as preached February 11, 2024 at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston
A few years ago, when the congregation decided to enter a period of developmental ministry, we went through a process to identify a series of developmental goals. First Unitarian Universalist had just been through a rough patch that had seen the negotiated resignations of three senior ministers, or senior co-ministers, in the span of a decade. Members of the congregation wanted to know, as you put it at the time, “How can we have a healthy relationship with our Senior Minister?”
As you collectively thought about this question, you came to the conclusion that in order to answer it you also had to explore another question: “What kind of church do we want to become?”
What kind of church do we want to become? You might recall that your efforts to answer this query resulted in new vision, mission, and covenant statements. And you will likely have observed that over the last months we have working to weave these new articulations of our spiritual aspirations into congregational life. The phrase “Widening Love’s Circle” appears on just about every item we publish. We recite the covenant each time we gather for worship. I sincerely hope that the commitment to be “a growing multicultural, multigenerational, and multiracial congregation in the city’s diverse urban center” will guide your deliberations in the coming weeks over what to do about the lot across Fannin Street.
This morning, as we celebrate the 110th anniversary of the founding of our beloved congregation, I want to direct our attention back on the question that led to the creation of our vision, mission, and covenant: “What kind of church do we want to become?”
What kind of church do we want to become? Let me suggest that throughout our congregation’s history we have struggled to answer this question. That is not something to be ashamed of. Understanding, and defining, our individual and collective identities is one of the great tasks of our lives. Consider how, each in our own way, we all struggle with the question, “Who am I?,” throughout our lives.
In truth, as the seasons change, we answer it differently. As a child, a teenager, or a young adult my answer to it would have included words like son, brother, grandson, or nephew. In midlife, my answer necessitates the inclusion of parent in that list. What is more, the emphasis I place on the different parts of my identity shifts depending upon the time or location. Now, standing before you on a Sunday morning, I am principally a preacher. Tonight, at home, I will primarily be a family man.
Is your experience similar? The predominant understanding we have of ourselves is one thing at work, another at home, and something else when we are at First Unitarian Universalist. Over the years, I have heard members of the congregation say that the only place that they feel comfortable fully being themselves is amidst this community.
“Who am I?,” it is one of the most profound religious questions. It implies that there is some unifying thread that unites the Colin who cooks up the sermon for Sunday morning and the Colin who cooks up Sunday dinner. In our answers, we often seek to disrupt that famous monologue from William Shakespeare:
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts.
Instead of flitting from part-to-part, from putting on one mask and then another, taking on this role and then that, many of us search for the underlying answer to the question, “Who am I?”
Questing after that answer is what prompts a lot of people to come to a religious community like ours. While some of you were raised within the Unitarian Universalist tradition, most of you came to it as adults either as “nones” or “dones.” The first group, the “nones,” are those of you who have a spiritual orientation but grew up unconnected to traditional religious institutions. The second group, the “dones,” includes those of you who were raised within a religious tradition but later decided you were “done” with it: done with Catholicism, done with a rigid form of Islam, done with Pentecostal Christianity, done with a strict type of Judaism, done with Lutheranism, just done. You asked the question, “Who am I?,” and answered, “Not that.”
“Who am I?,” whether you are a none or a done, if your background prior to joining our congregation was something other than Unitarian Universalist than it is likely that some sort of question or crisis of identity brought you through our doors–or caused you to search us out online–when you connected with us for the first time. So many of my new member conversations have a similar structure.
“We are newly married. We come from different religious backgrounds. We want a community in which we can raise our children,” you tell me.
“My spouse has died. We were together for forty years. I am trying to figure out who I am without her,” you let me know.
“The church I grew up in has rejected me. I am trans or gay or queer,” you remark. “I need a religious community that loves me for who I am,” you continue.
Whatever the case, none or done, it is usually the case that you become part of the Unitarian Universalist community because you are seeking an answer to some variation of the question, “Who am I?”
Religion has been trying to provide a collective answer to this question ever since there has been such a thing as religion, which is to say as long as humanity has existed. We hear attempts to do so in many of the world’s great scriptures.
