like the last piece i posted, i wrote this for a class last semester. i'm still not sure how i feel about it. but sophia wanted to read it, so here it is.
“Shit. The first bus isn’t until 9:50. We’re gonna be late.” I said to Sophia, finally finding the right column on the bus schedule.
“It’s cool,” she said, forever the optimist. “They’re Unitarian; they’re not gonna care.”
When our bus finally pulled up to its stop, we jumped off and sped toward the Meetinghouse -- a grey-ish, A-frame building situated on its own corner on Amherst’s main street. I pushed open the large front doors and stepped into a hallway.
A grey-haired, plump older woman was sitting at a desk.
“Hello!” she practically screamed, beaming. “Is this your first time at one of our services?”
Sophia and I nodded.
“Great!” she said. To my amazement, her smile grew larger.
She gestured towards the desk in front of her. It had a pile of green programs, a few sheets of name tags and a wicker basket with two purple magic markers. “Write your name on a sticker,” she said, “and feel free to stay for our social hour after the service. We’re very welcoming!” Her voice became shrill with excitement; I could almost hear the exclamation point at the end of her sentence.
Sophia and I each filled out a name tag and picked up a program. I thanked the desk woman, pushed open one of the swinging wooden doors leading into the sanctuary, and looked down at the green piece of paper in my hand.
“The Unitarian Universalist Society of Amherst:” it read, “A Welcoming Congregation; A Green Sanctuary.”
A peace sign adorned the center. Beneath it, large, bolded, italicized font read, “Torture: Does the End Justify the Means?”
We stepped into the sanctuary. Thirty people sat in chairs in the center, all facing a small stage with two pulpits, a piano, and a long center table adorned with candles. The room was a sea of grey -- only a few brown or blonde heads were noticeable. The door slammed behind us and the woman at the pulpit -- whose name I found out later was Kate Meyer -- stopped reading. The entire congregation slowly turned around to see who had entered.
Their glances stopped us in our tracks. They looked at us for a beat longer, and then service resumed.
“Hatred and bitterness can never cure the disease of fear, only love can do that,” Kate read. I checked the program. She was reading “A Network of Mutuality” by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. She continued, pausing after each sentence to let the message of non-violence sink in.
“We must pursue peaceful ends through peaceful means.” She waited and looked around, allowing enough time for the phrase to have been repeated twice over.
“We shall hew out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope,” she finished. The congregation stayed silent. She slowly and silently walked off the stage, head bowed, and sat down in the front row.
After another, younger, woman -- whose name was listed in the program as Karen Sotherby -- led a Passover Haggadah reading, the entire congregation rose together to sing the first hymn of the service -- #453, “Let Freedom Span Both East and West.” They sang,
Let freedom span both east and west, and love both south and north,
In universal fellowship throughout the whole wide earth.
In beauty, wonder, everywhere, let us communion find;
Compassion be the golden cord close-binding humankind.
Beyond all barriers of race, of color, caste, or creed,
Let us make friendship, human worth, our common faith and deed.
Then east and west will meet and share, and south shall build with north,
One human commonwealth of good throughout the whole wide earth.
I was surprised at how confidently in-key the congregation sang. I tried my hardest to sing loudly enough for it to count but softly enough for no one to hear how out-of-tune I was. The song ended and Karen walked from behind the pulpit to stand beside the long, candle-covered table.
“We will now share our joys and concerns with one another,” she said simply. Immediately, four members of the congregation rose. A man and a woman shuffled slowly over to the left side of the meetinghouse while the other two -- also a man and a woman -- went to the right. The first man went directly to the microphone without prompting.
“I have a joy and a concern,” he began. “First, my joy. My brother Jim was nominated for a White House health care staff position.” The congregation remained silent, waiting. “And now, my concern. My brother Jim was nominated for a White Hou...” The laughter drowned him out before he could finish his joke.
“But really,” he said. “He’s going to have to go through a rigorous screening process. They’re going to tear him apart....” He trailed off on his own account, this time. He stood there silently for a few seconds, smiled, and then began the slow shuffle back to his seat.
As soon as he stepped away, the woman followed his lead. “Just the other morning,” she began, “I got my book in the mail. It’s the first time I’d written a book by myself and it took me almost five years.” The previously stoic, silent congregation erupted into applause. The woman blushed and thanked them.
A few more inspirational passages were read; a few more songs were sung; and then, towards the end of the service, we reached the closing circle and song. Sophia and I checked our programs, looked up not ten seconds later, and realized that nearly the entire congregation had created a circle of linked hands surrounding us.
We quickly jumped up and, grabbing the hands of two members, joined the circle. The entire congregation, on the piano player’s cue, broke into song. Neither Sophia or I knew the lyrics, but everybody else in the room did. They all stared at us while singing; it was impossible to look anywhere without making eye contact with someone.
The song ended and we sat down again. Closing words were spoken, and then the service ended. The congregation began moving -- some out the doors, some just out of the center, but most grabbed chairs and began stacking them as if they were each a cog in a part of a well-oiled machine. Chairs moved out of the way, food was set out on long tables, and people began approaching us and talking to us.
