The largest micropolis without a Unitarian Universalist congregation

So if you wanted to fill in the largest places that don’t have a Unitarian Universalist congregation, where would you start? This is a continuation of the series I begun yesterday.

First, some caveats. Would Queens, one of the boroughs of New York City, be considered its own entity, or given its population — 2.3 million; bigger than 15 states and the District of Columbia — count each neighborhood as an entity? There’s a single Unitarian Universalist congregation in Flushing. So what about Astoria or Sunnyside or Jamaica, for example? (And there are none in the Bronx; with 1.4 million people and more populous than Hawai’i.)

And not all metropolitan areas have Unitarian Universalist congregations; I’m working up a list next. And I’ll leave aside the thorny issue found in many places and in all denominations about congregations that have essentially stopped engaging with their communities and so can hardly be thought to serve them.

That brings us back to the micropolitan list, which, to review, is a county or contiguous group of counties, with an urban core between 10,000 and 50,000 in population. Some are scarcely above 10,000, while others function as diffuse suburbs without a large core: more like a network of towns or settlements than a metropolis. Some of these are adjacent to larger metropolitan areas; some aren’t.

Strictly by the list, and noting what’s on the UUA site, the largest unserved micropolitan area is Hilo, Hawai’i, on the Big Island, with a 2009 estimated population of 177,835. (Indeed, the only member congregation in the state is on Oahu.) But I recalled that many year ago that there was a district-affiliated fellowship there. And when I searched I found the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Puna, claiming about 25 members. Bless them and their work.

The second-largest on the list has a better — or would that be worse? — claim, anyway. There are no congregations in an area of North Carolina from the northern suburbs of Charlotte to the south, and the cities of Winston-Salem and Greensboro to the north. Interstate highway 85 runs between the two points, and on this line you’ll find Lexington, home of the famous barbecue, twinned with Thomasville, famous for furniture manufacture and together anchoring Davidson County (2009 population estimate 158,582). There is no Unitarian Universalist congregation there. Neither is there one in Salisbury, in Rowan County (2009 area population estimate 140,798) bordering to the southwest. It’s number seven on the unserved micropolitan list. And forget that poor blighted (former) “city of looms” Kannapolis, though arguably its close enough to Charlotte to be within its ecclesiastical orbit.

Admittedly, I have a personal interest. My husband’s alma mater is in Salisbury, but it seems strange that such a well-connected and populated pair of areas have not churches of our fellowship.

For more marvels, see the next 20 list of ungathered micropolitan areas, with their 2009 estimated populations and how many Unitarian Universalist congregations are within 25 miles (as the crow flies), below the fold.  Albany, Oregon may be close enough to Corvallis to allow a pass, but the rest of these are functionally unserved.

Ottawa-Streator, IL 153206 0
Pottsville, PA 146952 0
Kahului-Wailuku, HI 145157 0
Chambersburg, PA 144994 2
Salisbury, NC 140798 1
Lumberton, NC 129559 0
Albany-Lebanon, OR 116584 2
Dunn, NC 115761 1
Allegan, MI 113449 1
East Liverpool-Salem, OH 107722 0
Bluefield, WV-VA 106828 0
Meridian, MS 106139 0
Ashtabula, OH 100767 0
Adrian, MI 99837 2
Shelby, NC 99274 0
Sebring, FL 98704 0
Paducah, KY-IL 98609 0
Enterprise-Ozark, AL 96782 0
Clarksburg, WV 92441 0
Opelousas-Eunice, LA 92326 1

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.


  1. Portions of Allegan County are very accessible to People’s Church in Kalamazoo, where I go, particularly since we’re just off of US-131. I know we have a number of members who live in Allegan County.

    Portions of Allegan County are also fairly close to Grand Rapids, where they have Fountain St. Church. I don’t know if Fountain St. is an official member of the UUA, but their ministers have for many years been UUs. I think there is another UU church there as well.

