One of my best growing up memories as a teenager was going to Murray Grove summer camp on the coast of New Jersey for a week. The camp sits very near where John Murray came ashore off his ship from England in 1770 which was blown off course. Murray preached Universalism at Thomas Potter’s insistence in Potter’s church. Potter had built the church because he had a sign that someday a minister would appear and preach Universal Salvation from its pulpit. Murray at first refused. He thought he was done with preaching after the disasters he left behind in England when he boarded the ship for the New World. The wind would not blow the ship back on course so Murray relented and preached our Universalist good news. That afternoon, the wind direction changed and off he went, newly inspired to be a founder of Universalism in America. This is one of our very small set of UU miracle stories!
It was a small camp, no more than 50 or 60 campers from up and down the mid-Atlantic seaboard. If I remember correctly, my first year of camp was in 1970 as a 13 year old who had just finished seventh grade. I met sophisticated kids from New York City who smoked! I played spin the bottle and exchanged passionate kisses with girls for the first time. I experienced my first slow dance chest to chest with Ivy listening to “Stairway to Heaven.” And yes, I learned how to braid plastic material to make lanyards, did improvisational theater, had deep, meaningful conversations and slept on the top bunk of a cabin with the mosquitoes sipping my blood.
Camp for many of us is our first experience away from our parents/caregivers with people our own age. Yes, of course campers do things that their parents might not approve of if they found out. But more important, the camper, freed of parental regulation, begins to discover who they are. The camp is a sanctuary, a protected space for self-discovery and experimentation. Camp is where many Unitarian Universalist teenagers discover the liberal religious values that have been fostered in them in their home congregations, connects them with other UU youth, and makes them far more compatible with each other.
Another time I found the experience of sanctuary was when I moved to California at the age of 20 in 1977. I didn’t know anybody in the San Francisco Bay Area. This is before micro-computers as we called them then, cell phones, and social media. I landed in Palo Alto without one friend. So on my first Sunday in California, I attended the Palo Alto Unitarian Church. It was a refreshing sanctuary for my spirit the moment I walked in. They sang hymns I knew using the blue hymnal. The minister gave a sermon that spoke to me. They had a book store like my home congregation in Newark, Delaware. I walked over to their membership table and struck up a friendship with Peggy, who a little over a year later, rented me a room in her house. I had found a place of refuge as I explored living by myself on the other side of the country.
I had another experience of sanctuary when I was a member of the Oakland Unitarian Church. The minister approached me and suggested I attend something called “Leadership School” for a week in the summer. I had moved to California to “find myself” and wanted to enter a new phase of my life. At the Oakland Church, I was beginning to explore if ministry might be a direction I wanted to go. The Pacific Central District Leadership School taught me all about organizational development and dynamics or “OD.” I’d never been exposed to the idea of group process in meetings. I was amazed as I became aware of it as a force that affected people’s participation in the meetings we practiced using different techniques. In that protected space together, our small group of students and guides quickly developed a trust and confidence in each other that allowed us to discover attitudes and behaviors in ourselves that helped and hindered the group process. The sanctuary we created together helped us connect and grow together.
I’ve been in a number of other small group experiences that created a sense of sanctuary that nurtured my spirit. Probably the most powerful experience of it has happened at silent meditation retreats. In this quiet setting with only my mind as a companion and the instructions of the teachers, I’ve been able to put the process of my mind under a microscope and see how it works. Protected from news, television, social media, email and radios, the input to my usually busy mind slows way down. No one is making demands on my attention and time. Meals are taken in silence. Eye contact and communication with others avoided. My only daily task is to witness the processes of consciousness moment by moment as I alternate between sitting still and observing my breath and walking very slowly observing my feet lifting, moving and placing. In this unusual and protected space, the mind and body relax, releasing layer upon layer of stress and tension. I’ve never felt as peaceful and relaxed as I do after a few days at a meditation retreat. By the end of nine days, I’m rejuvenated, rested, energized and ready to go back into the world to make a positive difference.
Where is your place of sanctuary? I know for many it is being in a natural setting removed from society and social stimulation. Hiking and camping provide the feeling of sanctuary for many of us. Others of us find it at a vacation cottage or walking on a deserted beach. Each of us has a different length of time we need to settle in to connect with that feeling of sanctuary.
I hope many of you recognize how our congregation and our building can be a place of sanctuary for you. Please, let us in the office know if you want to come and sit in our sanctuary and be still and quiet for a time. We’ll strive to arrange a time to accommodate you. We all need the experience of sanctuary. I know it is for me – may our congregation be that for you too.