All welcome at Saltwater Unitarian



Any organization that’s around for 50 years has its ups and downs, and Saltwater Unitarian Universalist Church is no exception.

Half of its sanctuary was destroyed by fire in 1969. And it’s had 16 ministers, a turnover rate of roughly once every three years –– not good for continuity.

But thanks to a congregation long on perseverance, “we’ve never been stronger than we are now,” said James Kubal-Komoto, the current minister of the Des Moines-based church that’s celebrating its 50th anniversary this month.

The 180-plus membership, which includes a 94-year-old founding member, has never been higher. “The people who have stuck with us through some hard times are why we’re still here,” said Kubal-Komoto, adding that many younger people are being attracted to the group’s already broad-based demographic.

He credits the accepting nature of the Unitarian principles: Equity and compassion in human relations, a free search for truth and meaning, adherence to democratic processes within congregations and society in general, and liberty and justice for all.

“People come here seeking a connection –– to other people, to nature, to God –– and some sense of themselves,” said Kubal-Komoto, who worked as a journalist in Chicago, Ill. and taught English in Tokyo, Japan before his “first calling” at Saltwater Unitarian four years ago.

In April 1954, 12 people comprising the Inter-Community Unitarian Fellowship met for the first time at the old Star Lake School in what is now Federal Way.

Over the next half-century, the original group of six couples grew in number, renamed their church twice and relocated it to a five-acre, wooded site near Saltwater State Park. Two of the original members, including Glen Fairbanks, 94, are still active in the congregation, said Susan Aigner, a church spokeswoman.

The church hosted special anniversary services April 4.

Saltwater Unitarian is affiliated with Puget Sound Unitarian Universalists, which has 24 congregations and fellowships from Aberdeen to Friday Harbor and from Bremerton to Seattle.

They’re under the umbrella of the national Unitarian Universalist Association, which represents the interests of more than 1,000 congregations. UUA grew out of the consolidation in 1961 of two denominations –– the Universalists, who first organized in 1793, and the Unitarians, who started in 1825. The roots are traced to independent, self-governing churches of colonial New England, and to religious and social reformers in England, Poland and Romania.

UUA’s theology is of tolerance, interdependence and compassion.

“I’m glad our church welcomes all people. A lot of churches don’t,” said Kubal-Komoto, who was among religious leaders of several faiths who staged a rally March 23 in Seattle in support of same-sex marriage.

Wide acceptance is helping Saltwater Unitarian bolster its membership –– that and word of mouth, according to Kubal-Komoto.

“There may be a lot of people in south King County who are ‘members’ but don’t know it yet. Even a lot of people living in Des Moines didn’t know we were there. But people are finding out about us,” he said.

Ninety children participate in Saltwater’s education program.

UUA helps strengthen congregations by developing religious education curricula for children and adults, putting followers on electronic mailing lists and helping organize youth-related programs aimed at attracting younger members, according to its Web site. UUA also provides building loans, loan guarantees and capital campaign consultants to help congregations financially. Funding sources include endowments and gifts from members.

The church is active politically, with UUA lobbying Congress and the White House, and congregations like Saltwater doing voter registration drives.

“It doesn’t matter to us what political party someone’s involved with, just as long as they’re participating in democracy,” Kubal-Komoto said.

Editor Pat Jenkins: 925-5565,

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