When members of the Northwoods Unitarian Universalist Fellowship (NUUF) gather on Saturday, Aug. 23, to mark the silver anniversary of its founding, there will be much to celebrate.
The creation of NUUF is a simple but enduring story much like the one told in the iconic film, “Field of Dreams” – this year, coincidently, marking the 25th anniversary of its release.
In the film a couple had a dream to build a baseball diamond on their farm, and despite the obstacles, magical things happened when they did.
“If you build it, [they] will come.” That famous line not only prophetically described a dream fulfilled on a field in Iowa, but what happened in a forest in Wisconsin’s Northwoods.
Paul Braunstein and his wife, Irma (now deceased), conceived the idea of establishing a local Unitarian Universalist (UU) Church.
“We’d been members of Farmington, Mich., Universalist Church since the late 1950s,” Braunstein said. “When we retired up here, we missed it. We’d drive to Wausau to attend services.”
It was at one of these services that Irma Braunstein approached the executive director of the UU Central Midwest District about starting their own church in the Lakeland area.
Encouraged by the support for their idea, in early 1989, the Braunsteins put an announcement in The Lakeland Times about an organizational meeting at their home.
Fifteen individuals from across the Northwoods, mostly strangers to each other then, gathered to discuss the possibility of establishing a church.
With help from a minister in Wausau, the group organized and grew to include 21 people, one more than necessary to file a formal application for recognition by the national Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA).
For the first year of their existence, the group met in each other’s homes.
Dr. Patty Buehler fondly remembers cradling her eight-month-old son on her lap during those early gatherings. In those days, many of the members had young children, so meetings were pretty lively.
As participation grew, their homes began to feel cramped, so they moved their gatherings to the third floor of the Minocqua Center.
“The town was generous,” Terry Hoyt said. “They not only let us meet; we had large community social action gatherings there, too.”
Even now, he nostalgically recalls the panoramic view of Lake Minocqua from the third story windows. When the congregation decided it was time to move, Toni Lieppert-Polfus, recently retired AV-W art teacher, had the congregants, whose number had grown to 36, paint watercolor versions of the view. The collage she compiled of those paintings currently hangs in the UU Fellowship.
By 1994, commitment had become so strong that land at the corner of Woodruff Road and Peggy’s Lane in Woodruff, a location easily accessible from Highway 47, was purchased as a building site for a church. To save money, members of the congregation cleared brush, laid the foundation, taped drywall, painted, stained, insulated, and hung cabinetry.
On May 7, 1995, the Fellowship dedicated its new building on the heavily wooded property where it stands today.
As the Fellowship continued to grow, the facility became too small. According to Hoyt, the original structure was built “with an eye toward expansion,” so additions were seamlessly added to the
east and west sides of the original building.
The church, invisible from the road, its footprint gentle upon the land, its large windows inviting in light and providing a view of the forest and birdfeeders hanging outside, is a modest structure by many denominations’ standards.
A naturally landscaped memorial garden, a place for quiet contemplation, is tucked at the end of a wooded path. The simplicity is purposeful, in keeping with one of UU’s core principles: The respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
Though the Unitarians and Universalists (once separate but consolidated in 1961) have a long history in this country and include many famous reformers and humanitarians, in addition to three of this country’s first six presidents (John Adams, John Quincy Adams, and Thomas Jefferson), there is little broad understanding of this religion.
While Unitarian Universalism does not subscribe to a set doctrine, it takes inspiration from the world’s great religious traditions and has seven core principles by which members live. Beyond that, individuals are encouraged to find greater meaning in their lives by seeking what is true for them.
The faith is more about the way you live your life than simply about what you believe.
It is often said that rather than believers, Unitarian Universalists are seekers, encouraged to question and challenge pat answers to life’s deepest mysteries. That is why at its bi-weekly services, various individuals, including lay people as well as guest ministers from across the country and from various denominations, present thought-provoking sermons on topics ranging from ecology to mysticism.
Few NUUF members grew up in the Unitarian Universalist tradition. Many have found their way to the Fellowship after being raised in other denominations. Some are non-believers who find companionship among people with like values. Others want their children to be raised in a spiritual community with a humanistic focus.
One relative newcomer, Bob Hanson, who is currently serving as NUUF president, summed up his reasons for becoming a Unitarian Universalist late in life. “It is the most thought-provoking and challenging place I’ve found, and that’s why I’m there.
A core Unitarian Universalist value is promoting justice, equity and compassion in human relationships.
To that end, in 2003, after a summer-long education program giving members a clearer understanding of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) issues, NUUF voted unanimously to become a welcoming congregation that performs civil unions.
Among its proudest social justice activities, first introduced in 2002, is the celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the only area-wide acknowledgement of its kind.
The event has grown each year. It began with local speakers and a candlelight vigil. In recent years, representatives from the Southern Poverty Law Conference in Montgomery, Ala., and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have spoken.
In 2014, NUUF partnered with St. Matthias Episcopal Church to further expand involvement.
“If you build it, [they] will come.”
The Braunsteins had a simple dream to start a church.
At that first gathering in their home, no one foresaw that in 2014, NUUF’s 80 members would be celebrating the 25th anniversary in a debt-free church.
They could not have known that members would come, not only from the greater Lakeland area, but from locations as wide-reaching as Tomahawk to the Upper Peninsula, and Park Falls to Rhinelander. They could not have predicted that summer residents would return year-after-year from Arizona, Florida, and Tennessee to that welcoming Fellowship in the woods.
At age 90, Braunstein finds his greatest satisfaction comes from new people attending the Fellowship.
“Seeing these new faces in our ‘home’ is thrilling; to me, it’s meant everything,” he said.
For more information regarding
Unitarian Universalism, visit www.uua.org.
For more information regarding services and activities at the Northwoods Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, visit www.nuuf.com.