IN THE EARLY 1950s, several members of First Unitarian Church of Baltimore, who knew each other casually, were living in Harford County. The rigors of traveling with their children to Baltimore and back each Sunday led them to form a religious group at home. After meeting regularly in each others' homes for a time, the group decided to apply to headquarters in Boston for membership in the American Unitarian Association. In the spring of 1957 our Fellowship was accepted by the AUA Board.
Members soon realized that they needed a regular meeting place and began to look for accommodations. The Fellowship found its first home in the Seventh Day Adventist Church at Wilna, which its owners used on Saturdays and let us use on Sundays. The group prospered modestly and began its social service to the community. We advertised our convictions about racial equality, and were gratified to receive a positive response from Harford County minorities. Out of this connection grew the Human Relations Commission, established by Harford County's Charter.
In September 1959, we obtained a loan and purchased a two and one half acre tract of farmland on what is now Lee Way in Bel Air. Two years later we were able to buy from Aberdeen Proving Ground two surplus Army buildings, which were moved to the Lee Way site. Hundreds of hours of hard work were required of members to turn these structures into a pleasant, attractive and functional home. Photographs now hanging in our library give an idea of the quality of this adventure.
Since we knew at first hand the difficulties of finding appropriate meeting space, we determined to offer our building as freely as possible as a means of serving the community. Over the years, a Lutheran congregation, a Christian Scientist church, an Episcopal group, and many community organizations met there.
Having no minister, we arranged Sunday services in various ways. We called upon ministers of other Unitarian churches to supply the pulpit periodically. We had many stimulating lay speakers. Members of our own Fellowship frequently spoke as well.
The goal of the Fellowship at that time was to have our own minister, but this was delayed for many years due to our limited resources. In 1984 we felt able to apply to the Emerson Ministry Program of the Unitarian Universalist Association in Boston. For four years our extension minister, the Reverend Geoffrey Drutchas (whom we shared with the UU Society of York, PA), served us well. With the end of his tenure, we were able to call a full-time minister. In May 1988, the Reverend Alice Blair Wesley accepted our call.
The growth of our Fellowship under the able ministry of Rev. Wesley soon made it obvious that we had outgrown our original building. Early on we learned that the presence of wetlands on the Lee Way property virtually ended the possibility of building expansion. We therefore began a search for a suitable affordable site elsewhere. Thus began a long and arduous process that finally gave us the beautiful home we have today on Churchville Road.
There is an interesting story of how this came about. One day Rev. Wesley was driving along Churchville Road when she noticed a man working in his garden. She stopped to ask him if he would be willing to sell this land to our church. Well, it was serendipity. The man was Mr. Walter Banks, a leader of the African American community, who was long familiar with us, and many of our founding and early members, due to our work for racial equality and civil rights in the county. He and his wife Maudeline were delighted for the opportunity to help those who, virtually from the beginning, had openly shared their struggles during the civil rights era. Through the generosity of Mr. and Mrs. Banks, a contract was worked out that enabled us to purchase the valuable three and one half acre site for a very modest price.
The long process of fund-raising, choosing an architect, working out a suitable plan, hiring a contractor, managing our funds, and supervising construction, culminated once again with many hundreds of hours of "sweat equity" donated by our members to carry the project to completion. In March of 1996, Rev. Wesley retired amid much appreciation for a job well done. In August of that year, the Reverend Kathie Davis Thomas became our Interim Minister for a constructive period of two years. In August of 1998, the Reverend Lisa G. Ward came to us as our full-time Extension Minister, and became our called minister in April of 2000.
From April 2000 until June 2016, the very capable Reverend Lisa G. Ward led the congregation through days, months, and years of countless challenges along with the volunteers and the congregation-elected Executive Board. The dynamics of a growing congregation during those years are documented in our archives in the large church binder titled
Roots and Wings which contains historical documents dating from ca. 1955-1956 through part of 2016, and its sequel binder which continues with 2016 and later. Input from members and friends are included in the first binder to record the activities, sermons, religious education programs, and pictures of many members.
