This is part two in my series on UU congregations in San Diego county. The first, on UU Fellowship of San Dieguito, is located here. Please note that this is a personal reflection, and I seek to be honest here.
What are the core elements that make a congregation the right fit for you? Is it solely the people who attend alongside you? Is it convenience within your other commitments? Is it the theological flavor of that particular minister? Maybe some, maybe all, and maybe it’s just a deep, innate feeling of belonging. When you move into a new house or apartment, there is an invisible line when it stops being a place to live and becomes a home. How that comes to be is not quantifiable, but it emerges. Well, hopefully.
First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego (website here) is the sixth congregation I have attended services at. What constitutes right for me has become clearer. Three of the congregations were mid-sized or smaller, while three, including First UU, were quite large. Some were very modern and neutral in their language, while another used quite a lot of Christian language. I encourage those who have the geographical fortune to live next to multiple UU congregations to explore and find out what they are about. As one should expect from a liberal, noncreedal religion, each congregation has their own strain of radical individualism.
First UU is a gorgeous campus. The chalice pictured first in this article is one of several carved wood pieces of art, with the component pieces engraved with donors. In their parlance, the ‘meeting house’ has lots of natural light from the back and with one wall stage-left being a giant window. The organ is a spectacle unto itself. Everything fits into a rich wood-tone landscape. Outside are grey and sand tones, mixed with desert landscaping. No visitor can doubt that First UU has been built on love and communal sacrifice to make it a reality.
Perhaps the greatest effort the church has made is not its aesthetics, but accessibility. The 11:30 service has a sign-language interpreter. Song lyrics and benedictions are projected on large, easy to read screens. The church maintains a separate branch to the south where the same sermons are given (on different Sundays) with simultaneous Spanish translation. One of the continual struggles UUs address is diversity, and moving towards new types of inclusion. This kind of outreach is very forward, and appreciated.
The amount of programs offered is overwhelming. Each part of the website is overflowing with tabs and sub-pages explaining the different parts of their youth program, the various fellowships for Buddhism, Hinduism, and earth-centered spirituality. Social action, community work- even without attending a service I could tell that this was a very large and ambitious congregation by standards of Unitarian Universalism.
So we reach the point where my personal preference ran up against First UU. Large meeting halls and huge arrays of programs don’t gel well with me. My previous visit in August to the First Unitarian Church of Portland gave me an initial inkling, but I did not have enough information to figure out what precisely gave me a bad feeling. Despite being very different in many ways, the Portland and San Diego churches share a sense of scale and spectacle. As unfair as it is, anytime I enter a church of a certain size I get very negative associations flowing in. Megachurches powered by money and consumerism. Those vast gilded cathedrals in Peru, side-by-side with crippling poverty on the streets of Cuzco.
Size is weird to me. I don’t seek large groups by nature. I am happy being in the political or social minority. When I enter large gatherings like protests, I do so with a firm individual (or small group) identity. On May Day I was in a San Jose immigration march, but when an organizer yelled at me for not being the right portion of the march, I left. A flaw, perhaps, is that I associate large institutions with conformity. In the end, I did not like my experience at this church.
Such a visit allows me to do serious personal reflection. It also allows me to dispense a bit of advice: one cannot think that a bad experience in one congregation means that Unitarian Universalism is just not right for them. If you know someone who was discouraged by their first visit to a UU church, or are yourself discouraged, please seek opportunities in your own area, or perhaps seek out the Church of the Larger Fellowship that can provide another perspective no matter where you live.
And ultimately I have the luxury of joining UU social action and community work even if I ultimately choose not to spend my Sunday mornings alongside its congregants. Each community is much more than a meeting house, a preaching style, a sociopolitical focus. We have much available to enrich ourselves, as long as we create a niche that is right for us.