We met the book woman and she gave us a flyer. When we told her that it was our first time at a Unitarian Universalist service, she got so excited she became flustered. “Let me introduce you to Kyle and Chris. They’re part of the youth UU group!”
She called over two men in their mid-twenties. Both walked up to us, smiling -- their name tags, as well as their faces, revealed that they were brothers. She introduced us and went on her way, handing out flyers to the people she passed.
We told Kyle and Chris the same thing we had told the woman -- we were new to the UU and were checking it out. They both became extremely animated.
“Awesome!” said Kyle. “We don’t usually get many young people, as I’m sure you can tell...”
Sophia and I laughed and nodded.
“But you should definitely check out our youth group,” he said. “It’s for for ages 18-35.”
His brother Chris shot him a concerned look. “But we don’t kick you out if you turn 36,” he said.
I told them that I was definitely interested in attending.
“Awesome!” Kyle said. “We meet Thursday nights at 8:00 in the U-Mass Campus Center.”
I laughed out loud. “Kyle,” I said, “We go to Hampshire. The U-Mass Campus Center is the size of our entire campus.”
He smiled, revealing a set of crooked teeth. “No problem; I’ll draw you a map.”
I arrived at the Campus Center that next Thursday with only a little trouble. After asking a few U-Mass students to be sure that I found the right building, I walked in through a set of thick, red, metal doors and began to follow Kyle’s map. I walked straight through the center, following the turns Kyle’s map directed me to take. When I reached the barber’s shop -- which was supposed to be almost directly next to the couches -- I was confidant that I had made it, and with two minutes to spare. I rounded the last corner and, as I was expecting, was faced with a group of couches. Unexpectedly, however, they were empty.
Great, I thought. Am I in the wrong place? What are the odds that there are two barber shops in the Campus Center?
I decided to retrace my steps. I walked back to the entrance and followed Kyle’s map through the building. I found myself back in the same place, but now there was a young-ish man in kakis and a polo shirt sitting on one of the couches. He didn’t look familiar.
Still worried -- but, in actuality, aware that I had been led twice to the correct place -- I retraced my steps again. Like I suspected, I returned to the same couches but, this time, a young-ish woman had joined the young-ish man.
I approached them. “Hey,” I said. “Is this the Unitarian youth meeting?”
The woman’s face broke into a huge smile. “Yes!” she exclaimed, bouncing with excitement. “I thought you looked lost when I walked by you earlier,” she continued, “but I was already late to the meeting! I’m glad you found us.”
“Me, too,” I responded.
“I’m Sam,” she said. “And this is Mark.”
She extended her hand. I reached mine forward to meet hers. “I’m Sam, too,” I said.
Mark laughed. “Sam and Hampshire Sam.”
I sat down. “Kyle told me we were expecting some new people,” Sam said.
“Yeah,” I responded. “Sophia couldn’t make it tonight. But we met Kyle on Sunday -- it was the first Unitarian service either of us had been to.”
“Awesome!” Sam said. “Did the old people talk to you? They freakin’ love young adults!”
I nodded. Sam continued, “The members really provide us with a lot of time and energy because they are so desperate for youths.”
“I noticed that,” I said.
Sam turned to Mark, apparently finished with the conversation. She looked down the hallway, frowned, and then whined, “Where are all my UUs?!” in a tone that made the term sound like a nickname.
She composed herself and announced that we would be starting the meeting by talking about how our weeks had gone. Mark launched into a lament about his classes.
“Every. Single. Class I had to register for was at the same. Time,” he said, giving the beginning and ending words individual emphasis, making it sound as though he spoke in multiple sentences. “I couldn’t sign up for anything!”
He continued talking about his week; he complained about how much he studied and how many papers he wrote, he pronounced his enjoyment of the weather, and he tacked on at the end a semi-confused, semi-disdainful announcement that he celebrated Easter with his family.
“Me too!” Sam said, her shoulders raising. “My family doesn’t even celebrate Easter, but my mom made me go home for it this year!”
Sam talked about her week next. Her complaints and excitements were exactly the same as Mark’s -- too much studying, too many papers, nice weather, forced Easter.
Then it was my turn. I stuck to the formula that Mark and Sam had established. “I’ve been doing a lot of work,” I said. “I’m surviving, though. I spent all day outside yesterday because the weather was so nice. And my mom sent me a basket of Easter candy, so I’m happy about that.”
This deviation from the Easter negativity seemed to catch Mark and Sam off guard. They exchanged quick looks and nervous giggles. I couldn’t help but feel that they expected me to begrudgingly celebrate Easter like them, not willingly accept holiday paraphernalia.
Sam quickly moved onto the next order of business. “So, we need to work on our group’s constitution,” she said. She turned to me. “In order for U-Mass to recognize us, we need to have one up and running. We’re modeling ours after the Black Student Union’s.”
She looked down at her laptop. Just then, Chris rounded the corner. “Finally!” Sam yelled. Chris smiled sheepishly and sunk into a chair.
“Sorry,” he said. “I was at the Jewish Student Union meeting.”
“Not a problem,” Sam said. “We’re just starting on the constitution. Mark, can you take notes?” She placed her laptop into Mark’s lap as she was beginning her question.
