Perhaps a good place to start the story is with Betty Chamlee. Since 1971 she had been an active member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Savannah. She is a Beaufort native with family roots in the community that dig all the way back to the 1700s. Her long interest in establishing a Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Beaufort sprang from a strongly held belief that the denomination is a powerful and wonderful way of being religious. Her work with the Savannah congregation put her in contact with district and national leaders in the Unitarian Universalist Association, and when Roger Comstock the Thomas Jefferson District Executive visited Savannah, Betty was in a position to directly suggest – and argue for – the establishment of a new church in Beaufort.
At the same time a group of individuals with Unitarian Universalist backgrounds from many areas of the country, found each other living on Dataw Island, in Beaufort County. Meeting informally, they shared how much they missed their home churches, and began to talk about how beneficial it would be to have a church in Beaufort. Before long the group made contact with the national offices of the Unitarian Universalists and asked how to establish a new church.
In 1998, seeing a clear opportunity, the Thomas Jefferson District leadership brought Betty Chamlee and the people from Dataw Island together, and asked Ms. Chamlee to shepherd the group through its infancy. The first organizational meetings were held at the Beth Israel Synagogue in Beaufort, SC. Soon after the group started to meet regularly at The Shed in Port Royal. By all accounts, they were energetic and worked well together. They didn’t all know each other, but they were coming together to establish a church. They focused not only on getting organized, but also on understanding the kinds of commitment needed to create a church that would begin to meet the needs of people, who look at religion through principles, rather than creed.
Through a series of meetings, workshops, and kitchen table conversations, often organized and/or led by Ms. Chamlee, congregants were nurtured and coached to understand the inner workings of the church. The group struggled with a host of questions. Where shall we meet? How often shall we meet? Who will lead us? A workshop on lay-led worship stands out in Betty’s memory because it, “… became a beautiful worship service….” It was now clear to her that the group could sustain itself through the long journey of lay-led worship, until a minister could be called.
Early on, the congregants were faced with a fundamental question about, where to focus their energy and time. Should they focus on getting a minister…or a building? In spite of a lot of issues they decided that a minister was more important. Of course at the time they did not have enough money to hire minister. Occasionally, they were able to pay for a visiting minister, and there were numerous lay-led services. In many ways the early services functioned like a “speakers bureau” welcoming talks on a wide variety of social and environmental topics. Which fed directly into the congregants’ early commitment to social and environmental justice.
In the years to follow the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Beaufort would meet at the Shed in Port Royal, the US Naval Hospital, the Sea Island Conference Center on Lady’s Island, and the Wardle family YMCA in Port Royal. The lack of the church building was inconvenient, but as much as possible, the membership stayed focused on first providing ministerial leadership.
Rev. Nan White, a former Presbyterian minister, moved to Beaufort in 1996, after having left the Presbyterian denomination where she had been raised, educated and ordained. “What do UU’s believe?” was the simple question she asked Marge Jarvis, of Dataw Island in the summer of 1999. Marge had just asked Rev. White if she would be interested in helping to start a Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Beaufort. “We believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” were the words Marge chose to respond. This plain and direct answer spoke to Rev. White, and she immediately agreed to help. Later that day she went home and began to explore the Unitarian Universalist Association website. She found herself drawn to the Seven Principles that begin with the belief in, “The inherent worth and dignity of every person;” and end with, “Respect for the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part.” Nan found in the Unitarian Universalist theology the understanding that it is okay to struggle; in fact, it’s encouraged. You question and search to find out what you understand to be truth.
In November of 1999 Rev. White contacted the national Association about transferring her ordination, and the Unitarian Church in Statesboro, Georgia invited her to be their once-a-month minister. In 2001 the Unitarian Fellowship of Hilton Head called on Rev. White to be their consultant minister. Even as her ministerial duties increased she continued to find time to stay in contact with the newly formed Beaufort Fellowship. Finally, in 2002, the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Beaufort was in a position to ask Rev. White to serve as minister for 10 hours a week, to provide pastoral care, prepare worship services and sermons. Rev. White shepherded the congregation with adult education classes and experiences like EvenSong, Journey Toward Wholeness, and lay-led discussion groups. The Journey Toward Wholeness program is designed to recognize and address issues of oppression and racism. After being introduced to the program, the congregation voted to add a Journey Toward Wholeness representative to the Fellowship’s Board of Directors.
