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Our History, Our Growing Legacy
History of the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge
Beginnings and Early Development. The foundation for the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge was laid by a small group of individuals who, in the late 1940s sought to establish a liberal religious community in Baton Rouge. Fortuitously, the Reverend Albert D’Orlando, minister of First Unitarian Church in New Orleans, was holding monthly meetings with students at Louisiana State University to talk about Unitarianism. The group attended the informational meetings, and by early 1950 were convinced they had found the liberal religion they were seeking. In the fall of 1951, sixteen would-be Unitarians held their first official meeting in a room at the Heidelberg Hotel (later named the Capitol House); five of the group signed the charter establishing the Unitarian Fellowship of Baton Rouge, including Tillie Ventre Dawson, Redrick Fogle, Ruth Fogle, Fred Tuttle, and Ida Lee Tuttle. All played critical roles in the early development of the Fellowship. The Rev. D’Orlando was present at the meeting, as was Reverend Monroe Husbands of the American Unitarian Association. Reverend D’Orlando would serve as the Fellowship’s mentor and guide and provide part-time ministerial services for seven years of their formative development. He maintained his connection to the end of his ministry, and is a treasured figure in the history of the church. A tree was later planted in his honor, and, in fitting symbolism, the D’Orlando Oak has grown to its majestic height along with the church he helped to establish.
The first meetings of the Fellowship were held in the basement of the Old State Capitol. The group’s ouster because of protests from individuals who objected to the group’s “outlandish religion” proved to portend the difficulties the group would face in finding and keeping places to meet. Within the first few years, meetings were held in three different locations. One program chairman during these unsettled years remembered that his hardest job was not finding speakers or planning programs, but rather, the difficulty was finding members to inform them where the next meeting would be held.
It was apparent that the group needed a place of its own in which to meet. Through a variety of money-raising activities sufficient funds were accumulated, and a a house and lot were purchased and became the Fellowship’s first home. To their good fortune, the property stood in the path of the projected Interstate artery; its sale to the city provided the funds to begin a search for land on which to build a permanent home. While searching for property and planning and designing a permanent building, meetings and religious education classes were held in a house that was deemed “bearable only because it was temporary.” A few years later, the purchase of the house that served as the Fellowship’s last temporary meeting place had an added advantage: it stood at a major dead-end intersection that proved to be ideal for their iconic “Wayside Pulpit,” which displayed liberal messages that got the attention of passing drivers, if not new members. This house, nostalgically remembered as “5803 Government,” would be the last of eight stops of those nomadic Unitarian pilgrims on their long but determined journey. Significantly, the 1961 merger of the American Unitarian Association and the Unitarian Universalist Association took place ten years after the Fellowship’s founding and as Unitarianism was slowly taking hold in a Deep South city which had not been welcoming to this “strange new radical religion.”
In 1965, the building that became the permanent home of the Unitarian Fellowship of Baton Rouge was dedicated on the present three-acre site. Among those honored were The Reverend Albert D’Orlando and the Reverend Anita Truman Pickett, a retired Unitarian minister, who also figures significantly in the church’s early history. The dedication marked a new era for the Baton Rouge Unitarian Fellowship and the beginning of Unitarian Universalism and religious liberalism as firmly established forces in the Baton Rouge religious community.
A New Era Begins. Buoyed by a new confidence and a clear vision of its future, the Fellowship continued to grow and become financially and socially secure, and by 1966, the membership reached the level required for the Minister-at-Large program. In 1967, the members voted to apply to the program with the goal of increasing membership and securing a financial base that could support a full-time minister. Assisted by The Reverend Russell Lockwood, Southwest Regional Unitarian Universalist Coordinator, the Reverend Arthur Olsen arrived in January 1969 to serve as Minister-at-Large for twelve months. By the end of his tenure, the membership reached 118, and with a comfortable level of pledges, the Fellowship voted to launch a search for its first minister.
In November 1969, The Reverend Edgar T. “Toby” Van Buren became the Fellowship’s first minister, the first of three ministers during whose tenures important strides would be made in further securing a Unitarian Universalist presence in Baton Rouge. Reverend Van Buren’s six-year ministry was marked by an increase in the Fellowship’s finances and membership and an expansion of programs. Religious Education became firmly established with volunteer leadership and increased enrollment, and membership and activities of the Liberal Religious Youth group was bolstered by teens who came of age during this period. Many societal changes were taking place, including the political and social unrest of the concurrent Vietnam War, all of which animated and engaged the Fellowship during Reverend Van Buren’s tenure, which ended in 1975.
