On Turning 60, Part 2
Unitarian Universalist Church of Augusta
August 3rd 2014
This morning we have a special occasion to celebrate. After last Sunday’s Camp Meeting service, I wanted to pick music that would be relevant to our mature 60 years. In May I gave the first part of this sermon On Turning 60 about myself, so I figure I know what it feels like to be 60…and so some of the hymns we could have sung today for our 60th are:
Go Tell It on the Mountain, But Speak Up
Just a Slower Walk with Thee
Nobody Knows the Trouble I Have Seeing
It Is Well With My Soul, But My Knees Hurt
Well, maybe 60 isn’t so old, especially when I think of the congregations I visited in England earlier this month: Leeds Unitarian Chapel had its first services in March of 1674, and York Unitarian Chapel in 1693.
|Mill Hill Unitarian Chapel, Leeds|
Closer to home, Unitarianism arrived in South Carolina in 1787. The Charleston church is the oldest Unitarian Church in the South.
But even though our congregation is 60 years old, the first Unitarian congregation actually formed in Augusta in 1826 (http://studio205.tv/redrobotfoods/unitarian-universalists-in-atlanta-100-years/).
A meeting house was built in 1827 and a minister was called in 1830. Until 1837, the Rev. Stephen Greenleaf Bulfinch, whose father had designed the US Capitol building in Washington, DC, was minister to the Unitarian church in Augusta.
|Rev. Stephen Greenleaf Bulfinch|
But by 1837 Rev. Bulfinch was gone, and the congregation dissolved because of three reasons: internal conflict; conflict with the American Unitarian Association over its anti-slavery stand; and severe criticism from the Augusta community for the Unitarians’ liberal Christian beliefs. Following these disagreements the church, like others in the South, closed in 1840. Rev. Bulfinch later wrote a novel that was a thinly veiled commentary on his struggle with slavery, which many of his parishioners supported; soon he left the Unitarian church and became a Christian minister.
A Unitarian Church formed in Savannah in 1830 but it also experienced the same problems as the group in Augusta and by 1859 it had disbanded. The experience was so disheartening to Unitarians that, when a brash young minister of the Savannah church suggested in 1854 that a Unitarian denomination-sponsored mission group be established in the Atlanta area (specifically in Marietta), he was soundly rebuked by one of the founders of the Augusta congregation and a pillar of Unitarianism in Georgia. Dr. Richard Arnold wrote to the young minister saying, “No, no, Georgia is too new a country, in that section of it, for Unitarian Christianity. A few from the land of steady habits may carry it thither with them, but if it were strangled in Augusta, I have no hopes of its reviving and flourishing in Marietta, Cobb County, which twenty years since was an Indian Hunting ground. . . ” (http://studio205.tv/redrobotfoods/unitarian-universalists-in-atlanta-100-years/).
That’s the Unitarian experience; there were more small, active Universalist churches than Unitarian churches in Georgia before the war, but no congregations remained active afterward. (http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/arts-culture/unitarianism-and-universalism) And so for more than 100 years, until 1954, there was no Unitarian presence in Augusta.
Now, last night we had a dance to celebrate our 60 years, and Tracy Craig and Alan Totten gathered dance music from every decade since UUCA was created. And while I was looking at some of the titles, I thought some of them would explain some important points about this church that I picked out of Lyn Dennison’s paper on the first 50 years of this congregation (Lyn Dennison, History of the First Twenty Five Years of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Augusta, Augusta, GA, 2004).
|Savannah Riverwalk, Augusta|
The first title is from a Bruce Springsteen song from 1979, “The River”. The Savannah River is a vital part of our history. The roots of our congregation as we know it today were planted in Aiken in 1953 with the founding of the original Unitarian Fellowship of Aiken. The Augusta Fellowship was founded in 1954, one year after the Aiken Fellowship was founded. These early Unitarians mainly were here to construct and operate Savannah River Plant, at that time the newly opened plutonium production facility. To begin with in Augusta, services and meetings were held at a local Jewish Reform temple, the Congregation Children of Israel.
The Unitarian Fellowship of Augusta, is of course, now the Unitarian Universalist Church of Augusta. After the Aiken Fellowship dissolved many Aiken UUs traveled back and forth across the Savannah River to Augusta for years, actively participating in the Augusta congregation.
In the year 2000, a Unitarian Universalist fellowship was organized in Aiken, with the help of the Augusta minister Dan King. (aikenuu.org)
David Bowie’s song “Rebel Rebel” from 1974 is another appropriate song title, because it wasn’t long after the fellowship formed that the small group of Unitarians began to make waves. In the 1950s and 1960s, the UU Church’s attitude towards racially integrated congregations was locally controversial. The church received phone threats when its members made statements about racial politics in the local media. This congregation was also in the 10 % of rebels who voted ‘no’ to the proposal to consolidate Unitarians and Universalists in 1961 – mainly because it had experienced growth as a Unitarian fellowship and was afraid to lose the momentum of increasing membership.
Being counter-cultural is another way of being rebellious. The Augusta UU congregation voted in 1999 to become a designated Welcoming Congregation, way ahead of its time in being a place of worship that was LGBT-friendly. (http://www.pluralism.org/profiles/view/73450)
Unlike most other churches, over the years we have made alliances with other progressive houses of worship, and we’ve developed interfaith relationships at a time in the world when it is more important than ever to pursue dialogue and not conflict.
