Congregation Takes a Risk – and Succeeds

Chris Crass presentationDuring the Martin Luther King Day Weekend, the Unitarian Universalist Society of Mill Creek, in Newark Delaware, invited racial justice organizer and activist Chris Crass to present a Courage for Racial Justice / Courage for Liberation Conference and Training that brought together area congregations from multiple faith traditions and the local activist community working on issues of Racial Justice.  “We had 113 people attend the Saturday workshop, and 111 attend the worship service the following day.  Two-Thirds of the attendees were Unitarian Universalists, but the rest were members of our local community” says Rev. Gregory Pelley, minister for the UU Society of Mill Creek.  “It became an interfaith community event”.

After hearing Chris Crass speak at the UUA General Assembly this past summer in Columbus Ohio, one member of the congregation, Linda Lucero, decided to work to bring Chris Crass to speak at Mill Creek.  The congregation partnered with the two other congregations in the Wilmington Delaware area, including receiving financial support for the First Unitarian Church of Wilmington.  They also conducted a successful Faithify crowdfunding campaign, and received registration and advertising support from the UUA’s Central East Region.   “With recent developments in our country, we wanted to have someone who could talk about organizing for Racial Justice in a way our members could get engaged with” Rev. Pelley explained.

The congregation has experienced renewed energy for the work of Racial Justice, and a deeper sense of connection to area congregations and the racial justice activist community.  “The surprise was that we pulled it off, and that we raised all the money we needed to raise to make it happen.”  The event was a risk for a congregation of 141 members to attempt. When asked what the congregation learned that could be useful for other congregations, Rev. Pelley said “Go for it… take the risk and put your energy into it.  We were successful because we kept broadening the vision and the scope to include as many people as we could.”

Chris Carss workshop Chris Crass workshop

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Celebrating 200 Years of Universalism in Western New York

Many churches celebrate important anniversaries, but it’s rare that congregational historians take a wider view. But when Bill Parke, the Church Historian of the UU Church of Buffalo noted this anniversary, he researched the topic and came up with this lovely display and story.

2016 is a bicentennial year for our faith! All the way back in 1816, The Reverend Stephen R. Smith arrived here and began a preaching circuit, bringing a new religion — Universalism — to Buffalo and Western New York.


Take a moment, and teleport yourself back in me and imagine life in June, 1816 when 27-year old Mr. Smith arrived:

At this me, except on the great lateral roads from Genesee River and along the shore of Lake Erie, the settlements were comparatively few – and sometimes “far between.” There every thing but the eternal woods and waters, was new. –Almost every family still occupied its primitive log cabin–the roads were but cart-paths in the interminable forest–the streams were in most instances without bridges, and the soil deep enough to render every traveled way almost impassable. And yet, it was among these settlements, that the preacher of Universalism was to find hearers, and friends, and hope to raise up congregations!


Just a few years earlier, the village of Buffalo was overrun by British soldiers during the War of 1812. Nearly all its buildings burned. Recovery was slow. And just two Universalist societies existed in New York west of the Genesee River. But even if there weren’t churches, there were early believers: Benjamin Caryl, who helped found one of the village’s first businesses, a bank, was one. He had a house in Williamsville and invited Mr. Smith to stay with him and begin preaching. As a result, Universalism arrived in our land. Here is Mr. Smith’s own account:

On the 24th of June of this year (1816), a Masonic celebration in the then village of Buffalo, furnished a convient (sic) opportunity for the introduction of Universal Salvation into that place. The appointment was accordingly made; and at 5 o’clock, P.M. the same building and the same seats were occupied for the service, that had been fitted up for the festival. It was a new Barn, attached to one of the Taverns— and though its accommodations would now be thought rather humble, they were the best which the place afforded, and were duly appreciated by the citizens. A respectable auditory attended, and gave very patient and candid hearing to a discourse from the 6th ver. of 126th Psalm—“He that goeth forth and weepeth bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him.”

Mr. Smith found receptive audiences for his message and established a preaching circuit which, he wrote,

in its windings to and from the vicinity of Buffalo, embraced about two hundred and y miles. And from this time, during most of the year, this distance was very regularly traveled every four weeks. The number of discourses usually delivered in making the circuit, varied from twenty to thirty-two—that is, from five to eight per week.

What about in winter? After all, today many Buffalonians shy away from winter weather; but not the circuit riding preachers of yesteryear. Roads would be frozen and not muddy, making travel easier. In January, 1817, Mr. Smith wrote from Buffalo to his parents, “I have preached twenty-one times in twenty days.”

In most localities, Universalism was wholly unknown. Mr. Smith was “the pioneer, the first herald of salvation, within their borders.” Mr. Smith himself wrote, “Doors are opened everywhere, and the walls of Zion are, by the divine blessing, laid in fair colors.”

