Three years ago today something happened in Dallas that changed my life forever. Well, more specifically three years ago yesterday. Phil Dieke brought a group of us through an alleyway on a Thursday night to see a new thing that was going to open the next day. He unlocked the door of an unassuming storefront and let us look around. I was immediately captured by the space, my head filled with the possibilities of what this could be. I knew I wanted to be a part of it. And that was the first day I stepped into Union.
In the 2.5 years that Union existed while I was in seminary, I spent almost every day there. To start it was merely a place I came because it was impossible for me to get work done in my apartment. It was a friendly place that did good in the community and that’s what I needed at the time. I can still point to the exact location that I wrote most of my papers my first year. It was a place that was calming, a place for people to gather, a place with all the caffeine that I could ever need or want. I should have put product placement on my M.Div for Union Coffee.
And then something amazing happened. Kuneo happened. I started attending Kuneo in August of 2013 because I was bored on a Tuesday night and ended up at Union because of course I did. That night I shared a table with Travis Brown, who’s been one of my best friends ever since. I experienced a worship community that I immediately wanted to be a part of and not two weeks later I was playing banjo with a group of quasi-strangers that became my family as we led worship for the first time as The Misfit Whatevers.
Union taught me so much in the time I spent there. It was integral to my development as a minister and I wouldn’t be who I am now without Union. It gave me a community, it gave me friendship, it gave me a mentor in Mike Baughman who tried to make me the best I can be and helped teach me the lessons that I needed, even when they were hard.
Union taught me how much I love stories. Through hosting and participating in The Naked Stage I learned what a powerful connection sharing a story creates in a room. Being willing to share what you have experienced, what scares you, what inspires you, changes how we see one another and brings a community closer together
Union taught me that everything can be sacred. Kuneo builds worship services out of music that you wouldn’t expect to find in a church and yet some of the holiest moments have been brought forth by Foo Fighters songs or Sufjan Stevens ballads. We planted seeds so that when a song comes on the radio, maybe people would think about things differently. Union taught me to engage with culture and not be ashamed to do so because to ignore it is to deprive yourself of the words that may make a difference in the lives of people who need it.
Union taught me about the value of showing up. When we started Studio, our second worship gathering, we reached out into the theater and performing communities in Dallas. Part of that was getting people together to go to shows that people in the community were involved in. I’ll never forget seeing a now-friend’s eyes light up when he saw that a group of people from a church gathering he had been to once came out to see him do what he loved. Union is all about community, about being there for one another for (as the membership vows claim explicitly) “having each other’s asses.” To be a part of the community means investing in what we love together.
Union taught me that sometimes theology isn’t about the answer. It’s about cultivating a process by which everyone can be heard, where we can wrestle with messy issues and come out more informed but still on opposite sides. Union taught me that as a preacher sometimes you can have a thoughtful, well-researched sermon and people will disagree with it and you have to learn how to deal with that. Sometimes you have to deal with it in real-time and not get thrown off your game. After preaching at Kuneo where feedback is both immediate and encouraged I am unafraid of any other speaking scenario ever. Bring it. Try me.
Union also taught me that sometimes theology is absolutely about the answer, that there are things happening in the world that the church needs to address and take a stand on. There are times in which the church cannot afford to be silent because our voice is powerful beyond measure.
Union taught me to do things differently and to be a little less afraid of failure. I learned that it was okay to see a new way of doing things and then actively pursuing that goal. And if there’s anything Mike tried to teach me (and I’m sure that I’m still trying to internalize) is that failing isn’t always reflective on my value as a person or a minister. It is a means by which we learn, we grow, and we get new ideas. I learned to fall in love with ideas so that you feel a need to bring them to life, but not to resent if no one else loves it like you do. To be afraid of failing is to stay safe forever and nothing about innovation nor Christianity is supposed to be safe.
Above all, among the many lessons I’m sure I’m forgetting to enumerate, Union taught me exactly how powerful the message of the Gospel is. It is compelling. I watched time after time as people who didn’t know that they were even in a church listened in on a sermon and wanted to be a part of our conversation. I watched the story of our faith be presented in ways that I wouldn’t have dreamed of to people who weren’t ready for it and it changed the lives of people in that room. I watched people who had been told that the church had no place for them learn that wasn’t true. I watched people learn that they had a home, a place where they belonged. I watched something in the soul of Dallas awaken again.
Happy birthday, Union. Here’s to many more years of lessons that you can teach.
“Know you’re not alone. I’m going to make this place your home.”