by Barbara Sherf
The Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration at Stenton Avenue and Gorgas Lane in East Mt. Airy celebrated its 200th anniversary last month with a bit of history and a slew of proclamations from local and state authorities along with the hiring of a 31-year-old minister who now has his sermons streamed live to avoid the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
At its Sunday morning live televised service, Rev. McKinley Sims gave a sermon, a few choir members sang, music director Jane Hulting played piano and members held a live strategy session on how best to communicate with members and perhaps attract new members.
“We have the hardware in place to continue to hold services virtually. The idea of Facebook Live communication for religious education students is easy. We will continue to do phone alerts, sing and train people on using Zoom,” said the West Texas native who has been under contract for 18 months but will assume a full-time position on July 1.
“We are committed to acting in solidarity with our vulnerable neighbors by suspending our in-person worship and transitioning to online services through the use of our high-quality live stream service found on our homepage (uurestoration.us) and through the Zoom program and Facebook Live,” Sims said. “Folks can tune in from their home computer, their smart phone or call in for the audio-only version on any telephone system.
“You can find us on Facebook for the Facebook Live link, and our sermons will be posted to our YouTube page Sunday afternoons. We’re committed to experimenting and finding ways that work to connect us and reduce the social isolation, even as we practice disciplined social distancing (because of the pandemic).”
At a recent Sunday service there were four people in attendance: Sims, the camera operator and two women who sang; one also played the guitar in a folksy style.
“Suspending in-person services was a hard but necessary decision. I understand people are feeling isolated, so this is a way to be with each other in community,” Sims said. “It’s a different way of being together, and people are telling their neighbors and friends.”
In mid-February the church was above its normal 70-member attendance for the 200th anniversary of the church. Steve Workman, assistant moderator for the church who became a member on Sept. 25, 1994, shared some history of UUCR and his own story.
“The weight of history compelled me to make a long and consequential commitment,” Workman shared with the audience gathered to mark the occasion. Included among the dignitaries presenting proclamations were City Council member Helen Gym, State Rep. Christopher Rabb, State Senator Art Haywood and Rev. Naomi Washington Leapheart on behalf of the city.
Workman noted that the Church of the Restoration was initially founded at 4th and Lombard Streets as a Universalist congregation. Universalists espoused the principles and practices of a liberal Christian denomination founded in the 18th century. They have since been united with Unitarianism.
In 1820 a second church was founded in Mt. Airy by the Rev. Abner Kneeland, who held the distinction of being the last person in the U.S. to have been arrested and convicted of the crime of blasphemy, according to Workman. By the time of his arrest in 1838, Kneeland had moved away from Philadelphia and was charged with writing statements “willfully blaspheming the holy name of God and for publicly disavowing Christ.”
According to Workman, during his trial, Kneeland claimed he had never denied the existence of “a” God, and that, therefore, he was not an atheist. Nevertheless, he was remanded to 60 days in prison and served his full sentence. “Today, we revel in the fact that our congregation’s first minister was notorious, and many of us happily celebrate the scorn of the judge, who in sentencing him declared, “You, sir, are a cantankerous and inflexible heretic!”
At nearly 82 years of age, Harold Grote has been with the congregation since 1971. “When my wife and I joined, we had just gone through a host of social justice issues in Mt. Airy, like redlining in various neighborhoods, fighting for fair wages, equal rights and housing issues,” said Grote. “We were around when the East Mt. Airy Neighbors Association and Northwest Interfaith Network were formed. We have continued to fight for human rights through this church.”
On typical Thursday night there is a Black Lives Matter Vigil outside of the church followed inside by a social justice program.
“I ask a lot of our community, and we’re small, only 90 members or, so we do need help, Sims said. “I’m honored to be part of such a historic place with a history of anti-racism work.”
Tim Styer, who was an attendee for four years before joining the church 33 years ago, has seen eight ministers come and go. “At the heart of this church is building a strong and committed community. I think the future is going to be pretty much the same. It looks bright like a beacon of hope for people who otherwise can’t find community mixed with spiritual satisfaction,” said Styer by phone before the pandemic-mandated closure.
“Rev. Sims was new to us, but when a 92-year-old woman’s husband passed away, the first thing he did was visit with her during what was supposed to be a welcoming cookout. My wife and I invited ‘Kin’ (as he is called) and his wife to lunch, and I was really amazed with his listening skills and discernment. We were also amazed at his depth of theological understanding and commitment to social justice.”
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