During 1993-1995, plans were realized for the new church home. The congregation settled in at the new Churchville location in a (mostly) politically moderate Harford County which as of 2015 was considered to be a politically conservative population. That said, these are the main accomplishments of this liberal religious congregation.
Through the efforts of Rev. Lisa Ward and members of the Fellowship, UUFHC became known as the church that opened doors to all people. To be specific, Rev. Lisa Ward was instrumental with members who worked at Harford Community College to host community meetings between races, mainly the African American community. The goal was to begin dialogues between people of all races who lived in the county. It was successful in that Rev. Ward was able to coordinate small group meetings with the Ames United Methodist Church in the town of Bel Air. It was a challenge for her to reach out in the closely-held conservative community and ask that group to extend itself. It took years. Rev. Ward became a significant minister in the county by the time she celebrated ten years with UUFHC. Working with the Sheriff of Harford County, who supported open dialogue between races, Rev. Ward was able to make a positive impression on many citizens.
And, with growing awareness of domestic violence in the county and state, in 2001 the congregation began the Silent Witness Ceremony every October with the support of the Harford Community College and the non-profit SARC (The Sexual Assault/Spouse Abuse Resource Center). The complete remembrance ceremony was held outdoors. Eventually, it began indoors to accommodate a growing attendance with a quiet procession to the roadside for a benediction. The ceremony grew in community interest, and by 2019 the entire Service was held in the Sanctuary with several persons speaking to the attendees: members of the congregation, the Sheriff of Harford County, a representative from SARC and the State’s Attorney. The ceremony remembered twelve women, men, and children through life-size plywood silhouette figures painted red. On each figure there is a plaque stating the circumstances of death surrounding the victim. Many persons who travel Maryland route 22 (Churchville Road) have commented to members of UUFHC about the silhouettes, and some drivers actually pull off the road and get out of their cars to read the plaques. The silhouettes have been loaned to other churches and to the Harford Community College for their efforts to raise awareness of domestic violence.
UUFHC became a Welcoming Congregation which recognized LBGTQ individuals. It offered a safe place to come and worship, host meetings, and generally to know that they are accepted by Unitarian Universalists. The caring and trust offered by the UUFHC members is evident. These words are indicative of the support offered by the congregation:
Whoever you are, whatever your history, and whomever you love, you are welcome here.
Through continued efforts by Rev. Ward and many members, marriage equality was achieved in the state of Maryland in January 2013. For a few years Rev. Ward did not conduct marriages between any couples until Maryland passed the Marriage Equality Act. Her steadfastness in this issue was applauded by many people—not just supported by UUFHC. UUFHC also became a supportive member of the UU Legislative Ministry of Maryland.
The congregation's membership grew beyond 135 pledging members by 2016, and three years later the membership had increased to 155. The congregation saw considerable growth from 2017 into 2019. Along with the ending of the Rev. Lisa Ward’s contract in July 2016, and the search and acceptance for serving the congregation for one year by Interim Minister Carol Thomas Cissel, the congregation began its search for a permanent minister. Both searches were supported by the Unitarian Universalist Association guidelines which are very clear as to methods for searching and considerations of the 'fit' for both parties in the contract. Several members participated in each search. However, they were not the same members of the committee which searched for the Interim Minister.
The congregation celebrated its first 60 years in June 2016 with a celebratory worship service highlighting the
Roots and Wings theme. During 2015 and 2016 members created monthly themes to remind the congregation of its many achievements. It was followed by a huge picnic. Former members came from many places to enjoy the festivities. A commemorative binder was created by members of the Archives Committee. It began with documents from 1955-56 which recorded the establishment of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Harford County. Plans are underway to digitize these important documents.
We look forward to the future as we take our visible place for those seeking a liberal religious community, and as a provider of social action in the world around us.