How a Unitarian in a Mickey Mouse Sweater Changed My Life
Deconstruction in the 90s
Happy Orthodox Easter, everyone!
The following are my remarks given a few weeks ago at the 150th anniversary of First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego. I was asked to speak about the past, present and future of progressive religion. Instead, I just said this:
It was early Spring in 1990.
I was not yet 20 years old and attending a house party in Boulder Colorado. I guess I should mention it was a theme party.
My head that night was crowned in rollers the size of soda cans, my eyes were intentionally smeared with cheap eyeliner, I wore just a 1960’s era slip and a push up bra, and a cigarette dangled precariously from my bright red lips. And I’m not proud of this now, but I was also holding a large cucumber. It was a “come out come out whatever you are” party and I was dressed as a sexually depraved middle aged housewife. In my other hand was the first or second of what would be at least 5 or 6 red solo cups full of cheap beer from a keg. That is to say, at the moment I took a seat next to a smiling fella in a mickey mouse sweater who was stationed on the sofa all night due to a cast on his leg, I was still lively but not yet belligerent.
I pointed at his immobilize leg and said “Yikes.”
“You should see the other guy” he said smiling, “And by other guy I mean my Harley which has now seen an early grave.”
His name was Eric Kaminetzky, a law student and, I would find out later…a Unitarian.
We talked and made each other laugh for about an hour that night, and the next weekend when our group of friends merged together at a table at Dot’s Diner, we talked some more.
“I know this sounds weird”, he said toward the end of the Huevos Rancheros, “but I am the co-director of a super weird Jr. High Summer Camp in Western Massachusetts and something tells me you’d be perfect on staff”.
I had literally nothing going on in my life so a couple months later, I drove to a state I never been to, to a camp I’d never seen, to work with a group of people I’d never met. I didn’t even really know the one guy I knew.
I had no idea at the time that I would end up returning for five Summers in a row.
It was Rowe – a Unitarian Camp and Conference Center and the five Summers I spent there had a profound effect on my life and my work going forward.
I wasn’t raised Unitarian, by the way, I was raised in the Church of Christ- perhaps the exact opposite of Unitarian. Not the United Church of Christ, mind you. The straight up Church of Christ – part of the restoration movement from the early 19th century.
In the church of my childhood, the one we went to three times a week, there was a lot of talk about what a good Christian woman looked like, what kind of temperament she had, how deferential and obedient she was, how sweet and accommodating. I even attended Christian charm classes on Tuesday nights (which clearly worked because I am charming as fuck) anyhow, at Christian Charm Classwe girls were instructed on how to dress modestly, smile constantly, apply our make-up lightly, and hold our Bibles thusly. All that training really came in handy when putting my Sexually Depraved Housewife costume together, by the way.
The point is, in the religious community of my childhood, the only one I knew much about prior to meeting a Unitarian, there was little room for difference of any kind. Instead, it was strident about who belonged and who didn’t belong, strident about what exactly we must believe, strident about how exactly we must behave.
We were taught what was and what was not a sin. And who was and was not a sinner. We were continually told what it meant to be good. It was all very clear.
And the older I got what was also very clear was that I was not, in my natural temperament or personality or proclivity in any way a “Good Christian Woman”. I was too loud, too wild, too funny and not even slightly obedient.
Which sucked because the church was all I knew. These were the kind hearted people that had surrounded me my entire life. But in the mid to late 80’s when there became a tension between what I was told to believe was true and what I experienced to be true, I started on a path that we now call “deconstruction”. But like, without Rachel Held Evans (may she rest in peace eternal). Or the internet. Or books about it, or a community of any kind.
There is a certain type of alienation one feels when the only spiritual community and symbol system you have ever known must, for reasons of self-preservation, be peeled away from you. Layer by layer.
But then when I was 19 years old and holding a cucumber, I met a guy who was like, OMG you should work at a Unitarian church camp.
Here’s the thing about my experience at Rowe Camp – it was the first time in my entire life that I was in a community where being me was not a problem. It was the first time I showed up somewhere and people were like, OMG you’re amazing.
For the first time in my life, this loud, wild, funny, slightly disobedient girl found a place where people were just fine with her being her.
I could not believe how much freedom was allowed in that place and how beautifully we all blossomed as a result.
It was the early 90s and even then, we spoke openly about gender and mental health and bias and queerness and income inequality and so many of the things the church I was raised in seemed to never mention.
I will say this though, in the 90s this community of kids and young adults that formed every Summer where all were welcomed and some difficult realities of society were openly spoken of, had a generosity to it that, if I am honest, I do not often feel in “social justice” spaces right now, and that is partly due to the fact that it was pre-internet. It was before the stridency and cancel culture and performative cruelty of the internet started to hijack our neuro-chemistry. There are times these days when those conversations can sort of feel a little bit like the fundamentalism I tried to leave behind. Like I am being continually told what I must say and believe and act like in order to be “good”, and told how I can easily identify who is “bad” by what they say and believe and act like.
But that is another story for another time.
Many years later, after I got my degree in religion and my masters in divinity and was ordained a Lutheran pastor and started an imperfect church from scratch, one I felt comfortable in, that other weirdos would feel comfortable in, one where what you believed was never the basis for belonging, one where freedom was embraced, I was talking to an old friend from back in those Summer camp days and telling her about House for All Sinners and Saints and how it was so filled with nerds and queers and soccer moms and junkies and how everyone belonged and how deeply creative and hilarious it all was.
To which she immediately replied, “OMG Nadia you mean you basically started a Lutheran church which is like Rowe Camp?!?” I had never put it together until that moment but weirdly, I think she was right. Having experienced a community where all were welcome, and freedom was celebrated, and creativity was encouraged and hilarity was expected and stridency and rules were seen as overrated, I wanted others to experience the same.
So I’m not sure what to say about looking at the past, present and future of progressive religion. But I can say that given my upbringing and my own sometimes rocky exit from fundamentalist Christianity, I needed there to be a place that had a spiritual foundation but wasn’t tangled up in doctrinal imperatives. I needed there to be a place for me to be received and told that who I am is actually a good thing, oh and by the way, join us in some prayer and meditation.
And I know that right now there is a mass exit from Evangelicalism and that there will continue to be walking wounded who need a place of generosity that has a spiritual foundation, and where they are accepted for who they are. And I just can’t image that ending any time soon.
Grace for fuck-ups. Prayer for the impius. Spirituality for misfits. Get in on this.