Honoring Our Elders
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Have you ever built something? Have you ever worked with other people to create something new? Last week at the 24-hour Spirituality Retreat we began two communal art projects on Friday evening which lasted through until Saturday evening. One project was a collage, or rather a series of collages. We cut out pictures and words, pasting them onto three large boards with the loosely defined goal of creating communal artwork. The other project was a Sand Mandela or Sand Art picture. Using various bold-colored sands and beans along with small shells, pasta wheels, and little plastic lizards – we built layer upon layer of designs. The big lesson for these two communal art projects centered on the shared nature of the project: one could not get too attached to anything in the collage or on the sand design because it could be changed, altered, overlaid, or amended by the next person. The big lesson was in making your contribution and letting go of the results. Have you ever taken part in a project like that? Have you ever been responsible to create something which others would finish – and likely finish it in ways you had not foreseen as possible let alone desirable? Have you ever taken part in a project like that? Of course you have! You are a part of this church, are you not? Our congregation is like a shared work of art in which each contributes.
Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, “Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetimes; therefore we are saved by hope. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished along.” Ours is a communal project. This congregation is as a work of art upon which each person pastes a new picture to fit among those already present. We each add a layer of color or texture to what has come before. This is what is meant by the phrase “the living tradition.” Our current hymnal is titled Singing the Living Tradition. It is meant to suggest an ongoing spirit to our community which “reveres the past, but trusts the dawning future more.” So this morning I take a moment to revere the past. To peel back a few layers to see what the project looked like during an earlier incarnation.
This is our Auction award sermon. Susie Ravage outbid everyone else during the Service Auction last year to win the chance to select the sermon topic. You still have a chance at the same honor for the coming year if you wish; the sermon topic is cast as “A Sermon Topic and Lunch with the Minister” in our Dining for Dollars fundraising event going on in our social hall this and next week. But Susie won it last year and Susie wanted to hear about the people who built this church, the people who were here when this current building went up. She wanted to honor those individuals in particular, but also in general to honor all the folks who have put in their time, who provided their share, who did their work when it was their turn and now are taking their ease or bearing their age as gracefully as they may while these young whippersnappers come along and pour new sand over their designs or paste new pictures and words overlapping the previous things. And so we take a moment to recognize and honor our elders.
The congregation held the open house for this building on a Sunday in November, 1958 – and it felt like the beginning. There are few among us who can recount the experiences preceding our time in this current building. The congregation, however, was already one hundred twenty three years old by the time we moved in. Allow me, please a brief digression, for it will help frame what comes next.
In 1835 the first organization of Universalists met and began forming a church society. On April 17th, 1843 they met for the first time in the Court House and were incorporated as the First Universalist Society. Almost a year later they purchased a lot on what is now the Court House Square. This location served them until the 1968 fire at which point there appears to have been no formal worship services held for the next twenty years. In 1889, however, the energy was revived and a small group of thirty or so Universalists responded to the call for reorganization. A few years later they purchased a lot on Exchange St and Congdon Pl. which, interestingly, was almost directly opposite the site of the original 1840’s church. Prior to purchasing this lot, the church had been offered a lot on the corner of Oak St. (near to where the current Binghamton High School now sits) but they declined on the grounds that it was too far out of town. Within 25 years they were kicking themselves for not taking the Oak St. lot. In 1929, the Binghamton Savings Bank offered to buy the land; thus the congregation left their second church home and migrated across the river to the old Smith Mansion at 131 Front Street.
From that time until they left the building in 1958, the little congregation grew and dreamed and struggled and experienced setback after setback. They labored through the Depression and the Second World War with disappointments and disagreements. At one point they considered merging with their next-door neighbors, the First Congregational Church which still sits on the corner of Front and Main today. Finally with the work of a few notable ministries, the congregation pulled itself toward the ambitious project of moving to a new location. In 1954, with the newly ordained Richard Woodman, the congregation chose a five-acre site on Riverside Drive leading all the way down to the Susquehanna River.
This history (the preceding two paragraphs) is described well in a little booklet written by a member of the congregation, Charla Hull, in 1966 called The History of Liberal Religion in Boome County. Charla was mentioned to me several times as I spoke with people over the past few weeks. Charla Hull was a powerful and well respected attorney. Her history booklet has a special note of thanks on the front cover to Mr. Lynn Smith, another character I was referred to a lot. Lynn Smith was a one of the deep pockets of the congregation – one of those folks who funded a great deal of activity and thus held considerable power and authority. Well, Charla and Lynn would go head to head at times. In looking through the records I could find over this past month, Mr. Smith and Ms. Hull were on the same committees over and over again. I can well imagine how these two powerful characters left such an impression on the institution. I regret not having the opportunity to talk with them.
There were, however, several folks I was able to talk with – not nearly enough people or all the people I could have talk with. I spoke with Velma Taft, Evalyn Seaver and Alda Kleske, as well as June and Roland Austin – although the Austins came after the church was built. I also spoke over the phone with Rev. Dick Woodman who served the church from 1954 to 1963. And indeed I also spoke over the phone with Lillian Gaffney. Lillian Gaffney has been a member of this congregation for a little over 68 years and holds the longest membership among us, having joined the congregation on April, 6th 1939. She remembers being a teenager over at the Smith Mansion on Front Street. The teens held dances in the carriage house behind the mansion. There was a catacomb in the basement where they had their Halloween party each year. Of course, she was quick to add, they had Sunday school classes too. Sunday school classes were before church; she and the other youth sang in the choir. She told me about wearing the black robes with white collars and sitting up front next to the minister facing the congregation. Ah, it was a different era! Lillian made a point of telling me about how wonderful the older women were with the young people. They always made her and her friends feel comfortable and welcome. This obvious carried Lillian forward, she described for me how she and Marilyn Gruber had kept the Children’s Religious Education program going after moving into the new building.
