Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Dubuque. Dubuque, Iowa.
January 24, 2010.
Enthusiasm level (1 to 10, highest 10): 10
Average age of congregation: babies to elderly
Serves donuts/coffee: cookies and treats after the service
Dressy attire: super casual
Believes in Hell: each person is encouraged to discern their own beliefs on various spiritual topics, including hell
Sermon quote: “Those who dare affirm human goodness are regarded as foolish.”
Stacey never heard of the Unitarian Universalist church and Courtney didn’t know much about the church, other than what she overheard from someone of a more religious persuasion: “Those hippies don’t even believe in Jesus.”
Well, Courtney would be remiss if she failed to mention there were two women who announced they were training for yoga teacher certification, and the name Jesus didn’t come up once.
Now, we’re no experts on the denominations we write about, nor do we research them. We simply show up and soak it in. Luckily, the back of the program explained the Unitarian Universalist principles, which also don’t mention God or Jesus, but does regard a “direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder affirmed in all cultures.” We don’t think you would describe it as Christianity, but maybe a spiritual community with similar practices to a Christian church?
The conversation centered around moral and ethical quandaries with a philosophical approach, such as is human nature good or bad?
I’d like to say it’s good, the reverend said. Stacey had always believed human nature was evil. However, the reverend made compelling points that made even her question that belief. The reverend spoke about how people tend describe bad things as human nature, but never describe good things as human nature. After the sermon, the congregants chimed in.
Meanwhile, a coffee pot bubbled in the back, adding a pleasant aroma in the chapel. The mood was more like friends sitting around a kitchen table, talking about philosophy and borrowing theological tenants from different religions, but never subscribing one way or the other.
The sermon ended with everyone holding hands in a giant circle. It reminded Stacey of kindergarten, a time where things were a little more peaceful.
We took a little bit of an unintended break from church, but will back in full force very soon. You know, this whole going to church thing every Sunday is much more difficult than it may seem.
Kingdom Ministries. Dubuque, Iowa. January 17. 2010.
Enthusiasm level (1 to 10, highest 10): 10
Average age of congregation: younger crowd (many young adults and children in attendance)
Serves donuts/coffee: the KFC (Kingdom Food Court) sells burgers and chips for $2 after the service
Dressy attire: business casual
Believes in Hell: Most likely.
Sermon quote: “Everything you do in the flesh, you’re going to get a fleshy result.”
In order to break our extended church-scouting hiatus, we decided to go for the theatrical. A two-hour, high-volume service ending in a climactic speaking-in-tongues session.
Kingdom Ministries has no sign on the outside. The old church building has an empty message board, and stained glass above the door reads “First Evangelical Church.”
As soon as I approached, I heard music and singing, and a man popped his head out the front door. “You coming in?” he asked, smiling.
After several energetic songs, the pastor stood up to deliver her sermon in a long, pink and black robe. Her voice danced between a low, serious tone and shrill screaming into the microphone. She shared her experiences with drugs and alcohol (overcome by Jesus, she says) and extolled the danger of visiting a particularly notorious bar in the city, where one would be tempted to go drinking and dirty dancing.
Her sermon focused on the Holy Spirit, which would guide you to great things, should you stop shutting out the Holy Ghost.
Stacey became a little squeamish when the Pastor began to preach about a Biblical metaphor of dry bones. Those who are composed of ‘dry bones’ don’t have a soul because they haven’t let the Holy Spirit into their lives. In a matter of seconds, several images flashed before her eyes: the elephant graveyard with deadly hyenas from Disney’s “The Lion King” and her own flesh bursting into flames. Trust us, that doesn’t happen often. Stacey was ecstatic when no one brought out a fire extinguisher.
Near the end of her sermon (and we’d been there about one and a half hours at this point), the pastor asked someone to turn on instrumental music. As if on cue, people began to walk forward and kneel by the altar. Women were draped with a red sheet (I don’t know what it was for, modesty, perhaps?). They knelt quietly, bowing their heads.
Then, a woman began to shake. Her hands trembled and she cried out. She began to scream incomprehensibly. Courtney and Stacey sat perfectly still, unaware of how to respond. This was the first time they saw someone speaking in tongues.
In case any of you has had the misfortune of walking in on someone having sex, you might be able to relate to how awkward we felt sitting in that room. The entire church hummed with energy as people stood up, moved forward, and began to shout.
Stacey almost burst into uncontrollable laughter when she heard the pastor ask for a tissue, a bucket, anything for a wailing woman at the pew. Such an odd phrase to hear in church. When somebody actually grabbed a bucket, the guilt sunk in.
Only a few people spoke in tongues; the others shouted “praise Jesus” and “Hallelujah.” They were having an intense, spiritual, and intimate moment in front of us. The only feeling we were experiencing was a nagging question: are they knowingly faking, or are they swept up in some sort of mass hysteria?
