"Finding a universal fingerprintUnity Church on Bainbridge offers an upbeat, non-judgmental faith."
June 9, 2008 · Updated 3:56 PM
"Editor's note: This is the third article in a monthly series examining the island's faith community. As the parishioners file out of Unity Church's Sunday service at the Bainbridge Performing Arts Playhouse, there's no handshake from pastor Vici Derrick - it's a full hug.Thank you and God bless you, one says.Oh, he does indeed, Derrick replies, and he blesses you, too.Sort of a combination Della Reese of television's Touched by an Angel and the Statue of Liberty, the regal Derrick embodies Unity's upbeat approach to Christianity.As she says: We practice what Jesus taught - positive, practical Christianity.The service is resolutely optimistic and modern. Music includes nonsectarian hymns, appropriate show tunes ('Til There Was You) and even adopted rock pieces (God Is So Beautiful To Me, set to the Joe Cocker tune You Are So Beautiful).The service concludes with a celebratory circle dance.The heart of the service is Derrick's sermon. On a recent Sunday, her theme was the divine spark within each person, one of Unity's central tenets.Jesus on the cross gave up his spirit to God and was reunited with the divine, she said. And you and I can do the same thing. If your cross is anger, let it go. Give your divine soul back to God, and come down from your cross.EmpowermentWith its underlying theme of empowerment, Unity sits at the junction where religion meets self-help - in fact, Derrick says that many of today's popular inspirational speakers like Deepak Chopra, Wayne Dwyer and Robert Schuller refer to Unity principles. We try to create awareness in people that they are not victims, she said. A lot of people come to us because their life is not working. And if we help them, we may not see them again. We probably turn more people over than most churches.The message of empowerment resonates with the Unity congregation.I like the principles, looking at the positive rather than the negative, said Ruthann Lopez, who acts as the church's hospitality co-ordinator.Tina Lillig, Lopez's daughter, welcomes Unity's non-doctrinaire approach.I like the fact that no one's judging you, that there's no judgment, she said. Derrick, a native of Tennessee, came to Bainbridge as a retired Unity minister in 1999 after leaving the pulpit in Georgia.I came to the point for the next step in my life, she said. I was going to write a book about Thomas Jefferson, and I came to Bainbridge because I heard there were a lot of writers here.But she wandered into the Unity bookstore, and began remarking on the selection. And the timing was fortuitous. Although the Bainbridge church had been in existence for a dozen years, it did not have a minister when Derrick arrived.They called me at home, said their speaker had cancelled for the next Sunday, and asked if I would speak, she said.The Sunday meeting was to be outdoors, and the October morning was foul and rainy.But we got there, and suddenly the sun came out, and it was beautiful through the whole service, she said. Then, just as the last person got back into the car, it started pouring again.That was the sign she needed to say yes when she was offered the position permanently.'God-size' dreamsThe church operates out of a bookstore and offices on Ericksen Avenue as well as the BPA playhouse. It offers Sunday school, vacation Bible school at Waterfront Park and youth dances. The church also sponsors speakers, and its members entertain themselves with traditions like an annual picnic. Derrick would like to grow her congregation, which presently averages roughly 70 people each Sunday during the summer, more during the rest of the year. Ultimately, the church hopes to build on land it has long owned on North Madison Avenue.At this point, it's a God-size dream, Derrick said of the plans for a 10,000-square-foot structure, complete with a low-cost daycare center and athletic facilities.This is such a great place to be a little kid, but not such a great place to be a teenager, she said. I'd like to build a gym, and have a church athletic league.The fact that she is an African-American woman in a virtually all-white community and congregation - a group rhythmically challenged, as she gently teases her congregation - is more of an opportunity than an obstacle, she says. The differences illustrate one of Unity's central messages, which is that each of us, under the skin, embodies the perfection of God's creation.I bring a perspective that's different, she said. And this community has welcomed me with open arms. I've found a group of very warm, accepting people. The feeling is reciprocated. I love her message. It's systematic and on target, Lopez said. She brings out the best in people. "