The Best-Kept Secret in America

Rev. Amy Zucker Morgenstern

Reverend Amy Zucker Morgenstern
December 14, 2008
Palo Alto, CA

I discovered Unitarian Universalism when I was 24. That’s a rather odd use of the word “discovered,” implying that it was just lying there, unused, undiscovered by anyone else, like “Christopher Columbus discovered America.” In both cases, of course, the discovery had long since been made by people who were happily occupying the territory. The people living on the American continent probably had no idea until the Europeans showed up that there were any such people out there. If they had, and had had any inkling about the Europeans’ designs on them and their home, they would undoubtedly have kept the existence of America a secret if such a thing were possible.

From the looks of things, the people occupying Unitarian Universalist territory when I found my way here felt pretty much the same way. They didn’t seem to be reaching out to invite me in; maybe they didn’t know I was out there looking; or maybe they knew about me and other seekers but considered us a dangerous force akin to the conquistadores. “Don’t tell anyone we’re here, or they’ll just invade and ruin everything.”

I didn’t really ponder that until much later, when I became a leader in Unitarian Universalism myself. At the time, I was just so thrilled to find a religion whose principles made me nod in excitement and recognition.

I had been acquainted with Unitarians from as far back as I could remember, without knowing that’s what they were. I had admired Thomas Jefferson and Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, learned about them in my history and literature classes without ever knowing that a religion called Unitarianism was an important part of what they believed and accomplished.

Why didn’t I know that Jefferson viewed Jesus, as I did, simply as a great teacher and exemplar, and that he shunned the supernatural in religion to the point that he literally cut and pasted together his own version of the Bible, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, minus the miracles? I wonder how things would have been different for me if I had known earlier that he had done such a thing and that there was a name for modern people who believed as he did — as I did?

When I encountered Thoreau’s essay “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience” in my 16th year, it galvanized my political sensibilities. Why didn’t I know he was a Unitarian? I knew that Gandhi, who learned the principles of nonviolent resistance from that same essay, was a Hindu; I knew that King, who was inspired in turn by Gandhi, was a Baptist. And yet I had no idea that Thoreau, the hero of my heroes, was inspired by a faith of his own, and that that faith was preached every Sunday in my own century and my own town, at a church not two miles from my home.

I was in a spiritual crisis during those high school years. I didn’t know what I believed about God, only that what I’d been taught didn’t make sense to me anymore. I was casting about for a religious home, but I didn’t look twice at the Presbyterian or Lutheran or Methodist or Congregational churches, because I knew I wasn’t Christian. And as far as I knew, the Unitarian Universalist church was just another one of the series. If only I had known what it was really like.

Now, memory is tricky, and maybe people did tell me and I just wasn’t ready to believe it. Maybe there were ads in the paper every week describing how the UU church was a place where people asked the same questions about God that I was asking — explaining how they were different from those other churches. Maybe the friends who belonged to the UU church youth group did tell me that they’d found answers there that were more the kind I was looking for, but the way I remember it, I never heard anything that would help me understand that it was different from those other church youth groups. A few years later, I had a college housemate who said that she was a Unitarian Universalist and that maybe that was the place for me too, but I can’t remember her explaining anything about why and what that meant. I don’t think anyone told me any of these things. I could be misremembering, but I don’t think so.

And you know, I’m just one person. And while one person might miss elephant-sized hints, when millions of other people are missing them too, I suspect it’s because the hints aren’t there. And there may be millions — conservatively it seems like there must be at least a million — who are Unitarian Universalists without knowing it. They’re out there, right now, looking for what we’ve got.

Then there are those who know about us because they grew up in a Unitarian Universalist church, and went away and haven’t come back. They don’t need to be informed that we exist. They do need to know our doors are open to them. For some reason, they don’t think they’re welcome any more. I have a hypothesis about why that is, and about why we’re weak at attracting newcomers too.

The most recent US Religious Landscape survey carried out by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life calculates that there are 340,000 Unitarian Universalist adults in this country, under one-third of one percent of the adult population. One out of every three hundred people. Now that sounds mighty lonesome. And fewer than 250,000 actually belong to a UU congregation.

