Tag Archives: Westport Unitarian Church

Remembering Denny Davidoff

Denny Davidoff — a Westporter and pioneering advertising agency owner whose work with the Unitarian Universalist church helped shape liberal religion in North America, and inter-religious dialogue globally — died on December 7.

She was 85. In July she was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma in her brain.

Denny moved to Westport in 1959 with her husband Jerry — a lawyer and civil liberties advocate. They knew the town well: Both their parents had summer homes here.

In 1960 Denny joined Westport’s Unitarian Church. She became a leader locally, then nationally, fighting for gender equity and against racism. In 1973 she was chosen to be president of Unitarian Universalism’s Women’s  Federation. Her work helped lead to pioneering gender-inclusive language.

From 1992 to 2000 — as moderator, the highest lay position in national leadership — Denny wielded the gavel in what the church itself calls “sometimes unruly” debates. She preached in more than 100 congregations, and mentored generations of ministers and lay leaders.

Denise Davidoff speaks at this year’s General Assembly in New Orleans, her 50th consecutive annual meeting. (Photo/copyright Christopher L. Walton)

Denny held many other leadership positions. Until her illness, she worked for Meadville-Lombard Theological School in Chicago, supporting development of new UU ministers.

Denny was a board member and founder of the Interfaith Alliance, and its foundation. As a director of the Alban Institute, she consulted for congregations of many denominations.

Besides her role in religion, Denny was a leader in Connecticut business and politics. She founded her ad agency in Fairfield in the mid-1960s — the “Mad Men” era. She specialized in advertising for financial institutions.

Denny volunteered for non-profits, including the Westport Library, the NEON anti-poverty agency, and a mental health association in Norwalk. Her longest community service — beginning in 1992, and lasting to her death — was as a director and executive community member of The WorkPlace, helping create and manage programs in Connecticut and nationally.

Denny graduated from Vassar College. After running errands during the 1952 Democratic convention, she remained active in politics — and met her future husband on an election campaign.

In 2006 Jerry and Denny Davidoff received the Award for Distinguished Service to the Cause of Unitarian Universalism. (Photo/copyright Nancy Pierce)

Denny served on the Westport Democratic Town Committee, and ran ad campaigns for candidates throughout Fairfield County. She also provided advertising for Ella Grasso, the first American woman elected governor without being married to a previous governor.

She and Jerry enjoyed cruising the New England coast on their 38-foot sailboat. At home, she played show tunes and classical compositions on the piano. Jerry died in 2009.

Denny is survived by her sons Douglass of Bridgeport and John of Evanston, Illinois, and 4 grandchildren. A memorial service is set for February 3 (3 p.m.). Of course, it will be held at Westport’s Unitarian Church, on Lyons Plains Road.

 

5 Years After Sandy Hook: Candlelight Vigil Remembers — And Demands Action

Mark Barden lost his son Daniel in the Sandy Hook massacre. He will play guitar; his high school daughter Natalie will sing.

Speakers will include survivors of gun violence, from around the area. A gospel choir will sing.

Of course, candles will burn.

The event is a vigil next Sunday (December 10, 4:30 p.m., Westport Unitarian Church).

Sponsored by the church, Defendemocracy.com, Sandy Hook Promise and CT Against Gun Violence, it’s part of a nationwide effort to remember the 5th anniversary of that awful day — and enact meaningful change.

 

Westporter Darcy Hicks is one of the organizers. She says, “This vigil is one of hundreds across the country this week. We believe the best way to honor the half million people killed by guns since the Sandy Hook shooting is to insist on common sense gun legislation. The ongoing failure of Congress to take action is inexcusable.”

Hicks is organizing the vigil with the same women — Lisa Bowman, Nita Prasad and Lauren Soloff — who worked on Westport’s “Democracy on Display” march earlier this year.

They’ve gotten help from Defendemocracy’s Heidi Hammer, Sara Kempner and Cathy Rozynek.

It’s a community-wide effort, Hicks says, to address a national problem. For more information, click here.

 

Church’s “Black Lives Matter” Banner Gone — Again

The first time Westport’s Unitarian Church hung a “Black Lives Matter” banner on Lyons Plains Road, it lasted 10 months.

