“There are four great needs of every human soul that must be filled if life is to take on new meaning and creativeness in the midst of the disillusionment following the war years.” This is from the Rev. Wayne Shuttee, West Shore’s very first settled minister, and he is speaking from a temporary pulpit that, right after the service, will need to be broken down and carted off to storage space, together with the 200+ chairs that have been set up temporarily in the Masonic Temple in Lakewood, together with all the hymnals, all the offering plates, all the parts and pieces that make up for a worship service.
It is 75 years ago, almost to the day, and Rev. Shuttee is speaking at West Shore’s very first worship service. His sermon is entitled “Today’s Need and Our Answer.” He wants to proclaim that answer clearly and memorably, because what has gathered all those people to begin with is a vision, a distinctively Unitarian vision of life; and it is this vision that will continue to compel people to come back again and again to that Temple.
There are, says the Rev. Shuttee, four great needs of every human soul:
1—A feeling of security. This can come only by facing up to life, understanding the nature of the world as science shows it to us, and working with, rather than against, these fundamental laws of life.
2—A sense of significance. Each of us needs to realize how important he is to the fulfillment of the human venture whose goal is a good society.
3—Development of sensitivity to the needs, desires, and worth of others. Only by such development can we hope for a world of peace and plenty for all.
4—The need to add another dimension to life—the possibility of things that may be, that must be, if life is to reach its highest fulfillment.
That was the vision. It was the same vision that, on that same day 75 years ago, would gather 75 children and 17 teachers in a nearby rental house, meeting in severely cramped quarters which West Shore member Sandy Beach remembers as a kind of “controlled bedlam.” Yet this would pose no obstacle at all in subsequent weeks and months and years, as proved by an enrollment that increased steadily and wouldn’t quit.
People wanted in on the vision!
A week later, after the very first service, the very first edition of West Shore’s newsletter was published, and in it we learn that Rev. Shuttee’s next sermon is entitled “How to Be Religious Though Intelligent.” We also read this article from him, entitled “Our Adventure in Religion”:
We who only last Sunday launched forth on our new undertaking stand at the growing point of this adventure in religion. It is our task, nay, our opportunity to carry forward the religious heritage that has come to us through the sacrifice of those who went before in the search for light. […] We must maintain that spirit of adventure which has been the strength and mainstay of our religious movement. To this end, we must dare to do all things that will carry forward the great adventure into a world that so sadly needs it.
This is more of the vision. Of adventure. Of gratitude for our religious ancestors. Of conviction that what has been passed down to us is precious. Of a personal commitment to putting skin in the game so as to pay it forward.
This primal vision, dear ones, is why we originally came to be, the Big Bang (as it were) that gave us our birth.
But we know that, with birth, comes growing pains. That too is a part of what needs to be told about our 75 years of existence so far.
Naturally, one of the growing pains was the toll it took on everyone to maintain a portable church. Our rental spaces, for worship and religious education classes, “were made ready each Sunday 42 times a year for almost six years” until our church could purchase the land and build the building where we are now. As West Shore past archivist Roy Walther recalls, “Some of the equipment was eventually stored on the premises [of the Temple], but much had to be brought in and returned each Sunday. The men on the Building and Grounds Committee came early to air the hall, since after the Saturday night dance [–evidently the Masonic Temple hosted a dance every Saturday night–] the air was thick with stale cigarette smoke and the floor dirty with butts and ashes. The windows were opened wide, the floor swept, the carpet put down, the folding chairs set neatly in rows, the piano rolled in, the record player adjusted for other music. It was,” Roy concludes, “definitely not a popular committee….”
Not popular, but the work got done. The folks who brought West Shore to birth and gave it life were committed to the vision. Just listen to another article in what was then our fledgling newsletter, from November 26, 1946, entitled “I Shall Dedicate Myself”:
This is my church. It is composed of people like me. We make it what it is.
I want it to be a church that is a lamp to the path of [seekers], leading them to Goodness, Truth, and Beauty. It will be, if I am.
It will make generous gifts to many causes, if I am a generous giver. It will bring other people into its worship and fellowship, if I bring them.
It will be friendly, if I am. Its pews will be filled if I fill them. It will do a great work, if I work.
It will be a church of loyalty and love, of fearlessness and faith; and a church with a noble spirit—if I, who make it what it is, am filled with these.
Therefore, with the help of God, I shall dedicate myself to the task of being all the things I want my church to be.
There is no easy way out. When there are growing pains, resilience and resolve must grow in equal measure, to answer the challenge.
