When Eileen Goor set out to found the New World Unity Church in Springfield, she said, "I just felt really called to do something really new."
As the church now celebrates its 10th anniversary, Goor can see that what she started has grown into something hardly run-of-the-mill.
"When I started it, I didn't know what it would look like," said Goor. "It's not like there was a model somewhere that we followed. Because there isn't."
Ten years later, this free-form creative process is the model for daily operations at the church, from individual meditation to church government. Virtually all activities are structured around the "spiritual discernment process," said Goor.
This is the process of "going within to receive guidance and taking action from that guidance and taking action from that knowing," said Amy Peterson, the church's Discernment Ministry leader.
"What we believe is that people have their own answers," said Goor. "What the process allows them to do is to get to that answer."
When the church makes executive decisions, there are no rules of order or voting. "As a group, we spiritually discern what we're led to do," said Peterson. "It's a process that I believe transcends consensus," she said, because the end result "could be something nobody had in mind when they got there." The church's leadership body is a "co-creation council," the members of which are all self-appointed.
Because the church believes direction comes from within, it has 10 Encouragements, rather than 10 Commandments: "You are encouraged to go within for answers," for example. "You are encouraged to talk to Me as a friend."
THE CHURCH'S WEEKEND-LONG anniversary celebration, which took place Sept. 23-24, included a "children's puppet and dramatic play" workshop and a "Taming Your Inner Critic with Music" workshop as well as the more traditional open house, musical performance, meditation session and luncheon.
The anniversary is not the only cause for celebration. Six months ago, New World Unity found a permanent home in the Cary Building on Old Keene Mill Road, where they sublease from a new retreat center. The church has entered into a partnership with "R" Place, which offers family retreats, and the two moved into the building together.
"We partner with the retreat center, which is a business, and we do that because we believe in their mission, which is to serve families," said Goor.
On move-in day, "R" Place was a brand-new business. New World Unity, however, had been meeting at Washington Irving Middle School, next door to the Carey Building, for nine and a half years. Goor recalled that, although her first service had been a large celebration with friends and family, 14 people came to the second service at Irving. "We began very small," she said.
Peterson said that now 40 to 50 people attend Sunday services any given week. She estimated the church has a total of about 150 active members.
Congregants, however, do not always stay put for long. "We have people all over the country who send in tithe money," said Peterson. One reason for this, she said, is the "transformation of life" that the church encourages.
She recalled one such congregant, who decided to quit her accounting job, sell her belongings, buy an RV and go on a year-long tour of the country's national parks. "She said, 'Spirit led me to do this,'" said Peterson.
Itinerant congregants are not the only way this small church has spread its influence. New World Unity has already launched three ministers, which began their work there and were inspired to carry the message elsewhere, said Goor. Moreover, she said, the church teaches the spiritual discernment process to over 60 other churches. She did note that none of these — including other Unity churches — feel they can make a complete change to using the process to make all church decisions.
Peterson noted that a couple of universities have also requested talks on the subject.
The idea of spiritual discernment is not entirely unique. Unity churches teach "direct access to God," said Peterson. "As human beings, we are inextricably connected to God, and we don't need an intermediary," she said.
The couple that pioneered Unity in the late 1800s, Charles and Myrtle Fillmore, "went on a search of all the world's religions," she said. However, said Peterson, "they kept coming back to Jesus."
"We don't believe Jesus is the only way to God, but he is a masterful teacher. We don't worship Jesus; we study him," she said.
Goor said she began frequenting Unity churches about 13 years before she founded New World Unity. She taught at two such churches and was an ordained Unity minister for about two years before she founded the church.
Professionally, she teaches introduction to education at George Mason University. Prior to that, she taught deaf children in Fairfax County.
THE CHURCH'S OTHER MAIN emphasis, aside from spiritual discernment, is community. The congregation adopted a stretch of Rolling Road, from Old Keene Mill Road to Booth and Morrissette drives. Churchgoers mark a season for nonviolence between the anniversaries of Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassinations. One of New World Unity's favorite events, said Goor, is "re-circulation day," which is like a yard sale, but all items are given away for free.
Included in the emphasis on community is the support of families, which is one reason the church decided to partner with "R" Place.
"One of my dreams for the last 30 years had been to start a retreat center for families," said Mary Owen, who runs the center. She noted that retreats are normally only offered for individuals or couples, which leaves it up to participants to find daycare for their children.
"Children need to learn at a young age how to meditate and be connected to their central core," Owen said. "Children need what adults need in terms of finding themselves."
"R" Place has picked up on New World Unity's spiritual discernment techniques, said Goor.
The center also partners with various local practitioners to bring specialized treatment to its clients, and its walls are decorated with the work of local artists who "feel that their work has a spiritual connection," Owen said.
"There's a real synergy of vision and mission" between "R" Place and the church, she said.
PETERSON SAID HER INTRODUCTION to New World Unity came when she was invited to the first anniversary celebration. She was brought up Methodist, she said, but was not passionate about it. When she began attending New World Unity, "I got introduced to myself as a spiritual being," she said.
This theme of previous religious dissatisfaction or disinterest is common at the church.
Ruth Mott began frequenting New World Unity seven and a half years ago, when her daughter, who is now nearing 20, "was interested in becoming more spiritual," she said. They began dropping in on various churches in the area. When they walked into one of the services in Irving Middle School, "it just resonated with both of us," said Mott. "The idea that the power is within us, and it's just a matter of realizing it. It's not somebody that's out there."
However, she said, "the community and family aspects of it were the overriding thing." As her daughter spoke at the anniversary celebration, Mott said, she thought, "I didn't raise this child alone. We all did."
Her daughter is now an international officer of the church and last year traveled to Ecuador to support the foundation of a Unity church there.
Sam Jenkins said his wife began attending the church after they moved back into the area in 2001, and she encouraged him to come. Previously, he said, he had not been actively religious. "I have found spirit in this ministry and this group of people that I've never found in another church," he said.
Jenkins helped to found a men's group at the church. He had been attending the Men's Council of Greater Washington's annual Gathering of Men for about four years. The year he began attending New World Unity, he and several others from the church attended the gathering and then started a group that has been meeting more or less weekly, "with a very consistent following," for the last three years, he said.
He also sings in the church's Spirit Song group and helps coordinate the road cleanups. "For me, it's been a wonderful experience," he said.
"Most of the people weren't looking for a church," said Goor. "They were looking for a spiritual experience."