This will be my last blog post for a while because when it’s done, I will have written about all the congregations I’ve attended so far. There are more visits to come, so don’t worry, I’ll be back.
7) Sunday, February 19th. First Unitarian Universalist Church of Alton IL. Founded in 1836, First UU Alton has been around for a long time. It’s been through two buildings and who knows how many ministers. I made the acquaintance of this church when I was in search 7 years ago. Alton was advertising for a half time minister. It didn’t end up working out for us, but their search committee chair (bless her heart), knowing I was trying to find a way to live in Missouri so I could be with my life partner, directed me on to Emerson, which I had not applied to because Emerson made the decision not to use the UUA’s settlement process. Lucky for me I got the referral from Alton or I would never have known it was accepting applications. Alton was where I preached my pre-candidating sermon for the Emerson Search Committee. Alton is also the congregation of one of my dear colleagues, Rev. Khleber Van Zandt, the minister the Alton Search Team decided to call as their minister. So I have a tender place in my heart for this church. It was the right place to go the day after attending St. John Lutheran. I needed to be around kindred spirits.
Khleber and I started at our respective congregations at the same time and both of us have experienced working with a congregation as they grew our positions to full time. Both of our churches have grown considerably, to the point that each is making huge choices about the future.
Alton UU made the difficult decision to go to two services last year because to not do so would have meant saying no to new people. They had reached capacity. It wasn’t an easy decision and many feared they would lose their sense of connectedness. But faced with the decision of protecting what they had for themselves or ensuring there was always room for guests, they chose the latter, and as with any big institutional changes, I think they’re still working through it.
As is usually the case when you add a second service to expand capacity, the first and second services at Alton are identical. Generally, the only reason you add a completely different kind of service is if you are focused on drawing a new demographic. And, if you’re going to do that, one full time minister and part time administrative and programmatic staff (religious education and music) isn’t going to cut it. St. John Lutheran (see church hopping IV) has six full time ministers, two of whose main responsibility is worship (one does the traditional service and the other the contemporary) and they are supported by a huge paid staff. For smaller churches like Alton, they don’t have the staff to support a brand new service. Duplicating a service still means extra time spent in worship preparation for the minister because the volunteer load becomes much heavier, so we do a lot more coordinating and training than with one service. But if you can shift some of your other responsibilities onto well trained volunteers, a sole minister can definitely do two services a Sunday. As Emerson moves towards the decision about adding a second service, I will likely do a lot of consulting with Khleber and perhaps even suggest to our program council that we meet with lay leaders at First Alton who implemented the second service. There is no sense reinventing the wheel.
I attended the service at 9:30 a.m. Attendance was small, about 25 I guess. Khleber had shared with me that attendance at the 9:30 service is small, but it has opened up about 25-35 spaces at the second service which continues to be full. So hopefully over time attendance at both services will even out. It was Heritage Sunday and the focus was the Anna D’s, the women’s society that was established at Alton in 1896. This church has history and the service was steeped in it. I was impressed with the experience of being in a UU church that is so old. Emerson is very young and we still feel young, like we have a very brief history.
Basically, the purpose of the service was to hold up and honor the contributions of women to Alton UU. The women’s society was not only for UU women, it became one of the most successful and influential women’s groups in the town of Alton. It was well known for its social events, which were fundraisers for the community. There is hardly a part of the Alton community that has not benefitted from the work of the Anna D’s.
I found myself thinking about Emerson and how we are connected to our surrounding community. Alton is built in the center of town. It was an anchor of the community in its day and you can still see that now. Alton UU is a warming center one day a week for the homeless. It partners with other churches who’ve been there just as long. Alton UU, for instance, takes part in the city wide Lenten evening worship services and suppers, which rotate between the different mainline churches in Alton. This week Alton was the location and the Presbyterian minister offered the service. The Anna D’s, who still exist, prepared the meal. Emerson is in the sprawling suburbs of West County and it’s relatively hidden away on a residential street. There is no center to West County, there are only thoroughfares, and we’re not on one. If we are to be present in our community, it will and does take place in a different way – in specific outreach to non-profits that work in the community like Faith Aloud, Circle of Concern, Growing American Youth, Planned Parenthood. But our building is hardly located in an area where homeless people can come warm themselves. We do our work in a different way.
One challenge that both Alton UU and Emerson UU share is that both have experienced a growing sense of religious diversity within the congregation. This religious diversity has always existed in these congregations. But in recent decades, both had identified themselves as primarily non-theistic. When Khleber and I came to our respective churches, both of us found congregations that were widely diverse but where only one way of expressing and being Unitarian Universalist was socially supported. Many people in both congregations were afraid that if they shared what they really believed and felt, they would no longer feel welcome. Both our congregations have focused on finding ways to open the doors for the full expression of the theological diversity already there and for the full welcome of the theological diversity that comes to us every week in the guests that we receive. Both of us have faced losses from those who felt uncomfortable with this opening. Both Khleber and I were blessed with strong lay leaders who supported the changes. It couldn’t have happened any other way. It can’t only be the minister. We can promote all kinds of changes, but if key leaders aren’t beside us, we’re blowing in the wind.