They are there in the Bhagavad Gita when Arjuna, the text’s protagonist, tells Krishna, “My will is paralyzed, and I am utterly confused. Tell me which is the better path for me,” and Krishna responds by informing him, “The impermanent has no reality; reality lies in the eternal.”
They are present in the query directed at the Buddha, “Are you a God?” and his response, “I am awake.” They are found in Christian and Jewish works and in the words of the great humanists and in passages from the poets.
After the laws of their being,
All creatures pursue happiness.
Why have I let an official
Career swerve me from my goal?
I have, before, been
tricked into believing
I could be both an I
and the world.
“Who am I?” Our congregation provides each of us the space to explore this most essential of questions without the limitations of doctrine or the confines of creed. We gather to seek “the truths our questing souls have sought,” as our own lyricist Emily Ladner wrote.
And as we gather to answer that question as individuals we have been challenged, again, and again, to answer it as a community, “What type of church do we want to become?” How we respond to that question as a collective greatly shapes how we answer our own individual questions. One collective answer invites some people in. Another leaves some people out, suggests to them that their “Who am I?” might be better pursued elsewhere.
The earliest evidence that some people in Houston needed to answer the question of “Who am I?” within a Unitarian Universalist community dates to the 1880s. At some point in that decade the Universalist minister Erasmus Manford visited the city during his missionary efforts throughout the West. He quickly left, reporting to his co-religionists back East, “The town of Houston when I was there was a moral desert–a hell on earth.”
A hell on earth, perhaps this was why, on April 30, 1899, the Universalist minister Quillen Shinn preached a sermon in Houston in which he first put forth an question to the question, “What type of church do we want to become?” for our community. He said that our purpose was, “to make this world a Paradise, a pleasant, happy place for all to live in.”
When he made that statement, under the encouragement of his distant cousins John Carvel Hooper and Asa Shinn, he had been visiting Houston and preaching the occasional sermon here for a few years. But it was not until 1899 that he felt the ground was fertile for the planting of a Universalist congregation. He managed to pull together seven members to start a religious community. Their answer to the question, “What type of church do we want to become?” was clear: a Universalist one.
Unfortunately, Houstonians did not find it to be a very compelling answer. A pattern emerged, Quillen Shinn would come, offer an engaging sermon with a title like, “Where Will You Spend Eternity?,” energize the city’s little band of Universalists and then depart. Soon after he left their efforts to establish an institution would go dormant; no congregation grew.
It was not until 1908 that efforts to establish a Universalist church gained traction. John Carvel Hooper managed to gather together some forty people with the intention of forming a religious community. They elected him president and within a year they had raised enough money to hire their first minister, Charles Rogers. With him in the pulpit, the congregation began to hold regular services on October 3, 1909.
At the time, our religious forbearers had not done a very good job of the answering the question, “What type of church do we want to become?” The congregation was called Unity Church–Universalist. It membership contained Unitarians and Universalists. Also present were some people associated with the New Thought movement. A few of these were likely adherents to what later became the Unity Church. A larger number were affiliated with the Theosophical tradition.
So, here, at the very start, we see that one of the answers to the question, “What type of church do we want to become?” has often been: a community devoted to fostering religious pluralism. Unfortunately, in early twentieth century Houston this response was untenable. The New Thought folks split off to form their own congregations–with the Unity people leaving sometime in 1911 and the city’s Theosophical Lodge forming in 1912.
That same year, Charles Rogers left Houston and the Universalist church stopped meeting. The Ladies Aid group, however, continued to meet and hold teas in their members houses. And it was one of their number, her name was Dr. Frances Brant, who challenged the community to have a more coherent understanding of its identity. Under her leadership, it is reported in the Universalist Record Book, that in 1912 the women in the religious community had “gone over to the Unitarians.”
It was a wise move. The American Unitarian Association sent its Field Secretary, William Channing Brown, to Houston for a month to organize a Unitarian Church. On Sunday, February 15, 1914, he held the founding service of the First Unitarian Church of Houston. There were twenty-one people present. They elected a Board of Trustees whose number included our old, persistent, friend John Carvel Hooper.
