No pearly gates, no thorny crown...

The other night, I was sound asleep when the phone rang.  It was R., who was on his way home from work.  I was in that deep grog that happens 10 minutes after you fall asleep, where you can’t quite figure out where you are or what’s going on. 

“Mom, I’m at the round barn, and there’s a truck in the ditch.  Can you come down with your truck and pull it out?”

But what I heard rather than “round barn”, which is about a mile away, is “roundabout”, which is ten miles away.  None of it made any sense to me.  I was especially tired, because I'd spent the weekend with 250 Unitarian youth, and didn’t get as much sleep as I like.  I had fallen asleep thinking about being a Unitarian.

There’s a lot of stuff that Unitarians aren’t very good at.  For example, after a few hundred years, not many people have even heard of the religion.  There are 1.4 billion Catholics, and around 600,000 Unitarians.  I know.  That’s more than two thousand to one.  (Not that I have any quarrel with the Catholics, by the way, with their beautiful rituals, strong sense of social justice, and lots of other good stuff.  I just don’t happen to believe in the same stuff.)

We have a bad name, “Unitarian Universalist.” It’s too long and you have to be in the know to know what it means.  Mars Hill Church?  Three syllables.  Woodinville Unitarian Universalist Church?  You see my point.

But back to the phone. “R.,?  You want me to drive somewhere with the truck? I’m confused.”

“Mom, we’ve tried pushing this truck out of the ditch, but we’re getting nowhere.”

Another thing is that although Unitarians do have a culture and a set of principles, it’s subtle, and interpretation is encouraged.  Which is the beauty of it and the problem, all rolled into one.  Religions with a black and white view of the world are very comforting, and I sometimes wish I could see things that way, but I don’t.  In fact, for a little while in Texas, Unitarianism was stripped of its status as a religion because it doesn’t have one system of belief. 

I would love it, knowing my beautiful daughter is heading to Central America all by herself for four months, if I believed that God were watching out for her, or that our fates are sealed, and whatever happens is part of a grand design, but I don’t. I do believe in the basic goodness of humans, and the ability of my little M. to make good decisions, but still.  Stuff happens.

Unitarian rituals aren’t specific and predictable, and might not imprint on a person the way other religions do.  (Wait, is Flower Communion something to do with spring, or is it more about freedom?  Why is it different every year?)

We get confused about Christmas, because we aren’t always sure exactly what we’re celebrating. Most Unitarians tend to believe that Jesus was a great man and teacher, but those who believe he is the son of God are in a minority.   What we say, in the words of Sophia Fahs, is that each night a child is born is a holy night.  When M. was about four years old, she told me after hearing that that each sock is also a holy sock.  So I guess we do have things we can all agree on.

We struggle with the challenge of being inclusive and non-judgmental, while still preserving our identity.  We aim to be tolerant of a variety of beliefs, even when certain faiths think that we’re going to burn in hell.  If you do the math on that, you realize it’s almost possible to tolerate yourself out of existence. 

But at that moment, I was really just struggling to understand what R. was saying. “R., I was sound asleep when you called. I can hardly understand what you’re talking about.”

“I’m asking you to come down here with your truck to pull this other truck out of the ditch.”

Another thing about the Unitarians, and, I hate to bring this up, but we get frumpy. We are a frumpy lot, and it happens fast.  Come on, don’t say you haven’t noticed. 

We take ourselves seriously in ways that are hilarious, and if you don’t believe me, here’s a little story.  A year or so ago I went to church with my parents, the one I grew up in.  The average age of people attending this particular service was over 70.  In the women’s bathroom, there was a small crystal bowl filled with condoms.  I know.   That little crystal bowl summed up a lot of what’s ridiculous about Unitarianism, and I say this in the fondest way possible.  I asked my mom if there was lots of spontaneous sex going on, and she was a little vague in her answer, as I recall.

There’s silence on the phone.

“I don’t even have pants on, R.”

More silence. I’m starting to wake up, and feel a little bad that I can’t help, but it seems so overwhelming.  Gravity feels especially powerful, making it seem unsafe to even sit up.  Waking all the way up, getting dressed, driving.  I don’t even have a tow rope.  And it seemed strange to me too, that I was being enlisted as the solution for some random driver I’d never met.  I am pretty sure I wouldn’t call them if I had car trouble.

“R., is the person involved really old?”


“Is there a baby in the truck?”


“Someone sick?”

“Nope.  It’s just one of the wilderness kids going too fast on the corner.”

“I’m sorry, R. but they’re gonna have to figure this out another way.”

Unitarians endure the merciless teasing of Garrison Keillor, which was funny for a while until it took that mean-spirited turn last year.  And some of the teasing is well deserved.  That old joke about what you get when you cross a Jehovah’s Witness with a Unitarian:  Someone who knocks at the door but has no answers, only questions. 

I once heard a rabbi speak at an interfaith event, and he said that he likens the spiritual path to a mountain.  Those who are at the very bottom are convinced that there’s only one path up it, and the people trying to go up a different path look very far away.  But as people get further down the trail, above the treeline, they can see that there are many different paths up the mountain.  From this vantage point, they can wave at others journeying up the mountain, and be encouraging and comradely, because they can see that there are many paths that work.  Unitarians, alas, don’t all agree that there’s a mountain - some might feel more comfortable with the symbology of the egg.

But one thing we do right, better than anyone, if I dare say so, is the way we treat our youth. We allow our young people to explore and be themselves in a loving, non-judgmental atmosphere.  At the Youth Con I attended, I was again reminded of just how well we do this.  And we do it by not doing anything – by letting the youth be as excellent as they are, and not getting in the way.  Not getting too worked up about the small stuff, like swearing or unique hair and clothing styles.  But expecting and celebrating excellence in behavior.  Expecting compassion and kindness.

I saw kids who undoubtedly don’t fit in very well at school fully included in activities.  I saw kids who are probably pretty popular being attentive and encouraging to the loners.  I saw a group of gay young men openly flirting and goofing around with each other, having the normal social life that all youth deserve. I heard kids say, “When I get back to school, I’m going to be a little nicer to all kinds of kids, and a little less judgmental.  I heard kids say, “I’ve never felt like part of a group before this weekend.”

Because the thing about Unitarians is this:  we don’t have god, we don’t have rituals that are set in concrete, we don’t have rules.  It might seem like we’re untethered, but we do have one thing: hope.  We believe in the human spirit, and we believe it’s worth it to live lives full of hope and respect, because what’s the downside?  And what, exactly, are we hoping for?  We probably don’t agree on that either.  But I, for one, am hoping that our young people can hang on to the glimpse of the sky that they just saw, and remember what it felt like to be part of something good, and to be treated well, and to have a safe place to be as excellent as we all are deep down.  I’m hoping they will be inspired to carry on, and find ways to care about this troubled world we live in.


  1. I know, I know, this is not the point, but please post an update and let us know what happened to the kid stuck in the ditch ....

  2. He was gone the next morning when I drove by, so let's assume it all went well. Some other middle-aged mom got up, put pants on, and pulled the young man who's all about surviving independently in the wild, out of the ditch.

  3. It sounds like an excellent religion. Where do I sign up?


  4. Indeed, what's the downside?

    Excellent entry, in all ways.

  5. Awesome post, Betsy. I'm glad my kid was among that group!

  6. I loved R's endorsement of Con last week; after finally convincing my own teen to attend his first con last year (I had to chaperon to pull it off), he's now an enthusiastic addict.

    Great post!


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