Who could have imagined that a 16-member Emerson Study Group consisting of a few DuPont executives and ECU professors would birth a vibrant Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greenville, now nearly 70 years old? From our official signing on February 11, 1953, our story is one of commitment to intellectual inquiry, political activism, humanitarian outreach, and religious liberalism–plus an ongoing search for meeting space.
From the Y-hut at ECU to members’ homes, from the “Upper Room” at First Federal Bank to the “Catacombs” at Planter’s Bank and “The Garage” on Oak and Fifth Streets, from Bayt Shalom’s synagogue to our first congregation-owned Arlington home, we eventually settled into a more permanent home at 131 Oakmont in 1994. In the mid-seventies, Lady Luck smiled on the congregation with the surprise inheritance of a small plot of land from the original Universalist Congregation formed during the twenties. We sold that land, invested the money, and later used it to purchase property. At one point, we numbered 90-members strong. We blossomed, and we thrived.
Reverends Cynthia Edson, Bob Murphy, Karen Day, Frieda Gillespie, Ann Marie Alderman, Rod Thompson, and Rod Debs have heeded our call to community and inclusion. We are a congregation of firsts: We assisted in the sixties with the first accredited daycare center for Negro children. Rev. Debs on October 13, 2014, officiated the marriage of the first same-sex couple in Pitt County. When we were between ministers, we carried on with talented lay leadership. Today our congregation supports over twenty charities and social justice causes, offers religious education for all ages and interests, and participates in relevant community events. During the 2020-2021 pandemic, the church moved Sunday services and board meetings to Zoom and kept up with members through weekly chats.
Today, we carry on our important work as a safe space for all, where “we covenant with one another to search, to serve, to grow and to love.”
In 1951, Greenville Boulevard was a dirt road, and the population of Greenville was about 20,000. The growth of East Carolina College in 1951 and building of the Dupont plant in 1953 brought new people into the area whose interests would transform the southern county seat.
Soon an Emerson Study Group was formed, supported by DuPont families—the Luskins, Billicas, and Behrs–and East Carolina College families–the Krausnicks and Pastis. Meeting in homes, they explored affiliating with the American Unitarian Association. Walter Krausnick wrote Ray Shulte in Boston, “There may be four or five religious liberals in the town. . . It [a fellowship] could be the center for the Unitarians in this area.” Sixteen people signed the official affiliation document on February 11, 1953. ECC offered the free use of a newly rebuilt Y Hut, and a small group met there twice a month.
During the sixties, our newly formed Unitarian Congregation of Greenville offered religious education to about thirty children with Ruth Billica, Edith Webber, Elizabeth Topper, and Terry Shank acting as superintendents. Adults met over coffee and doughnuts, often with visiting speakers, such as Robert Humber, Rachel Davis, and denominational leaders from the Southeast or Thomas Jefferson Districts. Our social action agenda included helping Fanny T. Jackson establish the first accredited day care center for Negro children in eastern North Carolina. In 1969 ECC needed the Y Hut, and we met once again in homes. Membership declined.
In the mid-seventies, a city lawyer offered the congregation $3,000 for a small lot. The land had been willed to the Universalist Church of Greenville, which, we were surprised to learn, had been in operation until the late twenties. Deemed the rightful heir to this lot, our Unitarian Universalist Congregation sold the land and placed the $3,000 into a small nest egg, a CD jointly owned by our Greenville Fellowship and the Universalist Association. In 1975 we started meeting in the First Federal Bank on the corner of Red Banks and Greenville Boulevard. The adults gathered upstairs in a room dubbed the “Upper Room,” while the children held discussions on the carpeted stairs. This arrangement worked well until the bank needed the space on Sundays. Once again, the search was on for a new meeting place.
We met for three years in the basement, later known as “The Catacombs,” of Planters Bank at Fourth and Washington Streets. In 1983 we left “The Catacombs” and moved into “The Garage” at the corner of Oak and Fifth Streets. Heat was supplied by Roy Schaal, who set up kerosene heaters on cold Sunday mornings. Our president, Sydney Barnwell, brought chairs, and we spent some $300 on carpeting and curtains. When the rent increased, we could not afford to stay.
