Manatee Unitarian Universalist Fellowship marks 50 years in Manatee

For the past 50 years, the Manatee Unitarian Universalist Fellowship at 322 15th St. W. in Bradenton has celebrated being a place where people can embrace their spirituality regardless of race, gender or religious belief.

“It’s about spiritual and moral freedom with respect,” said the Rev. Dr. Bonnie Devlin, the first minister in the 50 years of the fellowship. “We all try to make it work under one roof.”

Unitarianism is not something new. It has been around since the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s, according to Devlin. The Puritans embraced Unitarian principles when they fled to the United States in the 1600s in search of religious freedom. It was officially recognized in the United States in 1825, she said.

Unitarianism believes in the “Unity of God,” and embraces other faith traditions, said Devlin, who graduated from the Harvard School of Divinity. Universalists follow the tradition of “working to serve the common good,” she said.

“People think we can believe in anything we can, but we don’t,” said Devlin.

Unitarian Universalism preaches “a vision of religious freedom, tolerance and social justice” and follows principles advocating “inherent worth and dignity of every person, justice, equity and compassion in human relations, acceptance of one another, encouragement of spiritual growth, the use of the democratic process within congregations and society, and respect for all existence.”

The Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations was formed in 1961 through the consolidation of the Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association. Today the religion has more than 1,000 congregations worldwide.

Unitarian Universalist has sometimes been called the “social activist” denomination, said Devlin. They marched for civil rights and women’s rights. The Beacon Press, publisher of the Unitarian Universalist Association, published portions of the Pentagon Papers, top secret U.S. Department of Defense information about the Vietnam War.

“That’s the kind of thing you find out when you become a Universalist and you become proud,” said Lorraine Berry, who has been a member for the past six years.

Unitarian Universalists have been known as “the first” to support a number of social issues, said Devlin. They were the first to respect reason and science alongside religion. They were the first to ordain women. They were the first to become a “welcoming congregation,” and to accept anyone in their fellowship regardless of race, religious belief or gender, including gays, lesbians and transgenders.

“Diversity; that’s such a big part of who we are,” said Leslie Roell, a member since 1966.

But being an open-minded fellowship in Bradenton hasn’t always been comfortable for a congregation that often embraces divisive social issues, said Roell. During the 1960s, three of the congregation’s teens faced suspension from school for having longer hair than allowed by public school dress codes.

And since the congregation strongly backed the civil rights movement in the 1960s, Roell and other members of the fellowship found it difficult to share their religious affiliation when searching for jobs in Manatee County.

“We were told not to answer religious questions,” she said. “This was a time when there was a lot of hatred. It was very frightening for a lot of people.”

The mission of the Manatee Unitarian Universalist Fellowship is “to help one another and the community; to continue to further an environment (that)welcomes and supports diverse values and beliefs; to promote love, reason and freedom in religion; to endeavor to achieve lifelong spiritual and intellectual growth; and to act for social justice through the democratic process.”

They have joined together to get better drinking water for those who need it, protection for women and girls in Darfur, and better wages for all workers, according to Devlin.

The Bradenton congregation also assists local food pantries and homeless shelters like Family Promise, and have pushed for better wages and working conditions for local migrant farmworkers, according to Roell. They host the League of Women Voters, the Coalition of Concerned Patriots, and a variety of clubs and social groups at their fellowship as well.

“We started reaching out to the community,” said Roell. “If anyone asks us, we’re there to help.”

Unitarian Universalists have been on the forefront of environmental issues, according to Berry, who is also president of the congregation. The congregation was recycling long before it was popular, and promoting awareness about global warming. They have landscaped with Florida-friendly plants, composted and remodeled to become a “green sanctuary.”

“We’re not there yet, but we are on our way,” said Berry. “Everything we do now is within the spectrum of green.”

The Manatee Unitarian Universalist Fellowship started in 1958 and 1959 in the homes of 14 people, according to Roell.

“In the beginning, we had as many teens as we did adults,” she said.

From people’s homes, the congregation moved to Riverview Park Hotel, and eventually bought a house on 15th Street West in 1963 for $13,500. In 1966, it purchased an additional parking lot for $2,000. The building was expanded and dedicated as the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in 1981.

The congregation added a wooden deck in 2002, and constructed a memorial garden just three years ago. Members say they hope to someday build a separate building for religious education classes, which are now held upstairs.

In its first 50 years, the congregation has retained more than 100 members, according to Berry. And in the next half century, they are hoping even more people will discover Manatee Unitarian Universalist Fellowship as a spiritual sanctuary.

“People come and they’re immediately comfortable,” said Berry. “Here is home.”