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A Church Divided

Based on a 2011 interview with Reverend Howard Dana, who has been the Unitarian Church of Harrisburg's minister since August, 2000.

When you were a child, did you have a favorite toy? Maybe it was a stuffed animal, doll, or toy truck. Did it go everywhere with you: to the market, in the tub, to bed? Were you completely loyal to it, preferring it to all other toys?

We learn loyalty at a very early age. Before we learn to be fair, long before we start to worry about moderation or humility, we learn to love and we show loyalty to what we love. As we grow, we become loyal to truths, loyal to ideas, loyal to institutions that represent our highest values. Sometimes though we need to stop and question our loyalties. Loyalties can become stale and outdated. Mark Twain said "Loyalty to a petrified opinion never yet broke a chain or freed a human soul."

The Unitarian Church of Harrisburg (Pennsylvania) (UCH) learned an important lesson in loyalty. Their young minister, Reverend Howard Dana, had come to this congregation twelve years ago, hoping to help them live their ministry out in the world. Yet he and others in the congregation felt their ministry was too insular, too focused on themselves. The congregation's building was located in the suburbs, and they began to talk about expanding their facility there. They were located near the city of Harrisburg, which was struggling, like most large U.S. cities. Shouldn't their ministry try to help heal this hurting community? Could they really do this by sitting on the suburban sidelines?

And so some members begin to dream: What if the UCH bought an additional church in the inner city, right in the thick of it? Wouldn't they be better able to live out their mission? Wouldn't this build stronger UU souls?

They found the perfect candidate: a church in the neighborhood of Allison Hills, an area where mostly people of color lived and more people rented than owned homes. A small congregation—joint United Church of Christ and Methodist—owned the building, but were excited at the prospect of the UUs buying the building, which needed expensive improvements. In addition, this congregation was already active in the community and willing to partner with the UUs.

The UCH could buy the building and pay for the improvements for much less than it could cost to expand their suburban home.

Not everyone agreed that buying a church in the city was a good idea. After all, our country just experienced a scary recession. Times were hard economically: people were losing jobs, losing their homes. If ever there was a time to be fiscally conservative, this was it! Buying a big, old church in the heart of Harrisburg, where property values were dismal, seemed absolute madness. Conservative members said they spoke for fiscal accountability: their loyalty was to keep the church, as it existed right now, safe and sound. As it existed right now... .Where was the loyalty of these members?

[Leader: Take a couple of answers.]

Their loyalty was to stewardship of the church home that had nurtured and sheltered them. They wanted to preserve it, so it could stay a home for them and others who might find it.

Other members had a different loyalty. They said, "We cannot live out our mission without engaging with the world. We know that this is a big leap of faith. There is room for failure. But there is also room for greatness." These members were loyal to a vision of living their faith in the world that called them to go forth and do good works... even at personal risk. They looked to their UU tradition of social justice work as a beacon moving forward. They, too, saw themselves as stewards: stewards of the Unitarian Universalist faith.

Two different loyalties. Would you say either loyalty was misplaced?

[Leader: Invite some answers.]

The congregation engaged in deep conversations. Open houses were held at the city property and people met the neighbors. Budgets were examined and financial experts consulted. An outside moderator was brought in for the congregational meeting. Everyone wanted to keep the talks fair. It was proposed that they set up "pro" and "con" microphones for people to speak from the floor. But the congregation refused them. "There is no "us" and "them," they said. We are one congregation. But this one congregation had to decide on one loyalty. Would they be loyal to their church as it now existed or to a church living out its most difficult values in the world?

Guess what? Another loyalty emerged: They could be loyal to each other. After all, isn't that what a congregation really is? Not a building, not a set of abstract beliefs, but people living together every day, just trying to be the best people they can be?

Their loyalty to one another took the group through the process of discernment. Their loyalty made it impossible for them to shout hateful words at each other. Their loyalty kept most of the congregants at the table, wrestling with what was best for their church community. Finally, it came down to a vote: 123 voted to purchase the new property, 101 voted "no" and 151 did not vote. It was settled. The Unitarian Church of Harrisburg added a second church to their religious home.

For more information contact web @ uua.org.

This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Wednesday, April 25, 2012.

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