In the early 1950’s Dr. Joseph F. Volker was recruited to start dental and medical schools for the University of Alabama to be located in Birmingham. Dr. Volker, a life-long Unitarian from New England, realized that in order to have a place to worship and to entice others to move here, he needed to organize a fellowship of religious progressives. The fellowship grew quickly, and in 1953 Alfred Hobart, with twenty-five years experience as a Unitarian minister, became the Birmingham fellowship’s first minister. In 1959 these founding Unitarians dedicated a modern A-frame building that for the next fifty years was the liberal destination for both native and new Alabamians to pursue spiritual and social justice connections in an open-minded society.
With Rev. Hobart at the helm, the Unitarian Church of Birmingham was a leader in the Civil Rights movement in Alabama. In a history of the Birmingham Unitarian Church, former congregational president Ethel Gorman points out that Rev. Hobart was a highly visible leader in the community but that there were “costs to such notoriety.” His support for racial equality made him the object of public scorn. The KKK stalked his house, and abusive telephone calls often made sleep impossible. As pastor, he bore the burden of seeing members harassed, arrested, expelled from school, and ostracized in the community. Everyone–the minister and the membership–learned to live in fear of the bombing of the church or their homes. Worst of all were the mid-night phone calls threatening death. Male members took turns sitting up all Saturday night guarding the church against the planting of a bomb on the premises. The church was threatened with bombing numerous times, occasionally leading to voluntary evacuation. Church secretary, Eve Gerard, famously told one caller with a bomb threat, “You’ll have to take a number and wait in line. There are already a few people ahead of you.”
Though at times Rev. Hobart’s outspoken leadership in the community strained the seams of the congregation, for the most part the congregation supported him and championed individual members who were also taking personal risks in the struggle for racial reconciliation.
The following summary of the contributions Birmingham Unitarians made to racial equality in the early 1960s is taken from an article by W. Edward Harris, published in the Unitarian Universalist Register-Leader in November 1964, entitled “OUR CHURCH IN BIRMINGHAM: It Has Not Kept Silent”:
- Rev. Hobart invited African American ministers to exchange pulpits with him and announced that the Unitarian church would welcome African American members.
- The church provided a forum for African Americans to address white groups. Dr. Lucius Pitts, president of Miles College, spoke often at the church.
- The church hosted the first integrated dance performance, under the direction of church member and legendary choreographer Laura Knox.
- Following court-ordered school desegregation, church members secured 11,000 signatures on a petition urging the maintenance of public schools for all Birmingham children.
- The wife of an African American minister had a public concert at the church.
- The church held special classes to prepare children, both white and African American, for integration of public schools. Two of the four children killed in the infamous Sixteen Street Baptist Church bombing had attended these classes.
- Ten Unitarian women joined with two other white women and twelve African American women to form the Friendship and Action Committee. The group sponsored many activities, including an integrated public forum on “Problems of American Democracy,” held at our church.
- Unitarian women demonstrated to protest the expulsion of African American children from public school. They took their protest to the superintendent of public schools. A federal court order reversed the expulsions.
- George Brownell, a former church president, was named to the Mayor’s Group Relations Committee. The Committee worked to ease racial tensions and to encourage African American participation in the life of the community.
- Another former president, Paul Johnston, a Birmingham attorney, was appointed by President John F. Kennedy to serve on the President’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
In 1964, Rev. Hobart was succeeded by Rev. Lawrence (Larry) McGinty. A well-educated former minister in the Methodist church, he was introduced to the Unitarian faith by his reading, and his visits with the congregation convinced him that Unitarianism was “equally appealing in practice.” Through the influence of Rev. Hobart, he was persuaded to become a Unitarian minister. Rev. McGinty, a native Alabamian, expressed determination to pick up where Rev. Hobart had left off in providing leadership for the church in the struggle for civil rights.
Shortly after Rev. McGinty’s installation, the church was caught in the crossfire of events associated with the March from Selma to Montgomery. Early in 1965 Dr. Martin Luther King announced an ambitious drive to register 3 million disfranchised southern African Americans. King planned to begin the drive with a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, a distance of about 50 miles. The March began on Sunday, March 7, but, after marching a short distance, the demonstrators were violently disbursed and turned back by police. In what would be called “Bloody Sunday,” the flamboyant Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark, aided by state troopers and a posse of white supremacists, unleashed brutal police power on the defenseless demonstrators, trampling them down with horses.
A second try was scheduled for Tuesday, March 9. Responding to a plea from Rev. King, thousands of clergy from throughout the nation came to Selma to join in the protest march. The protestors, numbering about 2000, assembled and marched a short distance before again being turned back by police. Before the day was done, four local white men, using clubs and a steel rod, attacked UU Revs. James J. Reeb, Clark Olsen, and Orloff Miller, as they were leaving a restaurant. Revs. Olsen and Miller escaped serious injury but the attackers crushed the skull of Rev. Reeb, leaving him bleeding and unconscious.
