“I guess I chose UUism because I need to live in balance. I can do all those wonderful, earth-centered spiritual things: sing under the stars, drum for hours, create moving ceremonies for the changes of seasons or the passage of time in the lives of men and women. But I also need to be a worldly, down-to-earth person in a complicated world–someone who believes oppression is real, that tragedies happen, that chaos happens, that not everything is for a purpose. […] And I think, in turn, the Pagan community has brought to UUism the joy of ceremony, and a lot of creative and artistic ability that will leave the denomination with a richer liturgy and a bit more juice and mystery.”
-Margot Adler, “Why I Am a UU Pagan“
Yesterday, I was honored by an invitation to return to the Rockbridge Unitarian Univeralist Fellowship (RUUF) to help moderate a discussion on the experience of being both an American Pagan and a member of the Unitarian Univeralist church. When I found UUism, I had been secretly practicing as a Pagan for about a year in my very tiny, very conservatively Christian hometown, fully convinced that except for my father and a sympathetic teacher at school I would never find like-minded individuals in my neck of the woods. When RUUF opened its doors in early 2008, I was delighted to discover I was dead wrong. I didn’t know what to expect from a UU group – my mother warned me that if they started talking about “dark energy” to get out of there – and I was still sore from leaving my last religious background. Did I really want to get involved with another church? Was I ready to return from the lonely land of purely solitary spirituality?
The answer to both those questions was yes. In UUism I found an open, accepting, vibrant faith that wasn’t just tolerant of religious diversity, it downright demanded it. In any UU congregation you can and will have Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, secular humanists, and Pagans sharing fellowship and breaking bread together. Pagans have had such an influence on UUism that we even contributed to the principles and sources that are cornerstones of the church; the sixth principle emphasizes the value of the “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part” and the seventh source cites “spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.” Not only had I found a church that celebrated my chosen faith, but I had discovered one in which other Pagans had a direct and unwavering voice in the denomination.
Beyond that, I see Unitarian Universalism as a model for any interfaith or otherwise diverse community to inspire acceptance and celebration without diluting our differences. With the understanding that the UU church is a single organization and Neo-Paganism is not, I still feel like modern Pagans can learn a lot from how UUs conduct themselves. This is one of the many reasons I want to become a UU Pagan minister when I leave graduate school, and why I continue to be active in both the UU and Pagan communities. As Margot Adler points out in the above quote, there’s also much UUs can learn from Pagan or earth-centered paths: living with care for our Mother, learning to craft moving and fulfilling ritual, and appreciating the sheer complexity and diversity that exists in theism. I also think there’s a good dialogue about being a minority faith and, at least in more conservative parts of the country, a mistrusted and oppressed one.
I remember speaking about my life in a small, Southern town – Buena Vista, VA, 6,500 people – to some friends up North and being unable to quite convey what that experience was like for a member of a minority faith and sexuality. The sort of social stigma and small-mindedness I’ve put up with isn’t something that’s okay because it happens “somewhere else” – remember, there’s absolutely no place as Somewhere Else – or because what else can you expect from rednecks and small towns. Real America clearly didn’t have these problems. But if you’ve ever had to worry about being preached at by your evangelical peers in class, paused when selecting even innocuous bumper stickers lest you seem liberal, or continually lied at your place of employment about your religion to avoid unpleasant confrontations, you know religious freedom is a long way from being fully realized in this country. One of the many reasons I transferred from Bryn Mawr (a college near Philadelphia) to Roanoke (in Virginia) was that this kind of intolerance needs to be fought at its source and I’m not doing anyone any good being queer and Pagan north of the Mason-Dixon Line.
That’s not to say there’s no tolerance in the South, nor that the North is a land of harmony and kumbiyahs; I certainly experienced my share of intolerance while attending Bryn Mawr, and from some of the supposedly smartest young women in America to boot. I think it’s important to have conversations like the one I led yesterday, regardless of where those conversations are taking place. I’m grateful to RUUF for giving me the opportunity to speak on matters close to my heart and allowing me a forum to illuminate the issues about religious freedom and Paganism.
EDIT: RUUF has put up pictures of yesterday’s service.