Mission Peak is a congregation willing to ‘try things, mess up, and keep on trying.’
Nikesh Chacko Pandeya (in green) and his brother Devan (in red) actively engage with the Sunday service at Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Fremont, California. (© Niall David)
It’s unusual for a church regular to interrupt a minister mid-sermon, but on this particular April morning at Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Fremont, California, 7-year-old Nikesh Chacko Pandeya feels well versed enough in the topic to offer the Rev. Jeremy Nickel a gentle correction.
Nickel’s message, titled “Building Towards Failure,” brings to the pulpit a video game that’s taken the congregation by storm: Minecraft, in which players create increasingly complex structures out of textured cubes in a massive virtual world. The game, he says, “is largely about failure,” about trial and error, and about being willing to keep going even when things don’t come easy. Nikesh seems on board with the larger message, nodding and laughing along with Nickel’s words, but the details matter. With the matter-of-factness of childhood, he reminds Nickel, who’s just said that in Minecraft you have to make everything yourself, “Well, sometimes you find things made for you already, and sometimes you do have to make things yourself.”
The sanctuary fills with laughter, and upon receiving a gentle rebuke from his mother, Shyno, Nikesh looks slightly bashful and seems to realize this isn’t his time to co-preach with his beloved minister. But he pays no less attention to the older man’s words. He, his younger brother Devan, and a half-dozen other children are seated near the front, raptly listening to “Rev. Jeremy” talk with the congregation about the game so many of them love.
Nikesh’s interruption isn’t the only unusual occurrence on this particular Sunday. After concluding his message, Nickel, with the assistance of lay worship associate Allysson McDonald, splits the congregation into five “creation stations.” Among these are the “Minecraft Zone,” where most of the children go; art and music stations; a “Get Cooking” area; and “Making Stuff Up Together,” in which participants create a progressively stranger story one sentence at a time. Nickel invites congregants to “pick a station that isn’t your strongest area. Stretch yourself a bit.” A smiling, self-proclaimed “unintentional 1-and-3 clapper” cheerfully marches with a few others toward the “Joyful Noise” music station, held in a grassy area just outside the sanctuary.
This willingness to engage and try new things is one of Mission Peak’s greatest strengths, and it’s part of the reason the 130-member congregation was recently named a Unitarian Universalist Association Breakthrough Congregation, a designation given to faith communities experiencing sustained growth and a raised sense of energy and purpose.
Surprised yet pleased about the designation, congregants and staff members alike point to things like the Sunday morning service—complete with video games and lots of laughs—for their success, but stress that it goes deeper than that. Board President DeAnna Alm suggests that trial and error has been key to Mission Peak’s successes as a congregation. “We’ve worked hard to create services that work for all ages.”
Director of Religious Education Elijah Stephens credits a spirit of vulnerability that allows for the multigenerational feel and the often adventurous worship style. “It’s a congregation of people willing to love others where they are,” he says.
For Mission Peak UU, a Bay Area congregation that began at a Fremont playground, Minecraft—and the creation stations—has become not just an ideal metaphor for a church that loves to play and experiment, but also a reminder. Nickel, their lead minister, calls Mission Peak a congregation willing to “try things, mess up, and keep on trying.”
Formally organized in 1994, the congregation grew from a spring 1992 playgroup co-led by the Rev. Joel Miller, laywoman Tracy Barnett, and others. Like the Bay Area itself, at Mission Peak there are engineers and scientists everywhere. “Find a plan that’s worked for other people, follow it, and, if it doesn’t work, try something else,” Nickel says, referring to the way engineers—and the congregation—approach challenges.
Mission Peak leaders credit UUA programs for helping them succeed. Early on, the Association’s extension program helped fund a full-time salary for the congregation’s first minister, the Rev. Ben Meyers. More recently, Mission Peak entered into the Leap of Faith program, a structure in which leaders from two UU faith communities of different sizes come together to share strategies, successes, and frustrations. Mission Peak partnered with the UU Church of Boulder, Colorado; leaders say Boulder’s then-minister, the Rev. Howell Lind, and Boulder laypeople helped them see Mission Peak’s own gifts. Boulder challenged them to do something big and bold, Nickel says, so they created a permaculture community garden that has produced about 6,000 pounds of food in the last year. “It was a very pivotal moment in the culture shift we have been working on,” Nickel says. Alm also credits the worship associate program, Our Whole Lives, and a commitment to be there for one another as strengths of the congregation. “It makes all the difference that I have people that I can count on.”
