at the congregation I serve in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Sunday, April 29, 2018.   This service was a celebration of the 75th anniversary of the formal founding of the congregation.

Looking Back; Looking Forward
It was the early 1940s, and a woman named Carrie Baker moved to Charlottesville from Montclair, NJ.  In a letter to a friend she said that she liked her new home well enough, except for one small thing – there was no Unitarian church here.  That wasn’t going to be a hurdle for too long, though, because she’d decided to try to start one!
She reached out to the Rev. John MacKinnon, who was then serving the Unitarian congregation in Richmond, and to Rev. Dale DeWitt, who was Regional Director for the American Unitarian Association and Executive Secretary of the Middle Atlantic States Council of Unitarian Churches.  She asked them both what they thought of her idea about planting a new congregation here and they were both immediately … skeptical.  Neither thought that a place as small as Charlottesville was at that time would be able to sustain a congregation; both advised that she move forward – since move forward she was obviously of a mind to do – with … caution.  Even so, Dale DeWitt spent some time while on a visit in the area doing research in the local library and talking with folks at the Chamber of Commerce.  After this additional fact finding, he realized that … he hadn’t been cautious enough!  Yet as a history of our congregation prepared at the office of the Middle Atlantic States Council of Unitarian Churches noted, “He found Mrs. Baker, however, not at all responsive to caution but eager to see what could be done.”
One thing that could be done immediately was to look for other like-minded souls, and so Ms. Baker placed a classified ad in The Daily Progress.  It’s the one on the cover of your Orders of Service: 

14 words.  14 words!  Only two of them more than one syllable!  14 little words, 4 lines of text (if you count the contact information she gave), and here we are 75 years later.  The congregation Connie Baker was being discouraged from trying to create, which professional church folks had told her didn’t have much of a chance of getting started, is still here three-quarters of a century later!  We have over 400 formal members, and another – what? 50? 75? – people who have not officially “signed the book,” yet who also call this place their spiritual home.
February 28th was the actual anniversary of the charting signing that officially launched this church 75 years ago, and we were going to hold a celebration that night, but circumstances forced us to postpone.  In the service we did hold to address those circumstances, though, I said these words:
“Carrie Baker was not easily discouraged, and throughout the 75 years of our existence this congregation has shown time and time again that we are not “easily discouraged” either.  It hasn’t always been smooth sailing – there have been times when events in the wider world or right here in the congregation have caused real uneasiness and distress; times when the ordained minister or the lay leadership were taking the congregation in a direction not everyone wanted to go; times when support (financial and otherwise) dropped off precipitously; times when even beloved members felt the need to break off their connection to this place and these people; times when we have disappointed one another, hurt one another, damaged one another – and it seemed that the fabric of the community was being damaged, too … perhaps beyond repair.  Yet in looking back over the history of this congregation, it is clear that while we no doubt have been discouraged more than a few times, we have yet to be so discouraged as to truly give up on one another.”
The story of where we are right now as a congregation is just a chapter in a story that began long before most of us got here, and which I have every faith will continue long after all of us are gone.
Over the past year I have had the great pleasure of being able to pour over documents and memorabilia from a stash of congregational history that our un-official church historian Sally Taylor thought should be kept safe, yet still easily accessible.  She saw fit to deposit them in the office you so kindly share with your ordained ministers, and that made it easy for me to spend hours sitting on the floor, looking through file folders and photo albums – some meticulous and some with a more “thrown together” look.  I have gazed on photos of members past, read newspaper articles, annual reports, histories, and even some of the sermons of my predecessors in this pulpit. 
