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.

Universal Thrift

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 was from the article “Creating Social Value” by Philip Auerswald, in the spring, 2009, issue of Standford Social Innovation Review:

“For most of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century, economists saw themselves as ‘moral philosophers,’ as qualified to comment on the equity of societal processes as on their efficiency. That tradition came to an end rather abruptly with the publication in 1939 by John R. Hicks of the classic book Value and Capital — a work that took the creation of value as a starting point for fundamental theoretical syntheses. At a time when ideological excesses, such as communism and fascism, were becoming the norm, Hicks and his colleagues at the London School of Economics and the University of Cambridge were intent on reestablishing the field of economics on firm scientific foundations, immune to whim or rhetoric. Hicks asserted forcefully that the field of economics should be based, not on the fantasy of objectively measured happiness, but rather on subjective judgments of value as revealed through market transactions. Because utility was not measurable, interpersonal comparisons were out of bounds.” [p. 54]

The second reading was from the Gospel of Thomas, chapter 65, Scholar’s Version translation:

“A person owned a vineyard and rented it to some farmers, so they could work it and he could collect its crop from them. He sent his slave so the farmers would give him the vineyard’s crop. They grabbed him, beat him, and almost killed him, and the slave returned and told his master. His master said, ‘Perhaps they didn’t know him.’ He sent another slave, and the farmers beat that one as well. Then the master sent his son and said, ‘Perhaps they’ll show my son some respect.’ Because the farmers knew that he was the heir to the vineyard, they grabbed him and killed him….”

Sermon: “Universal Thrift”

The best churches, churches that uphold the highest ideals, tend to be critical of the society around them. I believe that in this sense our church is one of the best churches, for we do uphold the highest ideals. When we look at the world around us, we see the many things that are wrong with human society; because of our high ideals, we see ways in which human society could be so much better than it is now. We not only hold high ideals, we also act on those ideals, and when we take action on our ideals we are being critical of the society around us.

This morning I’d like to speak with you about one church project in which we have lived out our ideals in two areas: sustainability, and helping out those of lower economic status. I am referring to Universal Thrift Store, the store we house in our church basement, which recycles used clothing and housewares by making them available at low prices to anyone who comes in the store. There’s nothing new about churches hosting thrift stores, but I find Universal Thrift more interesting than the average church thrift store, partly because of the store’s goals, and partly because of some of the innovative approaches to running a thrift store that are being taken. Let me tell you some of Universal Thrift’s story, and then I’ll relate the story of Universal Thrift to some larger religious questions.

Universal Thrift Store was started by Lorial Laughery-Weincek in 2003; the Board of Trustees voted to approve the Thrift Store on June 3, 2003, and it opened for business soon thereafter. As I understand it, a major part of Lorial’s motivation when she founded Universal Thrift was to raise funds to go towards the operating expenses of the church. Lorial knew that she had the skills to run a profitable thrift store and the church needed additional income, so everyone would benefit.

But Universal Thrift was always more than a way to raise money for the church. Lorial had contacts with many social service agencies in the city, and every now and again those social service agencies would send a person in need to Universal Thrift, with a letter asking if Lorial could give that person clothing or housewares at no cost. A family with small children might have had a fire in their apartment, and Universal Thrift could provide that family with basic clothing, and enough pots and pans and dishes so they could cook and eat. Or a woman with children who had escaped from an abusive relationship might need clothing and housewares, and again Universal Thrift could supply a few basic things for free, enough to get that family started in their new life.

Under Lorial’s management, Universal Thrift became more than just a store or social service provider. It was also something of a social center for several groups of people. There was the small and changing group of volunteers who would help Lorial, some on a regular basis and some on an irregular basis. There were the regular customers who came back week after week, and maybe they bought something, but maybe they came to chat with Lorial and the volunteers. And there were a few people who never bought anything, but Universal Thrift was one of their hangouts. Anyone, of any economic or social status, could come into Universal Thrift and be treated as a human being, treated with dignity and respect. Shoplifters were warned away, but even they were treated as human beings — misguided human beings, because who’d be silly enough to shoplift in a place like Universal Thrift, but human beings none the less.

