Unity Sacramento Celebrating 70 Years of Love
Sacramento, CA (MPG) - Seven decades have passed since Unity Sacramento church incorporated, officially extending the word of Unity Founders Charles and Myrtle Fillmore’s “New Thought” approach to Christianity, first from within the modest Crest Theatre in Sacramento’s downtown corridor, followed by a move to a converted bowling alley on L Street 20 years later, then, in 1991, from its current home, the site of a former grocery store on Folsom Road in Sacramento’s eastside.
In celebration of 70 years of service, Reverend Kevin Kitrell Ross commonly known as "Rev. Kev,” and his leadership “Dream Team,” comprised of nearly a dozen trained Unity teachers and support staff, which includes Ross’s wife, Anita, are ramping up their efforts to achieve what is arguably any spiritual congregation’s most pressing goal: expanding membership by primarily attracting and retaining younger congregants, bringing them into the fold on the promise of spiritual inclusivity, number one, but also one of hope and peace for all those suffering or seeking to understand whatever social ills may ail them.
“I want Unity to incorporate the practical tools of the fellowship that I was taught, that is no doubt a part of our primary purpose,” says Ross. “But what has been missing here is how we can do a better job of applying those tools to heal the divides and address those on the fringes of our communities.”
Call it progressive. Call it new age. Call it whatever you like, which is precisely the point: Unity’s New Thought-Ageless Wisdom ministerial approach offers a sacred space for non-denominational worship, where Biblical teachings are interwoven with the beliefs of spiritual leaders from Mahatma Gandhi and the Buddha, to Mohammad and Krishna. There is plenty of room for just about anyone in this house of worship, which operates as a spiritual and metaphysical melting pot of prayer, cultural nourishment, enlightenment, spiritual education, healing and community outreach.
“We are a lot of things to a lot of different people,” says Ross, whose office feels more like a day spa than a minister’s private space. A water feature trickles almost silently down the back wall behind his desk, the base of which is a massive tree stump, salvaged from a fire. Its top, a finely polished burl slab. No crosses in the traditional sense here, but there is a near-eight-foot long wooden staff propped up in the corner, as well as sculptures and paintings and other religious iconography from Asia and Africa, among other places, hanging on the walls. And the soft, purple recessed lighting is enough to send anyone into a quiet state without much prompting.
“I need a sanctuary from the sanctuary sometimes,” Ross says. “It gets to be heavy out there as the day unfolds and being in a quiet space at times to think and contemplate is very important.”
Ross, 43, is sporting a pair of turquoise running shoes, button-down shirt and a contemporary navy jacket, looking more like a hip-hop artist than a minister overseeing a flock of some 600 congregants. A native of Chicago’s south side, Ross was chosen from a pool of several candidates to lead Unity Sacramento in 2010. Prior to that, he served as senior minister at Unity Kansas City, the ministry’s flagship church and teaching center. The Morehouse College graduate, highly influenced by the words and teachings of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., said he saw a lot of things missing at Unity Sacramento upon arrival and he set out to see some changes put into place right away, beginning first with food.
“One of the things I noticed here is that this area really is a food desert,” says Ross. “People who want fresh vegetables or fruits and not fast food, which is on every corner it seems, have to drive miles just to get it. So we started a Farmers’ Market and it has just exploded.”
More directly aimed at attracting younger members, his team launched the “Dream Center,” where youth perhaps at risk for otherwise getting into gangs or simply just needing a place to express themselves and be with their peers, can come and hang out, play pool, talk with a pastor, paint, draw, bang on musical instruments or simply just enjoy a safe space.
“It’s very important for young people to have a safe place to express their creativity and enrich themselves,” said Ross. “Being in the presence of mentors is also critical.”
Unity now also houses a Visions and Education center, offering homeschooled students an extended learning support resource for tutoring and test preparation, as well as an onsite charter school created through a community partnership that can take in 50 students at any given time. Blessings in a Backpack also now occupies space within Unity Sacramento’s confines, where it prepares meals for delivery to kids at local schools, clandestinely stuffed into backpacks every Friday to ensure kids in need have access to food for the weekend.
“Blessings in a Backpack puts food into the kids’ backpacks so that, on the weekends, when they don’t have access to the food from the free or reduced-cost programs they are enrolled in, they can be sure to have something to eat,” said Ross.
Sunday services in the traditional senses are offered at 9 a.m., and include a traditional approach with classic hymns and quiet, reflective sermons. Then, at 11 a.m., Ross kicks it up a notch with a high-energy service, featuring contemporary readings, speakers and infectious live music. Unity now offers guided meditation classes by trained Unity teachers, a rotating “Power Hour” sermon series during the week, featuring guest ministers and speakers.
“We want to make all aspects of worship here as accessible as possible,” Ross said. “It’s about inclusiveness.”
In short, Unity Sacramento has attempted to hold to its roots but get with the times, as many years and ways of delivering the message have come and gone since the Unity movement was founded by Charles and Myrtle Fillmore in Kansas City in 1889. Much has changed since Unity Sacramento was incubated as Christ Unity Church in in 1920, where it served as a teaching center under the guidance of Naomi Anderson before incorporating as Unity Sacramento on May 16, 1947.
John Hinkle held the ministerial reigns and ran Unity from inside Sacramento’s Crest Theater. In 1966, Dorothy and Phillip Pierson assumed leadership, purchasing the first permanent home for Unity: an old bowling alley at 1415 L Street, and continued to serve as senior ministers for the next thirty-six years before retiring in 2002.
Nominated as one of the top five mental health friendly churches in the community, Ross has put sound resources and energy into ensuring services for those suffering from mental illness, ramped up significantly when a congregant suffering from depression, set herself on fire.
“That incident was heartbreaking for us,” Ross says. “We are on the front lines, because most people who are suffering some form of a mental issue will come to see a minister first. So we now have prayer chaplains, congregants and members of our staff who have been trained to work with individuals suffering from mental health issues. We want to break the stigma of mental illness.”
“We have become visible and very active in the interfaith community,” Ross said. “We want to build those bridges and extend our ideologies of inclusivity and love. We want to reflect the community where we are and that means reaching out to those who live on the edges of society because of their faith, because of their color, and bring them in.”
Ross helped institute Unity’s Law Enforcement Accountability Directive or Project LEAD, to help bridge gaps and slowing begin to demolish the walls that have long-divided local law enforcement and minorities.
“Project LEAD has been very instrumental in helping to create more of a transparent process with local law enforcement,” Ross said. “Unity is like cream in your coffee. We want everyone to know that we are not just a church. We are also the most loving place on earth.”