On a recent warm August afternoon I sat down with a glass of iced tea and made my scheduled phone call to Rev Russ Heiland, senior minister at Unity of Fairfax, Oakton, Va. My call was to find out what kinds of community outreach his spiritual community engaged in. As we began our conversation I soon became transfixed and then an hour later I was transformed.
Russ began sharing the activities that this community was engaged in … the things they were doing as their community outreach programs.
That particular week their “next big thing” was the hosting of the Tibetan monks. They were having them back again to create their sacred sand mandala. They had hosted them two years ago when Rev Russ first began his ministerial work there. (At that time they had an outreach experience of 1,000+ beyond-Unity guests.) The rhythm of every two years seemed right to him and his events team.
The Tibetan monks blessed Unity of Fairfax and Unity of Fairfax undoubtedly blessed them.
Interfaith Community Outreach
Unity of Fairfax has hosted the “Ramadan Tent” for the American Turkish Friendship Association (AFTA) for the past three years. The meal that breaks the fast is called “iftar” and roughly 400 people attend each night. There is no charge for the meal. ATFA invites the Muslim community, local spiritual communities, elected leaders and members of the Washington, D.C. diplomatic corps. The most recent dinner was on the heels of the Charleston, S.C., shooting which became a topic of conversation during which Imam BILAL remarked, “The more we break bread? The less we shoot guns.” A remark directed towards peace between all faiths, cultures and races.
F.O.E.M.E: Friends of the Earth Middle East
Don Belt, a congregant of Unity of Fairfax is also an author for National Geographic. He is proactive in environmental matters as well as political issues. Just about the time Rev Russ was arriving in Fairfax, Don was giving an address on the geopolitics of water at the Chautauqua Institution during “Water Matters,” a week-long National Geographic lecture series on our most precious natural resource.
Time magazine had a lead article on F.O.E.M.E in their issue on “Heroes of the Environment.” FOEME.org focuses on environmental activism to foster peace, water supply and conservation. Environmental activism that will show Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians how their national destinies are inextricably linked with the same water resources. We all need water, animals need water. War will not generate water … but peace can, according to Nader Al-Khateeb, Palestinian Director of F.O.E.M.E.
9/11 Unity Walk
This community in the northern part of Virginia is adjacent to the Washington, D.C. area. Each year thousands gather in September to walk along Embassy Row on Massachusetts Avenue in northwest Washington, D.C. to visit religious communities, sample diverse cuisines and establish friendships. Participating houses of worship on Embassy Row open their doors to invite people to learn about their history, culture and faith traditions.
In 2014 Unity of Fairfax sponsored the 9/11 Unity Walk Event and was listed as a “patron of understanding.”
Think Globally, Act Locally
This spiritual community has opened its arms and doors wide to embrace the globe, the “other” religions, “other” cultures and “other people” both locally and globally. They are big in their encompassing awareness and application of our Unity Principle of Oneness. They embrace all with peace, great understanding and a heart of compassion.
Rev Russ and the community decided to hold a discernment process to focus their thoughts, ideas and energy around ferreting out “How do we live our mission?” “What would we say if someone asked us to respond to the question: ‘What is Unity of Fairfax? What do you do?’ ”
Their agreed-upon response: “Unity of Fairfax is the Spiritual Center for Education, Service and Practice in Northern Virginia.” They came up with this three-word focused response which ended up being an easy (and a bit amusing) acronym of E.S.P.
“E” is for the education component. They see themselves as an important regional center for spiritual education. The “S” is for service. They provide spiritual and social service within their community, within their city, within their region, within the country, within our world. “P” stands for “Practice” to ensure that they have meaningful spiritual practices as a congregation and as individuals. The recent Tibetan monks event was an expression of all three. It encompassed an education of the spiritual practices of Tibetan Buddhism, the service of performing their mandala ritual, and an awareness of this particular meditative practice.
Their website then furthers this mission with their ongoing commitment to spiritual social action. This is where they affirm their belief in putting feet to their prayers. “We are making a joyful difference in the world through expressions of: commitment, generosity and service.” As they act locally, they participate in the Food Bridge Program contributing food to local food depositories and the Back to School Supplies Program which provides backpacks for area children who need additional assistance.
History & Leading Edge
This Unity spiritual center has a long rich history in Unity and in the field. Soon it will celebrate yet another anniversary—its 60th. Unity of Fairfax’s founding minister was Mildred Park (1956), Rev Laura Barrett-Bennett’s grandmother. Their endowment fund is the Mildred Park Endowment Fund and those people who have acknowledged the ministry in their estate plans are members of the Mildred Park Society.
Unity of Fairfax is leading-edge. It completed the Transformation Experience Pilot Program through Unity Worldwide Ministries and it hosted “the-first-ever Unity Worldwide Ministries Board Meeting in-the-field” in August 2015.
It is impossible to tell you all of the things that Unity of Fairfax is doing, as I can only capture some of their community outreach events. But what I can tell you is that they are an amazing spiritual community; chock full of light, heart, generosity and compassion, infused with “action” as they put their feet under their prayers. This came through loud and clear during my hour with Rev Russell.
During the last part of our interview, I asked Rev Russ how he felt being the minister of Unity of Fairfax and being the leader of just such a spiritual community.
His response was exceptionally beautiful when he replied:
“I am very impressed at how this community chooses to engage from the heart … with compassion.”
That says it all. No wonder I became transfixed and then transformed. Engaging from the heart filled with compassion is truly a transformational experience.
I then went for a walk that warm afternoon in August to take in all that I had received. It was a lot to integrate and I am made better for my newfound awareness of the remarkable global and local works of Unity of Fairfax. If you are ever in Northern Virginia, I suggest you visit them. You, too, may be transformed.