In 1987 we met at 4:00 p.m. in Congregation Bayt Shalom’s synagogue on 14th Street. Aided by a three-year partial grant from UUA, we shared our first minister, Rev. Cynthia Edson, with two other UU societies. Eventually a loan from Boston plus our nest egg, which had grown to $10,000, allowed us to purchase a two-story house on Arlington. We began meeting there in October 1990. Unable to take over UUA’s share of Rev. Edson’s salary, we lost her services. Two years later, membership had grown, and we looked for a larger space.
In the nineties Arlington Street’s redesign impacted the location of our Arlington meeting place, and we sold the property to the City of Greenville. Our equity in the Arlington Street property gave us a decent down payment for a new home. Terry Shank and Bruce Wilhelmsen spotted our current building at 131 Oakmont. The UUA supplied the mortgage money, once again enabling our growth. We took down partitions, carpeted, painted, and met numerous city code requirements. On November 20, 1994, we dedicated the building.
In the late nineties, UUCG became more established. With 41 members in 1996, we began a search for a part-time minister. Rev. Bob Murphy was recruited in 1996, serving half time in Greenville and half time in Morehead City. In 1997 Bruce Wilhelmsen spearheaded the establishment of an endowment fund. In 1999, the church was active in flood relief efforts after Hurricane Floyd, and UUCG became a clearinghouse for contributions that poured in from across the country. The congregation took an active interest in migrant worker issues and the First Born Community Development Center. Membership had reached 61 by the time we entered the new millennium.
The new millennium saw our membership increase to nearly 90. Following Rev. Murphy’s departure in 2000, the congregation hired a three-quarter time minister in September 2001, Rev. Karen Day, who remained for four years.
Our growing membership gave us momentum. In April 2002, a Strategic Planning Committee was formed to develop a long-range plan for the growth and development of the congregation. The committee developed a mission statement. In May, Board minutes reported a tripling of children’s enrollment in religious education, and the congregation approved a record budget. In July 2002 we hosted our first UU Service Committee event with UUs and others from around the country learning about migrant farm workers. We hosted the event again the following year. In March 2003, the Strategic Planning Committee developed a renovation plan designed to enlarge our meeting area.
In June 2003, the Committee on Ministry reported a top-rate evaluation of Rev. Day’s work in all five areas considered. A notable accomplishment was the holding of joint services with other Greenville religious leaders. In November 2005, Rev. Day, minister for four years, left the congregation.
For the rest of the decade the congregation expanded programs and personnel in response to the evolving interests of our members. Rev. Frieda Gillespie became the interim minister in August 2006 with Rev. Ann Marie Alderman hired as full-time minister in 2007. Other personnel changes in 2008 include Mort Stine as Music Director, Victoria Brown and later Kimberly Scholl as DRE, Stephen Brand as Choir Director, and, for the first time, a cleaning service with John DuPree.
The congregation supported several charities and social action initiatives including First Born-CDC, CROP Hunger Walk, The Little Willie Center, Sierra Club, Friends of Greenville Greenways, and the J.O.Y Soup Kitchen. In July 2006 the UUCG Eastern Regional Farmworker Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) met at our Oakmont space and was attended by 50 migrant workers. Additionally, we participated in Buddhist Sangha Prayers for Peace in 2007, Interfaith Alliance, Vegetarians of Pitt County, and ECU Multi-faith Alliance in 2010. The church continued political advocacy to support health care, immigration reform, and disaster relief.
UUs threw themselves into fund raising efforts which soon became regularly scheduled campaigns. “Fun”der projects auctioned services for hire. The annual yard sale allowed members to purge attics and sell their “treasures” to the community. Claudia Sundman organized holiday gift wrapping at Barnes & Nobles, proceeds given to UUCG and cancer support in eastern North Carolina. Negotiations with participating restaurants netted percentages of an evening’s sales. In 2008 we received a Chalice Lighter’s Grant for $17,500 to help finance the growth of the church.
Our leadership responded to members’ interests (which were many; we’re UUs!) with education initiatives and social interaction. Three adult religious education programs and youth education for primary grades, tweens, and teens were set up. Discussion and covenant groups–the Spiritual Book Club, Women’s Covenant Group, meditation group, and Green Weavers CUUPS (Covenant of Unitarian Universal Pagans)–encouraged adults to grow spiritually and intellectually. In February 2008, the church undertook the Welcoming Congregation Curriculum. Social events, such as Dinners for 8, Roving Lunch Group, movie night, and Father’s Day picnic brought members together. A Caring Committee reached out to members experiencing difficulties.
