Unitarians try something new: recruiting

By Rebecca Rosen Lum
Radio personality Garrison Keillor has long joked on his “Prairie Home Companion” that Unitarian missionaries founded Lake Wobegon after a failed attempt to convert American Indians through interpretive dance.

Now, Unitarians are seeking converts for real and hoping radio spots on Keillor’s iconoclastic Prairie Home Companion will draw the same earthy, progressive, crowd the show does.

Seventeen Bay Area Unitarian Universalist congregations have launched a $300,000 marketing campaign financed by 600 member donors. Its theme: “Imagine A Religion.”

TV, radio and print spots designed by gUUrilla marketing began airing this week on Comedy Central, The Daily Show and A Prairie Home Companion.

About 500 signs are going up in BART stations. Mainstream publications and specialty magazines serving Spanish-speaking or gay and lesbian readers will carry ads.

The campaign also features sequential billboards, based on the old Burma-Shave ads, meant for passing motorists to read.

“Imagine a religion that embraces many different beliefs … including yours,” reads a magazine ad that pictures a middle-aged gay male couple, a young African-American man, a mother holding a young child and a mixed-race family.

“For us, this campaign reflects a change of heart,” said the Rev. William Sinkford, president of the national association. “We’ve been willing to be the best kept secret in religion. This represents a coming out effort.”

The denomination has its roots in the Christian Protestantism of Transylvania and Poland but is not Christian per se. Rather, it draws from numerous religions and belief systems in a common “search for truth and meaning.” It respects the sacred texts of all religions, but believes that none hold an absolute truth.

Unitarians “pitch a big theological tent,” Sinkford said. “We want to make Unitarian Universalism available for those who yearn for a liberal religious home.”

The ad blitz, which dovetails with the national Unitarian Universalist Association’s growth drive, is the most recent attempt by religious progressives to make themselves heard in the public discourse over faith dominated by religious conservatives for some 25 years.

“The problem with that is the discourse is incomplete,” Sinkford said.

The Unitarian-Universalistic faith prizes conscience and reason, has little use for dogma and a traditional distaste for proselytizing.

But previous ad campaigns showed a little evangelizing could go a long way.

Similar drives in Kansas City, Houston and Southern California netted new members. A Houston, Texas congregation grew by 10 percent — 40 people — after a 2005 advertising blitz.

“Unitarians aren’t very much for trying to convert people,” said the Rev. Bill Hamilton-Holway of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley. “But so often, people come, and they say, ‘This is me, this is perfect for me, but I never knew you were here.'”

The crafters of the campaign say many Americans are unaware of the fundamental role Unitarians have played in shaping the nation’s character.

Julia Ward Howe (“Battle Hymn of the Republic”) was a Unitarian, as were presidents John Adams, John Quincy Adams, and William Howard Taft. Celebrated Unitarian legal scholars include Oliver Wendell Holmes, Daniel Webster and Clarence Darrow. Unitarian civil rights activists James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo were both slain during Freedom Summer.

Membership declined during the 1970s and has picked up since but modestly.

“We are absolutely interested in younger people,” said gUUrilla marketing’s Sue Polgar.

Once they arrive, “We hear, ‘Where have you been all my life?'” said Cilla Raughley, director of the Central Pacific District.

The church appeals to parents of young children who resist training them in a creed, said Linda Laskowski, trustee from the Berkeley church.

“We don’t teach a religion,” she said. “We teach religion.”

Contra Costa Times, September 19, 2007

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