Virginia revival joins three congregations and campus ministry
500 worshipers gather for rousing service in college community.
It worked for three Unitarian Universalist congregations and a UU campus group in Virginia. Around 500 people from the four groups gathered on February 24 for Sunday morning worship and religious education. The event, in a ballroom at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va., included a combined choir, a brass ensemble, and lively sermonizing.
“We used every chair they had,” said the Rev. Andrew Millard, of the UU Fellowship of the Peninsula in Newport News. “People just really enjoyed it. It was a lot of work, but definitely worth it.” Millard said the revival, called “Drawing the Circle Wide: A Hampton Roads UU Revival,” was suggested by the Rev. Cyndi Simpson of the Unitarian Church of Norfolk, who had experienced a similar event by UU congregations in Pennsylvania.
Also participating were the Williamsburg Unitarian Universalists and the Fellowship of Campus UU Students (FOCUUS) at the university. Millard said the purpose of the revival was to build connections—and enthusiasm—in the congregations: “We wanted our people to get excited about what Unitarian Universalism could be. And it was an opportunity to connect the student group with the congregations and to show non-UUs what UU worship is like at its very best.”
A.J. Bennett, president of the campus ministry, said the event was “a wonderful, invigorating worship experience that was an excellent opportunity for our campus ministry group, as well as for all others attending, to express our deepest commitments and be inspired and encouraged to become our best selves.”
He said the event probably didn’t attract non-UU students since Sunday morning is simply not the best time to interest students. “But we were there,” Bennett said, “and that’s what is important. The main benefit was no different from any worship service; it simply happened on a larger scale. That is, a group of people came together to share words, music, and ritual that puts our values and beliefs into action and helps to create and sustain the beloved community.
“More specifically, and for our student group in particular, this was a great chance to see how we're a part of a much larger movement, as well as a chance for some of us to participate in creating the worship experience for that religious community,” Bennett said. “The message of the service also challenged us, calling us to think about extending our circle of compassion and community.”
The revival was promoted on Facebook and in local news media. Millard said the event attracted some non-UUs. “Certainly there were people there who were not affiliated with any of the three congregations,” said Millard.
The Rev. Jennifer Ryu of the Williamsburg UUs said the revival helped participants remember they were part of a larger movement that has a message that the world needs. “I think people were really surprised at the numbers. We’ve decided we have to do this again.”
She said she thinks people were also surprised at the lack of diversity in the combined congregations. “We assume that because our own congregation is in a predominately white community that that’s why our congregation looks like it does. We assume the other congregations that are more urban have more diversity. But we didn’t see it at the revival,” Ryu said. “I think that just seeing that will help us in our continuing work to become a multicultural congregation. The revival has added another perspective to that work.”
She said some UUs invited friends. “It was a service that people knew would be great. And it was especially good to have the student group host this.” She said she recommends an event like this to other congregations. “Everyone should try this.”
The event raised around $2,500 for the Foodbank of the Virginia Peninsula.
Millard and Ryu presented homilies. Simpson led a guided meditation.
The revival was an outgrowth of monthly meetings that the three ministers—Ryu, Millard, and Simpson—have been having for months. “We became friends and we started talking about all the things we could do better together,” said Ryu. The presidents of the three congregations have also been meeting. And now the congregations are talking about sharing other resources.
The revival has become part of a larger conversation about “getting outside our own church buildings,” Ryu said. “It also fits into the current discussions on UU regionalization,” a trend that encourages congregations and districts to work together.
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