All Souls Church Unitarian in Washington, DC: Breakthrough Congregation
General Assembly 2005 Event 4004 (Excerpt from Plenary V)
Members of All Souls Church Unitarian in Washington, DC, came to the stage to offer the fourth and final "Breakthrough Congregation" presentation. The members explained how the congregation's membership has been through dramatic increases and losses over the years: in 1998, 160 people attended and now there are over 500. The congregation "chose to change to meet the background of their parishioners." Music and other elements reflect the members' Latin American and African American roots. The congregation has the Jubilee Singers and the Washington, DC, Children's Choir, composed of members from the church and neighborhood, sings regularly. The momentum of worship builds as lay worship associates ask congregants to greet each other, preferably someone they don't already know. A cantor leads music and the prayers.
"If worship brings you," the presenters said, "it is the ministries of connection that keep you there. They know that people need to find a home within the larger congregation or they don't stay very long." The congregation has many opportunities to connect with others, to the spirit, and the holy. They run a six-week new person curriculum, "Roots and Wings," and this past year 232 people participated in the congregation's 28 adult religious education classes. The congregation also offers many cross generational opportunities such as the KUUMBA players theatre group that presents works of justice, equity and compassion.
After the departure of a minister in 1998, the congregation had deep wounds and divisions. They sought to help heal the wounds, said Meredith Higgins, by listening and caring for each other. They prepared each other to be partners in shared ministry. They received help from the Unitarian Universalist Assocation and from General Assembly, conferences and workshops. Facilitators met to help resolve conflict and dismantle the racism present, and to help them keep open minds. The congregation listened to the interim ministers who showed them how to love again, and who led them to smoother governance in the congregation.
They listened in dialogues on race and relationships, and created affinity groups, pastoral care, and a softball team, the "All Souls Survivors." They listened to each other's dreams for the congregation. It took almost three years after that divisive departure to be ready to call a new senior minister, times during which they transformed themselves from broken relationships to new healthy relationships with a new minister.
The congregation's senior minister, the Rev. Rob Hardies, said that "prophetic ministry has always been central to All Souls' history. The congregation was first built from contributions across the country to create a flagship church to speak for progressive religious values in the nation's capital. They bear witness to values in a city whose values are being threatened. This was true in the aftermath of September 11th, and during the March for Women's Lives last year." Last June, Hardies testified at the House and Senate briefings against the Federal Marriage Amendment.
In the end, everything that All Souls Unitarian Church does is inspired by vision, a vision inherent in their name: All Souls. They are a church where "all people are welcome, where divisions disappear, and where we recognize ourselves as one human family." Their mission is clear: to create a diverse spirit-growing, justice-seeking community, true to the dream of All Souls.