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On a Day of Rebirth, a New Church Celebrates Its Faith

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With sunlight streaming through clouds outside the Unity Chapel by the Sea, amid the Easter bouquets and the traditional hymns, it was a day to reflect on resurrection and renewal.

As the Rev. Diana McDaniel spoke of the ancient journey toward a new existence and a new life, it was fitting that the themes also spelled out the story of this church and the minister who founded it only 18 months ago.

How a new church comes into being is often more about dreams and a divine calling than a scripted plan. Starting a church from ground zero, with nothing but faith, is every bit as hard as it sounds, said McDaniel, who was “bitten with the bug” to become a minister almost a decade ago. But the payoff has meant a chance to share a vision of the church within her community.

“It’s so much more than I thought it would be,” said McDaniel, 48, a down-to-earth, motherly woman who offers hugs as easily as she smiles. “My own connection to God is greater.”

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Dressed in robes of white for the occasion--normally she doesn’t bother with ceremony--McDaniel opened Sunday’s service with the message that “gay or straight, black or white, thick or thin, you are welcome.”

On three dozen chairs carefully set out in the Woman’s Club--the only place the fledgling church could afford to hold weekly services--the congregation of 25 to 30 gathered to celebrate its second Easter service.

It has been an unusual quest from the beginning, in part because most new churches in Orange County are Roman Catholic or mainline Protestant denominations. McDaniel, of San Clemente, preaches the teachings of the Unity movement, which uses a metaphysical interpretation of the Bible as opposed to a literal one.

But it’s no more unusual than McDaniel’s own story. A decade ago, the self-described “corporate housewife” and mother of two wasn’t even a churchgoer.

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“I was married, living in a nice home. My kids were doing fine, but it just wasn’t really enough. Not like I was unhappy, but I kept feeling there should be more to life,” she said in an earlier interview.

At about the same time, she got a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis and a grim prognosis from her doctor: in a wheelchair in five years and dead by 20 years. Then a teacher at her children’s school had an accident and became a quadriplegic.

“That was the pivotal point. I was going, What’s going on here? Why did God let this happen? I’d never been a religious person, but all these experiences made me start searching.”

McDaniel had dabbled in a number of religions growing up, starting with Christian Science, then moving on to African Methodist Episcopal, and even a teenage flirtation with Buddhism. But none of them stuck.

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Then, during her crisis, she shopped around from church to church, looking for answers.

“One day I ended up in a Unity church. I walked in, and it was like coming home,’ she said.

Intrigued with the tenets of the Unity movement, which she describes as “East meets West,” McDaniel started taking classes that explained more about the religion.

“After a couple of classes, I remember someone asking me, ‘So when are you going to get the bug to be a minister?’ At the time, I remember recoiling. I was so hostile to the idea,” she said, laughing at the memory.

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The joke would be on her, because eight years later, in 1995, with her family in attendance, she graduated from the Unity School of Christianity seminary in Missouri, the headquarters of the Unity Church.

The support from her banker husband of 29 years, George, and her two daughters, Lori, 25, and Gerri, 22, made it much easier, she said.

Despite the training that meant summers away from home, and then two continuous years at school, her family never questioned her need to pursue what she feels was a divine calling.

“They told me, ‘You’ve supported us all through school. Now it’s our turn to support you.’ They were delighted that I was doing my thing,” she said.

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McDaniel spent a year as an associate minister at two churches, then came back to San Clemente with no real idea of what to do next.

But a 94-year-old friend in San Clemente who thought the drive to the nearest Unity church in Laguna Hills was too far approached her with the idea of starting a church closer to home.

Looking for inspiration, McDaniel flipped open her Bible, and her finger rested on a sermon from Psalms about people waiting in the Coastlands for a message from God.

“I felt that was my sign,” she said. “I had no money. I didn’t really know what to do. But I had faith this was something that I was going to do.”

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And with that conviction, she started on the nuts and bolts of starting a church. Searching for a place to hold meetings, she considered everything from schools to mortuaries to a Masonic temple. Friends called, offering to help raise money. On Nov. 10, 1996, she opened the doors to her new congregation at the Woman’s Club--which charges only $90 a week.

McDaniel approaches her calling with a laid-back attitude that belies a strong faith. Her message is one of diversity and inclusiveness.

“What we say is, ‘Take what you want and leave the rest,’ ” she said. “I want people to feel comfortable and accepted.”

McDaniel takes the same tack with her family, not requiring attendance at her weekly services. “I don’t push it on them,” she said.

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Her congregation is ethnically diverse and remains steady at 30 to 40 people a week, peaking as high as 70.

“It grows little by little,” she said. “There’s a new face every week. I’d love it to be a couple hundred people, but this is God’s church, and he is going to have to grow it.”


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