Paint Branch Creative Visions

A Sermon by Barbara Wells
September 14, 2003
Paint Branch UU Church

Reading: New Church, Old Church
(PBUUC 1991) by Betty Allen

Welcome, house –
Make no mistake,
You are not yet our home.
Lofty and beautiful and new –
The climax of our lengthy dreams
so long deferred.
No agonies, no trembling, no despair
Have hallowed you.
No questing souls have tentatively crossed
Your threshold.

Only a little step divides you from our past,
The place we’ve left, which loves and tears
and triumphs made a refuge.
Long our dear home.
So we marvel at your gracious height
And resonance,
Receive our memories –
Let them be a bridge
To tie us to the lovers and the friends
Who were, who are, who shall be in these places,
In spirit and flesh made one.

SERMON: Paint Branch Creative Visions

"Receive our memories," wrote Betty Allen 12 years ago. "Let them be a bridge" to those "who were, who are, who shall be in these places."

Our dear Betty, who has made this church her religious home for some 40 years, was inspired to write that poem when this building we sit in today was dedicated a dozen years ago, in 1991. Twelve years is really not very long in the life of a church, but for many of you here now, 1991 may seem like the deep and ancient past. I expect there are some in this room who cannot remember a time when this building didn’t appear to be the heart of Paint Branch.

Raise your hand if that holds true for you—if you don’t remember before this Meeting House was our worship home. You may not remember but the others around you do. For this building was just one of the many creative visions that became reality over the course of the life of this church. And today I want to explore the creative spirit here, and why I think it is such an essential element in understanding the place and its people.

This congregation, Paint Branch UU Church, will be celebrating its 50th anniversary next year, in the fall of 2004. And because any big birthday deserves a special celebration, a group of people, led by trustee Rene McDonald, have come together to form the Anniversary Celebration Team (ACT). Though the festivities are still a year away, this group is already deep into the planning of something really wonderful. We’ve confirmed that the president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, The Rev. Bill Sinkford, will join us in early November of 2004, and a month-long commemoration will surround his visit. This anniversary planning, over a year in advance, got me thinking. Maybe it would be a good idea this fall, the season of our 49th anniversary, to reflect a bit on who we are and where we are going.

Paint Branch was started, as were many of the DC area churches, by the mid-20th century minister of All Souls Unitarian Church, A. Powell Davies. Powell Davies had a vision of congregations all around the Beltway and he worked tirelessly to promote their development. In 1950, Davies had the creative idea of spreading the gospel of Unitarianism through the wonders of modern technology—the telephone line. Groups of people gathered to hear him, in larger suburbs like Arlington and Bethesda, and in places like Alexandria, and in College Park.

In 1954, a group of Unitarians from All Souls and elsewhere had a phone line installed into a temporary building (still there of course!) at the University of Maryland. And on October 17, 1954, the first service and Sunday School classes were held at what would one day become PBUUC. Soon the church had grown enough to call its first minister (in 1957) and to purchase land (in 1958). In 1965, the first building (now known as the RE building) was completed. And onward to 1991 when this Meeting House was finally constructed.

I am not planning to tell you the whole history of Paint Branch. The latest history statement will be written for our 50th and if you want you can read the wonderful history written for the 25th anniversary by Walker and Emily Dawson. All church histories are interesting because they document the evolution of a community over time. But, instead of using this sermon to tell you fascinating stories about the congregation’s ministers or to reflect nostalgically on the old days, I want instead to take note of what I see as one of the most striking things about this congregation. It’s easy to see from its very inception 49 years ago: you are a most creative people.

Now I’ve read or been a part of the history of a number of churches in my life. Every congregation is unique, but most church histories I have read or heard about tend to focus on a few important things. Ministers usually get a mention, as do buildings. Social Action is often highlighted and you regularly hear or read about Religious Education for children. All of these can be found in Paint Branch’s historical documents. But what I really noticed about the Paint Branch history were the many pages devoted to the artistic life of this church.

While it is not uncommon in a church history to read about an organ or even a choir, the Paint Branch history has a whole section on the Fine Arts. In this interesting history you can read about how Al Herling composed music for special occasions; about the creation of an early version of the Paint Branch Players called the "Sometimes Players;" and about how, in 1960 (the year I was born!) the first dance group began here.

You can also read about the various fine arts groups that were created to explore photography, sculpture and drawing and you will discover that Paint Branchers have been reading, writing, and publishing poetry for years. You all may be nodding your heads and saying, "Well of course, isn’t that what churches do?" But the truth is that many of them don’t. One of the churches I grew up in went for years with no choir and used only recorded music. Another never had a piece of art hanging on its walls. And none of them, as far as I know, ever had a successful liturgical dance group or published poetry! These qualities of Paint Branch make it so special. This place is a haven for artists and creative types and, as far as I can tell, has always been so.