Eventually, the cacophony died down, and the women pulled off the red sheets and returned to their pews. Stacey and Courtney walked briskly to the door and left, leaving the rest of the day to digest what they saw. To add a little balance, Stacey and Courtney decided to attend a Unitarian Universalist church the next week.
Dubuque, Iowa. Dec. 13, 2009. Methodist.
Enthusiasm level (1 to 10, highest 10): 9
Average age of congregation: everyone from babies to grandparents
Serves donuts/coffee: promised coffee, juice and refreshments
Dressy attire: ranged from super dressy to not-so-super dressy
Believes in Hell: yes
Sermon quote: “Christ is going to come knocking.”
Ornaments shattered into a thousand little pieces on a large screen as parishioners filled the auditorium. The shattered ornaments, thankfully, eventually became one again to symbolize a fellowship united in good cheer.
“Welcome to God’s house,” said the preacher in a white dress shirt and red tie.
This week, Stacey took her teenage sister to their first contemporary service together at Grand View United Methodist Church. We were late. Sorry.
The Power Point presentations, which included a burning fireplace next to a Christmas tree, were amazing! I seriously could not stop looking at the screen, which reminded me of high school speeches.
There was no choir in “God’s house” during this sermon. Instead, there was a whole lot of guitars and a few singers. It was unusual to see people bobbing their head during hymns. We tried super hard to not burst out laughing when we noticed an older woman dancing with the support of her cane. Awesome.
The preacher sat in a rocking chair next to a very festive Christmas scene. He preached about the importance of being ready for the Christ to visit the parishioners in their homes by getting rid of all the distractions in life.
We left the church feeling welcomed and happy, especially when we saw a teenager in a blue M&M suit. Don’t ask us why she was in the suit. We don’t know.
The best part of the sermon happened outside as we walked towards my car. Someone had placed a DVD called “Death and the Journey into Hell.” Wow.
Dubuque, Iowa. Nov. 29, 2009. Christian
Enthusiasm level (1 to 10, highest 10): 9
Average age of congregation: college-aged students (the church is located on a college campus)
Serves donuts/coffee: tons of cookies and hot apple cider
Dressy attire: a whole lot of jeans
Believes in Hell: yes
Sermon quote: “Maybe this advent season will be a time for you to get a little more real.”
No, that was not a line from the Real World Christmas special. That was a priest delivering his sermon at Loras College’s Christ the King Chapel. He read from The Velveteen Rabbit, spouted metaphors about toys coming to life through love (so we can become more real through Christ’s love, the priest said).
After our first nightly service, the congregation proceeded out the door to the nativity scene. The priest chucked holy water at a smiling plastic family, said a prayer and someone placed the Baby Jesus in his manger. Will the baby doll become real, Courtney wondered. How would you explain that to the Department of Human Services?
As Courtney wondered about the horrifying possibility of dolls coming to life, Stacey thought about the kind older gentleman who sat next to her during the service. The majority of the people were college-aged, so the old man in the leather jacket stood out like a couple of agnostics in a Catholic church. When the time came for parishioners to give their tithe the old man looked at Stacey, noticed she wasn’t rummaging through her purse and threw a dollar bill in her lap. Point taken.
Every time we attend a Catholic mass, we feel even more lost. Hand gestures, kneeling, standing, sitting, recitations of unfamiliar phrases and prayers… it all catches us off-guard. We feel like total outsiders, which of course, we are. But there are also the things that bring us back, like the warm greetings of “Peace be with you.” Maybe after a few more Catholic masses, we’ll feel a little more on track, if not included.
Enthusiasm level (1 to 10, highest 10): 4 (Even in a whisper, I could hear my own voice singing… because everyone else was quiet)
Average age of congregation: Fair mix of young adults, children, parents and older folks
Serves donuts/coffee: I saw bagels!
Dressy Attire: business casual
Believes in Hell: yes
Sermon quote: “In our lives there are things that happen that are not pleasant, but are necessary to pass through to the next stage.”
We wanted to learn more about the touchdown Jesus. Seriously. We’re not joking.
The large tiled mosaic design of Jesus with his arms reaching towards the sky – sort of like goalposts on a football field – lured us inside the St. Peter Lutheran Church. The design that covers about 400 square feet on the facade of the church was created in the late 1950s, and depicts eight moments of the church in four vertical panels with Jesus rising in a fifth center panel.
The intricate mosaic design continued inside the church. While Courtney felt the mosaics gave the church a Mosque-like feeling, Stacey felt the vaulted wooden ceilings and tiny ceiling fans gave the church a distinct summer camp cabin feeling. The hymns did not help eliminate that vibe.
Both of us stared in confusion at the words prominently placed behind the pastor during his sermon: “Do you love me? Feed my sheep.” After some research on the church’s Web site, we discovered the words carved in the sanctuary are supposedly Jesus’ words to Simon Peter. Good to know now, but during the sermon it was just a little bit creepy.
