Voices of Commitment:
Longtime UUs Reflect on Their Lives in the Denomination
By Warren R. Ross

May/June 1999

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The occasion was the kick-off for the annual pledge drive at the Unitarian Universalist Church of  the Monterey Peninsula in Carmel, California.The speaker was Phyllis Dyer, who, at 95, described herself as having been “almost a missionary for the UU cause” ever since she attended Sunday school at the First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto. “I’ve been  raising funds for our denomination all my life, starting in 1912, when I was eight,” she told her fellow parishioners, and regaled them with this story.

“The Toronto church closed for the summer and we kindergarten children were asked to raise a dollar each during vacation. I lived near a beach on Lake Ontario, so I took my old bathing suits and rented them out to children who had no suits for 10 cents an hour. If they didn’t bring the suits back on time, I’d go fetch them and take their wet bathing suits off them and rent them to someone else! That’s how I earned my first dollar for the church.” 

Now, nearly 90 years later, Phyllis Dyer is as committed to her beliefs as ever. Though living alone, she still goes to church whenever she can get someone to pick her up.

Because of her 80-plus years of commitment, Phyllis Dyer is a particularly inspiring example of the constancy of purpose so many of our long-term members bring to our denomination, but she is hardly alone. While it’s commonly believed that our members come and go,  that many lack institutional loyalty, that too often we define ourselves by what we don’t believe, a core of long-term, loyal, and committed members lends the denomination coherence and stability. I recently talked to some 50 Unitarian Universalists in their 60s, 70s, and 80s who have maintained their affiliation with the denomination for four decades or more. A “40-plus” myself, I interviewed many more people than I have room to quote here (and my apologies to the many who got left out) simply because it felt so good. Never have I felt more reassured that Unitarian Universalism is right for me.

A fierce commitment
Ask these longtime Unitarian Universalists what has kept them tied to the denomination, and you hear statements of almost fierce commitment. The people I spoke with, selected on the basis of personal recommendations, do not represent a statistically projectable sample, but they do evince a striking unanimity in their expressions of loyalty. Virtually none said, “I keep going out of habit” or “It’s just a family tradition.” Ours, it turns out, is an intentional faith community not only in the joining but in the staying. Asked whether they had ever thought of leaving, the interviewees (see “Acknowledgments,” below) typically said: “Leave? Where would I go? I don’t know anyplace I would rather be.” Or “I’ve never strayed from UUism. It’s the one part of my life where I feel really whole.” Or “I thought of leaving in the ‘60s because I didn’t want to be told what my political beliefs should be, but it took only one visit to a traditional church to make me come back.”

As Phyllis Dyer puts it, “Yes, sometimes I feel our services aren’t deep enough, not intellectual enough, but on the whole, ours is a wonderful movement, and I’m grateful I belong to it.”

Working for justice
Another common thread in the interviews I did is how important our commitment to social action and ethical behavior has been to longtime members. 

Marjorie and Mel Willbach of the UU Church in Meriden, Connecticut, declared separately but virtually in unison that this was their main reason for being UUs. Marjorie, brought up in the Ethical Culture Society, joined a Unitarian church in the community she was living in when it was time to send her children to Sunday school. “And I’ve been here ever since,” she adds. “I felt that it was a way of doing something helpful in the world.” Reflecting perhaps a generational change, she showed less enthusiasm for the current interest in UU spirituality. No, she’s never looked to the church for spiritual support, she says, adding bluntly, “I don’t need it.”

Husband Mel shares her views. A lifetime activist—a member of the War Resisters League in World War II and once upon a time a Young Socialist—he felt the need for an ethical humanist religion that would also support his secular interests. Hearing from friends about the Bronx Free Fellowship–now long defunct–he attended some meetings and decided that “Unitarianism was the religion for me,” he says. It still is, and social action is the vital link that holds him.

Again and again, the longtime members spoke of the desire to add one’s voice to a denomination fighting for a more just, ethical, nonracist society and said that joining has given them both the courage and the incentive to speak out even more forthrightly. Betty Garvais of the Hartford, Connecticut, church had a jocular but serious comment: “Well, for one thing, if I hadn’t been a UU,” she said, “I wouldn’t have ended up in a Baltimore jail for trying to integrate an amusement park!”

Arlene Sherwood of the Community Unitarian Church of White Plains, New York, found in her files a letter she had written to a draft board during the Vietnam War explaining why a young church member merited conscientious objector (CO) status. COs had to prove that their objection to fighting was based on their religious beliefs—easier for members of explicitly pacifist faiths like Quakers or Seventh Day Adventists, but difficult for UUs and others who might believe some wars are justified. “We believe,” she wrote, “that the supreme task of religion is to improve man by developing his moral and spiritual nature. Unitarians assert that our hearts should be governed by a spirit of truthfulness, tolerance, and service.” The draft board accepted her argument, and the young man was recognized as a CO.

