Born in the UUA
by Laura Pedersen
In Clogs We Trust
I was raised in the Unitarian Universalist Church of Amherst, New York. The Unitarians are derived from Christianity, since we believe in one God, more or less. If you think that LGBT is a sandwich then you’re probably not Unitarian. We’re the weak tea sister to the Methodists, who are the weak tea sisters to the Presbyterians, and so on up Jacob’s Ladder until you get to the Evangelicals. Unitarians aren’t entirely out of the flock, but they’re not entirely in the flock either, with a few too many agnostics and congregants who concur with Spanish surrealist filmmaker Luis “Thank God I’m an atheist” Buñuel, thus tipping the balance on the divine Jesus issue. But just because we haven’t accepted Jesus Christ as our personal savior doesn’t mean we don’t respect his work. It merely calls for inserting a few qualifiers. For instance, “On this day it is widely conjectured that the baby Jesus, the alleged son of God, was born and visited by the proverbial Wise Men, as attributed to Matthew in the Gospels….” At my Manhattan Unitarian church instead of “Jesus Christ” we say “the historical Jesus,” except when cursing, in which case the former would still be correct.
As for Jesus the man and the teacher, he had some good ideas on love and forgiveness and regularly taking time off to maintain life/work balance. However, he also believed that if a situation was presented to a person in an accurate way, said person would usually do the right thing. Thus it’s possible that Jesus was in the throes of some youthful idealism, and so we need a standing army to accompany Ronald Reagan’s “trust, but verify” (also the motto of the Soviet secret police), a handshake backed up by teams of nukes inspectors and giant bug eye satellite cameras.
Unitarians celebrate Christmas, complete with decorated trees, letters to Santa, and organic eggnog, though not without mixing in some Kwanza, Hanukkah, a performance of the anti-censorship symphonic poem Finlandia, a Patagonian folk song or two, and perhaps an interpretive clog dance based on Silent Spring. Specifically asked about the role of the birth of the Christ child in all of this, I think most UUs would say the holiday is a call to support and celebrate the worth and potential of every child, and not solely the one being showcased in the manger.
We like to say that our spiritual life involves a responsible search for truth and meaning, which largely involves reading the liberal New York Times while asking ourselves, “But is it good for the UUs?” Every once in a while, right-leaning Christian organizations become overtaxed by our liberalism and brand the UU Menace as a cult, one devoted to the black arts of clipboards, coffee urns and writing our Congresspersons. Without a doubt our names regularly turn up on the “Needs Saving” list at Baptist churches across the country.
Unitarian Universalism has no relation to the Unity Church, the Universal Life Church, the Unification church, or the United Church of Canada. And despite sounding new age-y, it has nothing to do with Harmonic Convergence, Feraferia, Neo-druidism, the Left-Hand Path or Obamamania, nor has it been written about by Shirley MacLaine. Actually, it’s far from being a new religion at all. Unitarianism can trace its roots back to 16th century Europe, thereby making us older than the Baptists, Fundamentalists, Scientologists, Swedenborgians and Jews for Jesus. We even have our very own heretic/martyr─Michael Servetus (1511-1553), a Spanish doctor who along with first describing pulmonary circulation, denied the Trinity and was executed on the recommendation of Christian theologian John Calvin. He had it coming.
Oddly enough, or suitably enough, the Unitarian Holy Land is Transylvania, a region that was part of Hungary but now lies in the northwest section of Romania. The name “Transylvania” roughly translates to “The Land Beyond Forests,” even though your first thought was most likely that rapscallion Dracula.
In 1699 Transylvania became part of the Austrian Empire and in 1728 there was an attempt to outlaw Unitarianism completely. Under Maria Theresa (1717-1780), Archduchess of Austria (among other titles), and best known today as the mother of bird’s-nest-hairdo-wearing Marie Antoinette, the government created a fund for the conversion of Unitarian children, ordered that no non-Unitarian marry a Unitarian, and prohibited public discussion of Unitarianism.
Meantime, in jolly old England, Unitarians were officially barred from public office and gathering in groups of more than five (a potential committee meeting!), while their children were excluded from schools and universities. Eventually they were denounced as enemies of church and state. Joseph Priestly (1773-1804), dissenting Unitarian clergyman and discoverer of oxygen, had his home, laboratory and church burned down by angry English villagers wielding torches and pitchforks in the year of our Lord 1791.
Early American Unitarians and Universalists (who merged in 1961) were pious Christians who disengaged themselves from obligatory creeds and doctrines they viewed as dogmatic while becoming increasingly concerned with who they were, what their lives meant, and how they should live. Thomas Jefferson was so convinced the Unitarians were on the right track he went so far as to declare that every young man alive in his own era would die a Unitarian.
