A Pecan Tree Legacy: Faith In the Future

by the Rev. Richard W. Kelley, PBUUC minister emeritus
Delivered October 20, 2002 at
Paint Branch UU Church, Adelphi, Maryland

Within two short years, this congregation will be celebrating the 50th Anniversary of its founding. So it is timely to be holding a "Founders Day" observance upon this occasion. But, let me hasten to say that, despite my antiquity, I am not one of those "founders!" However, in the 31 years I’ve been associated with this congregation -- in one capacity or another — in that time, I have known many of those who were. So I guess I’m the fitting minister to attempt to speak for them.

Also, I may have some inkling of what those founders may felt ... way back then. Because about 9 years ago — after I retired from my active ministry here — I sat down at a kitchen table with 8 other UUs and conspired to "found" a fellowship down in Southern Maryland. The others did most of the work getting it going, ... and to them goes most of the credit for its success. But I do have some feeling for what it means to be a "founder" of a religious organization. So let me talk a little bit about what it means to be a "founder," because I think it is a special kind of experience.

But first, let me speak of something else, ... and someone else. Some of you may know who Dr. Howard Thurman was. He was a charismatic preacher, and eloquent writer, and for many years Professor of Homiletics at Boston University, one of the first African-Americans to hold that position. And before that, some 50 years ago, he was founder and creator of the "Fellowship Church" (I believe it was called) in San Francisco. That church was unique for its time, a multi-ethnic, multi-racial congregation that brought together persons of Chinese and Japanese descent, Hispanics, Polynesians, African-Americans, Caucasians and many others. It was perhaps the only church in San Francisco that was truly "representative" of that wonderfully diverse city.

Regrettably, I missed the opportunity to hear Dr. Thurman there. The year 1951, when I arrived in the Bay Area to study at our Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, ... that was the year Howard Thurman left the Fellowship Church to take up the position in Boston. So I just missed him! But I heard many glowing accounts of him of his eloquence and his work at Fellowship Church. In the years to come, I read some of his writings and as a result I have a great respect for the man.

Howard Thurman tells a little story — one I’ll have to recite from memory since I can’t put my hands on the source right now. But Thurman tells this story. He says:

"One morning I was walking down a country road for exercise, and I spied a farmer working in a field along the way. As I drew closer I could see that he was an elderly man, and that he was planting little seedlings far apart in the field. Curious, I wandered over to the fence.

"‘Old man,’ I said, ‘what are you planting there?’

"He glanced up at me out of the corner of his eye, going on with his planting. ‘Pecan Trees,’ he said, and went on digging.

"I wondered at this. For I knew that pecan trees were slow-growing. It often takes a decade or more before they bear any fruit at all. And clearly this man looked to be 75 or 80 years old.

"‘But why do you plant them?’ I asked. ‘Surely you know it will be many years before they bear anything. You probably will never live to gather a single nut from these trees. So why plant them?’

"The old man straightened up, painfully, and looked me in the eye. And he said: ‘The man who plants only for his own harvest has no faith in the future.’ And I realized then," said Thurman, "that this man was more than a planter of crops; he was a nurturer of the generations to come."

"Faith in the Future." It seems to me that’s part of what we’re talking about this morning. Because "founders" do more that just satisfy their own personal needs, and the needs of their families. They may well do that, yes!, it’s true. But founding a religious organization is different from the sustaining activity of those who come after. Founding a congregation really does call for faith in the future. In this case, faith in the future of liberal religion. Faith in the rightness of what our religious tradition represents. Faith in one’s ability to make that religion prosper and grow. Faith in the power of liberal religion to inspire coming generations. Faith that what we do as "founders" will help to shape the future.

I expect many of you know the story of how many of the Washington area congregations came to be founded. You’ve probably been told of how, back in the 50s, A. Powell Davies as minister of All Souls Church in the District, ... how A. Powell Davies created a unique ferment amongst liberal folk here in Washington. How a succession of groups "spun off" from All Souls quite deliberately to found liberal churches all around the Washington area, ... around what we now refer to as the "Beltway."

