A Brief History of the High Street UU Congregation

by Dick Creswell

In 1949 a group of Macon people describing themselves as Unitarians began meeting in their homes. Some of those folks described their average Sunday meetings as “three or four people and a coffee pot”– if there were ten people present, it was a big crowd. Sunday morning meetings were not directly related to religious themes; discussions or speakers on topics of general interest were the norm. The congregation was unknown in the community and had no interaction with other religious groups in Macon. Many people came and went in this early period of three decades, but the group had enough of a feeling of permanence to take the name The Unitarian Fellowship of Middle Georgia.

In the 30 years from those first meetings until the re-chartering of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Middle Georgia in 1979, the group had many meeting sites — the homes of members, a community center, a public meeting room in the Macon Auditorium, a psychologist’s office, a motel lounge, a cerebral palsy center, and at the YWCA. It was 1954 when the congregation met for a short while at the YWCA, but the Y’s racial segregation policy soon prompted the Unitarians to leave in protest. A number of ministers, including Rev. Frances West, Rev. Robert Hill, Rev. Walter Wieder, Rev. Beth Ide, and Rev. Rolfe Gerhardt, traveled from out of town to offer their services and helped sustain the fledgling congregation.

The re-chartering in 1979 was a conscious attempt by some of the original group members to create a viable UU congregation in Macon. It was obvious that a permanent meeting site was needed. That site was soon found at the First Liberty Bank and Trust’s seminar room in the basement of their downtown office building. On Sunday mornings over an eight-year period, members came to the bank, signed in with a bank guard at the door, and descended to the low-ceilinged, windowless meeting room. Despite First Liberty’s generous hospitality, the identification ritual at the guard station was not the best welcome for visitors and the ambiance was anything but inspiring. Yet, the stability of the meeting site and the size of the room made possible the significant growth of the congregation. By 1987 the membership had reached about 40, with the usual Sunday attendance in the mid-30s.

When the congregation talked about its own growth and what steps were necessary to serve even more of the potential UU’s in middle Georgia, two competing theories were advanced. One held that the next step should be the retention of an extension minister, while the other insisted that acquiring a church building should be the first priority. There was, of course, another opinion: that the congregation could afford neither the minister nor the building. For a time it seemed the only result would be inconclusive debate among the members. But this small UU congregation had more success with courage than with debate — after thoroughly searching their own hearts and minds, they undertook to get both a building and a minister.

The congregation applied to the UUA for the appointment of an extension minister and was rewarded by having its application approved. The Reverend Mary Katherine Morn began in 1987 as a part-time extension minister for the congregation that was soon to become the High Street Unitarian Universalist Church, a name that reflects the congregation’’s acquisition of a church building on High Street in the Macon’ Intown Historic District.

The First Christian Church of Macon, in 1898, erected a red brick church building in downtown Macon. The original congregation outgrew the building in the 1950s and moved to the suburbs, selling the downtown building to a Church of Christ congregation. In 1988 that group sold the building to the UU congregation, and the Fellowship changed its name in reflection of its pride in the new permanent facility.

The High Street Church building, with its impressive vaulted tongue-in-groove ceiling and its spectacular stained glass windows, was purchased for the price of $100,000. Sam Rose, a long-time Macon UU, made a $35,000 challenge donation, which was met by the congregation with an equivalent sum of cash raised within four months. The balance of the purchase price was secured by a loan from the Veatch Foundation of the Plandome Unitarian Universalist Church in New York. Instrumental in both the purchase of the building and in the successful application for an extension minister was the Reverend Susan Milnor, who came to Macon once or twice a month until these two critical strides were accomplished.

The realization of both dreams of the congregation from the bank basement — “the minister dream” and “the building dream” — led to significant and rapid growth in membership. Rev. Mary Katherine Morn grew into her ministry as her congregation grew and expanded her role to full-time service. The congregation soon came to depend on her pastoral presence as well as her inspiring and courageous voice from the pulpit. Mary Katherine regularly assisted the congregation’s RE program by offering adult religious education classes and participating in children’s RE. She also established a more visible UU presence in the community, becoming an active participant in Macon’s ministerial associations, writing a monthly column for THE MACON TELEGRAPH, and leading the congregation to a more pro-active position in social justice issues. In the space of a few years, the congregation had ceased to be a family church and had become a larger, pastor-centered congregation.

