by Joanna Crawford
I am in the 2% of Unitarian Universalists that were actually raised Unitarian. When I chatted with my mother this week and told her that I was giving a talk on UU Evangelism, she was horrified. It was as if I had admitted to wearing white shoes after Labor Day. Certain things just are not done. "It goes against everything that being a Unitarian is about!" I could not disagree more.
Let me first draw a distinction -- a very important distinction -- between evangelism and proselytizing. To proselytize is to attempt to convert. An evangelist, according to the Random House college dictionary is "a person marked by zealous enthusiasm for or support of a cause." That's me. Evangelism literally (from the Greek) means to "spread the good news." And my fellow Unitarians, we have some very good news.
The Rev. Dennis Hamilton of Horizon church in Carrollton states unequivocally, "We are in the business of saving souls." And we are. No, our goal is not to give souls salvation in the hereafter, but to help them find their own brand of salvation in this lifetime. As Rev. Bob Hill put it at SWUUSI, the Southwest UU Summer Institute, there are people out there that are trapped between fundamentalist dogma on one side and empty rampant materialism on the other. Where is the church for them?
The song Amazing Grace says "I once was lost but now am found," and my friends, that is me. Like many "raised UU's", I unfortunately did not go to church for some time after becoming an adult. And for many years, I hid my spirituality from my co-workers and all but my closest friends, believing that if they knew that not only was I not a Christian, but that my beliefs were (horrors!) Pagan in nature, that I would lose them as friends, and quite possibly my professional career.
We moved to Houston and we came to this church. I steeled myself and decided from Day 1 that I wasn't going to hide my beliefs or pretend to be anything I was not. On that first day, I mentioned to a complete stranger who greeted me after the service that I was kinda Pagan. "Mmm, well, you should be real comfortable here," he mentioned. He actually acted as if it were no big deal! (Thank you, Doug.)
There are people out there, through those doors, that are hiding some part of themselves. Atheists, Pagans and Gays, oh my! Buddhists, multi-ethnicity families, multi-faith families. And we need to find them and say to them, "Whether you believe in Jesus, or Socrates, or the Dalai Lama -- or simply believe that you'll have another beer, WE HAVE A PLACE FOR YOU!
Tonight, a father is going to tuck his 10 year old son into bed. His son has been asking about the facts of life, but the father has been doing okay, giving good, thought out answers. Tonight, though, his son is going to ask about God. And the father isn't going to have an answer. He doesn't want to tell him about the God he learned about as a child. But he won't know what to say. Where is the church for him -- and his son?
You know, there are stories right now in the news about all these CIA and FBI agents selling secrets to the Russians. You'd think those organizations would get wiser. I mean, if they really want people who can keep secrets, they ought to hire UUs -- THEY know how to keep a secret! (UUism is the best kept secret in America!!!)
So we feel good about ourselves -- no one need fear a Unitarian Universalist. We content ourselves that we are here, and if people educate themselves, they can find us. After all, we have a website, one that's even showing up on search engines. Just type in "Houston Unitarian." Of course, that means you need to know what a Unitarian is ...
There is a young woman out there. She was raised kinda generic Protestant. Her family went to church for Christmas and Easter, but religion was never really talked about at home. She's been reading some books on spirituality and world religions. She likes some of what she's read about Buddhism, and she's realizing that she sees God as something that can encompass many religious beliefs. When she tries to talk to her family or friends about these new thoughts, they just look at her blankly.
Where is the church for her?
We have to share the good news of our church and our religion not only with folks we hope that will come visit us, but even those polite souls who have already found a church that best fits them. We do not have to hide our heads in the sand when asked "What church do you go to?" or "What do you believe?" Our goal should be not just to grow our church or grow Unitarian Universalism, but to educate the world about who we are.
Rev. Jonalu Johnstone, who will be visiting us in October to talk about church growth, talked about her vision of the future in a workshop at SWUUSI. Imagine a new family moving to town and the neighbor-lady from next door taking them a cake. "And what church do you go to?" she inquires. (This may seem familiar to some of you.) The wife stammers out, "well, we're actually atheist." "Oh, okay," says the neighbor-lady, "then you'll want to go to the Unitarian church over on Hwy 6."
There is a young man in college, beginning to question what he's been taught his whole life. He comes home for the summer and confides to one of his old friends what he's thinking. His friend yells over to some other boys -- "Hey, Tommy Fontaine doesn't believe in God. Let's kick his butt!"
Where is the church for Tommy???
Now when I talk about evangelism, I don't necessarily mean knocking on doors and handing out religious tracts. (Though, if you feel so motivated, I'll be happy to create you some literature.) Myself, I believe in what I call, "Stealth Evangelism."
The art of stealth evangelism is to share information with someone without them even realizing that they are indeed being evangelized to. You've heard the term, "beg the question"? Well, that's what you do. You set up ways to beg the question.
One very simple way is to wear a chalice necklace or a chalice lapel pin. When your Avon lady says, "Oh, that's pretty," you say, "It's a symbol of my church." When she says, "And what church is that?" -- you're off to the races.
