March 12, 2023


It’s spring ahead weekend again so here I am on what I think should be Sunday morning and it’s already Sunday afternoon. Thank goodness the choir was off this morning at church so I didn’t have to get myself up and out the door in time for rehearsal or I would be sitting there bleary eyed trying to sight read the first hymn while the congregation is busy singing the second. This is my 20th continuous year with the Unitarian Universalist Church of Birmingham choir and I have aged into being one of the more senior members. There’s only a half dozen or so who predate me. If someone were to tell my younger self that I would be singing in a church choir much less for decades on end, I would have assumed that person either had a major Axis I disorder or was on some sort of drugs, but here we are.

I was raised with church affiliation. My parents thought it was important that we have some understanding of religious life and its place in society and had very strong ideas of what religion should not be. It should not coerce. It should not narrow a world view and allow for exploration and free thinking. It should not preach one thing from the pulpit and practice something else the other six days a week. But, I was also raised in the Pacific Northwest, the most unchurched region in the country. The denizens of Seattle had figured out how to organize society without a significant religious component before World War II. I suppose it had something to do with all of the free thinkers being driven west and north by the attitudes of their more church going neighbors throughout the 19th century.

My father was of the Pacific Northwest, having been born and raised in Olympia, gravitating to Seattle for college. He grew up in a strong fundamentalist Methodist household but he rejected it as he hit later adolescence due to the blatant hypocrisy he found between what church members said in church and what they did the rest of the time. My mother, growing up in her transplanted British household in San Francisco, was nominally Church of England on one side and Church of Scotland on the other, but again, found much of the thinking too narrow for her taste. After they married, they didn’t have much to do with church. They were briefly members of a Unitarian fellowship when they found themselves in rural Texas as my father finished his PhD but I think this was a survival mechanism as it didn’t stick. Once they were settled in Seattle with multiple children, they decided to find something.

What they found was the local Congregationalist church, under the Reverend Dale Turner. Dr. Turner was an outspoken voice for liberal values and the inclusion for all at the table within the confines of church teachings and was very much to their taste regarding the role of religion in public life. Dr. Turner was a much beloved figure in Seattle religious circles for years and, even after he retired from the pulpit, wrote a much admired weekly column for the Seattle Times. So, even while we were not particularly regular church goers, we were active in the congregation (my mother ran the holiday food box program for decades), and it was my home church. I suppose a lot of my underlying empathy for the other, strong belief in equitable solutions for society, and belief that religion, while important, should be kept within oneself and one’s spiritual home rather than trumpeted in every public sphere all comes from these beginnings.

In adulthood, I moved a little bit further left from Congregationalist to Unitarian-Universalist. When I look at the style of worship, the content of sermons, the function of religious education and all the rest of it, there’s not a lot of difference between University Congregational Church in Seattle and the Unitarian Universalist Church of Birmingham. The major difference is that UCC had a cross at the front of the sanctuary and mentioned Jesus a bit more while UUCB has a flaming chalice and Jesus comes up as a great teacher rather than as a divine being. The move is courtesy of Steve who wavered back and forth between Metropolitan Community Church (of which he was one of the twelve apostles – having been one of the twelve at the very first service in Troy Perry’s living room back in the early 70s) and the UU church in Los Angeles. He did the same thing in Sacramento during our time together. When we ended up in Birmingham and truly needed a religious support group due to the stresses and strains of his terminal illness, the UUs won out and so here I am. The music piece is, of course, thanks to Tommy who pretty much demanded that I join the choir soon after we got together as a couple.

I hadn’t planned on writing about my personal spiritual journey today. it’s just what came out. When I sit down to write these pieces, I just get in the zone and let the fingers fly across the keyboard. Any number of things can happen. Church is on my mind as we had our annual Stewardship dinner last night. It’s the focal point of pledge season where we try to chivvy the membership into giving enough money for the next fiscal year so we can pay the salaries and keep the lights on. As a relatively young church, we don’t have an enormous endowment to draw on but we do own our building and land outright and are out of debt. I was asked to be the MC. Twenty-one years ago, I was the MC for the first time and, as things were a bit more free wheeling in those days, the character who became the Ansager for the Politically Incorrect Cabaret was born. He’s now old enough to drink. Watch out world…

Today, on the other hand, is all about opera. It’s the weekend of Opera Birmingham’s annual vocal competition. Ten young artists competing for prizes and a gala dinner. As president of the board, I’m expected to show up. One of the competitors, a tenor, is lodging in my guest room, likely as a sneaky way to make sure I don’t forget to turn up and make whatever speech and toast is expected of me this evening. While UU is Steve’s gift, opera is definitely Tommy’s. Over the last two decades I’ve gone from being an irregular attendee to an active participant on stage, behind the scenes, and in the rarified world of movers and shakers that keep the art form alive in this country, not easy when younger generations have greatly shortened attention spans and music training has been tossed out the window in many of our schools.

It’s nice that the pandemic has receded enough that large public dinners are a thing again. I’m still keeping my hands washed. And I’ve had all my boosters.

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