What it Means to Move

Some people are calling what happened this past Tuesday Snow Jam 2014, which to them brings back memories of a similar debacle back in 1982. Others are calling it Snowmaggedon or Snowpocalypse.

All I know is that, during the nine hours it took me to travel from work to home in my apartment off of Peachtree Dunwoody, near Perimeter Mall, I had loads of opportunity to reflect on themes that, later on, struck me as surprisingly relevant to my sermon this morning.

One of those themes was home. How I just wanted to go. How I just wanted to be there, be warm, be safe. Bathrooms are beautiful things.

Another theme was community. The bonding that comes only through common experience and struggle. How I feel more connected to Atlanta and to all of you than I did before Tuesday, and maybe you feel the same way too.

Then the third theme: change. When to hold ‘em, and when to fold ‘em. After eight hours in the car, going at a snail’s pace, I found myself three miles away from home and in an area where I could safely park my car. Should I keep driving, or should I park and walk? Part of me wanted to just keep driving, and later I learned this part was expressive of a universal human tendency psychologists call the “sunk-cost fallacy” according to which we invest huge amounts of effort to redeem things that are simply not redeemable. Lemon cars, money-pit houses, going-nowhere relationships, Snow Jam gridlock. We just don’t want to give up. A part of me did NOT want to stop. But in the end I did. I just couldn’t do it anymore, and I was lucky (unlike too many others) to be in a place where I COULD give up. (As a side note, let me say that, on my walk home along the icy sidewalks, I fell four times. Some figure skater I am. The fourth and last time happened 30 seconds after I passed a fellow walker. I had just called out to him, “Be safe!” So it goes.)

Home, community, change. Snowpocalypse brought these themes up for me, and so is something that is happening right now as we speak: the move of our Unitarian Universalist headquarters, from its historic site at 25 Beacon Street in Boston (our most famous address) to 24 Farnsworth Street in that city’s “Innovation District.” Some people think it’s high time we did this; others see it as just as bad as Snowmaggedon. But it’s happening—there’s no going back—and if you were here this past December, you heard the President of the Unitarian Universalism Association himself, the Rev. Peter Morales, speaking about it from this pulpit. This is what I want to explore, for the next few moments: this move, what it means. It’s important and fascinating in its own right, but it also gives us here at UUCA an opportunity to reflect on where we are with our own building and the address which is most famous to us: 1911 Cliff Valley Way.

25 Beacon Street in Boston.

Actually, did you know that there was another 25 Beacon Street before the current one? Check this out. When the precursor of the Unitarian Universalist Association (or UUA for short) moved into the first 25 Beacon Street headquarters in 1886, it was on the other side of the Massachusetts State House. When they moved the headquarters 41 years later in 1927 they had enough political pull with the state legislature that a bill was passed to allow them to take their address with them. Note the kind of power this suggests. Remarkable. But with everything there’s unexpected side effects. My colleague the Rev. John Marsh notes, with a smile no doubt, that this ended up “confusing people looking for nearby buildings for generations to follow.” He goes on to say that “It’s being out of normal numerical sequence added to its allure as a portal into the extraordinary, like Platform 9 and ¾ in Harry Potter’s Wizarding World.”

Fact is, for what seems like forever, 25 Beacon Street has been much more than an office building. It’s been our portal into the extraordinary world of our Unitarian Universalist history, the “destination of religious pilgrimages and the repository for holy relics including the writing desk of Thomas Starr King and a lock of hair of William Ellery Channing’s.” “Who knows,” asks the Rev. Marsh, “Perhaps now that it is going to be thoroughly cleaned out, maybe we’ll find the brain of Theodore Parker.” (Parker was one of our most brilliant ministers, and his brain was preserved for posterity to examine, but it went missing in the 1880s. Finding lost things is definitely one of the benefits of moving.)

“It’s as close to mecca as we’re going to have,” says UUA past president the Rev. Bill Sinkford. And, says another past president, the Rev. John Buehrens, don’t forget how its strategic position at the right hand of the Massachusetts State House is symbolically invaluable. “Twenty-five Beacon comes right out of our tradition of being opposite town hall,” he says. “Its very presence is a constant education in what our historic mission is.”

I just cannot underscore how important this symbolic home for Unitarian Universalism is. And therefore how traumatic the very idea of moving, of giving up our version Platform 9 and 3/4s. The controversy surrounding it, which continues even as the move is happening! “This is completely unacceptable,” says one Unitarian Universalist. Another says, “When can we elect a new President and Board of Trustees? This is a huge step that cannot be undone.” But it’s not just regular UU voices that are protesting. When the Rev. John Buehrens (remember? one of our past UUA presidents?) heard about the relocation plan, he said that he wanted to chain himself to the front door to prevent it from happening. That’s what he wanted to do!

