A stranger in my own hometown

A stranger in my own hometown

There's a problem with thinking of Unitarian Universalists as exiles from other religions: What about people who grew up UU?


Forward through the ages,
in unbroken line,
move the faithful spirits
at the call divine.

Many in our denomination cannot hear the hymn “Forward through the Ages” without hearing an alternate set of words in the background at the same time. It shares a melody with “Onward Christian Soldiers,” a hymn sung in Christian congregations throughout the world.

But for me, this hymn has always been “Forward through the Ages.” I grew up Unitarian Universalist, and we often sang it in the three congregations my father, the Rev. John Wells, served. “Forward through the Ages” is full of images of what our faith is and could be. The song implies that our people have passed on the faith of their forebears through generation after generation. Throughout the ages, the song tells us, our prophets have spoken, our vision has grown wider, and in one living whole we have moved on together toward a shining goal. It is upbeat, triumphant, and speaks of the movement of souls through time, living and enlarging our faith.

It’s a wonderful vision, reflecting the nineteenth-century worldview, when human potential seemed limitless. Singing it now, in the twenty-first century, invites us to reflect on it anew. How are we moving forward through the ages? Are we really moving in an unbroken line?

I do not think we are. In fact, I think our faith looks more like a dotted line. Moving forward through the ages, in a line of faithful people, requires something we haven’t done a very good job of in the past fifty years: teaching our children to grow up to be active and committed UUs.

For a long time I have been asking myself why I am still an active and committed Unitarian Universalist. Too often in UU settings, I feel like a stranger in my own hometown.

Some years ago, during General Assembly, I had an experience that disturbed me. A minister leading a program asked people to raise their hands if they were raised Catholic. A good number of hands in the room went up. Then he asked, How many were raised Jewish? Muslim? Protestant? Unchurched? How about fundamentalist Christian? Then he asked, How many have been a UU for ten to twenty years? Five to ten years? Less than five years? Less than one year?

After he had finished, he happily acknowledged the diversity in the room. But I felt angry and frustrated. None of those categories fit me. He had forgotten or ignored those of us adults who were born and raised in our denomination. What we call “home-bred” Unitarian Universalists may be rare birds, but we are not extinct.

I’ve asked a number of my fellow home-bred UUs for their thoughts on why so many who are raised in our denomination wander away from it, and what keeps them active. Many speak of their frustration at expressed negativity toward other religious paths that can emerge from within UU churches, especially toward Christianity. Those of us who grew up UU often seem to have a more open relationship to the wider religious world than those who rejected their childhood religions.

Almost everyone expressed that they felt blessed to have been raised UU. That upbringing planted in many of us a commitment to justice, a moral compass to help us navigate the world, and a belief that all religions and all people have the potential for good within them. So why do so few of us stay active as adults?

The main reason, I believe, is this: The primary metaphor that UU adults use to describe our faith is one of exodus. We hear story after story of people who left the church they were brought up in. Too often lifelong Unitarian Universalists are left out of the story of our religion. We are made to feel that if we lack an experience of exile, we are not truly UU.

In a 2004 UU World article, the Rev. Victoria Safford wrote, “Unitarian Universalists are accustomed to self-identify as exiles, or at least as emigrants either from some other religious traditions or from an utterly unchurched secular life. For most of us, our emigration has been voluntary. We were not excommunicated or banished from the churches and the temples of our childhood; we walked, and nothing forced us to come here.”

In a letter to the editor, the Rev. Joel Miller, a lifelong UU, responded that “Safford ignores those of us who grew up Unitarian Universalist. She assumes all Unitarian Universalists are people who could not ‘with integrity abide imposed belief or imposed religious practice.’ She cannot assume this. My UU faith was imposed upon me just as fully as if I had grown up Catholic, Jewish, or Muslim. . . . I’m a parent now. Like all parents, I impose a faith upon my children merely by being alive. So I choose to impose Unitarian Universalism. I impose it gently, with love for their unique spirits. In my experience, a faith not good enough to impose on a child is not good enough for me or anyone else.”