The Reverend Glenn Turner became the Fellowship’s second minister in August 1976. A number of significant strides were made in the course of his tenure, notably, a change in status from Fellowship to Church - a change that signified the growth of a strong Unitarian Universalist congregation in Baton Rouge. Through more intentional emphasis on stewardship, substantial financial support of the church increased through pledged giving, which gave confidence in initiation of plans for the enlargement of existing facilities, including a larger sanctuary. The period was also characterized by more formal worship services, supported by a strong music program. A more effective organizational structure evolved through revision of the Church’s bylaws, enhancing its governance. More programs were developed that engaged both members and members of the community, bolstered by the church’s increased visibility both locally and regionally. The Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge was well on the way to its status as a highly visible church in the Southwest Unitarian Universalist Conference when Reverend Turner’s tenure ended in January 1982.
New Vision and Growth. Following a year-long search, The Reverend Steve Crump began his ongoing tenure as the third minister in January 1983. Now mature and confident of its mission, the church was poised to embrace the vision he brought to his ministry, and entered a new and vibrant era of liberal religion in the Baton Rouge community. Continuing a push for expansion of facilities begun by the congregation years earlier, a steering committee was appointed in 1984 to begin plans for a larger sanctuary. The mortgage was retired in 1985, and a capital campaign was launched the same year. With the completion of the new sanctuary in 1988, the Church experienced a new burst of growth and change, signified in an increase in membership, a stronger religious education program for children and youth with staffed leadership, and a staff-positioned music director and a large and well-trained choir. An emphasis on more liturgically-centered Sunday worship services and spiritual growth and spirituality were strong factors in the further maturing of the church. The increasing membership and emphasis on stewardship helped insure a strong financial base. Members became more involved in outreach and social justice which resulted in higher visibility for the church in the community. While still early in his ministry, Reverend Crump became prominently involved in the organizing of the city’s first interfaith organization; a number of the organizing meetings were hosted at the church, notably those related to writing the new organization’s constitution and by-laws. Due to his initiatives, leadership, and personal involvements, a closer identification with the larger Unitarian Universalist movement developed. The growth and stability that the church has experienced can be credited both to Reverend Crump’s leadership, and his long and successful tenure.
“... To Make This a Better World.” Involvement in causes related to contemporary social issues, and specifically those related to social justice and human rights, is a hallmark of the church’s membership that dates to its earliest beginnings. In the 1950s, Baton Rouge Unitarians marched in the picket lines at the State Capitol to keep public schools open, while in the 1960s, members joined Freedom Marches, as well as the Peace Corps. The school desegregation strife of the 1970s and 1980s engaged the active involvement of many members, as has voter registration, capital punishment, open-housing, environmental control, women’s rights, abortion rights, gun-control, gay and lesbian rights, and all issues related to human rights and human dignity. In the 1990s, individuals and groups were involved in activities related to the alleviation of racism, illiteracy, teenage pregnancy, and other issues. The tragic killing in 1992 of Yoshi Hattori, a Japanese exchange student, and the ensuing push for gun-control legislation spearheaded by his Unitarian host family and supported by many members of the congregation resulted in worldwide exposure for the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge. The dedication of Peace Stones on the church grounds in 1996 in memory of Yoshi symbolizes the Church’s ongoing quest for peace and justice for all peoples.
A Legacy of Lay Leadership. Strong lay leadership and the involvement and participation of the membership at all levels of church life has been a major factor in the growth and vitality of the church. The Unitarian tradition of congregational governance was set into motion in the election of the Fellowship’s first president in early 1952 within months of its chartering. A roster of strong presidents has followed, with many administrations providing leadership in signally important chapters in the church’s evolving history, whether in building the first sanctuary, guiding the processes related to the decision to call the first minister, effecting the transition from fellowship to church, retiring the first mortgage, launching the first capital drive, building a new and larger sanctuary, in the later expansion of the Religious /education wing, or, in less dramatic times, and, indeed, in times of crisis. Leadership from the ranks of newer members has provided fresh insights and new experiences, while the ongoing involvement of long-time members has provided stability and continuity through periods of change.
