When Robert Helfer and Lisa deGruyter decided to retire to West Virginia, they knew they wanted a UU church, and knew there were only four in the state, all in cities where they didn’t want to live. They had joined the Church of the Larger Fellowship – then, before the Web, the worldwide UU “church in the mailbox” – when they were newlyweds and moved to Columbia, Tennessee, 45 miles from the nearest UU church, in Nashville. Then they started driving those 45 miles every Sunday (and on a memorable Saturday night in a snowstorm for a potluck annual meeting) and joined the Nashville church. When they moved to Austin, Texas, they joined the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin (then First Unitarian), where they raised two children and were active members.
After looking up and down the center of West Virginia, Robert and Lisa found a wonderful house in Clarksburg. Amazingly, they soon discovered that a neighbor, Michael O’Kelly, was a retired UU minister, and serving one Sunday a month at the Morgantown UU Fellowship. Michael’s wife, Marilyn, died the next spring. He has retired completely, and decided to put his energy into the Morgantown church as a member. But it was encouraging to know that the area had produced Michael, whose parents were from Clarksburg, and Marilyn, who grew up in Clarksburg, and to have their moral support.
It was a half-hour drive to Morgantown, and Robert and Lisa decided that they would rather have a church in their own community, and that there must be others in the area who were UUs, or would be if they knew such a thing existed and had a congregation near. But how to find them? Most new UU churches are started as spin-offs from a church in a larger city, and no-one Lisa talked to had many ideas about how to go about starting from scratch. The UU new church process assumes that you have a core group of people who serve as an organizing committee, and suggests that you not publicize or hold a public service until you can expect 100 people to show up.
Lisa was discouraged, since the rule of thumb is that you can expect only about .1% of people to be UUs. That would be only 75 people in the greater Clarksburg area, and most churches of any kind in the area have only a hundred or so members. And how do you find that core organizing group to begin with? She and Robert had rejoined the Church of the Larger Fellowship before they moved, and she asked them for a list of members in nearby zip codes. They sent her the whole list for West Virginia, since there were only 11.
By now, it was the fall of 2009. The only people on the list who were close were George and Kathy Sprowls, in Fairmont, so she wrote to them, and she and Robert went to Fairmont and met them for dinner. They were enthusiastic. It turned out their daughter, Rev. Tracy Sprowls, was a UU minister. George shared a recent sermon of hers, which concluded
How are we serving the community around us? Are we accessible to those people out there who are Unitarian Universalists and they don’t even know it? Do they even know there is a faith for them right here in their own town? There are folks out there who are like us who need a place like this: a place of tolerance, of acceptance, of love. A place to think and reason about religion as well as explore it and feel it in a profound way. There are people who are finding they no longer fit in with their own culture or religion of their childhood. They are longing for a place that helps them find meaning in their lives. They are looking for a place to belong. This is that place. We must welcome them in!
which was exactly what Robert and Lisa felt.
Meanwhile, Lisa had put up a website and talked to the UUA District Executive, Rev. Joan Van Becelaere. The District put a link to us on their website, and Joan put Lisa in touch with Rev. Rose Edington, co-pastor at the Charleston congregation. Joan visited Robert and Lisa. April Keating, in Buckhannon, saw the website and got in touch. Rose offered to do a public meeting, with flyers, newspaper ads, music, speakers. But the planning petered out, and nothing else happened for almost two years, although April and Lisa kept in touch by email.
In July 2011, Kathleen Gilbert moved to Clarksburg, found the WFUU website, and emailed. Robert and Lisa invited her to dinner, and she was enthusiastic about starting something up. They talked about having a weekly Sunday evening gathering, with a simple supper and worship, and got back in touch with April, and with George and Kathy Sprowls. It seemed the time had come. The first gathering was Sunday, September 25. Over the next two months, through the website, the district minister’s network, and a “Standing on the Side of Love” T-shirt spotted at the Y, we gained three families, including 3 children, so we ranged in age from 3 to 70+.
Once we were meeting regularly and growing, our UUA District recommended us as an emerging congregation, and we were added to the national congregation search. In the spring of 2012, we did a visioning and planning process, adopted bylaws, and had a membership book signing in June 2012. After having house meetings for another year, we decided we needed to have Sunday morning worship in a public, accessible, place, so that people could drop in rather than having to plan ahead and get directions. We also received a Chalice Lighters grant from the Ohio-Meadville District, so that we could bring in a guest minister once a month. After searching for a year for a space, we started renting at the Progressive Women’s Association in October 2013, with services on the third Sunday each month. In the summer of 2014, we also added outdoor gatherings on the first Sundays of the summer, at local spots like Audra State Park, the State Wildlife Center, and Valley Falls State Park. In November 2015, we decided monthly meetings were not enough, and made the leap to renting our space at the PWA Event Center every week, and adding adult and children’s religious education classes before the services.