We took our first Church Scouts communion on this trip. After a cursory glance through the program, which said nothing like “No trespassing on our communion, this means you,” we went for it.
Stacey’s knees were shaking as she walked toward the pastor to take communion for the first time that she can remember in her 24 years of life. She was elated that she didn’t choke on the wafer or burst into flames.
Courtney last took communion in high school, where her Methodist church served grape juice and tiny bread cubes (the kind that miniature people might use for fondue). The wafer took her by surprise. It was dry, had a foam-like texture and tasted like cardboard… not even cheese whiz could save that thing. The wine was real (as in alcoholic), she thinks, but she really couldn’t be sure. It didn’t taste like any she’s had before, and she would rather not repeat it. But she was thankful to be included!
As we walked out, the pastor recognized that we were new faces and warmly greeted us at the end of the service.
Aberdeen, S.D. Nov. 8, 2009. United Methodist.
Enthusiasm level (1 to 10, highest 10): 7 (participatory mainstream protestant congregation)
Average age of congregation: Many white, fluffy heads mixed with young families
Serves donuts/coffee: Yes! Thanks to Dennis and Mary Kautz’s 35th wedding anniversary
Dressy Attire: jeans galore
Believes in Hell: yes
Sermon quote: “The world is on fire. It is collapsing around us.”
I feel vaguely uncomfortable when people pray aloud for me.
This week, I returned to my hometown in Aberdeen, South Dakota, and joined my parents at my childhood church, First United Methodist Church. It’s a hybrid of historical brick and beautiful Tiffany stained-glass windows, dwarfed by a large stone addition of spacious new classrooms, a gym and kitchen.
I sat in a bare, open classroom with my parents at their Sunday school class, when the group leader asked for members to offer their joys and concerns for the morning prayer. My presence was a joy, said my mother (gosh, thanks Mom!). So the group prayed for me and my safe trip home. Luckily, everyone had their head down so they couldn’t see the look on my face, where I’m sure I conveyed a juxtaposition of pleasant contentment and don’t-waste-your-breath skepticism.
After the class, we trekked over to the church’s sanctuary for the service.
The church has changed a lot from when I was a kid. Above the pulpits, on either side, projectors beam onto walls with lyrics of praise songs, inspirational images and sometimes a video. No matter how far we progress with technology, this always seems like an anachronism to me.
This week’s “video scripture” portrayed the Biblical figure Stephen yelling at Jewish leaders about their “uncircumcised hearts and ears.” This mentally-disturbing image was made all the more bizarre by the thought that someone turned this speech into a video (don’t worry, they didn’t illustrate an uncircumcised heart, which I hear are less hygienic). The hostile Stephen, with a sheet draped over his head, spattered angry insults at the scowling, ugly men surrounding him in the temple.
Then, the pastor delivered his angry, scowling, fire-and-brimstone sermon. The pastor I remember from my childhood, who was kind, a gifted singer, moderate, non-judgmental and even defended Harry Potter, was utterly enraged. Like me and many others in the country, he seemed to be struggling to understand why a man would spray bullets on his fellow soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas.
His message was like a question: Is America being punished? For allowing men and men to marry, for gang violence, for the greed that brought down our financial system.
“As a Christian, we are at war with all religions of the world,” he said, after giving a quick warning that what he said would not be politically correct.
“They seek to degrade Christ… and replace him with another.”
(For those of you who check his sermon online, this line is not in there. But I wrote it down in my notes)
I left the sermon in silence, too shaken by it to comment to my parents. We went home and ate toast, with fried eggs dropped into the middle.
I realized that I’m much more comfortable with someone praying for me, rather than preaching like that.
Dubuque, Iowa. Nov. 1, 2009. Non-denominational.
Enthusiasm level (1 to 10, highest 10): 9 (applies only to the pastor)
Average age of congregation: N/A (no congregation present)
Serves donuts/coffee: no
Dressy Attire: N/A
Believes in Hell: yes
Sermon quote: “If you have depression or oppression, do you believe God can resurrect you?”
A gyro brought us to Supreme Ministries.
A couple weeks ago, we tried out a new gyro place on Central Avenue in Dubuque and passed the storefront church on our way there. We knew little about the place, other than a service began at 11 a.m. Sundays. It was posted on the window.
After a night of Halloween and pagan celebrating, Stacey and Courtney thanked the cosmos for the change in Daylight Savings Time and walked up to the church well-rested. Courtney peaked into the window and saw, between slotted blinds, that there were only four people in the church. This could be weird.
“Are we going in?” Stacey asked.
“Uh… yeah,” Courtney said.
We planted ourselves on yellow vinyl chairs in the middle, while Pastor Tammy sang into a microphone. She later told us the choir was out of town. The other people in the room were her children, and a stone-faced guy who kept going outside and walking back in.
