Standing in the pulpit of First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts, on Palm Sunday, the Rev. Robin Bartlett quotes from the Bible. Her long, dark hair contrasts with her white pastor’s robe as she punctuates her sentences with a raised hand, index finger outstretched. She sings and recites the Lord’s Prayer.
Raised and ordained in Unitarian Universalism, Bartlett blurs denominational lines. In their own congregations, the Rev. Dr. W. Fred Wooden and the Rev. K.P. Hong do the same, setting off individual experiments that provide valuable insights into Unitarian Universalism’s place in a shifting interfaith landscape.
Wooden did not intend to leave the confines of Unitarian Universalism. When he sought a new ministerial opportunity after twenty-five years at UU churches, Wooden—in his own words, a “terrifically agnostic” UU Christian—set his sights on “a standard UU church,” he says. When another UU minister suggested Fountain Street Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a non-denominational, non-creedal, self-described liberal church of 800–900 members in a city known for its conservatism, Wooden decided to check it out.
At Fountain Street, Wooden discovered an independent church founded by Baptists long aligned with UU and United Church of Christ (UCC) perspectives. Eleven years into his tenure as its senior minister, he feels that he landed in the right place. Although Fountain Street’s progressive religious values overlap with Unitarian Universalism, “there’s a certain . . . way of doing church [at Fountain Street] that isn’t UU, and I can’t describe it, but it’s there.”
Wooden gleaned such differences on the fly and in them realized a newfound professional creativity that stems in part from vocabulary. Wooden’s flock is “less allergic to the Christian language than UUs,” he explains. “That was a great liberation to me; I could say things without worrying.”
After two years as senior pastor at First Church in Sterling, Bartlett understands this feeling. “We do not have words that are off limits,” Bartlett says of First Church, a federated Christian church of nearly 300 members. Of those, half identify as interdenominational Christians while the other half is split evenly between UU and UCC adherents. “We clearly have a symbol system; it’s able to hold theological diversity in a whole different way,” she says. “We welcome people from all faith traditions.”
Bartlett converted to Christianity while in divinity school and is both UU and UCC ordained. Her thoughts on God have evolved with time, and she doesn’t believe in an afterlife. But she found in the Bible and Christian worship an acceptance and a narrative that Unitarian Universalism hadn’t provided, and she didn’t soft-pedal that fact as she applied for ministerial jobs at UU churches. Despite her amalgamated beliefs, UU pastoral search committees passed her over (as they did Wooden). Her call to First Church’s come-with-your-doubts Christianity “was a natural fit,” she says.
“It’s perfect for us that she’s here,” confirms Shana Hopkins, who has attended First Church for six years. “We knew we were going to need someone special. She was UU but she believed in Jesus,” Hopkins says of Bartlett, “and she was also interested in understanding other people’s faith journeys.”
Similarly, the Rev. K.P. Hong’s keen listening won over congregants of Unity Church-Unitarian in Saint Paul, Minnesota. When Unity’s 870 members learned that Hong, an ordained Methodist minister and practicing Zen Buddhist, would be leading their religious education program of 535 children and youth, “there was a very quiet murmur of ‘Will he be respectful of Unitarian Universalism?’” says co-minister the Rev. Rob Eller-Isaacs. As people met Hong, the murmurs died down. “He is respectful, curious,” Eller-Isaacs says. “He could be a Unitarian Universalist; he’s not committed in any dogmatic way to the confines of Christianity.”
Hong arrived at Unity Church after six years as an interfaith chaplain at Macalester College (also in Saint Paul), where he “felt again the priority of interfaith work in a post-9/11 world,” he says. Hong is uniquely positioned for such work. Born in South Korea, he immigrated to the United States when he was 8 years old. His upbringing straddled religions as well as continents; raised Protestant and Korean Zen Buddhist, Hong says the combination created a “religious and cultural hybridity” that touches on cultural trends. “It’s a no-brainer that all of us are becoming aware of our hyphenated identities,” he says.
