Growing up Unitarian
--by Bronwyn (B) Gordon
From a very young age I understood that the church I attended was different from most people’s religious institutions. For one thing, I was usually the only Unitarian in my class at school. To be honest, I didn’t appreciate this distinction. I already had an odd Welsh name that no one had ever heard of or seemed able to pronounce. Plus, I was painfully shy, so shy in fact that I had spent most of kindergarten hiding under the grand piano. In my world, to stand out was to invite ridicule.
There was Sunday, of course – the one day out of the week when I might mingle inconspicuously among my own kind. You’d think so anyway but, as it turns out, I was an oddball at church too. This was because my father was the minister – not just the minister either, but the celebrated A. Powell Davies who spoke out eloquently against Joseph McCarthy’s red baiting and racial segregation, who was invited to be on shows like Face the Nation, and got quoted on a regular basis in the Washington Post.
Because of my father’s celebrity, I was frequently waylaid in the halls of All Souls Church by various ladies who crushed me to their ample bosoms and told me how lucky I was to have a father like that. Male church goers looked me straight in the eye and dared me to live up to the high standards of my father’s courage and eloquence.
I did not want to live up to anything. I just wanted to be normal.
All Souls Church, situated in downtown Washington, D.C., was modeled after London’s St. Martin’s- in -the -Fields replete with a classical style pediment supported by Corinthian columns and endowed with an impressive bell tower that we Sunday School children were invited to explore once a year. The church had a big auditorium plus balconies on either side and it was always filled to capacity. There was a professional organist as well as a professional singing quartet. My father ascended and descended the raised pulpit with regal solemnity.
At All Souls church, services were formal and dignified. Ladies wore hats with veils and men wore suits. I was obliged to wear frilly, elaborately smocked dresses and patent leather shoes that drove me nuts all morning by trying to eat my socks. At the end of the service everyone recited The Lord’s Prayer even those who didn’t believe a word of it. This was, as I recall, a concession to certain elderly long-term parishioners. I’m certain my father didn’t approve of sentiments such as “Lead us not into temptation” but he chose his battles wisely.
Various political big shots attended church services from time to time. Included among these were Senator Paul Douglas, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas and two-time presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson.
In Sunday school we read about two kids named Martin and Judy and pondered the moral conflicts plaguing preschoolers and kindergartners. Later we read Jesus, the Carpenter’s Son and I concluded that, overall, the protagonist was a pretty stand-up guy.
I also learned that Christians were self-deluded people who believed that Jesus lived with God up in the sky. As for God, Himself, it turned out that he probably didn’t even exist, at least in the sense of the grandfatherly persona most of my classmates prayed to. Apparently, if I wanted to get my wishes granted, I needed to acquire a fairy godmother or discover a magic lamp.
Due, in part, to outspoken contempt on the part of some of my Sunday school teachers, I was sometimes inspired to insult my god-fearing friends and classmates. Predictably, they, in turn, informed me that I was destined to burn in hell. I did not believe them but I did (on reflection) regret having hurt their feelings.
All that said, I did grasp something positive in the nature of Unitarianism. For instance, I understood that Unitarians stood for justice for all people not just for rich white people.
In this context, let me explain that All Souls was (and is) an inner city church and that the presence of African-Americans among the members of its large congregation was unremarkable. In my teens, I belonged to a drama club formed by some of the kids in my Sunday School and we regularly performed plays with “color blind” casts. I was aware, also, that when my father was called to the pulpit of All Souls, he stopped the Church from renting space to the segregated Police Boys Club and invited the integrated Columbia Heights Boys Club to take its place.
When Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka Kansas reversed the Supreme Court ruling of Plessey vs. Ferguson, my father celebrated this triumph from the pulpit. After that, we began to receive threatening phone calls and I remember I was not allowed for awhile to answer the phone. I understood that taking a stand, even in the face of murderous opposition was something Unitarians valued. Later, while serving as assistant minister at All Souls Church, the Rev. James Reeb risked his life in the cause of civil rights and was murdered in Selma, Alabama in 1965.
I was thirteen years old when my father died. For awhile I continued to attend All Souls Church, especially the drama club. At some point I became aware that new churches were being founded, most, if not all, in the upper middle class Maryland suburbs. In these new churches (one of which was founded by my mother) there were hardly any dark faces. There was also less talk about social justice and more discussion about breaking the yoke of Christian dogma.
