My mother once said she could probably experience the sacred, a spirit of worship, in the any religious tradition’s worship space. I was surprised, as she was so staunchly Methodist, but something about that declaration stayed with me. I was reminded of it at 19, thoroughly agnostic, stunned to silence by the pillars and mysterious blue light of Chartres Cathedral. The truth of my mother’s statement has stayed.

My church, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Brunswick, burned in the wee hours of June 6. Our minister, Sylvia Stocker, spent the next few hours with firefighters and reporters, while later that morning many of us gathered around smoky boards, charred, hole-pocked roof and walls, shattered stained glass.

It’s trite to say, but “you always think this happens to others.” The pervasive smell of smoke told us otherwise. 

The following Sunday after worship in the Curtis Library across the street, we observed our annual flower communion – we each bring a flower and we each take a different flower – but this time, we filed in silence across the street and left our flowers on the front steps of our burned church. 

It felt like a graveside service as each dropped a flower and joined the growing circle around the front steps, taking the hand of the next person.

For weeks we’ve been talking about how, what and where to rebuild – formally in meetings, informally with each other.  Most of us have specific ideas of what constitutes an appropriate space and place for worship and communal life – and what decidedly does not. We don’t all agree. 

I’m thrown back many years to when I lived in Arlington, Mass., where the Unitarian Universalist church, a classic New England white clapboard Greek Revival structure at the main crossroads, stood out as the town’s most prominent and beautiful landmark. 

In fall, the maple out front blazed orange. I loved that building, though I was not at the time a churchgoer and had never been inside. But a fire accidentally kindled during a paint job ignited the steeple. The fire grew uncontrollable; the steeple burned, fell and smashed through the roof into the sanctuary – a total loss.

I understand that members of the congregation, though they pulled together mightily, experienced a lot of angst about how and what to build. What finally replaced that graceful, historic landmark horrified me: a sleek, almost windowless shell of sheer angles, with an openwork contemporary steeple.

Even worse, I thought, the irreplaceable maple tree was torn out to make room for what I considered a monstrosity. I fumed for months, years.

But many, many Sundays later, in search of spiritual community similar to, but different from, what I’d grown up with, I walked into that “monstrosity” and found the very spiritual community I knew I needed. I came back and kept coming back, and of course eventually found myself in divinity school. 

Something happened with many Sundays inside that space I had considered such a desecration of history, beauty and decorum. As it and its inhabitants nourished my soul, it transformed into sanctuary. The spirit of the place and the people worked an alchemy. I still feel at home there when I return as a guest preacher.

So today I keep remembering, as we envision, or cannot envision but only yearn toward, a physical space where we can gather, worship, eat supper, hold meetings and classes, that what makes any worship space a worship space is not the way the wood or metal is bent, or what kind of glass fills the windows, but the people who inhabit it and make it holy with their Spirit. 

I keep remembering my mother, who could feel the Holy Spirit anywhere people choose to build houses for it. I’m grateful for that legacy. I’m grateful that I once found my spiritual home – and my calling to ministry – in a space I had dismissed.

These give me faith that these people with whom I worship and seek spiritual grounding and growth will together find our way to build – and consecrate – a new space, a home for our souls. 

The Rev. Karen Lewis Foley is a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Brunswick and a spiritual director, retreat leader and writer. She can be reached at:
[email protected]