The September 2013 American Religious Identification Survey of 1,873 college students supports this notion. “[Religious] categories and classifications are being refined among a generation where personal choice is privileged over ascribed identity,” according to the survey, which notes that young adults “embrace ambiguity and reject dogma” more than older generations.
This changing theological landscape resonates with UUs. If Wooden and Bartlett are indicative of this resonance, there’s a place for UUs to navigate religiously ambiguous situations nimbly and effectively. Moreover, Hong sees Unitarian Universalism anchored in a methodology similar to the Buddhist concept of upaya, or “skilled means”—that is, knowing the right approach for a given situation while realizing that life requires a fresh look at each new circumstance. Unitarian Universalism has “this kind of openness, the changeability of our belief structures,” Hong says.
Nonetheless, most UUs remain “challenged by how difficult interfaith work really is,” he says. There is no standard for comparing religions. This makes everything from talking about religion across denominations to accepting identity-defining differences difficult.
Bartlett understands these challenges not thanks to First Church’s ecumenism but because “it is profoundly difficult for me to minister across the political spectrum.” Her congregants embody a wide array of political beliefs. “Loving people across ideological lines” vexes Bartlett. “I think it’s why I was called here.” Conservatives in her congregation accept her, progressive politics and all. “I’m taught by them over and over again what grace looks like.”
First Church’s understanding of its own ideological fissures offers a model for the beginnings of successful interfaith relationships, says Jennifer Howe Peace, associate professor of interfaith studies at Andover Newton Theological School. The goal “is to get to the point where we don’t see sameness as the price of entrance for interfaith work,” she says. Building interfaith relationships that accommodate difference is “not rocket science, but it’s not easy.” It takes time, patience, and understanding and requires a conscious decision to uphold the relationship.
With a stated openness to all religions, UUs might assume that their denomination thrives at interfaith work. While such a potential exists, “particular pitfalls in the [UU] community can be particularly hard to see,” says Peace. For one, UUs tend to be “exclusivist pluralists,” meaning “you’ll talk to anyone as long as they agree with your openness to everyone,” she explains. This stance reduces working with less ideologically porous groups to a superficial interaction.
Which brings up Peace’s second observation: many UUs struggle intensely with Christianity. The tension arises from their drive to differentiate themselves from Christians and from some UUs’ negative, sometimes traumatic, experiences growing up Christian. “I would love to see more healing between the UU and Christian communities,” she adds.
UU-initiated shifts could open the door not only to this healing but also to stronger bonds with other faith groups. Wooden sees stepping away from the UU “brand” as one opening. “Unitarian Universalism would benefit from seeing itself as one voice of liberal religion—not the voice of liberal religion,” he says. He contends that by integrating into a wider liberal religious movement, UUs can more adeptly further the values and causes they hold dear.
At the same time, argue Bartlett and Hong, UUs struggle with interfaith relationships because the denomination lacks a clear, expressible identity. “When you know where your place is and who you are, it is much easier to form interfaith partnerships,” says Bartlett. “If you don’t have a good idea of who you are, people are skeptical.”
Hong has picked up on a similar thread in his role as RE director. He contends that religion raises the question of belonging, and he hears in young UUs a fear of separation from their tribe. Given this context, “saying to our young people, ‘you’re free to choose’ is a form of violence,” Hong says. He urges UUs to clearly answer the questions that root children in community: “Who am I, and how will I find my way?” For UUs, the answer is complex. “It is about weaving together different strands,” he says.
As UUs consider weaving strands of religious identity and collaborating with other faith communities, Peace strongly advocates forward movement. “This is not something we can ignore,” she says. “Our shared civic life is at stake.”
Essential as it is, traversing an interfaith path feels unfamiliar and fraught to many Americans. Sitting in a pew at First Church on Palm Sunday, Joanne Jenski expressed the sentiment well. She likes Bartlett, she says. The pastor pushes her congregation’s boundaries “in a good way, that you know is right.” After all, she adds, “being comfortable in life is a dangerous place.”