How our church came to be where it is

One day in the early 1950s, I took some visitors on a river boat ride on the Mississippi River. Captain Langford was the boat’s captain and tour guide and as we pulled out into the muddy waters, he pointed to these bluffs and announced on his loudspeakers, "Ladies and Gentlemen, up there where you see that white house on the bluff is where deSoto claimed the Mississippi River for the United States of America!”

Now, Capt. Langford may have been testing the attention of his audience, but I have never forgotten the image of that white house on the bluff.

I had moved to Memphis with my new husband in early 1947, after a glorious work stint in New York City. Together, we had discovered, through a Navy chaplain, the Memphis Unitarian Church, the first that we ever attended. Both of us had forsaken our traditional Protestant backgrounds and as newlyweds, were looking for a new direction.

At that time, the Unitarian congregation occupied a building it had built on Vance at Bellevue. The parsonage next door doubled as the Sunday School Faith Formation building, much to the dismay of the minister’s wife, who had to give up her privacy on the weekends and live with all our clutter. In this environment, the congregation had experienced good times and bad times, had many different ministers and staggering money woes.

The members began to look work on the idea of a new location for the church and in the early 1950s a building committee was formed and a congregational meeting was called to discuss its findings.

A suburban lot had been found and was to be voted on. It was in a “nice” neighborhood; maybe our enrollment would increase if we were closer to more homes.

I remember so well my agitation as the conversation continued at this meeting. At this time, we were the only Unitarian group in this part of the Mid-South; here we were, in a growing center connecting Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, and with good luck, northern Alabama! Why not put our new building on the banks of the Mississippi River, once a sacred spot for the Chickasaw tribe of Native Americans, the pulse of the Mid-South? We belonged here!

I jumped to my feet to protest the idea of settling for a suburban location! As I, one of the youngest members, stood facing the group, I looked into the eyes of Ed Dalstrom, one of the oldest members, and pleaded with him to consider a more exalted location. He gave me his full attention, as did Dr. Barr (Rev. James Barr).

And so began the search for river property.

Timing is so important in life. Our timing couldn’t have been better. Our dynamic minister worked a miracle! He found that some land on the bluff north of the Harahan Bridge was to be auctioned off, land that had been cleared by Urban Renewal, a place that was once occupied by some of Memphis’ most creative people: Mann & Harrover Architects, writer Shelby Foote, art gallery owner, Bob Sanderson.

So, Dr. Barr bid on the land at auction, outbidding a restaurant owner (thank goodness); church member Roy Harrover was asked to design the building, and in January, 1966, the first sermon was delivered from this pulpit on an icy winter’s morning. We had our exalted sanctuary, our remarkable choir (no organ, again thank goodness!) And our involvement with nature. Perhaps this ground will become a revered shrine someday, like the sacred temple at Delphi in Greece and all the other marvelous places where people have sat and wondered about the mysteries of our human lives.

And our river flowing silently by, carrying other humans who may look up at our bluff and consider the nature of this place, reminding us that there really is something in the real estate slogan: that location, location, location is important.

And to our dedicated minister and members who keep us alive, a million thanks for your efforts through the years. deSoto called this river Rio Espíritu Santo (River of the Holy Spirit). No matter what your interpretation of “holy” is, we are endowed with a capacity for reverence, a sense of beauty, a respect for life, and onto that we build man-made stories that evolve into our rituals. And what better place to enjoy this talent for feeling awe than our bluff on the wonderful river, the Mississippi.

Thank you and keep the chalice burning!

Kathryn Rice