There were giants on the land in those days! The Pacific Northwest District was the envy of two countries! Even as an interim, a pulpit in Kirkland was a plum. On the crest of a hill overlooking the lake, graced with a long porch outside and a free-standing fireplace inside, this group was famous for Patrick O’Neill’s women, all of whom could bake cookies, assemble a newsletter, maintain the building and babysit their children -- at the same time, with skill. But the problem was how to grow the congregation and when I pulled open the minister’s desk drawer, packets of antacids went rolling back and forth. Peter Raible was fond of joking that a church draws people from the surrounding area, but half of the compass circle around Kirkland was occupied by fish.
My idea of redecorating was lace curtains and a bowl with a goldfish on my desk. My church secretary was Jackie Mason and that year we both wore “Paris” perfume. It was an exuberant “lady” sort of office, not that we didn’t welcome men! Ladies DO!! That Easter there was an Easter egg hunt in the church and I didn’t find one egg hidden in my office until I packed to leave!
The older women complained that there was nothing for them in the afternoon so we started a “class” where we shared our family trees and looked for patterns like twins or May/December marriages or immigration -- finding all sorts of interesting things when we drew out the generations on a big roll of wrapping paper. We brought tea to brew, because it was teatime, and one day Jenny brought Celestial Seasoning passionfruit tea which somehow led us into recounting our respective wedding nights. They were old enough to have had real initiation-type wedding nights. We laughed so hard we ached for days.
Jenny was an exceptional person. Her favorite reading material was railroad schedules. Her father, a railroad man, had taught her to read them. A long flight of stairs led up to that church porch and Jenny fell down them, breaking her leg. Luckily there was insurance and, brilliantly, Jenny spent part of it for an architect to redesign the stairs so there was a little landing with a bench halfway up, a lovely place to pant or chat.
This was a congregation that had broken off from Eastshore, maybe more intensely progressive than the larger church. Northlakers were artists, teachers, journalists, nonconformists and activists. The walls were always bright with exhibits. I was preaching the day the Challenger blew up and that Sunday morning has imprinted the walls and the faces on my memories. My ears still sing with Mark’s many choir triumphs.
Because people were so resourceful, I tried experiments. One memorable Sunday about this time of year I declared a celebration of frogs and told people to bring their stuffed frogs, wear their frog t-shirts, tell frog stories and jokes, brush up on their frog songs, and so on. They were a little worried (no precedent, no order of service), but they were up to it. One boy brought a jar of real frogs! Another brought a wax frog candle he had made. I still have it and here it is:
Not all the services were for church members. One of the earliest was a memorial for the wife of the dairy farmer who had owned the farm now engulfed by the town. He wasn’t a Unitarian. The funeral home had simply called the nearest Unitarian minister, even though he wasn’t a member either. Another day a little family group -- a young couple with a few parent-generation singles (mother, aunt, cousin) -- mounted up those long stairs with a tiny blue and gold casket that contained the cremains of their still-born baby. They wanted a ceremony of some kind in a church and had been turned down by others. So we lit candles and said words and held hands and sang and it was enough. They went away damp but smiling.
Being a Unitarian is a risky thing, because it’s hard to define, sometimes the denomination of last resort, never the same from one location to another. For ministers it is extra risky because everyone in the congregation thinks they could do just as well as the current minister and most of the time they’re right. When I was installed, I can’t even remember who preached. Probably Alan Deale, but all the big heavyweights were there except Patrick, of course, because he was at his next church. They loved being there and seeing each other and wearing their robes -- all that stuff. Afterwards they went off to have a drink together someplace, but I didn’t. I just wanted to sit by the fireplace with my stocking feet up on a chair and begin getting to know my new friends. Long afterwards Karl Thunneman said that was the moment he thought I was right for Kirkland because I loved the congregation more than my colleagues. He was partly right.
Much has changed. I’m out of the ministry. My seminary has become a mail-order school in rented space. America still hasn’t finished processing the Challenger explosion, but there are only two space flights left. Frogs are dying out. It’s scary.
But that year in Kirkland was literally a banner year for me. When I went to Saskatoon, the Kirkland congregation sent me an installation gift: a banner windsock in the shape of a frog. I brought it to Valier with me and flew it off my wild plum tree every summer until the frog rotted of old age and so did the tree, which the weather took down this winter. Progress is a two-sided sort of thing. Somehow the spirit of the Kirkland Unitarian Universalist persists! Here we are, years later, still in love! I salute you on your fifty years of growth and flowering since founding!