Part 6 of a multi-installment series for Lent.
6. The Moment of Institutional Commitment – What led you to make an institutional commitment? How did it feel to publicly declare your religious group identity?
I’ve made three institutional commitments to faith communities. The first was when I finally made my confirmation as a Catholic. The second was in 2003 when I joined the Unitarian Universalist congregation in my hometown and the third was when I was ordained a Unitarian Universalist minister. Ordination was a commitment to the same faith community but it was a different public declaration of commitment and identity than becoming a Unitarian Universalist and joining a congregation.
I was raised Catholic and I dropped out of my confirmation program while in high school. I no longer liked going to church. I wasn’t sure I believed in the teachings of the church and unlike my friends, I was uncomfortable going through the motions just so my family could lavish (mostly monetary) gifts on me on confirmation day. I thought my mom would be more upset at this than she was. She was disappointed but she also saw no point in making a big deal out of it, especially if it was going to cause ongoing tension between us. My brother went on to make his confirmation in high school a few years after I dropped out. I find it fascinating that he no longer has anything to do with religion at all and I have made serious adult commitments to first the Catholic Church of my upbringing and then to Unitarian Universalism. I even went on to become an ordained minister. And I was the one who ditched it all in high school.
Following a severe depression (read more about than in an earlier post in this series here), I began to look again at the faith of my childhood. Prayer helped me survive depression. When I prayed it was to God. It wasn’t a Catholic God, just God. The prayer was like a safety line connecting me to solid ground.
When I finally surfaced from the worst of the depression, I was eager for more of that safety line, that grounding presence and practice. I began to explore my Catholic tradition. I didn’t believe in the literal interpretation of the Bible, but I did like the stories about Jesus and I wanted to know how people took Catholicism seriously given the serious injustices such as homophobia, anti-semitism, misogyny, and patriarchy that arise from wacky interpretations of scripture and religious tradition. How does someone who acknowledges science and scriptural inconsistencies still use this Christian tradition to seek after the presence of the divine and the sacred, to find God, to pray?
As I explored these questions, I read theology and works on spirituality. I was especially into the music of U2, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Marley, The Indigo Girls, Cat Stevens, Bob Dylan, and any other artist or band that dealt seriously with religious and spiritual themes. These type of artists have continued to be my favorites – Mumford and Sons, The Avett Brothers, Sufjan Stevens, Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash, Valerie June, and others.
I decided I would make my confirmation after participating in the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) preparation program. I was encouraged in this by the priest who told me I was depressed and pointed me toward therapy and medication (again more on that story here). I openly discussed my doubts and disagreements in this preparation program and because they were not dismissed (as they had been in the program when I was in high school) I decided to make a serious confirmed commitment to Catholicism. I took this seriously. I went to seminary as a Catholic student and studied Catholic systematic theology and moral theology. I was active in the Catholic students group at Harvard Divinity School. My theology became heavily influenced by the Liberation Theology movement and I was impressed by the Catholic Worker folks I knew in Worcester. Oscar Romero as well as Dorothy Day became heroes of faith to me like Martin Luther King, Jr. I played in a rock/praise band in my local Catholic parish. I taught theology in Catholic high schools. My now ex-wife and I became Couple to Couple marriage preparation ministers and worked with engaged couples. I wrote a novel based on my experiences as a Catholic high school theology teacher and campus minister. I worked for an order of feminist nuns as a volunteer coordinator. Eventually however, my disagreements with the church pushed me toward separation and as the priest sex abuse scandal broke in Boston and the Archdiocese became a vocal opponent of the marriage equality movement, I’d had enough. I gave up my institutional commitment to Catholicism.
I went to various churches – Episcopalian, Lutheran, Congregationalist, Non-Denominational. None felt right. Finally, I went to the Unitarian Universalist congregation in the center of town. I felt at home immediately. I wished there was a little more Jesus (and still do, truth be told), but I was happy to be done with Catholicism. This church flew a rainbow flag, had a woman minister, and held meetings with our state representative to advocate for marriage equality. Catholicism had its social justice warriors and liberators of the oppressed, but they didn’t really show their faces in my local parish or its sermons. But here in Unitarian Universalism justice was an every Sunday theme and the minister and the congregants walked their talk. I was hooked. I became involved in the congregation and signed the membership book. I was officially no longer Catholic. I thought my mom would take it harder than she did. True to form however, she seemed unphased. My now ex-wife was a little slow to come around, but eventually we became a one church family again as she and our young son joined me at the Unitarian Universalist congregation. It was an understated and sublime conversion. There was no three hour long Easter Vigil ceremony to wrap it up in. Just a signature proclaiming where I stood. I could do no other.
When I arrived at First Church in Leominster, Unitarian Universalist in the fall of 2004 I knew it was the right place to be. I was in the process of becoming a certified Massachusetts high school English teacher because I thought I missed teaching, but in talking to Rev. Susan Suchocki-Brown about what I was doing and how I wished I could bring spirituality, social justice, and teaching all together, she asked me, “Have you ever thought about becoming a minister?” I told her I had thought about it some. She looked at me and said, “You should think some more.” I did. A few weeks later at the weekly Vespers service at First Church I told those gathered to share joys and concerns that I had called the Unitarian Universalist Association and begun the process of seeking fellowship as a Unitarian Universalist minister.
I had come back to my hometown, to a new denomination, and claimed something that had been compelling me, inviting me, calling me for a very long time. It was right. It was time. Ministry in a Unitarian Universalist setting brings the sacred work of seeking the transcendent mystery and wonder of helping others to find truth and meaning together with the work of civic and social engagement for justice, and the opportunity to teach and preach that good news.
I had seriously thought of becoming a Catholic priest. If the Catholic Church were not so hung up on priestly celibacy, had the Catholic way been more like the Episcopalians or Lutherans, I might still be Catholic and a priest. A radical, reforming priest to be sure. I was eventually scared away from the priesthood by a rude nun.
My friend Father Rich Lewandowski of the Newman Center at Fitchburg (MA) State College had submitted my name to a program of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Worcester (MA) with the appropriate moniker “Called by Name.”
I received a letter from the Bishop inviting me to a dinner at the Bishop’s residence in Worcester to discuss entering the Roman Catholic priesthood. I was dating a young woman at the time, not my ex-wife, and being the conscientious type, figured that since I was seriously considering being a priest thought I should bring her along – that she should be in on this conversation. I expressed this thought to the nun – at least I imagined it was nun – who took my RSVP phone call, and she told me to stop joking; that this was a very serious matter – and then she hung up on me. Well, that settled that.
When I met with the Ministerial Fellowship Committee of the Unitarian Universalist Association, a member of the committee told me, “I’m so happy that person hung up on you!” So am I. I am still Christian in my spirituality. I did my ministerial internship at a Christian UU congregation and enjoy that setting. I was ordained by the First Church in Leominster, MA on June 3, 2007. I had the Gospel read at the ceremony:
When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.
This public commitment upped the ante. Not only have I made a public commitment to Unitarian Universalism. I have made a public commitment to be a representative of the tradition; to serve the people who sign their names in the books and declare their own consciences. It is a powerful and a humbling thing to be a pastor, preacher, priest, and prophet. I can’t imagine my life being my life without this identity, this reality of my being.
At my ordination, the entire congregation laid hands on me conferring upon me the blessing and recognition of the congregation that I was indeed, after all, called by name.