A Safe Place to Question and Explore
This is the story of one student who is currently a part of FOCUUS, the Unitarian Universalist campus ministry group at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, VA – and a larger presentation of what this and other UU campus ministries are about. – Ed.
Re-posted with permission, original article found here.By Corrie Mitchell
News Editor, The Captain’s Log
Christopher Newport University
Searching for FOCUUS
Sophomore Erin Gallagher knew she had to abandon her Catholic roots after meeting with Father Dave, the priest at her hometown parish in Washington, D.C.
Gallagher has taken leave of Catholic Mass in the name of freedom and personal religious exploration. The Fellowship of Campus Unitarian Universalist Students (FOCUUS) at Christopher Newport University is helping her reclaim her spirituality.
“It’s pretty much the first time in my life I’ve been given the opportunity to really explore my faith,” Gallagher said. “Catholic school wasn’t very open to questions.”
Like Gallagher, a growing number of Christians are trading in their specific dogmas for freedom through faith. According to the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey, the 1990s saw 1.3 million Americans drop their religious identifiers each year. However, since 2001 the increase has been cut in half to 660,000 people per year. At the same time, the study suggests that the majority of the American population self-identifies as Christian but is becoming less Christian.
People may have eternity written on their hearts, but it is not always manifested as orthodox Christianity intended.
Gallagher was raised Roman Catholic. She attended church every Sunday and Catholic school for eight years prior to coming to CNU. She prayed with her family before meals and was even an altar server in church from sixth grade until she graduated high school.
Still, Gallagher, who wears a noticeable silver cross around her neck, liked to joke that she was a bad Catholic.
When she sat at the pew during Mass, Gallagher felt she was being preached to without the ability to question the content coming down to her from the altar—two things she did not enjoy.
For Gallagher, it was a matter of three major church doctrines that she could not accept: the Church’s view of homosexuality, treatment of women and its vision of hell.
Gallagher’s opposition to these three opinions held by the church stem mainly from her belief in an all-loving God.
Gallagher says she could not imagine a world in which it is wrong for people to be with whomever they love. She feels that the church devalues women, when, in the Bible, the first person to spread the news of the resurrection of Jesus was a woman. She does not believe in hell.
“I believe that the New Testament and the resurrection got rid of hell, because I believe in a loving and forgiving God. It’s not restricted,” Gallagher said.
So, when it was her turn to decide, Gallagher stopped attending Mass completely.
“When I came here after eight years of Catholic school, I sort of lashed out against it,” Gallagher said. “Not by actions. Not against people. But I found that I just didn’t want to go to the Catholic service they offer here, and I found that I really didn’t enjoy it.”
However, religion came knocking once again when she was home for winter break at the end of last semester. Attending Christmas Mass with her family made Gallagher rethink turning her back on religion.
“I realized how much I missed having that support, that faith group,” Gallagher said.
Upon returning to campus for the start of the spring semester, Gallagher sought guidance from her mentor on finding a group of people with whom she could discuss her faith.
“Not just a religious group,” Gallagher said, “but a place where I could be challenged with my faith and I could ask questions of other people.”
Her next step in religion would be through FOCUUS.
Entering the FOCUUS fellowship meeting feels like entering the gathering of a thinly-veiled secret society. Nine people, five regulars and four newcomers, sit closely together around a table in the Harrison room of the DSU.
Sophomore A.J. Bennett, CNU FOCUUS president, picks up the flameless candle sitting atop an upside-down clay flowerpot with “FOCUUS” painted on its side and flicks the switch to turn it on. The chalice is lit, and the meeting has officially begun.
Donning a black pirate hat over a black and white bandanna that sits on top of his brown, waist-length locks, Bennett reads an excerpt from Unitarian Universalist theologian James Luther Adams. His calm voice reads out, “I call that church free which brings individuals into a caring, trusting fellowship.”
Following these introductory words, each person in attendance mentions the highs and lows of the past week. Advice is given when it applies, empathy when it is needed.
After this part of the fellowship comes to a close, the main segment begins. Rather than a sermon or lecture, this part generally takes the form of a focused discussion.
