Monday, June 1, 2020

"Flatbush Unitarian Universalist Church – A Remembrance" by Melissa Reed - 2019 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Semi-Finalist

Flatbush Unitarian Universalist Church – A Remembrance

 Melissa Reed

In 1976 I moved into Flatbush Unitarian Universalist Church in Brooklyn, New York, as its caretaker – sexton, to use the church’s word.  Unemployed and coming from an apartment I didn’t like, I remained in the church for three years. The Board gave me a stipend of $15 a week and a small room at the end of the organ loft, which overlooked the sanctuary.  The parlor, where congregants socialized after Sunday morning services, was beneath the loft; the kitchen and bathroom were in the basement.  On the evening of my first night there, I attended a meeting in the basement – undercroft, as they called it -- intended to enhance good feelings among members. I myself had but recently become one.   When I returned upstairs I saw that my room had been disturbed. It was of no particular comfort that, since I didn’t have much, not much was taken.  An enameled pillbox my aunt had made was missing and I minded that.

The Board decided I needed a dog for protection. A member’s client who took in stray dogs in Brooklyn’s Bensonhurst section, picked Charley, a mixed-breed medium-size black and white terrier, a dog who would only nip at the heels of an offender, not go for the jugular.  When a few policemen showed up to investigate the burglary, one said, “That dog doesn’t seem too certain about being here."  By the next week, Charley was in charge.  I would periodically get calls from a woman who said she was a cancer patient who lived across the street.  To see Charley running around the fenced-in yard, she said, made her feel good.  The three of us – the dog, the cat who’d come with me and I – had free run of the place when no one was there and we juggled our existence around activities in the building.

The memories of members active in the ‘70s did not go much farther back than the ‘60s, when membership was robust.  In 1968 a strike by teachers shut down New York City public schools for more than a month. The church’s minister took a position against the teachers and the half the congregation, many of them teachers, resigned their memberships.  The minister himself left and by the time I began attending the church had been replaced by a three-minister rotation.  Sweat equity, members’ annual pledges and income from rentals supported activities and building upkeep. The small congregation of 20 or 30 regulars were socially-liberal congregants from a variety of religious upbringings.  They took well to sermons premised on texts, as one of my friends quipped, from The New York Times editorials, and they were not shy about letting the minister know where he’d gone wrong in the “talk-back” sessions that followed sermons. 

My job, basically, was to keep the place in usable condition.  The three most common uses during my three years were Sunday morning services, Alan Banks’ dance school and wedding rentals.  The congregation’s interests focused primarily on Sunday mornings; the rentals were somewhat beneath the notice of everyone except me and the treasurer. To make the basement suitable for the dance school rental, it had been outfitted with large mirrors and barres. The large space was more than adequate for the children and adults who came to learn the fundamentals of classic ballet and modern dance. Mr. Banks, formerly a dancer with the Ballet de Monte Carlo, later the artistic director of the Brooklyn Civic Ballet Company, asked only one thing of me:  never wax the floor.  That was easy.

Some couples who could not or did not want to be married under the auspices of their childhood religions found a ceremony in our sanctuary acceptable.   “You Can Be a Mystic and a Unitarian” and “You Can Be an Athiest and a Unitarian” proclaimed some of the pamphlets in the literature rack in the parlor.  Although the congregation was not large enough for subgroups to explore other beliefs and practices, the point was:  everyone is welcome.  The wedding I most remember was that of a couple who selected for their ceremony the parlor, which was a small, appealing space separated from the sanctuary by a partition.  Its leaded glass windows overlooked shrubbery and there was a working fireplace at one end. After I showed the wedding party into the parlor, one of them opened the door to the sanctuary and glanced down the rows of pews to the altar at the far end.  Above it a large stained glass window depicted a child between a man and a woman whose height, equal to that of the man, reflected the founding members’ commitment to gender equality.  As soon as the bridal couple saw the sanctuary, they insisted the ceremony be at the altar.   I was quite taken aback.  When no events were scheduled, I often moved my cat’s litter box from my room to the parlor.  Earlier that day I had moved it into the sanctuary behind a back pew.  The distractions of the occasion must have absorbed everyone’s attention, as I heard not a word of complaint.

For a couple of months while I was there, the church rented its sanctuary to the Ryan Repertory Company for weekday evening use.   The company had been founded a few years before and did not have a permanent home.  Led by an able director, Ryan Rep attracted gifted singers and dancers, many of them seemingly marking time until their big break on Off Broadway, if not Broadway itself. For months they rehearsed then put on public performances of Godspell, followed by Oklahoma!.They were loud, lively and lovely. My seat on the organ loft gave me a commanding view of their activities and I enjoyed it thoroughly. I missed them when they left for a space that was all their own.

There were small incidents – the dog lifting his leg to leave his mark through the fence onto the sandaled foot of a community leader;  funny incidents – the wife of one of the ministers looking in vain for someone to sit at the head table at the annual Seder and turning me away, “What!  The sexton at the head table!”;  alarming incidents – the disappearance of  my white cat William, who, five days after I had reconciled myself to never seeing him again, emerged mewing on the roof, black from contact with beams charred from a fire of decades before.  

The church was fortunate when a Julliard student, Michael McFrederick, became our organist in 1977 or ’78.  The organ, which he played beautifully, was kept in tune, and he worked heroically, if with limited success, to create a choir of some of us who were musically inclined.  In early June 1979 he announced that he would be performing at Carnegie Recital Hall.  Several of us attended. Joseph Horowitz reviewed the performance in The New York Times on June 11:
[T]he entire evening was such a delight….Without preaching, or resorting to theories, Mr. McFrederick applies jazz and popular elements to a predominantly “classical” idiom, and he generally gets away with it…. It fit the spirit of the occasion that the entire audience was invited to a post‐concert party[emphasis added]. 

I attended the party, which was held in an apartment on the Upper West Side. After walking about, nibbling on chips and hors d'oeuvres, on the way to the door I sampled the contents of a punch bowl.  A man standing nearby mentioned someone had been keeping the bowl full by adding vodka.  If that was a warning, it came too late.  On the subway to Brooklyn, I got off at the Atlantic Avenue stop and sat on a bench waiting for the train to Flatbush. I passed in and out of consciousness, but somehow got home, vowing that I would never take a drink from a punch bowl again.

When the architectural plans for the building were completed in the late 1800s, the congregation was meeting in rented space on Church Avenue.  The address on the plans, 1901 Beverly Road, Brooklyn, Long Island, was outmoded as soon as 1898, when Brooklyn was incorporated into the City of New York.  For decades the church – Flatbush Unitarian, then after merging with the Universalists, Flatbush Unitarian Universalist Church -- was a robust presence in the neighborhood.  After the mid-40s, the large homes which once surrounded the church were replaced by apartment buildings.  The church never recovered from the membership losses of the ’60s, by the mid-70s very few congregants lived within walking distance, and the Sunday school was not enrolling new children.  In 1979 I moved out of the building and it was sold to another church, Unity East Center, which continues to occupy it.

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