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Our history

Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists have a long and proud history in Berkeley. The First Unitarian Church of Berkeley was founded on July 12, 1891 in a space rented from the Berkeley Odd Fellows Temple. Thirty-two charter members signed the membership book at that time, and by the end of the year, the congregation had grown to fifty members (and about 100 attendees). In 1898, the congregation moved into its first building, a beautiful redwood structure at 2401 Bancroft, near the UC Berkeley campus. (This building has now been declared a Berkeley Landmark and still stands, centrally located on Bancroft near Telegraph. Photographs are available on the Berkeley Architecture Heritage Association website.)

During its early years, the congregation benefited from the influence with the Rev. Thomas Starr King (1860-1864), the First Unitarian Society of San Francisco (establsihed 1850), the University of California at Berkeley, and the Starr King School for Religious Leadership (est. 1904). By 1946, the congregation's membership had grown to a thousand members.

In 1960, the University of California acquired the land and the building which had housed the First Unitarian Church of Berkeley since 1898. The Congregation had already begun, in the 1950s, to build a new church on a piece of land donated by Bernard Maybeck in the town of Kensington in the Berkeley Hills. It was during this period that sixty families left the First Unitarian Church of Berkeley and formed the Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarians. Several reasons were named for the founding of this new fellowship, including differences of opinion during the planning for the new church building in Kensington and dissatisfaction with the church's minister, who some at the time considered too authoritarian. Perhaps most relevant to the Berkeley Fellowship's core values was the fact that the Berkeley Fellowship families shared a commitment to remain in the heart of Berkeley. The new Fellowship rented various facilities until 1957, when it purchased the current building, a small church built in 1911, at the corner of Cedar & Bonita in North Berkeley, very near to both the UC Berkeley campus and to downtown Berkeley. After the purchase of this church, the Fellowship built an adjacent building to house its Religious Education program.

The BFUU By-laws incorporated in 1957 stated the Fellowship's purpose as follows:

"Our purpose is to join together in a cooperative quest for religious and ethical values; to apply these values to the fulfillment of our objectives, which are: the development of character, the enrichment of the spirit, and the promotion of universal community and service to all humankind... Our basic underlying convictions are: that religious truth and scientific truth are compatible, that the democratic process shall govern all human relations, and that each individual has inherent dignity and the right to freedom of religious belief unfettered by any prescribed creed."

The Rev. Clark Olsen served as Minister-Coordinator of BFUU from 1962-1968. Rev. Olsen received financial support from one of his congregants at BFUU to enable him to undertake the journey to Selma, Alabama in response to a call to clergy from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.. On March 11, 1965 he was walking with fellow Unitarian ministers Rev. James Reeb and Rev. Orloff Miller when the three were attacked by angry white men. Rev. Reeb died shortly thereafter from injuries sustained in the attack. Events surrounding Rev. Reeb's tragic death hastened the passage of the federal Voting Rights Act, a crowning achievement of the Civil Rights Movement.

The Rev. Paul Sawyer served BFUU as half-time Minister from 1978 to 1984 and full-time until 1994. Rev. Sawyer was well known for his passionate social justice preaching, civil disobedience actions, and activism for many causes including media democracy, abolition of the death penalty, and economic justice. He is also known for his active role in the Berkeley counterculture of the '60s, including an honorable mention in The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe, for an incident in 1965 with Ken Kesey and his merry pranksters.

"My mother told me, 'You must live altruistically' and she raised me as a pacifist. ... I'd rather call myself a 'non-violent activist' than a 'pacifist,' because 'pacifist' sounds like you just sit there and let things come over you. I was a wrestler [in high school], and I believe in self-defense and taking people down and stopping them from doing injury. ... I've been arrested at political events around civil rights, around the death penalty, around nuclear power plants, around the peace movement." -- Rev. Paul Sawyer

BFUU is proud to have been the congregation to ordain the Rev. Dr. Jeremy Taylor, M.A., S.T.D., D. Min., in an era before Community Ministry had achieved formal acceptance within the UUA. Rev. Taylor has been a pioneer in the field of dream interpretation and exploration over the last thirty years. He is the author of several books on this topic and has served as Associate Faculty at Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, CA.

BFUU has enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship with many seminarians from Starr King School and Pacific School of Religion (PSR) in Berkeley, CA. Seminary students who were or are BFUU members in recent years have included Rev. Julia Older (presently serving the UU Congregation in Redwood City, CA), Hannah Wells (SKSM M.Div.), Laura Friedman (SKSM M.Div), Tom McAninley (SKSM M.Div.), Alex Rollin (SKSM student), Chris Griesemer (ML admittee), and Jeff Melcher (PSR student). These seminarian-members of BFUU have led many of our Sunday services, served on Fellowship committees and drawn inspiration from the experiences at BFUU as they grow in their professions.

The Rev. Pam Allen-Thompson served BFUU for six months in the position of Pastoral Care Consultant before beginning her ministry at the UU Congregation of Marin in San Rafael, CA in 2004.

The Rev. Kurt A. Kuhwald was hired as our Consulting Minister in the fall of 2005.

Who Are We Now?

BFUU is a dynamic UU congregation, which plays an important role as a progressive spiritual community in the heart of Berkeley. The Fellowship enriches the life of the surrounding community as a much-used and much-loved venue for social justice and cultural programs.

We are committed to welcoming all people, regardless of race, sexual identity, economic status, age, or religious belief. We have a history of welcoming people from all walks of life and many have found here friendship, community and a spiritual home.

Our Sunday services are led by our Consulting Minister and by dedicated lay volunteers from the Sunday Program Committee. They vary widely in terms of themes and presenters. We welcome a wide range of outstanding speakers to our pulpit on Sundays, including seminarians and clergy from various traditions and scholars and activists from many fields.

In 2003 our large and active Social Justice Committee received an award from the Pacific Central District of the Unitarian Universalist Association for our outstanding community activism. We are proud to believe BFUU is model of social justice activism and economic diversity within the Unitarian Universalist movement.

Resources/links:

First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco history
Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley (in Kensington) history
First Unitarian Church of Oakland
Landmark Berkeley Unitarian Church at 2401 Bancroft - photos and history
Jeremy Taylor's website
Starr King School for the Ministry history
New York Times article interviewing Rev. Clark Olsen; UU World article by Rev. Clark Olsen; UUA News article featuring a photo of Rev. Oslen.
Andover Bulletin Summer 2002 issue containing quote by and photo of Rev. Paul Sawyer '52