In “Search,” a church committee plans Fiesta Chicken and Cookies – Advice Eating

(RNS) – Finding a new minister is a bit like online dating.

They check out her online profile, chat on Zoom, and hope for some magic.

Often things don’t turn out the way you hoped.

This mixture of discovery and disappointment is at the heart of Search, a new graphic novel about finding a minister at a Unitarian church near Los Angeles. The story unveils the dynamics of human foibles, kindness, ambition and friendship that fuel the machinery of organized religion – and features twists and turns, political machinations and, of course, plenty of food.

Characters include Dana, a food writer and author who hopes to write a book about the experience; Belinda, the 80-something former church president, and her co-conspirator Charlotte, who is three decades sober and a master of church bureaucracy; Jen, a young mother and rioter; Curtis, the new member who was rejected by his previous church because he is gay; and Riley, the polyamorous aspiring bartender in his 20s who directs the church’s handbell choir.

This diverse group attempts to sort through an eclectic mix of ministerial candidates: a Unitarian Buddhist teacher who hates pets and has a patchy past; a newly divorced Wiccan songwriter from the South; a town priest who bakes bread and brews beer; an elderly, well-known black preacher looking for one last challenge; and an aspiring young minister who seems boring but has steel in her back.

“Search” was inspired by an experience that author Michelle Huneven, a novelist, former seminarian, and award-winning food writer, had on a search committee at the Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church, her home church in Pasadena, California. She was fascinated by the work involved in getting behind the shiny, public profiles of prospective pastors to the real person. While this search went well, she also saw how a search committee could go wrong and reveal something about the human side of faith.

The book also includes a number of recipes for the food shared by the committee, from Pledge Drive’s Fiesta Chicken – Huneven’s favorite – and a grandmother’s Lamb Nihari to Jennie’s Midmorning Glory Muffins and Whole Wheat Chocolate Chip Cookies, described by one character as ” wonderfully gritty, buttery and salty-sweet.”

“Search,” which released in late April, has received rave reviews and has been featured in the New York Times, Washington Post and NPR. Huneven recently spoke to Religion News Service about how church attendance has shaped her life, how food creates community, and what a search committee can reveal about the challenges congregations face.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

I saw a profile recently that described you as a prodigal daughter turned churchwoman. is that fair

I don’t know how wasteful I really was, but it was kind of funny that I started going to church. I am a sober alcoholic and like other sober people I became very spiritual. That got me trying to find a fellowship to belong to, and that’s where I found Neighborhood Church.

I think, like Dana in the book, finding a church crushed me as a person. There were just so many women who would take me under their wing and come to my cooking classes and welcome me to their committees and really approve of me in a way my critical, disapproving mother never did. I mean, my mother loved me and I loved her like crazy, but in her eyes I could always improve.

These women, they adored me.

Your main character, Dana, loves sermons – and I can understand that you do too. Why is that?

I was indoctrinated to preach in a Unitarian church by this wonderful preacher. He did not preach from a manuscript. He just dived into what he was preaching about all week and then he was up there throwing out idea after idea. You’d wonder how he was ever going to bring them all together? There was always a kind of stuck-in-pants feeling. But he had a really brilliant organizational spirit and he would pull it together.

There is also the idea that the sermon is addressed to the soul. Yes, I mean, being a Unitarian also appeals to the intellect, but it’s about spiritual values. A good sermon is about spiritual values, which is one of the reasons I ever went to church—there’s an hour a week that privileges the soul and guides you wisely to face life in this world .

The book contains a number of recipes, and food plays a part in the life of the committee. Can you talk about the connection between food and spirituality?

My husband, who is Jewish, says, “Where two or more come together, food is served.” His synagogue has food after every service, which I think is great because people gather around the table and food creates community. It’s something to talk about, it’s something for people to bring and feel generous about.

I teach food writing at UCLA and I also teach fiction. This is really weird, but in my food writing classes, community forms a lot quicker. Because we talk about food, we exchange ideas about food and recipes, and we go on field trips together, we do a taco crawl. My food writing students are now campaigning for a picnic. You know, my students who write novels don’t say, “Let’s have a picnic.”

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What does this novel reveal about the larger religious landscape and where we stand as human beings?

Everyone is afraid of change. They think they want it, and then when they’re confronted with it, it’s like, oh no, it’s not.

Has writing the novel made you more or less hopeful about organized religion?

It made me more hopeful in a fun way. My main character starts out kind of cynical, she wants to make a book out of the experience. And then she finally realizes how committed she is. How much she cares. Churches are fun. You can go to church and think, well, I don’t know that many people there, or the church will get old and boring.

Then you try to withdraw and you realize you miss people. You are actually much more connected than you thought. It has something to do with going somewhere week after week and sitting next to someone and getting to know them because you’re on the membership committee or you’re doing a cooking class or whatever. There’s a lot of connectivity happening in the church.

Were you surprised by the response to the book?

The whole time I was writing the book, people were like, “Well, what’s your book about?” I’d say, “It’s about a church search committee.” Then I would laugh and think, who would make this book want to read. But it turns out that people would say, “Oh, I would read this book.” People who were on committees and were part of a group dynamic that was out of their control. I was happy that people read it and wanted to talk about it.

Did you have any Unitarians who gave you feedback on the book?

I was with Scott Simon and made a little faux pas when I said Unitarians believe anything. I went on to say you can come from any religious tradition, which is what I meant. They don’t, they can’t believe anything. They believe in the seven principles. I hope I don’t offend anyone. The really difficult thing about the book is that it’s a graphic novel. And people make mistakes.

Here’s something funny – I’ve already heard from a few people on search committees who are now reading the novel as part of the search committee, which I think: it’s life mimicking fiction.

I want to say one more thing. The book is a little satirical, but not overly satirical. I hope. One of the things that I initially found very encouraging was when my editor first read it, she affectionately called the book. That took away all my worries while writing.

I really didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. At the same time, there were just things that were just too tasty to leave out.

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