Late last summer, we started experienced an economic crisis, which we now know is the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. At about the same time, Lorial underwent a serious illness. Now from 2003 through 2008, Lorial had run Universal Thrift herself. When I learned that Lorial was too ill to work at Universal Thrift, I thought that would be the end of it. So often, church projects like this fall apart when the founder stops working on it — even if they only stop working on it for a couple of months.

But three people, Bill Bennett, Maryellen Kenney, and Ted Schade, stepped forward and said they did not want see Universal Thrift Store close for even one day. With unemployment rising and the economy in freefall, they felt the surrounding community needed Universal Thrift more than ever. So they pitched in and kept the store open.

Their decision was a good one. Due to the economic downturn, sales in thrift stores rose 35% nationwide beginning last fall. Sales at Universal Thrift rose even higher than that; we don’t have seasonally-weighted records for previous years so I can’t give you an exact percentage, but I suspect fall sales at least doubled over the previous year.

Universal Thrift Store also saw an increase in volunteer participation. People in the church and in the surrounding community knew how bad the economy had gotten, and they knew that Universal Thrift was providing an essential service to people in economic need. Donations to Universal Thrift increased, and volunteers began helping out in many ways. Many people began taking a load of donated clothing every Sunday and running it through their washing machine at home, and then bringing it back to church, laundered and folded, the next Sunday. More volunteers began helping out during store hours, both people who come to our worship services and other people whose only exposure to First Unitarian is through their volunteer work with Universal Thrift.

By now, in April, 2009, the pundits tell us that the economy is no longer in freefall, that we have hit bottom, and that some economic signs are actually beginning to look positive. But the pundits also warn us that it is going to be a long, slow recovery, that unemployment will continue to rise for some time, that many families will not see any real improvement in their economic status for some time. Thus many people in the surrounding community will continue to rely on Universal Thrift for some time.

I try to drop in to Universal Thrift once a week to talk with the volunteers to hear how things are going, and just to see what’s going on. The people who shop in Universal Thrift are a diverse bunch: I see people with all different shades and colors of skin; I hear different languages being spoken, English, Spanish, and Portuguese for sure, and sometimes other languages I can’t identify; I see parents with children, single people, older couples, people of all ages. While you can never be sure how much money someone has just by looking at them, I suspect some of the people who come in are comfortably middle class or upper middle class; while some of the people who shop at Universal Thrift (as Bill Bennett has pointed out) put their purchases in a wheeled shopping cart parked on the sidewalk because they don’t have a car. While you can never be certain how much education someone has, some people who come into the store seem as if they have a college education, and others who seem as if they don’t. In short, the wide diversity of the people who shop at Universal Thrift reflects the wide diversity of our church’s neighborhood.

Let me summarize what Universal Thrift does:

Whether someone shops at Universal Thrriftt out of choice or because they can’t afford to shop somewhere else, the store is a resource for the community. Almost as important, Universal Thrift also helps out people who are in dire need and who have no money at all, supplying free clothing and housewares when the need is great. And for all customers, Universal Thrift doesn’t threaten anyone’s personal pride: customers are treated with respect; and most goods are not given away free, thus preventing guilt, shame, and dependency.

Universal Thrift provides a benefit to volunteers, giving an outlet for people to help others through important and meaningful work. And Universal Thrift helps the church: it is now the biggest single fundraising effort in our church, and current projections are that Universal Thrift will gross somewhere around four thousand dollars this fiscal year, twice as much money as the next biggest fundraising effort. We are doing good for others, while doing well for ourselves.

Finally, Universal Thrift recycles perfectly useable clothing and other household goods that might otherwise have gone into the landfill. That is to say, Universal Thrift promotes a culture of sustainability and thrift, in direct opposition to the American consumer culture of unsustainability and waste. In this sense, the phrase “Universal Thrift” is not just the name of the store, it is also an economic manifesto. The goal of Universal Thrift is not to maximize profit at the expense of moral goals; instead, the goal of Universal Thrift is to increase profitability while upholding moral goals like sustainability and human dignity.

