I have a confession to make — I go to church every Sunday and I love it. Saying that and putting myself out there spiritually doesn’t come easily. Telling friends that I’m going to church does not roll off my tongue and makes me feel super vulnerable. I imagine folks judging me, a lot like I tend to do when others come off as overly devout. So what is it about the word “church” that makes me so uneasy? It wasn’t always this way.
I grew up a Christmas and Easter Methodist in Rochester, Michigan. We lived conveniently just one block from St. Paul’s Church where the Reverend Dr. Hickey preached on Sundays. He was a kind man with jet black hair and a dynamic yet reserved preaching style. More than the sermons or the actual beliefs, I loved the routine of church; saying the same things, singing the same songs. Even in my youth I was a creature of habit. And while I wouldn’t say I enjoyed getting up early on a Sunday, my overall impression was positive.
Christmas Eve’s candlelight service was my favorite. Mom, Kirsten and I would get dressed up (yes, Mom in her plaid frock ), bundled in our coats, and walk the five minutes to church. The choir would sing traditional Christmas songs and ring large, beautiful, brass bells. At the end of the service, they gave everyone, even us children, a small glass votive with a lit candle. We’d walk home with our candles, being super careful not to let the little flame blow out. The candles sat front and center in our picture window until they burned out a few hours later.
Most of my friends attended the nearby St. Andrew’s Catholic Church, whose parking lot I cut through on my way to elementary school. I marveled at its grandiosity, its Jayne Mansfield to my St. Paul’s Sophia Loren. My friends all had elaborate first communions, complete with quasi-bridal white dresses, gloves, and big celebrations. And their Sunday School wasn’t just Sunday School; it was “catechism” or CCD. Everything just seemed fancier in the world of Catholicism. Yes, I had religious envy.
It didn’t help that my parents had neglected to baptize me as a baby, leaving me to feel like an adolescent atheist. My older sister had been baptized with the full shebang — lacy white gown, Mom dressed in matching crisp, high-collared white blouse, proud godparents, photographs galore. Me, aka second born? I’d be going to Hell according to my Catholic friends. Thankfully, I didn’t die before I was baptized in my teens during Confirmation (and upon further research later in life, I could have still be let into Heaven), but the seed of my disenchantment with Christianity had been planted.
I struggled to accept the core tenants of Christianity, especially evolution. Adam and Eve were said to be born roughly 6,000 years ago, but I had visited museums with 3 million-year-old human fossils. Beyond that discrepancy, I’ve always believed that humans are fundamentally good, not born in sin. And that God or god or spirits or fate or karma are not punishers; at worst they are non-committal and at the very best they are looking out for us.
As I leaned away from Christianity, Eastern philosophies kept surfacing around me. In high school English class, we read Siddhartha. Buddhism and enlightenment intrigued me. Then, my Mom gave me a copy of The Tao of Pooh for my 18th birthday. I gobbled it up; the concept of yin and yang made sense. I saw balance everywhere in nature. In college, I studied World Religions and found incredible similarities in all the major religions. I took my first (crazy) yoga class where the instructor wore a “diaper” and kept telling me to clinch my root chakra. I didn’t go back, but the fundamentals of mindfulness and breath resonated within me.
“The way is not in the sky. The way is in the heart.” — Buddha
Abandoning Christianity while aligning with Eastern philosophies was one thing, but finding a religious practice that suited me turned out to be a significant challenge. Most of the Christian alternatives were a little out there. I tried non-denominational Christian churches, but as soon they cracked open the Bible or referenced Jesus, I emotionally check out.
I was technically a “None.” No, not a nun, but a None — someone with no religious affiliation. According to some recent studies, over 25% of Americans are now Nones. (This recent National Geographic feature has some really interesting insights on Nones.)
As I got older and had a family, I longed for a spiritual community. I stumbled upon Unitarian Universalism after taking a quiz on beliefnet.com. I tried UU Reston and UU Fairfax, two nearby Unitarian Universalist congregations. Like Goldilocks, UU Reston was too political (at the time) and UU Fairfax was too far a drive.
In February of 2013, I was invited by a friend to attend an event at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Sterling. I met Reverend Anya, the strong, quiet, youthful minister who leads UUCS. Her sense of calm immediately put me at ease. We had a brief conversation about my inability to find a place where I felt like I spiritually belonged. She urged me to give UUCS a try.
The following Sunday morning, I optimistically and nervously walked into UUCS for my first service. I was warmly welcomed by a greeter who reminded me of my mom. She gave me the introductory schpeel and had me create a name tag (oh boy, not a fan of name tags). I took a seat in the sanctuary, which wasn’t a traditional sanctuary. A non-traditional religion, I guess it makes sense that the setting isn’t typical. UUCS sits in a nondescript, red brick office building. The sanctuary is a large, double-height room with lots of windows and rows of maroon chairs. There is no cross or stained glass, just a simple altar with flowers and at the time, an interesting pattern of copper suns on the front wall (the copper suns were recently replaced by a stunning custom painting by one of the members).