It is as true today as it ever was.
So now let us talk about change. How this congregation, over the past 75 years, has demonstrated the changing seasons that we see in the natural world: spring, summer, fall, winter, and then the cycle begins all over again. Things born, things dying, even as the unchanging thing is the pursuit of the spiritual vision.
This, too, can bring some growing pains. Because when a thing starts in glory and goodness, and then years or decades later it fades and people stop showing up, it can feel like real failure. It can feel like that, as opposed to a thing honestly having accomplished all the work it was destined to accomplish. When a thing has done its job, endings need to be celebrated not feared. When a thing has done its job, it’s time for it to die away so as to create space for the next new thing that new circumstances require.
When West Shore was born in Big Bang glory, there were all these church groups, which lasted years. There was:
- The Women’s Alliance, for the women of the Church, meeting in the daytime. It offered “a vigorous program of social service work, activities in support of the Church, and speakers and discussions on current problems.”
- Then there was the Evening Alliance, “for business and professional women and mothers of small children,” meeting in the evening.
- Then there was the Men’s Club, also meeting in the evening for dinner and some educational evening program. It also offered opportunities for work in service projects for the Church and the community.
- Then, for senior high schoolers, there was the Everett Moore Baker Club, meeting Sunday afternoons.
- And then, for Junior high schoolers, there was the Hendrick Van Loon Club, meeting on Sunday afternoons, too.
Go to the archives and the record of these groups is endless. Each of these groups accomplished so much. But the Women’s Alliance ended in 1974. The Evening Alliance outlasted all of them and petered out as late as 1998. The Men’s Club ended in the 1960s. The Everett Moore Baker Club and the Hendrick Van Loon Club tried to unite in 1961, but unsuccessfully. The former ended 1964, the latter ended 1972.
They were precious, in their time. It must have hurt, to let them go. But it was time for them to go. And we, today, as we go through the seasons of this Congregation’s changes, must learn from our past, and honor the need for endings, with compassion and kindness.
As author Sarah Jo Smith says in The Other Side of Heartache: “Memories, good and bad, can be used to help us heal if we don’t let ourselves be mired down in them.”
That’s one reason why I’m preaching about West Shore’s 75 years. To seek healing, in addition to celebration and appreciation.
So now we turn to one other growing pain, which any faithful telling of West Shore’s story must include. It has to do with the settled ministry of the Rev. Jim Curtis which ended with his resignation after only two short years, this congregation in turmoil, and 200 members so angry that they left.
These were the years of 1966-1968, which saw dramatic social unrest in America at large which we today, having just lived through the trials and riots of 2020, can personally relate to. In June of 1966, Dr. King spoke at our UUA General Assembly and said in no uncertain terms that it was a revolutionary time and we should not sleep our way through it, like Rip Van Winkle in the old story. Roughly a month later, here in Cleveland’s Hough inner-city community, riots tore through people’s lives and property. People died, people were injured, there were millions of dollars in damages.
Racism, poverty, deficient social services: enough was enough.
So in comes Rev. Jim Curtis, following the very dynamic and very popular Peter Samsom who knew how to lead a church with 900 members. Even the most experienced of ministers is going to have trouble when they succeed a minister like Peter Samsom. But Jim Curtis was young, he was inexperienced, and he also had a tendency to be bossy—this is what I understand.
At any rate, Jim Curtis came in with a particular passion for the social justice aspect of our Unitarian religious vision. In September of 1966, at his second Board meeting, he proposed the creation of what he called the Cleveland Unitarian Universalist Parish, or CUUP, which would essentially be a social justice program addressing poverty and racism in Cleveland’s inner city. It would be financially supported by the four Unitarian Universalist churches in the metro area, West Shore being one of them. Two ministers would be hired to run the program; they would live immersed in the areas they served and build relationships with the people. Also, they would not be given job descriptions to follow or goals to achieve but would evolve their work as they saw fit and as opportunity allowed.
That’s the basic plan Jim Curtis urged upon the West Shore Board, early on in his ministry. The Board, in turn, developed a resolution and put it before the congregation: shall we be one of the sponsoring congregations for CUUP? 105 folks voted yes, 73 voted no. From this point on, things started to go sideways. The CUUP program did in fact happen; two ministers were hired at considerable expense and went into the work; some good accomplishments took place. But the lack of clarity about what the ministers were supposed to do and what their objectives actually were became increasingly problematic. Confusion multiplied at all levels: with the ministers themselves, with the leadership of the CUUP initiative, and with congregants in all four sponsoring churches.
