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UU church service offers alternative to Black Friday

St. Paul, Minn., church studies ways to “reclaim Christmas.”
By Donald E. Skinner

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Shelley Butler was already among the converted when she joined a group two years ago at Unity Church-Unitarian in St. Paul, Minn., to talk about “reclaiming Christmas” from commercialism and busyness.

She and her family already were in the habit of exchanging non-extravagant gifts, but she wanted more: more meaning in the holiday season and more time with friends and family. So when Unity member William Doherty, a professor in the Family Social Science Department at the University of Minnesota, proposed the “UU Christmas Reclamation Project” in early 2008 in an effort to reverse the holiday season’s slide toward consumerism, stress, and overcommitment, and to add meaning to the season, she was immediately interested.

The group of 11 people who comprised the “UU Christmas Reclamation Project” spent nearly a year examining Christmas from every angle—consumerism, stress, expectations, and how UUs can find meaning in the Christmas story. Said Doherty, “We talked about “what we could do about Christmas rather than panning it or viewing it nostalgically.” Then in 2008 and again last month the congregation held a worship service on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, which, for many people, is given over to shopping.

Three hundred people came to that service in 2008 and around 200 came this year. “Black Friday at Church” garnered nationwide publicity both years. This year a second church, New Hope Baptist Church in St. Paul, with which Unity has collaborated on other occasions, held its own Black Friday service.

Unity also organized small group discussions of holiday topics on its “Wellspring Wednesday” church nights in November, and had similar discussions on Sundays.

Butler is thrilled. “Our church has responded tremendously to this project. Many people have said they are thirsty for finding more mindful and meaningful ways to share the holidays with family and friends, and as a congregation. I talked to one person last year who was discouraged about the bombardment of commercialism around Christmas, the frantic nature of getting everything done that was expected of her. This season she said she is feeling more calm and empowered to let go of the materialism in order to create a deliberate Christmas for her family. I could see a greater joy and anticipation this year that was absent last year.”

Doherty emphasized that the church’s efforts to refocus the season should be seen as a critique of the culture, but not as anti-shopping. “This is not cultural elites making fun of the Wal-Mart shoppers, but rather a message about the frantic competitive nature and commercialization of the season. We want to reclaim Christmas. . . . Ours is a very positive message.”

The Black Friday service at Unity this year featured excerpts of interviews from people about how they experienced challenges of the season, plus seasonal music and a children’s story. The theme of the Black Friday service both years was “Feeding the Spirit on the Feast Day of Consumption.” Both services were followed by discussion groups. Doherty said he likes the idea of inviting people to a Friday worship service. “There are no expectations about it looking like a Sunday service, for one thing.”

The UU Christmas Reclamation Project is part of the Family Chalice Project, a program Doherty started at Unity Church and First Universalist Church in Minneapolis that helps families nurture spiritual growth through home-based religious practices and conversations.

Doherty said he hopes other congregations, including non-UU ones, will adopt Black Friday services next year and devote time to thinking deeply about, and reclaiming Christmas. “Some people here want to do this every year, and they’re very proud their church is doing it,” he said. “At the same time, we want this to become more than our thing, or just a UU thing.”

This year Doherty attended the Black Friday service at New Hope Baptist, where the message was about helping those less fortunate, putting the focus on Jesus’s birthday, and reining-in spending. Doherty had coached New Hope in its planning for the service. “They had a very meaningful service,” he said. “The theme really resonated with them.” Doherty said New Hope plans to hold another service next year and will try to spread it to other African American congregations.

The model that Doherty used for Black Friday at Church, and for the Family Chalice Program, grew out of his work at the university, where, since 1999, he has helped develop 14 “citizen initiatives” on problems ranging from addiction, to parenting, to connecting immigrants to communities. These initiatives begin by drawing on the wisdom of individuals, families, and communities who are confronting these problems in their own lives and then helping these groups develop the “civic muscle” to create highly visible projects that attract media attention and lead to change.

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