Sitting at the Welcoming Table

This presentation was delivered to the congregation of Mountain Light UUC on 2011 May 22 during our homecoming service. Herb West presented the first part, and Myrna Adams West presented the second part.

Preparing the Welcome Table
A brief history of the founding of Mountain Light UU Church

By Herb West

Thank you for welcoming Myrna and me back to Mountain Light to celebrate this Homecoming service in this beautiful new location!! As I look around the room, I see some fellow charter members, members we've met since we left ten years ago, and new members and friends we have met, or will meet today.

Since there are a number of new members, I want to take a few minutes to review the founding of this congregation, beginning in 1998 and culminating at the UUA General Assembly in Nashville in June 2000.

As some of you know, I was part of the founding group of Georgia Mountains UU Church in Dahlonega back in 1993, working with Donna Waddell and a number of others to establish that first UU congregation in the north Georgia Mountains. Myrna participated in some of those efforts, although she remained an active member and leader at Cartecay United Methodist Church out on Hwy 52 East. After a couple of years at separate churches, it became clear to Myrna and me that we did our best ministry together, as a team, so in January 1995, I left Georgia Mountains and joined her as a leader at Cartecay.

By 1998, Myrna and I had become acutely aware that the United Methodist denomination, including a significant number of members at Cartecay, were not welcoming of everyone, particularly our growing number of gay and lesbian friends in this area. As a result, we, too, no longer felt welcome, and so in the summer of 1998, we began to envision a religious community that would set a welcome table for everyone. Since I had been a UU since 1976 (initially as a member of the Church of the Larger Fellowship), and since I had helped start Georgia Mountains, it seemed obvious for us to try to start a UU church.

But could we generate enough interest? Where could we get support? Who would come?

Fortunately, Diane Stephenson, who was the principal founder of Georgia Mountains, was then on the Mid South District Board, as the Trustee for Growth and Support. Myrna & I met with Diane and easily got her help and support, along with district resources. We also secured moral, physical, and financial support from Georgia Mountains as our sponsoring congregation.

We knew that Donna had moved from Dahlonega to Talking Rock and we learned that she was excited about having a UU church closer to her. Because of her experience with helping start Georgia Mountains (she had attended the UUA New Congregation Training in 1993), we involved her in our initial planning.

In late summer 1998, we began to put together a plan for an informational meeting to see if there was anyone interested. We ran a 4-week series of ads in the papers in Pickens, Gilmer, and Fannin counties, and began spreading the word through personal contacts. On November 15, 1998, we held the initial meeting at what was then the Bank of Ellijay building at Maddox Dr. and Hwy 515. The Mid South District Executive, Eunice Benton, attended, along with a number of leaders from Georgia Mountains. We had no idea of how many people to expect, but we were excited when about 70 people showed up, from as far south as Big Canoe and as far north as Murphy, NC!

It was obvious at that first gathering that there was more than sufficient interest in this area in starting a UU congregation. In response to that interest, a second meeting was held just two weeks later, when the goal of forming a UU congregation was affirmed by consensus, and several people, including Robin and Gerry, volunteered to serve on a Steering Committee.

On December 20, 1998, we began meeting twice a month, alternating between cheap or free facilities in Ellijay and Blue Ridge. Sunday morning services encompassed both worship and organizational or group building activities, along with activities for the children involved. In early 1999, Donna conducted a 4-session New UU class which was well-attended. The name "Mountain Light Unitarian Universalist Church" was selected after a very spirited discussion. In March 1999, we began a visioning process which culminated in July with the adoption of a vision statement to guide our initial years. And, on May 2, a critical congregational discussion resulted in a clear, nearly unanimous reaffirmation of the goal of forming an official, affiliated UU congregation.

Over the summer of 1999, with regular and growing attendance, we realized we were fast becoming a religious congregation, and decided we needed a stable location. In September, we ended our nomadic existence and began renting space from Good Samaritan Catholic Church in Ellijay.

