Until this week, I was a member of a Unitarian church. Since 1988 – my entire adult life – this church has been an important source of religious, intellectual, spiritual, and personal growth for me. During the past 29 years, its ministers have guided me through personal and family tragedies, the challenges of parenthood, and the annoyingly frequent questions of my evolving religious life. In this church, I have made some very good friends; some remain and with some, grown apart. I have been among the many proud teachers in its Sunday school to watch our students grow from toddler-hood to thoughtful, active young teens and on into adulthood. I have been a member of many different groups and have attended countless classes – some very enlightening and some simply fun. I have volunteered in different capacities, and from those activities, gained a deeper understanding of and appreciation for the wide variety of beliefs and practices within world religions – many of which are represented in the Unitarian denomination. In short, this church was a primary force in my life and until a few days ago, I could not imagine ever wanting to leave.
But over the years, I noticed one uncomfortable factor which was the basis for my feeling of being slightly on the outside of the congregation. I believe in God. I am neither Christian nor Jew. I am not Buddhist, Hindu, or Muslim. I am not Humanist or Atheist. Simply stated, I am a person who believes in God. I don’t proselytize or advertise this belief but I will answer honestly when asked. And my ‘confession’ has resulted in some very surprising and sometimes judgmental responses. “I thought you were more intelligent than that!” “Belief in God is just magical thinking.” “So why do you come to this church?” “I outgrew God when I was a teenager.” “You mean, the man with the white beard?” “You should go back to school.” “That’s an immature and simplistic belief system.”
Every congregation has some opinionated people. In my personal life, I have strong opinions about some religious beliefs. But a few of those opinionated people feel compelled to set others on the path they believe is ‘the right one’. And in a large congregation such as in the church I just left, many of those individuals apparently feel very free to judge another’s beliefs if they are long-term members of the church.
With time, I became more withdrawn around many congregants at church. I curtailed my social time at coffee hour, and eventually decreased my socializing to just a few people. For the past 2 years, I taught Sunday school during the first hour and attended the service and sermon during the second hour. During my free 30 minutes or so between services, I would rush into the social hall, gulp down a cup of coffee and have a snack, then rush into the chapel and wait until the service started, thereby avoiding socializing completely. I wasn’t entirely aware that I had developed this practice until an episode occurred in a group I attended twice a month. This group was created to be a safe, non-judgmental place where topics discussed are based on specific themes which change from month to month. As a group, we covenant with each other to listen without judgement; to avoid arguing, analyzing, or correcting; and to be a safe place for the exchange and examination of thoughts and beliefs. A few years ago, I joined one of these groups and the experience was outstanding. However, it didn’t turn out that way for me this time. During our discussion, a member turned to me in anger and said that what I was saying was “immature and simplistic, like a belief in Santa Claus.” The member continued pointing out the flaws in my thinking until he ran out of steam. I stayed pretty quiet for the rest of the meeting.
On the drive home, for the second time in two years and in two very different situations, I ‘heard’ the word Leave. I don’t understand this phenomenon. I don’t know its origin. But, after 29 years of membership, leaving this church is difficult and painful. I can’t imagine my life in any religion other than Unitarianism; it is an open-minded, thoughtful, and fulfilling religion. But as with any religion, it can become intolerant. And when that happens, when it pushes away those with differing beliefs and prevents sharing of those beliefs, it fails its adherents and leaves them homeless, and it becomes just one more failed belief system.