Being a Unitarian has been an integral part of my identity as long as I can remember. My family belonged to two very different congregations during my growing up years, one a large minister-led church with a strong RE program, and one a lay-led fellowship. Both of my parents were themselves life-long Unitarians, and our family was active in those congregations. Like most UU kids, my formal religious education ended by the time I entered high school. The rest of it came from going to the adult worship service at the fellowship, and by seeing how my parents and the other UU adults I knew lived their lives. In my twenties I wasn’t part of any UU congregation, and rarely attended a service. When I was pregnant with my first child, my husband Jim and I moved to Northampton and began attending this Society. I took it as a given that children require a religious education, that I wanted our children to have a UU religious education like mine, and that this was therefore the time to go back to church. Luckily Jim, who is not a life-long UU, agreed.
Being a UU kid meant that things weren’t spelled out – we were never told what we should believe in – and that was both a gift and a burden. I compared myself to my non-UU friends, with their rituals and set of unchanging beliefs, and felt virtuous that I was meant to find my own path. But it also made life difficult. My parents would never answer a question like, “Is there a God?” in a straightforward way. They encouraged the question, but made it clear that there are many different answers. So I spent a lot of time as a child and teenager thinking about what I believed in, and trying to figure out what it meant to be a UU.
Once when I was trying to come up with a short and sweet answer to the “So what is a Unitarian?” question, my grandmother told me that her own short answer was that we believe in living an ethical life and in the importance of each individual person. There’s a lot more than that to be said about what it means to be a UU (the long answer), but I’ve come to believe that most everything flows from those two principles – that every person has value, and that we are compelled to live an ethical life. Those ideas form the core of what was woven into me as I grew up, and they are still at the heart of my relationships and my life decisions.
I hope that my own children, now in their twenties and early thirties, have gotten as much from their born-into UUism as I did. I believe they have, in a profound way. But as for all of us, part of the process is figuring it out for yourself, and that is the work of a lifetime.
My parents met in the early 1960s at what was then the “Church of the Unity” in Springfield; they were married in the new church building behind Forest Park in 1963. I grew up in that church, now The UU Society of Greater Springfield, a modern building with a flat roof and many windows to take advantage of its’ tranquil setting in the woods. As a youngster, I recall great fun playing with the cardboard brick building blocks in the nursery, and sometimes liking Sunday School and sometimes not. It was soooo boring to learn the history of the church – why does a 7 year old girl care about some long since dead gentleman who has a plaque on the wall? There were also boring adult sermons I sometimes had to sit through that seemed to go on forever. But there were also fun congregational picnics and Holiday bazaars my mother helped to run. As a pre-teen, I sat through all the uncomfortable classes entitled “About Your Sexuality” – the precursor to our current Our Whole Lives curriculum (in hindsight, I of course very much appreciate the honest education in this area I was privileged to receive).
Attending East Longmeadow High School in the 80s, I was the only UU student - 1 out of a total of 1400 kids that I shared the halls and classrooms with over those four years. Being a minority was a challenge. I did not know my friends mysterious religious traditions and beliefs, and they did not know mine, which made me feel different. Whenever I did gain a glimpse into their religious life, I always found it to be odd and so different from what I was familiar with. In 9th grade two of my friends discovered they attended the same Catholic Church for many years, and did not know! One family went to Saturday mass, and the other on Sunday, so they never crossed paths. That seemed so impersonal.
But it was during those same teenage years that I also came to become more personally connected to the UU faith. Attending local, district, and national UU youth events and conferences afforded me the opportunity to connect with other UU teens. We could contemplate serious issues together, and also just hang out and have fun, with others whose families approached their spiritual lives similarly. I began to develop leadership skills through these programs. I am very grateful for all the adults who chaperoned, and drove, and made those events possible for me.
Now as an adult, I am still a UU for many reasons – to attend to issues that matter in this life journey, to continually strive to be the best human being I can be, and to provide the kind of education and experiences for my own children that I feel fortunate to have had. I am most thankful that no one ever told me what I had to believe, and that I was never told my actions were ‘sins’ that I must confess. The positive and welcoming philosophies of our UU faith are ideologies that I truly believe in, which is why I am a lifelong UU.