When news of Rev. Reeb’s condition reached the Birmingham church, Unitarian physician Dr. Robert Hogan alerted University Hospital of Reeb’s imminent arrival and called Alabama’s top neurosurgeon to prepare for emergency surgery. Dr. Joseph Volker, Vice-President for Health Affairs at the University, ordered that every needed resource of the Hospital be employed for the treatment of the minister. Despite these efforts, Rev. Reeb died on March 11, 48 hours after the brutal attack. The following day UU ministers who had been with Reeb in Selma and other friends began to arrive in Birmingham. Local Unitarians provided hospitality for these disbelieving and grief-stricken ministers.
The Unitarian Universalist Board decided to attend the memorial service for Rev. Reeb in Alabama. With the Board and other UUs in attendance for the Sunday service on March 14, 1965, the building was filled to capacity. President of the UUA Board, Rev. Dana Greeley, made an inspirational statement before the sermon, delivered by the church minister, Rev. Larry McGinty. Local Unitarians transported the UUA Board and other visitors to Selma on Monday morning. In the presence of a host of UU clergy, Rev. King delivered the eulogy for Rev. James J. Reeb in a Selma chapel. That very day, President Lyndon B. Johnson proposed a voting rights act to a joint session of Congress, a proposal that met with “thunderous applause” from Senators and Congressmen. Meanwhile, King, working with other civil rights leaders, announced that the march would resume on Sunday, March 21 and conclude on Thursday, March 25. Members of the Birmingham church hosted hundreds of Unitarians from around the country who attended the final days of the march.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the Unitarian Church of Birmingham continued in its role of leadership among progressives in Alabama. The Rev. Stan Stefansic (1970-1975) organized Common Cause of Alabama and was largely responsible for the passage by the Alabama State Legislature of what was at the time the strongest ethics law in the country. Following Rev. Stefansic’s resignation, church services were lay led by a cohesive congregation from 1975 to 1977. The Rev. Dr. Patrick Green served as minister from 1977-1980. Rev. Green was active in the cause of mental health, holding a state office in the mental health association. During his ministry, the forum hour before the main service began and continues today. The congregation had long aspired to attract minority participation and was happy to welcome its first African American member, Hazel Folly, in 1978. In Birmingham, as in his previous ministries, Sunday after Sunday, Rev. Green delivered thoughtful, well-prepared sermons. Following a successful ministry with the Unitarian Church Birmingham, he resigned in 1980 to accept the call of another UU church in the Boston area.
Rev. Green was, in turn, succeeded by the Rev. George Briggs (1981-1990), a former United Methodist minister. Rev. Briggs was active in the local movement for penal reform and prisoner welfare, holding memberships in Alabama Volunteers in Correction, Alabama Prison Project, and the American Civil Liberties Union. Under his leadership, the Church agreed to sponsor the parole of a state prisoner, although the state ultimately withdrew the parole because of the seriousness of the offense with which the prisoner was charged. Active in the community, Rev. Briggs participated in the Auxiliary Chaplin Service at University Hospital, served as president of the Shades Valley Ministers Association, and taught freshman English courses at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Toward the end of Rev. Briggs’ ministry, attendance at the Sunday worship service and in the Religious Education program showed a slow but steady decline. Rev. Briggs resigned in 1990. In January, 1991, Rev. Peter Weller was called to serve the Unitarian Church Birmingham on an interim basis for one year. He brought to the church wisdom, personal warmth, and a conciliatory approach in dealing with people.
In 1992 the Church called Rev. Karen Matteson to be its next settled minister. In an interview, “Clergy Perspective,” for a local newspaper shortly after her arrival, Rev. Matteson, when asked to describe her theological leanings, replied: “I consider myself a religious humanist. I am inspired by the wisdom of the world’s great religions, but I also respect reason and science. Perhaps most of all I am touched by being with ordinary yet faithful and courageous people who live with compassion, dignity and hope.” Her remarks capture both the broad tolerance of her theological views and her appreciation of wise human values, both of which characterized her ministry. Rev. Matteson’s ministry was marked by a resurgence of energy and enthusiasm in every area of church life. Attendance at both the Sunday worship hour and in the Religious Education program showed sharp increases. In a short time a second Sunday worship service was begun. The church had outgrown its lovely A-frame. Planning for expansion to meet future needs of the church took on new urgency.
Although the church’s primary attention in the 1990s was focused on plans for expansion, the church moved forward with a number of other significant initiatives and programs:
- An Endowment Fund was created in 1993.
- A Statement of Mission, ratified by the congregation in 1995, is printed on the weekly Order of Service: “The Unitarian Church of Birmingham strives to utilize a questioning spirit, free thought, free speech and mutual respect to achieve an inclusive spiritual community; this church is a haven where members develop their values and express them by action in personal relationships and in service to the community at large.”
- In an effort to introduce area college students to the principles of liberal religion, the church initiated a Campus Ministry, directed by Martha Woolverton and subsequently by Ginger Hood. The initiative was discontinued in 2004 because of both the relatively limited success and budgetary constraints.
- During Rev. Matteson’s ministry, the church began the annual observance of the Jewish Passover Seder. The congregation responded warmly and a large number participate in annual Seder observances.
