Never a Dull Moment

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2009 Daniel Harper.


The first reading this morning comes from Toni Morrision’s Nobel Prize lecture:

“Once upon a time there was an old woman. Blind but wise.” Or was it an old man? A guru, perhaps. Or a griot soothing restless children. I have heard this story, or one exactly like it, in the lore of several cultures.

“Once upon a time there was an old woman. Blind. Wise.”

In the version I know the woman is the daughter of slaves, black, American, and lives alone in a small house outside of town. Her reputation for wisdom is without peer and without question. Among her people she is both the law and its transgression. The honor she is paid and the awe in which she is held reach beyond her neighborhood to places far away; to the city where the intelligence of rural prophets is the source of much amusement.

One day the woman is visited by some young people who seem to be bent on disproving her clairvoyance and showing her up for the fraud they believe she is. Their plan is simple: they enter her house and ask the one question the answer to which rides solely on her difference from them, a difference they regard as a profound disability: her blindness….

The second reading this morning is the continuation of the first reading:

They [the young people] stand before her [the old woman], and one of them says, “Old woman, I hold in my hand a bird. Tell me whether it is living or dead.”

She does not answer, and the question is repeated. “Is the bird I am holding living or dead?”

Still she doesn’t answer. She is blind and cannot see her visitors, let alone what is in their hands. She does not know their color, gender, or homeland. She only knows their motive.

The old woman’s silence is so long, the young people have trouble holding their laughter.

Finally she speaks and her voice is soft but stern. “I don’t know,” she says. “I don’t know whether the bird you are holding is dead or alive, but what I do know is that it is in your hands. It is in your hands.”

Sermon — “Never a Dull Moment”

Somewhat to my surprise, this morning I find myself preaching yet another sermon about this history of our church. I decided I wanted to preach a sermon on how churches survive problems and conflicts — thus the title of this sermon, “Never a Dull Moment.” But I wanted to give specific examples of how Unitarian Universalist churches get through problems and conflicts, and then I thought about North Unitarian Church here in New Bedford, which went through more than its chare of problems and conflicts, and I decided I would speak about North Unitarian Church.

North Unitarian Church had its origins in Unity Home, which was a mission of First Unitarian Church to the immigrants in the north end of New Bedford. An unsigned handwritten manuscript in the church archives, titled “How our church began,” tells the story of how Unity Home came to be established, and I would like to read you an extended excerpt from that manuscript:

“It wasn’t long after Mr. Frothingham became minister [in 1892] that he began looking around to see what he would do to improve the community. With Mrs. Frothingham they started a club for girls, called ‘Girls Social Union’ they met in the chapel of the Unitarian Church. There were classes in sewing, millinery, & cooking, besides having fun playing all sorts of games. This was given free of charge to any girl who was interested in becoming a member.

“In 1894 it was decided to hire rooms in the North end of the city [at] 1651 Purchase St. where the girls could meet and they would be nearer their homes as they all lived in the north end of the city. It was in the same rooms Mr. Frothingham established a free kindergarten and secured a trained teacher for the children….

“At that time a Bohemian man [i.e., from what is now the Czech Republic] living in the north end, having read of the day nursery and of a sermon by Mr. Frothingham translated was deeply impressed, and said this is what I believe, and would like my children to go to the Sunday school where Mr. Frothingham is the minister. The children went to Sunday school, soon other children joined, and this was the beginning of our Sunday school….

“The Sunday school became so large in attendance that we were over crowded, so Mr. Frothingham decided we should have a place of our own. So in 1901 Unity Home was built….” (1)

This unsigned account of the early history of Unity Home was written about 1965, and it seems likely that the person who wrote lived through these events. Notice that Unity Home started as an outreach to young people in New Bedford, through non-religious programs for the children of immigrants. Then that Bohemian man read one of Paul Frothingham’s sermons in translation, and decided that he wanted his children to go to a Unitarian Sunday school. Rather than have the immigrant children come to the downtown church for Sunday school, Paul Revere Frothingham started a Sunday school in the North End.

So the religious programs at Unity Home began as a Sunday school for children. After Frothingham left the downtown church in 1900, the new minister, Rev. William Geohegan, began to get more adults involved in the work of Unity Home. In 1903, Geohegan founded the Channing Club, an organization for adults, at Unity Home. (2) By 1904, Geohegan started evening worship services at Unity Home, with music provided by a quartet of young people from the Sunday school. (3) This was yet another new direction for Unity Home.

Then in 1905, the downtown church decided to hire an assistant minister who would be the director of Unity Home. This assistant minister would be paid by, and would report to, the downtown church, but would work primarily at Unity Home. Rev. Bertram Boivin, a newly-ordained minister, served for one year. Rev. Bertland Morrison came to Unity Home next, and he stayed from 1906 to 1910. He submitted written reports to the downtown church each year, and in 1909 he wrote, “Sunday school is the most important work, with an average attendance of 25. Sunday evening worship services attract an average of only a dozen people. Many other activities go on in Unity Home.” (4) In other words, there were many activities at Unity Home, but the actual religious activities taking place on Sunday probably involved no more than a dozen families.

