A Brief SUUF History
In its early years, SUUF was like “the little engine that could.” At times, although the terrain ahead looked awfully steep, the congregants committed themselves to ascend it, set off, persevered, and found themselves traversing hill after hill.
SUUF got off to a sputtering start when, in the 1980s, a small group of Unitarian Universalists met sporadically in several Sedona homes. That little group faded.
A decade later, however, in July of 1993, a few hardy souls set off to start a congregation here. Cae Fessenden got four people to join her in pledging the financial support needed to launch the group that was to become SUUF. Cae is considered the mother of SUUF, the spark plug who first inspired the Sedona Unitarian Universalists to found this Fellowship. She was a registered nurse (who had been the first Planned Parenthood nurse in Connecticut at a time when it was illegal and risky to do such work). She was a dynamic UU leader and, with her husband, Fred, a passionate environmentalist, as well.
In August of 1993, Cae led a caravan of 15 people up the canyon to the Flagstaff UU service, where they heard and met with Beacon’s new part-time minister, Joyce Smith. They spoke with her about coming monthly to speak in Sedona.
Upon her return, Cae shared this vision of a visiting minister back in Sedona, and soon got 10 households to make a financial commitment. With that support, on September 26, 1993, at 4:00 p.m., 30 years ago, at Kachina Point Retirement Village (now called Sedona Winds), Rev. Joyce Smith led SUUF’s first service. SUUF was born!
Over the next decade, SUUF held bi-monthly minister-led services at Kachina Point, interspersed with discussion-group Sundays held in members’ homes.
A decade after SUUF’s birth, in 2003, SUUF co-president Carl Cooper made a big decision. He decided it was time to apply to the national Unitarian Universalist Association to make SUUF an official UU congregation. To qualify, UUA required a minimum of 30 consistently attending members. They had almost enough. With great effort, Carl got a few more people to attend and sign up, until the 30 members mark was achieved. He then shepherded the paperwork through the district and national levels.
In hindsight, one might assume that was an easy task. But it wasn’t. To be a recognized UU congregation, the group would have to pay $50 per member per year to the UUA. Some members felt that was a waste of a lot of money, and quietly undermined Carl’s efforts in order to prevent the group from meeting the 30-member requirement. But Carl persevered and eventually succeeded. That early group had climbed this next steep mountain on SUUF’s journey—becoming an official UU congregation!
Over the next decade, SUUF continued meeting in a variety of places. Among them were the Church of the Red Rocks (on Sunday afternoons, after their own services were over), the Elks Club, and the Sedona Creative Life Center. They hosted a series of one-time speakers and part-time ministers who visited from out-of-town to lead a service, usually twice a month.
At the end of their second decade, in 2013, the SUUF congregation realized it had another mountain to climb. More consistency and stability were needed. Rev. Glenn Farley was hired to be the congregation’s leader, and the Sunday services were moved to the Sedona synagogue. The next year, Susannah Martin became SUUF’s Musician/Music Director. The group took a breath, looked around, and saw that they had indeed climbed another mountain successfully!
By the beginning of SUUF’s third decade, the group was moving along with ever greater confidence. In 2016, they became a Welcoming Congregation, a status for which many requirements, dealing with LGBTQ+ programming and practices, had to be met. The congregation has proudly continued to meet those requirements each year since.
Mid-decade, in 2018, a variety of changes occurred. Anthony Johnson began a year-long internship with the congregation, alongside Rev. Glenn. The men’s breakfast group and the women’s luncheons formed. Outreach efforts began focusing on the Sedona Food Bank Kids’ Backpack Program. Fund-raising events, such as dinners with music and auctions, were held. Throughout these years, congregants continued to address social justice issues, to protest and march for causes in which they believed.
The Sedona Hub became the location for services in September 2019; however 6 months later in March 2020, SUUF hit a rough patch, as did the rest of the world, during the COVID pandemic period. But they rolled up their sleeves and chugged up that mountain, too. Rev. Glenn continued to provide written and video sermons for the rest of that season, when he elected to resign. Virtual online services were provided the following year, with Rev. Robin Landerman Zucker and Rev. Anthony Mtuaswa Johnson offering sermons each month. The SUUF board did what it took to keep the congregation operating during that challenging time.
A burst of new energy emerged for SUUF when Rev. Anthony was hired as the minister starting September, 2021. The group cautiously resumed in-person services at the JSCVV synagogue, while wearing masks to protect each other’s health. That year, the Marketing Team started publishing a weekly ad and a news article in the Red Rock News. New ministry teams were formed to help do the Fellowship’s work: a Care Team, a Worship Associates Team, a Marketing Team, a Welcoming/Member Team, a Widening the Circle (now called Social Justice) Team, and later, a Finance Team.
In May of 2022, 10 new SUUF members were initiated. The “Widening the Circle” program was expanded to include three ongoing participant-led discussion and study groups. The groups met over the summer, and beyond, to explore the challenges faced by people in systemically marginalized groups in America. The groups were a monthly film group that discussed documentaries about the struggles of our less fortunate neighbors, a book group reading thought-provoking non-fiction studies of marginalized groups, and an “Evolving Elders” group that held theme-centered discussions of topics relevant to life in one’s senior years. These groups continue to meet in member homes.
In September of 2021, when in-person Sunday services had resumed at the synagogue, the average attendance was in the 40s. By the end of May, 2022, attendance often averaged in the 70s with attendance records in the 80s being set. Wonderful people were attending, joining, and telling their friends about SUUF. From May of 2022 to May of 2023, SUUF gained 34 vibrant new members. One visiting couple remarked, “This is the friendliest UU we’ve ever been to!”
At SUUF’s May, 2023, annual meeting, members voted unanimously to make Rev. Anthony Mtuawsa Johnson the congregation’s Settled Minister. In UU circles, that means there’s an understanding that the minister and the congregation are in an ongoing satisfactory relationship and plan to continue it for the foreseeable future.
SUUF is now entering its fourth decade. If the congregation, or better said, “an opportunity,” in the coming year. What’s the next hill to climb? How will we surmount it? How will the now mature SUUF congregation participate in identifying and achieving its next set of goals? Whatever lies ahead, the group is confident that SUUF now has, within everyone’s hearts, minds, hands, and souls, the power to do whatever it commits itself to do.
After SUUF’s 30-year celebration on September 24, 2023, we’ll set off on our fourth decade of congregational life!