Sermon and Worship Service for
The Launch of our Capital Campaign
The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of
Columbia, South Carolina
the Rev. Jennie Barrington, Interim Minister
Opening Words [adapted from Deuteronomy 6:11]:
“We build on foundations we did not lay
We warm ourselves by fires we did not light
We sit in the shade of trees we did not plant
We drink from wells we did not dig
We profit from persons we did not know.
This is as it should be.
Together we are more than any one person could be.
Together we can build across the generations.
Together we can renew our hope and faith in the life that is yet to unfold.”
Reading: Adapted from, “A History of Church, Including Yours,” by Sean Neil-Barron
The Morning Sermon: “Building Today for Tomorrow”
This morning’s readings remind us of the many seasons a congregation such as ours experiences. The passage adapted from Deuteronomy reminds us that, in the early years of this congregation, its founders gave and sacrificed so that we who are here today have shelter, and shade, and water to drink and make coffee with. And the reading by Sean Neil-Barron reminds us that our predecessor UUs, though imperfect, continued to maintain and develop this congregation so that “religious liberals” here could companion each other through sickness and health, through deaths and births, and through the changing needs for peace and justice advocacy in this conservative area. Our congregation will continue to evolve in ways we simply can’t see yet, and certainly can’t control. And yet we must try to maintain and develop it. In this, the season of our congregation’s life which is ours to contribute to and nourish, we must try to act so as to honor the generations that came before us, and to provide for the generations yet to come.
The happy occasion we are gathered for this morning is our launching of our Capital Campaign for building renovations. The theme the team chose is, “Building Today for Tomorrow.” We hope that you will do your best to take part, and that you will share your thoughts and dreams about this congregation’s future with the team and me. Together, we are all looking at why this the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia is so unique, and so very needed.
There are several answers to that question. After the sermon, our esteemed leaders Pat Mohr and Kevin Meredith will explain the nuts and bolts answers. But some answers to that question are more philosophical. Our congregation is a source of nurture, renewal, healing, and hope, for people within and outside of its walls, physically, spiritually, socially, and theologically. But, presently, we dwell between the future generations for which we hope to leave this progressive, diverse, lively, and enlightened congregation, and we are ever-mindful of the earliest members, who did not have this building and land, and who hosted liberal discussions and debates, and considered their neighbors who were in hardship or discriminated against. They asked themselves, “What can we do to be helpful, and promote higher education, and peaceful relations?” Then they did what they could, despite their small number, and the worry of criticism in this conservative area.
Back in their day, it was far more difficult to do so than it is for us today. In 1950, nine people came together and committed to becoming charter members of the Unitarian Fellowship of Columbia. They didn’t have their own building or land, nor a minister or any staff. They met twice a month in each other’s homes. After ten years, they were twenty-five members. From the very beginning, they were welcoming and inclusive of different races and ethnicities, and non-traditional religious or spiritual views. The Fellowship took stands against segregation and held racially integrated services and programs. At least one rental space was denied to them because of that. The Fellowship’s original purpose, stated on its Certificate of Incorporation, was: to further individual freedom of belief, to further discipleship to advancing truth, to further the democratic process in human relations, to further a brotherhood undivided by nation, race, or creed, and to further allegiance to the cause of a united world community. I feel awe at those noble ideals, especially when I think of the context in which those founders came together. Within a culture which was hostile toward civil rights and liberal religion, this congregation was counter-cultural, visionary, and very brave.
Over time, the Fellowship grew in membership, purchased a building, engaged a minister, purchased a larger building, engaged more ministers, developed Unitarian Universalist programming for children and youth [what we now call “CYRE” classes], hired excellent staff, purchased this building and land, on the corner of Woodrow and Heyward, and renovated and beautified this, our “church home,” several times. It changed its name from Fellowship to Congregation. And it continued to advocate for racial minorities, to champion environmental causes, and to speak out on behalf of the rights of people who are gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning. UUCC has seen its wider community become less hostile over the years as we have marched in the gay pride parade. And, over the years, this congregation’s protesting of the Confederate flag on the Capitol contributed to, finally, our witnessing it being taken down, and off of the grounds of the State House, for good. I’ve been giving a lot of thought to what our predecessors began doing back then, that we are still trying to do, here and now.
