My church experiences are pretty limited to a Baptist perspective; I’ve been to Catholic services twice, and that’s pretty much it. So walking through the doors of a Unitarian Universalist church for Sunday service made me want to soak it all in–the walls, the floors, the people and all the minute details of experience. We would go to RE first, lounge time next and then the main event: Sunday services.
Our first task was to secure the children. It was 9:50 and RE (Religious Education–Sunday School) started promptly at 10 am. We walked into the open space and met our ‘guide’ for the day. The walls were covered with paintings from local Artists, their name and the price of the work scrolled at the bottom. Each year, the church holds a gallery sale where you can meet local artists, buy paintings, and a book sale is attached. Their are ceiling to floor windows in the open space, allowing you to see the outdoor sitting area–a few people are already out there, sipping coffee and chatting in pairs.
The actual service room–where the service was held–is to the left, doors open, with a few heads popping out above the pews. As we glance at each other, my husband and I sigh……….the ‘sermon’ room.
We usher the children downstairs, where the RE class is held. Several rooms separate the kids by age groups. This Sunday is the last day of summer Sunday sessions; normal classes begin next Sunday. Having taught 3-5 year olds for years, the RE rooms have all the prerequisites for a functional kiddie class: huge colorful rugs dot the floors, there is a calendar, a sign in sheet.
But there are mantras on the wall–huge phrases that all have to do with the planet earth: “Our planet is our home. We must take good care of the planet and all the people, animals and plants that live there.”
“We have spent the summer learning about the rain forest and why it is important,” the RE director informs me. Today the kids will separate into younger and older groups my 8 and 9 year olds move to the 7-11 age group room, and meet the other kiddos (children and parents are constantly cycling up and down the stairs). The girls decided to huddle, smile and attempt taught manners–their uncomfortableness shows. “I suggest, if they enjoy today, you allow them to come to 3 RE classes in a row. This will help them get over their shyness and they will get a chance to see if they like things further,” the instructor said.
I am also told a strong emphasis will be placed on self-esteem, opportunities to grow personally and spiritually (if desired), and the ethical treatment of all living things–including our planet.
She was a soft spoken woman, and the details of the coming quarter’s classes were unusual for ‘Sunday school’. The girls would be split because of their age: 7-8 year olds will focus on stories from around the world. My youngest will be learning, if she wants to stay, about creation stories from the Islamic, Jewish, Buddhist, Christian and Hindu traditions. The oldest, in the 9-10 year old group, will have RE that focuses on science. She will learn the basic spectrum of scientists that have contributed to the life we enjoy today–as well as become introduced to famous Unitarian figures of the past. My oldest–who definitely plans on coming back– will also learn about how Unitarian churches differ in their approach to the afterlife from Christian, Buddhist, Islamic and many other places of worship.
I do the mom thing: huddle, hug kiss. “I”m going to be upstairs, this lasts an hour and then I’ll be back down to check on you. You guys have fun, and try to meet some new people!” They give me the puppy eyes that want me to stay, but I smile back, wave, and walk upstairs…this is their time to enjoy–or not enjoy–‘Sunday school.’
Forum v. Lounge time
After making our way back to the main parlor, we had a choice: go into the forum that begins at 10, or move about the building greeting, chatting and relaxing.
The forum setup is really cool. Each Sunday at 10, you can spend an hour or so discussing community topics, listening to a presentation, or advocating for a specific cause yourself. I wasn’t quite ready to go into the sermon area, and neither was the hubby, so we decided to skip the discussion for the day–the value of healthcare reform.
Instead, we chose to take a slow tour of the church. Inside, we visited the kitchen, which was next to the lounge area–my favorite. Essentially a lunchroom, the lounge area had about 10 tables, a stage, more massive windows, and a small eating area. With a donation of your choice, you could grab some munchies, and sit and chat until the 11:15 service. I noticed quite a few people from the freethinkers meet-ups their, as well as a few students–who aptly pretended I didn’t exist (I love teenagers!)
We would spend about 20 minutes in the lounge and then we’d survey the grounds. I was so surprised with the openness of the time; at my churches you always were supposed to be somewhere, doing something. At a UU church, meeting and greeting, moving at will, and loose structure seemed to run the day.
As we walked around the building, I learned the history of the church itself. This UU church had been around–in the same building–for more than 100 years, it had gone through less than 20 ministers (at least, that’s what I saw on the photo wall), and the church had become an integral part of the community.
I also learned about the process for choosing a new minister for a UU church. This process consisted of a pool of 20 or so candidates being narrowed down to about 3. Each candidate comes and gives a sermon at the church, which is intensely scrutinized. There must be a proper fit, congregation and minister, and UU churches take this seriously.
Candidates’ credentials and history are taken into account by the search committee (made up of elected members), and finalists interact with the church on several different levels before a selection is made. Voting and congregational input is used throughout the length of the process, which can take up to a year. During that time, interim ministers–selected by Universalist Unitarian Association–come and help a congregation transition from one minister to the other; interim ministers have no intention of becoming full ministers.
I found my hubby and he was a bit irritated. “We came for ‘church’ and we’re hanging out.” His life was spent in church (being the son of a preacher and all) and his intentions were clear: he came to support the kiddos, support my decision to go, and then to leave. I sent him on an errand: check on the girls. When he returned, we moved into the place of worship
–not a cross in site.