There is a framed photo in our hallway of my husband and me with our oldest niece. The frame reads, “My Godparents.”
Every once in awhile, one of my kids will see the photo and ask about this “godparents” thing. “What are those? Do I have them? Why not?”
I try to answer them the best way I can, but it usually ends with some kind of apology and explanation about why they don’t have godparents.
“Well…you weren’t baptized.”
“Our religion doesn’t baptize children.”
Sometimes my responses lead to more questions. Other times, the conversation ends there, albeit with mild disappointment about not having godparents, an indifference to baptism, and a reluctant acceptance that our family isn’t part of a majority religion.
They understand that we don’t do church like their Christian and Jewish friends and family — but we don’t not do church either. In some ways, I think my kids feel like they got the short end of the stick — they are religious outsiders, but they still have to go to church.
You see, our family is Unitarian Universalist — a fringe religion that is, in some ways, as difficult to describe as it is to say. Unitarian Universalists, or UUs as we often call ourselves, do not follow to a specific set of beliefs. Making up only one percent of the American population in the “other faith” category, we are a diverse spiritual community. Some UUs come to the faith from another faith tradition. Some are atheists and agnostics. Some people believe in god — though whether or not to capitalize the “g” is up for debate. There is no Trinity, no bar/bat mitzvahs, and no baptisms to erase that pesky thing known as “original sin” because we don’t believe in original sin.
Instead, we believe in kindness, connection and reverence for something outside of ourselves – though what that something is differs for everyone. Think of it like the Church of the Golden Rule.
I came to Unitarian Universalism somewhat late in life after your run-of-the-mill Catholic upbringing, replete with a First Communion, confirmation, and no meat on Fridays during Lent. While I appreciate the spiritual foundation of my youth, eventually I realized, like many people, that I didn’t believe in the whole Trinity thing and I wasn’t even sure if I believe in the whole God thing. I certainly didn’t believe in a “bearded white man in the sky” kind of God. But something a little more amorphous? A god with a little “g” instead of a capital “G” perhaps? Probably.
Aside from my own beliefs or non-beliefs, I knew that I wanted to raise my children with something — but what? I wanted to provide my children with a spiritual foundation — but how? And I wanted our family to be part of a spiritual community that fostered a sense of the divine, without sacrificing knowledge and authenticity. But did something like that even exist?
For a while, I doubted that a church like that was out there. But for the past decade, I’ve realized that this fringe religion with a mouthful of a name is a perfect fit for our family. We read Rumi and Mary Oliver and sing a wide range of non-traditional songs. Our church hosts groups such as Atheist, Humanist & Agnostics, the Feminine Divine, and a book club. We have an annual Passover Seder, a Christmas pageant, and a really amazing Halloween party. My ever-evolving (albeit non-Christian) beliefs can coexist right alongside my husband’s humanist beliefs, and our children learn the importance of being spiritual without being told how to be spiritual. In other words, it’s kind of like how people say they’re “spiritual but not religious,” except that, well, it is a religion.
As much as I love our very liberal, somewhat hippie-dippy, minority faith, there are times when I have a hard time understanding what it means, let alone explaining it to someone who isn’t UU. Not to mention the fact that it can be hard to fit in with non-UUs. To my Jewish and Christian friends, I’m not religious enough; to my non-churchgoing friends, I’m too religious. And my kids? Well, let’s just say they are still a little bitter that they didn’t get First Communion gifts like many of their friends.
But for the most part, our family embraces our religious “otherness.” I am proud that we are part of a faith community that was among the earliest and strongest advocates for marriage equality, and that our church had gender-neutral bathrooms long before it was a Target controversy. I am happy that my kids are being educated on a wide range of faith traditions — everything from Judeo-Christian beliefs to Islam and Buddhism and paganism — and that they are learning to not just tolerate differences, but to celebrate them. And I am forever grateful that I don’t have to set aside my personal beliefs in order to be part of a spiritual community.
We might not always fit in with mainstream religion, but we definitely feel like we belong.
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