Perhaps it is this quality that first drew Jaco’s and my attention to Paint Branch when we decided to come here four years ago. We were very open in our search for a church to serve together. But, there were a few things we really wanted in a congregation. One was a commitment to quality worship services and a lovely space to hold them. Another was a strong music program. But perhaps most important, we were looking for a place that had an openness and a creative spirit.

In the profile of Paint Branch, we read that your ministers considered you the most "sane" church around the Beltway. At the time, we didn’t really know what they meant. Now I think that they meant that this is a place where people are mostly willing to relax and let the crazy Beltway attitude take a back seat to having fun. This congregation likes to create, to be artistic, and to frolic. As your first minister, David Osborn, put it at your 25th anniversary, Paint Branch is a "dancing congregation."

I agree with David’s assessment of nearly 24 years ago. As I look around Paint Branch today I continue to see a congregation that moves to a creative rhythm all its own. Just take a look around you, for example, at this incredible space. Look at how the light comes in from above, in front and behind us. See how we feel almost as if we are perched in a tree house. Note the simple but powerful lines of our domed roof. Hear the beauty of the acoustics. Pianist David, can you play a brief line of music for us? (He does so.) It just sounds so wonderful!

Now look around at the art on the walls. It’s just one of many exhibits that have been or will be in this space. And note the graceful curve of the building when you go outside. This Meeting House is truly stunning and is, I believe, one of the most beautiful UU sanctuaries in the DC area, if not the entire East Coast.

But of course there is more. The musical program here, now under David’s excellent leadership, is growing, and more and more members are sharing their musical gifts. The Paint Branch players are continuing to expand under Robin Walbrook’s direction. The Creativity Circle, a semi-monthly gathering of creative spirits during Enrichment Hour, begins its second year this fall. And the newest program at Paint Branch, Festive Friday, is proving to be a place where people can share their gifts in a relaxed way over a family-friendly meal. For example, you should have seen us dancing the other night! And on another Festive Friday, Carmelita Carter brought her paintings in to show to folks. No question, Paint Branch today is as creative a place as it has always been.

Creativity is wonderful. I believe at my very core that art and creativity are at the heart of spirituality. Since people first became human, we have found ways to express our deepest feelings through artistic expression, and these deep feelings are the place from which, I believe, the holy emerges. So, it is not surprising to me that the spiritual health of Paint Branch feels so good right now.

When creativity is merged with energy and vision, good, even great things can happen. And as we look to our 50th anniversary, I can’t help but be excited by what I see and hear and know about this place. We rock!

But—there is always a "but", isn’t there?—creative congregations like this one share some of the wonderful and challenging characteristics of creative people. I’ve just talked at length about the wonderful parts. Now for the challenge.

In my experience (and, as someone who generally falls into the "artistic" camp myself, I think I can speak to this), creative and artistic people have a tendency to spend so much time on the fun and exciting parts of life that occasionally important things like stability or maintenance can get shortchanged. We all know stories of artists who neglect the more mundane aspects of life (like eating!) in order to stay in the creative zone. Here at Paint Branch I’ve noticed that the energy that emerges from new ideas can be so appealing that at times the support of older programs can get shortchanged. In the excitement of imagining a new building, for example, we can forget to maintain the old.

Now I am not here to finger wag at anyone. I am a part of this church and thus a part of both its gifts and challenges. But perhaps because, with the exception of some others on staff and a few extremely active volunteers, I am probably here more than anyone else is. Thus, I have come to notice some of the ways we are not using our natural creativity to take care of what we have.

Let’s use this building as an example. Ever since Jaco and I arrived here four years ago, there have been at least a few people who have gotten excited about the idea of finally building out the unfinished basement of the Meeting House. It’s a great idea, and clearly needs people to use their creative vision to make it a reality. But I would challenge us to think about how we care for—OR DON’T CARE FOR—what we already have before we build even more.

I would encourage you to look around this building and the RE building during coffee hour. Take note of what you see. I can help you imagine it for a moment because I know it well. Yes, this building and our RE building are unique, some would say (particularly about this Meeting House) that they are beautiful.

