UUFP—Past/Present/Future: “Beginnings”

is a collection of stories
about UUFP’s formative years and
its ensuing perseverance in purpose, mission and ministry.
Grow in Wonder – Connect in Love – Engage in Service – Inspire Generosity

In October 1957, seven residents of the Peninsula met with the Rev. James Brewer of the Unitarian Church of Norfolk, and together they contacted the American Unitarian Association with the idea of forming a new congregation on the Peninsula.  After two public meetings in Hampton, about forty people became the Fellowship’s first members when they approved the congregation’s first by-laws in December 1957.

Now think of the technology they had for communicating in 1957.  There were land-line telephones and there was the postal system for mailing letters.  Manual typewriters, not computers.  No Internet, no email, no text messaging, no Google docs.  (And the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel only opened for the first time that November.  Before then it was a matter of taking a ferry to get across the James River.)  And yet, within the space of three months, seven people had grown to forty and they had a complete set of by-laws written out and voted in!

With those initial steps, the American Unitarian Association issued the Unitarian Fellowship of the Peninsula’s charter in May 1958, confirming the purpose of this new congregation to “foster liberal religious attitudes and living through group study, worship, service, work and recreation.”  From the start, the Fellowship had close ties to Hampton Institute, including the head of Hampton’s Department of Architecture, Bill Moses, serving as the first Vice President.  And thanks in part to those ties, the congregation was racially integrated right from the start, all the more remarkable since we’re talking about late 1950s Virginia, the home of “massive resistance” to school desegregation.  When the Fellowship bought its first building on Eaton Street in downtown Hampton in early 1959, for instance, Al Smith, who was African-American, walked the group of mostly white teenagers to his nearby law office for RE lessons.

That building, previously owned by the B’nai Israel congregation as their synagogue, was dedicated in April 1959, but it was by no means a low-key event.  The Fellowship made it a big celebration by hosting a weekend-long Virginia Conference of Unitarian Churches and Fellowships, with about a hundred people attending from all over the state, including guest musicians and a guest preacher from Mount Vernon for the dedication itself.

The Fellowship stayed on Eaton Street for about ten years, when the Hampton Redevelopment Corporation bought the property.  It’s hard to fight eminent domain, but it did give the congregation the money to buy a former church building on Briarfield Road in Newport News.

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