On its surface, the assignment was painfully simple: Pick some kind of faith-based establishment, any one at all, and write 400 words about whatever it is you find. The establishment need only be local and the essay should, ideally, connect to the holiday season. That's it. Godspeed, and hit your deadline. Try not to burst into flames during your research.
The fireworks, thank heavens, were avoided. Not avoided, however, were analogies to "The Simpsons," Lord of the Rings, Jane Austen and Home Alone, nor countless plugs from the pulpit for Twitter feeds and Facebook pages. One choral director even spoke at length of an upcoming flash mob featuring the entire church choir (we'll let you know if we ever find it on YouTube.) Our largely non-religious writers were introduced to The Wonderworker and the Cowboy Church, "buffet-style" beliefs and a Sunday talk on the process of carbon sequestration. We prayed for some interesting scenes, compelling characters and diverse takes on what the holidays are all about, and our prayers were largely answered.
Yellow Book lists more than 100 churches in Missoula alone, and there are more than a hundred more congregations stretching across the Flathead and Bitterroot valleys. We couldn't cover them all. But what follows offers at least a snapshot of the season from, for us, a slightly different perspective.
First Presbyterian Church of Missoula
201 S. Fifth Street W.
Dan Cravy, co-pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Missoula, holds a loaf of bread in his hand and recites the Prayer of Consecration before delivering communion to a packed house of parishioners. But before the bread is delivered, Cravy interjects with a quick aside: "And for those of you with bread allergies, remember that we have gluten-free wafers." Apparently Kettlehouse isn't the only local business making accommodations for the gluten-averse these days.
Old school literary traditions converge with modern sensibilities here at First Presbyterian, just south of the Hip Strip. This is, of course, the church led by Rev. John Maclean—father of Norman—from 1909 to 1925, and a new stone memorial near the front steps credits the pastor as the inspiration for both A River Runs Through It and the construction of the current church here on Fifth Street.
But this is also the church where co-pastor Brian Marsh delivers a sermon using far different literary references: Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings. The topic is the expectation of love, and Marsh manages to tie together Tolkien's hobbits into a message of unwavering love and devotion, noting Sam's refusal to let his master continue the journey to Mordor by himself. Marsh also notes the similarities to running the church as co-pastor with Cravy, though he notes the roles of Sam and Frodo are constantly switching back and forth.
If the fantasy genre references are lost on some parishioners—the average age at this 9:30 a.m. service appears to be about 65—they hide it well, chuckling throughout the sermon. That's not to say the church lacks a younger audience—just about every kid between 3 and 12 years old is in Sunday school. And you can bet there will be a more youthful crowd for the 11 a.m. service, when the Chancel Choir is replaced by the Worship Band. In the meantime, Cravy invites one of the few teenagers in attendance to help light the second candle on the Advent wreath, which he does with a shy smile.
In light of the sermon, it's mildly surprising that Rev. Cravy doesn't thank the teen with a fist bump. That's Cravy's move, according to Marsh. When conversations end or a problem has been remedied, Cravy often favors the bump over a handshake. And if that seems odd, just remember that President Obama is also a fist-bumper. It's safe to say that the move has gone mainstream.
The cowboy way
Flathead Valley Cowboy Church
Hwy. 93, 1.4 miles north of W. Reserve Drive, in Kalispell
Montana has an answer to the rollicking, soul-filled gospel of the South. It rests just off Highway 93 north of Kalispell in a dimly lit box church resembling something off the set of HBO's "Deadwood." The cold may cut right through wool in the parking lot, but inside the Flathead Valley Cowboy Church, if the giggles of children running circles around dogs don't warm the spirit, the hot coffee and high-stepping music of a four-piece band certainly will. Even strangers are greeted with a neighborly smile and a firm handshake before the chow bell summons them to worship. The plates of fresh cookies are merely a bonus.
Pastor Margie Arends starts a recent evening service at the Cowboy Church with a simple invitation: "Feel at home with us." Though all denominations are welcome, God is a Christian one here. And He's always in a good mood, she says. The congregation is mostly made up of local farmers, ranchers and horse fiends who subscribe to a fundamental teaching of the Bible—when they aren't busy singing, that is. As Senior Pastor Paul Arends so passionately puts it, "There's a war going on."
"No, not the one in Iraq or Afghanistan," he explains. "This war is going on in the spiritual realm."