In October, 2004 Rev. White became the half-time Minister of the Beaufort Fellowship. That same year Bernie Wright, the then Executive Director Penn Center on St. Helena Island, invited the Fellowship to have an administrative office in the Lathers building on the Penn Center campus. The opening of the new office was the launch of an enriching partnership to address human rights, civil rights and social justice issues, with this internationally renowned institution. It also brought an historic relationship full circle. Laura M. Towne was one of the founders of Penn School in 1862, and she was a Unitarian from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Once Rev. White completed her consulting ministry with the Hilton Head congregation in September of 2006, the Beaufort congregation was able to extend her hours to 3/4 time. Through her – and the Fellowship board’s – continued leadership, the congregation aspires to reach out and make its presence known, particularly for those who seek a liberal religious institution. In 2007 the Fellowship embarked on a series of “porch talks” with the goal of developing a clear mission statement. On December 9, 2007 the congregation adopted the following:
Our mission is to create a joyful sanctuary for spiritual and intellectual growth, embracing all souls in a nurturing community from which we go forth as activists for social justice and as stewards of the natural world.
The congregation has expressed its commitment to the larger community in a myriad of ways over the years with activities such as:
- Support of the launching of the Culinary Arts Program at the Technical College of the Lowcountry, through a Faith Based Initiative grant.
- Ongoing support of the nonprofit Marshview Organic Community Farm, a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), founded in 2008, on St. Helena Island. The Beaufort Fellowship Social Justice Committee helped the farm secure nonprofit status. The committee also helped to raise community support and awareness by among other things, contacting teachers in the local schools to recruit students for training on the farm. Members of the congregation also routinely volunteer labor on this innovative farm.
- Hosting Social Justice workshops, in concert with the Hilton Head Fellowship in 2005, to help members learn how to better serve the needs of the community.
- Holding Free Trade Coffee House Concerts to promote public awareness of free trade coffee, by drinking it and selling it while a musical concert took place. Artists like Rebecca Folsom, Wild Carrot, and Meg Barnhouse performed in various places around the city between approximately 2004 and 2007.
- Participating in Family Promise, a national non-profit comprised locally of 27 churches, fellowships and synagogues in Beaufort County, who join together to offer housing and food to needy families, each week in a different church.
- The awarding of many scholarships, named in honor of Laura M. Towne, to high school students in Beaufort who write essays on topics related to human rights.
- In May of 2008 the weekend-long Laura M. Towne celebration was organized by Rev. White, the Thomas Jefferson District, and the Beaufort Fellowship, in partnership with Penn Center. A Friday evening sold-out concert, featuring singer/songwriter artists Rebecca Folsom and Jan Spencer, raised funds for the Marshview Organic Community Farm. On Saturday an all-day anti-racism conference trained 25 Unitarian Universalists to be better allies for people of color. Saturday evening 27 members of the Fellowship supported the Penn Center 1862 Circle Gala with their contributions and attendance at the event, which was held at the Paris Island Lyceum. The weekend ended Sunday afternoon with the official presentation of the original Penn School bell. It had been sent to Laura Towne from friends in Philadelphia in 1863. Members of the Fellowship of Beaufort have pledged financial support for the restoration of the Bell and a replica of the Bell Tower, which is presently housed in the York Bailey Museum, on the Penn Center campus. In May of 2009 a second Laura M. Towne celebration was organized and conducted in partnership again with Penn Center.
- Individual members, and the congregation, have also supported many other organizations like Thumbs Up, Born to Read, HELP of Beaufort and Mobile Meals.
On Sunday November 1, 2009 in the Pavilion at Waterfront Park in Beaufort, the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Beaufort celebrated its first 10 years. Rev. White spoke and special music was provided by singer/songwriter Eric Daubert. Anyone in the community was welcomed to attend and learn more about this congregation of searchers, as the work of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Beaufort moved joyfully into its second decade of commitment to the greater Beaufort community, the nation, and the world.
