Excerpts from interviews with members of the virtual church.
In the annotated excerpts that follow, Second Life names are used throughout. (When you create an account for Second Life, you must choose from a list of surnames, which changes over time; your forename can be anything you desire, as long as it and the surname you select create a unique user ID.) Otenth Paderborn is Sutton's avatar.
Bizarre Berry, who started in Second Life in June 2006, quickly distinguished himself as a creative and quirky builder. (See below for link to a profile of his creative endeavors.) He is widely considered one of the major forces behind the growth of the UU church in Second Life. Berry is the avatar of George Byrd, a 37-year-old real estate broker from Columbus, Ohio. Byrd has been a UU since 2000, and has been involved in the First UU Church of Columbus. (These excerpts are from a telephone interview conducted February 9, 2007.)
Otenth Paderborn: How long have you been in Second Life?
Bizarre Berry: Since June 8, 2006.
Q. And what has kept you here?
A. The amazing and enormous possibilities of imagination to come true in front of you on your screen, with the open-endedness that if you can dream it you can do it.
Q. How did you first find the UU church in Second Life?
A. I basically created it. I got to that point where I was bored, and I loved Second Life and I thought that it had tremendous possibility but as I wandered around and met people I thought most of them were boring. Which isn't to say that everyone in Second Life is boring, it's just like in real life. I mean, let's say you just picked out the random mall, and you went to a shopping mall. How likely are you really on that trip to the mall to run into someone you have a lot in common with and enjoy talking to? That's not where you go to meet people. In real life, if you want to make new friends, you volunteer for activities you're interested in or you join a book club or you look for people who have common interests. So I got to that point in Second Life where I started to think how could I meet people here in Second Life who are interesting to talk to and share some of the interests I have.
And I started looking around for churches out of curiosity, and I found a couple of churches that were basically empty shells of buildings. No one was actually hanging out at these churches.
I thought, I want to create a real live UU church and see if anyone shows up. I want to make it real and I want to have services. I want it to be a place where people come and they hang out and congregate and they can make friends and find other people to talk to, basically something that will draw and attract people and keep them interested in Second Life instead of logging in and seeing a couple of shopping malls and casinos and sex clubs and then leaving.
So I built the church, and I was going to create a group for it, for people to join, and I did a search for Unitarians, and I found there was one group for Unitarians, and it had just been created. Between the time I decided to build my church and create the group, it had been created already, that same week. It all happened relatively quickly.
Ariel Ventura had created the group for UUs, and there were five or six members at the time. So I contacted Ariel and showed him that I had built the church.
Q. Are you a UU in real life?
A. Very active in my church.
Q. Do you attend church in real life?
A. I used to attend a lot; lately I'm down to once every six weeks or something because I was getting a bit burned out I think. I got a lot from the services when I first discovered UUism because I never grew up doing anything like that. Then I found I really enjoyed participating in services. Then just got distracted with other things.
I was part of the worship committee and I coordinate services, and I greet.
Q. How long have you been involved?
A. Since 2000.
Q. What's it like to go to church in Second Life compared to real life?
A. It's very similar in many ways, except in real life my church has 700 people. You show up and there's lots going on and lots of people are involved and there's a whole machinery that's working around you, whereas I started this one from nothing and saw it grow. I can't say I grew the church, it grew on its own, which is the most amazing thing to me of all.
The cheesy comparison is Field of Dreams. I don't recall the words coming to me specifically, "build it and they will come," but that's kind of what it was. I put my heart and soul into it, and look what became of it. It's pretty amazing.
Q. What are your hopes for Unitarian Universalism in Second Life?
A. I want to be on the forefront and a leader of spirituality in Second Life and capture people's attention. We have the opportunity to be a first mover and be in there early, and we were really. The only church that's really alive and bigger than us is ALM [Abundant Life Ministries CyberChurch].
When you explain to most people what Unitarian Universalism stands for, what it is, so many of them say, oh yeah, I agree with that, I can really believe that. Unitarian Universalism allows you the opportunity to feel connected to people on a greater and deeper level, and you're allowed to define that how you want, you don't have to say I'm part of a spirit, being part of one great universal spirit, if that's not how you choose to look at it. You can still accept, though, that you share a planet with 6 billion people and we can either starve to death and fight and kill each other or we can work on taking humanity forward and realizing our potential.
