Love is the doctrine of this church,
The quest for truth is its sacrament,
And service its prayer.
To dwell together in peace,
To seek knowledge in freedom,
To serve humanity in harmony with the earth,
Thus do we covenant together.
--Unitarian Universalist affirmation
Ten years ago (!), I mused about going to church.
Today I actually went.
That's how slowly things move in my world sometimes. Acutely uncomfortable in crowds of strangers, marked as "different" and "other" my whole life long (often for arbitrary reasons that were not always obvious, or even explained)... musing about leaving the safe space of home is always much easier than actually doing it. Especially alone.
Today I actually went...alone.
Eva had to work. I so wish she could have experienced this with me: shared joy is increased, after all. I'm going to write out my experiences and impressions here since I wasn't able to share them at the time...and because that was unlike ANY church service I've ever been to. Or imagined.
It was a journey. Two busses and almost half an hour's walk, each way. The revelations (sorry, but it's apt) began before the service did. In fact, it's fair to say they started before I even sat down in the (nicely cushioned) pew.
1. There are a lot of people here. At least eighty, maybe even a hundred including the kids. I didn't have any frame of reference for what to expect, but for some reason I was expecting a crowd of thirty or forty, tops.
2. There are a lot of OLD people here. There were a few people in their 20s and 30s, but it seemed as if the majority of the congregants were 50+, and in more than a few cases you could add a couple of +s to that. In this way, and perhaps this way ALONE, Grand River Unitarian seemed like a church as I have commonly imagined and experienced churches.
Then the music started up, played on a slightly out-of-tune grand piano by one Matthew Gartshore, and all thought of churches as I had commonly experienced and imagined them went whoosh out of my head.
The piece was something impressionistic and a bit discordant, something a lot like Ravel's Miroirs. Not the kind of thing you'd expect to hear as a prelude to a service. Exceptionally well played.
I was interested in the music, of course. Music speaks to my soul. And I have to admit I was intensely curious about what hymns a congregation with no set creeds or doctrines might sing. I got my answer presently: "We Laugh, We Cry". First verse:
We laugh, we cry, we live, we die;
We dance, we sing our song.
We need to feel there's something here
to which we can belong.
We need to feel the freedom
just to have some time alone.
But most of all we need close friends
we can call our very own.
And we believe in life,
And in the strength of love;
And we have found a need
to be together.
We have our hearts to give,
We have our thoughts to receive;
And we believe that sharing
is an answer.
Can I say just how much this resonated? Those needs in that first verse are my needs. I believe in life. I CERTAINLY believe in the strength of love. I give my heart as freely as I know how. Sharing (and the substitute words in subsequent verses, "growing", "peace within our living") -- all answers.
The last line of this hymn -- "To question truly is an answer" -- formed the theme for today's service. Here again it departed from, well, everything a church has been in my experience. The congregation supplied the questions, written and collected during the offertory, and "Rev. Jess" gave her truth. "Little t, never big T", she reminded us. Our truths might be entirely different, and that was okay. More: that was to be CELEBRATED.
It was in the questions and answers where my sense of disconnect really dissolved and I began to feel a connection I have long sought. I'm going to paraphrase these things: my memory is good, but not perfect. She encouraged us to be as witty or as profound as we wished, and so the questions ran the gamut.
"Why do you identify as an atheist rather than an agnostic?"
"Actually," the reverend said, "I'm an apatheist: I don't care whether there's a god or not." Now that's not something you hear everyday, I thought, and I'm going to steal that.
She continued. "I prefer the term 'humanist', but many people don't understand what that is or means. Or I'll say I'm a non-theist. But if I have to be pigeonholed into somebody's comfort zone for some reason, I'll identify as an atheist. Because I have never experienced a Higher Power."
Points for honesty. This is a welcoming space. Further proof: her identifying as a "praying atheist" (I don't pray to a higher power, I pray to and for each of us). Wow.
"Why did the chicken cross the road?"