Heading into 2010, other events energized and focused members: May Day drumming circle, This I Believe Speaker Series of lay speakers, and Spring Fling. A new UUA initiative in 2009, Standing on the Side of Love, committed to mobilize responses to any exclusion, oppression, or violence-based intolerance. The church grew more organized with leadership retreats to choose social action projects and establish a Strategic Long-Range Plan. Leaders presented revised by laws and an updated Disruptive Policy. The church continued to participate in Interfaith Alliance of Eastern Carolina, Cluster meetings (area UU groups working together), and UU yearly conventions. Furthermore, Rev. Alderman interacted positively with ECU Campus Multi-faith Alliance, City Human Relations Council, PCMH Pastoral Care, and Greenville Minority Group, thus expanding our sphere of influence in the community.
Improvements were made to the building: The meeting room was painted, meditation corner completed, new chalice symbol mounted above the entrance, siding replaced, and front entrance made more accessible. An LCD projector system was installed in the meeting space. By March 2009, the church had grown enough to consider adding extra space.
The next decade saw the continuation of Rev. Alderman’s ministry until her resignation in December 2012. In mid-January 2013, Rev. Rod Thompson became the interim minister until Rev. Rod Debs was hired in September 2014 as developmental minister. Mort Stine remained Music Director and pianist, Sue Jefferson assisted as substitute Choir Director in 2011 and 2014 when Stephen Brand was not available, and Brenda Stewart substituted as pianist when necessary.
Education remained a central focus of UUCG. In 2011-2012 RE and YRE chairs, Kimberly Scholl and Jennifer Thielen implemented engaging curricula, sometimes using Rawlings’ Harry Potter universe to explore UU principles. Later RE directors, Lilani Butler Masters (2014), Holly Brown (2015), and Alessandra Lazarek (2016) crafted similar curricula with the youth focused on neighboring religions and moral tales. Of special note is Christy Hoppenthaler’s fun intergenerational RE activity: The youth, playing the role of news casters, produced news clips of interviews with church members. Ruth Abramson led Mindful Meditation sessions at 9:30 on Sunday mornings, and Rod Debs conducted leadership sessions.
A survey compiled in 2012 revealed strengths of the congregation to be compassion and service. However, the survey also exposed a need for more social interaction and perhaps a bigger building.
Responding to the survey’s concerns, the church fostered more social interaction in 2015. In January congregants signed up to attend Chalice Circle meetings. Plans were made for Dinners with Debs. Team Trivia night at a local restaurant and bar, the 8:00 AM breakfast groups, and monthly yoga classes with Bob Hudson gave members the opportunity to get to know one another. The Chili Cook Off became a yearly competition as church members donned aprons and wielded their ladles.
As UUCG grew, we showed our commitment to “justice, equality, and compassion in human relations” by giving to various charities. In 2011 we raised $5000 for Friends of Gilda and received a matching grant. As part of its social action mission, the church continued to support, among others, Greenville Community Shelter, CROP Hunger Walk, a Time for Science, Humane Society of Eastern NC, First Born-CDC, PiCasso, Releaf, Crossroads Shelter Refugee Relief, J.O.Y Soup Kitchen, Cancer Support Community of Eastern NC, and AMEXCAN. Expanding its community involvement in 2014, the church joined efforts with OIAM (Operation InAsMuch Day), which brings together churches, fellowships, and local groups for a day of hands-on work. We supported Interfaith Youth Core in 2015.
UUCG also advanced on-going justice work. With encouragement from Ray Sobel, we participated in Moral Monday protests in 2013. In 2016 UUCG and Covenant Church worked together to resettle a family of six Syrian refugees. Again, in 2020 the two churches helped to resettle another family of five Iraqi refugees. UUCG member Alice Arnold led and continues to lead our church’s assistance to these families. In 2017 UUCG became a UUA-Designated Welcoming Congregation, embracing LGBTQ-identified individuals equally in all aspects of our spiritual community as members, leaders, and teachers.
Movie nights at UUCG, open to the public, also brought attention to social justice issues. Rich Elkins started Classic GLBT Movie Night in 2011. Later Rich coordinated a film series run by a collaboration of several progressive organizations in North Carolina that hosted several films one summer as an extension of the Moral Mondays movement. Classic GLBT Movie Night changed names to first Moral Movies and most recently Movies that Matter to reflect an expanded focus.