That's what I see in Unitarian Universalism, and that's what I want to spread, that message to people. If we can get the mind share early on as Second Life itself grows, maybe more people will be brought to Unitarian Universalism. That's really my ultimate goal for Unitarian Universalism in Second Life: to really help grow it as a religion itself, among the wider earth's population, that more people should know about it.
Q. Any question I should have asked?
A. I hear a lot of people asking the questions, What role does Second Life play in spiritual life, what role does virtual reality play in the real world, and are they separate or are they the same?
All of our existence is an illusion, its just a bunch of neurons firing in our brains. The actual experience of living and existing, that's all in our brains, it's in our heads. Looking at a computer screen, it's just one other alternative source of input into your brain's computing, processing power, the way it makes sense of reality. Your imagination is a powerful thing, and you can be just as alive and real in Second Life as you can in the real world, and I see no distinction in that. One of the great things that Second Life has shown, and our church in particular, is how real it is. I built the place where the church exists, but I did not bring the people to it; they brought themselves. They come every Thursday night not because I ask them to, and not because I make them, but because of their own free will. It's an experience they want to be a part of.
The other early organizer of the UUs in Second Life is Ariel Ventura. Ventura is the avatar of Ariel Vitali, a 38-year-old medical resident, working to be a board-certified psychiatrist, who lives in Lubbock, Tex. (These excerpts are from an interview conducted in Second Life on February 12, 2007.)
Otenth Paderborn: How long have you been in Second Life?
Ariel Ventura: I started in Second Life in late July of '06. I had heard about Second Life for a couple of years now, but never got involved until one of my real life friends mentioned she was on it. I signed up thanks to her. I was quite involved for the first few months, but real life got in the way, so I've curbed my time significantly since October, due to lack of time.
Q. You mentioned in your email that you're one of the founders of the UU group?
A. Yes. Technically, I was the one who initiated the group. I had met Alex Bradley via another group for mental health professionals. He mentioned in his profile that he was a UU. I had noticed that there were several other religious groups in Second Life: Bible study groups, Buddhist meditation circles. There was nothing for Unitarian Universalists. So, I started one. Alex invited over one of his friends, Bizarre Berry, who has been the real mover and shaker in helping our group go. He and Alex have done all the work in getting UUSL the land as well as organizing many things including a more structured weekly service. And now we've expanded to Second Life Covenant Groups. Alex invited Biz, I invited my friend CoyoteAngel Dimsum, then more and more people came . . .
A. Currently, no. There is a small congregation where I live. Only because I haven't gotten around to going yet. I've only been in Lubbock for four months. I had attended a UU church in Beaumont, Tex., before moving here: Spindletop Unitarian Church.
Q. What's it like to go to church in Second Life compared to real life?
A. It's a wonderful adjunct to real life. Of course (for me), it cannot replace real life services. However, it is encouraging that there are many UUs out there on the Internet (or at least those who are interested in UUism). And being in a more conservative part of the US, it's good to be in contact with other UUs worldwide.
Q. Has Second Life had any effect on your spiritual life?
A. It hasn't led to any direct effects in my spiritual life. As far as UU resources, there are some, but nothing compared to, say, a place like Support for Healing [another Second Life location], where there is a lot of information on Tibetan Buddhism.
Q. What are your hopes for UUsim in Second Life?
A. For now, it's grown into something that I never even imagined. I would like to see an increasing contact with the UUA office, and hopefully, we can work together in some fashion.
Q. How long have you been a UU?
A. I converted in 1999, when I lived back East. I grew up in an Evangelical Christian tradition, but now consider myself a "Unitarian Christian agnostic."
Q. And that's the beginning of a whole other interview!
A. It sure is.
Jonathan Ayres is no newcomer to virtual connections. Jonathan is the avatar of Jon Angel, a 55-year-old information technology specialist for the U.S. Public Health Service who lives in Rockville, Md., "born and raised" a UU, but no longer active with a church. (These excerpts are from a telephone interview conducted February 7, 2007.)