I promised you that I would explain something of the religious significance of Universal Thrift. And given who I am, the best way I know how to do that is to retell a story that is originally attributed to Jesus of Nazareth — who was himself an outspoken critic of the economic problems of his day.

Here’s the story Jesus told, as it comes down to us in the Gospel of Thomas, chapter 65:

“A person owned a vineyard and rented it to some farmers, so they could work it and he could collect its crop from them. He sent his slave so the farmers would give him the vineyard’s crop. They grabbed him, beat him, and almost killed him, and the slave returned and told his master. His master said, ‘Perhaps they didn’t know him.’ He sent another slave, and the farmers beat that one as well. Then the master sent his son and said, ‘Perhaps they’ll show my son some respect.’ Because the farmers knew that he was the heir to the vineyard, they grabbed him and killed him. Anyone here with two ears had better listen!”

In the standard Christian interpretation, this story is an allegory that has something to do with some kind of foreshadowing of Jesus getting executed by the Romans on trumped-up political charges. But forget the standard Christian interpretation: it takes a lot of work to turn this story into an allegory of Jesus’s execution.

It makes much more sense to take this story at face value. Taken at face value, this story is an accurate description of the economic situation during Jesus’s time. There were many people who were tenant farmers — we used to call them sharecroppers here in the United States. Jesus’s original listeners would have know that the tenant farmers were badly exploited by wealthy landowners — just as we know that sharecroppers here in the United States were badly exploited by landowners. Implicit in the knowledge that the tenant farmers were being badly exploited was the knowledge that in order to make any kind of living, they in turn would have had to exploit the land, farming it unsustainably so that they could hope grow just enough extra to allow them to provide for their own families.

If we take this story at face value, as a story about morally corrupt exploitation of tenant farmers and of the land, we can see how the different characters are driven to act by their economic circumstances. The farmers deplete the land, beat up the slaves sent to collect the crop, and kill the landowner’s son. The slaves, forced to act as the agent of the exploitative landowner, are essentially helpless and get beaten almost to death. As for the wealthy landowner, he seems to me to be morally despicable simply because he is so clueless. He obviously has no real understanding of the extent to which he exploited the tenant farmers. He doesn’t get how unjust it is that he should sit back and do nothing, and reap all the benefits of the tenant farmers’ hard work; that is to say, he doesn’t understand that exploitation is bad.

And the rich landowner has no excuse for not understanding that exploitation is bad. Jesus of Nazareth, who told this story, was a Jew, and his listeners were Jews, and we can assume that the rich landowner in the story is a Jew. As a Jew, the rich landowner should know what is said in the Torah, in the book of Leviticus [Lev. 25.1-7], where the God of the Israelites commanded them that they shall periodically let the land lie fallow, that is, commanded them to not over-exploit the land. And when the God of the Israelites prohibits more than just exploitation, their God is also prohibiting wasteful, unsustainable practices. (Yes, the God of the Israelites was an early environmentalist.)

Not only that, but later in the book of Leviticus [25.23], the God of the Israelites commanded them as follows: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants.” In other words, God owns all the land, and all human beings are nothing more than tenant farmers. So that rich landowner is violating his God’s commandments in at least three ways: first, he is exploiting the land; second, he thinks he owns what really only his God owns; and third, he is living wastefully and unsustainably.

We are not contemporaries of Jesus of Nazareth, and probably most of us here would not consider ourselves to be good observant Jews who are obliged to follow the commandments of the God of the Israelites. But although we may not observe the specifics of Jewish law, we are inheritors of the long tradition that began with the Torah, was interpreted by Rabbi Jesus, and lives on with us today as deeply-felt moral teachings. As a religious people, we know that exploitation is morally wrong: we know that we should not exploit either the natural environment, or other people. As a religious people, we know that living a wasteful and unsustainable lifestyle is morally wrong: we know that we should promote thrift, and an economy based on sustainability.

