Changing the environment around you can give a person – or a community – an opportunity for transformation. Last week as I sat in my new office at Westside, surrounded by stacks of boxes waiting to be unpacked, and still processing my recent pilgrimage to Transylvania, I was struck by the ways a change of surroundings invites people into new ways of being.
I am grateful to the Board of Directors and wider community of Westside for encouraging me to make the most of the pilgrimage opportunity. It wasn’t something I had planned far ahead to do; a spot on the pilgrimage came as part of winning the Torda450 Sermon Award, for the sermon I gave in January celebrating the 450th anniversary of the Edict of Torda. I was thrilled to be able to say YES to this once-in-a-lifetime experience – visiting sites of historic importance in Unitarian and European history, connecting with colleagues, and immersing myself in a culture and landscape new to me. What an adventure!
Through my participation in the pilgrimage, I experienced the three phases anthropologists have identified in a rite of passage: Separation, Liminality, and Return. Separation was marked by all the planning and packing for the trip, the completion of my last duties for the church before heading out, and the physical act of driving away from home toward the airport. Liminality refers to that period when one is in-between one’s normal life role(s) – my time in Transylvania with the other North American UU colleagues who took part in the pilgrimage, as well as with the Hungarian Unitarian colleagues who joined us for a joint ministers’ retreat in the middle of the pilgrimage. The Return came as I left my pilgrimage peer group, flew back over the Atlantic, and returned home to my family and Westside. When I got back, I was the same person. Yet I am different, too, in ways that are mysterious to me and still emerging.
While I was experiencing “time out of time” in the birthplace of Unitarianism, Westside was undergoing its own period of limbo. In June, our long-time tenant Angel Montessori School moved out of our building, and into their new space. (Happily, AMS remains our neighbor, to the south on Lipscomb Street.) Westside moved forward with planned renovations to our building this summer: moving many of our items out to a storage pod, repainting most inside walls, replacing the flooring in the Fellowship Hall wing, and beginning to put new furnishings in place. During this same period, we shifted to a summer schedule with just one service on Sundays. This contributed further to the sense of disruption in the old routines at the church.
Like me during the Transylvania pilgrimage, Westside is undergoing a potentially transformative process. You might even say that the three phases of a rite of passage apply to the church, as a group:
- Separation – AMS’ move and the Bare Bones Party hosted by our Building Transition team at the end of June
- Liminality – renovation and chaos in the building, disruption of normal activities, through July and beyond
- Return – the completion of our initial set of renovations, which are ongoing now – set to conclude as the kitchen is finished in October
Will we be the same church at the end of this process? Of course. And yet, we will be different, too. We don’t even know how yet. We will discover that in the fullness of time, as we experience the new possibilities that our improved space offers for the work of our mission and vision.
Shortly before I left for Transylvania, our tour coordinator, UU Partner Church Council Executive Director Roger Bertchausen, invited all the pilgrims to do some reflection. We pondered questions like, Why are you going on the pilgrimage? What feelings or concerns do you carry with you on the pilgrimage? Are there some you can let go of? What do you need from your fellow travelers, and what will you promise each other?
Westside has asked and answered these questions in the course of preparing for our building transition. The congregation wants more and better space in which to carry out our mission. We want room to welcome more people and fulfill our vision of growth. There have been some concerns about our financial health, and proactive steps taken – including many people stepping up in our last pledge campaign – to start bridging the lost rental income from AMS. We answered the last question, at least in part, with the adoption of a new congregational covenant at our June congregational meeting. Still, being in the liminal time and space can create jitteriness as well as excitement. We need to be gentle with one another and be mindful of our mission, vision and covenants.
After my return home, I looked back at the aspirations I had expressed for the pilgrimage. I was gratified to see that all of the things I had hoped for had happened. Some of them are things that might well happen for Westside, too, as we complete our shared transition. For example:
- Lift us out of our usual routines, creating space for new/broader vision
- Meet new people and build relationships that help us grow
- Get some healthy detachment from our shared ministry, coming back fresh
- Using this time of uncertainty and promise as an opportunity to practice spiritual disciplines – like being fully present in the moment, extending compassion to self and others, and staying grounded in our principles.
The collective rite of passage of our building transition offers many gifts to our religious community. I am excited to continue this journey with all of you, and with the new people we will be better equipped to serve, as a result of the visionary decision Westside made several years ago to take this leap of faith.
Meanwhile, I know many people are curious to hear more about my Transylvania pilgrimage. I anticipate I will share different experiences over the course of many worship services and other messages in the coming year (as I began doing on July 29, when I returned to the pulpit). You can also see dozens of photos from the trip in my online Transylvania pilgrimage photo album. (This album is set for Public viewing, so you do not have to be Facebook “friends” with me or even have a Facebook account to see the pictures; anyone can view them.)
As I mentioned in that July 29 service, Westside could deepen the experience of cross-cultural experience and friendship in the future by participating in the Partner Church Program. It’s a bit like the Sister Cities program, pairing UU congregations in N. America with Unitarian or UU churches around the world – most often in Transylvania, Hungary, the Philippines or N. India. This is something we might explore later this year if there is interest from the congregation. If you are intrigued and would like to be part of a task force exploring this possibility, let me know (you can email me at email@example.com). Should several people express this interest, I’ll connect them together to start looking into it. A partner church relationship could be another pathway to growth and friendship.
But what about the liminal space we are already in? When will we get back to normal and reach the stage of Return? Having now gotten my new office 90% set up, I can share that it is extremely satisfying. It is going to change my life, just as the enhanced space of the church overall, I believe, will change our shared life as a congregation. When we get “back to normal,” it will almost surely be a new normal – complete with the new Sunday schedule that starts this Sunday, Aug. 12, with services at 9:00 and 11:15.
When the building transition will be complete depends, at this point, largely on volunteer power. The big projects driven by professional workers are already done. We need volunteer help to finish assembling furniture, cleaning key areas (like bathroom tile), and setting up spaces (with stowed belongings coming back out of the pod). Watch the weekly Foreword email or special e-blasts for information about work days and other volunteer opportunities. Unlike the Karate Kid, who learned key strokes with every wax of the car or stroke of paint, you may not master amazing new skills by volunteering. But you may earn good karma, you probably will get to chat with other members and friends of the church… and you definitely will help us reach the Return side of this journey sooner. Thank you to all who can help!
See you at church –
- Rev. Shari Woodbury