The Unitarian Universalist Community of the Mountains was founded almost thirty years ago by people who attended the UU church in Auburn but who envisioned a community closer to home. Since those fledgling days the community has grown substantially and now consists of around 130 active members and many more friends, most of whom live in Nevada County but some of whom come from a distance, including, now, on-line.
Unitarian Universalism is different from most other denominations. We are a community with diverse theological beliefs. Some identify with the tradition of progressive Christianity; others are fed in their spiritual quest primarily by humanist and scientific thought. Some look mainly to earth-centered spirituality for their inspiration, while others are drawn to eastern mysticism and practice. We rejoice in this diversity of beliefs because we are committed to the basic notion that no one approach can encompass all truth. Whatever our individual thoughts, we each are enriched by being in community with those who see things differently so that our small window of wonder onto the world can be enlarged.
What defines and unites us in not conformity of beliefs but commonality of values. We are united in our desire to live meaningfully and well in this life, for its own sake, rather than as a preparation for a possible future life. We are united in our desire to help build a world that is more just, more equitable, and more humane for all of life, not only for ourselves. We are united in our desire that the measure of our existence be based on how we live rather than what we profess, by deeds rather than creeds.
In the early 1990s, UUs living in Grass Valley and Nevada City traveled 30 miles to the Sierra Foothills UU church in Auburn or just sent their pledges. Some of them opted for a Great Ideas discussion group, meeting in Bill Tuttle’s living room. When Anita Wald-Tuttle became Board President at SFUU, she became aware of just how many northerners, including Barbara and Jerry Hoyt, John and Maybelle Church, Leal and Lloyd Portis, Bill and Joan Toensing, and Yvonne Schoemaker and Barry Strejcek, considered themselves UUs and gave financial support. She proposed a once-a-month Sunday morning meeting up north with the first one happening in January 1994, in the Tuttle living room.
Letters were sent out to those UUs living in the Northern area, but we had no idea how many would respond. Bill was delighted that so many were interested in a local congregation, and greeted everyone warmly. The comments and ideas flowed thick and fast and few wanted to leave this exciting discussion. All were encouraged to “bring a friend” to the February meeting – same time, same place! And so they did! ~ Anita
The February meeting so enlarged the group that it was decided to hold the March meeting at the Magic Theatre, and there were 18 in attendance including Paul Elias and Maryann Hart. Monthly meetings continued there, with 31 attending by August. In October of 1994, the group held a picnic at Pioneer Park, and decided to get organized and form a congregation in Grass Valley. In November, they started meeting in the Community Room at the library, on the first and third Sundays. They met in the afternoon at 4 p.m. so that people who were part of the Auburn church could go there in the morning. Barbara Hoyt, an artist, painted three posters with UU themes, and these became the “stained glass windows” for the services. A Sunday Service Committee selected speakers and planned services. They brought in all their materials every time – the drape for the lectern, the coffee, the food, the orders of service, and the RE materials.
Judy van der Veen led familiar folk songs, popular songs, and hymns to get everyone used to singing, as a prelude to establishing a choir. Leal Portis planned and ran an RE program in the lobby of the library for any children who arrived, which she had begun at the Magic Theatre.
We wanted to be a full service church, because parents were exploring family-oriented churches. When we met at the library, we did RE in the foyer while the adults were in the Community Room. It was really challenging, because there were elementary school kids and high school kids in the group, and sometimes there would be one child, other times five. One project was making T-shirts for the kids to wear. ~ Leal
During that year at the library, John Church worked hard to get the word out, posting notices on local bulletin boards, videotaping the services for TV, passing out announcements to people on the street, and holding meetings at his house. The group was growing by several people every month, and as John said in a letter to all members, “Enthusiasm has been visibly and audibly expressed not only during the services, but during the refreshment and potluck periods as well. In truth, most of the congregation is reluctant to leave after each service.” John became chair of a Planning Committee, which met monthly. They began to work toward becoming a full service religious society, with membership in the UUA. In May of 1995 they chose the name “Unitarian Universalist Community of the Mountains.” They undertook a pledge and membership drive, with the goal of 50 members and weekly services by that fall. The UUA required that members of a new congregation give up membership in a neighboring congregation, and Yvonne Strejcek was one who did so.
It had been a difficult decision for me to leave SFUU in order to help UUCM to become real and to thrive and grow, because my closest friends were in that congregation, and I’d served them in leadership for several years, including two years as board president. I was very invested in them: in money, time, and soul. But by the time we were starting to talk about a congregation in Nevada County, I was on the Pacific Central District board and was very interested in growing Unitarian Universalism and getting lots of new congregations going in northern California. So I supported this budding congregation, with high hopes and love for the group, and pride in our process. And I never regretted doing that. ~ Yvonne
In September of 1995, they started meeting in the gym at Nevada City Elementary School, every Sunday at 4 p.m. The room was spacious, and they had a place to store some things between services, and there were classrooms for RE. The congregation elected its first board, with John Church as president. The monthly newsletter needed a name, and Bill Toensing supplied it.
