Sermon in Stone: A Message in Three Voices

Sermon in Stone: A Message in Three Voices

 A congregation is more about a people than it is about a place. There’s something wrong in our spiritual life when we see Unitarian Universalism as a thing to practice only here at 1911 Cliff Valley Way, underneath this roof, on Sunday, and when we drive away, we leave our Unitarian Universalist identity behind us.


That’s not right. A congregation is more about a people than a place.


And yet, we cannot deny that a place is deeply significant to a people. Place is important. Places gather people, places make certain experiences possible that couldn’t happen otherwise, places (through carefully-chosen architecture and aesthetics) make the invisible visible and tangible: the invisibles of spirit and values and commitments.


This house is a cradle for our dreams

the workshop of our common endeavor…


For 50 years now, that’s what’s been happening here at 1911 Cliff Valley Way in Atlanta, under this roof, in this space….


And to celebrate this, we want to tell stories. That’s what makes for the best of birthdays, anyway: stories shared lovingly, stories full of meaning.


I’ve asked architect and longtime member Bill Pulgram to share some related to beginnings: where we came from, how we got here, the nuts and bolts of all that. Following this, another longtime member, Nina West, will share stories of what it was like to actually grow up in this building.


I’ll be the caboose this morning and offer some final reflections.















SITE SELECTION           1963




FINANCE                         1963

Sell building

Fund Raising

Total Budget


Find location

10th Street School

Sunday setup and removal: Platform, Pulpit, Backdrop, Chairs, Art, Flowers,ect


Groundbreaking       Oct/Nov 1964

Completion              December 1965






In my earliest memories of this building I am with my family. I see this space through very young eyes. This is how it looks… I am standing in this sanctuary and it is mostly dark. Natural light illuminates this room from the openings at the apex and where there will eventually be doors. I see giant gray concrete steps where the pews will be. I want to climb them, want to have long legs to climb the pew steps. I see concrete walls not yet clad in brick. No carpet covers the real stairs, nothing to dampen sound so our voices echo a little as we speak.


By the time this building was being constructed my family had been a part of this congregation for about four years. Our family visited this site regularly to see the progress.


I can remember when the walls for the classrooms around the perimeter of the sanctuary were framed with wood two by fours and my siblings and I imagined we had superpowers and could melt through walls as we passed from room to room.


Out on the patio were steep stairs that went to the basement with no barriers to prevent our descent, nor doors at the bottom. At some point it rained and the lower level flooded but I, child that I was, only found that enchanting. I’d had some childhood fantasy of a home with a swimming pool inside and the flooded basement was the realization of that idea. I stood at the bottom step gazing at the water that may have been only inches deep and thought of how I would swim or at least wade in our church home pool. I gather adults at the time had a less romantic view of that feature.


Oddly, I have no specific recollection of the first Sunday we, as a community, began to live in this home. What I have instead are many memories of this place as the center of my family’s life and how the structure of this place has provided me with a symbol of inner life and outer life.


I have long believed that the architecture we occupy, and the geography of place shape us, help us become who we are as surely as our families and peers, impress themselves deeply on our psyches. An example… as a child, after RE classes, I would find myself walking the perimeter of the sanctuary. Back then the office wing and other changes hadn’t yet been made, so the building was a square containing a round sanctuary. In adulthood I learned the name of that form. A mandala, a geometric figure that at its most basic is a circle within a square. It symbolizes wholeness…unity. By growing up in this physical space, I was experiencing a mandala in the deepest of ways. I have walked probably hundreds of miles in this mandala and that symbol engraved itself in my mind and heart, helped me visualize what it is to be whole, to be complete.


This building, this mandala, is the container. And this congregation embodies all of the ideals that were a part of my religious education…I remember where in this place I first learned the story of the good Samaritan, learned about the tower of Babel, was introduced to the concept of situational ethics and the idea that there are not always simple solutions to problems; this is where I learned that adults in addition to my parents would listen to me, valued my thoughts. It is here that I was given some of my first opportunities in leadership. I grew up seeing all kinds of art on the walls of my congregational living room. I’ve shared food at Thanksgiving with people whose own families were far away, purchased gifts for my siblings and learned about giving. I also explored the natural world around this building, got to find out what it was like to have tadpoles nibble on my fingertip, looked at the stars while waiting for my parents to pick me up. And it was here, as a teen in the youth group, Liberal Religious Youth, that this building became most like my home. UUCA sometimes hosted youth conferences of teens from UU congregations all over the southeast. I’ve slept in the coat closets and in the halls as a teen, have cooked green spaghetti with my friends in the kitchen, have played with a parachute here in the sanctuary.