Congregational development continued, with Robin and Gerry attending the UUA New Congregation Training in Boston in mid-November. On November 21, we celebrated our "first anniversary" with a special service, attended by MSD President Lyn Conley and members of Georgia Mountains. At that time, we began holding weekly services and initiated our very successful first pledge drive. On December 5, 1999, we held our first official congregational meeting, adopting bylaws, signing the membership book, electing officers and a Board of Directors, and adopting a budget.

Move forward a few months to March 5, 2000, when we celebrated our Charter Sunday, which initiated our application to the UUA for affiliation. Rev. Marti Keller, who was then minister at Georgia Mountains, led the service, which included special guests from the district and UUA. A small choir of members performed special music. And 43 charter members signed a special parchment!

A week later, on March 12, David Sweat, a member from Athens, who was then a Mid South District Healthy Congregation Consultant, facilitated a congregational workshop in which we decided what ministries and programs we would focus on during the next few years.

On May 6, 2000, the UUA Board of Trustees officially approved Mountain Light UU Church as a member congregation of the UUA! Donna, Myrna, and I attended the UUA General Assembly in Nashville, TN, in June 2000. On June 22, 2000, at the opening celebration, I was pleased and honored to walk across the stage and receive from then-UUA President, John Buehrens, and then-UUA Moderator Denny Davidoff our official recognition as a member congregation of the UUA.

Nearly two years earlier, when Myrna and I first began to dream of a religious community that would provide a sanctuary and prepare a welcome table for all, we had no idea how much interest and need existed, and how quickly that vision would blossom into Mountain Light UU Church. Although we ended up moving in 2001 to Athens for family reasons, we have watched as Mountain Light has continued to provide a liberal religious presence in this part of north central Georgia, as it has moved from the Catholic Church to Walnut Mountain to GAHA and now to this lovely spot in Cherrylog, as the membership and leadership of this church has changed over the years.

Eleven years ago this month, Mountain Light UU Church became an official UU congregation. We are happy and proud to be back to celebrate this homecoming!

Sitting at the Welcome Table
A Challenge for Today & Tomorrow

By Myrna Adams West

I want to reiterate Herb's thanks for the warm welcome you have given us this morning. And I have to say that I feel like a proud parent. When we first conceived of this congregation, we had no idea that we would leave you in your infancy, but life intervened, and we moved on with complete faith that you would carry on. And you have! And you have certainly taken our dream of a more welcoming religious and spiritual community in the Pickens/Gilmer/Fannin area and made it a reality. Thank you!

So, here we are, sitting at the Welcome Table on this lovely morning in this lovely building. To echo another of Holly Near's songs, one that is in our UU hymnal: Here we are, a justice-seeking people, young and old together in a land of many colors, gay and straight together. Here we are, a gentle, loving, though sometimes gentle, angry people. (Sing and ask congregation to join:) "And we are singing, singing for our lives."

When Herb and I and Donna began the quest to pull together the group of people who eventually became the founding members of Mountain Light Unitarian Universalist Church, the pervading vision I had was of an expanding circle, based on the old saying, "When he drew a circle that shut me out, I drew a circle that let him in." The "he" in that vision, as Herb said, was based on the exclusion that we were witnessing at that particular time within the United Methodist Church, both the larger denomination and the small church of which we were an active part. Although the pronoun is masculine and the leadership of that denomination at that time was mostly masculine, unfortunately many of the women weren't doing anything to stop the discrimination, either. Some things may have changed for the better since then.

We felt very strongly that if our friends were not welcome, then we were not welcome. And so we wanted to broaden the circle, to let in our friends and their friends and the so many others who were marginalized by traditional religion. Circles are like that: They expand to include; they can get larger and larger until everyone is enclosed inside.

