21 July, 2012

Unitarian Universalism: My Experiences Thus Far

"Everyone needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul."         --John Muir 
Hey, Readers,

A little while ago I posted a vlog about a new UU church I found. I just wanted to add some text to that experience, since the vlog is fairly short. (Be sure to follow any links I've inserted in the text for more information, music, or videos!)

I feel I should start with how I came to know about Unitarian Universalism, and go through my experiences thus far. A few years ago (I'm not sure exactly when) I learned that Dancing Rabbit and Feather, friends of mine from YouTube, were UU Pagans, meaning that they are pagan and also share the beliefs of Unitarian Universalism. Having always considered myself a believer in the Universe and that we can find what is Universal in our beliefs, I was glad to know this existed. Then at some point, my senior year college roommate told me that she had been brought up UU. I think it was junior year that I learned this, so we were not roommates then, but that's how I describe who this person is. She is a great friend of mine and became my roommate. Because of this accepting upbringing, she is very open-minded and tolerant, but she also feels that she lacks structure to her beliefs, whereas that structure for Dancing Rabbit and Feather and myself would be the pagan side.

Our senior year of college (or university, for those overseas. I mean undergraduate school), a freshman girl started Dove & Chalice, a Unitarian Universalist club. My roommate and I attended the first meeting. There was little interest--if I recall, six people attended that first meeting, and by the end there were only three regular attendees. One girl stopped coming immediately. One guy only came on occasion, when his schedule would permit (we met at noon on Sundays, which conflicted with his workout/training most weeks). My roommate eventually stopped attending as well, because she was cast in the main show at the time, for which rehearsals on Sunday are at 1pm. By the end, only the girl who started the club, a male friend of mine who considers himself Humanist, and I remained.

We met each week (except when the leader cancelled, which she often did and I wish she had just let us continue on our own because we would have gotten farther) and just did some RE (religious education) stuff that she got from UU websites or contacts. We opened with chalice lighting (we had a small flow-shaped candle holder with dragonflies!) and talking about our weeks, then a focus reading and simple discussion questions to go along with the week's topic. Sometimes she read to us some history of UU, and on holidays we themed our meetings to celebrate other paths. For Samhain, I lead the group in a simple ritual that could be done by pagans and non-pagans alike, celebrating the season and our ancestors. We had five people that week, as my roommate came back for it and another guy chose to visit. But no one else joined the group (mostly because no one liked the girl leading it--she doesn't have very good people or leadership skills) and my friend and I got very busy, being graduating seniors. So our meetings grew sparse, I went to England, and then we graduated.

But somewhere in the middle, in December, the club got some money from the Finance Committee to pay for transportation to a nearby UU Church. By nearby, I mean it was about half an hour away. We got a van and I think five or six of us went to attend their service one Sunday morning. We had coffee and crackers on the way. THIS is my vlog of that experience.

The sermon that week was on Purpose--finding your purpose, and living a purposeful life. The minister is female, and that week her guest minister companion was a gay man. It was a unique experience for me, having only been to various Christian and Catholic services and a few spiritualist fellowships run by only women, to have a man and a women up on the pulpit. Regardless of sexuality, it was a physical embodiment of how I see the energies of my path, and that comforted me. The first half of the service included the children of the congregation, and halfway through they were taken off to their classrooms for Sunday school while the rest of us continued singing, hearing readings, and thinking about purpose. The musical meditation was a song called "The Potter's Wheel," which struck me because I had recently completed my first ceramics course and could relate better to the experience than I could have before taking the class.

After the service, one of that area's youth members joined us for lunch at a local place, and we talked. It was a good experience: touching, comforting, and uplifting as well as eye-opening. A church could be something a pagan relates to, a humanist relates to, an atheist relates to. They hadn't even mentioned God except once. I greatly enjoyed the feeling that anyone could belong there if they believed in how we are connected.

