The Blogger Goes To Church

February 26, 2011

The fastest growing established church in Albany gives The Wife an award, and she neglects to mention her infirmities

What does it take to drag a heathen apostate like myself into a church, any church? On a Sunday morning no less, when the very last thing I want to do is dress up and go socialize. With people. Plus I have to waste a perfectly good morning standing up and sitting down and chanting on cue in honor of one more unconvincing and unnecessary version of the sky-god mythology. I guess you could say I’m religiously incorrect.

Such a bad attitude towards organized religion is guaranteed to get me kicked out of any church, mosque or synagogue the moment I open my mouth. Except for one church that is. Only one mainstream respectable church will put up with my blatant blasphemy. The Wife calls it “the one true church.” It’s located in Albany at 405 Washington Avenue.

The New Sanctuary At The First Unitarian Universalist Society Of Albany, The Light Well At Left The New Sanctuary At The First Unitarian Universalist Society Of Albany, The Light Well At Left

The Wife, you see, is a third generation Unitarian with Universalist ancestors here and there. Members of these two very American churches, which arose from the same colonial New England protestant traditions, had a lot of trouble explaining the difference between the two churches. So in 1961 these two venerable religious institutions merged to become our present Unitarian Universalist Church.

Having been raised Catholic, I felt very uneasy almost with a touch of panic the first time that The Wife dragged me into the old sanctuary of the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany (FUUSA, or the UUs.) Surprisingly, this was actually the first time I’d sat through a Protestant ceremony. I enjoyed sitting in this lovely old urban religious building kept in top condition, and the ceremony was straightforward and easy to understand. But I still felt uneasy.

The Old Albany UU Sanctuary, Now A Large Chapel The Old Albany UU Sanctuary, Now A Large Chapel

Then I realized the sanctuary was, for me, disturbingly stark and bare. Churches, I thought as I sat upright ready to bolt out the door, are supposed to be full of stuff. This post-Calvinism was going to take me some getting used to.

Instead of a proper altar up front there was a simple lectern. Instead of several guys dressed like Medieval European princes raising their arms and swishing their robes we had one guy wearing a dark suit. There were absolutely no brass objects to mysteriously move around and bless, no candles to light and snuff out, no incense burners to wave. Anyway, there was no place to put all this stuff. Instead, the guy in the suit stood on the bare stage and lectured us about philosophy.

Where was the blue and white plaster statue of Mary, the ancient Earth Mother incorporated into the new Christian order, with the racks of votive candles and the old ladies dressed in black kneeling in front of her? (Where would God be without his mother?) Where’s the holy water font or the giant cross with the big bloody Jesus? And how about the stained glass? Where was that?

Visiting Minister Chris Anstal Tells The Story Of Sadako And The Thousand Paper Cranes Visiting Minister Chris Anstal Tells The Story Of Sadako And The Thousand Paper Cranes

The old UU sanctuary where I sat had (and still has) the proper big “wall of light” windows. Almost every damn Christian church built since the 1200s AD until the collapse of architectural understanding in the late 20th Century has had these or similar windows. Letting the light enter and fill the sanctuary has always been one of the most positive aspects of organized Christianity, indeed of Western civilization. I’ve always been puzzled why anyone would want to go to church if the church building they were sitting in didn’t have these windows.

As I sat there in the pew I admired the natural sunlight pouring in gloriously and decided that the stained glass was unnecessary. Studying the light I couldn’t help but notice these magnificent jade plants in big pots, one in each deep window well. They’re still there in good health. I keep asking but no one seems to know the origin of these much admired plants. I wonder if they are older than the building, which dates to 1925.

A Famous FUUSA Jade Plant In The Old Sanctuary A Famous FUUSA Jade Plant In The Old Sanctuary

We grimly girdled our loins and went to church because they wanted to present The Wife with an award during the service. And a t-shirt. That’s what it takes to get us to go to church. The Wife considers herself A Devout Unitarian, and at her urging we certainly have contributed a fair amount to the church building fund. But the sad fact is that we two heathens have not attended a Sunday morning service since before they started building the new addition to the church, which was completed in 2007. We are surely going to UU hell.

While most mainstream Christian churches in the City of Albany have had steadily falling attendance for decades, the Albany UU Church has been faced with astounding growth. Even at that first service I attended more than two decades ago seating was tight. Through the 1990s they had to hold two services every Sunday morning, and after the turn of the millennium they were even talking about having a third service.

Interestingly, the UUs considered this sign of success a problem that needed to be solved. I mean, at the immigrant Polish Catholic Church that I attended religiously as a child there were always three masses on Sunday mornings. If we didn’t get ready in time to attend the 10 o’clock mass then we would have to go to the 12 Noon “Mass for the Dead,” which I can assure you was far and away the most excruciatingly tedious of the three masses. Plus it cut horribly into Sunday afternoon.

