Wednesday, May 6, 2009

A Tale of Two Churches

We Unitarian Universalists affirm Seven Principles that guide our behavior and our lives. The Third Principle states: "We...covenant to affirm and promote acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations." As a theological group, Theists (with Christians) account for only 10% of Unitarian Universalists. And many of us UU Christians know first hand that our fellow UU's sometimes have difficulty accepting and encouraging our spiritual growth. We can be painted with the same brush as fundamentalist or conservative Christians, and that brush, for many in our denomination, holds the colors of pain, guilt, dogma, magical thinking, authoritarianism, and judgmentalism--everything from religious pasts that is still healing.

Enter Bishop Carlton Pearson in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with a congregation of mostly African American, Pentecostal seekers, embracing Universalism and looking for a new spiritual home. This group of wanderers worships for a while at the local Episcopalian church. But the fit is not exactly right for several reasons, and Bishop Pearson turns to Rev. Marlin Lavanhar, Senior Minister at All Souls Unitarian Church. Historically white, theologically inclusive, with a strong Humanist base. New Dimensions, the Pentecostal Universalists, begin worshipping at All Souls. The two ministers talk, discuss options, exchange practical and theological ideas. Share thoughts with their congregations. And in October 2008, they take a Leap of Faith.

The decision is made to enfold the several hundred seekers from New Dimensions into All Souls Unitarian.

All Souls now offers two services. The contrast between the two could not be more striking. At the early service, hymns rich in harmony and organ, sermons listened to with attentive silence, the rhythm of words from many spiritual sources and people, and quiet joy. At the second service, praise music that starts a half-hour before, people on their feet, hands upraised, clapping, sermons punctuated with "Amen!" and "Halleluja" from the congregation. The names of Jesus and God spoken and sung with abandon.

And to the surprise of many, the second service is attended by many current All Souls members, who tried it out...and stayed. New members begin to find a spiritual home within a denomination pledged to embracing diversity and inclusiveness.

In an article written by Rev. Lavanhar ("Spiritual Brokeness", Simple Gifts: The All Souls Journal, March 2009), it is clear that all is not smooth sailing. The praise music reignites memories of old and painful trauma. People complain, "I came to All Souls to get away from all that." What is the "that" they are escaping, Rev. Lavanhar asks. And learns that there is a long list of past religious experience from which people have fled: the way women were treated, anti-intellectualism, homophobia, proselytizing, the way other traditions were demonized, just to name a few. And Rev. Lavanhar points out that none of this has come to All Souls with its new members. What has come is a chance to bring out those old wounds which have been covered up or skillfully avoided and heal them.

"At All Souls", Rev. Lavanhar concludes, "we are not simply expounding lofty religious ideals, we are becoming the world we hope to see."

If a similar opportunity arose to embrace diversity--theological, racial, political, all of the above--by adding double the number of current members to your congregation, would you do it? Would you live out the Third Priniciple? Would you follow the Way of Jesus, the Gospel of Inclusiveness?

1 comment:

  1. This is a wonderful blog, thankyou...