Unitarian Universalists carve niche at VC

Students use their four years at college for self-exploration, which, for many, includes figuring out where they stand when it comes to spirituality and religion. This idea of searching and questioning in order to form one’s own beliefs has formed a community for the members of Vassar’s Unitarian Universalists (UU). Unitarian Universalism is a religion that focuses on one’s ability and responsibility to choose their own system of beliefs.

Co-President Katie Carpenter ‘15 explained, “I was raised Catholic and Quaker, which doesn’t really make sense when you think about the different belief systems. When I came to Vassar, I was pretty close to an atheist; I wasn’t sure of my beliefs. Then I found UU.”

While this religion does not impose strict rules on its congregation, there are still seven principles that members use for guidance in their everyday lives: Every individual person has dignity and is inherently worthy; human relations should be handled with honor, justice, equity and compassion; one should embrace others and encourage them on their path of spirutal growth; the search for truth and meaning in religion is essential to one’s growth; advocate for peace and liberty throughout the world; congregations follow the democratic process; and, lastly, respect for one another under the pretense that we are all interconnected in life.

Though she acknowledged that she can no longer recite all seven principles of Unitarian Universalism by heart, Heather Kobayashi ‘13 said she still values them.

One of the few members who was raised UU since she was a child, Kyobashi stated, “We follow the seven principles of UU, which basically tell you to be kind to everyone because every life is important. I used to be able to list all seven but I can’t anymore!”

Like Carpenter, however, at Vassar, most of the members of UU were not raised as Unitarian Universalists.

Many were brought up according to other religious beliefs and found UU when they came to Vassar.

UU member Em Webb ‘16 expressed a similar uncertainty when it came to her religious beliefs and said she finds UU a great place to explore the possibilities of spirituality.

She stated, “I grew up in a Presbyterian Family, and when I came to Vassar I wasn’t sure what I believed. I was happy to find UU because I could come talk to people about spirituality.”

Like most people who embrace Unitarian Universalism, the members of the group don’t quite agree with “organized religion” but are spiritual people who enjoy discussing their beliefs and other questions of ethics, morals and life.

Because of Unitarian Universalism’s lack of strict guidelines, members mentioned that sometimes other religious groups, not necessarily at Vassar, but out in the world, do not recognize it as a “real religion.”

Conversely, Amy Schindelman ’13 explained that she thinks Unitarian Universalism uphold and shares basic truths found in most other organized religions.

She said, “I think that sense of community and responsibility to others is part of what makes it a religion.”

Whether or not other religious people choose to identify them as a true religion is not a major focus for UU followers.

In fact, as compared to other religions, UU is one of the few in the world that is still gaining members on a yearly basis instead of losing them. In a world that is continually questioning and abandoning religion, this is certainly something of which they can be proud.

However, for its members, individual spirituality and personal beliefs are what are most important; each member is allowed and expected to contemplate and decide upon their own beliefs.

Though there may be an emphasis on individualism, UU still values communal practices of their faith.

They still congregate for worships, which can take many forms such as discussion, song or meditation. The support and sense of community that Unitarian Universalism offers is essential for Unitarian Universalists and all spiritual people, as this community can be helpful in times of need.

Vassar’s UU group aims to do provide a spiritual space for any member of the Vassar student body that seeks them out.

UU member Maggie Shepherd ‘16 agreed that it is important for Vassar’s Unitarian Universalist organization to attend to the needs of its members rather than being concerned with what others think about their religion.

“Unitarian Universalists have a responsibility to their intentional community, which means being supportive of the congregation,” she said.

Each meeting starts off with food, a brief ‘check-in’ where every member is given time to share what is happening in their lives, and the ceremonial lighting of the chalice. The flaming chalice is the official symbol of Unitarian Universalism, and is lit to begin every UU meeting. Once they complete this routine, they engage in discussion. Every week, members are encouraged to bring topics that they would like to discuss about their personal spirituality or religion and spirituality in general. Most recently, one of the questions prompted each member to discuss their personal beliefs and where they were on their spiritual journey.

Eventually, the discussion turned to what each member’s goals for the semester were and what they hoped to gain from UU.

Shepherd was interested in leading a worship service, something she missed about being at home.

“My congregation at home sang a lot, and I miss that!” she said. “I would love to teach some of the songs I know.”

Others were eager to learn more about UU traditions and history because they are new to the religion. Some members were also interested in exploring other faiths by joining in their worship services.

As a whole, the group hoped to continue the success of last semester, One notable achievement was hosting a bake sale to raise money for The Lunchbox, a local charity that provides food to needy residents of Dutchess County. This semester, they plan on having another bake sale to raise more money, and also plan to work with the Poughkeepsie UU congregation to prepare and serve food for The Lunchbox.

Once all the members have had the opportunity to talk about the topics for the meeting, they end by planning for the week ahead, including when to meet and how to get to the UU church in Poughkeepsie. After completing their meeting’s agenda, they end by holding hands and blowing out the ceremonial chalice together. This ceremony reminds them of the goal of Vassar’s Unitarian Universalists; that they are all together in their UU belief. Here, they have a supportive community that is there to aid them in their spiritual journey.

One Comment

  1. Does anyone have any idea just how lame this article makes Unitarian Universalism look?

    “We follow the seven principles of UU, which basically tell you to be kind to everyone because every life is important. I used to be able to list all seven but I can’t anymore!”

    How can you follow principles that you cannot even remember?

    What Gandhi said about Christianity apllies all too well to Unitarian Universalism –

    “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

    Insert “Seven Principles” where it says “Christ” and “Unitarian Universalists” where is says “Christians”. . .

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