The pews at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Fairfax, Virginia, are nearly empty an hour before this late summer Sunday morning worship, save for staff and visiting worship leaders from The Sanctuaries, a spirituality, arts, and justice community in Washington, D.C. Fairfax’s newly hired music director, Laura Weiss, is talking hymns with the Rev. Erik Martínez Resly, The Sanctuaries’ lead organizer. Hip-hop artist Ben Lasso keeps experimenting with a lyrical hook, almost fully formed, that he’ll ask the congregation to repeat during the service in some “experimental rap.”
We are great / and we are good
The Sanctuaries in your neighborhood
“I think I got it,” Lasso says excitedly.
“Let’s start the music and see what happens,” Martínez Resly says.
The musicians, poets, and artists who make up The Sanctuaries love to see what happens. They know how to fill a hall with song and spoken-word flows that resound with tremendous authority and rhythm. Indeed, hip-hop artists Osa Obaseki and Ben Lasso and singer Kiersten Rossetto Nassar deliver three freestyle rap verses in the brightly lit Fairfax sanctuary that bring the UU congregation to its feet.
A pre-worship ritual provides a glimpse of the beat undergirding the rapidly growing, attention-grabbing spiritual community as it rounds into its fourth full year. Hands clasped in prayer, the trio of artists—joined by Martínez Resly and four Fairfax worship leaders—takes turns asking for blessings prior to leading the community in worship. It’s a Sanctuaries tradition for participants to ask for what they need prior to public events; the requests range from calm to energy to support. “We bless your delivery,” the group says to Obaseki in response to his request.
Obaseki, a tall, bespectacled, thirty-something black man, tells the congregation minutes later, “I’m not sure I’ve experienced justice, but rather merely escaped injustice.” The Sanctuaries-led worship fuses music, prayer, and short reflections. Obaseki, a longtime D.C. resident, who, like many members of The Sanctuaries speaks of his theology less through identifiable denominations and more through lived experiences of the Divine, recounts a conversation about gentrification with a neighbor who said, “The people coming in speak to their dogs, but they don’t speak to us.”
“God shows herself in different ways,” Lasso adds.
“I am broken sometimes. We are all broken sometimes. We are still enough,” Rossetto Nassar says.
In his spoken prayer, Martínez Resly echoes the artists’ theme, speaking on the value of connection, of being willing to see value in every person.
Participants say The Sanctuaries brings emotional depth. “They got us out of our ‘box’ and brought us to tears and laughs several times,” UUCF lay minister Susan Bennett said of the Sunday morning worship.
Members of The Sanctuaries lead worship a few times a year in traditional congregations, but most weekly activities look less conventionally religious: “Dinner & Huddle,” “Soulful Improv,” visual arts workshops, or open-mic and live music events. The spiritual community has an intentional, if a bit convoluted, relationship with Unitarian Universalism. The Joseph Priestley District of the UUA (now part of the Central East Region) served as The Sanctuaries’ initial fiscal sponsor in 2013. Martínez Resly is a fellowshipped UU minister, and this fall the UUA awarded him a pilot “entrepreneur-in-residence” grant. Yet The Sanctuaries is not a UUA member congregation, and although it is often held up as a model of “emerging ministries,” it is officially neither an emerging congregation nor a covenanting community, two categories the UUA has created for groups that are not member congregations.
The community is also more theistic—and multifaith—than traditional UU congregations. The Sanctuaries, which Martínez Resly calls “intentionally racially and religiously diverse,” is “open to all ages, though purposefully geared toward twenty- and thirty-somethings.”
Ayari Aguayo-Ceribo would be just fine if she didn’t have to relocate for a while. The last few years have been rife with transition and family hardship. Aguayo-Ceribo moved to the District of Columbia less than a year ago after three moves in as many years. She seeks spiritual community everywhere she goes. In 2012–13, she was an active member of the Transformation Team at First Parish (UU) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Now, after but a few months of involvement in The Sanctuaries, Aguayo-Ceribo has been asked to join the core leadership team of the emerging community.
