(Building Dedication Ceremony 05/20/2006)
Carleen Sexton, Third President, July 2005-June 2006
Unitarianism arrived in SC in 1787, with the building of the Charleston church, the oldest Unitarian Church in the South. From 1830 to 1837, the Rev. Stephen Greenleaf Bulfinch, whose father had designed the US Capitol building in Washington, DC, was minister to a Unitarian church in Augusta which closed in 1840. As you can see, we have been the area for quite some time.
The roots of this congregation were planted in Aiken in 1953 with the founding of the original Unitarian Fellowship of Aiken.
Our belief system is hundreds of years old and has its roots in Judaism, Greek Philosophy, and Early Christianity. Our faith was carried to Aiken by the influx of scientists and technical personnel from other parts of the country that arrived here for the Savannah River Site project.
The organizational meeting of the original Fellowship in Aiken was at the home of the McLain’s in what is now the Towler Residence at South Boundary and Magnolia. Over the years, the Fellowship met at the Red Cross building on Laurens Street, the Masonic Lodge and a small house on Boardman. Eventually the Fellowship purchased a duplex on Westover Drive and met there briefly.
One of the founding members of that Fellowship, Eloise Twombly, is a charter member of our current Aiken Unitarian Universalist Church, as was her husband John, who died on December 7, 2003, the same day we voted to buy the building we are dedicating today. Eloise is our cellist this afternoon.
Another one of our charter members, Bill Kanne, served as treasurer of the Aiken Unitarian Fellowship and, eventually, became president of our Augusta sister Church. He has continued to provide outstanding leadership and support to the AUUC.
Our belief system has always been pro-active in matters of equity and human rights as well as quality education. Thus it was that the Aiken Unitarians and Quakers joined with the Augusta Unitarians and Quakers to establish a FREE SCHOOL, under the direction of Margie Rece, for their children.
Eloise Twombly, our matriarch, became the first President of the Aiken County Council on Human Relations and was joined by other Unitarians in the process of racially integrating the hospital, schools and offices of Aiken County.
This was accomplished peaceably, although many of the leaders of this effort received death threats directed toward themselves and their families.
The original Aiken Unitarian Fellowship disbanded in 1976 and in 1977 donated the proceeds of the sale of its building to the Unitarian Church of Augusta to build a much-needed office for the congregation. At that time, Betty Ann Kanne, then Betty Ann Lee, was director of the children’s religious education program in the Augusta congregation.
The Augusta Fellowship was founded in 1954, one year after the Aiken Fellowship was founded. The Unitarian Church of Augusta, is of course, now the Unitarian Universalist Church of Augusta. Many Aiken UU’s traveled back and forth to Augusta for years, actively participating in the life of the Augusta congregation and occasional efforts were made to organize monthly Aiken gatherings. Indeed, many Aiken UU’s are still active in the Augusta Church.
However, it was the dream of Chuck Hewitt and Naomi Frost-Hewitt, members of the Augusta Church since 1979, that the Aiken Unitarian Universalist congregation be reborn. Chuck and Naomi organized a meeting of Aiken UU’s at the home of Don and Faith Wargowsky on November 7, 2000. (Faith was present today.)
In August of 2003, Chuck Hewitt died, but we know he is with us in spirit today for this joyful gathering of friends and celebration of this building. Chuck was chair of the special fundraising committee for the Augusta Church sanctuary addition during the 1980s, and his legacy of financial support has been instrumental in making the purchase of our building possible.
His wife Naomi is with us today.
I would also like to acknowledge those of you who contributed to our Building Fund as a memorial to both John Twombly and Chuck Hewitt. Your help has been vital in helping us get to this place today.
A complete list of Building Fund donors is in today’s program.
