Twice now a group of us gathered upstairs on a winter’s evening to tell one another the part of our history that we ourselves remember. The first time we gathered to tell this story our earliest recollections were back to the time of the great flood of 1972, but this past fall our telling of our memories began around the time of the purchase of this building. The minister at that time was Rev. Harry Thor. He had served as the minister of the Binghamton Church (1963-1980), and came to serve The Sheshequin church part time in his retirement. He served our congregation for 17 years from 1989-1996.
The story of this congregation in the 1990s can’t be told without Bob and Nell Allen. Both Bob and Nell were raised UU. He was an orthopedic surgeon at Guthrie, and served as president of this congregation for 15 years, and the Allens were a driving force in the purchase of this building. Bob and John McDonald build the chalice stain glass window using tiles from an old window. Don Riker commissioned the plaque below it. Perhaps you’ve noticed a crack in one pane. Bob said it was a “crack of humility.”
Bob was also a pilot, and when the plane he was flying crashed, killing him, the whole community was crushed. I’m told that his parking spot at the hospital was filled with flowers. Memorial services were held at Redeemer and at UUCAS. A year after his death the members of the congregation took a trip to the crash site to plant bulbs Imagine what a difficult time that must have been- to mourn the death of Bob Allen, longtime church pillar, just as our minister of 17 years retired.
After Harry Thor’s retirement a student minister, Janelle Curlin-Taylor came to be our intern. This was a tumultuous time for the church, and when Janelle left the church was in a time of conflict.
We entered a period with no paid minister, and strong lay leaders emerged. Nell Allen served as president and church administrator for man y years. In 1999 we started the “Earth Day Fair” in our parking lot to bring the values of sustainability to the larger community, which became an annual event.
Lee Richards, a student minister, served this congregation from 1999 to 2002. During this time our nursery was a lively, welcome place, Lee mentioned once from the pulpit “the sound of a happy child” in the nursery. When the Sayre and Keystone theaters had declined to host the Vagina Monologues, feeling it was too controversial, We were also proud to bring the Vagina Monologues to UUCAS. All of the participants actively promoted the events and sold tickets to friends. We were sold out and used the social room for overflows. Over 110 attended. The director, Barbara Coyle, and cast received a standing ovation. We were afraid of backlash from protestors and requested protection from the Athens Police Dept. They were stationed outside. Fortunately, we did not have any protestors.
In 2002 Lee declined to renew his contract after his third year. Conflicts lingered in the congregation.
During all these ups and downs we have had the incredible good luck of having dedicated, talented keyboard players at this church. Even when ministers came and went, we had a familiar face at the keyboard leading us in music. Marion Jones played from 1973 until 2002 when Katie Replogle took over, and Katie has been our church pianist ever since.
In January 2003 we hired Rev. Justin (Jace) Kahn, a trained Interim minister, who brought a great deal of healing to the church. Our ties to the district and to the UUA were strengthened. We became a fair share congregation and a leading giver to the UUSC. In 2003 we made Rev. John Trowbridge (who served this church for 21 years! from 1964-1985) our Minister Emeritus. By the time Jace completed his 2 year interim ministry, we were in a much stronger, healthier place.
In 2005 the church was delighted to call The Rev. Ann Marie Alderman to be our first settled minister since Harry Thor. She encouraged us become a “Welcoming Congregation” by to do the inner and outer work necessary to truly welcome the GLBT community. For a couple of our members this was too much of a challenge, and a few folks left, but for the majority who stayed, this was a powerful transformation and “welcoming congregation” became an important part of our sense of identity.
When Ann Marie told us she had accepted a full time position at another church, there was great sadness. We had worked so hard to bring her here, and had just gotten started in a healthy and energetic relationship. The time after her departure called on all the strength of our lay leaders. It was Genevieve and Marion who started calling this the “little church that could” and posted this moto in the social hall. IN 2007 we also brought the women’s a Capella Group Olympia’s daughters to perform. I don’t thing we PLANNED to do it in honor of Elaine Lovegreen’s birthday, but is sure was nice of them to sing to her.
During that year of lay leadership, I had been invited to preach once a month while you were in your search. When the church was not able to find a match through the search process, they asked me if I would come preach for another year, or maybe be a consulting minister. I said what I really wanted was to be your minister, to be called and settled. So even though I’d been preaching here for a year, we diligently followed the official process from start to finish with interviews and packets and finally a congregational vote to call me as your minister in 2008.
These past 7 years have been a busy time for us. After a yearlong congregation wide process to discern a way to reach out to the larger community, we decided on “Feed a Friend” where we would grow our own fresh organic produce to donate to local food banks. When Project Grow launched in 2011 under the leadership of Destiny Kinal, it was clear that the missions of the two initiatives were closely aligned, and we ended Feed a Friend, and put our energy into collaborating with and supporting Project Grow. In 2008 we also launched our first ever Coming of Age program in collaboration with the Big Flats fellowship, and offered a second collaborative program 2 years later.
When we first learned about Hydro-Fracking many of us were confused and puzzled by it, especially those of us who were being offered mineral leases. We held our first community forum on the topic which grew into the “Community Shale Network” hosting about a dozen forums over 4 years. We were proud to provide information to the community about this controversial topic without any rancor.
In 2011 a flood immobilized the Valley. The rains came down hard on Thursday, and by the time the streets were clear on Saturday we had to pass through a National Guard checkpoint on the way to the church to assess and repair the damage. Volunteers filled the parking lot sanitizing and drying the contents of our basement. Sunday we worshiped without power, without potable water. At coffee hour, Diane and Maggie wondered how we could be of more help to our neighbors. We held an emergency board meeting, and decided to open our building to folks who just needed to use a restroom, or a clean place to rest. The next day we began serving a hot lunch and all were welcome to join us in the social hall. Other volunteers delivered sandwiches to people who didn’t want to leave their work salvaging their homes or businesses. For weeks we fed and cared for our neighbors until the crowds died down, and our work helping repair the damage of the flood continued in other ways.
In 2014 you offered the first sabbatical this congregation had ever given a minister. During that time you showed you were still the “little church that could.” You taught a class on Ethics. You brought in a trainer from Dickenson College to teach you how do water testing to monitor our local creeks. And it was during this time that it became legal in Pennsylvania for same gender couples to marry. Our members received the 1st and 3rd licenses in the county, and celebrated these unions with great joy. Our building once again rings with the voices of children.
That leads us to today. This story which began many generations ago is ours to tell. What our founders called “the Universal Salvation of the human race from the bondage of sin and corruption.” We might say “We are Standing on the Side of Love” The love, that fire that has burned in the heart of this congregation for 200 years is ours to tend.