Heritage and Hope A Personal View by Dr. Robert Wells

The opportunity that I have had in the past week has been an experience that I would recommend to each of you. A formal presentation of one’s views requires an analysis and search that can be both rewarding and frustrating. It may lead to a definition of outlook not previously understood.

I think that in giving me a very general direction for this morning’s presentation, Don Langham felt that at this juncture in our church life, a brief review of history might be helpful in gaining perspective and that, perhaps, one member’s view of his own ideas about the value and meaning of church and religion might also be useful. Thus, my title Heritage and Hope. The remainder of the title represents the usual disclaimer – that is, the opinions expressed are explicitly those of, the speaker and do not necessarily reflect the views, either individually or collectively, of the management.

The Unitarian Universalist, presence in Atlanta has been a continuous one since the late 19th century. It is of interest to note that the first president of a Unitarian congregation in Atlanta was also the president of the then fledgling Georgia Tech. The first church was located on the property now occupied by the City Library on Carnegie Way and the property was donated by the church to the city for that specific purpose. Of denominational interest, is the fact that long before the Unitarian and Universalist denominations merged nationally, the two congregations in Atlanta merged into one church – The United Liberal Church – in the early 20’s. Dr. Aubrey Hess – Jean Hess’ husband and my wife’s father – served as minister of that church from 1929 until his death in 1935.  The United Liberal Church was on West Peachtree between Ponce de Leon and 3rd Street. The building now houses a most unusual restaurant – The Abbey. Most of the original design and function of the church is maintained. It makes for a different dining experience.

The current Cliff Valley Church, officially named The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta, has been a continuous congregation since the early 50’s, meeting first in the Briarcliff Hotel, later in a church at the corner of North Avenue and Boulevard (a site now occupied by the proverbial filling station), and later at the old Clark Howell School on 10th Street which has since burned. The congregation’s current beautiful home on Cliff Valley Way was built about ten years ago.

The Cliff Valley congregation experienced a phenomenal growth very rapidly after occupying its new home. In 1966, a projection developed by its Board indicated that their two services would reach the saturation point by December ’68 and that even three services would fill the facility to capacity by June 1970. After considering several possible expansion plans, the Board and Congregation approved in early ’68 the establishment of a third service to be held in Northwest Atlanta. The area was carefully chosen after a demographic survey showed this area to be the second largest concentration of Unitarians in Atlanta. Most of the initial leadership of that early effort came from the active leaders of the Cliff Valley group. Despite the anticipated loss of leadership and financial resources, it was the express expectation at that time of the Cliff Valley Board and Congregation that this “third Service” would develop into a full-blown church. Herb Beattie was the Vice-President of the Cliff Valley church and it was under his personal guidance that this idea was nurtured. As attendance grew during 1968, the meeting place was changed in the fall of that year from Liberty Guinn Elementary School to the Sandy Springs High School.

During the fall of 1968, just four years ago, Dr. Russell Lockwood, of the Department of Extension of The Unitarian Universalist denomination office visited Atlanta, evaluated the situation, and also recommended that this new group organize a separate church entity. A meeting was held of those attending the third service, the concept was thoroughly debated again, and then a steering committee of 22 members was selected to guide the organizational process. With the adoption of By-Laws and the election of officers on January 23, 1969, the Northwest Unitarian Church was officially born. A charter from the State was legally obtained. The congregation at that time consisted of 43 families.

The Department of Extension of the UU Association approved the request of the Northwest Church to participate in the Minister-on-Loan program. Thus, the Rev. William De Wolfe, then of San Antonio, now in St. Louis, was with us for six weeks from January to March of 1969. During this time we were stimulated to a rapid period of organizational development. This brief period of activity, probably because of the known time limits, resulted in more membership involvement and therefore a closer feeling of community than perhaps at any other time, before or since. Committees, already organized, formulated specific goals and methods to accomplish their needs. The dinners-for-8 idea was begun. The concept of sisterhood, rather than childhood as our relationship to the Cliff Valley church was urged. Bill De Wolfe proved an inspirational leader and counselor and departed with many new friends and warm feelings.

A pulpit committee was formed that spring, the spring of ’69, and late that summer, John Burciaga, then the minister of the Bethlehem, Pa. church was called by the congregation as our minister. During John’s three years with us, many things have happened. Our membership doubled from its early 1969 size. New programs have included an Adult Education Committee) a Public Issues Committee, a Youth-Adult Advisory Committee, a very active Drama Group and others. We are acquiring a beautiful piece of land that will develop into a permanent home, allowing a more extensive development of programs and social exchanges.

Unfortunately, two months ago, John resigned. I use the word unfortunately with specific intent because I will miss his sermons, his convivial presence amongst us, and his frequent stimulation to my thinking. I hope he will visit us frequently.

The Northwest Unitarian Church has now entered a period of challenge, and, in my view, a time of renewal. The internal resources that exist within the membership of this Church represent a fantastic depth of abilities and interests which we can draw on to provide a religious community of infinite reward to each of us. Yes, we are changed since 1969. We are stronger and wiser than we were then. And we have an existing framework offering an opportunity for each to participate in this cultivation of a church, with all that name implies.

