I attend the Unitarian Universalist Church in Reston, Virginia. My wife and I were married there in 1985. We were shopping around for a place to get married and it was a tough task because I was an extremely estranged Catholic and she was just a nothing with no particular religious beliefs and no interest in practicing them.
From reading Sinclair Lewis’s book “Elmer Gantry” I got the impression that Unitarians were a kind of neat and unorthodox religion. If I had to get married in a church I figured it could only be in a Unitarian Universalist church. Terri’s Mom was anxious for us to have a church wedding. So we attended some services, seemed comfortable there, met the minister, rented the hall, paid a couple hundred bucks and got married. Ours was a small wedding with only a couple dozen attendees, mostly from out of town. I liked the church but married life kept us busy and Terri liked to sleep in on Sundays. So although I had some inclination to go back I didn’t want to go back by myself. So I learned to sleep in Sundays and enjoy leisurely readings of The Washington Post instead.
Twelve years passed. We created a daughter named Rosie. I tried to explain Catholicism to her, but had no desire to get her involved in that sort of experience. Better to be an unbaptized heathen, I thought, that spend ones days wondering if some trangression was a mortal or a venial sin. There reached a time in early grade school though when she started to do things she shouldn’t. I realized then that we had been a bit lax in her moral upbringing, mainly because we were pretty wishy-washy ourselves. We felt she needed some exposure to churches and religious communities. Maybe a little Sunday school was just what she needed.
We started at the local Methodist Church. Terri taught Sunday school at a Methodist Church when she was still single and thought it was fairly benign. But it was still Christian with a capital C and as an agnostic I wasn’t excited being associated with anything Christian, however benign. I did think it was neat that they had a lady minister, but the suits after services anxious to talk to us over coffee left me leery. Rosie attended Sunday school there for a while but neither Terri nor I could get up the energy to actually attend services regularly. Terri went back to sleeping in late on Sundays. I got stuck shuffling her to and from Sunday school. After a couple months though I realized it just wasn’t a good fit. It was too Christian for me. I would be insincere to profess a belief in Jesus’s divinity when I didn’t believe it.
So I drifted back to the Unitarian Universalist Church in Reston with Rosie by my side and my wife still sleeping in on Sundays, as was her sacred religious custom. Our first service was a celebration of humor. Now THAT was pretty odd. And the minister was a lesbian. THAT was even odder, although it didn’t bother me in the least. It felt a bit weird but I felt a lot more at home than I did at the Methodist church. It would take many years of shuffling Rosie to and from Sunday school there and sitting through services before I would warm up to the place. I had a lot of bad Catholic baggage to deal with. I wanted to enjoy the experience, throw a few bucks in the plate when it went by, but feel no sense of commitment.
Nonetheless if you keep coming people start to recognize your face. Rosie seemed to enjoy Sunday school most of the time and soon she was participating in the Christmas pageant and ringing the bell at the start of service. Then she was going to the church Christmas party, and we were buying toys for tots for Christmas. After every service she and her maw could be found at the snack table. (Food can be a very bonding experience.) I taught a Sunday school class. Without quite realizing it I was getting integrated into a church. It took many years before I realized I was there as much for me as I was for her. Because there were aspects of Catholicism that I missed and mainly I missed a good sermon. It was nice to have a good sermon once a week. It was even better to have a sermon stripped of all the spiritual nonsense that constitutes most services. I began to look around more and realized I had found a sort of spiritual home: a nice religious, albeit wonder bread sort of place, with liberal spiritual values where you could be who you want to be, believe or not believe what you want, and no one gives you a hard time about it. In fact your diversity is something that is celebrated.
This was weird stuff for someone raised in a very Catholic family where rigid conformity to Catholicism was the ideal. I didn’t have to worry about whether some minor transgression totally POed God anymore. Increasingly it felt good to be in a place with my own kind. Virginia is a vast domain of strident right wing Protestantism. I often felt estranged and alone merely for voting Democratic. But this church made me realize I was not alone and there were plenty of us freethinkers out there. Now I had a place to commune with my own kind. It was kind of neat.
So I’m still there six years later and this year I quietly became a member of the church. It is now my major charity and I am throwing in large bucks into a building drive to expand the sanctuary. It is by no means a large church. Altogether there are about two hundred members. Since 9/11 membership is going up. The church is getting quite crowded some Sundays.
Terri still sleeps in Sundays for the most part, and probably always will. Rosie is a bit more scattershot at age 13 about attending religious education, but she does enjoy being in the church choir. About half the time I end up going to services by myself. But now I feel sort of integrated into the place. It is not too big a place where I can’t associate names and faces. It’s just right for me: not too big and not too small.
During my declining days of Catholicism in the early 70s, the Catholic Church added a portion to the Mass that struck me as rather strange. It was a sort of Kumbaya moment when you were supposed to greet your neighbor and wish them the peace of Christ or some such silliness. It was always awkward and I hated it, and it was apparent that most of the people I shook hands with felt the same way. (“For crying out loud, this is taking too long anyhow!”) As much as most Catholics will deny it, most Catholics don’t actually want to be at church. They don’t wake up on Sunday mornings and think “Gosh, wouldn’t it be nice to spend an hour or two hearing the same words over and over again?” No, I believe most go out of a sense of duty and obligation, because they have always done it and it’s part of the cost of being a Catholic. Catholicism isn’t so much a religion as it is a culture one is thrown into at birth without your consent. Curiously I’ve found Unitarian churches filled with disgruntled ex-Catholics totally pissed off about the religion.
But my church also has a Kumbaya moment at the end of each service. We all hold hands and sing a song (“From you I receive; to you I give; together we share; and for this we live.”) And while it still seems a little hokey, it’s okay. Why? Because it is sincere. These are people I’ve grown to care about. I know them as individuals. During the Joys and Sorrows part of each service the braver ones come up and discuss their life challenges, and we provide support to them. That’s not to say we always get along perfectly. It’s like an extended family. Many of us are squeaky wheels and prefer to live our lives that way. But somehow we manage to care for each other.
No, it is not a church to learn doctrine, nor hear sermons on hell fire and damnation. Arguably Unitarians Universalists are not Christian, and it would probably be technically correct to admit we don’t really have a church, but a meeting place for services. But it is a comfortable and caring space for people like me. Whatever it is, it has a quite real feeling of true community. I hope it never becomes a mega church. Unitarians are a small enough congregation where this is not likely to happen. It’s a good place. It’s a little secret. I don’t want the word to get out that I have a spiritual home. The place might become too crowded and popular. I mean if people find true fellowship and spirituality in a place where a fair number of congregants won’t even profess a belief in God … what is the world coming to?
I hope others find true joy and happiness in going to their place of worship. I’m glad to finally be some place where I don’t have to go through the motions. I am as home spiritually as I am ever likely to be.