The picture shows American Unitarian Association President Samuel A. Eliot II holding the cornerstone of the AUA headquarters. He modernized Unitarianism as a denomination and laid the pathway for its organizational structure. All this was revolutionary at the time. He knew that the organization wasn’t the end-all-and-be-all, but that a healthy, efficient denomination was essential to a healthy faith.
Flash forward 88 years. Our UUA is on the cusp of moving from 25 to 24.
The new building consists of open, light-filled space that will be customized to support the work of a contemporary, mission-driven, collaborative Association. No matter how much potential the new site affords for improved technology and access, though, many are grieving. Others say the move “from Boston to Boston” is irrelevant.
But my hope is that this move might provide essential role modeling for our congregations.
I’m keenly aware that many of our congregations – especially in New England — are housed in buildings from a very different era. And that these building suck up magnificent resources that could be spent in other ways that inspire people to lead lives of humility and purpose, connection and service, thereby transforming themselves and the world. Many of our congregations have taken up their building as their mission, rather than the building sustaining and supporting the mission. If you recognize this in your own story, may you have the courage to take control of your story and mission and move with us into a new era.
I love our history. But sometimes we treat the 25 Beacon Street address as if it were built in 1825. In fact it was built in 1927 and served merely as an office building to the Louis Cornish and Frederick May Eliot administrations of the American Unitarian Association. At that time the AUA served around 300 congregations. We now serve over 1000 congregations through a network of staff and key volunteers stationed not just in Boston but all over the continent.
I confess that I’m terribly sentimental about 25 Beacon Street. I have stories for almost every room, as do many of you. And I will take those memories with me and commit to making new ones. But the only spaces currently used for their original purposes are the President’s office, the bookstore, and the second floor chapel, landing, and library. And just think about how what goes on in those rooms has changed over the years!
The significant features came from somewhere else and can move with us again. Channing’s pulpit is moveable. The chandelier, which was a gift from a church in the 1600s, can move again. All the library books came from somewhere else. The President’s desk is moveable. And that cornerstone in the picture? It can move again.
As the excitement of the news of the pending headquarters move starts to die down, I hope you will look for your own congregation’s story within this new story.
What is your Beacon Hill? Are you ready to move into a new era? What will you bring with you?
Tandi Rogers is the UUA Growth Strategist. In a prior career she was a history teacher and often conjures the ancestors to guide her work. May they be proud of our path. May we make the way easier for the generations to come.
Our building serves our mission, not the reverse. Our building has long failed our mission, leaving us in the hidebound world of the mainstream religions. Maintaining our historical connections and context is important — but it does not determine who we will be.