Having laid a foundation of faith, in 1817 Mr. Smith departed. Ensuing years brought ebbs and flows to Universalist fortunes here. Many open-minded Bu alonians were recep ve, but the Universalist message contrasted sharply with Christian beliefs of the time, and general acceptance was hard-won. Thank goodness for stalwarts like Benjamin Caryl. He helped establish the first permanent Universalist Church in Buffalo, by organizing the first board of trustees, signing a certificate of organization to form a congregation on December 6, 1831, and seeing a church built on Washington Street. Shortly after it was dedicated in August, 1833, Mr. Caryl wrote to Mr. Smith: “Br. Smith: We have got, as you have heard, a beautiful house dedicated to the worship of Almighty God, but unfortunately, we are destitute of a minister…” However, Mr. Smith could not be persuaded to return. Finally, in a turn of events presaged in words spoken by Mr. Smith in his first service in Buffalo in 1816 — “He that goeth forth and weepeth bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him” — Mr. Smith did return to Buffalo, commencing a ministry on the 1st day of May, 1843 and remaining in the pulpit for six years. The city was booming, the church “was highly prosperous and, above all, there was aboard in the place and neighborhood a spirit of deep religious inquiry.”

In time, however, Mr. Smith’s exertions over the decades took their toll. He preached his last sermon in the Buffalo church in 1849. In declining health, he was forced to give up his beloved pulpit. Then, one Sunday in February, 1850, the end arrived. And in fitting fashion, Mr. Smith connected with his faith — and our church — on his last day: “When the bells rang for church in the morning, he listened to them with deep interest, and finally selected that of the Universalist church from among the rest, and appeared to listen to it with unusual pleasure.” At the end of the day, “— in calmness, in peace, in purity, — closed the earthly career of one of the best of husbands, one of the best of fathers, one of the purest and most upright and exemplary of men, and one of the most eminent and faithful of the disciples of Christ and servants of God.”

Bill Parke, Church Historian
November 4, 2016

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Are you ready to Show the Love this week?

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” MLK, Jr.

As I look at what is happening today, I return to lessons learned from a speech by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that is as appropriate now as it was some 50 years ago. Rev. Dr. King was way ahead of the curve when he warned us of the “deadly triplets” that Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center cites are alive and well today: racism, militarism, and materialism. The triplets live on while Rev. Dr. King was assassinated a year after that speech.

At this “Sankofa” moment, from the West African tradition, we must take the time to look back, so that we can be rooted in the task at hand, understand the present, and then re-shape the future. “Woe is me” is old. The “days of lamentation” better be over. Our perpetuation of ignorance coupled with good intentions is stale. It’s time to get real. We can better understand what got us to this “reality show” in which we find ourselves by doing our homework so that we will effectively shape that Beloved Community that we still long for, and dream of, despite the harsh realities of the day.

I urge you to read Dr. King’s stellar “Speech to Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam” shared at Riverside Church, NY some 50 years ago. . I urge you to review the resources cited below from the UUA Program and Strategy Outreach Office that give insight to this critical Week of Action January 14-21, 2017. I urge you to study the “Show the Love” resources listed on the UUA website.

Unitarian Universalists embody the Living Tradition. Rev. Dr. King’s legacy lives on through each of us. Let’s find our voices. It’s time to GET BUSY!!!

Yours, HOPE

Rev. Dr. Hope Johnson
UUA Congregational Life Consultant
Central East Region

  • The UUA has gathered events that “Show the Love” and stand up for our values on their webpage, Show the Love. Congregations and groups are invited to add their events to the map and list.
  • If you are particularly interested in activities this week, check the Show the Love updates page created by our UUA staff to help individuals find events and activities they can participate in at home or in Washington or anyplace in between.
  • And if you are looking for resources to help you and your congregation learn more, the Show the Love resources page can help with that including how to prep your greeters for the increase in visitors we are currently seeing and ways to partner with other organizations.
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30 Days of Love: Fortify the Movement

SSL 30 Days LogoSo many of us deeply desire to live on the side of love when it comes to social justice movements. Organizer (and Unitarian Universalist) Elandria Williams talks about the role of our faith in social movements as providing ‘spiritual and political fortification’.

But what does that really mean? How can we be a nurturing, humble and steady hand on the side of justice in the face of violence and backlash? We’re excited to bring you a sneak peak into 30 Days of Love 2017. Each week we will share tools and resources to help congregations reflect, learn and act around different sub themes of fortification. January 16, 2017 through February 14, 2017 – for 30 Days of Love 2017. From worship resources and weekly actions to opportunities to honor courageous love within our communities, stay tuned here and on our website for more information and resources.

  • Week One: Relationships and Movements
  • Week Two: Covenants and Movements
  • Week Three: Transformation and Movements
  • Week Four: Commitment and Sustenance

30 days of Love starts on January 16 and runs through February 14, 2017. Resources are available from the Standing on the Side of Love website. For details about the four week topics, visit the SSL website story.

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