On Sunday, May 3 at our Annual Meeting, the First Church did something that had not happened for a long time and probably will not occur again for an even longer period of time: we changed our name. We, the members of the First Congregational Society in Salem voted overwhelmingly to change our "common name" to the First Church in Salem, Unitarian Universalist.
We did so out of a mix of sadness, admiration, and excitement. The sadness of course arises from the announced closure this month of our sister church in town, the First Universalist Society in Salem. They have been an abiding presence here in Salem since their founding in 1805 and we have been blessed with a fraternal relationship with them for 210 years. Our admiration has developed over two centuries. In a way, our two congregations "grew up together:" we have each taken "turns" espousing various theistic and humanistic theological outlooks, but more recently both of our congregations have developed authentic and meaningful ways to practice our liberal-minded faith here in Salem, and make a real difference. The members of the First Universalist have been amidst hard choices this last year and they are voting this month to close their doors and merge with the First Parish in Beverly. They are also voting to transform their building into an arts and cultural center here in Salem, and we pledge our support for this initiative and endeavor.
This brings me to our excitement. Even though our larger society is changing, there is clearly still a need for our "kind" of religious community, and for the first time since 1719 there is only one congregation like ours here in Salem. For the last 296 years there has always been at least one other church similar to ours making a difference here in Salem. The late 19th and 20th centuries brought the merger and closure of several of these congregations (including the North Church in 1924 and Secord Church in 1956). Now, with the closure of First Universalist Society, our congregation remains the only Unitarian or Universalist church in Salem.
Informed by this new reality, and as a way of honoring our longstanding relationship with the First Universalist Society and their members, we voted to add "Universalist" to our name. There used to be only four places in the United States where a Unitarian and a Universalist church operated separately in the same city or town. Now there are only three. We wish everyone well who has been involved with these decisions this year and we hope all of us here on the North Shore who care about the mission and vision of Unitarian Universalism, regardless of where we attend church, will support our way of being religious. The voice and presence we offer to the larger community makes a real difference.
A few weeks ago the Stewardship Committee hosted a potluck luncheon after church. It was a fun and moving occasion and a nice celebration of this community. The key message? The First Church is blessed with many resources, but not as many as we used to have. During our construction project three years ago, we “held our breath and took a leap of faith,” believing that if we invested in repairing and expanding our building as well as making our physical home more sustainable, then we, the members, would support those efforts. As a result, we have smaller reserves to draw upon with respect to our endowment and need to rely a little more on all of us who support this place with “our time, talents and treasure.” In essence we need to raise 20% more than we did last year to put ourselves on a firm financial footing. Since we raised a little over $100,000 last year this new goal means raising about $20,000 more this year; a goal that is entirely feasible.
During my tenure, it has been gratifying to see this historic Unitarian church grow and transform. Our membership has tripled, our religious education program grew six times over and our involvement in the community has increased substantially. We have a growing youth group and choir. We serve dinner once a month at the local shelter and may increase that to two. We host yoga programs and discussion groups and quietly help many people and groups in Salem as well as some folks right here in our own community. We are an “oasis and refuge” of sorts for people coming from other traditions. And we do this with an openness and appreciation for diversity that is wonderful to see and be a part of.
I hope that all of us will be open to the conversations and invitations related to supporting the First Church in the months ahead. This is a great community, and a fun and engaging place to be a Unitarian Universalist. We have a fascinating history and promising present. Together there are so many opportunities we have to make a difference, foster peace, promote our way of being religious, and simply enjoy one another’s company.
The good news is that our church is growing amidst a larger society that is changing. We need everyone’s participation and support as a way to honor and celebrate the role this community plays in our lives and in the life of our larger community.
I hope everyone has a wonderful Easter, Passover and springtime season. Here’s to rebirth and a busy month of April.
Years from now, I suspect that most of us who "survived" the month of February in Salem will remember these last four weeks with a mix of amazement and pain. This has been the second coldest February and second most snowy winter on record, a remarkable state of affairs given how dry most of January was. "Old Man Winter" arrived in New England near the end of January, grabbed the region by the collar and has not released us from his icy grip.
The toll this has taken on our roads, our houses, our cars, our traffic, and our roofs (!) is perhaps only dwarfed by the impact on our psyches and moods. Many of us are not happy. There are more and more stories of people growing irritated with the weather and with one another. I suppose this is both inevitable and understandable.
There is a silver lining in all this - or silver layer of snow if you will: it is during challenging times like this that people are reminded how very fragile and dependent we all are on the actions and good will of one another. Our individual success and happiness is directly and immanently caught up in the workings of those around us. The winter weather can force us to realize how dependent we all are on one another, even at the mercy of one another. This is something we can sometimes overlook or choose to ignore in our hyper-connected digital society where people seem to spend more time on their Netflix and Facebook accounts than they do with their next door neighbors. It turns out that even if we do not pay attention to such things, what is local and immediately around us really does matter.
