Unitarians embrace social justice, spiritual openness | Finding Faith Series

Rev. Carmen McDowell at a Sunday worship. Behind her is harpist Leslie McMichael. - Natalie Johnson/Staff Photo
Rev. Carmen McDowell at a Sunday worship. Behind her is harpist Leslie McMichael.
— image credit: Natalie Johnson/Staff Photo

On a recent Sunday morning in Burton, a group of Islanders crammed into the small, whitewashed fellowship hall behind Burton Community Church and sang hymn number 361, their cacophonous but spirited strains nearly drowning out the harp player at the front of the room.

The words they sang, though, were not ones of worship, thankfulness or faith in God.

“Open your ears to the song,” read the sufficiently vague hymn. “Today will be a joyful day. Enter, rejoice and come in.”

Sundays at the Vashon Island Unitarian Fellowship have all the trappings of a traditional church service: brightly colored programs, an inspirational message delivered from the pulpit and a coffee hour afterward when churchgoers mingle and eat pastries and children run around underfoot.

But unlike most congregations, the 70 or so members of the Unitarian Fellowship don’t share a common religious belief. In fact, many of them don’t even believe in a higher power.

“We’re open to all kinds of beliefs,” said Melvin Mackey, a longtime member of the church. “Instead of telling people what to believe, we ask what their beliefs are and try to learn from one another.”

The church’s minister, Rev. Carmen McDowell, agreed. Vashon’s Unitarian church provides a spiritual experience with no strings attached.

“Most people are looking for a community, a place to belong and make a difference,” she said. “We are really clear about that. You don’t have to buy into a creed.”

Many church members do have their own religious or spiritual beliefs, and they discuss them openly each month at small group meetings that the wider Unitarian Universalist church traditionally calls Building Your Own Theology. The Vashon congregants, who McDowell said are a playful bunch, call the meetings Bring Your Own Belief System, or BYOBS.

“They’re very joyful, I’ve noticed that about them,” McDowell said. “That might be a Vashon thing, but there’s sort of a happy vibe. Every single Sunday is like a party.”

Indeed, there was a positive energy at that recent Sunday in Lewis Hall, a small building the church rents from Burton Community Church. Visitors packed closely in rows of mismatched chairs, with a few spilling into couches in the back. During a “joys and concerns” sharing time at the beginning of the service, a long line of people lit candles and shared mostly joys.

One woman said she was thankful to have recently turned 70. A mother told a story about the church’s kindness toward her child. And a man who commutes to Seattle spoke about the interesting plants he sees on his walk to work. “This takes a lot of time out the service, but it’s extremely important,” a woman whispered to the visitor sitting next to her.

The title of the morning’s sermon, printed in bold letters on the front of a bright red program, was “Sex, Salad Dressing and Stewardship.” The message lived up to its name as McDowell, a friendly 45-year old minister with a keen sense of humor, delivered a lighthearted but sincere talk on giving, using actor and salad dressing philanthropist Paul Newman as an example.

Weekly sermons at the church — sometimes given by McDowell and other times by members or guest speakers — vary greatly, McDowell said in an interview. She speaks on topics such as being authentic or navigating life’s challenges, always drawing from a wide variety of religious writings.

Lately McDowell has brought even less conventional sources of wisdom into the hall on Sunday morning. “Some of the great stories are in movies, Ted Talks, Facebook. Why would we not bring that in, try to balance out the ancient stuff?” she said.

The concept has apparently been popular. Last week there were laughs all around when McDowell showed a video about people who planted flowers in unexpected places. Recently, youth at the church helped put on a multi-generational service with a “zombie apocalypse” theme, where McDowell spoke of the Buddhist idea of wakefulness.

“There are all these cultural forces that cause us to sleepwalk through life like zombies,” she said. “How do we resist that and how do we be prepared?”

The Unitarian Universalist church was formed in 1961 when denominations by those two names merged. The church’s ideas, however, date back to the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s, when early Unitarian thinkers rejected some of the basic tenets of Christianity, including the holy trinity and the divinity of Jesus.

In the United States, Unitarians have been active in all of the social change movements — including abolitionism, women’s suffrage and civil rights. The faith expanded over the years by activists who thought it was more important to stand together in demanding equal rights than quibble over theology.