Just hours after the four worship leaders rocked the Fairfax congregation with freestyle, Aguayo-Ceribo and the other three members of the core team—Martínez Resly, Manique Bowman, and Mentor Dida—wander through the National Arboretum, near the Capitol. Aside from Martínez Resly, each of the four-person core team has joined the community within the last two years. They’ll hold a business meeting later, focused on retaining members and serving them better, which is tough in a transient city like D.C. For now, the quartet examines a Venus flytrap, cacti from deserts around the world, and an overly humid rainforest worthy of another hemisphere.
Aguayo-Ceribo, who is Latina, emerges as the almost effortless leader of the group, her contagious laughter often booming from the back. “This place’s power is in the scents,” she says to nobody in particular, before telling Martínez Resly and Bowman what power scent and herbs held in her upbringing.
“With Sanctuaries, faith is alive in the individuals who bring it in,” Aguayo-Ceribo tells me. “Every tradition is honored and embraced here, yet there’s still a lot of room for us to grow.” Aguayo-Ceribo, who recently married her partner, Danielle, says a Sanctuaries event just days after the Orlando, Florida, Pulse nightclub shooting in June 2016 pulled her into deeper engagement with the community.
“That night [in June] we built an altar honoring the victims, and we were able to call in ancestors, our own faith and family traditions, and we even had activities for children. I could express my rage and feel the community’s love as I did,” she says.
Everyone in The Sanctuaries community calls Erik Martínez Resly simply “Rev”; somehow, he also lives in the community’s margins. In public events his role is to “sing backup,” yet he is clearly its leader and beating heart.
He is also its most controversial figure, at least in traditional UU circles. As The Sanctuaries garnered national press—in the New York Times, on CBS—for its racially diverse and artistically gifted membership, some wondered, semi-privately, about the “white guy at the center” and whether Martínez Resly, a Brown and Harvard Divinity–educated white man, was given resources and acclaim that those attempting entrepreneurial ministry without his racial and gender privilege often do not receive.
Martínez Resly’s strategy of “allyship” to people of color is to “name my positionality as a white person” and to “wield privilege for the good of others.”
“I know that I have access to certain resources and networks,” he says. “What I try and do is access those networks for good.” Martínez Resly is passionate about promoting entrepreneurial ministry. “Without a doubt,” he says, “there need to be more opportunities for entrepreneurial ministers of color.”
Martínez Resly spent several months in 2012 and 2013 walking around D.C., asking folks what kind of community they wanted. He says it became clear that what people wanted was connection and to do so through art.
On a balmy Friday afternoon, Martínez Resly is working with the community’s two interns on upcoming initiatives in The Sanctuaries office. “What are the resources and strengths we already have?” he asks Lexus Phillips and Sara Phelps.
Phillips, a black woman and student at Spelman College in Atlanta, found The Sanctuaries—and Unitarian Universalism—through a Google search for “art and activism.” “It found me,” Phillips said of the UU College of Social Justice–funded internship.
Like Martínez Resly, her mentor and supervisor, Phillips speaks often in questions: “What is my soul trying to say here?” “How does faith live here?”
Phillips says she felt particularly useful and connected in an event for The Sanctuaries just days after the police shootings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in Minnesota and an attack on police near downtown Dallas. Like many members of The Sanctuaries, Phillips says the larger group’s willingness to “feel pain deeply and honestly” is vital for her.
“Beneath the freestyle rap sessions and spoken word and beautiful art creations are fundamental human struggles and questions,” Martínez Resly says of his community. “We explore the relationship between art and spirituality and justice,” he continues. “What does that actually look like, though? Good question!” he says, and laughs.
The Sanctuaries has found potential answers to his question four years in. “If I have faith in anything,” Phillips tells me, “it’s that we are helping create something larger than ourselves, and that, in times of tragedy and grief, we are making a difference.”
At the Fairfax worship service, Obaseki tells a story of a man he sometimes talks to down at a local corner store. “This guy told me I treated him like a real person, a human, and how much that meant. I have—we have—a lot more power than we think.”
“Here, who I am and where I am in life is enough,” Kiersten Rossetto Nassar tells the Fairfax UUs, then begins to sing Andra Day’s justice anthem “Rise Up.” Once again, that’s just what they do.