Old roots and tender leaves

Sunday a week ago was clear and bright, a couple of inches of fresh snow on top of what the storm three days earlier had dropped. There is something special about driving through rural New England after a fresh snowfall. It is the kind of scene you expect to find cookies under, or perhaps a pleasant Christmas greeting: stands of dark conifers with snow-laden branches, white frame farmhouses and ochre-red barns with blanketed roofs and wisps of smoke curling up from the chimneys, perhaps the dark course of a brook trickling between ice-crusted stones. A horse-drawn sleigh would not be amiss.

Lacking the horse-drawn sleigh, I drove Spouse’s car – the one with the studded tires – when I traveled out to preach in the little white church in Turner Center, a secondary village in the township of Turner a couple of miles from town.

How I came to be preaching in that little white church the morning after a snowstorm is a long story, one that goes back to the early 1800s when Universalism was starting to spread, particularly in rural New England. Congregations formed, served by the itinerant circuit preachers of the day, and the Turner church dates back to 1803, a full thirty years older than the Universalist parent of my home church in Augusta. The building was taken apart and rebuilt on its current site about 1848 and after that the records are mostly gone, but the congregation, renamed somewhere along the way to Turner Community Church, continued to gather in the little white church building, their numbers dwindling. I am told they had gotten down to single digit attendance, or nearly so, when they took the decision last year to reclaim their historic name of First Universalist of Turner Center and explore their identity as a Universalist church.

I didn’t ask, but I imagine their congregational leadership then did a bit of research on what happened to the rest of the Universalists, which led them to seek out UU contacts in the area. Last fall, I was among the group of lay service leaders in my home congregation who got an email alerting us to the possible opportunity to be a guest speaker in this small church, if interested please email…

I emailed. Of course I emailed. I’m a seminary student and I enjoy preaching and I need the experience. It took us awhile to work out the scheduling – when everything important has to happen on Sunday, there are suddenly not enough Sundays for everything – and thus it was mid-February when I finally had sermon notes in hand and stood in that old, new space and spoke what I know of the truth.

The truth that called me to Turner Center is that I see in that fledgeling congregation the very future of Unitarian Universalism.

Because while we who think we know what we are talking about sit in classrooms and conference rooms worrying about numerical growth – how to lure in the spiritual seekers and what to do with or for or about the elusive young adults – or bickering over whether we are a denomination or a movement, trying to figure out how to Save The …Whatever We Are — while we try to solve the unsolvable problem of how to do liberal religion in a complex ugly world in a top-down systematic way — in this tiny village there are ordinary people who are so deeply drawn to the kind of religious community that we say we want to be in the world that they are making it happen for themselves, where they are, with the resources they have.

This is a holy thing.

Call it God, or Love Eternal, or the indomitable human Spirit — it is present in that community, in their plainness and lack of pretense, in their informality, in their clear love for one another and their willingness to join together and step into the unknown and make real their own vision.

We need them.

We need a hundred or five hundred like them, in all the little towns in all the states of the nation: small, locally organized, driven by our shared values, adapted to their local culture and situation. We need the people who share our values and want our kind of religious community to gather with each other and make it happen when and where and how they need it, because we as an institution are clearly failing to do that.

Small congregations go against the conventional wisdom – everything I read at an institutional level speaks of mid-size or larger urban and suburban congregations, those that are big enough to afford a variety of programs and full-time staff and clergy. Now as an aspirant to the ministry I have an interest in making my livelihood at, or at least around, the work I am called to do. But there is a lot of rural America that will never be suburban enough or affluent enough to support large churches, and I am coming to wonder whether we as an institution, fearful for our survival, are chasing the money instead of engaging the values we profess.  We can do better.  We must.

I admit, I have something of a preacher crush on this little church. I hope to see them gather enough membership to be stable and resilient; I like to imagine them filling their little white church building on pleasant Sunday mornings and ringing the old bell in the steeple.  I am pleased to hear that they are exploring the possibility of UUA membership when the time is right, and that their board is encouraging one of their congregational leaders to visit GA this summer.

I hope we are good to them. I hope that our urgency and anxiety around money and numerical growth and big suburban congregations do not leave them feeling too small to be useful. I hope that the deep unresolved issues around our theological plurality do not leave them feeling unwelcome as mostly-Christian Universalists.  I hope that we are able and willing to nurture this tender stem growing from our old roots. So many good things have been grafted on over the decades, sometimes we forget the worth of what we started with. May we see that this also is good, and worth sustaining.

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7 Responses to Old roots and tender leaves

  1. irrevspeckay says:

    Claire, I think you make important points. In the same way that it is sexy to shout social justice to become (or be) a minister, and to not give pastoral engagement (caring for our dying, our sick; marking the rites of passage) its proper due, we give ALOT of attention to growing churches and BIG churches. As a seminarian, I continue to sense this vibe, too, that small churches indicate a less-innovative, less-competent ministry — that good (and certainly not ambitious) ministers shouldn’t end up in small churches. Yet there is good and holy work there. This little church I have been serving for the past nearly two years, the one I leave in a few short months, has been doing amazing work: reworking themselves, engaging in new ministry that speaks to their strengths and to the relocalization movement: with imminent changes in society (economy, peak oil, etc.) that we need to organize in small localities.

    • Small but mighty. I really suspect a lot of the anxiety around Bigger Faster Louder comes from a financial place. Because small congregations so often struggle to maintain their buildings, let alone afford even a part-time religious professional. And it’s not that they wouldn’t benefit from having a minister, just that one can’t afford to do the work they need for the compensation they can offer.

      So one of the big unresolved issues is (as always) the money. I just feel that by focusing on the technical problem of how to make institutions financially sustainable we risk losing track of the end to which those institutions exist in the first place.

  2. You can say the same thing about urban neighborhoods in growing cities: the churches that already exist don’t serve the nemcomers, and the bulk of the Unitarian Univeralists long ago decamped to the burbs.

  3. But in another note: what hymnal did they use at Turner Center?

    • They have just started using Singing the Living Tradition (our gray hymnal) and it’s still very unfamiliar to them. I’m hoping to work with their pianist next time I am out there to help them find in it what will best serve their needs.

      I have a copy of the old 1960’s UU hymnal somewhere (the one with the dark blue cover) and I may sift through that for more Universalist material if they express an interest. Wishing we had a good Christian Universalist hymnal supplement. Maybe someday we will.

      • I wonder if they used Hymns of the Spirit. It takes some time to learn, but there are some gems therein, and it has held on in Universalist Christian circles (for want of a replacement.)

  4. Pingback: Universalist roots, living our faith, pink triangles, and more « uuworld.org : The Interdependent Web

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