Church keeps kids in mind

Faith: An Ellicott City congregation attracts parents with its focus on children and its emphasis on personal freedom of belief.

February 14, 2003|By Michael Duck | Michael Duck,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Channing Memorial Church in Ellicott City turned 10 last month - making it a few years older than many of its members.

"We have tons of families for a small congregation," said acting religious education director Cheryl Gwynn-Haymes. The church has 101 adult members and 87 children, including Gwynn-Haymes' 4 1/2 -year-old twin girls, Amelia and Bronwyn.

Since Channing's founding in January 1993, many parents with young children have come to this Unitarian Universalist church, drawn by its blend of spirituality and personal freedom of belief. Members of the church draw inspiration from faith traditions from around the world while also recognizing Unitarian Universalism's spiritual heritage from Christianity and Judaism.

"They manage to combine the breadth of Unitarian Universalism with a greater focus on [its] Jewish and Christian roots," said the Rev. Dave MacMillan, Channing's interim minister since August. He said the church provides "strong support for individual belief as well as a sense of spiritual community."

"I like the diversity that this church offers," said church member Anne Kernan, who has a young daughter. "I like that I can incorporate some of my Christian background with some nature-based spirituality and feminist spirituality."

According to church board member Barbara Popka, Channing has attracted young families since its founding. "Traditionally, we've had just about as many children as adult members," she said.

Many of Channing's rituals and traditions reflect the importance of youths in the congregation. Worship services include a "Story for All Ages," when a parent reads a children's book to the kids in the congregation. In addition, each service opens with a child lighting a candle in a cup or chalice - a reference to a common Unitarian symbol.

"Some of the children like it quite a bit," said Jim Vincent, board president.

Several parents started attending Channing because of their young children. Before their son Jonah was born three years ago, Lisa and Andrew Freeman did not belong to any church. But when Jonah was born, they joined to have a place to raise him.

Lisa Freeman said she likes the "child focus" at Channing and the freedom of belief the church allows children. "I really like the kids to be able to make their own choices," she said.

That freedom is essential to Unitarian Universalism. Members of Unitarian Universalist churches are not required to believe a creed and are encouraged to explore their spirituality.

"We're all searching, and we're searching together and respecting others' viewpoints," Popka said. Church members include Buddhists, Hindus, agnostics, even atheists.

Channing Memorial Church grew out of a discussion group focused on William Ellery Channing's 1819 sermon "Unitarian Christianity." The group, which was formed in 1992, included Jim and Margot Vincent and other members of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Howard County.

As discussion continued, group members explored Unitarian Universalism's spiritual and historical roots in Christianity and Judaism. They also decided their values were changing from those of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Howard County.

"We were interested in having a more spiritual aspect to our worship," Margot Vincent said. She added that many Unitarian Universalist groups tend to emphasize the religion's intellectual aspects more than spirituality.

Evelyn Grim, another founding church member, agreed. "We ... saw a need for a Unitarian Universalist group that had a more religious focus," she said. "I think we spotted that earlier than a lot of Unitarian Universalist churches."

At the same time, the group saw population growth in Howard County and decided there was room for a second Unitarian Universalist church. Channing Memorial Church was incorporated Jan. 23, 1993, and the Unitarian Universalist Society of Howard County later renamed itself the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia.

Channing Memorial Church uses Northfield Elementary School's cafeteria as its worship space. The community hopes to have a church building some day, but for now members are focused on finding a long-term minister by summer.

Channing's religious education classes meet during each Sunday's worship service and target every age group, from 2-year-olds through eighth-graders. A separate program was set up for high school students.

Gwynn-Haymes, acting director of religious education since July, works with other parents to teach children about Unitarian Universalist traditions. Children also learn about the Old and New Testaments, world religions and social responsibility.

Kernan says the lessons have had an effect on her daughter, 2 1/2 -year-old Acadia. She said Acadia identifies herself with the church and community, and even likes to "play Sunday school" at home.

Channing Memorial Church

Denomination: Unitarian Universalist

Leadership: the Rev. Dave MacMillan, interim minister

Size: 101 adult members

Location: Meets in the cafeteria at Northfield Elementary School, 9125 Northfield Road, Ellicott City

Date founded: 1993

Phone: 410-203-0474

Web site:

Worship service: 10 a.m. Sunday

Children's programs: Religious education for ages 2 through 14 meets during the Sunday service. A nursery for young children is available.

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