Arends preaches that the Lord has a pretty big beef with Satan, and the stakes are our lives. You can't be shaken loose "from the things God has for you," Arends says, lest evil steal you. Satan's warfare can come in many forms, from a lost job to an empty checking account. That's why the congregation prays for "jobs," "raises and bonuses," and "checks in the mail." Hallelujahs ring out from the horse-blanket draped pews.
But Christmas isn't solely a time for fire and brimstone. It's a time for a celebration of friends and family, for compassion, for embracing identity and faith. That's why Arends plugs the church's upcoming February mission to Thailand, the "largest, most aggressive outreach" this congregation has undertaken since forming almost a decade ago. It's also why he breaks from hard-line preaching in favor of a more informal, joke-filled sermon. It's the cowboy way.
More than anything, however, this is a time for singing at Cowboy Church. Arends invites onstage a full complement of country-style musicians, all decked in hats, boots and vests. Voices carry loudly through the spacious hall as the band leads uplifting renditions of "God is Good All the Time" and "Rock of My Salvation." Hands sway through the air and eyes close. Come Christmas Eve at 7 p.m., the warmth and melody of the Cowboy Church will be a sight to behold.
If the Blues Brothers ever came West—and had a taste for folksy music—they might well have felt at home here.
A warm place to rest
First Baptist Church
308 W. Pine Street
At the prompting of the pastor, dozens of churchgoers stand up from well-worn wooden pews and cross the aisle inside First Baptist Church. Congregants scatter beneath stained-glass windows and, in a flurry of activity, take part in the regular Sunday morning ritual of introducing themselves to others in attendance.
"Hi, I'm Linda," says Linda Thur, a petite woman with short gray hair and glasses.
Recognizing a newcomer, Thur is eager to spread the good word about First Baptist Church. She's clearly sold on the congregation and explains that the church frequently hosts members of the local homeless population during services. First Baptist is uniquely positioned to do so, largely because it's located kitty corner from the Missoula County Courthouse, a block away from the state's largest homeless shelter, the Poverello Center, and a quick walk from the Mountain Line Transfer Station.
Thur moves in closer to her guest and continues her pitch. The church welcomes anyone during services, she whispers. It also offers free Sunday morning breakfast. The generosity, she says, is a reflection of Christian principles.
"It's a community of faith within the community," Thur says. "I've been impressed by the warmth."
As greetings come to a close and people return to their pews, First Baptist Church Pastor Curtis Privette addresses the room from a raised stage beneath a stained glass representation of the Last Supper. He's flanked by red and white poinsettias and a massive Christmas tree. The young pastor with a tidy brown goatee discusses tools his flock may use to find God during the holiday season.
Privette lays out a list of 13 things taken from the Sermon on the Mount, and the list includes caring for others, mercy and generosity. As he speaks, a large woman seated in the back and wearing faded blue jeans grunts and rocks back and forth. Her body language and appearance peg her as a likely candidate for Thur's down-and-out category.
"The map to righteousness is far more confusing than the map to Bozeman," Privette says, betraying a trace of his fading North Carolina accent. "We need help to be forgiving, kind, generous."
It's not always easy to fulfill those directives, says Privette after the service. Yet, he calls upon the spirit of the season, the spirit of generosity, despite the fact that those huddled here might not be attending services solely to receive God's word.
"I know we get folks who come in Sunday morning," he says, "simply because it's a warm spot that doesn't kick them out."
Holy Spirit Episcopal Church
130 S. Sixth Street E.
I don't remember asking about religion much as a kid. Part of the reason, surely, is because our family's always had a man on the inside—someone who served as our direct connection to the Big Guy upstairs, regardless, it seemed, of whether or not we regularly attended church services.
My uncle declared himself a conscientious objector to the Vietnam war in 1965 on the grounds of his religious beliefs. It was a particularly bold move at the time considering his father, my grandfather, was a rear admiral in the U.S. Navy. It was also before much of the anti-war movement had become so popular. To fulfill his "alternative service," my uncle took a position as assistant to Episcopal Bishop William Gordon Jr., better known as "The Flying Bishop of Alaska" because he frequently traveled to remote villages across the state.