Sitting there, I started to feel very emotional, yet strangely grounded. The pianist began the prelude, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” a song with intense personal meaning. I shook my head and tears started flowing. It was a sign (yes, I believe in signs) — I belonged here. UUCS was “just right.”
My husband took a little (a LOT) more convincing than I did. A born skeptic, he was raised Protestant; he missed the organ and the stained glass, growling about the office building setting every time he walked in. He didn’t buy in until we went to a relative’s baby shower at a Catholic church. The priest read the following passage from the Bible:
“So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the sea returned to its normal course when the morning appeared. And as the Egyptians fled into it, the Lord threw the Egyptians into the midst of the sea. The waters returned and covered the chariots and the horsemen; of all the host of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea, not one of them remained.”
We sat there in disbelief. How is the death of Egyptians relevant or appropriate? We had attended baby dedication ceremonies at UUCS, which were positive and joyful. At UUCS, the congregation together commits to helping this little person become a better human being and water is put on their forehead with a flower. People laugh and there is no talk of killing Egyptians. Seeing the stark differences made my husband more appreciative of UU’s approach.
(Here is a little about Unitarian Universalism)
Unitarian Universalism was started in 1961 when the Unitarians and Universalists joined forces. Here are the basic guiding principles:
- All religions are welcome (great for multi-denominational families)
- Inclusion of all people (strong LGBTQ and social justice elements)
- Non-believers and atheists are welcome (just because you don’t believe in God or god, doesn’t mean you don’t want to be part of a community that believes in doing good and being good).
- Questioning is good (there are no absolutes and you are encouraged to make your own conclusions)
- Diversity is key (we learn from each other)
- Music and meditation are cornerstones
- Sermons are derived from many sources (traditional religious texts, poems, essays, songs, life)
Yes, UUs are generally pretty liberal and accepting, which does come with some drawbacks. Timeliness isn’t highly regarded and disorganization can be overlooked. But for the most part, we respect and support one another and our varied beliefs.
“But it’s not easy to unite people around not believing in something.” — Gabe Bullard
Over the past three years, I have leaned on my new community during both personal and worldly trials. When I had to put my beloved chocolate lab Winnie down, my heart was broken. I couldn’t even speak about it in Joys and Sorrows (our time for openly sharing with the congregation), but just lit a candle of remembrance. I came back to my seat sobbing. Someone I didn’t even know handed me a tissue and put his hand on my shoulder — such kindness from essentially a stranger. And when news of all the countless shootings, physical disasters, political injustices break, I find comfort in my church.
I’ve grown while at UUCS. I joined the Writers’ Group (open to anyone – members and nonmembers) where I’ve become close with my fellow writers, including an older African man and a talented painter. They know more about me than many of my family members. Also, I stepped out of my comfort zone and participated in my first Jazz Poetry Slam. And on Raptor Night, one of the monthly family-friendly Friday night events, I sat in a room with falcons, hawks, and owls. While at UUCS, I’ve heard some of the best music in the area, from the Gay Men’s Chorus (performing this Saturday) to our children’s choir that my daughter participates in and loves.
Being a part of a community does come with some expectations, mostly showing up and volunteering. I’ve been asked to help in different capacities. For three years, I worked on the stewardship campaign, aka asking people for money to support the church. This role was WAY outside my comfort zone, but I just tapped into what I knew — marketing, communications, innovation, and honesty. And now, in July, I will be taking on the role of the Board President. I keep thinking they’re going to call me and tell me it is all a joke. Not sure I’m totally qualified for the role, but I believe in the people who nominated me and am honored to serve.
So why did I write this post? Partially to claim my faith — something I’ve feared doing up until now — and to address my fear of the C-word (church). But more so because I know there are other Nones out there who are looking for a place like UUCS, a spiritual home or even just a positive community that they can connect with. Maybe UUCS isn’t it…but maybe it is.
A few weeks after my first visit to UUCS, the friend who had originally invited me there was diagnosed with breast cancer. The UUCS community swooped in to support her. I thought about my life and who, other than my close friends and family, would support me if I were diagnosed with a brutal illness? What would become of my family? Who would attend my funeral? I also thought about my mom and how she died — with friends and family, but no faith, no extended community. I wanted more for myself and for my family. I thought about who I was and who I wanted to be…a better, more compassionate person. I wanted to give back and now I do. And I go to church (almost) every Sunday and yes, I love it.