This past Monday, Pete Seeger, described in one newspaper article last week as a banjo-picking troubadour who sang for migrant workers, college presidents, and star struck presidents in a career that introduced generations of Americans to their folk music heritage, died at age 94.
We were reminded — those of us who grew up seeing him live or at least listening to him — of his links to the great minstrel Woodie Guthrie, to The Weavers, to later appearances with Joan Baez, with Woodie’s son Arlo, how he was important to singer-composers like Neil Young. How he used songs, some written by others, including African American spirituals; and those he wrote himself: If I had a Hammer, Turn, Turn, Turn, and Where Have All The Flowers Gone? to champion causes, including racial and environmental justice, and peace.
Among the almost immediate responses to the news of his death — much of it tweeted on Twitter, bannered on websites, or posted on Facebook, were those of my Unitarian Universalist ministerial colleagues mourning his passing — no matter at how old and grand an age — and praising his gifts.
As one of them commented, he would miss Seeger’s kind of gently impassioned activism and his steadfastness in the long, long arc of The Struggle for justice and peace encompassing so many many issues.
Soon after the news went out, someone wrote that he was not sure that Pete Seeger was a UU, a hesitancy that I have not seen very often as we more typically unhesitatingly, and more than periodically erroneously, claim the famous as one of us.
He was soon assured that indeed Pete was one of us, the child of a Unitarian mother, who, however, did not become an official member of a congregation — First UU Congregation of NYC — until the early 1990s. As he told a reporter for the UU World in a lengthy interview, “my parents believed that love was enough, so my brothers and I were not raised in any church.” Also, he said, “my father was a strong believer in letting us make up our own minds in the matters of religion.”
Despite his reluctance to sign the book anywhere, he had long ties to our denomination, often guest singing in our UU communities, finally joining the church in Manhattan after forming the multiracial, multicultural New York City Singers, who Seeger described as a big gang of singers ready to get together whenever there was a demonstration or parade. For this group in that UU, he was, according to their senior minister, a kind of spiritual guide.
If he had had his druthers, he told his interviewer, his ideal UU church (as he called them) would be, like so much of his life — unconventional. It would be like a water tower, he said, with the congregation at the very top so they could see all around without walls because my church, he said emphatically, has always been the outdoors.
And while he has been described as a humanist (used synonymously with humanitarian), he said that he was no longer leery of using the word God, though he had his own definition; one from a French mystic who said “the eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me.”
He was not a great fan of our hymnbooks, or any hymnals, he admitted. And he wanted us to sing without burying our faces in a book. To sing old songs, but also to sing songs that had just been made up.
So there he was, an icon already among so many UUs of a certain couple of generations in his own right, made more so because he indeed, however reluctant and marginal, was a famous one we could count. No wonder the particular sorrow at his death. As my colleague Rev. Tom Schade said in a blog he writes regularly, “there has been a storm of grief, especially among older UUs who remember his music and his participation in the great movements of their lives, and will be celebrating him this week in their services.
But that there may actually be a civil war brewing in UU over Pete Seeger.
Kidding or not, he went on to say that some of our younger folks, “our GenXers and Millennials push back, saying that we should be careful not to overdo it. That they are not especially fond of Seeger’s style of folk music and don’t share the complicated memories of the 60s protest movements — feeling that we UUs are stuck there. Too much Boomer nostalgia, Boomer music, too many Boomer words. (And throw in the Silent Generation as well, though grandparents get more of a pass.) I would go for one Seeger song this Sunday, one of them said. But not a whole service.”
They are saying what they don’t want, and they are letting us know by their less than robust numbers what is not working for them. Data would support:
That there has been, at least anecdotally, some discontented drifting away of those age groups who are already among us, and a sense that we will have limited appeal to those still without any attachments, the so-called Nones, fully a fifth of the American public overall — and especially those one-third of adults under 30 who described themselves as religiously unaffiliated as of 2012.
Those one-third of U.S. adults who tell pollsters that they do not consider themselves a “religious person.”
Those one-third who belong to a traditional faith community, and yet who are doubtful about a God or a Universal Spirit. Statistically, this includes 1.5 million Catholics who are not sure about a Supernatural Being. That’s over 500,000 people in this country alone who might yet flee their theistic pews.