My uncle is still in Alaska today, a reverend now, and the long-time leader of a congregation that must, much like my family, appreciate his rare brand of spiritual leadership. My uncle drinks roughly 12 pots of coffee a day, smokes Camels and once had an office wall—floor to ceiling, corner to corner—covered in scribbled Post-It notes. Every time I picture him in my mind he's not wearing his white Sunday robe, but a Rolling Stones sweatshirt, jeans and—inexplicably considering all that coffee—a sleepy, far-off gaze. Yet, despite his not fitting the model of traditional church leadership, he's a revelation in front of his congregation. I've seen him deliver some of the most engaging, insightful and accessible sermons I've ever heard. He single-handedly makes me consider being more committed to my faith.
But I'm not. I'm too lazy, and still too skeptical. I haven't been to church for anything but a wedding or a funeral in maybe seven years. That track record—not to mention my admittedly odd connection to religion—left me at a loss when my 5-year-old daughter suddenly started asking about church. What is it? Why don't we go? What happens there? Each answer led to even more questions, as is often the case with a kindergartener. It wouldn't end until I actually took her to see for herself.
Holy Spirit Episcopal Church provided a warm first impression. The idyllic historic church, originally founded in 1870, includes three structures and a perfectly manicured courtyard situated just off Sixth Street. Two women greeted my daughter and I as we entered for Sunday morning services, and we filled out nametags as a children's choir finished rehearsal. Inside each pew my daughter noticed the hymnal and prayer books, as well as an Advent-themed coloring book and small box of crayons. It's as if Holy Spirit knew she was coming.
Nothing captured her interest, though, quite like the stained-glass windows. She studied the details, asked about the symbolism and chose her favorite. Her only critique: Holy Spirit should have left one window "un-stained" so people could peek inside.
The service itself couldn't hold her interest; she was coloring by the first reading. I, on the other hand, appreciated Rev. Dr. Lydia Agnew Speller's genial delivery and comfortable rapport. Any sermon that somehow connects social media to John the Baptist—and makes sure to mention John's penchant for eating locusts and wild honey—works for me. Like I remember from my uncle's sermons, there was no heavy-handedness, no preaching, no pretense. It was funny and poignant. There aren't many places, I realized, where you can listen to a story and hear good music for free.
My daughter hasn't stopped asking about church since our visit. Everything she saw and heard—the award-winning choir, communion, the fold-down prayer bench, the contents of the coloring book—beget more questions. I'm still holding my own with the answers, limited as my experience may be. But I imagine she'll need to talk with my uncle soon enough.
Expect the unexpected
University Congregational Church
401 University Ave.
On the second Sunday of Advent, members of the University Congregational Church show up to discover there's been a furniture revolt. Instead of rows and rows of pews facing forward toward the lectern, the seats have been turned inward to form a circle surrounding a table with an Advent wreath on top. Pastors Peter Shober and Amy Carter—who often pair up to co-facilitate the church's sermon—smile slyly. Their theme for Advent this year is "Expect the Unexpected." And in church—where ritual is the norm—even an innocuous seating rearrangement seems like an act of rebellion.
That makes sense. Pastor Peter calls the church a place for "religious refugees." Many of his parishioners, he says, joined the church after deeming their own religious upbringing too fundamentalist or strict. Other attendees come from marginalized groups, and since the UCC is "open and affirming" the idea isn't just about tolerating diversity but celebrating it by way of religious background, sexual orientation, race and abilities.
The church is obviously progressive in other ways. One of the pastors is a woman, for one thing. And neither Pastor Amy nor Pastor Peter seems concerned only with "What would Jesus do?" (WWJD). They're also inspired with what contemporary movers and shakers have to say about how we should live. Pastor Peter quotes political activist and author Anne Lamont saying, "Expectations are resentment under construction." He asks members of the church to remember, instead of being busy and consumerist this holiday season, be silent and focused. Be in the moment. He quotes John Lennon: "Let it be."
On this particular Sunday, Pastor Peter isn't done surprising his congregation. "Do you know what these are?" he asks the congregation. He's holding what looks like a silver tray that, if he were a butler, could easily be covering a small baked ham. When he pulls the lid off, however, it reveals tiny cups full of communion wine. "Does anyone remember these?" he asks. "When we found these trays they were covered in dust. We haven't used them in years."
The congregation passes around the retro cups of wine. Everyone has moved around the Advent table to stand closer together and they hold hands to recite the benediction—something that usually doesn't happen when the pews are lined in rows. The pastors are surprised.
"I didn't expect that to happen," laughs Pastor Peter. "This is wonderful."
Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation
301 S. Sixth Street W.
When walking into Missoula's Church of the Annunciation—or any Eastern Orthodox Christian church, for that matter—the first things one sees are icons, and lots of them. On the walls. Around the altar. On the ceiling. Everywhere. In the Orthodox tradition, icons are images or paintings of holy people or events. They serve an integral role by acting as a visual representation of the faith, and are often referred to as "windows to Heaven."
One particularly large icon hangs on the back wall of the worship area (the nave): It depicts a bearded man wearing mainly red vestments and a bishop's mitre, standing on a green plain with water and a tree on the shore. I see this icon every time I go downstairs for coffee and fellowship, but because the only writing on it is Greek—which I should know, seeing that I'm five-eighths Greek, but growing up in Montana didn't allow for many such opportunities—I simply pass by its tarnished frame on my way to breakfast and/or lunch.
But on Sunday, Dec. 5, I finally learned whom the foreign lettering identifies.
Following our typika—a service led by lay people in the absence of a priest—parishioner Peter Stokstad stands before the congregation of roughly 20 people and tells us tomorrow, Dec. 6, is the feast day of a very important figure: Saint Nicholas of Myra, also known as "The Wonderworker." Stokstad then points to the icon by the stairs and tells us that it's, in fact, Saint Nick's icon.
Growing up, the feast day of Saint Nicholas meant retrieving my cold shoes from the front porch to find them filled with candy canes and snowman-themed ornaments. To this day, my mom—or Saint Nick, rather—still visits us with the usual, but no-less-meaningful, gifts.
Stokstad tells us that Saint Nick—as well as the other saints, in icons here or elsewhere—are all pointing to one thing this Advent season: the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and His taking on flesh so that we can be in union with Him. To further articulate this point, Stokstad reads from Bishop Kallistos Ware's The Orthodox Way: "When God becomes man, this marks the beginning of an essentially new stage in the history of man," Stokstad reads.
After reading that passage some days later, I notice a nearby quote from Saint Basil, who says the Incarnation of Christ "is the birthday of the human race." As Orthodox Christians, we believe this to be a fundamental truth—one articulated by the likes of Saint Basil and Bishop Ware, enacted and performed by Nicholas and the other saints, and continued through us each and every day. We believe that, because God himself became flesh and dwelt among us, we can aspire to, and achieve, the glory he's promised us.
It's something that tends to get lost amidst the shopping-mall sprawl of the Dec. 24 frenzy, but every Advent season we turn our focus to the coming of he who made everything anew.
And that's the reason to rejoice; after all, Christmas is our "birthday," too.
A different spin on sunday m.a.s.s.
God doesn't have much of a say at the table in the side room of Sean Kelly's Stone of Accord on a recent Sunday. The holiday spirit is alive and well, sure, but the Missoula Area Secular Society—blithely referred to as M.A.S.S.—has a simpler approach to Christmas. No scripture, no sermons, no long mornings in stiff pews; just good friends, intellectual conversation and a healthy dose of Irish soda bread.
The society's membership has grown considerably since summer 2008, and M.A.S.S. Outreach Coordinator Martha Thayer estimates their Sunday brunches average 20 to 25 people. Those folks range from atheists to agnostics to secular humanists to pastafarians. Most hail from fairly nonreligious backgrounds, but one, Milo Coladonato, attended seminary school before falling out of religion. There's truly no set standard for membership, provided you have an open mind.
While the pious of Missoula were busying themselves on a recent Sunday with the varied ins and outs of their own worship services, Beth Rowley spent nearly half an hour describing the process of carbon sequestration and the role it could play in restoring depleted soils on the Great Plains. Rowley, a M.A.S.S. member and soil scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, explained she's currently collecting data in Montana to establish a baseline for carbon content in local soil. Her fellow non-theists sat in rapt attention, taking the occasional stab at their home fries and eggs.
Conversation drifted to films about Charles Darwin, then to security protections for Facebook on open wireless networks. When asked about the society's views on Christmas—or any holiday, for that matter—Bill Clarke spoke up with some eloquence over the remains of his meal.
"It's just a festive time of year," he said, generating nods from the other members. "It's a perfect time to get together with family, to see friends. People are far more kind and generous this time of year."
