Making Spirituality a Priority

In preparation for our upcoming trip to Greece, Jacob and I attended our First Unitarian Church service and St. George Greek Orthodox Church both in Albuquerque, NM.  Our family has attended St. George’s Greek Festival several times in the past and one service during the Christmas holidays.  First Unitarian is our home congregation that we have been attending for 15 years and have strong connections to the community there.  We pledge our resources to this community, we attend weekly sermons and participate in religious education programs.  We are known and feel at home at First Unitarian.

My husband, Chris was raised in a dual Catholic home; Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox.  His father went to Greece and convinced his mother to marry him and move to the US.  They had two weddings, one in the Greek Orthodox Church and one in the Roman Catholic Church because they each wanted their marriage to be recognized in by their own faith. Each year they celebrated both wedding anniversaries four days apart from each other.  Although, Chris attended Roman Catholic School and church services, it was clear that each of his parents had their own faith.  Once her husband died, Chris mother returned to the Greek Orthodox Church for her spiritual community.

As I child I attended the Presbyterian Church with my mother, while my dad proposed alternative perspectives to the bible stories I was taught in Sunday school.  I distinctly remember him comparing the Bible story of the loaves and the fishes to the story of Stone Soup. My dad emphasized that the miracle was that Jesus taught the people to share what little they had with each other to create a sense of community.  To my father the primary value if church is a shared community, rather than a reverence for the mystery of life.  Around the same time that I discovered First Unitarian in Albuquerque, my parents joined a Unitarian church in Sacramento.  My dad was amazed to find a church that would let a devout agnostic be the Board chair.

The decision to attend two Easter services this year was an exercise in preparing Jacob for our trip to Greece and giving him a sense of his cultural heritage before we go.  I appreciate the Unitarian’s commitment to telling the many stories of Easter each year, and didn’t want him to miss the religious education.  Our church is large enough (750 members and rising) that they provide two simultaneous services on Easter; a more contemplative service in the sanctuary and an intergenerational service in the social hall. As we found our seats, I head the ministerial intern announce that we would need more chairs for all the families coming in.

As a child development expert, I appreciated how the intergenerational service involved us in the story using multiple senses.  We used grape juice to blot stains on a napkin to symbolize the plagues of Passover. We sang a song that represented the story of Jesus resurrection.  Pictures were projected on a screen illustrating the Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone’s the return of the spring.  Each story was represented by a bead we put on a ribbon.  In closing, we joined the participants from the sanctuary in the courtyard to hang our individual contributions on branches connecting the two services to each other as we sang together.  The service was rich in symbolism that Jacob learned, participated in and understood.

For Jacob and Chris, the Greek service was very different.  Since Chris attended Greek School as a child, Catholic School and Catechism, he understands the symbolism of the Greek Orthodox Church in ways that Jacob and I do not.  I could see comfort in his face from familiar sights, sounds and smells as he participated in the Greek Mass.  The crosses, portraits of saints, and smell of incense were very beautiful and I appreciated the multi-sensory experiences, but I did not understand what they meant. He has taken Greek languages classes at that church and recognized on of the classmates from his class.

I was grateful that Jacob requested to sit in the upper balcony because after the novelty of lighting candles and kissing a portrait wore off he was in agony with the monotony of the service.  Even the singing of the priests in Greek and English was in monotones that were the kind of sounds that induce sleep. After a half an hour, Jacob was threatening to walk home alone. I consented to take him to the park across the street while Chris stayed for the end of the mass where they passed out traditional blood red dyed eggs to the children.

The parishioners of St. George’s served a luncheon for their congregation after the service.  They served us lamb, peas cooked in olive oil and dill, orzo, salad and rolls to approximately 100 people.  A dessert table offered sheet cake the Greek Easter cookies like Chris’ mom made every year.  There was a bottle of wine and chocolates on the tables. The food had a similar impact on us as the mass for Chris.  The flavors were familiar to Greek cuisine and made the experience taste like home for Chris.

A woman, who became a member a year ago, introduced herself and reveled in how surprised she was to find a spiritual home in the Greek Orthodox Church. I observed many congregants who did not appear to be of Greek heritage, but did not find that unusual.  The priest spent some time talking to a family during the luncheon and a centrally located table, but he did not make his way to our table in the farthest corner. Based on my experience at the annual Greek Festival each October, I was concerned about parking and we arrived early, but the parking lot only had a few cars.  Jacob said he would use a yellow mug at this church so that we would be greeted as newcomers, but this small church had no yellow mugs.  Aside from the one woman who introduced herself, no one else made an attempt to welcome us. There were plenty of empty chairs in the sanctuary and in the social hall for lunch.

I am not surprised that I feel at home in the church that I have attended for 15 years, and that Jacob has attended since before he was born.  I am not surprised to feel like an outsider at a church that has such strong Ethnic culture associated with its faith.  However, I walked away with a greater appreciation for the effort we make to make our church experience welcoming and inclusive of all who choose to attend; from the services designed to create a sense of participation in the story and something tangible that brings the sermon into my child’s hands, to the yellow mugs that indicates that a newcomer would appreciate being greeted. Without the familiarity of language, the meaning of the stories, the explanation of the symbolism and the welcoming gestures from those who do belong; our church might feel foreign to a newcomer, too.

2 Responses to “Making Spirituality a Priority”

  • Lisa Johnson, LMFT says:

    Thanks. I appreciate your comments

  • Damaris Donado says:

    Great post. As a newcomer at First Unitarian, I must add that I have felt very welcomed. So perhaps it is simply something this church works hard at doing well. Best…