This copyrighted article originally appeared in The Times of Trenton and on the affiliated website NJ.com.
on February 02, 2012 at 7:00 AM
BORDENTOWN CITY — When Roger Long put the phrase, “Come as you are and be welcomed,” on the sign at the new church, the headquarters of the Dorothea Dix Unitarian Universalist Community, he wanted the letters to appear friendly and informal, not crisp and machine-made.
The retired art teacher used paint and a brush to imitate the handmade feel of the quaint business signs around the corner on historic Farnsworth Avenue. “I wanted our sign to reflect the friendly nature of our community,” he said after a recent church service.
Long is one of a congregation numbering 46 that formed about 20 years ago after breaking off from a similar congregation at Washington Crossing, wanting a more intimate fellowship. The community had met in members’ homes around the dining room table, written and presented services themselves. Makeshift meeting places also included rented spaces and restaurants. In 2002, the group welcomed more members, from the Universalist Fellowship of Burlington County.
Less than a year ago, the group took the plunge and purchased the one-story building at 39 Park Ave. , which had previous incarnations as church and VFW hall. The first service in the new digs was in April of 2011.
The group took the name of Dorothea Dix because she was a Unitarian and an advocate for the indigent mentally ill. Dix, who lived in the 1800s, founded the Trenton Psychiatric Hospital. The Unitarian Universalists felt her life was very consistent with their values.
Meanwhile, the Bordentown congregation is forging ahead with plans to become just a bit larger, said group president Dennis Moyer.
“We want to be bigger, but not too big,” he said, looking out across the rows of joined folding chairs left by the previous owner, a congregation of the conservative American Baptists.
“We could uncomfortably squeeze in 100.”
He said he’d like to see the congregation grow to about 60 and was surprised to hear some one-time attendees felt the congregation was so intimate they felt like intruders.
There have been some growing pains.
Moyer said some members disagreed with the building purchase and others were disappointed with the cost of installing handicapped access to certain parts of the building. He said some members see lack of handicapped access as a conflict with the Unitarian Universalist value of inclusion.
In order to make social events accessible, those are held in the first floor sanctuary, rankling members who feel the sanctuary should be reserved for sacred occasions.
The U.U. denomination, formed in 1961 from the merger of the Unitarians and Universalists, is known for social action and liberal political views. Many of the Bordentown members were raised in other faiths they found unsatisfying, hypocritical or even psychologically damaging.
For example, in the mid-1960s, Sharon Reilly, a congregation member from Hamilton, felt pressure from her family to have her son, David, baptized in the Episcopal church to remove original sin.
“I was appalled that anyone would think my beautiful baby was full of sin that needed to be washed away,” she said in a recent interview.
A glance at the members’ official biographies provided by the congregation showed a group of people searching for meaningful life through explorations of paganism, metaphysics, atheism, vegetarianism and practices common to Native Americans, Wiccans and Buddhists.
All of this is accepted without harsh judgment by the Unitarian Universalists because how one lives is more central than a set of shared beliefs, said the Rev. Addae Ama Kraba, who comes up from Philadelphia to give a sermon once a month.
She said the U.U. view emphasizes free thinking and a search for truth across multiple intellectual disciplines, including preparation for an afterlife or belief in the virgin birth or resurrection.
“People who believe in the virgin birth do a lot of good for people here on earth and we respect that,” she said. “That is not our focus. What we do is come together to learn to live in a righteous way so that we leave this world a better place.”
Service to humanity and respectful treatment of others are core U.U. values, she said. Pat Hustis is chairwoman of the Social Action Committee, which contributes to food pantries and meal programs for the poor. Tom Reilly volunteers at the Trenton Area
Soup Kitchen and Long with the soup kitchen’s A-Team Art Gallery.
Other good works are smaller. Pat’s husband, Don, reported during the Sunday service that a member’s children cleared the ice and snow from his sidewalk. “They worked hard and did a good job,” he said.
Moyer said the congregation continues to cope with the financial pressures of growth through fundraising activities, including a ‘50s dance next month and an auction in March.
He said he doesn’t want anyone with limited means to feel excluded, but the congregation needs to be more forthright about asking members to pledge what they can so the financial future may be planned.
Member Pat Hustis said fellowship and the connectedness members feel is what’s most important.
“With a minister or without, and with a building or without, there will always be a Dorothea Dix Unitarian Universalist Community,” Hustis said.