Those at brunch agreed they like the hallmarks of the holidays. Many enjoy the traditional carols despite their Christian overtones; Thayer even plays viola in the Missoula Symphony Orchestra's annual holiday concert. The season has lost a good deal of its religious connotation, Clarke says, enough so that M.A.S.S. can simply appreciate the spirit of giving. Regardless of what they believe or don't, those with the society recognize the underlying importance of a celebration rooted in faith.
Living by faith
Mount Zion Lutheran Church
402 Strand Avenue
A white-haired man lights two blue candles on a recent Sunday morning inside this small church situated on Missoula's south side. The well-dressed attendees are reenacting a tradition carried out among Christians—and before them, pagans—for thousands of years.
Christians across multiple denominations light blue and pink candles to mark the season of Advent, or the four weeks prior to Christ's birthday. For four consecutive Sundays leading up to Dec. 25, Lutherans at Mount Zion will perform this candle-lighting ritual. It brings a reminder that despite cold and dark December days, light and warmth will come again.
The symbolism is clear for Mount Zion Pastor Justin Cloute. Despite the waning spirituality of modern times, Cloute tells his congregation that Christ will come again.
"In our day, many continue to reject Christ because of his unlikely appearance as savior...as another myth on the level of Santa or Rudolph" he says. "To them it all seems like foolishness. But we live by faith, not by sight."
The Advent ritual comforts Cloute. His church belongs to the theologically conservative Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS). The third largest Lutheran body in the United States, WELS forbids women from becoming pastors and classifies extramarital and homosexual sex as sins. It also adheres to the belief that God's word as represented in the Bible is law.
Modern culture has clearly drifted from Biblical mandates and traditional Christmas rituals, Cloute says. The holiday once marked a time for penance, introspection and giving back to the community. "We've kind of turned that upside down," he says. "As human beings, we so often turn things into self worship or self indulgence."
Cloute says that's the beauty of Advent—it offers a way to tap into fading tradition and, in turn, unearth the true reason for the season. He says it channels lessons of tolerance and giving among the communities in which we live.
"It's a way to express that love," Cloute says.
Five Valleys Church of Christ
4907 Blue Mountain Rd.
It's fitting that the congregation at Five Valleys Church of Christ kicks things off with the gospel song, "I Can't Keep it to Myself." The members make up an exuberant crew—clapping and snapping and amen-ing along with the music, emitting the kind of frenetic, building energy that suggests there might be a boiling point. What happens at the boiling point? Who knows? One thing's for sure, this isn't just a church dying to spread the message of God; it's also a disarmingly friendly church.
If you're a visitor, expect to meet anyone you happen to make eye contact with, because they want to meet you. That's pretty cool because the non-denominational Christian church is a visitor itself: It doesn't actually have its own building and is currently housed at the Emmanuel Baptist Church where minister Jake Jensen conducts the services on Sunday in the early evening.
Jensen preaches a little bit about saving and a little bit about temptation. He jokes with the congregation about the air hockey table he bought on Black Friday that came with a warranty.
"I like guarantees," he says. "I'm a sucker for warranties."
From there he segues into the idea of promises, during which he briefly references the way John Dashwood keeps the promise he made to his father on his deathbed in Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility.
More than anything, though, Jensen is a self-described history geek. For most of the hour-long service he delivers a Power Point presentation about the history of God's promises to humankind. He points to a timeline projected onto two screens on either side of the church stage, and explains that from 2000 B.C. to A.D. 1, everyone from Abraham to Moses, from David to Daniel, were promised things by God, and all of those promises were fulfilled. He spends extra time on the Great Flood, insisting that there were 500 different accounts of floods from different cultures across the world at the time—proof of a promise. In the end, it's the promises to come that he seems most excited about, which speaks to the church's very literal translation of the Bible. Heaven's streets are made of gold, the gates are pearly and the walls, jeweled.
"Heaven is going to be absolutely phenomenal," says Jensen. "And it's just around the corner."
The exuberance for eternal life after death and the concern for present-day temptations don't seem to dominate the mood, however. The final song is "Joy to the World," a Christmas song, and everybody's belting it out with spirit.
Harping back to Home Alone
St. Francis Xavier Parish
420 W. Pine Street
If you're an 8-year-old boy mistakenly left home alone on Christmas, and you want to pray for your family's return, and do it in an old, picturesque church fit for the movies, walk to Missoula's St. Francis Xavier Parish. The Catholic church, completed in 1892, seems quintessentially Christmas. More than that, it stands out as a cultural and artistic treasure, an example of Baroque architecture with a visual catechism that doesn't require a trip to Europe.
