This past Sunday, my husband and I ventured into The Unitarian Fellowship of Peterborough. I’ve been curious about this religion for awhile now. Knowing that people from all religious backgrounds are welcome to join, even atheists, it appears that they unite under the idea that who you are is more important than what you believe.
According to their website, they cite their roots to pre-credal Christianity, when Christian thought was not defined by the creeds and structures it needed to become the official religion of the Roman Empire. As a pacifist and (former) Protestant, I’ve never really liked the changes the Constantinian Era made to Christianity three hundred years into its history. In my mind, it took a religion that was vibrant, subversive and radically submissive and tamed it into something cold and oppressive, still capable as an avenue for love and healing, but nevertheless diminished from its former, freer state. Lots of Christian groups today claim their roots in pre-credal Christianity including the Independent Fundamental Baptists I visited in January, and the Mennonites I went to college and university with. The difference that I can see between this group and all the other Christian groups is that this group defines itself as inclusive, and celebratory of holding together a variety of points view and “personal truths”.
During the Reformation period in Eastern Europe, Frances David, a Unitarian preacher, was attributed with stating, “We need not think alike to love alike.” I adore that thought, and I have found it to be true in my own life as well.
Something about walking into a unitarian universalist church felt more sinful than my first cigarette, my first beer and my first sexual experience all multiplied by each other. The fact that their website proudly aligns themselves with Christianity’s original “heretics” (something I didn’t read until afterwards) tells me just how culturally ingrained it is for me to be suspicious of these people.
The service though, was lovely. It felt familiar, with bulletins, announcements, songs, and a sermon. This congregation is sponsoring a refugee family, has an upcoming sexual education retreat for teenagers, has a choir, and serves coffee and cookies at the end. All of these are typical of the kind of religious services I grew up with.
It had a different kind of depth though, than what you would normally find in a church. We happened to come on a children’s service, where the contents of the events of the morning were meant to be engaging to people of all ages. Considering human impact on the environment was the thesis. Nature themed songs were sung. Poetry with names like “Ode to the Worm” were read aloud, and an incredibly talented performer acted out the “sermon” with puppets and various props in a production that, while simple, put every children’s ministry play I ever put on as a children’s pastor to shame. From the Ojibway natives to the fur traders to the lumber jacks to modern day people – we learned how people had interacted with their environmental around the local Otonobee River and what (or who) needs to be considered as we interact with the river today. A tree planting ceremony followed the service for those who wanted to participate. The idea that all living things are connected to each other and that it is our responsibility to take care of the planet was compassionately and inspirationally portrayed.
A similar service could have easily been held at a Baptist or a United church. What made this different though was that neither God nor the Bible was mentioned, perhaps because neither of these are needed to help motivate these people into action. After all, regardless of whether or not God made the earth worm, it still does a great job of producing nutrient-rich soil. Regardless of whether or not God made trees, they still produce life-giving oxygen. They have intrinsic, interconnected worth.
I find myself incredibly drawn to this congregation. The idea that who you are is more important than what you believe is the same criteria that I use for my friends and my marriage. Why not have it be the criteria I use to find a religious community to call home?
I miss being a part of a multi-generational community that meets regularly. I miss having others to enact social and environmental justice initiatives with. I miss having a spiritual home. I’ve been out of a church community for over a year now, and I still do not understand how so many people live their entire lives without ever feeling the need to congregate and grow emotionally and spiritually with others. How wonderful to have stumbled upon a group that, from all appearances, would love me and accept me and find what I had to say valuable regardless of whether or not I call myself a Christian, or believe in God at all.