April 22, 2012

In Seach of a New Church Home: Unitarian Universalism.

A Review of The Unitarian Universalist Church:

Since Sarah thought that Easter might be a big disruption to the normal goings-on in the Christian circuit, Easter Sunday she set us up with a Unitarian Universalist Church. They go for every religion, and that was a big new idea for me, so we spent two weeks checking it out.

In order to help us process our search we like to focus on these criteria:



Children’s Ministries








The score for each category is based on a scale of 0-10 points, with the final total being compiled out of 100.

(Bonus points are awarded by Sarah for availability of coffee and snacks)

*My comments (Joana) will be in regular type and Sarah’s are in italics.

*     *     *

I give 7/10 for availability of coffee and snacks. They were brewing Guatemalan fair trade coffee which was wicked good, and serving it in Real Live Mugs Made Out Of Pottery! Snacks were available and homemade and only cost a buck. After the service, there was a lovely full lunch available for purchase. Next time I’m staying for lunch.

*     *     *

(I just have to add, below is Sarah’s daughter—who has been living some sort of parallel existence to my daughter since she was born—she has always been the model for her mommy’s blog. I (heart) traveling with a cute model on board).

As an individual I have felt drawn toward faith, but repulsed and repelled by the overwhelming, in-your-faceness of the bullshit dogma. Like, don’t follow your heart, don’t follow your conscience, don’t ask questions or use your brain, just do as you are told, and think as we tell you, because we know best. Be a sheep, or go to Hell. It is no coincidence that many religious figures refer to their congregation as a flock.

It is no surprise then that I really feel drawn to the Unitarians, and the idea of taking the very best of religions, and making it my own. I want to be able to be embraced within a community that encourages me to develop my own relationship with god, my own interpretation of various scriptures, my own definition of heaven, hell, or purgatory. I put this at the beginning, because I think my own attraction to the Unitarian way is likely to color my feelings about other stuff we experienced Sunday, and maybe cause me to give the Unitarians a more favorable review than I otherwise might. So you have been warned, take my opinions with a grain of salt.

The Unitarian church we visited is located centrally in the Museum district, in a building that looks sort of mid-century modern at it’s heart, but has perhaps grown sort of organically over the course of time. You enter through the steps, and under a gay pride flag, up into a slightly overgrown courtyard with a lovely water fall in the far corner.

The main sanctuary is minimalist, clean lines, with a small, well lit stage at the front. On the back wall, where you would usually find some sort of disgusting depiction of poor old Jesus stuck to a cross was instead a beautiful sculpture of birds taking flight. Each bird was pointing a different direction, which I assume is representative of the Unitarian’s outward looking views. there was nothing Ornate about it, no guilded walls, no cage for the choir, no imposing lectern from which a fat old man speaks of fire and brimstone.

I like clean, naked lines, with minimal decoration, I have an overwhelming hatred of things that are ornate or overdone. That said, nothing about the space really struck me as super duper beautiful. Pretty? Yes. Functional? Yes. Awesome? Yes. Beautiful? Sort of. I’m going to say 7/10 for beauty.

*     *     *

The building was from the outside was square-ish, red brick—not particularly lovely—but inside there’s a wall of windows in practically every room that let lots of light in, and I think daylight is the most beautiful light you can have.

I also found this this 20′ high wall painted hot pink. I know with what abandon it takes to say, “I’m going to bring this color into my space indefinitely…I like it that much” because I’ve been painting rooms in my own house with bright colors this past week, and I applaud the UU for going for it.

I really felt the joy here. The enthusiastic welcome we received, the easy conversation and laughter in the coffee room, the nice folks who appointed themselves our wing-men, and the sermon which was filled with laughter, there was a wonderful sense of joy surrounding the congregation. I loved the part of the services where we introduce ourselves to the people around us and instead of just mumbling something about peace Be on you or Salam Alaikum, people actually introduced themselves, and chatted or laughed together for a moment. 

I”m going to say 10/10 for Joy. I would give more if I could. What do you think JO?

