Monday, March 20, 2023

Church Dedication Marks Long Journey to Higher Ground

The April 28th celebration of the former Unitarian Church of Norfolk’s journey to becoming Coastal Virginia Unitarian Universalists (CVUU) was a culmination of years of dreaming, planning, fundraising, renovating, and renewing at the hands of dozens of church leaders, community friends and supporters. The timing was poetic – a dedication held nearly two years to the day the congregation purchased the office building in April of 2017. Church leaders say the total cost of the new building from cornerstone to completion is $3.8 million.

Moving the congregation to a new city, changing its name, changing its very identity was an undertaking that seemed impossible for a congregation that after 46 years had become a permanent fixture of the stately neighborhood on the inlet of the Hague in Norfolk, VA. 

The building dedication service – “Dreaming Our Way Home” – was a uniquely bittersweet event. CVUU hosted the choirs of three visiting Unitarian Universalist churches from across the state, heard blessings from seven visiting ministers and had more than 250 people in attendance as they honored the past and welcomed the possibilities of their future in this new sacred space. 

Leaders of the former Unitarian Church of Norfolk (UCN) not only wanted room for their budding congregation to grow and flourish but to escape the often- flooded grounds of their old home. A bigger home was the only solution and the gamble paid off. The congregation’s abundant new home is not only on higher ground but is nearly double the size of their old one – going from 11,000 square feet to more than 20,000. CVUU occupies 9 acres, 4 of which are wetlands. The new site sits along a finger of the Eastern branch of the Elizabeth River. It offers more parking and outdoor space for many congregational activities that couldn’t be held at UCN.

The first Sunday Service at CVUU was just nine months ago on July 8. In that short stretch of time, the congregation has already grown tremendously. Their children’s Religious Education program jumped from only 9 children last summer to 99 children since the move and weekly service attendance is up nearly thirty percent. 

To recognize the hard work, diligence and commitment, both of time and funds, the dedication ceremony began with a procession of more than 40 CVUU committee members, staff and individuals, shepherded into the front four rows of the sanctuary that had only existed in their dreams a year before. 

What had once been a long-vacant office building now bustled with happy occupants. From their upholstered seats, attendees beheld a window view of tall pines and oaks lining the west riverbank behind the sanctuary. A ceiling, custom designed with lighting features and a suspended bamboo “cloud” to enhance stage sound, towered above those seated on the first floor and balcony. The vaulted, open space had once been a dozen separate offices before the second story was torn out to make way for a spacious area of worship. 

It was a time of wonder and celebration. The service opened with a video greeting from UUA President Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray followed by speeches from key church leaders. 

The most entertaining for all was a warm video greeting from Rev. Paul Boothby, who served the congregation as interim minister from 2005 to 2007 before moving to his current post as minister at First Unitarian Church of Lynchburg. Rev. Boothby joked about the watery years he spent as the UCN minister in the flood-prone building along the Hague. 

He recalled fondly the fun of wading into the Hague to pull out slimy garbage on Earth Day and the staff timing their work day departures to the ebb and flow of the nearby tidal waters. 

“There is a sacrifice to making this move,” he said. “Today’s children will never know the character-building experience of having to swim to the family car after church, but I’m sure you will tell them stories and show them how to read a topographical map.” 

After the praise and congratulations, guest minister, Rev. Jeanne Pupke of First Unitarian Universalists of Richmond, imparted a deeper message. She began by reciting the words of one of her mentors, the Reverend Peter Raible: 

We build on foundations we did not lay
We warm ourselves by fires we did not light
We sit in the shade of trees we did not plant
We drink from wells we did not dig
We profit from persons we did not know
This is as it should be 

Rev. Pupke urged longtime members and church leaders to turn over the reins. “Happy and proud as you are of all the sacrifices that you have made to be here today–feel it fully–and then tomorrow I want you to completely let it go. After all the dreaming, discussion and fundraising, after today, after the party, after this great milestone, I need you to give up the ownership of this building and everything you did to make it happen. Only if you disassociate yourself from the claim of credit or accomplishment, only if you leave it to others to name the wonder of this space can you really be in community with those who have not yet had anything to do with it. Let it go, let it all go. Give it to the generations because as you have built on their foundations so others will build on yours.” 

She reminded members and guests that we are “ever-bound in community.” 

“… This building is here to promote the healing and wholeness of all beings. It is here to raise up children with the strongest of moral compasses, deep in their understanding of humanity and passionate in all regards. It his here to invite the lost, and the lonely, and the seeker, all of which you have been at some time in your life. It is hear to open hearts and minds. Now, it’s time to let go and hand it over. You have built the foundation, you have built the fire, you have dug the well. Others will reap the benefits.” 

A baby cried out in agreement. 

“The baby in your lap may be the next president of this congregation,” Rev. Pupke said to wide applause and laughter. 

The highlight of the service was the premiere performance of an original anthem, “We Can Build Our Home,” composed by CVUU Music Director Matt Griset for the occasion. With the help of the combined choirs of First Unitarian Universalists of Richmond, Unitarian Universalists of Williamsburg and the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula in Newport News, the anthem was performed with more than 40 singers, three guest soloists, saxophone, bass, drums, and piano. 

Following the anthem, blessings were given by Reverend Mark Byrd, Senior Pastor of New Life Metropolitan Community Church of Hampton Roads in Norfolk, VA.; Rev. Andrew Clive Millard of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula in Newport News, VA.; Rev. Laura Horton-Ludwig of the Williamsburg Unitarian Universalists, Williamsburg, VA; Rev. Sherman Z. Logan Jr., Executive Minister of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Richmond, VA and Rev. David Morris of the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Outer Banks in Kitty Hawk, NC. 

After the service concluded, members and guests sat outside under two large tents enjoying fried chicken, potato salad, slaw, vegetables and cake. Swapping stories and remembering old times. And looking forward to a new vision of turning over leadership to a new generation. 

If you are interested in attending services or one of their many events, the CVUU is conveniently located at 809 S. Military Highway, Virginia Beach, VA, 23464. To learn more about CVUU’s programs and activities, visit their by clicking on the link below.

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