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Beline Obeid

Standing for love, justice for 75 years

Unitarian members on their way from the Carter House to the ground breaking of the new church on Maumee. Photos courtesy Larry Peplin

March 20, 2014
"Our faith as a whole encourages us to stand on the side of love."

The words of Rev. Shelley Page of the Grosse Pointe Unitarian Church sum up the church's core belief as the church begins its 75th anniversary celebration festivities.

The observance was kicked off by a special worship service March 16 that included a hymn penned by former minister, Rev. John Corrado. The festivities continue Saturday, March 22, with a fellowship dinner including story telling, music and a wall-mounted time line on which parishioners can note when they joined the church. The time line also aligns the church's history with the history of Detroit, the nation and the world, Page said.

"We are pleased to be here and thrilled that 75 years later is a testament to proving our liberal faith. People are attracted to our message and find meaning. We have a beautiful legacy (left) by those who thought ahead. This is a gift of the past," she said.

Fifty-year member Joan Hines of Grosse Pointe Farms said she has found fulfillment and made friends through the church that she joined when it was meeting in the "Carter House" on Lakeshore in the City of Grosse Pointe.

"There was something missing in my life. Mom had joined the Unitarian church a number of years before, that drew me. My soul found a home," she said. "I feel committed. Unitarianism welcomes all people who are searching for the truth and are not comfortable in the traditional church."

Unitarian Universalists incorporate both Jewish and Christian traditions in a liberal religion being mindful that all people have wisdom, regardless of age, religious belief, marital status, sexual orientation, ethnicity, occupation or political affiliation, according to a pamphlet.

"Our faith embraces and puts us in a unique role within the community fostering interfaith relationship. On any given Sunday those who identify as Unitarian Universalists come from Jewish, Buddhism, Hindu or pagan (backgrounds). We covenant to life together in love. We are uniquely positioned to foster increased interfaith understanding in our challenging world," Page said.

"This is where children can be exposed to a broad range of religious thought," she continued. "We all carry wisdom regardless of age."

In that regard, children are part of the Sunday morning services for an inter-generational worship before departing for their religious education classes.

"We are creating the next generation of worship leaders and ministers," Page said. "The shared ministry recognizes wisdom comes from all of us. The spiritual energy comes from all of us."

"Shelley is leading us in an entirely different direction. It's healthy for the church," said Janet Weber of Grosse Pointe Woods. "It's more inclusive of children. It started with (Rev.) Meta (Rahnema). Shelley has continued it. There is more interaction. It's a good thing as I see it."

Another issue Rahnema introduced to the congregation during her interim assignment from 2009 through 2011 was the acceptance and inclusion of transgenders, bisexuals, lesbians and gays.

"She supported our path to transgender (acceptance), not because she was a lesbian but because it was the right thing to do. It's something every Unitarian church is to do," Weber said. "It was a year-long process. We continue to evolve and stretch ourselves."

Accepting nontraditional lifestyles follows the lengthy tradition of service to the community.

"We have a history looking at our neighbors both in Grosse Pointe and embrace the wider area of Detroit," Page said. "Who is our neighbor in the broad and inclusive sense?"

Celebrating the church's 75th anniversary is a good time to reevaluate the question, she said. Thus a committee has been charged with reviewing what was set down at the church's establishment in 1939.

"It's a mission discovery process," Page said. "In the 21st century who are we now? What are we called to do as people of faith? It helps us design a fresh process for the 21st century. We are still working off what was developed in 1939. There are good strengths. It's a community discernment of what to do now. We want to be a part of Detroit's rebirth. We are linked.

"We are stepping back asking in what way can we make an impact? We are being a part of addressing root causes of the challenges we have in Detroit and surrounding communities. How can we meaningfully address oppressions that are causing suffering? Where do we put our energy next and fruitfully?"