Sam Trumbore Sam Trumbore

As best as I can figure the Albany UUs considered being forced to have two services to be “divisive to the church community,” a phrase I heard several times. Also, I would guess that minister Sam Trumbore was tired of repeating his sermon word for word every week. Not that I’ve ever heard of Sam shirking work, quite the contrary, but it’s hard enough to be bright and engaging once on a Sunday morning, let alone twice. Even if you’re a minister and used to it.

Thus the only practical solution to this problem of an ever expanding flock was to build more space. But where and how? There were no recent local precedents in our City for expanding an established church, and of course there would be no support from the Albany City government. The congregation had to collectively solve this problem on their own with their own resources.

It was the agreed upon solution to this problem (after much debate) that reflected the strong values and engagement of the Albany UU congregation. First, and most fundamentally, they decided to not abandon the City of Albany. This alone is almost unprecedented, for decades mainstream churches have been hot to follow the money extraction routes out of Albany and exchange their often beautiful urban church buildings for isolated suburban boxes that resemble institutional cafeterias.

Second, the Albany UUs decided not to build a new church building at a different location in the City. They realized (I followed this at a distance while it was being discussed) that the Albany congregation’s identity is very much tied up with the location of their church and with the surrounding neighborhood. The thought, as I understand it, was that a move would irrevocably alter the congregation, probably not for the better.

Finally, they quickly saw that expanding the old sanctuary would destroy it, so there was only one option left. They had to build a big accommodating addition to the building, and relegate the old sanctuary to the status of chapel.

Recycled Chairs And Oak Floorboards In The Balcony Recycled Chairs And Oak Floorboards In The Balcony

We arrived about a half hour before the 10 AM service. I ran into Board President Chuck Manning, who immediately took me on a tour of the new addition after I told him I hadn’t seen it yet. The new sanctuary is quite impressive, reflecting the collective will of the congregation rather than the personal preferences of some closed minded CEO and foolish board of directors, as is the norm elsewhere. Just about every detail of the new construction was hashed out and settled more or less to everyone’s satisfaction, I understand they burned through three architects before they settled on a final design.

The oak floorboards in the public areas are downright stunning. Chuck made a point of informing me that these floorboards were scavenged from the old public school on South Allen Street, which was being torn down and replaced at the same time the UU addition was being built. Again, what better way to show long term commitment to the community than to save top quality building materials from being piled onto the bloated and unnecessary Rapp Road Dump located in the Pine Bush.

And there’s a balcony way up above the main sitting area. The wooden seats up there were also scavenged from the public school, along with more of the floorboards. I noticed during the service that people sat up there, some leaning over the rail like vultures. I naively asked Chuck if the choir sat up there like in the old Polish church of my youth, but no, the choir, for better or worse, is stationed up front stage left.

View From The Balcony View From The Balcony

The new sanctuary is high ceilinged with plenty of seating, very open and not confining. Indeed, the place filled up for the service but did not at all feel crowded. And there was plenty of natural light… a contentious issue that, as far as I could see, was not perfectly resolved.

As I’ve already mentioned, almost all modern designs for new church buildings abandon the walls of light in favor of the mockery of electric light. But apparently a fair and vocal number of Albany UUs not only attended Art History 101 at some college or other, they also paid attention in class.

Practical Christianity is intertwined with natural light. The light is considered the physical evidence of the spiritual realm. Without natural light streaming onto your lap as you sit in a pew and listen, redemption is a hard sell at best. Seriously. But instead of having walls of light on either side of the congregation, the new sanctuary has a big skylight above. And there’s a floor to ceiling window well located in front stage right.

We have to be modern, I suppose. But during the service the skylight was, of course, mostly shaded, and the monumental window well up front collected intense light into the eyes of the assembled congregation. Certainly into my eyes. I found this unnecessarily annoying.

Yes, having the big windows are the prime difference between the structure being a religious building rather than a a cafeteria, thus they are absolutely necessary. But as we can clearly see, the right way to manage light in such a setting is to place the portals on either side of the congregation, not in front and on top. While the Albany UUs are much to be commended for preserving the important tradition of collecting natural light into their sanctuary, it’s a sad shame that basic common sense architecture has been discarded and forgotten and has to be relearned.

FUUSA Board President Chuck Manning Presents The Wife With The Standing On The Side Of Love Award... And A T-shirt FUUSA Board President Chuck Manning Presents The Wife With The Standing On The Side Of Love Award… And A T-shirt

This year was the first time the Albany UUs handed out this award, called Standing on the Side of Love, which is celebrated on the Sunday closest to Valentine’s Day. This project of the national UU congregations began in 2008 in response to the violent political attack against the Tennessee Valley UU Church carried out by a 58 year old terrorist named Jim D. Adkisson. According to CNN:

Police said Adkisson, 58, of Powell, Tennessee, walked into the church’s sanctuary during a children’s musical performance and fired a shotgun before being overpowered by congregants and arrested… According to the affidavit requesting to search Adkisson’s home, the suspect told investigators liberals should be killed because they were ruining the country. Adkisson also blamed Democrats for the country’s decline, according to the affidavit.