In the summer of 1995, we needed a name for our newsletter, and the congregation was asked to suggest names. Out of 24 entries, the board chose the name I suggested – “The Mountain Chalice.” ~ Bill
There was a lot of music, sometimes from CDs, sometimes by Utah Phillips and other members of the congregation. Judy and others led songs accompanied by ukulele or guitar. Lyrics sheets were handed out at each service. During that year, 56 people signed as charter members, and the congregation applied to be a member of the UUA, which was approved in February of 1996. New people continued to come, attracted by lay-led services by local people, topic discussion groups, and social events like potlucks and singalongs. Bernell Scott, as historian, put the church documents into binders, which are in our library.
I organized our accumulating documents, including the weekly orders of service, monthly newsletters, photos that people gave me, and news items from local newspapers, into yearly binders. Since there was no storage space in the places where we had services, we kept the binders at my house and at the Churches. ~Bernell
John and Maybelle Church provided bed and breakfast for most of the visiting speakers to cut down on expenses.
What a treat we had to not only hear them speak, but to learn so much while they were in our house. Imagine the president of the UUA [John Buehrens] at your breakfast table sharing the “big picture” with you! ~ Maybell
In December of 1996, the congregation moved to Trinity Episcopal Church in Nevada City. Services were still at 4 p.m. as it was a shared church. It felt like a much more spiritual place, with white spires, stained glass windows, pews, and a pulpit for the speaker. The altar crucifix that was part of the Episcopal service in the morning was removed for the UU service, so it would feel more welcoming to all beliefs.
Trinity had a choir loft, an organ, and a piano. Judy organized the first choir, with Sigi Isham as its director. It had just a few members, and they sang rounds and music in several parts. Over the next two years the congregation continued to grow and began to want its own building. They wanted to have morning services, and room for RE, and space for meetings and classes, and a kitchen, and a place to store everything. Ernie Jackson was board president as they began to look for a home.
We were looking for a new place to meet, and while talking to the owner of the mortuary at 246 Church Street, I inquired if it was for rent. She told me they were planning to move to Nevada City, and were about to list it for sale. I reported to the Board that it looked like an ideal building for our church, and the following year we began renting the building. ~ Ernie
UUCM held its first service in this building in September of 1998. After extensive negotiations with the mortuary personnel by John and Judy van der Veen, we purchased the building in 2000.
The next project was to reclaim the building, which needed extensive work. Bob Tallmon was part of the Building Committee.
We opened up the sanctuary to accommodate various configurations, changed the main entrance and added railings, added two bathrooms, insulated the upstairs rooms, completely redid the kitchen to conform to city code, and converted the side driveway to a patio. Chris Hansen was a four-star champion in rewiring and related calculations, and spent hours crawling under the floor. Work days included potluck lunches, and these were never hurried, but were very warm and pleasant, even when politics were discussed. ~ Bob
In 2003, UUCM became a Welcoming Congregation, with a rainbow flag to show it welcomes and includes people with marginalized sexual orientations and gender identities. The next dream was to fund, and then find, a settled minister. The congregation had two interim ministers, Julie Kain and Joy Atkinson, and began the search process for a settled minister in 2005. Bonnie Bennett was a member of the Search Committee.
All of us on the Search Committee, Maybelle Church as chair, Don Scott, Dawn Bateman, Anita Wald-Tuttle, Keith Johnson, and myself, agreed that it was one of our best committee experiences. We met weekly, and each time the work was different. All members were accepting and respectful of other members, no one dominated the committee, and everyone did their work. We presented Meghan Conrad to the congregation in May, 2006 for their vote of approval, which was unanimous with only one abstention. ~ Bonnie
Rev. Meghan Cefalu was UUCM’s first settled minister, staying until December 2013. During that time the congregation grew steadily, not only in numbers but in spiritual depth and in outreach to the wider community. There were many significant developments. It created a Covenant of Right Relations as the basis upon which members undertook to treat each other with respect and open-hearted honesty, and became a Green Sanctuary, committed to living in harmony with the Earth. It continued to strengthen its financial base, thanks to the hard work and generosity of its members. The mortgage on the building will be paid in full in 2020, and cash reserves are invested in environmentally friendly stocks. As the congregation grew, it funded a Director of Religious Education, supported the UUA credentialing process of its Music Director, hired a custodian, and funded a part-time office administrator. Rev. Meghan Cefalu left in December 2013 after seven years for a new ministry in Massachusetts. Rev. Denis Letourneau Paul led services at UUCM from January until June of 2014. From September 2014 to June 2016, UUCM was served by interim minister Rev. David Usher from London, England. In January 2015, the congregation added an additional Sunday service to accommodate the growing numbers attending, and membership grew to almost 150. On May 8, 2016, UUCM called its current settled minister, the Rev. Kevin Tarsa, whose ministry with UUCM began August 1, 2016.
The congregation seeks to keep widening its circle of welcome and concern, including people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, continues to hosts active Social Justice programs, supports the agency and well-being of the Nisenan people on whose ancestral lands the congregation meets, and seeks to be a leader in the community in support of Black Lives and the lives of people of color.
UUCM found its way online through the first years of the pandemic, and now, meeting both online and onsite for most events, looks to the future through the lenses of new experiences, new learning, new growth, and the challenging and changing context of these times.