They also adopted a covenant, or Bond of Union, that sought to provide an identity for the congregation by stating why its members came together. It read:
In the love of truth, and the spirit of Jesus, we unite for the worship of God and the service of Man.
They also called a minister, Thomas Clayton. He stayed until the spring of 1918. Under his leadership, the congregation more than doubled–reaching something like sixty people–and purchased its first building, a cottage in Montrose near what until very recently was the Whole Foods on Elgin.
During his ministry, the First Unitarian Church of Houston also committed to several aspects of its identity that have provided consistent answers to “What type of church do we want to become?” Religious education and music programs were established. A commitment was made to the center city.
In those years, it must be noted, the congregation held to Houston’s Jim Crow practices. While the archives include no record of a conscious decision to be so, in its early decades the First Unitarian Church of Houston was an exclusively White institution. This, of course, put it in the same company with every other religious institution in the city. Texas was rigorously segregated in those days and was then, as it is now, one of the nation’s leaders in hate crimes and violence against Black people. During Rev. Clayton’s tenure Houston was the site of one of the most notorious riots in US history, the 1917 Camp Logan Mutiny, which claimed twenty-one lives. It resulted in a show trial after which thirteen African American soldiers were executed. All of them have subsequently been exonerated.
There is no record as to whether or not Rev. Clayton spoke out against this gross act of white supremacy and injustice. Indeed, there is not much of a record of what he said about anything. We do not have any of his sermons in our archives. None of them appear to have been preserved by any of the universities that collect Unitarian Universalist material.
Following Thomas Clayton’s 1918 departure the congregation entered a period of disorganization. There was no regular minister for five years. James Peardon came and went. The “Ladies Aid” group, long since renamed the Women’s Alliance, paid most of the bills.
Then in 1929, Thomas Henry Saunders arrived. He was here until 1935. Saunders proclaimed that the purpose of the congregation was “the emancipation of humanity from superstition and credulity.” And his answer to “What type of church do we want to become?” helped to solidify our movement in Houston.
While he was here, Board Chair Walter Cronkite, father of the famous journalist of the same name, oversaw the purchase of our current property and the construction of the first building on it.
Unfortunately, his tenure also saw the establishment of an unhealthy pattern in congregational life, one that has since haunted the community. Saunders time in our pulpit ended in the spring of 1935 when he was pushed to resign.
He was soon followed by Arthur Winn. Like his predecessors, his energies seem to have largely been directed inwards towards solidifying a Unitarian congregation rather than outwards towards serving the larger community. These efforts paid off and by the time he left, three years later, First Unitarian had expanded its religious education programs, established a committee structure, and installed its first organ.
“What type of church do we want to become?” Arthur Winn was followed by John Clarence Petrie. He was something of a done and had first left Catholicism and then Episcopalianism for Unitarianism. His ministry included one of the greatest struggles over how the congregation would define itself.
First Unitarian thrived. A professional organist, whose name is recorded as Mrs. Ray Lasley, was hired. So were professional singers. The building was expanded. Membership grew past a hundred for the first time.
The growth of the congregation was matched by the growth of Rev. Petrie’s dissatisfaction with Unitarianism. The congregation changed its name to the Unitarian-Congregational Church, dropped its affiliation with the regional conference of the American Unitarian Association, and associated with the Texas Conference of Congregational Churches.
His answer to “What type of church do we want to become?” was that our congregation was to be theologically Christian and politically reactionary. He attacked “‘humanism’ … [as] the worst enemy of man.” He quoted far right-wing philosophers, like the economist Friedrich Hayek, from the pulpit and attacked some of our movement’s great civil rights leaders in his sermons. He proclaimed that he was devoted to driving “out every form of subversive Americanism” from Unitarianism and combatting its “anti-Christian trend.”
In spite of this, he inspired the congregation to build our present sanctuary. Because of this, by 1949, the congregation had enough. Petrie was pushed to resign. He returned to the Episcopalian fold and finished his life as the sort of anti-Communist preacher who published essays in magazines preferred by members of the John Birch Society.
“What type of church do we want to become?” The contentious end of Petrie’s ministry clarified the answer to that question. The congregation made room for humanists within its ranks. It reestablished relations with the regional Unitarian conference. The members who were loyal to Petrie left to form the First Congregational Church of Houston. Horace Westwood was called.
