Hartford Pew Review: Unitarian Society of Hartford
By Kerri Provost
June 21, 2011
Spaceship. Volcano. Tent. Spider web.
I’ve heard this building described as resembling all of those things, not without good reason. The design of the Unitarian Society of Hartford Meeting House reflects its style of worship– unconventional, sort of quirky, and fun.
This structure — dedicated in 1964 — was designed by an architect who followed the Frank Lloyd Wright model of organic design. Combining form and function, the twelve concrete piers that support the structure are all different sizes. It’s also no accident that there are many paths leading into the building.
Before my visit during June, I checked out the USH website for a clue about what I would be encountering. Buttons at the bottom of their homepage indicate that the website is eco-friendly and powered by wind energy. Elsewhere on the site, they state that they are a welcoming community in about a dozen different ways, so upon arrival, I was expecting to feel welcomed in.
As soon as I opened the front door, I was greeted, but not in a startling “Welcome to Moe’s” way. I was given the option of making a name badge, but was respected when I said I would prefer not to wear one. There was an almost overwhelming amount of literature available, but I only selected a pamphlet about the building itself. Another greeter handed me a small “What do Unitarian Universalists believe?” card, which I took because I knew I would have to explain this liberal bunch later on. As I walked into the Sanctuary, I was handed a program. By the time I reached my seat in the pews, I’d been greeted by four individuals. It could have only been warmer had I been given hugs and kisses. I really don’t need to be kissed by strangers, so this was fine by me.
Waiting for the service to begin, I read through some of the literature. Unitarian Universalism is described as a “non-creedal religion,” which probably sounds like an oxymoron. The official Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations website says:
We welcome people who identify with and draw inspiration from Atheism and Agnosticism, Buddhism, Christianity, Humanism, Judaism, Paganism, and other religious or philosophical traditions
For some, this might again seem like irreconcilable contradictions. For others, this inclusiveness is its appeal.
The UU Association of Congregations site says:
There are seven principles which Unitarian Universalist congregations affirm and promote:
•The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
•Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
•Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
•A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
•The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
•The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
•Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
The sheet handed to me is notable because in its list of things that Unitarian Universalists believe, the words “God” or “higher power” are nowhere to be found. I reread it three times. God is, obviously, implied in some of the statements, such as, “we believe in the toleration of religious ideas. All religions, in every age and culture, possess not only intrinsic merit, but also potential value for those who have learned the art of listening.” This piece of literature was produced by the UU Association of Congregations. The program, put together by the USH, does contain the word “God.”
For those who want directives, the USH meetinghouse is not the place to find them.
The service began with music that reminded me of Monet paintings– light, airy, and agreeable. A “community welcome” meant that I would be greeted by about a half dozen more people. This was lively. People chatted and hugged. They walked around the aisles. People were warm toward each other; nobody seemed to mind that I looked like I had just rolled out of bed.
The music was not half bad. The choir sounded like they rehearsed and if any congregants were singing off-key, they were in the minority. Some of the music was taken from Singing the Living Tradition, a hymnal that pulls from a range of faiths and cultures. “Rank by Rank Again We Stand,” a hymn with “Days of comrades gone before, Lives that speak and deeds that beckon” in the lyrics, reminded me that I had not seen the film Reds in awhile. The offering music “So Anyway” was adapted from a musical and performed as a solo. I wouldn’t say that I was especially moved by any of the music, but it was pleasant.
There were three real highlights of this service: two silent times and a candle lighting. I’ve found that when people promise a moment of silence or silent prayer, they provide about three seconds before interrupting with either music or their voices. I can’t even quiet my mind in that time, let alone have any sustained thoughts. USH provided not one, but two times for silent reflection/prayer; these moments were actually minutes. It felt indulgent, almost. With such constant demands for my attention, it was nice to be able to just sit in quiet, even if most of my thoughts pertained to my own idiocy for not eating breakfast. There was also a practice that I took no part in, but seemed nice nonetheless. Congregants were invited to come forward and “light a candle in celebration, concern, or sorrow, in awareness that we are held by this community and this faith through all the seasons of our lives,” so states the Order of Service.
Several readings were sprinkled throughout the service, including one from Rev. Theodore Parker, which I had heard before, but did not know from whence it came:
I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.
The sermon — titled “Fathers of Unitarian Universalism” — unlike the readings, felt a little less inspirational, though it was interesting and a needed history lesson. Third Sundays are designed to be “less formal, more interactive” and “community-based” according to their program; Reverend Barbara Jamestone (Rev. BJ) did not speak on this occasion. This Sunday was also Father’s Day. The sermon was delivered by Kevin Carson, a Unitarian Universalist seminarian who spoke about two major “fathers” in the religion. He went on to talk about how since the Unitarians and Universalists merged, there have been no strong voices and religious inclusiveness has become, perhaps, too unquestioningly inclusive. He seemed to be saying that they should have some unity about theology.
Looking around the sanctuary, there were a few themes, but no single symbol that could be picked up as a sign of theology. Along the walls were banners depicting birds, flowers, a tree, a city under construction, and then several symbols including a yin yang and a Star of David. Outside of the Meeting House is a peace pole; there is also a banner stating: “torture is a moral issue.” There might not be a consensus about God or higher power here, but the message of peace and social justice is undeniable.
What was less clear was if coffee was available after. I did not think to ask on my way in and no mention (that I heard) was made of it during the service. On my way out the door, nobody stopped to ask me to stay for coffee. Upon checking their website again, it appears that this does exist.
While checking out the grounds, I noticed this: image of Unitarian Society of Hartford Pet Memorial Garden sign
There is also a memorial garden for humans.
Strong points: Friendly and no attempts to convert me. Ample silence. An emphasis on social justice and allowing people to reach own conclusions. Pet Memorial Garden. They demonstrate their environmentalism in many ways, including having a visible bike rack. They also place podcasts of past sermons online, which earns points for accessibility. Children were included in part of service and then sent away — nice compromise. Though not much racial/ethnic diversity, there is a load of other kinds of diversity — age, ability, sexual orientation, etc. Grounds are lovely and people can access the Watkinson Community Garden for a stroll through an urban farm.
Weaker points: Nobody directed me to much-needed coffee. There was only one service, but it was mid-morning at least.
The Unitarian Society of Hartford is located at 50 Bloomfield Avenue, Hartford, CT 06105. They have ample vehicle parking in a lot and are on a bus line. There is a bike rack by the front door and it gets used!
Reprinted with permission of Kerri Provost, author of the blog RealHartford.
To view other stories on this topic, search RealHartford at http://www.realhartford.org/.