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Yesterday and Today

Rev. Grace H. Simons


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A liberal religious voice in the Central Valley since 1953.


Rev. Grace Simons; handsome, 50ish, with a warm smile and glasses I don't know if you love history or hate it, but I'm pretty sure that some history class sometime introduced you to time lines. They are useful if you want to see the order of events and how they fit together or might have affected each other. This morning I want you to imagine a general timeline for our religious tradition. It should reach back about 250 years. We could go back further, but we only have so much time. Even with that limit, we'll be moving along the line pretty quickly, at least at first.

When we start, about 1760, the Unitarians and Universalists in America are beginning to get their acts together. It wasn't easy and it took a while. They were committed to "doing religion" somewhat differently than usual, and that got them thrown out of their churches. But they kept trying. They built on ideas brought from Europe and made changes based on their own experience in North America. They developed distinct theological patterns. The Universalists were faster, organizing the New England Universalist Convention in 1793 The Unitarians didn't get their paperwork completed until 1825. We can relate.

From that time through the mid- 1800s, both Universalists and Unitarians developed their ideas and grew in numbers. Universalists became one of the four or five largest denominations in America, spreading widely, especially in the South and Midwest. Unitarian thinkers known as the Transcendentalists incorporated ideas from world religions, honored the natural world in unique ways, argued for women's agency and rights and broke with traditional New England patterns. They valued direct experience and they questioned authority.

The Civil War, bloody and dividing communities and families, was devastating to the country. Both Unitarians and Universalists were staggered, but survived. Universalists, committed to God's love for all, worked for better treatment for the mentally ill, for improved prison conditions and education for immigrants. The Unitarians, following the success of Thomas Starr King in San Francisco, and the later establishment of churches in Santa Cruz and San Jose, sent pioneering ministers to the West Coast. They established churches in Portland, Seattle, Tacoma and Olympia as well as Los Angeles, San Diego and Santa Barbara.

Both Unitarians and Universalists continued to develop their theological ideas. Neither had ever required strict adherence to a creed. Their occasional statements of belief ended with a statement that no point of theological disagreement would exclude anyone. Now both denominations broadened their reach. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the religious humanist movement developed, particularly among Unitarians. The Universalist interest in world religions was evidenced by the Charles Street Meeting House, led by the Rev Ken Patton. They had bronze replicas of about a hundred symbols from different religions. You can see a poster with a few of them in Classroom C of our new building. Both these developments - humanism and interest in world religions - influence our congregation today.

The 20th century's two World Wars brought the devastation of mechanized warfare. War and peace were issues for both denominations. During WW II, both denominations had Service Committees helping European refugees. The two Service groups (and also the youth groups) combined before their parent organizations could agree. Finally, in 1961, the Unitarian Universalist Association was established, bringing the two denominations together. We celebrated our 50th anniversary earlier this year.

But let's turn to our own congregation. We'll slide back on the timeline a bit. This building was constructed in 1912 - 100 years ago next year. It was built by the Seventh Day Adventists. Our Fellowship was established in 1953 as part of the Unitarian Fellowship Movement. This was a unique expansion effort because it organized groups to begin Unitarian congregations on a do-it-yourself basis. Previous "missionary" efforts had relied on ministers to start new congregations. Hundreds of Fellowships were established between 1948 and 1967. Some failed, but many succeeded, including ours and our neighbors in Fresno, Walnut Creek and Sacramento. (You can read about the Fellowship Movement in a little book by that name. I think we have copies in our library.)

This Fellowship began with a meeting at the Hotel Covell, located on the site of today's City-County building. Interest was strong enough to go ahead and soon the Fellowship was meeting twice monthly. Unlike most Fellowships, ours arranged for ministerial help off and on from the beginning. Ford Lewis, the minister in Stockton, helped right away and was followed by others who preached in rotation, though there were also timew when we were lay led. Services were held in several locations - the Odd Fellows Building, Group Hall, the old synagogue and even in people's homes. Sometimes the Fellowship held Sunday School but no services for adults. At other times, the adults had services but the children took their activities to a park. We had more than 10 years of wandering and making do.

