Last weekend I took time out from a women’s retreat I was attending in the mountains to be at Althea Center for Engaged Spirituality for Membership Sunday. Then I stopped at a picnic at the Gender Identity Center to do a set with a newly forming choir before driving back into the mountains to help make dinner, participate in a badass equinox ritual and MC the camp talent show. I got up early and went to bed late and it was just an intense day, full of action interspersed with long solitary car rides. And in the midst of all that, I became a member of the Althea Center.
My relationship with that place has been evolving since the beginning of the year, when a weekly Sufi study circle I belong to started meeting there. My group had been seeking a “home” in Denver for a while, and the people at Althea had told our search committee that they had all this space that they wished would be used by diverse spiritual communities. Multiple organizations with different perspectives but common purposes – supporting people in their journeys of spiritual growth – sharing a large old building that looked like a Greek temple and had been built in 1906 by the metaphysical Church of Divine Science – well, that sounded good!
The hardwood floor of the room we’d contracted to meet in, a library-slash-classroom, ended up needing major repairs, and the church, or rather the congregation, had to raise money to pay for it as they went. So for the next several months we bounced around from room to room (of which there were many). Once a month as part of our regular cycle of classes, I lead a chant night, and each month it was a mystery as to where we would sing.
Sometimes we were in an area at the back of the sanctuary with blue carpet, big armchairs, and vast accordion doors that stretched across the whole back of the large hall, but never quite clicked closed.
My favorite, though, was when we met to sing in a little alcove with a rickety table at the end of a hallway of tiny meeting rooms. There was a square window with no curtain or blind that could with effort be opened onto a city alley below. The walls were yellow and there were not really any decorations. It felt old and worn.
This is a quality I love so much in buildings, perhaps especially in churches. It takes me back to St. Joseph’s basement where I performed in a children’s Christmas pageant in a quilted bathrobe, and to my dad’s UU fellowship that had its sanctuary and office-slash-library in the rooms above a rural community theater – where I hung out while my dad was in board meetings, where I took an early stab at novel writing, where I first encountered Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
The Althea Center IS old. It was the “mother” church of the Divine Science movement and has been a place where mystical and progressive and metaphysical spiritual perspectives have found a welcome since 1898. It’s fascinating to me to think of the teachers who have spoken there over these years, perhaps some of the people whose ideas influenced people like Sam Lewis, who originated the Dances of Universal Peace, my encounter with which has transformed my life in every possible way.
I’ve been thinking about these connections since I started attending the eclectic Sunday morning services at Althea, which happened when out of the blue I got an email asking me if I might be interested in sharing some interfaith songs and chants there. Seemed their previous song leader had left and someone (a member of the aforementioned study group who helped organize our rental of the space) had mentioned to them that I might be able to help out. I was utterly thrilled at the invitation. I led a couple of chants one Sunday in May and it seemed to be mutually agreeable so I’ve been going back ever since.
It makes me nervous, getting up there with what I consider not the best guitar talent, and I feel very conscious of my imperfect playing, especially with such incredible musicians as play there. The church website advertises the Sunday service as having “world class music” and they are not kidding – though I read that and think, “Everyone but me, of course.” It’s an extra bonus and source of inspiration for me that I get to hear these awesome classical (and sometimes New Age) musicians play each week. And somehow I, with my little acoustic guitar chant singalong, am part of that.
It’s a lesson in getting over myself, all right. If I succumbed to shame and hid away whenever I felt embarrassed about my playing, it would all be over. But it is such a dream come true to be able to actually share the type of music that I do, which is so quirky (and, I often feel, dorky, though I nonetheless am compelled to do it almost without ceasing) with people who seem to find it helpful in some way. It’s shocking to me that I could ever find myself having this opportunity, and I keep thinking that they’ll soon be tired of me and my mistakes and that will be that, but I am so grateful for each and every chance to share this music in this space with this community.
That’s part of why I chose to become a member of the Althea Center for Engaged Spirituality last weekend. There’s also the way the church supports and encourages the arts, especially artists and groups from marginalized communities; the way it opens its space for all kinds of conferences and real, in-depth conversations about the critical issues facing our nation and world today; the way it puts the guiding principle of oneness into action, the kind of action that makes things better.
I thought this part of the membership ritual perfectly captured the essence that I love about Althea. People who were joining the church each lit a candle on a table at the front of the church. But the candles weren’t new candles that all looked the same. They were every different kind of candle in every condition of prior use and semi-meltedness, some practically straight and some bulbous or gnarled. They were all different heights and the long stove matches we were given to light them with didn’t reach down neatly to the burnt wicks but left black marks on the white wax sides.
To me it was like – Look at this motley crew, so quirky and so loved. Each member empowered to give their gifts in full acknowledgement of their imperfection – their uniqueness. It’s such a great vibe and I’m honored and delighted to be a part of it.
So I feel like when I completed that little ritual of joining the community, a door quietly opened somewhere in me. And I am very curious to see where it leads.