High Street UU Church grew in membership and program. The children’s religious education program doubled in size, from offering just one class for all ages to offering four separate classes. Adult religious education moved from being occasional study groups to a continuing sequence of Sunday morning and weekday evening classes. An early spur to the development of music at High Street was the $9,000 purchase of a concert quality grand piano. The music program evolved from a congregational struggle to learn a few of the songs in “the new hymnal” to the point that the church hired a part-time accompanyist for the adult and children’s choirs. Social Justice became a focal point of congregational activity, with the adoption of an inner-city school for which High Street undertakes to provide arts education, the collection of food and clothing for local shelters on a weekly basis, annual participation in the Re-building Together housing rehabilitation project, consistent support for the UUSC, and a real presence in social action demonstrations, such as the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Day March for Justice and Macon Pride’s gay & lesbian celebration. High Street also became more active in denominational affairs, with members serving as officers and lay leaders of the Mid-South District and the UUA and with congregational delegates regularly attending General Assembly.

In the summer and fall of 1994, Mary Katherine Morn took a well-earned sabbatical. Her six month absence from High Street Church was extended by maternity leave following the birth of her son, Caleb, on Christmas Day. The prolonged absence of the minister was a real test of the congregation’s ability to sustain itself. A Caregivers Committee was organized to respond to the pastoral needs of the membership. Church members and guest speakers filled the pulpit. The congregation welcomed Mary Katherine back to her ministry, more fully aware of the need for their taking primary responsibility for their church and more confident of their ability to do what was required. The increased lay participation in the leadership of the church made necessary by the minister’s sabbatical now augmented the efforts of the minister.

In January, 1997, Rev. Morn announced her intention to seek another ministry. In the midst of grieving the anticipated loss of a beloved pastor, the congregation moved ahead with concrete steps it had planned to further develop the program at High Street UU Church. While the congregation went about the process of nominating and electing a Ministerial Search Committee, it also was busy developing a plan to enlarge the seating capacity of our sanctuary. At the same time, we established our first professional music position; we hired LeNelle Boyd, an accomplished professional with years of experience in church music and choir direction, to be our part-time Director of Music Development. The creation of this new staff position was a substantial increase in our commitment to a high quality music program. Completing the bustle of activity following Mary Katherine’s announcement, the congregation secured the services of an accredited interim minister, the Reverend Fern Cowan Stanley.

During Rev. Fern Stanley’s interim ministry, 1997-1998, High Street Church was an active and growing congregation. Fern gently led the congregation to complete its grieving for its first minister and helped the lay leadership complete its understanding of the appropriate arrangements between minister and congregation for their responsibilities in a shared ministry. The summer of 1998 was the most active summer of our history, with music and RE programs running throughout the summer. We welcomed eight new members and moved forward in discussions of a long-range vision for High Street, essentially coming to grips with issues of growth.

We recognized that our church facility had significant problems — chief among them the fact that, despite our best efforts at painting and fixing up our downstairs RE space, it remained a musty, dimly-lit place altogether uninviting for children and adults. We realized that our facility was impeding our ability to serve our present congregation and attract new members. Further, we came to grips with the fact that our downstairs facilities were not accessible to the disabled. We debated whether we should purchase adjoining property for the expansion and renovation of our facility or, instead, purchase another location for the construction of a new and larger church building.

A series of cottage meetings led to a new vision for High Street Church from the viewpoint of the entire membership. The congregation decided that our mission calls for us to be “a downtown church.” Key to this decision was the congregation’s commitment to social justice and the realization that ministry to Macon’s most needy populations was inconsistent with a physical removal of the congregation to “the safety of the suburbs.” Further, a downtown location was ideal for the many congregation members driving in to Macon each week from outlying regions of Middle Georgia. For these reasons, High Street’s congregation decided that we must find ways to deal with our facility’s constraints if we were to grow in that location.

