Tears and laughter, sincerity and irony, a call to stillness and a call to service — worship at Unity Center delivers rich spiritual nourishment like a warm bowl of savory stew — make that Irish stew in this instance. St. Patrick’s Day Sunday is observed at Unity Center in its full Irish-American glory.
I’ve visited Unity Center a couple of times before and it is always worth the drive out to Mills River. This Sunday my friend and fellow Life-Cycle Celebrant, Cindy Reed and I made the trip together for the early service.
The first clue to the St. Patrick’s Day theme for worship was the Rev. Chad O’Shea’s ministerial attire — a kelly green leprechaun t-shirt. Rev. Chad has been compared to a combination of George Carlin and Ram Dass and his services are a spiritually powerful mixture humor and wisdom.
The Unity Center band were also arrayed in beautiful shades of emerald and all I could think was “oh, heavens, I’m so glad I brought my hanky ’cause they’re gonna sing Danny Boy and I’m gonna cry like I do every time I hear it”. If you are one of those hard-hearted cynics who doesn’t appreciate the unapologetic pathos of this classic Irish song and doesn’t want to then just stop reading right now because I have a few versions included in this post that will convert you.
Indeed, music is a highlight of the Unity Center worship service and a great portion of the service is dedicated to it. Lytingale, the Minister of Music for this lucky congregation, is an extremely accomplished musician, song-writer and singer. She directs the Unitic Band with her clear soprano voice and her amazing virtuoso playing of piano and organ.
Here’s the Unitic Band performing “Carnaval” in honor of Mardi Gras. I believe that is the wonderful Ozzie Orengo on violin.
Rev. Chad welcomed us all in his warm, casual style and shared the funny Irish story of Muldune asking the parish priest if he would say a mass for his dog who had died. The priest said no, he couldn’t say mass in the church for an animal “but there’s a Unity congregation down the hill there. They’ll do anything”. Muldune thanked the priest for his advice and then asked whether he thought they’d accept the $5000 donation he wanted to give them for helping him remember and pray for his faithful companion. “Oh”, replied the priest, “ye didn’t tell me your dog was Catholic!”.
After this introduction to the services he led us in a short centering mediation and then began introducing the songs for the day’s worship. All the classic Irish tunes were on parade: “My Wild Irish Rose”, “When Irish Eyes are Smiling”, “Tura-lu-ra-lu-ra the Irish Lullaby” As we sang together Chad would come down to the congregation for some spontaneous greeting of visitors and hugging of friends who’d been away.
They even played that favorite old jig, the Irish Washerwoman. Dancing a little jig himself, Rev. Chad made his way over to where Cindy and I were seated and held out his hands to me. I grinned up at him and said quietly, “I’ll dance with you.” And sure enough he gamely took my hands and we danced through a few rounds of the song as the tempo increased! He didn’t know when he approached me that I love to dance and will take almost any opportunity — even Sunday morning worship!
You’ll know the song as soon as you hear a few bars.
And here’s the Riverdance Grand Finale to the same song. We were dancing just like this, I swear!
After these fun songs, the band led us into a quieter mood with the beautiful folk song Wild Mountain Thyme. I come to worship ready to be moved emotionally so this beautiful song opened my heart easily.
Here is a lovely a capella version of Wild Mountain Thyme sung by Judy Collins and Pete Seeger in 1966
And finally, Lytingale’s achingly beautiful rendition of Danny Boy. The meaning of this song is usually taken to be a message from a parent to a son leaving as part of the Irish diaspora. When I hear it I think of all those children who left Ireland during the famines and persecutions never expecting to see their families ever again.
Eva Cassidy’s beautiful and emotionally powerful version Danny Boy captures the feeling perfectly.
But The Muppets version of Danny Boy really should not be missed.
From this sweetly sad feeling Rev. Chad led us seamlessly into a meditation that opened my heart even more until I felt the presence of the Spirit of Love and Peace fill and surround me. He followed the mediation with offerings of gratitude and a string of Irish Blessings delivered with such warmth and sincerity that removed any tattered sentimentality from the words and revealed the tender gifts at the heart of the familiar words.
Rev. Chad is a gifted leader of worship. He’s been the minister of Unity Center since 1983 and served in ministry for many years before that. He leads the congregation in meditations that bring me to an beautiful awareness of the presence of Spirit in my own heart and then allows me to send that loving presence out to the world. He tells wonderful stories that move and uplift. He invites us all to remember our connection to All That Is through prayer and loving action.
I’ll let his own style of leading service speak for itself. Unity Center has lots of services and performances on YouTube. I encourage you to enjoy them.
Visitors to Unity Center receive an especially warm welcome. Cindy and I both were presented with a small flower and a packet of literature including a letter from Rev. Chad, a brochure about Unity as a religion and a copy of their excellent quarterly newsletter, Unity News and Views.
At the heart of Unity religion reads the brochure is “a positive faith in universal principals rather than doctrines.” Unity is a “form of Christianity” centered on “a belief in the healing power of affirmative prayer”. “In addition to the teachings of Jesus Christ, we embrace the the Universal Truths which were taught by all the conscious master teachers who have walked the earth”.
The central message at Unity Center is consistently one of Love, Peace and our unbreakable connection to Mother/Father/God, the Spirit of Life.
One of my favorite things about Unity Center is that it has a Labyrinth! A guided Labyrinth walk is being offered next Wednesday, March 30 by Sam Richardson who has designed Labyrinth’s all over the country.
There are a ton of spiritual events and classes held regularly at Unity Center from healing workshops to feeding the hungry to concerts. Their website is vibrant with writings, audio, and information about Unity.
Go ahead and make the drive to South Asheville and experience the many spiritual gifts this faith community has to offer. And if you’re coming from downtown Asheville, shoot me an email. I’ll be glad to ride along.
Unity Center is an inspired community joyfully practicing Universal peace, love and acceptance located 5 minutes from the Asheville airport and I-26 at 2041 Old Fanning Bridge Road, Mills River, NC 28750. Sunday Celebration services are held at 9:30 and 11:00 am.