Mary's Journey to Unitarian Universalism
First Unitarian Church, Salt Lake City
At the invitation of our minister, Tom Goldsmith, Mary and several other members of the congregation have shared their personal journey to Unitarian Universalism. Mary read the below text as part of the service on February 29, at which she also sang two solo songs. Ann Craig, visiting from Oberlin, was present and watching over Miriam, who was there to hear her mommy speak and sing.
February 29, 2004
Journey to Unitarian Universalism
In reflecting on my 40 years of religious life, I came up with two themes: some important philosophical influences and a lifetime with music.
I was born and raised in Oberlin, Ohio. I was baptized and confirmed at the First Church of Oberlin, United Church of Christ. It was a place of good ministers, friendly people, open-mindedness, and a solid brick building with a big organ. Although unconvinced of the references to salvation uttered at my confirmation, I chose to go through with it. I recall joining the adult choir partly to avoid Sunday school, but also for the chance to sing.
I have contentedly participated in any number of worship styles as long as I have been able to sing, or hear, good music. But music is not just a diversionary tactic for me, and my musicianship and outlook on the world seem to have led me quite logically and lovingly to my current religious place.
Growing up in Oberlin, I got a start on living with difference. Although the 50/50 black/white schools were not perfectly integrated, it was a vibrantly diverse community. My earliest musical influence was the charismatic African-American director of choirs at the junior and senior high schools.
In high school and college, I had important influences from two amazing women who taught me to write and to think, and further opened my eyes to different worldviews. They both taught East Asian Studies. My high school teacher launched me into an essay contest that sent me for a summer to Japan. While an East Asian Studies major at Wesleyan University, I was inspired by a professor who assigned thought-provoking texts on ancient China. I recall one essay I wrote about a book by Herbert Fingarette called "Confucius: The Secular as Sacred." The enlightenment was as much spiritual as intellectual for me.
With these early philosophical underpinnings, I was becoming aware that there is no one "right" way to view the world. That something is true or wise or compassionate because it is so, not because Jesus or Buddha or anyone else said it. I was "onto" the fact that all religions are products of human intellectual, emotional, and political behavior.
Toward the end of college (which I finished at Oberlin to add a voice degree to my East Asian studies major), my grandfather (a retired Methodist minister and missionary to China) observed that I seemed religiously aloof and advised me that I really needed to believe in something. I told him that I believed in the power of music.
Music continues as a central part of my spirituality. In the presence of music, I experience incredible moments of alignment: scintillating physical resonance, deep emotion, and powerful communication with an audience. It's like a massage of the soul.
So, how did I find Unitarian Universalism?
In 1990, Markus (whom I had met in Germany in 1987--but that's another story) and I moved to Portland, Oregon. I had become aware of Unitarian Universalism the previous year in Madison, Wisconsin, where I had checked out the Frank Lloyd Wright UU church. In Portland, I joined the choir at the downtown Unitarian Church. I found a stately building that felt "homey" to me, and I worked with a music director who made it onto my short list of choral conductors who are great teachers. By the end of the first year, I had signed the membership book.
Markus and I were married in 1992 in my hometown church. We spent the next three years in Germany. The nearest UU fellowship was 2 hours away, and I never made it there.
In 1995 we moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I joined the UU Church. There, I enjoyed the ministry of Ken Phifer and the contributions to worship services by members of the community. Among other highlights, "graduates" of the "Building Your Own Theology" course and youth in the "Coming of Age" program occasionally shared their inspiring Credos. I felt at home in this environment of co-seeking.
We had two children in Ann Arbor, Simon born in 1997 and Miriam in 1999. In December of 2001, Simon was diagnosed with a cancer called neuroblastoma. The Caring Committee of the church offered incredible support for us in practical forms like food and laundry and in warm, personal comradeship amidst our crisis.
Early in Simon's cancer life, Markus faced a career decision. In February 2002, he accepted a position on the faculty of the University of Utah Business School. He was granted a one-year deferral so that we could remain in Ann Arbor for the crucial phase of Simon's treatment.
Over the ensuing year, we visited Salt Lake City three times. Each time we attended First Unitarian. I was giving this place a thorough sniff. During one visit, I stood in this chapel and sang the hymn "Gather the Spirit" with this congregation. I pondered the words "gather in sympathy now and then", with the heavy knowledge that this may be the community that gathers around us if we lose our son.
To say that our move to Utah has been a huge transition barely captures the enormity. I left behind a busy and fulfilling work-life and an 8-year network of friends in Michigan. Here, I am focused on creating a stable family home to face our crisis with Simon's health.
And I have found another music director, David Owens, who is on my very short list. I imagine our choral experience here, with David's rampant compositional activity, to be akin to singing under Bach in 18th-century Germany. Worshipping in community and surviving through music are the foundation of my life in Salt Lake City, and I am so glad that Markus, Simon and Miriam are also finding friendship and spiritual comfort in your midst.