Humanism on the Prairie: The Unitarian Universalist Church of Willmar, Minnesota
Willmar (population 19,000) sits in the rural center of Minnesota, where both politics and religion are generally conservative. But generalizations usually have exceptions, and in Willmar many of these are supplied by the Unitarian Universalist congregation.
Example: in January 2017, about 20 Willmar UUs, after notifying the news media, marched from their church to a Somali-owned restaurant to have coffee and to join nationwide protests against President Trump’s ban on immigration from Muslim-majority countries, including Somalia. The Somali population in Willmar is Minnesota’s largest outside the Twin Cities.
The marchers carried bright yellow signs saying, “Standing on the Side of Love,” "Love Trumps hate," and "Were your ancestors allowed to immigrate?" Sympathetic passers-by smiled and waved to those inside. Some came in, and the restaurant soon became crowded.
The photo below, from a video taken by the West Central Tribune, shows church president David Moody accompanied by church members. Moody is conversing with people in the restaurant after reading a statement of support.
After the story of the march reached the news, the Minnesota State Composers’ Forum asked the congregation to be the hub of In Common, a year-long project in which composer Kashimana Ahua (pictured) will create new music in collaboration with people from Willmar’s ethnic groups, giving them an opportunity to tell their respective stories and discover what all members of the community have in common. At a kickoff meeting in July 2018, the composer was introduced to the community, and the project was launched.
A History of Social Action
The “Walk Out” to the Somali restaurant was not an unprecedented action for the congregation. In 1977, when eight women bank employees decided to strike against discrimination in pay and opportunity for advancement, the congregation was one of a few local groups and the only faith community to take their side. The two-year strike became a cause célèbre and the subject of a documentary film, The Willmar 8 (1981), which recognizes the support of the UUs.
The church has spoken out over the years against war and militarism, for separation of church and state, and for the rights of workers and immigrants, often when these values were not in fashion. During the Vietnam War, Rev. John Cummins, then minister at First Universalist Church in Minneapolis, advised young men in the area on how to apply for exemption from the draft as conscientious objectors. Members Audrey Arner and Richard Handeen helped organize a community food co-operative in Montevideo, Minnesota (about 40 miles from Willmar), after the Farmers Union groceries ceased operation. During the 1970s, food from the co-op supplied the kitchen at Lake Camp (see below). Audrey Arner was also a key organizer of the Land Stewardship Project.
How did this liberal congregation take root and develop?
Immigrant Beginnings and First Contacts with Unitarians
In the 1880s, the Molenaar and Bosch families immigrated to central Minnesota’s Kandiyohi County from the Netherlands, where they had belonged to a breakaway Catholic sect. In Minnesota they remained unchurched until 1911. In that year, Nellie Molenaar, a freshman at the University of Minnesota’s School of Agriculture in Saint Paul, started attending services at the First Unitarian Society in nearby Minneapolis. Her experience there captured her family’s interest. So began a long relationship among clergy at First Unitarian Society, the Molenaars, and other religious liberals in the Willmar area. Visits to Willmar by clergy from First Unitarian, especially the charismatic humanist John Dietrich, attracted young people. Nellie and her brother Richard conducted a Unitarian Sunday school from 1911 to 1913. Around this time, three marriages involving the Molenaar and Bosch families were performed by First Unitarian Society clergy. One of these was the first marriage performed by John Dietrich.
Dietrich’s radio broadcasts interested some Kandiyohi County residents, who in 1927 formed a group that by 1931 had grown to 175. Some in this group became charter members of the Unitarian Society of Willmar when it was formally organized at a meeting at the Harry Molenaar home in Renville on June 9, 1929. The constitution then written listed the promotion of humanism among the purposes of the organization. The group elected officers and planned a series of lectures on liberal religion. In those early years, the Society chose not to meet on Sundays so as to accommodate and attract those who were committed to other faith traditions.
The Great Depression and Penny Auctions
The financial stresses of the Depression turned some people in the Willmar area toward liberal religion. Many farmers lost their farms to foreclosure during these years, and the properties were sold at auction. A foreclosed farmer’s neighbors sometimes saved his property with the “penny auction” strategy: the neighbors would bid extremely low, stubbornly refuse to raise any bids substantially, and intimidate bidders who wanted to go higher. The winning bidder then sold the property back to the foreclosed farmer at a very affordable price. The minister at Willmar’s Dutch Reformed church condemned this practice as a violation of the bankers’ property rights. Some congregants who disagreed with the minister left this church and joined the Unitarian Society.
The group showed itself to be politically progressive in other ways. As World War II approached, they passed resolutions opposing war and supporting conscientious objectors. In 1945, they spoke out against continuing the military draft in peacetime. In 1951 they objected to sending General Mark Clark as US envoy to the Vatican. In 1955 they registered their objections to a proposal for universal military training.