Meanwhile, the Ministerial Search Committee announced its candidate to be our next settled minister and invited the Reverend Yvonne V. Miller to meet the congregation. When Yvonne preached her candidating sermons in the spring of 1998, the congregation voted unanimously to call her to service as our minister. Yvonne came to us in mid-life, having left a career in law to attend seminary and pursue the ministry. She brought to the task a creative mind, a heart dedicated to social justice, and an inspiring voice.

The hallmarks of Yvonne Miller’s ministry at High Street were her finely crafted sermons and her compelling presence in the pulpit. She also became heavily invested in the social justice work of the congregation in the Macon community. Yvonne worked with the lay leadership in taking steps to implement the new congregational vision for growth in our downtown location.

In the spring of 1999, the congregation approved a mortgage to finance the purchase of the house adjoining our church building. The plan was to use the house for religious education classrooms, the minister’s office and church office and a recreational space for our teen group. Unfortunately, the contract for purchase was voided when Macon’s Planning and Zoning Board withheld approval for the church’s proposed uses, citing the preference of our neighbors on High Street for a single-family dwelling use of the house that was, at that time and to this day, used as four apartment units. Disappointment and confusion gave way to quiet resolve and determination to discover whether expansion of our facilities within the four walls of our High Street building was feasible.

In the fall of 2000, the High Street Board of Trustees approved an architectural study of expanding our facilities within the 1085 High Street building and appointed a Steering Committee to work with the architect. On the basis of the architect’s findings and drawings, the Steering Committee recommended to the Board in the fall of 2000 that High Street launch a capital campaign to finance a thorough renovation of our church building.

On September 30, 2001, a “High Street Homecoming” Sunday service officially kicked off The High Street Campaign. Members and friends, including members of the original Fellowship who had since moved away, filled every seat in the sanctuary and enjoyed Rev. Miller’s rousing sermon that called on the congregation and its friends to come forward with the money to achieve is collective vision, to build an appropriate home for Unitarian Universalism in Middle Georgia. Enthusiasm was augmented by optimism when the Campaign Committee announced that $327,500 in lead gifts had already been pledged. A “dinner on the grounds” picnic in Washington Park capped off a great day as the campaign was undertaken with high hopes and great expectation.

In the life of a congregation, as in the life of the individual, great joys are sometimes juxtaposed with great sorrows. In January, 2002, Rev. Yvonne Miller took a six-month medical leave of absence. It became apparent toward the end of that period that Yvonne would not be able to continue her ministry with us, and she asked to be permanently relieved of her duties for health reasons.

In August, 2002, the Reverend Larry Smith arrived to begin an interim ministry with the High Street congregation. Rev. Smith, a native of Savannah, returned to the South from an interim ministry in New England with enthusiasm and energy to a congregation hungry for ministerial contact. An obvious task for the congregation and for the interim minister was to address the pains of loss, confusion and disappointment that attended the loss of our second settled minister. For that purpose, on the advice of District Executive Eunice Benton, we chose to have an interim minister for two years and not form a search committee until the spring of 2003. With our capital campaign and renovation in mid-stride, we had more than enough to do in the interim. In an unanticipated way, the congregation’s success in our capital campaign made the interim ministry more difficult by bringing about the temporary removal of our congregation from its building.

In the year that followed the launch of the High Street Campaign in 2001, High Street’s members and friends gave over half a million dollars in cash contributions toward the renovation of our church building. On November 10, 2002, the congregation officially closed the doors of our church home on High Street and broke ground on the long anticipated renovation. The beginning of construction work could begin only after arrangements had been made for the continuation of congregational life without a place to call home for Sunday services and our numerous activities.

In solving these logistical problems, the High Street congregation was assisted by two great friends of liberal religion in our community. Mercer University, a moderate Baptist institution led by President R. Kirby Godsey, made available free of charge its Willingham Chapel for Sunday services. Temple Beth Israel, our neighboring reform Jewish congregation, generously offered a house adjoining its synagogue, with appropriate facilities for our interim minister, church secretary, and board and committee meetings. For 14 months, the congregation met and flourished in these borrowed quarters.

