This Peek into the Past looks at one of the aspects that seems to bring many of us together in the first place and then keeps us here -- the sense of community, the way we connect with each other.
Fifty years ago a small group of people came together to share in intellectual and spiritual pursuits of the deeper meaning of life, and examine how others have shared this same journey, to see what we could learn from their experiences. And as this small group of like minded-people talked about their ideas and their questions, they found that they enjoyed spending time together -- and that there was a lot more to the notion of fellowship than they originally expected.
After a month of getting together, the founders decided they needed to buy a coffee maker to encourage and facilitate a fine social gathering. They put out a call for donations of green stamps. (In the 1960’s, green stamps were given out at grocery stores based on dollars spent. These stamps were collected and pasted into little paper books, then exchanged for items, like coffee makers.) A few weeks later it was announced in the newsletter: “Our coffee maker was an object of admiration on Easter Sunday – a proud product of cooperation: 1 week and six books of Green Stamps.” After 50 years and many coffee makers since, sharing a cup of coffee after our services remains a cornerstone of our Sunday social connection. The cacophony of chatter sometimes makes it hard for us to hear each other – all the wonderful laughter and nodding of heads, as we share and challenge and support each other on everything imaginable.
That newsletter that proudly announced the new coffee maker started pretty much right away as a means for the members of the fellowship to communicate about Sunday services and other ideas and plans. Have you ever wondered where the NAME of our newsletter came from? The founders considered a number of suggestions, and the popular choice was an acronym for “Religious Extremists And Christian Heretics”, “R - E - A - C - H” or Reach. Our founders were very serious in many ways but they also come across as light-hearted and happy to be traveling through life with a new group of open-minded, interesting people. And they found as they moved on together that humor was an essential part of their growing relationships.
Food appears to be another key element in our fellowship – and again this has been true since the beginning. Our first pot luck picnic was in May of 1966 in Nerstrand Big Woods State Park where we have gathered many times since. There was another pot luck in each of the next two following months and in July 1966, our group got together with the Mankato UU’s for yet another picnic. It’s clear that we had discovered that good food and good conversation were a winning combination -- and we have carried this tradition into the present and see no reason to let it go. That first summer those food-loving UU’s also hosted an Ice Cream Social as a part of a local band concert and brought attention to the newly formed Unitarian Universalist group in Northfield.
In the late 90’s this food focus led UUFN to host a discussion/brunch once a month in various members’ homes as one of the regular “Sunday services”. Through casual conversation and in discussion of specific topics, we became acquainted with new ideas and with each other. Another kind of brunch service was for the sharing of favorite poems. The first was hosted at a home out in the country east of Northfield. Following the delightful breakfast indoors and a visit with the many animals outside, they carried their chairs down the hill to a natural amphitheater next to a stream. There they sat around a fire and each read their chosen poems while the birds chirped and the stream sang softly. In many different settings this has remained a favorite summer get together.
For a time when Ted Tollefson was our minister, we enjoyed 4th Wednesday evening potlucks followed by a “Spiritual Frontiers” presentation by Ted. For this latter portion of the evening we went upstairs where Ted taught things like Qi Gong or did a meditation session. Then the youth, women’s groups and men’s groups scattered to meet on their own. These men’s and women’s groups had started some years earlier. The men’s group met in various homes and discussed topics like: “Bring and read a meaningful poem, essay or short story on what it means to be a man” or “How do you feel about the religion you grew up with?” One well-attended discussion group had the title, “How are men different from women?” A few years later a women’s group was started, discussing topics like: “Motherhood”, “Freeing the earth from patriarchal systems – a book discussion” and a series called “Cakes for the Queen of Heaven.” There’s never a shortage of topics to dig still deeper together and share our differing perspectives.
We have found a lot of ways to come together over the years. Plans for a “summer retreat for frazzled UUFN adults” was announced in the March 1970 Reach. This and a number of subsequent retreats were held at Old Orchard on Bay Lake in northern Minnesota. This is a home where founding member Frank Wolf had spent many a happy summer day since his childhood. It is still owned by the Wolf family. One current UUFN member who has visited the home remarked, “That would be a lovely place to spend a weekend. Any UU business on the agenda would be accomplished in a beautiful relaxing setting and the rest would be vacation.” At other retreats, we worked on dreams and plans and vision statements to guide our fellowship.
Hiking was a part of innumerable UUFN Sundays in the early days. In more recent years we have carried on this tradition with a wildflower hike at Big Woods and a summer solstice gathering at Rice County Park. We also hiked in Frontenac State Park, and in 2008 an enthusiastic group hiked up the more challenging Barn Bluff in Red Wing. We’ve also enjoyed many winter outings: Sledding, shnw shoeing, and cross country skiing, and sub-zero sleigh rides huddled together under horsehair blankets, gathering around an open fire in the woods followed by chili cook-offs. From the beginning we knew that we could not only survive but celebrate the Minnesota winters by getting out there, facing the elements together, and laugh and talk about it for a long time afterward.
There have been several bicycle tours and quite a few canoe trips on the Cannon, Zumbro and St. Croix Rivers. The biggest turnout we had for a canoe trip was in 2006, when we paddled down approximately 15 miles of the St. Croix River, from Taylor’s Falls to Marine-on-St. Croix. There were about 20 of us, in rented canoes. We dallied along, stopping to frolic on a sandy island. In the evening, we gathered in a bar-restaurant telling tall tales of our dangerous adventure.
UUFN has found circles to be a great way to see and listen to each other as we live and grow together. We’ve had Caring Circles, Talking Circles, Circle Suppers, as well as the fact that we end all our Sunday services standing in a circle singing “Spirit of Life” and all the rituals we’ve shared over the years sitting in a circle in our services. And then there’s our choir and all our various committees and our Board, where we sit in circles together to do the work that keeps our fellowship running but also another way we get to know each other and learn more about ourselves as we explore new and sometimes challenging and controversial ways to move forward. And it’s important to remember that we often have fun while we work and laugh a great deal – humor truly helps to keep us together.
There’s one last special social connection that needs to be included here. Twenty years ago Bill McGrath, who was a brand new member, lit a candle of concern during a service. Janet Danielson went up to talk to Bill right after the service and one thing led to another as it often does when two special people meet and connect. Their outdoor wedding at a farm in 1998 included – you guessed it – a pot luck dinner.
There are no doubt many other wonderful ways we connect that time and space didn’t allow in this overview -- like with our notoriously long greetings to one another during our Sunday services . . . they have to ring a bell to get us to find our way back to our seats and sit down. For many of us it started there – and then flowed into the coffee time after the service when we found that there were people here who understood and accepted us, maybe had similar life experiences or values, or were just willing to listen as well as share about themselves. Doesn’t matter how it starts – only that it continues for another 50 years of love and light with lots of laughter.