The religious significance of our Universal Thrift Store should now become more clear. Obviously, we can’t change the whole American consumer economy all by ourselves. But what we can do is try to create moral alternatives to the wasteful, unsustainable, morally wrong American consumer lifestyle. That is precisely what we are doing with Universal Thrift Store. We are running a socially-conscious business venture that is both profitable and moral. Our business model for Universal Thrift generates income, and promotes a thrift-based, sustainable economic alternative. The very existence of Universal Thrift Store serves as a gentle but effective critique of the American consumer economy, showing we can generate income sustainably, and without exploitation.

Let me very briefly outline the business theory behind what we’re doing with Universal Thrift. Obviously, any business tries to generate value — value for the customer, and value for the business owner. But what do we mean by value? Is value to be measured solely in terms of the monetary profit that is generated? Or when we talk about “value,” do we also include sustainability, morality, effectiveness, and equity?

The way we run Universal Thrift, we want to generate value that includes sustainability, morality, effectiveness, and equity. And when we generate value, that value accrues, not to individuals (although many individuals do get value out of Thrift Store), but rather to a non-profit organization with a mission to further spread value through society.

Universal Thrift is a form of social entrepreneurship. We aim to maximize income for our church, while also maximizing benefit to the customers and to the wider society. We promote sustainability by promoting thrift, provide an alternative to the throw-away society, while at the same time we make money. We aim to produce equity by helping those with excess goods donate them to help generate income for the church, while also reducing the waste that comes with manufacturing too many consumer goods. We hope to generate profit while also carrying out larger social goals. This is why I call Universal Thrift an example of social entrepreneurship, because it combines a for-profit business model with a non-profit morality.

In closing, I should say that I believe that Universal Thrift could get significantly larger. I believe we could generate lots more income for the church — I think twelve thousand dollars in annual sales could be within reach within a couple of years. I believe we could help spread the idea of social entrepreneurship more widely in our community — as more volunteers learn the principles of social entrepreneurship through involvement with Universal Thrift, they can spread those principles more widely. Some people might even find a way to become social entrepreneurs who start new projects in such a way that they create jobs for themselves. I believe further innovation could grow out of Universal Thrift, innovations that will further the goals of sustainability while benefiting the wider community.

I don’t claim that socially entrepreneurial projects like Universal Thrift will save civilization as we know it. But I do know that these projects have the potential to turn us away from an economics with a moral void at its center; and turn us towards an economics of universal thrift, human dignity, and sustainability. And so may the phrase “universal thrift” become an integral part of a new, morally sound, economic manifesto.

It Won’t Fizzle Out

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 was from a transcription of a talk given to the Women’s Alliance by Maggi Peiece, on the history of Tryworks Coffeehouse:

“And then there was one famous night where I had to take care of Friday night…. I arrived on the Friday, but nobody else did. Joe [Cardoza] was on the door. And there wasn’t even any coffee that night. And only four kids came. And one of them was Pete and he was from Fairhaven. And he said to me… ‘Is nothing happening tonight?’

“And I said, ‘There is always something happening at Tryworks.’

“And he looked at me, and he said, ‘You know, Maggi, this is sort of typical of New Bedford. Everything starts with a big article in the newspaper, and a big hoopla.’ He said, ‘Remember that first night in May, when we opened?’ And this was about July [1967]. He said, ‘Everybody starts with a terrific hope, and everybody’s going to help, and then it all fizzles out within six weeks.’

“And I said, ‘Pete, I promise you. Tryworks will not fizzle out in six weeks.’”

[Talk given 10 March 2009]

The next reading was a story told by James Luther Adams, about a time in the late 1940s when the Board of the First Unitarian Church in Chicago was debating about whether to encourage African Americans to become members of their church.