Because what we are talking about is not “just” bricks and mortar. It’s never “just” a building. It’s HOME. The “cradle for our dreams, the workshop of our common endeavor.” All the important times of our lives played out under one roof. Community bonding that comes only through common experience and struggle.

When bricks and mortar are the topic, what you always have is the coming together of mission and money. Mission is about why we exist and what it’s all for. Money is about where our hearts are, what we are willing to put our life energies into. Conversations which are serious and focused about staying or renovating or moving or some other option bring mission and money together and therefore they are among the most engaging and intense conversations we can ever have. They reveal so much.

One thing revealed in the UUA’s move from 25 Beacon Street to 24 Farnsworth Street is that even in the friendliest of circles, there can be disagreement. And that even where there is disagreement among our most authoritative voices (between past and present UUA presidents!), there can still be forward motion. Disagreement is not necessarily a sign of failure; and it does not have to put a halt to change.

Definitely the major thing revealed in the conversations surrounding the UUA’s move to 24 Farnsworth Street in Boston’s Innovation District is the principle that mission trumps building. Being alive as a faith community (one way of stating the mission!) is analogous to what it means for any organism to be alive: being responsive to the environment around it. To be alive—to position ourselves for aliveness in our future—means that our buildings must reflect responsiveness to the changing needs of our society. They can’t stay just stay the same. That’s not being alive. That’s being dead.

Life and death is what the Rev. Morales and the UUA Board have been focusing on. How to be responsive to an environment that needs us to be as eco-friendly and energy efficient as possible. How to be responsive to an environment that threatens with extinction any institution that can’t keep up with technological change. How to be responsive to an environment that is no longer willing to tolerate buildings inaccessible to people who are differently-abled. How to be responsive to an environment in which we are seeing a flight from religion that has no historical precedent. In short: how to be alive and stay alive!

Let me say a few words about that last part. The flight from religion part. “[In the past 15 years,] says political science professor Tobin Grant, “religiosity in the United States has been in the midst of what might be called ‘The Great Decline.” People are leaving in droves; people are not joining. 33% of folks call themselves “Nones” when you ask them what their religious affiliation is. This is not because people are all of a sudden no longer interested in spirituality. Far from it. How to love, how to find meaning, how to heal: all these things continue to be as important as they ever were. The only question is, to what degree are religions these days being effective in reaching out, in responding to the reality of the average 21st century person? So much of what happens in religious community is about getting swept up in the business of maintaining past forms and patterns. If such forms and patterns are still a fit with what’s happening in the larger environment, then great! But if they are no longer a fit—people leave. What “The Great Decline” suggests, to my mind, is that we are investing huge amounts of effort to maintain the status quo when the time for the status quo is long past. It’s another example of the “sunk-cost fallacy” at work.

Things are changing. America is becoming the loneliest culture on earth; people are hungry for connection. As Unitarian Universalists, our competition is not really other religions but an American culture of sick disconnection in which you can soothe yourself through watching TV or surfing the Internet or doing some shopping therapy or buying a new car; and in this way you can stay afloat another day even though it never stops feeling like you are about to drown. Where is the search for meaning and truth here? Where is the finding? We’ve got to be the ones who lend a hand, throw out a lifeline, assist all the people out there struggling in their own version of Snowpocalypse. In the face of this need, we simply cannot remain passive, insert.

We have to be alive. It’s our mission. That’s why the UUA is moving from 25 Beacon Street to 24 Farnsworth Street. It would take millions to make 25 Beacon Street truly energy efficient, accessible, and technologically up-to-date. But even more concerning is how to change the basic configuration of that archaic space which tends to separate people and silo them off. What they want instead is space which facilitates truly creative and collaborate working relationships. Our UUA staffers need space that will help them think outside-the-box so that we can be an outside-the-box faith in a time that demands no less.

“I love all the memories and get sentimental thinking about them,” says UUA Executive Vice President Kay Montgomery, “But you know what? It’s time to move on. That belief didn’t come easily or quickly to me but I grew into it with certainty. We need a different kind of space that fits the time we find ourselves in. We need to unburden ourselves of buildings that are about the past and not about the present and the future. So we’ll take our memories with us as we move on—no one and no building can take them away. They’re ours. They’ll always be ours. Now it’s time to move to a new, fresh, innovative space and create new memories.”

And that’s the news from headquarters in Boston.

