Universalist Society of Albany
"Breaking New Ground"
Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore January 6, 2002
I've been rereading the history book created for our sesquicentennial in 1992, and the one written by Mildred Guffin's father chronicling the first hundred years of our society's history this week. I've been looking for antecedents for what I see happening in our congregation right now. On December 9th, we voted to direct our architect to draw up plans for a new sanctuary. This idea, originally considered during the first attempt at expansion seven years ago, resurfaced for consideration, in a scaled down format, finding new support this time around. Watching our building expansion process unfold this fall and observing my own responses to it has me feeling something new and different is emerging out of us at this time. We are beginning to break some new ground that can initiate a new sense of congregational identity. I'd like to take some time this morning to begin to put some words around what I see happening and I'm very interested to hear if you are seeing the same thing.
The decision to build a new sanctuary is a bold move because so much of our emotional identity is framed by these walls and windows, this barrel vault ceiling, the pews, the positioning of the doors, the size and placement of the pulpit, the location of the choir, etc. The long-term members of our society have many memories of this space that have touched their lives. Children who were dedicated and later married on this platform; Relatives who were memorialized from this pulpit; Stirring, inspiring, moving, interesting, irritating and angering sermons preached from this pulpit; Musical performances on our organ, piano, and other instruments, choir performances, children playing their first time before an audience; Political meetings, professors sharing their knowledge, unusual services; so much has happened here in this room.
Yet for all the memories it holds, it also limits us. Beautiful as the pews are, they do not facilitate efficient seating. As long as this sanctuary is less than two thirds full, space to sit is usually easy to find. But the fuller it gets, the less comfortable people are. They are forced to surrender personal space as they are crowded closer together, butt to butt as John Sherman is fond of saying. That's okay with one's partner or children or friends, but much less okay with those you don't know and worse yet with those you don't like. It can be particularly uncomfortable for visitors to our congregation to be forced into the armpits of strangers.
To maximize seating, we have one aisle down the center here. The lack of two side aisles makes it difficult for people to get in and out, particularly parents with small children. A parent may have to crawl in and out three times if they take their little ones to their classes and then return for the remainder of the service.
Pews are a particularly limiting seating arrangement. In the congregation I served in Florida, we had movable seating which had its good and bad sides. The bad side was trying to keep them neatly arranged. The good side was the flexibility it allowed to set up the room in different configurations for different purposes. And when the room was fairly full, it was easy to find the seats that were available. There was no question as to whether another person could fit in that row or not, or whether or not those already in the row would permit themselves to be squeezed in.
One of the popular arrangements for my services was having the chairs arranged in a semi-circle, allowing people to see each other's faces, particularly during Joys and Concerns. There is something about our way of doing religion that dislikes orderly rows. Our theology is not straight, it curves to accommodate individual understanding. Our congregations are not regular and orderly, lining up neatly for anything. The circle rather than the line has much broader appeal for us.
Unfortunately, ordered rows are the most efficient way to pack people into a small space and even packed cheek to cheek, we still need to add more seating capacity to this room for everyone to have a place to sit. Neither reversing the sanctuary, adding a balcony nor expanding the seating into Channing Hall will give us enough satisfactory seating for everyone on our busiest Sundays of the last few years. Facing this reality and acting takes courage, vision and inspiration.
Acting with courage and vision certainly has been an important part of the heritage of this society. The early years of our congregational life were fraught with hardship and financial difficulty we have been able to surmount.
How this sanctuary came to be is an interesting part of our congregational history. Before we moved to this site, we were located at a building on Lancaster Street. That property was bought at the time we were served by the charismatic William Brundage who helped bring us back to life in 1895 after a twenty year hiatus. He was a local minister whose liberalism caused him trouble at Trinity Methodist Church over on Lark Street. The Lancaster Street church served well the thriving congregation under Brundage's guidance, many of them former Methodists. But when he left to fill a pulpit in Brooklyn in 1905, the ministers who followed him were not able to draw as many people. Many felt the physical location of the church was part of the problem of attracting new members.
In December of 1912, an agreement was struck with the American Unitarian Association to purchase the land underneath this room and hold it in escrow for us. Getting such support from the AUA was not an unusual circumstance. We had been either borrowing money or getting outright grants to support our minister's salaries after Brundage left. I don't think the AUA had a lot of confidence in us because they added a number of conditions to the acquisition of this property. There were four key requirements to the deal:
When we finally did find a buyer for the Lancaster Street property, a Greek Orthodox church, eleven years later in 1923, we focused our attention on what could be built on this corner. Architects Ames of Boston submitted plans to our Board and costs of $63,000 to $84,000 were tendered. That's equivalent in today's dollars to 670 to 870 thousand dollars. The congregation felt they had no ability to raise that kind of money so they looked for other sites. There was an attractive property on the corner of Englewood and State streets called Sprague Chapel that was considered. The Secretary of the AUA persuaded the Board not to investigate Sprague Chapel and continue looking at this property and recommended building a new and attractive church "even though small" right here. Another property considered was the Steefel house on the corner Madison and Lake. An offer to sell the Washington and Robin site for $20,000 had been received and this stimulated a movement to sell this property and use the money to build on the Steefel property. The AUA refused to go along with this idea. As they held the title to this land, there was much gnashing of teeth by our members. To get us to build on this space, the AUA allowed us to take a $10,000 mortgage from them against our property to help us raise funds to build a scaled down version of the original plans. This moved the Board to finally act.
