By Marie Wells, 2006. Revised by the UUFKC, 2011.
In the spring of 1953, a group of progressive, like-minded people came together and started a Unitarian fellowship in Bakersfield. Meetings were held in the homes of the various members and consisted of reviews of Unitarian literature. Within a year, board minutes and newsletters were being issued. In another two years, the articles of incorporation were signed. The Fellowship was on its way!
The situation was up and down for a number of years, however. With no permanent minister, few people in the community familiar with the American Unitarian Association, and no permanent home, it was difficult to sustain enthusiasm and membership. However, a persistent core of passionate and dedicated members held the Fellowship together and new programs were gradually instituted, including Religious Education, a Women’s Alliance, and a number of social events.
By 1960, things had improved enough that a part-time minister was called to serve the Fellowship; Rev. James Hawley was so well-received that his contract was renewed through 1961. In that year as well, the Unitarians and Universalists merged, and a new era for the denomination began. But the roller-coaster ride continued. Even though the Fellowship celebrated its tenth anniversary in 1963, it became clear that it could no longer support even a part-time minister.
For the balance of the 1960’s and through the 1970’s, the Fellowship carried on with its various programs while membership continued to fluctuate. However, bigger plans would soon be in the works.
In 1975, Clif Gordon, a retired Unitarian Universalist minister, and his wife, Helen, joined and became very active in the Fellowship. Clif Gordon became effectively an unpaid volunteer minister. They were very influential members of the Fellowship until 1995, when Helen Gordon retired from her position at Bakersfield College and the Gordons moved to Santa Barbara.
The wanderings continued, and the Fellowship occupied a number of different locations around the Bakersfield area. Dreams of a permanent sanctuary building began to take hold, led by Rev. Gordon. In 1982, five acres of land in southeast Bakersfield were purchased; the first service in the new building was held on December 19, 1982. In the time since, the building has been remodeled; the religious education room became a communal kitchen, and RE moved first into a trailer and then into a new activities building. And there is plenty of room yet to grow!
In September 2003, a gala fiftieth anniversary celebration of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Kern County was held. It was impressive to see how much the Fellowship had grown and changed over the past five decades.
The Fellowship has enjoyed the services of several excellent ministers through the years, including Rev. Jane Bechle, Rev. Bob Klein, Rev. Tom Schmidt, Rev. Stefanie Etzbach-Dale, and Rev Byrd Tetzlaff.
Since the summer of 2010, the Fellowship has benefitted from the insight and leadership of Consulting Minister Dr. Liora Gubkin Malicdem, who brings with her twenty plus years of academic and teaching experience and a wealth of spiritual and religious knowledge. Liora holds a Ph.D. in Religion from the University of Southern California. In addition to her tenure as UU minister holds a Professorship in Religious Studies at California State University, Bakersfield.
With Liora’s leadership and a committed board of trustees, the Fellowship is growing. This year, we have affiliated with Community Minister Rev. Denis Letourneau Paul, BodySoul Care Program Coordinator of the Faithful Fools Street Ministry in San Francisco. Rev. Denis brings a focus on social justice education for adults and youth.
Through its Sunday services, its many youth and adult educational programs such as Food for the Spirit and the UU Parenting Group, its Social Justice program, and a recent partnership with the Zen Fellowship of Bakersfield, the UUFKC continues to stand as a welcoming and accepting community for those seeking a progressive spiritual home in the Central Valley.
For more on the origin and history of Unitarian Universalism, see the informative UUA pamphlet “Unitarian Universalist Origins: Our Historic Faith” by Mark W. Harris.