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Church of all sorts

Some faiths focus on all saints and others on all souls, but Unitarian Universalism is a faith of all sorts.
By Tom Owen-Towle
January/February 2005 1.1.05

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During intergenerational camps at De Benneville Pines Retreat Center in the Southern California mountains, our church often plays a game that underscores our commitment to universal respect: reverencing everyone without idolizing anyone.

Each person has the name of some well-known Unitarian Universalist pinned on his or her back by the game leaders. We then stroll around the lodge, asking questions about the people whose names we can't see on our own backs—simple yes-no queries such as the gender and era of the person. Most of these names are of the famous Unitarian Universalist variety, but we also mix in names of camp attendees, young and old alike. It always brings a shock of delight and pride when people learn they're wearing their own name or that of another church camper.

The point of the game is crystal clear even to the youngest in our camp: Despite our imperfections, we are all beautiful and capable individuals. We belong to a beloved community that believes unreservedly in every one of us and affirms that we can be and do marvelous things during our sojourn on earth.

Some wag once quipped that some faiths focus on all saints and others on all souls, but Unitarian Universalism is a faith of all sorts. It's a line that draws an understandable chuckle, for we are a fairly unorthodox crew in terms of our philosophies and lifestyles. The bottom line is that we are an intentionally diverse community, encompassing all sorts of souls. Consequently, it should come as little surprise that many of our Unitarian Universalist churches bear the name "All Souls." For we are interested in saluting not only the greats of our own heritage but also the last, the lost, and the least of all humanity.

We believe that salvation is for everyone or no one. The Universalist side of our tradition posits an Infinite Spirit that holds every creature in loving embrace. Universalism excludes no one. Our Unitarian side has a compatible emphasis, affirming the inherent worth and supreme dignity of every person, contending that even the shaggiest and shadiest among us is redeemable. Our stubborn belief in the bedrock preciousness of individuals ought never be taken for granted: It is not shared in large portions of the world, and it is frequently threatened by bigotry and intolerance here in America. It remains a distinctive, critical hallmark of our way of doing church.

Hospitality—the mission of every Unitarian Universalist community—relates to larger questions of salvation as well. If someone approaches a Unitarian Universalist and inquires, "Are you saved?" we're likely to respond in one of several ways. "I don't know; it's not my call to make. A greater power than I will need to render judgment!" Or: "You shouldn't take my word for it. I could tell you anything, so here are some references to check out. These folks will give you a more rounded assessment of the kind of person they sense me to be." Or: "Our faith claims that 'Am I saved?' isn't the right question to ask or answer. A more relevant one is, 'Are we saved?' We affirm that human regard should embrace a larger reality than our own hides. In short, liberal religion focuses upon universal rather than individual salvation."

The beloved community, in its fullness, welcomes the whole of creation. All sorts of souls.


Excerpted with permission from Growing a Beloved Community: Twelve Hallmarks of a Healthy Congregation (Skinner House, 2004).

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