Emphasizing stories of exile often gives our children permission to see religion as something to leave behind when they are grown. Better, I think, that we should impose our religion on them in ways that make them want to stay.

Because my parents imposed Unitarian Universalism on me, I learned that our faith in the oneness of God and the universal spirit of love is a saving and life-transforming faith. And I learned that you can’t be a Unitarian Universalist alone. You have to bring your soul and your energy and your commitment into religious community for it to be effectively shaped and formed.

Almost without exception, the home-bred UUs I spoke to described a feeling of belonging that developed during their formative years, a feeling that never left them. We become deeply attached to our church when it commits itself to us. Most of us who stayed got the message that our faith and our church matter. How did that message get transmitted? Primarily through what I believe lies at the heart of the liberal church—worship, justice, and community. By placing more emphasis on these three cornerstones with our children, I believe, we can encourage and support more lifelong commitments to Unitarian Universalism.

Many of our children grow up in our congregations with little experience of what it means to worship in a UU congregation. They spend most of their time with each other, learning and growing in religious education classes, but get precious little time in worship services with the full church community. Or, in churches that have youth worship services, our children may become accustomed to worship that is emotional, participatory, and spiritual. In The Bridging Program, Colin Bossen, a lifelong UU and seminary student at Meadville-Lombard Theological School, says of his experience after YRUU (Young Religious Unitarian Universalists): “We had always worshiped in circles, and now we were expected to worship in rows. We were not recovering Christians. Our own churches felt like alien cultures to us.”

We can learn a lot about worship from our young people, about diverse forms of music, spirituality, and style. But we must also teach them to appreciate the beauty of traditional UU worship. If we don’t, they will likely leave, instead of bringing their wisdom and energy to our congregations, so we can grow together, forward through the ages. At the congregation I serve in Maryland, we do a number of all-ages services each year, plus chapel services that involve children. You can’t learn about church if you never do church.

We must also give our children opportunities to live their faith. I remember vividly helping out in the weekly thrift store held at my childhood church in Lexington, Massachusetts, and learning that the proceeds went to help the poor. One of the strongest programs at my current congregation is “Warm Nights,” when we take a turn providing shelter for homeless families during one week in the winter. This project involves many support roles for church members, and many of our parents help their kids participate. We must remind our children that we do these kinds of things because we are Unitarian Universalists, because we are part of a church. Showing children our religious values in action will deepen their commitment to their faith.

Many of my home-bred UU compatriots recalled learning at an early age that church was a community of people who cared about them, just as they were, during good times and bad. Bill Sinkford, a lifelong UU and now president of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, angrily left the denomination as a young adult but after some years became deeply committed again. Why? When his mother died and he returned to his hometown to grieve, a church lady came by with “a bad casserole and an open embrace,” he remembers, welcoming him home without reservation. The church he had left—imperfect in so many ways—was there for him when it really mattered. Because it was, he not only returned but also became an outstanding leader.

I have stayed within our tradition because I truly know that this is my faith, and Unitarian Universalists are my people. But when I hear people speak, almost with pride, of how their grown children choose not to be active in our congregations because “We taught them they could be anything they wanted,” I once again feel like a stranger in my own hometown.

My hope is that attitudes toward lifelong Unitarian Universalists are changing. The work of the UUA’s Young Adult and Campus Ministry Office has made a huge difference, helping young Unitarian Universalists bridge the gap between adolescence and young adulthood. I am heartened by the growing emphasis on expressing the tenets of our faith positively, instead of talking about what we don’t believe.

Certainly, our faith must continue to embrace people from other religious traditions and from the secular world. We need the powerful energy and commitment that arrives along with those who “come in” to Unitarian Universalism. But I have a vision that soon, when a UU group is asked to show how many were raised UU, more than half will lift up their hands in joy—no longer strangers but companions on a shared journey of building a better world.

This essay was adapted from sermons delivered at the Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church in Adelphi, Maryland, and the 2004 Southeast UU Summer Institute.

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