March 8th, 2023 marks the 70th anniversary of the 1953 laying of the cornerstone in our “new” building. 70 years of worship, friendship, and community. In honor of the occasion, we asked some longtime community members to share their experiences about how they got involved in this church and the impact it has had on them.
Elaine Mathies is a pacific northwest local who moved to Seattle in 1980. After attending a
memorial service for a friend at UCUCC in 1985, she began attending regularly. Although, her roots lead back to University Congregational roughly 40 years before she became a member of the community. “My mother actually was in the youth group at University Congregational, even though she was a member of University Unitarian. But apparently, they had a really nice youth group in the 40s.” In the 80s Dale Turner, former minister of the church, was writing columns for the Seattle Times. These weekly columns often discussed ethical questions with “a religious bent to them,” according to Elaine. “They were very inviting, to talk about things that anybody might be thinking about,” Elaine said. After experiencing the deaths of three acquaintances in a relatively short period of time, Elaine decided to write a note to Dale Turner. “He wrote the kindest note back, Elaine explained. At the time Elaine was already looking for a church and was working in the University District. So, after experiencing the kindness of Dale Turner, she decided to stop by and check out University Congregational. “I walked over on a Saturday when I had actually been in the office doing some studying for an exam and the choir was practicing and they were singing Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols, which I had sung in high school,” Elaine said. “I thought: ‘This could be a really good fit.’” After experiencing such a wonderful coincidence Elaine decided to attend a service. “So I came to the church and I happened to sit next to somebody who was on staff and she was very kind to me,” Elaine said. “And I think I wept through part of the service, but it’s like, I’m coming back!” It was kindness that brought Elaine to University Congregational and kindness that made her come back and stay: now for almost 30 years. When asked about the role that the church played in her life Elaine had this to say: “I’ll keep using the term community because that was what I was looking for and that is definitely what I found. And so now I have longtime friends who were in the same inquirers class (what we call the people who are interested in joining the church) with me 36 years ago.”
Rev. Gail Crouch began working at University Congregational when she was still in seminary school. After she finished seminary she was hired on to be a pastor of the church. “So I finished seminary and was actually ordained in the church and became one of its pastors, and was there for 16 years,” Gail explained. After joining University Congregational as a pastor Gail entrenched herself in her work. Something that she said possibly delayed her integration into the community. “When I was first there, because I was trying to immerse myself in the work, it took a little while to sort of get to know all the people,” Gail said. But even as a newcomer, Gail described how the community welcomed her with kindness and compassion. Something that seems to be a core element of the University Congregational community. “People were extremely supportive… The person I was following was deeply loved and so I knew that there were some skeptics that I could fill his very large shoes. But people were gracious and loving and forgiving of any mistakes I would make,” Gail told me. One of Gail’s most memorable experiences at University Congregational was the church’s process to become Open and Affirming; a process that culminated in the hiring of Rev. David Shull and Rev. Peter Ilgenfritz two openly gay pastors in the mid-90s, a first for a mainline church in the United States. “That would not have happened if we hadn’t of spent a couple years really going through the Open and Affirming process and helping people be comfortable,” Gail explained. When asked what Gail would say to her community after all these years, she said, “Well first, I would say ‘thank you,’ because it’s been a really great gift. And second I would say, ‘I would hope that the love and the acceptance and the opportunities for growth that I’ve experienced, that we can give to everybody who comes.’”
Rev. Greg Turner and University Congregational have long been intertwined. Greg’s father was the senior minister at UCUCC for 24 years, serving from 1958 to 1982. “I got moved here, to Seattle, from Lawrence, Kansas, when I was 16,” Greg said. When he first came to Seattle in 1958, he was not very pleased about the move. His first year in Seattle, attending Roosevelt High School, was difficult. But having a community around him helped him adjust to his new landscape. Greg described how he was taking a ferry to University Congregational’s church camp, “To be on that ferry and looking south to Mount Rainier and up north to Mount Baker and all of Puget sound, I could say, ‘Well. I’m not in Kansas anymore.’ And that was helpful, a lot of people rallied around to get me through that first six months or so that I was pretty depressed.” After graduating high school Greg went off to college. Greg had been interested in politics from a young age, but after a breakup and the death of John Kennedy, he decided to take a step away from his political aspirations: “So she dumped me and then Kennedy was shot and so that whole political thing got questioned,” Greg said. Eventually, Greg decided to follow in his father’s footsteps, attending Yale Divinity School, where he met his wife, Kathy. He was ordained in 1970 and went on to spend time in churches, as Greg put it, “all over the northern hemisphere.” Greg returned to Seattle in 2005, joining the UCUCC for the first time since he was 18. He has been a member of University Congregational ever since, and particularly involved in church stewardship and on the Love and Justice Ministry committee.
