CEDAR RAPIDS — Those who join Peoples Church Unitarian Universalist often say they feel like they’ve discovered something new in the denomination that welcomes people of many belief paths, Reverend Rebecca Hinds said. But in reality, the church has long had a presence in Cedar Rapids — since 1869, when a small group of men and women formed the First Universalist Church of Cedar Rapids.
“Unitarian Universalist is a faith a lot of people come into rather than grow up in, but we’re a historic faith with a long history,” Hinds said. “It’s important to hold that history.”
Peoples Church is marking that history this month with sesquicentennial celebrations Sept. 14 and 15. The church’s original building, at 600 Third Ave. SE, was dedicated in 1878, and the congregation was renamed Peoples Church in the 1920s.
In the 150 years since the church’s founding, much has changed, Hinds said, even as the church’s values of welcoming and inclusion can be traced through much of their history.
Early church leader Ada Van Vechten was instrumental in establishing the first Cedar Rapids Public Library, which narrowly was approved by public vote in 1897 after Van Vechten found a legal loophole that allowed women to vote on library issues. The church still has a Van Vechten Society today, and the anniversary celebration will include a talk by historian Ann Cejka along with an Ada Van Vechten impersonator.
A major milestone in recent church history was the move from its historic downtown building, which was dedicated in 1878, to 4980 Gordon Ave. NW in 2011, the congregation’s current home. The former building, which was demolished, was becoming costly to maintain. When the 2008 flood knocked out the city’s steam heating system, the church couldn’t afford to install a new HVAC system.
“The move was difficult. A lot of people left the church and struggled with the new identity,” Hinds said. “But eight years later, we are going really strong. Membership is growing again, our energy is back, and people are very much looking forward to the next 150 years. That’s no small thing.”
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Clarice Krippner joined the church in 1974 and is chair of the archive committee, which has been compiling documents from the church’s history. She said the need to organize that history became evident when the congregation moved out of the downtown location and realized how many documents, including annual reports and weekly newsletters, there were in the building, some stored under the stage or in closets.
“We said, ‘Holy cow, we’ve got stuff here that goes way back,’” Krippner said. “1959 was the last time a history was published. So we’ve worked to get that organized.”
The committee printed an updated booklet of history through 2009 last year. Krippner said diving into the history was illuminating.
“Looking at the ’60s, I was just amazed by how much our community was involved with things that were going on then — protesting the (Vietnam War) draft, working for fair housing,” she said. “And when the call went out, Rev. Walter Kellison went to Selma (Ala.) and marched to Montgomery with Martin Luther King Jr.
“Another highlight was the decision to become a Welcoming Congregation,” she said.
The church participated in gay pride events in the 1980s, but when a congregational survey in the 1990s revealed many members were still uncomfortable with issues affecting the LGBTQ community, the church offered an educational series to congregants before voting overwhelmingly to become a Welcoming Congregation, which means it is open and affirming of LGBTQ people.
Since then, she said the church has continued to work on education and activism. The mostly white congregation recently installed a Black Lives Matter sign outside the church, and has been tackling educational efforts on understanding and dismantling white privilege and racism, Hinds said.
“Now we’re trying to learn how to be the best kind of advocates we can be,” Krippner said. “We really feel we have a responsibility to have a positive impact on issues that are necessary to the community. ... Social justice is very important to us.”
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If you go: Sesquicentennial celebrations
All events are at the church, 4980 Gordon Ave. NW in Cedar Rapids, unless noted otherwise. For details, call (319) 362-9827 or visit peoplesuu.org.
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What: Open house, with guest speaker historian Ann Cejka and Ann Harris as “Ada Van Vechten”
When: 1 to 3 p.m. Sept. 14
What: Reception and Celebratory Dinner
When: Sept. 14; 5 p.m. cocktails, 6 p.m. dinner
Where: The Flamingo, 1211 Ellis Blvd. NW, Cedar Rapids
Cost: $35 adults, $17.50 children under 6
What: Celebratory Worship with Rev. Linda Hansen and Rev. Rebecca Hinds
When: 11 a.m. Sept. 15
What: Van Vechten Guild High Tea
When: Noon, Sept. 15