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Best Practices at Original Blessing

Posted by Annie Gonzalez Milliken // May 8th 2014 // Stories and Voices, young adults // 10 comments

Multigen and Mission Focused

Original Blessing 1BOriginal Blessing is like a study in best practices for a congregation that wants to appeal to younger people as well as older folks” remarked Carey McDonald after a recent visit there. Having stopped into Sunday evening worship at this new UU congregation in Greenpoint, Brooklyn a couple weeks ago myself, I had to agree.

The service followed traditional UU models: chalice lighting, singing, greeting one another, a sermon, a pastoral prayer where the community’s concerns were lifted up. And the service I attended did all of these elements in ways that felt engaging, authentic and spiritually alive. The musicians were excellent and the singing, done without having to look down or squint up at words, felt soulful. There was a high degree of lay participation and an informal vibe that worked well with the high level of intimacy I sensed among the worshipers. Children were welcomed in at the end of the service for the closing song and everyone was encouraged to move and dance to the music together. People were friendly and that openness continued during the social hour, upstairs in the coffee shop part of the building where they hold services, a space called Awakening NY.

Original Blessing 2B

While Original Blessing could be a study in how to do UU church in millenial-friendly ways, appealing to young adults isn’t their objective. Rather it’s a nice outcome of their focus on mission. Their goal is to “transform our world through creative worship, social justice and compassionate community,” and they intend to do this as “a spiritually ambitious movement seeking a relationship with God.” This statement of their identity and purpose is on their website, on their order of service and was spoken aloud during worship.  It is clear and fairly concise: they are about spiritual transformation.

Part of working toward this mission is getting out into the community. The Sunday that I visited the congregation was planning a sound bath in nearby McCarren Park on an upcoming Saturday. What’s a sound bath, you ask? I had the same question. From what I heard they were planning to bring their music and singing to the community, to bathe them in soulful sound and invite them to come to their financial literacy adult religious education class. Spiritual singing in the park and the possibility for a better budget? Sounds like a win-win to me.

Original Blessing is a small congregation. There were no more than 20 folks attending the night I was there, and Rev. Ian White Maher, their lead minister, claims about 40 committed members who show up and give generously. However, with their clarity of purpose and their community presence I will not be surprised to see this blessing overflowing very soon, perhaps spilling out into other worshipping communities elsewhere in Brooklyn.

Want to learn more and see them in action? Check out this video


If you’re moved by what you see, please consider donating to their indiegogo campaign to get this congregation fully funded and going strong!


About the Author

Annie is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister and currently serves our faith as the Young Adult and Campus Ministry Associate for the Unitarian Universalist Association.
10 Responses to “Best Practices at Original Blessing”
  1. Doug Jones says:

    This is very interesting. Original Blessing seems to be a very creative and inspirational UU ministry. In the video on the website, the Rev. Ian White Maher does refer to this being a Unitarian Universalist community at the beginning and again at the end. However, there is no mention of Original Blessing being Unitarian Universalist in the very nice promotional video included as part of the video on the website. The web site does not seem to have the words Unitarian Universalist on it. From a web search, it is clear that the Rev. Ian White Maher is a UU minister. So why don’t they own their UUism more openly?

    • Annie Gonzalez says:

      Hi Doug,
      As far as I understand Original Blessing is definitely an openly UUA affiliated congregation. As you said, they do identify as Unitarian Universalist. However, I think what you’re pointing to is that communicating their mission and how they live it is more important to them than communicating about what Unitarian Universalism is. I’ve actually been seeing this trend in some campus groups as well. We’ll see how it goes for them!

      • Ralph1Waldo says:

        It does seem quite unusual and odd to obscure its UU connections. Perhaps this has something to do with the mission, which includes “seeking a relationship with God.” That is also a pretty unusual thing to hear in a UU setting, as it seems designed to drive away Humanists, freethinkers, and everyone else who is not comfortable with that word.

  2. Katie says:

    I would love to see a service. A videotape of a service. Just because your description while lovely just doesn’t allow me to figure out what they’re doing that is different. And it may be just the emotion. It may be just the thrill their having in their new wonderful congregation

    • Annie Gonzalez says:

      Yes, a video of worship would be wonderful! There are some edited portions of worship in the video that is linked in the post, but it is interspersed with talking. Still it gives a bit of the flavor.