We keep NPR tote bags rather than Bibles in the pews and don’t believe scripture to be the inerrant word of God. For me, it’s not that I can’t picture water being turned into wine since Buffalonians are pretty creative when it comes to home brew, but after having grown up in orchard-filled Western New York it’s hard to imagine being all that tempted by an apple.
Unitarian Universalists are by nature a skeptical lot more concerned with interconnectivity than indoctrination. Equal numbers of optimists and pessimists gather on Sunday morning to consider whether the chalice is half full or half empty. People like to say that where there are two Unitarians there are at least three opinions. For instance, my UU church in Amherst defines a young adult as 13-18. My church on Manhattan’s Upper East Side defines a young adult as 18-35. Overly-blessed with trust funds and plastic surgeons, New York City is obviously a place that prides itself on remaining youthful. About the only thing we can all seem to agree on is that maracas pep up almost any tune.
If we’re ever in need of a patron saint (and it doesn’t look like Charles Darwin is in any position to get the papal nod) UU Minister Kathleen McTigue has suggested Doubting Thomas. Or else St. Cosme wine might do the trick.
Increase the Peace
The George W. Bush years were hard on the UUs, but they’ve rallied and continue to fight against racism and poverty while advocating for universal human rights, social justice, world peace, and fair trade. They march on Washington, escort providers of women’s healthcare, and fantasize about one day writing “Letter From Erie County Jail.” UU activist and lawyer Guy Quinlan works tirelessly at getting loose nukes found, old nukes chucked, and new nukes from being built as head of the Nuclear Disarmament Task Force–or what Neil Osborne, the All Souls Church fire marshal, calls The Glow in the Dark Gang. These committee meetings, along with most others, usually begin with someone saying, “Well, we wish we didn’t have to be here today but...” Guy bucks up the troops by reminding them, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall never run out of work.” Guy and his wife Mary-Ella Holst are longtime UU leaders who find the world’s problems so numerous that they’ve decided to divide and conquer. She’s undertaken the rights of women and children while he oversees world peace and justice. For instance, Guy has discovered a metaphysical loophole to Iran’s death penalty for homosexuality. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently declared that there aren’t any homosexuals in Iran, so it follows that if you don’t exist then you can’t be convicted!
The UU churches remain hotbeds of committees, petitions, debates, and dialectical discourse, where listening circles quickly devolve into conversational Möbius strips surrounding the Electoral College, foreign policy, and whether salad shooters should be included in legislation for more gun control. Cowboys like to say that you can herd a buffalo anywhere it wants to go. The same is true for UUs. However, we’re united in the conviction that a good education is the truest road to salvation. UUs are considered to be the best educated of all the religious groups in the U.S. but I fear that many of the credits were accumulated by way of classes in Cartesian duality, the history of hierarchy, and independent study. Longtime members know that references to philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein can be used to prove or disprove almost any argument. And we can discuss to death the last line of his Tractatus–“What we cannot speak of we must pass over in silence.”
Leading Unitarian Universalist thinker Forrest Church, longtime minister at All Souls church in Manhattan, succumbed to cancer in September of 2009, at age 61. Forrest was eminently quotable, tossing out lines such as, “Religion is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die.” He also had a terrific sense of humor. After surviving almost two years longer than his doctors predicted, and being the guest of honor at numerous farewell celebrations during his “seemingly endless stroll toward death,” Forrest announced that he was a little embarrassed to still be alive, feeling that he’d “overstayed his welcome,” and thus his next book would be called Bait and Switch or else Just Kidding. Near the end of his life he did write Love & Death and when at the book party a woman asked him what it was like to die he replied, “I don’t know yet.”
For several years All Souls (or, All Sorts, as we like to call it) had an assistant minister who was a black lesbian raised as a Muslim. We were so overjoyed by this extraordinarily high diversity quotient that I think if she’d walked with a crutch the congregation wouldn’t have been able to part with her when she received a call from another UU church. It was a minority Trifecta and we were proud. The Unitarians have endless discussions surrounding the question of why we can’t attract more POCs (persons of color), which only serves to make me wonder if Martin Luther King Jr.’s congregation at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, spent hours worrying why they couldn’t attract more white liberals in UNICEF T-shirts to Sunday morning services. And how come our members don’t spend time fretting over why we don’t have more Lapps or Mongols or Tuvan throat singers or Native Americans, for that matter?