Those century-old paintings, by Brother Joseph Carignano and intended to depict Christian beliefs to a community far from the center of Christian worship, are striking when you walk into the church for the first time. The art is so steeped in history that the giant Advent wreath in the sanctuary appears out of place, if only for its newness. Also striking, to an infrequent churchgoer, at least, is the dead quiet. St. Francis Xavier is no New Age rock 'n' roll church. Before a recent Sunday evening mass, the second Sunday of Advent, worshippers walked in, genuflected, and silently slid into pews.
The church may be somber, but it's so not so stuffy as to feel culturally detached. Father Mark McGregor's sermon included a reference to "The Simpsons." He even did his best to speak in Marge Simpson's gravelly voice. He managed to then segue into a lesson from Mother Teresa of Calcutta: "People are often unreasonable, irrational and self-centered. Forgive them anyway...If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you. Be honest and sincere anyway..."
St. Francis Xavier's holiday services include the "Eight Days of Vespers," Dec. 17 through Dec. 23, at 8 p.m. When the third week of Advent begins, the church explains, "Our spirit of waiting and the anticipation of Christmas are crystallized by praying the 'O Antiphons' and lighting the rose candle—a symbol of joy—in the Advent wreath." The seven "O Antiphons" have been part of the Catholic church's liturgical prayer since the eighth or ninth centuries, expressing "the community's deep longing for the coming of the Messiah."
No matter your Messiah, a St. Francis Xavier holiday service is certainly worth attending if you haven't seen the inside of the church before. And it just might get you into the Christmas spirit—like only classic movies and singing choirs can do.
A rock concert about to happen
South Hills Evangelical Church
1919 North Avenue W.
On a cold Sunday night Pastor John Luhmann says there are two "dudes" named John in the Bible. He is leading his congregation through the Gospel of John with the precise nature of a college professor.
"John's not a pansy, he's a man's man," he says.
Luhmann uses everyday slang to strip chapter and verse into accessible, understandable nuggets that even a first grader could follow. He does so with the help of a flat screen TV set up on the stage where he stands, situated in front of a huge and gothic-looking wood and steel cross. Behind the cross sits a drum set and at least four guitars. There is a soundboard in back of the warehouse-turned-church where three members work the volume on Luhmann's hands-free microphone, add graphics to his message and broadcast his sermon online.
Luhmann is the preaching pastor at South Hills Evangelical Church, better known as SHEC. He wears jeans, a T-shirt and running shoes as he preaches. Most of the faces in his congregation look as though they just got back from the mall. Teenage boys wear hooded sweatshirts and their ball-caps sideways, girls wear designer jeans and ballet flats. Many hold lattes from the Holy Grounds coffee shop that is just past the indoor skate park in another wing of the church. Luhmann offers a coffee break in the middle of the two-hour service.
Sleek black walls, a contemporary concrete floor and a chain link fence behind the stage give SHEC the industrial feel of a rock concert about to happen. Combine this with splashy graphics sprawled across banners hanging from the ceiling, and reminders at every turn to follow SHEC on Facebook and Twitter, or to download podcasts of sermons, and you might think this church has a modern message. But you'd be wrong.
Luhmann reminds his congregation that they have the hearts of sinners. He warns that they will live "small and miserable" lives that will end with the judgment of God for all of eternity unless they live their lives for Jesus. There is no other way to live a life, he says, but through Jesus. "Not through Mohammed, or Buddha, or some guy named Joseph Smith—only through Jesus," he says.
As Luhmann finishes his sermon, a band made up of the young and devout take the stage. They strum out rhythms to soft Christian rock. The words to each song appear on two pull-down video screens flanking either side of the stage. The congregation rises and begins to sing. Luhmann's 21st century fire and brimstone seems to have moved many in the crowd to close their eyes, lift their hands high into the air and sway back and forth. Luhmann sits on the edge of the stage dangling his feet on the side, looking out at his congregation of sinners as they raise a joyful noise to their Lord.
Patience is a virtue
Congregation Har Shalom
3035 S. Russell Street
On a recent Monday morning, just a few days after the end of Hanukkah, a group of kids fill Congregation Har Shalom and sing...Christmas carols.