I enjoyed my time at Alton UU. After my experience in the male-dominated worship at St. John, to hear my colleague say, “Today we’re talking about the Anna D’s. And I know I’m a white heterosexual male so there’s only so much I’m going to know, but I can tell you, these women were the rocks of this congregation. We wouldn’t be here without them,” was just what I needed.
I did appreciate that Khleber is using a projector in his services and used a powerpoint presentation for his sermon. It was so simple. The picture was broadcast on the front wall of the sanctuary, which is white. I’m already thinking of how I might be able to do something similar at Emerson. Multimedia is as important as accessible music to create strong multigenerational communities.
I also was so glad to sing from our own hymnal.
(8) Ash Wednesday, February 22. St. Philip’s United Church of Christ, St. Louis MO
Randy Whitman and her husband the Rev. Jeffrey Whitman invited me to an Ash Wednesday Service. I happily accepted the invitation. The Interim Pastor of St. Philip’s is Rev. Richard Brandon. He is a seasoned minister. He served St. John’s UCC on Sulphur Springs in Manchester for several decades. Been in the profession for almost 40 years and he is not one of those ministers who is waiting too long to retire! He’s so good. You can tell that he loves what he does and it breathes through him. He was polished and authentic, and in just the right proportions. The service was very traditional. He robed, there was a choir, the hymns were traditional and played on the organ.
I was probably the youngest person in the room, and I’m in my early 40s. I’m not sure if this is because it was an Ash Wednesday service or because this is how the church always is.
The traditional theology of Lent and Ash Wednesday is that substitionary atonement thing. This is the doctrine that states that Jesus paid the price for our sins. He offered himself as the substitute, and thus we are already forgiven. I have a hard time with this theology and it was front and center in this service. I can’t tell you how many times I heard the word “unworthy.” But I tell you what. Who you sit with in a service makes all the difference in the world. One of the reasons I think the service at St. John was so hard for me is that I was alone, a stranger. When you sit with people you trust and care about, even if the theology isn’t quite right, it can sit a little easier with you because you know how the people around you live it. I don’t know if Randy and Jeff subscribe to the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, but if they do, I see how they live it. They are loving, generous, kind, open-minded and open-hearted people. Randy is the best church administrator I have ever had the privilege of working with, and not just because of her competence, but because of her spirit. Jeff and I have stood side by side at political protests. Jeff’s daughter Kelly, also an ordained UCC minister, stood on behalf of Faith Aloud outside the Hope Clinic for Women at least once a month so that the anti-choice protesters would taunt her rather than the women arriving for treatment. (In fact, this is how Randy came to us. When we were looking for an office admin Randy was visiting the Faith Aloud office with Kelly. I happened to call Rev. Becky Turner asking if she knew anyone looking for a job, and she passed the phone to Randy.)
When you trust the people, the theology has a way of working out. If you take the theology of substitutionary atonement, and it becomes a process of living with intentional humility, kindness and gratitude, which is what I see in both Randy and Jeff, then I think it’s got to have something going for it.
We sang hymns out of a hymnal and they were all those old hymns that I’ve heard my parents, grandparents, and great grandparents sing. “What a Friend we have in Jesus.” “Love Divine, all loves excelling.” “Beneath the Cross of Jesus.” “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” Randy sung soprano. I sang alto. Jeff switched between bass and tenor.
The sermon was based on one of my favorite stories. John 8:1-11. It’s where they’re going to stone the woman and Jesus says, “Let the one without sin cast the first stone.” And the minister didn’t let us take this and apply it to those we disagree with, the ones who we feel are throwing stones at us. He made us apply it to ourselves. Who are we stoning with our thoughts and our words and our choices? An apt question in an election year that is already getting nasty. When we stone, we are really stoning ourselves, stoning ourselves with unacknowledged shame and judgment. So put the stones away, and find new life.
I know a sermon is good when my mind doesn’t wander once. Perhaps the sermon was only 8 minutes long. Perhaps it was just very good. I suspect the latter. His mannerism was so relaxed and professional and I felt drawn to his words. They spoke to my life.
So this time, even if the words to the communion weren’t exactly comfortable, I felt like it was o.k. to translate them. I took communion. And I even went forward and received the ashes on my forehead. I felt reassured and renewed and held.
One of the most moving moments in the service for me? We are lined up moving to the front to receive the ashes. Jeff reaches the front of the line. The minister steps down off the chancel, gives Jeff the ashes and receives the ashes himself. His face and body language changed in that moment. He was no longer the minister. For that sacred time, he relinquished his authority and gave it to someone else, someone he trusted and respected. I could see the deep affection between the men as they served each other in humility and graciousness.
I will remember that for a long time.
Amen and blessed be.