Well, okay, it probably wasn't really a cult, since they didn't ask for all my money. But it was creepy.
I've been visiting a few different churches around town, seeing if there's a place I would fit nicely. Yesterday I decided I would visit Unity of Toledo. (Which has nothing whatsoever to do with the Unitarian Universalist church, whose members have never once creeped me out.) On Unity's national website (unity.org) the philosophies sounded interesting. Quite a bit about how God is within all, and Jesus was the only one in which this was fully realized. Definitely intriguing. So I went.
I realized my first mistake as soon as I got there. You see, in my experience I have noticed that the churches with the more liberal philosophies are the ones which generally don't care what people wear to church, so long as they get there. Thus, I figured that I'd do all right with jeans and a nice sweater. Wrong! The people walking in were dressed to the nines. Suits and all. Oy. But I figured I may as well go on in, since one of my criteria for a welcoming church is that they not care what people are wearing. If they reacted badly to me, I'd know I was in the wrong place. And to their credit, I wasn't made to feel at all awkward, clothing-wise.
However, awkwardness was soon upon me in the form of the greeter, who swooped upon me with a gigantic hug as if I was a long lost friend or a child returning from war. Eeeek! Now don't get me wrong, hugs can be lovely things. But really, I prefer to only be hugged by people I've known for longer than two seconds.
After clucking over me for a moment or two the greeter sent me into the sanctuary, telling me she'd come sit with me when the service started. Oh, lovely.
While waiting, I observed what was going on. The sanctuary had auditorium seating rather than pews, which my back certainly appreciated. But there was no choir. This automatically meant they were off my list as a possible permanent church home, since there are cold winter mornings when the ONLY way I can convince myself to crawl out of bed and go to church is by reminding myself that I get to sing, but I certainly figured I could stay and see what the service was like.
With no choir, the congregation was led in hymns by a dorky guy in a cheap suit with a lovely strong tenor voice. The man could sing, no doubt about that. The problem was his musical theatrics. You know how if someone in a pageant sings as her talent, she will "emote" to a ridiculous degree? It looked like that's what this man was trying to do. I couldn't actually watch him; I was afraid I might laugh, and I didn't want to do that to the poor guy (and his singing voice really was wonderful).
And the sermon. Oh dear. Aside from the fact that it seemed like the pastor was making it up as she went along, it seemed absurdly shallow. It was very self-centered, very focused on internal reflection and feel-good self-love. Any mentions of God? None, unless you count the part about how if a reflection or meditation makes you feel good, that's how you know it came from the God-part of you. The sermon culminated in the signing of a pledge which had been distributed in the bulletins. The pledge was on a green card and consisted of a promise to always do one's best, no matter what. It was worded in a more flowery way than that, but that was the gist. The cards would then be gathered and used to create a big banner to hang in the sanctuary. Needless to say, I did NOT turn mine in.
During the Exchange of Greetings (known to Episcopalians and Catholics as the Sign of the Peace), as I was being passed from person to person, being hugged over and over by women with pasted-on, too wide smiles, I accidentally said to a few of them, "Peace be with you," or "God's Peace." It's the way Episcopalians do it, anyway. This drew some absurdly shocked and dirty looks from these well-dressed women.
The closing hymn increased my discomfort even more. Apparently they sing the same closing hymn every week, but not peacefully from their seats. No, they form a hand-holding circle around the outside of the room and sing from there. And of course, no hand-holding circle of song would be complete without the ubiquitous back and forth sway, now, would it? During this ordeal, I caught the eye of a teenage girl across the room from me. She was also in jeans and had clearly been dragged there by her mother. We communicated wordlessly: "HELP! How did we get into this?"
Thankfully, that was the last bit of the service, though the greeter who had sat with me tried to insist that I join them for fellowship. I blurted out that I had to get home and babysit. (It was the first excuse my panic-stricken mind came up with, okay???) She also kept insisting that I sign the guestbook so they could send me info, in spite of my polite repetition of the fact that I really didn't think this church was what I was looking for. She kept on, so finally I signed a fake name and address. And then, blessedly, I was gone, as fast as the Red Star could carry me down Central Avenue!
Aside from the creepiness of the too-wide smiles and the pushy hugs, I was also greatly irritated by the inward focus of the church. There was not a single outreach ministry I could identify in the literature they handed me. The sermon insisted that they were following the Way of Jesus to find God within the self. Coming as I do from an Episcopal parish with a huge focus on social justice and helping the poor, this was an unpleasant shock and cognitive dissonance. Admittedly I'm no true Bible scholar and only an amateur theologian, but I'm pretty sure Jesus was big on helping others. Which had me sitting there during the sermon wanting to yell, "You've missed the whole damn point!"
Apparently Unity is fulfilling a need for these people, but not for me. I think next Sunday I need to creep back to St. Andrew's Episcopal Church which I visited a few weeks ago and sit down quietly in the back with the Book of Common Prayer and the 1982 Hymnal. My faith comes in odd colors at times, and I'm sure I'm more Deist/Panentheist than Theist, and by many or even most strict definitions I'm not Christian at all. But as I've learned from visiting other churches, I am most definitely Episcopalian! (I'm not sure that combination is entirely possible, but I'm trying it anyway.)
So, Unity of Toledo is not the place for me. And if you prefer not to be hugged by strangers, it's probably not for you either.
And if you live on Berry Street in Toledo, if there is such a place, and you happen to get mail from Unity addressed to someone you don't know, I apologize.