Current West Shore Archivist Gaile Schafer tells us what happened where the West Shore congregation was concerned: “As unrest continued […], a petition was circulated asking the Board to poll the congregation regarding the effectiveness of the minister. The petition was evidence of the dissatisfaction in the congregation. A vote was taken: 230 in affirmation of his ministry, 201 against, showing that he in no way had reasonable support of the congregation.” Primarily, this result was due to poor interpersonal skills and uneven quality in preaching. But the situation with CUUP was a factor too. Jim Curtis’ resignation resulted, and so did a very messy split in our congregation.
The feelings at the time were enormous, and for those presently among us who were around back then, the feelings may still be enormous. Some were in favor of Jim Curtis and CUUP. Others were completely opposed. The thing I would like to propose here is that the main reason for the conflict (as I see it) was one that was never really directly addressed at the time, and perhaps it has never been addressed. So we must do that now. Especially in view of the curious fact that West Shore unwittingly reproduced a program similar to CUUP just four years ago, during the interim years directly preceding my time here. It wasn’t called CUUP though: it was called WSCCOM, or the West Shore Congregation-Centered Community Outreach Ministry. The proposal was to hire a minister to lead a program of working with Cleveland-area groups addressing racism and poverty. The minister would turn out to be Rev. Chris Long. Over time, increasingly, significant numbers of people would find themselves confused about what the objectives were, what was being accomplished.
I just learned about CUUP this week, through my research into West Shore history. I was stunned to see the similarities between it and the WSCCOM program, separated by all of 51 years. Stunned. Yet it must be said that there were important differences too. One of them has to do with finances. CUUP’s considerable expenses (including the two ministers’ salaries) were shared among four churches, while WSCCOM’s considerable expenses were shouldered 100% by West Shore. Not that West Shore leadership didn’t initially invite other area churches to help support the ministry position and reap the benefits. But no other churches in the area wanted to. They stepped back. That’s when West Shore leaders said, We’re going to step up. We’ll pay the expenses 100% ourselves.
But it just wasn’t financially sustainable. A sincere attempt to change this was being introduced to the congregation in January and February of 2020–I know because I was there personally, trying to lead the change!–but then came March 2020 and the worldwide pandemic. People were losing jobs left, right, and center. Forecasters were telling us that the economy was going to get worse than the Great Depression. It became painfully clear to the Board and myself that the WSCCOM job position was financially feasible no longer. We had to make a tough financial decision.
These growing pains have been incredibly hard for us. Jim Curtis’ resignation and the loss of Chris Long have been so hard. I know, in particular, that touching on this most recent loss risks triggering some of us. I regret that, sincerely. But we cannot grow unless we face our worst hurts and try to learn from them, with compassion and gentleness, remembering we are all on the same team and we all want West Shore to be the best it can be.
With compassion and gentleness, I am urging all of us to hold on to the image of growing pains because these painful episodes in our congregational history are challenging us to get a grip on what I take to be the central issue: what is proper and fair to expect of churches in doing social justice work—as opposed to social service agencies doing social justice work, or governmental agencies, or legislatures and courts. There is a desperate need for clarity here. When expectations grow out of line with reality–when we expect too much out of anything, church included, and put it to work in trying to solve problems in a way that is simply beyond its league–the inevitable result is some kind of collapse, some kind of implosion, and people grow divided and disillusioned. But rather than blame the thing that collapsed, I am saying we step back and take a look at our initial expectations. Establishing fair expectations from the start is a growing pain that all of us go through, about practically everything in our lives: spouses, houses, children, jobs, on and on.
Same thing, about churches.
Too often, it happens: we expect church to have unlimited powers, like it was a kind of God; but no church is unlimited like that. Church can’t succeed unless we position it to succeed, to do the things it is great at–and to humbly acknowledge its limitations and humbly learn to live within them. As the prayer goes:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
It is time to grow wiser about what the church can change in the world and what it can’t; how churches work well and how they don’t work so well.
It is time to be clearer in our collective vision of what it means to be a successful justice-loving church.
This is why one of our mainstage congregational initiatives, in this our 75th year of existence, is being led by our Justice Visioning Task Force, to help us create a congregationally-based and congregationally-approved justice vision for ourselves. And in this work we must be wise as the prayer says. Our greatest growing pains over the years, I believe, have been related to differences of opinion regarding how the church ought to address social injustice–never that we ought to, but often how to do it. We must face this honestly and courageously. We must get healthy and clear about how we might position West Shore to be successful in doing what it can do well as we face a world filled with overwhelming problems of all kinds.
