Two weeks ago I was in Braunfels, Texas, to do a memorial service with Watts Wacker, in honor of his father. The service was held in the brand-spanking new Unitarian Universalist church. It was the first memorial service held there. Their very first Sunday service in the new building they helped construct was held just the day before.
The sixty-five members describe themselves as a pre-pastoral congregation. I was honored to be the first minister to conduct a service in their lay-led congregation.
I was glad to have a chance to talk at some length to Thelma, a woman in her 80’s, who is clearly the matriarch of the small congregation. She told me that she and three others initiated the new congregation in 1995. I sat with her and one of the other members at the reception following the memorial service and they told me what prompted their determination to build their own church.
They explained that they had been meeting at the local senior center and a few years ago one of their lay leaders announced a Sunday-morning talk on the relationship between Halloween and Wicca. Someone at the senior center did some research and learned that Wicca is associated with Paganism, a pre-Christian, nature-oriented religion.
The folks at the senior center notified the Unitarian group that they would not be allowed to hold their meeting the following Sunday. Thelma said they decided to meet at her house, as they had done before renting space at the senior center. To add insult to injury, the leaders of the senior center put a padlock on their door, so visitors who hadn’t seen the change-of-venue notice were greeted by a padlocked door.
“That did it!” Thelma said, assertively, with her Texas drawl, tapping the table to make the point.
It was a very moving meeting for me, as you can imagine. I couldn’t help imagine meetings of the original folks who initiated what became the Unitarian Church in Westport, after its birth as a small Fellowship, meeting in homes, then evolving to the First Unitarian Church of Fairfield County. That name had to be changed in 1961, when the Unitarians and Universalists merged to form the UUA – the church in Stamford was organized in 1841, so the Westport group could no longer claim the title ‘first.’
The padlock on the door in New Braunfels, Texas is a powerful symbol and reminder of the preciousness of the religious freedom that is at the heart of each one of our congregations.
One of the people who was a vital part of the early foundation of our congregation, Jan Park, was honored last Saturday night with a wonderful reception, an outstanding concert, and an appropriate presentation of the newly-minted ‘Jan Park Social Justice Award.’
As I listened to Frances Sink’s tribute to Jan I couldn’t help think of the founders of our flourishing congregation; I couldn’t help but be reminded of the foundation stones on which we stand: freedom, reason and tolerance.
It’s natural that we often take it for granted, but it’s good to have these reminders, too.