But walk with me in your mind. Look at the walls in this room and in the hallway and foyer and ask yourself the last time they were painted. Peek into corners that you usually take for granted. Check out the front door and how it barely closes due to warping. Walk on our deck and wonder at its remarkable slippery qualities that have caused a number of people to fall in recent weeks. Check out the light fixtures in the RE building hallways. You might wonder how dark that hallway feels at night. (I can tell you, pretty dark!) Visit the MAK Room on a cold night and wonder if you will ever warm up. (You may not!)

Now take a walk with me down the stairs to the office—but you can’t if you are disabled because the office isn’t accessible. Look at the old desks and beat up furniture in the administrator’s office. Feel the clamminess of RE Director Natalie’s space. And check out the rug in our office—it’s probably at least 30 years old! And the paint might be even older. A recent storm broke a window in our office and another a few years ago sent water streaming down the inside of the (single-paned) glass. And then wander about and see if there is a room in the RE building with comfortable chairs, good lighting and nice carpets. If you find one, let me know.

I share this with all of you for a few reasons. First, I expect that there are a number of you who just aren’t aware that the beautiful place we call our church home is more than what you see in here on Sunday mornings. Second, because I understand what it’s like to get so excited about new things that old things can get neglected. Third, because I truly believe that the creative energy that lives here at Paint Branch can address these issues without losing the wonderful spirit that marks us as unique.

In just over a year, we are going to be inviting people from all over the region, including the president of our Association, to join us here in celebration. Imagine what it would be like to not only show off our remarkable musical, dramatic and artistic gifts but also to let the world know that what we have here we value enough to care for. Can we use this year ahead to work together to create not only exciting programs but the leadership to sustain them over time?

Can we use this year ahead to work together to create not only dreams and schemes on how to expand our building, but solid plans (and the money to support them) for how to better maintain what we already have?

Jaco and I have a dream that during this year leading up to Paint Branch’s anniversary, people of all generations will come together to do the small but important things that will make a real difference for our 50th. Some things are already happening. As regards our creative programming, the board has increased its understanding of and support for more leadership development to make sure that the newer members of our congregation can feel capable and sustained as they move deeper into leadership. I have confidence that this will help us maintain the strong programs we have here.

But I would challenge more of you to get involved. For instance, I hear all the time how important our Enrichment Hour programs are to many of you. Yet, it has been extremely hard to get folks to commit to the support of it by volunteering. It won’t last, dear ones, if you don’t make a commitment to it.

And the board is working hard to do more to make sure our building is both beautiful and safe. They have done a lot of short term work, particularly on the deck, and are beginning to explore long term solutions that may include, ultimately, a capital campaign to build out the basement of the Meeting House and improve our entire entryway and grounds. That said, the board is struggling to find enough people to make up a strong Buildings and Grounds Committee.

Perhaps the maintenance of this building and its old companion across the deck just doesn’t appeal to the creative types who make up this church. Yet without such sustenance, our structures will cease to be the beautiful and inviting places that this building, at least, is today. I know everyone is busy, and I know that changing light fixtures and painting walls can seem like work that is less than creative. Yet I would challenge all of us to use our creative natures to make the next dreams we have come true.

So, I will end with that dream. Imagine if you will. We are fifty years old and the walls in here are bright and sparkling, our offices clean and newly carpeted, the hallways shining with new lights, and the deck safe and beautiful. We are showing off our gifts to our neighbors through dance, drama, music and art. We are giving back to the community through social justice programs that reach the needy and we are sharing our faith with heads held high.

The poets among us are singing the praises of who we were, are and yet shall be. And together, we have created a vision of a church that creatively offers the best of who we are to the world around us. Here, in this home, we have created, and hopefully sustained together, a church that will grow and flourish and creatively last for at least another 50 years. That’s my creative vision and I invite you to share it with me.

And that creative spirit found its way into my heart this week, when, with the support of John Bartoli, I wrote a poem, based on Betty Allen’s piece which began this sermon. John will now end it with our shared thoughts.

Forever, Our Church
By Barbara Wells with editing by John Bartoli
In response to the words of Betty Allen

Welcome home –
You who seek beauty and wonder and the spirit of life.
Know that this place, lofty and beautiful,
Has seen its share of joy and delight, and, yes, loss and despair.
Memories of familiar voices linger
As new and questing souls continue to cross the threshold
In search of what gifts may be offered here.

Only a few small steps separate us from those who came before.
We hear their echoes and we marvel at the resonance
of love and tears and triumphs from our past.

We remember and we move onward, making this house again into a home.
Dear home, circle of wood and glass and flesh and bone –
With hope and love we build anew a bridge
to tie us to the lovers and friends
Who were, who are, who shall be in these places
Where the spirit of life makes of us all, one.

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