Spotlight: UUs of the Sanctuary Boston
Embodied multigenerational worship draws young adults
Though the Sanctuary Boston's worship services are held at different church buildings, walking into their gatherings on a Wednesday evening always has some similar elements. There are the Name Tags made of card-stock tape and safety pins where you can write your name and preferred gender pronouns, the warm welcome from strangers and friends, the chips, hummus and salsa set out for those who, like me, come straight from work and are feeling hungry.
Then there’s the worship, with a similar structure each time, full of dynamic music, and always with the same elements: a chalice lighting, a shared responsive reading in English or Spanish, greeting one another, a reading, a reflection, time to share what’s on our hearts, time to light candles in the comforting darkness. And did I mention music, music, and more moving, varied, excellent music? Afterwards there is always food, usually soup, bread and some other snacks, provided to all who attend to nourish the body as well as the soul.
This community was brought into being by young adults, and continues to be led primarily by young adults. However, it is open to folks of all ages. As Rev. Mykal Slack, the current minister for The Sanctuary, explains “The vision that brought the Sanctuary Boston to life had more to do with satisfying a deep need than it had to do with serving a particular demographic.” Mykal cited a deep sense of connection, a place to bring joys and sorrows, and out-of-this-world music as creating the dynamic worship.
Sam Teitel, a seminarian in his late twenties, agreed that the dynamic worship is the draw. As he put it, “I want to worship with my whole self, including my heart and my body, not just my mind. That isn't always available to me on a Sunday morning.” Jaimie Dingus, a local college student, agreed, saying that Sanctuary offers a precious community along with “a physical experience of the divine that is what we all, and especially our young adults, need.” Tammy McKanan, who serves on the Steering Team for the Sanctuary and brings her daughter to the community also mentioned the embodied worship, saying she values the chance to get out of her head and into her body and emotions during worship.
However, the appeal of The Sanctuary goes beyond worship style into content and community. Jaimie appreciated Sanctuary for talking about the hard stuff. She cited reflections on topic such as anger, injustice, body image and self-worth as examples of grappling openly with the difficulties of life alongside joy. This openness also leads to authenticity among those who come to Sanctuary. According to Jaimie “because this is a place where we can deal with the hard stuff, where we can scream, and shout and cry and be angry when we are, it feels safe to bring our whole selves. I don’t have to fake a smile at the Sanctuary and tell everyone I’m doing great if I’m not.” Sam also emphasized the importance of relationship building as he discussed the value of the Sanctuary community, noting that “people generally get involved in a religious community to form relationships” whether those relationships are with the divine or with one another.
The leadership of the group has a communal feel, but the minister does play an important role. Jaimie shared how important it was to her that the former leader, Dave Ruffin, as well as Mykal, have both sought her out for one-on-one conversations, inviting her into leadership as well as caring for her spiritually. Jaimie explained “I’ve never had a minister seek me out and want to hear more about my life and make sure I’m doing o.k. … The ministers for the Sanctuary have a deeply vested interest in all of our lives and needs.”
While it is refreshing for young adults to see themselves reflected in leadership and feel fully valued by their faith community, this really is a multigenerational group. Tammy cited her eleven year old daughter’s ability to take a lead in worship as one of her key reasons for attending The Sanctuary. Sam emphasized the value of having older and younger generations present, adding, “if a person feels connected to the worship that we do at Sanctuary then we are delighted to welcome them.” Jaimie also insisted “we are really blessed by the older and younger people in our community.”
Tammy shared her enjoyment of worshipping with young adults, even as she noticed that “as an older participant, it is easier to participate in the worship service than in the social life of the congregation.” There are other challenges too, of being a primarily young adult community. As Jaimie pointed out, “The majority of us are students or young professionals, which means we don’t have a lot of financial resources to contribute. It costs money to pay our staff, have our space, and pay our musicians, and so it’s hard when we don’t have a large group of pledging members.” Sam echoed Jaimie’s concern, noting “We don’t have anywhere close to the money that we would need to have a full time staff, so that’s a challenge. Also we don’t have our own building and we move back and forth between Boston and Cambridge every time, so there’s that logistical challenge as well.” Still, despite the financial and logistical difficulties, the Sanctuary Boston consistently provides a moving worship experience, food for the soul and the body, that nourishes many young adults and folks from all generations.Special thanks to Mykal Slack, Jaimie Dingus, Sam Teitel and Tammy McKanan who sent email responses to Annie in order to write this piece! Does your UU congregation or community do exciting ministry with young adults? Email Annie at agonzalez [at] uua [dot] org (agonzalez [at] uua [dot] org) to set up an interview and get your group in the Spotlight Series!