Yet some of the other activities at Unity Home were of a religious character. The Unity Home Branch of the Women’s Alliance was ready to affiliate with the national Alliance of Unitarian Women in 1914, with as many as twenty women active. They felt the most important local work was in their influence and financial assistance to keep Unity Home open on week days, with an attendant. (5) At the same time, the downtown church had begun to think about Unity Home as a church, for when they hired Rev. Louis Henry Buckshorn in 1913, his title was not director, but “minister of Unity Home.” (6)

Buckshorn lasted about two years before he was ousted. A report to the downtown church told the story this way: “The Home was not open during the summer, and when Mr. Buckshorn returned in the autumn there seemed to be some friction. He tendered his resignation to take effect Nov. 1st and the Committee feel they were most fortunate in securing the services of Mr. and Mrs. Wood who came from the East End Settlement House in Boston.” (7) Buckshorn may have been hired by the downtown church, and paid by the downtown church, but the people who made up the church at Unity Home ousted him.

Here’s what I learn from this church conflict: no one was quite sure what Unity Home was any more. Was it primarily a church, or was it primarily a non-religious outreach program? They didn’t know what their mission was. Without a widely-shared sense of mission, Unity Home was ripe for power struggles and conflict.


After a year of Mr. Wood, the downtown church apparently decided that they were going to try again to turn Unity Home into a church. In 1916, they had Unity Home ordain Leon Sherman Pratt; in the Unitarian tradition, only churches can ordain ministers, so the act of ordaining Pratt shows that now Unity Home was expected to be a church. On March 12, 1917, under Pratt’s leadership, the people of Unity Home voted on a profession of faith, a statement which would serve as the basis for membership. It was a fairly common Unitarian profession of faith for that day, and it read like this: “This church accepts the religion of Jesus holding that true religion is summed up in love to God and love to man. We the undersigned holding these principles unite for the worship of God and service of man.” (8) I would call this statement a church covenant, so by my standards they became a church on March 12, 1917. A week later, on March 19, 1917, they voted on a new name: henceforth, they would call themselves North Unitarian Church. (9)

I make this sound very optimistic, but Pratt himself was not so optimistic. In May, 1917, he reported on his efforts to the American Unitarian Association as follows: “In answer to your request there is very little to say. I came to New Bedford early in November to take charge of the mission work at Unity Home. This mission as you doubtless know is maintained by the Unitarian Church in New Bedford. I have very little success to report in my work…. I found a large Sunday school, but practically no interest in a service for older people…. Also it seemed to me that there should be more of an effort on the part of the people who came to Unity Home to become self-supporting. With these points in mind, I have been working and we have organized a church — North Unitarian Church — having now about 90 names of people on our book who signed our covenant….” (10) Here, Pratt outlines he believes the mission of a church should be: worship services for adults, and substantial financial contributions.

Leon Pratt went off to volunteer in an effort related to the First World War. A social worker named Edith E. Beane was hired to serve as director of Unity Home for a year, (11) until a new minister could be found.

Rev. Samuel Louis Elberfeld was an experienced minister when he arrived at North Unitarian Church. He had been ordained in 1897, and had served congregations in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, and Illinois. He lasted for a little less than four years. Each year, he wrote an annual report for the downtown church (they paid most of his salary), and his reports sound increasingly discouraged. Finally, on November 17, 1922, a small group of lay leaders held a meeting that managed to grab the attention of the New Bedford Standard Times, and here’s how they reported the story:

“At a meeting of members of the North Unitarian Church held in Unity Home, Tallman street, last night, a vote was taken on the dismissal of the Rev. Samuel L. Elberfeld, pastor of the church. There were 36 members present, and the voted was 26 for dismissal, and three for his retention. There were seven blanks cast.

“According to previous announcements, the meeting was called for the purpose of discussing the future policy of the church, bearing on the question of whether the social and athletic activities are to be carried on as extensively as they are at present, or whether they are to be made subservient to the work of the church proper.

“The meeting resolved itself into a discussion of the dismissal of the pastor. The vote it is said did not represent the sentiment of the full church body for the reason that there are at least 125 accredited members of the parish, and that our of this number only 36 were present. Of the 36 who attended, it was pointed out that the majority was entirely out of sympathy with the pastor. Members of this majority, it is said, were the instigators in the removal proceedings that were first brought to light as a result of a meeting a week ago.” (12)

You can see why the Standard-Times wanted to report on this story! Newspapers love it when there is scandal in churches. And the anonymous reporter goes on to report the real reason behind the vote to dismiss Elberfeld: “The difficulties involving the pastor, it was learned, were brought about by a certain faction who charged he was more interested in and giving more of his time to the development of the Sunday school, the Women’s club and the social and athletic activities, than to the work of the church proper.” (13) Elberfeld, it seems, spent much of his time on outreach to the community; that certainly would seem to be the priority of the downtown church, who paid his salary, for the downtown church saw Unity Home as a mission.