*     *     *

When we slid in late on Easter Sunday about six people turned around and started talking to us simultaneously. Asking us if we got the crayons and paper, if I wanted to send the girls to Sunday school, just saying hello. Everywhere, the people were smiling…

There is a kitchen which serves breakfast after the first service, lunch after the second—and it’s a good one—for $5. And I have to say, I have never seen anything like this! A small-ish church community that keeps a kitchen running which offers two full meals every Sunday on real china plates. It’s actually, bizarrely wonderful.

Not everyone there was eating a full meal, but every table was filled with people deep in conversation with each other—another mystifying sight. People seemed genuinely interested in one another—they knew each other—and were still interested! I think it’s part of their faith as UU. These are outwardly focused people; they are into discussing anything. If you believe something different it doesn’t intimidate them, it interests them.

Sometimes there is a problem I’ve seen happen in a church community. When you get used to coming to the same place every week and seeing the same set of faces one can start to forget what the world outside is like—that it’s freer and more diverse than the one under your roof and four walls.

It can be like a family in that there are some wonderful things. You get to watch people’s kids grow-up in front of your eyes, take care of each other, see each other through the seasons of life. But there are also drawbacks. A church can be like a bubble;  people start to take each other for granted and look at each other sideways. There can also be this “assimilate or die” attitude that comes into the picture. Maybe it comes with forgetting that we’re actually connected to something bigger, Love.

I asked one of the members if it was “like this” every Sunday,  and they replied, “Oh, yes. The tables in the meeting hall are packed after the 1st and the 2nd services”  So, definitely… people voluntarily hanging around eating, plus conversation, for me, that’s Joy. 10/10!

During the handshake portion of the service the little girl sitting in front of us turned around and showed us her sketching of Michaelangelo’s famous painting, penises and all.  Penises in Church? And everybody thinks it’s awesome? These people might be my people.

I don’t have a lot to contribute to the children commentary, except to say that I think my kid had a pretty good time. The Children’s coordinator was wonderful, and the selection of songs we sang with the kids were really creative. 8/10 for children

*     *     *

When I was a child, growing up, we used to sing a little song in my Church that went like this:

The B-I-B-L-E. Yes that’s the book for me,

I stand alone on the Word of God,

the B-I-B-L-E..


Now, I think, how damaging is that to a child’s worldview. How narrow. If we are ever going have a chance of World Peace we cannot continue this exclusive, someone has-the-in-with-God type thinking.

The children’s education in the UU really sounded impressive. Their usual routine is to study stories throughout the year from each of the major world religions until they have basically covered them all. I think that this is a real cultivation of a child’s mind in that it exposes them from a young age to many different faiths, letting them see the differences, and similarities, rather than indoctrinating them into one, saying, “Ours is the best one/right one.”

Out of the two Sundays that I sat in, one they studied the story of the Good Samaritan from the Bible and the other (which was Easter) they loaded up a bunch of wagons with food, made colorful signs and then stopped traffic on church row, parading their wagons down through the front door of the Emergency Aid Shelter. The kids were quite excited, all except for my kids, it seemed.

I kept thinking that it was maybe because they missed Easter at our home church. I am missing our home church madly, too. I miss the people. I miss the check-in. But because of some unfortunate things that happened I can’t go back. I am sorry.

I enjoyed the music, which was provided by a small and informally dressed Choir. There were no massive, rousing, philharmonic masterpieces, but the music was accessible and easy for a tone-deaf and talentless hack such as myself to sing along to.  5/10

*     *     *

The theme for the second Sunday we visited was “The UU View of Sabbath,” so a few of the songs had a really Jewish-y sound, and that was fun. It made me wonder if the music changes based on “the religious tradition of the week” there often.

One coincidence that happened was that they sang “Rivers of Babylon” for the postlude, and Sublime’s version had come on my iPod that very morning as I was getting ready…I love that song!

By the rivers of Babylon
Where we sat down
And there we wept
When we remembered Zion

Oh, for the wicked carry us away
Captivity required from us a song
How can we sing King Alpha’s song in a strange land?