But circles can also be made smaller; they can exclude, even within Unitarian Universalism. Current UUA leaders are concerned that the association is not as inclusive as our principles call us to be. And so, there is a movement within the UUA to broaden our circle to include more ethnically and economically diverse people. For example, when we look around the sanctuary at our Fellowship in Athens, Herb and I see mostly white skinned, mostly college educated, fairly well off professionals, with here and there an equally well-educated, fairly well-off professional person of color. Ethnic and economic diversity, in particular are missing from our congregation. As I look around this sanctuary this morning, I see the same mostly white-bread array of faces.

Herb and I have just participated in a workshop at UUFA called "Building the World We Dream About." The emphasis in this workshop is on eliminating racism and welcoming more people of color into our churches, fellowships, and congregations. During the workshop sessions, one of the things that I kept thinking about as we discussed the problems associated with racism is that it's not an isolated "-ism." Classism is also a problem in many of our congregations, along with intellectualism, elitism, and a few other "-isms." We're good at welcoming some marginalized groups, particularly the gay/lesbian/by-sexual/transgender/questioning community, but we haven't yet learned how to attract and include all. "Building the World We Dream About" is designed to help with that, and I encourage you to consider offering this workshop, which is available through the UUA.

Another excluding that haunts me is the negative attitude that some UUs harbor toward Christians. I grew up, literally, in a small Southern Baptist Church where my mother was president of the Woman's Missionary Union and a very powerful voice and influence in that congregation. I still identify as a UU Christian. I am who I am today because of that small Baptist church, and, personally, I don't think that's so bad.

I know not everyone who came to UU from other denominations had positive experiences, but I am sometimes hurt by the harsh words I hear uttered against Christians. Christians are not all bad! And there is certainly much we can learn from our Christian, as well as our Jewish, roots. As a member of our congregation who calls himself a Jewnitarian says, "Don't throw the Baby Jesus out with the bathwater!" Indeed, Jesus has much to teach us about the Welcome Table.

Many of Jesus' teachings are about including the marginalized, those who were not welcome at the tables of the rich and famous of his day. In one parable, he tells of a king who threw a wedding feast for his son and invited all of the rock stars, celebrities, and politicians of his kingdom to come. But on the day of the feast, the rock star had to tend to his horse farm, the celebrity had to get her nails done, and the politician had to fly off to an exotic island with a wealthy supporter. Finally, the king instructed his servants to go out into the streets and gather "all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests." The servants came back with the sort of people that Jesus was known and criticized for associating with: those without permanent homes and those who could not produce documents declaring them to be U.S. citizens, ex-cons and welfare mothers, gays and lesbians, atheists and agnostics, Republicans and Democrats, Independents and Green Party members, even some Tea Baggers and assorted other political oddities, and a few people who just didn't smell very good. You see, the king, a title Jesus used because some of his listeners weren't comfortable with the word "God," was a Unitarian Universalist, and he had this huge table called the Welcome Table. It just kept growing longer and longer and longer so that there was room for all. And as the table grew, the food on it multiplied so that there was more than enough for everyone. No one went away hungry, and there was enough left over to fill take-home boxes for everyone. (pause) I have given this parable a modern twist, but you can find it in the Christian New Testament book attributed to Matthew, chapter 22.

So here is Mountain Light Unitarian Universalist Church, sharing this lovely facility with Cherry Log Christian Church. I emailed Myra Kibler several weeks ago and asked her to tell me about the relationship between Mountain Light and Cherry Log Christian Church. She said that the two churches have discovered that they share common values and have compatible visions of reaching across denominational lines and being welcoming to all. I interpret that to mean that both churches know that sitting at the Welcome Table means nothing if we don't welcome all to the table.

Mountain Light has had 11 years to discover itself and gather resources together. Now it is time, in Myra's words, "to turn our vision outward toward the community, to seek alliances and to offer help and hospitality. The hope," Myra says, "is that such opportunities will help Mountain Light grow in membership and also in community understanding and good will." Nothing could make Herb and me and Donna and all of the Charter Members happier. May it be so.