After it disappeared in August, church officials ordered a new one.

It was dedicated last Sunday — next to a “Hate Has No Home Here” sign.

This time, it took just 5 days before it too was gone.

It will be be back.

Rev. Dr. John Morehouse posted this message on Facebook:

“Every time the banner is vandalized it fortifies our resolve to replace it and underscores the very need for its existence.”

Church’s “Black Lives Matter” Banner Vandalized

It was unclear whether a recent toilet-paper incident near Old Mill Beach was related to a “Black Lives Matter” bumper sticker on the homeowner’s car.

But there’s no mistaking this vandalism.

Westport’s Unitarian Church is known for its focus on diversity, inclusion, openness and dedication to social justice. Its handsome building in the woods off Lyons Plains Road provides a safe haven for individuals, groups and causes of many kinds.

Last October — after a series of fatal police shootings of blacks — the church dedicated a “Black Lives Matter” banner. Speakers at the dedication included TEAM Westport chair Harold Bailey; State Senator Toni Boucher; 1st Selectman Jim Marpe, and Rev. Alison Patton of Saugatuck Congregational Church.

The Unitarian Church’s banner.

Unitarian Church representatives say the sign was “just a first step to engage with members of the congregation, local officials, interfaith clergy, and the community to affirm the need for dialogue and non-violent action towards the ending of racism in our society.”

When the banner went up, church officials fielded a number of phone calls. Some were supportive and thankful. Some were questioning. Some were opposed.

David Vita — director of social justice — says, “It made for lively, respectful conversations.”

In the early hours of Thursday morning — just days after neo-Nazis, the KKK and other hate groups marched in Charlottesville — the banner was ripped from its post.

The empty signpost.

Vita says, “It’s hard not to connect the destruction of the banner with a changed political climate, and an emboldened rise in racism.”

Senior minister Rev. Dr. John Morehouse adds, “We presume that those who took our sign feel that by removing it, they repudiate its message that black lives matter just as much as any other life.”

Marpe notes, “Given the current climate in this country and the state, the administration of our town and the Westport Police Department will not stand for this behavior. We will dedicate our resources to identifying the person or persons responsible for this vandalism. We urge our community to be respectful of the opinions of others and their right to express them, even if they may differ from their own. Hatred and bigotry are not welcome here.”

Police Chief Foti Koskinas says, “We support and respect the Unitarian Church, its members and their message of inclusiveness, equality and tolerance.  The police department is working with the church administration to prevent further incidents.”

All that remains of the “Black Lives Matter” banner. (Photo/David Vita)

The church is moving forward. This Sunday’s 10 a.m. service — planned before the incident — is “Heart of Racial Justice.”

Meanwhile, Morehouse promises to replace this sign. If it’s vandalized, it too will be replaced.

That will continue, he says, “until such a time as all lives — black, brown, gay or marginalized — matter as much as white lives do. We will not be intimidated by the forces of bigotry and hate.”

And, he notes, he will commit $100 to the NAACP whenever the banner is vandalized again.

(Anyone with information regarding the vandalism should call the Police Department detective bureau: 203-341-6080.)

Whipping Up A Community Thanksgiving Feast

After 46 years, you’d think the people organizing our annual Thanksgiving Day Community Feast would have their stuff together.

They do.

But in an attempt to make a fantastic event even better, they’ve added a few tweaks.

As usual, the meal — hosted by Saugatuck Congregational Church, in collaboration with Temple Israel, the United Methodist Church and Unitarian Church — takes place from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day.

As always, anyone looking to enjoy (and share) a holiday meal is welcome. There is no charge.

Last year, over 325 folks feasted together. The menu includes turkey, stuffing, baked and sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts, carrots and pies — all donated by local merchants and caterers. There’s live entertainment too.

A small part of the Thanksgiving Community Feast.

A small part of the Thanksgiving Community Feast.

Saugatuck Nursery School makes napkin rings. Coleytown Middle School bakes holiday breads. Temple Israel decorates place mats and banners. The Westport Garden Club provides fruit centerpieces for every table.

More than 150 volunteers — some from the religious institutions involved, others not — make it happen. They shop, prep, cook, serve and clean up.

