Building Across the Generations

"For all that is our life" by Rev. Andrew

Last year we celebrated the Fellowship’s sixtieth anniversary. It was our diamond jubilee, sixty years since the congregation’s charter was issued by the American Unitarian Association in 1958. We talked about the history of the Fellowship, how it was formed with the help of what was then the Unitarian Church of Norfolk and in close association with what was then the Hampton Institute. The congregation was active in denominational matters and social justice issues right from the start. In a state that was involved in “massive resistance” to school desegregation, it was, in fact, a racially integrated religious community.

One of the defining events in our history took place forty years ago, in May 1979, when the congregation’s building on Briarfield Road burned down. Almost everything that the Fellowship owned was destroyed, and it was only thanks to a couple of bookcases falling over that a few important items were saved from the fire: one, the 1958 charter itself; two, the membership book; and three, the chalice we light every Sunday, given by teenager Keith Dixon when his family moved away.

Thanks to the recently increased insurance policy, there was money to build anew, and within a year the Fellowship had bought a lot on Young’s Mill Lane and broken ground for a new building, our Sanctuary building. Of course, a congregation is not the same as its building: a congregation is made of people, and it only occupies a building in order for those people to have space to worship and learn and plan and enjoy potlucks together. But the fire was a major test of the endurance, resilience and courage of the people in this congregation, who gathered what they could from the ashes and rose again. The charter and the membership book and the chalice were important parts of that, each of them a reminder that buildings come and buildings go, but the congregation endures.

In April, we participated in the dedication of the new building of the Coastal Virginia Unitarian Universalists, what used to be the Unitarian Church of Norfolk before they moved to Virginia Beach. They didn’t have anything like a fire to make them move out of their old building, but they did have regular flooding of their property that is only getting worse as sea levels rise. Still, it took a long time and it was very difficult for them to make the decision to move, to sell their old building, to buy a new one, to renovate it. They were talking about moving when I got here almost ten years ago, and they moved less than a year ago. In between, they’ve had conflict, they’ve had loss, and they’ve had a number of ministers, including one, the Rev. Jennifer Slade, who died while she was with them. They’ve had a hard journey, but they endured. And now they’re thriving. And growing: their RE program has gone from nine children to ninety children in less than a year.

As with most building dedications, it was a grand affair, with clergy and leaders from other congregations in attendance and, in this case, a combined choir, including members of our own ChorUUs. The Rev. Jeanne Pupke, from First UU in Richmond, preached the sermon, and her text, which our former intern Walter Clark read, was the following by the late Rev. Peter Raible, who had been minister in Seattle.

We build on foundations we did not lay.
We warm ourselves by fires we did not light.
We sit in the shade of trees we did not plant.
We drink from wells we did not dig.
We profit from persons we did not know.
This is as it should be.

Together we are more than any one person could be.
Together we can build across the generations.
Together we can renew our hope and faith in the life that is yet to unfold.
Together we can heed the call to a ministry of care and justice.
We are ever bound in community.
May it always be so.

Jeanne’s message to the Coastal Virginia Unitarian Universalists was simple but powerful: celebrate this new building, yes, but then let go of it; remember that the building serves the congregation’s mission, not for the sake of the people who struggled so hard to obtain it, but for the sake of the people who are yet to come.

There is not only an abstract principle here — that just as we benefit from the people who came before us, so do we need to “pay it forward” to the people who will come after us — but the very practical matter that congregations that have been through some hardship can very easily fragment into the people who actually went through that hardship together and the people who didn’t. Imagine if those of us who were here four years ago when the pipe in our kitchen burst and flooded the building, imagine if we took that not only as part of our history as a congregation, but as part of our identity as members: for those of us who were here when the building flooded, that would be part of who we are, and that means that anybody who came here after that wouldn’t be part of who we are, and never could be.

So for a congregation that has been through as much as the Coastal Virginia UUs have over the last decade, Jeanne’s message was spot-on, and I hope they’re taking it to heart. But it got me thinking about our own future, here at the Fellowship, and the fact that we need to make a decision about our own buildings, whether to expand here or move to a bigger facility somewhere else.

We’ve been putting off that decision for longer than I’ve been here, but it’s increasingly clear that we’re constrained by our space. There’s no doubt that we’d grow if we had the room. (Not only are the Coastal Virginia UUs growing thanks to their move to a bigger building, by the way, but the Williamsburg UUs are growing thanks to expanding their building, so we have examples of both options.) And the fact that we’ve been putting off that decision has hurt us in other ways.

Whenever someone suggests putting solar panels on the roof, to lower our environmental footprint and save us some money on our electricity bill, the conversation inevitably gets around to the fact that we don’t know if we’ll be in this building before the solar panels have paid for themselves or not. When it comes to engaging with our neighborhood and our local community on social justice and other issues that matter to them, recognizing that it takes time to get to know people and to build relationships and to earn our neighbor’s trust, we have to admit that we can’t commit to doing that because we don’t know if we’ll be here for long enough.

