NOTE: Every December, on the first or second Sunday of the month, I preach a sermon that is a letter to a Christmas character. This year, since this will be our final Christmas season in this building before we move to our new one, I wrote my annual letter to the building itself. -Kent
Annual Letter to a Christmas Character sermon
Reverend Kent Hemmen Saleska
UU Church of Minnetonka
December 4, 2016
READING: Notes below taken from actual church Board Minutes and Newsletters
August 2, 1964: General Meeting of Amity UU Fellowship
Henry Norton reported on the negotiations and stated the price had been orally agreed to, but that the Wayzata Church could not commit themselves as to date until they had actually broken ground for their new building. The earliest date the building might possibly be available is March . It is the intention of the Board of Directors to acquire adequate facilities as soon as possible. The building fund drive will continue as planned. Further negotiations will be considered with Wayzata Church as well as investigating other possibilities.
November 25, 1964: Board meeting
New members accepted were David G. Opheim [and] Mary N. Opheim…
January 7, 1965: Letter to Membership
There is a good possibility that the Fellowship can purchase the Wayzata church in accordance with previously negotiated terms without the necessity of selling the 3½ acres of property that it owns on Minnetonka Boulevard. The Wayzata church should be adequate for the needs of our Fellowship over the next four to five years at which time other arrangements could be considered.
February 8, 1965
From Expression Newsletter article: STATE OF AFFAIRS AT AMITY
The membership of Amity has voted to proceed to hire a minister and to purchase the Wayzata Church building both by its near unanimous approval of the budget for the coming twelve months and by the encouraging financial support as evidenced by the results of the pledge canvass…Loan commitments are being sought so as to be able to complete the legal technicalities involved with the purchase of the Wayzata church now that both congregations have approved the transaction. Possession of the church will take place August 1.
February 24, 1965: Board meeting
Bill Merlin will act as our lawyer and has drawn up a purchase agreement for the Wayzata church, which will be signed by Joe Connell and himself contingent upon a mortgage of $13,500 at 5¾ %. We have received an oral commitment of a 10-year $5,000 loan at 6% interest from Unity Church [in St. Paul].
April 25, 1965: Annual meeting of Amity UU Fellowship
In a vote of the membership, congregation voted to change their name by a margin of 13 votes to continue with Amity Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, and 47 votes to change to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Minnetonka. An additional name was proposed by Mary Merlin: the James C. Reeb Unitarian-Universalist Church, but it failed to gain enough votes. Motion was made and seconded to amend the articles of incorporation to reflect the name change.
June 30, 1965: Board meeting
First Federal Savings and Loan has approved the Mortgage application. Closing date is August 1, 1965. Report of the Building and Lands Committee: Work parties were organized to begin working on different parts of the church between August 1 and September 12. Bids were solicited from stained glass companies for the cleaning and repair of the stained glass windows; John Prellwitz will paint the church sign; Bob Fetzek will make a new sign for the church property; Bill Hardacker will contract work to be done on the chimney; work is proposed on the driveway; classroom partitions being considered.
August 5, 1965: Board meeting at the home of Irene Chanin
Joe Connell reported that the completion of the church purchase had taken place on Friday, July 31, 1965. The amount paid to the Wayzata Free Church was 21,600.00 [including the purchase of the parsonage next door], with the remaining $400.00 being kept in an escrow account to pay for clearing of Title.
September 9, 1965: first Board meeting held at the 605 church!
There are some problems which remain to be solved – the problem of sound carrying throughout the building is the most urgent one. The furnace must be cleaned; a bid of $185.00 has been received. We have not as yet been able to obtain a piano: an ad has been placed in the suburban paper. Betty reported that there would be a new sign outside the church by Sunday [and] the church will be ready for occupancy on Sunday, September 12 .
SERMON: Dear 605
Annual Letter to a Christmas Character sermon
Reverend Kent Hemmen Saleska
Every year at this time, usually the first or second Sunday of December, I write a letter to a Christmas character in an attempt to explore more of their story than what we usually hear. So in the past I’ve written to Jacob Marley, Santa Claus, Elsa from the movie Frozen, Rudolf, and many others.
This year is a little different though. This year, this is our final holiday season in this building: our final Thanksgiving service; our final Christmas play by Jeff Hatcher in this building, our final annual Christmas pageant in this building; our final Winter Solstice service in this building; and our final Christmas Eve service here. It’s a momentous time. Ever since the City Council gave their final approval last May for our plans to build a new church, we have been charging ahead with great new energy, so relieved and so grateful and so full of vision and pent-up action and joy to finally be moving forward on this project after over a decade after this congregation voted to move.
And at the same time there is a weariness from working so long and hard on this project, and yes, a sadness in many of us about leaving this building. There are so many memories wrapped up here, many joyful ones and a few painful ones. So this year, rather than write my annual letter to a Christmas character, I thought I’d write this one you, 605, the building at 605 Rice Street that has housed this congregation for the last 51 of our 56 years in existence.
