First Unitarian Church of Worcester

Sermons, Memos and other writings from the newsletter and worship services of the First Unitarian Church of Worcester. The First Unitarian Church is located at 90 Main Street, Worcester, MA 01608. Our phone is 508-757-2708 and our webpage is A audio CD is produced for almost every one of our regular services. Call our office or send a note to the office at our website to request that one be shipped to you.

Monday, November 27, 2006

"Holy Ground" by Rev. Barbara Merritt

(A memo purchased by Vivian Shortreed at the spring church auction. The subject is “Groundswell”: the new lay lead initiative to reflect upon the relationship between our environmental policy, and its practical application for the outside church property.)

On Saturday, October 21st, I was officiating at a wedding at Strong Mansion on the side of Sugar Loaf Mountain in western Maryland. We never really went indoors. It was a glorious, crystal-clear fall day with the foliage at peak color. (Surprisingly wonderful for a non-New England setting.) Besides the beauty of the bride and groom and their family and friends, what took my breath away were the formal gardens. The wedding ceremony was held in a grove of tall and stately evergreens that had been tended for at least 50 years. The reception afterward gathered around a lovely reflecting pool with stonewalls and golden light streaming from the untouched forest directly behind the garden. But the view that will stay with me was the one to the south: a long lawn extended down a steep hill, ending in three large classical Greek terraces. And then rising up from these terraces, as far as the eye could see, were rolling hills, and green farmland and untouched woods. The view was a natural quilt of color. The vista stated in quiet eloquence that it was possible for human beings to live in complete harmony with the natural world. The classical Greek terraces were framed by the wilderness. The farmland and horse pastures nestled next to unspoiled forests. While standing among 200 wedding guests, you were able to gaze into wide-open spaces and imagine the blessing of solitude. And when the wedding was over, we all went back to the crowded city of Washington, DC.

I know of no place where the gifts of nature are more needed than in a city. A simple rose blooming against a brick wall (like they are currently doing in the church patio) can cheer you up on a cold day in November. A small garden, even in a window box, can make you smile. (There is just such a window box on Joy Street near our UUA headquarters in Boston. It never ceases to delight, no matter the season.) A pocket park in the midst of a tangled complex of office buildings can provide the best place to enjoy some relatively fresh air, along with a bag lunch. In the midst of urban and suburban living, we often spend an inordinate amount of time raking leaves, and preparing flowerbeds and planting perennials. One of the reasons is that this relationship between nature and ourselves feeds our souls. What lives and blooms and changes with the seasons, and comes back in the spring, holds our finite lives in a way that nothing else does. The natural world, incarnate in a houseplant or in a formal garden, can comfort us and remind us that beauty and a vital life force are real, and constant and close at hand. Even the flowers for sale at the grocery store can improve your home, your meal and your mood.

The First Unitarian Church of Worcester has one very beautifully maintained garden surrounding the patio on the south side of the church. Since Nancy Wilson and her loyal team of volunteers adopted this corner of our property, their hard work and concern have produced healthy plants and graceful benches. Unfortunately, the garden is hidden from the public by bushes.

What drive-by and pedestrian traffic sees from Main Street and State Street is the rest of our grounds: a front lawn eaten away by salt and neglect, that is rarely mowed; weeds and essentially an abandoned hillside to the west; several broken-down parking lots; and lots of overgrown bushes. Would it surprise you to know that the total amount in the yearly church budget allotted to the church grounds over the last 20 years has been usually $0, and never more than $400? In other words, it is our lowest priority. Unconsciously, someone might have thought that our shabby landscape was a sign that all of our discretionary money was going to feed the hungry or house the homeless. Practically, after the 2000 fire there was only so much energy, and it all went to restoring the building. Or was it just that we didn’t care what the community thought about First Unitarian, or what downtown Worcester needed in terms of natural beauty or revitalization?

But there are members of our church who do care very much about our place in the neighborhood, our civic responsibility to keep up the property and our desire to model good environmental stewardship. The name of their project is “Groundswell.” Next Sunday after worship, the first of a series of outdoor tours of the property will be conducted, followed by indoor discussions of what is possible. Whether you have a green thumb or a black thumb, whether you are a landscape architect or just someone who wants Worcester to look like a city where human beings and the natural world can live in harmony, you are invited. Help us envision a future where the beauty of our sanctuary and the beauty of our grounds announce without words that we stand on holy ground.


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