Church members have a long history of addressing social issues — literacy, the elderly, hunger, housing, justice and medical needs. They have been involved in Habitat for Humanity, Ravendale Community Center, Services for Older Citizens, Dominican Literacy Council, Gleaners Community Food Bank, World Medical Relief, the Red Cross blood drives, CROP hunger walks, the Coalition on Temporary Shelter, Interfaith Center for Racial Justice, Family Life Education and Crossroads of Michigan.

For example, the First Sunday food sharing, since its 1981 inception, has collected tons of food for a local food pantry. In the 2012 year, a ton of food was collected and distributed.

Their faith, she said, fosters members who continue to serve where they see a need and that includes the church's resale shop.

Page gives credit to those who have, for more than 40 years, staffed the store on the church grounds. Volunteers collect, sort, shelve and sell thousands of household items and donated clothing every year.

"Unless it's truly broken, nothing gets put in the garbage," Page said. "If we can't sell it, we regift it to other social services."

In the beginning

The socially conscious church began with 33 Unitarian and Universalist families who wanted a Grosse Pointe gathering place rather than make the 20-mile round trip each Sunday to attend services in downtown Detroit. The Church Extension Department of the American Unitarian Association's director, George G. Davis, said, as noted in the "Grosse Pointe Unitarian Church A History in the Making" book, "Grosse Pointe . . . is one of the most promising in the field."

March 27, 1938, 63 people met for the first official locally-held service. A budget of $2,800 was adopted in March 1939 and 51 people signed a covenant. A constitution and by-laws were adopted Sunday, April 16, 1939. The Rev. Merrill Otis Bates was the first minister providing 11 a.m. services in the Alger Museum. From its inception, members were attending to the youth's education, visiting housing projects and reformatories, the history said.

By 1941, the church school had 46 members and was located behind the Grosse Pointe Farms police and fire department building.

Standish and Lotta Backhus donated a lot next to their home at 725 Lakeshore for the new church and the architect's design was approved May 26, 1941.

Seventy-two families made pledges to cover construction costs. However, the church was never built because of World War II, instead the congregation bought a house at 17440 Jefferson for $15,000. Formerly owned by David S. Carter, it became known as the Carter House. By 1956, the church numbers had grown necessitating an addition and purchased residential additional property to which the City of Grosse Pointe council approved a variance in 1959. The council reversed its decision in 1960. Following much discussion, the church exchanged its property for a nearly two acre T-shaped parcel fronting Maumee. City offices and the post office were razed and on April 12, 1964, a ground breaking ceremony set in motion the construction of the church.

Two circles joined by the lobby and administrative sections contains 15,000 square feet plus another 5,000 square feet in the annex behind the church. The cornerstone was placed in late fall of 1964 and the building completed in 1965, with a chapel that holds 200 adults and topped with 16 wooden beams creating the spire.

"It's a generous space," Hines said. "It's uplifting. Being encircled feels protected."

Circles, according to the history, are symbolic of unity, friendship and the basic forms of the universe.

The circles are used again in the aluminum screen on the altar, designed by church member John W. Carson.

According to the church's history, the screen includes 19 religious symbols representing Judaism's Star of David, the Egyptian Crux Ansta, Manto the Great Spirit from the Algonquians, the Thunderbird from the Navahos, Chrisogram of the Lutherans and Catholics, Islam's crescent and star and the Buddhist lotus, among other religious and philosophical symbols. The Flaming Chalice of Unitarianism is repeated in each of the three paneled screens.

Acceptance of religions and social issues are part of the Unitarian Universalists whose members have included suffragette Susan B. Anthony, Red Cross founder Clara Barton, activist for the mentally ill Dorothea Dix and feminist, suffragist, political strategist Alice Paul and writers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Louis May Alcott. Locally the Unitarians were behind a movement to open Grosse Pointes' housing market, protest the Vietnam War and brought Martin Luther King Jr. to speak.

This is part of the church's discernment process, Page said.

"How we want to assure equality for everyone in Grosse Pointe, whatever their sexual or gender ID. The 75th is a time of reflection and discernment and hopefulness as we move into the future," Page said.

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