News that speaks to our news here in Atlanta.

News, Rev. Makar? What news?

Well, I have no major announcements for you this Superbowl Sunday morning. But I do have a story to share about our own building—1911 Cliff Valley Way—which parallels the story we’ve already heard in some intriguing ways. How the building is a kind of mecca for us, a repository of holy relics and memories. How, in an ongoing way, we’ve been in discernment about the degree to which it reflects responsiveness to need and therefore the aliveness of this faith community.

This is our fifth building since the congregation’s initial founding in 1883, and the first service here was held January 2, 1966. For the first two years, the building had no air conditioning. Yes, that’s right. But that did not stop this congregation from growing. They went from 300 members to 900 in three years! UUCA is our denomination’s very first large congregation. It all happened right here. Relics like the letters from Dr. King and Coretta Scott King on our walls. Everything….

“Architecture Suggests Search for Truth,” screams the headline from a 1969 article in an Atlanta newspaper called The Neighbor. “The 75×75 square sanctuary of the Unitarian-Universalist Congregation at 1911 Cliff Valley Way nestles in a striking sand-colored brick building with a dome roof commanding attention from the Northeast Expressway. […] The Rev. Eugene Pickett, who heads the church, has watched his congregation grow from 300 in 1966 to its present 900 members. […[ Use of the circle and the square, basic forms, symbolically suggests the basic search for truth,’ Pickett explained. ‘The circle of seating is an inclusive symbol in which the minister becomes a part of the congregation. We needed a sanctuary that would encourage the physical dialogue that takes place each Sunday following the sermon where members could not only see the minister but also see each other.”

What? Wait… Physical dialogue following the sermon? That’s right. Back in 1966, the tradition of this congregation was, immediately following the sermon, to invite questions and comments from its hearers. You guys. A radical practice that a traditional sanctuary space, with all the pews facing forward and the preacher is at the front, works against. In his later years, the Rev. Pickett would have this to say: “In those days, the ‘talkback’ lasted almost as long as the service itself… After my first few Sundays, I decided that the talkback would have to go. It was not a showcase for my talents. But I was naïve in the ways of congregations. When I left, the talkback was still there!” Now I am not aware of the exact history of how the talkback in our worship faded away (wonder what it would be like to try it again, just for fun) but what remains is still wonderful. The circle of our coming together, circle of community and belonging. I the minister not set apart but belonging as well, as one part of an unbroken communion. The very architecture of this building telegraphs this vision instantaneously. How space is structured makes all the difference. It works for you, or against you.

Now since 1981, as far as I know, there have been several serious, congregation-authorized investigations into the question of whether and to what degree 1911 Cliff Valley Way has been working for us or against us. In 1981, the “Ad Hoc Building Committee” determined that expansion of the building was needed, they developed a plan, but in the end, only minor changes resulted. In 1987, the “Building Concepts Committee” picked up where the previous group had left off and affirmed its conviction that “within 2 or 3 years a decision be made as to the desirability of the current site and whether there is a need to expand the building or move.” The 1987 group recommended staying with 1911 Cliff Valley Way but expanding it. They saw a building that was extremely inaccessible, “insufficient rooms of all kind,” and “unsuitability of the basement for its current uses.” “Problems of the existing site which we cannot resolve,” they said, include lack of public transportation to our site, as well as the steep slope of the sanctuary aisles. This group had momentum, but then the Senior Minister at the time, the Rev. Terry Sweetser, resigned and “threw the congregation into a major upheaval” which led to the work of this group being abandoned.

This latter statement comes from the work of the 1993 “Building Resources Planning Committee,” which, six years later, picked up the baton to what was becoming a marathon discernment process regarding 1911 Cliff Valley Way’s degree of aliveness. It just takes time. The bricks and mortar conversation can just take time. The 1993 group found “a wealth of pent up demand for change” but, when they took a formal congregational poll, only 53% of respondents were in favor of expanding on the existing building. 33% disagreed, some or even many of which might have felt that a complete move was a better choice. One congregant, for example, echoed what we heard the Rev. John Buehrens say earlier, about the need for our buildings to be publicly visible and close to where the action is. 1911 Cliff Valley Way, said this congregant, is nowhere; its location does not telegraph the value of social justice and community development. Expansion doesn’t solve this problem, but a move would.

I should add that the 1993 group is the first one to declare, on record, as far as I know, that we need to make our building energy efficient. In the end, given the lack of consensus in the congregation, the recommendation was to make minor building improvements on the basis of frugal financial management principles.