The ‘new’ building! This new building is nearly fifty years old now. The ‘new’ building was first occupied in the summer of 1958. The open house was held in November of 1958. The timing of this sermon topic from Susie is fortuitous! If not for my research to put together this sermon, I might have missed being able to plan for a fiftieth anniversary celebration. We’re all so excited with our own work in the congregation now, so wrapped up in today’s programs and plans that we might have missed the upcoming 50th anniversary of this building! Happily we now have all of next year to prepare for a celebration in November of 2008 to mark the occasion.
Indeed the first “official” gathering was not the November open house; it was a wedding in the summer of 1958 – the wedding of Janet Greenwood and Herbert Landow. The Landows and the Greenwoods were both prominent families in the congregation over the years. Herb and Janet have recently moved back to this area – rejoining the church. When I spoke with Dick Woodman about the event he told me that Herb and Janet specifically asked to be married in the new building and asked when it was likely to be ready for an event of this sort. Rev. Woodman told them it was scheduled to be usable by June of 1958, so they set their wedding for July. Well, construction schedules being what they are, Herb remembers painting the lounge, what we now call the Fireside room, the evening before the wedding. His father Bernie was a force to be reckoned with as he moved through the rooms over the preceding weeks, preparing and painting each of the rooms around the building.
Bernie Landow is also remembered for inventing and building along with Chuck Seaver the first sound system in the building. Janet’s mother, Gertrude Greenwood has quite a few stories that can be told of her. Gertrude’s Garden by the parking lot is in honor of the years she spent landscaping and beautifying the outside and inside of the building. One delightful story from her later years sums up Gertrude quite well. She was out working in the garden as usual and Marcel Duhamel, the minister who served here during the 1990’s, came out and said, “Gertrude, I know it is none of my business, but I’m concerned about you working out here like this at your age; aren’t there younger folks who can do this work?” Gertrude looked up and said, “Marcel, you’re right. It is none of your business.”
Did you know that our ‘new’ building was originally planned as a split level with the offices and lounge directly below the sanctuary. Because of the slope on the original lot, the front door would have opened into the sanctuary and the back door would have opened into the offices one floor below. Then the Religious education wing along with the kitchen and social hall would have been on the split level in between. But that was the plan when the architect designed the place for the original five-acre lot that Lourdes Hospital had sold us roughly 200 feet to the east of here at the corner of Riverside Drive and Beethoven. The plan for a number of years was to build on that lot, but at some point in the early part of 1957 Lourdes approached the congregation with a desire to buy back the land as the hospital had new plans for growth. Well, the congregation was not interested in selling unless we could get a comparable site! Does this sound familiar? We’ve been talking with Lourdes like this for fifty years! Well, eventually a swap was suggested and settled. The architect said it was even a better plot of land for our building because we could stretch it out on all one floor which is what we have now (except, of course for the basement rooms at the end of the hall, but you see those rooms are from a addition that happened in 1968. But that’s another story for another time.)
Dick Woodman and all the people of the congregation worked hard to make this dream come true. The years spent in the Smith Mansion on Front Street had been troublesome. They made the best of it, of course. They had spotted problems almost immediately in 1929, but with the Depression they could do nothing about the problems. The time on Front street in our third building was generally thought of as a 30 years of temporary housing.
The new building may have solved some problems for the people, but it inspired new ones to be sure. A year and a half after moving in, Woodman worried that we were becoming splintered into separate interest groups with no center. Another major concern Woodman noticed was in worship. Specifically he felt a need to increase the dimension of beauty found in the service. He called for more art, drama, song, and poetry. And third, he noted a need to rise to the challenge of action implied in our message. “More than courageous talk,” he wrote in his 1960 annual report to the congregation, “we must increasingly find avenues and channels for constructive action.” Summing up his concerns, Woodman wrote “We must build fellowship, creatively celebrate, and significantly act – that we might live into our future.” Reading this I can see why we are so intentional about quality of our fellowship, our worship, and our justice work. It is interesting to me that Rev. Woodman did not mention the need to keep an eye on Religious Education. Perhaps we’ve never been in danger of shoddy quality in that area!
I wish I could tell you more of the stories I heard, but you have picnics to attend. I heard about the Antique show and sale and the crafts sale and about the Rummage sale that came along next. I learned about Candlelight dinners and the Couples club, the wild youth, the making of this pulpit with its matching chancel table, the beginning of the “beacon” newsletter and the various teams of editors over the years, the Hog Farmers incident and many, many other good stories. But I needed to focus myself this morning, to narrow myself just to the late 1950’s; and I left those other stories for another time. So we will call this a good start – perhaps we shall monthly story telling evenings sharing the history by the decades beginning with the 1960. We’ll talk about the merger with the Unitarians as well as the civil rights movement and so much more.
Today I want to specifically honor a handful of our elders, those who were members from back in the Smith Mansion on front Street. We honor Lillian Gaffney (’39), Velma Taft (’55), Mary Diegert (’56), Evalyn Seaver * (’56), Claire Burkhardt (’57), Janet Greenwood Landow (’57), Herbert Landow (’57), and Anna Helisek (’58). And for all those who are not among us anymore, the Hibbards and Hebbards and Hulls, the Smiths and the Deckers, the Sweets and the Lambs, and so many others beyond count through the years; for all these who did the good work in the fields and the vineyards that we might have life more abundantly: we give thanks.
And I ask you, have you ever built something? Have you ever worked with other people to create something new? You are welcome to add another layer to what this church is all about. You are welcome to paste your picture and add your words into our collage. You are welcome to join with us in creating this work of art we call our religious home.
In a world without end,
May it be so