Unitarian Universalist ministers throughout the United States are reporting a surge in attendance at Sunday services after the presidential election on November 8. Some ministers compared the increase in attendance to the period after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
“This time feels comparable but different,” said the Rev. William Sinkford, senior minister of First Unitarian Church of Portland, Oregon. “Then, the sense of shock predominated, shading off into the fear we have all learned to live with,” he said. “Today, the folks in my sanctuary begin with disbelief and now yearn both to be in community and to find something to do.”
The increase in attendance most often represented members of the congregation who had not been active recently and were seeking to reconnect with their faith community. The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Landrum said her small congregation, the Universalist Unitarian Church of East Liberty, in Clarklake, Michigan, typically sees forty-five people in attendance, but on the Sunday after the election, there were sixty. The increase, she says, were “people who remembered what was valuable to them” in times of distress: community and action.
Although Unitarian Universalists hold a range of political views and affiliations, surveys show that they tend overwhelmingly to vote Democratic. The Pew Research Center reported in February that 84 percent of self-identified UUs lean toward or identify with the Democratic Party.
The Rev. Joan Javier-Duval, minister of the Unitarian Church of Montpelier, Vermont, said the average attendance at her congregation is 191 children and adults. On the Sunday after the election, there were 309. Javier-Duval says she thinks that people are coming to church “still grieving and processing difficult emotions.”
“Many have also started planning for action,” Javier-Duval said. “At a recent Social Responsibility Committee meeting, we discussed the possibility of becoming a sanctuary congregation” for immigrants threatened with deportation.
The Rev. Theresa Soto, interim minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Flint, Michigan, said that the congregation has many educators among its members. “When we came together to discuss the election results, part of their palpable grief was that austerity measures and cutbacks to programs and services represent destruction of their carefully crafted life work, especially in creating resources and access for people who have usually been marginalized in educational systems,” said Soto.
The Rev. Amy Shaw, minister of Lake Country UU Church in Hartland, Wisconsin, noticed an increase in attendance beginning the Sunday before the election. As soon as she knew the results of the election, she sent an email out to the congregation letting them know that the church would be open from 11:00 a.m. until 8:00 p.m. on Wednesday should anyone need to talk. “It ended up being a series of one-on-one conversations all day long,” Shaw said. “People came to cry, to talk, to express their fears and their challenges.”
The following Sunday, like many of her colleagues, Shaw preached a sermon to remind the congregation that they would find a way forward, together. “There is work to do,” she said, “and there is a path, and we will go together.”
The Rev. Bruce Beisner of Bay Area Unitarian Universalist Church in Houston, Texas, reminded his congregation that the arc of justice is long: “Perhaps now we need to focus on the word long.”
Beisner, Landrum, and Shaw describe the congregations they serve as liberal oases in conservative areas. In their churches, the results of the election have created an energy of fear coupled with determination to “do something.”
In Houston, Bay Area UU had scheduled a food drive for a women’s and children’s shelter for the second weekend after the election. “The idea was not for us to provide the food,” Beisner said, “but to invite others to donate—going out and meeting our neighbors.” The turnout from the congregation was so great, said Beisner, they had to open new areas for people to canvass.
At First Unitarian in Portland, Sinkford told his congregation that if the new government acts on Donald Trump’s proposal to register Muslims, he will register as one, too. He asked how many in the congregation would vow to join him. “I estimate that three-quarters of the 1,000 individuals in the sanctuary during the two services that day raised their hands,” Sinkford said. “It was a powerful moment of solidarity and recognition that there almost certainly will be witness for us to make in the months ahead.”
After the election, discord in the online forums of the Church of the Larger Fellowship—with 3,556 members, the UUA’s largest congregation—prompted the Rev. Meg Riley, senior minister, to send a pointed letter to all members. “We are a sanctuary for the vulnerable,” Riley wrote. “If you voted for the President-elect and are appalled by his blatant racism, tell him about it. Don’t act as if it’s nothing, and do not insult or assault people who are already struggling for well-being. If you are not appalled by the racism, perhaps you might reconsider what Unitarian Universalism means to you.”
“We will not tolerate posts in any of our forums which minimize the very real terrors of people of color, immigrants, GLBT people, disabled people, women, and others who are currently under vicious attack in the U.S.,” Riley wrote.
Riley said response to her letter has been overwhelmingly positive. “Our principles are a wonderful testament to these times and we don’t have time to ‘wait and see,’” she said. “There is no better time to be true to our values.”