by James Chilton
published on October 13, 2012
Wyoming Tribune Eagle
CHEYENNE — A study released this week shows that nearly 20 percent of Americans now consider themselves part of no organized religion.
That could be good news for Rev. Audette Fulbright.She is set to be installed as the new minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Cheyenne later this month, and she’s eager to see her congregation grow.And that may be what happens. According to the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies, national Unitarian Universalism membership grew nearly 16 percent from 2000-2010 even as more conventional faiths lost members.“There are more folks that have an open-minded approach to religion and life than are really being served here,” Fulbright said. “‘Nones’ (people who profess no specific religious faith) are a big, growing group. It’s a huge proportion of the U.S. and one of our biggest (sources of new membership).”Formed in 1961 through the merger of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church in America, Unitarian Universalism has Judeo-Christian roots.But it now incorporates teachings from a wide range of other religious traditions and philosophies.“We’re a non-creedal faith; we gather around a set of seven principles rather than creeds and doctrines,” Fulbright said.“We believe the world is full of interesting philosophies and religions. There are men and women in this world who, all the time, are showing us new amazing things through their lives and teaching us how to live and become better people.”
Rather than adhere to the teachings of a single holy book or a rigid hierarchy, Fulbright said Unitarian Universalism is decentralized. It does not provide the solutions to life’s answers.
Instead, the church takes a broad look at many different doctrines and invites adherents to make their own conclusions.
“It’s spirituality without certainty, if you will,” she said.
“We have a huge number of people who would call themselves humanist in one way or another. Probably the largest percentage would identify themselves as religious seekers.”
As such, Fulbright said her congregation is a mash-up of people with a wide range of underlying beliefs, from nominal Christians and Buddhists to earth-centric faiths and even agnostics and atheists.
But the one thing that unifies them, she said, is that they are open-minded and willing to discuss the things that bring them together rather than drive them apart.
“Our theology is to practice how to be together with very diverse understandings of religion,” Fulbright said. “We still act together, we still love together and we want to listen to each other and learn from each other.”
Originally from South Carolina, Fulbright said she wasn’t raised with any particular religion, her parents encouraging her to make her own decisions. But she added that she always considered herself a religious person. The question was, which religion?
“When I was young, I wanted to be a religious professional,” she said. “But I hadn’t seen any women religious professionals, and I couldn’t find a community of faith that worked for me.”
Fulbright said she joined a Unitarian Universalist congregation while she was in college, where she studied psychology.
But as she was preparing to take the Graduate Record Examination, Fulbright had a revelation.
“I was walking into a hallway, and when the light flipped on, the ‘light’ flipped on,” she said. “I just understood deeply that I needed to be a UU minister. So I applied to seminary.”
Fulbright finished that in California in 2000 and served as a minister in Roanoke, Va. throughout the 2000s and into this year. As she was preparing to move on, she began looking at congregations around the country and found herself drawn to Cheyenne’s.
“The one here was the one I found the most affinity with,” she said. “(It) has been very active in the community both in serving people who need to be cared for and in being advocates for justice. They love each other; there’s a palpable sense of welcome when you go there.”
While Fulbright will be formally installed as the new minister at 4 p.m. on Oct. 21, she has been conducting services there for about a month.
She said on a typical Sunday her services can look at any of a number of religious texts, from the Bible and the Quran to her personal favorite, the Tao Te Ching, a text fundamental to Taoism.
“Most of the time, if people have been to any other kind of Protestant church, they don’t find the format wildly different,” she said.
“But it’s different in the ideas that are included in the service and their source material.
“It’s not just the Bible; it might be a poem by Maya Angelou or a reading from the Bhagavad Gita. It could come from any tradition or science. I love quantum physics and I tend to talk a lot about it.”
Ultimately, she said, Unitarian Universalism is about affirming the inherent worth and dignity of every person, regardless of background or belief.
Whether one is an agnostic looking for a likeminded community, a Christian seeking a less dogmatic atmosphere or a Buddhist searching for a place to meditate, Fulbright said all are welcome under her roof.
“‘Give them hope, not hell,’ is our religious tradition,” she said.
“Our faith is built on the belief that we need not think alike to love alike, and that’s what I deeply believe.”