Building More Than a Congregation

Rev. Alison Cornish moves on after establishing a place for progressives
The Rev. Alison Cornish is stepping down as minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Fork in Bridgehampton on Sunday.

    As she completes her ministry at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Fork in Bridgehampton on Sunday, the Rev. Alison Cornish can look back on the fulfillment of a congregation’s dream. As she departs to take a position with Partners for Sacred Places, a nonsectarian, nonprofit organization that helps congregations and communities sustain old and historic sacred structures, Ms. Cornish will remember the building of “a place where the community will feel at home, a place that people feel is safe and welcoming,” she said.

    For many years, the congregation, founded in 1985, met at various locations including the Water Mill Community House and what was then the Hampton Day School. In 1999 the congregation, seeking a permanent home and unable to find a congregation with which to share space, overcame a resistance to developing more land and acquired the property at 977 Bridgehampton-Sag Harbor Turnpike. Ground was broken a few years later, and construction was completed in 2006.

    “It was a long process,” Ms. Cornish, whose initial vocation was historic preservation, said. The building also represented a manifestation of the group’s courage. “When the congregation made that decision to build, there were only 35 members. But there was definitely an ‘If we build it they will come’ kind of feeling. Also, this is called the Unitarian Universalist meeting house: The congregation wanted to build a place for the community, the progressive community, the community that might not find itself welcome in other places. At that time, for us to have gay and lesbian members as the presidents of the congregation was a little unusual for the East End — not so much anymore. For our first public event to be ‘The Vagina Monologues’ was a little unusual for a faith community — not so much anymore.”

    The congregation hosts groups including the nonprofit Rainbow Preschool, the Conservative Synagogue of the Hamptons, Adult Children of Alcoholics, Guild Hall’s Naked Stage theater, a ballroom dancing troupe, and various musicians who have used the space for concerts.

    “We have really thrown our doors open to the community,” Ms. Cornish said, reflecting on the nine years of her ministry. Her presence in the congregation, however, long predates her ministry, which came about by way of unexpected circumstances but has allowed her to fulfill duties she described as difficult but “incredibly satisfying and worthwhile.”

    She joined the congregation as a member in 1989. As the membership was considering construction of the building that has become its permanent home, Ms. Cornish left to attend seminary at Andover Newton Theological School in Newton Centre, Mass. “I spent four and one half years training for the ministry,” she said. “When I finished that, this congregation ordained me. Much to all of our surprise, because it was not in the plan, I became their minister. It was coincident with the fact that the minister who was here was called to Iraq and needed to serve his country in that way. Suddenly, there was an opening here.”

    This, too, was the culmination of a long process. The call to ministry, Ms. Cornish said, had long been heard, and suppressed, until a telephone conversation with a state official about a preservation project. “I could tell he just wasn’t really ‘there,’ and I knew him well enough to be able to say, ‘What’s going on?’ He started talking about the fact that his grandmother had died, that he was given almost no bereavement time, and he just couldn’t focus on his work. We spent the next half-hour talking about that.”

    “I got off the phone and realized, ‘There are a lot of people who care about buildings, but I’m not sure there are too many who will hang in there with somebody’s grief and sadness and just listen.’ That’s what I feel like I’m called to do.”

    That incident, combined with the sudden cancer diagnosis of a close friend, spurred her to answer that call from within. “To my mind, there is nothing in our society like the context of a congregation, where there are all ages and relationships,” Ms. Cornish said. “The dynamics within a congregation, and between a congregation and the outside world, can be places where people learn, and sometimes learn what they never had an opportunity in their own families to learn: things like forgiveness, and second chances, and unconditional love.”

    “Inclusiveness has always been her gift,” Larry Darcey, a congregant and longtime activist for peace and justice, said of Ms. Cornish. “We were ahead of our time and still are.”

    Mr. Darcey and Ms. Cornish met 24 years ago, he said, during a two-year 12-step program on the environment. “Many years later Alison, as pastor of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Fork, continued to broaden her vision when she offered a five-week course at the John Jermain Memorial Library comparing mainstream religions. Eventually, I believe we developed a spiritual friendship supporting one another.”

    With the Rev. Nancy Arnold set to assume the title of interim minister on Sept. 1 — the position is defined as temporary, the responsibility to assist the congregation’s transition from the former permanent minister to the next — Ms. Cornish is returning to her initial career. “It’s more than just building care,” she said. “It’s really, ‘How do congregations relate to the community in such a way that their building sites become, as we’ve tried to do here, community centers? How do they become agents of transformation by opening their doors and welcoming the community?’ It will be some of what I have been doing here, but with all faiths and across the country.”

    In this way, her work will continue on a larger scale. Despite leaving the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Fork, “I really do believe in the life of the congregation,” she said, “which is why I’m going off and doing this work even in a time in this country when ‘What is the congregation of the future’ is a very open question. We have congregations closing, combining, stuck in — if not the Middle Ages, sometimes the 19th or early 20th century — and more and more secularization. You might look at that and say, ‘What’s the point?’ I still think people need a place to make meaning and engage in the big questions. Here we’re called to offer it.”

    “Alison will be missed,” said Mr. Darcey. “Blessed be on your new journey.”