This was what church was all about: the cartwheels, the parade, the presents for poor people, the stinky lady.
Our rental space didn't exactly have rooms, just one big one for the service, two bathrooms, and a kitchen. My class—Stevie Rhodes and me—got the ladies room, where Mrs. Rhodes taught us to make Egyptian pyramids out of sugar cubes, after which we—that is to say the whole fellowship—had choir, where I for one worked very hard to learn the words to "Waltzing Matilda": billibong, swagman, and other religious words. None of the grownups had ever been members of a Unitarian church, but they were pretty sure we weren't supposed to be singing "Ave Maria" or "Onward, Christian Soldiers."
I learned to do cartwheels during coffee hour; the annual Halloween parade for all ages was the highlight of my year; at Christmastime we sat around card tables—kids and grownups together—and wrapped presents for "poor" children. After church every Sunday the five of us kids in my family got into the station wagon and tried to behave because we always took two other people home: a teenager who went to a boarding vocational school and a heavy older woman who smelled. This was what church was all about: the cartwheels, the parade, the presents for poor people, the stinky lady.
Our fellowship moved to an elementary school, where in Sunday school we looked through microscopes and grew lima beans and planted daffodils. We read creation stories. I remember lying on my belly in our living room during the week reading an ethics curriculum for elementary school children, because I couldn't wait for Sunday.
During the summer, the moms and kids all came to our house to swim in our grotesquely muddy pond every Wednesday: "Unitarian Wednesdays" we called them. I could tell the mothers were getting something out of their gathering—they talked and talked—in exchange for the muddy car seats on the way home.
I remember the first annual blueberry pancake breakfast, in my back yard in 1957. People talked about buying a building, looking for a minister, and mortgaging their houses to do it. Others talked about the service they had put together about Hinduism, and how moving it was (or wasn't). One man, in tears, poured out his heart to some church friends. People passed around a petition. A small group practiced music for the Sundays ahead. Worker-types poured orange juice, found more plastic forks, and taught kids to flip the pancakes on the precarious homemade grills. Children tore around the yard, and the teens huddled near the pond, feeling obstinate about something. When it began to rain, the more muscular among us tried to push the first car (of a very long line) out of the mud.
As I got to junior high age, we played baseball on Sunday mornings, or we sat around a table and read from The Church across the Street. We served tea to the Women's Alliance, took care of the babies, and led worship for the younger kids. When we got older, when we weren't at youth group rallies, we sat downstairs in the furnace room next to the old coal bin in our "new" building and talked about the God Is Dead movement, made long chains out of chewing gum wrappers, and listened to Bob Dylan, without any adults around at all.
In Essex Conversations, Judith Frediani writes that the ideal lifespan religious education program would be a "committee of the whole." Well, that's a fellowship. Although there must have been a lot of things wrong with our religious education program, life at the fellowship had a coherence to it, a sense of good health where everybody was giving this Unitarian thing their best shot because they thought it was worth something and that it was good for their kids. If it's any kind of standard, all five of the kids in our family stayed Unitarian Universalist, and I frequently run into people at General Assembly who grew up in that fellowship. But there was no one important adult model for me, no purposes and principles to default to, and no great-shakes Unitarian doctrine going on.
Growing up in a small congregation that did n ot have an ordained minister, I know that the members of a congregation can practice ministry that results in comfort, stimulation, fun, growth, commitment to the larger good, genuine help, healthy spirits, and religious community. Each of us ministers to the others. Nearly fifty years later, the congregation is thriving and large. I read in the newsletter that the annual pancake breakfast is coming around again. So I'm thinking it worked pretty well. And note this: First we built the sandbox.
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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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