As the newest member of the Central East team, serving as Primary Contact for approximately 40 congregations in parts of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delmarva, and Greater Baltimore, I was reflecting on how to introduce myself. And as I come most recently to this work from serving as a lifespan religious educator, I thought it was most apt to share a story.
A few months ago, I sat next to a long-time member of a UU congregation, holding a microphone as they told me and about 40 other worshippers about deciding to come to church that day. At the front of the sanctuary, five other members of my theatre troupe held themselves ready to “play back” this story with their voices and bodies. It was an unusual worship service, even by our UU standards – one in which the content came as stories from the pews, reflected back by actors through ritual, music, and artistry.
We had opened the morning by checking in with folks about what they were bringing into the space, and worship had gone deep quickly: after a spate of high-profile tragedies, we were witnessing pain, anger, helplessness, uncertainty. Now, a member was sharing that they had almost decided not to come to church that day…until something made them think about missing their people. And so here they were – and we all heard their gladness to be embraced by music, feeling connected again to their people. Then, the actors brought to life this simple-seeming story, embodying both the details unique to one person’s life, and more universal feelings of aloneness, longing, and connection. I watched our neighbors in the pews lean forward, bodies become open and attentive, receiving the wholeness of their fellow congregant’s story. For a few moments, we were all witnesses to one person’s need for liberal religious community.
This is why Playback Theatre is one of my most cherished UU spiritual practices. In this form of improvisational story-sharing, the stories on stage come from the community. At its best, Playback is my way of radically honoring the worth and dignity of the teller. And at our best in congregational life, we have the power to do the same.
Some people say the devil’s in the details. A life-long UU, I have quite a few angles of skepticism on that saying! Lately, I’ve mostly come to believe that it’s actually the sacred that’s in the details.
Mindfulness teachings tell us that the very act of paying close attention to something invests it with a sense of the sacred. For about seven years, I’ve been an actor, an (amateur) musician, and a conductor for dozens of Playback performances, within the UU world and outside of it. I’ve served as a religious educator for five years, and as an active member of UU congregations for my whole life. And I’ve come to realize that the most sacred times in my life with congregations, and other forms of community, are when we slow down to deeply listen to one another. Especially, when we slow down to take in stories of experiences different from our own, when the many margins in our spaces come to the center and are held by the whole.
Over these years of weaving sacred stories from the sometimes-mundane details that make up people’s lives, I have found that the very act of paying close attention to those stories can help us quiet our critical voices and ready ourselves for relationship. And when that happens, we can be our more present, grounded selves – something I have often needed in the messy, imperfect work of being in community and striving to be more loving, courageous, and inclusive!
“What we pay attention to grows.” adrienne maree brown writes of this in Emegent Strategy, a kind of blueprint for being in community during chaotic times. Community life can be difficult, and the challenges people of liberal faith care about can feel vast. So it matters when we slow down to pay attention to the sacred in the details. Sometimes, that looks like looking at the baby crawling down the aisle and offering a big smile to their grown-up chasing them down—letting them know they are more than welcome in this sacred sapce. Sometimes it’s taking time at beginning of a committee or Board meeting to check in, or to share a spiritual practice.
What do you notice, when you pay close attention to the details that make up your community?
What mundane, sacred details in your community life do you intend to help nourish and grow?
In the coming months and years, I hope to sit with you – lay leaders, staff members, ministers, engaged UUs – to hear your sacred stories. I hope to see you in one of my upcoming calls, visits, or at General Assembly! And I hope and intend – even or especially when times get rough – that together, we will continue to grow the sacred in congregational life.
The Better Together Blog is taking next week, May 29th, off for Memorial Day, and we'll be back on June 5th.