As construction work neared completion in the winter of 2003, the congregation was given a Christmas present – our annual Christmas Eve service was held in our newly renovated sanctuary on High Street. On January 4, 2004, Sunday worship services were resumed in our renewed church home and the congregation quickly moved furnishings, books and equipment to our new facility. The four exterior walls of the building and its beautiful sanctuary show only cosmetic changes, but the remainder of the facility — walls, floors, bathrooms and infrastructure — are completely new. We have essentially built a new church around our cherished sanctuary. The best feature of the new construction is the downstairs classrooms and fellowship area, which are now serviced by an elevator, a fully functional kitchen and restroom. The renovation cost a total of $720,000. High Street UU Church now presents to our community a facility that matches and reflects the quality, the strength, and the commitment of our congregation and its ministry.

Meanwhile, the Ministerial Search Committee had neared the conclusion of its year-long quest for High Street’s third settled minister. Applications for the position came from all over the country and from an array of ministers with varied degrees of experience in parish ministry. When the Search Committee introduced its candidate to the congregation, some were surprised that the candidate, the Reverend Rhett D. Baird, was not a fledgling minister, but a veteran of a ten-year ministry in Fayetteville, Arkansas and an earlier career in business. When the congregation heard him preach from our pulpit and had conversations with him and his wife Rhonda, all understood why he had risen to the top of the list of potential ministers for High Street Church. The congregation voted on March 24, 2004 to call the Reverend Rhett Baird as High Street’s third settled minister and arranged with Rhett to begin his service on August 15, 2004.

The congregation was evidently very pleased with its return to the new High Street building and with its decision to call Rev. Baird as it responded to the annual call for pledges with a record-setting canvass total of $120,868. Some attributed the generous pledging to a highly acclaimed reprise production of Les Uniterribles, a musical event produced by Dorner Carmichael. Others attributed it to the pleasure of finding that we had managed to completely renovate our church’s physical facility and incur only a small and manageable mortgage. Whatever the source of the congregation’s enthusiasm, it was a fitting closure to Rev. Larry Smith’s interim ministry. He concluded his successful two years with the High Street congregation moved back into its new building, with a few more members on the rolls than when he came, with an experienced settled minister scheduled to take his place, and with “money in the bank.”

The 2004-2005 church year is one of great joy and ceremonious occasions, both fall and spring. On October 3, our new building was dedicated as the highlight of a celebration weekend. An Open House on Saturday night featured a panel of our long-term members retelling the stories of “The Little Congregation that Could” (could buy a church and hire a minister in the same year – 1988; and, only twelve years later, raise a total of $560,660 in cash within two years to renovate that building). Old friends and former members and ministers journeyed to join in the celebration. The Sunday Service was highlighted by a sermon from High Street’s first settled minister, The Reverend Mary Katherine Morn. The Sunday afternoon building dedication ceremony featured an address by UUA Executive Director Kay Montgomery and expressions of grateful appreciation to all our many friends and members who had made the re-building of High Street possible.

The following spring, on March 20, 2005, the High Street congregation formally installed Rev. Rhett Baird as its third settled minister. Guest speakers included Mid-South District Executive Eunice Benton, who gave the Charge to the Congregation and Southwest District Executive Bob Hill who gave the sermon and Charge to the Minister. Other guest speakers represented several denominations of Macon churches (including Macon’s Islamic Center), the UU Church of Fayetteville, Arkansas (Rhett’s prior ministry), several rural Universalist congregations (which Rhett had served as a circuit riding lay minister), the Macon Rotary Club and the Macon NAACP (in both of which Rhett is a member), and several other entities that collectively revealed Rhett Baird’s background of service and leadership. With Rhett’s leadership and dynamism, the congregation is determined to realize our shared vision of becoming a force for liberal religious values in our community and a welcoming home for all who would share in our church community.