Cue laughter from the assembled, but I was thinking this oughta be interesting.
"I don't know why the chicken crossed the road," she said. "But we should refrain from assuming that it wanted to cross the road. And who says it's a chicken? Maybe it's a rooster. Maybe it doesn't identify as a chicken at all."
"How do I best atone for something I regret?"
This spawned an homily on forgiveness, and how critical it is not just for peace and harmony but for self-preservation. The reverend noted that "to forgive AND forget" was unrealistic, but that "Life was for giving, not for getting." That little wisdom nugget comes from Conversations with God, a text I am intimately familiar with. Without her prompting, I thought about the nature and etymology of "atonement"--you're supposed to split that word: "at - one -ment". Withholding forgiveness, I thought, divides us, keeps us from being "at one".
She also said that sometimes it's not possible to atone to the person you have wronged, at which time you should take care to atone to someone else.
"Why do people become more inhibited as they get older?"
"Well, THERE'S an assumption," she said. By show of hands, some people agreed with the assumption; others didn't. She mused that if you ask a room full of young children, "who's a good dancer?", the vast majority will raise their hands, and they'll do the same whatever you substitute for "dancer". It doesn't take long for that room full of children to discover what they are and are not good at, and for many of them, the list of "not goods" is all-encompassing or close to it. The world encourages that kind of self-defeating thinking, she said. We believe that evidence of someone being better than us constitutes proof that we are not good ourselves. This is, of course, bullshit, but it has a strong and lasting effect for many.
This is where I learned about their music, art, and writing programs (!) "We try to democratize things here at Grand River Unitarian", she said. "You don't have to be a great singer...you just have to love to sing. You don't have to be the word's best wordsmith...you just have to have something you want to write."
This put me forcefully in mind of a pair of Harry Chapin songs that, truth be told, are rarely far from my mind: "Flowers Are Red" and "Mr. Tanner". Both songs that have spoken to me since I first heard them, many, many years ago.
"How do I deal with a closed-minded person?"
"When you are confronted by behaviour or beliefs you perceive to be intolerant," she told us, "don't argue them. Good luck arguing them, you'll never get anywhere. Instead, engage the person. You may find their beliefs ridiculous, they may find yours just as ridiculous, but you have a shared humanity, a shared experience (even though it may differ in its particulars). Ask them how they came to that belief. Why do they feel that way? In taking this approach, you will learn something about the person."
She talked about Unitarian Universalism, and how it's a church without a doctrine. "Love is the doctrine of this church," she said, "which means love TAKES THE PLACE of doctrine here." We don't particularly care what or how you believe, or if you believe at all. We DO care how you live, how you relate to humanity and to the planet, and how you love."
Honey, I thought to no one/everyone, I'm home.
"What can I call this place besides 'church', so I don't have to say I'm going to 'church' and have everyone think I'm a Christian?"
This was actually something, she responded, that they had struggled with, because words matter. It used to be the First Unitarian Church of Waterloo (FUCW)...but then they moved to Kitchener...
Call us what you want, she said. Tell people you're going to hang out with your friends. We're Grand River Unitarian...tell people you GRU today."
There were several more questions she answered, and many, many questions she didn't get to, for which she apologized. "But", she said, "I've tricked you into providing me with sermon and article material for the next year, so thank you."
The last thing I'm going to say about that service actually came towards the beginning of it, and it affected me in a very deep way. It was a long poem by Shane Koyczan, MEMORIZED with only a couple of stumbles. And having heard this poem, I thought, that's worth memorizing. Please, folks, give "Pinned To The Dish" a listen. I think you'll be glad you did.
"Risk is your endorsement of hope", says Koyczan, and I think I've been missing that element in my life. I've always been very risk-averse, very cautious. No risk means no rejection. Hope is something I feel, often and deeply...but I've never endorsed it.
Today I took another step towards hope. Today I found a community I might actually belong in. Today...I GRU.
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