“Some years ago I was a member of the Board of Trustees of the First Unitarian Church in Chicago. A member of the board often complained about the minister’s preaching too many sermons on race relations. He often said that academics of course know little of the world of reality. One evening at a meeting of the board he opened up again. So the question was put to him, ‘Do you want the minister to preach sermons that conform to what you have been saying about Jews and blacks?’ ‘No,’ he replied, ‘I just want the church to be more realistic.’ Then the barrage opened, ‘Will you tell us what is the purpose of a church anyway?’ ‘I’m no theologian. I don’t know.’ ‘But you have ideas, you are a member here, a member of the Board of Trustees, and you are helping to make decisions here. Go ahead, tell us the purpose of what we are up to here. We can’t go on unless we have some understanding of what we are up to here.’ The questioning continued, and items on the agenda for the evening were ignored.

“At about one o’clock in the morning our friend became so fatigued that the Holy Spirit took charge. And our friend gave a remarkable statement regarding the nature of our fellowship. He said, ‘The purpose of the church is…. Well, the purpose is to get hold of people like me and change them.’

“Someone, a former evangelical, suggested that we should adjourn the meeting, but not before we sang, ‘Amazing grace… how sweet the sound. I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.’

“There is the vocation of the… church, to form a network of fellowship that alone is reliable because it is responsive to a sustaining, commanding, judging, and transforming power.”

[From the sermon “Fishing with Nets,” in The Prophethood of All Believers, by James Luther Adams, ed. George K. Beach, Boston: Beacon, 1986, pp. 253-254.]

Sermon — “‘It Won’t Fizzle Out’”

First of all, I must apologize to anyone who read the church newsletter, or the signboard out front, expecting to hear a sermon on civic religion; for I have gone and changed the sermon topic. What has happened is this: We are fast approaching the end of our three hundredth anniversary year. As part of that three hundredth anniversary year, I have been doing some research into the history of liberal religion in New Bedford. Now our history is important, but at a certain point we’re all going to get sick of hearing about history, so I decided to draw the line — no more research into, and no more sermons about, our church’s history after our 301st birthday in June. But I also decided that I have two more history sermons I just have to give before I am done: a sermon on Rev. William Jackson, and African American preacher who tried to start a black Unitarian church in New Bedford in 1860; and the sermon I am going to give today.

So it is that this morning I shall ignore the announced sermon topic, and preach on one aspect of liberal religion in New Bedford in the late 1960s and 1970s. More specifically, I’m going to preach about a project our church got involved with that was known as Tryworks Coffeehouse.

In order for the story of Tryworks Coffeehouse to make any sense at all, I have to talk about some of the issues liberal churches like ours were facing in late 1960s. As a child and teenager growing up in a Unitarian Universalist church in the late 1960s and through the 1970s, I remember those as being very turbulent and divisive times. Serious social issues were erupting throughout society: — the Black Power movement; the women’s liberation movement; the gay rights movement; youth rebellion; widespread use of psychoactive drugs; sexual experimentation; middle class flight from urban areas and the subsequent the suburbanization of America; increased economic and racial segregation; the attack on liberal political values that began in the late 1960s and which has continued to the present day; and so on. All these issues erupting in the wider society of course also affected our Unitarian Universalist churches.

From my own experience as a child and teenager, the way those issues affected our liberal chruches had both positive and negative effects. On the negative side, I saw youth rebellion and drug use in our churches first-hand; I saw the destructive effects that sexual experimentation had on church communities; and over time I slowly became aware that the suburbanization of America led to increasing economic and racial segregation in many of our churches; and I saw the attacks on liberal political values turn into attacks on liberal religious values. On the positive side, I remember the growing sense of enlightenment that came with my growing sense of understanding of women’s liberation, anti-racism, and gay rights, an enlightenment that came when I realized how these movements for liberation led to a deepening of our shared religious community.

