By Annette Hinkle
A Conversation with Rev. Alison Cornish who, after five years as the full-time minister at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Fork will soon be leaving the area for Philadelphia where she will take a position with the organization Partners for Sacred Places. This Sunday will be Rev. Cornish’s final worship service at the UU meetinghouse.
So tell me about what Partners for Sacred Places does.
The group works with congregations of all denominations in terms of their historic sites, their faith community, and their fundraising and leadership development and connection to the wider community.
It sounds familiar given what many congregations on the East End are dealing with in terms of maintaining their buildings while offering a whole host of programming and services.
My Interest is how do we keep places of faith at the center of the community not only through shared use and adaptive reuse, but how do we recognize they’re fundamental to what these communities should be.
It’s certainly where our roots [at the UU congregation] are — this evokes that, a place for community. Part of the work Partners for Sacred Places did was quantifying the public value of faith based community programming in churches. If we close our doors who’s going to replace the subsidized space? If the Whalers Church, heaven forbid, closed where are the AA meetings going to go?
Sometimes it’s about just going public. A lot of congregations are doing this work, but the public doesn’t know it.
What is currently happening at the UU meetinghouse outside Sunday worship?
We have three ACA [Adult Children of Alcoholics] meetings each week and we also host the Conservative Synagogue of the Hamptons and the Rainbow School.
In our building use policy, whatever goes in there has to reflect the principles of the Unitarian Universalists. We got a little pushback when we offered the “Vagina Monologues,” but I think that was more because it was the first public event presented to the community. But the board had talked about it extensively before inviting them, answered the concerns, and there was an agreement to disagree.
So these sorts of events and tenants really do help define the congregation.
Because the congregation set out to build a community meeting house, it’s an opportunity to have much deeper conversations about who we are. There are also things we’ve turned down because they might absorb too much energy of the congregation.
How has the congregation changed since your arrival?
It was very task oriented when I got there. They bought the land in ‘99, the church didn’t open until ’06 and my ministry began with tail end of the building project. They were still raising money, still meeting in coffee shops and living rooms. No one tells you how long a postpartum is on a building project. People were tired and had all these new things to deal with. It was all centralized, systemized and prioritized. So I thought, “Let’s have a conversation about life and death, things intimate and ultimate.” That started shifting the dynamics and we got to know each other instead of painting.
Then we put our backs into grooming the congregation, making sure we did our own work to open the doors wide to people of all sexual orientations. Over the past couple years its been more about visioning. What do we stand for in the local community beyond the UU principles and purposes? That’s really coming out on the side of protecting the environment, global climate change and immigration reform. Plus being there for the community.
It’s taken the congregation a long time to settle in and catch their breath after that work. But the mortgage is paid off on the building and that’s a big deal. With that kind a freedom what do you want to do? Where do you want go?
What would you like to see happen with the space going forward?
I would like a UU summer grogram or camp. There are a lot of the camps out here that are “doing” based camps, how about a “being” based camp? Summer use is probably where they can begin and weekday nights, we still could do more. I’d also like to see a resident arts group.
Are you going to miss preaching every week?
I’m going to miss it and yet feel relived. It’s bittersweet. It’s the heart of ministry and it’s also the hardest part — to use the pulpit responsibly, effectively and passionately.
This Sunday is your last as minister for this congregation. What happens next for them?
There’s a one month gap between me and the interim minister. The new interim, Rev. Nancy Arnold, will be there 18 to 24 months. She’s a trained interim and comes in and helps through the transition and to assist in the search process.
Whether the previous minister was successful or unsuccessful, the next one is going to be different. The congregation has to take a good look at itself.
Sort of like a mid-life crisis.
It is — it really is.
So will you still see you around Sag Harbor from time to time?
The community will see me …the congregation won’t. I need to stay out of the way of the new minister.
Good luck. You know, W.C. Fields said he’d rather be dead than be in Philadelphia.
I like Philadelphia.