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Breakthrough Congregation Prides Itself on Heart, Respect
Each year the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Growth Team selects four “Breakthrough Congregations” that have been singled out because of exemplary growth and vitality. This is a profile on one: the UU Congregation of South County, R.I. The other profiles will appear inInterConnections later this year. They are First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque, N.Mex.; the UU Church of Bloomington, Ind., and the First Unitarian Church of Des Moines, Iowa.
The 137-member Unitarian Universalist Congregation of South County in Peace Dale, R.I., one of the UUA Growth Team’s Breakthrough Congregations for 2009, was formed 20 years ago when four friends saw the need for a liberal religious voice in their community. The small group met first in a library, and as it grew it moved to other locations, eventually to an American Legion hall where, every Sunday for years, it had to move bingo tables to hold services.
In 2004 the group, still growing, had a choice to either buy a permanent building or call a minister. It chose to call the Rev. Betty Kornitzer. “I knew immediately when I met with them in a dusty, smelly bingo hall that this was a strong congregation with heart,” says Kornitzer.
The group had had the benefit of several consulting ministers, Kornitzer says, as well as dedicated staff that included Music Director Rev. Cynthia Burke, a Sufi minister who has been with the congregation for 11 years, and Director of Religious Education Deborah Hedison, who began in 2003. The congregation includes more than 60 children and youth.
From the beginning, the congregation has been active in social justice work, including participating in Habitat for Humanity projects and other affordable housing initiatives, preparing meals for a homeless shelter, and working with a state UU legislative ministry. When growth began to occur the membership committee developed an active welcoming program.
In 2007, as numerical growth continued, the congregation bought its first building, completing a strategic plan and a capital campaign in four months. Says Kornitzer, “If you had asked me three years ago if we would have all of the talent and all of the gifts that we needed to move forward with this project I would have had to scratch my head and wonder. And then as we began to move forward it became clear that we had the top people in the state in this congregation.”
“Every single person that we needed, every skill that we needed,” she says, “showed up and gave us their time. Busy people, people whose lives are very, very full, gave of their time and their expertise, and we became a well-oiled machine moving forward with the project, and everything fell into place and there were miracles left and right. Every time we turned around something special was happening.”
In the midst of the building project the congregation experienced a hurtful attack in the form of anonymous negative emails and blog postings that threatened to divide the congregation around the issue of purchasing the building.
The congregation and Kornitzer met it head on. “I used to be a mediator,” Kornitzer says. “I walk toward conflict.” At this point about a third of the congregation was not in favor of buying the building, she says. “We took a couple of months to build consensus and in the end there were only two votes against it.
“The emails could have been extremely disruptive but we chose to shine light on it and be empowered by our strength and our sense of community,” she says. “It was tough and it was very empowering.” The emails had been sent to a group of 20 or so people. “We responded by sending it to everyone. I wrote a letter and the president wrote a letter within hours and on Sunday I addressed the conflict during worship and then we had a congregational meeting. We stood in our closing circle and looked in each other’s eyes and affirmed who we were as a community of faith.” Another attack came a few months later and the congregation made the same response.
A year before the purchase of the building Kornitzer’s life partner, Richard, died. “When I pulled back from my ministerial responsibilities to be with him in his last months the congregation came together to support us, minister to us, and to minister to themselves. They did it with love and spirit and heart in such a way that we felt very nurtured and the congregation learned who they really are and what their hearts are made of and how much they had to give.”
Kornitzer says the congregation has had an influx of more than 80 newcomers since it began meeting in its new space in February 2009. “We’re developing ways to fully embrace this growth in every aspect of congregational life,” she says. The new location is highly visible and is across from a homeless shelter, which with UUCSC is partnered.
“This was not a great time to be moving forward with a capital campaign,” Kornitzer says. “But these folks believe in themselves. They kept their spirit alive and fresh and happy throughout the entire process of buying and renovating a building, which can be a pretty intense opportunity for burnout. They were dancing and singing through it.”
Adds congregation president Tracy Hart, “There’s a respect here. There’s a gratitude for people’s talents and gifts. There’s an emotional and spiritual maturity that helps us get anything done. Any kind of problem that we have is solved because we just say, OK, well how can we do it? We can do it.”
For more information see the presentation that UUCSC members presented during Plenary V at General Assembly 2009.