A Visit to a Unitarian Universalist Service

This morning I visited the Buckman Bridge Unitarian Universalist Society, one of the two Unitarian Universalist congregations here in Jacksonville, for the first time. Although I have been aware of UUism for a couple years and have read about it online more than once, yesterday I decided almost on a whim to check out a service and see what it was like. BBUUS is closer to my home than the other congregation and I was also attracted to their lay leadership, which I presume results in a greater variety of speakers and thus viewpoints.

The Sunday service begins at 10:30am, but not knowing how long it would take to drive there, I arrived not long after 10:00am. Although I should have gone inside immediately, I felt somewhat nervous and sat in my car in the parking lot until almost 10:20am. The congregation doesn't own their own building at present, so they rent a small community center which resembles a church from the outside and a theater from the inside. I later learned that they own a property on the opposite side of the river upon which they have long-term plans to construct their own building. Immediately upon entering I was greeted by a woman designated to greet members as they arrived. I was encouraged to make a name tag for myself and sign their guest book, which I did gladly. All of the regular members of the congregation have computer-printed name tags which they put on inside the building and which are kept on a large board on a table. Not all of those in attendance wore their name tags for whatever reason, and it initially seemed slightly corny, but it was helpful for me as newcomer. The original greeter introduced me to several other members and I picked up some materials before sitting down in my chair near the back of the seating area, where I glanced through the program for the day and the hymnal. The main area consists of perhaps one hundred chairs arranged in rows facing the front with an aisle down the center where at the far end is a podium with table upon which is a candle and metal ring resembling the UU logo. While I was sitting there I encountered a young woman I had met online over a year ago whom I knew was a member of this congregation and then a former coworker whom I did not. Two other women sitting nearby also introduced themselves to me. There were about eighty people in attendance when the time arrived to begin.

The service was lead by a lay woman who said a few opening words before asking visitors to stand and introduce themselves. I introduced myself with a few words after two other visitors on the opposite side of the room had done the same. Then the lay leader “lit” the candle in front of the podium, which consisted in turning on what I then saw was an electric candle. It seemed somewhat odd to use an artificial candle, but perhaps there is a good reason for this. Next there was something called the “call to worship” which consisted of a four-line poem recited by the congregation. Afterward there was a “story for all ages”, which was a short children's book read by the lay leader, presumably for the children right before they left for their separate religious instruction in another room or maybe even building. Then it was time for a few quick announcements. Next was something called “sharing of personal joys and concerns” during which members of the congregation came forward to present personal news. As they did this, they symbolically took a small polished stone from a container and placed it in a big bowl in front of the candle. There were about five or six people who came forward and afterward the lay leader placed “silent stones” for other people who raised their hands before placing one additional stone for everything else. Next came the offering plate to which I contributed a small amount. Then everyone sang a hymn from the hymnal which I didn't know and which I tried my best to sight-read. After that it was time for the speaker, an Iranian member of the Baha’i religion who discussed the common foundations of all religions. As an atheist, I don't believe the common foundations of religion are divine but rather purely human, but I enjoyed his sermon and it served the purpose of getting me to think about this topic. Afterward there was a comment and question session during which I asked why, if they all come from the same “source”, were claims to exclusivity so common among world religions. His answer was in agreement with everything else he said and plausible within that context. I don't accept the premise that a deity exists, an idea which he asked the non-theists in attendance to entertain for the sake of argument, but his discussion was interesting and worth listening to. It was refreshing to be able present one's comments and questions during the official service in a democratic manner. The service ended with another unfamiliar hymn and a few closing words by the lay leader.

After the service I spoke with several more members of the congregation who asked me about my background and what brought me to their service today. I also got some apple juice and a chocolate-frosted doughnut decorated to resemble a football. After about fifteen minutes talking to several different people, I said that I would return the following week and then drove home.

The experience was quite positive. The organization and many individual members went out of their way to welcome me and make me feel comfortable. Unitarian Universalists hold a wide variety of beliefs regarding religion. A fair number of them are atheists and agnostics, a majority even identify themselves as humanists, and this particular congregation even had the Happy Human on the program with assorted religious symbols, so I felt fully comfortable saying that I was a Humanist. From what I had read online about other locations, I was afraid that the congregation would be made up mostly of older people with whom I would have less in common, but there were people of all ages including some young adults around my age and perhaps ten or fifteen young children with their parents. The service was positive with only the most innocuous references to the divine, no prayers, no mention of sin or anything else that would have made me feel uncomfortable. I enjoyed it and intend to attend again next week.

I am quite firm in my atheism and I am not seeking a god whom I don't believe exists. Rather I am seeking a sense of community among a group of people with similar values and, if not similar beliefs, at least similar outlooks on the formation of beliefs. I am seeking to expand my social circle and meet new people. I am seeking to hear new ideas and to share my own ideas with others in a friendly, welcoming environment. This Unitarian Universalist congregation seems like an excellent place to do this seeking.


1 comment:

UU-Mom said...


I stumbled upon this entry. I'm not a member of that church, but I'm a UU. A lot of what we do is in common through a common history and some traditions that are passed on through our association of congregations (the UUA).

My church still uses real fire as do most of our congregations, I believe. An artificial candle might be for safety. We don't have something we recite each week either, but we do sing Spirit of Life each time, which our children love to sign (that's not a type-o).

We do the Story for All Ages only once every couple of months, I think, and it's newish (less than a decade ago). The kids do join us for the first 15 mins. each Sun., though. When I was a Unitarian kid (I'm one of only 10% born U, U, or UU), the kids just went to their separate Sunday School and almost never joined with the adults, except for special holidays and that was one of the negative aspects of growing up UU then - having children be a part of the larger community at least part of the time is a good thing.

I think it's great that you enjoyed your experience! I'm agnostic & my husband is an open atheist and has chaired the Board of our congregation several times. Wouldn't it be great if more of our world could have theists and non-theists together openly accepting each other in a pleasant, caring atmosphere?!