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Breakthrough Congregation, 2007: Davies Memorial UU Church
Davies Memorial Unitarian Universalist Church, which was founded in the 1950s in a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C., has transformed itself in the past decade into one of the most racially diverse congregations within the Unitarian Universalist Association. Beginning in the 1970s, as whites were moving out of Prince George's County, the congregation's membership went into decline. So in the mid-90's the congregation embarked on an aggressive outreach campaign to make its congregation look more like its community, which is now predominantly black. It has had a large measure of success. Today people of color make up 35 percent of its membership, and its minister is African American.

The church developed a marketing plan, created an exceptional website, bought a more visible sign, hired a professional director of religious education, and created a truly multicultural ministry team. Those efforts have resulted both in more diversity and in growth, increasing membership from about one hundred to 150 today.

Originally called the Southeast Unitarian Center, Davies is one of eight congregations launched during the visionary ministry of Rev. A. Powell Davies of All Souls Church, Unitarian, in Washington, D.C. Until Davies died in 1957, members of the new congregations would gather in their own communities and listen to his sermons, broadcast by phone line from All Souls, as part of their Sunday services.

The church has maintained a steady presence in Prince George's County. For years it met in various rented buildings, then in 1966 built its own facility in Camp Springs. By 1967 the growing church was conducting two Sunday services, but in 1973 it returned to one. As the church's membership, religious education attendance, and pledging continued to decline, the church had to decide whether to stay or go. It stayed. "This is where we live," longtime member Joyce Dowling explains.

In 1995 the board of trustees set aside money for a mailing to nearby zip codes. The following year Dowling created the congregation's first website and organized a Growth and Public Relations Committee. The church cranked out press releases, free event announcements, and fliers to promote special programs. The number of visitors and members started to increase.

The church also increased its focus on religious education, hiring Rev. Marge Corletti as Religious Eduction (RE) consultant for two years. When membership dropped, the RE position had been cut to quarter time. Then in 1998 Dawn Star Borchelt was hired as half-time director of religious education. Borchelt, who is white and grew up in the multiracial Unitarian Universalist (UU) Church of the Restoration in Philadelphia, was committed to creating a program where everyone would be welcome. She was attracted to Davies "by the opportunity to help a mostly white congregation reach out to the mostly black community which surrounds it," she says.

Professional ministry also played a key role in Davies's breakthrough. Rev. Don Cameron, who had minored in African American studies, served Davies as its called minister from 1992 to 2005. He also brought a vision of creating a multicultural congregation. He worked on racism issues and helped start an interfaith group focused on social change in the community.

Many southern Prince George's residents, about 66 percent of whom are black, would be attracted to a congregation with Unitarian Universalist values, Cameron believed. The county has one of the wealthiest and most highly educated populations of black people in the United States. In thirty years, the county had gone from majority white to majority black.

In 2001 Rev. John Crestwell Jr. entered the picture. On the path to ministry in the United Methodist Church, he decided to leave that faith over theological issues. As he and his wife, Sharon, looked into other religions, they discovered Unitarian Universalism. "What I read about it changed my life," he says. John and Sharon, who are black, visited Davies, which was near their home, and made an instant connection with Cameron. Becoming a UU minister over the next several years, Crestwell joined the congregation's multicultural quest.

The church asked the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) and the Joseph Priestly District for financial help. The UUA contributed $70,000, which the church used to hire Crestwell as director of outreach, to purchase the new street sign, and for other advertising in the community. The UUA also paid for the services of three consultants. The district issued two separate Chalice Lighters calls, which raised $40,000 toward a three-year growth and diversity effort.

In 2005 Rev. Cameron left to take another pulpit, and Crestwell became the lead minister at Davies. Many people of color came, attracted by advertising, personal invitations, and a black minister. The church had forty-eight visitors in 2002, seventy in 2004, and eighty-three in 2006. Membership rose accordingly, from 101 in 2001 to 150 in May 2007.

