Harvesting the Past, Planting the Future

Harvesting the Past, Planting the Future
by Rev. Amy Russell
March 2, 2014

Reading from A. Powell Davies’ sermon, “From the Future comes a Cry”
 “from the future comes a cry”–a cry of challenge, a cry of entreaty. It is for the future we must live–to live at all–though it be a future we ourselves shall never see. There is nothing else to live for–and in the last analysis, there never was. It is what we aim towards that gives our lives their meaning; their meaning and their true fulfillment….
For the future is molding the present; the word of challenge and requirement has gone out. “From the future comes a cry”.

A Powell Davies came to Washington, DC in October, 1944 to become All Souls Unitarian’s settled minister, just as the war abroad was unfolding. Prior to this, he had become deeply involved in helping to shape the American Unitarian Association by chairing a team defining its underlying principles. These principles stated that the AUA was dedicated to “individual freedom of belief, discipleship to advancing truth, the democratic process in human relations, universal brotherhood undivided by nation, race or creed, and allegiance to a united world community”.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Those statements became the basis for our seven principles. We can look back to the foundational concepts that Davies and his colleagues established as being the “echoes of our past” which contribute to who we as a denomination are today.

This church, Davies Memorial, was founded as a result of A. Powell Davies vision that there should be a Unitarian center in each corner of this city, beckoning people to create intentional communities dedicated to spiritual freedom and a brotherhood of equality and compassion. At that time, eight churches were founded around the DC area, including this one, five of them with Davies’ direct involvement. Davies’ vision and the members at that time put the intentions of their deepest values into action in founding these Unitarian churches dedicated to these principles of equality, diversity, and compassion. All Souls Church used those same Davies’ principles in the founding of all the eight Unitarian Centers in the DC area, including this one.

Some of your members today were a part of those early members who invested their intentions and actions into the planting of this church. I asked Liz Echols and the Dowlings to sit down with me and tell me some of the stories about the history of this church and what those people with vision went through to follow up on their intentions.

Liz and Bill Echols were a young family raising their kids. They had hopes that when they heard of this small group founding a UU church, in the southeast corner of the DC area, that this would be a place where they could find a spiritual home for their kids to be raised with liberal religious values. They joined the group which met many different places in those first years. At one time they were meeting in a school, with RE meeting in 3 other schools. Liz remembers that everyone had to volunteer. The only paid staff at that time was the minister. Everyone pitched in with 2 or 3 jobs.

Liz remembers that they volunteered to ferry the hymnals and pulpit in the trunk of their car to be set up every Sunday morning in the school before services. She remember once when they were packing for a vacation and opened the trunk of their car to put in their suitcases, only to find the trunk full of the church equipment which would have to be taken somewhere so that the church wouldn’t be without them that Sunday.

Liz also remembers the time in 1968, when the Poor People’s march was held in Washington DC. The Poor People’s Campaign was an effort to gain economic justice for poor people in the United States. It was organized by Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and carried out in the wake of King’s assassination. People who had come from all over the country and Davies Memorial offered to house and feed many of them. Liz remembers making food and taking it to the brand new building which had been built in 1965. People were sleeping in sleeping bags all over the floor and church members were scurrying around cooking and cleaning. That was a time when Liz felt very proud of being a member of this church.

Then there was the time in 1970 when you embarked on raising money for a grand piano. Some were skeptical; some thought it was not possible. But the program asked people to “buy a key” for the piano and after months of effort and generous contributions, a grand piano arrived in time for the Christmas service.

Race and Joyce Dowling remember times when in the 80’s people had grown tired of endless fundraisers which were designed to fund the operating budget. They happened so often that one member pledged that he would give $2000 if he didn’t have to be involved in another yard sale. Race, as treasurer, took him up on the idea and introduced the novel idea that people’s pledges should be funding the church and that fund-raisers, which he suggested they call “fun-raisers” only be used to pay for extras. Once this idea was accepted, people began to understand what it took to support a church with pledges. And on top of that, the fun-raisers were used to buy the nice chairs you are sitting in.

That is what it takes to plant seeds for a church- a lot of inconvenience and a lot of your commitment. Since then, many of you, and many people who are now gone, dedicated their souls to the growth and nurturance of this church. You have accomplished so much over the years. The church has grown in membership at times, and reduced membership at times. You’ve had wonderful long years with some ministers, and you’ve had some difficulty with some ministers leaving after a short time. You’ve had times when your congregation was very actively involved in social action, and times when you didn’t have the resources or the energy left over to be involved in the community. You’ve had the best of times, you’ve had the worst of times.

Now, you’ve had a number of losses. The loss of those heady days in John Crestwell’s ministry when you were growing and becoming so diverse. Then after a successful interim ministry, calling Natalie Fenimore, then losing her to a larger ministry. The loss of your DRE, Denise Brenner. The difficulty with being able to afford a choir director and the loss then of a more full time choir program. Many losses.

