I’ve been fortunate to visit places of worship in many countries, from Sikh and Hindu temples in India, to some of the great cathedrals of Europe, and to Quaker meetinghouses in the United States.
I am always grateful for the peace these places offer, regardless of the grand architecture or modest design, lofty language or humble speech.
I’ve been thinking about what makes a church, for strangers entering for the first time.
If a church welcomes a stranger as warmly as its long-time congregants, it wins my heart.
If its ministers and other leaders meet guests without first declaring their titles, if they offer a hand — or, in some cases, both hands — in greeting, I feel especially welcome.
And if a congregation doesn’t make a big deal about seeking donations, I am moved by the strength of their convictions.
Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship is such a place.
It’s filled with love and genuine community. Its walls are filled with the art of worshippers; symbols from many faiths are displayed prominently in the sanctuary. Those hand-quilted blocks, honoring faith communities around the world, make me think of arms opening to greet newcomers.
I came to speak early, wondering if anyone would want to listen at 9 a.m. Who rises that early on a weekend to hear a stranger speak about war and peace, about suffering and hope?
The room fills slowly, so I abandon prepared notes to speak gently, to engage everyone in a conversation instead. The questions are so earnest and well-informed, I am touched by this community’s care for a country they have not visited, for strangers they are unlikely to meet.
It seems hopeless, we agree. Yet we are committed to a common purpose of reaching out to help others.
The service isn’t traditional, doesn’t follow the pattern of other churches I’ve visited, so I’m a little lost in which hymn book to use, when to sit, when to stand. Everyone around me, young and old, men and women, offers to help, smiling in welcome.
There are traditional hymns, contemporary songs, and wonderful harmonies from a quartet of men who have served as musical directors here.
The choir is sweet, sending grace notes to every corner.
I get teary watching some worshippers weep when their long-time minister prepares to leave for another mission in another state. It’s clear they share great love for each other, and humor.
The minister feigns astonishment that he’s only just realized the choir has been watching his backside for more than a decade. He apologizes, in mirth; the congregation laughs, and weeps some more.
Extraordinary, this community of peace on a Sunday morning.
At the end of the service, their minister gone, the congregation holds hands in prayer. Hands reach across pews, across aisles, and into corners to create a large circle around the sanctuary.
Prayer in community is powerful; my definition of fellowship is changed.
As everyone leaves, I take note of the number of young families and the compassion shared with elders. I’m grateful to see a teen help his grandmother with her walker, showing her such respect and tenderness that she seems to straighten, with pride. She grins at me, and we agree grandchildren are a blessing.
I’m happy to see youngsters spilling out of Sunday school to re-unite with their parents, to meet same-gender couples holding hands, to receive the kindness of people unfurling umbrellas and pulling on raincoats to meet another sudden shower in the Pacific Northwest.
I am so grateful to be here.