“They said, ‘We don’t need to have arguments about whether Jesus is divine. We need to have arguments about whether to abolish slavery or make it possible for women to vote,’” McDowell said.

Today’s Unitarian Universalists differ from congregation to congregation, but most share the belief that all religions can provide some connection to the spiritual realm and that love and individual worth triumph over doctrine. Unitarians have been ordaining women since the 1850s, and homosexuals since the 1970s

“It’s just this wide, hospitable embrace of all people,” McDowell said.

McDowell, who lives in North Seattle with her husband and teenage daughter, was raised in a Southern Baptist Church and became a Unitarian as an adult. She still considers herself a Christian, though she prefers to say “follower of Christ.”

At the Vashon fellowship, she said, most members would likely identify themselves as humanists. But in true Unitarian style, there are also some Buddhists, Christians, agnostics and even athesiests among the congregation.

When asked how people with seemingly conflicting beliefs could sit under the same roof each Sunday, McDowell used an image described by Unitarian author Forrest Church. Church asked people to think of the world as a giant cathedral with a large stained-glass window. Everyone looks at the same window, he said, but they see different parts of it depending on where they are in the cathedral.

“We’re seeing different angles on that window, but the light behind it is universal,” McDowell said.

McDowell, who earned a master of divinity degree from the Seattle University’s School of Theology, often tells people that the most important concepts in the Unitarian faith are “that love is greater than fear and that every person is precious and unique,” she said.

“We can find a deeper unity beneath all the world religions and the teachings of all time that has to do with these two messages,” she said.

Today’s Unitarians have a strong social justice bent — the seven principles they promote have much to do with compassion and equity. Worldwide, Unitarians have become known for their strong support of gay rights, reproductive rights, environmental protection and immigration reform.

The Vashon fellowship takes a special offering for a different island nonprofit each month, and many members are active in local immigration reform efforts, participating in monthly vigils at the Northwest Detention Center, a prison in Tacoma where many immigrants are held. Some have also visited with inmates and taken steps to get them and their families legal and financial support.

Last fall the Unitarian church was the driving force behind Shelter the Flame, a well-attended event at the Vashon Theatre in support of same-sex marriage. And last week the church teamed up with Burton Community Church to put on a wedding ceremony and marriage equality celebration, an idea McDowell had after the passage of Referendum 74, which legalized gay marriage.

“We were trying to think of a way to have fun and say thank you. And also anyone who wanted to get married, let’s do that too,” she said.

The Vashon Island Unitarian Fellowship dates back to the 1950s, when a small group placed an ad in the paper and began meeting in homes. By 1963, the congregation had grown considerably and purchased the building that once housed the Cove Methodist Church. According to church history, it was there that the now famous “wine in sanctuary” argument occurred after attendants of regular spaghetti dinners went into the church sanctuary with wine in hand to continue socializing.

Membership eventually declined, and in the 1970s and 80s the congregation again met in homes and other island locations. In recent years the congregation has experience a revitalization, moving into Lewis Hall and hiring McDowell as a part-time developmental minister, meaning one of her primary goals is to grow the congregation.

Since McDowell came on about eight months ago, the church has nearly doubled its weekly attendance and quadrupled the number of children in its Sunday classes.

“I didn’t know a community like this existed,” said Donna Klemka, who joined the church a few years ago. Klemka called her own spiritual journey a “work in progress,” but said the fellowship was a wonderful place to “take time every week to pay attention to our spiritual selves.”

Paul and Greg Kirkpatrick recently began attending the Unitarian church after they heard some moms talking about it at a soccer game. The same-sex couple knew they’d be welcomed, they said, but more importantly they wanted their three adopted children to start thinking about their own spiritual beliefs. The Unitarian church has made growing its children’s program a priority in recent years, and “religious exploration” classes now draw about 20 elementary and middle schoolers each week.

“I don’t want anything to be imposed on them,” Greg Kirkpatrick said. “I want them to form their own religious belief system.”

As for McDowell, she said she’s working on her next sermon series, focused on the Unitarians’ seven principles. She might show the music video to Katy Perry’s popular song “Firework” in a message about the first principle, the inherent worth and dignity of each person. The pop star’s video shows people overcoming a raft of insecurities, from weight to sexual identity.

“That little video is a sermon all by itself,” McDowell said.


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