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Thursday, June 1, 2017

UU FELLOWSHIP HISTORY BY JOHN GARRITY (2004)



BEGINNINGS  The Jan/Feb 2001 UU World magazine notes about 1/3 of UU groups are fellowships under 50 members, which has described us locally for our entire 42 year history.  This is partially a result of a national push in 1950’s-60’s to start up groups all over the US, often in low population areas.  Our group was chartered 2/1/1962.  The now famous (“All I Know I Learned in Kindergarten” & many other books) UU Minister Robert Fulghum was the NW US UU District Executive who came to Missoula in 1965 to welcome us into our new (102 McLeod) house.  Our local group was started by a group of mostly professional & university families, many with children.  These founding members formed the solid base for the group in our early years and so the programs and RE flourished as they raised their families.

LOCAL MEMBERSHIP   In our current membership (fluidly up/down few to several of 29, there are the following founding or very long-term members.  Arnold Finklin, Ray Gold, Leo Lott, Richard & Doris Boehmler, and Robert & Eleanor Weidman.  Only Arnold has attended regularly for many recent years (& was treasurer through the 1990’s)  Both Leo and Ray took strong leadership roles, in the 1980’s and earlier, mostly.  Most of the earlier members have moved on, retired elsewhere, or died over the years.  There are a few others who are longer than 10-year members, mostly not attending of late.  several more are a bit over 5-year members.  Quite a few are 0 - 5 year members.  The well-under-10, even under 5 year members make up almost all the regular attendees, board officers, and board members.

Weekly attendance 2003-04 averaged between 15 to low 20’s, including visitors and guests, down much from several years ago.  1960’s had 50-60 active members, the last ten years 20-25, often up to half not active.  The national UUA is 80% non-UU born & local 5’s are as/or even higher.  We almost all come from somewhere or no church tradition.  Knowledge of or involvement in the broader UU movement is fairly low among our “active” members, with a few notable exceptions, as may be common in many UU groups.  If one stays around our UUF for very long, it is possible to watch many people come and go.

FINANCIAL BUDGET  Our budget is under $1500.  Luckily, we have nearly $20,000 in checking and savings, but also much deferred maintenance: carpet, inside painting, very old kitchen, new roof needed.  We have quite a few single income members, many who are low-income, in school, underemployed &/or poorly paid (too common in Missoula), in transition or retired.  If only a few pledgers were to to move, etc. bsmt rent would be fully needed for the minimal budget we work with now.  Several fewer, it’s over.

OUR BUILDING   UUFM bought the current Fellowship house at 102 McLeod in 1965 and it was paid off by the mid 1980’s.  The house formerly belonged to the famous English Scholar & Literary Critic, then a UM prof, Leslie Fiedler, who in 1965 moved on to bigger acclaim at SUNY-Buffalo (NY).

UU member’s labor did much of the remodelling over the years.  For example, early on, the basement was mostly finished and used for Religions Education for the founder’s children.  The second floor was long an apt (but with only a half-bath & no kitchen).  The apt was long the home to a modest income older woman, then used by the UUF’s third minister, Rev. Jesse Cavalier, 1985-1989, and more recently rented to UM students — all who used the main floor kitchen and bathtub.  Then, a few years ago, the basement was converted into an outside-entry, full 2 bedroom apt. & the children’s RE was moved to 2 of the 3 upstairs bedrooms.  the office took over the 3rd second floor room.  The main floor early on had the living room & dining room wall/arch removed to increase space.  Then the current  post/beam replaced a long wall that used to create a hallway that ran along the two bedrooms and bath.

Later the front bedroom wall was removed (under stairs, where 3 or 4 bulletin boards are now).  A few years ago, the front facing closets (bedroom and entry) were removed, opening up the entire old bedroom area for a full walk around the entire stairwell.  The remaining main floor bedroom became the library.  (The library had had its closet’s rear wall removed years earlier to provide direct entry to the bathroom thru the current library instead of direct from the Fellowship meeting space).  The handicap ramp was added several years ago.  Summer 2001 repair and exterior painting were done, as well as a new toilet for bsmt & a hot water (faucet) heating system for the house.  Regular room heating is by old-style radiator heat.

Updating the usefulness of our house has rested mostly on the back of approx $5,000 & $10,000 inheritances from two long-time member’s estates.  Our house is now in the most completely useful state ever.  The up & downstairs rent subsidized the operating budget for years, and only recently has some of it been set aside for ongoing house maintenance, repairs & capital improvements, but it is nowhere nearly enough for any major improvements, remodelling or expansion.  Carpet replacement is badly needed.  Inside painting is needed.  A new roof will soon be needed.  In addition, if we grow & need to move, any new building/site in Missoula would be extremely expensive.  The mid-1990’s house/lot appraisal was low at $200,000’s.  Estimated current value of the house is in low-to-mid $300,000 range.  

