CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Fate and faith brought Mel Hoover and Rose Edington together, and their journey together has crossed state lines, religious denominations, racial barriers and decades before coming to rest in Charleston.
Hoover and Edington are the co-pastors of Unitarian Universalist Congregation on Charleston's West Side. The duo, who have served as co-pastor's of the church for 11 years and have been married for 43 years, will retire at the end of January in order to pursue "the love-community model that calls us to our better selves."
They won't preach every Sunday any more, but the two say they will remain close to the church they chose together -- Unitarian Universalism, the "questioning faith" rooted in the idea that every individual has worth and is therefore worthy of religious redemption.
"It's a place where you can bring your whole self and your doubts, and find a place to create a community with fellow seekers," Edington said.
"You can even bring your certainties," Hoover countered. "As long as you allow people to have other certainties."
Unitarian Universalism is the result of the merger of two faiths in 1961. Unitarianism, founded alongside Calvinism but diametrically opposed to many of its doctrines, rejects many traditional Christian concepts, including the holy trinity -- in favor of the idea of a singular god -- and predestination and original sin. Universalism, founded in the late 1700s, is another Christian tradition that views all people as fallen creatures who will eventually be restored to a relationship with God, and believes that Hell does not exist in the traditional sense.
"We do not limit ourselves to one book, as one of our commitments is to seek truth wherever it is found," Hoover said. "People often said that Unitarianism was founded in questions, so it was know as the 'questioning faith.' That has always been part of it -- skepticism. It's okay to bring that with you, because what's true today may not be true tomorrow if you gain new knowledge."
UU was a young religion when Hoover and Edington met in the late 1960s, when change became the driving force in communities across the country and the two were seminarians at Colgate Rochester Divinity School in Rochester, N.Y.
Before then, their paths had been wildly divergent -- Edington was a Southern Baptist from St. Albans and a graduate of Alderson Broaddus College, and Hoover was an Episcopalian from Columbus, Ohio, who had decided to enter the ministry his senior year of college in 1968 -- specifically, after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
"I could literally hear Dr. King in my head saying these words: 'The beloved community is the hardest job that anyone could ever undertake. I can't do it anymore; you and others have to.' I literally left there, went home and filed my application to go to seminary," he said.
Edington had chosen Colgate Rochester in an act of defiance; the St. Albans community had expected her to attend Southern Baptist Seminary, but she said she had a sense that something else was in store for her.
"I worked at the West Virginia Baptist camp for a while, and when the ministers there got together and said they were praying for me, that I would go to Southern instead of to Colgate Rochester -- because they were afraid I would be 'ruined' if I went to Colgate Rochester -- I was like, OK, I know where I have to go," she said.
They met during Hoover's second year and Edington's first, when she started working in the seminary's cafeteria and Hoover spotted her on the arm of another man there and felt a sense of déjà vu.
"I remember seeing a woman in my dreams, in different settings, but I always remembered exactly how they were dressed," Hoover said. "I was sitting in the women's center because the sexism of the time meant that the women who were there would make breakfast for all the students before they went to class. I was sitting there, and Rose came in through the door.
"I looked up, and I saw this person dressed in the colors I'd always seen in my dreams. There were only two things wrong with this picture -- she was on another guy's arm and she was white. I'd been part of black power and the civil rights movement, and although there had been interracial couples in my family before segregation, I'd made a political commitment -- at the time."
The breakfast tradition only lasted a semester after Edington got there -- one of many changes that occurred on campus during that time. The year before, Hoover participated in "the great lock-in" ("or lock-out, depending on which side of the doors you were on," Edington said) in which 20 black students and former students barred all of the doors to the school to protest the loss of scholarships and breach of trust from the school's administrators.
"They'd made commitments to us, too, that they would hire staff and board members of color," Hoover said. "The next three weeks there was a series of meetings within the seminary asking 'what should we look like if we're trying to be the beloved community?'"
"We literally lived a lot of the realities of the country in a very compact couple of years, and it shaped us," Hoover said.
The two were married in 1970. After graduating from seminary in the early 1970s, they focused their efforts on "justice ministry" -- instead of preaching to a congregation, they worked in outreach.
Their journey carried them from integration work in the Rochester school district to Stanford, Conn., where Edington worked editing the Vineyard Bible and spent a stint as director of a sexual abuse crisis center. Their daughter was born in 1978, and the couple adopted two older sons, which they said influenced their decisions to convert.
"I was too alienated from congregations then, and I was really angry," Edington said. "I was mad that I thought that I had been mis-educated about a lot of religious stuff. I was a woman, and I felt like women were so discriminated against in churches that I didn't even know if there was a place for women in the church."
The two converted in 1980 and transferred their ordinations to UU in 1984. Three years later, Hoover was offered a job as a director within the national organization, and the family moved to Boston, where they lived until 2002, when a confluence of factors brought them to the Mountain State.
"I missed the hills," Edington said. "There's something about being from West Virginia; the hills get into your blood, and you never really leave them. There was the opportunity to come back here to make a difference in the valley and the state; this is a very accessible state -- you can go to your governor, you can go to your legislators and get to know so many people. You can be influential just by opening your mouth."
They have since spent 11 years at UUC on the West Side, and plan to continue to be part of church life, after they've given the interim minister "some space" with the congregation. The two will explore their own interests -- Hoover plans to become even more involved with the West Side revival effort, and Edington recently joined the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition board.
Their final service will be held Jan. 26 and will include a "flower communion" -- something the two introduced to Charleston more than a decade ago when they were asked to perform a service on the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Participants are encouraged to bring a flower to the service, and everyone will take a flower during the course of the ceremony.
"It based on this idea that everyone in the congregation has something to give, and everyone has something to receive," Edington said. "The vase symbolized the congregation space and the flowers were like our congregants."
A retirement ceremony and dinner for Hoover and Edington will be held Jan. 23 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Women's Club of Charleston on Virginia Street. Tickets are $30 and can be purchased at UUC. For more information, visit www.uucharlestonwv.org.Reach Lydia Nuzum at lydia.nu...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5189.