Why are there so few Unitarian Universalists?

Before I share my own hypothesis, here are a few frequently-heard answers, and my quarrels with each.

It’s hard to be a UU. Well, sure, it’s hard to live by any principles that are demanding enough to be worthwhile. But most religions have idealistic principles, not to mention demanding practices. Some that have strict requirements like celibacy before marriage, or restrictive Sabbath observations, or tithing, outnumber UUs considerably.

In a slight variation, we may explain to ourselves, Most people are looking to religion for answers — the less nice way this gets phrased is “easy answers”and we ask them to think for themselves instead. Only 340,000 free thinkers in the country? Things are worse than I thought. I don’t believe it.

Answer number three: There are plenty of free thinkers and fellow-travelers, but most people who share our principles are also the types who aren’t looking for a religious community. This sounds more like a stereotype than a fact, as if everyone who questions received religious thought is a happy loner holed up with plenty of books and/or a personal spiritual practice. I’ve met plenty of Pagans who would like to attend weekly services in addition to their circle’s solstices, equinoxes, and cross-quarters; Humanists who want a varied and open-minded religious education for their children; Buddhists who like to hear the old hymn tunes of their childhoods; atheists who value the way good preaching can remind them to live up to their ethics. Those alone could fill our sanctuaries to standing-room-only if they only knew about the UU option.

Answer number four comes up when we ask ourselves whether we could perhaps reach out to the wider, more ethnically and racially diverse population: I’ll divide it into 4a and 4b. 4a: Latinos don’t want this kind of church — they’re mostly Catholic. Sure most Latinos are Catholic. And most Italian-Americans are Catholic too, and a majority of Utahans are Mormon, and most African Americans are Baptists, and most white people who grew up in the Deep South are Evangelicals. So let me do a quick survey. Who here grew up in one of these traditions? (many hands go up) Who grew up in another non-UU religion? (many more) And you’re here, right? Aren’t you glad no one said of you, “Oh, he or she wouldn’t be interested in our church — he’s a Mormon,” or “she’s a Catholic,” or “He goes to a fundamentalist church”? Or maybe they did say it and delayed your arrival here for years.

Answer 4b takes a form like “African-Americans and Latinos don’t like the music in our services.” It’s true that UU church music draws heavily from the European classical tradition, but the idea that only white Anglos love classical music is as ridiculous as it is racist. (Though it would also be nice to have lots of gospel, Nueva Cancion, spirituals, salsa, merengue, hip hop, and jazz in our services … )

When we ask why so many of our young people leave our churches, we often answer, “Well, youth and young adulthood are a time for questioning and rebellion,” and we cross our fingers and hope they’ll come back when they have kids. But half of our youth report that while they have strong support from religious education teachers, ministers, and youth group advisors, they don’t have much of a connection with the other adults of their congregation. So what will help them cross the bridge into being adult members? With connections only with people their age and two or three others, small wonder they drift away.

And then there’s the perennial Answer Number Six, We can’t scare people into coming to our church by talking about hell or divine retribution. It’s true that those aren’t a big part of most UUs’ theology. But if you think that’s why most people belong to those other religions, just ask them why they go to church. You’ll hear the same reasons the people here give: I want to develop my spiritual life. I’m looking for community. I want help living a good life. “Hell insurance” might be in there somewhere, but it’s not as big a factor as Answer Six suggests.

What all these explanations have in common is a disturbing smugness. They all point at everyone else and say, there’s something about them that makes them not fit in here. Not one of them suggests that maybe we might be missing something, some insight into how to welcome the stranger or the long-lost child.

I think we are. What we’re missing, on the whole, is an understanding of religious community as a movement with a mission. We tend to think of our congregations more the way the members of a club think of that organization. And that just isn’t a vision likely to compel many others to join — or likely even to get us to spread the word.

Our religion isn’t a club, where only we and those to whom we give the password may enter. It’s a hospital for the sick, a haven for the weary, a hearth where we share our songs, a home where we share each other’s bread. It’s a school for the soul, and it admits everyone who wants to learn.

