I am not, and have never been, a church-goer. Growing up, my parents never required or encouraged it, and the only times I found myself going was at the usually polite behest of occasional friends who only wanted the best for my everlasting soul. So it was rather odd to find myself willfully attending the Holston Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Gray, TN for the first time. One of my motives was curiosity, as the HVUUC's website (http://www.hvuuc.org/) proclaimed to welcome people of all religious affiliations or lack thereof - I wondered what the hell they did at the church, if atheists were just as welcome as believers. Another motive, perhaps stronger than the first, was hope. As a feminist and a peace-lover, I have a passion for social justice and for just helping other people in general. But as an atheist, it's often difficult for me to find a group that organizes community activism beyond the scope of women's issues, and that also lacks any religious affiliation. So I had hopes that this church might provide me with an opportunity to meet like-minded people who want to help others in the absence of exhortation.
Before attending, I had hoped that afterward I would either resent the place, or be swept off my feet by it. Not too surprisingly, neither happened, and I'm now inclined to go again in order to get a better feel for it. The woman who spoke the most and organized the day's service - Beth Calvert - was very welcoming to newcomers and introduced a number of communicative activities. One - the Candles of Community - involved inviting anyone who had experienced an "intense" week, possessing an abundance of either joy or sorrow, to approach the microphone and express their feelings to the other church members. A tea candle was lit for each person who spoke, and the intent seemed to be to elicit the empathy and emotion of the other members and to communally experience the speakers' moments of emotional intensity. I found that interesting.
They had the notorious church collection plate halfway through the service, the idea of which had not occurred to me beforehand, but which also did not surprise me. And they had a specific envelope in each plate (really it was a wooden bowl) which was intended for donations to the Unitarian church in Knoxville that was shot up last Sunday.
As an academic who's been in college for five years now, I was thrown off by the number of children who were there also. I guess when I think of a collection of progressive and open-minded people collecting together for any activity, I usually don't picture children in the collection. There was a storytelling session where all the kids gathered around this elderly woman while she told a story with an interesting moral about communication and understanding, and then the kids were expected to leave the service room and go to one of the back rooms. I found myself more comfortable after they left, but I guess if I want to go to any church regularly, I should get used to them. Harrumph.
The only thing that made me slightly uncomfortable was when that same elderly woman, who happened to identify as an Episcopalian, gave a brief sermon later on and referenced "God" and "Lord" numerous times. I guess that makes sense, if the church is inviting speakers from all religious sects or lack thereof to participate... but I couldn't help but feel slightly preached to (how strange, it was a sermon).
There's a lot more that happened that I wouldn't be able to give any interesting details about, but I feel inclined to type out a few of the church's affirmations and promotions that appealed to me:
* the inherent worth and dignity of every person
* justice, equity and compassion in human relations
* the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregation and society at large
* respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part
There are a few other things about spirituality and truth and stuff, which I'm willing to concede, but nothing about any strict creed or dogma. And one quote from their paragraph about church membership which appealed to me is as follows: Each person is encouraged to develop a personal theology based on experience, reason and gained insight.
So the theology part seems like a bit much (perhaps spirituality or even consciousness might work better), but I was delighted to see the "reason" in there. Any church encouraging that sets itself higher than most others, I would think.
So there you have it.