What they were doing was trying to get on the right side of history. And they did get on the right side of history, in so many ways in which they were ahead of their times. We are having interracial discussions and forums now, with the goal of educating and enlightening us all. We are in a nation that favors rights for people who are gay, bisexual, transgendered, or questioning, and gay marriage is legal nationally. And we are in a city where the Confederate Flag finally came down off of the State House grounds. And we are in a nation that is realizing we have to take climate change seriously and work to combat it. We, too, like our brave and visionary predecessors, are still trying to get on the right side of history. And in order to keep trying, we need our buildings to be as well maintained and renovated as we, together, can make them.
It its history of over six decades, this congregation has seen some lean years, and some times of abundance, some hurt feelings over conflicts, and some peaceable times, some heartbreak at losses of loved-ones, and much celebrating of the new friendships that have formed. As I thought about the emotional and sometimes painful seasons our congregation has weathered, I thought of a true story from which we can gain insight, inspiration, and motivation to do our very best with our Capital Campaign; a story of a team of people who persevered through hardship, loss, and lean times, to survive and thrive in better times, the true story of the Marshall University football team, “the Thundering Herd.”
Back in the 1960s and 70s, that football team didn’t usually fly to their away games, because most of the teams they played were within easy driving distance. But for the game against the East Carolina Pirates, on November 14, 1970, the university chartered a plane for the team, the coaching staff, and twenty-five boosters. They lost to the Pirates, 17 – 14. And when the plane had made it almost all the way back home to the Tri-State Airport, in Huntington, West Virginia, it collided with the tops of trees on a hillside. It tipped, turned over, crashed into a hollow, and burst into flames. No one survived the accident, which remains the deadliest air sports-related tragedy in U.S. history. Not only the team and the university, but the whole town were devastated. Many prominent citizens were on the plane, including a city councilman, a state legislator, and four physicians. Seventy-five people died, including the five person crew. Seventy children lost at least one parent, and eighteen of them were orphaned.
So anyone could understand that the trustees of the university felt they should suspend the football program indefinitely. They proposed doing so, honoring the scholarships of the few players who had not been on the plane. But the student body, and the majority of the town, just wanted to play football again. Now I know that some of you are not as enthusiastic about college football as I am, and I respect that. But college football gives me something to get enthusiastic about every autumn, to feel pride in, and, for me, it’s the chance to recall old stories of teamwork and triumph, and to be a part of learning new stories of challenges overcome through good sportsmanship and graciousness. So the students and fans of Marshall University’s football team rallied and implored the trustees to keep the program going.
But where on earth was their president, Donald Dedmon, to begin? Who on earth would take the job of trying to re-form the team and coach it? Dedmon advertised the coaching position, and made phone calls to alumni and anyone with a connection to Marshall University, but to no avail. Then a coach called him, named Jack Lengyel, from Wooster College, in Ohio, saying he was interested in the job. So Dedmon drove to see him in person, had dinner with him and his wife and three children. Then President Dedmon said to Coach Lengyel:
“Jack, there is one thing l need to know, and please excuse me if l seem blunt.
You’ve got a great setup here. You have no ties to Marshall. Why do you want this job? Who in their right mind would volunteer for something…?” And Jack replied, “You want to know why l picked up the phone? ls that it? When l heard about what had happened, your situation… …the only thing l could think about was the four of them. [Jack gestured to his wife and three children, playing on the lawn.] l thought about how much they mean to me… …and about how bad it would hurt if…. Well, if l was to lose them. Then l thought about a team… …and a school… …and a town… …that’s gotta be hurting real bad. And l thought, hell… …maybe l can help. So l called you. Yeah. l guess that’s the only real ”why” l got. [The four of them] Right there.”
So Jack Lengyel was hired, moved his family to Huntington, West Virginia, and began to pull together a team, several of whom were walk-ons from other sports. The biggest obstacle Marshall faced was that the NCAA did not allow colleges to let freshmen play. So President Dedmon petitioned the NCAA, through phone calls, letters, and then driving to Kansas City to beg the commissioner in person, saying, “My university, and my town– We’re really hurting. And we just want to play football. But we need your help.” The NCAA granted Marshall a special dispensation to allow freshmen to play. That helped tremendously with their recruiting, as no other college was allowed to give freshmen that opportunity.
