Written by Ethan Williford
Photographed by Sam Prager
Reverend Sam Teitel smiled at the question. “My favorite band? All-time? It has to be the Clash,” he says. “In fact, Joe Strummer is one of my minister role models.”
Born in Freestone, California, Teitel spent his adolescence and early adulthood in Boston. So understandably, his 2017 relocation to the Bluff City presented quite the culture shock.
“Memphis is totally different from anywhere I’ve ever been. My wife and I talk about all the cities we’ve seen—cities all over the world—that are more like Boston. Memphis is its own thing.”
It only took a few short minutes into our conversation to notice that Teitel is not a typical Memphis minister; that Unitarian Universalism is not a typical southern denomination; and that the Church of the River is not a typical sanctuary.
Unitarianism in this city began in 1893, when Polk Spinnings led a group of like-minded progressive Memphians to establish the First Unitarian Church of Memphis. The national Unitarian headquarters sent Frederick Preston, a recent graduate of Harvard Divinity School, to minister the new congregation. Originally holding their services in Knight’s Honor Hall at 12 Hernando Street, the church slowly began to grow.
“We’re called a denomination, but I don’t know if that term is really accurate,” says Teitel. “That is, at least in theory, what we are, but we are a religious movement based around the idea that people of different beliefs, people of different value systems, people of different backgrounds can come together and worship together. They can all be welcomed, and they can all be valued. We don’t have to agree, and in fact, it’s better if we don’t.”
After its early founding, the First Unitarian Church jumped from home to home over the next half-century. The congregation even held some services in local movie theaters during the dawn of the cinema age.
However, in 1961, Unitarians nationally found themselves in a transitional period when the American Unitarian Association officially merged with the Universalist Church of America.
“One of the people who negotiated the merger told me that, basically, the Unitarians ran out of money and the Universalists ran out of people,” Reverend Teitel explains. “I’m sure that it’s much more complicated than that, but they were both very liberal Christian denominations.”
Appropriate for the changing times, the First Unitarian Church of Memphis opted in 1962 to purchase a plot of land on the Mississippi River and build a permanent spiritual home. Church leaders chose Roy P. Harrover, a famed Memphis architect and member of the congregation, to design the building. In his original proposal, Harrover wrote of his hope for Unitarian Universalists to “worship in a structure specially designed to express the tenets of their faith.”
Construction on the Church of the River concluded in late 1965, and its pulpit was christened on a snowy January morning, 1966. Located a stone’s throw from Chickasaw ceremonial mounds and graced with three evocative Burton Callicott paintings, the site exuded a majestic cultural spirituality.
“Perhaps this ground will become a revered shrine someday,” wrote congregation member Katherine Rice in a recent recollection about the church, “like the sacred temple at Delphi in Greece and all the other marvelous places where people have sat and wondered about the mysteries of our human lives.”
The Church of the River remains one of the only examples of organic architecture in Memphis. Characterized by the integration of design processes with the surrounding natural world, the style unifies the building and site into one structural art piece. World-renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright was the best-known proponent of organic architecture, writing in his 1954 book “The Natural House”:
“So here I stand before you preaching organic architecture: declaring organic architecture to be the modern ideal and the teaching so much needed if we are to see the whole of life, and to now serve the whole of life, holding no traditions essential to the great tradition.”
In the decade before the church’s construction, development in Memphis rapidly expanded eastward. Local architecture expert Judith Johnson describes the bleak outlook of the city’s skyline.
“By the 1950s, in Memphis as in every place in the United States, Modern Movement aesthetics were sleek, machine-like and unornamented, converged with the steel frames and glass curtain walls to produce cost-effective skyscrapers and suburban office parks,” Johnson writes in her essay “The Art of Architecture Modernism in Memphis: 1890-1980”
The Church of the River was a rebellion against this mid-century Memphis trend. “As young people, all of us were dedicated to changing the world,” reflected church architect Roy Harrover years later.
His innovative design efforts would not go unnoticed. In 1965, Progressive Architecture, one of the leading architecture magazines of the era, recognized Harrover and the church with a citation for excellence. The original construction included the main sanctuary, courtyard, classrooms, offices and minister’s study. A fellowship hall was added later in 1975.
“The church architecture emphasizes a cardinal principle of Unitarian belief: the reason, logic, simplicity, and order of the universe as revealed in nature,” explained Harrover, echoing the glaringly similar philosophies of Frank Lloyd Wright and the Unitarian Universalists.
The sanctuary reflects this pantheistic worldview. Harrover successfully utilized the natural slope of the bluff to provide an inclined seating layout. Towering windows at the front of the room reveal a vivid view of the churning Mississippi waters—monuments to the complex and vital relationship between human and nature.
However, even when faced with such a powerful distraction, Reverend Teitel doesn’t feel threatened by the panoramic sight.
“I see it as a relief—that if I have a bad sermon, you didn’t go to church for nothing,” he says, gazing through the windows. “If you can’t connect with whatever you feel is beyond you while looking at this, then there is nothing that I can do for you. You get everything you need when you walk in the door. It lowers the stakes in that way.”
Today, the architectural beauty exhibited by the Church of the River continues to leave members and visitors in awe; however, its upkeep now falls on the shoulders of Reverend Teitel, facilities director Chris Swenson and the church’s Board of Trustees.
“One of the things that I appreciate about this building is that it was designed to do one specific thing. That’s the thing that it does, and it does nothing else,” Teitel chuckles. “It’s not super accommodating for things other than having church on Sunday morning, and that’s part of what our current capital campaign is for. Doing some rebuilding and additions to make it a more versatile space.”
And while the transcendent views may bring people to the pews, the messages of inclusivity, activism and acceptance keep them coming back for more.
“It’s important because so much of what’s happening in our religious discourse—and in our national discourse—is that we are able to separate so easily from each other,” says Teitel. “Sadly, we don’t have to deal with each other as people, and we don’t have to have that collision.”
That collision. That clash. One can’t help but think of the iconic Joe Strummer lyric.
Engines stop running, but I have no fear
'Cause London is drowning, and I, I live by the river