Living Unitarian Universalist

Living Unitarian Universalist
by Beth Cortez-Neavel
This is how it begins, every time: whether I am at a potluck, a club, a bar, or with extended family. Someone ultimately asks me “So, what do you do?” I could answer so many ways. I could say I’m a visual artist; I do these surreal ink drawings and then touch them up using Photoshop. I could hint that my self-published poetry and photography book is coming out in the fall. Sometimes I blurt out “I’m a journalist,” and they spend five minutes trying not to pity me as I explain how it’s okay, I used to work for free at the local NPR-affiliate station. All acceptable Austin answers.
But usually, when I am pressed for small talk, I surprise. I work at a church.
“It is not what you think,” I tell whomever, following their raised eyebrow and hurried glance at their watch. I know we are in Austin, the liberal blue oasis in a red elephant graveyard. I know I look too bohemian and act too irreverent and assertive to seem, well, “church-y.”  But this isn’t just any church; I work at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin.
If the eyebrow is not raised still, I know I’ve lost their interest. You really get to know a lot about a person by how fast they can get out of a conversation with you.
If that someone is not scared away by an impending discussion on the heated topic of religion, I give my elevator speech: “The First UU Church of Austin is an all-inclusive non-creedal, non-denominational church. We believe in deeds and not creeds. We have seven principles we covenant to uphold within our community and the society at large. We accept people of all spiritualities, faith, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicities, lifestyles and political inclinations. No, we do not officially believe in a ‘God,’ but you are more than welcome to do so. We are a religious and spiritual community (a die-hard UU would call together a committee and lodge a formal complaint with the minister if we didn’t specify both religious and spiritual) that is based on teachings from all faiths, working together for social justice and constantly educating ourselves to become better humans in general. I work in the Religious Education Department. What matters to me is that the students in our Religious Education program learn something worthwhile, that the congregants learn something every Sunday that will stick with them throughout life. There are classes for adults, children and youth.”
Good, they’re still here. They might even be listening. Now I transition into how I work for people every day that will pick apart my request for more apple juice for the classrooms and then get upset that I did not ask specifically for organic products. Most people do not get my joke. I continue on with the Sunday morning routine and a bit more about my job description and the history of the UU faith. I may even divulge how a non-profit organization, whose funding is based on whether or not a congregant liked the sermon and the speaker last Sunday, functions.
More often than not, the person (if they’ve held on through all of this) asks me, “So what do you believe then?”
I personally believe your story is worth me telling it, I say. I believe in people and their ability to grow and transform. I believe in the creative artistic nature of all people and how it salvages us from our more destructive, dangerous inclinations.
“So you don’t believe in God?”
No. No, I do not believe in a god. Some UUs do believe in the Judeo-Christian “God” or “Yahweh” Some UUs believe in the Islamic god. Some are Taoist, Buddhist, Sikh, Pagan, Wiccan, etc. I believe that questioning is a constant state of being, and that what I may believe in at one moment, I may not believe in the next.
Usually that ends the conversation. Maybe they ask some more logistical questions about websites and service times. Maybe they stay, like the nurse at Seton Hospital – as he simultaneously withdrew four vials of blood from my left arm for routine testing – and evangelize their Church of Whatever. He said he, too, was once “in that uncertain questioning stage” in his life. I think he missed the point.
The rare one that stays in the conversation beyond this point will share with me their religious beliefs or religious upbringing.
Even rarer though, is the one that listens further.
I don’t just work here, I tell them. Many UUs came to this faith after realizing the faith they were in no longer fulfilled them. Many UUs came to this faith after an intense time of deliberation and spiritual searching. I did not.  I grew up in this church.
I am the curious journalist, the proud poet, and the boho artist that I am today because I learned at an early age to believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person, our first principle. I am a lucky one, I did not spend headaches or years searching for the place that suits me best. My parents did that for me and enrolled me in Sunday religious education classes as fast as they could after I asked them why I was going to hell, and where was it?
It is intrinsic in my religious upbringing to question everything, believe nothing, and come to my own conclusions about politics, relationships, the environment, education and my own spirituality. I am lucky because I learned at the age of 12 the importance and need for transparency, full disclosure, and story-telling when Tommi Urbanski, a Japanese-American internment camp survivor – and a member of our church – came and spoke to our Sunday class about how a baby lost its life in the internment camps in 105° F weather because they were in the middle of a desert, with not enough water and not enough food. I did some research, and my quixotic mind promptly moved on to the next new thing. I did not hear about the camps again until a high school AP class, thanks to the heavily edited history textbooks in the Texas public education system.
I am not just all about my church, I tell my new friend. My faith and the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin are all about me. This is not just what I do, it is what I live.
*Although still a practicing UU, Beth has since resigned her position at the church to focus on completing her Masters in Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin.
 
 

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  1. Wow! I’ve never heard of this kind of church. Very progressive! Mostly around here where i live are ‘cowboy churches’. lol. Non-fictional biographical pieces like this are a breath of fresh air amidst so many poems and short stories. Well written! Thanks for sharing a part of yourself!

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