The interior, though small, was clean and freshly painted. The floor looked waxed and spotless. Though a faint trace of cigarette smoke wafted in the air, you could tell the Pastor took great care in upkeep. She opened the church in September.
There was no altar, only three fake plants and a dry-erase board. The Pastor put down her microphone and asked her daughter to fetch us a Bible.
She held onto her Bible and a notebook tightly as she preached directly to the only two parishioners in her church about how Jesus healed a woman after she touched the hem of his cloak.
The Pastor walked, jumped and kneeled when she described how the woman pushed through a crowd to reach Jesus. We were pleasantly surprised when the Pastor related the woman’s persistence to get through the crowd with people who push their way onto crowded city buses in Chicago, Ill.
Pastor Tammy asked to end the 30-minute sermon with a hand praise. Stacey darted her eyes towards the ground. She didn’t know anything about a hand praise. Then the Pastor’s children began to clap.
In all, our first experience with a storefront church was entertaining. We can’t wait to visit another one.
Dubuque, Iowa. Sunday, Oct. 25, 2009. Catholic.
Enthusiasm level (1 to 10, highest 10): 6
Average age of congregation: across-the-board (We were seated next to a college-aged girl, in front of us a toddler dumped her goldfish crackers and Life cereal over the pew, behind us a little boy drove his toy race car around our heads)
Serves donuts/coffee: no
Dressy attire: no (we saw lots of jeans)
Believes in Hell: yes. Plus, you get a bonus. Purgatory!
Sermon quote: “The Church was slow to accept the Copernican Theory because it threw the Bible into a dither.”
The moment had arrived.
It was our time to walk through the doors of the Cathedral of St. Raphael. Courtney reached toward the door and tugged. Nothing.
Our first church adventure began with an epic failure. Oh well, the next door wasn’t locked. The only person who welcomed us to church pointed toward those lovely little books with song lyrics inside and told us we had to sing. Sorry, friendly guy, but we only joined the first verse of Amazing Grace. Maybe we’ll sing more next time.
It is traditional for people to genuflect, or kneel briefly on one knee, before taking a seat at a Catholic mass. Before sitting, we staked out in the back and observed other parishioners kneel on their right knee alongside the pews before they sat. Easy to mimic? No. Stacey had the most difficulty. For some unknown reason, she actually ended up kneeling halfway on both of her knees, like a half-ass curtsy. She quickly slid into a pew, hoping no one noticed.
Courtney was discouraged by communion. It’s an exclusive club (Catholics only) and she wasn’t invited. However, our book encouraged us to “express in our hearts a prayerful desire for unity with Lord Jesus.”
Catholics do give a free communion pass to some other churches, including the Orthodox Church, Assyrian Church of the East and the Polish National Catholic Church. Though they didn’t check anyone’s church ID up at the altar, we remained kneeling on those convenient little padded bars. What ingenuity!
As the congregation lined up for communion, we watched in shock, and a little horror, as they sipped wine from the same cup. Seriously, this the day after the President declared H1N1 a national emergency? Don’t tell me wiping the rim of the glass with a handkerchief will disinfect it. Icky.
Our favorite part of the service was the greeting. Having someone give you a genuine smile, shake your hand and say, “peace be with you,” is not something that happens to us everyday.
In all, our first Catholic mass was a little confusing, a little entertaining and we still have a lot to learn.
Why would anyone freely give up their blissful sleep to visit a different church every week? Why not?
Our adventure into the world of church scouting began with a random thought on a random drive in a random part of Dubuque, Iowa. Stacey was riding shotgun with her mother, who may or may not be religious, when she thought out loud about how cool it would be to visit different churches in Dubuque.
Fast forward a couple months to a random restaurant. Stacey suddenly remembers her random church thought and tells Courtney all about it. Courtney is intrigued by the idea. In her high school years, during a “what does it all mean” phase, she also thought about the idea of church shopping.
“It being the Digital Age, could we have such an adventure without a blog?” Courtney asks.
And the Church Scouts blog was born. Anybody have a suggestion for how to baptize it?
We have a simple goal: to visit as many different kinds of churches as possible and blog about each one. We’re not trying to write a religious critique. Rather, we want to show what it’s like for a complete outsider. How welcoming, attractive, strange or creepy is this place? Why would someone go here?
When we visit a church, we’ll try to participate in the service, be respectful and if given the opportunity, ask questions. If the church requires dressy hats, game on.
Our experiment isn’t limited to Christian denominations. As unaffiliated scouts, we’re trying to understand why people participate in religion, whether they pray to Jesus or the Golden Calf.
Our goal is to walk away with a higher appreciation for religion, though we’re not expecting to join the choir.
And we’ll never take sleeping in on a Sunday for granted.