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By: Cathlene Cowart

When Julie Meadows was coping with her husband’s stage three melanoma 10 years ago, their small family was devastated. When her husband lost his job, they had to fight to keep him on insurance to help with the hospital bills. They were trying to figure out what to do when their church community, Auburn Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, stepped in.

“We had just lived with one car, because that’s what we wanted, but now we needed another car because he had to go to hospital visits, and somebody gave us a car,” Meadows said. “We didn’t know who this was for years later, but months after he was diagnosed we realized we hadn’t received a power bill in months. Somebody had been going up every month and paying our power bill.”

Everything this family needed, they received from their friends at church. Whether it was something small like phone calls or homemade food or something large like giving them a car or paying their power bill, the church stepped in to help a family in need. 

“The community was so supportive of us during that time. It was great,” Meadows said. “That just cemented it. We knew this was where we needed to be.”

However, this type of kindness isn’t just for their members. It’s for all of Auburn and wherever they can help out. The Auburn Unitarian Universalist Fellowship’s website describes themselves as unlike most churches in the fact that they are made up of a diverse community full of different faiths, ethnicities, histories and spiritualities. What they do have in common is a shared desire for doing good in the world. 

The Church History

One of the Fellowship’s main points is that they don’t follow one creed. Instead, they believe seven principles drawn from major religious teachings and the world around them. Their website lists these as: “the inherent worth and dignity of every person; justice, equity and compassion in human relations; acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations; a free and responsible search for truth and meaning; the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large; the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all; and respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”

The current minister, Pam Gehrke, said the Unitarians and Universalists weren’t combined into one group until 1961, though both movements have been around since early Christianity. 

“Unitarian is a Biblically-based conviction that Jesus was a man, in contrast to Trinitarian,” Gehrke said. “Universalist refers to universal salvation. In other words, everyone is saved, whether there’s a purgatory and then you’re ultimately saved or whether everyone just automatically goes to Heaven.”

Auburn’s Unitarian Universalist Fellowship was founded in 1961 by a group of people mostly associated with Auburn University. This group wanted a place to go where they weren’t required to sign on to a creed and where they could express important matters together in a more understanding faith community.

The Fellowship’s home is on the corner of Thach Avenue and Auburn Drive or Thach Avenue and Debardeleben Street depending on where you come from. The white church building is a historic landmark. It was the original site of the first African American church in Auburn, Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church. This building is the home of Sunday services. The two buildings behind it provide space for events, offices and a children’s church, called religious exploration.

The Church Events

Religious Exploration is the time where the children and youth are either put into practice or are introduced to the church values based on their age group. Meadows is the current director of this program, which consists of a nursery and three main age groups. The plan for the next year is to expand into four groups because of a large growth in the youngest group.

One of the popular events the church has that is open to the Auburn community came from the youth in religious exploration. They had the desire to hold a community game night, which happens every month. Billye Welburn, the church’s administrative assistant, helps run events like this.

“It’s beautifully chaotic,” Welburn said. “There’s always a handful of kids running around screaming the whole time, no matter what sort of planned activities they try to do. I’ve just learned to roll with the chaos.”

Beyond holding their own events, the church also allows other community organizations and groups to meet and rent the facilities for their personal events. One such organization is Pride on the Plains, which is working to create the area’s first Pride event in the summer of 2018.

“We meet at the Busch Center two Sundays a month, usually from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.,” said Chad Peacock, the organization’s president. “We have been meeting there since we started in July 2017. Billye was actually the first person to reach out to me offering a place for us to hold our meetings.”

The Church People

Gehrke is the current interim minister whose time leading the church will end in June 2018. Originally from California and most likely heading back soon, she said the people of the church and the people of Auburn will be the main thing she’ll miss most. This is her first ministry job, and she said that has made an extreme impact on her.

“I think how faithful they are, how knowledgeable they are, how much good will there is. I think I’ll carry that with me,” Gehrke said. “I’ll carry the possibilities that I glimpsed here, the possibilities for learning. The things I’ve watched develop. I’ll bring out with me.”

For Welburn, this church community isn’t just the people he sees on Sundays. They’re his family. He’s also become more aware of social issues since many of the church members participate in groups that deal with social change.

“The social awareness advocacy has rubbed off on me a little bit,” Welburn said. “The church community is predominantly white and affluent, so it’s encouraging to see them try to put that to work for the wider community, not just sit and pat themselves on the back.”

Becoming the Beloved Community

When it comes to becoming a beloved community in Auburn, Gehrke is proud of the accomplishments Auburn has made to work toward this goal. She also hopes that the information she takes back to California will influence the way her community sees the South changing into a more understanding and compassionate area.

For Meadows, becoming a beloved community is taking the Southern hospitality the region is known for and making it a genuine action instead of a social obligation. This idea paired with acceptance and compassion would be her idea of a more beloved Auburn.

“I think if all of our intentions were based out of wanting to meet that need, rather than feeling obligated, that would be the beloved community,” Meadows said. “Acceptance coupled with a genuine desire to foster relationship with this person.”

Understanding that differences make everyone unique and helping out those who need it is Welburn’s idea of a beloved community.

Letting go of egos and doing something because it’s right rather than bragging about it is another aspect, he added.

“For those of us who have advantages, not to abuse them, but to work for the benefit of everyone,” Welburn said. “Help out people who need help and recognize injustices when they happen and stand up for the victims as things are happening.”

Peacock said he sees the beloved community as people opening their minds and hearts to change and acceptance, as well as choosing to put others before themselves. It will be a success for Auburn to achieve in his eyes.

“It means that they have chosen love over hate and acceptance over ignorance,” Peacock said. “It means that we have moved forward as a community and not backwards. It means we have succeeded as a community.”

Gehrke said she doesn’t think she’ll live to see this community become a fully beloved one, but she has hope it’ll happen. The progress made day by day is enough for her.

Meadows said she believes the community should be looking for similarities but recognizing and understanding differences are what make the area better. She uses the rainbow painted in the upper age group room of the religious exploration building as an example of becoming the beloved community.

“We wouldn’t think they were so cool if it was just once color,” Meadows said. “The fact that it’s different colors is what makes it so awesome.”

On Easter Sunday, the church has a special service called the Flower Communion. People bring flowers and place them on the altar to symbolize becoming one. At the end, each person picks a different flower to take home. The congregation’s website states that the significance is “no two flowers are alike, so no two people are alike, yet each has a contribution to make. Thus, this service is a statement of our community.”

Meadows also uses this ceremony as an example for the community she’s called home for almost 21 years. She thinks that it’s amazing to see all these different flowers coming together on the stage to form something that showcases life and the differences in it.

“You’re just drawn to looking at all the small, tiny violets and then these big hibiscus flowers,” Meadows said. “I think that it would be boring if all we had up there were pansies. If there were only pansies, okay it’d be great, but it’s fabulous that we have all these different flowers. I think the beloved part comes from loving through those differences and accepting that.”

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