Also present at that November 2000 organizational meeting were AUUC members Eloise Twombly, Sallie Evans, Sandra Korbelik, Bill Kanne and many others who have either been members or friends of this congregation. Rev. Dan King was there to offer the support of the Augusta UU Church. That evening Sandra Korbelik, who became first president of our congregation, suggested that instead of having more meetings to talk about organizing, that the group simply announce that we had formed a fellowship and begin holding public worship services monthly. Trish Arnold volunteered her business, the Arnold Gallery, as a meeting place.
And so Unitarian Universalism in Aiken began again.
In January 2001 we held our first public worship service at the Arnold Gallery on Richland Avenue, with Rev. Dan King offering the homily. Our matriarch, Eloise Twombly, played the pump organ that had originally been used by the First Unitarian Fellowship of Aiken.
After meeting for several months at the Arnold Gallery, we moved our services to the Building Blocks Child Care Center and increased services to two Sunday evenings a month, and then to two Sunday mornings a month, offering children’s religious exploration concurrently with the adult service. We also began offering Adult Religious Exploration programming.
In October 2001, ABC News was present when today’s keynote speaker, Meg Barnhouse, conducted evening worship for the Fellowship as part of a Peter Jennings special on In Search of America. Footage featuring Aiken UU Francesca Pataro was used in the hour-long national presentation about Aiken.
I would also like to recognize the charter member who has traveled the farthest to join us today. Charlotte Lehmann has traveled from Maine to share this celebration with us.
Charlotte, your presence affirms our sense of continued community.
In the May of 2003, just three years ago, the Aiken UU Church was officially accepted as a congregation by the national Unitarian Universalist Association, with main offices in Boston, MA. We had 31 charter members. Today we have 55 members, many friends, and we are growing with our mission which is:
to create a welcoming and inclusive community which supports spiritual growth, ethical living, and open-minded exploration of religion. Our Covenant is the Golden Rule.
Our official sign was planted this year, announcing us as Aiken Unitarian Universalists following a democratic naming process that emphasizes the inclusively of our interfaith congregation, even as we retain our legal title as a church.
As members of the Thomas Jefferson District of the UUA, and through our leadership and religious exploration training at The Mountain in Highlands, NC, and other shared learning experiences, we maintain contact with congregations from both Carolinas, eastern Georgia, eastern and central Tennessee and most of Virginia. We are especially closely connected to two groups in Eastern Georgia, the UU congregations in Augusta and Statesboro, and we are connected to Clayton Memorial Universalist Church* in Newberry, SC, which was founded shortly after the Civil War and is one of this state’s oldest Universalist congregations. These congregations have been our friends through joy and sorrow and everything in between.
Thank you for your support of our growth.
The building we are dedicating here today, is the first permanent home for Unitarian Universalism in Aiken since 1976.
We knew that this spiritual home was meant to be. The building was discovered by one of our members who was out doing a good deed for and with another one of our members. So, the karma was right. We knew it was tiny, but it felt like home right away. We held our first service here on 04/04/04. We had 44 people present. One of our readings during that first service had two 4’s in it. And, as if that were not odd and coincidental enough, the telephone number that we already had – and transferred here – is 502-0404.
Since that meeting in April of 2004, we have conducted services every Sunday.
Our WAY COOL SUNDAY SCHOOL program for our children is held before every service, and we have begun a youth group, as well as expand our Adult Religious Exploration offerings.
Several community organizations use our building for their meetings, including the Aiken Peace Group and Aiken County Fairness for All Families Council. We are open to those groups who encounter resistance in other venues and we promote equity and acceptance of all.
Our beliefs are many and varied, as are our past experiences. We each contribute to the flavor and texture of this congregation.
It has been said that we are the sum of everyone we have touched and who has touched us.
Thank you all for enriching our history by being a part us today. We hope that you also feel enriched by our expanding UU community here in Aiken.
Thank you for your support of our growth.
Your presence with us here today is blessing.
Please know that you are welcome anytime.
*The Clayton church folks attended many of our early evening meetings and shared some of the early training programs that Chuck and Naomi participated in at the Statesboro Church. Founded just after the Civil War, Clayton is one of the oldest Universalist Churches in South Carolina.