Three Trails, One Path
by Rev. Peter Connolly
A Sermon offered at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green, KY, on August 23, 2009
Sometimes, I feel like I’m surrounded by ghosts. These are the ghosts I sense in this place: the ghosts of Jean and Max Thomason, formerly of Atlanta, Georgia. The ghosts of Jim and Elizabeth Oppitz, like the Thomasons, still blessedly with us in body and spirit, but it’s difficult for them to get to church. The ghost of Steve Scott, whose name arises in every conversation. And other names float up sometimes with admiration and pride, sometimes with acceptance; often with concern and affection, fellowship and camaraderie. There is a general spirit created by the infusion of individual spirits into the shape of this building, the shape of this campus, the shape of the dreams for the future.
Someone (not of this congregation) said to me last week, “I know that church. That’s the one with the hole in the ground and the new minister.”
“Are they planning to bury me already?” I wanted to ask.
Well, here we are, all of us, in the presence of one large hole with boulders all around; there is new clay in the hole in the ground, though, and a couple of days recently were spent in compacting the soil. A layer of crushed rock was spread this week and you can see where the elevator shaft will be. We are in the midst of building and it’s an exciting and challenging place to be. If we lived in another tradition, I’d encourage a chorus of Halleluiah. For now, I guess we’ll just keep offering applause to each other.
Fifty years ago, there was no Unitarian Universalist church—or fellowship —in this city. But 48 years ago, the seeds had already been planted. In the fall of 1961, Max and Jean Thomason moved to Bowling Green from Atlanta. One of their first acts was to search for a Unitarian Universalist church— this was, in fact, the year of the merger of the two traditions, the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America. There was no church or fellowship in town. In an article written by Max for a program for the fellowship ten years ago, he adds, “not that we really expected to find such a group in this community of religious conservatives.”
The couple conducted a free and responsible search for meaning through a connection with other Unitarian Universalists by writing to the Church of the Larger Fellowship in Boston; by making connections with an old friend, the Rev. Cliff Hoffman, Executive Secretary of the Thomas Jefferson Unitarian Council; and by reaching out to the Ohio Valley Unitarian Universalist Council. Mrs. Oscar Quimby, the area representative for the extension of the UUA sent a letter of encouragement in early 1962. By mid-April, there was a core group. Their names we raise up today: Jean and Max Thomason; Paul and Doris Pickwick; Leon and Dorothy Czikowsky, and Bob Wurster. They declared themselves a fellowship. Halleluiah!
In May of that year, this small group joined with the Owensboro Fellowship for a potluck picnic. A letter written at that time documents what they call a “significant factor” in coming together: the religious education of the six children of the fellowship members. When the Reverend Philip Smith of the First Unitarian Church of Louisville came to preach to them on May 20th that year, there were 14 in attendance. Seven were members, of whom five were faculty members at Western Kentucky University.
In October of 1962, Rev. Oscar Quimby, Executive Director of the Ohio Valley UU Council, spoke to the congregation on Unitarian Universalist Beliefs. He followed up with a letter in which he congratulated the fellowship here for being “quite appreciative of the importance of presenting the proper image to the community, and of doing so without compromising the principles of liberal religion.”
He also remarked that “your experience will soon tell you that it is not a good thing to let speakers talk merely on their own specialty, but that it is preferable to deal with frankly religious subjects. This will help interest others of the Bowling Green community and surroundings in your group.” This advice was sometimes followed and sometimes put aside in the following years. It appears to have been solid advice, as the periods of lull to follow seem to coincide with periods when the group functioned more or less as a place to review books of popular interest.
Rev. Quimby’s final piece of advice was to say “It is desirable to have some sort of statement of principles of religious education of the young ready to hand out to folks who pay you a visit.” From the start, the importance of the presence and investment of young families to church growth was emphasized.
“On March 10, 1963,” Max Thomason notes in his 1999 remarks, “our group made formal application for fellowship status… in a letter sent to the UU Association in Boston.” There were 15 members; they had elected a chairman, Robert J. Wurster; an assistant chairman, a secretary and a treasurer. So, March 10, 1963, represents the formal beginning of the fellowship here in Bowling Green, a date to remember and perhaps to commemorate each year as Spring dawns in Bowling Green.
