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Bearing witness to a sea change in Unitarian practice

Times Staff Writer

A devout Baptist, Larry Kuechlin believes he knows the source of the proselytizing postcard he recently received from a church that embraces homosexuals.

The mailer’s architect, the Long Beach man says, is “the devil himself.”

In fact, the direct mail campaign was masterminded by a force no one would suspect: Unitarians.

A denomination with no formal creed, a low profile and a strong tradition against proselytizing, Unitarian Universalists -- Unitarians for short -- are trying something new: a splashy dose of evangelism. Using radio spots, newspaper ads and mass mailers, they hope to spread the word (lower case) about their faith’s openness, diversity and undogmatic approach.

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"[We’re] coming out of the closet by being more present in the religious landscape,” said the Rev. William Sinkford, head of the American branch of the Unitarian Universalists and, not coincidentally, a former marketing director.

The advertising outreach started three years ago in Kansas City, where attendance at the local church has since increased by 30%, according to Unitarian officials.

Since then, the denomination has spent $750,000 on media campaigns in five major cities, including several 30-second commercials last Christmas season on video screens in New York’s Times Square.

In Southern California, the campaign is scheduled to culminate Sunday in another very un-Unitarian event described as a “rousing, reinvigorating and renewing” Unitarian Universalist revival “in the tradition of the old-time tent meetings.” The meeting will take place at the Westin South Coast Plaza hotel in Costa Mesa.

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The Unitarian marketing campaign for the “uncommon denomination” features, among other things, the mailer depicting a same-sex couple and an interracial family under the slogan, “Imagine a religion where people with different beliefs worship as one faith.”

The reaction so far has been decidedly mixed. Though some congregations are reporting record attendance, Unitarian officials say the campaign hasn’t yet moved the needle on their national number of 250,000 members in about 1,000 congregations. And the new aggressive marketing has resulted in a deluge of angry phone calls -- including one from Kuechlin.

“I don’t hate Unitarians,” the 69-year-old said, “but my heart is heavy for them because I know that the architect of their deceit is the devil himself.”

The roots of Unitarian Universalism can be traced back to two Christian denominations. Unitarianism, which took root in Eastern Europe in the 1500s, rejected the Trinity in favor of God as one entity. Universalism, started formally in 18th century America, believed in the eternal salvation of all souls. Early followers of the two branches of Christianity included John Adams, Charles Darwin, Susan B. Anthony and Charles Dickens.

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The closely aligned groups merged in 1961.

Often associated with liberal political and social causes, the church today upholds seven principles promoting tolerance, compassion, justice, spiritual growth, the search for truth, democratic participation and respect for the “independent web of all existence of which we are a part.”

Until recently, Unitarians have tended to keep their own counsel. That’s because 80% of them come from more dogmatic religious traditions and “have not wanted to impose on others what they have had imposed on them,” said the the Rev. John Millspaugh, 32, spiritual leader of Mission Viejo’s Tapestry, a Unitarian Universalist congregation.

That began changing five years ago when the denomination got a new president at its Boston headquarters. Sinkford had worked for years as a marketing executive before becoming a Unitarian minister.

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“Unitarian Universalism has been content to be the best-kept secret in town for most of its institutional life,” Sinkford said. “I came in with the belief that we had some good news to share.”

Donald E. Miller, executive director of USC’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture, says he’s not surprised that Unitarianism is on the march at a time when membership of most mainline Protestant denominations is in decline.

By borrowing outreach techniques of evangelicals and targeting gays, liberals and others “trying to escape fundamentalism,” Miller said the current Unitarian revivalism was “a very smart marketing move.”

Some, however, have found the new tactics distasteful.

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Diane Johnson, who lives in Mission Viejo and describes herself as a born-again Christian, said she was deeply offended by the postcard she found in her mailbox.

“The word Unitarian, along with the picture [of the gay men], made me think that they are encompassing all faiths, all lifestyles and all beliefs and saying it’s OK,” said Johnson, 48.

“How could Muslims and Buddhists and all these different people come to the same church? Are they praying to different Gods?”

Such criticism doesn’t deter the Rev. Karen Stoyanoff, minister at Costa Mesa’s Orange Coast Unitarian Universalist Church. She spearheaded the Southern California campaign, forming a committee comprising representatives from seven Unitarian churches in Los Angeles and Orange counties. The group raised about $100,000 and earlier this month mailed postcards to 160,000 residents in 35 ZIP Codes.

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“We know there are lots of people out there who might be interested in being part of this,” Stoyanoff said.

At a recent Sunday service at Mission Viejo’s Tapestry, several newcomers and about 60 congregants lighted a candle for Mohandas K. Gandhi and heard readings from a Chinese Taoist philosopher, as well as Henry David Thoreau. “We don’t have some fixed-in-stone creed or list of beliefs required of members,” said Millspaugh, who describes himself as a “naturalistic theist” influenced by Buddhism.

“You don’t have to believe certain things about God or no God, Jesus or Buddha, one truth or many truths. We come from many different paths, all seeking a religion with room for deep questions that might have more than one answer.”

As are most Unitarian services, this one was heavy on poetry, philosophy, sharing and meditation with no prayer and only scant mention of God.

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“I like that it embraces all religions,” said newcomer Teresa Geldmacher, 50, who said she was raised Roman Catholic but hadn’t been to church in years. “I was brought up Christian, but couldn’t accept the teaching that Jesus died on the cross for our sins.”

The service, she said, “was much more along the lines of what I consider true spiritual teachings, which look to accept rather than to reject.”

James Law, 66, who recently moved to Southern California from the Mississippi Delta area where “there are no Unitarians for miles,” said he wasn’t sure just how to react: “I’ve never been to a service without somebody pounding the pulpit and telling us how to change our lives.”

Law said he hadn’t determined whether being a Unitarian was for him.

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“I don’t know what I think about this,” he said. “I’ll have to come back a few times to decide.”

david.haldane@latimes.com


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