    I don’t know exactly how you’re judging accessibility to a UU church, as portions of Allegan County are much closer than 25 miles to People’s Church. For example, Plainwell, MI is a little more than 10 miles away.

  2. Thanks for the update; I wouldn’t count Fountain Street but as you mention there is a more recently organized Unitarian Universalist church. (Brent Smith, its organizing minister, was my internship supervisor.)

    My thought is not that someone couldn’t attend from outside the micropolitan area, except perhaps on Alaskan and Hawaiian islands, but that few unaffiliated people would be inclined to make the effort, making those micropolitan areas effectively unserved.

  3. Ottawa, Illinois had a 70’s era fellowship that did not survive into the 90’s. But I think it is a good candidate for re-planting (which should not be considered a wasted effort if the re-gathering involves a new group of people).

    Adrian, MI once had a 3rd UU church nearby. It was a Universalist church in the small town of Concord. They closed in the 90’s. The building still exists, and is preserved by the local historical society. I stop to look at it every now and then.

    Paducah, KY was the site of a recently failed new church plant. The new-plant was under-resourced, and in my opinion too much a creature of the local college to be inclusive of non-college folks. Again, a good candidate if one can start over with new people.

  4. As a Unitarian Universalist “Real Bearded Santa,” and there are a few of us. I would love to see more UU churches. I live in Martinsville, Va and travel to the UUs in Greensboro, NC; Roanoke, VA; or Winston Salem, NC when ever I can, but not any where as often as I would like.

    I do some work at Ft Bragg and there is a wonderful UU church near the area of NC you are talking about;Outlaw’s Bridge Universalist Church that has a long and wonderful history.

    Keep up the good work.

  5. Bill – Historically the area you are talking about was part of a rural preaching circuit that roughly paralleled the Kalamazoo River. The 3 churches were First Universalist Church Concord, First Universalist Church Horton, and East Liberty Universalist Church (Clarklake).

    As the 20th century moved forward, the Concord and Horton churches shared a minister. The East Liberty often church had a different minister (it had its own parsonage).

    Concord dwindled after the merger. Their last regular minister was the Rev. Mike Tipton who also served the Universalist church across the sate line in Lyons, Ohio. Byt the 90’s the congregation dwindled to 9 elderly women who held services once per month. They deeded the church to the historical society when the congregation disbanded. A Christmas Eve service is still re-enacted there each year, often with a UU minister presiding.

    The Horton church retained a deeply Christian ethos, rooted in the Winchester Profession. This set them up for a conflict with the post-merger District over theology. They withdrew from the UUA in the late 70’s, and went independent. Mike Tipton also served here for a time. After his departure they affiliated with the NA-Congregationalists and changed their name to the Horton Congregational Church.

    East Liberty survived the merger largely through the lengthy ministry of the Rev. Ruth Smith, whose tenure straddled the merger (she was Universalist who had studdied at Starr King, so she knew both denominations). For a time (in the 80’s?) East Liberty also shared a minister with the Unitarian Fellowship of Jackson. The Jackson and East Liberty congregations later merged, retaining the historic Universalist church and adjacent burial grounds.

    Fascinating history! Other Unviersalist heritage churches in Michigan were distant from this rural cluster of 3. The others were in Detroit, Southfield, Farmington, and Lansing.

  6. Derek, thanks for your history on the Michigan churches in my area. I was just writing about them for my blog. I had thought the Concord church never joined the UUA? I’ve been told that UU ministers sometimes spoke at the Christmas event in Concord (which I think is now more a concert than a worship service, but I could be wrong, since I haven’t been), but as the only UU minister in the county for the last 7 years, I can say I’ve never been asked, so I don’t think it’s happened lately.

    And yes, for a time East Liberty did share a minister with the fellowship, but it was mostly the East Liberty church footing the bill, with the Fellowship helping. But the relationship was close enough that one ministerial search committee at least had a representative from the fellowship. Some corrections: The two churches didn’t exactly “merge” — the Fellowship disbanded and encouraged their members to come to the East Liberty church, some of whom are still members. Ruth Smith was, as I understood it, trained as a Universalist or as minister, but rather as a congregationalist religious educator–she didn’t really know either denomination well at the time of the merger, as I understand it, but she did, in fact, do a wonderful job of shepherding the church into the merger. Her tenure began in 1961, so she didn’t so much straddle the merger as start along with the merger process.

