Mary Kirkpatrick sits on the church pew holding a handful of string. The members of the Unitarian Church of Ithaca greet her clapping as she is announced to perform next. During her act, she depicts the story of a Unitarian summer camp using a series of intricate string figures. This is the first of many performances to be included in the United Universalist talent show, an annual community-building activity open to the public.
This event is more about promoting community and creativity rather than spreading a religious belief, members of the church told Ithaca Week. It does, however, have a direct link to the lessons delivered at sermons.
“We like to think of ourselves as a society rather than a church,” Kirkpatrick said. “When you think about religious education, it’s nothing real solemn. There’s no specific thing that we’re trying to teach or put across.” The talent show performers are encouraged to share any music or creative representation that is important to them; it does not have to be a typically spiritual or religious selection. Acts from the show ranged from popular love songs to poetry about nature and the environment.
“Music and spirituality are directly connected,” Jack Roscoe, chair of the music committee for the church, said. “There’s something about the way that our soul responds to music that it doesn’t respond to talking. Music plays a necessary part of all the things that we do as humans in our culture.”
By opening the talent show to the public, the UU talent show will help to spread a deeper love of music beyond the church itself, Roscoe believes.
“I feel like [music] saved my life,” Judy Stock, the church religious education minstrel, said. “I think it’s vital.” A vocalist from a young age, she believes that performance has played a major role in her life.
Just as the church draws its beliefs from various cultures, the acts at the talent show emphasized the importance of diversity as well. One performance featured a song that used Swahili tribal chants and the English translations to break societal barriers.
The church is among the first to accept the LGBT community in its congregation and encourages diversity both in philosophy and culture. Stock mentions that members of the congregation are taught about everything from Christianity and Paganism to Native American spiritual beliefs and are left to decide which ideologies suit them best.
“There’s a lot of openness to different kinds of ideas but at the same time [the church] has the benefits of a more traditional bricks and mortar church where you have events and support,” Stephanie Ortolano, the church Music Coordinator, said.
“There’s stuff happening all the time and it’s all ongoing,” Kirkpatrick said. “The church resembles a kind of workshop.”
Other activities at UU can be found on their website.