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Challenge of Being UU

Posted by Kayla Parker // March 27th 2012 // On Campus, Stories and Voices // no comments

Mary Ellen Giess, Unitarian Universalist who works at the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) with Eboo Patel, shares her experience as an undergraduate and invites us to join her at IFYC’s Interfaith Leadership Institutes this summer. Want to go? We can help you get there (financially). Check our our Grants and Program Support page and email us at ya-cm@uua.org if you’re interested. -Ed.

“You have GOT to stop talking to CHRISTIANS!”

That’s what my roommate said to me as I burst into tears for what felt like the millionth time in our UNC-Chapel Hill dorm room.  Once again, I’d gotten into a heated discussion with my conservative Christian hallmates about religion – and once again, I’d been caught in the throes of their conversion attempts.  Despite their reassurances that they wanted to convert me out of love, I couldn’t help feeling that the story was much more complicated than that.  My experience on the other end of the conversion conversation was not one of love – it was of feeling marginalized and disrespected for my own deeply held religious beliefs.

The transition from my Unitarian Universalist upbringing outside Philadelphia to life on campus in Chapel Hill was nothing short of culture shock.  My first year, the North Carolina state legislature threatened to cut off funding to the UNC campus for selecting a book about the Qur’an as the first-year book read.  In my first weeks on campus, I encountered the “pit preacher,” an evangelist who would loudly preach about hellfire and damnation in the center of the quad.  And then there were the more intimate encounters with religion – the friends in my life who, truly out of love, sought to disprove my religious beliefs and demonstrate to me the ultimate rightness of Christianity.

This whole world was so new to me – far from the ethos of acceptance and community that permeated my Unitarian community back home.  And as my anger and frustration built, I sought refuge in the only place I knew to go – to the Unitarian Universalist campus ministry.  I’ll never forget some of the moments of true peace and belonging that I felt in that community, whether it was in weekly worship and community meetings, or on our crazy beach trips, or just enjoying a meal together in the quad.  The members of the campus ministry group weren’t my best friends or my roommates, but we shared something even more profound:  a set of core values and beliefs that influenced who we were and how we lived our lives.  That center of values and community gave me a new understanding of who I was and helped me come to peace with the many layers to religious conflict that I saw playing out on campus.

And yet, my UU values taught me that it wasn’t enough to find refuge and hide within my community.  Rather, I had a responsibility to see the equal dignity in everyone around me and to build an interconnected community beyond my campus ministry.  My UU values taught me that I could not – as my roommate had once exasperatedly suggested – stop talking to Christians, or anyone else from a different religious background for that matter.   With the firm support of my campus ministry behind me, I reached out into the UNC campus community and formed a new interfaith community – with members of the Muslim Student Association, the Catholic Newman Center, the Baptist Campus Ministry, and more – and to my great surprise, I found that those same shared values of acceptance and community in the interfaith student organization.

To me, being a Unitarian Universalist is a challenge – a challenge to identify and define your own beliefs, a challenge to create community, a challenge to make the world a more just place.  As I stepped onto campus at UNC in 2002, religious identity and diversity was a conflict that bombarded me from all sides.  Yet my UU identity challenged me to move beyond that – both to push myself to build new relationships and re-form my understanding of religious difference, but also to take on the responsibility of changing my campus community.  Religion has a powerful possibility to do good, and if we as individuals create campus communities where interfaith cooperation is the norm, there is incredible potential to change American society.

Watch this video about the Interfaith Leadership Institute:

This is the challenge of being UU.  At the Interfaith Youth Core, where I now work, I get to live out this value every day in seeking to make interfaith cooperation a social norm.  Join us – by attending one of IFYC’s Interfaith Leadership Institutes this summer, you will be equipped with the skills to build interfaith cooperation in your campus community.  We are hosting two institutes this summer (June 18-21 in Chicago and July 16-19 in Philadelphia) and the deadline to apply is April 16.  Come find a new kind of community – a national network of students who care passionately about the challenge of making our world a better place through interfaith cooperation.

Does the Interfaith Leadership Institute sound like something you might be interested in?  Learn more about it on IFYC’s website, and learn more about how the UUA can help get you there on our Grants and Program Support Page. Email ya-cm@uua.org for more information. -Ed.

Mary Ellen Giess, a Unitarian Universalist, works at Eboo Patel’s Interfaith Youth Core

About the Author

Kayla Parker is editor of Becoming: A Spiritual Guide for Navigating Adulthood. She is currently a seminarian at Yale Divinity School, and Ministerial Intern at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Meriden, CT.

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