Jonathan Ayres: Since the 16th of December I think it was, or the 19th, right in there. Immediately after seeing the iMinister's weblog written by Christine Robinson about the existence of the First UU Church of Second Life.
Q. What kept you in Second Life?
A. Actually, I had been interested and intrigued ever since hearing an item on public radio I guess some time earlier in 2006, I can't exactly remember when. So I was inclined to go and it was the existence of the fellowship that tipped it over, so to speak. And once there I find it obsessive.
Q. When you first came into Second Life, did you have any trouble finding the church?
A. None whatsoever. I guess I learned about teleporting early on, and also I think Search was pretty obvious, so on arriving in a crowded place that was somewhat hostile, I simply searched and teleported. [When first entering Second Life, avatars arrive in central locations filled with other new participants, which are sometimes frequented by people bent on being unpleasant.]
Q. You're a UU in real life?
A. Born and raised. Unitarian Society of Germantown [in Philadelphia, Pa.] until age 11, and then River Road Unitarian Church in Bethesda, Md., where Christine [Robinson] came up, so to speak, although we didn't know each other well then. We've probably talked to each other more in the past two or three weeks than in our entire lives.
Q. It seems to me that Second Life runs a continuum from imaginary to real, that they meet in a virtual world. The thing that's most immediately apparent to outsiders is to describe relationships and how those are real relationships.
A. This is what I've been thinking about in anticipating your call. The idea of a real relationship through a virtual medium is not new to me. I married in 1990 and made a commitment to raising a Jewish family. The opportunities for being involved at River Road were few, and I got involved in the temple. I hungered for the old UU contacts or context. I found it in 1997 online through listservs [online email lists], primarily. There basically were a sequence of them for me, starting with UUS-L, the original general-purpose UU listserv, which was not sponsored by the UUA.
That was a very contentious place from time to time. This is unfortunate. In between the contention there's the room, just in a listserv or email environment, for real community, and real, how shall we say, spiritual sustenance. When a few LRYers [former members of the UU youth organization Liberal Religious Youth, which was replaced with YRUU in the 1980s] founded what was then called an eGroup, I got very involved in that. That was in October of 1999. That got so contentious that most of the people drifted away, and a few of us stayed and moderated it and kept it going. It's now up to about 600 members on Yahoo! Groups, called LRY. It goes between being relatively quiet to quite active. It's matured, it's lost that contentious, or solely contentious environment.
Q. So you don't go to church anymore?
A. Hardly ever; the only reason I've been going to River Road, unfortunately, is to attend memorial services.
Q. Which church events do you attend in Second Life?
A. I unfortunately haven't been able to make very many of the Thursday evening things, but I've gotten to pieces of at least two or three, and I've seen them really evolve. At first I don't know if I would have continued, it seemed so chaotic with everyone talking at once and no particular aim, so to speak, or order. And now that we're passing out orders of service and establishing protocols for a period of silence, a period where only one person talks at a time, etc., that's cool, that's good.
Q. Have you checked out any Jewish activities in Second Life?
A. Yes, almost within a day or two of getting involved, I started talking to somebody whose interests are pretty much the same as far as Judaism and Unitarianism, and he clued me in to the Second Life synagogue. Just as we have Bizarre Berry, they have Beth Odets, who's a real character. But I don't like it as much as the world that Berry has created.
Q. How would you compare worship in Second Life and real life?
A. It's kind of been a long time, although it hasn't been a long time as far as temple goes. I think there's a real difference in goal and result. In real life it's possible to come away with the glow of a community, of whatever it is you've heard or absorbed, in music and reading and sermon. You can't come away with as much from a virtual service. It really has to rely on the sense of community more than anything that might reach you through music or even poetry or ambiance. Although ambiance does get through to you, a little bit, doesn't it?
[In a later email, Angel expanded on his point: "Just as there are differences between experiencing real life and experiencing a second life, there are differences between real services and Second Life services. In particular we can't sing together at FUUCSL, but we do experience a true sense of community."]
