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Baltimore's First Unitarian Church celebrates 200 years of history, activism

Radical at its founding, Baltimore's First Unitarian Church marks 200 years of history, activism.

Above the dais in Baltimore's First Unitarian Church, 64,000 pieces of iridescent glass form to make an image of the Last Supper, featuring Jesus and the Holy Grail at the center of one of the world's largest Tiffany mosaics.

Just below the artwork, a relic of the church's Christian roots, are plaques representing Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism.

The church — founded 200 years ago this weekend — substitutes a search for personal truth, recognition of human dignity and pursuit of justice for religious dogma. The congregation fought for abolition and women's rights, taught poor children trades and supported soldiers returning from war.

Today, members rally around social justice causes, including gay rights, a higher minimum wage and the Black Lives Matter movement.

"This church is a vital presence in the city," said D. Doreion Colter, the church's board president. "Wiccan to Jewish to Buddhist, we have it all. Each person is free to search for truth and meaning in their own way."

The congregation kicked off a series of bicentennial events Friday with a graveside reading at the tomb of founder Henry Payson and a procession to the white-domed church at the corner of Charles and Franklin streets.

Adrian L. Graham, who lives nearby in Mount Vernon, went to Westminster Burying Grounds with 25 others Friday.

He said he was drawn to Unitarianism for its open theology and sees the church as an anchor amid turbulence in the country and world. He joined First Unitarian 14 years ago when he moved to Baltimore.

"It was not just that it was welcoming to me as a gay man, but it is open to questioning everything," said Graham, who was raised as a Protestant in New Jersey. "Nothing is so sacred that it can't be questioned. I take comfort in that as someone who struggled with traditional Christian theology."

The anniversary commemoration continues Saturday with a day of service. The church's Peace and Justice Ministry will perform maintenance projects at Dayspring, a homeless services and substance abuse treatment center in East Baltimore.

On Sunday, a 2 p.m. bicentennial service will be held, featuring the Rev. Peter Morales, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Afterward, a $50-a-ticket reception will be held at the Engineers Club at Mount Vernon Place, where there will be live music and refreshments.

The First Unitarian Church was the first church built for Unitarians in North America, church historian Catherine Evans said. And through wars, the Great Depression and riots, the church and its congregation have stayed.

"The church has been very intentional about staying in downtown Baltimore," she said. "It's not happenstantial that we're still here.

"At different junctures, there have been challenges posed by external societal circumstances, which gave the occasion to the congregation to discuss where we should be. And it has always decided to be here."

A group of 27 Baltimoreans gathered on Feb. 10, 1817, in Payson's home to establish the congregation and craft plans build a church. The founders were seeking freedom for their liberal religious views, she said.

They believed in a single divine God, not the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and they believed that their salvation depended on character and works, rather than adherence to religious tradition.

The church's neoclassical building, adorned with a terra cotta sculpture of "The Angel of Truth," rose between 1817 and 1818. Across the street, construction of the Roman Catholic cathedral, later named the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, was in progress.

Helping to establish the denomination was a sermon that the Rev. William Ellery Channing gave from the church's black walnut pulpit in 1819. His remarks defined Unitarianism's guiding principles: freedom, reason and tolerance.

The Rev. Jared Sparks, who was chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives, was First Unitarian's inaugural minister. He went on to became president of Harvard University.

Artist Rembrandt Peale and Enoch Pratt, founder of Baltimore's library system, were early members. So was George Peabody, who established the Peabody Conservatory. President Woodrow Wilson sang in the choir during his time as a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University.

First Unitarian Church, originally named First Independent Church, merged with the Universalist Church in 1935.

Today, the church has about 200 members.

They revere all faith traditions and no longer consider themselves Christians.

The Rev. David Carl Olson, lead minister, said church members helped Baltimore rebuild after the great fire of 1904, settle immigrants over decades and today mentor young people and promote dialogue on race and ethnicity.

The church is on its fourth "Black Lives Matter" banner after the others were defaced or stolen. The current one hangs higher than before.

"We don't think the holy work happens only inside the church," Olson said. "Part of the richness of our history has been the permeability of the building and the neighborhood."

Colter, the board president, became a Unitarian after spending 40 years as a Baptist minister. In his old church, he said he constantly stretched the bounds of the belief system and wanted to find a more comfortable fit in retirement.

He is overcome with emotion when he thinks about the work the church did on his behalf — long before he knew it existed. Colter, 71, is a black man who grew up in South Carolina and Washington.

"This church has stood for equal rights and equality throughout its history," said Colter, who lives in the Coldstream Homestead Montebello neighborhood. "The work they did with the abolitionists, in the '60s for civil rights, those things always touch my heart.

"This church was fighting for me when I didn't even know it was fighting for me."

Charles Blackburn, who was inspired to become a Unitarian minister in 1954 during McCarthyism, stood hand-in-hand with the Baltimore church during his fight for equal rights.

Blackburn, now 83, was a lead plaintiff in a landmark same-sex marriage lawsuit in Maryland. He said the church backed him during the long and unsuccessful court battle.

But on Feb. 17, 2013 — the year gay couples could finally marry in Maryland under a new state law — Blackburn and his partner of 30 years, Glen Dehn, were married on the church rostrum. Almost every pew was full.

Blackburn, a singer, said he wanted to end the service with a song he had sung for much of his life with poignancy and bitterness: "Somewhere" from the Broadway musical "West Side Story."

There's a place for us, a time and place for us, Blackburn sang to his husband.

"On that day, I sang it with overwhelming conviction," he said. "We had found a place for us, and this church was a very big part of why."

Baltimore Sun research librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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