Those volunteers are key. And that’s where one of the tweaks will make this feast the best ever.

Two volunteer shifts have been added for Wednesday, November 23: the day before Thanksgiving. That allows people with commitments on the holiday to help out too. The shifts start at 2:30 and 4 p.m., and run 90 minutes each.

Also new: head chef Raquel Rivers-Pablo. She epitomizes the volunteer spirit of the Community Feast.

Cehf Raquel Rivers-Pablo

Chef Raquel Rivers-Pablo

Classically trained at restaurants like Le Bernardin, she’s been recognized for her volunteer work with City Harvest, and attended the launch of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign at the White House. Chef Raquel has taught cooking and nutrition classes, and been lead chef at the West Side Campaign Against Hunger.

Now, she provides cooking education as part of the Urban Eats Culinary Training Program, and at food pantries, community meal sites, senior centers and Green Village Initiative community gardens.

Chef Raquel’s goal is to spread her love for food with as many people as possible. With all of Westport’s help, she’ll do exactly that next week.

(There are still spots available to help with the Community Feast. Click here to volunteer.)

Moth Radio Hour: Westport-Style

A while ago, Jane Green told a story for the Moth Radio Hour. It was recorded in front of a live audience at New York’s Cooper Union.

Jane Green

Jane Green

In June, the Westporter — and internationally renowned author — told Moth stories again, on stage at an old, lovely theater in Boston. She was  joined by a Jamaican writer, New York City doctor, Puerto Rican actress and Boston fireman.

If you don’t know the Moth Radio Hour, you should. Broadcast on 400 radio stations — including WNYC in New York — it makes “This American Life” sound like amateur hour.

Story tellers have no script, and use no props. They stand in front of a microphone, under a spotlight, facing a room full of strangers.

The Moth Radio Hour is real, true stories, told by real, true people. Some are humorous. Others are heartbreaking. Some are both. All are transfixing and addictive.

moth-radio-hourAlert “06880” reader — and very-interesting-woman-herself — Katherine Bruan is a Moth fanatic. She also loves Jane Green.

So, Katherine thought, why doesn’t Westport — a town filled with talented, charismatic people, many with diverse backgrounds and all of whom have stories — have our own Moth hour?

It could be once or twice a year, Katherine suggested, at the Westport Country Playhouse or library. It would bring the community together. We’d all be entertained, moved and uplifted.

It’s a fantastic idea. And — to Katherine’s, my and probably your surprise — it’s already been done.

Starting last fall, Tom Croarkin organized several similar events at the Unitarian Church in Westport. He calls them “Story Slams,” but they’re really Moth Radio Hours without the radio.

Each participant gets 5 minutes. They can’t use props. And their story must fit a theme.

The Westport Unitarian Church welcomes everyone -- including story-tellers.

The Westport Unitarian Church welcomes everyone — including story-tellers.

The first one — last November — centered around “Lying Through My Teeth.” The second, in February, was about “Lost and Found” (stories were figurative, as well as literal).

May’s theme was “Trouble.” Fifteen folks got up and told woeful tales.

The next Unitarian Church Story Slam is this Friday (September 23, 7 p.m.).The theme is “Vacation.”

There’s a $10 admission fee (it’s a fundraiser for the church). BYOB.

To RSVP (not required) or more information, email tcroarkin1126@att.net.

So start thinking about your vacation stories. I’m sure Jane Green has at least one good one to share!

Rev. Haffner Rallies For Reproductive Rights

Debra Haffner has attended plenty of Supreme Court rallies.

As co-founder and president of Religious Institute — the Westport-based  organization that advocates for sexual health, education, and justice in faith communities and society — she’s stood on the famed Washington steps. She’s demonstrated her — and her organization’s — commitment to access to contraception (the Hobby Lobby case) and same-sex marriage (Obergefell).

Yesterday, though, was the first time she had a spot on the podium.

Rev. Debra Haffner (center) speaking on the steps of the Supreme Court yesterday.

Rev. Debra Haffner (center) speaking on the steps of the Supreme Court yesterday.

The Center for Reproductive Rights — which represents medical caregivers in a case argued yesterday before the 8 justices (a Texas law would shut down more than 75% of all women’s health clinics that provide abortion services there) — organized the 4-hour rally.