One of my favorites was the first settled Minister to serve this congregation, the Rev. Malcolm Sutherland.  On the 40th anniversary of his installation he was invited back to preach.  The sermon he delivered that day was not entirely a recitation of congregational history, although he did include a few choice stories from our earliest years.  I’m quoting him, because you might not believe them if you only had my word for it!
“Frank Hoffer [one of the founding members] used to drive down Market Street on Sunday mornings and stop in front of students waiting for the bus to take them to their respective churches.  He would offer to take them in his car – then he would drive them, not to their church but to ours!”
It seems that our congregation has felonious roots!
In talking about the purchase of choir robes, even though the Church was meeting in the ballroom of the Monticello Hotel, he said, “Now choir robes may seem to you an unnecessary formality, but our choir robes made it possible for at least one soprano to sing even though she was dressed in her leather clothes and eight months pregnant.  [She and her husband lived in Richmond], and the only way for them to get to our church services was to ride together […] on his motorcycle!”
On a more serious note he remembered, “perhaps the most difficult moment between us was immediately after the Supreme Court’s landmark decision of ’54 outlawing the separate but equal doctrine as unconstitutional, when I joined a small interracial gathering of young people to have a square dance in this church to celebrate the Court’s decision.  Now mind you, there was no advanced publicity.  They did not have a photographer or the press.  There was no thought of public attention because we were not demonstrating.  We were simply rejoicing.  But news of this event, after the fact, put quite a strain on the congregation’s relationship with the minister.” He’s talking about himself, of course.  He goes on to say, “But do not judge them too harshly.  That was nearly thirty years ago and it is an altogether different world today.  Besides, way back then, and this should make you proud, we were the only white-owned building in Charlottesville where that dance could have taken place.
We were, in those days, the only public building in Charlottesville that permitted integrated meetings.  We were also one of the few white congregations that refused to take part in the strategy of “massive resistance,” in which white congregations held formal classes in their buildings for white children so that they could continue to receive their education even though the city schools had all been closed in order to avoid having to integrate.  It was no doubt for these reasons that on August 13, 1956, representatives of the White Supremacist group “the Seaboard White Citizen’s Council” burned a cross on our property.  (That’s 62 years ago almost to the day of this summer’s “Unite the Right” debacle.)
Here are a few more factoids from our rather impressive history:
  • ·       Gregory Swanson, the first African American to be admitted to UVA, apparently attended our church during the time he lived on the grounds, and is remembered by family as saying he’d made friends here;
  • ·       It took roughly six years after moving into this building to get pews in the sanctuary, as well as to complete the parlor, kitchen, office, and minister’s study;
  • ·       The African American opera singer Emma Jefferson Morris made her debut here in our sanctuary, before going on to sing at Carnegie Hall;
  • ·       The Rev. Roy Jones — whose daughter Chris is a member here today — wrapped the church in black crepe in response to the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, participated in the Selma to Montgomery marches, and engendered a petition to have his ministry ended because of how uncomfortable many congregants were feeling due to his strong focus on racial justice, which some felt was too all-consuming and too radical. (For what it’s worth, he stayed another four years.)
  • ·       There was a time when pledge payments fell so far behind, that we had to borrow money for operating expenses (including salaries and our mortgage), yet within a couple of years the Board voted to make a $25,000 — interest free! — loan to the just-forming Charlottesville Housing Foundation, to support its work building housing for low-income families;
  • ·       The radical Catholic peace activist, Fr. Phillip Berrigan, spoke at a Sunday service in 1976, and ten years later Elizabeth Kübler-Ross spoke from our pulpit … so when Jesse Jackson spoke here he wasn’t our first nationally known guest preacher!

