by Cooper Warner
For the first time in thirteen years I went to church. I’m not counting the occasional wedding or baptism, I’m talking the real deal. A random Sunday at the end of October I, on purpose, appeared outside of First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee with the intent of sitting my butt down on one of those straight backed pews to listen. Listen to a sermon. Or maybe here they called it a service? I was not quite sure what Unitarian meant, having been given a less than concrete description by the person I was meeting (the Currents’ Editor-in-Chief no less) unable to distinguish it much from all the other ‘isms.’
I was raised Lutheran or Methodist, I honestly cannot remember (sorry mom and dad), they seem very similar to me. I just know it wasn’t Catholic. I have guilt but not that much. I was, at age fourteen, brace-faced and overbooked, required by my parents to go through our church’s year long confirmation program. In large part due to competitive soccer, I’d missed many classes, mandatory volunteer hours, and failed to memorize the chapters of the bible with the ease of my classmates. After a few months it was brought to my attention that I was failing confirmation. That’s fair, I thought, truly not having much time to commit to the endeavor and little heart for it– I’ll quit. I became a conscientious objector. I wasn’t too keen on the god thing anyways and I was failing. I am not someone who fails things. But, per my parent’s logic, my older brother had done it and so would I. A bargain was struck, however. If I completed the year-long endeavor I could decide for myself if I would stand in front of the entire congregation and pledge my faith. Fine. I doubled down and did the thing except when I still said, “no thanks” at the end, I was forced to have a beyond awkward one-on-one talk with the Pastor who I’m sure said something about my soul. After I got confirmed I never went to church again.
So it had been awhile for me, my opinions about the G man and the whole institution moving from Nietzschean to whatever floats your boat over the course of many years. I have lived long enough to see that it is sometimes a benefit to believe in something. What that something is matters less. Vince told me he’d been going to this nondenominational church for a few months and I was curious. The closest thing I’d gotten to spirituality lately was a burgeoning meditation practice, something I started doing everyday since June. Unlike a crowded Sunday service, for me meditation was private, as intimate as my own breath. Vince told me he liked the community aspect of First Unitarian and I wanted to experience that, even as an outsider.
The chapel was small, rich deep wood on the walls, vaulted ceiling and pews. At the beginning of the service the Worship Associate, Trudy Watt, lit a chalice at the front of the room. There was an opening hymn which I stood for but didn’t even attempt to mumble through (those chorus books always confused me) then a sweet new member ceremony where we did a call and response type welcoming. A longtime staff member, Lynne Jacoby, was recognized and then, per the pamphlet itinerary, we got to ‘SILENCE.’ This, I think, was or could have been a time for prayer.
During the SILENCE I opened my eyes to scan the room. Even as a kid I did this during prayer time, always curious to see who else was peeking too. The room was warm, likely to accommodate the older parishioners (of which there were many) but it was also warm hued. When the room went quiet, a gentle morning light shone through the stained glass windows, emanating a soft haze over the sea of silence. If I had known better I might have described the moment as reverential.
Then we said the Unison affirmation of the church’s mission, “We gather to nurture the spirit, engage the mind, and inspire action.” Next was the Worship Associate story where Trudy Watt spoke with touching sincerity about the difficulties she’s endured in her relationship with her father. It occurred to me in all my years sitting on a hard pew I’d never heard a woman give a sermon. I’d also never heard criticism for a father in the house of the Lord. Something a bit different was happening in this place.
Finally Reverend Jennifer Nordstrom took center stage with a sermon titled “How Do We Carry Our Histories?” She talked about banning books, Nazi Germany and Transgender children within the first few lines. She touched on the horrors happening in Gaza. Something really different was happening in this place. There was no mention of god, of sin, no righteousness, no holiness. She simply espoused through a thoughtful and well crafted story an argument for our shared humanity. She talked about who tells stories, ours and others. She said narrative is a source of conflict, we must pay attention to who’s stories get told and who’s get silenced. We must ask ourselves who the silences serve. She called this moral work. The work to recognize that all people are human. To recognize that the work of war is to dehumanize. She is right.
Then, just like that, it was already past twelve o’clock and we still had an interlude (a Tony Bennett song no less) and a recessional hymn to go. The flaming chalice was extinguished at 12:08 and we were ushered into another room for donut holes and coffee. When I got home my partner asked, “how was church?” He’d raised an eyebrow when I told him I was going that morning but didn’t pry. I smiled and went off to take a nap, unable to quite articulate the experience. Now, I can say for sure we benefit from believing in something. Believing in each other.