Still, trying to help people in a culture that scoffs at “bleeding heart liberalism” can be lonely and discouraging. This makes the mutual support offered by membership in a UU church or fellowship so crucial. “Most members try to live according to our ethical principles, and they set a pretty good example,” says Alice Barden of the First Universalist Church of Lyons, Ohio.

Yes, it is a religion
At first glance, this widely held commitment to social responsibility seems to bear out critics who say our congregations are not so much religious as quasi-political organizations. What proves the cynics wrong is the underlying motive for our community action: a deep and personal religious faith. 

George Lewis of Wayland, Massachusetts, remains active in the historic New England church he has belonged to all his life. “Unitarian Universalism makes me want to be a better person,” he says, adding that it “gives me insights into my life. I don’t want to proselytize, but I’m proud to be a UU. Other Protestant churches probably have the same goals, but they have a more stringent atmosphere, with more blaming and finger-wagging. But most important, they would have kept me from developing my own ideas.” 

Reflecting on his lifetime membership, he defies—like so many of his contemporaries—the stereotype of the elderly resisting change. Indeed, he welcomes change. “The church now is much more interested in social justice, racism, poverty, and human behavior,” he says approvingly. He also approves of surface changes, recalling that the minister used to wear a frock coat and that an old guard of 10 or 15—all men—used to run the church. “Now the service is much less traditional,” he says. “We have a lot of young people, and women play an active role. It’s become an easy place to participate. Yes, the changes are definitely for the better.”

So-called “come-outers” feel equally strongly. Physician Sumi Koide of Dobbs Ferry, New York, discovered Unitarian Universalism in medical school, when she could no longer accept the Methodist beliefs with which she had been raised. Her older sister, who was also searching, invited her to go to a lecture series that included Norman Thomas and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Unitarian Society of Germantown, Pennsylvania. She went in knowing nothing about Unitarianism but came out thinking not only that the denomination was “intellectually challenging, but there was a core of honesty . . . a sense of integrity with love. I’ll never forget the exhilarating feeling of realizing I was among people who were  trying to be ‘good’ in the best sense of that word.” Having spent her childhood in a World War II relocation camp for Japanese Americans, she had a basis for judging good and bad. Koide calls her UU community “the one place where you can be a total human being—regardless of your racial identity and whether you are male or female, where you are cherished for what you really are, where people reach out and accept each other, where we learn from each other.  As you experience unexpected and painful events, you develop insights that it is not all purely intellectual, that the expression of love and caring is at least as important. That is what UUism has meant for me: love, caring, and concern—and concern not only for individuals but for the community.”

The Rev. Betty Pingel, emerita minister of the UU Church of Fresno, California, who retired from the interim ministry last year at 72, also sees comfort at times of loss as a criterion for judging a religion. “When my husband died unexpectedly, when my mother died, my faith was there undergirding me,” she recalls. “What our faith tells us is that lots of things are going to happen, but that your beliefs give you the ability to go on.”

The impact of merger
In addition to spotlighting our denomination’s abiding strengths, longtime members can give us a historical perspective by recalling the events that gave UUism its present shape. Fresh in the memory of many of them is the 1961 merger between the Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association to form the Unitarian Universalist Association.

Pingel credits the merger with deepening the Unitarian faith in a way that has meant a lot to her. “Before, there was something missing,” she explains. “I was raised as a humanist and never heard the word God as a child. When we merged with the Universalists, I felt that all of me was welcome in church, not just my head. It enabled me to put head and heart together.” 

Other former Unitarians say the merger has given them a less stiff, less formal, and more intellectually diverse denomination. Lotus Brooks of Larchmont, New York, recalls that when she was going to Sunday school at the Unitarian Church of All Souls in Manhattan some 40 years ago, children were not allowed in the “grown-up” church. Meanwhile Eileen Kellner of Hartsdale, New York, says that when she first heard about Universalism at a General Assembly, “I decided I was a Universalist because I believe that every human being is equally important, and this theme was stronger in the Universalist tradition.” Or as lifelong Unitarian George Lewis puts it: “I didn’t know much about Universalism, but I came to respect it as a warm, friendly, loving religion.” 

Some former Universalists, like Boyd Barden, a member of the First Universalist Church of Lyons, Ohio, don’t speak glowingly of the merger. Barden, who recalls going to Sunday school in a horse and buggy, and whose great-grandfather gave the church its notable stained glass windows, says he “gets kind of upset a lot of times because Universalism isn’t always mentioned the way it should be,” a sentiment echoed by Helen Smith, a member of the Towson, Maryland, church, who complains that “Universalist values are not always honored as much as they should be.” But she adds by way of balance: “I think that’s being addressed quite a lot now.” 