Reaching Out to Other Unitarians
The assistance provided by the First Unitarian Society may have shown the Willmar congregation the benefits of making and maintaining contact with other Unitarian congregations. Whatever the reason, they liked making those contacts. During the 1920s, a major event for them was attending the summer conferences of the Minnesota Unitarian Association, which took place at the Nora Free Church in Hanska, over 90 miles away. For the Molenaars (pictured above), this was a gathering for the whole family.
One kind of outreach to other congregations produced much more than conviviality. The Willmar Unitarians called it Lake Camp.
Religious Education: The Lake Camp Solution
In the 1940s, not unlike today, most church members had to make long drives to attend services. Organizing Sunday RE classes in a small congregation was difficult to manage, as was finding teachers. In 1946, the Willmar Unitarians developed a creative solution that worked for 49 years, drawing support from urban churches and benefiting other small and isolated congregations. The church rented a campsite for one week in summer, during which volunteer teachers delivered a whole year’s RE curriculum, with time as well for crafts and outdoor activities. Teachers came from larger churches in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, from rural Minnesota cities like Hanska and Thief River Falls, and from Bismarck, North Dakota. Families that had moved far away came to Lake Camp to reunite with old friends. Lake Camp was also a resource for parents in the Church of the Larger Fellowship. Former camp director Linda Mork recalls, “Many of the kids came as six-year-olds and stayed until ‘graduation’ at sixteen. My favorite quote from a graduate was ‘I cried when I came and my mom left and I cried when I had to leave at 16.’ Many lifelong friendships developed at Lake Camp.” It folded in 1995, when enrollment had declined and the rented campsite had become unavailable.
A Sunday at Willmar
Small congregations learn how to recognize and use opportunities to enhance Sunday programming. When I contacted several Willmar UUs to get information for this piece, one of them invited me to come to a Sunday service, speak about the MidAmerica Region History and Heritage Committee, and then get some of the information I wanted by leading a panel on the history of the congregation! (I received much information electronically as well.) Impressed by this bold resourcefulness, I agreed; and with Janet, my plucky spouse, I made the two-hour drive to Willmar through a moderate snowfall and blustery winds on the last Saturday of February 2018.
At right - Current meeting place of the UU Church of Willmar, purchased from Christian Scientists in 1944.
The first member we sighted on Sunday morning was David Moody, the president, who was clearing snow from the church entry in the early sunlight. On this Sunday, the staunchly humanistic UUs of Willmar honored their Puritan forebears by making the gathering three hours long—but departed from that tradition by making it thoroughly enjoyable. First was a forum, an informal talk around a table about the history of the congregation. Then came the service, which included the panel discussion. The morning wound up with an excellent potluck lunch and more lively conversation. Janet had grown up in west central Minnesota, in a smaller but similar town, and came to UUism later in life. She enjoyed meeting UUs in an environment similar to that of her origins.
No New England emigrants or missionaries founded the Unitarian Universalist Church of Willmar. It came into being through a series of events catalyzed by young Nellie Molenaar’s visits to the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis in 1911. In 1916, John Dietrich came to First Unitarian and aroused interest among central Minnesotans with his radio broadcasts—probably creating a critical mass of members. And if a politically progressive element was needed, that was supplied by the people who sympathized with the penny auctions and disliked hearing them condemned from a Calvinist pulpit.
In 2019, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Willmar will mark ninety years as an enduring and prominent liberal voice in conservative central Minnesota.
- I am grateful for much information via conversations with Dale Handeen, John Handeen, Allan Molenaar, and David Moody, among others.
- Bring, O Past, Your Honor: Unitarian Universalism and the Area That Is Now Prairie Star District, a project by Prairie Star District Unitarian Universalist Professional Leaders Retreat. Ronald Knapp, Editor. April 1986. https://www.midamericauua.org/psd-heritage/bring/bring.pdf
- Lake Camp: Email from Linda Mork, May 20, 2018. Personal communication from Kent Bergh.
- Penny auction photo: https://livinghistoryfarm.org/farminginthe30s/money_10.html
- Photo of Unitarian Universalist Church of Willmar: LakesnWoods.com, A Guide to Minnesota Communities.
- “Walk Out”: Willmar church stands in solidarity with refugees.” West Central Tribune (Willmar, MN). January 29, 2017. Story by Gretchen Brown.
- Willmar 8 photo: West Central Tribune. https://www.wctrib.com/news/4208055-walk-out-willmar-church-stands-solidarity-refugees
Note on Nomenclature
According to filings with the Minnesota Secretary of State, the congregation was first named the Unitarian Society of Willmar (1944), then the Unitarian Church of Willmar (1991), and finally the Unitarian Universalist Church of Willmar (2003).
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