Our University area location is “prime.”  We can comfortably seat 35-40, and max out between 50-60.  We could increase seating about 25 by enclosing our huge front porch.  We could also build a nice meeting space on the back of the house as the Billings UUF did.  Some want us to grow & suggest that the house we have has strangled that possibility for too long.  But there are fellowships that flourish in much smaller space than ours & don’t “grow out” of their homes until they are beyond “bursting at the seams.”

THREE MINISTERS: 1973-1989  Over the years from about 1973 to 1980 the UUF had a (now retired) part-time minister, Rev. Tom Best.  He was a former Episcopal priest turned UU minister who lived in Kalispell, worked in a social service/court type job, and served the Glacier (Kalispell/Whitefish) UUF part time, as well as coming to our Missoula UUF about once a month for 7 years.  The other programs were a combination of members, outside speakers, and long term use of VCR tapes playing the sermon from the All Souls UU Church in Tulsa, OK (which was subscribed to, much as we more recently used the Rev. Richard Gilbert’s sermons until his recent retirement as the minister of the Rochester NY UU church.

From Fall 1982 - Spring 1985, our Missoula UUF again had a part-time minister, this time a UUA Boston Extension Ministry sponsored “circuit rider” minister, the Rev. Mary Scriver.  She was a former Browning HS English teacher who had earlier been married to the recently deceased and well-known Montana taxidermist, artist, sculptor, Bob Scriver of Browning, MT.  (His works are now in the collection of the Montana Historical Society in Helena which shows them in a major exhibit.  Mary, also a writer, is now retired in the Valier, MT, area.  She spoke to the Montana area UU Association (MAUUA) on the 100+ history of UU’s in Mt. at the MAUUA’s Fall (YMCA) Camp Child gathering in the later 1990’s at Elliston, just west of McDonald Pass.  Mary served four UUF’s:  Great Falls (very small and long gone), Helena (where she also lived), Missoula (where she often slept in her old pickup camper) and Bozeman.

After she left, a semi-retired UU minister, Rev. Jesse Cavalier, served from Fall 1985- spring 1989 as well as living in the second floor apartment.  Jesse then retired to Pittsburg, PA, in 1989 and died there in the Spring of 2004.  Since then we have only had a few visiting ministers from SLC, Spokane and other areas, at most 1 -2 times a year.  The long time UU Mountain Desert District Executive, Rev. Russell Lockwood (who our yearly summer UU Leadership School is named after) used to visit at least once a year also.  So did his successor DE’s, all non-ordained; Rev. Ken Wheeler; interim DE Mary Andrus Overby, & current MDD DE, Ellen Germann-Malosh.  Even with these three part-time ministers we had for 14 years, as with most UUF’s we have been basically a lay led UU Fellowship for our 42+ year history.

SOCIAL JUSTICE & COMMUNITY VISIBILITY   I was then the new member of our local UUF who suggested that we locally, as well as the other four UUF’s in Montana, go thru the BGLT “Welcoming” process, and all 5 UUF’s did so over a two year period.  Montana was announced at the 1999 (Salt Lake City, UT) UUA General Assembly as the first and only entire state in UUdom that was totally UU “Welcoming” of our BGLT (Bisexual/Gay/Lesbian/Transgender) family and friends.

Our Sunday church ad in the paper in the past has said, “A supportive community dedicated to social justice.”)  On that “social justice” side, we have a fairly low profile UU presence in our community due to our very small numbers, half not active.  Recent UU examples having our name in WEEL, Gay/Lesbian groups, and other ads as a contributor/sponsor, as well as use of our house & shared office by/with local social justice and other civic groups for meetings.  Members also work at Food Bank, serving meals at Head Start “Feed & Read.”  I am speaking collectively, of course.  

Individually, we have many individual local UU’s because of their personal strong social justice orientation, who belong to, speak up at, work in peace justice and human rights work, many who publicly self-identify as UU members.  Our UUFM is the ONLY church denomination marching in the last 7 - 8 statewide Gay Pride parades each June with our GA church banners prominently displayed.  attempts have been made toward other collective UU involvements, but lack of a larger membership & lack of energy seem to dampen involvement despite the obvious good intentions and strong social justice views if many if not most UU’s.

MORE RECENTLY:  I joined this Missoula UU Fellowship 1978-82, overlapping the 16th to 21st year of existence of this local UUF, such that I knew most of the original and long-term founders/members as well as Rev. Tom Best and Rev Mary Scriver (who is still a too seldom seen friend.)  The UUF then had much the same issues then as when I returned to this UUF in the spring of 1995 and now.  It struggled then and now with too few doing too much, as well as members who had strong opinions and did not always listen to each other well enough.

Programs and content — then as now — were reasonably good.  RE was almost non-existent for quite a few years, was much stronger for awhile in the later 1990’s due to the fine work of member Suzanne Wasilczuk (now in her second year at Meadville/Lombard UU Seminary in Chicago), and now Child RE has few children, despite recent hard work by a few other members.

During the 1980’s, even with the 3rd minister, the local UUF began to decline as the founders and many long-time members retired elsewhere, moved to be with family, died, or just got “tired” and stopped coming.  By the early 90’s only a few long-time UU’s were still around, and at the Yearly Spring Meeting in early mid 90’s, abandoning the UUF, turning the house back to UUA Boston ownership for disposal seemed possible and was discussed.

