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Deviant Church Lady of 10 Years

That honor tops my resume this week! Tomorrow is my 10th anniversary working for Unitarian Universalists. As a recovering Catholic, I never aspired to work for any kind of religious organization. (Unless there was, like, a really hip urban Zen monastery hiring staff? Like maybe Fight Club style Rinzai? That would have been cool.) I had no idea UUs existed before I responded to an employment ad after college. After getting real tired of substitute teaching and anything related to a mall, restaurant, or pyramid scheme, I was willing to try crazier things to pay for grad school, and working for a bunch of friendly peace-and-love hippies did not seem like the worst option out there. Little did I know that I would find myself in a position that so marvelously supported my values and personal life choices that I would quit grad school just to stay... a deviant church lady.

Baby Nux Gallica helps me serve cake at coffee hour to celebrate the anniversary of the Affordable Care Act

Ten years ago, I started this quirky job. Ten years before that, my world smelled like teen spirit. I came of age in 1990s Catholic school. Other kids called me Daria, and I took it as a compliment. I wore my plaid skirts with militant boots, and on weekends I dressed like this:

As soon as high school began, I lost all patience with Catholic dogma, creeper teachers, and dark dramas in purity masquerade. I started hoarding old magazines and cutting all the eyeballs and teeth-smiles out of the faces like a paper doll serial killer. I used them to make a collage of all the feels:

I jumped ship for public school halfway through sophomore year (where I won an art prize for my angst collage!) and made bestest friends with various other eccentrics born-and-raised Catholic. We stuck together after high school and ever since, despite varying degrees of religiosity and general heresy. Here we are after college:

I won't tell you which one liked to trip on acid while altar serving with the bishop.

These loves (and a friendo from the old Catholic school) helped me scour want ads in the newspaper when I irresponsibly quit my gig at JC Penney selling ugly, yellowish discount diamonds without finding another job first.

How last-millennium is the classified section of the newspaper? I was probably the last person on earth to find a real job this way.

My interview was bizarre in the best possible way. It took place at the church, which was an old Jewish frat house converted into a jumble of hoarder rooms where aging hippies held committee meetings about everything they could think of. The only important interview question seemed to be, "Do you like working with gay people?" (My most fun high school summer job had been as a cookie baker at the mall, working with gay kids and a cross-dressing manager. I said YES.) Soon, I was introduced to the committee whose purpose was to take me and my supervisor out to lunch every Administrative Professionals' Day (formerly known as Secretaries' Day).

My grinchy heart grew three sizes as I realized that this had been the church of my dreams in high school, the church I had been seeking after I tricked my parents into agreeing that although I had to go to church every Sunday, I could go to a different church than theirs. That summer, I went church-exploring with a friend every weekend (sir Couch Potato pictured above--not the one biting my face, that's my now-husband). This was in the days of dial-up internet and limited web presence, so we had gone through the paper phone book and visited all kinds of crazeballs churches in alphabetical order, never making it to U. All along, we had wished to find a safe place where we would be accepted as we were, with all of our true feelings and questions and doubts, where we could learn spiritual practices that felt authentic to us. The closest we got was the Hindu temple with free yoga classes, but our parents refused to accept that as "church," alas!

So finding this church as an adult, at a time when I was looking for a tolerable way to make a few bucks, felt like long-awaited grace.

I dove into the work with enthusiasm, supporting non-creedal religion with that familiar Christian church feel, except with the dogmatic smugness replaced by radical inclusion and a celebration (not mere toleration) of human diversity and creative exploration. How refreshing!

Meanwhile, I heard gems like this from my graduate school professors:  You won't be able to effect systemic change in your work. There's too much red tape to influence policy in this field. But you can always call your senator.

So I dropped the graduate program and picked up another part-time job in UU-led statewide human rights advocacy. Through phone calls, social media, and travel all over the state, I helped to network mobs of influential people to call (and write and visit) their senator to make progressive policy changes. We saw things happen that transformed people's lives, and we had a part in making it so. It felt good, like loving my whole state in a way that made it grow before my eyes. I kept that job for about six years, until after my daughter was born. And meanwhile, I volunteered and showed up to events on my own time, too--not because my work obligated me to do so but because it had empowered me to feel confidence in the difference I could make in the world, regardless of my credentials, degrees, or pay grade.

The church has been flexible and supportive of my family life. Choosing to stay and work here allowed me to stop bracing myself against all the personal threats I'd heard repeatedly in college and grad school: No one has ever started this program straight out of college and not burned out. If you want that degree, you'll have to choose between your studies and marriage. You won't have time for a relationship. If you want to work in this field, you'll have to decide whether you ever want to have a child.