A. I wouldn't expect it to. There are some issues for me in terms of divided attention. It's so obsessive for me that I think it inevitably is taking away from what I'm doing in real life. I feel sometimes enervated by that, drained. I think I'm going to have to strike a balance. If there is anything more spiritual about it, it has to do with community, and with contacting people in a way you wouldn't otherwise, or contacting a wider range of people than you might otherwise. Or in my case, contacting Unitarians at all.
Q. Do you have any hopes for Unitarian Universalsim in Second Life?
A. I really like the way that it includes such a wide range of people, and I would hope that that continues. I notice it's also an opportunity for people who have never encountered it before to hear about it, and I think that's hopeful. I guess one hope for me personally might be to make some sense of the large number of theologies that I feel Unitarian Universalism has come to encompass in the past twenty years or so. It is different from what I grew up with, and sometimes that worries me or bothers me.
You think of the one distinction in the name Unitarian, the idea that it opposes the Trinity, the idea that God is one, which is so easy for me to carry over to Reform Judaism, and that you think that well, wait a minute, we've also become an umbrella organization for Wiccans and for Buddhists and for others for whom the notion of a single god is totally foreign.
Not that I have anything particularly against that, it's just like a curiosity. Maybe Second Life is a place where I can work that out.
Q. Is there anything I should have asked?
A. I am struck and a little frightened by the contrast between the obsessive world where I'm considering setting up house, basically, and stepping back from that with another part of me and saying, my God, it's like playing with dolls. What am I doing?
Aesir Agenomen is the avatar of Marie Harriman, 43, of Shelton, Conn. Harriman has disabilites that prohibit or interfere with holding a job, attending church, and running her jewelry business. (These excerpts are from a telephone interview conducted February 8, 2007.)
Otenth Paderborn: You're Marie Harriman in real life and in Second Life you're Aesir Agenomen?
Aesir Agenomen: Yes, something like that.
Q. It's funny, all of us have names that we've only seen written.
A. I don't know how to pronounce it either. I sell beaded jewelry under the name Aesir Adornment. Aesir goes back to the Norse word for the god of art and creativity, loosely translated. And so that's why I took Aesir. And Agenomen means a pseudonym. So Aesier is my Agenomen.
Q. How long have you been in Second Life?
A. I think this is going on two weeks. It's pretty short.
Q. And what first brought you to Second Life?
A. My husband has been on Second Life for maybe three or four weeks longer than I have. He does a lot of computer stuff, a lot of online computer stuff, a lot of computer gaming, and I don't know what brought him online, but that's what brought me online.
Q. How did you find the UU church?
A. He found it first, and so I instantly went there because I'm a UU as well. Both of us are.
Q. So far, what are you finding that's keeping you in Second Life?
A. To be honest, most of the people that I'm chatting with in the UU area. I'm just really enjoying meeting new people. I've joined one of the covenant groups. We had our first meeting on Monday. That was really good and interesting. And then I think that for right now it's mostly the interaction with the UUs that's keeping me there.
Q. Have you ever been in a small group or covenant group sort of setting in a real life UU church?
A. I had hoped to with my church, but they were starting it up right around the same time that I was becoming too ill to travel at night and do anything at night. So I had joined, I had gotten assigned to a group, and then I just wasn't able to make it. I had hoped to but it didn't work out.
Q. I thought it was beautiful in one of our earlier emails that you said your husband and you have danced in Second Life, and you haven't been able to do that together in real life for quite some time.
A. Yeah, and it's one of the fun, well, the other portion I guess of Second Life, and it's been a real positive thing for me and for us. It's something we can do together. It's fun and entertaining, and it doesn't depend on how I physically feel all that much. We can plan to go out to dinner, we can plan to go do some activity, but it's always predicated on how I feel today. And with Second Life things, we can go do anything anyway, and it doesn't really much matter how I feel unless of course I'm very, very ill that day. That's been nice.
