Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Another Church Story

Telling this parenting-and-religion story reminded me of another one.

This happened around the same time, shortly after my first marriage ended and my ex was immersing our son, then about 4, in a brand of bigoted and unthinking Presbyterianism. As part of my counter-measures to expose him to a broader range of religious tradition, I started taking him to the local Unitarian church.

My family was basically irreligious, but my parents occasionally attended Unitarian services, mainly for the social justice and the social climbing. So when the time came for me to find churches again, that was one of the first places I looked.

But Unitarianism out here, in central Pennsylvania, wasn't the same thing it was on the Main Line, where my family had lived. There, it was a fourth branch of Judaism, liberal and all but secular. The Unitarian churches looked like synagogues.

Here, the Unitarian church looked like a church, with an altar and a choir and a big painting of the Last Supper behind the altar. Symbols of all religions -- chakras and crescents and a Star of David and a cross -- hung high from the ceiling, but the mobile looked cardboard. The cornerstone outside the entrance, however, was granite and in it was engraved "Church of Our Father."

The congregation mirrored the architecture. Local Unitarians had begun as part of the old tradition of that faith, rooted in New England congregationalism but enlightened by transcendentalism. As the church building indicated, the elders felt themselves firmly within the mainstream Christian tradition.

But as this is a relentlessly conservative Christian community, the Unitarian church had become, since the 1960s, the default church for all the freethinkers, and neo-pagans, and pseudo-atheists, and Velikovsky followers, and Lord knows what else, who were not content to practice apart and who wanted to be in a congregation. By the time I got there, they perhaps outnumbered the old believers, and they had authority -- many were college professors.

They only lacked the unity of the old believers. The church's mantra was, "We don't have to think alike to love alike." Which is not a bad thing at all. And for the most part they didn't, and they did.

Still, there were undercurrents of conflict. The "Church of Our Father" name never was mentioned in any literature, and the chief expression of dissent by the old-timers was to get to the building first on Sunday mornings and pull open the carved wooden panels that covered the "Last Supper" painting, so it was visible behind the minister, even though the new Unitarians scrupulously closed it up again as soon as they had the chance.

Into this we wandered. The custom was for the little kids, such as my son, to stay for the opening of the service, then depart to Sunday school before the sermon proper began. We had been going for a few weeks. Luke had seen the adults stand up and chant in unison on certain occasions. What he thought of it all I never knew; I never pressed him on it.

Then one day, for some occasion I can't remember, the minister called all the little kids up to the front, to gather around her. She asked them some simple question, seeing one-word answers, to set up her sermon for the day.

It all happened so fast. She asked for kids, and Luke jumped out and strode up the aisle with the rest. It happened too fast for me to sit on him. I knew this was going to be trouble. He would be well out of my reach, and he knew it. And it was a constant struggle, in those years, to keep him from taking charge of every situation. He was fearless, confident, and had a Ferris Bueller-like ability to get into the spotlight.

So the minister is speaking, and I hear this child's voice, saying, "excuse me, excuse me," and I start to sink down in my pew.

She acknowledges him. He says, "I'd like to have everyone say a prayer we say in school."

And she hands him the microphone. What do they teach these people in seminaries? I guess being a Unitarian she didn't want to trample anyone's feelings.

And he takes it and stares out at the full house and begins, "I pledge allegiance to the flag ..."

It is like a prayer, if you think about it.

And they all dutifully join in; radical lesbians and Marxist college professors who probably never passed a U.S. flag without the urge to expectorate. Because they were Unitarians, dammit, and they had been drawn in by the innocence of the child leading them and were on their feet before they knew where he was going with it.

At the time I was mortified and we had a long talk. But looking back, past many changes and from a time when I have no desire to sip coffee and exchange smiles with such people as make up the core of that congregation now that the elder ones are dead, I think it was one of the highlights of his childhood. "We don't have to think alike to love alike" probably never got such practical exercise as it did that day.