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Religion on your own terms

Piedmont Unitarian Universalist Interim minister Karen Matteson and a young member of the congregation. hspace=4

If you try to understand what Unitarian Universalism is about, you may walk away with more questions than answers. Church leaders at the two Charlotte area Unitarian Universalist churches agree it's just not an easy religion to grasp. "The fact that we don't give people very obvious things to cling to is a problem," says John Burns. He has held numerous leadership positions at Piedmont Unitarian Universalist Church in University City. "Because a lot of people they want that. They want simplicity, they want the answers and here you go," he says. And usually those answers come in the form of a creed or a profession of faith. The Unitarian Universalist Church makes it a point not to have one. Piedmont interim minister Karen Matteson explains, "Since we don't have a creed and we don't have a catechism that tells us this is right and this is wrong. This is black and this is white, we have a set of principles. But it's very easy to lose sight of them. So we gather together to remind ourselves, remind each other, that there is a good way to live. In a way that we are most human." The other church in the area is the Unitarian Universalist Church of Charlotte on the southeast side. Minister Jay Leach leads a congregation there of about 660-people. He says, "We assume that you have dignity because you are. It's not about something you've done or something you've earned, and critically, it's not about your having made a correct religious choice. Your worth and your dignity don't hang on your getting religion right for us." It's a deeply personal exploration of your spirituality. But at the same time, Leach says a person is part of a greater whole, so their choices have an impact on their surroundings. The church is a place that empowers people to come together and explore those questions. Members often call themselves "UU's." Their church gets involved in political issues. UU churches make it a point to call themselves liberal. Both Charlotte churches have raised money for gay rights issues. Recently the Unitarian Universalist Church of Charlotte started its own program to help the homeless. Leach says religious pluralism is also a fundamental aspect of the church. During a recent Sunday service at Piedmont Unitarian Universalist, soloist Erik Dutton sings a Jewish prayer after lighting a Hanukkah candle. A child lights a Christian Advent candle. And the candle in the Unitarian Universalist chalice is lit to mark the winter solstice, which has pagan roots. Interim minister Karen Matteson leads the group of about 100. "So I invite you during this time of our gathering to set aside your skepticism, maybe even cynicism about the season and to enter into these stories," says Matteson. "And maybe find that our lives might be touched and our spirits renewed in this season of light." Inviting the congregation to be open to learning about these other traditions is key- because a majority of Unitarian Universalists left other religions or had none at all. And Leach says many come bearing religious scars. "There are a number of people here who have really painful experiences of being told 'because of your gender you will never be able to lead a religious community. Because of your sexual orientation we will never accept you. Because of your questioning we will label you a heretic,'" says Leach. Piedmont member Eva Dew Danner was raised a Methodist, converted to Catholicism and eventually found a home with Unitarian Universalists. She says, "The thing I like most about UUism is also the thing I dislike most about it. Nobody's going to tell you what to do or believe or be. Sometimes I just want that." But as Leach says, the church is there to help a person find their spiritual way- not to show it to them. And Piedmont member John Burns acknowledges this can be daunting. He says, "So we have a constant struggle with defining what our faith is about and trying not to be so banal that it's just a series of 'we believe in love and peace and there you go.' Make it something more meaningful than that." Burns knows what he doesn't believe. For him, the challenge is finding out what he does believe.