Public Comment

Northbrae: A Church that Grapples with Earthly Dilemmas

Emily Hancock
Saturday September 15, 2018 - 02:14:00 PM

Heathen at heart, I don’t think of myself as religious. But one summer Sunday, alarmed by firestorms, sudden floods, skies hung low with polluted air, and killer heat waves around the globe, I made a B-line for Northbrae, a church that grapples directly with earthly dilemmas—making this church a rare find.

Unlike conventional churches, Northbrae espouses no particular creed. Instead of affiliating with an established religion, this church stands firmly on its on. It holds as its mentors “Torchbearers” —twenty-six historical figures that embody the upward reach of human nature and the process of spiritual growth. Among these Torchbearers are Noah, Buddha, Confucius, Lao Tse, Mohammed, Florence Nightingale—and Jesus. These figures, whose prophetic voices stand to inform our responses to the dire quandaries that confront us now, are depicted in a stained glass window that stretches the length of the chapel.  

Just beyond those Torchbearer windows, Northbrae has laid a circle of stones on bare earth to honor the Hutchin—Native Americans thought to be the earliest inhabitants of Berkeley. This Sacred Hoop Garden, named for the medicine wheel that symbolizes the never-ending cycle of life, also harbors a columbarium. Sheltered by gray stone walls, the gated garden invites quiet reflection and deep meditation. 

I went straight to Northbrae when the blazes raged this summer because I knew that this church confronts such disasters and their implications head-on. Elements of nature are often woven into the service, particularly by one of Northbrae’s trio of ministers. This senior minister recently chose Walt Whitman’s Song of the Open Road as the text for the Responsive Call to Worship that begins the service. Harking back to the oral tradition, she and the congregation speak alternate lines of the passage aloud. 

Afoot and light-hearted, I take to the open road,” she says, reciting the first line. 

“I inhale great draught of space; the east and west are mine, and the north and the south are mine,” the congregants respond.  

Whoever you are, come travel with me,” the minister intones. 

“However sweet these laid-up stores—however convenient this dwelling, we cannot remain here,” the congregants warn. 

However sheltered this port, and however calm these waters, we must not anchor here,” the minister affirms. 

“We will go where winds blow, waves dash,” answers the congregation. 

Onward! To that which is endless, as it was beginningless,” the minister confirms. 

“To know the universe itself as a road—as many roads—as roads for traveling souls,” the congregants conclude. 

In a riveting sermon on another Sunday, this same minister describes her compelling connection to elements of the Earth itself. “I have felt this connection in the Arctic where the vast spaciousness on barren gravel bars is humbling,” she says. “Equally humbling is to stand at Dead Horse Point in Utah looking down a cliff over a mile deep, with its multiple layers serving as witness to the eons that have gone before. 

“I am not alone in seeing nature as a mirror of God,” she says, speaking directly to the congregation, “but do we see ourselves as soul-mates, stewards, kin of the Earth? Do we listen? Do we hear?”  

Compelled by these questions to grapple with the urgency of Earth’s survival, I am struck by the words of the Hopi elder she quotes: “This is the Eleventh Hour,” he says. “The time for the lone wolf is over. Gather yourselves!” 

Yes, this is the hour. Time is short. Northbrae offers the rare sensibility, the sacred space, and the kinship heathens like me and those of more formal religions seek to listen, to hear—and to gather ourselves to tend to the survival of the earth.  

Northbrae’s services are at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays. The church is located at 941 The Alameda, Berkeley. 

Emily Hancock is the author of The Girl Within (Dutton, Ballantine), and the founder of Moxie Magazine and its online companion, She is currently at work on a memoir.