Shared from the 4/8/2018 Houston Chronicle eEdition

condition prompts FAITH IN ACTION

A shared passion for social justice

Compassion, tolerance and a drive to help others are among the principles that unite the diverse membership of Unitarian Universalist churches

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Melissa Phillip / Houston Chronicle

Congregants lift their voices in song during a service at Bay Area Unitarian Universalist Church on El Camino Real in Clear Lake.

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Melissa Phillip / Houston Chronicle

Pastor Bruce Beisner, right, assists congregants during a candle-lighting ritual at Bay Area Unitarian Universalist Church.

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Melissa Phillip / Houston Chronicle

Unitarian Universalist churches don’t adhere to any specific god, but services do include customs such as singing and sermons.

Unitarian Universalist principles

• The inherent worth and dignity of every person;

• Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;

• Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;

• A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;

• The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;

• The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all;

• Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

ON arecent Sunday in Clear Lake, the Rev. Bruce Beisner began his church service with a story about four people who traveled to a mountain looking for God.

Which god Beisner was referring to, however, would depend on who in the congregation you asked.

“There are a variety of theologies within our community — it’s a different way to build a church,” Beisner said. “In alot of religious communities you start with a creed or a belief system about a certain god or deity — we don’t have that.”

The church’s members, who Beisner said might be just as likely to find God in nature as they are in a religious text, don’t mind. They’re Unitarian Universalists, a faith that doesn’t adhere to a belief in any one god or religious scripture. Instead, members are guided by a set of principles that promote compassion and tolerance, and they tend to share a common passion for social justice and activism.

“Our commitment to social justice — love coming together for change, to heal this world and improve it, is why I attend,” said Terry Grim, who coordinates the homeless services program at Bay Area Unitarian Universalist Church. “To me, it’s a guiding principle.”

There are nine Unitarian Universalist churches in the Houston-Galveston area and around 1,040 in the United States, according to the Unitarian Universalist Association website. And the number of Unitarian Universalist churches as well as total membership, which is less than 155,000 people, have decreased in the past few years, social activism is up.

Followers say that the political advocacy, especially after the 2016 presidential election, has helped bring attention to a faith that wasn’t always well-known in the Houston area.

“Everyone is far more willing to be active,” said the Rev. Daniel O’Connell, senior minister at First Unitarian Universalist Church in the Museum District. “Before the election, it’s conceivable that no one in Houston would have known that liberal churches exist. I think that’s started to change now that people are mobilized and much more involved.”

Unitarian churches — part of what O’Connell described as the religious left — have been known to participate in political rallies and protests since the church was founded in the 18th century. The Universalist denomination was the first to ordain women, and its ministers were known to assist abolitionists and defend fugitive slaves. Unitarian ministers marched in Selma, Ala.,with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

And the commitment to activism is just as strong in 2018, members say.

“We live by our actions, not only our words,” said Christine Rubly, who attends Beisner’s church in Webster.

Wearing bright yellow shirts, church members have recently advocated for causes like Black Lives Matter, immigrant and reproductive rights. The Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, said the advocacy and outreach have been helpful in highlighting the church’s beliefs.

“I think our work around sanctuary cities, climate change and around racial justice has been raising our profile,” she said. “There’s a sense of urgency now, and we take living our faith seriously. We are not a creedal tradition. We don’t all believe the same thing. But we work together in striving for a more just and free world, so for us it is our actions where we find the real test of faith.”

The Bay Area Unitarian Universalist Church practices these principles through numerous service and justice programs.

Church members volunteer at Family Promise, an interfaith program that supports homeless families. They work with the National Alliance on Mental Illness to host support groups and advocate for improving resources. Volunteers partner with Bay Area Turning Point to help end domestic and sexual violence.

The outreach and service is reflected in the seven Unitarian Universalist principles that members commit to upholding, including statements like “the inherent worth and dignity of every person,” “justice, equality and compassion in human relations,” and “respect for the independent web of all existence of which we’re a part.” They’re ideas that people from most religious backgrounds can seemingly get on board with.

Members of Beisner’s church, for example, identify not only as Unitarian Universalists but also as Muslim, Christians, Buddhists, atheists and agnostics.

Church services maintain the general atmosphere and procedure of a typical Protestant Christian church service — there are hymns and a choir and a sermon at the end, for example — but the similarities mostly end there.

“We’re not a Christian church. We’re encouraging doubt and questions,” said Jeff Boxell, who coordinates social justice programming at the Webster church. “That goes against the authoritarianism of some fundamental Christian churches.”

Beisner said his sermons are just as likely to come from the Bible as the Quran or poetry; sometimes it can be mix of all three.

“I might use part of an editorial from The New York Times,” he said. “There can be holiness and goodness and god in all of those things if we’re looking for it. We’re not here to tell anyone what to think about who God is.”

And even though some might not consider “religious differences” to be the sturdiest foundation to build a community on, members say the theological mix adds an element of diversity, tolerance and inclusivity that other faiths don’t typically offer.

“When people tell me they aren’t interested in organized religion because churches aren’t tolerant of different viewpoints or beliefs, I know they haven’t heard of the Unitarian Universalist Church,” Rubly said.

Aaron West is a writer in Houston.

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