Then the Adventists decided they needed a bigger building and put this property up for sale. Perfect! The first UU service here was held in December, 1964 and we've been here ever since - almost 50 years. You are going to have some celebrating to do in the next few years - 2012 is the hundredth anniversary of the building. 2013 is the 60th "birthday" of the Fellowship. And 2014 will see 50 UU years in this sanctuary. Better invest in party hats!

Of course, plenty has happened in those years. You can read our history on our website, with sections written by several members. They cover the years from 1953 to 2000. Maybe someone here would like to work on bringing it up to the present day.

Long term members recall our support of farm workers in the 1960s, the sponsoring of a refugee Hmong family - who provided the embroidered hangings that grace our walls - and a variety of special activities, including Octogenarian celebrations. The old classroom building was torn down and our members added the Johnson Room, which serves as our socializing space each week. Some of the folks you see most Sundays can tell you about climbing the scaffolding to work on it. The patio between our buildings was paved and later the back yard was landscaped, all with volunteer labor.

As the years went by, some of our most faithful members died or moved away. We've also had some untimely, tragic deaths among us. These people are held warmly in the hearts of our members. You can also still hear members talk of past ministers, though some left long ago - Bill Peterson, Leroy Egenberger, Jeanne Beaufort, Jody Shipley. Leslie Heyboer served as interim minister before I arrived in June, 2001.

Every congregation has struggles as well as successes. Our Fellowship has dealt with controversy, with financial problems, with abrupt or unexpected ministerial departures and with internal conflict. We still feel the effects of those problems even while we relish our achievements and strive to embody our highest values and aspirations. We know that our congregation is composed of people, with both the gifts and the failings that come with human nature.

We've come along most of our time line, and let's slow our movement a bit. It was a bright, early June weekend in 2001 when I first came to Modesto. I was warmly welcomed by a group that had worked to bring me to the Fellowship. Phyllis Young, Laurie Barros and Michele Aiken formed the Extension Committee and they treated me right. A box of local fruit and baked goods was waiting in my hotel room. Jack Lackey joined Michele to give David and me a tour of Modesto - though I admit I was mighty confused about the connections between downtown and the rest of the city! I met with the Board and several committees. The Worship folks took me to dinner at the Beijing.

I can't find a copy of the sermon I preached that Sunday, but I remember explaining that I had grown up in this Valley. That means I can tell an almond tree from a walnut at highway speeds. I know that here, fog is a season. I think it's perfectly normal that the highest hill in any Valley town is the freeway overpass. Whatever else I said that morning must have been OK, for the vote to approve me as extension minister was unanimous. I went back home to New Mexico, started packing and arrived as your full time minister about six weeks later.

The Fellowship was coming out of a low period. Membership had sunk to barely more than 100. The congregation had been severely divided and resentments were still simmering. In our early conversations it became clear that the confidence of the congregation had been shaken. The message I received - not in so many words, but clear nonetheless - was this: "We want to be a good church, but we aren't sure we can do it." Building confidence and a can-do attitude became one of my priorities.

When I arrived, we had no choir, no projects that served the community, and critical space needs. Fellowship finances were, shall we say, problematic. We had no provision for printed announcements or electronic updates. The buildings suffered from years of deferred maintenance. Then, before I had gotten used to saying I was the minister of Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Stanislaus County, we woke to news of the September 11th attacks. It was quite a beginning!

But things began to change. Volunteers continued working on what's now our Office Building. The day the crane lifted it on to its foundation was exciting indeed! The space it provided was a great improvement. During the week, it served as work space for the administrator, Director of Religious Education and me. On Sundays, it was a classroom.

Early on, I began to work with our late Music Director, Marilyn King, to organize a choir. She found her love of music reawakened and threw herself into the task. Her untimely death shocked us and left a big hole in our program - now filled by Bernadette, the Music Committee and Elizabeth, our pianist. We have a music program that seems impossible for a congregation our size.