I met with a number of long-time church members this week in an effort to familiarize myself with the history of this church, to see what made it attractive, to find out why folks have stayed. I had no criteria for whom I chose to interview except that their names kept coming up in conversations about early church life.
John Downing said that he was recruited by Jean Thomason during an eye exam in 1972. God bless failing vision. He grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition and told me that one of the transformative experiences of his religious development came in reading Albert Schweitzer’s Quest of the Historical Jesus, a volume that pointed him towards medicine as a career. In 1972, the fellowship was meeting at the Newman Center and “less than ten” people would attend on a given Sunday. I don’t know if we can really envision what a commitment it takes to keep showing up in a congregation when the members are so few. John says that he was attracted because of the liberal thinking, the fact that folks were accepting of “all ideas;” the fact that here was a “nice group of open-minded people.”
Jan Garrett started coming about twelve years later, in 1984 when the fellowship was meeting at the Houchens Center on Adams Street; the building was owned by Western Kentucky University. There were about twenty in the fellowship, he tells me; about 15 would attend on any given Sunday, but there were occasionally as many as fifty at a service [in the late 1990’s—J.G.]. At that time, there was no regular child care; we can assume that that would affect attendance.
Five years later, in 1989, Nancy Garrett started coming, though she was no “Garrett” at that time. Here is where she met Jan when he gave a lecture on pantheism [probably in 1997—J.G.]. He struck up a conversation after church and the rest is history. (Nancy says “We were doing small group work for a course we were taking later [ca. 1999–J.G.] and it seemed like every time I looked up, there was Jan.”) Church serves a variety of functions: we celebrate the fact that it is sometimes a successful dating agency. The congregation in 1989 was lay-led, of course; often the format of the get-together was a presentation of a book review. Those who came liked it, but only a few were coming. Leadership was provided by a man who described himself as an “atheist” and who, apparently, was not shy about “bashing Fundamentalists.”
There was a change in 1990 when Bob Scanlon became president of the fellowship. There were regular orders of service then and a music program and guest speakers. Greg Willis’ name comes up in this context—as someone who made sure that you could count on there being a musical dimension to the service. It’s reassuring to the preacher, Greg, that if the sermon falls flat, the people are still inspired by the music. Susie Likes invigorated the social action dimension of the fellowship’s life beginning around 1993. Nancy assumed the presidency in 1994 followed by Greg in 1995 to 1996. Teresa Ward became president in 1997. Nancy instituted the policy of assuring that a budget be in place; money was accounted for and reports were made to the congregation. Vice-President John Downing arranged for speakers; the fundamentals of committees began to be formulated. Folks clustered around the fellowship’s piano to sing. Following Teresa as president were Bill Hillsmeyer, Susie Likes, and Steve Scott for two years beginning in 1999.
Around this time, Linda and Charlie Pickle started to attend church— and it’s right around then—the fall of 1999, as I understand it, that the fellowship, through a congregational vote, chose to call itself a church. Some recall this process as contentious—others say “Not at all.” What seems true is that no members were lost during this significant change— in the normal course of institutional development, as you may know, this is quite rare.
The congregation was, at this time, “still at 1818” as folks tend to say— 1818 Nashville Road, now the Alive Center. “Folks were understandably proud of owning this building and of having established themselves to this extent,” one long-time church member told me, “but it was not a great building— it had been a residential home and then a tanning center. We had to work around the booths and the floor was always dirty and that sort of thing.”
Jean Thomason, it appears, was instrumental again at a significant moment of transition for the church. She was a realtor and made inquiries into the status of the congregation who met here, at 2033 Nashville Rd., a congregation of the Christian Science Church. Their population was dwindling and when they decided to sell, they gave a good price to their friend, Jean—and the congregation finally found a home suitable to its needs. Jan and Nancy tell a nice tale of the circumstances of the move-in. Members brought with them their “UU treasures” and walked, apparently from 1818, carrying the membership book, stained glass panels and banners and singing “Enter, Rejoice and Come In” as they walked to the new church building. The older building was sold to the Alive Center and Katrina Phelps’ name comes up with fondness and appreciation as that part of the story is related.
