Pastor shares history of, insights on Unitarian Universalist Church
On the occasion of Spokane hosting the National Unitarian Universalist Association's annual General Assembly Wednesday to Sunday, June 19 to 23, at the Spokane Convention Center, Todd Eklof, pastor of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Spokane, offered background on the denomination and local congregation, along with information on the event.
The 3,000 delegates are gathering for worship, witness, workshops, connecting and business that includes bylaws changes, electing board members and voting on a statement of conscience, "Our Democracy Uncorrupted," suggesting ways to preserve U.S. democracy.
After a public closing service at 10 a.m. Sunday, there will also be a witness action on racism downtown.
Workshops will cover anti-racism, white supremacy and inclusion issues, plus topics like lay ministry, stewardship, treasurers and music. The Spokane Alliance will lead a workshop on involving impacted communities and communities of color in organizing work. Another workshop is on Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams, who grew up in Spokane.
Keynoters are Richard Blanco, a gay immigrant from Cuba and the fifth poet to read at an inauguration (President Obama's second), and Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility.
Todd explained that the Unitarian Universalist (UU) Church has a congregational polity, a bottom-up organization of autonomous individual churches that select and call their ministers. There are organized districts and regions that have gatherings, too.
Unitarians and Universalists each began in the 1700s in the U.S. Unitarians, a liberal branch of Christians, founded Harvard University. Universalists believed in universal salvation. They merged in 1961, he said.
The UU symbol is a chalice surrounded by two circles, one representing Unitarians and one for Universalists. The chalice symbol came from World War II when the Unitarian Service Committee used a chalice as a sign for friends who would help Jews escape Eastern Europe.
"The chalice represents the value of the individual and the necessity of community," he said.
Todd told of early Spokane pastors.
The local UU church was founded in 1887. Its first minister, Edwin Wheelock, arrived in Spokane with a bounty on his head, wanted in Virginia for preaching a sermon supporting abolitionist John Brown. Edwin had started schools for freed slaves in Louisiana and Texas.
From 1911 to 1916, John Dietrich, who founded Religious Humanism, gave lectures at 10 a.m. Sundays in what is now the Bing Theater. He came to Spokane a few months after being convicted of preaching heresy by the Dutch Reform Church.
The next pastor, M.M. Mangasarian, was born in Turkey and founded the Rationalist Society. He believed Jesus was a myth, not a historical person
These speakers drew crowds to what was more a lecture series than a church, said Todd.
In 1921, the church became a smaller community, meeting in different places, including sharing space with Temple Emanu-El, beginning in the 1930s. In 1943, they bought what is now the Glover Mansion, and later built a church on the property.
Led in the 1950s and 1960s by Rudy Gilbert, the church organized public discussions on Communism, the United Nations, Medicare and the Vietnam War.
The pastor in the 1970s and 1980s was Bill Houff, a scientist and activist who informed people of radiation leaking into the ground, air and water on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, which made the plutonium for bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He helped establish the Hanford Education Action League that created public pressure to release information that led to shutting down the nuclear reactor that made those bombs.
In the 1990s, Linda Whittenberg led the church in re-establishing relations with Unitarians in Felsorákos, Romania, beginning cultural exchanges, visits and friendships.
Outgrowing the space beside the Glover House, in 1995, the UU Spokane moved to its present building at 4340 W. Ft. Wright Dr.
Since coming in 2011, Todd has helped church members and others support Washington's referendum supporting marriage equality for gays and lesbians, turning 25 percent in Eastern Washington favoring it into 47 percent in the county and 55 percent in the city, he said.
"Washington was the first of two states to legalize same sex marriage by popular vote," said Todd. "From there, it spread over the U.S. and the world."
Also in 2012, the church supported the state's initiative to decriminalize marijuana, which he said cut the number of stops and searches by police in the state in half, reducing contacts with police and jail populations.
The UU Church of Spokane has been active in environmental stewardship within the congregation, among its members, and in challenging the safety of coal and oil trains coming through Spokane. Eventually Governor Jay Inslee turned down the last coal and oil export facility proposal.
Members partner with organizations like the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane, the Spokane Alliance, and other groups involved with activism and giving voice to concerns on contraceptive freedom, the environment, immigration and Palestinians, Todd said.
"In our weekly Meaningful Movies, we look at what issues are calling us right now," he said.
Members are in a local coalition of people who go to the Intermodal Transportation Center where immigration officers pick up immigrants. They raise money for bail and legal assistance, as well as informing people on their rights.
Todd, who grew up and was ordained in the Southern Baptist Church, graduated from Howard Payne University in Brownwood, Texas, before going to South Seminary in Louisville, Ky. He earned a master's degree at Spalding University, a Catholic school in St. Louis, and a doctor of ministry degree at Meadville-Lombard, a UU school in Chicago. He became a Unitarian minister in 1999.
"Unitarians, who are less than one percent of the U.S. population, have about 1,000 congregations and about 200,000 members," he said. "Our church has about 400 members, with 300 attending the two Sunday services."
"Most UU congregations seek to create the open, inclusive, supportive community that people need for their lives and seek to have impact on the world to make it a better, more just place for everyone," he said.
"Our mission is to create community, find meaning and work for justice. We champion justice, diversity and environmental stewardship in the wider world," Todd said.
He described Unitarian Universalist "theology" as non-theistic, not defined by one doctrine or theology, but sharing principles in community.
"We are different individuals with different beliefs. Some have no beliefs. Some gravitate to Buddhist theology or philosophy. Some have theistic leanings. Differences do not separate us or cause contention," he said.
Todd finds Spokane more progressive than its reputation as the conservative part of the state.
"I engage in more issues here than I would in a larger city," he said. "There is political diversity here, and many in Spokane have progressive values.
"Spokane's UU Church was part of Spokane before it was Spokane," Todd said. "We have a rich, colorful history here with many movers and shakers among our compassionate, intellectual, caring, active members."
For information, call 325-6383 or visit uuspokane.org.
Copyright@ The Fig Tree, June, 2019