MMUUS History and Legend
A sermon by The Rev. Elizabeth M. Strong
at May Memorial Unitarian Universalist Society
January 31, 1999
Bob Marshall was concerned that our May Memorial children would never know the richness of knowledge and wisdom held in the memories of our elder members. So, in 1996 The Religious Education Council, at Bob's suggestion, began to pay attention to how our children learn about who we are as a congregation at May Memorial, and how our elder members and friends could share their wisdom and memories with us. It was clear to us that our institutional memory is short and we forget who planted the trees out front and why, we forget who gave us the marble sculpture downstairs and why, we forget how the Women's Morning Group came to be; and we forget and we forget and we forget.
Thanks to Bob, the R.E. Council decided it was time to remember. We began what we called "The Marshall Plan," whereby the children in various religious education classes developed interviews for our elder members. The children interviewed our wise ones here at May Memorial or in their homes. What we have learned, and are learning, will serve to keep alive the May Memorial that was, so as to keep before us the vision, the passion and the hopes of those who were once May Memorial.
May Memorial is an ever changing gathering of people. Our identity is a way of talking about the “we” that persists through shifting styles and circumstances. No matter how drastically changes affect a congregation, it remains “us,” recognizable in many ways both to members and to other observers.
A book on congregational studies states that “The identity of a congregation is the persistent set of beliefs, values, patterns, symbols, stories and style that makes a congregation distinctive. A congregation's identity is a result of the elaborate communication among its members through which they share perceptions of themselves, their church, and the world - communication in which they develop and follow common values and by which they engage in corporate recollection, action, and anticipation. Identity itself changes over time, but it mirrors a congregation's enduring culture.”(1) The larger context of the surrounding environment in which the congregation is situated conditions the life of a local religious community, but the self identity a congregation develops, distinguishes it from that larger context. In the larger context of the United States, we at May Memorial are a mostly white, suburban, upper-middle to middle-class, professional, Unitarian Universalist, liberal, northeastern, late twentieth century community of men, women and children. We have a tradition of strong social action and outreach into the Syracuse community and are supporters of liberal causes. We have a heritage of Unitarian humanism, and of a strong religious education program with religious educators who have made significant contributions to the Unitarian Universalist religious education enterprise. Our Parish Ministers have been denominationally active and socially and politically engaged; even imprisoned. Our members have been dedicated participants in the well being of a congregation that has been in existence for 170 years this coming September 13th; having been formed as a congregation on that date in 1838. "In psychological terms, identity is the singular sense of who one is. The identity of a congregation is the perception of its culture by either an observer or the congregation itself. One significant part of this sense of identity is the congregation's specific heritage that in part transcends its own experience; and also recalls its own particular story that traces its life to the present and into the future."(2)
We are part of the Unitarian Universalist story, we are part of the story of the city of Syracuse, we are part of the story of liberal theological, social, political and economic movements in the United States and Canada.
Unitarian Universalism is a religion centered around Principles and people. Our Unitarian and Universalist historical roots are grounded in the doctrines of God and of Human Nature, but our history often reads like "Who's Who in the World." We are also part of the religious traditions of Judaism and Christianity. Our specific Unitarian Universalist tradition is part of the Radical Protestant Reformation and of Renaissance thought. It is people working in the local congregations and at the denominational level who continue to move the Unitarian Universalist Association in ever changing directions as we respond to the times in which we live. One of our religious educators, when asked where Unitarian Universalist stood on the doctrine of God, she replied, "We do not stand, we move." Our local tradition at May Memorial is firmly entwined with the larger history of Syracuse and Central New York. But it is the people who have been members of May Memorial who make it live as a faith community.
As we strive to understand who we are as Unitarian Universalists we must understand our tradition and heritage lest we become a disengaged religious sect out on our own doing our own thing. We on the RE Council began to think about the pieces of our history that are known only in the hearts and minds of those who have been here for many years.
So we began, The Marshall Plan. As we continued to talk about it the new name of May Memorial History and Legend emerged. We wanted to hear the stories that made us who we are as a religious community. We wanted to embody the concept of the congregation as an educating community. We understood that each of us has much to teach one another about who we are.