A lifelong UU, Mac Palmer, just retired from a National Park Service career, and his adult-lifelong-UU wife, Margery Fels Palmer, stepped in as Co-Chairs, and with a few other new other UU’s newly arrived from elsewhere, as well as a few energetic new UU’s, things picked up for awhile in time for our 35th anniversary in 1997 and for a few more years.

Since then, we have reached a low spot visible by the further decline in membership & participation in the past few years.  As with many smaller groups, it sometimes seems as fast we get new “members,” other have already seemingly departed.  Most of the long time members have long ago stopped attending, but continue to modestly support us.  Also, as with many small groups, a few who have been the officers and primary volunteers for too long sometimes grow a bit weary and need newer members to step in and assume some of the leadership roles.  This has not gone well in the past few years, and much turmoil resulted.  2003-04 was likely the ”lowest” year for our Fellowship in over 10 years.  The current board is trying to figure out the best course of action to deal with the decline and many conflicts at hand.

“COMMUNITY”   My advice personally, and after extensive work with this UUF’s history is as follows.  if one were going to look at our group from a small versus large church viewpoint, it might be said that we have been trying to “do it all” in programs, adult & child RE, fix-up & use of house, etc.  These are all good goals, but the “do it all” aspect is more large-church appropriate than for our very small size.  The literature about small churches suggests that personal relationships, i.e. the “community” we form and sustain over long periods of time, not only determines the health of the group, but also whether it is even likely to survive at all.  Only if we can sustain and build our “community” of trust, cooperation and friendship will the Fellowship ever likely grow or even continue. Iif we can both look in the mirror a bit more, also get to know each other better & each assume a greater share of the work to make it all happen, it is possible we an grow in “community,” if less easily in numbers.

The 600 member nearby UCC church offers everything (except also a bit too much “God Talk” for many UU’s) that our UUF does, so we must figure out what our smaller Fellowship can offer that is unique, and work on offering it to each other first — such that others will then see it when they visit/attend.

It seems when Walt Kelly’s Pogo long ago said something like “we have met the enemy and he is us,” he was obviously talking about our UUF among other targets for his insight. Iit seems apparent that we are both our own worst “problem to sort out, as well as the only “solution” to any of our problems of course.  A “vital community” would likely make this UUF “grow” in whatever direction WE want/need.

INFLUENCES ON UUFM’S SMALL SIZE   In a county of 95,000 people, we are located only several blocks from U of M (with about 12,000 students, it is 5th in Rhodes Scholars among public universities and only drops to 15th if all the prestigious private universities are added fro the entire Twentieth Century.  Many students come around, few stay awhile, then move on.  Frequently new & /or local residents visit and some even stay awhile, a few even a year to several, but very few stay for long.  Many are church shopping, of course.  UU visitors sometimes go on to find church homes among Quakers, Unity, Buddhist, or Jewish groups as they leave or return to more mainline church groups.  Or they return to being unchurched, secular, etc.

It might be useful to ponder why we have not had any sustained growth (rather we have had a loss) in our 42 years.  It appears likely that among those who find a permanent or at least long term local church, it is commonly the University Congregational Church (UCC-United Church of Christ.  (Historical note: the “Unitarian” part of UU is, in essence of course, a split-off from the “Congregational” part of the UCC church, which took place from the late 1700’s to the official formation of the Unitarian Church around 1820’s.)  The UCC Church is a few blocks away and one block from campus.  Locally, it is the educated, progressive, liberal, social justice church, full of the same type of leaders and members that formed this UUF in 1962.  They are big-time strong competition, period!

Nationally and demographically, UCC and UUA are more similar than most all other churches and this is as or even more true locally.  The nearby UCC has 600 members/friends, a recent huge modern building expansion, numerous programs.  One full and one part-time ordained minister, and several other full/part-time staff, over 30 wonderful music groups and sub groups as well as a longstanding and very strong social justice presence (and history of such) in Missoula going back as least as far as Civil Rights and local Anti-War demonstrations during Vietnam.  It is also a very strong BGLT “Open and Affirming” (what UU’s call “Welcoming”) Congregation that has spawned 4-5 more in this most conservative state.

A personal note to give “context” to my above “opinion.”  I was a member in this UUF from 1978-83, spent 12 years (1983-95) at the nearby UU church and again 1995-present returned to this UUF (the first three years as Sect., then three as VP, then one and a half as President, then 8-2002 to 5-31-2004 as the first paid (20 hours a month at $10 hr) part-time Church Administrator until my resignation 5-31-2004.  for the entire 27 years from 1978-present, I have watched people pass through our UUF, stay awhile, then move on to the UCC Church and stay there.  Seeing such from both directions and personally knowing many of those UUs who moved to UCC, it is my opinion many people at the UCC are really much more UU than UCC in their world view.  The current UCC pastor says his church is 80-90% Non-UCC raised & says UCC is often called “Unitarians Considering Christ.”


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