Unitarian Universalist Evangelism: Speculative Conversations

It wasn’t until about 1998 that I discovered Unitarian Universalism. This despite being 20 years old and living in a part of the country where UU churches are pretty dense for the US south. There was a UU congregation in my home town when I left, but I knew nothing about them. The building was clearly decades old, but the idea of it was completely new to me.

I was invited by a friend who had started attending shortly before, though he had been to a UU church before (he was a bit older and a lot better traveled, as a veteran of the US Navy.) I was unsure I could be excited about church, and fairly unwilling to accept the idea of regular attendance, much less membership. I left the church of my youth and was on a very personal and very eclectic Pagan path. I didn’t want to turn on to some well-trod road just to be part of a community, though he assured me that I wouldn’t need to.

So I discovered the local fellowship in my college town at about age 20, and I was unimpressed.

Honestly, I loved the young adult group, some of whom are still long-distance much much respected friends. I liked the pluralism and I really respected the part-time minister. Some of the lay-led services where really interesting, too. Part of me couldn’t really get excited, though, about getting up early on a Sunday to sing hymns to nothing in particular.

It wasn’t that I didn’t agree with the Principles. It was only very slightly that I was struggling with the sources. One big problem was that the congregation was very humanist, and I was very spiritual (a problem I have previously discussed). The bigger issue, as I see it now, was that I wasn’t ready to really embrace the 4th Principle. I was still mad at Christianity, and I was ticked that the Humanists didn’t make more room for my form of patchwork paganism.

In my last post, I pointed out that there are a lot of people who come to Unitarian Universalist churches thinking, “This is what I have been looking for for so long!” I was another case, which I touched on in the second half of that post: I hadn’t embraced diversity and reason far enough to be comfortable in Unitarian Universalism. I found this amazing faith before I was ready for it, and I almost didn’t come back.

Ours can be a mature kind of faith. To accept it, you might need to understand that the world is complex, and people are different in many ways, and yet there are rules and people, ultimately, have the same needs physically and emotionally. You absolutely need to see that we can’t all follow the same path, or we would all be doing the same work. It requires some understanding that I, for one, didn’t have at the age of 20. A lot changed over the next 8 years, but Unitarian Universalism didn’t, and it was still there, waiting, when I was ready.

I had to learn that “pagan” was a lousy denominator for any thought other than “I’d like to shock the Christians a little”. Learning to accept the variety that comes with the “Pagan” community, be they Wiccan, Asatru, or Hellenistic,  helped me understand how humanity needs people who feel called to different kinds of service to the divine and to humanity. I came to understand pluralism better, and it helped heal the scratches (I can’t call them wounds) that my Christian upbringing had left on my heart.

I came back to Unitarian Universalism, to that same building, to find that there had been changes on both sides. Both the congregation and I had grown more inclusive and welcoming. It was honestly joyous; I had found a community where I could hope to be my whole self. I ended up not joining that church, but finding myself in another due to obligations and situations. The church I joined was the one in my home town, that I had not, would not have, known existed until I went looking for it. It was more like the building and the services I grew up in, and that was both comforting and inspiring, as they had room for bigger programs and projects.

I found a place that I could call a spiritual home, with a loving and supportive family that wanted to help me grow and encourage me to participate and give of my talents. They demanded nothing, and they have been, for the most part, very gracious with what I have wanted to share.

The fact is, though, that I found Unitarian Universalism, and unlike so many others who eventually become members, I wasn’t already a UU. I had to grow into it. I had to overcome things about myself and my world view. I needed to mature and be ready to accept the Principles. I’ll talk more about this in a future post, but this is why I believe that we can’t convert people to Unitarian Universalism; you have to come to it already knowing that it is right for you. I still think it matters that we get the ideas and the Principles out into the world, so that people can contemplate them and they can make a choice. Whether they ever join us in covenant, we need to be letting them know that the invitation is open. We need to have these conversations, because so many of the people who will benefit at some point won’t even know at the time that they want to know.

There are a lot of people who are, like I was, looking for something meaningful, but have no idea what it looks like. If they don’t know how we are different, then why would they ask us about our church? If they don’t know that our Principles are very different from the creeds of other churches, then they won’t know to ask. We can make excuses for not reaching out to people, and we can certainly point out that our outreach might make some uncomfortable. It also might plant the seed that brings them home one day. I was saved by an invitation that was not well received. I had no intention of joining, even after several months of participation. If I hadn’t been invited, if someone hadn’t risked my rejection and ridicule, I would still be lost, and I would be so much worse off for it.

When I say that we need to speak up, invite people in, and strike up conversations with anyone who gives us an opening, I say it from experience. We cannot convert anyone; our Principles don’t lend themselves to it even if it were a goal. We can make sure that people see us, and know that we can be there for them, their community, and their family. We can give them the information and let them turn it over in their heads. I speak to strangers at bus stops, people in online discussions, and just last week the cheerful young woman who works in the bakery at my supermarket. Few people have ever been offended because I brought up religion, and most actually ask questions, because what we have is interesting and different.

They may not come the next Sunday, or in a the next year, but I feel better telling them that we are out in the world, spreading love and preaching acceptance. Many of them seem grateful to hear about a religion that doesn’t condemn them before we’ve even been introduced. A number of people have even thanked me for telling them that we love them for who they are, and that they are welcome with their whole selves and their whole family, even if they had no intention of taking me up on the invite. I honestly believe that just telling people who we are and what kind of work we do makes the world a better, more tolerable place for some. I also believe that no matter how few find their way to our doors, it is worth letting them know where to find us.

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  1. […] Unitarian Universalist Evangelism: Speculative Conversations […]

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