Unitarians Keep the Faith After Attack in Church

By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 2, 2008

Across the country, as well as in the Washington area, hundreds of Unitarian Universalist congregations held services and candlelight vigils this week after a deadly rampage at a Knoxville, Tenn., church to show support for their denomination's long-standing progressive tradition.

Two people were killed and six wounded Sunday in a shooting at Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church, allegedly by an out-of-work trucker who, according to the Knoxville police chief, "hated the liberal movement." A seventh person was wounded in the ensuing chaos.

At the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Fairfax in Oakton, about 60 people from five UU congregations in Northern Virginia came together for a service Monday evening. Bill Welch, the congregation's minister for programs, talked about how isolating it can be to be a liberal in today's world of right-wing talk radio and conservative Christians "that talk about liberals as if we are bad people."

"In our prayers, we should remember that we're not alone, that there are people who share our beliefs, that we are part of a larger body," Welch said.

Since the shooting, some Unitarian churches have held education sessions to explain their denomination to the public.

"People are determined to speak out" and defend and explain Unitarian values and beliefs, said Janet Hayes, a spokeswoman for the Boston-based national office. "They're not hiding. They're actually reaching out and opening up."

As a denomination, Unitarianism is tiny: According to the 2008 U.S. Religious Landscape survey, conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 0.3 percent of adults identify themselves as Unitarian Universalists. The Unitarian Universalist Association has 1,000 U.S. churches with 220,000 members.

It is a faith that has long been known for unabashed liberalism in its theological and political beliefs. It has no creed. Instead, it has a set of principles that give its members wide latitude.

"Private religious beliefs we leave to the individuals," Hayes said.

The denomination considers itself "post-Christian," she said. "We include the teaching of Jesus and we appreciate the wisdom of the Bible, but we don't limit our sources of inspiration to the Christian faith."

Unitarians also look to other faiths, such as Native American beliefs, neopaganism, Judaism, Buddhism and, more recently, Islam.

"The driving belief behind it is that there is wisdom in many places," Hayes said.

Politically, the denomination has long been in the forefront of liberalism. In recent years, its General Assembly has voted to oppose ''modern-day slavery'' conditions for migrant workers, support full legal protection for transgender people and to work to halt or reverse global warming.

"Unitarians' response to an event like this is coming together and affirming the religious values that we care about," said the Rev. Rebecca A. Parker, president and professor of theology at Starr King School for the Ministry, a Unitarian seminary in Berkeley, Calif.

In a statement, the Rev. William Sinkford, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, said Unitarians remain committed to their convictions. "Let me assure you that we will not change our beliefs or compromise our demands for social justice," he said. "Fear will not prevent us from standing on the side of love, and we will continue to open our doors and our hearts to all people."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company