But a group of people, some of whom are brand new, some of whom have barely begun to process their grief, and one of whom is a coach they just met, isn’t going to turn into a winning team in only one season. Coach Lengyel knew that, and the assistant coach, Red Dawson, who was wracked by survivor’s guilt at not having been on the plane, wondered if they would win even one game. Red Dawson questions Jack Lengyel, asking if it really is honoring the people who have died by continuing to play, when the Thundering Herd might never have a winning season. And, in college football, isn’t winning the only thing that really matters? [Dawson asks] because that is what Rick Tolley, the head coach who died on the plane, always said. And Jack Lengyel replied:
“He was right, you know, Your boy, Tolley. Winning is everything and nothing else matters. l mean, l’ve said that so many times myself, l’ve lost count. You know?
And it doesn’t matter in what sport, and it doesn’t matter what country, any coach who’s worth a darn in this business believes those words. Fact. And then l came here. For the first time in my life, hell, maybe for the first time in the history of sports, suddenly, it’s just not true anymore. At least not here, not now. No.
You see, Red, it doesn’t matter if we win or if we lose. lt’s not even about how we play the game. What matters is that we play the game. That we take the field,
that we suit up on Saturdays, and we keep this program alive. We play the game, Red, and l’m telling you, one day… not today, not tomorrow, not this season, probably not next season either, but one day, you and l are gonna wake up, and suddenly we’re gonna be like every other team in every other sport, where winning is everything and nothing else matters. And when that day comes, well, that’s when we’ll honor them.”
The Thundering Herd won their first home game that season. [They gave the game ball, which is for the most valuable player, to President Dedmon.] The celebration was glorious; it began to move the team, the school, and the town into a new season of healing. But they only won one other game that year. Jack Lengyel coached the team for four more seasons, and then became the athletic director at the Navy Academy. He’s in the College Football Hall of Fame. In the 1970s, Marshall University lost more football games than any other program. But they kept the football program going. Then in 1984, the Thundering Herd had their first winning record in twenty years. They followed it with eight conference titles, five straight bowl wins, and two national championships.
When I first began reflecting on the Thundering Herd’s rise from such sparse and uncertain times, to the solidly successful and respected program they are today, I thought of the next generations which will inherit our congregation. I imagined them in a time of flourishing membership, enjoying Columbia’s and South Carolina’s good will. But then I realized, it was the founders of this congregation, over sixty years ago, who joined together, in lean and uncertain times. They were just a handful of people, sitting around in a circle. Realizing that they could not do everything, they kept picking some things –things that were helpful, educational, enlightened, peaceable, and neighborly– and they did them very well. There is a phrase college football fans use for continuing to play, even when a team has been devastated, to keep the program going, for that better day, when it once again will thrive. The phrase is, “to preserve the season.” The members and friends of our congregation, in its earliest years, kept joining together, kept suiting up on Sunday mornings, kept hosting programs for education, the arts, and assistance to people who were in hardship or discriminated against. They kept our congregation alive, preserving the season, year after year. Because they gave and worked and sacrificed and dreamed, we are able to gather here today, and launch our Capital Campaign. It doesn’t matter what monetary goal our Capital Campaign reaches. What matters is that we keep Unitarian Universalism alive, because Columbia, and South Carolina, and the world need our progressive faith. What matters is that we preserve this season, and this building and grounds, for the generations that will inherit our congregation, and in honor of its founders, who foresaw that we would assemble here, in our season. We are more fortunate than we could ever know that we are the congregation we are today, that we have the building, grounds, and facilities we have today, that we have the freedoms and choices we have today. In gratitude for how far this congregation has come, and with faith in what it can one day be, let us work and play and cheer for the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia, with all our heart and all our might.
INTRODUCE THE CAPITAL CAMPAIGN TEAM [me]
THE NUTS AND BOLTS [Pat Mohr]
WHY YOU SHOULD GIVE AND HOW [Kevin Meredith]
**Hymn #121 [verses 1 &2] We’ll Build a Land
**Benediction [Robert Buckner]:
“And the last thing he said to me – ‘Rock,’ he said – ‘sometime, when the team is up against it — and the breaks are beating the boys — tell them to go out there, with all they got, and win just one for the Gipper! I don’t know where I’ll be then, Rock,’ he said, ‘but I’ll know about it – and I’ll be happy.’”
**Extinguishing the Chalice