The week I went, the sermon was addressing the idea of the Sabbath. The concept of resting, relaxing, listening, and taking a sabbatical, however brief, from your every day responsibilities. The guys at the front, who delivered the sermons and readings were engaging speakers, making an effort to make eye contact with every person in the room. The sermon went from serious to intellectual, to somber to outright hilarious.

The preacher was discussing the way that religious scholars had, by the time of the birth of Jesus, managed to compile a list of 1,600 activities that were prohibited on the sabbath. There was, evidently, another list of similar size that could be referred to by the faithful regarding permissible and encouraged activities. He mentioned that one of the encouraged activities was to engage in sexual relations with your partner. from the back of the church, came the shout of a happy man “Yesss!!!!” and everybody burst out laughing. Peals of un-selfconcious laughter, hoots, and squeals resonated through the church. Joyous. it was lovely.

The sermon continued, touching on the Jewish tradition of providing your fields a sabbatical, touching on how we interact with the world on the whole, touching on various faiths and cultures traditions regarding rest. There was continued laughter, merriment, etc… everybody was happy, the sermon was free of judgmental dogma and fire and brimstone bullshit. It was right about this time that I was like “well f*ck me…. I am a Unitarian” Who knew? I always thought I was just a really bad Muslim. 8/10

*     *     *

It was kind of strange to be visiting the Unitarian Church on Easter, because my entire life I’ve based my beliefs on the notion of Jesus dying on Good Friday, his spirit descending into Hell for three days—during which he ministered to the Dead before his body raised again (spirit intact) on Easter Sunday—Alleluia! After that, he stayed on ‘earth’ for 40 days making appearances to his followers, at the end of which he ascended into the clouds to be with his Father in Heaven.

When I say ‘earth,’ I am talking about the place you and I inhabit now. When I say “Heaven” I mean someplace different, and “hell” is also different. We don’t know exactly what it all means, but I got the idea that the Universalists don’t subscribe to any of it. Although I’m sure they would accept me in spite of my beliefs, for them I’m pretty sure there is no resurrection, no heaven, no hell. This is all that there is.

 Rev. Daniel’s style was impressionistic; snippets, anecdotes, fragments of ideas rather than one finely honed idea pitched and coming at you, Bing, Bang, Boom! Generally, I think that’s what a sermon is for: Show me an idea, help me get my head around it, and then Make Me Believe. Even if I disagree, it’s nice to hear a pastor try—I guess it’s a high bar to set, but it’s the center ring, man—Show Me The Love!

I know we’ve praised tolerance a lot in this post, but I don’t think I want to sacrifice passion at its expense. The Gospel is a story of Love and Passion (John 3:16), and maybe that’s why I’ll always be a Christian in my heart.

Every week they have “The Big Idea,” and I liked that. It didn’t make me feel passionately, but I like ideas.

I’ve combined various sermon impressions from the two weeks below.

One hour into writing, I feel a need to send the following open letter to the editors at elephant journal: I Hate your blog design interface. It makes me want to light myself on fire. That is all.

Moving on: the Body. The downtown Unitarian church is a small, intimate community. The kind of community I feel at home in. I grew up in a small town, my graduating class was 40 people, I have never been, prior to Houston, in a place where everyone didn’t know my name. So I felt very at home in this small church setting. The body was casual, no one was wearing uncomfortable fancy clothes. The kids were rocking tie-dye shirts, or everyday dresses, the guitarists for the choir wore Hawaiian shirts.  People introduced themselves to me everywhere, in a kind and genuinely interested way. There was no Zombie Like, or Cultish “Join Us….” crap. Everything was genuine, sincere, and relaxed. 10/10

*     *     *

I spoke with two different women who had found the Unitarian church out of a compromise with an atheist partner, so it’s definitely a church that’s popular with atheists.

