Friday, October 10, 2008

(another chapter of The Brides of March: Memoir of a Same-Sex Marriage)

Wishy-Washy Unitarians

At ten-thirty, we dragged Grandma off to church, leaving Grandpa to hold down the fort.

Typically, Jannine and I sit in “the baby room” during service, a cavernous basement room that soundproofs the congregation from squealing toddlers, ply Graeme with pretzels, and listen to the televised service, while the older two kids go to their Sunday school classrooms and learn about diverse beliefs, their Judeo/Christian heritage, play fruit basket upset with children of liberal parents, and eat graham crackers.

Jannine and I had a tug of war over our destination, she wanting to sit upstairs, me feeling like a fussy toddler wasn’t worth any slim chance of success; we ended up downstairs. When the weekly announcements began, and the intern minister started to speak the names of the fifteen same-sex couples who were married in the church that week (the outside of the church was hung with a huge “Freedom to Marry” banner), Jannine scooped up Graeme, grabbed my hand and we made a mad dash for the sanctuary, to be there when our names were called.

The couples were asked to stand when their names were called, and we ran in, me skidding over the slippery doorway in my Cruella deVille shoes, just as the last syllables of Jannine’s name were ending. We stood happily holding our last born child while the rest of the names were called out, the congregation applauding each set of newlyweds. When all the couples were named, the congregation gave us a standing ovation. We all could only beam, make eye contact with the other couples—who knew how much this meant, and cry a little at this overwhelming recognition and celebration of our unions.

In Chris’s kindergarten classroom upstairs, where she was teaching Sunday school, Chris was treated to a standing ovation of cheering five year-olds.

Still buzzed by the warmth of the congregation, we went to the coffee hour in Fuller Hall after the service, and found it packed with congregants happily eating sheet cake in our collective honor. Jannine turned into a social butterfly, chatting up her fellow Sunday school parents, swapping stories with Tom, the Minister, while I baby-wrangled from the sidelines, glad to sidestep the limelight and save my energy for what was to come.

Despite Jannine ending up behind one of the tables cutting cake with Lisa, five years of episodic Sunday school attendance by our kids, and our eagerness for Associate Minister Tom Disrud to perform our desperately desired marriage, we are wishy-washy Unitarians.

My shaky relationship with any religion is grounded not only in my never-ending adolescent rebellion (that I should surely have outgrown), but in my strictly atheist upbringing; my father was a former Methodist who didn’t believe in anything during my formative years, and told me that I should tell people I was a secular humanist; my mother was an atheist who found God as a teenager, lost faith, returned to atheism throughout my childhood, then found God again when I was already in my teens. Her resumption of religion terribly disappointed my maternal grandfather, because that made two of his three daughters who had joined religions—my aunt converted to Judaism after she was assured she didn’t have to believe in God, just live a good Jewish life—when he’d tried so hard to raise them as good atheists.

Apparently, my mother’s grandmother (daughter of the Victorian Beauty/wife of the stock market crash suicide/mother of my socialist grandmother) was an active and lifelong Unitarian who, after retiring, worked to promote civil rights during the sixties, though I was too young and clueless to learn about her work before she died at ninety-three.

Jannine is a lapsed-Lutheran; unable to shake her belief in God, even when she wanted to, which she did for a period when, having found me, she felt rejected by her religion. But even before that, despite religious education, regular attendance, and her parents’ involvement, she’d never found it a spiritual home. It had seemed too much about fund-raising, proselytizing, being a bigger church, and bringing power to the pulpit, and too little about how to live a humane life in a world that God seemed to have increasingly abandoned.

We came to the First Unitarian Church not kicking and screaming, but dragging our feet. It took us years to realize that all of our lesbian mom friends were flocking there each Sunday, no one said a word. It was no one’s doing but our own when we decided to give it a try, years ago, much to our children’s dismay.

Unlike many, for whom Unitarian Universalism represents freedom from oppressive dogma and a less structured religion, to the un-churched, it can seem darned traditional. First Unitarian Church is particularly full of its Christian and Jewish roots: the handing round of the plate, the focus on fund raising (even a Catholic emphasis on tithing), the singing of hymns, the annual Christmas pageant, and a strangely constant use of the word “God” when I am assured that questioning the existence of a deity is the norm. Sometimes, I feel like I’m missing something I should have learned in Church 101, when I was busy contemplating my navel, but then, if Church 101 was required for attendance, they’d have lost me.

Yet it was I who pushed our family to church. I am a spiritual nomad, incapable of any faith but the faith you must have to raise children or fall in love. I know that the liberal parents, little old ladies, and Generation X upstarts who make up the congregation struggle with issues that we share: how do we not only oppose war, but do what it takes to make peace? How do we live a just life in an unjust society? How do we remain conscious of the struggles of the world, yet maintain joy? Is faith really required, or can ethical living be a religion?

What keeps us Unitarians (in our wishy-washy way) is not the popular oration of Senior Minister Marilyn Sewell, or even the humble homilies of Tom, but the open hearts of the congregation who stood up for us to celebrate our marriages, applauding sincerely our victory, and love. One of the consistent messages of the church is a respect for diversity that is not tolerance of gays and lesbians, but acceptance of all people as equal and worthy. Which is why we chose to get married in the First Church; even on those days when we aren’t sure that it is our spiritual home, it is always a community that welcomes us, doubts and all, and where we know that we belong.

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