In Celebration of the 125th Anniversary
By Gini Courter

Reading from Paul Hansen, member of the congregation in Brunswick, Maine:

Gentle hour
So long in coming,
Let every heart
That hears these words
Embrace this time and this people.
Loneliness shared is loneliness vanquished.
Here is where questions flow
And fall back warmed, if not answered.
Here is one place we create salvation.
Each gift we offer to friends and strangers
Adds meaning to that time
When this place was first filled.
When a soul feels cramped in casing
Less than elegant
How can it live, full and free?
We come here because we know.
Here is acceptance
That has welcomed us and ours
For all these years.
Every home is a clumsy sketch
Of its inhabitants.
Yet, its magic helps us rise
To nobler definitions.

We gather this morning in hope, once again. We gather in hope, not in certainty, for nothing is certain. It is hard enough to know ourselves, much less each other. Hard enough to know our own hearts, our own motives, our own limits. To admit our own fears, our own frailties, our own uncertainties, much less know those of another.

But “loneliness shared is loneliness vanquished.” We are, in fact, better together. I know you have been tested here harshly. In places your skin is softer colored and shiny, the baby-soft skin that emerges after wounding. Some of you have scabs. I know there are those who chose to pull back, to try to prefer loneliness for a while. I know because the people in my church have those scabs, that softer, shinier new skin, too. Three Dog Night was right, it’s easy to be hard.

And yet, here we are. The fact of our being together, lighting the chalice of our faith, singing the songs of community, setting one foot then the other on the path of the future, these are enough.

For 125 years, it has been enough.

Not all of those years were easy. When Americans tell our stories, they are usually heroic. Here is yours:

In 1885, fourteen Universalists gathered in a hall over a store to form a congregation with the Rev. Henry deLafayette Webster as its first minister. By the next year, a small wooden church was built on land donated by Anson P. K. Safford, a local land developer, former Governor of Arizona, and a Universalist. Thus the first church in Tarpon Springs was erected two years before the city was incorporated and before the Orange Belt Railways came through the town. Other denominations being organized had use of the building until they could have their own.

The year after this first building was destroyed by fire in 1908, the present structure was erected at the corner of Grand Boulevard and Read Street. Several additions have been made since. The congregation has at various times been named Church of the Good Shepherd, First Universalist Church, and the Universalist Church of Tarpon Springs. Its present name, Unitarian Universalist Church of Tarpon Springs, was adopted in 1992.

Both Webster and Safford had many northern friends who were among those being attracted as winter visitors to Tarpon Springs after the railroad was built and the town was being developed as a resort. One winter visitor was George Inness, Sr., the famous 19th century landscape artist, who painted some of his well-known works here. Later his son, George Inness, Jr., a member of the church, painted three beautiful landscape panels for the sanctuary to replace windows blown out by a hurricane in 1918. The church is now home to eleven large Inness paintings that adorn the walls, making a notable contribution to the beauty of the interior and to the cultural life of the community.

When we Americans tell our stories, they are usually heroic, but yours is starkly understated. The three paragraphs of history on your website briefly mention one destruction by fire, and one disaster by hurricane, and the later might have escaped mention were it not for the accidental creation of a new mural space. I have to imagine that at the time, these problems loomed far larger, seemed far more disastrous.

The church burned down. If you’ve ever been to a building fire, you know what this is. You wander the ashes numbly. The smell of wet ash hangs in your nostrils and will cling to your shoes for weeks. It would have been easy to close the doors, but there was a need for this church, work to be done, greater love to be lived, and so the members looked each other in the eye, summoned each other to courage, held each other tightly and then built the church building we worship in this morning.

Ten years later, a hurricane blows out the windows. That sounds so tidy. So genteel – hurricane one day but never mind that – some time later, George Jr. magically appears with his paints and voila! You and I know it was far messier, far more sturm and drang than that. The members were in here mopping and drying and weeping and cursing and “why us again”-ing for weeks, perhaps months. They could have taken being redisasterized as a sign from God to pack up and give up, but then they knew it was a reminder to look each other in the eye, summon forth courage, hold on tightly until they all quit shaking, then rebuild the church.

In their time, our Universalist foremothers and forefathers sustained and led this congregation safely, ensured that it would be here for your time and your care. They were not extraordinary people. They were ordinary people with an extraordinary faith, ordinary people living epic lives of love and courage because the human cost of living a lesser life has always been too high. Annie Dillard writes: “There were no formerly heroic times, and there was no formerly pure generation. There is no one here but us chickens, and so it has always been.”

Loneliness shared is loneliness vanquished.

Here is one place we create salvation. Here, we can learn to know and love each other boldly. This is a spiritual practice. And because we are practicing, we are not perfect. Because we are human, we will always be perfectly imperfect. In our perfect imperfection we can forget to love each other enough, fail to love each other fully. This is not a venal sin or a heinous crime. It is the humanness.

I have a good friend whose husband is sometimes unkind – not mean, just not kind. Joe is abrupt, self-centered, arrogant. I enjoy time with my friend, and abiding her husband’s lack of kindness is a price I pay, but at times the price has felt excessive. One afternoon, I complained to my friend, hoping she would fix her husband for me, at least a little bit. Her answer was simple: “Here is a fact: he cares about you. If you care, too, you will figure out how to talk to him.”

This is a choice we face over and over again: we can choose to care, and do the hard work that our choice requires. Our Universalist faith calls us to a care born from the knowledge that we are each a child of God, blessing and blessed. We don’t come to church to find the people we love; we come to church to love the people we find. This is the place where we learn to choose care, a place where we learn to choose love, so that we might live. That voice still and small calls us to love.

In her poem, Beginners, Denise Levertov writes:
Dedicated to the memory of Karen Silkwood and Eliot Gralla

“From too much love of living,
Hope and desire set free,
Even the weariest river
Winds somewhere to the sea-“
But we have only begun
To love the earth.
We have only begun
To imagine the fullness of life.
How could we tire of hope?
- so much is in bud.
How can desire fail?
- we have only begun
To imagine justice and mercy,
Only begun to envision
How it might be
To live as siblings with beast and flower,
Not as oppressors.
Surely our river
Cannot already be hastening
Into the sea of nonbeing?
Surely it cannot
Drag, in the silt,
All that is innocent?
Not yet, not yet –
There is too much broken
That must be mended,
Too much hurt we have done to each other
That cannot yet be forgiven.
We have only begun to know
The power that is in us if we would join
Our solitudes in the communion of struggle.
So much is unfolding that must
Complete its gesture,
So much is in bud.

So much is unfolding. What will you do now that will ensure your next 125 years? How will you continue to be a vital congregation that adds love to your lives and to the world?

Despite your fine art collection, it is not your time or your destiny to be a museum. You have work to do, real work of human relationship and human justice. Too much is broken that must be mended, too much hurt we have done to each other that must be forgiven, so much unfolding that must complete its gesture…

So much possibility. There are so many people in need of our love. Some of them are here.

We come here because we know. Here is acceptance that has welcomed us and ours for all these years.

So here you are, mopping up, drying off the water, assessing the damage. Remember who you are, and you will know what you are called to do next. Look deeply in each other’s eyes, summon forth all your courage, hold onto each other tightly, and rebuild the church. It is what you have always done. This is the right time to require more of yourselves and each other: more care, more love, more joy, more church. 

  © Unitarian Universalist Church of Tarpon Springs, 2015