Our Congregation’s History
The roots of this congregation were planted in Aiken in 1953 with the founding of the original Unitarian Fellowship of Aiken. 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 who lived in town on South Boundary at Magnolia. Over the years, the Fellowship met at the Red Cross building on Laurens Street, the Masonic Lodge and a small house on Boardman Road. Eventually the Fellowship purchased a duplex on Westover Drive and met there briefly.
Two of the founding members of that Fellowship, Eloise Twombly and her husband John, were charter members of our current Aiken Unitarian Universalist Church. Another one of our charter members, Bill Kanne, served as treasurer of the Aiken Unitarian Fellowship and, eventually, became president of the Unitarian church of Augusta, Georgia.
Historically our faith has called us to be on the forefront of social justice issues. This spirit led us along with Aiken Quakers joined with the Augusta Unitarians and Quakers to establish a FREE SCHOOL, under the direction of Margie Rece.
Eloise Twombly 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 now, of course, 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. Also present 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, the group should 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. Eloise 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 visiting UU Minister 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.
In Spring 2003, a series of cottage meetings developed the mission and covenant for the congregation, which were adopted along with the bylaws and Articles of Incorporation. Aiken Unitarian Universalist Church was officially incorporated in April of 2003, along with election of our first officers. In October of 2003 the Aiken UU Church was officially accepted as a congregation by the national Unitarian Universalist Association with 31 charter members.
Two months later AUUC had an opportunity to purchase the first permanent home for Unitarian Universalism in Aiken since 1976. The building on Gregg Avenue 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 small, but it felt like home right away. We held our first service here with 44 people present on 04/04/04, including nursery and children’s religious exploration. Since that meeting in April of 2004, we have conducted services every Sunday.
The new church building was dedicated on May 20, 2006 with attendance by dignitaries from the Aiken area, participation by the Augusta UU choir, and sermon delivered by the Rev. Meg Barnhouse, as well as the presence of members of the Clayton and Statesboro congregations.
In early 2006 our growing congregation engaged in a strategic planning process which resulted in 3 goals:
- Employing a professional Unitarian universalist minister who understands the needs of our congregation and supports our mission;
- Achieving creative and efficient use of our present building and grounds to meet the needs of our growing congregation;
- Putting into place responsive volunteer systems that nurture our beloved community and develop gifts of leadership while increasing involvement in our shared ministry throughout the congregation.
Funds were raised the following year during the stewardship campaign to provide once-monthly Sunday services led by a professional minister – often, but not always, a Unitarian Universalist minister. During that same year, the Board of Trustees developed policies and procedures for the congregation, and cottage meetings were held to prioritize the strategic goals. Task forces were formed to address professional Ministry, Physical Space, and Quality of Community. Because of the work of these task forces, we were able to restructure our mortgage to lower long-term costs and purchase a mobile classroom building to allow for five religious exploration classes. The Ministerial Task Force also recommended that AUUC apply for a Chalice Lighter grant to be used over a three-year period to fund a part-time Unitarian Universalist minister.
The grant was written and approved, and in early 2010 we embarked on a major project for a congregation our size – to acquire a professional minister. As we worked with a succession of part-time ministers, our congregation, budget, and financial resources slowly grew:
- In August 2010, Rev. Karen Matteson joins AUUC as our one-third time minister, and is with us for one year.
- In September 2011, Rev. Gaye Ortiz joins AUUC as our one-half time minister, and is with us for two years.
- In January 2014, Rev. Roy Reynolds joins AUUC as our one-quarter time consulting minister, and is with us for 8 months.
Over these 4 years, we knew we’d have to grow to be able to afford a minister, even a part-time one, on our own. But after Rev. Roy Reynolds’ contract term ended in August 2014, the well of candidates went dry.
We turned our focus to other projects: increasing our community outreach through support of PFLAG, the Black History and PRIDE parades, ACTS and other community organizations; pursuing Green Sanctuary certification; building up our small group ministries; upgrading our building interior with new carpet, paint, plumbing and furniture; welcoming new members and caring for each other. Meanwhile, our future minister, Debra Guthrie, was working on her MDiv at Andover Newton Theological Seminary. In May 2016, our paths intersected and Debra joined us as our half-time minister in August 2016.
Today we find ourselves with an inspiring and dedicated minister and a vibrant congregation that is growing in size, in community involvement, and in spirit.
In January 2018, Rev. Debra Guthrie was ordained in the Unitarian Universalist ministry. Subsequently, in August 2018 the church offered Debra a ¾ ministry contract. We are growing together.