Further Explorations of Unitarian Universalism and Our Challenge of the 21st Century


Further Explorations of UU Churchs…:  This morning I’m off on an eighty mile round trip to attend services at the Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena.  Arguably the oldest UUC in Southern California the Neighborhood Church has it’s origins in two beginnings, one Congregational, the other Unitarian.  The Congregational roots go back to 1885, at a time when the land boom in Pasadena was transforming the village with its dusty roads and acres of oranges and vineyards.  Early settlers had built a chapel on the south side of Colorado Street near Orange Grove Avenue, attended by both Presbyterians and Congregationalists.  However, as the center of town moved east, the Presbyterians decided to build a new church “closer to the action.”  Some forty-two Congregationalists who had worshipped in the original chapel voted to stay in the southwest part of town, and to build a new church.  They chose a lot at the corner of Pasadena Avenue and California Street, and the distinctive church with its tall steeple and beautiful stained glass windows was completed in 1887.

In 1922 the Unitarian Church in Pasadena held its first service, with 120 persons in attendance.  Later that year, the Rev. Bradford Leavitt began his ministry with them, though the members were still meeting in the home of a local resident, which had been purchased by the American Unitarian Association.  Dr. Leavitt had an impressive background: graduate of Harvard and Harvard Divinity, with prior Unitarian ministries in Vermont, Washington D.C., and San Francisco.  In 1923 the West Side Congregational Church, with 120 active members, voted in support of forming an inter-denominational church with the Unitarians.  One major reason for merger was apparently that the Congregationalists had a building and no minister at the time, while the Unitarians had a minister and no building.  After a four-month “trial marriage,” with Dr. Leavitt filling the pulpit, the two congregations agreed to merge and form the Union Liberal Church of Pasadena.  Instrumental in effecting this merger was Dr. Robert A. Millikan, Nobel Prize recipient and Chairman of the Executive Council of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).

A Los Angeles Times article from 1929 refers to the Neighborhood Church congregation as including “many of the outstanding scientists and intellectuals of the city.”  Memoirs of members from that period note the presence of educators, legislators, musicians who were later the source of important concert traditions in Pasadena, and many other movers and shakers whose names still grace landmarks of the city today.

In 1960 the congregation called the Rev. John Baker, a graduate of the University of Michigan in science and mathematics, and Harvard Divinity School.  With John Baker’s arrival, Neighborhood became more Unitarian.  The Congregationalists’ merger with the Evangelical and Reformed denomination had generated much discussion at Neighborhood, and the church had never joined the resulting United Church of Christ.  Communion services were still held several times a year, but after the main worship service, and in a separate room.  The nature of communion services became progressively more metaphorical and less traditionally Christian.

Throughout the 1960’s and 70’s the evolution of the Neighborhood Church congregation continued and in 1968 after selling their building to the State Division of Highways for $720,000, they began construction of a new church on land adjacent to a beautiful old Greene and Greene craftsman house near the edge of the Arroyo Seco.  In 1972 upon completion of the new sanctuary, the congregation voted to render inactive its historic tie with the Congregational denomination, and to reaffirm its affiliation with the UUA.

The subject of this Sunday’s service will be Ending the Endless War, presented by Salam Al-Marayati, President of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, with the mission to express that “America is enriched by the vital contributions of American Muslims.  We promote the Islamic and American values of mercy, justice, peace, human dignity, freedom, and equality for all.”

I’ll be interested in hearing what he has to say.


The traffic was light and after making the wrong turn I found my way to the parking lot at the church directly adjacent to the famous Craftsman landmark Gamble House.  The lot was full so I circled the block and luckily found a parking space on the street.  I walked across the parking lot and at the sidewalk that led onto the church grounds, I ran into a fellow who looked like he might be Salam Al-Marayati.  Not wanting to impose upon him prior to the service, we exchanged good morning greetings and I continued on my way.  The congregation organically segregated itself by age with the elders helping themselves to coffee, tea and cake on the lawn outside the sanctuary while the teenagers and children hung out around the courtyard maze which had a tether ball post bedecked with multicolored ribbons at the center so that it had become a Maypole.  Since nature called I found my way to the men’s room and emerged to enter the sanctuary just as the 11:30 service began.


I found a seat in the back row took a long gander at the impressive pipe organ and began to take notes:  After the welcome and greeting announcements, Ellen Stapenhorst, who I identified as the guitar lady in my notes, performed an original song “Beyond the Great Divide” as the Prelude.  Rev. Hannah Petrie initiated the Call to Worship with a few well chosen words about and from the Sufi sage and poet Rumi.  We stood for a hymn, and then one of the board members spoke to the congregants about the options of investing in an annuity as an invitation to join the Neighborhood UU Heritage Society.  Rev. Hannah then spoke about the recent volunteer activities of the church including the “The Walk for Christopher,” a demonstration acknowledging and memorializing the gang related murder of Christopher Walker in neighboring Altadena.


