“How do you do a church without a minister?” It’s a question Steve Hall says he’s often been asked. His answer: “It’s a lot like growing food in your own garden: It tastes better.” 

Hall is a member of the First Unitarian Universalist Society of New Haven (FUUSNH), an uncommonly accepting spiritual community that traces its roots in New Haven to 1836, when it lacked the “Unitarian” bit.

While Unitarian Universalist congregations are legally regarded as churches, it would be fair to say they’re really not about Christianity. Established in 1961 as a merger of two progressive Christian schools of thought—Unitarianism and Universalism—UU is one of the more enduring experiments of the orthodoxy-breaking 1960s, a kind of trans-religious spiritual organization that makes room for Judaism, Islam, Christianity, neopaganism, pantheism, Hinduism, Buddhism and even atheism, among other belief systems.

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So what, then, do local Unitarian Universalists believe? And what do they do on Sundays?

According to the FUUSNH website, “UUs believe that there are many paths to an understanding of the sacred, and that while there are elements of truth in different religions and philosophies, UUs doubt that any one person or creed has the final or complete answer.” This approach crystallizes every Sunday morning into multi-faith services led by different members. Each week, the member leading the service selects a topic and chooses music for interludes, with other attendees getting chances to add to the discussion or make announcements.

Past services have covered the meaning of human flourishing, comprehending the size of the universe and Mabon, the pagan celebration of the Second Harvest. On the Sunday I attended, FUUSNH’s vice president, Kayleigh Bohémier, a polytheist and UU member since the age of 4, was in charge. The title of her service: “Minimalism and the Ethics of Less.”

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It opened with a musical prelude, “You’ve Got the Dirtee Love”—a rap/rock collaboration between Dizzee Rascal and Florence + the Machine. The congregation then lit its ceremonial wooden chalice while Bohémier read words from Socrates and Lao Tzu extolling the virtues of minimalist living. The rest of us then went around shaking hands and swapping names before entering into a life-affirming call-and-response based on a passage by Henry David Thoreau. Time was allotted for members to voice “joys and concerns” in their lives. Musical selections included Philip Glass’s somber “Metamorphosis One” and The Moody Blues’s synth-heavy prog rock song “Steppin’ in a Slide Zone.”

Getting to the core of the service, Bohémier talked at length about Japanese consultant Marie Kondō’s KonMari method of decluttering, which involves putting all your belongings of a single type into a single pile, then only keeping the items that “spark joy” in you. After she’d outlined the idea, the congregation had an opportunity to respond with objections or critiques. Not surprisingly, there were a few who recoiled at the idea of letting go of most of their possessions. But a fruitful discussion ensued anyway.

While there might not be another service on minimalist living for quite some time, if ever, the same format—more or less—recurs every Sunday. Given the diversity of the congregation, the variety of topics is high.

As for dues or fees, there aren’t any. Voluntary donations, to cover the cost of utilities and maintenance, mostly, are collected. During the Sunday offering, a basket is passed around the service for donations to an outside charitable organization selected by members of the congregation. The organization during my visit was the Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen.

While FUUSNH is an open, welcoming place for beliefs of nearly all stripes, maintaining openness requires certain boundaries. “White, or male, supremacy will not be warmly received,” long-time member Francis Braunlich says. Neither will fascist nor other hostile belief sets. And though clergy of other religious organizations are regularly invited to speak on Sundays, a few awkward incidents have made clear the need to emphasize to incoming faith leaders that it’s an opportunity to exchange insights, not a chance to proselytize.

But can you really blame newbies for the misunderstanding? As member Bob Stephens says is a running joke among the congregants, “It takes about six different trips to know what we’re about, because it’s different every time.”

First Unitarian Universalist Society of New Haven
608 Whitney Ave, New Haven (map)
(203) 562-4410

Written and photographed by Daniel Shkolnik.

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Daniel is an aspiring novelist. He owns a Yale sweater he will never wear and takes his Faulkner with vermouth and his vermouth with an orange wedge. An avid traveler and retired hooligan, he was kicked out of the largest club in Africa for breakdancing, joined an Andalusian metal band and, while in Istanbul, learned to read the future in his coffee grinds. Despite the omens he finds at the bottom of his morning joe, Daniel continues to write.

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