TV episodes set in Charleston, S.C., Unitarian church.
A minister in a black robe wearing a colorful stole gently extends a pink rose toward a baby held in her mother's arms. To the baby, the parents, the godparents, and the congregation, he says: "I touch your feet that you might stand against injustice. I touch your hands that you might reach for and grasp a great wisdom. I touch your ears that you might hear music in the sacred silence. I touch your eyes that you might see beauty in every living thing. I touch your lips that you might speak the truth. And finally, I touch your heart that you might know love and give love abundantly, openly, and courageously."
The words were spoken recently in the historic Unitarian Church in Charleston, S.C. But it wasn’t a child dedication service, it was a television show. And the words were spoken by an actor not a minister.
Two July episodes of Army Wives, a popular Lifetime Television series, were filmed in the Charleston church as two of the show's characters sought to have their baby dedicated. The baby’s mother, Lt. Col. Joan Burton, was about to be deployed to Iraq, and she wanted to be sure her child was formally connected to the larger community before she left. Joan chose to have a UU service after talking to a Christian pastor about a christening, and she bristled when he asked her about her "relationship with our Lord."
In the next scene, she and her husband, Roland, were walking down the aisle of the Unitarian Church in Charleston with the gentle Rev. Bankard, as the fictional minister explained that, in this church, the focus was on "community over theology."
The scenes in the church—rare portrayals of Unitarian Universalism in the mass media—were sensitively and authentically portrayed. They were filmed in the Charleston church during one week in March, using church members as extras and employing expert lighting to show off the faded Gothic Revival interior to its best effect.
"I was very pleased with the show,” said the Rev. Peter Lanzillotta, who was the minister at the church during the filming. (Lanzillotta's ministry at the Charleston church concluded in June. He currently serves as director of Interfaith Services of the Low Country, also in Charleston.) "It fit very well with the UU philosophy of life, and it didn't hurt to have the sign of the church show up on TV."
Lanzillotta also thought the actor who portrayed the Rev. Bankard, Michael O’Neill, "had a nice feel to him." To add authenticity, Lanzillotta lent him his robe and stole.
Army Wives is a dramatic series in its third season. It follows Army families based in Charleston. Staff writer T.D. Mitchell, who wrote the episode featuring the dedication ceremony, thought Unitarian Universalism was a good fit for the show. "We wanted something open in such a way that a diverse swath of our audience could relate to it," she said. "And we wanted something that was true to this character’s need to connect her child to her community, as well as being able to connect to people of diverse faiths in our audience. The UU traditions and its tradition of openness really served all these purposes."
Mitchell became familiar with Unitarian Universalism in her adulthood, when her mother, Dolores Mitchell, began attending the Olympia (Wash.) UU Congregation and the All Souls UU Community in Lacey, Wash. "The Seven Principles struck me as being true for the character of Joan and who she is at this time in her life," Mitchell said.
Producers for the show contacted Lanzillotta and began making visits to the church to see whether it would provide a fitting backdrop for the show. The show is mostly produced in Los Angeles although shooting takes place in Charleston.
Producers also met with the Vestry, the church’s governing board, to iron out the logistical issues, including insurance and legal protections. The studio paid the church $8,000 for the one-week use of the space. Based on the church’s typical rental fee scale, they had expected about $2,000. "The $8,000 came in handy," said Lanzillotta. "We didn’t have to make any budget cuts."
Lanzillotta sent Mitchell, the writer, several sample dedication ceremonies to use for inspiration for her script. He was very pleased with the result. "The ceremony was in keeping with anything I've done or seen," Lanzillotta said. "It would easily pass muster in any UU church."
In the episode prior to the one in which the dedication ceremony took place, the actor-minister took the time to explain to the baby’s parents the focus of a Unitarian Universalist child dedication ceremony. It was a rare moment for a wide audience to get a flavor for Unitarian Universalism. He told them:
“We don't use a single, fixed text. We’re flexible in accordance with the desires of the parents.”
“Our service is centered around asking the congregation to pledge its support to love and guide the child, to nurture her throughout her upbringing.”
"I find that issues of faith are highly personal and often difficult to articulate, but no less genuine because of that."
Listening attentively to it all, Joan told the minister, "I like the sound of that."
Just as the relationship between the minister and the parents was cordial and harmonious, church members and the film crew worked together seamlessly during the filming. Lanzillotta reports that they all got along well, and he was even allowed to audition for the role of the minister.
Mitchell said both cast and crew were impressed by the warm welcome they received. "Rev. Peter and the folks in the church really understood that the Army Wives production is a community and is a family," she said. "We were welcomed with open arms, and that was awfully nice.” Some members of the crew began to attend services at the Charleston church after the shooting concluded, she said.
Lanzillotta hopes there will be more opportunities for Unitarian Universalism to be portrayed in the mainstream media. He urges other congregations to be as accommodating as possible if they are approached with a similar opportunity. "We’re such a distinct minority," he says. "It has not served us well to be standoffish or arrogant. We should be welcoming questions and able to participate in the media in any positive way we can."
The two Army Wives episodes, called "Disengagement" and "Family Readiness," are available online through mid-August at mylifetime.com. They are also available for purchase in hi-definition on iTunes.
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Michelle Bates Deakin, a member of First Parish Unitarian Universalist of Arlington, Massachusetts, was a UU World contributing editor from 2006 to 2011 and a UU World senior editor from 2011 to 2014. She is the author of Social Action Heroes: Unitarian Universalists Who Are Changing the World (Skinner House, 2011) and Gay Marriage, Real Life: 10 Stories of Love and Family (Skinner House, 2006).