To add to the tragedy, at the time of his death Christopher had turned his back on gang life and he had a family and a full-time job.  His parents, Ursula and Richard Walker, were present to address the congregants and express their thanks to the church for their involvement with memorializing their son.

Ellen Stapenhorst then sang another original song “Fundamental Problem,” with a lyric worthy of John Prine or Tom Lehrer, which got a few laughs and standing ovation:


In the spirit of the service, Rev. Hannah spoke with a few words about Mohamed Amin Ahmed and the website he created called Average Mohamed.com, which she followed with a prayer, meditation and hymn.  My cell phone went off somewhere in the middle of all that so I bailed out of the sanctuary and into the courtyard and after that was over I returned to wait for an opportune moment to return to my seat.  The ushers began the collections and what moment could be more opportune than the chance to drop a twenty dollar bill into the basket.

…and Our Challenge in the 21st Century: Salam al Marayati, the gentleman with whom I had exchanged good mornings on the sidewalk, then began his address, Ending the Endless War, with these words of greeting, “Peace be unto you.”

After an opening joke about how nice it was to find a convenient parking spot at the Neighborhood UU Church as opposed to the usual bumper car madness at a mosque, he noted that the English language acronym, ISIS, loses something in translation from the Arabic and if we used the Arabic acronym, we’d be identifying our common enemy as A-SHAM.  Since I don’t read, write or speak Arabic, I can’t verify that but it was good for another laugh.  Salam then talked about how difficult it was to speak to younger Americans who often tend to paint the whole of the post 9-11 Islamic World with the same blood stained brush of al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah and ISIS.

He then prefaced his message with this observation, “I’m grateful that I live in the United States so that I can speak freely with you.”  He continued to say that in Iran, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and any of a number of Muslim countries that he could be imprisoned or killed for what he had to say today.  Then Salam told us that in his discussions with the officials of the Obama administration, including the State Department and US military generals, that they have reached the conclusion that there is no military or diplomatic solution to this seemingly Endless War and that it represents one of our greatest challenges in the 21st Century.  It is a war of words and ideas and the root cause is what Salam identified as the repression of religious nationalism in Africa and the Middle East.  He said that al Quaeda, ISIS, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthi in Yemen and Boko Haram in Nigeria are all fueled by the corruption and repression of various recognized governments throughout the region and the only way to end those conflicts is to bring about the genuine reform of those governments.

He said that such reform can not be brought about by changing Islam or the traditions of Islam and he pointed to the efforts of American women’s organizations in Afghanistan as an example:  After the coalition of US and Northern Front military operations brought about the fall of the Taliban, the US State Department identified the “liberation” of Afghan women as a key to the reform necessary to secure the “nation;” but, as it turned out, much of the resistance to the “Burqa Liberation” came from devout Muslim women.  It backfired on Americans, not because of the evil oppression of Afghan men, but because of the profound cultural modesty of most Afghan women outside of the city of Kabul.  Add to that the reality that Afghanistan really isn’t a “nation” so much as collective of “tribal homelands” that comprise a geographic buffer zone created over centuries by the clash of Empires - East and West - and it’s no surprise that our attempts to liberate and reform the government and society of Afghanistan failed miserably.  This was due to the fact that Afghanistan is not now, nor has it ever been, a “nation.”  The problem is that the State Department never spoke to anyone outside of Kabul and so they didn’t understand that.

He then deflated another popular western cultural myth: The “Arab Street” (Muslims) hates us because of our freedom.  Salam correctly pointed out that Islam is a religion free from any central hierarchy or official religious offices and that every Muslim is free to speak directly to Allah and act upon how he personally believes he is directed by the will of Allah through the words of the Prophet as written in the Qur’an.  “Muslims on the street don’t hate us because of our freedom.  They hate us because we side with the corrupt governments of religious nationalists who repress the religious freedoms of everyday people who follow Islam.

He then paraphrased verses from the Qur’an to illustrate how much American freedoms share with the principles of Islam: Respect for religious pluralism

Al-Baqara Chapter 2 verse 62 - Those who believe, and those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Christians and the Sabians,- any who believe in Allah and the Last Day, and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.

…followed by a directive not dissimilar to the language of the First Amendment to the US Constitution…

Al-Baqara Chapter 2 verse 256 - There is no compulsion in religion -- the right way is indeed clearly distinct from error.  So whoever disbelieves in the devil and believes in God, he indeed lays hold on the firmest handle which shall never break.  And God is Hearing, Knowing.

