Showing up is a Courageous Action! What is possible when you diligently invest your presence? Congregant and Lay Leader Jon Reese chronicles his experience of evolving alongside the UUCA community.
I began attending services at UUCA over 16 years ago. Prior to that, I had followed my family upbringing and had been active with the progressive congregation at Trinity United Methodist Church downtown. Although I had a beautiful relationship with my father, a long-serving Methodist pastor and district superintendent, I can’t say the same with Christian theology. Like many, I am drawn to the “social gospel” and find wisdom in the teachings of Jesus, but I am repelled by the exclusivity and intolerance that characterize some of the most vocal Christian movements. Discovering UUism offered an inclusive and non-creedal path that spoke to me.
Although the principles and the preaching felt right, my experience at the church did not. I attended services fairly regularly for years, from 2009-2018, but I never felt “right at home.” The coffee hour scene in the social hall found me squeezing through pockets of small groups (who clearly knew each other well) to get to my safe space: the bookstore tables. I tried out Wonderful Wednesday and, once again, found myself feeling alone in a group of regulars who acted polite but seemed benignly indifferent. Fortunately, a worship format that felt rich and familiar, friendly hugs from my college classmate Sonya Tinsley-Hook, and the occasional sighting of members who were also my neighbors kept me from dropping out. I continued attending services – and little else – and invested myself in community elsewhere.
A decade in, things began to shift. Something about the discernment process we followed in selling the Cliff Valley property excited me. I don’t know if I could have named this at the time, but now I see that the transition offered the hope of a new beginning for the congregation and for me – a real phoenix-rising experience. The dramatic timing of the departure of the senior minister also portended a fresh start. Rev. Taryn Strauss was a decidedly different, refreshing new leader, called at a precarious time for the church. All this led me to bring my satellite self into a closer orbit with the church and to jettison the history of awkwardness and disconnection that marked my initial decade.
I drummed up the courage during the pandemic to join a Zoom meeting with the Climate Action Team. The group’s regulars were excited to embrace me, and that was a truly welcome experience. Those individuals provided friendly faces when we resumed in-person worship at the Treehouse and gave me a taste of the community I had hoped might be possible within a congregation whose beliefs seemed so aligned with mine. The CAT’s shared commitment to Earth care and environmental action gave us plenty in common, and relationships began to grow. Whether they knew it or not, those CAT members were early ambassadors of radical welcome. I’m now honored to co-lead the group, which has more than doubled in size and serves the congregation through the Carbon Offset Fund, the lending library, weekly blog posts, quarterly mini-retreats, and initiatives like Green Sanctuary and an upcoming permaculture design plan.
Church leaders have recognized the pitfalls of seeming insulated, cliquey, and benignly indifferent to both visitors and less-engaged members. The launch of the Radical Welcome Team and the evolving efforts of the Belonging Team are helping to change the culture of our community. The payoff can be seen in new faces, innovative initiatives, growing engagement, energizing worship, diverse lay leadership, and an intentional focus on soulful connection. It’s what I hungered for in 2009, and it’s what nourishes me now at 2650 N. Druid Hills Rd.
Over the past 18 months, my participation has expanded to serving as a small group ministry facilitator, a congregational retreat organizer, a member of both the Social Justice Coordinating Team and Belonging Team, and a participant in the pilot Wellspring program. I’ve cultivated strong working relationships with the church staff and can now greet dozens of folks by name during social hour. And you’ll often find me giving quick tours of the building to newcomers after a service.
I’ll be honest: I wouldn’t have bet money that my experience with UUCA could have evolved like it has. It’s a credit to all who saw the potential, articulated a different vision of radical welcome, and implemented institutional changes that are helping grow this beloved community. And God knows we need it. All of us.
Like everyone who walks through our church’s doors, I have experienced loss, pain, rejection, and self-doubt. I persisted, though, and found my way to those with generous hearts who are providing a deepening sense of belonging. That’s what I strive to promote in this congregation.