Beltane at Church

Sunday completely blew away my already inflated expectations. I’m not sure where to begin, but I can start by saying that it reinforced for me that I’m doing the right things in the right place. 

If you’re not already familiar with Unitarian Universalism, I encourage you to look it up and then see if there’s a local group that you can spend time with. Everywhere I’ve met them, they’ve been just super folks. Just a bunch of rationalist humanitarians and secular humanists and damn hippies as far as the eye can see. The only thing that assuages my despair at having left behind a UU group in Texas, is spending time with my UU group in OR. I’ve been making friends, getting involved, and trying to be helpful.

For me, it’s all the best stuff about church – the community involvement and social justice programs – without the guilt of dogma or the need for mythology. It’s about the people that show up and what they can do together to help their communities and each other. The folks attracted to this sort of church tend to be progressive, and I enjoy not having to argue about things like whether people deserve to live. It also gives me the space to follow the spiritual path I prefer.

Personally, I follow a spiritual path that may seem odd or complicated to others, but it’s what satisfies me and I don’t need another reason for it. I don’t have an external expression of my faith that involves other people: there is no coven or club that I work with, no t-shirt or special jacket, and I have been okay with that. While I would normally be left without the community part of spirituality out on my own path, being part of the UU church gives me community without complicating my spiritual path. If things hadn’t progressed beyond this point, I would still be delighted with my church community. 

Since the ‘80s or so, the UU church nationally has had an ongoing relationship with neo-paganism. Specifically, there have been a number of UU members who practice pagan spiritual practices, and they have been coming together for worship and collaboration under the heading of ‘CUUPs’, or Covenant of UU Pagans’. The relationship between a CUUPS group and a UU church is one of covenant – the members of the group are also members of the church, and covenant is how Unitarians set up social groups. It’s simply an agreement about what each side will do and the expectations for each other. At the same time, there has always been a kind of tension between a UU church and its CUUPS group, as CUUPS tends to represent exactly the sort of religious activity Unitarianism reacted against.

My UU church community is quite old – over a hundred years old – and was on the forefront of women’s issues, and consequently, the pagan movement. There was a CUUPS group here, on and off, for over four decades. But time and Covid broke down much of the social web we had all enjoyed previously, the group here lost its momentum. I was one of the folks who decided to restart the CUUPS group last year after folks started cautiously coming back together, and we’ve enjoyed a small measure of success.

Our new CUUPS group is in our fifth month of observances for the new and full moon, in which we create sacred space, learn about gods or trees, and have some meditation time. It’s a simple rite that is followed up with some fellowship and light discussions. We’ve kept a format that has both a presence at the church and online, which has allowed folks to participate when going to the church isn’t feasible. We regularly get several folks online and at the church each time, and have been making improvements as we go along. 

These moon observances have been very satisfying to me, because I had despaired at being able to come up with anything for a stand-alone pagan group to do. The main church community had long ago adopted so many pagan elements into their regular practice, I was having a difficult time working out a plan for something different. It’s a fantastic problem to have! I wanted to be able to provide two brief rituals a month as an opportunity for pagans to get together and build a community: this has worked out exactly this way without conflicting with anything else the church was already doing. 

The minister of my church, Rev Jen, is extremely supportive of our efforts to rebuild the CUUPS group, to the point of dedicating an entire service this past Sunday to paganism and highlighting our pagan group. The service was nominally a Beltane celebration, with Rev Jen calling the elements while children from the congregation held representative elements aloft, and hymns with pagan themes were sung throughout. Members of the pagan group were given an opportunity to speak out about their unique histories with paganism before the entire church, and Rev Jen made a point to talk about the history of paganism within UU. I was spotlighted as a leader of the pagan group. 

And then everyone went out to the playground and danced around a Maypole. This church did not previously have a Maypole and it didn’t have a tradition of dancing one, but I pledged to make it happen this year, and with the help of many other people, we were able to have an absolutely fantastic Maypole experience. Adults and children wound their ribbons around the pole as the drummers drummed and everyone sang the chants together. There was such a good energy and everyone seemed to take a good mood away from the experience, that I felt absolutely amazing by the time I left. 

I stopped by to thank Rev Jen on my way out for the service. I felt seen and accepted and appreciated by my community in a way that had no equal in my life, and there simply could not have been a better promotional activity for the pagan group! I almost missed the Maypole for all the folks who stopped to talk to me on the way about their interest in the group. I talked to new folks, and I talked to folks who had been part of the church for decades and weren’t aware a new pagan group had been formed. Whatever expectations I may have had about how awesome and amazing that day would be were completely blown away by reality being so much more awesome.

Privately, Rev Jen shared her opinion that paganism is the future of spirituality in the US. Decades of polling have shown a steady decline of mainstream Christian churches and a dramatic uptick in interest in pagan and Earth-centered religions. Paganism shows a more realistic view of life and connects spirituality to the real world, and as we move into the future, this has become more important to more people. Consequently, it’s important to her that our church have a strong CUUPS chapter. Did I mention how my mind has been blown away at exactly how supportive my church is of my eccentric and iconoclastic spiritual path?

The time and effort needed to propel this little group forward has been mostly low stress and low effort. The most of it is being accessible as the face and contact person at the church, handling email and scheduling, and writing the kinds of ritual I would want to be part of. The payback on days like this is so incredibly valuable – it’s an emotional high point and level of personal satisfaction I have no scale to compare to. For sure, it makes me want to do it more, and get more people involved. I’m not sure what would make me want to stop.


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