Bad Sin in the Unitarian Church
By Siren Hand
Siren Hand (They/Them/Mx.) is an Indianapolis (IN) writer and disabled veteran who uses poetry to process and communicate their veteran experience, and fiction to examine the relationships in the world around them. They served as a Geospatial Imagery Intelligence Analyst and Drill Sergeant in the US Army for nine years, and now attends IUPUI for Creative Writing and Sociology with the goal to specialize in Poetic and Narrative Therapy. Siren and their wonderful partner Adam Henze run Antiquated Arts a creative literary arts project that incorporates typewriters and vintage touches into community and private events. Siren has been featured in Genesis Arts & Literary Magazine, The After Action Review, and other places.
Would it be a sin to steal pots from the Church kitchen? I snapped my fingers. The cracking of it echoed around me, bounced off the plaster walls and the gabled wood ceiling of the Unitarian Church in St Petersburg, Florida. The church itself was eighty years old, and the snaps rang out, echoing every year into 2008. It was my favorite thing to do between shifts: get into the empty Church before any parishioners showed or after they left, lie down on the ground in the dead center of the sanctuary, and listen to the acoustics in that space. As a young interim music director, I sometimes filled it with recordings of choir or orchestra rehearsals; other times I would rebel and blast my 22 year-old rage with Alanis Morrisette or Stiff Little Fingers to exorcise the week’s frustration. Today, the space was mine. The bending wood floor cradled my body between the pews, and I tasted the wet brick air of the Florida Spanish mission. It smelled and tasted like community sweat and history, rich with undercurrent of goodness—but lacking some other substance. I couldn’t quite put a finger on it. I just knew the air was too damn hot to stand in.
The floor was the only part of the church that was colder. It rested low to the foundation, earth almost pressing against it beneath. It smelled like straight dirt and my cheeks turned at the tang of mildew. Church leadership strictly reserved air conditioning for group gatherings; it was far too expensive to turn on just for a single person’s comfort. I didn’t understand. The first time I realized I had the power of privacy working in that space, I wondered if it was more blessing or curse. At first, the church air both suffocated and drowned me in its thickness—would this job actually kill me? Would it be from starvation or humidity, first?—but after four months or so, it was bearable enough to practice organ in the choir loft. After six months, the sanctuary air wrapped me in its heavy prayer shawl, protecting me from life outside as I lay on the ground, snapping.
I lived across from the church on Mirror Lake, in a poorly renovated second-floor apartment. “Historic,” the building manager called it; “a shitty little shoebox,” said anyone else with one working eye. Still, it was better than living with my deadbeat boyfriend who couldn’t hold a job, and therefore couldn’t pay rent. After the last big fight, I said I couldn’t do it any more, left without packing up anything aside from my cello, my pet hedgehog, and some clothes. My newfound freedom was tied up in doing everything I could to make ends meet; I even leeched free internet from the library across the street by hooking up a Pringles can antennae to my desktop computer, so I got the strongest signal possible while otherwise being just barely out of reach. It helped me, to fill out job applications in my pajamas; while this Church paid me twice what my last one did across Tampa Bay, it was still only four hundred dollars-- not enough to cover rent, much less anything else. Hah: maybe I’d join the Army just for the three hots and a cot.
Me, the unholy Trinity: the barback, the interim church music director, the videogame store manager with no sleep schedule… the abominable three-in-one, in the Army. The 0630 work call army. The “Yessir, Yes Ma’am” Army. Yeah, right. On second thought, maybe I wouldn’t. Instead, I was stuck in a church
Maybe I’d still get something better than bar-backing at the dive or managing a video game store down at Baywalk. Both were the ShameStop for nightlife drunks; while the regulars made both jobs bearable, I punctuated work with shoplifter fights, or found forgotten porn and half-smoked blunts stashed in the ancient traded PlayStations—never for store credit, only ever pawned for cash. After, the barfly took their measly trade-in money and it transmogrified: maybe into more blunts, more porn, more booze down Central. Maybe sometimes, they took their thirteen bucks (two fives, three ones) to Club Sin, the church that transmogrified into a bikini bar after the congregation failed. Maybe the barfly put the money in a g-string, or maybe a syringe at the end of the night. No telling.