Q. How did the one Second Life UU service you've attended compare to real life?
A. I think the service didn't have as much depth and meaning. Our service, the one I'm used to, is longer, and the minister has been with the church twenty, maybe thirty years. Do you know Frank Hall? The church loves him, and he loves us. His sermons are very thought-provoking. A sermon on Second Life is going to pale in comparison. That's one of the things that I miss. The camaraderie and being with people was nice. It also was just my first, and I'm getting to know more people as time goes on.
Q. Have you felt any effect of Second Life on your spiritual life?
A. Definitely. I've had some very good conversations with people about things that they think in terms of Unitarian Universalism, in terms of spirituality. That's always been a big part of being a Unitarian for me, being able to converse with people about opinions and thoughts, and where they're coming from. I'm the kind of person who seeks out those conversations because I enjoy them. I've started to do that, both inside and outside the covenant group. That's what I've been doing on Second Life with a lot of my conversations with UUs. So that will be a part of the UU spirituality that I experience on Second Life.
Q. What are your hopes for Unitarian Universalism in Second Life?
A. I don't know what the church will do, but if Sweden is willing to put in an embassy, and there are corporations, I would hope that [the UUA] might take that availability as well. There are a lot of people who are coming to the UU church and saying what is Unitarianism or what is Universalism and what is this church about, and could hear about it within Second Life and consider it in real life. I hope that would at least be considered and discussed.
I would be concerned if the church did come in and gave us an official sanction and imposed too many restrictions on it. That's the one thing that I thought, they would say, "We've given official sanction, but you have to play within all these rules." That might limit its growth and availability on Second Life. If [the UUA] were to become involved with it I hope they would make a good study and have an idea of what's going on in Second Life so that it wouldn't impede it's growth. I think that would be really important.
For myself, somebody who is more or less housebound, being able to go on Second Life and attend the services and meet with other Unitarians, even if it's within Second Life parameters, has been just such a huge benefit to me in the last two weeks. I'm just astounded at how good it's been for me, and I don't want that to go away. I would be crestfallen if it were. That is a really important thing for people who are disabled. I've met a number of people on Second Life who are disabled.
Cathryn Cleanslate is the avatar of the Rev. Christine Robinson, 54, minister of the First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque, N.Mex. There are several ordained ministers involved with the church in Second Life, and some, like Cleanslate, have revealed themselves as ministers. (These excerpts are from an interview conducted in Second Life on February 12, 2007.)
Cathryn Cleanslate: I came for the first time about Thanksgiving. Chris Walton mentioned it on his blog [philocrites.com], but I took off for Advent.
Q. Once you got here, what has kept you here? Or perhaps I should phrase it, what brought you back after Advent?
A. I mentioned it to my son, who is my info source for all this new stuff. I tell this story on my blog, iminister.blogspot.com. I was just intrigued with the idea of a virtual church and how it might meet people's religious needs, which I didn't actually think was possible when I started, but now, I do.
Q. What changed your mind?
A. First it was sitting up there in the worship circle and talking to the people who came by, from the completely UU-clueless who were glad to get the info card, to the seasoned folks, one of whom I grew up with at River Road Unitarian Church, and one of whom is on my board. And in between, quite a few people who knew UUism and were attracted to it but didn't go to church in real life. Why? Disability, feeling poor, disaffected.
Anyway, at first it seemed like a good tool for UU outreach, especially to people I assumed were young adults. Turns out we're all in our 50s it seems.
Then I went to some worship services and did a covenant group. And they have some very special moments, something that actually does meet some of my spiritual needs. And, I assume, others'. And that doesn't surprise me as much as the sense of the holy being here.
For me, this intersection between real and virtual is fascinating.
Q. Can you say more?
A. I identify with this avatar. I think what I make her do has a real effect on me. Everything we do is, in the end, us, even if we are only moving our fingers.
Q. What effect has Second Life had on your real life church involvement?
A. Since all of my church involvement is also my job, I guess I'm thinking of this as my volunteer work, my own little radical welcome project and pioneering this way of outreach and religious community.
Q. What are your hopes for UUism in Second Life?
A. I hope that it helps teach others about us, and bring new folks to us (our real congregations that is) and that it will function as a healthy religious community and opportunity for some who can only participate here.
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Kenneth Sutton is managing editor of UU World.