I could easily go on, and over the course of this year, as we continue to celebrate this milestone, we’ll be finding all sorts of ways to tell these stories.
In his first sermon in this then-new sanctuary, Malcom Sutherland identified nine characteristics of a church that would be worthy of this building (he’d begun by noting that the building is not the church, but, rather, the people who gather in and around it).  He said we should be:
  • ·       Beautiful. 
  • ·       Strong. 
  • ·       Significant. 
  • ·       Confident. 
  • ·       Courageous. 
  • ·       Fearless 
  • ·       Devoted. 
  • ·       Sacrificing. 
  • ·       And fueled by faith — an unshakable faith in the promise of the “free mind” — which implies a belief in the inherent goodness of people — and a deep and abiding faith in ourselves and in one another. 

Those are certainly all qualities that Carrie and Charles Baker, Floyd House, John Varga, Mary MacNeill, John and Betty Beck, and the other founding members possessed.  How else could they have faced the odds that were against them to plant what we now harvest?  And looking back over our three-quarters-of-a-century history it is clear that these are qualities which have indeed marked our ever-evolving community.  They were tested, to be sure.  They were tested time and again.  And it definitely was not always clear at the time that they would triumph.  Yet they always did. 
I’m here to tell you this morning that despite the detours we have taken, we have always remained true to the vision that gave us birth.  And I am here to tell you, too, that even though we may feel conflicted today, that we may worry about our future, that we may fear that our disagreements are too great to be survived … I am here this morning to tell you that this isn’t the first time our congregation has felt this way, and that we, like they, will find our way through this.  Malcolm Sutherland said, “Let no obstacles yet to be overcome, and as we grow stronger the obstacles will become greater, let no obstacles yet to be overcome ever wipe away the spirit of confidence which has marked the early years of this church.”  They never have, and, my friends, I have a firm faith that they never will.
Twenty-three years ago, during my ordination, the incomparable preacher (and person) the Rev. Jane Rzepka asked in her sermon what held us together as Unitarian Universalists, given that we don’t share a common creed. Her answer for our movement is, I think, an answer for our congregation as well.
She referred to a passage in the Hebrew Scriptures, in the book of Amos, in which the character of God asks, as part of a litany of questions, “Can two walk together unless they be agreed?”  That’s the way the King James Version puts it. More modern translations say, “Can two walk together unless they have made an appointment?,” or, even more plainly, “Can two walk together unless they have agreed to?”
That, Jane said all those years ago, is what holds us Unitarian Universalists together — that we have agreed to walk together. Some would say that there’s not a whole lot else that we all agree on, but that, at least, we should. Our faith tradition is based on our mutual commitment to walk together — not to walk away if people disagree with us (even if it’s our clergy or lay leaders); not to walk away if our feelings have gotten hurt; not to walk away if we think the church is going in the wrong direction; not to walk away when it might be more convenient or comfortable to do so.  What holds us together — what will hold us together no matter what obstacles we might face (and remember, “as we grow stronger the obstacles will become greater”) — what always has, and always will, hold us together is our continuing commitment to walking together.
75 years ago, a woman placed a classified ad, consisting of four words, in an edition of The Daily Progress.  75 years later, we are here as proof that the experts were wrong and that she was right – Charlottesville could support a Unitarian congregation.  Even more, we’ve proved time and time again that Charlottesville needs a Unitarian Universalist congregation.  As we rightly celebrate our past, let us equally commit ourselves to our future, so that there will be a Unitarian Universalist congregation here, alive and vibrant, 75 years from now, and so that they will have as much reason to celebrate their ancestors as we have to celebrate ours

 During the service we said together two responsive readings that were spoken by our religious ancestors.  The first was recited just before the sermon, the second served as our Parting Words.

A Responsive Litany (from the service celebrating the ground-breaking this building)
To love justice and strive for the right; to ease suffering and assist the weak; to forget wrongs and remember benefits:
Congregational Response:  We commit our hearts and hands this day.
To seek the truth; to rebuke falsehood and rumor; to defend liberty and cultivate freedom’s lofty aims; to wage relentless war against slavery in all its forms; to share the promise of our day alike with friend and friendless; to make a happy home, a wholesome community, a neighborly world:
Congregational Response:  We commit our hearts and hands this day.
To cherish the beautiful in art, in nature, in personality; to cultivate the mind and share its discoveries; to be familiar with the mighty thoughts genius has expressed; to know the noble deeds of ages past:
Congregational Response:  We commit our hearts and hands this day.
To show forth courage and cheerfulness; to enrich life and make others happy; to reflect the splendor of generous acts, the warmth of loving words; to discard error and destroy prejudice; to receive new truth with gladness:
Congregational Response:  We commit our hearts and hands this day.
To sustain hope and broaden vision; to see the calm beyond the storm, the dawn beyond the night; to do the best that can be done:
Congregational Response:  We commit our hearts and hands this day.
To nobel live, a simple faith, an open heart and hand – these are the lovely litanies which all [people] understand.  These are the firm-knit bonds of grace, though hidden from view, which bind in sacred [kinship] all [of humanity] the whole world through.  [To these ends:]
Congregational Response:  We commit our hearts and hands this day.

An Act of Dedication  (from the service of dedication for the building)
To every worth purpose and noble ideal; to every high aspiration and ever beautiful thought:
Congregational Response:  We dedicate this house.
To all who have dreamed majestically and wrought mightily; to all who have served their vision faithfully and have wrested freedom from tyranny, wisdom from ignorance, and righteousness from evil:
Congregational Response:  We dedicate this house.
To the ministry of all people; to the laughter and song of little children; to the search and service of youth; to the wisdom and stability of adults; to those who through a long life have borne witness to that abiding love which overcomes all evil:
Congregational Response:  We dedicate this house.
As a fountain of strength for the week; as a source of reassurance for the despairing; as a place of rest for the weary; and a well-spring of courage for those who are afraid:
Congregational Response:  We dedicate this house.
As a place of worship where in peaceful reflection and earnest prayer we can consider the things of worth and heart the still small voice within; where cries can be faced, decisions made, and battles won:
Congregational Response:  We dedicate this house.
To the Source of all our being, the Light of all our light, the Truth behind our wisdom:
Congregational Response:  We dedicate this house.

Pax tecum,


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