“Can We Find a Home Here?”

That is the title to a raspberry-colored pamphlet I brought home last Sunday from Birmingham Unitarian Church. It’s directed at interfaith couples, and the answer is — I’m not spoiling — “Of course!” (Of course.)

“If your life partner is someone who comes from a religious tradition different from your own, you are already familiar with the joys and challenges of creating intimacy across cultural boundaries,” I read aloud to my husband, after vetting with him that he is my “life partner.”

“Hey, what does that mean?” he asked. But he was playing fantasy baseball on the other computer, so maybe he wasn’t focused.

Good question. I think it means, among other things, that the Unitarians are highly educated and expect to have highly educated people reading their pamphlets. “Cultural boundaries,” “styles of interaction,” “search for truth and meaning” — I read on — these phrases are familiar to anyone who’s been through a liberal arts survey course anywhere. I think I committed all of them in one term paper or another.

So one “cultural identity” that the pamphlet assumes is that of “product of modern American higher education,” possible emphasis on modern (post-modern?) critical theory.

All well and good. I’m one of those products. I have the scars from my critical theory course with Stanley Fish to prove it.

So why did an hour in seminar at BUC leave me unsatisfied?

Because that’s what the worship felt like. It was a lecture — maybe a panel presentation — on civil rights and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., with some moments for personal reflection on the above. Also, hymns.

This should be right up my alley! </cliche> The pink pamphlet even said: “Religious identity is closely tied with a person’s larger cultural background.” I’m fairly certain that most of my college edification insisted on some version of that. Cultural background is predictive.

And, yet, I missed something. Maybe passion. Maybe praise of God, who was so seldom mentioned. Maybe awe.

Why didn’t I find a home there?

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The people of the words

11:15 a.m. worship, Birmingham Unitarian Church, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

So far, the Unitarians win for sheer volume of printed matter. Mere minutes after I’d come through the doors at Birmingham Unitarian Church, I began to be loaded down with color-coded brochures on how to be a Unitarian Buddhist, a Unitarian Christian, a Unitarian Jew, a Unitarian Humanist and, in case I couldn’t decide, a snappy title that invited me to “Meet the Unitarians.” Forget tablets. The Unitarian God speaks in pamphlets.

This first snowdrift was followed by an order of service with hymn inserts, and much later, during coffee hour, with a newsletter and a couple of other papers I still haven’t unfolded. My petite go-to-meeting purse groaned.

In many ways, I like this. The Unitarians seem eager to make sure you understand what you’re getting into. And if you don’t, they always have another way to get the lesson across.

But in other ways, it reminds me of the disclosure documents I ask clients to sign at my other gig as a tax preparer. Could anything that needs this much verbiage be in my favor? Must my relationship with God come with subpoints? How much of this is going to be on the final?

At any rate, I and DD had chosen to worship with the Unitarians on the Sunday before Martin Luther King Jr.’s memorial day in part because Ebenezer Baptist was a bit of a trek and in part because an MLK Jr. celebration just seems to conform to my conception of Unitarian-Universalists. You know? Nice people who believe in the tenets of the great Civil Rights Era. Pacifism, power to the people, equal rights and tolerance. Old-skool liberalism without the messy wrangling over entitlements.

The service didn’t disappoint. We heard about Harriet Tubman, complete with PowerPoint slides. We sang spirituals that coded directions for the Underground Railroad. DD colored a sheet of quilt patterns, also coded with directions for escape. We even got a monologue by Abraham Lincoln (courtesy of Greenfield Village).  Upon direction from the pastor, we passed pebbles — our “stones of hope,” from one of Dr. King’s speeches — to each other, with blessings for the future. We heard a tribute by the pastor to her Texan mother, who had grown from a distrust of “coloreds” to acceptance and friendship.  All dignified, all unimpeachable, all beautifully spoken.

And yet, a bit … cerebral? And safe? We shook our heads sadly over the sins of the past, none of which we, personally, committed and none of which (we are pretty sure) we will need to answer for. (Wait. Scratch that word, “sin.” No one used it Sunday.) We sighed over the need for the world to be “just” in some unspecified and remote way. The closest we came to hearing a personal charge was the pastor’s wish that we each find some way to move forward with hope. Fill that in as you see fit.

Just to be ornery, I counted the number of times I heard “God” in the service — I think I came up with four, two of which were quotes from Dr. King. Indeed, we were told that King was sustained by his hope for a better future and his faith, not in God or Jesus Christ (wholly absent), but in a “mysterious Divine Being.”

I wonder what Dr. King would say.