Putting the Spiritual in Art

Spindletop Unitarians find shelter at Art Studio during transition

Members of the Spindletop Unitarian Church, above, are meeting at The Art Studio, Inc. while they seek a new venue.

Members of the Spindletop Unitarian Church, above, are meeting at The Art Studio, Inc. while they seek a new venue. ISSUE photo by Jacqueline Hays

Drake Waldrep, three and a half (the half is important at that age), dances next to his mother, Jill, as the sounds of David Bowie’s “Changes” fill the classroom at The Art Studio, Inc.

It is close to 11 a.m. on a chilly March morning, and Jill is using the song to set up the morning’s message, or sermon. The Spindletop Unitarian Church is in temporary residence as they change locations, and the eclectic service seems like a perfect fit with TASI’s mission of artistic inclusion.

The service is lay-led (there is no permanent minister and the congregation volunteers to take turns leading the service), and Waldrep’s theme is change, hence the Bowie. The service opened with Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changing.”

The church is in the midst of change, having sold their location on the outskirts of Beaumont, where they had been since 1967, and the group is looking for a more central location.

 Jill Waldrep reads the sermon, March 8. The congregation is lay-led, with members taking turns to lead the service. ISSUE photo by Andy Coughlan

Jill Waldrep reads the sermon, March 8. The congregation is lay-led, with members taking turns to lead the service. ISSUE photo by Andy Coughlan

“Nobody realized we are there, we were in the middle of nowhere,” Waldrep, a church board member, says. “We decided that it would be best for our congregation — to be more involved in the community, we needed to be seen. The goal of all of it is to move to where we can be seen — not hiding out in the woods by ourselves, keeping our message to ourselves.”

When it came time to pick a transitional venue, The Studio’s history of inclusion and diversity pushed it to the forefront.

“We were trying to decide on a temporary location, and all of us on the board had spent time here at one point or another, and realized it was a pretty special place for us,” Waldrep said. “My husband and I, before we were married, before we were even dating, spent a whole lot of time here about ten years ago. So it all lined up that we thought it would be the perfect place to create new memories as a church together.”

Cathy Saur Allen, a Unitarian since she was five and a Spindletop member since she was eight, agrees.

“Each person on the board, we didn’t realize we had a connection to the place,” she said. “I used to come and see my boyfriend, now my husband, play in bands when I was in high school.”

The church plans to be there for a couple of months while they are looking for a new property.

“We are thinking Old Town or downtown are our areas,” Allen says. “We always say target area, but I feel uncomfortable saying that because I don’t want to say we only want to attract a certain kind of people — that’s not it at all. We think that people who are more in tune with our way of thinking may be in those areas. We are open to anywhere, but we like those areas and think they would be a good fit for us.”

Spindletop Unitarian Church takes its name from its recently sold church property on the edge of the Texas oil field and the first gusher. It is a member of the Unitarian Universalist denomination, but since the congregation formed before the merger of the two denominations, it retained its original Unitarian name.

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Guest speaker Patti Henry reads the “Story For All,” a regular part of the Spindletop Unitarian church service. ISSUE photo by Jacqueline Hays

Formed on Nov. 3, 1948, as the “Beaumont Unitarian Fellowship,” it is one of the first Unitarian Fellowships organized in the United States. After some years of meeting in homes, hotels and the YWCA, the lay-led fellowship acquired a Meeting House on Alabama Street near Lamar College in 1955, and the name was changed to the “Unitarian Fellowship of the Sabine Area.”

Early in 1966, Lamar planned an expansion program which took in Alabama Street and made necessary the sale of the church property to the college. A plan was made to build a church, and on June 11, 1967, Spindletop Unitarian Church was dedicated. The first minister, Rev. James L. Jones, served from 1966 to 1969. He was followed by five other ministers.

Allen says the Unitarians offer a different way of thinking about church.

“A lot of people think of church as, ‘You must believe this’ or ‘You must believe that’ and ‘Do I believe the same thing as the rest of the people?’” she says. “You don’t have to do that here. We believe that we don’t all have to believe the exact same thing to be a church community together. You may be sitting next to someone who has a Buddhist leaning and you have a Christian leaning, and you listen to each other’s ideas. You may say, ‘Oh, that’s interesting and I am glad that works for you but I don’t agree, but OK, let’s get some coffee.’

Allen laughs (there does seem to be a genial atmosphere about the whole service).

“We don’t have to be signing on to things we are uncomfortable with or something we disagree with,” she says. “We are free to disagree, but we can still be a religious community together.

“It’s a funny concept for people to think about — that we can all not necessarily be on the same path, but we are still one community, together.”

Universal Unitarianism is guided by seven principles: The inherent worth and dignity of every person; Justice, equity and compassion in human relations; Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations; A free and responsible search for truth and meaning; The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large; The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all; and Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

“We leave our individual theologies or beliefs at the door,” Waldrep says. “The first time me and my husband attended, it was said, ‘We are here to inspire you in your walk, in your faith, in your beliefs, not in ours — not with a certain agenda.’ Children are not indoctrinated. My husband’s an atheist and I am somewhere in between. It’s a perfect place if you want to be inspired and grow without being forced to grow in one direction or one belief.”

On this particular Sunday, there are around 15 in the congregation (20 if you include the children, who join in the first half of the service, until the “Story For All” section, which this particular day was about a dinosaur, after which they are taken off to play).

The move is designed to increase the church’s visibility and allow it to grow, Allen said. A larger congregation will also offer the opportunity to have a minister.

“We have had full-time ministers and part-time ministers in the past,” she said. “We’d like to grow enough to be able to get a minister at some point, but at this time we are lay-led, which can be good and bad. It’s a rotation of people wanting to do it, but it’s also, ‘OK, somebody do it.”

With the move to The Studio, and eventually to central Beaumont, Allen says she hopes that people will be drawn to the church’s message of community. They believe that there is value in sharing ideas from all religions and philosophies.

“A lot of our people are humanists,” she says. “It’s a kind of theist or atheist, which one are you? We always have these dichotomies of people on opposite sides of things, but that makes it interesting.

“It’s all a journey for all of us. At certain points you may think you are on one path and then hear something or read something and decide, ‘Oh, I really think that’s speaking to me now’ — and you don’t have to change churches.”

The Unitarians follow their services with “Coffee and Coversation,” and there is a potluck lunch on the third Thursday of every month.

“Come and meet a great group of people who accept you the way you are and the way you think,” Allen said. “We can’t wait to meet you and help on your journey, and be a community for you wherever you are on the path.”

For more information on the Spindletop Unitarian Church, visit their Facebook page, or www.spindletopuuchurch.org.

For more in the Unitarian Universalist Association, visit www.uua.org.

Andy Coughlan

ISSUE Editor

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