This is what I believe.
We must do this together.
And now, it’s time to stop talking about growing pains because that’s not all that West Shore’s 75 years have been about. By no means.
This is a church of outstanding leadership and talent, filled with people of integrity.
This is a church of good humor, and joyfulness.
This is a church where people are accepted and loved not in spite of but because of their uniqueness and eccentricities.
This is a church where people have celebrated together, mourned together, remembered good times and bad times together.
This is a church where what is preached is always some form of the original sermon: “Today’s Need and our Answer”—or ought to be.
All the memories:
From Jim and Margaret Frost, the first people to be married in the Fireside room in Nov. 1963, comes this: “As he conducted the ceremony, Dr. Peter Samsom was forced to gradually move away from the heat of the blazing fireplace. However, his escape was blocked by chairs being placed well into the ceremony to seat late-arriving guests. It seems Jim’s mother was over-zealous with invitations and people crowded into entrances. Then the food arrived—and pandemonium reigned.”
Then this memory:
From Rox and Rube Kazarian: “When we started our West Shore experience in the 1950s, there were two worship services and lots of activities. But there were no services in the summer! One summer Sunday morning Rube and I [were out on the church grounds doing some weeding] and a man drove up and inquired when church services would begin. When we explained that there were no summer services, he countered with a straight face, “Oh, is God on vacation too?”
Then this memory:
From Lesley W. Brumbach: “Jim Curtis was delivering a sermon about the Hopi language, and how it has no subject or predicate. I remember their word ‘waving’ for our concept of waves rolling toward shore. He related their language to their religion, of a spirit always present with no past history. Suddenly I grasped it all—millions of people in search of a spirit and meaning in their lives—the whole panorama of the ages. The hymns and the benediction reinforced the universality of humankind’s endless longing. The service ended and with tears in my eyes. I turned to the person beside me and asked what she thought of the sermon. ‘Couldn’t understand a word of it,’ she responded. ‘It left me cold.’ And so it goes.”
All the memories:
- Solar panels installed on the roof.
- The Black Lives Matter banner on our building.
- 20 years of our Partner Church in Bagyon, Transylvania.
- All our Intern Ministers.
- The ordination of Midge Skwire and her ministry among us.
- The settled ministers I haven’t talked about, for lack of time only. David Cole. Michael McGee. Kathleen Rolenz and Wayne Arneson. Each name brings up so many memories….
- Rev. Samsom, for whom the sermon was so important and central that, to find more time for it in the service, he wouldn’t allow verbal announcements to be made, and he also eliminated the call to offering and passing the plate!
And here is one more memory, the last one (I promise!): the memory of the man who gave birth to the dream of a Unitarian church on the West Side of Cleveland: The Rev. Everett Moore Baker, Senior Minister of the Unitarian Church on Cleveland’s East Side. “I believe,” he said in 1945, “that we have an obligation to make available to more people the religious ideals of our church. I believe that more people will recognize the direct connection between our kind of religious freedom and the individual freedom in democracy.”
This is what you call evangelism. Rev. Baker was an evangelist. Evangelism is why we exist today.
Evangelism is in our DNA.
Soon after he said this, meetings in various people’s homes on the West Side took place, and energy was building and building. Then Rev. Baker and Rev. Shuttee gave lectures at the Lakewood Community Center and hundreds of folks showed up. The culmination was in April of 1946, when American Unitarian Association Dr. Frederick May Eliot came to speak, and he went on and on about the good work happening on the West Side of Cleveland, and he finished up his gracious remarks by saying, “I congratulate you on starting the newest Unitarian church in the country.”
But Dr. Eliot was confused. There was no church yet. No one had “started” anything. There was only growing energy for it.
The Rev. Shuttee describes what happened next: “Fortunately for him, Dr. Eliot had to leave immediately … to catch a plane and Ev Baker took him to the airport. That left me to cope with the aftermath. Surprisingly enough … a groundswell developed for making real Dr. Eliot’s mistaken assumption. I suggested that we set up three committees from among those present: on Bylaws and Structures, on Finances, and a Nominating Committee … and report back … one month later.”
This is how church happens, at its finest. There is no forcing. A vision is preached but that vision is already in the hearts and minds of the people. The people are merely hearing something that they already know and love. Perhaps they have just been waiting for someone to say it out loud.
And so they step up and own it as theirs.
Let this sort of vision be preached ever and always in this place, so that for our next 75 years, we remain viable and vital and ever young.