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Rochester church's rap video goes viral

First Unitarian Church invested 400 hours in Homecoming Sunday video.
By Donald E. Skinner
10.10.11

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Confetti showers on members of First Unitarian Church of Rochester

Confetti showers on members of First Unitarian Church of Rochester as they sing about “Coming Home.” (Adam Durand)

Plenty of congregations make videos. Some feature congregants explaining what drew them to Unitarian Universalism. Others feature heartfelt invitations to visit. Still others are videos of individual services and service projects.

First Unitarian Church of Rochester, N.Y., has produced its share of those kinds of videos over the years. But when staff members began planning last spring for Homecoming Weekend in September they wanted something more. They wanted something that expressed First Unitarian’s values. And was fun. And enthusiastic.

They got it. First Unitarian’s four-minute “Coming Home” video not only captivated the congregation, but it captured the UU universe. It’s been posted numerous times on Facebook, passed around on email and Twitter, and can be seen on dozens of websites of other congregations.

“Coming Home” is a combination rap and music video featuring members of the congregation telling—or rather singing—about why they attend First Unitarian. The video, created largely by First Unitarian’s Worship Creative Arts team, expresses the congregation’s creativity and enthusiasm and highlights the congregation’s support of social justice issues, including environmentalism, marriage equality, and peace advocacy.

The Rev. Kaaren Anderson, co-minister of First Unitarian with the Rev. Scott Tayler, said the video was shown first at worship services during Homecoming Weekend, Sept. 10-11. “It did what it was intended to do,” said Anderson. “It made people incredibly happy about the church and excited about what it is doing. It’s been pretty amazing to see people’s reactions.”

The video is made up of footage of many members of the congregation, each featured in brief segments, all singing while on their way to services by car, bike, skateboard, on foot, or while doing activities at church.

The video was created this past summer around the 2010 song “Coming Home” by rapper and producer Diddy and his band Dirty Money. The original lyrics, which were inappropriate, were rewritten by Mary Lyubomirsky, First Unitarian’s music and arts coordinator, retaining the original chorus of the song. The congregation had permission to use the song through its license with Christian Copyright Solutions, which has a database of 16 million songs. The license costs First Unitarian about $1,500 annually. “That covers performing music in worship, plus webcasting,” said Lyubomirsky.

The chorus includes the lines: “I’m coming home. I’m coming home. Tell the World I’m coming home. Let the rain wash away all the pain of yesterday. I know my kingdom awaits, and they’ve forgiven my mistakes. I’m coming home. I’m coming home. Tell the World that I’m coming.”

Anderson credits co-minister Tayler with the original vision. “He does research all the time and follows a number of evangelical ministers. He pushed for more emphasis on creative arts in worship.”

Anderson said the video was only possible because of the hard work the staff and congregation has been doing the past several years. “We’ve been working on [asking], ‘What breaks your heart? What do we need to address in the world? How do we do that?’ That was the foundation on which this video sits. It would not have made people cry if it had not been so dead on about who we are, what breaks our hearts, and what are we doing about it.”

She said the video, which took 400 hours to create, was done by congregation members and was mostly shot on or near the congregation’s campus. Anderson said that she loved that it included people of all ages. “It was pretty funny to have 70- and 80-year-old guys doing recordings of rap, listening to it over and over to get it right. They just came alive when they saw the video.”

She said First Unitarian tries to incorporate “creative worship enhancements” about twice a month. That includes things such as dance interpretation, an art installation that mirrors the worship theme, or a mime experience in place of opening words. “The art forms are varied, but they are meant to enhance the basic body or liturgy we maintain as our bedrock,” she said.

First Unitarian has both a Worship Creative Arts team and a Worship team. The former is comprised of artists, painters, writers, choreographers, performers, actors, storytellers, and poets. Lyubomirsky leads them through a process of thinking through First Unitarian’s monthly worship themes months in advance. “Their wild, crazy, wacky, brilliant ideas are run by Scott and me,” Anderson said. “We decide what might work when and whether we can pull it off.”

The Worship team is made up of the congregation’s musicians, ministers, and Lyubomirsky. “The glue between both groups is Mary and me,” said Anderson.

Worship Creative team member Wendy Mancarella, the director of the video, said her teenagers led her to the Diddy song. She said she had been thinking for some time that a “big screen” video would be a fun—and meaningful—thing to do.

“I am so thankful to be a part of a church where creative worship is valued and utilized,” she said. “The mission of the Worship Creative Arts team is to give ‘goosebumps’ through performance and by providing audience opportunities that inspire people to find themselves through an overwhelming experience of re-connection with their deepest selves and core values.”

There was a time when special productions at First Unitarian were limited more to holidays. For the past three years staff and members have written original musicals for Christmas Eve, for example. “We decided to spread that out across the church year,” said Lyubomirsky. “If you’re doing lots of little projects you can involve more people. It gives you more freedom to tap into what those people’s passions are.”

Anderson noted that doing video projects has also involved a specific group of friends and members—those who love video and sound production and all things technological—and has connected them more closely to the congregation. “Those guys love doing this stuff and they get excited by it. We’re grateful they’ve found their niche where their talents meet up with our mission and vision. That’s the question for every congregation: how do we use you so your passion comes alive?”

Lyubomirsky said that First Unitarian Church has a legacy of creative worship. “It’s not new here; we’re just putting more resources toward it.” First Unitarian regularly incorporates dramatics, storytelling, and movement, for example. It has had a dance group for several decades.

In addition to the homecoming video, First Unitarian had a service in January 2010 which included a “flash mob.” In the middle of the service one person begins singing and dancing, giving the appearance of an unplanned, spontaneous act, and is joined by a couple of others and then many other people, dancing in the aisles and in front of the congregation.

To pull it off, 40 people were taught some basic dance steps before the first service. “It was the coolest thing,” said Anderson, “all these people standing up doing this easy dance and being joined by others. Still, I was hesitant to go to the back of the sanctuary and shake hands that morning. But I got more emails on that service than any other. Some people stayed for both services.”

The flash mob, directed by Mancarella, fit with that month’s worship theme, “Possibility”. Anderson’s sermon was on “stepping into the possibility of what life has to offer.”

“When my daughter and I watched flash mobs on YouTube we were struck by how moving and delightful these surprise events seemed to be for the audience,” Mancarella said. “It was definitely a risk, (but) the effect was more than we anticipated as almost immediately half the people were on their feet joining in.”

Anderson said the “Coming Home” video and the flash mob “are not us just trying to get fancy with worship.” Added Lyubomirsky, “Whatever we do has to be tied into the meaning we’re trying to bring to worship.”

Other video projects are planned, including one on same-gender marriage this January. In February there could be one on the various ways children express love for parents. There’s talk of interviewing elders for a video on the theme of “Inheritance” in May.

Videos trump print for some purposes, said Lyubomirsky. “We could put stuff all day long in our newsletter about our theology, but our videos, with our faces, tone of voice, and attitude of celebration, hit you viscerally the way that a written document never could.”

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