Brief History of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Fresno

“There must be others,” thought Kay Lashbrook, in 1953.  Joe McCarthy was spreading fear.  Preschoolers in Fresno public schools were thanking Jesus for their milk and crackers. In some places, Blacks could not try on clothes.  Determined that she and her family must have a Unitarian Church to counter these policies, Kay put an ad in the Fresno Bee that said, "Come if you believe in the brotherhood of man, the compatibility of religious and scientific truth, and the responsibility of humanity for its destiny.”

Five people responded, and we started our first discussion group in the YWCA.

We became a fellowship, and applied for membership in the American Unitarian Association in March 1954.  In May, the delegates to the AUA condemned the California constitutional amendment that required California churches to sign the loyalty oath in order to receive tax exemptions.  Our Fresno group signed under protest, because it couldn’t afford the taxes, but we did everything from TV repairs to baby sitting to raise money to support the larger churches that could.

Our group grew in size, and we wanted space for a church school for our children.  In September 1954, we moved to space at Temple Beth Israel. Dr. Wallace de Ortega Maxey, a former Universalist minister, offered his part time services.  We incorporated as The Liberal Church (Universalist-Unitarian) in 1955, five years before the national merger of these two denominations.  We began our first religious education program, and “a dime a time” was requested to buy church school material.

In1955, we bought a little white church at the corner of Balch and Maple that belonged to the Missionary Baptists. It was paid for by gifts from two members and a small loan.   We spent days cleaning and renovating. But in spite of the Ladies Guild prodigious fund raising, money was scarce, and the salary for Rev. Maxey had to be reduced from $200/month to $100.  He took a day job and stuck with the church.  In its new structure, membership grew to 73 adults.

Far more important than physical growth at the time, our church provided a spiritual salvation for the small band of religious liberals during the McCarthy era.  Together we opened our pulpit to political pariahs, defended freedom of a besieged press, survived political and religious inquisitions by employers, challenged the absolute racial discrimination in jobs and housing in our city, ended overt religious teachings, celebrations, and prayers in the public schools, and taught our children those values as fundamentals in their religious heritage.

In 1957, Dr. Maxey resigned, and later that year we hired Dr. Lawrence Jaffa, a teacher in Hanford, to preach three Sundays a month for $100. At the beginning of 1958, it was noted “modest improvement in our plant, the overflowing church schools, and that we now owned our mimeograph machine, six dozen new chairs, a piano, and sufficient song books.”  But by the end of 1958, there had been a drop to 30 active members.  Dr. Jaffa resigned, and for the next thirteen years the congregation was lay led.

The church grew through that period, albeit two steps forward and one back.  Our church school building overflowed and some classes met in cars or in members’ homes.  By 1960-61, when our average attendance had reached fifty-five adults and fifty children, we sold the little white church and rented the Las Palmas Masonic Lodge for our adult services.  Church school classes met in homes, in rented nurseries, and in emergencies, even in restrooms at the Lodge.  Despite the inconvenience for parents who had to drop children off all over town, our average attendance in 1961-62 grew to ninety adults and seventy-five children. 

In March 1962, we bought land at Millbrook and Hampton Way, just south of Ashlan. We purchased the lovely redwood College Community Congregational Church (located at Shaw and First, where Fashion Fair Mall is now) in July 1965, and moved it onto our property.  Unable to obtain adequate financing from either local banks or national headquarters, individual members and friends bought trust units totaling $24,000, all of which were repaid with interest over the next decade. 

The demands of the reconstruction of the church (it was moved in sections), in addition to the demands of our being lay led, left our membership burned out.  For fifteen years, veteran members had to fill all the board, committee, and church school posts repetitively.  A study in 1968 recommended professional leadership.  However, the repayment of financial obligations for our land and building made that badly needed direction seem impossible.  But by the spring of 1972, it became obvious to all that professional leadership was necessary, possible or not. 

Earl K. Holt III, a student at Starr King, was engaged as intern minister for half of each week, and he provided the leadership that a growing church required.  The next fall, in 1973, Gregory C. Dencker was employed as full-time intern minister.  He left to become minister in Redwood City in 1975.  David B. Clarke was called in 1976; he served until 1980 when he left to go to law school to study bio-medical ethics. 