Another thing that I witnessed personally was the way the Unitarian Universalist churches tried to deal with changes in teenagers. When I was in middle school, I was scared of the kids who were in the youth group at my church — we younger kids all knew those kids weren’t really part of our church, they just went to the youth groups meetings so they could use drugs without adult supervision. That was one model of youth ministry we developed in those days: let the teenagers do whatever they want without interference from adults; I do not think it was a very successful strategy. Then the adults in that church shut down the youth group, and turned it over to the Pat Green, the assistant minister, and Pat began running the youth group; he listened to the kids, but he was clearly in charge. Pretty soon, it became a big, active youth group, and my sister and I decided to join, and we both loved it; it was a safe place for us in a world that often did not at all safe. This was a more successful strategy for youth programming: to provide a safe, structured program with strong adult involvement.

More generally, Unitarian Universalists in the late 1960s and 1970s responded to the social changes going on around them and in their churches in two ways. Many times, we basically stuck our heads in the sand and pretended that everything was exactly the way it had been in the 1950s; this attitude led to things like the adults in my home church abdicating all responsibility for the church youth group. But sometimes Unitarian Universalists in the late 1960s and 1970s responded to the social changes going on around them by taking decisive leadership, and when they did so, they touched the lives of many people.

Here in New Bedford, our church faced most of the issues of that era: middle class flight from the city; increasing drug use; youth rebellion; racial tension and violence; a growing women’s liberation movement; sexual experimentation within the church and outside it; and so on. Many of these issues arose in New Bedford beginning in the late 1950s and early 1960s; I talked to a social worker who worked in New Bedford in the early 1960s, and according to her the racial tensions, the middle class flight, the drugs, the problems with young people were all happening then.

How did our church respond to those issues? Perhaps the most notable action our church took in the middle 1960s was to renovate our sanctuary and put in a new organ, work which was completed in 1967. While this was a good action to take, it did not address the social issues in the surrounding world. Perhaps not surprisingly, the records show that Sunday morning attendance began dropping in the late 1950s, and continuing dropping from then through the 1970s. While it is true that our building did need renovation, that renovation apparently did not provide an adequate ministry to the real live people who came into this building each week seeking comfort and care, seeking to live up to the highest moral and ethical ideals, seeking to make themselves and the world a better place. This pattern was repeated across the denomination, and in the liberal Christian denominations as well: church membership dropped throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

At the same time, many Unitarian Universalist churches in the late 1960s and into the 1970s sought out ways to make our churches “relevant” — that’s the word we religious liberals used at the time, “relevant.” Looking back, I’m not sure we entirely knew what we meant by “relevant,” nor to whom we wanted to extend this relevance once we found it. The events and issues came at us fast and furiously, and we just did the best we knew how.

A particularly pressing issue here in New Bedford was that the young people in this area needed some kind of outreach. By the middle 1960s, young people were facing problems of homelessness, addiction, lack of direction, and a lack of caring adults in their lives. In 1966, Pilgrim Church, the liberal Christian church just a few blocks from here, decided to open a drop-in center for the young people in the surrounding neighborhood, based on an idea proposed by their minister at that time, Rev. John De Sousa (“History of Tryworks” [HTW], p. 1). Due to a lack of adult supervision, the drop-in center did not succeed (HTW p. 1), and so John DeSousa came up with the idea of opening a coffeehouse, a place where young people could experience and help create supportive programming. This idea was not original to De Sousa; churches across the country were starting coffeehouses at this time.

But De Sousa wanted this coffeehouse to be a real community ventur. Along with Pilgrim Church, he got First Congregational Church of Fairhaven, North Baptist Church, and our church to sponsor a planning meeting (New Bedford Standard-Times, 12 May 1967). In order to help draw a crowd, and to show what a coffeehouse was like, the planning committee decided to put on a concert, featuring two musicians from our church, Barbara Carns and Maggi Peirce, as well as two other performers. The announcement hit the newspaper on May 12, 1967:

“Folk music from the British Isles, sea chants [sic], blues, and popular numbers will feature [sic] the opening of an experimental coffee house in New Bedford on Sunday night.

“The coffeehouse will open at 8 p.m. at the Pilgrim United Church of Christ church house, School and Purchase Streets. It will serve as a trial meeting to acquaint and interest area churches and individuals with [the] establishment of a permanent coffeehouse. Those who attend will act as a committee of the whole in planning for a coffee house that tentatively would be open two afternoons and two nights a week.”