So, recognizing that we need space to grow, that we’ve tried all of the technical tweaks of timing and building use that we can, we started doing our homework, to find out what it would take to make a decision. And in talking with various Unitarian Universalist Association staff and other experts, we were met with a simple question: Why?

Why do we want more space? What is our purpose such that we need more space?

The answer, by the way, is not “to grow”. Growth is an outcome, not a purpose.

This was something we talked about quite a bit last week, at the second retreat of my GreenFaith Fellowship this year. We talked about POP, which stands for purpose, outcome and process.

Purpose is why you’re doing something. Outcome is what you’re doing. Process is how you’re doing it. It’s very easy, when planning anything, to identify the outcome and the process, the what and the how, but most of the time the purpose is, at best, implicit, and yet everything else depends upon it. It’s the purpose that gets other people on board. It’s the purpose that inspires them to get involved and offer their support, that encourages them when times are hard, that helps them to see a better future.

So when someone asks why you want to do something and you can’t answer that question except in terms of what you want to do and how you want to do it, that’s a problem.

Two years ago, then, we started to work on answering that question. More than a quarter of the congregation participated in a workshop to identify our essential core values, the qualities that lie at the heart of our identity as the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula and shape everything that we do, whether we realize it or not. And those values, as we named them, are wonder, love, service and generosity.

Next we tried to articulate what we do with those values, matching them up with some verbs and trying them on to see if they fit what we’re already doing as a congregation. We spent a year doing that and then, last June, we agreed that the mission of the UUFP is indeed to grow in wonder, connect in love, engage in service and inspire generosity.

Since then, we’ve started working on the next stage, which is to ask what it will take to get us from the congregation we are now to become a congregation that lives that mission fully and completely. In other words, we’ve been thinking about our vision of ourselves as the congregation that our mission is asking us to become. Over the next year, the next three years, the next five years, what more can we do to help one another grow in wonder? How can we be better at connecting in love, with one another and with our neighbors? What else can we do to help more members and friends to engage in service? How can we be a better example to those beyond our walls and inspire generosity in the world?

This is not, I would note, vision in any ultimate sense, like the kingdom of heaven or the Beloved Community. Rather it’s a short-term vision, helping us to see what we need to do next to get from where we are now to where we need to be. And it’s this vision that will help us answer questions of purpose. After all, if our purpose is to offer community services to the hungry and the homeless, then we need a large kitchen, places where people can sleep and a location near to those people. If our purpose is to organize social justice events and work with decision-makers, when we need offices where people can meet and plan. If our purpose is to offer learning opportunities and promote spiritual development, then we need classrooms and workshop spaces. If our purpose is to promote music and develop new worship arts, then we need performance spaces and practice rooms. And so on.

Oh, and you’re not allowed to say “All of the above.” Sorry! When a congregation can’t name the primary purpose for which it needs facilities, it’s very easy to end up with space that doesn’t suit any purpose very well.

First UU in Richmond recently completed a massive renovation of its building, making it a lot more usable to the congregation, because it turns out it had never been designed as a church but as an art gallery. Yes, they’re a church all year ‘round, but in the Fall they host a huge art show that is also a major fundraiser for the congregation, and it was the purpose of the gallery, rather than any particular purpose as a church, that determined the design of the building. And it took them decades to fix that.

So this Summer, you can be part of articulating our vision of ourselves over the next few years. Committees and ministries and the Board have all been thinking about their own goals, but on July 13th we’re going to put it all together and put into words what we want to do next to get from where we are now to where we need to be. On Saturday July 13th, the Planning Committee and I will offer a workshop, for as many of you as can attend, to distill down our understanding of ourselves and the work that we are called to do, and on that understanding we’ll build our strategic plan. Since that will also let us answer the question of purpose, this plan will include finally making our long-delayed decision about whether we expand our facilities where we are now or move to a bigger location. So please save the date of Saturday July 13th so that you can be a part of this crucial next step.

Knowing our history is important, because it helps us understand where we came from and how we came to be who we are. But the paradox is that even as we embrace our past, we must also let go of it. We need to remember it, even honor it, but we cannot be bound by it. For what we do today, the church we build, is not for us, but for the people who are not even here yet. We commit our strength, we offer our devotion, we give of ourselves, not for what any one of us will get out of doing this, but for how we will change the world by doing it. As Peter Raible put it,

Together we are more than any one person could be.
Together we can build across the generations.
Together we can renew our hope and faith in the life that is yet to unfold.
Together we can heed the call to a ministry of care and justice.
We are ever bound in community.
May it always be so.

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