Today I brought my rocking glider chair from home to share this letter with you, 605, because I was inspired by a recent story from one of our long-time members, Nancy Johnson. During our Sunday service in October to honor the dead, you may remember that some of our long-time members shared some of their memories and stories of this place. Nancy grew up attending church in this building even before you housed us, 605, back when it was the Wayzata Community Congregational Church. You probably already remember this, but Nancy said her sister’s wedding was held in this church, and she remembers having church suppers in the basement because the kitchen was located down there back then. And then she said, “The furnaces were always a problem so the man who fixed them placed a rocking chair in one of the furnace rooms so he could be comfortable while he waited to see if they worked properly.”
So this morning I wanted to sit in this rocking chair as I share this letter with you, 605. You see, our theme for the month of December is “Presence.” And when I heard Nancy tell her story earlier, and mentioned the man in the rocking chair, I was moved. Now, I have no idea who the man was, partly because it was so long ago and partly because he was someone from two congregations before we even arrived here. In fact, you probably know who it was. But I don’t even know if that man was sweet and kind or mean and grumpy [I learned from Nancy after the service that his name was Carl Linman, and he was very nice!]. To me though, no matter what kind of man he was, I know that he cared. Maybe he was the life of the congregation and was one of those happy outgoing people who was involved in everything. Or it may be that he was a quiet man who just knew he was good at mechanical things, and so, having faith in the congregation and the people who carried out its mission, wanted to take on one role he knew he could do – something he could do in a way that others could not.
So to me, it was a story of caring, of stepping up and stepping in when something needed to be done and a person knows they have the experience or the talent or the knowledge for it. For me, it was a story of presence. That man in the rocking chair – and others after him – was present with you, 605, all the while you were present with the people of the Wayzata Community Church, and then the people of the Wayzata Free Evangelical Church after them, and then our people after that, those of us in the Unitarian Universalist Church of Minnetonka.
You, 605, have been a presence with so many people during your time. Of course, you were not the first one on this site. As the story goes, in 1881, twelve people who were concerned with their own unfulfilled spiritual needs, covenanted together to – as they described it – to “bring civilization to the wicked, uncivilized village of Wayzata.”
So in 1881 that group built a little wooden church on piece of donated property on the corner of the two dirt roads, Walker and Rice Streets at the top of the hill. The congregation grew over the decades so in 1912 they built a new church. Unfortunately that building only lasted for four years, because it burned down in February of 1916. But the congregation was resilient, and in addition to their own funds, and since they were the only church in town back then, they went through the town, soliciting funds from ALL the residents – which is partly why, I suppose, they have that name: Wayzata Community Church. In any case, in 1916 they rebuilt you, on the foundation of the 1912 building, and amazingly, completed construction in seven months during that same year. So this building that you are now is essentially the same layout and design as the 1912 building, and now you are just a few months past 100 years old.
It’s pretty amazing to think of what you’ve seen and been through. You were built just before our country entered World War I. You’ve been present through three congregations, two world wars, the Great Depression, the independence of India from Great Britain, the creation of the state of Israel, the Civil Rights movement, the Women’s Rights movement, the Black Power movement, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, the construction and destruction of the Iron Curtain, the imprisonment and release of Nelson Mandela, the attacks on September 11, 2001, and the following wars around the globe to fight terrorism, the election of our first black president, and most recently, the election of the least politically experienced president in the history of our nation. You’ve been present and witness to a world in its automobile infancy that was still largely dependent on horse power to a world that has sent men to walk on the moon and created tools to see galaxies far beyond our own.
You’ve seen quite a lot. And you’ve seen a lot of us, too. Us Unitarian Universalists. We may be the third group to be housed here, but we’re the ones who’ve been here the longest. The original congregation was here 32 years, the next was here about 12 or 13 years, but we’ve been here now 51 years!
After meeting for five years in the cafeteria of a grade school in Minnetonka, our congregation purchased you, 605, in 1965. And as I read it in our history, the people were so happy to get a new home to call their own, one where they wouldn’t have to set up every Sunday morning, then take everything down by noon, and then gather in the homes of their members for every single meeting.
To our way of thinking, it’s also a little strange to think that our first minister, the Reverend Robert Brownlie, who was called here in 1966 – the year I was born – lived next door at 615 Rice Street, because back then, that house was that parsonage for this church. I always wanted to live close to the church I served, but never THAT close!
Much has been said this year about our time here, with our 100-year Sunday service celebration last May with the other two congregations, and the local paper write up of our history, and members who’ve shared stories and pictures this fall. I myself first saw you in the mid-1990s. I was the Youth Director at First Universalist in Uptown Minneapolis. I brought my youth group out here one time for a youth conference. And the next time I saw you was in 2007, when the ministerial search committee began to consider me as a possible next minister. That was a joyful time, for both the congregation and for me. And now, here we are, in our tenth year together – the longest relationship this congregation has ever had with a minister, and for me too, the longest job I’ve ever had.