      And you know, I think depending on what UU congregation you’re used to, Original Blessing might seem very “different” (they don’t use hymnals, they have highly trained lay ministers giving theological reflection, they talk about spirit and God openly) but it might also seem fairly standard if you’re from a congregation that shares some of those practices. Different is always relative 🙂

  3. Ralph1Waldo says:

    As a dedicated UU and a religious humanist/naturalist I feel I can appreciate a diversity of spiritual viewpoints and expressions. But I’ve never before seen a congregation that is apparently UU — and is lauded by UUA leadership as an example of reaching out to the younger generation — that seems both to publicly obscure its UU connection and to be quite distant from anything recognizable as UU. No chalice, no 7 principles anywhere to be found; instead, a mission that we are seeking “a relationship with God?” Really? So humanists, freethinkers and all present and prospective Unitarian Universalists not comfortable with that word — with the idea of a cosmic dictator that so many of us have freed ourselves from thanks to the gift of a free and responsible search for truth — need not apply?

    “The whole universe is in love with you?” What does that even mean? Do the leaders of this congregation and those who hold it up as exemplary really believe that millennials and “nones” want to check their intellect at the church door and fill up on meaningless, Chopra-esque new-agey meaningless mush such as this? I came to and thrived in Unitarian Universalism as a movement of both head and heart, where I could celebrate life, search for truth and engage with the world ethically and responsibly. If a congregation with this kind of message was my introduction to the movement, I wouldn’t have gone anywhere near it.

    I’m personally quite troubled by these developments, and I know others will be too.

    • Annie Gonzalez says:

      Well as I acknowledged to Doug, Original Blessing is indeed a UU congregation and in covenant with our Association. Their lead minister is a UU minister who is in fellowship with his UU colleagues and has previously served another of our UU congregations. So they are certainly UU! They even light the chalice each worship service 🙂

      It is true that their UU identity is not central to their mission nor message, and as I noted to Doug, I have seen that trend emerging in other groups. We’ll see how it goes!

      It is true that no one UU congregation will appeal to all UUs. That is one of the challenges of our spiritual and theological diversity! So you are right that some UUs (or would-be-UUs) will be turned off by the mission and language at Original Blessing. Others will be excited by the mission and language and be glad to join an intentionally God-centered UU community! Fortunately there are multiple UU congregations in New York City, so there are many UU options for those who are searching in that area.

      I hope that however you engage with Unitarian Universalism that it is nourishing your mind and spirit!

      • Ralph1Waldo says:

        “It is true that their UU identity is not central to their mission nor message, and as I noted to Doug, I have seen that trend emerging in other groups. We’ll see how it goes!f”

        I suppose we will. It certainly begs the question of what the point is of affiliating with UU if the congregation is going to avoid outward associations with UU imagery, language and ideas. Seeking a relationship with God but no 7 Principles? Promoting a mainly Christian/theist outlook and not inclusive of all others? Why not be UCC or non-denominational? Moreover, if a trend is emerging to dilute and subordinate the UU identity when forming, promoting and leading UU groups and it is more successful than actually working to articulate *what Unitarian Universalism is and why it is an important movement of ideas* than our movement is truly in decline. Surely everyone can see that.


        • Annie Gonzalez says:

          I’m so glad you’ve brought up these topics around the question “what makes a group UU?” I think this question is crucial to consider as we move into the next generation of ministries and religious communities.

          I would say that rather than diluting or subordinating the UU identity, the trend I’m seeing of focusing on mission is about
          1. effective communication (people don’t know what UU is, but if a campus group is called “Spiritual Freethinkers” or a congregation is called “Original Blessing” then that gives a better sense of who they are).
          2. doing rather than talking about Unitarian Universalism. Based on my limited observations, Original Blessing is about living the 7 principles. In the service I attended I heard people searching for truth in a free and responsible manner (4th principle) and encouraging others to spiritual growth (3rd principle). I heard a deep concern for the web of life (7th) and for the worth of all people (1st).

          Overall I think the idea here is that it’s more important to serve people spiritually and spread UU values than to make sure people know what Unitarian Universalism is and memorize the 7 principles. I’m not saying we can’t do both, and I hope we DO do both (serving people and teaching folks what UU is). This congregation is one experiment in seeing what happens when the term “Unitarian Universalism” takes a back seat to mission. But I would argue that while the term is taking a back seat, the essence of UU and the covenanted relationships to other UUs are very much present.

          Also, as a point of information, you mentioned “promoting a mainly Christian/theist outlook and not inclusive of all others.” Indeed such an outlook, if not inclusive, would be troubling and not Unitarian Universalist. However, I haven’t encountered any UU congregations, including Original Blessing, that have such an exclusive outlook. The service I attended at Original Blessing was quite inclusive and drew on multiple religious traditions.

          Thanks for bringing up such juicy questions! In a diverse faith like ours it is always a challenge to determine where the boundaries of our religion are and how to define them.

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