The UU Church of Amherst in which I grew up was created in 1960 by adding a chapel onto an existing mansion. One of the most far-reaching and effective groups operated by the congregation has been RID(Remove Intoxicated Drivers), compelling legislatures to pass laws increasing penalties on individuals convicted of drunk driving. Buffalo has one of the latest last calls in the country (4 AM) and so perhaps that’s as it should be. (Although my friends argue that the added hours leave plenty of time to sober up.)
Tragedy struck UUs everywhere on July 27, 2008, when Jim David Adkisson opened fire with a 12-gauge shotgun on members of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, killing two parishioners and wounding seven others, while the children were performing Annie Jr. as part of a summer musical theater workshop. The shooter was stopped when church members John Bohstedt, Robert Birdwell, Terry Uselton, and visitor Jamie Parkey tackled him.
Six shooting victims survived. However, longtime member and usher Greg McKendry, age 60, was killed at the scene, and later that night 61-year-old Linda Kraeger died from her injuries.
Jim Adkisson, 58 at the time, was a former Army private unable to get a job and had left a four-page letter saying he was motivated by hatred of liberalism and also homosexuality. He specifically targeted the Unitarian church because it embraced tolerance. Since Adkisson couldn’t get to the Democratic leaders, he decided to target those who had voted them into office. The shooting happened seven and a half years into the Bush/Cheney administration so he must have been tracking a cabal of liberal powers that I wasn’t aware of.
On February 4, 2009 lawyers representing Adkisson announced that he would plead guilty to two counts of murder, accepting a life sentence without possibility of parole. Authorities haven’t yet determined whether he’ll face federal charges, but the FBI is conducting a civil rights probe.
The UU ranks aren’t particularly growing in number. Part of the problem is that we offer our youth too much philosophy and not enough sports. But when you claim to acknowledge the inherit worth and dignity of every human being and respect the interdependent web of all existence it’s hard to be competitive, i.e. to block a pass while shouting “I support your right of conscience and uphold your responsible search for truth and meaning!” Still, there are some young ones coming up. A 20-year-old volunteer helping register people to vote before the 2008 election asked, “But how do they know who to vote for?”
In an effort to try and spread the word (or many words, in our case, such as “historical consciousness” and “mysterious abyss”), we’ve been marketing ourselves as the “Uncommon Denomination,” which for better or worse has the faint whiff of an Altoids mint promotion. However, one selling point might be that the gender-neutral sermons tend to be short since God doesn’t waste much time on us. Around Holy Week and Easter, UUs are often asked to run errands and pick up dry cleaning for Catholic friends because “you’re not that busy.”
We’re probably best known by the general public for marrying couples mixing it up– Catholic and Jewish, Baptist and Buddhist–who still want a house of worship wedding, even if it’s a gospel neutral zone with plenty of ferns and tapestries. You can always tell the compromise events since a number of attendees wear black as a protest vote. Oddly enough, All Souls Unitarian church became a Japanese wedding destination after a celebrity couple was married there over two decades ago and it was in all the magazines back home. Since then, Japanese couples intent upon a Western wedding flock to All Souls in Manhattan or else Prince Edward Island in Canada, where they can have an Anne of Green Gables themed nuptial complete with braided orange wigs.
As for memorial services, my nondenominational friend Russ says, “The UUs always put on a great funeral because there’s lots of sharing and it tugs at your heartstrings.” We are indeed Olympic sharers and I’ve always told writers that if they’re stuck for a book idea just go up on Sunday and listen to “Joys and Concerns” where congregation members are welcome to communicate something personal and you’ll walk away with two novels plus a collection of short stories. My Manhattan church is too large for “Joys and Concerns.” Instead they just list the number of a good therapist right there in the order of service.
Most Unitarian churches can’t afford air-conditioning, which is our only nod towards the existence of hell. And UUs don’t believe in heaven, although a large percentage of Buffalonians do, thus cremation hasn’t overtaken burial, the way it’s done in most other cities. However, few Western New Yorkers, if any, believe in cryogenics─freezing your head or entire body in order to be thawed out at a later date─because we’ve all been frozen stiff like Dairy Queen Dilly bars at one time or another and defrosting in a warm bath is really not all that pleasant unless you enjoy feeling like a pincushion tossed onto a bonfire.
On the bright side, UUs can still qualify for heaven. The Vatican think tank has produced a doctrine to cope with “invincible ignorance,” a sort of corollary to “papal infallibility,” which basically says that if you do not know that the Catholic church is the one true Church through no fault of your own, i.e. any form of cultural or intellectual ignorance such as being raised Unitarian, then God, in his infinite mercy, will still allow you a shot at salvation. The only problem is, as nice as heaven may sound, Unitarians aren’t really in favor of moving to a gated community.
Laura Pedersen writes about growing up UU in her award-winning humorous memoir BUFFALO GAL.