“We’ve previously done Buddhism. We’ve discussed a parable of Jesus. Around Halloween/Samhain we did a Samhain ritual that was sort of pagan focused,” Bennett said. “One time we discussed the afterlife because one of our members was talking about having that issue been on his mind recently, so part of that was talking about different takes on the afterlife through different religions and mythologies throughout human history.”
FOCUUS calls upon many of the world’s faith traditions, as the mission is to create a religious community, based on basic principles, where individuals of good will can pursue a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”
“Everyone can figure out for themselves what their beliefs are,” Bennett said. “Of course, we’re non-creedal, so you don’t have to believe any particular thing. So, the responsibility that comes with that freedom is that you sort of have to work on figuring it out.”
A new faith home
At the beginning of the semester, Gallagher started attending FOCUUS fellowship meetings every Monday at 8 p.m. This group offered just what she had been wanting. It allowed her not only to question her faith but to do so alongside a group of people who are similarly interested in faith exploration.
Nobody attempted to convert Gallagher during her first visit. Specific dogmas were not forced on her.
“It’s a safe place to question and explore,” Gallagher said. “Nobody here is going to judge you. Nobody here is going to tell you you’re wrong. If you decide ‘religion’s not for me,’ that’s fine. It’s a wonderful group of people, even if you don’t come for the religious aspect. You can come and we have interesting discussions.”
With people from varying religious backgrounds, Gallagher with her catholic upbringing, Bennett as a lifelong UU, and still another bringing his Southern Baptist background, differences in opinion spark deeper conversation; they do not stomp it out.
“Certainly, we have varying theologies between us,” Bennett said. “Disagreeing is often sometimes a holy act for Unitarian Universalists.”
Because Unitarian Universalism is not based on any specific creed, Gallagher can, with comfort and freedom, retain her core set of Christian beliefs, while fellowshipping alongside an agnostic or UU. However, Bennett cautions that this is not to say there are no beliefs holding the group together. Rather, they come in the form of a covenant, the seven principles.
The Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations (UUA) affirms these principles, which include the statements, “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” and “the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.”
Coming to FOCUUS afforded Gallagher her first chance at examining the Catholic faith of her upbringing, which helped her discover that she no longer affirmed that tradition.
“We had different situations, different stories, and it allowed me to look at myself personally, whereas if I went to, for example, Catholic Mass, as part of it, it is preaching. That is sort of the purpose of going to Mass,” Gallagher said. “FOCUUS allowed me the opportunity to question myself and to have other people give me questions that maybe I hadn’t thought about.”
Continuing the search
Although Gallagher has put Catholicism in her past, she has not decided to put on the Unitarian Universalist hat just yet.
Her core Christian beliefs remain in tact, though she is no longer able to identify with the Roman Catholic Church. For the time being, she claims a non-denominational Christian label.
Her family has supported each step in her faith journey, as she says the emphasis for them has always been on a spiritual relationship, rather than specific religious dogma.
“In my family, the policy’s always been, to quote my grandmother, ‘It doesn’t matter what you believe in, as long as you believe in something,’” Gallagher said.
With her family’s support, Gallagher will continue to search because she considers it dangerous to blindly accept beliefs. Rather, she believes everyone should ask questions.
“I think that it’s important to question why you do things,” Gallagher said. “It’s important to question what you believe. This isn’t just for religion. It’s for political beliefs. It’s for social activism. If you are doing something, I think you should know why.”
For Gallagher, FOCUUS is the place where she can continue to further her search that had been stifled when she first came to CNU as a freshman. She had put religion out of her mind, had stopped thinking about her faith and relationship with God.
Through FOCUUS, she feels that she has been given the chance to renew and strengthen her faith once more, but she is not stopping the journey here.
“I’m going to continue examining my faith and seeing where it leads me, and if it leads me to another denomination of Christianity, that’s great,” Gallagher said. “If I do end up joining a UU congregation, awesome. If I end up just sort of drifting where I am, as long as I know what I’m doing and why, I see no problem.”