Although the material compensation is humble, I've had the privilege of working with amazing, inspiring teams of congregants and staff. Many of them are friends, and they make my workplace feel like a second home. It's hard to put a price on general life satisfaction, the ability to care for family, and the pride in showing your child what you do to support her.

My day job provides a spiritual home for me and my family. (How many people can say that?) The minister, my boss, officiated at my wedding ceremony. When I got pregnant, the church threw me a baby shower. When my newborn grew into a playful baby who liked coming to the nursery at church, the minister and religious education director presented her to the congregation with a child dedication ceremony. Now we have a "big kid," and my husband and I help teach Sunday school classes about nature and world cultures and how to be a good person.

Working at this church has deepened my ability to appreciate the beliefs and practices of many faiths and cultures--my own Catholic background as well as many others less familiar. At my church, I've taken tai chi and meditation and yoga and belly dance classes. I've helped with intercultural Dia de muertos services that have helped my own family cope with loss. My fears have decreased, of death and fancy churches and shaking my belly and having fun with stuff I've been raised to take too seriously.

Meanwhile, my position as a liberally theological church lady offers me a great deal of freedom of expression. In this religious community, I don't gotta fight for my right to party! I can talk about politics on Facebook. (I don't spam all my friends with dumb and angry opinions all day, but I do get to be honest about my take on issues). During my 20s, I never had to worry about hiding the evidence of good times like, say, voodoo-themed birthday parties. No harm, no foul. No morality policing of my personal life!

I have self-expressive freedom on the job as well. The low physical demands of clerical work combined with the relaxed culture of a UU church has allowed me to rock styles like Scary Pregnancy Nails and different hair colors, including Quarter-Life-Crisis Green.

With this day job, I don't have to hide my aspirations to publish novels that deal with complex moral and religious issues. Magic, irreverence, humor, and non-Christian spirituality are all acceptable topics in art and discourse. Many UUs are proud of their paganism and geekiness. Let that freak flag fly!

My workplace has been a physical haven from an actual storm. During The Great Icepocalypse a couple winters ago, when I had a two-week power outage at home during record-breaking vicious weather, I loved going to work! We offered shelter, showers, and hot coffee to folks in need of such things.

My work home, though stressful at times, often feels like a haven from the unkindness of the world at large. The members of this community don't come to church out of obligation, or to win heaven points, or to show off their piousness. They come seeking ways to become better people, to support each other, and to work together to improve the lives around us.

During the past 10 years, I have watched this church blossom from a lovable clubhouse type of group with a silly Hogwarts vibe... into a profound beacon of light in mid-Michigan. The congregation has grown into a bigger, yet more deeply bonded, diverse group of people from various generations, cultures, and walks of life who want to learn from each other and organize differing strengths to become a greater power for good.

As a decade of my own work here closes, so does a chapter in the nearly-200-year history of the church. The congregation voted to sell the frat house and move out of the historically white supremacist, classist, and ableist location where they have gathered to do good work for the past 44 years. They have purchased a nearly-10-acre lot in a diverse part of town, composed of field and forest, along a new walk/bike trail system, and boasting a very old former school building just begging to be retrofitted. Members of the church have sweated for months, clearing invasive plants, making designs for accessibility and eco-consciousness, and working alongside contractors to transform this long-vacant property into a spacious, inspiring, and welcoming spiritual home... where we can finally hold all the most fabulous gay weddings in town! (And interfaith weddings and non-religious weddings and pagan weddings and geek weddings and normcore weddings and any weddings between loving adults!)

In a poetic arc, the church has chosen to move into the neighborhood where I grew up, not far from the church where I was baptized.

Right now, we're "homeless." We've vacated the frat house so that the new occupants, sorority sisters this time, can make their renovations. But we haven't yet finished renovations to our new place. So in the meantime, we are worshiping with gratitude for the hospitality of our local mosque, which doesn't hold services on Sunday mornings. (It pays to be friends with other faiths!)

One of our creative and generous church members owns a charming dance studio, and she has offered me and my coworkers a cozy place to set up the church server and work remotely. It is the cutest temporary office space imaginable.

Bonus: I get to wear comfy clothes and slippers to work because I'm not on in-person reception duty, and the studio is a shoe-free zone.

Tomorrow, I mark a couple milestones in work and life as I celebrate my 10-year church lady anniversary and enroll my daughter in kindergarten! I've taken the path less traveled, the unexpected turn, in some ways weirder and in some ways so much more ordinary than the life I had always imagined for myself. It feels good to take a moment to look back, take stock of the present, and imagine what's coming around the next bend. If the past 10 years have prepared me for anything in particular, it's to expect the unexpected.

Cheers to a decade of standing on the side of love! Who knows, there could be champagne at my next staff meeting. Stranger things have happened.


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