Celebration of Life Planned for Rev. Farley W. Wheelwright
By Jon Sievert
Farley Wheelwright was one of a kind. His passing at age 99 leaves a hole in the heart of the San Miguel community. All friends of Farley’s are invited to a celebration of his life this Sunday, March 20.
Celebration of Life of Rev. Farley W. Wheelwright
Sun, Mar 20, 3pm
Casa de la Noche/Casa de Besos
To the end, Farley was very much an active member of the UU Fellowship of SMA, and the oldest-known surviving UU minister, according to the Unitarian Universalist Retired Ministers and Partners Association. At 97, he published his first book, Twice-Told Tales, a collection of some of his favorite sermons from over the years. He was also a former president of La Biblioteca, a member of PEN, an honored Rotarian, and a board member of the Escuela de Educacion Especial.
Farley was born in 1916 to a family of fourth-generation Unitarians. He first worked as a reporter for Life magazine in the Life Goes to a Party department in New York City. Later in Boston, he was the personnel and public relations director for University Hospital. Later still he moved back to New York City to work as a fundraiser for the Community Service Society, the largest private social welfare agency in the country.
Farley received a bachelor of arts degree from St. Lawrence University Theological School in 1957, and a master of divinity degree from the Hartford Seminary in 1961, the same year he was ordained and the same year that the Unitarians and Universalists joined forces.
In 1962 he was called to serve the Nassau County Unitarian Universalist Church in Garden City, NY, the first merged congregation of Unitarians and Universalists in the country. The day he arrived in Garden City, he was tapped to lead the Long Island Congregation of the church in two busloads to Washington for the now-legendary March on Washington.
It was a life-changing experience, and he was one of the first to respond to the call of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to come to Selma in March 1965. Their friendship became such that Dr. King accepted Farley’s invitation three years later to preach his installation sermon when he was called to the Cleveland Unitarian Society. Three days before Farley’s installation, Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis, where Farley had been with him the week before participating in the Memphis-to-Jackson, Mississippi, March.
In the years between 1962 and 1968, he vacationed doing voter registration in Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, becoming more politically radical and being incarcerated more than once. When the Vietnam War began heating up in 1964, he became heavily involved in the antiwar movement and was named President of the Long Island Peace Council.
In 1968 he began what he called The Cleveland Saga. Black power was emerging in the national consciousness and the Unitarian Society was located in the vortex of the national phenomenon. The church building had formerly housed the First Unitarian Church of Cleveland where justices of the Supreme Court, the cream of Cleveland society, and manufacturing titans, had come to worship.
As the neighborhood began to deteriorate and become increasingly black, the First Unitarian Church moved into the then all-white Shaker Heights area of Cleveland. A loyal band refused to abandon the church where they had grown up and bought the building from the parent church. Farley became the fourth minister of the Society.
The entire congregation was determined to maintain a UU presence in the inner city and have it become a community resource. They attempted to start a tutoring program for neighborhood youth, but no black youth came. They started a shop where used clothing and household goods could be bought cheaply, but few showed up to take advantage of it.
Young adults created a food co-op, going to market at 3am to buy fresh vegetables for the community, which was being exploited by local white-owned supermarkets. Few neighborhood residents showed up, preferring the white-owned supermarket to efforts of “whitey’s” church. Still, the congregation carried on and became home of the Cleveland Clergy Counseling Center on Abortion, of which Farley was the founder and chairperson.
All other area UU clergy and many other denominations’ clergy were involved, voluntarily putting themselves in jeopardy of being arrested and jailed for breaking the law for scouting out-of-state doctors willing to provide safe abortions. Hundreds of young and middle-aged women were sent as far away as London for safe abortions.
The group made national news when Farley’s photo in clerical robes made banner headlines reading; “He leads young girls to abortion.”
In time, the area became so unsafe that the Society determined something had to be done after two older women arrived for church and were so badly attacked that they had to be taken to the hospital. Farley’s controversial solution, following a vote of the congregation, was to give half the church’s substantial endowment and building to the Cleveland Black UU Caucus. Before he left for his next church in New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1973, he started a highly controversial radio talk show that dealt with religious and social issues that drew tens of thousands of listeners daily.
For all his notoriety as a social activist, however, Farley treasured his career as a pastoral minister above all else. “When I think of an afternoon spent supporting a grieving mother because of the crib death of her two-month old baby, my participation in the social activist movement seems almost inconsequential,” he said. “It is the most exalted job I can possibly conceive of for myself and my talents,” he continued.
Subsequent postings included the Sepulveda Unitarian Universalist Society in California, a prestigious unorthodox congregation that devoted itself to free religion devoid of any theistic baggage and unanimity when it came to social justice issues. Before he retired in 1985, he had become a driving force as a founding trustee of the UU Fellowship for Religious Humanists. From 1985 to 1988, he traveled extensively, including one year spent as the interim minister of the Unitarian Church of South Australia. From 1988 to 1990, he was the interim senior minister at Arlington Street Church in Boston, Massachusetts. He also served as president of the Unitarian Universalist Peace Fellowship.
Farley and his wife Virginia moved to San Miguel in 1993. Both were involved in the Mexican community and with UUFSMA, serving on the board of directors, periodically delivering sermons, and helping shape the Fellowship’s identity in an expat community.
In later years he was slowed by macular degeneration that left him blind, followed by the death of his loving wife and partner Virginia. But he remained mentally sharp and always ready with an opinion on anything. He also hosted the UU’s Tuesday discussion group in his home and was in his front-row-center seat every Sunday morning when he was well enough.
Farley carried the Unitarian Universalist spirit in his being and continues to inspire the Fellowship and all whom he touched. The family requests that in lieu of flowers, contributions be made to the Escuela de Educacion Especial (eeesma.com) and/or Jovenes Adelante (JovenesAdelante.org).
A celebration of Farley’s life will be Sunday, March 20, from 3-5pm at Casa de la Noche/Casa de Besos, Organos 17. Wheelchair accessibility is available by calling 152 0732 in advance. It is recommended that participants walk or take taxis to the location as there is limited parking in the area.