In any case, I finished whichever bar shift after the videogame store, and stuffed my questionable stack of ones into the blue butter cookie tin under my kitchen sink. I tapped into that stash to buy my next shift’s meal or coping mechanism drink(s). Every week, I got just enough sleep Saturday night so I could roll out of bed to conduct choir rehearsal Sunday morning, then maybe take a nap after Service until my next shift.
To me this church was potential and opportunity, and it was growth for me and my conducting skills alike. My old church, also Unitarian, was a small congregation with a choir that was unwilling to try new pieces or techniques. It was steeped in hippy tradition, and it didn’t pay enough for me to drive from my townhouse down the street to rehearsal for the whole month. The church in St. Petersburg was the complete opposite. It was more structured and constantly providing for the community through programming and book clubs; the committee meetings tackled how to support the city’s bustling Pride community, and wanted an interim music director who would mirror that. It felt like the perfect fit, until I realized that I’d have to work harder at two other jobs that didn’t pay enough, to make enough for what I needed.
Of course I didn’t see any seedy regulars from my other two jobs at church, and hardly anyone from those three places ever saw me walking to my apartment—they assumed I was a just a nerd heading to the library across Mirror Lake. None of them saw that the cookie tin money went to takeout instead of cooking for my apartment. I couldn’t cook anything, anyways; between money spent on the apartment deposit and moving across the Bay, there wasn’t any left over to get ingredients or cookware.
But there are pots here. Plenty. Enough pots and pans for a full congregation to have a spaghetti dinner—I’d seen it, and they might even still have some spaghetti noodles in the other cabinets. My finger snaps skipped across the room like a flat rock on a pond. They smack-ck-ck-cked against the minor balconies on my sides and ricocheted off the stained glass over the Pulpit. This was different from the Lutheran church of my childhood, not just in lacking the overbearing shadow of a cross, or the eyes of a sorrowful Savior whose sacrifice was taken for granted. In the Lutheran church, stealing the pots was definitely going to be a sin; if that faith was right, I figured should probably start begging for forgiveness now.
Contrarily, I was informed Unitarians didn’t really believe in anything like a hell since it was against the principal of a universally loving God. Honestly, that’s what drew me to this job, in this space—that I didn’t start out a bad person and continue doing bad things, stuck in the cycle of repentance and grievance. This Church said I was good, and a way forward, and that it was there to support the community. It said I could help, and it could help me.
So, maybe I was in the clear. Taking the pots from the church unannounced was not really trespass, so there was nothing really to forgive—I could just let them know I had taken them, and offer to return them when I could. I did know Unitarian Universalists only really honored trespass in a strictly legal sense, but I had the keys to the building, and the building had the church kitchen. The church kitchen had the pots, which weren’t ones I had in my shitty little shoebox.
I thought about the path through the church: the sanctuary, the coffee hour reception hall, the kitchen, the meeting rooms on the other side of the kitchen. The Religious Education wing staircase, the font office. The alarm, set to guard against any thieves, but surely not rogue music directors.
The floorboards balked and whined as I sat up. I brushed myself off and leaned into in the heaviness of the air. The weight of it all clung to me; I couldn’t shake the feeling, like I was still doing something bad. If I was going to take the pots, I needed to not worry about getting caught by someone fifteen steps down from the choir loft, down the stairs at the back of the sanctuary.
I checked for parishioners, staff, and ghosts. No one was there.
I only had to worry about the thirty-five or so steps left on the processional to the front. There, I’d turn right; twenty more paces through the reception hall. I ensured no one was watching from the minor balcony there. I checked that no one was prepping food in the kitchen for meetings in accordion-walled rooms of the next space. The lips of the pots and pans was in a whole stack that stretched stalagmite from the counter to nearly the ceiling, and the whiteboard calendar on the wall listed every event. The kitchen would only be used for a small dinner
I carried three pots twenty five, thirty more steps. Set the alarm, three more steps.
Besides: stealing is just borrowing and not giving what you borrowed back, really.
Borrowing is different; borrowing isn’t a sin, and it is definitely not a Sin; not even a Unitarian Sin. When would I be in a spot to give them back? Would I remember to give them back, then?
Forgetting isn’t a Sin—Unitarian or otherwise.
At what point does not-sinning turn into sinning, turn into Sinning-sinning, anyways?
When does it become trespass against the community that owns them? Am I part of the community?
I would ask the minister after the service, a Sunday punctuating a weekend full of spaghetti dinners and cold soups, and I was sure I could savor the taste in the meantime.