Despite a rich history and tradition in Missoula, and Congregation Har Shalom's increased presence in the community, Judaism often gets overlooked in the local holiday season discussion.
"In general, no, it's still not known what we do here," says Bert Chessin, president of the congregation's board. "But it's starting to pick up. I think, more and more, people understand that we are a part of the fabric of Missoula."
A lot of Chessin's role as president involves basic education to a largely uninitiated community. For starters, he explains why the group of children is singing Christmas carols in the synagogue. They're from a Montessori school that rents out part of the building; it's a vital arrangement that helps Har Shalom afford the Russell Street property it secured just five years ago. Jews have lived and gathered in Missoula for more than a century, he says, but never had a formal synagogue before the purchase.
"Growing up in Missoula in the 1950s and 1960s, I remember the community really came together for the high holidays," he says. "We would mostly meet in homes, and we'd arrange for a rabbi to come in from Spokane because it was closer than having the rabbi travel from Bozeman."
Chessin goes on to explain other aspects of the synagogue, weaving tidbits of local history into the tour. For instance, the room is arranged so the main lectern and the ark—a wooden box that holds the Torah, the Five Books of Moses that guide Jewish services—face toward Jerusalem. The Torah itself, Chessin says, used to belong to a strong Jewish community in Helena that stopped meeting in the 1930s. Chessin knows the history because it first came to Missoula in 1964—for use at his own Bar Mitzvah. It's been here ever since.
"I like to say we have it on long-term loan," he jokes.
Chessin doesn't need to explain what's hanging on a back wall: Large sandwich boards that spell out "Happy Hanukkah," along with nine hats meant to emulate the nine-candle Menorah used for the holiday. Members of the congregation used the props as part of Missoula's recent Parade of Lights. The annual parade serves as a celebration of the holiday season, and Har Shalom's involvement is just part of the congregation's larger outreach efforts.
"We're not trying to close ourselves off," says Chessin, who counts the congregation's active membership at 50 to 60 families. "So much of what we do is trying to connect to a larger community—not just the Jewish community, but the progressive religious community in general. It happens, we're learning, over time."
Lots of reasons for the season
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship
102 McLeod Avenue
You might call it religion, served buffet-style. Missoula's Unitarian Universalist Fellowship is a loose-limbed religious community that offers a supportive environment for the search for truth and meaning. The Fellowship—the local congregation doesn't refer to itself as a church—does not share a creed or promote any particular dogma. Neither do they have a minister or professional staff. Members come from all religious backgrounds, but the one theme they all share is a search for spiritual growth.
"It's like herding cats," laughs Mary Nordhagen, the local Fellowship's chair. The UUs, as they're known, are big on social justice. They were the first major religious group to give their official blessing to homosexual unions, in 1984, and the Missoula Fellowship prides itself on providing a safe and welcoming home to the LGBT community, which has been denied acceptance by many other major faiths.
Their inclusive, all-welcoming approach draws people from the widest spectrum of religious affiliations. Buddhists and Muslims, Christians and atheists, people of all spiritual stripes have joined the ranks of the Unitarian Universalists to enjoy a unique camaraderie in their individual spiritual quests. For UUs, their theology is a result of that quest, not a prescribed obedience to any dogma.
This syncretic quality means that the UU Fellowship celebrates not just Christmas, but any number of religious holidays and traditions as well.
"We celebrate lots of reasons for the season," says Nordhagen. "Almost every religion has a winter holiday, and any birth is a reason for celebration in the world."
Missoula's UU Fellowship, located on the corner of Higgins and McLeod, has been around since 1962, a year after the national UU Association was formed by combining the American Unitarian Association with the Universalist Church of America. The UUA currently has just over a thousand congregations in the United State. Membership numbers vary according to the source, but range anywhere from 215,000 to 625,000 worldwide.
Depending on the desires and ambition of the Missoula Fellowship's members, they celebrate everything from Yom Kippur and Seder to Ramadan and Christmas. They'll also celebrate pagan rituals like the solstice, depending on the desires of the members, and the amount of volunteer work they're willing to put into it.
With no permanent minister to lead the congregation, UUs take turns delivering the service (they eschew the term "sermon") each Sunday. The church routinely draws on the teachings from most every other religion or belief system, and that makes for a pretty wide variety of lay-led services.
"We may not be for everyone," says Nordhagen. "If you hate it this week, come back next week. It'll probably be totally different."