By DIANE R. CHODAN
OBSERVER Staff Writer
This year, the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Northern Chautauqua County celebrated its 30th anniversary. Over the years, the church's membership has increased considerably, welcoming individuals with a multitude of different beliefs, and works hard to make a difference in the local community and beyond.
OBSERVER Photo by Diane R. Chodan
The choir, directed by Cheryl Ritch, performs at a recent UUCNC service. Left to right: Jean Wagner, Kate Furman, Jayson Castillo, Bill Moran, Renee Gravelle, Chris Taverna, Kay Barlow, Cheryl Ritch, and Rose Sebouhian. The choir usually sings once a month.
GROWTH OF A CONGREGATION
In March 1983, at the invitation of two families who were new to the area and wanted to start a local Unitarian Universalist congregation, the Rev. Tom Chulak, the newly appointed Minister to New Congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregation, gave a public talk. Eighteen people attended, some of whom were members of the Adams Memorial Church (Unitarian) in Dunkirk which had closed in 1978 and given its building at 600 Central Avenue in Dunkirk to the area arts council.
The group decided to meet twice a month, except in the summer, and to always provide child care at the services. According to Jefferson Westwood, one of the founding members of the church, the average attendance was 10-12 people in the early days. Westwood said the members of the congregation were "vagabonds" in the early days, meeting at a variety of places: the White Inn in Fredonia, Buttrick Hall (now Gullo's Law Office) on Central Avenue across from the SUNY campus, the student union at SUNY Fredonia, the social hall of the Fredonia Presbyterian Church, and an open-air picnic pavilion at a municipal park.
March 1983: The Rev. Tom Chulak speaks at White Inn to those interested in having a Unitarian Universalist Church in the area.
Fall 1985: The congregation rents space at the Historic Grange No. 1 in Fredonia, after holding meetings at a variety of places.
January 1992: The congregation begins to meet weekly, instead of twice a month.
2003: The Rev. Theresa Kime becomes "consulting" part-time minister
May 2011: The Rev. Kime installed as the "settled" minister to the congregation.
From that modest beginning, the congregation began to grow in a number of ways.
Westwood attributes the growth to reaching out to the community. "We are very ecumenical. We welcome Christians, neo-pagan, Buddhists, agnostics ... People respect each individual. The community listens to and explores the ideas," he said.
One milestone was finding a settled worship site. In 1985, one of the members, Richard T. Smith, discovered space at the Historic Grange No. 1 in Fredonia was available to rent. At first the congregation rented a small front room, but as the congregation grew, it moved into a bigger space in the building. Services are still held in this building. Currently the congregation numbers about 90 people, and attendance at weekly services averages 50 to 60.
Another area of growth was expansion of worship services from twice a month to weekly beginning in 1992.
At first services were conducted by members of the congregation, others in the community and by visiting ministers. Beginning in 1993, the congregation contracted with a series of ministers and student ministers who led worship as well as providing other services each weekend. The congregation began to work toward the goal of having a quarter-time minister.
The Rev. Teresa Kime began serving as part-time minister in 2003. Rev. Kime explained that she served as a "consulting" minister from year to year because the congregation "was not confident with a long term financial commitment."
Once the congregation achieved the goal of self-sufficiency and no longer relied on using reserves or grants, the executive board began a year-long process. The congregation voted that Rev. Kime become their "settled" minister. She was installed in May of 2011.
She said, "The congregation had grown numerically and was on stronger ground organizationally and in development."
She said, "This is a creative congregation; they enjoy one another and want to make the world a better place."
According to Audrey Dowling, chairperson of the congregation's social action committee, unitarian universalists have a history of social activism.
She said, "We are ramping up the level of community involvement."
In November 2012, interested individuals from the congregation chose four areas of engagement: the environment, economic justice, peace, and LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender) issues.
Work with environmental issues includes local water issues, plastics and fracking, and health of the water in the Canadaway Creek. Dowling pointed to a program on April 18 at 7 p.m. at Rosch Recital Hall on the SUNY Fredonia campus dealing with plastic pollution. The founders of the 5 Gyres Institute, an organization to combat plastic pollution in the ocean, spoke.
Dowling explained that the issue of peace focuses on such things as the drone issue and "peace as an alternative to war." This group often works with the Western New York Peace Center headquartered in Buffalo.
In the matter of economic justice, the congregation recently sponsored a panel discussion at the SUNY Fredonia incubator to educate the community on living below the poverty line, featuring representatives from Chautauqua County Rural Ministry, Chautauqua Opportunities, Inc. and the Department of Social Services. Mitch Cummings, who is a member of the congregation, served as moderator.
In the matter of LGBTQ issues, UUCNC was named a Welcoming Congregation. In order to achieve this designation, the congregation studied the issues involved and committed to ongoing work in this area. The congregation strives to welcome all people to its services.
Dowling said, "We look forward to engaging more with the community. We welcome community involvement in our efforts. ... We like to partner."
Another effort to serve the community is the Share the Plate program. The Sunday collection is shared with an organization whose activities are consistent with the principles of the church. Usually, a person from an organization speaks to the congregation briefly during the service, displays literature, and answers questions from individuals during the social hour following the service.
Affinity groups, which explore specific interests ranging from adventure and travel to a writing circle, are available through the church.
A strong program exists for children and young adults. Child care is available for young children and religious exploration for older children. Children are welcome to attend services with parents or grandparents. The first part of the service usually consists of a story suitable for all ages, usually followed by religious exploration class. Sometimes there are special services for children.
There are also a number of committees that emphasize service to the church community such as finance, worship, communication, and membership.
A choir was formed in 1996 and sings at services about once a month.
The congregation would like to continue moving forward with its social outreach, service, and justice work.
In addition, according to Kime, "Recently the congregation has begun seeking a defined space of their own."
They want to buy a building rather than continue to rent.
"The congregation is really proud and happy to support a historic building,"she said.
On the other hand, the congregation only has a home on the specific time of worship, unless arrangements can be made to use it at other times. A growing membership and increased activity might better be supported by a more permanent site.
The congregation will consider a strategic plan to guide them for the next three years.
The church maintains a website at www.uucnc.org. and encourages people who are interested to learn about the Unitarian Universalists through links to videos and written information. In addition, attendance at a Sunday service at 11 a.m. or at orientation classes are encouraged.
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