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Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Falmouth, MA

Every year, the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Falmouth hosts the Rachel Carson Harvest Dinner, to honor one of America's great environmentalists. Carson was born near Pittsburgh, but in 1929 she came to the Woods Hole scientific community in Falmouth, MA, to begin her career in the marine sciences. At the end of her life, “Ray” Carson was involved with All Souls Unitarian Church, in Washington, DC, and she was honored by people throughout the world. Books like Carson’s Silent Spring helped to move liberal religion in new directions by teaching the basics of ecology, by encouraging a sense of wonder and delight in nature, and by educating people of faith about the importance of stewardship.

Rachel Carson never visited the Falmouth Fellowship, but it's the kind of church that she would have liked. The Falmouth fellowship joined the American Unitarian Association on May 27, 1959. It was Rachel Carson's birthday. Many of the congregation's early members were scientists and engineers, teachers and technicians and others, with close connections to the science centers and government agencies in Woods Hole. The Falmouth society was one of the daring new "fellowship movement" groups of the 1950s. Reverend Kenneth Warren, the young minister at the Barnstable Unitarian Church, helped guide and inspire the Falmouth congregation during its first years.

For several years, the Falmouth fellowship lacked a home of its own. The congregation met in a small, lovely Quaker meetinghouse, then moved to the environmental education center known as New Alchemy. During the 1980s, Cape Cod became increasingly popular as a retirement center, and the year-round population grew dramatically. For thirty years, the congregation in Falmouth had enjoyed volunteer and part-time spiritual leadership that included a mix of lay leaders, some local ministers, and summer visitors, and one retired Unitarian Universalist minister, the late Rev. Bill Gardner, who was both a retired clergyman and a church member. This model of leadership can be effective when launching a small group, but as the congregation developed the demands on volunteer leaders increased and, by the late 1980s, it was time for a change.

They opted for the Unitarian Universalist Association’s (UUA’s) Extension Ministry program in 1989, and became a ministry-led group with the Rev. David Nash Williams. The actual lead-up to the decision in 1989 involved several years of intra-mural dialogue, and not all of it smooth. It was a search for a new vision that could actually change the way members thought and felt. And always there was this uninterrupted, patient, dialogue with the UUA staff. The bonding with the UUA started it all, and continued to constitute a paradigm, one which enabled them to reach out to a diverse population on Cape Cod, so as to embody an inter-generational, welcoming community.

They conducted a general planning program, and subsequently a capital campaign. They went out and bought the land, and with a loan from the UUA they put up a modern building in 1992, with accessible and multi-use capacity. Balance among all the forms of growth came together: membership growth, but also spiritual and organizational and financial, with the property.

The Falmouth Fellowship identifies itself as being "a new congregation in an old New England tradition." Unitarian Universalist churches nearby include the Pilgrim congregation in Plymouth, which was gathered in Massachusetts in 1620. The Falmouth church acknowledges its heritage while engaging with some of the modern needs and concerns in liberal religion. The congregation is active in human rights and environmental protection work and, in an era when the American population is aging, it is especially concerned about defending the rights and dignity of the elderly. It has become a beacon of generosity, with the longest record (twenty-five years) of Fair Share contributions to the Annual Program Fund in the Ballou Channing District. "The By-Laws state that this fellowship shall be a Fair Share congregation," notes Peter Grinnell, who is one of the society's past presidents. "If we were to drop the Fair Share, it would mean changing the By-Laws, and that would be upsetting for many."

"Stewardship is a theme that's frequently mentioned in Falmouth," notes Rev. Robert Francis Murphy, who is the Falmouth fellowship's current minister. "Like Rachel Carson, we're concerned about the future of our environment and we want to affirm the worth and dignity of all of the world's people. So, frequently, in this church, you'll hear the message that good religion means generosity, caring for each other, and wise stewardship." The example of the Unitarian Universalists in Falmouth is worth taking to heart. It's an old message in organized religion. It may also be the paradigm that helps to guide the Unitarian Universalist movement through some of the challenges of the 21st century.

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Last updated on Thursday, September 8, 2011.

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