  7. Oops, sorry, meant to say Ruth Smith was *not* trained as a Universalist or as a minister, as I understand it, but rather as a congregationalist or UCC religious educator.

    I knew her only briefly, because she died only a few months into my tenure as minister here, but I’m glad I knew her for even that long. Here’s the details of this fabulous woman from her obit:

    Ruth Francis Smith was born in Lancaster, Ohio on June 18, 1915. She died at her home near Addison on October 6, 2004.

    Ruth spent most of her childhood in Kent, Ohio, growing up in a religiously conservative, yet open-minded family that sparked a life-long interest in religion, faith & reason, and the life-force within all living things. This interest led her to major in religious
    education at Schauffler College in Cleveland where she became active in issues of justice and equality especially in supporting equal rights for African-Americans. After college she began a promising career, working for the Congregational Church: first as a teacher on the Sioux Reservation in South Dakota and then as an assistant minister at the
    Congregational Church in Somerset, Michigan. She was then hired by the Methodist Church in Dayton, Ohio to develop a national Sunday school curriculum. While in Michigan, she had, as she stated, “been quite charmed” by a local farmer, Donald Smith. As she wrote later: “Our friendship developed into love and marriage…. I am sure that my
    colleagues in the Dayton teaching staff never fully understood or accepted my departure from the professional life of teaching and writing into a life very different from anything I had ever experienced…. I
    was a 93 pound city person who had never been on a farm in my life until my marriage to a farmer.” With no running water or electricity, her early life on the farm was nearly as difficult as her friends might have
    imagined. However, her love for Donald and her growing deep affection for his large extended family provided her with sustenance, while the flow of life on the farm, the cycles of both the dairy cows and the
    seasonal changes in growing crops, fueled her deepening intellectual fascination with life itself.

    During the 1940s and 50s, she devoted herself to being the mother of four sons and to being the wife of a farmer, while maintaining her active interest in religious issues. In 1961, she was asked to temporarily fill in a few Sundays at the Universalist-Unitarian Church in East Liberty, while they searched for a new minister. She was thrilled when this small, but progressive church asked her to be the permanent minister, a position she held until her retirement in 1981 – doubling the church membership during her tenure. This out-of-the-way country church, built in the 19th century with significant help from Donald’s great-grandparents, became the second love of her life. She was enamored with the goodness of the people, their curiosity and openness, and the range of people from all walks of life who came seeking the experiences this church had to offer.

    During her retirement she remained active in the church but also devoted herself to her children and grandchildren. Reflecting the openness with which she embraced all of life, she said that the two most meaningful services of her professional career were officiating at the marriage of her Jewish granddaughter and at the commitment ceremony of her gay grandson.

    In 2003 she lost Donald after 61 years of marriage, but is survived by four sons, four daughters-in-law, seven grandchildren, two grandsons-in-law, and one great grandson. All remember her as someone with a thirst for learning, as a lover of books and ideas, and as passionate about fossils. Above all though, she was devoted to those things living in the present, from the newly harvested potato with its life-giving potential or the starfish with its unique adaptations for
    survival, to all the marvelous and diverse people she knew and loved. She had a special ability to make everyone who knew her feel special. Over the last year as her health declined, she was at peace with the idea of her own death. Despite any aches and pains of the moment, her constant refrain up to the moment of her passing was: “I’m okay.”

  8. Update: It appears as though there is no longer a UU church on the Big Island, Hawaii. I am planning a move there, and stumbled across this page. The link you have does not go anywhere, and when I went to the “official” UU website it didn’t list a location there. The only location it shows in Hawaii is in or near Honolulu on Oahu.

    I suppose that those 25 members got tired :(



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