I also met a Heterosexual couple who had actually created their own new last name! They didn’t want to hyphenate, so they just made up a new one! Unitarians are people who seem to be living life on their own terms, without regret, without judgement and I think it makes them happy. It also makes them want to get together a lot socially. There were tons of upcoming events, and they were working hard on getting Sarah and I to come to some of them; an informational meeting with food, wine and dessert for people interested in finding more about what the UU believes, and also a book club.

Also, since 1970 the UU has been enacting resolutions in support of bisexual, gay, lesbian and transgender relations. In 1996, the UU was the first mainline denomination to support legal marriage between same sex partners. In 1989, there was a resolution made that the 1970 resolution language of “supporting  bisexual, gay, lesbian, transgender” was not strong enough, and instead they became a “Welcoming Congregation,” hence the flags everywhere.

If you are gay you should really think about going here! It’s terrible to be in the closet (or even, too self-conscious) about anything, not just your sexuality. I’ve been a closet Mommie Revolutionary for three years now.


The coffee really was great. I got to enjoy precisely one sip before my two-year old, Noa spilled it. I ended up on hands and knees cleaning—until Mr. Sexton arrived with his mop. But I have to say—Real Mugs!

It’s a funny thing sometimes, being indoctrinated into a belief your whole life that God knows everything you do. Right, wrong, He’s watching, and if you mess up he’ll know. When I was a kid I took it so literally that I used to keep a tally to make sure that I wasn’t doing anything that Jesus wouldn’t do.

But now that I’m older, I realize how messed up that is. Your ethics can’t be based on pleasing someone else, you have to do the things for yourself. Whether it’s choosing cloth diapers, or to forego the Styrofoam coffee cup, or to buy fair trade or to not be a part of making traffic. Clean air and earth are good for us. One of the main Unitarian Universalist doctrines is “We live in harmony with the Earth, because our love for it and it’s beauty are what sustain us.” That made a lot of sense to me.

On that note, The parking lot was pretty packed, and I didn’t see a bike rack outside, but I didn’t really look for one either, because I didn’t ride my bike! The church was only four miles from my house and I could have, but it was Sunday morning, and laziness, Sunday clothes and and offer from Sarah to drive kept me from it. So now everyone knows, I am a hypocrite—and there’s really no reason to be, because,

I hate cars!   !   !   !   !   !   !   !   !   !   !   ! I love riding my bike. That’s living, just gotta do it.

Green 10/10

 “We are a get-out-and-do church.” Said the greeter to me the first Sunday. And it’s true, they had an entire table of sign-up sheets, and half of their offering for each week they give to a charity. For complete list of their outreach ministries, click here.

The following photos were taken during the kids Easter morning parade to the Emergency Aid Shelter. It was interesting to walk down Fannin Street and see ‘church row!’ But strangely, it’s not even the only one in town! There’s actually another ‘church row’ even closer to my house.

It just made me wonder, with all those churches so close together, why wouldn’t they want to join forces or something? Or, at least get out and meet up sometime.

Outreach 10/10

I loved walking into a church beneath the colors of a rainbow flag. I don’t need to walk beneath a crescent, beneath a cross, beneath the goddamn flag of Texas in order to attend church. Let’s not just be inclusive, let’s celebrate gayness, weirdness, awesomeness, differentness, let’s actively seek out those around us who want to worship. Let’s be a rainbow.  10/10.

*      *     *

Amen, sister…

Here’s Sarah, on the floor with the kids, looking lovely at church—I love my new church-visiting partner.

The Church is located at 5200 Fannin Street in the Museum District, right across from the light-rail line (but you have to walk four blocks from the nearest stop) which is the Museum District stop.

However, the Houston Museum of Fine Art has just started something called Fine Art Food Trucks, so if you’re hungry after services you could walk while you discuss faith and spirituality, and then pick up a bowl of something from The Rice Box—which is the food truck they have stationed across from the MFA on Sundays.

Here’s the link to directions, buses, parking everything. It’s easy.

I give them 10/10 for travel.

First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston:

raw score: 88/100,

with bonus points, 95/100! Whoa, baby…


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Editor: Kate Bartolotta

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