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Utah a 'great place to be a Unitarian Universalist'

Unitarian Universalist Association's General Assembly meets in Salt Lake City, June 24-28.
By Donald E. Skinner
5.4.09

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The skyline of Salt Lake City, Utah

The skyline of Salt Lake City, Utah, where the 2009 GA will be held in June. (Courtesy of Salt Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau)

The Rev. Theresa Novak, minister of the 100-member Unitarian Universalist Church of Ogden, Utah, has heard the questions: “What’s it like being UU in Utah? Doesn’t the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints dominate everything? Don’t other religious groups feel intimidated?”

To which she replies, “This is a great place to be a Unitarian Universalist.”

Several thousand Unitarian Universalists will converge on Salt Lake City in a few weeks for the Unitarian Universalist Association’s annual General Assembly, June 24–28. We’ll bring our luggage, some sunscreen, and maybe a misconception or two.

What is it really like being UU in the “Beehive State”?

Numbers first. Novak noted that surveys generally find that Mormons make up 70 percent of the state’s population. But in Salt Lake City itself, they’re only an even half of the population. And while the state legislature is overwhelmingly Republican, Barack Obama carried Salt Lake County, the state’s largest county, and two others in last November’s presidential election.

Still, it must be intimidating and frustrating to be a member of a minority religion in Utah. “Not at all,” said Novak. “For starters, it’s an easy place to have a conversation about religion. The first thing people want to know about you here is what church you attend. There’s a curiosity here about religion. People in my church—their nonchurch friends know they’re UU. That’s not true in other parts of the country.”

“I frequently get calls from reporters who want to know what I think about issues,” Novak said. “Although we’re a tiny minority, it feels like we’re more in the mainstream.”

And it’s a pretty open mission field for UUs to advocate for social justice issues, she said. “This is a state where many legislators do not believe in global warming, where there is a high teen pregnancy rate coupled with a lack of comprehensive sexuality education, where the politicians are considering storing nuclear waste despite an already high cancer rate, and where many people supported the passage of California’s Proposition 8 last year,” the ballot initiative which brought same-sex marriages to a halt in that state.

Novak added, “To people who ask about my being UU in Utah, I explain it this way: Unitarian Universalism is important in other places, but here it’s nothing short of lifesaving. There are so many people here who need us, who need to know what we stand for, including those who leave LDS and need a place to go. Being a UU here, there’s a lot you can do. Being religious counts, and we have a voice.”

Novak’s congregation in Ogden operates a drop-in center for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer teens. About 40 come each week.

Fundamentalists and some evangelicals may refer to both Unitarian Universalism and the LDS as “cults,” but UUs and Mormons generally respect each other, Novak said. There is also less hate against gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people in Utah than in many other places, she said. “Mormons tend to pray for you, rather than attack you. When I moved here two years ago I was worried about being part of a gay couple. It’s not been a problem.”

The Rev. Sean Parker Dennison, minister of the South Valley UU Society in Salt Lake City, said, “I tell people I love being a minister in Utah. We UUs know how important we are. For one thing, we provide a welcome to people who are not welcomed by the dominant culture.”

Dennison said UU congregations in Utah are involved in several interfaith efforts that include Mormons. “I can’t tell you of any successes yet, but we’re working with them on immigrant rights, food banks, and antipredatory lending. We can actually agree with much of the Mormon moral culture. They are not opposed to us on all issues.”

There was a minor interfaith success this year, Dennison added, when the state legislature backed down on a proposed tax increase on food. “We didn’t get them to remove it like we wanted to, but they didn’t raise it.”

About half of the members of his congregation are ex-Mormons, Dennison noted. Novak estimated that 30 to 40 percent of her congregation are in that category. Dennison’s congregation has a Religious Transition Group, primarily for people leaving the LDS church. Ex-Mormon Bill Dobbs, who organized the group six years ago and still runs it, says 25 to 30 people come each time. “When you leave the [LDS] church, you lose your community, your friends, sometimes even your family. I take great satisfaction in the work we do with this group. We give people a place where they’re accepted.”

Dennison, who is a transgender man, said it would not be useful for UUs coming to GA to castigate Mormons for supporting California’s Proposition 8. “Yes, a lot of money for it came from Utah,” he said. “But I don’t think anyone gave money out of hatred. They gave it because in their worldview it was better if gay people can’t get married. I think of it as a well-intentioned honest mistake. If we are hateful we will be becoming the very thing we don’t want to see from others. And it won’t help the cause any.”

“Not all Mormons think alike,” Novak said. “Don’t assume because someone is LDS they have a particular opinion about gays. After Prop. 8 there were Mormon mothers who had kids who were gay demonstrating outside the Temple. There are many people who want the church to change. I keep seeing the diversity in LDS folks.”


Laura and Scott Renshaw joined the South Valley congregation in 1999. “We’re really close to each other in this congregation because we need each other,” said Laura. “There aren’t that many of us in Utah. We definitely feel like we’re in the minority. We’re excited about having GA here and having this powerful ‘Wow! Look at how awesome we are’ moment.”

Salt Lake City itself has changed since the last General Assembly there, in 1999, thanks in part to the 2002 Winter Olympics, said the Rev. Tom Goldsmith, minister of the city’s 350-member First Unitarian Church. “There’s a growing sophistication in restaurants, art galleries, theaters. And we have a light rail system now.”

Salt Lake City also has one of the largest per capita LGBTQ populations in the country, Goldsmith said.

Dennison added, “I wish you all could come early for the Utah Pride Festival [June 5–7]. Tens of thousands of people line the streets. We may not be the dominant culture, but the minority here is strong.”

A collection at General Assembly this year will support the Utah Pride Center’s youth programs.

“It’s a lot of fun being a UU here,” said Goldsmith. “The media are always looking to balance their stories with our perspectives. Our influence in Salt Lake City is so disproportionate to our numbers it is amazing.”

Most mainline Protestant churches in the city have an identity to the left of the LDS, he said. “Some of my closest colleagues are Presbyterians and Lutherans. The LDS represent a monolithic conservative block. And then there’s the rest of us. Which means that UUs are not the one saving grace of the liberal spirit in Salt Lake City.”

“A lot of UUs do have a bad taste because of Prop. 8,” he acknowledged. “Marriage equality is a major difference between us. We’re doing what we can. Just know that our battle is not against Mormonism. There are many very progressive Mormons.”

“It’s exciting to have everyone come to GA,” Novak said. “We try to be as visible as we can, but every week people come who have not heard of us. This will help. It’s important to hold GAs in places like Salt Lake City.”


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