Sometimes you can beg a question WITH a question. For example, I'm on a discussion list with other fairly liberal women in Houston. I wrote to them about the service on Choice we had a couple of weeks ago, inquiring as to whether they had any suggestions of local pro-choice organizations in town. I begged the question and was rewarded when I got an email back (from an MD, no less) saying, "I'm intrigued. What church do you go to where you have a talk on that subject?"
More ways to beg the question ... wear a UU tshirt (Era still has some for sale.) Put a UU bumper sticker on your car, such as the one R - U - UU? Talk to people about our service auction, asking them for advice -- what kinds of things would they bid on at a church auction?
Make self-deprecating jokes around your hip, cynical friends ... "Yes, I've really turned into the church lady -- of course, it's the Unitarian church, so it's okay."
BEG the question.
More stealth evangelism ... invite them to our church functions. Not as a church thing, of course ... merely, "oh, George, come to our Music Meta group this week -- we have a blast. And you are just a virtuoso on the triangle." Or, "Mary Anne, come to the Second Saturday dinner at my house this week, I have this friend who is so much like you, I want y'all to meet." Or even, "You've got to come to my church and meet this friend of mine, Joanna Crawford. You'll see that you're not the only liberal full-time Mom in West Houston." (Thanks, Julie!)
Keep in mind, I'm not talking about manipulation or dishonesty -- if you don't believe in what you're selling, you shouldn't be selling it. But look closer at your friends and acquaintances. See the similarities. See how they would fit in our church.
Tommy Fontaine, whom I mentioned earlier, moved to a small Texas town after college with his wife Jackie and his baby daughter Rebecca. They began visiting different churches in that town, feeling that church was a good thing and they'd meet nice people to be friends with. Word quickly spread and a preacher from a church they hadn't visited yet, came to call one evening. Somehow he had found out that Tommy had been raised in his denomination. They chatted for awhile and the preacher invited Tommy and his family to come to his church. Tommy thanked him and said they would, that they had been visiting different churches in town.
The preacher said to Tommy, "You were raised better than that."
Tommy politely tried to get his visitor to the door, "thanks for stopping by," but the preacher would not be diverted. "You were raised better than that. You know that if you don't take little Becca to the right church, your sweet little daughter will go to hell."
Tommy Fontaine and his family did not go back to any church for several years.
Where was the church for them?
Here are our choices: we can be invisible -- which, right now, we pretty much are -- we can have a reputation based on what others have said about us (Do you want another denomination defining what we are?) or we can spread the word, and define ourselves.
And how do we define ourselves? Well, being UU's, I'm sure we each have our own definition, but for completeness and succinctness, I'll use the quick reference guide of Rev. Tony Larsen who recommends that we teach our children these three points for when they are asked, "What do you believe?"
We believe in:
#1: Loving your neighbor as yourself, which includes trying not to hurt people in any way;
#2: Making the world a better place, which includes working for justice, peace, and freedom for all people; and
#3: Searching for the truth with an open mind.
Three simple points we believe in: love your neighbor, make the world a better place, search for truth. To me, our Unitarian Universalist principles and purposes are beautifully written. Two of my favorites, I often use in my signature file on outgoing email. "We covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person" and " We covenant to affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning."
Speaking of searching for truth -- There are many things we take as fact that aren't. Our church is moving right down the road and around a corner, and we're going to be in a heavily Hispanic area. Would any Hispanics want to be Unitarians? I dunno, maybe we should ask two of our churches in Mexico that are in the Southwest UU Conference with us.
What about African-Americans? I dunno, why don't we ask Bill Sinkford, the president of the Unitarian Universalist Association -- the first African-American president of the UUA.
What about Gays and Lesbians? Are we too suburban?
What about Christians? What about single-parent families? What about stay-at-home-Moms-in-tennis-shoes?
What unites us is bigger than what divides us. We believe in freedom of belief. And that transcends any smaller differences of race, gender, orientation, culture ...
Back to Tommy Fontaine. He and his family, that now also included two sons, moved to New Orleans. His daughter Becca was now in school and she came home asking how was she going to take communion since she hadn't been to catechism class? Tommy got out the phone book. Back in college, he heard about this guy A. Powell Davies who had been challenging this young fundamentalist preacher -- by the name of Billy Graham -- to public debates about religion. This A. Powell Davies guy was a Unitarian and Tommy had read a book about Unitarianism. He looked up a Unitarian church and called the minister and chatted. They went to the church. That was 1958. And yes, Tommy Fontaine is my father.
We are the lucky ones. We are blessed. Because we talked to the right person, or read the right book, (or were born into the right family) we have found the Unitarian Universalist Church. We have found the freedom to be who we are. The freedom to explore spirituality and philosophy, free from ridicule or scorn. The freedom to stand up and disagree. The freedom to say, "This is what I believe."
Where is the church for us?
This -- this church -- this community -- is our freedom land.
Please stand and join together in Hymn 116, "I'm On My Way."
John Murray, the first Universalist minister in America, said, "Go out into the highways and by-ways. Give the people something of your new vision. You may possess a small light, but uncover it, let it shine, use it in order to bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of men and women. Give them not hell, but hope and courage."
So may it be!