Essentially every significant part of my life—mostly good as well as a couple of painful things– began here.


I met my best friend here when I was 14, in the bathroom while washing our hands back when it was located there. We sat down on the floor and started talking, are still talking 44 years later. Here is where I met a boy who would introduce me to the man I married and with whom I have two children. This sanctuary is where my mom was ordained as a UU minister, where my husband and I got married, where my family and friends said our goodbyes to my father at his memorial service. I’ve watched my own daughters bridge here in this space after going through the Coming of Age program…I could tell you, for hours and in detail, about all the living and learning that has originated from this center of my life.


As an LRY teen, sometimes our youth conferences took place in other cities. We had an advisor who drove us to and from conferences in his bus. He would cue up a song when we returned so that as we drove down the access road we sang together “Our house, is a very very very fine house…”


This building is home, and the congregation is my larger family, this living mandala, symbol of wholeness.






Let’s give a big round of applause to Bill and Nina for their wonderful reflections…..




Bill and Nina are voices of the people who moved into this new space and made a new start all those years ago. They were seekers. Coming into this space, they carried with them the sorrows and joys of their time—like race riots and assassinations juxtaposed with The Beatles and “the twist” and grainy images of the surface of Mars—and sought meaning in them, sought ways to heal the injustice and to amplify the joy and to stay courageous in a constantly changing world.


We are exactly alike, 50 years later. We carry our own joys and sorrows into this space as well, and we seek the same things they sought.


Just listen to some of the joys and sorrows of our time, selected from this past year alone:


Water is discovered on Mars


Way too much water in the Midwest, and terrible flooding; Texas tornadoes; and generally unprecedented weirdness in our winter weather. Atlanta’s warmest Christmas Day ever, at 75 degrees….


The devastating 7.3 magnitude earthquake in Nepal


Cecil the Lion killed by an American dentist


The Paris Climate Conference, which resulted in the landmark Paris Agreement featuring a commitment to limit the temperature increase to less than 2 degrees Celsius.


Pope Francis in America and Africa


The refugee crisis—Europe’s biggest since World War II


Love wins: the Supreme Court declares same-sex marriage legal


A new era in late night TV: Stephen Colbert takes over from David Letterman, and Trevor Noah takes over from Jon Stewart


Mass shootings in the U.S.: Charleston, Chattanooga, Roseburg, Colorado Springs, San Bernardino.


The Black Lives Matter movement to curb police violence. Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Laquan McDonald. Most recently, a Cleveland grand jury declined to bring charges in the death of Tamir Rice, a black youth with a toy gun who was shot by a white police officer 13 months ago. Campus unrest, principally at the University of Missouri and the stand the football team took in refusing to play, a stand that led to the resignation of the college president.


The new Star Wars: “The Force Awakens”


Donald Trump. A billionaire demagogue who proudly and openly stokes racial and religious fears. Still going strong in the polls.


Caitlyn Jenner. Record interest in the transgender community.


Adele. Google says that, of all the internet searches that took place last year, searches for Adele rank at number 2 with 439 million. The most basic info people wanted to know: “When does Adele’s album come out?”


And number one, according to Google? Paris under attack, at 897 million searches. The Nov. 13 attack that killed 130 people was the deadliest event on French soil since World War II.


What does it feel like for you to hear this list? Joy and woe woven fine, as William Blake says. So much that is interesting and inspiring. So much that hurts to hear and creates worry about what happens next, what the future will bring….


And we know that I could go on and on. I’m not even touching the more private joys and sorrows from the past year that each of us carries into this space this morning…


But as in the past, so in our future. Together, we are more than any one person could be. For 50 years, this place has gathered us, and it gathers us today. The light of our collective flame


For 50 years, this place has made all sorts of experiences possible hat couldn’t have happened otherwise, enabling us to discover the good and the true and the right, and the experiences continue. Our tradition of seeking


For 50 years, this place has been a haven for all who thirst for compassion and all who are afraid and need encouragement, and it still is. Inviting all who yearn for acceptance


For 50 years, this place has made the invisible visible and tangible: our spirit, our values, our commitments. A “living mandala,” as Nina said. It’s still happening. Igniting our passion for justice and peace.


How wonderful, feeling the fullness of our days, to be able to come here and feel renewed by Beloved Community. This is our stone soup miracle.


How wonderful, to have a place to call home.