In other words, do what you can on a shoestring budget. In 1993 the money was not there, because we were still getting clear on the mission and what the mission was calling us to be. But it all came together by 2002. Mission and money would come together in the form of a three million dollar capital campaign that led to the complete renovation of this space. That money made this building a paragon of energy efficiency and eco-friendliness. That money made the building far more accessible. That money increased usable spaces. It took us 36 years to get there, but we got there. (A quick side note: you know all the spots on the carpets? Not pretty. But from now on, I invite you to see them with pride. Back in the time of the renovation, these carpets were top-of-the-line, made of recycled materials. We wanted to be eco-friendly in everything. But as we eventually found out, our wonderful top-of-the-line carpets attracted and held stains like crazy. But it happened because we chose to take a risk. We need new carpets, of course, but while the old ones are still around, let’s look upon them with less frustration and more pride.)

It’s been a marathon—the bricks and mortar conversation. There at UUA headquarters in Boston, and here in Atlanta. And I know this sermon feels like a marathon too, but bear with me just a bit longer.

Because our bricks and mortar conversation is not over. We’ve been here at 1911 Cliff Valley Way for 48 years now, and it’s been 12 years since the renovation. Lots has changed. Remember that 1969 article from The Neighbor? “The 75×75 square sanctuary of the Unitarian-Universalist Congregation at 1911 Cliff Valley Way nestles in a striking sand-colored brick building with a dome roof commanding attention from the Northeast Expressway.” Uh uh, not anymore. Not since the overpass was built. People can’t see us unless they are already at our front door.

People also have a hard time finding us. For one thing, the main entrance to the parking lot is off of the I-85 access road, not Cliff Valley Way. And when you plug “1911 Cliff Valley Way” into a GPS system, you don’t end up here. We’ve been working on this for years. Calling the Google map folks and the GPS folks, with mixed results. Best thing to do is enter the address 1597 Northeast Expressway, but I am told that even that, at times, doesn’t do the trick.

And then there’s this. Several years back, the Cliff Valley Office folks decided that they would no longer allow us to use their parking lot during the weekdays. Only on Sundays. Why? As best as I understand, it’s because we believe in women’s reproductive rights and the owners of the office complex do not. Our values and our politics differ. They found reasons for why our use of their parking was too much of an insurance risk. So: our very limited parking capacity was reduced even further.

See what I’m getting at? Changes in the larger world, and we must be responsive to them in order to demonstrate our aliveness. 33% of America declare themselves as Nones, and let me tell you, they are not going to be interested if finding us—physically coming here—is as hard as threading a needle or navigating a maze. Put theology aside: the issue is far more practical and simple. If we’re hard to get to, people won’t show up. I don’t care how awesome the programming is once they get here. It’s just the way things are.

The issue continues to be accessibility and user-friendliness. The 1987 Building Concepts Committee acknowledged how the steep slope of the steps of this beloved sanctuary is not resolvable, but is that really true? The architecture of this space is so distinctive and memorable, but is this sufficient reason to stay with it no matter what? Even if it blatantly defies the accessibility vision that says that everyone should be able to find a seat with ease, no matter what the age or ability?

I’m so way overtime, I know it, but this is important! Don’t even get me started on the basement and what it says about how we value our children. The issues are huge, and it’s time for us to engage them again seriously. We need a deliberate, transparent, congregation-authorized investigation into the question of what kind of space we need to fulfill our mission. Is that space this one, modified, or does it need to be something completely different, somewhere else? We need answers. (And no worries about the Senior Minister leaving and disrupting the whole process, like what happened back in 1987. I’m not planning on going anywhere.)

It’s a pivotal time for us. There’s been a Great Decline in religion in the larger American world in the past 15 years, and most recently, here at UUCA, we’ve seen a 5% decrease in pledge income. Changes are happening in our world, and we cannot rest on our laurels, we cannot rest on the fact that, 45 years ago, we were the first large congregation in the UUA. We cannot rest, we cannot stand still, we must flow, we must move. Because our faith changes lives. We are here because we know this. There’s a snowpocalypse out there in American culture—a gridlock of loneliness and suffering—and we have water to give and warmth to share, and if we do not share it, well then, that is despicable. We must be better than that. We must do what it takes to be alive and position ourselves for aliveness in our future.

We have to be sure our building is working for us. This place is “a cradle for our dreams, a workshop of our common endeavor.” It is home. We love it and I love it. But remember this: it’s our fifth home, not the first, and it need not be the last. We the people are the congregation, not the building. Mission trumps building.

UUA headquarters is moving into the Innovation District. It is time for us here in Atlanta to follow their lead and do the same.