The last decade saw UUCG not only actively promoting justice, but also celebrating our practices and people. In December Chalica celebrations honored each UU Principle, and singers spread yule-time cheer with neighborhood caroling. An Ambience Committee headed by Terry Shank invited artists to showcase their work on our walls and meet the public with Friday-night receptions. In 2016 the church sponsored intergenerational services. Traditional UU services, such as the flower ceremony, water ceremony and solstice events, celebrated the rhythm of our lives.
UUCG also participated in UUA official events: the yearly General Assembly, periodic Cluster gatherings, the Thomas Jefferson District meetings, leadership training workshops, and UUA’s Multicultural Congregations Program.
The year 2014 brought more financial stability to our church after a difficult recession. Membership grew by 15% from the beginning of Rev. Thompson’s term, and pledges increased by 12% in 2016. Changes in initiatives, committees, and staffing responded to the church’s evolving needs. We contributed our Fair Share to the UU Association of Congregations and to UCONC (Universalist Convention of North Carolina, Inc.). Fund-raising events such as car washes, yard sales, and sharing receipts with local restaurants helped finance the church’s programs.
On March 27, 2014, UUCG became a Recognized Green Sanctuary, a five-step process outlined by UUA “to make every aspect of congregational life as sustainable and environmentally responsible as possible.” With the organizational skills of Reed Taylor, our president, and the advice of Feryl Masters, our all-things guru, we raised a whopping $50,000 for our UUCG Go Green Campaign. We now have solar panels in operation and plans for the re-pavement of our parking lot for better drainage.
The digital age changed the way the church communicated with its members. The last mailed Beacon was sent in March 2015. The new NUUS Newsletter and announcements were emailed weekly.
Repairs and improvements in the Oakmont building and grounds were implemented with the help of volunteers and professionals when needed. Throughout the decade Joanie DeGroot created panel quilts to reflect the seasons and beautify our meeting space. In November 2011, the Oakmont building sustained hurricane damage. Volunteers Pat Tesh, Ruel Tyer, Kimberly Scholl, Jennifer Thielen, and Rev. Alderman assisted with repairs. In 2012 we replaced rotting siding and leaky windows, moved a pine tree and planted two more. In 2017 a broken water pipe flooded the church. Donations poured in to pay for the $1000 deductible with members volunteering their services to save money. Fortunately, insurance money covered the remainder of the repairs and new carpet.
UUCG provided and still provides meeting space for community programs: The Sierra Club, PFLAG, Democracy NC, Vegetarians in Pitt County, KTC Buddhists, Free Spirit Inclusive Catholic Community, and various educational or artistic events. Other groups, including local homeowners’ associations along with community support and spiritual practice groups, have used our space.
In a landmark decision, the same-sex marriage ban in North Carolina was overturned on October 10, 2014. Three days later the first same-sex couple to obtain a marriage license in Pitt County was married by Rev. Debs on Monday evening, October 13. Remarkably, a complaint filed by UU clergy in conjunction with other clergy representing diverse religious communities, Unity Church of Christ, Baptists, and Lutherans, asserted the ban was an infringement of a clergy’s religious freedoms and duty to minister to congregants.
Years 2016-2019 brought financial, leadership, and worship service challenges. Initially, the 2016 election of Donald Trump drew into our fellowship new families, looking for congregations committed to justice and equality. Then we lost several long-standing and beloved members. When Rev. Debs retired in October 2018, our lay leadership stepped up to maintain programs and services.
Then the pandemic hit in 2020. To keep members safe but engaged, we moved Sunday services and committee meetings to Zoom and kept up with members with weekly chats. The Worship Committee located online speakers, both within and outside our congregation. Feryl Masters as President, Mona Mandour and Mike Brackin as Worship Committee Chairs, Herb Norman as Zoom videographer, and Claudia Sundman as Zoom facilitator were instrumental in ministering to our congregation and keeping us connected when many were isolated and anxious. Stephen Brand played, sang, and recorded hymns for our use. Erin Brand, our office assistant, enabled members to easily use technology by embedding in the weekly Beacon digital links to Zoom, songs, YouTube talks, announcements, and the orders of service. In 2021 the current vaccination rollout against the coronavirus gives us hope for better days when we can once again safely meet in person.
A strong, common thread has run through our congregation from the beginning. We started, nearly 70 years ago, as a family and have evolved as a family. Today, we look back with pride on years of growth and accomplishment. We are a viable, vital, and visible presence in our community and look forward to a future bright with promise.