“Um, okay,” said Mark. He looked down, brow furrowed. “So we need to figure out how we’re going to elect a president,” he continued.
“How about we just, like, draw out of a hat?” suggested Sam.
Both Mark and Chris looked up at her. They smiled. “That would be so UU!” exclaimed Chris. They shared a laugh.
The three deliberated for a minute or two; unsure whether to commit to the hat method or not. “I’m on student government at Hampshire,” I said, “and we usually do it through nominations.”
Sam, Chris, and Mark looked at me in unison. “Like, anyone can be nominated for a position,” I explained, “and then they have the opportunity to accept or decline. Then there would be a closed ballot vote and whoever gets the most votes wins.”
“That makes sense!” Sam said. “Let’s do that.”
“I don’t get it...” Chris said, frowning.
“Okay, so say I need to nominate someone for Hat Man,” began Sam. “I would be like, ‘I nominate Chris for Hat Man.’ And then you would say ‘I accept the nomination.’ Then anyone else could be nominated and all of the members of the group would think to themselves ‘Do I want Chris for Hat Man?’ Then they would write the name of the person they want to vote for on a piece of paper and the votes would be tallied. If you had the most, you would be Hat Man.”
Chris nodded and Mark, silently taking notes, mumbled “Okay.... So Chris is the Hat Man.”
The last order of business was to discuss impeachment. As soon as Mark uttered the word, Chris’s face turned sour.
“I don’t think we should have anything in our constitution about impeachment,” he said. “It suggests so much negativity.”
Sam looked at him confused. “It’s not necessarily just because you don’t like the president,” she said, “but if they’re, like, misusing funds or not representing the UUs positively.”
“And it’s not even about me!” she continued. “This is for future presidents, too. It’s not that big of a deal. C’mon, I’m not Monika Luinsky, givin’ head in the Oval Office.”
Two weeks later, I briskly and knowledgeably walked to the couch cluster tucked away in the U-Mass Campus Center -- this time, Sophia was with me. We were greeted by the familiar, smiling faces of Sam, Mark, Kyle and Chris.
“Hey guys!” Sam said as we both took a seat on one of the couches. “Let’s do introductions again. I’m Sam.”
“I’m Mark,” said Mark.
“I’m Kyle,” said Kyle.
“I’m Chris,” said Chris.
“I’m Lauren,” said a curly-haired, bespectacled girl neither of us recognized.
Sophia and I introduced ourselves -- me for the second time, and Sophia for the first.
“Sophia and Hampshire Sam,” Mark said, using the distinguisher he had established at the last meeting. He laughed and said to Sophia, “That’s how we tell them apart,” gesturing toward both Sam and I. “Sam and Hampshire Sam!”
“Okay,” Sam said, getting down to business. “We’re working with mnemonic devices today!” Her forced enthusiasm was overwhelming and almost sarcastic. “No, but really,” she continued, “we’re gonna try to memorize the seven principles with a mnemonic device.”
On cue, both she and Chris whipped out their wallets and began digging through them. After a few seconds, Sam pulled out a small piece of card stock with text on one side. It was folded in half so it could stand on its own, allowing the words to be read more easily. The text read,
We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote:
1. The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
2. Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
3. Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
4. A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
5. The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
6. The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all;
7. Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
“Impossible to memorize,” Mark said.
“Not with a mnemonic device,” said Sam, laughter in her voice. “If we can think of one word to summarize each of the principles we can use them as hints.”
We delved into weighing the various hint-giving options. The first principle was easy; we unanimously agreed on “equality.”
For the second (Justice, equity and compassion in human relations), someone suggested “justice.”
“I don’t know,” Sophia mused aloud. “That seems too specific. Maybe... ‘love?’”
There were a few scattered nods but no one spoke.
“I mean...” she reluctantly explained, “compassion is the important part, not necessarily just justice.”
“Cool,” Sam responded. “Does everyone agree?” The same nods answered her.
Principle three was decided on as simply, “growth.”
“Understanding” was suggested for the next (A free and responsible search for truth and meaning).
“I feel like “search” works better,” said Mark. “Because you want it to remind you of the principle, not just vaguely explain it.” More nods. “Search” passed.
Principle five became “vote;” six became “peace;” and the last -- principle seven -- became “web.”
“So we have equality, love, growth, search, vote, peace, and web,” Sam read back. “Now time for the mnemonic device.”
Kyle and Sophia, who had been sitting in the corner whispering for the past few minutes, chimed in. “Every lover gets some very pretty wildflowers,” they said, alternating words.
Kyle leaned his head back against the wall and closed his eyes. “I can see it in a video,” he said slowly. He placed both hands to his chest. “The equal sign is in my heart and it’s expanding, expanding, and love is spreading and growing,” he pushed his hands away from himself, palms outward, repeatedly. “It’s searching for something... something -- three things: peace, peace, the vote! and an interdependent web.” He jabbed his hand forward for each of the three things that his love was searching for.
He opened his eyes and smiled. “I make movies in my mind to help me remember things,” he explained.
“Kyle. You’re so... special,” Sam said. “I love you.”