The 150 members of Westside Unitarian Universalist Congregation raised $750,000 in about four months to purchase a new permanent home, which was dedicated Sunday.

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Call it the little congregation that could.

For decades, the members of Westside Unitarian Universalist Congregation in West Seattle had dreamed of a space of their own — a place where they could gather spontaneously, and where their kids’ classes wouldn’t have to be held in the bathroom lobby.

So when they found out about a church building for sale nearby, they leapt, raising $750,000 in some four months. The 47-year-old congregation opened the doors of its new home in September, and this past Sunday members celebrated the building’s formal dedication.

Their new, three-story home at 7141 California Ave. S.W. includes a light-filled sanctuary, a cozy “fireside room” (complete with donated gas fireplace) and half a dozen classrooms.

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How a 150-person congregation was able to raise that amount of money in so short a time in such a dismal economy is a question its members are often asked these days.

“We get looks of awe — including our own,” said Laura Matson, who was in charge of the kickoff event for the fundraising campaign. “We sometimes shake our heads and ask: ‘How did we do this?’ “

For the past 20 years, the congregation rented space at the local Masons lodge, where it held weekly services. The Masons were great landlords, Matson said, and the sanctuary space was large enough for the services.

But scheduling other events sometimes required up to a yearlong reservation. Plus, the building didn’t have enough room to house classes for the 100 kids in the congregation, who would meet in curtained-off areas, with some classes even held in the lobby of a bathroom.

“If you had to go during services, you had to kind of dance around the babies to get to the sinks,” Matson said.

Last November, they found out a nearby 13,000-square-foot building, built for a Baptist congregation and most recently occupied by Seattle International Church, was for sale.

They had to come up with the money quickly.

Matson had read a book that said one of the keys to a successful fundraising campaign is to hold a kickoff event that’s a defining moment in the life of the congregation.

She and the kickoff committee came up with the idea of a play put on by the kids in the congregation. Set in the year 2035, the kids played the parts of church board members, reminiscing about how they’d purchased the church 25 years ago and all the church had been able to accomplish in those years.

“I remember when my family didn’t take a vacation that year so we could buy the church,” one kid said.

“My family owned stock and it was important that we have the building so we sold the stock,” another said.

Knowing that a dream of one congregation member was to open a Unitarian school, the kids in the play talked about graduating from such a school, along with Seattle’s mayor and three state senators.

“It was like: ‘Plant a seed, plant a seed, plant a seed,’ ” with concrete ideas of how people could donate, and concrete examples of the differences their donations could make,” Matson said.

The campaign drew immediate response. “There was so much pent-up desire for our own place,” said the Rev. Peg Morgan, parish minister.

One member gave $100,000. Several other families gave $25,000 to $50,000 each.

Candace Sullivan and her husband, Jule Sugarman, were inspired to donate $30,000.

“When you have a community, you help each other out,” Sullivan said. “This was one way we could have a legacy for doing that.”

They used their home-equity line of credit to fund their donation, figuring there weren’t many wealthy people in the congregation and that “if we could show the rest of the congregation that it was feasible to do this by getting enough anchor donations, it would really happen,” Sullivan said. “I think it’s a minor miracle it all did.”

Westside members pulled off an unusual feat, said Wayne Clark, who handles the denomination’s congregational finances.

Most congregations are able to raise about three times their annual giving for capital campaigns. And most campaigns take about three years.

Westside was able to raise about four times its annual giving in a fraction of the time.

The $750,000 raised, combined with a $650,000 loan from the denomination, went toward the $1 million purchase price of the building, plus additional renovation costs.

Members will be able to gather spontaneously, Morgan said, as well as play a bigger role in the community. The church will have space now to hold forums and to offer temporary shelter for homeless families.

It’s all a reflection of the members’ “passion to have a better worship place that depicted our theology: to be part of the world,” Morgan said.

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or

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