Reverend Margie Allen, the leader of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship at Stony Brook, said she looks forward to each and every service because of the congregation's ability to partner together "in creating worship that is really moving and meaningful."
And, she said, "We can really do some fancy things with music as a congregation."
Those very characteristics will inform the weekend full of celebration that UUFSB has put together in celebration of a milestone it will hit this month: the congregation turns 50 years old.
"There’s excitement about looking back and looking forward," Allen said.
Beyond its 10:30 a.m. service this Sunday – during which UUFSB will welcome Rev. Dr. Fredric Muir, its "minister on loan" who served in 1982, to speak – the congregation will hold a few events this weekend to celebrate its 50th anniversary: A celebration of "50 years of music" on Friday at 7:30 p.m.; an open house on Saturday at 1 p.m.; and a classical music concert on Saturday at 7 p.m.
Part of the celebration of its 50 years of history will be a consideration of what the next 50 years has to offer, too.
Allen said one challenge – a challenge which she said is common to many Unitarian Universalist ministers – is to help the congregation see itself as more than a collection of individuals who have individual beliefs.
"Traditionally our religious faith has been one of radical inclusiveness and radical respect for the individual, so it's hard to see itself as an entity that also has a history and a life," she said. "There’s going to be another 50 years. What do we want to do with that? I hope we really help people see themselves as an interconnected web of actors in the world who can actually leverage the power of their numbers and their spirit to accomplish things both inside and outside the congregation."
For many of the early years during the congregation's half-century of history it was lay-led, meaning there was no minister to lead services. But according to Milly Michos, a longtime member and volunteer archivist for the congregation, the role of the minister came about as they realized they needed someone for rites of passage, such as coming-of-age celebrations and weddings. A succession of guest and part-time ministers would come to lead at various times in the congregation's history, leading up to the hiring of Rev. Kate Lehman in 1988, who would remain as minister until 2006.
Allen arrived as a consulting minister in the summer of 2010, and will stand to become its permanent minister in January of 2013. It's a democratic process that involves meetings among its membership to determine whether a minister is matched well to a particular congregation.
According to Michos, the fellowship has its roots in Setauket rather than Stony Brook. In October of 1962, 17 founding members launched it as the Unitarian Fellowship of the Three Villages. Its past homes included members' own homes, the American Legion hall, the VFW hall, Port Jefferson's Slavic Center, a house on Bayview Ave. that the group purchased for $25,000, and a house on Cedar Street that they rented for $145 a month. The organization purchased its five-acre plot of land for their present location in 1963 on a "leap of faith," Michos said, from Ward Melville at a price of $10,000.
"It was a rather exciting thing to start something like this because it’s not a conventional group or a conventional set of beliefs," Michos said. "All during this time they had a very viable organization that was very interested in developing spirituality."
The congregation's current home wasn't constructed until 1976, and has since been expanded as its membership grew. Right now, its membership is around 225, which can often grow past 250 when members bring friends.
According to Allen, the congregation is once again at a crossroads: it is nearing capacity for both its Sunday morning worship and its regular activities throughout the week.
"This congregation is at a size transition point right now that’s pretty classic in a lot of congregations across all faiths," she said. "We’re bigger than we used to be. Our ministry is reaching further inside and outside."
There have been many notable moments over the years, Michos said. Perhaps one of those moments was the January 1972 arrest of Loranz Drakeford, a well known Black Panther whom the congregation invited to speak. Michos said the FBI found out about the event and arrested him right outside the fellowship.
"Our intent was 'Let’s learn about this, see what that point of view is,'" she said. "It blew his cover. That was not our intent."
The search for that kind of dialogue is part of UUFSB's character. Known as a welcoming congregation, UUFSB has also stood up for civil rights, including marriage equality for the LGBT community. It has also taken stances on issues such as abortion, birth control, and capital punishment.
According to Michos, the Unitarians and the Universalists were two separate groups that merged in the early 1960s.
"Unitarian originally meant that God was not divided into the father, the son and the holy ghost," she said. "The Universalists were a different branch. Their belief was that every form of worship in every culture was sacred. The people devised a way of worshiping a higher spirit in terms of their world setting, wherever they were."
Reflecting on the health of the congregation at this point in its history, Allen called it a robust one that maintains high standards for interaction with each other and with the community at large.
"They care for each other. They do the work of caring inside the organization and that builds relationships," she said. "They’re a very creative, very social justice-oriented group of people who can make things happen."