And I couldn’t help but think of last Saturday’s reunion for the first church I served out of seminary: Epiphany Community Church, Unitarian Universalist.
Epiphany was born in a living room in 1994, began public worship in 1996, and closed in 2009. I was Epiphany’s New Congregation Minister from 1997 to 2001, under a UUA program that provided matching funds and appointed clergy to new churches.
Epiphany was an intentionally Christian congregation in the Unitarian Universalist Association. And as far as I am concerned, Epiphany was a miracle. Its existence changed my life forever.
I wasn’t raised in any religion, but had become a Unitarian Universalist in college. I had gone to seminary as a UU who believed in God and wasn’t really sure about much else. But in seminary, I had become a Christian. This was wonderful for my spiritual life and terrible for my career in the Unitarian Universalist Association.
I had been president of the Harvard Unitarian Universalist Ministry Students, and then president of Aspire, then the national association of Unitarian Universalist seminarians. Based on this, it would seem that I would be employable. But despite the active ministry of the UU Christian Fellowship, many UUs did not look with warmth on those who embrace the Christian faith. The spoken question was, “Why would you be a Unitarian Universalist and a Christian when you can be a Christian anywhere?” And the subtext was, “Go be a Christian somewhere else.”
After my baptism, I felt called to serve a church with a coherent Christian liturgical year and a desire to make disciples of Christ. But at that time, I was also a Unitarian Universalist – wanting to learn from beyond my tradition and open to conversations that some might consider heretical. Therefore, I wanted to serve a UU Christian church.
There are about a thousand congregations, total, in the Unitarian Universalist Association. Only about twenty-five are clearly Christian churches. Twenty-five churches is not a large market of potential employers. When I was baptized, my last year in seminary, I placed my whole trust in God that somehow, I would find a job. When I completed my training, there was only one Christian congregation seeking a full-time minister: Epiphany Community Church, which had begun holding public worship a year prior and applied to the UUA for a New Congregation Minister. There was only one. But there was one.
I believe that Epiphany’s existence was a sign of God’s providence. I will never forget getting down on my knees in thanksgiving when I was appointed to serve this fledgling church. Nor will I forget how honored I felt when I flew out to meet the group and they affirmed my appointment. I was all of twenty-six years old. They were so gracious to accept me – a new minister, a new Christian, and fairly newly grown-up. But accept me they did. I think I was voted in by about twelve people. I thank God for them.
Epiphany and I had four wonderful years together. There were good times (like our charter service when a member of a neighboring church said, “Now I understand why this church exists!”) and hard times (like the evening our treasurer showed a budget projection squarely in the red). I left too soon: I got married to someone who lived more than two hours away from Epiphany, and shortly thereafter we were expecting our first child. I promised Epiphany five years; I provided four. But they sent me off with a beautiful wedding quilt that is still on my bed and sincere loving good wishes. I think I was sent off by a congregation of more than fifty. I thank God for them.
I may have been the longest-tenured of Epiphany’s ministers. After I left, some fine clergy came, but none stayed very long. The supply of UU Christian clergy is just about as small as the supply of UU Christian congregations. Not many were willing to move to Michigan to serve a fledgling church. At some point, after the church had both grown and waned, there was the realization that the time had come to lay down the ministry. That was five years ago.
Nobody thought about reunions then. Just closing was too hard. But not long ago, some of the pillar members were talking, and a reunion idea grew and bloomed. They thought maybe twenty would come, but more than forty did. I am so grateful that I was one of them.
Those who gathered were eloquent about the difference Epiphany had made in their lives. A mother spoke about how her gay son had found a warm welcome during difficult high school years. The Rev. Derek Parker, who discerned his call to ministry while a member of the congregation, spoke about how Epiphany had shaped his soul. A couple shared how they had taught a new church the Godly Play children’s ministry they learned at Epiphany. More than one person said that Epiphany was a safe place to express both their faith and their doubts. It became clear that while Epiphany was no longer meeting for public worship, the church would always exist in the hearts of those who belonged.
They had saved the beautiful hand-knotted communion cloth which the church received on a mission trip to Romania fifteen years ago, carefully preserved in a fireproof box. I received it as a gift. I may have wept a little (or a lot).
That cloth is a tangible connection to the church that exists beyond the borders of time and space. It reminds me of the dreamers who birthed and sustained Epiphany. It reminds me of our Hungarian/Romanian mission hosts who persisted in their faith through the hard times of Communism, peasant farmers who made the best chicken dinner I’ve ever tasted and served us fresh milk every morning before sending the cows out to pasture. Two cultures, two continents, one God.
What is the reason for the church’s existence? Only one word: God. God came to us in Christ, an act of love and salvation. The church today is the body of Christ, a visible witness to God’s glory and grace. The church is the only institution whose sole purpose is to proclaim the good news of God’s reign. God calls the church into being to change lives with God’s presence and power. That’s why we’re here; that’s why I serve the church.
I thank God for Epiphany Community Church, who welcomed me into ordained ministry and showed me God’s grace.