We began our project with an interview with Dorothy Ashley. The children in the 5th and 6th grades developed questions to ask her, and then conducted the interview in her home. Dorothy was 94 at the time of the interview. Yesterday, January 30th she celebrated her 96th birthday. She and her husband, Carlisle joined May Memorial in 1942 when the church was located on James Street, and her memories hold stories of times only a few of us present today ever knew.
In talking with her I learned that religious education was a very important part of her involvement in this community. She worked with the youth group for five years during a time when the group met in the evening at the homes of the young people. They shared a meal, played games and studied curriculum. Especially memorable to her was the curriculum, The Church Across The Street , a comparative religions program. The youth also went on field trips to various interesting sites in and around New York State. Dorothy served as a youth leader during the tenures of Directors of Religious Education, Elizabeth Manwell, and Josephine Gould.
Dorothy and Elizabeth were very close, and Dorothy illustrated Elizabeth's book, Consider the Children and How They Grow, published by the then American Unitarian Association. Dorothy remembered that Elizabeth Manwell was so highly respected in the Syracuse community as an educator, being a professor at Syracuse University, that other churches sent their teachers to May Memorial to be trained by Dr. Manwell. It was in honor of the religious education program that Dorothy Reister created the mother and child sculpture that is downstairs. It was presented to the church when the newly decorated Manwell/Gould RE Library was opened.
In the wider community, World War II was raging and organized religion was growing. At the end of the war May Memorial underwent many changes in ministers and the Unitarians and the Universalists began serious talks about merging.
In 1959, one year after the youth organizations of the two denominations had merged to form Liberal Religious Youth, or LRY, the Annual General Assemblies of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America were held in Syracuse which resulted in the 1961 creation of the Unitarian Universalist Association. It was held here in Syracuse in part because the seat of resistance to merger by the Universalists was here, under the leadership of the Universalist Church's minister, The Rev. Ellsworth Reamon, known to me personally as Uncle Ellsworth.
In the decades of the 1960's and 70's things at May Memorial were booming, We had an adult membership of over 500 with 270 children registered in the church school, as it was called then. There were three active youth groups with a paid part-time youth director and a large campus club at Syracuse University. Plans were begun for a Capital Campaign to finance a new building.
The campaign was successfully completed, this building was constructed and in 1965 we moved in. When we did so a discussion arose about a possible change of the congregation's name. A similar situation had arisen in 1883 when we were preparing to build a new church on James Street. Mary Cooper and her family were instrumental convincing the congregation to change the name of the church from, The Church of the Messiah to, The May Memorial Church in memory of Samuel May, who had died in the summer of 1871.
So when we moved into this building the congregation reenacted the name-change discussion. Jean Hoefer and Dorothy Ashley both recounted the story of the meeting in this Sanctuary held to discuss that possibility.
At one point, Elizabeth Manwell, who was seated next to Mary Cooper, stood up and delivered an impassioned plea to maintain the name, May Memorial, in memory of Samuel Joseph May, our second minister, in honor of his vital ministry and tireless work on behalf of social justice. Elizabeth then slumped down onto the pew into the lap of Mary Cooper. Elizabeth died in that pew before the ambulance arrived. The congregation has never again considered changing our May Memorial name, but then again we have not moved from this building. into a new one. In 1994, we did vote to add, Universalist to our name to reflect the merger of the Unitarians and the Universalists that had taken place in 1961, but we did not talk of changing from May Memorial.
The tree to the far left out in the berm in front of the church was donated by Sarah Auchincloss to be planted in memory of Mary Cooper.
These stories about our name reflect the congregation's response to both the merger and the heritage embodied in our identity as May Memorial. We understand ourselves most closely with our Unitarian tradition and with the social action work of our second minister, Samuel Joseph May. It was difficult to comprehend why we needed to add, Universalist, to our named identity.