The concert was a success. But even though more than a hundred people showed up, only a few people actually volunteered to help run the coffeehouse (HTW). The planning committee decided to forge ahead anyway, and open the coffeehouse two nights a week. Over the next few months, volunteers slowly fell away, and fewer and fewer young people showed up. This downward trend hit bottom in July, 1967, and in the first reading we heard Maggi Peirce describe what happened:

“And then there was one famous night where I had to take care of Friday night…. I arrived on the Friday, but nobody else did. Joe [Cardoza] was on the door. And there wasn’t even any coffee that night. And only four kids came. And one of them was Pete and he was from Fairhaven. And he said to me… ‘Is nothing happening tonight?’

“And I said, ‘There is always something happening at Tryworks.’

“And he looked at me, and he said, … ‘Everybody starts with a terrific hope, and everybody’s going to help, and then it all fizzles out within six weeks.’

“And I said, ‘Pete, I promise you. Tryworks will not fizzle out in six weeks.’” [Talk by Maggi Peirce given on 10 March 2009]

This was a turning point for this ministry to young people. It was said that most church coffeehouses of that time lasted only three to six months. Looking back at the 1960s from our current perspective, we have a good idea why most coffeehouses were short-lived: due to lack of structure, lack of commitment, pervasive permissiveness, and so on. But this did not happen at Tryworks coffeehouse. Maggi Peirce and a few other committed volunteers knew they were providing a valuable service to young people, and they refused to give up.

In retrospect, the success of Tryworks seems inevitable, because we all know that it lasted for 35 years, becoming one of the longest-running folk music coffeehouses of its day. Yet when you read accounts of the early days of Tryworks, you realize there was nothing inevitable about it. Here’s how Maggi told the story in a 2002 history of Tryworks:

“In 1967-68 I knew nothing about drugs or crime. I had led a somewhat blameless youth in Ireland hiking in the mountains, learning foreign languages, and folkdancing… I did know a great deal about British folksong — but nothing of crime. I thought I’d introduce these young people to my wealth of British Isles traditional song and music and also teach them to be aware of one another, to be kind to one another.

“I allowed no talk during sets (I don’t think half of the kids in that room had ever had No! said to them). I would holler out ‘Silence for the singer!’ if they dared talk. I warned them that folk on stage were not television and radio to be turned on and off at their will. Respect for the performer had to be shown.

“No drink or drugs could be brought on premises. They were of course. A well-known drug pusher came in one night and he was pointed out to me. I threaded my way through the crowd and looking up at him said quietly ‘I hear you’re a drug pusher. You get down those stairs and out of here or I’ll throw you out myself and don’t show your face here again.’ I heard through the grapevine that I was known as ‘one tough lady.’ I also, in the early days, took a gun from a kid and a knife another night. I did these things without thinking, without fear. I was an innocent.”

Maggi’s approach to running Tryworks is instructive. Her approach represented a balancing act between being relevant to the contemporary situation on the one hand, and remaining true to permanent religious values on the other hand. The fundamental religious truth of Tryworks, as stated by Maggi, was quite simply the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do to you; or, as she put it, teaching young people to be aware of one another, and to be kind to one another.

Thus Tryworks coffeehouse was not merely another performance venue for folk music. In fact, if you read through the early newsletters for Tryworks, you will find that Tryworks sponsored rap sessions, fencing lessons, a talk on the Peace Corps, modernistic plays, films, poetry, skits, readings, participatory dancing. May 31, 1975, was “Lunacy Night,” with “crazy monologues, silly songs, stupid games.” September 26, 1970, was a “rap session — by anyone who wishes to get a gripe or talk about something near to their hearts.” There was an hour given over every week to an open microphone, a time when anyone could sign up and perform. There may have been more performances of folk music than anything else, but in the 1960s and 1970s Tryworks was not a concert series so much as it was a ministry to the young people of the greater New Bedford area.