Nowhere is that ethos more evident than at a Mission Peak Friday night potluck. Homemade casseroles lay next to naan and saag paneer from a beloved local Indian food spot. Baby boomers jam on guitar, harmonica, and small drum with Nickel, who is a guitar novice eager to learn from the experienced musicians, a few of whom belong to the Mission Peak worship band “Peak Rocks.” A small group of kids and preteens, enthusiastically joined by Mission Peak do-everything guy Paul Clifford, have set up a game station in the back right corner of the sanctuary.
Mission Peak’s community minister, the Rev. Barbara Meyers, listens intently as a mostly full round table of long-timers share what’s been going on in their lives. Meanwhile, emeritus minister the Rev. Dr. Chris Schriner and his longtime mentee high school senior Douglas Bell are in the already intense opening minutes of what will become an hours-long conversation about religion, ethics, and philosophy. Schriner, who has dedicated his post-ministry life to helping UUs of distinct religious beliefs come together, says, “There are good vibes between people with different theologies” at Mission Peak.
As Schriner and Bell enter the second hour of their conversation, the Rev. Barbara Meyers gets up to refill her drink. Meyers helped found Mission Peak in 1992. Mental health struggles in the 1980s became part of her decision to become a community minister and focus on mental health ministry. In 2004 Mission Peak voted to support her ministry, and much of her work now takes place at Connections: A Counseling Center, a multifaith endeavor bringing together faith and traditional mental health care strategies.
Located just minutes from the congregation, Connections is part of Mission Peak’s fabric and history, Meyers says. Founded in 2013, the center is the culmination of years of personal and congregational projects focusing on mental health. “Congregants helped in the planning, a congregant helped us find the space and negotiate with the landlord, and people donated copiers, furniture, chairs, money. . . . This is an intentionally interfaith space, and it’s Mission Peak that made it happen.”
Meyers believes Connections is one way the congregation can live out values of diversity and community service. Fremont is home to the largest community of Afghan Americans in the nation; though the town is 50.6 percent Asian and 14.8 percent Latino, Mission Peak, like most UU congregations, is predominantly white. “People of every faith and nationality come through here,” Meyers says.
Shyno Chacko Pandeya, one of the handful of Mission Peak members of color, and the mother of 7-year-old Nikesh, first came to the congregation in 2013 after she realized she wanted “something different than what I knew” for her young children. Chacko Pandeya, who was born in India, grew up in New York, and was raised Indian Orthodox, said, “I came alone the first time and immediately felt welcomed, so I brought my kids.” She wondered aloud why Mission Peak isn’t more racially diverse. “We’re trying to figure that out [as a congregation]. . . . It’s not always easy for me, but it’s a really good place for us as a family,” she said.
The Sunday morning service has long since ended. The worship associate team’s meeting is nearly over. Stephens and Clifford are two of a handful of people left, and are cleaning up the art supplies outside, leftovers from the creation stations.
Stephens reflects, as his Sunday workday nears its end, on how Mission Peak has impacted his life. “This church took a chance on me—young and trans and in school. They showed me I have many gifts. I work for them, but they’ve helped me, too.”
Together, Stephens says, Mission Peak—lay leaders and members and staff alike—is building, as in Minecraft, a spirit of honesty and bravery and adventure. “I wouldn’t say we’re ‘there,’ but we’re on our way.”
Nickel, emerging from the worship meeting, concurs. “The best thing a UU congregation can do is help people live their values. We’re getting better at that every day.”
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Kenny Wiley was a UU World senior editor from 2015 to 2018. His writing has also appeared in the Boston Globe, the Houston Chronicle, and Skyd Magazine.