In which we are welcomed by Maryland Unitarians

Chalice art at the Goodloe Unitarian congregation in Bowie, Md.
Chalice art at the Goodloe Unitarian congregation in Bowie, Md.

BOWIE, Md. — As teenagers do, Trevor spent his Saturday night on vacation surfing the Internet for Sunday-morning church services.

He narrowed his choices to two Unitarian Universalist congregations near our hosts in Maryland.

“All Souls in Washington is really big,” he said, estimating the size of the youth group. “Goodloe is, like, a mile from here, but they only have 70 members.”

“Small is cute,” I said, thinking about the 1,700 kilometres I’d already driven that week and how a walk in the spring weather would be awfully nice, especially since it was snowing back home. I hadn’t really thought it through, though, because I sometimes suffer from crippling shyness and when two fresh faces walk into a tiny congregation … well, it’s hard to fly under the radar. We arrived just minutes before the service was to start and as soon as we walked through the rainbow-flag-topped doorway, we were greeted with outstretched hands, welcoming smiles and jovial voices.

The space was small and comfortable, with Unitarian-themed artworks on every wall, from quilted creations to a chalice collage.

The announcements that herald the start of any church service were delivered with humour and camaraderie. Two minutes in and I got this sensation that we’d just walked into a family gathering.

We weren’t the only guests in the house. Visiting pastor Lisa Ward was introduced and boldly led the congregation in creating a rainstorm by snapping our fingers, clapping our hands, stomping our feet and even yelling, which Unitarians hardly ever do. As we reached the crossroad where Trevor could stay put or join the youth in the back room, he hesitated, rocking back and forth indecisively. Then he eased back into his chair and said quietly, “I want to see what she does next.”

What she did next was tell a story of walking her dog on iced-over snow. She’d glanced back and saw her footprints had made no mark—what would we do if we knew we would leave no trace?

“When most people walk their dog in the snow, they want it to shit and go back inside,” Trevor wrote on his program so I could see. “Only a UU minister would get all existential.”

The sense of being in the living room just before Sunday dinner deepened during the Joys and Concerns portion of the program, when members were invited to share whatever was on their mind. In many congregations, part of the ritual is the lighting of a candle, in true Christian fashion. Here, a stone was dropped into a bowl of water, to my mind a more gentle action.

A member thanked the congregation for the music, and for standing by his side while his mother battled cancer. I cried with everyone else.

“The pope visits the White House next week,” a 95-year-old man got up to say. “Just wait. And listen to what he says.”

A lady who had shared my hymnbook earlier stood and said she’d heard from her son. “It was a short conversation because he didn’t have much time and I guess he had a lot of people to call.” The woman sitting in front of me leaned back to explain, “He joined the military.” I blubbered a little then, too.

A man with a booming voice had a joy—more or less. “My wife and I are celebrating 47 years of mostly blissful marriage. Oops! I mean—blissful marriage! … Don’t tell her I said ‘mostly’.”

“You should hear what she says about you!” came a voice from the peanut gallery.

As the laughter subsided, Trevor got up and made his way the three rows to the front.

“I’m Trevor,” he said in his giant man-voice, which filled the room. “My mom and I are visiting from Montreal. My joy is that I’m here with you people … because the snow back home is, like, up to here!”

I guffawed with everyone else and thought—my not-church-going self—that I was pretty joyful to be there, too.”

Sunday morning architecture

For the first nineteen years of my life, I attended three religious services a week as part of a fundamentalist organization. It’s a rare Sunday now that finds me inside a church, but Melani assured me the First Unitarian in Ottawa would be worth the visit. Since Trev and I were spending the night after the truck rally at the home of a friend who is a UU member, we decided to tag along with her on Sunday morning.

Unitarian Universalist church in Ottawa

The religious buildings of my youth were nondescript (read: ugly) square boxes with no windows. The Ottawa UU does it right. Designed in the late ’60s, the church is built high, up a long flight of shallow stairs to a concrete terrace. One can see directly into the sanctuary, through two walls of red-cedar-framed windows. There is no vestibule; rather, one steps from the bright, tree-sheltered terrace directly into the worship hall.

The ceiling stretches into the sky, following the line of the steeple. It is filled with aged cedar and sunlight streams onto the platform, illuminating the speaker and pianist.

Sun streams into the sanctuary. I'd love to sit here during a snowstorm.
Sun streams into the sanctuary. I'd love to sit here during a snowstorm.

If he were the type to feel comfortable at a Unitarian service, God would fit in here. The sanctuary is designed for higher thoughts. The long, cushioned pews are just soft enough that one may relax and just hard enough that one won’t fall asleep. Not that falling asleep is a danger: The service is designed to keep you moving, singing, greeting those around you. I’m not a fan of saying hello to strangers, but it somehow works in this space.

The service was bittersweet, being the congregation’s last day with a highly respected interim minister.

“As an interim, I don’t think I’m supposed to fall in love,” he told the almost-packed hall. More than two-thirds of the people there were wearing bow ties, his signature accessory. He smiled and told them: “I have fallen in love with you.”

Apparently the congregation has gone through some very big changes in the past year or so, but whatever shadow had hung over them seems to have passed. It was the warmest, most pleasant Sunday morning I have experienced in a long time.

This is one UU group that has truly earned the designation of a Welcoming Congregation.