Arlene Strong first attended University Congregational in 1969. A few years later she was asked to join the Children’s Committee. “I was asked to help with Jesus’ birthday cake,” Arlene said. In 1974, she was hired onto the church staff to be a part-time elementary coordinator. Two years later in 1976, she became an official member of the church. She continued her work in the elementary program until 1984. “During that time I was very involved with families and young children…” Arlene explained. “And I made lots of friends and the church has been a place where friends are really important, I feel that my faith is colored a lot by my interactions with people and finding out how they solved everyday daily problems and how they became faithful in their lives through actual experiences.” Arlene’s service expands past just working with the elementary program. She also served on the search committee that hired Rev. Shull and Rev. Ilgenfritz. “We hired them, and it really changed the church quite a bit.” Arlene said. “They were very open and authentic and showed us how to be vulnerable.” Arlene also headed a major renovation project in the early 2000s, in which she helped raise roughly 4.5 million dollars to rehabilitate the church’s infrastructure. Three years of fundraising and five years of construction later, the project was complete. “It was one of the most phenomenal experiences I’ve ever had because every time I needed to find somebody that had a skill or knowledge or knew where to go to do something, somebody stepped forward and they said yes,” Arlene explained. Arlene helped the building become what it is today, but unfortunately, she has had to step back
from in-person service. Since the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, Arlene has transitioned to worshipping from afar, attending the church’s virtual service every Sunday. “It is the hardest thing for me right now that I can’t be physically involved in the church,” Arlene said. Despite the pain that being physically away from the community has caused, Arlene remains both thankful and hopeful for the community that she has helped shape into what it is today. “I think the most important thing is that it has been a group of people who are heading in, what I consider, the right direction in terms of the Christian faith. They live out their faith daily, they’re involved in helping people and serving people and building community.”
One could say that Kathy Williams has been a member of the University Congregational
community since she was born. She attended Sunday School in the previous church building on the Northeast corner of Brooklyn Ave. and 43rd St. “I have been very, very fortunate.” Kathy said. Kathy embodies the core elements that University Congregational holds dearest. Her experiences with the church have largely shaped not only her faith, but her worldview and relationships. “I think it certainly has affected my caring about the wider community, the wider world, I’m quite passionate about underserved people in our world and those against whom there’s discrimination or violence in their own country as well as concerned about problems and inequities in our country,” Kathy explained. This is evident in the work she has done throughout the church. Kathy was one of the founding members of the University Congregational Housing Association, created in the early 80s to help provide affordable housing to those in the community who needed it. One of her most impactful experiences within the church took place in the early 60s. At the time University Congregational had a partnership with Mount Zion Baptist Church, a predominantly black church. Members of University Congregational youth group were invited to stay in the homes of members of Mount Zion. “There was a march for open housing that weekend, and then we went for worship at Mount Zion,” Kathy said. Reflecting on her time with the church Kathy expressed immense gratitude for her community. Gratitude not only for the relationships she has made, but also for the way it has developed her faith and expanded her horizons. Throughout times good and bad, the University Congregational community has always been there to support her.
These stories are a testament to the strength of community: a community that values its members as much as the individuals value their faith. In our current time, being a member of a community with such commitment to each other is hard to come by, but throughout the past 70 years UCUCC has shown that people prosper when they come together. The next 70 years will undoubtedly be filled with new challenges and tribulations, however that will merely provide new opportunities for this community and its members to show the world what it truly means to be a member of University Congregational UCC.
Do you want to share the story of how you became part of UCUCC? Email it to email@example.com