Have faith: Bitten by the Unitarian bug

A congregation made up of Jews, Catholics, Quakers, and every other denomination she could think of.

The Unitarian Church on Main Street. Photo by Sam Moore

Every other week, Connie Berry will report on the news, events, and people at Martha’s Vineyard’s various places of worship.

While surfing through Netflix a few years ago, I found a documentary titled “Raw Faith.” Since I was in the throes of that enormous search for truth that often happens once we hit age 50 and finally have a few spare moments to contemplate the universe, I opted to watch the film.

”Raw Faith” is a revealing look at two years in the life of a progressive Unitarian minister, the Reverend Marilyn Sewell. While she leads a large congregation in Portland, Ore., in the documentary, she’s trying to come to terms with her past while preparing for her future. It’s filmed in real time, which adds to the intimacy of the whole thing. I was bitten by the Unitarian bug, and decided to get myself to the local church.

What struck me most about my visit to the Unitarian Universalist Society of Martha’s Vineyard was the genuine welcome I received. A church by nature should be a welcoming place, but in my experience not all of them exude warmness. After my initial introduction, what came next also threw me — the congregation was made up of Jews, Catholics, Quakers, and every other denomination I could think of. How could all of these worshipers with such different styles come together without disagreeing?

I looked a little further, and discovered that the UU church here has a pretty active membership. They have a women’s group, a “Sewcial Knitwork” needlework group, potluck dinners, a bed-and-breakfast hospitality ministry, religious education programs, and lifelong learning options. Their faiths may be diverse, but the congregation fosters spiritual growth for everyone.

Every year the Unitarian Universalist Association recommends a Common Read, a book for all members of the church to read. This year’s Common Read title is “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson, and the UU church on the Island held a recent discussion group about the book, which prompted some lively conversation.

Dorie Godfrey was the facilitator for the group. “This book was perfect because the UUA is also sponsoring Standing on the Side of Love, and our pastor, Bill Clark, is talking about why black lives matter,” Ms. Godfrey explained.
The Unitarians are known for their social justice work, and this Common Read lends itself to their purpose. Barbara Caseau said she thought the book was excellent.

“There are things that those of us who think about race don’t always know,” she said. “‘Just Mercy’ brought light to some of the facts that aren’t always in the forefront. The book is a memoir by a lawyer, and it deals with the miscarriage of justice, most notably in the case of Walter McMillian, a black man accused of killing a white woman in Alabama.

For a church that holds social activism as a major tenet, “Just Mercy” seems the perfect fit.

Goings on

The Lenten season begins with Ash Wednesday, Feb. 10, and many Christian denominations spend the 40 days of Lent trying to live simpler and more prayerful lives. The season represents the days Jesus spent in the wilderness, and is typically a time of repentance, fasting, and preparation for Easter.

This Lent, Good Shepherd Parish and St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church are co-sponsoring an eight-part series called “The Francis Factor,” which explores how St. Francis and Pope Francis are impacting the world.

“This is a good series for those who want to know what all the hubbub about Pope Francis is about. It goes deeper into the theology and the influence of St. Francis,” the Reverend Chip Seadale, pastor of St. Andrew’s, explained. The series features three followers of the Franciscan path: Richard Rohr, Shane Claiborne, and Ilia Delio.

The videos will be shown at alternating churches on Thursdays, from 6:30 to 8 pm. “The Francis Factor” is hosted by St. Augustine Church in Vineyard Haven on Thursday, Feb. 4. Father Mike Nagle reminds everyone that there’s also a community supper that begins at 5:30 on Thursday at St. Augustine’s. For a full schedule of the series, call St. Andrew’s at 508-627-5330 or Good Shepherd Parish at 508-693-0342.

New church

Spiritual explorers may want to make the journey to one of the Island’s newest faith communities, which is actually based in Hyannis: Covenant on the Rock Family Church. The congregation gathers on Sunday nights at 6, borrowing the United Methodist’s Trinity Worship Center at the Campgrounds in Oak Bluffs, and again on Wednesdays at 6:30 p.m. for Bible study. For Stacy Thomas and her daughters, the church has helped them form a family-like support system, since she comes from Jamaica and has no extended family here on the Island.
“We’re a nondenominational church that worships in a Pentecostal kind of way,” Ms. Thomas explained. “We come together for praise and worship; where there’s unity there’s strength, and that idea just grabbed ahold of me. I’m very grateful for this church.”
Covenant on the Rock hosts a men’s prayer breakfast on Feb. 6. Call 508-790-1910 for more information.