Recalling a childhood in a Unitarian Universalist fellowship.
We dragged the sawhorses and heavy sheets of metal out to our backyard. Even at the age of nine I understood that making great big homemade grills was about religion, and so were the blueberry pancakes we would make when all the members of our fellowship arrived for the annual pancake breakfast.
The whole thing was, of course, a foolhardy enterprise, but this was fifty years ago, give or take, and nobody thought twice about feeding dozens of kids carbs, fat, and sugar so we could run around in the presence of hot sheet metal before being sent off to swim in the pond. Nobody ever got hurt, though, or drowned.
The year I was nine, the parade of station wagons showed up on schedule, making their way down our long rural driveway, down past the shed, over the little creek, and around along the dam. Then down a quick steep hill and onto the back lot—perfect for parking all the cars. Our friends from the congregation piled out, and, guided by the smell of bacon, took the shortcut through the woods back to where the pancakes were.
As the morning went on that year, it was all a little too good to be true. The perfect sunshine, the frolicking children, the plump blueberries in the pancakes that tasted for all the world like cake. But the next thing you know the sky opened up the way it can, and before anyone knew what to do next, we were soaked. Dripping wet. Our pathetic paper plates soggy beyond recognition, the grill all sizzle and smoke, the sticks of butter glistening with small chunks of hail. The grown-ups ran around higgledy-piggledy. It couldn’t get better than this!
Or could it? The back lot was not grass, not dirt, but clay—clay that you could dig up and make ashtrays with and let bake in the sun. When that clay was dry, you could dribble a basketball on it. But when it rained. . . .
What pitching in came next! I haven’t seen a display of Unitarian Universalist muscle that impressive before or since. All those station wagons, stuck in that muddy clay, then stuck again at the bottom of the quick steep hill, then sliding around on the dam within feet of the pond, then stuck in the long dirt driveway, now mud. I’m surprised that even today, fifty years later, a few members of the congregation aren’t still back there pushing those Ford Country Squires.
And yet, and yet they all came back for the pancake breakfast the next year, and the next. That was the thing about the fellowship, about religion as we knew it—or at least as this nine-year-old saw it. There was always something—a new baby, a stroke, Christmas, budget woes, worship services to come up with, dancing, fair housing, tree planting, volunteering at the free clinic, putting a Sunday school together—that conglomeration, plus the homemade grills, was all part of our Unitarian Universalist religion. I don’t remember what we called it back then—but today what it feels like, looking back, is love. And love still counts, fifty years later.
Seven girls at a pajama party, fifty years ago, more or less, at that stage of the night when the popcorn and ice cream are gone, the parents have unplugged the record player once and for all, and we are scattered around on the wall-to-wall, cozy with blankets and pillows. We have told the few dirty jokes we know and tried our best to figure them out. We have giggled and gossiped. And now, bizarrely, the talk turns to religion.
Specifically, God. Jennifer does her damnedest to explain the Trinity to Maggie, who is somewhat foggy on the concept, though she knows she believes. Connie wonders how long God’s beard is, given that He hasn’t shaved for all eternity. And Wendy, Wendy does that thing about why can’t you see God when you’re flying in an airplane. Daring questions, I gather, of the sort not allowed in their Sunday schools, so relegated to pajama parties.
I am silent, a familiar strategy, I’m sure, for all lone Unitarian Universalists at pajama parties on the rare occasions when religion comes up. But finally, all eyes and ears are on me, and I tell my friends, “I don’t believe in God.”
The room, of course, goes dead. Sure, the other girls are stunned that I don’t believe in God. But far more shocking is that I am allowed to not believe in God. They can’t get over it. “Your parents let you not believe in God?” “But what if your Sunday school teacher ever found out?” I wasn’t sure what they were getting at, but I shrugged and said that would be okay. “Well then what if someone told your minister? Then what?!” “That would be fine, too,” I said.
This theological freedom doesn’t compute at all for any of the bodies lying on the floor at the pajama party. It just couldn’t be true. And then Lynn said it: “It sounds like you can just believe anything you want!” And I said, “Yes.”
Now, fifty years later, I know that Unitarian Universalists aren’t supposed to say that out loud. I myself have written a basketful of sermons over the intervening decades saying it isn’t true that UUs can believe anything we want.
But you know what? Here’s the truth: My own lived experience tells me that on a practical everyday level, in our religion, I can believe anything I want. Theoretically no—there’s always the Hitler thing for example—and inevitably, a few rude folks who don’t understand our diversity will tell you that you don’t fit in—go ahead and ignore them. But day-to-day for most Unitarian Universalists, when it comes to theology, yes: We in fact can believe anything we want, just as I told Lynn back there in our pajamas.
Freedom in church is nothing to take for granted, and Unitarian Universalists give ourselves a lot of it. To be encouraged to use our heads and hearts and heritage, our experience, and various reality tests to hone our beliefs is a proud part of our tradition. Fifty years ago, I learned how rare that freedom is. And freedom still counts, all these years later.
Sunday school was a mixed bag. On the plus side, I learned to turn cartwheels—though, now that I think of it, that must have happened during coffee hour, not Sunday school. On the minus side, we had to sing songs with hand motions, which, for a child with hazy notions of right and left, was a dreaded source of public humiliation. Let’s not even mention the Hokey-Pokey. There must have been crafts, with glitter and pipe cleaners and paste, materials gathered with effort and expense by our teachers, but I don’t remember a single result. My apologies.
What I do remember—and this is a little embarrassing to a self-conscious geek—is that I liked the actual content. I looked forward to the meat of the matter. We heard religious tales from the Bushmen, the Hebrews, the Iroquois, the Icelanders. There were stories about injustice, and talk about how to recognize it and find the courage to fix it. Certainly there was Akhenaton to learn about, and Susan B. Anthony, Socrates, and Jesus the Carpenter’s Son. And there were the words of Carl Sandburg:
Something began me
And it had no beginning;
Something will end me
And it has no end.
This was the good stuff.
There were the lima beans—not for eating, rather for growing. How was it that all we had to do was get the dirt into a Dixie cup, stick a dried lima bean in there, water it there on the window sill, and presto, it sprouted? That knocked my socks off.
We tromped around in the swamp come springtime in search of tiny round balls with squiggly tails. Pollywogs! To watch them turn into frogs was a miracle beyond expressing.
Planting bulbs in the fall. Then wait, wait, wait until you just about forgot all about them, and, after the slush went away for good, the flowers showed up! I wanted to call the Weekly News Herald.
Not to mention the eggs, the incubator, and the chicks.
What was Sunday school all about back then? Wonder. For me it was all about wonder. Wonder and awe. The inexplicable great big picture. Religion at its finest. Now, over fifty years later, that’s still true.
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The Rev. Dr. Jane Rzepka served as senior minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Larger Fellowship from 1999 to 2010. She is the author of A Small Heaven: Meditations and co-author of Thematic Preaching: An Introduction. Her latest book is From Zip Lines to Hosaphones: Dispatches from the Search for Truth and Meaning (Skinner House, 2011).
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The first time, I emerged merely breathless, wet, and cold.
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