Now the congregation is about to embark on another cutting-edge project, beginning its work on becoming a Green Sanctuary congregation, bringing environmental awareness to our own members and the wider community. The word Rebel in the South sometimes has a different meaning, more associated with the ‘War of Northern Aggression’! But there is no doubt that this Unitarian Universalist community has long been known as a bunch of upstarts who defied the status quo, whether it is race relations, LGBT rights or the lack of a Bible-belt mentality.
Augusta’s own Godfather of Soul, James Brown, sang “It’s a Man’s World”. The Augusta Unitarian Fellowship was founded in an era when women were beginning to speak their own truth to power. Women from our congregation led a small group in 1961 to start Augusta’s first integrated preschool, Open Door, which still exists on Walton Way.
And nationally, after the consolidation of Unitarians and Universalists, UU women took on the sexist language of church hymnals. Hymns for the Celebration of Life, the UUA’s 1964 hymnal, had sections titled “Man,” “Love and Human Brotherhood,” and “The Arts of Man.” Their work resulted in Singing the Living Tradition in 1993, which uses more inclusive language.
Another change that also has impacted this congregation was the rapid increase in women UU ministers—from about 5 percent in 1977 to about 50 percent today. (http://www.uuworld.org/ideas/articles/23905.shtml) So maybe the Aretha Franklin song “Sisters Are Doin It for Themselves” sums up these developments.
And speaking of women artists, Tina Turner sang, “What’s Love Got to do with It?” So far the history has been interesting, but underpinning the existence of this congregation is its commitment to love. Love for its members, for its friends, for the community, the wider world. We see examples through the years of how members and friends have gone about building what Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King called the Beloved Community…and they have done it together, loyal to each other and to this covenantal congregation.
Love has a lot to do with it, Tina, and within that, relationship, as in the Beatles song “With a Little Help from My Friends” and James Brown’s “I Feel Good - I Got You”. And we do make the CSRA feel good when we add to its cultural life; we have well-respected musicians like Rob Foster and Joe Patchen, our music director, and singers in music groups like the Augusta Choral Society; we have members like Bea Kuhlke, a well-known artist whose current exhibition is getting rave reviews; we have a jazz concert series beginning next Friday that has resurrected Chamber Jazz, in this sanctuary which used to be the venue in the 1990s for jazz concerts.
|4 Seasons Chamber Jazz Concert Series|
In fact, maybe the only known Unitarian Universalist miracle occurred here at the Augusta Jazz Project series during that time! Here’s a little bit of history I only found out when I did a radio interview with Brenda Durant on yesterday’s Arts Weekly. Brenda told me that she used to come to the concerts here, and that one night after the concert was over all the men left before putting the room back to its normal configuration; so, even though she had a neck and shoulder problem that she’d been receiving treatment for, she and a friend picked up a piece of heavy furniture and moved it. As soon as she put it down she felt a click and her neck felt fine, no pain at all!
So, where do we go from here? Will the Unitarian Universalist Church of Augusta celebrate 60 years from now? Will those children who sang Happy Birthday this morning be here in 60 years as the elders of this congregation? And just as importantly, how will we spend those 60 years?
Woody Allen once said, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work: I want to achieve immortality by not dying.” I think this church should work on both…and when I think of what has made us successful, and what could cause this church to remain a vital force that draws people from all over the area and across the Savannah River, a rebellious and counter-cultural beacon of liberal religion, an inclusive community, a beloved community, a church that opens itself and gives of its values and talents to the wider world – well, I believe it comes down to risk-taking, to courage, and to a tough skin. And when I read Rev Tony Larson’s post in the Etext library this week – which I’ve posted on our UUCA Facebook page – I knew that it would form part of my anniversary wishes to each of you in this congregation:
“You should not be a Unitarian Universalist if you don't like getting offended. If you haven't been offended yet, it’s only because you haven't been around long enough. In trying to sermonize on some of the issues in our lives today, I'm bound to hit some raw nerves and you'd better be ready for it. At least you know it's not personal. I care about you - and the fact that we disagree at times in no way takes away from that.
You should not be a Unitarian Universalist if you're a Christian who doesn't think atheists belong here. You should not be a Unitarian Universalist if you're an atheist who thinks Christians don't belong here, or Buddhists, or psychics, or pagans, or spiritualists. Remember the criterion for membership here is humane living. The rest is a matter of individual choice.
You should not be a Unitarian Universalist if you want all the answers, because we don't even know all the questions.
Finally, you should not be a Unitarian Universalist if you can't stand name calling. You are likely to get it by staying here. When you tell people you're Unitarian Universalist, some of them will seize on the more sensational aspects of this church. "Oh, you're that atheist church." or "You're the people who worship flowers."
Labelling is a price that you pay and a risk you take in belonging to this church. Some people who use to be members here, decided not to take that risk. Then there are others who decide that those who label and name-call reveal more about themselves than about this church. There's bravery in the decision to stay. There's courage in not running out when you're under fire. And, if it's any consolation, Unitarians and Universalists have had a long history of being labelled and vilified - and of responding with courage that comes from faith in the human race, from the days when UU's fought that respectable institution called slavery, to their battle for women's rights to vote and their struggle for civil liberties.
You should not be a Unitarian Universalist if you don't like diversity, and you should not be a Unitarian Universalist if you can't stand the name calling that will inevitably result from being a diverse church.
My thanks to all of you who have stuck it out!” (http://downlode.org/Etext/why_not_unitarian.html)
And my thanks to you all for being here today to celebrate the wonderful legacy this church is building for the next 60 years!
Blessed Be, Amen.
Gaye W. Ortiz