First Unitarian Church of Providence
22 April 2012
We are tailing in on the end of our two hundred and ninety second year as a religious community. Over these years we have enjoyed good times and have suffered bad times, but throughout this church has been a beacon of light and hope for ourselves, for our families, and for our larger community. We are also coming in on the end of my fourth year serving among you as the church’s seventeenth settled minister.
You have kept me busy.
We weathered the Great Recession together, and as many know, while the country is beginning slowly to recover, we in Rhode Island are lagging, even tottering on the edge of a “double dip.” These are matters beyond our control, but loom large. As a consequence, throughout my tenure here money has been a bigger issue than has been so for us for quite a while. The canvas is not yet fully completed. And, let me add, if you have not yet pledged for next year, please do. And quickly. The process of drafting next year’s budget is just beginning. And I am holding my breath.
That, of course, will lead to our annual Financial Meeting in a few weeks.
What I want to focus on here today at the general gathering is the tone of life within our community and what I am seeing happening.
The short report is: we are thriving.
Attendance at our worship services are as high as they’ve been since the ministry of Tom Ahlburn. The energy that follows during our coffee hour is amazing. Speaking through the time of my service, while most New England congregations were in a gentle but clear decline, our Providence congregation held steady. And, I’m pleased to report starting this year, while others are continuing to decline, we have in fact increased our membership. As of the end of March we have four hundred and forty-nine adult members in active and voting status. We of course serve a much larger constituency of friends and people in the larger community who attend major holidays and at other times. We’re reporting two hundred children and youth in our Religious Education program, and it appears we have stopped the decline in registration for Religious Education, which over the past decade we shared with the rest of the region, and which, again, continues elsewhere.
Probably the most exciting facet of our shared life is the number of young adults who are attending, many of whom are signing the book. Possibly twenty percent of our average Sunday attendance comes from people under thirty-five. This is not what is happening in most other churches, UU or otherwise. And it is exciting. Very exciting.
I need to speak briefly to Fred Jodry and our choir. Wow! The musical part of our worship life is powerful, compelling, and increasingly diverse. I am also grateful for the guidance and support of our worship committee.
Thanks to Cathy Seggel, her support staff, the teachers and RE committee, our programing for children and youth is doing very well. Our adult programming is not all I wish it to be, but we are offering a variety of opportunities to be involved. Our Social Justice ministry, particularly the work of Standing on the Side of Love and Neighborhood Social Justice is varied and significant. Mobile Loaves and Fishes, bringing Senator Rhoda Perry and our upcoming Citizen Activist training with Common Cause are markers of our involvement. Our Food Pantry continues to be an important part not only of our community life, but providing a soul need to be reaching out and serving those in need directly and immediately. And these are just the highlights. We’re doing a lot and we’re doing it well.
Our spiritual lives continue to be cultivated. Chalice Circles continue to be our single largest opportunity for spiritual discipline, but the Zen and Tibetan meditation groups are also thriving and present for those among us who wish to find a deeper discipline congruent with our liberal religious values. And as we go forward I hope we will find other disciplines to offer in that same liberating spirit that calls us to open our hearts and reach out our hands.
Our community life is thriving. Jenn and our membership committee in particular have been tireless in making this a truly welcoming congregation. The lay ministers and care crew are focused and engaged. Our Transylvanian connection has been invaluable in keeping us aware of people who share our values and who live in constrained circumstances because of their commitments to the spirit of liberal religion. And the jewel at the center of all this, I feel, is Jim Estey and those who help him put together our monthly potluck and program. I’m so grateful.
As for reaching out hands here within our community. The leadership is active and healthy. People are stepping up to do the many tasks that keep our community growing. Today’s election of officers and deacons speaks to that critical part of our communal life. I’m grateful to all who have served and I’m grateful to those who are willing to take their turn at the many tasks that keep us moving into our two hundred and ninety third year.
As I said, we are involved and engaged. We are nurturing our hearts and reaching out to the world.
We are fully on task.
Thank you all!
(The Rev’d) James Ishmael Ford