So you see, this location and this sanctuary design was, in effect, dictated to us by the American Unitarian Association.
The building of our RE wing also has an interesting history. The Baby Boom brought many families to our doors looking for religious education for their children in the late fifties. Rev. James Madison Barr came to serve this congregation in 1956. At the same time, his wife, Margot, became our first paid, professional Director of Religious Education. The next five years saw our church school enrollment go from 48 to 166 children. Just imagine trying to teach RE to that many children in Channing Hall!
Of course we had to use other space. The congregation had acquired 379 Washington Avenue as a parsonage for the Barrs who graciously offered its use as classroom space. The house next door was available and bought for classroom space as well. The Cerebral Palsy Center at the Albany Medical Center was also rented for Sunday classes. Before our RE wing was built, parents had four different places to drop off and pick up their children on Sunday morning!
Three houses were bought and torn down to build our RE wing for $194,000 dollars, financed with 147,000 in loans. That's a 1.2 million project in today's dollars for which the congregation initially paid 300,000 dollars. Rev. Barr accepted a call to another congregation even before the building was complete and left poor Nick Cardell, his successor in this pulpit, figuring out how to pay for it.
Fast forward to today. Our congregation is probably in the best financial health of the last 160 years of its existence. We are debt free and have about 200,000 or so in our endowment. We are in an excellent position to break new ground and build what we want to build rather than be constrained by what we must build by the AUA or by hordes of children.
When I was called to serve you as your minister in 1999, I thought we'd be thinking about building expansion in maybe the fifth or sixth year of my ministry. The decision to purchase 415 Washington Ave. at the end of the first year of my ministry took me a little by surprise. We closed on that purchase just a year ago. Then we surveyed our membership about what kind of expansion they favored and got a varied mixture of ideas. The Architecture Committee set to work last summer to translate these different desires into blueprints. Dan Sekellick did a masterful job of responding creatively to just about every suggestion by modifying the original plans by our previous architect, David Sadowsky. I remember looking at Dan's updated plans and being so pleased that he had been able to respond to every want and whim from the survey.
But not everyone was satisfied. Terry Way read the survey differently, highlighting the need for using as much space as possible for a social hall and a kitchen. Two aspects of his proposal stimulated people's imagination. The first was the picture he drew of that social hall being used for a Sunday service. The second was the number 300 to describe its potential seating capacity. The picture and the number started new conversations and ideas moving in and through the members and friends of our congregation. Thankfully, the process designed by Dave Munro and Tom Mercer's committee allowed public time and space for those conversations to happen and provide the ferment for creativity. Time and space for more new ideas to emerge. Time and space for the Spirit to move through us.
Heidi Newberg is currently the latest catalyst of that energy when she started advocating we consider building a minimum 300 seat sanctuary. Suddenly, an idea that had been advocated and rejected in the first go around, had new life and energy. She moved people, I think, partly because she is persuasive person, but mostly I think because she was skillfully articulating a vision emerging in our congregation.
Three points Heidi brought up moved me. First, she told me their family hadn't attended my installation because they felt there wouldn't be enough room for them. At the most basic level, we have an obligation to provide a seat for everyone who is a member of our society to attend our services. And if we do not make enough room for visitors and friends to attend too, our congregation will shrink in size and capacity to serve us.
Her second point was to challenge me to think about whether this space, beautiful as it is, really allows us to create the services we want. She got me thinking outside the box, so to speak. Our first Soulful Sundown services revealed how the lack of side aisles limits people's movement as part of a service, enforcing a separation of platform and pew. When we removed the pews two summers ago (for our renovation), I stood in middle of the empty sanctuary next to the wall over here wondering if there might be some way to rearrange the placement of the pews so I could be closer to people when I preach. Right now, I'm far enough away from those in the back rows, I can barely make out their faces. We could actually rearrange the pews but unfortunately we'd reduce the seating capacity.
Her last point for me was the most salient because it is the failing of many church expansion projects. She was emphatic about doing whatever we do right the first time so people will feel confident they will not face another building campaign in five or ten years. About eighty years ago we stretched and scratched to put together this edifice and forty years ago we built the religious education and administrative wing. It would be very wise to build for the next 40 years in the life of this congregation.
While Heidi organized and communicated these ideas effectively, again, my sense is that they are a skillful synthesis of our ongoing dialogue about what we all want. If we can figure out a way to fold an expanded social hall and a new kitchen into the plans we'd be home free. Tomorrow night we'll begin exploring what is possible with the help of our architect.
There is no question we have one heck of a challenge shoehorning all our desires into the tiny footprint available here. But the more we talk, and the more we listen, the more likely the spirit of creativity will find a way to move from possibility to reality the vast majority of us can feel good about and support. Let us keep an open mind as we move forward, trusting that together we can see this through and build a solid foundation for a bright future for this community.
Copyright © 2002 by Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore. All rights reserved.