And I expect, too, that you know how this particular congregation was founded as part of that effervescence of faith. Know how a number of All Souls members and friends, inspired by A. Powell Davies, began meeting in rented quarters at the University of Maryland in College Park. Know how for the first year or so, they gathered to hear Dr. Davies and the service at All Souls "piped in" by telephone line.

Perhaps you’ve heard the stories of the struggles of those early years of the College Park Center: the stress of setting up and taking down every Sunday for both services and church school, ... the stress of "church in a box," as one person put it. Meaning that everything had to be unpacked from boxes and set up, ... then taken down, packed away again a couple of hours later.

And you know of how those founders later called a minister, ... bought a parsonage, ... and still later discovered this property here in the woods. How they built here and thus took the name "Paint Branch" from the area.

In other words, I expect many of you know the "folklore" of this congregation: the stories of its past, ... the legends of its founders. However, I must tell you not all of that is totally true — most of it is, but not all of it.

I remember back when we were preparing to celebrate the 25th anniversary of our founding. We wrote a number of the founders who had moved away during those 25 years, inviting them to write short comments on the founding, if they so desired, so we could share them with our current members. I remember one man wrote us in response. He said something like this:

"I’m surprised at the comments about our being ‘inspired’ by A. Powell Davies, and wanting to spread his influence. Funny! I thought the whole idea of founding the College Park congregation was so we could get away from the ‘Great Man,’ and have our own church!"

So, you see, not all of Paint Branch’s founders were enamored with A. Powell Davies. Far from it! Some of them wanted to get out from under the "dominance" of the Great Man, ... and saw the founding of this congregation as a chance to do so.

I mention this because I think we need to understand better the uniqueness of A. Powell Davies, beyond the mythology. We need to understand just how unusual he was, the way in which he was "great."

A. Powell Davies was a brilliant man, an eloquent speaker, a great spokesperson for liberal religion in our nation’s capitol. He wrote some very interesting and insightful books, both about our faith and about religion in general. He did indeed inspired and drew to himself a great following.

But the truth is we’ve had charismatic leaders like this before: men like the great humanist preacher, John Dietrich, ... the eloquent Preston Bradley in Chicago, ... and others. These were individuals who drew congregations of thousands to hear them. In the case of Preston Bradley, whose sermons were broadcast by radio all around the mid-West, his followers probably numbered in the tens of thousands. The trouble is the congregations they created and inspired, shrank to almost nothing — when they left or retired! They influenced the lives of thousands, ... but they left behind little that was permanent. Their influence died with them, and the people they personally inspired.

The wonderful thing about A. Powell Davies was that this did not happen with him. Somehow he was able to inspire people to become followers — not of A. Powell Davies — but followers of liberal religion. The eloquence of the man may have been the initial attraction that brought people to him. But he was able to pass them on to something more substantial than a "cult of personality." He inspired them with a faith in the future, ... the future of liberal religion. He infused them with a desire to be part of a growing liberal faith, ... to do something to further it, ... to make it part of their lives and their children’s lives, ... to have a hand in shaping the future.

It seems to me this is the unique genius of A. Powell Davies: ... that he could "let go" of those he attracted and inspired, ... that he could offer them a vision of liberal religion that they could make their own! I guess I’m saying that like any good parent, whether he realized it or not, the Great Man knew when to let the children go out on their own. And he encouraged them! Make no mistake! What occurred with the founding of this congregation — and the other UU congregations here in the Washington area — was no mere "happenstance." It didn’t just occur! It was deliberately planned! And Davies was part of that planning and intent.

And to me, greater than any of the sermons he preached or the books he wrote was Davies' ability to inspire and encourage that kind of faith in the future.

And you may well say: Oh, back in the 50s, that was easy. After all, America was at the height of its prosperity, ... truly the greatest economic and military power on the earth. Everything was rosy back then. It was easy to have faith in the future, and to out and found a church.