Smith’s family’s commitment to Universalist values goes back to a great-grandmother who heard Hosea Ballou speak and became a strong supporter of the church. Following her ancestor’s example, Smith has made it a point as she moved around the country always to seek out a UU congregation. And despite changes she has seen in the denomination, she says the underlying philosophical commitment remains. “Many years ago, our Universalist church carried on its wall a framed statement which began: Love is the spirit of this church,” she says. “Today we still struggle to create mission statements, but that says it all.” 

Two members of the Meriden, Connecticut, church, now in their 80s, were also born into Universalist families. Etta Chambers, who says she misses some of the “more traditional, spiritual elements” of her youth, is still happy to be a UU, saying, “I just can’t think of any other religion where I would feel at home.” Fellow member Florence Emmons says the changes she’s observed—the initiatives on race and gay and lesbian issues, for example—are for the better. And while she recalls the more structured worship services of her girlhood, she doesn’t miss them. On the contrary, she chuckles approvingly that in today’s UU congregations “you don’t know from one Sunday to the next what’s going to happen!”

Longtime members with Universalist roots, unlike those whose roots are Unitarian, often grew up in small-town congregations. Like the small towns themselves, some of these Universalist churches did not survive, but those that did “tend to be strong because their members have really hung in there,” says retired minister the Rev. Maryell Cleary of East Lansing, Michigan. Cleary adds that members of these congregations often have a wider range of professional and economic backgrounds than their counterparts in formerly Unitarian congregations. The Universalist congregation in Kent, Ohio, for example, was made up primarily of factory workers at the time an academic couple of Unitarian background joined in the 1940s. The small, struggling church gained strength as more university people joined after the war.  But it also changed, becoming more “mainstream” in the opinion of one observer who asked not to be named. While good music and art exhibits have enriched the congregational experience, and the theological spectrum has broadened, even some newcomers regret that few of the blue-collar members are left.

Going with the flow
As should already be clear from some of their comments, many longtime Unitarian Universalists defy the assumption that the older we get, the more we resist change. Here are some of their reflections on changes they have seen in their denomination. 

A more welcoming denomination:  Phyllis Dyer, the bathing suit entrepreneur, says, “The changes? I like them. I do like them. We now include so many different types of people. Of course, we have as many crazy people as any other denomination, but mostly we have very intelligent people and we give each other a great deal of insight.” But while “the tapestry of diversity is healthy,” according to June Gillespie, a founding member of the UU Fellowship in Poughkeepsie, New York, and a UUA trustee, she does worry that “in trying to be too diverse we may lose the basic core of what Unitarian Universalism is all about.” 

James Cobb, an African American who is a longtime member and former board chair of the Community Unitarian Church of White Plains, New York, also applauds changes in this area. He recalls that in the late 1960s, “We had a fund-raising fashion show, and another parishioner took it for granted that my wife was a maid and asked her for help in getting dressed.” As recently as the early 1980s, when he served on the congregation’s ministerial search committee, he says, “We got one response to our member survey that someone would not accept a black minister, and another didn’t want a homosexual.” Nevertheless, he says, “We’ve come a long way, and I revel in the diversity of our church. I love this religion, and I’ll put up with a lot to keep coming.”

To which his wife, Mary, adds: “Yes, there are bigots in our congregation. There are bigots all over the United States, so that really ought not to surprise us. But through the years people have become much more comfortable with each other, so that they can talk and listen to each other on a very deeply personal level. It’s wonderful, it’s warming, and it’s beautiful.”

Women in the pulpit: Longtimers had equally favorable things to say about the growing role of women in the UU ministry. Several called it the most notable change they can recall in the denomination, observing that women now carry forward much of the work of the church, not only as ministers but as lay leaders.

The career of the Rev. Maryell Cleary, who was raised a Catholic, turned Unitarian at 21, became a minister at 49, and now at 76 still does occasional guest preaching, shows what a huge change this represents. Cleary rightly claims to have been a pioneer, and like many pioneers she did not find it easy.

“When I entered Meadville [Theological School] I was the only woman preparing for the parish ministry. At the time no women were entering the parish ministry in any denomination,” says Cleary. “When it came time to place me, the settlement director looked at me, shook his head, and said: ‘What are we going to do with you?’” Like so many women of her generation, she went to work as a religious educator instead. After raising a family and watching the denomination overcome its prejudice against women in the pulpit, she finally succeeded, in 1971, in becoming a parish minister. She was the only woman minister in the Central Midwest District when she started. “Prejudice was more subtle than overt,” she says, “but certain members were not willing to accept a woman in a position of authority. And couples coming to get married were always a little taken aback.”