There was a time in a bygone era when our neighbors were an integral part of our everyday lives and community. That is not always the case these days. But a winter like this invites us to talk to the people who live near us, even if it is only to argue about where to put the latest round of snow. There are possibilities to make connections and be a part of a community when we are slowed down by the vagaries of frozen precipitation. It is one oft overlooked way to find warmth. Too often in this life, we look at our fellow human beings through the lens of economics or social status. Weather like this can be, like church, an invitation to view those around us as fellow travelers and seekers on the same strange, wacky journey through life as we are, one that has many unanticipated moments for insight and grace. That said, I am ready for spring!!
Our month begins with some great speakers and music and concludes with the beginning of the Easter and Passover Season. Here's to sunshine, crocuses and a grand and muddy thaw!
One of the things I am most proud of here at the First Church is that we are a place where people of all ages want to attend and participate. We have become a community where different generations of people come to worship, sing, talk, think, serve, socialize, and play. These days when we host a night to serve dinner at Lifebridge, the local homeless shelter, we have so many people show up that we have to turn some of them away. (We are actually considering taking on a second night – stay tuned for details.) These days when we announce a yoga program, 12 people show up for the first session. We have not one, not two, but three dinner groups that have formed and fourth on the way. The First Church is a stimulating, enjoyable and inspiring place to be.
Allow me two recent examples. During this last year we have found that we have a growing number of adolescents who continue to come to church and want to be a part of our community. The kids even wrote, produced and directed their very own Winter Pageant last month, which they began to write after they were informed that they were now too old to be in our traditional Christmas Pageant in December. Instead of taking offense or umbrage, they decided to choose another story from the Bible (Jacob and Esau) and perform that with energy, wit and yes, some outright silliness.
While I was impressed with the performance, what I was most struck by was how wonderful it is that so many of our teenagers want to continue to be a part of our liberal religious community. Something is changing in our larger culture and the mindset of these kids, but the fact of the matter is that we have a great community of people and it is wonderful that our older kids want to be a part of this.
And it is not just kids who are having the fun and wanting to be here. Recently I decided to host a book and discussion group dealing with race in America and the North Shore. I was delighted when over 20 people stayed after church for the program and discussion. It was a good conversation and many questions were posed, (such as “Why are there not more people of color here at the First Church?,” that we will no doubt explore in the coming meetings. Our next gathering is scheduled for Sun, Feb 15 after church.
It turns out that a progressive minded church grounded in the Hebrew and Christian Bible and open to many forms of inspiration (and that regularly holds up the UUA’s Seven Principles) is a great and fertile ground on which to build a dynamic community. It makes it both challenging and fun to be the Minister here, and I mean that in a good way! So if you hear about one of our Family Fun or Game Nights, consider joining us. They are aptly named. If you read about one of our book discussion groups, or the monthly yoga class, join us. You will find moments of inspiration and insight. If you are invited to serve dinner at the shelter or bag groceries or help out with one of our social justice committee projects, consider accepting the invitation.
It is amazing how small gestures on all our parts can make a big difference in the lives of others. The Rev. James Luther Adams, one of the more famous ministers of this church, once observed many years ago, “Church is the place where you get to practice what it means to be human.” Indeed!
We have many fun and inspiring items planned for the month of February including Chocolate Sunday on February 8 and a Downton Abbey Fellowship Hour on the 22nd.
We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.
-- The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Speech in St. Louis, Missouri, March 22, 1964
Last month I had the opportunity to participate in a walk and vigil at Salem State University as part of the national Black Lives Matter movement. All over the country, people of various races and ethnic backgrounds have been staging creative protests and sit-ins at shopping malls, highways, restaurants and stores. The largest of these protests have been in New York City and of course Ferguson, Missouri. Almost all of these events have been peaceful, with young people denouncing the unfair treatment of people of color by law enforcement systems all over the country. The goal in most cases is not disruption but attention. Here in Salem that was certainly the case on a cold December night. I watched as students from Salem State lay down for a few minutes on the side of Washington Street chanting “Don’t Shoot” and “I Can’t Breath.” And I chanted along with those assembled calling for an end to unfair treatment of people of color by police officers around the country.
We live in society still separated quite often by race and increasingly divided by class and wealth. While things have improved in some areas and certainly many people have cast off the shackles of racial prejudice, many of us still live in communities separated by race and wealth. If you don’t believe me, I invite you to take a drive through various neighborhoods here on the North Shore.
And certainly if you want to see unintentional separation in action, you need only walk into any house of worship on a Sunday. There is an old saying that the most segregated hour of the week in the U.S. is Sunday at 11 o’clock in the morning. It does not mean that people are racist or prejudice in many churches. (Sometimes it is quite the contrary). What is does mean that we are all products of larger societal forces and habits. If there is going to be any change, it has to be intentional, and it has to be peaceful. It will not happen by accident. Dr. King liked to talk about the beloved community, a vision of a society where justice and compassion reigned supreme and people were judged “by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin.”
Starting January 18, the First Church will be offering a series of short programs on race and class. We plan to discuss excerpts from the book Afraid of the Dark, and watch a few videos. See details on the program inside this newsletter. All of this is for the purpose of simply putting ourselves in a place where we can listen to those with different perspectives and experiences. There is enormous power and possibility in doing just that. Out of this comes understanding and potential for real change in this country.