I am a Unitarian Universalist. I have been for quite a few years. Honestly, I have been my whole life; I just didn’t always know what it was called. I do know one thing, though, talk to any UU about their path to Unitarian Universalism and it will probably have similar elements to mine; confusion, disenchantment, feelings of not belonging, or all of the above. But it got better. Much better.
My first memories of participating in organized religion were a Baptist church in Little Rock where we went with my mother’s husband at the time, and later, when she remarried, an Episcopal church. The Episcopal church, St. Michael’s, was the first time I remember feeling comfortable in a place of worship. The vicar, a divorced, liberal, single mom became fast friends with my mother and we spent quite a lot of time both at the church, and with its members. When we moved to Texas for Mom’s job, I remember going to quite a few Episcopal churches, trying desperately to find the feeling of home that we’d once felt at St. Michael’s. We never did find it at any of the Episcopal churches in Texas, but we did find a little church in Plano that welcomed us with open arms. It was small and intimate and I don’t remember much about it except that Mom was happy, and they had a drum circle we’d go to. Everyone would sit around in a dimly lit room with djembe drums and tambourines, listening to the rhythm and song of those around us and playing accordingly.
We stopped going there once he and Mom divorced and didn’t go back to any church after that. I was 11.
As I got into middle and high school, I found myself wanting to be popular and do what the in-crowd was doing, but I really began questioning what I believed. I couldn’t just take Christianity at face-value. It was becoming problematic for me when I saw so many of the kids who devotedly attended the Monday night youth ministry and then by Friday were tagged in pictures at parties with smoking and under-age drinking. The close-knit group of friends I did have identified mostly as atheist. I didn’t, but as an 18-year-old coming into her own and figuring out how cruel the world can be, my view of Christianity and religions in general were not pretty. If the bible and Jesus were so full of love, why were there so many Christians who weren’t? If this is how Christians are; I wanted no part of it. The more I disassociated from Christianity and organized religion, the more I had the feeling that something was wrong with me. I couldn’t figure out why I didn’t believe. I tried many times over the years to just submerse myself in it, but none of it stuck. It got to a point that even the mention of God, a word that didn’t just have to mean the big, white-bearded man in the sky, made me uncomfortable. I couldn’t pray without just shutting down.
My mother always encouraged self-exploration. She wanted us to question things instead of blindly following the crowd. When I began expressing to her that I didn’t know what I believed, she suggested that I do more research. She had doubts of her own and had an amalgam of many different faiths that made up her own hybrid religion. She was careful not to suggest anything specific, though; she wanted me to come to my own answers.
The summer of 2011 (I was 20), we were in upstate New York for a family reunion and made a trip to Lily Dale, a Spiritualist assembly in an incredibly picturesque area less than an hour from the New York/Pennsylvania border. Spiritualism was the first time I felt like I connected with a particular faith. I’d found something that made sense and sat in on a worship service with wording that applied to me. It felt great. Unfortunately, there aren’t any spiritualist congregations in the area and I could only read so much. I was back where I’d started, but with a new view on things.
I asked my mom about the church we went to when we moved to Texas; the one with the drum circles. She couldn’t remember the name but remembered it was a Unitarian Universalist church in Plano. I looked them up online and was so excited as I was reading off the list of past sermons to her on the phone. They were really good, challenging sermon titles that I just knew I wanted to hear in person. I was smitten with this group of people I’d never met just because it seemed like they were on the same page I was. After attending my first service, I knew I could never go anywhere else. I’d found my home.
But what’s it like being part of such a liberal religion with a group of such free-thinkers who ranged from stay-at-home moms to teachers to engineers in the very conservative North Texas area? Not always easy. I can usually talk about going to church on Sundays around just about anyone as long as I don’t mention what kind of church. Most people feel instantly more comfortable around you when you mention going to church. Older people, mostly. I’ve reached a point in my own personal beliefs that I can generally take someone’s well-wishes or need to pray as a compliment. They mean well. Generally where it gets sticky is when you have to tell someone your church isn’t a Christian church, or that you yourself do not identify as Christian. And not to take away from the struggles of the LGBTQ community, but it’s almost like a “coming out” of the non-Christian closet.
A good example, though, of what it’s like being a Unitarian Universalist in North Texas, “belt buckle of the Bible Belt”, is this story from Easter Sunday about my church’s rainbow flag (identifying our church as a Welcoming Congregation) being stolen. It’d been donated by a member of the church back in October and has been used as an identifier for people to find the church and to show we accept all people as they are. It was stolen Saturday night and replaced with an American flag and a note was left. The note, to paraphrase, said they didn’t agree with our rainbow flag so they replaced it with the stars and stripes and that we could take that flag down if we wanted. It also had a P.S. that said, “There are only 2 (two) genders.” Disheartening is a word that comes to mind. Also, illegal. Just because you replace a flag with one that makes you more comfortable doesn’t dismiss the fact that what you did was theft. A police report was filed, but they don’t expect much to come of it. But here’s the kicker; we didn’t lash out. In fact, the news wasn’t even called to report on it; the member who donated it made a post on her Facebook page, and a reporter commented about it. And what was our response? “Come talk to us. Have a cup of coffee and let’s have a conversation.” Thanks for the free flag, but we put a new rainbow one back up. Now we have two flags.