…and how about this recognition of the rights of the individual written ten centuries before Thomas Jefferson…

Surat Al-‘Isra’ Chapter 17 verse 7 - And We have certainly honored the children of Adam and carried them on the land and sea and provided for them of the good things and preferred them over much of what We have created, with [definite] preference.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. – Declaration of Independence.

Salam said, “Religious nationalism uses religion and scripture to justify repression and so this is a human problem and we have to go back to what the essence of religion is all about…”  He added that reform in America is required as well and pointed to the fact that western high school history is limited to the rise and fall of Greco-Roman civilization followed by the Dark Ages and the Crusades, the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation and the Age of Enlightenment… what’s left out are all the remarkable social, medical, mathematic and scientific revelations that came out of the culture of Islam during those “Dark Ages.”


Salam then cited Rais Bhuiyan, the survivor of a post 9-11 hate crime in Dallas, Texas, who became the founder and president of World Without Hate.org/ as an example of the change necessary to End the Endless War and followed up with Surat Fussilat Chapter 41 verse 34: “And not equal are the good deed and the bad.  Repel [evil] by that [deed] which is better; and thereupon the one whom between you and him is enmity [will become] as though he was a devoted friend.

He held up Rais Bhuiyan and his efforts to address the basic human issues of hate and forgiveness as the only plausible resolution to the End of the Endless War.  “Governments can’t do it.  Governments exchange nice words and then pursue their agendas of power while they violate the sanctity of life.”

In short, Salam said that we have to do it - one person, one life, one generation at a time, and that is our challenge in the 21st Century.

After the benediction, Ellen Stapenhorst sang us out and I touched bases with Salam and Rev. Hannah to find out if the Neighborhood UU would be posting a text of his message on the website.  Rev Hannah told me that they’d be putting up an audio, so whenever that shows up, I’ll post a link.


BTW: As a belated celebration of Independent Book Store Day, and as penance for all the cheap used books I’ve purchased on line from Amazon, I drove to Vroman’s Bookstore and bought myself an expensive hardbound copy of the Qur’an.

Except for attributed photos and text, all content is copyrighted © 2015 JKM (an apparently ineffectual boilerplate joke?)

Views: 178

Comment by Jonathan Wolfman on May 4, 2015 at 9:34am


Comment by Carole Dixon on May 4, 2015 at 9:57am
Good stuff.

Our new minister was installed yesterday and it was a UU extravaganza. I had been on the search committee that selected her, so it was particularly satisfying!
Comment by Jerry DeNuccio on May 4, 2015 at 10:22am

Thank you for the research on the UUC churches and the Neighborhood Church--research that you present so dexterously.  And, as always, the rich and precise detail that give your writing a lucid  texture and an impressive center of gravity.   Your pieces are content-full and feature acute observation.   Salam's comments make sense to me, especially the cultural ignorance that undermines so many US initiatives.  You'd think by now we'd have learned that our ways are not the world's ways.  Maybe this ignorance displays one of the disadvantages of the American Exceptionalism concept.

Comment by Anna Herrington on May 4, 2015 at 10:33am

Beautiful building to gather in community - looks like you found a nice spot! My sister is a lay minister at her UU church, she loves the community she has there, and the UU church here is very popular, hosts music all the time, too. I've never met anyone who doesn't like their local UU church....well, if you don't ask the conservatives...

Interestingly, I just found a lamp from the Gamble House - a place I would *love* to explore some day - that I also would love to afford for my home, it has a crane and rose on it....


Beautiful things, beautiful things.

Just things.

Comment by Myriad on May 4, 2015 at 10:44am


If you plow thru the Quran, do post a book review.

Comment by koshersalaami on May 4, 2015 at 3:59pm
Well told and interesting.

Be a little careful with the Qur'an to be sure you can get it in context. I say that because reading the OT in English will not tell you how Judaism works, and I don't know if Islam is analogous to that, particularly on the harsh stuff.
Comment by JMac1949 Today on May 4, 2015 at 4:08pm


I went to multiple translations and read the verses before and after, and I can say for sure that in his presentation Salam paraphrased rather than quoted those verses.  Given the theme of his talk, I'm willing to allow him that liberty.


Comment by Anna Herrington on May 5, 2015 at 2:23pm

Have you gone to Gamble House, by chance?  Is there a tour (post! photo essay!)

My husband is really into Greene & Greene, how I found it.

You posted this post a few days later  : )

Comment by Anna Herrington on May 5, 2015 at 2:23pm

(Sorry, I got caught on this tangential aspect of your post...)

Comment by Lois Wickstrom on May 16, 2015 at 1:52pm

Thanks much for posting the content of Salam's talk and Ellen's humorous topical song.


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