In 2003 a strategic plan was formulated for the church, better organizing committee structure, better organizing financial structure and identifying major goals for the church. Forrest Halford became president of the board in 2004, Jan Garrett in 2005. There was a strategic planning vision workshop offered in Indianapolis: the church sent representatives: a mission and vision were established; a building initiative was begun; a plan to recruit a minister was envisioned; a life-long religious education curriculum was agreed upon and established. It is described as an “emotional” time. “We all felt wonderful” Nancy says, “friends and colleagues and family—being a beloved community.”
It is said that “Linda Pickle’s team hammered out the mission statement quite quickly.” She assumed the presidency in 2006 for the second time. Cathy Chang was the student intern minister at this time; she gets unanimous praise for having pulled together a coherent RE program for the kids— and kids’ life in the church assumed a dimension it had not achieved before. Under Jim Martin’s tenure as president in 2007, task forces were formed; the process, it is said, was smooth. Under Susan Ammons’ tenure in 2008, the process went smoothly: Jim Haynes and Susan Sirvain assumed responsibility for the new building committee and the Ministerial Search Committee was formed. It included Charlie, John Downing, Joan Martin (who headed it up through the challenging time of putting together the congregational packet—a beautiful thing available for examination in the church library, if you have not seen it), Valerie Brown, Jerry Gibbs and Frank Snyder—a “good crew” someone called it.
Traci Sprester was hired to be the teacher of Youth RE in 2008— a decision that folks seem well-satisfied with. She brought the first of our youth members through the Rite of Passage Experience and facilitated their trip to Boston in the Spring of this year.
The Search Committee was successful in its endeavor— you might have heard that a new minister, the congregation’s first, was called on May 3. I understand that he is quite excited about the prospects. On the “wayside pulpit,” as it is sometimes called, it has been proclaimed for over two weeks now “Welcome our wonderful new minister Rev. Peter Connolly.” I tell friends that I’m of the mind of Tommy Makem— when he heard resounding applause as he introduced the members of his group, the Clancy Brothers, on a live recording, he shouted out “Let them do something first!” Let them, indeed.
Some of you know that I was raised in the Roman Catholic tradition. We were told in my childhood,in the days before the Second Vatican Council, that we had absolutely to go to church on Sunday. To miss Mass unless you were physically unable to attend was, we were told, a mortal sin—meaning that if we died with this mark on our souls, we’d go to Hell to burn forever. This was the Catholic dogma taught in the schools in the fifties and early sixties. We were told, too, unsurprisingly, that we were forbidden to step foot in the churches of Protestants or the worship places of Jews. I don’t know where to begin when I am asked how I made the long journey from this restrictive vision of religion to the ultra-liberalism of Unitarian Universalism. I guess the short answer is that there was first the break from the church, which, in the black-and-white version of religious life in which I was raised, meant a break from all organized religious life.
As soon as I was able to act on my own thoughts, which, in my case, meant skipping Mass on Sunday when I could assume I’d not be caught— I stopped going. Church life was not something I missed because it was not something I enjoyed. I’d much rather walk through the streets of Dorchester with my friend Rick, talking freely of all the things in the wide world that were interesting to 18-year-olds than go to church and hear again the same stale interpretations of the same few Gospel passages we’d heard all our lives.
I was passionately interested in the meaning behind things, the deeper meaning behind the surface of things and behind the superficial meanings that seemed to be routinely consumed by those in the culture in which I grew up. I never stopped being interested in such things; it’s what brought me, eventually, back to the church, where the search for ways to better know the workings of the universe can be accomplished in concert with a group of others fueled by such a thirst for knowledge, for ways towards a better understanding, for conclusions that are satisfying despite the fact that they are rarely final.
The road that brought me here was a winding road and there won’t be time today to tell a full story. My Bible, if you will, for years and years, was in the work of an Indian-born and English-educated philosopher-teacher named Jiddu Krishnamurti. He taught that there is no “official” knowledge of the way things are, no “approved” path towards understanding. Reading his books is both a joy and a series of shocks. Most of his books consist of talks that he gave followed by question-and-answer sessions. Time after time, he would chide the questioner for seeking his, Krishnamurti’s, judgment in a particular situation. He would sharply advise the speaker to stop; to take stock; to look into his own heart and soul for the answer. He scolded folks for being presumptuous, for being filled with self-importance, for posing, for seeking recognition and social advancement. In each case, the advice was the same: to look for oneself, to examine the situation for oneself from a position of clarity: “Look directly at it” he would say. Notice the veils of illusion that get in the way for what they are. If you seek both clarity and self-advancement you will find, at best, self-advancement, but not clarity. If you seek pleasure and awareness, you might achieve the fleeting accomplishment of pleasure, but no awareness will follow unless you keep looking. It was a rigorous method, but it proved helpful to me.