When the sixties hit, many Unitarian parents underwent a sort of test of hypocrisy. As their sons quit college and decided to take up organic farming and their daughters went around braless and marched in peace rallies, mothers and fathers protested that this was not what they had meant when they had celebrated non-conformity. To sympathize with farmers was one thing, to actually be one quite another. This conflict inspired my mother to preach a sermon entitled, “Did We Really Mean It?” in which she challenged the congregation of River Road Unitarian Church to respect their children’s right to choose.
Like my father in this regard, my mother fully demonstrated the courage of her convictions. She stood up for what she believed even in the face of overwhelming opposition. Throughout her long life she was as faithful to her values as it is possible for a human being to be.
As a young adult I was more interested in Hinduism, Zen Buddhism and Native American spirituality than I was in Unitarianism. I moved a long way away from my childhood home, married and gave birth to a daughter.
When my daughter was five or six, I returned, briefly, to the fold. The church I attended on the West Coast was radically different from the one I’d grown up in. For one thing, it wasn’t even a church. It was a Fellowship and determined to remain one. The congregation was small and consisted largely of senior citizens. The Sunday school was even smaller and attendance there was erratic.
This church – or rather fellowship – went through ministers like a teacher goes through chalk. Some of the ministers were into improv, so you never knew what might take place during the service. One of them was inspired to perform the dance of Shiva and cavorted around the auditorium wearing what looked like loose-fitting cotton pajamas. Another minister spent twenty minutes tossing a football to various randomly-selected congregates.
Really the only thing these Unitarians had in common with my childhood version of Unitarianism was a sense that many of them had of having suffered some sort of trauma due to their Christian upbringing. Since I was not brought up Christian, I have no understanding of this experience. In other words, I was more or less deprived of God not bludgeoned with him. Was it Emerson or some other self-appointed critic who said that Unitarianism was “a featherbed for falling Christians”? I began to wonder if this, more than moral courage and a dedication to social justice, formed the common UU ground.
When this congregation voted overwhelmingly to sponsor illegal aliens fleeing from the repressive regime in El Salvador, I was relieved and even proud. Flaky though they were, they did, in fact, have the capacity to take a stand against injustice.
Soon after this action, a conflict occurred between the minister and the RE director. The congregation took sides while reason and compassion were overwhelmed by righteous indignation. Eventually, part of the congregation split off and established a new fellowship. I attended the new fellowship briefly then quit altogether.
I became increasingly absorbed by my work in special education which profoundly influenced my spirituality in ways I can’t begin to describe. One of the teachers I worked with was a Mormon who, without piosity or pretense, devoted herself to living what she called “a Christian life.” Ironically, I learned more from her about respecting each individual’s worth and dignity than I did anywhere or from anyone else.
I am not suggesting that my particular experience in the UU denomination has much, if any, correspondence with (for wont of a better phrase) “the truth about Unitarianism.” This is partly because I wasn’t just another Unitarian. The pedestal of fame on which my father stood increasingly began to feel, for him, more like a tightrope. His fear of falling (i.e. failing to live up to the adulation surrounding him) resulted in his making some unfortunate choices that had negative consequences for him and for his family. Thus, my sister and I, rather than becoming replicas of our father, ended up dedicating our energies simply trying to survive . I succeeded (in surviving, that is) but my sister did not. Her children – my niece and two nephews – though they attended Unitarian Sunday School -have no interest whatsoever in Unitarianism. My oldest nephew regards Unitarians as cocktail party liberals and my other nephew regarded my mother’s idealism as naïve and cute. While I don’t necessarily agree with them, I understand why they feel they way they do.
My daughter’s perspective on Unitarianism is, however quite different. Inspired by a Sunday school curriculum that focused on freedom fighters, taught by a dynamic teacher, she walked, one day, into the local peace center and offered her services at the age of eight. She and her husband continue to explore the issues of spirituality and social justice within the context of Unitarian-Universalism. My grandsons, too, have a strong Unitarian-Universalist identity.
As for myself, though I don’t define myself as a Unitarian, I still have the utmost respect for my parents and what they stood for. Their vision of Unitarianism was that it be a powerful force for justice, compassion, and peace in a troubled world. They did not place much value in semantics, nor did they bewail their conventional Christian upbringing. They believed that each individual, however flawed his personal life might be, was capable of placing the common good ahead of his own self interest. That, I think, is the part of their legacy that is worth living up to – not just for their descendents, but for all of us.