The Baton Rouge Unitarian Church has evolved from a small close-knit fellowship to a cosmopolitan church. Its racially diverse membership and embrace of individuals regardless of sexual orientation or belief system is part of its strength - aptly symbolized by the circle window inspired by Edwin Markham’s poem and its expression of inclusiveness. With its rich resources of a vibrant membership and strong and visionary lay and ministerial leadership, the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge has moved through six decades as a dynamic religious community in fulfillment of the hopes and dreams of that group of visionaries who, in an unwelcoming city, prevailed against the odds to successfully lay the foundation for liberal religion in Baton Rouge.
Growth, Development, and Change. The last decade of the twentieth century marked a period of change in several areas as a reflection of both increased membership, and greater involvement of members. To better meet the needs of a mature and growing church, a transition was made in 1993 in governance to an administrative board with responsibility of programming by chairs of Councils. A year later, planning began for a Capital Fund Drive for expansion of the Religious Education wing, resulting in more space for the increased number of children and youth in the religious education program. As programming increased, a second minister became a pressing need. In 1996 a search was launched for an Associate minister; the Reverend Amy Sammonds was called in 1997, though that tenure lasted only eleven months. In 1999 the positions of Director of Religious Education and Director of Music were elevated to full-time status. An increased membership signaled a need for members to better connect with each other. Although initially envisioned as a way to integrate new members into the life of the church, the 1999 launching of small group ministry for all interested members may be seen as one of the church’s most significant developments as a very large proportion of the membership meets in small intimate groups each month to connect and minister to each other. These major developments can be seen as some of the crowning achievements of a thriving Unitarian Universalist community as a decade and century ended, and as the church prepared to meet the successes and challenges of the new century.
Moving Into the Future in the 21st Century. In every decade of the long history of the church, one major development stands out for its impact, whether calling the first minister, a change of status from fellowship to church, or building a new and larger sanctuary. That development as the new century began is the thrust in adult programming, due in no small measure to the appointment of a Volunteer Program Director as a staff position in 2002. While enrichment classes and activities date back to the small membership of the early Fellowship days, programming as a significant component of church life is evidenced in the large number of classes and activities available for members and friends of the church based on criteria set for programming in 2002. Offerings span a range of classes and activities that are continuous, with others occasionally offered, and are typically taught by members or the minister. Systematic internal training in workshops led by Council members insures meeting the criteria and goals of class offerings. A related development has been the attendance of board and staff members at District leadership training sessions since 2000. In addition to internal programming, outstanding outside speakers have included scholars connected to the Jesus Seminar, and four appearances by the Biblical scholar, Dominic Crossan. In a tradition of outreach to the community, the church’s facilities are available to community programs, typically sponsored by the Social Justice Council. Several organizations in which the church has membership also occasionally use facilities, notably the Interfaith Federation of Greater Baton Rouge, and Together Baton Rouge, a community organizing group in which members of the church figured in organizing. The breadth and depth of program offerings, organized volunteer service to community agencies through Outreach, and involvements in community organizations add immeasurably to the enrichment of members, and to the general vitality of the church.
One major development of the new century that impacted the church with dramatic intensity was the 2005 natural disaster known as Hurricane Katrina, . The church became a refuge for members of Unitarian churches in the affected areas. Staff and other members of the church were significantly involved in intensive volunteer efforts at New Orleans churches. Receipt of a Unitarian universalist/Unitarian Universalist Service Committee grant provided funds to hire two full-time staff to organize and oversee the volunteer effort. The Baton Rouge Unitarian Church was strategically positioned to offer leadership and safe haven for those affected by this historic disaster that so affected New Orleans Unitarian churches and those in the Mississippi Gulf region. The role of the “Week-end Warriors,” members from the Baton Rouge Church who volunteered their services in recovery and rebuilding efforts of the New Orleans Unitarian churches and homes of their members, was reminiscent of those visionary founders and pilgrims who labored against foreboding odds to lay the foundation for Unitarianism in Louisiana’s Capitol City.
After sixty years, the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge proudly continues its role as a leading congregation in the Southwestern Unitarian Universalist Conference, and as an ever-evolving and dynamic spiritual home to its members in a city now receptive to its liberal and progressive openness to all who seek what it has to offer, and to its mission to “help make this a better world.”
Rebecca T. Cureau