Another Unity Temple celebration

Opinion: Ken Trainor

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I wrote this column two years ago to celebrate the homecoming of the Unity Temple Unitarian-Universalist congregation following two years of renovation and rehab to Frank Lloyd Wright's landmark structure. Published on June 21, 2017, I thought a reprint was in order after hearing the good news that Unity Temple is one of eight Wright buildings declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization): 

 

The message board outside proclaims this month's theme, "Surprised by Joy," but it's doubtful anyone at this first Sunday service in Unity Temple in two years is surprised by the joy they feel coming home again after such a long hiatus.

The congregation relocated to United Lutheran Church on the north end of town and took pride in packing the pews of that great barn of a church, beneath the towering presence of one of the largest back-wall crucifixes in the village. It was very different from the home they turned over to construction crews in June of 2015. The bare brick of United Lutheran's walls speak to a more austere, traditional spiritual orientation, where worshipers see the backs of each other's heads, facing forward, the only faces visible being speakers at the lecterns, or the choir as it struggled to overcome the smothering acoustics of the place.

The Lutheran congregation was as welcoming as they could be and the Unitarians were grateful, but it wasn't the same. Feisty, independent souls that they are, however, these free-thinkers insisted their home was wherever they set up worship. The congregation was more important than the place in which they congregated.

Where United Lutheran is a traditional cruciform church, high-ceilinged, with a long aisle from sanctuary to the front door, Unity Temple is a cube, blending the horizontal and the vertical, with two balconies rising above the main floor on three sides and a lower-level cloister where the choir clusters, waiting to ascend and sing. The balconies set the congregants face to face, town meeting style, no one more than 42 feet in any direction from the pulpit, and the sense — and expectation — of creating community is both intensified and celebrated here. This is democratic worship, non-hierarchical, for the service of man and woman as well as the worship of God: Wright's revolution of spiritual reorientation. 

The clear, high-set windows refuse to shut out the world as so many churches do, and the skylight lets in sunlight in slivers that creep along the walls in playful patterns, evoking one of the late, great Leonard Cohen's best lines: "There's a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in." For now though, they're hoping the cracks have all been sealed so the rain doesn't get in.

The surprise in coming home isn't the joy congregants feel so much as recognizing how important this particular space is to their congregating. 

"Oh, what a beautiful morning," the choir sings, though not at first in unison. Select members solo each Hammersteinian phrase, "All the sounds of the earth are like music," each voice imperfect in its unique fashion, before blending seamlessly together. "I've got a wonderful feeling everything's going my way." The arrangement testifies to both individual differences and the harmonizing of community.

"Send the good news, send the word," the men sing during the prelude. "We the people will be heard."

"Go out and tell a story to your daughters and your sons," the full choir sings later, the anthem from Ragtime. "Let it echo far and wide. Make them hear you, make them hear you."

Worship here is serious, but not solemn. Senior Minister Alan Taylor welcomes attendees, long-timers and first-timers alike. "Bring all of who you are," he says. "Whoever you are, wherever you are on your life journey, you are welcome here."

Rev. Emily Gage says it's nice to see everyone's face and teases, "I notice that everybody's back in their regular seat." She invites the kids to sit on the soft, new carpet in front of the main-floor pews (original to Unity Temple, the woodwork restored to long-ago freshness) and tells them about the Unitarian tradition of Flower Communion. When she asks for volunteers, the young hands (of which there are many) shoot up. They distribute sprigs of flowers to everyone in the congregation. 

"Even if you didn't bring one this morning," Gage says, "you'll still leave with one. That's how we roll here."

This space has been renewed by two years of hard labor. The warm earth-tones are more vibrant, the walls subtly but beautifully textured and, best of all, the air between them cooled geo-thermally. But there's more going on than facility rehab, says Taylor during his sermon. "This building is not complete without our living, breathing congregation. That completes the design. Human connection powers our lives. … This building is to be used. I claim full responsibility for the first spill. We are forgiven for our marks. It shows our use."

The congregation has changed, he noted, in two years. People have died who did not get to experience this homecoming. New members have joined.

"The journey to this day was longer than two years," Taylor observed. It made him think about the great cathedral of Chartres in France. "Those workers began something they knew they would not see. We too are building — on foundations we did not lay — a cathedral to the human spirit."

"Where love has lived, a house still holds its warmth," writes the late Irish poet/philosopher John O'Donohue. "The beauty of a home is ultimately determined by the nature of its atmosphere, by the texture and spirit of those who dwell there."

Unity Temple is home again.

 

And Unity Temple is also a World Heritage site, one of 30 or so in the United States and over a thousand worldwide, defined by UNESCO as "a natural or man-made site, area, or structure recognized as being of outstanding international importance and therefore as deserving special protection." Sites are nominated to and designated by the World Heritage Convention.

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