His ministry was marked by new answers to the question “What type of church do we want to become?” In early 1954, the family of the now famous actresses Debbie Allen and Phylicia Rashad began to attend services. And in 1954, almost immediately following the Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, the congregation committed to no longer being an exclusively White community–making it the first historically White church in the city to do so.
First Unitarian Universalist, sadly, still has a long way to go into being a fully multiracial religious community. But the vote to desegregate back in 1954 was nonetheless a historic one. It was accompanied by a commitment, for the first time in the congregation’s history, to collective social justice work. And it brought the congregation’s first African American members—Debbie and Phylicia’s mother, the playwright Vivian Allen, joined First Unitarian.
Rev. Westwood was active in the civil rights movement. He marched in Selma. He preached against the old Southern white supremacist order in his sermons. For first time, the congregation welcomed Black preachers into its pulpit. During this time the sanctuary also caught fire–how it has never been determined–and the church almost burned down.
Nonetheless, First Unitarian grew like it never had before. Membership reached over eight hundred. Half the church left to establish Emerson Unitarian Church, over by the Galleria. The congregation removed the word “Jesus” from its covenant and collaborated with the local Jewish Reform community. The building was expanded again.
Westwood’s twenty-two-year ministry was the longest in the congregation’s history. It was followed by Webster Kitchell’s nine-year tenure, during which the congregation did not substantively change its answer to “What type of church do we want to become?”
Kitchell moved to New Mexico in 1981. The Rev. Bob Schaibly arrived in 1982. He challenged the congregation to respond to “What type of church do we want to become?” in substantive ways. He came out of the closest shortly after he arrived and became the first openly gay minister of a historically non-LGBTQ church in the city. The congregation made a commitment to be a religious community for people who were not welcomed elsewhere. It started HATCH, which is now housed at the Montrose Center and has the distinction of being the city’s oldest LGBTQIA+ youth group. It became a national leader for social justice, helping to spark the sanctuary movement of the 1980s. And it welcomed to its pulpit, or organized programs in the city with, such internationally known figures as Barbara Jordan, Joan Baez–who did a benefit concert for the congregation–and Thich Nhat Hanh.
Schaibly retired in 2002. His time here had marked a significant expansion of the kinds of answers to the existential question “Who am I? that the congregation encouraged. Religious pluralism was embraced. The congregation became a refuge for many who could not find a welcome elsewhere.
Unfortunately, his charisma was such that what was now the First Unitarian Church of Houston struggled to answer the question “What type of church do we want to become?” in his absence. The congregation resumed its old pattern of fighting with its ministers. Jose Ballester and Gail Lindsay Marriner lasted four years sharing the senior minister role before being forced to resign in 2008. The conflict around their ministry caused about half the congregation to leave.
Their tenure was followed by that of Daniel O’Connell’s. He tried to grow the congregation by establishing a multi-site ministry without first exploring the question “What type of church do we want to become?” with its members. He had a negotiated resignation in 2018.
Now, today, on our congregation’s 110th anniversary, First Unitarian Universalist is again growing. The congregation’s period of developmental ministry has allowed it to gain clarity on what kind of community it wants to become: a multiracial, multi-faith, multigenerational, and multicultural one located in the heart of the city. A place devoted to widening love’s circle where many answers to the question, “Who am I?” are encouraged. A society devoted to the prospect of social salvation–Quillen Shinn’s old belief that our purpose is to make this world a paradise for all.
This clarity has positioned First Unitarian Universalist, as it emerges from developmental ministry and prepares to call its next settled minister, to thrive in a way that it has not done in a long time. We have just finished a successful capital campaign. Sunday morning attendance is up 30% in the last twelve months. There is excitement about becoming the kind of congregation we want to be.
So, here is to another 110 years and to many adventures, and many questions and answers, along the way. Let us give thanks for all of our religious ancestors, named and unnamed, who have made this place what it is: a community of, as Emily Ladner said, of dreaming, truth seeking, laughter, joy, and justice.
That it might be so, I invite the congregation to say Amen.