“I hold you as you have held me” rings throughout the sanctuary, sometimes mumbled, sometimes clear, but always sincerely. As I receive bread from the woman to the right of me as she smiles and tells me “I hold you as you have held me,” I feel the power and interconnectedness of the space. As I turn to the boy to my left, the phrase takes on a new meaning, and I tell him, “I hold you as you have held me”. Each time the phrase is repeated, a new spark of connection is created between the members of the community, holding them together, bringing them closely intertwined in the space they have built together. 1 

I hold you as you have held me.

As we spoke to members and leaders of the congregation, a common theme that arose throughout every conversation was the focus on the sense of community and belonging that exists at the church. When speaking to one member of the church, Jerry Sattinger, she shared with us the difference between her old UU church in Pittsburgh and First Universalist. She says about the church in Pittsburgh, that there “I felt that I was going to church. Here I feel that I am belonging to this church. There is just this tremendous sense of community within this church.” 2 This sentiment was echoed throughout the sermons, the interviews, the conversations we overheard between people-- community is what keeps people going to First Universalist.

Jerry also spoke about how she feels that “her gifts, whatever I have to bring of myself are appreciated. I am encouraged to be a participant here”, she told us. By celebrating each member of the community, Jerry feels that she is in a place where she is valued, “there has never been a time at this church when I have felt unwelcome”, which speaks to the effort the church makes to create an inclusive community. She also spoke about the emphasis the church has not just on the insular church community, but the greater community of Minneapolis. “It’s not only within the walls of this church that we care about each other, but that we are about the greater community and we care about reaching out to that community”. Through building a strong community within by reaching out to the larger community, Jerry sees the moral responsibility as a way to strengthen the common values of the churchgoers. 3

For Michael Dotson, a man who first entered the First Universalist 29 years ago, community is one of the main factors that continues to bring him to church each Sunday morning. Michael said that in recent years, since Justin’s arrival at the church, he has gotten the sense that within the broader church community, “there is more variety of experience” than he had once thought. He spoke of one of Justin’s sermons, which focused on the idea that “sometimes you are in great need and you need to allow yourself to be upheld by an ocean of caring-- of other people--of spirit. Sometimes you are part of the ocean that holds up other people.” This sermon resonated with Michael because it reflected “the variety of experiences that people have in terms of poverty, addiction, depression.” It served as an acknowledgement that “there are people in this congregation that are probably struggling with a lot of things.” He said that for many years he had assumed that “everybody else has got it all together. I’m just the one who is struggling and hasn’t figured it out yet.” Now, with sermons that emphasize the idea of hardship and the bonds that can emerge from this hardship, Michael feels that ministers frame struggle “more as a common piece or a positive piece.” Through his leadership in the People of Color Circle and Racial Justice Leadership Team, he said, “I realize that maybe I have 5-6 people, you know, if I had a group of people. And almost all of them are here.” 4

The sense of inclusion, care, and connectedness that Michael feels echoes throughout the church. Reflecting on her long-time battle with severe breast cancer, congregant Joy Throm said, “This church has been really there for me...I don’t know what I would have done without this community. I have no family locally and you know, this community helped me, so everything I do here I try to partially do in remembrance of giving back.” The kindness and love that congregants and ministers offered to Joy stood out so much that, Joy said, “One of my dear friends joined the First Universalist because of the support she saw me receive.” 5

  1. Emily Perlman, Observations at First Universalist Minneapolis, April 24, 2016.

  2. Jerry Sattinger, Interview, May 15, 2016. "

  3. Jerry Sattinger, Interview, May 15, 2016. "

  4. Michael Dotson, Interview, May 8, 2016.

  5. Joy Throm, Interview, May 15, 2016.