Speakers included women from Texas who told their personal stories; healthcare providers, and a broad variety of faith leaders.

Haffner — who spoke soon after California Congresswoman Barbara Lee — noted that “people of faith of every religion support the right of individuals to make their own moral decisions.” She said that “clear majorities from almost every major religious tradition in the United States support safe and legal abortion.”

She said that Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Unitarians, Buddhists, Hindus — and “people who say they are spiritual but not religious” — support abortion.

In fact, she added, “1 in 3 evangelical Christians” support legal abortion.

Haffner noted that one of the 1st abortion clinics in the US was opened by clergy.

Rev. Debra Haffner

Rev. Debra Haffner

She said that abortion is not a sin. Rather, sins are “forced childbearing; denying people contraception, reproductive healthcare and sexuality education; and denying poor women, women of color and women in rural communities the same access to safe, accessible medical services that more privileged women have.”

Haffner — who is also community minister at Westport’s Unitarian Church — cited other sins too: poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and “ignoring the lives and needs of children who are already born for food, clean water, housing, health care, good education, and for their parents, support and good paying jobs.”

PBS Newshour led its evening broadcast last night with some of Haffner’s remarks (click here for link):

Debra Hafner PBS News Hour

Haffner will retire on April 30. But until that day, she speaks loudly and strongly for the organization she founded.

Many people are listening. Last weekend, Religious Institute coordinated a national weekend of prayer. Nearly 100 congregations in 25 states — representing 19 faith traditions — prayed for everyone affected by reproductive laws. And for the Supreme Court justices who will rule on the case heard yesterday.

“People of faith support reproductive justice,” Haffner says. “The other side does not have a monopoly on this issue.”

Helium Brothers Land In Westport

Toad’s Place may be Connecticut’s favorite indoor music venue.

But that’s New Haven. Westport once had live music too. Anyone living here in the 1970s and early ’80s remembers 3 great spots: Grassroots. Players Tavern. Tin Whistle.

Each was different. Grassroots was a folk-oriented coffee house next to National Hall (then Fairfield Furniture), on the Post Road just over the river.

Players Tavern was a rockin’ place, with great bands and a less-than-observant attitude toward things like legal IDs.

Tin Whistle was a restaurant/bar (now the site of Westport Hardware Mumbai Times), with a variety of music.

This undated menu from Players Tavern mentions upcoming gigs by Papa John Creach, James Montgomery, Pat Metheny , James Cotton, Gil Scot Heron, Dave Edmonds, Nick Lowe -- and the Helium Brothers.

This undated menu from Players Tavern mentions upcoming gigs by Papa John Creach, James Montgomery, Pat Metheny , James Cotton, Gil Scot Heron, Dave Edmonds, Nick Lowe — and the Helium Brothers. (Click on or hover over to enlarge.)

Nowadays, you can hear live music on Bobby Q’s roof (in summer), the Black Duck (occasionally), and the Levitt Pavilion (but that’s not the same).

And, from time to time, at places like the Unitarian Church.

Every so often, they sponsor the Voices Cafe coffeehouse. There’s one this Saturday (November 14, 8 p.m.). What makes it “06880”-worthy is that the headline act is the Helium Brothers.

Thejazz/bluegrass/country/rock group has been around for 40 years. Recently, they performed a reunion show at Toad’s Place.

But they’re no strangers to Westport. Back in the day, they opened for former resident Johnny Winter.

And they performed regularly at — yes — Grassroots, Players Tavern and Tin Whistle.

Whatever goes around, comes around.

Even if it’s helium, brother.

Helium Brothers

Unitarian Church Seeks A Lift

When Westport’s Unitarian Church was built 50 years ago, the congregation was largely young.

The church itself still looks fresh and modern. But some of those congregants are still around. And one thing they didn’t think about back in 1965 — accessibility of the sanctuary — now haunts them.

“Some members just can’t come anymore,” says Bobbie Herman. As a trustee of the church, she stands at the door and watches people struggle to get up the hill from the parking lot. A number of steep wide steps separate the lot from the front door.

The steps leading up to the Unitarian Church's front door.

The steps leading up to the Unitarian Church’s front door.