In the absence of a prescribed form of church worship, required creedal recitations, and within a congregation that tends to reject many of the mystical concepts of a faith oriented denomination, I hear one frequent question from the casual or infrequent visitor. In what way does this movement differ from a debating society, a service club, or a town meeting?

It differs because it is a church. The prime purpose of the service club or debating society is the influencing of others – the persuasion – the effort to lead others to one’s own point of view. The goal of a church is, and should be, to encourage each to develop and nurture his own purpose and spirit… The supportive congregation is that which encourages difference rather than requiring conformity.  The freedom that one feels to express his own deepest convictions within a community of fellows should be the essence of church.

And yet the church community is a place for learning – it is most definitely a forum for new ideas, freely expressed and freely accepted with the worth and dignity that the product of any thinking brain deserves. But for each person, this new idea must be measured against his own. It may be accepted, it may be rejected outright, or it may be “filed for information”.  But it may not be ignored.

Why does the religious liberal seek a community, a congregation, a church? If the prime goal is to develop one’s own faith, one’s own philosophy, can this not be done at home, at work, on social occasions. Why go to all the difficulty, and, at times, pain to become a member of an organization in order to work out one’s own concepts of religion.

For me, there are two reasons. The first – I’m one of that unfortunate majority who must compartmentalize my time. If I didn’t have a specific time for church affairs, I doubt if the quietly contemplative time so necessary for the honing of reason would occur. The second – I suspect that each of us requires the crucible of challenge that comes with new ideas in order to continuously redefine our own outlook. Therefore, I have not only the privilege of participating in this milieu, but the responsibility to help preserve it. And while I would be the last to soft pedal the need for financial and other means of support – in this instance, I have in mind other responsibilities.

You see, the Unitarian Universalist movement generally, and this church specifically, is a vast gathering of “come-outers”. Aside from my wife, Peggy Beard, and Ray Levine, I doubt that there are more than two or three people in this room that were born into a Unitarian or Universalist family. Let’s see a show of hands. We’ve come here initially from a framework of religious doubt – for some a very painful transition was necessary – for others, the finding of this congregation came as a clear relief from the necessity of dogmatic recitation never firmly felt in the first place. At any rate, the religious basis that most of us bring to the Unitarian process, is one of doubt. The transition into a framework of positive conviction of religious principles can be difficult. To protect and encourage this transition both for myself and my fellow parishioners is the greatest responsibility I bring to my church. A church is a place that helps individuals articulate their subjective beliefs.

I’ve heard other definitions of a church. One that I’ve always enjoyed as it applies specifically to a Unitarian church was coined by a minister when confronted with one of those signs frequently seen along Southern roadsides – you know the ones that say something like “Come to the Lakeside Baptist Church – the Church with the Answers”. My minister friend remarked, “Now I know what the Unitarian church is – it’s the Church with the Questions”.

What is a religion? First of all, it is simple – it is elemental – it is personal. It involves a one-to-one relationship – the relationship of Man to man, of man to himself, of many to his conscience, of man to universal relationships (the latter, t0 me, means man to God). Secondly, it is not limited to worship. That occurs, for me at least, only on Sunday morning – it is an integral part of religion – but only a part.

Many of us religious liberals have not given sufficient thought to what we believe. We recite no dogma. We have no finished faith, once revealed and now neatly packaged. We find it easier to define what we are not than what we are. Are we in danger then of going to the opposite extreme – of being hopelessly vague about what we do believe? Perhaps we should realize that our need is not to find something to believe – but rather to discover what our lives indicate we believe right now. This is the place to start. Ralph Waldo Emerson, himself a great Unitarian, said, “The gods we worship write their names on our faces.”

What did I enjoy most in the day just past? How did I spend my time?

How did I wish I might have spent it? How did I feel about myself at the end of the day? Do I like the kind of person I am? What do I worry about? What am I afraid of? What do I hope for? Whose life did my life touch during this day? Was it for better or worse? How do I feel about my parents, my spouse, my children, my neighbors, my city? Am I aware of the natural universe? Do the arts influence me?

To bring my attitudes, my convictions, my practices out into the open and look at them systematically is to find out what I actually believe. My beliefs then become my religion – the expression of my beliefs in my daily intercourse with myself, my fellow man, and that aspect of my life that I call God.

This kind of religion is neither immature nor irrelevant. Rather it humanizes and it educates. It does not generate smugness. As it looks to the future it does not foster the illusion that utopia can be achieved without human effort. A mature religion looks at the world with open eyes. It does not believe in short cuts to a better tomorrow. It prepares us for the possibility of failure while, by its very nature, it generates the type of act that is necessary for success.

So what is my hope for us – for the Northwest Unitarian Church?  I hope that each of us looks upon this community, this congregation, as a place to develop a personal religion. A religion developed within the framework of understanding of the differences which make us human and the commonness that makes us humane. A religion that is bolstered by our common search to give us strength in our diverse and varied daily living.

In the course of reading in preparation of these comments, I came on two old familiar passages which, for me, sum up the essence of my personal Unitarianism.

Micah 6: 6-8

Invictus, William Henley               pg 372


Archivist Note: Add Micah 6: 6 – 8

Micah 6:6-8 New International Version (NIV)

6 With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?

7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams with ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?

8 He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.  And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly[a] with your God.


Posted in History Summary, Northwest

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