Walking into the front doors of UBC, then as now, is an awakening of the senses. I grew up in churches with very little art or imagery, save a kitschy painting of the Jordan River on a wall behind the baptistry. But that was covered up 99% of the time by heavy, red-felt theater curtains that were only drawn for the ordinance of baptism. (To refer to baptism by another name would be sacrilege.) Church was about our souls, so why would we worry about adorning our walls with anything other than paint?
In the foyer of UBC, on the right when you walk in, is a long antique table holding candles, miniature figurines of saints, and welcome materials. To the left, just past the “coffee room,” is a (nearly) life size stone statue of Saint Francis, friendly face, bird in hand. The sanctuary is enclosed in the middle of the building, which is an old grocery store, and the hallway forms a complete rectangle around it. Keep walking and you will always get back to where you began. About 4 feet of the base of the hallway walls is covered with corrugated steel, treated, but rusting around the edges for effect. At one corner of the pathway around the sanctuary, on the ceiling near the water fountains, is a painting replicating the “Creation of Adam” portion of Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. Where God and Adam’s finger meet, a chandelier made of dozens of lights drops down.
The sanctuary I walked into on that first day was a cavernous room. Stage up front, covered with candles of all sizes. Half of the walls were made of painted sheet rock, the other half were sheets of burlap. This was on purpose. (Years later my dad would visit and comment, “I guess they haven’t finished the walls yet.”) The back few rows of seats were long pews, upholstered in orange, and the front few rows were made up of old, worn down couches, love seats and living room chairs.
There was a baptistry, not covered with theater curtains, but surrounded by red brick. It was in the center of the stage, which made it the place where your eyes were immediately drawn to when you walked through the doors. The baptistry is no longer there, but it is still the space many of our gazes linger on when we are in the room.
It felt like a strange combination of hip, relaxed coffee shop and an old Catholic Church. To many of us evangelical Protestants at the turn of the century, the hip, relaxed coffee shop was inviting and welcome. “Old” and “Catholic” were ideas to be leery of.
But I was changing.
Maybe it was being in a new place, uprooted from the East Texas culture I had been surrounded by for the first quarter-century of my life. Or maybe it was my age and stage of life—relatively free and unencumbered, ready to latch on to something new. (Or old, which was new to me.) I was not turned off by what I was experiencing, which surprised me.
Something in me seemed to be waking up.
I must have been underwhelmed by the worship service that first Sunday Morning, as I remember very few details other than that the preacher was a young, energetic guy who gave a pretty bad sermon, and the guy leading the music was a strange looking character who led a very loud band in singing some songs with more creative promise than your ordinary church song. I don’t remember meeting anyone that first Sunday, and if I took notes, they have been long lost. All I remember was the building and a vague, general sense of what happened in its four walls.
The words on those brochures that Jason had brought into my apartment, though, were still powerful and compelling. I didn’t know at the time what it would take for them to be true and consequential in my life, but I wanted them to be, and I committed myself to sticking around for a few weeks to see if I could make it happen. I filled out an “info card,” which are designed to gather information about visitors, and are common to many churches who care about people joining them. One of the boxes to be checked was “I would like to be contacted by a pastor.” I checked it, assuming I may get, at best, a handwritten note thanking me for attending and inviting me to come back next week. More likely, someone in my age group and stage in life would contact me and invite me to Sunday School. I had been around the church block enough to know how this works.
Instead, later that day I got a phone call from the pastor, the young, energetic guy who preached the bad sermon, asking me out to lunch later that week.