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Chicago UUs broadcast worship on progressive radio

‘Food for the Soul’ airs every Sunday evening, attracting thousands of listeners.
By Michelle Bates Deakin

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The Rev. Brian Covell

The Rev. Brian Covell, minister of Third Unitarian Church of Chicago, records the Food for the Soul radio show at WCPT Chicago. (Mark Earnest)

A recent visitor to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Rockford, Ill., explained that he discovered Unitarian Universalism on the radio. Signing the guest book after his first visit, the newcomer wrote that he had been listening to the Food for the Soul radio show for three months.

“It gave me the courage to come and experience Rockford,” he wrote. “Thank you so much for such a wonderful experience.”

Food for the Soul is a weekly, Chicago-area radio show that airs Sunday evenings at 6:00 on WCPT, Chicago’s progressive talk radio station. Now in its second year of broadcasting, the show attracts between 3,000 and 11,000 listeners each week.

Some of those listeners, like the one in Rockford, find their way into Chicago-area congregations. Others probably never will. But increasing membership in area congregations is not the show’s sole purpose. “Our preoccupation is not with growth and numbers,” said the Rev. Emmy Lou Belcher, minister of the DuPage Unitarian Universalist Church in Naperville, Ill. “It’s with the transformation of the world.”

Belcher’s sermons are carried on the weekly broadcasts, and she has had people come to the church who first heard her on the airwaves. But more important, she believes, is getting the message of Unitarian Universalism into the broader consciousness. “This is part of a larger ministry,” she says, adding that one man told her he pulled his car over to the side of the road and cried while listening to the show. He had never known before that there were people who believed what he did.

“That to me is the purpose of this,” Belcher said. She likens putting UU beliefs out onto the public airwaves to the Congregations and Beyond initiative of UUA President Peter Morales. It’s finding a way to reach and serve people outside the walls of UU congregations.

The Food for the Soul radio show is the brainchild of the Rev. Brian Covell, minister of Third Unitarian Church of Chicago. He was brainstorming ideas with Mark Earnest, the director of sales of WCPT radio, and wanted to start a weekly radio broadcast. Earnest was skeptical at first, but on the basis of Covell’s enthusiasm and persistence, Earnest said he started working on some ways to pull it off.

The two had previously worked together on UU testimonials that aired on WCPT—a series of 60-second radio spots for the progressive station, in which Chicago-area UUs discussed what they liked about their congregations. The testimonials were Earnest’s idea, after he attended a Sunday service at the Countryside Church UU in Palatine, Ill. He was struck by the themes he heard and knew there was a place for them on progressive talk radio. He said he thought there were a lot of people out there looking for this kind of church experience.

With the help of Covell and Margaret Shaklee, a member of the Unitarian Church of Evanston, Ill. and then president of the Chicago Area Unitarian Universalist Council (CAUUC), Earnest identified UUs to record the testimonials and air them as advertisements on WCPT. The council purchased 24 one-minute ads a week for the winter holidays in 2009 and 2010, said Shaklee, adding that CAUUC paid for the ads with membership dues from the congregations that belong to the organization.

The ads whetted Covell’s appetite for radio. Each week, Food for the Soul, which began airing on March 10, 2011, combines elements of a UU service into a one-hour show. There are opening words, a sermon, member testimonials, music, and closing words. The show is put together each week by WCPT engineer Mike Sanders. Because of potential copyright issues, he doesn’t include music from area services, but adds in music at the station instead.

The sermons are usually by Covell, Belcher, or the Rev. Alan Taylor, senior minister at Unity Temple UU Congregation in Oak Park, Ill. Occasionally a guest sermon is included, such as a recent one by the Rev. Erik David Carlson, minister of the UU Church of Stockton, Ill.

The show costs $350 per week to run, according to Ann Arellano, a member of the DuPage church, who serves on the marketing committee. “It’s the most expensive marketing that we’ve done,” she said.

Third Church, DuPage, and Unity Temple are splitting the cost, which has been offset by grants from the CAUUC and the Central Midwest District. Costs are also underwritten by on-air advertising. This past year, the Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church began advertising on Food for the Soul, drawn to the audience of seekers the show attracts.

“We’re creating an audio postcard about what life is like in our congregations,” said Covell. “When you think about religious radio, you think Rush Limbaugh and reactionary hatemongering. We want to get our UU values transmitted, so we have a presence on the airwaves.”

Covell said that he has grown tired of mentioning Unitarian Universalism and people not knowing what it is. He believes that Food for the Soul is helping “break that down.” Increasingly, he said he comes across more people who have heard the show, ranging from a Catholic contractor working on his church to people emailing from Hong Kong or Australia who have heard the show streaming on the Web.

This spring, after WCPT broadcast Covell’s sermon on Trayvon Martin, the young man killed by a community watch volunteer in Sanford, Fla., Covell got a message from a young woman who belonged to an evangelical church. She was moved by Covell’s sermon and wanted to share it with people in her community to start a conversation about gun control. She asked for recorded copies of the show. Earnest provided recordings for her so she could share them with members of her church.

Covell is hoping more Chicago-area UU churches will become involved in the program—both to share the cost and to add diversity to the voices on the air. He has had interest from several area churches.

Marketing efforts of the Chicago-area churches have been linked for several years by the CAUUC, a regional marketing initiative that runs a website for 28 area churches. The site provides information about Unitarian Universalism, links to local congregations, social justice activities, and a calendar of events.

An abridged version of this article appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of UU World (“Chicago UUs air weekly radio show,” page 36). See sidebar for links to related resources.

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