Beyond These Walls: A Reflection

A reflection by Amber Dawn Bellemare, 23 February 2014 - Audio available

My UU journey began a decade ago in my home town of Sarnia, Ontario. I had heard of this thing called an ACM - heard about keynote speakers and travels to faraway places like Victoria and Thunder Bay, about the business meetings where members discussed and actually voted on issues that affected UU congregations across the country, of the delegates and workshop facilitators who carried such heavy responsibilities and of course about the banner parade, whatever that was, it sounded very exciting - and to me - very exclusive.

Unitarianism is full of acronyms and small groups and happenings that, at the time of my new membership, or maybe because of my outsider disposition, I felt were over there, for the REAL Unitarians who had titles and sophisticated language skills and insider scoops… at the time I didn’t even realize that I was considered a young adult - and if I had known, I probably would have been cautious to join - just in case I didn't fit in. I feared rejection so much that I did not consider a CUC sponsored event for 3 years when I moved to Barrie, Ontario and took the training to become a Lay Chaplain. It was at that training where I met Reverend Carole Martignacco, a regular guest in Montreal.

After that, I had more confidence and tried my hand at CUUL School - Canadian Unitarian Universalist Leadership School - where, among others, I met two significant people - the first was a former member of this congregation, Shawn Doring - and the second was my then roommate - Kirsten McKeown, a UCM’er who recently gave birth to her first daughter and whose hair I do regularly - including on her wedding day.

Why am I suddenly doing all this name dropping? I sound like one of those UU’s in the know! It’s to demonstrate that every time I step out of my comfort zone into a group setting with other UU’s I end up connecting with someone who seems to be a significant part of me, forevermore.

I started volunteering here in the kitchen for the Eastern Regional Gathering which we hosted. Thus began my deeper involvement with this community, and wouldn’t you know, I ran into UU’s I met at CUUL school!

The first Annual Conference and Meeting I went to was 4 years ago - the same year I joined the Unitarian Church of Montreal, encouraged by Diane and others who were driving to Toronto to celebrate 50 years of the CUC. It was there that I experienced my first banner parade, my first business meeting, my first wine and cheese soiree with some of the leaders in our national movement.

After that, I went to the Spiritual Leadership Symposium in Ottawa where I learned that although I may not have a degree under my belt, or a job for that matter - I still had value. It was also where I learned the ropes of delegate-hood and voted on some of the resolutions that form our national vision. It was in Ottawa that I noticed this trend of running into old friends from the places I had once called home and making new ones so fast and so intimately that I left at the end of the weekend feeling recharged.

These weekends have become a secret addiction for me. Last winter a group of young adults got together in Ottawa and I learned for the first time that I was a young adult who had been missing out on young adult connections for 9 years. If you remember we returned to talk about all the ways it’s possible to experience church with minimal budget, participants or even a plan.

I think it was my experience last year in Calgary which was enriching in so many ways that drove it home for me. First, I helped a host-member organize the Young Adult retreat which was again intimate and deepening. Second, I volunteered at the registration desk, welcoming delegates, and even participated as a delegate myself for the second time. It was at that business meeting that I learned about credentials and quorum. I even organized a fundraiser for the CUC’s communications platform. I listened to some of our finest leaders speak about relevance and diversity. I engaged with others concerned about socio-economics within the organization. But for me, the real church happened in the hotel hot tub, where other UU’s relaxed and got to know one another without name tags and titles.

This past summer I went to another Young Adult retreat at Unicamp, just north of Toronto. We began with singing, with covenant and with a conversation about consent.  It was there that we took part in fulfilling wishes and more of the intimacy and deepening stuff that has me yearning for more.
I will never forget one special moment at camp: while I walked to breakfast, I passed one of the young men in our group. I remember because he was wearing a dress, a pearl necklace and lipstick. I thanked her for her bravery and for reminding me that I have it so easy that I can get up in the morning and open my closet door without feeling defeated by the outside world. It occurred to me that a Unitarian Universalist campsite might be the only place she could go to be herself. We remain in contact today. In fact, I now know more young adult-ish Unitarians than I ever thought existed from all over the continent because I volunteered myself to be a part of something a little unknown, a little far away, a lot satisfying.

These meetings and gatherings are like refuelling with people. Unitarianism is a renewable resource. Our reinforced connections, strengthens the structure of our movement. Many chalices; one strong flame. The secret to this abundance is: we get what we give.

And the good news is there is a whole world out there of opportunities to give and receive at the exact same time. I know my reflection today sounds a bit like a Unitarian resume, but I wanted to illustrate how digging deep and stepping up can fulfill us from the inside out.

All of this has led me on a path right into our own backyard. This year, I am on the program committee and I am the conference liaison between us and the CUC. I am working with people I have never seen face to face. It will be surreal to finally hug them come May. I no longer feel like an outsider - in fact working with UU’s has shown me how intentionally inclusive we truly can be.

It is difficult to describe with words the rewards for giving to something bigger than me. I never saw it coming. I never imagined I had it in me. But the thought of running into a UU I met three years ago in Ottawa and had the honour of exchanging stories with, of listening to our dynamic leaders speak about sacred spaces and our beloved community, of meeting new UU’s and learning about what is happening in other communities across the country, gets me all warm and fuzzy inside.

So long as we experience church together whether in the hot tub, the sanctuary, at a conference or retreat, whether it’s online or on the phone or on the front lines, we are building our beloved community. I don’t need a building to be Unitarian, I just need to feel like I belong. The closer I get with UU’s from all walks of life, the stronger my sense of belonging.

Getting to know one another, for me, is inherently Unitarian. Bonding with like-minded people who speak my language of values, who are moving in the same direction as me, who challenge me to think critically and compassionately is a drug. And I’m hooked. And if you don’t believe me, I’ll see you in the hot tub at the Sheraton Airport for some good ol’ fashioned church this May.

Download Beyond These Walls: A Reflection