With loss comes grief. With the amount of effort and energy, time, treasure, and talent that you have all given to this church, many of you may now feel disheartened. Discouraged.

But throughout all of this, your glowing coal was your mission- the vision of being a multi-racial, multi-cultural, and multi-generational congregation in which you promise to treat each other with care and respect as we also express these values in the larger community. This is your purpose. You are known for this mission. In fact, Davies was named as a “breath-through congregation” by the UUA in 2011, for your efforts to be a multi-racial congregation. Your “glowing coal” of your mission is intact in all of you. I heard it from many of you as I met with members this week.

The sincerest intentions of your founders bore fruit only because your leadership over the years continued to nurture their seedling hopes with their greatest efforts. It’s the “cry of the future” that called to them. In other words, you here today investing your time, talent, and treasure in Davies Memorial are the fruition of their vision- you are the ones that called back to them with your encouragement.

What calls to you from Davies future? What do you see as the vision in which you will invest your sincerest and hardiest efforts? Can you see a congregation 10 years from now, 20 years from now, thinking back to you and what you do here today to create this future?

Davies was founded as an intentionally diverse community in which people of all races, economic background, and spiritual beliefs could come together and form unity in diversity. Do you see that intention having been planted so many years ago bearing fruit today? And what about your future? Could you see this church becoming a place where people all over the community could come and talk about race relations? I’ve heard about your ADORE program that continues with dialogue about race and ethnicity. With the recent events of young black men being murdered and the perpetrators not being called to account- what can Davies do to facilitate open conversation about these events? In your RE program, can you see a vision of how your young people can grow up to be leaders in a multi-cultural, multi-racial world? Can you see a vision of how your church can help other churches become more inclusive?

What about vision for outreach? Do you imagine a time when people all over the city talk about Davies as a vibrant, vital, alive place where people come to share and discuss current issues? Do you see a time when your outreach programs have become so vital that you invite other churches all over Prince Georges County to help participate in them? Can you imagine the numbers of people who have received assistance from one of your programs coming to your door asking to give back?

And how about a vision for worship? Imagine you have a minister who preaches dynamic and inspiring sermons and your music program includes a full choir and maybe a jazz band, and then maybe a children’s choir? People hear about your worship and come from far away just to participate.

And your vision for RE has borne fruit already with your hiring of a wonderful RE Director, Pete Fontneau, and with your previous DRE, Denise Brenner. The growth of those seeds is already happening. And Pete is not just providing you with programming for youth, but also with some adult RE which is something you have been missing.

Your “cry from the future” might include a call from one of your own grandchildren, growing up in this church, learning about radical inclusivity and taking these ideas with him/her and deciding to become a UU minister. Or another grandchild deciding they have a mission to start a homeless program in Prince George’s county. You might be hearing those children or grandchildren calling to you- please, respond to their hopes by giving your time, treasure and talent here today at Davies Memorial to plant seeds for their future. And then to water and nurture those seeds to fruition.

In our reading today, we heard a story about a woman beginning her career as a fund-raiser for a non-profit. Lynne Twist, fund-raiser for the Hunger Project, was new at her job and as nervous as she could be about walking into the CEO’s office of a major corporation. It took all her nerve to walk in and in the 15 minutes she was given to speak to him, started to tell him about the conditions of hunger in the world and the goals of her agency. She had only talked for a few minutes when he opened his desk drawer and handed her a check for $50,000. It was clear he was done with her and didn’t care much about what good the money was going to do. He was giving the money as a PR move since their company had recently had experienced some public relations setbacks. He was giving the money to change their public image. The idea that it might help some people was a minor detail in his mind.

Then when she went into the church in Harlem and received gifts of money from people who had worked hard for their money but with their sincerest intentions wanted to make a difference for people who didn’t have as much as they had. Their money was given with hope, with love, with great intention. Money has power. The power comes from the heart of the person giving it. Twist says, “Like water, money is a carrier. It can carry blessed energy, possibility, and intention, or it can carry control, domination, and guilt. It can be a current of love, a conduit for commitment- or a carrier of hurt or harm.” Twist reminds us that money can contain the power to create good or the power to create harm. When we give our money with our sincerest intentions for creating good, and then we put our time and our heart behind it, we are creating powerful futures.

All of you here have been investing your time, talent, and treasure in watering the seeds that were planted by Davies’ founders. You have been busy planning the next seeds you intend to plant- calling a permanent minister, a fuller music program. The growth of these seeds depends on you and what you want to do with the future of Davies.

There’s a cry from the future coming to you. Davies says:

“from the future comes a cry”–a cry of challenge, a cry of entreaty. It is for the future we must live–to live at all–though it be a future we ourselves shall never see. There is nothing else to live for–and in the last analysis, there never was. It is what we aim towards that gives our lives their meaning; their meaning and their true fulfillment….

I invite you to respond to that cry from the future with your pledge in this year’s pledge drive.



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