Since Unity Home started as an outreach to the young people of the city, it would seem that Elberfeld wasn’t doing anything radical. But by 1922, some lay leaders in Unity Home had a new understanding of themselves: they were an independent church, not a mission of the downtown church. They wanted a minister who paid attention to them, not someone who spent time on kids who didn’t even come to church. They didn’t have the legal authority to fire Elberfeld, but they made his position untenable. Elberfeld left, and went on to a long-term ministry in the old East Boston Unitarian church. And in 1923, North Unitarian Church voted to give up their charter as a separate church. (14) Although I can’t prove it, I’m pretty sure they were pressured to give up their charter by the downtown church. North Unitarian Church was utterly dependent on the financial assistance of the downtown church, and the downtown church did not want them to show too much independence.

Here’s what I learn from this church conflict: Be careful when powerful people have very different expectations for a church. The lay leaders of North Unitarian felt the mission of their church was to focus on the church members. Samuel Elberfeld felt his mission was to help the young people in the surrounding community. And the downtown church wanted something in between these two extremes. This church conflict arose because there were three powerful groups or individuals who three different ideas of what the church should be doing. You will notice that the group who controlled the finances got to have the final say.


1923 was the end of full-time ministry at North Unitarian Church. Leon Pratt came back to work at Unity Home on Sundays only. When he resigned in 1926, Florence Parkins (later Florence Cross) became the director of Unity Home; she, too, worked part-time. The manuscript titled “How Our Church Began” tells us that “Florence Cross took charge of the Sunday school” and “was superintendent” but that “during that time there were no church services.” (15)

Florence Cross presided over a long peaceful time at Unity Home. There may not have been worship services, but some children spent three or four nights a week at Unity Home, participating in various activities. Florence Cross resigned in 1937. Soon the downtown church had a new, dynamic minister named Duncan Howlett, and he began to turn his attention to Unity Home. He started up worship services again, with the help of a student minister named Robert Holden. And then he managed to get Maja Capek to come to Unity Home. Maja Capek, with her husband Norbert Capek, had built the largest Unitarian church in the world in Czechoslovakia between the world wars; she was stranded in the United States after the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia. Howlett managed to get the American Unitarian Association to help pay Maja Capek’s full-time salary. (16)

For the first time since Samuel Elberfeld, Unity Home had a full-time, experienced minister working with them. Like Elberfeld, Capek was focused on children; unlike Elberfeld, she strengthened the children’s programs that were already there, building on the existing mission of Unity Home. She helped Unity Home organize into an unincorporated church, which affiliated with the American Unitarian Association on 5 May 1942. (17) When Capek left in 1943 to work for the American Unitarian Association doing war relief work, Unity Home had found a new sense of direction, and seemed headed towards a renaissance. For the next year, a talented and dynamic student minister named Max Gaebler kept Unity Home focused on finding a permanent full-time minister.

In a special worship service on October 8, 1944, North Unitarian Church received their charter of incorporation, ordained Orval Simeon Clay, and installed Clay as their new minister. Participating in this service were Rev. Frederick May Eliot, president of the American Unitarian Association, and Rev. Dan Huntington Fenn, director of ministry for the American Unitarian Association; clearly, the American Unitarian Association had high hopes for North Unitarian Church. Those hopes were not to be realized. By 1946, Clay had resigned and left the ministry.

Rev. Horace Westwood, a Unitarian minister who knew him well, said that Orval Clay was new and inexperienced, but that he had a keen intellect and lots of potential. (18) A healthy church can nurture such a new, inexperienced minister, helping to transform him or her into an amazing spiritual leader who helps the church live out its mission and reach its ideals. A healthy church does this by keeping its attention focused on its mission and its ideals. By contrast, a church which has lost its focus on its mission can become overly dependent on its minister. (18.5) I believe North Unitarian Church somehow lost sight of its mission as a church. Perhaps it felt a real church should move beyond the old focus on children and families. Perhaps the church had become overly dependent on the leadership of Maja Capek, Duncan Howlett, and Max Gaebler. In any case, it had lost its ability to nurture inexperienced leaders. Clay lasted less than two years at North Unitarian Church; he moved to California, became a teacher, and left the Unitarian ministry. (19)

