What I remember most clearly of my first visit to a UU congregation is the parking lot. That will make sense if you bear with the rest of this story/blog.
When I was about nine years old, I confessed to the Catholic priest in my grandmother’s, and at the time my mother and my church, that I wasn’t sure if I believed in God. I remember his response as being rather friendly, bemused and well-meaning. With a smile on his face, he told me that of course there was a God, and I’d be sure to find Him (of course upper-cased and of course male) soon. Or, the priest probably said He’d find me.
In any case, the Catholic prescribed prayers didn’t help any higher power and myself find each other. So, my mom and I embarked on our own, new search. A search for a church that I could raise questions in. Mom’s best friend from childhood had recently started attending the UU church in town, so one fateful Sunday we went to First Parish for what would be my introduction into Unitarian-Universalism.
To be honest, I don’t remember much of what happened in the sanctuary, except that it seemed a very short time before the children were called up to the front and then shepherded to the church’s basement for religious education. This might have struck me as slightly strange, as did whatever lesson awaited me. However, R.E. didn’t leave much of an impression on me that day or even later.
What I still remember quite clearly was that as class was dismissed, the kids all ran from the room, including my best friend’s son. I had the impression that he was running extra fast to get away from the geeky girl he had to associate with because of our mom’s friendship. But, being the spunky little nine year old who already occasionally stayed at home without a babysitter, I was confident I didn’t need his help to find my way to the parking lot, where I’m sure mom would be waiting for me. After all, I was familiar with the chaotic ritual of kids getting out of CCD and walking up and down the line of cars to find their parents after Catholic Sunday school.
So, I made it out to the parking lot, and even found my mom’s familiar car. But, she wasn’t there, yet. Its okay, I told myself. The grown-up services are probably just running a little long and she’ll be here soon. Being from a fairly large, but fairly safe suburban city, I wasn’t too worried about having to wait a few minutes alone. I just had to be patient and not talk to any strangers.
The minutes ticked on, and my mom still didn’t show up at the car. There were very few strangers milling about, too. A few people exited the church and got in the cars, but the UU parking lot was eerily empty of people and full of cars as the time stretched on. I began to worry that something was wrong. Had my mother gotten sick or hurt, and were the rest of the grown-ups now trying to help her, not knowing that I was waiting for her in the parking lot?
As anyone who can still remember the terrifying things that once lurked under your small bed or in your closet, a child’s imagination is a powerful and dangerous thing. As I waited longer and longer, I started to really panic, and eventually began to cry. A few more people came into the parking lot and got in their cars, but didn’t say anything to me, as I turned to face the car door, pretending I was just retrieving something and hiding my tears.
You see, the concept of “coffee hour” after the service was completely foreign to me. Yet, it was so natural to all the other kids, and I assume even the R.E. instructors, that no one thought they needed to tell me what happened after class got out or where I was expected to go. Being an unfamiliar girl to the congregation, no one noticed I was missing for what seemed like a very long time.
Eventually, my mom came looking for me. Though I was relieved to see her, I could tell I was in trouble by the frustrated look on her face. “What happened?” we both exclaimed to each other. It was probably less than twenty minutes I was panicking out by the car, but it had felt like hours alone and afraid.
I don’t remember any other details of that morning, or how my mom convinced me to go back after that Sunday I cried in the parking lot of what I’d eventually come to think of as “my church.” But, in a way, it was it’s own kind of foreshadowing.
I do know that I struggled in R.E. Within a year or two, I was moved up to the young adult group, even though chronologically I was too young. The R.E. instructors hoped it would be a better fit with me and the teenagers. I struggled for a few years in youth group, and eventually fought and won the battle with my mother to stop being a part of that. Instead, I preferred to stay in the sanctuary after the kids were banished and listen to the sermon. From the age of about thirteen on, I would sit stubbornly in my pew while the other younger people were called up for the “intergenerational” story and then shuffled out of church. I always got a few awkward glances, but because I was able to sit quietly and attentively through even the longest sermon, I was allowed to stay.
A few years after that, I got a part-time job that often required working on Sunday mornings, and was relieved of the expectation that I would go to church. Honestly, even though the sermons were interesting and “grown-up” part of the services were kind of nice, I was happy to have the excuse to give up going to First Parish. I’d attend a service here or there up until I graduated high school, but in some ways always there was an echo of isolation to I’d felt that tearful first morning alone in the parking lot. I was happy to identify myself as a Unitarian, but it wasn’t until college when I attended another church in a different state that I felt I had found a spiritual home within a congregation.
These days, we hear a lot from the UUA about how to serve young people. Many churches struggle with how to keep youth and young adults involved in congregations and the wider denominational world. It always irks me when I read the proposed solution of adding “non-traditional” services, because that is what young people want. It seems there’s been some making that argument for at least twenty years.
I don’t pretend to know what would attract most young people. I do know that when I was a youth and all I wanted was to listen to the interesting thoughts and questions posed by the minister in his sermon. We can’t expect someone (no matter what their age) to know what to expect when they visit our congregation for the first time. We also can’t expect youth who never get a chance to experience “regular” church services to feel a connection to UUism as the pass onto adulthood.
Perhaps it’s not often enough that we expect those who are members and friends of a congregation (no matter what their age) take the extra step to make a connection to newcomers and youth.
I don’t remember all the details of that first Sunday I visited a UU church when I was nine years old. Nor do I remember all the details of the first time I visited what I would come to think of as my real spiritual home – the church I started attending as a freshman in college. But, the details that illuminate the differences between those two mornings are several.
The first Sunday at my college church, there were two smiling faces on the steps outside, and those people even helped me navigate into a tough parking lot. Though there were few children at my college church, clear announcements were made at the beginning of services about childcare and where to find them. There was also a clear announcement about what would happen when services were over. And as people started making their way to coffee hour, more than one person came over to personally ask if I’d join them in a cup of coffee.
It’s amazing to me, looking back on that first Sunday and many that came after it, that I even sought out a UU church while I was in college. But, it ended up that was exactly the right place for me at that time.
Which is, I guess, while I still feel that though our congregations don’t work all the time, it’s important we keep trying to make them the best they can.