The waning of humanism: Cleary also points to another change, one that she—and others we interviewed—felt less happy about: the diminishing influence of humanism. “I’m not entirely happy with the current emphasis on spirituality,” she says. “I came in at a time when humanism was flourishing, and I’m still more concerned with the natural rather than the supernatural world. Also, we tend not to define the words we use carefully, so it’s hard to know what people are talking about when they refer to God or to spirituality.” [See sidebar page 30 for the views of one of humanism’s pioneers.]

Which echoes the frustration voiced by June Gillespie of the Poughkeepsie, New York, fellowship. “If somebody could explain ‘spirituality’ for me, I might agree with them,” she says, but then adds that she likes the variety of viewpoints and ideas that newcomers are bringing to our denomination. Several others shared her ambivalence, agreeing with Dr. Koide’s comment that “the denomination is less austere, and now acknowledges that the spiritual aspect is an essential part of life. However, I wouldn’t want the pendulum to swing too far.” 

Don Looney of Meriden, Connecticut, while approving of the broadened theological spectrum, worries that this “means that to keep everybody happy, the worship services have to be diluted to the lowest common denominator,” thereby denying congregants the opportunity for spiritual search and growth. Similarly, Gladys Becker, who divides her time between the Ormond Beach, Florida, and Utica, New York, congregations, worries that new members may be joining us “to promote their own agendas.”

Becker, and her husband, William, also observed that today’s newcomers are less likely to be rebelling against more conservative faiths and more often searching for their first religious home. As a result of this shift, says William, newer members have little background in “churchmanship,” and hence are “not as willing to volunteer as much as previous generations.” 

Speaking of volunteering, many of those interviewed spoke fondly of their roles as volunteers both in their congregations and communities. Teaching Sunday school was often singled out as a particularly rewarding—and instructive—experience.

Why belong? Final reflections.
Some of the interview questions were challenging, bordering on the personal. What has kept you active as a Unitarian Universalist all these many years? Have you ever thought of leaving? Why not be a UU by yourself?
 Many of the longtime UUs I spoke to responded not only with deep feelings, but with eloquence, reflecting the extent to which their UU faith had influenced the way they define themselves, view their lives, and depend on their association with like-minded people both to pursue a common search for personal values and maintain hope and determination in an often hostile and destructive world. Clearly, for them the UU community is both a workshop and a sanctuary. 

As for being a UU on your own, “Perhaps saints can be their better selves in isolation and deal with the world constructively without the foundation of a community,” says Carol Selinske of Rye Brook, New York. “I don’t believe I can. As the old Shaker hymn says, ‘It’s a gift to come down where you ought to be.’ I am grateful for that gift.”

“Since my parents are gone and my siblings far away, the church has provided me with the warmth and love of a family,” adds George Lewis, who offers this summary: “What has helped me most is being with people who listen to me and support me in what I believe. They replenish me.”

Can anyone ask more of a religion?

Warren R. Ross is contributing editor of the World.

Acknowledgments: I would like to thank those who contributed to this article by giving so generously of their time and thoughts. Regrettably it wasn’t possible to quote them all. The following participated in personal interviews or submitted written statements:  Harriet Anderson, Concord, New Hampshire; Alice and Boyd Barden, Lyons, Ohio; Gladys and William Becker, Flagler Beach, Florida; Maryell Cleary, East Lansing, Michigan; Phyllis Dyer, Carmel, California; Betty Garvais, Hartford, Connecticut; June Gillespie, Staatsburg, New York; Joseph Hartog, Scarsdale, New York; Olive Hobbs, Kent, Ohio; Sumi Koide, Dobbs Ferry, New York; Elizabeth Landauer, Rye, New York; George Lewis, Wayland, Massachusetts; Harry Ogden, Carmel, California; Betty Pingel, Denver, Colorado; Helen Smith, Baltimore, Maryland; Fred Westover, Kansas City, Missouri.

In addition, the following attended group interviews, one in Meriden, Connecticut, the other in White Plains, New York: Lotus Brooks; Etta Chambers; Mary and Jim Cobb; Norma Devaul; Florence and Wilbur Emmons; Sally Herrick; Betty Johnston; Eileen Kellner; Emily and Don Looney; Emma Lou Louis; Anne Petersen; Betsy Reitbauer; Nicholas Robinson; Carol and Charles Selinske; Arlene and Robert Sherwood; Betty Wieland; Marjorie and Mel Willbach.

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