Chris Abbate

The first time I heard about Unitarianism was while studying for a Master’s degree in English. I was taking a class on Emerson, Whitman and Thoreau – a sort of Unitarian trinity. It was the essays of Emerson that had the most impact on my religious and spiritual life, and eventually led me to the doors of UUFR.

I was raised Catholic. It would make a good bumper sticker, wouldn’t it? But I liked being ACatholic (even if I did walk out on altar boy orientation in sixth grade). I liked attending Mass with my parents. It was our family’s bond and identity. I attended Catholic school from kindergarten through high school. We attended a progressive Catholic church near our home in central Connecticut. There were no pews or kneelers or weird statues. There was a window behind the altar to let the light in and the congregation was joyous and loving. Very similar to UUFR, yes?

And then there was Evangelicalism. Beginning with my mother’s own conversion experience, the Pentecostal movement swept through our house and at ten years old I was born again during a prayer meeting in our basement. After high school, I attended Gordon College, a Christian college near Boston. It was another tight-knit, friendly community. I was involved in community outreach and missions and loved every day that I was there. But, putting aside the loving family and communal bonds I grew up around, in my religious world it was simply assumed that you believed Jesus was God, sent down to Earth to die for our sins, and that God was a personal presence in Heaven with thoughts and feelings, who was watching over us.

My wife, whom I had met at Gordon, had transferred to a women’s college and was majoring in Religious Studies where she was learning about feminism and Eastern religions. She had started rethinking her own religious beliefs and we often discussed what she was learning. It was a more broad religious perspective than the Christianity in which I had grown up. Combine this with my study of Emerson, and I began to question the religious assumptions of my childhood. It was as if some fog in my head was clearing. I wanted to learn about this thing called Unitarianism.

I decided to write to the UUA for information – this was before the Internet was invented. The day the package from UUA arrived in the mail, I made sure to get to the mailbox before anyone else. While I have always had a great relationship with my parents, they would not have been amused by my curiosity in a denomination that wasn’t specifically Catholic or evangelical. I snuck the package up to my room, closed the door, and read.

To quote from the pamphlets I received that day: “We believe that personal experience, conscience, and reason should be the final authorities in religion. We uphold the free search for truth. In the end, religious authority lies not in a book, person, or institution, but in ourselves.”

Some questions came to my mind at that moment: Is this some kind of joke? I could dictate my own religious path? Why hadn’t I heard about Unitarianism before?

I wish I could say that after reading those pamphlets I marched downstairs, threw them on the kitchen table between my parents’ bowls of spaghetti and proclaimed that I was becoming a Unitarian. But I didn’t. I quietly slid the pamphlets back into their envelope and hid the envelope in my desk drawer. I wouldn’t tell my parents about my UU faith until much later.

It wasn’t until many years after moving out on my own that I attended my first UU service. That was here at UUFR. I began attending services occasionally as a friend of the fellowship along with the Wednesday night adult education programs started by Rev. John Saxon and Tryst Chagnon called Wellspring. These were multi-week programs on topics such as Articulating Your UU Faith, World Religions, and Building Your Own Theology. Along with the uplifting and inspiring Sunday services, I was hooked. It was refreshing to know that I had found a church where my religious and spiritual ideas could shift and evolve. There was no requirement to mention God or the Bible. The divine was even more present without this.

Soon, I became involved in other areas of the fellowship such as the landscaping team, the theology book club, the poetry and spirit group, covenant groups, and co-leading a youth group. I am currently a member of the Wellspring Committee, a group that promotes and supports the Wellspring program. I still need to remind myself every so often how grateful I am to have followed my own spiritual path and to be in a place like this.

In closing, I’d like to share one story. Shortly after graduating college, a member of my Catholic church named Jim, knowing my diverse religious background, invited me to speak to his high school religion class. I drew a chart on the chalk board that day to outline my religious upbringing. Catholicism was on one side. Evangelicalism was on the other. I went into detail about the principles of each denomination and how they influenced me, for good or ill. Toward the end of class as I was taking questions, a student, perhaps sensing my ambivalence, asked, “So, do you even believe in God?” I paused for a few seconds to collect my thoughts. You could hear a religious pin drop. And just as I was about to answer… the bell rang.

Was I saved by the bell? It’s a question I still haven’t answered. A question that I’m not sure needs to be answered. A question like that used to feel like a trap. A test of my faith. If you asked me now, I would reply, “If by God, you mean the watcher who keeps track of the good and bad things one does, the God who I had so neatly placed in a box, then no, I don’t. But, if by God, you mean the spirit of love, joy, family, poetry, music, science, nature, meditation, mindfulness, and authentic experience, then yes, I believe in that God wholeheartedly.” I am glad I am here at UUFR, where this spirit is celebrated and uplifted.