Thursday, May 26, 2011

A Review of a Progressive Christian Easter Service

by Elayne Clift
{written for the Keene (NH) Sentinel}

As a Jew, I'm not accustomed to attending church. (A secular Jew, I don't even go to synagogue very often.) Most of my experience with churches has occurred in relation to weddings, funerals, and Christmas Eve caroling. But a recent experience bears sharing not only because it was unique and wonderful, but because it just might give us all something to think about in a time of growing polemics, political extremism and murky church-state relations.

In Florida over Easter, my (Christian) husband and I attended services with our son who goes to the "Sunshine Cathedral" in Fort Lauderdale. My husband, who had attended services there before, told me it was a special place of worship but I had to experience it to really see what he was talking about. I got it the minute the service began. My first clue was that the second service of the day was packed with people who were all smiling and greeting each other. They ranged from aging bikers of the Harley-Davidson variety to a Caribbean family with two little girls decked out in white dresses and Mary Jane shoes; from gay and lesbian couples in shorts and T-shirts to proverbial "little old ladies" in flowered dresses.

My second clue was that the two lead ministers, both men, approached the front of the sanctuary wearing ab-fab Easter bonnets while the ushers sported bunny ears. The choirmaster, a woman, wore a long white backless gown such as you might see at a prom. Clearly, this church had a sense of humor and loved a good party!

And yet the service, the music, the homily were so moving and so meaningful that I could barely get through it without sobbing.

Sunshine Cathedral is a Metropolitan Community Church (MCC). Part of an international movement now active in nearly two dozen countries, it was founded in California in 1968 by Troy Perry, a Pentecostal minister who was defrocked because he was gay. Its core values are inclusion, community, spiritual transformation, and social action. Each of those values was clear and present in the Easter service, not only in how the minister interpreted the Easter story but in how he asked his congregants to "apply what you believe to your own personal resurrection." It was clear in his message to "go forward rather than dwelling in the past," and in his reminder that Sunshine Cathedral focuses on the "progressive, the positive, and the practical." It was present in his emphasis on the universality of "hope, acceptance, joy, and possibility."

With music ranging from jazz and gospel to Beethoven's "Hallelujah," inspirational quotations from sources as varied as the Bengali poet Tagore to Winston Churchill, spiritual heroes that include Catherine of Sienna and Oskar Schindler, large-screen visuals of seascapes or clips from Walt Disney's animated film "Cinderella", and the closing admonition, "[Our worship has] ended; Let our service begin," this is a church like no other, it seems to me. Irreverently reverent, humorously relevant, wonderfully welcoming, it manages to be magically meaningful in very mixed up and troubling times.

In a way, it explains why many Jews have chosen to identify with Universalist Unitarians ("UUs") because of their emphasis on social activism, their genuine inclusivity, and their message of hope and humanity. Others are working toward "Jewish Renewal", an attempt to make Judaism more meaningful and socially conscious in a 21st century world.

Whatever one's religious affiliation, what was clear to me on an Easter morning in the Sunshine Cathedral, where the word "sin" was never uttered, is that despite our various diversities, the universe is full of people striving to find their place in the world - on common ground -- without judgment, and free of simplistic polemics, meaningless rituals, and "thou shalt nots."

To that end, I am glad to have stood among bunnies and bonnets, listening to Beethoven, hoping for, and believing in, a better, more generous and genuine world.

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Elayne Clift writes about politics, social issues, and contemporary life from Saxtons River, Vt. (

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