In 1981, the Reverend Betty Pingel was searching for a congregation, and she answered the call to Fresno partly because it was close to the High Sierra Jazz Band in Three Rivers, and her husband Walt was a fan.  Rev. Pingel was our minister from 1981-92.   Under her leadership, we consolidated the structural organization needed for future growth.We strengthened the by-laws.  We added summer Sunday services.  We added a foyer, a kitchen, and a redwood deck to the church. We planted a community garden on bare land.  We had fundraisers to buy a piano and when we were short of space, we bought a yurt for the junior high students.  We started activities that would become traditions, such as the In Memoriam service in January, the sharing of home-baked bread at Thanksgiving, the singing of hymns, the children’s story time during the service, the auction, the all-church retreat. We formed a choir. We sent future officers to Leadership School.  Rev. Pingel introduced and taught Building Your Own Theology classes.  We became a Sanctuary Church, endorsed the Bilateral Nuclear Weapons Freeze, became active in Amnesty International, and promoted the UUSC’s Guest at Your Table program. We made plans to build an extension onto the church to allow for future growth.

Rev. Pingel resigned in 1992 to become an interim minister prior to retirement.

Reverend Samuel A. Wright served us as interim for a year, and Reverend Stephanie R. Nichols accepted our call in September 1993.  A graduate of Starr King School of the Ministry, Stephanie had a rich background in social justice, serving as a key organizer of the 1985 Great Peace March and the Director of the Unitarian Universalist Peace Network.  During those years, we again planned for expansion, but when the minister had personal problems and resigned, the congregation went into a spin, and all plans were put on hold.  We brought Reverend Carolyn Colbert in as interim minister to help with the healing process in 1997.

That healing process was significantly facilitated by the Reverend Bryan Jessup who, along with his wife Edie, came to us in 1998. Rev. Jessup’s biggest contribution was in wisely shepherding the congregation through the lengthy and complex decision-making process that resulted in our move to our current location. This five-year process included many steps that could have been minefields.  We decided to move rather than enlarge the Millbrook facility. We looked at existing structures. We looked for vacant property closer to the center of town.  When the Alluvial property came up for sale, we had to commit.  We had to raise the money. We had to say goodbye to the small redwood church that had been our home for 40 years.  Through it all, thanks to Rev. Jessup’s great talent for bringing people together, no congregational vote was ever less than 95% positive.

The result is a facility that is the first LEED certified church in California and the first LEED project in Fresno.  The new building has led to many new accomplishments.  Our Alluvial Community Garden provides community space for organic gardening.  Our ongoing commitment to a healthy planet led to the installation of a 35 KWH solar panel power system.  Our building serves broader community needs as a meeting place for concerts, weddings, and visiting scholars and activists. 

In addition to facilitating this gigantic project, Bryan was a charismatic speaker and a force in the community.  When the tragedy of 9/11 occurred, Rev. Jessup and our congregation hosted a standing-room-only remembrance service open to all.  We also responded by creating closer ties to the Muslim community and standing up for all human rights.  Our congregation helped begin a decade long series of multi-faith 4th of July picnics.  Bryan gained respect and standing in the community when he silently protested (holding a sign, “Under God.  What does it mean?  To whom?”) at a Pledge of Allegiance rally in 2002.  He and many church members worked tirelessly to defeat Prop. 8.

Local UU’s started the Multifaith Exchange in 1997.  People of all faiths gathered to learn about each other in nine sessions each year until 2012. Other social justice advocates worked with the large groups of Fresno’s homeless. We provided support to women and children in a drug rehabilitation program.  We have been the organizing center for citywide Earth Day events since 2008.  Our Green Sanctuary continues helping members of the congregation build a connection between spiritual consciousness and environmentally sustainable practice. We facilitated the Lavender Convention to promote understanding in the LBGT and straight communities.  We established a series of Spiritual Quest groups to assist members in their desire to grow into a deeper faith.  We have two active Buddhist groups.  Our youth RE program became a draw for young, progressive families, and we started our highly popular Chalice Camp in the summer of 2006.

In 2013, after several years of study and the recognition that we were becoming a program-size institution, the church adopted mission-based, policy-style governance.  Under this governance system, operational decision-making is assumed by a Director of Operations and the Minister, while the Board can ask deep questions about the purpose of this church and how it serves the community.  Our Director of Operations, Michael Macias, was added to the staff in 2013, to serve as a partner with the minister on our executive team.

In 2013, Rev. Jessup resigned to become a part-time minister in Arcata, California, as a transition to retirement.  Reverend Sofia Betancourt became our two-year interim minister, and this year we hired Reverend Jamil Scott, a Buddhist minister, to be our Director of Lifespan Religious Education. They joined Michael Macias, Director of Operations, Lorenzo Bassman, Music Director, and Jodi Ede, Congregational Administrator. In 2015, UU Fresno will call its next settled minister to lead us into the coming chapter of our history.