Religious education has served as a cornerstone for our congregation. Cedar Lane, our “mother” church, had expanded to three School of Religion classes each Sunday and demand continued to rise. When our founders started thinking of starting a new congregation in Bethesda/Chevy Chase, they received the welcome news that Muriel Davies, widow of the inspiring Rev. A. Powell Davies, was interested in organizing our School of Religion and serving in an administrative capacity. Muriel officially started with River Road in May 1959, and she stayed until December 1970. We honor her important role in our founding with the Muriel Davies Award for Excellence in Religious Education, given each spring to individuals who have made a positive difference to our children’s religious education.
Without a proper building at first, we held worship and Sunday School classes at Radnor Elementary School, and eventually classes also spilled over into Whittier Woods Elementary School. The principal at Radnor reluctantly agreed, with one of our founders remembering her saying we could use the space but wished we weren’t Unitarians! For our first Sunday at Radnor, we had 191 registered children, testifying to the need for the new congregation.
By the early 1970s, overall membership, along with registrations in RE, had dropped, in part because housing prices in the immediate area of our congregation had become prohibitively expensive and young families could not afford to settle nearby. Yet, our minister at the time, Rev. James Curtis, encouraged family and intergenerational workshops. He had children, teenagers, and adults share conversations and work toward understanding, a huge feat for this tumultuous time during the Vietnam War.
By 1977, River Road had hired a new RE Director, Maud Benjamin, who stayed nine years and gave fresh direction and life to the program. She offered a range of educational experiences for children and adults, including community worship services, mid-winter plays, and supervised trips and retreats for teens. She also started the Secret Pal Society, what we now call Mystery Pals.
Most people at River Road today do not know that we had a Minister of Religious Education before Ginger Luke. Our first MRE, Pat Hoertdoerfer, joined RRUC in summer 1991. We were her first congregation, and Pat spent a lot of time trying to educate River Roaders about what it meant to have a second minister—not simply a Director of Religious Education. She delved into the whole life of the congregation, with special passion for racial justice issues. She helped organize a special Saturday workshop and Sunday sermon on racism. She introduced the idea of having the congregation sing our children to their classes the one Sunday a month when children sat for the first ten minutes in the service. Pat left in summer 1993 to serve in UUA headquarters; her husband had never been able to find a job in the DC area, so she went back to the Boston area.Pat recommended that the congregation consider Ginger Luke as her replacement. Ginger was serving as DRE in Minneapolis, but she needed to finish some work there before she could join RRUC in 1994. Ginger admits that she has a talent for turning medium-sized churches into large churches when it comes to religious education. And that is exactly what she has done at River Road. When she first started here, RRUC was transitioning to two services, and she insisted that both services have children’s programming. Since the first service had only 12 children enrolled at first, she did a type of one-room school that quieter kids enjoyed. To try to get more people to attend first service, Ginger recommended having children stay for the first ten minutes every Sunday, not just once a month. She also started Time for All Ages so that children heard the theme of the sermon for that day. People liked that idea so much, the second service folks insisted that their kids stay, too. Within five years, Sunday School enrollment had almost tripled. About this same time, Ginger began looking for a new assistant, and she found her in Dolores Miller. Dolores had a theatre background, and she embraced the summer program and had children acting and playing different parts as they learned about the Unitarian Universalist aspects of popular children’s stories by such authors as Dr. Seuss and Leo Leonni. Dolores also had tremendous energy and empathy for all the different ages, backgrounds, and abilities of River Road’s children. Dolores stayed for ten years (until 2008), eventually becoming DRE.Ginger, in the meantime, completed her seminary work and became our second MRE. She now serves as our Minister of Religious Education and Congregational Life, reminding us that she serves the whole congregation, whether social justice or pastoral care or religious education.River Road has also shown special attention to its youth. As Ginger joined RRUC, the Board also accepted a financial gift from a member to hire a youth assistant. With time, RRUC elevated that position to a youth coordinator, under Jan Taddeo, and finally a Director of Youth Ministry, under Beth Irikura. Both Jan and Beth have excelled in accepting our youth for their talents and wisdom and needs. Some highlights of our youth program include the summer immersion trips to El Salvador, the Murder Mystery Dinner Theatre in January, and the always emotional youth service in the spring.