As members and supporters of the First Universalist Church in Southold entered in hushed reverence to services Sunday morning at Custer Institute, one week after their historic church on the bend in Route 25 burned down, they brought with them many familiar things:
Someone brought in forsythia in full bloom, rooted firmly in a pot, a bright yellow shot of spring. Stony Brook Universalist Pastor Linda Anderson brought with her a blue ceramic chalice, to light a candle for the congregation, and a slew of hymnals donated by other Unitarian Universalist churches. At the door, ushers handed out neatly printed programs and the hymns for the day, photocopied before the hymnals arrived. There was coffee brewing in the next room.
But there were some things that, try as they might, would never be the same again. Pastor Jef Gamblée and Rev. Charles Dieterich, a member of the Unitarian Universalist Trauma Ministry in town to help the congregation, tried for several minutes to hang a cloth flag emblazoned with light-filled church windows on the wall behind the piano bench that served as their pulpit. But the flag kept falling down.
The light-filled windows belonged to a church that was gone forever. The posters that remained on the walls belonged to the astronomical observatory. They were of waxing and waning moons, gibbouses and slivers, galaxies and cosmos, a universe of dust and air that somehow still contains the memory of a church building that is gone.
The piano was far out of tune. But just the notion of music served as comfort to the people gathered there.
And church vice president Susi Young introduced a new tradition: Instead of lighting candles as they shared the joys and sorrow of the community, the congregation will now drop a stone in a bowl of water for each remembered joy and sorrow. At least for now.
Parishioners shared their stories of children and grandchildren, off in the world doing great things. They shared the birthdays of their loved ones. Few spoke of the pain of losing their church.
But when Rev. Gamblée asked the congregation to stand for the morning’s meditation, that changed. He read:
We commit our church building at the bend to the keeping of Mother Earth which bears us all. We are glad that it gave us space to celebrate our births, welcome our youth to young adulthood, solemnize weddings, embrace guests and new members. We are glad it gave us space to gather in worship on countless Sunday mornings, weather permitting, to share concerts, lectures, and to bid farewell to our dead. We, and the many generations before us, deeply cherish the memory of the blessed sanctuary, the place where many of us found our faith. We leave our dead now in peace. With respect we bid her farewell. May our building at the bend, rest in peace. Amen
The congregation meditated in silence for several minutes before the sniffling began. Women fished in their purses for Kleenex. Many had their eyes closed. Tears streamed unchecked down cheeks.
“Wow, that was hard,” said Rev. Gamblée, choking back tears himself as the congregation began to open their eyes.
Rev. Dieterich, who serves as a minister, firefighter and as Santa Claus in his home parish in New Jersey, reminded the congregation that they could take all the time they needed to grieve. There would be time later for discussion on how best to rebuild, on what the new church would be.
He talked of Catholic Worker organizer Dorothy Day, who was a child in Oakland during the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Even though her community was damaged by the earthquake, it wasn’t destroyed by fire as had happened across the bay, and her neighbors were quick to embrace people who escaped the fire in San Francisco.
“While the crisis lasted people loved each other,” Mr. Dieterich said Ms. Day wrote in her autobiography. “It was as though they were united in Christian solidarity. It makes one think of how people could, if they would, care for each other in times of stress, unjudgingly in pity and love.”
“When you see something awful in the news,” he said, “look for the helpers. There are always helpers… You are the church. That message has not gone away.”
Later, after the service, Church Officer Dan Durett led an informal chat with the congregation. The church trustees plan to hold similar chats after every service as they find their way forward.
The congregation will need to document the contents of the church that were destroyed in the fire. When a demolition crew arrives, members will be on hand to salvage anything worth saving. And many members said they’d like to hold a memorial at the site, while the remains of the building are still there.
But those details, it seemed, were for a future time. This Sunday the most important thing seemed to be the knowledge that everyone had shared the trauma of losing the church together. And that precious spark of community would carry their spirits through whatever came next.
Before closing their sermon, Pastor Gamblée and Pastor Dieterich read together the famous words of T.S. Eliot:
“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
Southold’s First Universalist Church will continue to meet at Custer Institute for the next few weeks.