I have a confession to make. I’ve been going to church.
Those who know me may find this surprising. I’m not a churchy type. I don’t really own any “church clothes.” I like to sleep in whenever I can, including Sunday mornings. Before a few weeks ago, I probably hadn’t been to a church service – unless it was a wedding – in twenty years.
But I’ve been doing research on Unitarianism. I’m writing a novel, and one of the main characters is a gay teenage boy who finds solace and strength in a spiritual community. Although I knew nothing about Unitarian Universalism, the term sprang to mind when I was considering what sort of spiritual community such a boy might turn to. So I went looking for information.
If you’re interested in Unitarians and what they believe, there are some good internet sites that may help you out: I started with the BBC overview, which gives some good basic info. There are some videos on YouTube (this one, for example) and, from what I can see, a very few books – like this one I ordered from Amazon, a seminal Unitarian text.
There is also one, just one, Unitarian church in Montreal. So I decided to check it out, and The (reluctant but ever supportive) Boyfriend agreed to come with me for Sunday service.
At the same time as I was framing all this as “research” in my mind, I was also intrigued on a more personal level.
I am not, shall we say, “Goddish.” I believed in God when I was a child. I was terrified of God, in fact, and the threat of hell, which is odd when you consider that my parents weren’t religious, at least not in any practicing way. They took me to church for a while, mostly because I insisted on it (the United Church, not to be confused with the Unitarian Church, which is a whole other thing.) Then they got tired of going to church (I come by my sleeping-in tendencies honestly) and told me that if I wanted to go, I could take myself. So I went to the Anglican church with my friends, all of whom were as God-fearing and hell-dreading as I was, several of whom had clergymen for fathers. I joined the Anglican Church Children’s Choir. I insisted on sleeping over at my friends’ houses on Saturday night, not Friday, to satisfy my church-going habit more conveniently.
My piety was sincere. I kept a little red Gideon’s New Testament (given to all students in my school when they reached the sixth grade) next to my bed and read from it nightly. I prayed, I worried about how God was judging my actions, and I suffered agonies after sermons that denounced sins I was prone to commit, like taking the Lord’s name in vain or not honouring my father and mother.
But mostly, I liked church because of the music.
I was a lonely child. I always felt vaguely persecuted by friends. My siblings were emissaries of chaos, and I hid from them as much as possible. But church was peaceful, a place where I sat quietly, surrounded by others who wanted to sit quietly. We were all together, but we didn’t need to talk; I didn’t need to say anything that others would find amusing or cool. We all sat together respectfully, listening to the word of God. And then we sang together. The songs were beautiful, and I got to sing them, not alone in my room as I often sang, not on the bleachers during music class at school, where I often suspected the mean girls in front of me were giggling about my tone, but at the top of my lungs, with other people singing at the top of their lungs, even if our every note wasn’t perfect.
Sometime around the age of twelve, I stopped going to church. It was around the time all my friends were confirmed. Now, every Sunday, I was left behind in the pews while they went up with the adults to take communion. My sense of being part of the congregation was broken: I wasn’t Anglican, I hadn’t taken catechism classes, I hadn’t passed through what everyone else in this room over the age of eleven had passed through. I didn’t belong here.
When my sense of connection to the community faded, so did my belief in God. It started to dawn on me that the God I was learning about, a God who inspired a ten-year-old girl to lie awake at night crying tears of panic, thinking she was going to burn in hell because she hadn’t been baptized, was really not a good God. He wasn’t even a good person.
I started sleeping in on Sunday mornings.
Although I’m much less lonely as an adult than I was as a child, I think that in some ways, loneliness is fundamental. Some people are lonely. Some people have a natural ability to connect; others have difficulty knowing how to reach out, how to form bonds, how to be a part of something. My loneliness has never left me.
I have many good friends I love, and at certain times in my adult life – when I was in graduate school, for example, and in the years immediately following – I’ve truly felt like I was a part of a community. Recently, though, I’ve been feeling isolated. It’s partly because I’m on sabbatical and working at home, falling into patterns of solitude, only to raise my head every once in a while to realize that I haven’t spoken to any of my friends in two or three weeks, and that Facebook has become my default realm of social interaction.
As I was researching Unitarian Universalism, trolling through information websites and reading church newsletters and watching YouTube videos, I began to feel a pull. Unitarianism focuses very much on building a community. Their seven principles, as described by the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, are
to affirm and promote:
-the inherent worth and dignity of every person;
-justice, equity, and compassion in human relations;
-acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
-a free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
-the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
-the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
-respect for the interdepedent web of all existence of which we are a part.
So the focus, as far as I could see, was upon creating a strong community of independent-minded individuals: be who you are, follow your own path, and come hang out with us because we will value and support you as you do it. I mean, how cool and comforting is that?
It’s all even more appealing because there’s no obligation for a Unitarian to believe in God. That’s one relationship I’m totally done with. I’m still not over how he and his “hell” managed to instill such terror, such painful, heart-scorching terror, in me and other little children like me. It’s child abuse. God and I have nothing to say to one another.
So there were many things about Unitarianism – the universalist focus, the inclusion of secular attitudes, the emphasis on social justice work, and, most of all, the central importance of community – that made me want to go check these people out, as much for my own sake as for the sake of “novel research.”
(Next post: The Boyfriend and I worship in Westmount. And: what does all this have to do with my job as an educator?)