Figures that high — numbers into the hundreds of thousands of never attached, now unattached, or only tentatively attached Americans — are potentially mindboggling, as the executive director of the American Humanist Association has observed. There would seem to be a ready market for an alternative to traditional church — even UU congregations — dependent upon the answers to these questions:
Do they still want something on Sunday morning at all? And what would it look like and sound like and feel like?
Enter Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans just one year ago: two stand-up comedians from London who staged a North End event, as he describes it, “to build community and have some singing,” that has led to the founding of a Godless congregation there and more than 30 others, called Sunday Assemblies, in Britain, Canada, Australia, and the United States.
32-year-old Sanderson grew up in a religious British family in which the death of his mother when he was only 10 and his subsequent loss of faith he has described as a “cataclysmic event.” He has told reporters that he loved the rituals of the Christian church in which he was raised but he could no longer get his head around a God who would allow cancer to take his mother — a Sunday school teacher with five children — at the age of only 42.
He needed to work through this loss of faith and find a way that — instead of staying dismayed that she was taken away too soon and that there was not even a heaven for her to go to — he could be overjoyed that he had even been loved for her at all. What he felt was gratitude and a new faith in life itself.
He was and is still an unabashed, unembarrassed atheist — but was tired of what he claims are the dour meetings held by the Humanists and the (ouch) Unitarians. Why aren’t people clapping and dancing around and jumping up and down at those gatherings? He asked.
Why not indeed?
Drawing from his own spiritual journey, he wanted to emphasize the wonder of life, a wonder that is for him as transcendent as any God. What he sees as glazing moments of awareness and consciousness. A life during which we are invited to love and sing and mess up and try again and celebrate.
He talks about wanting to do something like a church for people who don’t believe in God, without the terrible dogma as one visitor put it. I like the sense of community, she said, and who doesn’t enjoy a singsong, especially one originally led and now designed and packaged by a couple of comedians?
Finding a word or words to describe this new kind of congregation was of course challenging, they found. Sanderson wanted to call it a rational, secular atheist humanist church, a notion nixed by his partner. But atheist alone apparently had a sting, secular was drab and bland, humanist could lead to discomfort with the mistaken conception that in humanism people trump other living things, so Godless it was and is, at least in publicity campaigns.
Getting its start and taking hold in England, where there are likely to be fewer wounded Christian stories like Sanderson and more people who have grown up completely secular and un-churched, he and his comic partner who began this venture, appropriately, in one of many unused church buildings, designed a format to deliberately “mimic” the church format: with poetry readings, moments of contemplation, an offering, and a sermon-like talk. Like a TED talk for the soul as Sanderson calls it. Aiming to have all the good things about church on Sunday.
(Including still maintaining the longstanding Christian practice of Sunday worship.)
A very contemporary model, actually taking a lot of cues from more successful Christian megachurches and fellowships, with an emphasis on current technology, entertainment, and humor.
A model where there is no ordained clergy, rather rotating “hosts” who warm up the crowd, urge them to stand and away and sing lustily, like hosts at a party, serving them and making them feel welcome. Who are more likely to be eventually auditioned for their charm and extroversion than quizzed about their worldviews or trained in humanist thought.
A model where the songs are downloaded on an iPad, accompanied by an electric guitar or banjo, with lyrics thrown up on a screen, picked for their contemporary singability and not as much, if at all, for their words: high energy songs like Eye of the Tiger or I Gotta Feeling by the Black Eyed Peas, with a little upbeat Beatles Here Comes the Sun thrown in the very deliberate mix. Where there are ice breakers: fast-paced, complex variations on scissors, paper, and rocks meant to get people moving and mingling and cheering each other on. Where there is no pulpit — in fact, the speakers use Smartphones to check on notes as they offer their Positive Pyschology testimonials or deliver short homilies, leaving little chance of lengthy quotes or complex sentences.
A place, Sanderson observes, where people perhaps come out of curiosity and for entertainment, and stay for community. For a community that in the words of their mantra, their branding, their sound bite: whose members aim to live better, help often, and wonder more.
And what’s not to admire about those sentiments?
