Estimated reading time: 4 minutes, 23 seconds
The first time I came to All Souls Church, a Unitarian Universalist congregation–read, church of religious liberals–several months ago here in New York City, there was a line around the block to enter the building. Contemplating waiting in line to attend service, I turned away and left for other, more instantly gratifying Sunday morning activities. So, it was with welcome relief I walked up from the 77th Street exit of the 6 Local subway line and saw nothing but a clear path up to the church doors. I had dressed for success, wearing my newly bought gray suit, and I was eager to experience an All Souls service because it interested me for so many months. I didn’t even listen to any of the recorded sermons on the Web because I wanted my first time to be “special.”
The folks huddled in the vestibule leading into the sanctuary seemed engaged and friendly, albeit not with me as I preoccupied myself with pushing through the crowd to get a seat. I had this suspicion that seating would be a full-contact competition but it turned out–much to my chagrin–not to be. Empty-handed of a service program by the time I had staked my claim, I fumbled my way back to the entrance and waited for the handsome, lady greeter to hand one to me. I regressed to my last-row pew, where I coyly relinquished my overcoat like football pads and proceeded to observe the bustling preparations of the HS Youth Group. They were in charge of the service for the weekend and while it didn’t excite me not to hear a sermon from one of the regular ministers, the opportunity piqued my interest to see how well they executed.
Coming from Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington, I was rather shocked with the use of “God” so prominent in the All Souls literature, including in the “Bond of Union,” recited at the start of the service. In Arlington, God was not really the word of choice when referring to a greater power; the term “Spirit” or a combination of deities were frequently used to be inclusive for those of us with less inclinations toward all things Higher Power. Rather than being visceral repugnant, I chose to mute my inner vitriol to the dogmatic word choice and continued to enjoy the service knowing that All Souls Church is a genuine Unitarian Universalist Association member and a Welcoming Congregation. And, considering it’s New York City on the Upper East Side, there was no fear I wouldn’t be accepted into the community with open hearts.
And with an invested mindset, I sat and raised along with the congregation as we supported the High School Youth Group through the service. Altogether, the young UU’s performed well including the young, female cellist that played not only during the offertory but also at the end of the service. Nervous and with imperfect phrasing, she competently forged her way through the music. Several of the speeches rendered sage, universal advice both learned and lived by the sermon-givers; never sophomoric, it was exuberant to experience this level of public demonstration from youth on a random Sunday morning. I wondered at that moment who I would be today if I was given this kind of opportunity in a liberal religious environment at such an impressionable age. That’s not to say I’m unhappy with the way I turned out (give or take some circumstances), or that I’d be very much different since I still ended up a UU. There was still a degree of happiness for mixed with, for lack of a better word, envy of these young people having the opportunity to develop their character in this era–with technology advancements, progressive victories made every day in the legislatures and courts around the country (and the world), and living a quality of life richer than any other time in history. I considered briefly my resentments from my childhood and young adulthood, but quickly regained my positive faculties and mindfulness; I knew they cannot be changed and grateful to be exactly the man I am and learning to be. As if by baptism and with heads held high, the youth group ended the service by procession casually down the main aisle out of the church and to the foyer. They were greeted and extolled by exiting parishioners, as they stood in a dodgeball game line-up facing each other on either side of the doors.
I provided a clumsy (though heartfelt) commendation to the cellist for her courage to play for us during the service and then to the rest for their sermons and other messages of the morning. I didn’t know them but I was proud of them as if they were my own nieces or nephews. I broke free of the interaction naturally and quickly to let others add their commentary and compliments, pushing the heavy outer door to feel the brisk air of the cold, New York streets. My extroverted nature took a backseat to my inner introvert and I rushed off to be alone in the mix of crowded sidewalk, hoping to go back to All Souls Church soon and wanting to contemplate for a few moments with a good cup of hot coffee.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.