For all that we criticize evangelicals for creating insiders and outsiders, saved and damned, us and them, they have a built-in commitment to inviting the outsiders in, the damned to get saved, the them to become part of the us. It’s built into their name: evangelists means proclaimers of the good news to everyone. No one is outside the circle of those who should hear it. They believe that they have good news to share and they want to share it with everybody.

Do we believe that of ourselves? Because we do have good news to share. If we don’t--if you haven’t found something here that is really important to who you are and what you want to be in this world — then what are you doing here? Would you really come back week after week? And if we do — if when you come here, apathy and depression lift, if you have found comfort here, if you find meaning and companionship on the search for truth, if you find guidance when you’re in a moral quagmire, if it connects you with others who are asking the same kind of questions and finding many different answers, if it strengthens the backbone of your integrity when you waver--then we need to spread the word.

Even if it were a club, you’d at least tell a few friends, right? “Nice place! Comfortable chairs. The food is good.” But it’s not just that. It’s not like finding a good restaurant and wanting to tell your friends; it’s not like seeing a good movie and saying, “Hey, you would like this one.” This is so much more, something essential.

There are a lot of people out there who need what we’ve found. They’re longing for a church where they don’t have to check their reason at the door, they’re lonely, they’re far from their families, they loved to sing in their childhood choir but they just can’t stomach the theology of that tradition anymore. They’re “spiritual but not religious” and they don’t know there’s a place for people like them. They are looking for meaning … They’re UUs and they don’t know it, and they could die without ever discovering what we’ve got here, unless we tell them.

Do we really think there isn’t enough to go around? Are we afraid that if too many people light their candles from our chalice, it will flicker out?

Are we afraid they might change us?

Our young people will, you know. They’ll challenge and change the religion of their birth, and we can say “Like it or leave it” and then wonder why they do leave. Or we can let them change us, the way every generation of Unitarians and Universalists and Unitarian Universalists has made its mark. And each time, what was radical in their time (Transcendentalism! Humanism!) was accepted readily within a generation and is now firmly established as part of our tradition.

Newcomers will change us too. They’ll say “Why do you do it this way?” and heaven help us if the only answer we have is, “We’ve always done it this way.” They will challenge us simply by asking questions, and if we listen, we will change. Which is why we came here to begin with, isn’t it?

I’m not saying we can or should change ourselves to suit everyone. We need to know our core values and what we’re here for and say them out loud. When we declare ourselves to the world, then plenty of people will say a firm “No thank you.” Others will try us out for a Sunday or two and decide we’re not for them. Some will grow up here and when they reach adulthood, they’ll decide they need a different religion than their parents needed. That’s all okay, and we get into real trouble when their disappointment makes us scramble to remake ourselves. If you’re nervous about the presence of theists because you’re an atheist, or you don’t want to share a congregation with atheists because you’re a theist, this probably isn’t the right place for you. The same thing goes if you don’t think a congregation should be engaged in the political issues of the day, or you don’t think a religious education program should teach that sexuality is a beautiful and sacred part of our lives, or you don’t want your children to get the idea that same-sex relationships are worthy of celebration, or you don’t like the phrase “holy book” applied to anything except the Bible, or you don’t want to hear the word “God” except as a curse.

Unitarian Universalism isn’t for everyone. But I simply do not believe that there are only 340,000 people like us in this whole country. One in nine hundred.

I don’t believe that there are only 250 adults in this area who would love this church. One in five hundred.

What I do believe is that we have a mission, that we are doing important work in each of our lives and in the world.

I believe that we have found something here, and that we have something to bring the world, that saves lives; that saves relationships; that can change the world.

I believe that when we find something this amazing, we have no business keeping it to ourselves — as if it belongs just to us. As if we can close the doors and keep out other seekers.

I believe that ancestors of ours spread for us a tremendous feast. Others are hungry, and we can welcome them by letting them know that the faith that fed Jefferson, Emerson, and Thoreau is still feeding people in this very place, on this very day.


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