Quick: Which religious denomination built the first church building in Lawrence?
Not the Methodists or Presbyterians or the Baptists.
No, the Unitarians.
It's a group that started strong, nearly faded away and is now, as the Unitarian Universalists, a quickly growing congregation.
From near extinction in the late 1950s, the Unitarian Fellowship of Lawrence has 160 members of all ages and is in the process of building a new addition onto its building at 1263 N. 1100 Road.
The church's original 1859 building - erected four years after Unitarianism came to Lawrence from Massachusetts - isn't around anymore, but its bell lives on at Lawrence High School.
It's in front of that bell that the Rev. William Sinkford, the president of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, will speak at 4 p.m. Sunday.
It's appropriate that Sinkford's first talk in Lawrence comes next to that bell. His own religious life also started out strong, nearly faded away and came back stronger than ever.
From atheist to pastor
"My spiritual journey has been long and complex," says Sinkford, 61.
The top man in the Unitarian Universalist church completed the road between his teenage dream of joining the ministry and becoming an actual minister, but not without a stop as an atheist in between.
"When I was an adolescent, I was a stand-up atheist, and I actually kind of enjoyed the consternation that that caused some of the adults that I was around," Sinkford says. "But since then, my journey has taken me to a number of places, including into the ministry and into a very significant personal prayer life."
That turbulent time as a young man came at an equally turbulent time in United States' history - the civil rights movement. During that time, the Unitarian Universalists were heavily involved in supporting the rights of blacks, and many blacks joined the church at the time. But the church at that time didn't totally live up to all that was promised, Sinkford says.
"It led me and many other persons of color to leave the denomination, so I was unchurched for about a dozen years," Sinkford says. "I was upset, I felt betrayed by my church. And so it was not until years later, actually, that I was able to hear the call to the ministry again."
He heard that call to the ministry in 1991. Ten years later, he became the first black president of the Unitarian Universalists' mostly white denomination, winning nearly 68 percent of the vote. Jill Jarvis, half-time consulting minister for the Unitarian Fellowship of Lawrence, says that the Harvard-educated Sinkford's election to the presidency has meant a lot to the nation's congregations.
"Obviously, Reverend Sinkford is a wonderful minister and a wonderful president, he certainly wasn't elected ... for the goal that we wanted to have diversity," Jarvis says. "But it's very important for us, because he gets out in front and talks about growth and talks about welcoming and has helped lead us to instigate some new programs about how to be deliberately intentional about reaching out to all people and welcoming all people. So, it's been important for us."
Getting out there
Sinkford, a former marketing executive with Gillette, Avon Products, Johnson Products and Revlon, also has been instrumental in a nationwide advertising campaign that was launched soon after his first term began in 2001.
"One of the things that we have tried to do in recent years is stop being the best-kept secret in town. And so we've tried advertising, which actually affected the Lawrence area in 2003," says Sinkford, who used the Kansas City area as a pilot program for the advertising campaign.
What new members find is a place of worship without a creed.
"We are a faith community that believes in deeds, not creeds. And so we welcome persons and wisdom from all of the world's great faith traditions, believing that at their heart, there's far more that unites them than divides them," Sinkford says. "All are welcome. One way to say that is that we are for all souls, not just for some souls."
At the church, a person who considers themselves a liberal Christian can be sitting between a Buddhist and an atheist, Sinkford and Jarvis say.
The church, which has its roots in the Puritan religious movement of the 1600s, has made it a point to reach out to the poorer or marginalized people around the world. Not only was the church heavily involved in the civil rights movement, but it has a history of working in India with the Dalits, the socially shunned "untouchable class" of people, and most recently has launched a humanitarian fund to aid the cyclone-ravaged country of Myanmar. At home, the church has been involved in post-Katrina New Orleans and, more specifically in Lawrence, has donated time serving meals at the Lawrence Interdenominational Nutrition Kitchen.
"We very much believe that our role is to put our faith into action, our values into action in our local communities, and our country and the world," Jarvis says. "We look ... to do that in many, many ways."
Jarvis says that Sinkford's visit and public talk, titled "Being Liberal in an Illiberal World," will be a stepping stone for the Unitarian Universalist church to once again be prominent in Lawrence.
"The fellowship is deliberately seeking to become more connected to the community," Jarvis says. "We're already connected in some ways that are maybe less visible, and we're going to take an active role in being more connected and more involved in the Lawrence community and this is one of the reasons, a main reason, that we asked Reverend Sinkford to come and speak in the community and to the community is to sort of kick off that process for us."