And it is critically important to remember that Tryworks was not the only such ministry to young people during these years. Another program, also supported by our church, stands out for me. Down in the basement of our church, Tryne Costa organized an outreach program to young drug users and addicts called “Aid to Addicts.” In an interview with the Interchurch Council newsletter in 1969, Tryne described this program: “Our atmosphere is that of a spacious home. Some of these young people are literally ‘on the streets’ and this is the only ‘home’ they know. Others have such a tense home life that they have been heard to remark, ‘This is more like home than home!’ We were given a big refrigerator, which is kept stocked with bread, cheese, fruit juice, milk — all the nourishing things they often go without. There is no charge….” This too was another ministry, another outreach program based on the golden rule.

I am particularly interested in both these programs because the central figure in each one was a lay leader; not a minister, but a lay leader. Each of these lay leaders may have received support from ordained ministers, but basically these two women provided the leadership for these two programs themselves. This represents an important historical trend. Over the past fifty years, increasingly it is the lay people in a congregation who provide direct ministry and outreach, both to other lay people within the church, and to people in need outside the church’s walls. Over the past fifty years, the ordained ministers I respect the most are the ones who are effective administrators, supporters, cheerleaders, and catalysts, ministers who support the lay leaders who are doing the direct ministry. Why do I respect this kind of minister most? First of all, it’s simple arithmetic: if you have one minister supporting ten or thirty or a hundred lay leaders who are doing direct ministry, that’s a lot more ministry that’s getting done than if that one minister thinks he or she should be the one doing most of it. Second of all, it represents one of our religious principles in action: it is what James Luther Adams called the prophethood and priesthood of all believers, of all those in the church.

You know, it’s funny. These days, self-professed Christians call us Unitarian Universalists “post-Christians,” and they mean it as an insult; they like to think that we have abandoned the truth of Christianity because we don’t accept the Nicene Creed. Well, perhaps we are post-Christian, but to me being “post-Christian” means that we look for the eternal, permanent core of Jesus’s teachings — such teachings as loving one’s neighbor as oneself — we take those core teachings very seriously, but we don’t worry about all the impermanent, transient things that have been loaded on top of Jesus over the years, things like the Nicene Creed, and Catholic doctrines, and the rigid rules of the fundamentalists. This notion is shocking to many Christians today, just as shocking as when Theodore Parker first articulated this principle a century and a half ago. We go even further than that: — we know that other world religions also teach fundamental truths, and we are open to their insights as well. Thus, for us, the term “post-Christian” does not represent an insult, it represents our dedication to finding truth wherever the truth may be found.

We often find ourselves faced with circumstances in which we are very unclear about what to do next. In the 1960s and 1970s, it was very unclear what to do about drug use, and youth rebellion, and a host of other problems that confronted our church. There was no one way to deal with these issues — that is, there was no cookbook method, no doctrinal formula for confronting the problems of the day. But there were permanent truths, such as the golden rule, which could be applied to the problems of the day; and that is what members of this church did: they applied eternal truths to immediate problems, and while it wasn’t easy, they got results.

And boy, did they get results. I came to New Bedford after Tryworks closed its doors for good, but people in the wider community keep telling me about what a huge impact Tryworks Coffeehouse had on several generations of young people. Although it is not rememberd as much today, people also tell me about “Aid to Addicts,” what a big impact it had. This tradition continues today: Universal Thrift Store, founded by a lay leader and still run by lay leaders, meets the needs of today’s economic crisis by offering good clothing and household goods at low prices to anyone who wishes to shop there. These efforts will change as the needs of the surrounding community change, and as the talents of the lay leaders change. What will not change is our church’s commitment to knowing eternal religious truths, and applying them to current social problems.

Our ultimate religious goal is change and transformation. Not only do we wish to transform the world for the better, we also wish to transform people for the better. We wish to transform people for the better, but far more importantly we work for such transformation because we know we ourselves are in need of transformation, and we wish most of all to transform ourselves for the better. So it is that each of us can say, in chorus with that man in the story by James Luther Adams, “The purpose of the church is to get hold of people like me and change them.”