No! That was not so! If you remember your history, you know that when this congregation was founded, we were just emerging from one of the most disgraceful period of our national history. The country had been subjected to a terrible anti-communist witch-hunt led by Joe McCarthy, in which the reputations and careers of many innocent folk were ruined beyond repair. And, "McCarthyism" was still rampant in many quarters.

The so-called "Cold War" and our fear of a world-wide communist conspiracy were becoming more intense. The terror of an atomic holocaust that might destroy all life on the planet, ... that terror was in the back of most people’s minds in those days. People were going out and buying their own bomb shelters. Youth talked about not wanting to bring children into "a world like this!" School children were drilled in hiding under their desks — in case of a nuclear attack! (How’s that as an image of self-delusion: a half-inch, wooden desktop as protection against a 50-meta-ton H-bomb?)

No! This was not an optimistic, secure time. And the future was hardly "rosy." There were grave doubts and misgivings about what the future might bring, ... or if there even was a future for us human beings! This was the emotional environment in which those "founders" sat down, and discussed beginning a new Unitarian congregation. They were going to start something "new" and uncertain, ... here when most people doubted that any of the "old" would even survive, much less something "new."

But those founders went ahead and tried. I suspect some of them may have done so, ... not in spite of the emotional climate of the times, but because of it! I’m sure some of them said: "this is what we must do, ... we must begin something that will counteract the destructiveness of the age. And liberal religion is what is needed if the future is to be anything but dark." They had faith in the rightness and the future of our religion

And so they went ahead, and founded this congregation in the face of all that the doomsayers were predicting. They went out and planted their "pecan trees," never knowing if there would be a "harvest time" in future years. They went ahead and created a congregation that came to be known as the "Paint Branch Church." But for that faith in the future, none of us would be here today to celebrate! We worship here today because of their willingness to "try" — to reach out to the future with hope and enthusiasm, and "found" something of enduring worth.

Of course, at a time of celebration and self-congratulation like this, I’m afraid I have to ask you about your "pecan trees." (Ministers are like that, you know; they feel it necessary to ask uncomfortable questions.) But have you planted any "pecan trees," lately? Do you have a "pecan tree legacy" to leave behind? How is your "faith in the future" and how are you expressing it?

I know! I can hear some asking: Have you checked the stock market lately? Have you watched the news on TV about our crumbling economy and the revelations of corporate criminality? To say nothing about the sick snipers out there killing innocent people almost daily. Here we are only a year away from the terror of "9/11," teetering on the brink of war again, with all this happening, and you want to talk about "faith in the future." Well, what better time to consider the future?

Let’s consider, honestly, what the future has to offer. One refrain I’ve heard for a year now (until I’m sick of it) is how "nothing is the same since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon." How no one feels safe anymore since then. How the world is utterly different!

I really think that’s nonsense. What’s happened is that a group of rather complacent Americans have discovered what a lot of us have known all along. They’ve discovered their mortality! They’ve discovered that it’s a dangerous world out there. Loss and death may be only a few feet away, ... only a moment or two in the future. There are no guarantees of security in the days to come. And there never have been!

Welcome to the real world! The world where you are more apt to die under the wheels of a car than at the hands of a terrorist. Where you’re more apt to break your neck falling down the stairs or slipping in the bathtub, ... more apt to die that way than by a shot from a sniper. Where we all live — and strive — in the face of our own mortality! This is the way it is when you are a human being! This is the way all human beings must live — facing their morality and living creatively despite that reality.

Someone once said: "it is the business of the future to be dangerous." And it is! It’s the business of the future to challenge us — challenge us to affirm the worth of life in the face of all that may come, ... in the face of all that may negate that life.

So, on this day of celebration when we honor those who were "founders" of this particular expression of our liberal faith, I think we must also look to our own future. Look to the future and ask ourselves the hard questions: ... What we are doing to transform our world into something more worthwhile? How can we help create a better future? What are the "pecan trees" we personally are planting that represent our legacy for future generations? These are questions only we can answer for ourselves.

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