- A Resolution was approved by the congregation at the annual meeting on May 31, 1998, to the effect that the congregation of the Unitarian church of Birmingham requests full membership in the Greater Birmingham Ministries. The request was granted, and the church’s representative was given a seat on the governing Board of GBM. In 2008, UU representative Darryl Hunt served as President of the GBM Board.
- In 1999 church volunteers built a Habitat House as a community project.
- The Unitarian and Universalist denominations had merged in 1961 to form the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) but it was not until 2001 that the Unitarian Church Birmingham voted to change its name to Unitarian Universalist Church Birmingham (UUCB).
In 2003, the church attained a tremendous goal by purchasing thirteen acres and designing a “green” building for our new home, so that all could gather as a community in one service. Through the congregation’s generous contributions to the capital campaign and the successful sale of the previous property, the church was able fund a 1.3 million dollar facility with a mortgage of less than $180,000.
The Fiftieth Anniversary of the Founding of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Birmingham was observed on Saturday evening, February 7, 2004 in the spacious sanctuary of the new building. Ellise Mayor, President of the Board of Trustees, and Rev. Karen Matteson, Church Minister, planned and presided over the impressive celebration.
The program featured speakers with Remembrances from each of the five decades of the church’s history:
- Representing The Founding Fifties were Rev. James A. Hobart, son of the church’s first minister, Rev. Alfred W. Hobart, and Jackie Mazzara, Charter Member of the church.
- Representing the The Sixties: In Turbulent Times was the Rev. Edward Harris, an active participant of the civil rights movement, who was ordained in our church.
- Representing The Sensitive Seventies was Rev. Stan Stefancic.
- Representing The Established Eighties were Alice Syltie, Kathy Hodges, Gay Brangle and a letter from Rev. George Briggs
- Representing The Non-Stop Nineties were Rev. Peter Weller and Bob Koehler
The Service of Dedication of our new building was held at the time of worship on Sunday, February 8, 2004, in an inspirational ceremony.
Shortly after moving into the new building, Rev. Karen Matteson submitted her resignation, effective July 31, 2004, thereby concluding a successful twelve-year ministry with the Unitarian Church Birmingham (rechristened Unitarian-Universalist Church of Birmingham during her ministry). “Karen, as she was affectionately known, had led the church through a decade of numerical growth and increased pledge income, made possible by a spirit of enthusiasm and vitality that animated every facet of church life. After seeing the church through a successful capital campaign, the climax of her ministry was the construction and occupation of the church’s beautiful new building. In addition to her successful ministry within the church, Karen was highly respected in the Birmingham community for her involvement in protests against the Iraq War, her support of PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), and in a broad range of civil rights and economic justice issues.
In 2004 the church called Rev. Dave Johnson to serve as Interim Minister for a two-year period. Dave succeeded in his mission both to fill the pulpit and to guide the church into self-realization of its needs in order to be in a better position to attract an ideal settled minister. He also provided guidance to the Search Committee in its work of selecting the next settled minister for the church. Dave is remembered for his energy, his warm and engaging personality, his outstanding sermons, his appreciation of the arts, and his performances with the Birmingham Opera and Concert Chorale.
Climaxing a year-long search, in April of 2006 the congregation called the Rev. William (Bill) Leggett to become our next settled minister. His ministry began on August 1 of that year. Rev. Leggett provided leadership for a number of church initiatives including the Share the Plate program and becoming a Welcoming Congregation. With the marvelous addition to the staff of Sharron Mendel Swain as the Director of Religious Education, it appeared that the church was fully staffed. To the surprise of everyone in the congregation (including the Board), in April of 2008 Rev. Leggett announced he would be leaving that summer to take a position with a church in Massachusetts. His stated reason was that he wished to better position himself for his retirement. Needless to say, this loss was disheartening to the congregation that had worked so hard in its relatively recent search for a minister. The church officers pursued finding an interim minister, only to discover that there were no trained interim ministers available. Ultimately the decision was made to employ the Rev. Barry Whittemore on a one year contract. Rev. Whittemore decided not to pursue a contract for a second year.
The congregation held meetings to discuss the best path for proceeding to a settled ministry. Inspired in part by a year of successful lay leadership in the past, the congregation decided to devote itself to a year of lay leadership while engaging in a search for a new settled minister. As of November, 2009, this decision appears to have been truly inspirational. Long term and new members of the congregation have joined together to carry on the work of the church, while preparing for a new minister. The Worship Partners have invested tremendous energy to develop a full year of inspirational Sunday services. The religious education program, led by RE Director Sharron Mendel Swain and the governing committee, has fully staffed a complete RE program and provided OWL classes. The Caring Committee has greatly expanded its role, led by members of the congregation who are professional counselors. Ministers among the congregation have volunteered to perform rituals of passage as needed. The Justice Committee is carrying on our proud tradition of efforts on behalf of those who need assistance and a voice. The congregation has responded with enthusiasm and work in every area—from attending congregational meetings to hosting guests at conferences. This resurgence of energy and effort has led many in the congregation to remark that we look forward to continuing these efforts in partnership with our new minister to truly become the beacon that Birmingham needs.
Many thanks to Deborah Young, Jeanne Weaver and Marlene Ricker for researching and writing this history of our church.
Enroll your children online for our Sunday programs: