the not-too-distant past…

3 Oct

Do You Remember When…?
A sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on September 23, 2012

Listen here.

I have preached a lot about the future – about where we are going, about what struggles we face, about the unclear and uncertain future. And this is all well and good, but I pray I never forget the power of past stories, and the importance in telling them as a way of rooting who we are in our history so that our branches might reach for the sky in the future. Indeed, the future of this congregation, is grounded in its past: a lively, exciting, rich and meaningful past. Not without its struggles, of course, but also not without its moments of celebration.

In the Steeple-room, through those doors, is a plaque that lists the ministers who have served this congregation. It is a humbling plaque for me to look at, with the names of some giants in our tradition – giants who shaped their futures, what we now call our present – in real and powerful ways.

This congregation was founded almost 200 years ago, in 1830 as an outpost to the west. In 1833, it hired James Freeman Clark as one of the first ministers. Clark went on to lead the expansion of Unitarianism into the midwestern states. He was driven, and without his ambition, Unitarianism may never have made it into the frontier states.

John Healy Heywood came here as minister in 1840, planning on staying only a few months, and ended up stayed for 37 years! During his time be became Superintendent of the Louisville Public Schools. He also oversaw the 1870 merger of First Unitarian with the Universalist church in town – 91 years before the consolidation of the Unitarians and the Universalists created Unitarian Universalism – our current living tradition.

The original First Unitarian Church building was out at what is now 5th and Muhammad Ali. Back then it was 5th and Walnut. The original Universalist church was nicknamed “The Devil’s Chapel” and was on the corner of Market and 8th. But when the churches merged, they not only took on a new name (The Church of the Messiah) but also built a new buil

In 1870, the first building on this site was built. Unfortunately, the sanctuary burned down on December 31, 1871. The new sanctuary was rededicated a year later, on December 15. Remember, remember, the month of December – it comes up again in a few minutes.

Fast forward to the early 20th century. Another giant in our tradition who served this congregation as minister was Lon Ray Call who is remembered as the “father of the fellowship movement.” He looked at the lay-led Universalist churches around Kentucky and thought that it would be an ideal way to spread the liberal religious message, so after leaving here he went around helping Fellowships to start up, encouraging them to continue to be lay led.

And there is more, much, much more. I highly urge you to read John Findling & Jennifer Lavery’s fabulous history.

But that is not really what I meant to talk about today. On this day of remembering, I wanted to focus on the years between about 1930 and 2000. So many of you shared stories – stories of why you loved the church, of what it was like, stories of struggle, of conflict, stories of real people who live in in our hearts and memories even if they no longer live and breathe among us.

During the Depression, churches were really struggling, but First Unitarian was a warm and welcoming place for its members. It was a formal church at that time, with specially printed certificates for new births and for other life milestones. Attendance awards were given in Sunday School. It was a two-hour church, also, with Sunday School for adults and children at 9:30 and the worship service at 11. Many kids would skip the worship, going home with adults to get ready for the main meal of the day, or hanging around downtown (don’t get any ideas!). Some kids joined the choir, which did mean they had to stay for the service.

Dick Seebode, the minister during the Depression years, brought the first Candlelight Christmas Eve Vespers Service to First Unitarian. While other churches were doing midnight mass, First Unitarian had their service at 5:00 so that you could go home, have dinner, and open gifts after the service. The only time this changed for close to half a century was when the organist, who was a student at the Baptist Seminary, had to leave to head home, so the service that year was moved to 4.

Christmas Eve Vespers, or “Vespers” as it is often called, became an important tradition in the life of First U. It was a blend of beautiful music and the spoken word. In the later years of the 20th century, Vespers was preceded by a half-hour of vocal and instrumental preludes, with an orchestra often being brought in, and section leaders for the choir. Eric Tachau would stand by the old fuse-box to control the lights for the service.

During WWII, there was an influx of new people. The first hour Sunday School was eliminated due to traffic concerns – even high schools were starting later to reduce morning rush. An alleged Nazi spy was apparently arrested at a church supper. Everything was done by the Board and Women’s Alliance and Sunday School Department.

First Unitarian Church had a tradition of closing down in the summer – a tradition that came both from its New England roots and from the fact that it was a Southern church with no air conditioning. There would be a big picnic at the top of Iroquois park at the end of the church year. This was around the 2nd Sunday in June. And then there would be nothing until the Sunday after Labor Day, when church would start back up again.

The Young Peoples Religious Union met on Sunday nights. This was the time for the senior high school youth to meet with the minister, Carl Bildorf, to talk about what it meant to be a Unitarian. The Bible was on the podium most week. While other Unitarian churches around the country were leaning towards humanism, First U kept a friendly balance between the humanists and the theists.

And there were a lot of social clubs: the Channing club, the Heywood club, eventually the Couples Club (which changed its name once a prominent member divorced but continued to attend).

The original building was very old, and very formal. If you go look at the pictures outside my office door, you will see the old woodwork along the walls and ceiling. You would walk in the doors off 4th street into the back of the sanctuary. There were two sections of pews with a center aisle and walkways along the side. The sanctuary was long, with the chancel where the bay window in the social hall now is. The original organ was on the side, but in the 70s a new tracker organ was bought and installed right in the center of the chancel, so it was behind the minister as he spoke. Organ tours would come in to see this new, fancy organ.

At the beginnings and ends of the service, the choir would process in, and out. At the end,
they would stand in the side section where the doors to our sanctuary now are and sing a 7-fold amen at the end of most services!

Behind the sanctuary, where our courtyard is now, was Breaux Hall – the social hall on the first floor where coffee hour was. The kitchen was originally on the 2nd floor, so there was a dumbwaiter system. After WWII, there was a renovation that moved the kitchen downstairs and gave more classroom space for Sunday School Upstairs.

The growth continued in the 50 and 60s, when the minister at the time, Robert Terry Weston, was a regular panelist on the popular local TV show “The Moral Side of the News.” In fact, the church grew so much that they were able to buy some land and send 50 families out to the “suburbs” to start Thomas Jefferson Unitarian Church.

Jump ahead to the 70s, a time of change for the congregation. Bob Reed was the minister, who would see the congreation through this time of change. Guitars were brought in for worship service music. There were streakers at the beginning of one worship service – not planned. No one knows if they were members or not – but they ran through the center aisle and out the building.

There were also important traditions: the annual fire drill, the Christmas Fair. And the Haunted House that the middle schoolers would put on in the basement – fondly remembered by many folks. The youth would spend the night before making the basement as creepy as possible. If you have been in the basement, you get the sense that you probably couldn’t quite tell if the spiderwebs were real or fake.

The church was involved in the arts and the community. They did a production of Fiddler on the Roof, and danced the Hora around the whole sanctuary. The Senior High youth brought in the original Nervous Melvin and the Mistakes one year. To the surprise of the youth, a matriarch of the church came up to them after the service to thank them. At the end of the church year, Anne Miller, the longtime Director of Religious Education (who served as DRE from 1965 to 1990!) would have a balloon tree and kids would get balloons and RE teachers would get plants.

When the church finally was able to buy Heywood House, the house next door to the church, the youth were put to work cleaning woodwork and tile. They tore up linoleum, scraped clean the fireplaces. And as a reward, they got to decorate their own room on the third floor. A much brighter, more welcoming, less moldy space than their old room buried in the bowels of the basement.

A first hour got added again on Sunday mornings. Guest speakers from the larger community were brought in for an adult Forum, and the kids had Anne Miller guiding them in all sorts of enriching activities.

A recounting like this can’t help but miss important details. And certainly, there were struggles, like the decision to stay out of the Sanctuary movement in the 70s. But even a broad look such as this would be remiss if it left out the events of December 14, 1985. Remember, remember, the month of December. A fire at the church in the middle of the night. A column of smoke so high and large it could be seen for many miles. It was bitterly cold and the water from the hoses was freezing on ladders, poles, and from the hats of the many firefighters on site. The building was engulfed. At the end, what was left was a steaming pile of embers and the inflammable stone outer walls, which still stand today. When you leave through the sanctuary doors, you can still see the scorch marks. Or the next time you are in the steeple room, look up, and see history.

The wayside pulpit that was up during the fire would prove to inspire the congregation: The place that may seem like the end may also be only the beginning.

First U chose to rebuild rather than relocate. To stay downtown. To use the historical old walls to create something new. Something beautiful, something unique. And in the choosing, redefined the experience of the fire: Yes, it was an end. An end to grieve, with many losses. And it was a beginning. A new time, a new chance.

For the fire was not the ending. As we come up on the thirtieth anniversary of the fire, we find a community that moved forward, who continued to have stories to tell. Like about how outlandish the Announcements became. Leading up the Service Auction, Gene Miller would always brandish a fresh crisp new hundred dollar bill during the announcements. The first year he did it Alice Culin, a young child at the time, won it!!! Stories about Al and Idell Rosen who were great supporters of both the Youth Group and welcoming of new members. At one point, Al came dancing down the aisle in a wrinkled black garbage bag, to the tune of “Heard it Thru the Grapevine”, to announce a wine tasting fund raiser at his home.

Stories about Otter Creek weekend, which was a highlight of the church year for many members and friends, coming right after the final service of each summer back before we changed to year-around services. This community-wide campout was a carryover from the tradition of having a picnic at Iroquois Park and became very popular.

Or stories about the Schmutz sisters. The sisters all had memories of attending Sunday School at the chapel in the Highlands. They also remembered attending moving picture shows at the Church, one of the only churches to indulge in such modern amusements at the turn of the century. The sisters always said that they were leaving money to the church, but everyone was completely blown away when the actual amount of $250,000 was announced.

And stories about how each person brings something unique and precious to this congregation. We sometimes forget this – we are only human after-all – but when we remember, it can be beautiful. Like at an annual meeting where the Board proposed a budget that sparked intense debate. Not only did people speak in direct opposition to one another, they did so persistently and vehemently. In the end, the final budget contained few elements that had been originally recommended by the Board. You probably can’t even tell what year this was, since it happens so frequently.

One member, new at the time, shares that when the minister asked what she had thought about the meeting, she admitted that she was taken aback and slightly shocked by the differing opinions and how oppositional the discussion had been. The minister, Richard Beale, responded by saying “But isn’t it wonderful that people are so passionate about our church?” Which sparked a new appreciation for the church in this member, because it meant that even though we as congregants can disagree intensely with each other, we still “respect the inherent worth and dignity of every person” and we truly can “seek the truth in love.”

Or when an older member and a younger member argued in an RE class, and afterwards the older member put her arm around the younger member and said “Wasn’t that fun?” – modeling to the younger member that bickering can be okay, that disagreeing can be wonderful when there is mutual respect and love.

These are the themes that I found over and over in the stories people shared: That First Unitarian Church has a history and a vision of trying to be a place of welcome and safety, of warmth and community. We fail sometimes, of course, but we keep trying. And we have a tradition of truly enjoying each other, drawing support from each other. And we endure. For 182 years so far, this church has endured – it has grown and shrunk, faced challenges and emerged (somethings scathed, sometimes not), we have adapted, and tried so hard to live into our values and principles. This is all part of our shared story, and what a story it is indeed.

So even though the future may be uncertain, we are grounded in this rich past. It gives us firm footing as we reach for the sky. May it be so, may we strive always to make it so.

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