In late September, 1955, two weeks before I was born, my father attended the founding meeting of the Mount Vernon, Virginia, Unitarian Church. That's what you did in those confident post-war years: start a church! So I was not only born into the Unitarian Church, I was born into one that my father helped to found. Of course, I didn't know that at the time. And it certainly didn't confer upon me any RE privileges. Judging by my kids' reluctance to attend RE, I must have complained too. But I have no memory of that. Church was just something we did, like school, or beach vacations, or Christmas. Looking back now though, my early years as a UU left me with indelible memories.
At school, I was asked to remember stuff – you know: facts – and repeat them back on tests to prove I had been listening. But at Church more often than not I was asked about my thoughts and feelings. One time I distinctly remember being asked what I and my classmates thought about God. We went around the circle and all the kids including me declaimed our half-baked opinions. It did not really matter what we said. What I took away from the experience was that those in the room seemed to value my thoughts on a fairly lofty matter. To be taken seriously was heady stuff. It was my most memorable early exposure to the first principle: the inherent dignity and worth of every human being. My other UU stories convey much the same.
Of similar significance, I saw how important the Unitarian church was to my father. He was engaged in the church on every level, as a regular attendee, a volunteer, a lay leader, a board member, and as president. We even trekked 500 miles one summer to vacation at Star Island. Like many young people, when I went off to college I strayed from church-going and I did not return until I began raising a family. But, unlike other seekers of faith in middle age, I never doubted where I would go and never doubted where I belonged. I was connected to this place before I ever crossed the threshold. Though my Dad died nearly forty years ago, I feel his presence here with me every Sunday. When he ushered me into the UU faith, he gave me an extraordinarily lovely gift – one that enriched my life fifty years ago much as it continues to do today.
Reverend Janet Bush
We read a story earlier about a boy named Wilfred who thinks he owns a moose (“This Moose Belongs to Me,” by Oliver Jeffers). The moose doesn’t necessarily agree, and it turns out that another person, an older lady, believes the moose belongs to her. The last picture in the book shows the moose approaching a small, baldish man who is clad in black, and who looks like he’s wearing a clerical collar. “Dominic,” cries the old man, “You’re back! And you brought me an apple!”
I am intrigued by the clerical collar. If you have hypotheses as to why one of the moose’s owners is a cleric, let me know after the service. Wilfred, who owns “Marcel”, has come up with enumerated rules for his moose to follow. The moose doesn’t especially like to follow rules. It seems that Marcel/aka Rodrigo/aka Dominic follows a principle of independent thought.
One characteristic of our congregations, and many of the members within them, is a tendency to independent thinking. The fourth of the UU principles our congregations covenant to abide by asserts the right of each person to a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Maybe another one of the moose’s owners calls him Principle 4 (or UU-P4 for short).
Unitarian Universalism might be a bit like Wilfred’s moose in other ways. Those of us who claim it as our own think of it, and name it, in different ways. It’s community, or social justice, or music, or contemplation. It’s the larger UU movement. It’s this Society here, in this building. It’s a framework for values and ethical living. It’s my family heritage. It’s bedrock.
As she told us, Julie experienced more than one congregation as a child, and different ways of “doing church.” Kim grew up in one place – and it sounds like the boring history she was subjected as a child had something to do with the background of her congregation.
The UU Society of Greater Springfield was formed in the early 1960s merger of five congregations – Unitarian and Universalist – in and around Springfield. Miraculously, they each managed to agree that individually they were too small to continue on their own. All of them sold their beloved buildings and joined in starting again together, in a new building, on a new site. Knowing Springfield’s story reminds us about the history of UUism as a whole.
Unitarianism and Universalism have always been small, liberally-inclined religious movements. Both grew out of Protestant Christianity. In this country, Unitarian and Universalist movements began to develop in the second half of the 18th century – the late 1700s.
The Unitarians initially challenged the divinity of Jesus and the inerrancy of the Bible. And by the late 19th and early 20th centuries, deists, theists, Christians, atheists, secular humanists and others all somehow managed to squeeze themselves under the same Unitarian umbrella (although not necessarily always in the same church or fellowship).
