Most Sunday mornings, you can find me in a back row of the First Unitarian Church of Hamilton. I sing hymns, light a candle for something I’m worrying about or grateful for, and listen to the minister, Rev. Victoria Ingram, preach on topics ranging from the spiritual practice of “paying it forward” to what it really means to love our neighbour as ourselves. I put money in the collection plate and nod at my fellow congregants, most of whom — like me — are refugees from other religions. For coffee hour, I always stick around and usually share hugs with a few people. I was 42 when I found this liberal religious community about 12 years ago. Until then, I never even knew it existed. I’m not sure if it saved my soul. But I think it just might have saved my life.
I love going to church. But it wasn’t always this way.
Growing up Dutch Reformed, I went to church twice every Sunday until I left home at 19. Not going was simply not an option. I figure that I spent more than 3,000 hours stuck in a pew, being told what a wretched sinner I was, even though I was never sure exactly what I’d done wrong. Simply put, church was not a happy or hopeful place. The god I was taught about seemed to have a split personality: sometimes, he was angry and disappointed in his flock; other times, a loving, heavenly Father who looked out for his lost lambs. The unpredictability was unnerving.
Every Wednesday, I attended catechism instruction, and every Friday, I made it out to Young People’s. I also went to a private Dutch Christian school, where the rod was not spared. Once, after talking to a classmate, I was whacked so hard across the head by my Grade 7 teacher that I fell out of my chair and onto the floor. Another time, that same teacher held a boy upside down by his ankles in front of the class and slapped him across the face, all the while scoffing at the “crocodile tears” that streamed down his cheeks. My parents scrimped and saved to send me to this school so that I would be spared the evils of public education, in which I would be taught the blasphemous theory of evolution.
In the Dutch Reformed church, I was admonished repeatedly to “have faith like a child” and be unquestioning and compliant. It was a church where women, stripped of all authority, were expected to sit in their cars in the parking lot after services while men conducted the church business of voting in elders and deacons. This was a church where “go-directly-to-hell” cards were handed out freely like some kind of macabre Monopoly game. Years after my father left our family, my mother was even told by a minister that she would be committing adultery and going to hell if she ever remarried. I, too, was told by church elders that I was doomed to the fiery pit when I finally left that church.
You’d think that all this would have put me off churchgoing forever. It didn’t. Although I came to reject the ideas of original sin, the trinity and the virgin birth, I couldn’t shake the ingrained habit of parking myself in a pew on the Sabbath. Once I was free to choose, I began attending the United Church of Canada, where I found a happy home for many years. Then, one Easter Sunday, with my young children sitting beside me, I looked up at the stained-glass window depicting Jesus outstretched on the cross, and the epiphany was as clear as the sunlight streaming through that window: I no longer believed. And I couldn’t keep pretending that I did for the sake of my children. But this time, when I left the church, there were no threats of hell, just a regretful, tender handshake goodbye.
I then searched for a church in which I could worship as a spiritual agnostic. I found it with the Unitarians, a denomination that has as its symbol a flaming chalice representing “the light of reason, the warmth of community, and the flame of hope.” Here, I finally found what I thought was so elusive: a religious institution in which doubt was understood and even expected. A place that focused on the celebration of the human spirit, rather than the stain of sin. A place where I could develop some spiritual muscle without having to lift the deadweight of ancient dogma.
And so I became a Unitarian, a religion that’s been at the forefront of the most significant movements in history, from the abolition of slavery to equal rights for women, prison reform, same-sex marriage and Black Lives Matter. Unitarians follow a set of seven principles, and their hymnbook is the first to encompass spirituals from the African American tradition, folk songs, music of non-Christian religions and old Christian standbys, such as “Amazing Grace” and “Rock of Ages.” Readings include selections from the likes of Walt Whitman, Thich Nhat Hanh, Adrienne Rich, Langston Hughes, Albert Schweitzer, Emma Goldman, Mother Teresa, Ghandi, the Bhagavad-Gita and, yes, even the Bible. It’s a K-Tel-like greatest hits of religion.
Because it’s creed-free and nontheistic, people like to make fun of Unitarians and say that they don’t believe much of anything. Hell, Unitarians make fun of themselves — we even have a bunch of jokes to prove it. There’s the one about visitors on a tour of heaven who notice a group of Unitarians arguing about whether or not they are really there. Or the one about Unitarians praying, “To Whom It May Concern.” The American humorist Garrison Keillor also said about Unitarians, “They don’t want salvation, they want closure.”
Some people look at me funny when I say I go to church. It seems as quaint as telling them that I go bowling every Saturday night. I often find myself over-explaining: “Don’t worry; we don’t keep Bibles in the pews, there are no crucifixes on the wall and you don’t have to believe in God. In fact, most of us are atheists and agnostics!” That doesn’t really stop people from looking at me funny, though.
So why do I still go to church when I could be spending Sunday mornings doing sun salutations or listening to the CBC?
I go because it feels like a hopeful act to gather with intention in world that often seems torn by the divisiveness of difference. I go because I’m inspired by the church’s mission “to nurture each other, serve the community and inspire action that heals the world.” And I go because it’s easier to maintain a spiritual life with a routine of weekly services and the rigour of being part of something bigger than yourself: donating money and teaching Sunday school, serving on committees and washing cups after coffee hour.
What’s more, I go because I want to expose my kids to a liberal, freethinking religion that will give them something to cling to in times of uncertainty. I go for the liturgical uplift of listening to the choir and sharing both joys and sorrows, as well as celebrating traditions, whether it’s the changing seasons of the earth or the changing seasons of our lives. But mostly, I go because it fulfills the most primitive and compelling of all human needs: the desire to belong. The journalist and social activist Dorothy Day said it best: “We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.”
So no, I don’t believe in God. And I don’t believe in heaven or hell. But I do believe in people. There is a goodness at work among these friends, acquaintances and strangers whom I gather with every Sunday. Maybe that’s as close to an idea of God as I’ll ever get. That’s more than enough for me.