by Lauren Odomirok

MOORESVILLE – Old, sparse woods surround the quiet complex of Woodlawn School, which hems in the weekly meeting place of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Lake Norman.

The three-year old congregation has 45 members and is growing steadily, offering orientation sessions every few months in a white-washed building meant to resemble the farm that stood on the property 170 years ago.

The UU tradition stretches even further back in time.

Dan Aldridge, congregation member and history professor at Davidson College, explained that the Unitarian faith stems from the reformed Calivinist tradition of the 1700s.

In the age of science and enlightenment, some prominent men like Thomas Jefferson and Ralph Waldo Emerson moved away from a belief in the Trinity, opting instead to believe only in God’s divinity, while choosing to see Jesus as an exemplary yet human, moral teacher.

Universalists, who got their start around the same time as Unitarians, took issue with predestination, the idea that God already knew which people were going to Hell.

“What sort of God would be so cruel as to say a little baby before it’s born will be subjected to torture and torment?” Aldridge explained historic Universalist views to newcomers at a meeting Feb. 3. “They believed no one was so far outside the pale as to be damned forever.”

In 1961, the two faiths merged, and Unitarian Universalism had 164,000 U.S. members in 2009, according to the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations.

“We come out of the liberal Protestant tradition, but we have expanded beyond traditional Christianity,” the Rev. Amy Brooks explained. “We welcome people who come from a lot of different faith traditions, and we are also open to people who may not find traditional forms of religious expression comfortable.”

Unitarian Universalists have no creedal test for membership, but come together to support others on their individual spiritual journeys, Brooks said.

While some UUs believe in God, others do not. Opinions also differ on the notion of an afterlife.

“I always like to talk about God as the energy that happens between us and the love that we share,” Brooks said.

All UUs are encouraged to seek wisdom in religious texts as well as transcendental, humanist and even poetic writings.

“We like to think critically, which is why we don’t put faith in divine teachings of different scriptures,” Brooks said. “We believe there’s truth in scripture, but for the most part, we believe that they have been written by human beings and are therefore fallible.”

At the Feb. 3 service, a relaxed and welcoming vibe enveloped the room as visitors sang peaceful and cheerful tunes that omitted all things religious.

In Brooks’ sermon, she stressed the need for UUs to embrace diversity to thrive, joking that much of the group’s national makeup consists of white, upper middle class, well-educated nature lovers who drive to farmer’s markets listening to NPR.

Seven core principles bind UUs together, including “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” and “respect for the interdependent web of all existence.”

“One of the coolest things about Unitarian Universalism to me is the children getting to explore other religions and decide which parts from each are true for them,” Amy Hartman, a congregation member, said.

Brooks said her congregation participates in a spring flower communion, which takes the place of the bread and wine sacrament of Christianity. Each member brings a flower and places it on the altar. Everyone leaves with a different flower.

“I think everyone loves rituals. It’s kind of a way to ground us in the world,” she said. “The flower symbolizes the power of community, religious freedom and also the way in which we’re connected to each other.”

Brooks said all UU ministers undergo training in individual as well as marriage and family counseling, and her congregation also gives of its time.

As the service ended, Brooks said “May the visions we cherish take shape and walk in this world,” before murmuring the refrain that stands in place of “Amen,” “May it be so.”