Elinor Ratcliffe was 35 years old when she wrote this note and put it in First Unitarian Church's time capsule 25 years ago. She is still with the church.


First Unitarian Church celebrates
50 years of advocating peace
and human rights

By Mary Adamski

The bumper stickers on cars outside the church gave an insight into its members' beliefs:

"No War."

"If you want peace, work for justice."

"An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind."

This plaque marked the time capsule at First Unitarian Church. The capsule was opened this year after 25 years.

Activism for peace and human rights causes has characterized the congregation of the First Unitarian Church of Honolulu since it was organized 50 years ago. Members were instrumental in founding the League of Women Voters and activating a local branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. It offered sanctuary to servicemen who went AWOL to avoid being sent to Vietnam. It helped launch the Save Our Constitution effort to fight the constitutional amendment on same-sex marriages. And just recently, the church sponsored a Death with Dignity poll that collected a 72 percent response in favor of end-of-life legislation.

Causes past and present were the subject at gatherings during a week of 50th-anniversary celebrations that concludes with a party at 6:30 p.m. today at 2500 Pali Highway.

"Unitarians walk their talk," said Rosemary Mattson, 85, of Carmel, Calif., one of the charter members. She and Ruth Iams, 90, of Kaneohe, reminisced about the beginnings of the "Unitarian fellowship of Honolulu" at a Wednesday tea in the church, which occupies a rambling 1910 mansion built by Richard Cooke.

When Mattson served as the 1953 chairwoman and Iams was program director, the fact that women held top roles in a church was rare. In a time before interfaith dialogue became common, the Unitarians and a Buddhist association organized a mid-1950s Christian-Buddhist Thanksgiving service. It was a first, according to a news story, which also pointed out that the Unitarians met in the Jewish synagogue Temple Emanu-El.

Consensus on causes might be easier to reach than agreement on religious beliefs. There is no Unitarian creed or doctrine like other churches use to define themselves. "We don't use theological opinion as a gate-keeping device," said the Rev. Mike Young, pastor for the past eight years, who modeled the "Liberal Religion for 50 Years" memorial T-shirt.

Some may adhere to some Christian beliefs and some may invoke God in prayer, but Young avoids those specifics.

"My intent is to use a vocabulary that will bypass those barriers, to communicate life commitment without reference to hang-ups from childhood religion. Our intention is to nurture and challenge, to stretch people to think in a way they are not used to thinking."

No creed, but there are published principles affirming "justice, equity and compassion in human relations," "a free and responsible search for truth and meaning" and "the right of conscience and the democratic process within our congregations and society at large." An introductory brochure explains the roots in two 18th-century movements espousing freedom of religious expression and commitment to moral and ethical causes, which merged in 1961 as the Unitarian Universalist Association and now has about 1,200 independent congregations.

"Until about 10 years ago, 80 percent of our members were 'come-outers,' escapees from other churches," Young said. "Now the new members are people with no religious background at all."

Rosemary Mattson, left, was one of the first to join the First Unitarian Church of Honolulu 50 years ago. She and fellow member Ruth Iams reminisce about the church's beginnings.

Mattson said: "What Unitarian Universalists have in common is an attitude toward life, an openness and interest in activities that relate to helping people. You can spot them." After leaving Hawaii to work at the Unitarian seminary in Berkeley, Calif., Mattson and her husband were active in the international peace movement. She escorted more than 25 tours of Americans to the former Soviet Union for people-to-people experience. Still an activist, she took part in the Jan. 17 "No War on Iraq" demonstration in San Francisco.

A memory that Jim Myers shared at the Wednesday reunion was the brush with history when the church offered "sanctuary" to infamous atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair, her mother and son. It was 1966, and "she was the most hated woman in the United States," he said. O'Hair was vilified by religious groups after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld her challenge against prayer in public schools. "We put her upstairs for a while," Myers said. "There wasn't really an uproar in Hawaii, probably because of the tolerant situation here."

Later in the 1960s, "we gave sanctuary to Vietnam deserters, and that did cause an uproar in the church," he said. The action caused a split among members, leading then-minister Gene Bridges to resign.

A high point in the festivities was the opening of a 25-year-old time capsule containing messages from members written on index cards. It will be replaced tomorrow with messages on a pocket digital recorder.

"The church has been a good transition for me, in breaking from the old dogmas and in understanding the real feeling of life," wrote Air Force officer Rick Ensor in 1978.

And Jean Ehrhorn's message from the past read, "If you're still here and the termites haven't overcome, it means the individualism and the right to think what you please may still be viable."

Do It Electric
Click for online
calendars and events.

E-mail to Features Editor


Text Site Directory:
[News] [Business] [Features] [Sports] [Editorial] [Calendars]
[Classified Ads] [Search] [Subscribe] [Info] [Letter to Editor]
© 2003 Honolulu Star-Bulletin --