When April Nielsen drives past the First Unitarian Church just as darkness falls over the sky and the steeple is flooded with light, she thinks about horses - and the man who sweated in the sun to make a little girl's dream come true.
When April was a little girl, she desperately wanted riding lessons, but her family didn't have a lot of money. She saved as much as she could, but it wasn't quite enough.Still, with a father's love and hard work, she got her lessons.
Years later, she can still see her dad, psychologist Stephen Finney, working in the hot sun. He offered his labor helping build a horse arena as a trade for the lessons his only child coveted.
Now, more than two decades later, as the soft light floods the church and the street around it, April tells her daughters, ages 2 and 6, about their grandfather.
The lighted steeple is a living memorial to her father, who died seven years ago at age 43, and to others, both living and dead, who have touched the lives of members of the church's congregation.
The Rev. Thomas Goldsmith, pastor at First Unitarian Church, 569 S. 1300 East, borrowed the idea for lighting the steeple from the old colonial style churches he knew well from the 15 years he lived in New England.
Before that, the white clapboard steeple faded away when the sun went down, receding into the shadows with the massive red-brick church. Nobody driving past would ever suspect that the large, dark complex was actually a church.
Two years ago, Goldsmith decided it was time to combine two things the congregation needed: light and money for a preservation and restoration fund.
Church members were invited to "light the steeple" in honor of a loved one, living or dead.
That has expanded to provide honor not only for the dead, but for life itself and the things folks deem worth celebrating. He's had people fund the steeple light to fete the birth of a child or the first day of spring. Whatever the occasion, it's "meaningful," he said. "There's a message in the torch, the sharing of a deep and sometimes personal loss that someone wants to acknowledge with the community. Or a celebration."
It gives new meaning to a light in the darkness.
"It serves many wonderful functions, some of them very practical, some very sentimental. It has worked out extremely well," Goldsmith said.
One of the most enthusiastic sponsors of the light is Barbara Ackron, a retired member of the congregation who also lives practically next door in a retirement center.
"I like having the lighted steeple in my neighborhood," she said. "It has made such a difference now that it's lighted . . . . That steeple and its light have become a symbol of how very much the church means to me. And it's a nice way to honor a special event."
She's purchased many weeks of light for the steeple, scattered here and there. With them she's honored a neighbor's 90th birthday, rewarded the church children's choir for its good work, remembered a very close friend - a Unitarian minister from New Orleans - who recently died. That friend had never been to Salt Lake City, but she thought that honoring him with light would be very appropriate and "it gave me some comfort to express my loss that way."
It's a gift to the church and the community that can be accomplished on a limited budget, Ackron said. "It's another way to support the church where I don't have to commit way ahead of time. If my budget permits, I can give and express my feelings about something. It's something I would do anyway, and it connects up with an opportunity to express special affection or a memory or concern."
The steeple-lighting tradition has had a ripple effect.
When Nielsen mentioned to her grandparents in Illinois that she and husband Kelly had lighted the steeple in honor of her dad, they wanted to light it for another week. Kelly and April Nielsen also lighted the steeple in honor of his father, LeRoy Nielsen, a federal employee who died when his son was 5.
And paying to light the steeple is also a way of publicly saying they feel a sense of community and belonging with the church, both Ackron and Nielsen said.
"The Unitarian Church is very important to us," said April Nielsen. "Lighting the steeple is so beautiful and so visible. And coincidentally, my dad is buried in the cemetery (Mount Olivet) right behind the church."
The lighting of the steeple is in part a symbolic gesture, according to Goldsmith. Utah Power put the steeple on a sensor so it automatically goes on when darkness creeps over the neighborhood. And it's not expensive, so the church pays the bill, along with its regular electricity.
The money donated for lighting goes into a church maintenance fund, where it's used in part for restoration and preservation of the building.
The special remembrances are published in "The Torch," the First Unitarian Church newsletter. On March 8 through 14, for example, Randy Montgomery and his children Heather, Melinda, Hannah and Harrison brought light to the neighborhood in memory of his sister Joan.