Barb Harrison has lived in Athens, Ohio for more than 30 years. She originally came to Athens for school in the 1980s. After graduating from Ohio University and leaving Athens in 1987, Harrison realized she was missing a deep spiritual connection that only nature could fulfill. She moved back to the area in 1991 to take a job at her alma mater. This move helped her meet people who introduced her to both Paganism and Unitarian Universalism. Today, she serves as the president of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Athens (UUFA).
“This is where I find my spiritual home,” Harrison says.
Harrison’s lifelong connection to nature led her to Paganism.
“I grew up on a farm, and so I was taught from a very young age to really respect the natural world and how we are connected to it,” Harrison says. As she grew older, that connection became more important to her.
As a young adult, Harrison never practiced any faith routinely. She was raised Methodist and married a Jewish man whom she later divorced, but never felt it was necessary to devote herself to any one religion.
After having a child, Harrison wondered what she would tell her son about her spirituality. This forced her to reflect on her own beliefs instead of participating in the practices of those close to her. Harrison had been curious about Paganism and Unitarian Universalism for a long time, so she decided to attend a service at the UUFA.
“The rest is history, I guess,” Harrison says. She now practices both Paganism and Unitarian Universalism.
The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Athens is a building intended for the practice of Unitarian Universalism, but welcomes anyone practicing any religion. It is part of a larger denomination called the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). The UUA sprouted from two Christian denominations: Unitarianism and Universalism. For many years, both denominations maintained separate spaces in the United States, but they eventually merged in the 1960s. Although Unitarian Universalism has changed drastically over time, it has always remained very committed to social justice and inclusion.
It is possible to find any number of faiths within a Unitarian Universalist congregation. At the UUFA, Earth-centered faiths like Paganism are common. Some members even identify as agnostic or atheist. Most members live nearby, but some live more than 30 miles away and still make the weekly trip to attend service every Sunday.
Harrison also likes to practice at her home. She lives a short way from the UUFA on a stretch of land that features a serene wooded area where she likes to practice her faith. Indoors, Harrison has set up a shrine where she can worship if the weather is poor. “The kind of cool thing about Paganism is that I feel I can practice it anywhere,” she says. “I think for me, that's the freeing part. … it's not required that you have a clergy person or any kind of other intermediaries, so to speak, between you and the higher powers.”
Unitarian Universalism as a denomination is centered around embracing teachings from both Eastern and Western religions and philosophies. It focuses on diversity, inclusion and social activism. Unitarian Universalism has seven principles that guide how members live their lives and practice their faith.
The UUFA begins its weekly Sunday morning service by lighting a chalice and welcoming its members to a safe and inclusive environment. During the service, members have the opportunity to speak at a podium and share their joys and concerns with the community.
“That’s how we sort of connect with each other,” Harrison says. “If there’s someone that's having a really hard time, they can put it out there and others can send them well wishes and be with them.” The UUFA hopes to provide people with a place to make connections.
“We know that many folks who come have other faith paths that they may have explored, but here we recognize that that is kind of a private journey for a lot of people and so we respect that,” Harrison says. “We don't ask people to sign on to a particular creed.”
Unitarian Universalist congregations are self-governing and elect their own leaders. Each has the ability to make their own decisions, such as how to present themselves, what they want to learn and how they want to grow. For Harrison, the UUFA gives her a chance to step back from her work life and focus on her spirituality.
The UUFA is highly motivated to inspire positive change within the Athens community. As an organization, the Unitarian Universalist Association strives to create "spirituality and community beyond boundaries, working for more justice and more love in [all] lives and in the world." As the current president of the UUFA, Harrison appreciates her position's ability to help steer the congregation in the right direction.
Although she finds freedom in her faith, Harrison keeps her spiritual life private.
“I really pick and choose who I feel comfortable telling,” Harrison says, adding that she does not talk about it at work for fear someone might misunderstand her intentions. She has lived in the area long enough to know who she can and cannot speak to about expressing her faith, so she finds herself mainly confiding in other Pagan community members.
“[In Athens], we are sort of a bubble and a microcosm and we do enjoy a lot of things that other communities wouldn’t, but I think for the most part, [Paganism and Unitarian Universalism are] pretty accepted,” Harrison says.
Unfortunately, not every community where Unitarian Universalist churches reside are as lucky or as safe.
In 2008, a man targeted a Unitarian Universalist Church in Tennessee because he believed the church represented anti-American sentiments. The police affidavit reports the shooter saying he made his attack because he disagreed with the “liberal teachings” of the church. Two people died and six people were injured in the shooting.
“We feel pretty fortunate that we're in a community where we’re respected, but there's definitely a risk with that just because of our current society,” Harrison says.