The Universalists stayed closer to traditional Christianity. But early on they were radicals in their own right: they preached that God was all-loving and forgiving, and that all people (not just Christians, and not just the righteous) would ultimately be saved.
Neither movement grew. By the 1930s Unitarianism and Universalism were tiny religious movements, but whose values were basically aligned. Even earlier than the 30’s they had flirted with the idea of joining forces. It happened gradually, but by 1961 the merger was complete. The hymn we just sang, “As Tranquil Streams” had been written nearly 30 years earlier to honor the growing closeness of the two movements, and it was sung to celebrate the merger.
“Our kindred hearts and minds unite to build a church that shall be free.”
I knew nothing about any of this when I first walked into a UU congregation in 1992. Our sons were two and four. I had tried to check out the church the year before, going on a weekday to get information about the RE program. All of the doors to the large stone building were locked. There were no signs pointing the way to the offices, which were in a house next door. I gave up.
When we tried again, we came on a Sunday morning. Someone welcomed us and told us where the RE rooms were located. The boys found friendly adults to read them stories, hidey-spaces to crawl into, and toys to play with.
Upstairs in the service, I experienced sanctuary. An hour of respite from juggling work and parenthood, an opportunity to think wider thoughts, and space to feel some of the feelings my busy routine did not allow in. The hymns evoked memories of my childhood UCC church, since many of the tunes were the same. Sometimes the hymns made me cry, sometimes they made me laugh. “Source of all to thee we raise” – surprise! The words had been changed from those I grew up on.
Nearly always, after the Sunday service, I brought something away with me – a nugget of wisdom, a story, or a few more hours of the feeling that came from slowing down for that one hour.
I became a convert – a born-again UU. My conversion happened in that sanctuary, and what Unitarian Universalism meant to me then was defined by that congregation. That is probably true for many people, especially if they stay in one congregation for a long time. Others – and I know you are here – have moved about more. You’ve found different ways of doing things in different UU settings. You have adjusted.
After my conversion, I found the other reasons to love religious community – the funny traditions, the efforts of so many volunteers working together, improbably, to make things hum. I found good friends, love and support during times of trial, and opportunities to grow in leadership and self-understanding. Coming back to religious community filled a hole, met a need that could not have been filled or met by returning to what I had grown up with.
I learned, eventually, about Unitarian reformers and martyrs in the 19th and 20th centuries – men and women who acted on their values; who fought against slavery; who championed women’s rights, fair wage laws, and decent treatment for the mentally ill; who marched and died in the Civil Rights movement. The UU Beacon Press took a risky stand by publishing The Pentagon Papers in 1971, and withstood federal harassment and extensive legal action in the aftermath.
The larger context for all of this – the history of Unitarians and Universalists, the larger association, other congregations – only grew in importance to me as I began to explore the ministry. And I’m probably getting old and out of step, but I still think the heart of what we do is right here.
As Kim and Julie and Rich all mentioned, in a UU organization each person is entitled to a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. No creed, no prescribed beliefs – but instead encouragement to ask questions, and a commitment to do our best to live life with integrity. I think Julie’s grandmother had a pretty good one floor elevator speech: an ethical life, and the importance of each person.
For a longer ride I might add that we expect ourselves and each other to respect and honor the different ways in which we understand ultimate meaning or fathom unknowable mysteries. We cherish the interdependent web of life. And that we do this best in community with others.
I believe that most of us need to be held, in our joys and in our sorrows. We need other people to support and challenge us in addressing the recurring question of what it means to be ethical – now, at this moment in history, in this place, and at this particular time in my life.
I believe we need a place of sanctuary,
to serve one another,
to stand against superstition and fear,
to point to what is noble and right,
to tear down walls that divide us,
And I must believe
That there are bonds that hold us,
Mysteries too wonderful for us to fathom, and
A universal love
that has not broken faith with us
and never will. (verses based on readings by John B. Wolf and Rebecca Parker in "Lifting our Voices," UUA @2015.
(*)These verses were adapted from readings by John V. Wolf and Rebecca Parker in Lifting our Voices, UUA, @