Since Rev. White could now provide ministerial leadership — at ¾ time — the Board and members of the Fellowship shifted part of their emphasis and energies toward finding a permanent home. In the summer of 2009 the Fellowship purchased the Oaks property on St. Helena Island. The property was essentially a family home and plans were gradually developed to convert it into a meeting place for the Fellowship. It was an exciting time. However, out of the blue, the family who sold the property suddenly asked if it could buy it back. The Fellowship was under no obligation to sell the property back. After much discussion, principally around the history and importance of the St. Helena community, the decision was made to return the property. Almost everyone agreed it was the right thing to do but it moved the Fellowship back to square one in its quest to find a permanent home.
Much time and effort, on the part of the Fellowship board and membership, was now consumed in finding a permanent home. In August of 2010 the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Beaufort was able to purchase the two buildings of the former Sea Island Conference Center at 178 Sams Point Road on Lady’s Island. The congregation was also able to purchase two additional acres, adjacent to the buildings, shortly after the initial purchase.
The congregation now shifted into high gear in an effort to refurbish, repair, paint and redesign the buildings, to meet the needs of the Fellowship. It was an exciting time, but not without its struggles; some large, some small. Owning the buildings brought up questions about how the Fellowship should open up to the larger Beaufort Community. There were concerns that the property had become all-consuming and that the stated mission of the Fellowship was taking a back seat to the buildings….and there were financial woes.
However, the Fellowship and its members were ultimately able to maintain perspective and move forward in a number of positive ways. Membership was growing and the ties to the larger Thomas Jefferson District seem to be strengthening. Earlier in 2010 the Fellowship hosted the Thomas Jefferson District annual meeting at Penn Center. Laura Towne’s birthday was recognized and celebrated at this event.
In 2011 the Fellowship was designated as a Breakthrough Congregation by the national association of Unitarian Universalist. According to the UUA website …the Breakthrough Congregation initiative…was an effort to identify those congregations that have achieved significant and sustained numerical growth and give them an opportunity to share at General Assembly what they’ve done, and how they’ve done it. With only 81 members at the time, UUFB was the smallest congregation in the country to be honored with this designation.
Early in 2011 Rev. White agreed to accept the congregation’s offer of a full time salary, and full time position, as the Fellowships minister. A little later that year, as the building renovations progressed, she moved her administrative office from Penn Center to the Sams Point location. 2012 saw the formation of three new “affinity groups.” The Ancient Sea Island Continuum (ASIC), along with a Christian and a Buddhist group. The Fellowship continued to welcome new members and friends. However, there was also sadness over the loss of a number of members and friends — through relocation or death — over the next many months.
After many years of service, in December of 2013, Rev. White shared with the Board of Directors and the Committee on Shared Ministry that she was going to resign her position as minister of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Beaufort. She announced a departure date of June 30, 2014. The congregation at large was informed in January of 2014. In May of 2014 Rev. White was designated Minister Emerita of the Fellowship. Her last day in the pulpit was June 15, 2014. She is now serving as the developmental minister for a UU congregation in Ashland, Oregon.
In August of 2014 the Fellowship welcomed its interim minister, the Rev. Kevin Tarsa. He will serve in this capacity for two years. Under his leadership the Fellowship is energized and growing, with many new friends attending each Sunday service. Three new UU membership classes were held between April, 2014 and April, 2015. 28 new members joined during that period, bringing the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Beaufort up to a total of 99 members.
About a decade and a half ago 30 people met at The Shed in Port Royal and began a journey to learn more about what it means to create a Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. Many wonderful, and some trying, things have come to pass since then, and the journey to learn continues. Sunday services are now held at 10:00 AM at 178 Sams Point Road on Lady’s Island. Nursery School and Religious Education classes for children are available. All are welcome. For information visit www.uubeaufort.org.
Compiled by: Randy James and a host of UUFB members and friends, May, 2015.