There are side entrances on the lower level. But once inside, it’s a long flight of stairs to the sanctuary.

Members studied options like golf carts. But those are volunteer- and weather-dependent.

The best solution seemed to be a hydraulic lift. It’s 25 square feet, and can hold 3 people.

Planning and Zoning director Larry Bradley gave an initial okay. But he asked for a detailed survey, and discovered that with the placement of the lift and moving handicap spaces, the church would be over its legal coverage.

“Handicap ramps are exempt from coverage,” he explains. “Lifts and parking spaces are not.”

This is the type of lift the church would like to install.

This is the type of lift the church would like to install.

The changes needed to be in compliance — including an additional site plan, wetlands survey and work to the property — would substantially increase the cost of the lift, Herman and church building and grounds committee head Chuck Colletti say.

They’ve raised $30,000 from members so far. They don’t think they could swing the additional “huge” costs.

Colletti and Herman say that 2 acts — Americans with Disabilities, and Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons — compel them to make their church accessible to all.

The Unitarian Church is asking for a Planning & Zoning Commission text amendment, to legalize their lift and amend the definition of “total coverage” to exempt handicapped parking. They’re on the agenda this Thursday (July 16).

“All we want is a 25-square foot platform, to built a lift,” Colletti says.

“This is not about whether I like the project or not,” Bradley says. “My job is to enforce the zoning regulations, as they’re written.”

 

Rev. Haffner: A Washington Witness For Same-Sex Marriage

As president of the Religious Institute — the Westport-based organization that advocates nationally for sexual health, education, and justice in faith communities and society — Rev. Debra Haffner has done plenty to advance the cause of same-sex marriage.

Religious Institute logoShe helped gather signatures of 1,900 faith leaders on a friend-of-the-court brief, aimed at countering religious arguments against same-sex marriage prior to today’s Supreme Court hearing on 4 related cases.

She helped organize last Saturday and Sunday’s National Weekend of Prayer for the Freedom to Marry. More than 315 congregations from 46 states participated in responsive readings and prayers for “the wisdom of justices, the skills of attorneys and the well-being of plaintiffs” in the days ahead.

A scene from Sunday's prayer service at the National City Church in Washington, DC.

A scene from Sunday’s prayer service at the National City Church in Washington, DC.

On Sunday, the Religious Institute co-sponsored a prayer service at Washington’s National City Christian Church.

Rev. Haffner — who also serves as community minister at Westport’s Unitarian Church — was a worship leader at Sunday’s service. She was very moved — but there was more to come. She stayed in Washington 2 more days. “I wanted to witness history,” she says.

This morning she joined a faith rally at the Lutheran Church of the Reformation, 6 blocks from the Supreme Court.

She and hundreds of others then marched to the Court itself.

Rev. Haffner has been to the Supreme Court twice in the past 2 years. Those cases were huge: Windsor, which advanced the right to same-sex marriage, and Hobby Lobby, in which the justices ruled that a business can choose to be exempt from a law its owners religiously object to.

Today, Rev. Haffner says, the crowds were much bigger. “There was a small band of ‘antis,’ with pretty disgusting signs,” she says. “But we outnumbered them 10 to 1.”

Rev. Debra Haffner and Rev. Yvette Flunder, founder of a multi-denominational fellowship of 56 primarily African American churches.

Rev. Debra Haffner and Rev. Yvette Flunder, founder of a multi-denominational fellowship of 56 primarily African American churches.

The Supreme Court heard 2 1/2 hours of arguments — an exceptionally long time. Throughout the morning, Rev. Haffner and others stood outside. “There was some singing,” she says. “But mostly, witnessing.”

She wore her clerical collar and stole. “So many people came by and thanked us for our witness,” she says.

On the train back to Westport, she read expert analyses of the arguments.

“It sounds like less of a slam-dunk than we thought,” she says. “Justice Kennedy — the swing vote — seemed to be unreadable.

“But I think this is a decision whose time has come. It’s time to ratify what a majority of people across the country already know: that everyone deserves the right to marry.”

The justices will rule in June.

Rev. Debra Haffner and Harry Knox. He is the president and CEO of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.

Rev. Debra Haffner and Harry Knox. He is the president and CEO of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.