I can’t remember exactly how I came to learn about this new possibility, denomination, movement, or whatever it is becoming: most likely from a link on someone’s page, or a small piece in an alternative magazine, but many people in this country, certainly many UUs, only discovered Sunday Assembly when NPR did a feature story on the Sunday Assembly in Los Angeles on Morning Edition just a few weeks ago. It was aired the month after the beginning of a launching expedition of a number of new assemblies here in the States including groups in Chicago, Washington D.C., San Francisco, Phoenix, and Nashville.
In the NPR story, there was a a live band performing music by the Rolling Stones and Jerry Lee Lewis (Great Balls of Fire). And instead of the sermon, a lecture by an experimental psychologist and neuroscientist on the biology of gender identification and sexual orientation.
Pippa Evans, the other half of the founding team, was heard saying that what’s happening contains all the best bits of church with no religion and awesome pop songs. And it’s not a cult.
There was someone talking about appealing to optimistic atheists, hoping to recreate what was good about religion.
Someone else pointing out that unlike the Ethical Culture and various humanist centers, Sunday Assemblies were not out to critique or debunk other people’s beliefs, including the belief in God.
There was a description of the weekly service projects that are a part of the blueprint of these groups: reading to children, donating blood, planting trees.
Seemingly living better, helping often, wondering more. At least over the airwaves.
The buzz began in earnest. Postings and sharing and re-postings.
Some of us, those of us who found out sooner, got wind of a possible Atlanta opening service in December, an add on, like adding on to a way-too-booked concert tour, ironically held on Saturday in the meeting room of a medical software company located in an area of mostly auto sales lots and fast food chains.
In the run-up to the first service, we had to go online for tickets, which we were instructed to print out or have on our smartphones to bring with us. We arrived to find a still closed door, milled around some, adding to the anticipation and anxiety. We were greeted by several very friendly volunteers, who had us sign in (but not show our tickets) and urged us to sign-up on an email list. And to make sure we were on The Assembly Meet-Up.
These e-lists are the heart blood of the Assembly organizations: used to thank us personally for coming, to let us know about the direct service projects, where planning meetings and philosophy (Wonder) Club meetings are being held and who else is attending — mostly in local taverns.
There are already what they call Children’s Areas (childcare), book clubs, plans for roving potlucks, and coffee hours. Meet-ups of all sorts, lots of Meet-ups.
So much that is the same as UU. So much that for now seems different, sometimes wonderful, sometimes disconcerting and overpowering. And so terribly cheerful.
We had come, the hundred or so of us, for varying reasons. The UUs I saw there that morning, or had seen were planning to come and didn’t make it, told me that they were curious or restless in their current congregations — the younger members expressing misfit: too much UU history that they couldn’t relate to. A lot of talk about diversity and not much being done about getting it.
One self-identified UU Christian was just there as kind of a spiritual tourist. He had gone to an evangelical church service the week before and liked it. I was there, frankly, to do some comparing and contrasting as a lifelong UU, and as a possible occasional community now that I have a national portfolio and am itinerant most of the time.
This Sunday Assembly marvel, so fast tracked, is now venerable by contemporary cultural standards, at a year and going. Old enough to be experiencing more critique about the quality of the talks, the sincerity of the organizers, and its first schisms, one in particular when a newly formed congregation in New York has already split over how much to emphasize atheism (and starting a breakaway group called Godless Revival).
There are other blogged critiques: one from Katie Engelhart, for CNN, who reminded readers that what had been heralded as “the world’s most voguish, though not it’s only, atheist church had opened… to global attention and abundant acclaim.” It is now showing its tarnish: accusations that New York organizers had been told not to use the word atheism or invite atheist speakers out of concerns or fears of turning off and away agnostics and religious humanists.
This blogger believes it is not just a NYC problem, this bicycling away from the original Godless congregation branding, but all mixed up now with growth and fundraising and mandatory training days and franchise contracts. Or that’s how she sees it.
As one of my former congregants and a visitor (at the urging of a friend) to the second Sunday Assembly in Atlanta (which had a third more attendees), told me, this new experiment in a non-theistic community is, despite all judgments otherwise, still in its infancy. She will go back at some point because she is interested and curious to see how it develops.
I will root for its success as a sister effort to provide a safe, substantive, and sustaining place for those who need to be part of something larger, call it a Church, call it an Assembly — God or No God.