But as I said, I graduated. The club did not attend another service that academic year, and the day a minister was supposed to come to us for a session got muddled up and never happened. So I left school after coming back from England with some fresh spiritual experiences, and my own practice picked up. I'm solitary, and I started to make that work more. I really have not been looking for a church, but I have been desiring more group work due to the fact that I know so many pagans now but cannot work with any of them.

I started driving a different way to my boyfriend's house every weekend, due to the lengthy construction on the roads I usually took, and on the new route I discovered a Unitarian Universalist Church, only 10-15 minutes from his house. I thought it would be nice to check out, but never woke up early enough for the next couple weeks. We always sleep in on weekends. But this past week, I had driven by and seen "NATURE AS SACRAMENT" on the board by the road, and the name of the minister was one I recognized. I decided I had to go. So I got up earlier, and went.

I only had to stand around awkwardly for five seconds before someone came up and I could tell them it was my first visit. I knew from the other service I attended that they would probably all have name tags and would want me to make a temporary one for myself. The welcoming process quickly got under way, and I learned that the Welcome Table lady was the mother of my cousin's ex-husband. I hadn't read her name tag, but once she told me, I did know her name. Small world, we said. I explained to several people who welcomed me how I had come to visit there, mentioning the sermon title and minister's name catching my attention. The minister doing the sermon was the wife of my high school drama director, who I also knew was a minister. People were amazed and amused at the connection.

I walked into the sanctuary--much larger than the last UU church, which had been small and inside an old traditional church building, whereas this one was built long and spacious--and immediately spotted my director. We said hello, hugged, and sat down together, for which I was grateful because I felt like I would have taken someone's usual seat, or something. Sounding of a singing bowl marked the beginning of worship. The music that week was all flute, and I used to play flute, so I enjoyed seeing the players' skill, far beyond my own when I had largely stopped progressing in my playing, four years ago. The service was very similar to the other church, except that this one included a time for going up and lighting candles for prayers--a tradition I hold onto from my Catholic upbringing, where you could light a candle on your way into or out of the building, rather than in the sanctuary--and did not include a musical meditation like "The Potter's Wheel" had been. This church includes "music for meditation," which plays during the time you can light candles, but is just for silent reflection, and not an active group meditation.

The sermon was about how nature can heal us and bring us peace, if only we take the time to go into nature or keep pieces of the natural world close to us. It was about religious figures who found spirituality in trees, and considered hiking a form of worship, and gardening a service to the divine. This UU church actually has a community garden right outside, as well. Readings came from poetry, The Circle of Life by Macrina Wiederkehr, and Assorted Journal Entries by John Muir. Hymns were mostly nature-related, and one I had learned with Dove & Chalice. Then came another thing that reminded me of my Catholic church's masses, something the UU church called "Bond of Union":

Time for Comparison
At the Catholic church, we would all join hands as the priest said some prayer (I can't remember it now, it's been so long). He would say (for it was always a 'he') "Peace be with you," and we would respond "And also with you." Then he would ask us to bow our heads, he would say a prayer, and at his cue we would turn to everyone around us and shake hands with them, saying "Peace be with you."
At this UU church, we joined hands with whomever was nearby. I was in the middle of a row with no one on one side, so from habit of how we did it at Catholic services, I held my other hand upward, as though tapping into any energy that wanted to hold my hand. Others left their free hands down, and another new attendee in front of me clearly felt uncomfortable, not knowing what to do with his free hand, but I could not hold it without startling him. Then in unison everyone said, "We join hands in Unitarian Universalist fellowship, pledging ourselves to an individual religious freedom, which transcends all creeds, not to think alike, but to walk together." (Italics mine.)

After closing words, the UU service ended and we stuck around for coffee, tea, and snacks. My director introduced me to several people. Others just came up to me and said hello. I had a nice cup of green tea and talked about theatre, biking, and how I ended up at the church (everyone wanted to hear the story). I heard about the church and their recent retreat. After a while, people started to leave, and I left with a bag of informational materials and goodies in hand that they give to all newcomers.

For more information on Unitarian Universalism, visit UUA.org.


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