LONG BEACH — The new ministers began the church service by imparting keepsakes to their congregation.
Sam Wright gave a belt buckle fashioned from the horn of the first caribou he ever killed. "It meant we survived," had food to eat in the wilderness, he explained later. "It's a sacred item."
Billie Wright, his wife of 18 years, gave a clay figurine depicting a Mediterranean goddess that she said represents the role of women in theology and the "quality of interdependence and interconnectedness between humans and the universe."
Together they gave a sermon that brought tears to the eyes of at least one church member.
For 17 years they have lived in a tiny cabin in the Alaskan wilderness, only emerging to oversee the spiritual mending of churches. He has described himself as a Buddhist, a Muslim and a Christian. She says she is a feminist and a pagan. Both are Unitarians.
And for most of the next year they will be co-ministers to this city's only Unitarian Universalist Church as members of its congregation try to mend the wounds of an acrimonious debate that has bitterly divided them.
'A Breathing Space'
"It's a breathing space," said Lelia Wright (no relation), president of the church board of trustees, referring to the nine-month period during which the other Wrights have agreed to act as "interim" ministers. "It gives us a chance to consider where we want to go and what our strengths and weaknesses are," she said.
Added Jay Kay, another member of the board: "A year ago at this time, it looked like our days were numbered."
The church's problems began about two years ago when Rexford Styzens, its minister of 13 years, had a falling-out with certain elements of the congregation. Nobody is sure how it began. But in the months that followed, the disagreement developed into a bitter conflict pitting faction against faction in a full-blown debate over the future of the church and whether Styzens should have a role in it.
Church members now characterize the conflict as primarily a clash over ministerial style. "(Styzens) was a great lecturer," said Ashley Molk, a six-year member of the congregation, "but some of us felt he lacked personal spiritual closeness to the people."
Said Conrad Housley, an outspoken critic of the minister: "He was psychologically inaccessible."
Styzens, known for his devotion to liberal political causes, sees the conflict differently. "We're in a conservative backlash that I refused to recognize," he said during a recent interview. "There simply was no support for a socialist, progressive message in that pulpit."
The situation culminated in his resignation last February.
Church membership, said Lelia Wright, dropped from a high of 360 at the outset of the debate to about 298 immediately after the minister's departure. "Any time you have a sense of conflict, some members will stay away," the board president said. Recently, however, membership has begun to rebound and now stands at about 320.
For the past seven months, she said, the church--which traces
its roots to early Christianity but borrows from many religious traditions and imposes no particular creed on its members--has been meandering without professional spiritual guidance.
"It's as though we've been marking time," she said.
Enter Sam and Billie Wright, a couple that specializes in just such situations. Affiliated with the national Unitarian Universalist Assn. (UUA) fellowship in Boston, they are among a handful of roving ministers who spend much of their time trouble-shooting at Unitarian churches throughout the country. Sometimes the problems are financial. More often, they involve the loss of a minister through death, retirement or conflict.
The local congregation is paying them $34,000, including a housing subsidy, for their work.
"We give them time to re-examine their dreams of what kind of a church they want to be," explained Billie Wright. "We help them develop a profound and meaningful community."
Then they move on to the next congregation in need of counseling.
Communities in transition are nothing new to the Wrights, who won't reveal their ages because they say they don't want to be "categorized."
Journeyed to Arctic
In the late 1960s, the couple--he then a professor of human and social ecology at the Starr King Unitarian Universalist Seminary in the San Francisco Bay Area and she one of his students--journeyed to a tiny Eskimo village in the Arctic intending to spend a year's sabbatical studying the villagers' adaptation to changing values.
But the only way to really understand the Eskimos, they decided, was to emulate their life styles. So they returned to California long enough to pack their bags and say goodby. Then they moved into an 8-by-10-foot wilderness cabin in Alaska 200 miles from the nearest pavement and 50 miles from the closest neighbor.
In 1973 Billie Wright published a book called "Four Seasons North: A Journal of Life in the Alaskan Wilderness," based on her first year in the Arctic.