After Clay left, North Unitarian struggled to find its way. Somehow, children were no longer welcome in the church; by 1949, the Sunday school was shrinking rapidly. (21) Soon thereafter, there were no children at all, as families transferred their membership to the downtown church, to First Unitarian Church. (22) Unity Home had begun as a mission to children, and when North Unitarian lost sight of that there wasn’t much left. North Unitarian stayed in existence for two more decades, but it was a tiny, inflexible church with an aging membership that slowly died off. Worship services ended in 1968, and North Unitarian finally consolidated with First Unitarian in 1971. (23)

Here’s what I learn from North Unitarian Church’s experience with Orval Clay: the healthy church is the church that focuses on its mission in the world, that is flexible enough to be able to adapt itself to changing conditions in order to keep on living out its mission. Thus a healthy church can cope with a new inexperienced minister. But if a church loses its sense of mission, if a church tries to depend on overly talented ministers to come up with a mission for it, that church is not long for this world.


North Unitarian Church was a wonderful, warm, welcoming religious community for many, many years. Conflicts did not stop it. Power struggles with the downtown church did not stop it. Why would such petty things stop a church that provided such good nurture to its children and families? North Unitarian Church was a wonderful place to be.

In the readings this morning, we heard a story told by Toni Morrison, and that story can be retold so that it applies to churches: “An old blind woman lives on the town’s outskirts. Several children decide to fool her. One of them says he has a bird in his hand and asks her to tell him if it is alive or dead. The woman is silent for a long time. Finally she announces, ‘I don’t know whether the bird you are holding is dead or alive, but what I do know is that it is in your hands. It is in your hands.” (24)

That is the message of this sermon: it is in your hands. A church that stays true to its mission will overcome all obstacles. There is no one else who can stay true except you: it is in your hands.

(1) “How Our Church Began,” unsigned manuscript in North Unitarian Church records in the church archives, pp. 1-2.
(2) “How Our Church Began,” p. 3.
(3) “How Our Church Began,” p. 3. The 1904 Unitarian Yearbook (c. 1 July 1904) lists Unity Home for the first time, with William Geohegan as the minister; however, “How Our Church Began” states that William Brunton, then minister of the Fairhaven Unitarian church, led the first worship services.
(4) “Unity Home Report for 1909,” Bertland Worth Morrison, Mss 42 Sub-group 2, Series A, Sub-series 3, Folder 1 in the Old Dartmouth Historical Society (ODHS) library.
(5) Unitarian Word and Work: The Monthly Bulletin of the American Unitarian Association, National Alliance of Unitarian Women, Young People’s Religious Union, and Unitarian Temperance Society, May, 1914 (vol. 17 no. 8), p. 15.
(6) “Annual report of the Committee on Unity Home” for the year ending 26 January 1914, in ODHS Mss 42 Box 25 Subgroup 2 Series A Subseries 2 Folder 1.
(7) (no title) in ODHS Mss 42 Box 25 Subgroup 2 Series A Subseries 2 Folder 1.
(8) North Unitarian Church Book 1917-1920, in ODHS library, entry for 12 March 1917.
(9) Ibid., entry for 19 March 1917.
(10) Handwritten letter by Pratt dated 14 May 1917, in the inactive minister file for Leon Sherman Pratt, bMS 1446 Box 171, Andover-Harvard Theological Library.
(11) Unity Home Committee report dated 27 January 1919, in ODHS Mss 42 Box 25 Sub-group 2 Series A Sub-series 2 Folder 1.
(12) From the New Bedford Daily Standard of 18 November 1922 (clipping in North Unitarian Church files of ODHS).
(13) Unity Home Committee report dated January 1924, in ODHS Mss 42 Box 25 Subgroup 2 Series A Subseries 2 Folder 1.
(14) Unity Home Committee report dated January 1925 (second of two such documents), in ODHS Mss 42 Box 25 Subgroup 2 Series A Subseries 2 Folder 1.
(15) “How Our Church Began,” p. 3.
(16) Report of the Unity Home committee, 1941.
(17) Ibid.
(18) Letter from Horace Westwood to Dan Huntington Fenn dated 3 October 1944, in the inactive minister file for Orval Simeon Clay, bMS 1446 Box 33, Andover-Harvard Theological Library.
(18.5) Peter L. Steinke, Healthy Congregations, Herndon, Virginia: Alban Institute, 1996, chapter 4.
(19) Materials in the inactive minister file for Orval Simeon Clay, bMS 1446 Box 33, Andover-Harvard Theological Library.
(21) North Unitarian Church files in the church records.
(22) Audrey Steele, untitled typescript, undated memories of Unity Home, in the North Unitarian Church files in the church records.
(23) Both congregations took initial votes to consolidate in 1970. After the state legislature granted approval for the two corporations to consolidate, both corporations voted unanimously in favor of consolidation on 19 December 1971.
(24) This retelling of Toni Morrison’s Nobel Prize speech from Peter L. Steinke, p. 103.