When I entered seminary, I’m afraid I challenged the professors a little too readily. I’m pleased to say, though, that they were often up to the task. No, they did not always like to be so frankly challenged, but they were pleased sometimes that the classroom discussions benefited from this edge of serious inquiry. And by then, I’d discovered the teachings of the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. Here the lessons were on love and, especially peace, achieved by slowing down, being attentive, being awake and aware of the present moment. We are always in the present moment and in the present moment live all of our future possibilities. I propose that we enter into a continuing unfolding of present moments in seriousness and in the joy of being together and investigating possibilities.
Living in the moment means opening ourselves to a wide array of possibilities. It increases the dynamic dimension of our lives. But dynamics without form is like water from a broken pitcher: it can seep in a myriad of directions freely, but to what purpose? My Catholic upbringing came in the most rigid of forms. The water, so to speak, was sealed tight within the package, equally undrinkable— a life force contained, constrained and retained—inaccessible for life.
Somewhere there exists a form that is sound enough to contain our intentions and flexible enough to allow for a full array of ways to express the individuality that makes us precious. Somewhere there is a pitcher that holds water for drinking, for washing, for fueling industry, for feeding life and encouraging liveliness. The form that I have found, that gives shape to our lives together and yet allows for our inner dynamism to gain expression exists in our seven principles.
I invite you to join me in that expression, to take up and read from your hymnal the text of our principles. Let us read them together.
We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote:The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all;
Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
In the spirit of the seven principles, I propose we step forward to the future to do the work it requires of us. From church members I hear some common strains: we need to get to know each other better, to learn to minister to one another better. Our children are our future– we need to support them. Our youth are soon to be our leaders; it’s important that they know we support them and that they take a more active role in the life of the church. We need to serve the cause of justice in the larger community. We need to bring our commitment to a more just society into the society itself.
We need to get to know each other and have opportunities to minister to one another: there are two such opportunities coming up soon. I met this week with Jim and oan Martin. In the coming weeks, Joan will be telling you about the “small group ministry” movement. Its function is to provide a place for our members in search of a structured small community of six to ten persons that will attend more deeply and respectfully to their needs for spiritual growth. Linda Pickle will be telling you soon about the adult religious education offering, “Building Your Own Theology”; it will also offer a place for spiritual reflection, structured growth and community.
I met this week with Traci; we talked about some of the impediments she faces in trying to bring a full hour of the work of religious exploration to our young people and we will consider some ideas that will make their time together more productive.
I met with Sonja Byrd, the chair of the Children’s Religious Exploration Committee, on Friday. There is a solid curriculum in place for the year beginning on September 6 and a small but committed group of teachers supported by assistant teachers, but the committee’s work would be bolstered by a greater commitment by members who do not necessarily have children of school age.
Bella Mukonyora, a faculty member at WKU and a friend of the church, approached me about engaging in an interfaith initiative to work on issues of ecological justice. We have invited her to the Social Action Committee meeting this week to tell us more about her proposal. This could be just the issue we’ve been seeking to bring our passion for social justice where it needs to be—in the world we live in.
The Communications Committee has not been as active lately as in the past, but Zee Evelsizer and I talked at some length this week with hopes that the international fair that comes to town in late September will bring with it an opportunity to make the work of this church better known in the larger community and perhaps provide an opportunity for the youth of the church and the artisans of the area to come together.
All of you have been more than kind and generous in the warmth of your welcome this week. One of my favorite comments, though, came in a conversation with a young person after coffee hour last week. She had not been present for the congregational vote, but it was clear that she placed confidence in the Ministerial Search Committee. She said, “They picked you— you must be some good.” That’s my hope—to be, for us all to be, some good and do some good together.