Crestwell worked closely with the church's Growth and Public Relations Committee, helping decide where to advertise. The new sign at the end of the church's long driveway made an immediate difference. "I can't tell you how many newcomers now say, 'I've been driving by for years. I saw your sign and decided to come check you out,' " Dowling says.

The church created a custom newspaper called The Freedom Xpress, which publishes sermons, the church calendar, and content about UU values and principles, to distribute in the community. The committee also considered cable TV ads, infomercials, and a billboard rental, but deemed them too expensive.

A major attraction for people of color is someone who looks like them in the pulpit, Crestwell says, and some of his black congregants have told him that he is the reason they are at Davies. But in many congregations, there are people who come primarily for the minister, he points out. And the Sunday experience cannot be only about a church's leader, he believes. "We are all replaceable. If there were someone else in this pulpit, would transformation still happen? Yes, if the minister was excited and energized and if the rest of the church leadership carried the vision, as the leadership at Davies does."

Preaching is part personality, Crestwell says. His ministerial voice is conversational, prayerful, exhortative, and playful at the same time. The "traditional sound" that congregants expect from a black male preacher involves some emotion, he says. "Good ministers are animated and passionate. It takes a level of passion to move the multitudes."

Crestwell has had to overcome fears among some congregants that he might "Christianize" the church. Describing himself as a "religious humanist, deist, and existentialist, with a shot of Christianity and a twist of Taoism," he points out that there are more than enough choices of traditional black Christian churches in America and especially in Prince George's County.

"Black people who come to a UU church are looking for the same things white people are," he says. "Theologically, they tend to have a little more Christianity in their backgrounds, but they are likely to say, `I don't know if I believe in the virgin birth or the idea everyone is going to hell.' Theologically, the more education, the more well-read you are, whether you are self-taught or formally taught, the more you can deal with ambiguity in religion."

Crestwell uses the Bible for quotes and stories, but not every Sunday. When he speaks of God, he varies the terms he uses. "I'll say Spirit of Life, Sustaining Force, or Existence," he says. "It's all metaphor to me, so I try to speak to several audiences at the same time."

He tries to create a flow in worship, he says, making sure elements are connected to one another and that transitions are smooth. He sometimes uses background music as he speaks. "Music and words together creates a double effect," he says. "It's a way of loosening up the mind and body and getting them to work together, as opposed to the strictly rational experience that many say UUs have." Music at Davies ranges from classical to jazz to contemporary. The church uses the new supplemental hymnal Singing the Journey for many services. At each service three children sign "Spirit of Life" at the front of the church, while the congregation sings.

The children's RE program was one of the early growth engines of the congregation, Borchelt, a credentialed religious educator, says. Average attendance has increased from ten when she began in 1998 to twenty-eight today. The program has a strong basic structure, she says, rotating through theme years: Unitarian Universalism, Social Justice, and World Religions. "And we're very friendly. Kids drag their families to church because they want to attend class and see their friends." About 60 percent of RE participants are children of color.

Money at Davies is still tight. The church is trying to continue advertising out of its own budget and provide services for a larger congregation, while educating new members about pledging. The congregation recently established a year-round stewardship team, the endowment just topped $200,000, and the median pledge for 2006–07 was $1,620, compared with $1,500 the previous year, treasurer Jessica Milstead reports.

Crestwell has written a book about Davies's journey to become multicultural. Charge of the Chalice is available through the church website, "I wanted to show UUs that transformation is possible," he says. "A lot of congregations want to become multicultural but don't know how. I hope we can help in that."

The words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., he says, speak to Davies's transformation: "Change does not come on the whims of inevitability but from the tireless effort of committed individuals."

Expanding on that idea, Crestwell says, "I try to do ministry at a personal level with newcomers. I make a point to get to know each person. I think the key to our growth is that our ministry team and members are faithful about doing the work that must be done, calling newcomers, organizing membership functions, being welcoming, [providing] pastoral care. The major thing for me, though, is ministerial presence. Ministers have to be the full and present leaders. We must lead by example if we want our churches to grow."

About the Author

  • Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.

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