We’ve gone through a lot in our time together too. Not only was it the five-year legal process where we sued the city in Federal court, invoking Federal law around the separation of church and state in order to build our new building, and then the last three years of raising money and working to design the building (which has taken an inordinate amount of time out of just regular, normal church life) but there’ve been other good things we’ve done as well: creating a congregational covenant together, hosting a social justice empowerment workshop that helped guide us in social justice for many years, the work around defeating a Minnesota amendment that would deny marriage rights to same-sex couples, creating new rituals like our Winter Solstice celebration, the delightful annual Jeff Hatcher holiday play, and the multiple-year process to change from an operational governance system to a policy based governance system. And now we are in the middle of rewriting our mission, and within the next six months we will move into a new building.
So I’ve come to wonder what wisdom you might have, 605, to share with us? I’ve wondered what knowledge or wisdom you’d have to share about how you might see things going on in our world today. I look up into these rafters and think about the people who built you, and what might have been going on in their lives one-hundred years ago in 1916, and I wonder if their lives, thinking about the World War that was going on, was vastly different from how we feel today, or if there is any remarkable similarity. You are not a mountain, but dear 605, you have seen a lot in your time.
You see, part of it is that I’m having a hard time. Ever since the election I realize that I’ve been grieving. As a colleague of mine, the Reverend Joanne Fontaine Crawford, articulated similarly, I feel I am grieving for the death of what I thought was my country. I realize this comes from a place of privilege, since native people and people of color have never had the experience of this country that I have – even today, as we gather in this beautiful warm sanctuary, thousands of clergy and laypeople from many denominations and over 2,000 military veterans are joining native people at the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota to join together in an interfaith Day of Prayer, called by Chief Arvol Looking Horse, to “unite for our children’s future.” Though not everyone can be there physically this weekend, they are asking religious people for support, to stand with them physically, or in spirit, and spend a day in prayer with them.
But I have always hoped for better. Even though I know my country has not always lived up to its aspirations and ideals, up until now I have always held those ideals as a guide, like the north star, and almost every work of justice I’ve done has been guided by both the human ideals articulated in our nation’s constitution, as well as the values and beliefs articulated by my faith. But now I am feeling deeply discouraged. I’ve seen the media be manipulated by a showman, and whatever dignity the presidency had, has been stripped away by a thin-skinned, petulant, crass, narcissistic, politically inexperienced and morally irresponsible man. And all, apparently, without regret.
I’ve always tried to be a pastor to everyone, to not take sides, at least not here in church, between one political party and the other. But this feels different. This is not normal. This isn’t Democrat versus Republican – what’s going on now is an attack on our religious values: that all people have inherent worth; that revelation is continuous; that we have promised ourselves and our world that we will direct our efforts toward creating a loving community with liberty and justice for all; and to honor the interdependent web of existence.
The attack on these things, or the destruction of them, is just not ok. I feel disillusioned, and even frightened, that we could be manipulated so easily to be our worst selves. So part of what I’m grieving too, is the myth that our country is “safe” from such things.
I am heartbroken.
So in this loving time of year, during a time in our congregational life when we are preparing to leave you, 605, and grieve your loss as well, I look to you for some wisdom, some lesson in how we may move forward with a sense of purpose and meaning, while holding on to our liberal religious values and beliefs.
One lesson I’ve learned from you, 605, is your presence. You have housed three very different faith traditions. You have witnessed a community church that was probably fairly in the middle of the road in religion, and then what was probably a more right-leaning evangelical group, and then us, on the far left of the religious spectrum. Even though people in our groups may not think they could get along, you have always been steadfast. You have always been here, offering hospitality for anyone who needs it. And for me, that is pretty much the core of any faith tradition. How they – the people who call themselves part of that faith, whatever faith it may be – how they express and practice hospitality.
Are they bitter and mean, joking about people who are not like them, people who are “too liberal” or “too conservative”? Or are they open to differences, in a healthy way that can both set boundaries but also be open to difference and unique life and belief and practice? We Unitarian Universalists say we believe in diversity, but we don’t always practice it.
So if there’s one thing this season can bring us, and if there’s one thing I hope you will be able to remind us about, even after we are gone from here, is hospitality. Though nothing is certain yet, it is looking more and more like a theater group may move into this space. It makes me happy that you will not be torn down, and that you will continue in your practice of hospitality, not just of religious groups, but secular groups as well. Your hospitality carries on and continues to inspire. Even after we move away, I hope we can stop by to visit, and maybe see a show. Thank you so much for your presence and your wisdom.
As ever, your friend,