How First Unitarian of South Bend Rose from the Ashes
Editor’s Note: The First Unitarian Church of South Bend, Indiana, began as a fellowship in 1949 and was accepted as a member congregation of the American Unitarian Association in 1952. Member Dale Gibson wrote the following account of what happened when the congregation suffered retaliation for publicly opposing the Vietnam war. Suggestion for discussion groups: when your congregation takes a principled stand, what are the risks and what are the benefits?
When Rev. Joseph Schneiders was called to the ministry of the First Unitarian Church of South Bend in the spring of 1965, his record as a progressive had already been established in other UU churches. Upon his arrival in South Bend, his social justice work immediately resumed. He began by aligning himself with striking teachers and then followed Dr. King’s call for clergymen of all faiths to come to Selma.
Despite some rumblings in the congregation that Rev. Schneiders wasn’t spending enough time on church affairs, his work for peace and social justice continued. He became well known as a critic of the war in Vietnam and encouraged young men to resist the draft. He also worked tirelessly on programs to ease the effects of poverty. But with these many days and evenings of meetings and rallies, he would tire (he was not a young man), and often had to take several days off to recuperate from sheer exhaustion.
Then, in August of 1968, reactionary forces in the community responded. The church, an old wood-framed mansion with an addition, was fire-bombed. The old mansion was destroyed beyond repair, and the fire marshal would not permit any remaining part of the church to be occupied. Members were stunned and at a loss for how to continue.
To their credit, several churches in the area offered to let us use their facilities for our Sunday services, as long as it wouldn’t interfere with their own services. We began meeting on Sunday evenings at a nearby Methodist church. It was not an easy adjustment. Church programs, such as religious education, began to diminish. It was at about this time that the congregation got a big shot in the arm.
As a show of support, the Central Midwest District called on Unitarian Universalists from throughout the district to come to South Bend, and come they did. Unitarian Universalists showed up from throughout the district. A special service was held on that Sunday evening in October, and the church was packed. Members of the South Bend congregation were deeply impressed with this huge turnout, and especially grateful.
Following this tremendous show of support, the fire marshal decided to permit us to return to the portion of the church (the addition) that had not been gutted by the fire. With insurance money the church was able to build a new entryway and some attractive landscaping. By the early 1970s we were able to hire a new minister, Joel Schoefield. Rev. Schneiders had resigned in order to take a job with the Michigan Civil Rights Commission.
The First Unitarian Church of South Bend grew sporadically throughout the last decades of the 20th century. With the dawning of the new century, and without the space that had been available in the old mansion, it became clear that more space was needed. We finally moved into our new church home (pictured) in August of 2014. Yes, just 46 years to the month after that shattering fire of 1968. Under the leadership of Rev. Chip Roush, our congregation is flourishing. But instilled in our institutional memory is the tremendous show of support that we received from UUs from throughout the district back in the fall of 1968. While no one can say that this turnout of Unitarian Universalists was a decisive factor in our recovery, we can say that we were all deeply moved and filled with added motivation to carry on.
Schneiders & Fire-Bombed Church: Time Magazine, 11 October 1968.
New First Unitarian building: website of Michiana Unitarian Universalist Congregations
Opening celebration photos provided by Dale Gibson.
Cutting the ribbon for entry into our new church home, with president Gail deSomer and Rev. Chip Roush in the center.
Reception that followed the ribbon cutting