A new couple joined and took me to task for not having ways for them to step in and serve the community. Luckily Bill and Aynslie arrived soon afterward. Before long we were preparing and serving meals at the Winter Shelter. I understand that last Sunday you heard about how much that effort is appreciated! And while that couple has moved away, they still send a check each year to support the Shelter Dinners.

Perhaps most important, we began to see ourselves more as a religious community and less a collection of individual religious refugees. Together, our vision widens and our energies are multiplied. We have the support and comfort of others when things go wrong. We found that we could get more done when we work together, not worrying about personal agendas or whether there would be winners and losers. We accomplished some things that had seemed doubtful at best, and again saw that we could make contributions outside our walls. We spoke out on several issues, including opposition to censorship of library programs. We became certified as a Welcoming Congregation, and publicly advocated for Marriage Equality.

We received Chalice Lighter Grants from the District's Growth Committee and developed our programs. Our membership increased and we added a second Sunday service. Meanwhile, we had started plans for a new building to provide classrooms, meeting space, offices and more restrooms. We bought the adjacent property and thought we'd have our building up in a year or so. Little did we know!

Then, in 2006, the local economy began to crumble. At first, we didn't realize it would be serious. In hindsight, the signs were all there. The housing market faltered. Construction stopped. Stores closed. People lost their jobs and some members moved away. The national economy started to unravel and the stock market plunged. Our membership decreased as the economy worsened. We saw no new faces for more than a year!

But we kept doing our thing. Our Board began reading a book of recommendations for UU churches. It encouraged them to see themselves as congregational leaders. When we were asked to help organize a UU group in Merced, we were happy to "adopt" them. A number of our members have helped with their services and I've coached them through the organizing process for several years now.

We kept on working toward new facilities, though we had to adapt our plans. We learned that the details (remember, that's where the devil is!) are both more numerous and more complicated than we ever imagined. But we never gave up. In the summer of 2010 the heavy equipment arrived and in November, we celebrated the opening of our new building with a joyful Dedication Service. Despite being a small congregation, despite the bad economy, and despite our lack of construction expertise, we now have a wonderful Education Building. We surprised ourselves. And we've become the talk of the District. We are stronger, more able than we imagined. Just think what may come next! We are already seeing glimpses, with more new faces, more projects being completed, more kids in our CYRE program, and new ideas bubbling up.

So here we are, in the fall of 2011. We can look back on a strong record this past decade, even though we faced significant challenges. We are living out our UU Principles in ever developing ways. We want to be a support and challenge to each other and a public voice for our values in both service and advocacy. We are healthy, but not satisfied. Our reach continues to exceed our grasp, for there can never be enough love, enough justice, enough compassion or enough knowledge. We are completing a chapter of our Fellowship's story and opening a new one. Our timeline leads on.

October 16, 2011

[On the eve of her retirement from the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Stanislaus County, Rev. Grace gave two sermons, one looking back, the other forward. This is the one that looks back. The other half of this set is Today and Tomorrow.]

Copyright by Rev. Grace Simons. If you enjoyed it or would like to use part of it, please contact our web wizard,

Rev. Grace Simons left us a collection of her sermons when she retired in October, 2011. We have a brief biography of Rev. Grace, and the last edition of Grace Notes, a column she wrote for our newsletter.
We have several more sermon collections.

Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Stanislaus County

2172 Kiernan Avenue
Modesto, California     See a map
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Salida, CA 95368

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We are a liberal church and the only UU congregation in Stanislaus county. We serve Ceres, Denair, Escalon, Hickman, Hughson, Keyes, Manteca, Modesto, Oakdale, Patterson, Ripon, Riverbank, Salida, Turlock and Waterford. We welcome Agnostics, Atheists, Buddhists, Christians, Deists, Free-thinkers, Humanists, Jews, Pagans, Theists, Wiccans, and those who seek their own spiritual path. We welcome people without regard to race, physical ability, ethnicity or sexual orientation.

Page updated: July 01, 2015