Sometimes growth occurs in unexpected and not always desirable ways. Take the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Mountain Home, Arkansas, for example.
Mountain Home is a quiet little town tucked away in the beautiful Ozark Mountains. With two massive lakes, three rivers and beautiful mountain scenery, it ranks as one of the country’s top vacation and retirement destinations. In fact, Where to Retire magazine named the area an ‘Undiscovered Haven’ and perennially ranks it as a Top 100 Retirement Community in the United States.
Organized in 1981, the UU Fellowship is led by the Rev. Alice Hurley, lay minister. In June of last year, Rev. Hurley published a letter in the local paper letting the community know that they welcome everyone at their church regardless of race, religion or sexual orientation. Referring to the pending decision of the Arkansas Supreme Court regarding same-sex marriage, Rev. Hurley wrote in part:
“Once the state ensures everyone is represented equally, then individuals are free to choose, within the bounds of law, whom they befriend and what organizations hold their loyalty or membership. Individuals can be open to learning about different people and cultures, choosing to be inclusive and tolerant of their neighbors in a community, or they can choose to be insular and discriminatory. We at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Mountain Home choose not to discriminate. Our Fellowship Hall is open to all truth-seekers, regardless of race or sexual orientation. Please feel free to visit our fellowship and consider becoming part of our family. We respect the right of people to choose their marriage partners for themselves, and are happy to perform, for members or non-members, commitment ceremonies and same-sex marriages, as soon as the state of Arkansas realizes it cannot discriminate and must ensure that all of its citizens are equal under the law.”
In response to this letter, the following note was sent to the President of the congregation, Mr. Bill Rhodes (warning: this letter contains hateful language and violent images):
In addition, the church windows were shot out around the same time although Rev. Hurley isn’t sure that the two incidents are related. The church sits by a traffic light, she points out, and teenagers with a BB gun might have “just popped off a few shots.” Regarding the letter, Rev. Hurley thinks it was just somebody blowing off steam. She wished that that writer would get in touch with her. “I’d arrange for him to have five to ten minutes of time to speak at our service Sunday. We’d be happy to listen to him. I won’t say we’d agree with him, but we’ll listen.”
Rev. Hurley told me recently that the benefit of all this was an increase in membership following the publicity associated with the letter and the shooting. As she put it, “On the bright side, after all the fuss died down, we went from an average attendance of 15 to 25! And four of those have signed the membership book. We had been looking for a way to get our group known in the community; this isn’t the way we would have preferred, but it did bring in new members and most of them were young people.”
Growth in our congregations occurs not just in the number of people who fill the chairs on Sunday, but in our commitment to our principles; in exercising grace under fire; in standing up for what one believes in; for being a beacon of love and tolerance in one of the best retirement communities in the United States. Thank you, Rev. Hurley and the good people of the UU Fellowship of Mountain Home, Arkansas, for reminding me why I love this faith so much.
Mark Bernstein is a member of the Congregational Life Staff of the Central East Region of the UUA. He hopes someday to retire in Mountain Home, Arkansas.