With my arrival at May Memorial in 1988 as your first settled woman minister, the congregation had in its midst a third generation Universalist. We were struggling to foster a connection with our sister congregation here in Syracuse. It no longer seemed right to be in competition with another congregation belonging to the same Unitarian Universalist Association. We are such a small religious group, with only a little over 150,000 adult members and 60,000 children enrolled in religious education, it was hindering the growth of Unitarian Universalism in central New York State to remain in competition. All the materials for worship and religious education and youth programming had become Unitarian Universalist in scope and content years ago. But the old memories of resistance to merger lingered. Nick and I talked long with David Blanchard about this, and our sister congregation became First Unitarian Universalist a year before we became May Memorial Unitarian Universalist. But now we each reflect the wider denomination to which we belong.
In maintaining our name, May Memorial, we reflect to the community of both the congregation and the metropolitan Syracuse area, that we have a proud tradition of social activism and commitment to justice. Charlie and Dorothy Jorgensen gave powerful testimony to that tradition and heritage during their interview for our History and Legend work. Dorothy stated that for her, religion is expressed in service. She is very pleased to see our Social Justice Committee getting stronger and more active for she believes it is central to our Unitarian Universalist faith, and our May Memorial heritage. Charlie was a pacifist in world War II and began to work for the YMCA working with refugees in China. He was there 6 years, with Dorothy joining him for the last 3 and a half years. For both of them this was how to live their religious convictions. Charlie stated that the years in China were very important to both of them because it demanded of them the service so central to their religious beliefs. May Memorial has not disappointed them in providing for them a community that shares this demand for service. Dorothy believes it was very important for May Memorial to reach out into the wider community, and this was specifically demonstrated for her when we chose to become a Sanctuary Church for Central and South American Refugees in 1983. It meant we had to break the law, but she believes it was a sacrifice we, as a congregation, made for the sake of justice. In this same tradition of defying the law for justice, she and Charlie are currently very proud of Nick Cardell, Dan and Doris Sage for their stand against the School of the Americas, and of the sacrifice they made for that stand. She and Charlie agree that this stand, and the support May Memorial has given them, is the embodiment of how we live out our faith at May Memorial as Unitarian Universalists.
John Fuller also stands tall in Dorothy and Charlie's mind. He was our minister before Nick was called. They remember how hard he worked during his ministry to support justice and equity for the black community here in Syracuse. In 1967 John instituted the Samuel J. May Citation to honor political and social activism by members of the Syracuse and May Memorial communities. May Memorial member of long standing, Eleanor Rosebrugh was the first recipient. Under John Fuller's leadership many members of the congregation took an active part in the Civil Rights struggle and the anti-Vietnam War effort. He counseled young men who chose to be conscientious objectors and women seeking legal abortions outside New York State.
Our tradition of living up to the example of Sam May is alive and well. It is one of the major pieces of our identity as a congregation. Nick Cardell has carried it on along with Dan and Doris Sage and all those who now serve on the Social Justice Committee or who work with organizations in the Syracuse community such as the Peace Counsel or Planned Parenthood or Vera House. It is how we choose to connect ourselves to May Memorial's heritage.
One part of our identity is harder to recognize, but it is none the less vital to who we are as a religious community. Dorothy Jorgensen reminded us of it in their interview when she spoke of the outpouring of support and concern during and after her heart by-pass surgery. She said the strong response from the church was, for her, a demonstration that faith is centered in people. And that here at May Memorial the people come through magnificently. Our Care Ring was created by Nick Cardell and Dick Dersheimer in 1987 and it is still a vital presence in the life of this congregation.
We can hear who we are through the voices of those whose memories have been shared with us through the MMUUS History and Legend interviews. We will be continuing them, and they are available for you to borrow and enjoy.
We are a religious community dedicated to a history of social justice, human caring and service to one another. We are a liberal faith begun in the Protestant Reformation over 400 years ago. We are a non-creedal faith that demands rigorous engagement with our personal beliefs, our religious home at May Memorial, and with our Unitarian Universalist tradition. We are called to give service and do justice, to dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another. So Be It.
1. Handbook for Congregational Studies, Eds: Jackson W. Carroll, Carl S. Dudley, William McKinney, Abdingdon Press, Nashville, 1986, page 21.
2. Ibid, page 21