Unitarian Universalists Celebrate and Plan Ahead

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Byline: Mark Brown The Register-Guard

On the cusp of celebrating its centennial, the Unitarian Universalist Church in Eugene is experiencing some of the biggest changes in its history.

A man is in the pulpit for the first time in decades, and the liberal congregation is outgrowing its current home, putting a premium on Sunday seating and prompting a search for a new building.

In a ceremony today at the First Christian Church downtown - a venue big enough to handle the expected crowd - the Rev. Stephen Landale, who has been leading the local Unitarian Universalist church since last September, will be installed as the church's first male minister in more than 20 years.

"When I first arrived, I noticed some nervous remarks about my tie," Landale said. "I've since realized it has less to with gender and more to do with dressing up."

Landale, 39, was raised in upstate Pennsylvania in a Roman Catholic family with nine siblings, and has traveled a religious road fraught at times with tragedy.

After graduating from Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., in 1990 with a degree in urban and regional studies, he drifted for a couple years, feeling that he needed a cause - something more fulfilling than his job with the federal government could provide.

While staying at a friend's house in Washington, D.C., Landale, 23 years old at the time, awoke to the sound of gunfire. He looked out the window and watched in horror as a man repeatedly shot another man in what turned out to be a drug deal gone wrong.

He witnessed the violent murder at a time when he was just coming to terms with the death of his brother, Ray, who had committed suicide when Landale was just 9 years old.

"I had a very strong sense of connecting with the man who was killed and seeing him as family," Landale said. "It was only later in the day that I remembered that I had been thinking of my brother, that I felt a strong, intuitive sense that somehow my life's calling - my life's work - was somehow related to this event."

A friend had once suggested that Landale consider becoming a Unitarian Universalist minister. A couple of years after the murder, Landale enrolled in a seminary in Berkeley, Calif., where he became an active member of a local Unitarian Universalist church.

After graduating from the seminary in 1997, his winding road continued, and he spent two years working as a receptionist and newsletter editor at a Jewish temple in San Francisco before taking his final test to become a minister. Seven years after entering the seminary, he arrived at test time.

"I told people during those years that I was on the slow track," Landale said. "I really wanted to take my time and get the most out of it."

His first long-term ministerial position began in 2001 at the Bell Street Chapel, a 70-member Unitarian Universalist church in Providence, R.I.

The week preceding his first Sunday service saw the Sept. …