Leslie Kinney’s path
Most of my time living in Vermont is connected to this building and to this congregation. It can be hard to separate the building from the congregation but there are different associations. Places, particularly our West Village Meeting House, evoke memories and invoke possibilities.
I arrived here in the mid-1970s. My first connection with the building and the congregation was for a job, typing up the church newsletter. Each Wednesday, I biked up to this beautiful building on the hill to type. Since I was preparing materials for the congregation about services, I thought I might as well get involved and began meeting members. I attended services and many community events — concerts, theatrical performances, lectures and political rallies. A vagabond of sorts, I was moving around a lot. For a year in the late 1970s, the West Village Meeting House had a live-in caretaker. When he went on vacation I moved into his little room in what is now our nursery with my dog, quite thankful to have the dog with me as it was a bit spooky alone in the middle of the night. I have vivid memories of washing the floors at midnight between Saturday night concerts and Sunday morning services.
In the 1980s I began working in Massachusetts but my Vermont activities were often wrapped up with this building and congregation. I became a member and served on the Board and committees. Some of us formed a TV production crew, known as Meeting House Productions. We had shows on BCTV highlighting human services and interviews with local celebrities. We broadcasted area events and selectboard meetings and created a documentary of Brattleboro’s sister city project with Cherkessk, Russia.
Even as we thought about relations with soviet bloc communities, our attention turned to U.S. involvement in Central America. At All Souls we deliberated becoming a sanctuary congregation for refugees from El Salvador with the thought of providing a sanctuary home at the Meeting House. This led to some fiery debates and ultimately we joined other faith groups to form the Interfaith Sanctuary Project, housing an El Salvadoran couple and their extended family in community apartments. For me, the West Village Meeting House and All Souls meant social justice and social action. At the same time, church and building finances were also a growing concern. The congregation continued to deliberate endowment and building needs, considered (and rejected) co-ownership possibilities, and continued to pursue rental arrangements for one-time events and longer-term rentals.
The 1990s brought personal change, including marriage and children. My marriage took place at the Meeting House on the day Hurricane Bob arrived in the Northeast. An outdoor wedding on the grass was hurriedly moved inside as rains threatened. My children were raised at All Souls and the Meeting House. RE involvement included busy Sundays, Easter egg hunts on the grounds, children’s services in the chapel and once again sleeping at the church — this time with other parents and young children, telling stories late at night as we curled up in sleeping bags in the parlor and chapel. My kids’ memories involve often waiting for Mom to finish committee and board meetings. Of note, some of these meetings included soul-searching about what it would mean to be a welcoming congregation and we began advocating for civil unions and same-sex marriage. Our Dove Project collected supplies for people with AIDs.
Moving into the 2000s… this place of peace and sanctuary was shaken by the shooting death of Robert Woodward – that too is part of our history — but we have been affirmed by the strength of this community in caring for one another after tragedy and reaching out to others. During these years, we began to look seriously at energy use in the building and ways to be environmentally conscious as a green sanctuary. We explored ways to enhance our accessibility, particularly important to me after a career working in disability services.
All Souls Church and the West Village Meeting House have offered me a place to put beliefs into action, with like-minded people. This place is wrapped up with the people who come here — many of whom have inspired and challenged me to be my better self, to discover strengths I did not know I had, and to gain new skills and make new friends.
My children received opportunities to learn and have fun — through Religious Education, church hikes, youth group weekends, holiday celebrations and Harry Potter Camp. They were encouraged to be compassionate and learn about the world through youth service projects locally providing community meals, cleaning and painting Habitat Houses and visiting Morningside Shelter. They had opportunities to travel with other young people to help with hurricane clean-up in communities on the Katrina-ravaged Gulf Coast and to Kenya to plant trees and deliver school supplies. To support these efforts they were offered the kitchen and main hall of the Meeting House for fundraising dinners. They were celebrated as artists in Member Art shows. My youngest daughter had her first jobs here as a nursery provider and Hogwarts Potions Master. She and friends helped with our Bazaar luncheons. Even after leaving for college she continued to think of the Meeting House when she envisioned new plantings and water management on our property as part of a college landscape design course.
A few years back, this place offered me new opportunities. I agreed to serve on the church Board again, began singing with the Brattleboro Women’s Chorus, rehearsing in the main hall and began working with Theatre Adventure, with classes and performances at the Meeting House. Although each group is currently on Zoom, all three continue to call the West Village Meeting House home.
As a Board Member I was thrilled last year to hear Devin Colman, State Architectural Historian, speak about the historical and architectural significance of the building. He quoted Judy Ratte, a member of the original building committee as saying, “We wanted an indigenous building, practical, useful and beautiful. And we accomplished it.” Architect, Jean Paul Carlhian’s design was to echo the surrounding green hills with the building’s peak rising into the sky as “a great transparent arch, conceived as a spiritual gesture.”
Work, worship, recreation and friendship are all here. For me, the Meeting House is a place that lifts the spirits and calls for action. We must make the most of this beautiful building. It was designed for both the congregation and for the community, to gather for multiple purposes.
Yet, sitting up here on the hill it is easy to be hidden and removed. In 1970, there were few performance sites and large meeting places. That has changed now, with new performance venues in this area; ironically, one of them is our former building on Main Street. COVID-19 currently limits large gatherings but gathering time will come again. My vision is that we will care for this building, that we recognize the gem that it is, and that we continue to offer it as a resource for purposes that make a difference — for child care, rehearsals, performances, small and large community events, support groups, personal and religious celebrations, social gatherings and social justice activities.