Inside this quirky gray building on Nashville Road, there are images of a traditional church. Stained-glass windows line the walls, one of which has the image of a cross. Hymnals sit in the pews, and church bulletins announce births and potluck dinners.
But other aspects depict a church that is anything but ordinary. Other stained-glass windows show a yin-yang for Taoism, the Star of David for Judaism, a crescent moon and star for Islam, and symbols for Buddhism and Hinduism. The hymns mainly describe universal themes like compassion and love, and at the end of the service, people join hands and sing the “Peace Song.”
As the Unitarian Universalist Church celebrates 50 years in Bowling Green, members reflect on the denomination that is unique to this area and is growing. Many residents have heard of the Unitarian Universalists – who call themselves UUs – but several do not understand who they are and what they believe in.
“We’re sort of a different type of group,” says Sharon Crawford, the longest-serving member of the local UU church.
While the church is spiritual, it has no creed and no statement of belief. Instead, it emphasizes principles such as human dignity and acceptance. The church is made up of people with different core beliefs – from Buddhists to Christians to atheists – who encourage one another to grow in their own spirituality.
They believe everyone has “a responsible search for truth and meaning. It’s each person’s obligation to undergo or take on that search,” said the Rev. Peter Connolly, minister of the local UU church. “My job is to help people find that.”
Connolly provides such guidance for about 127 church members, a number that has increased over the decades. That’s partly due to its 10-year-old building on Nashville Road, which gives the church more visibility and makes it seem more legitimate to some people, members say.
Additionally, studies show that more people, especially the younger generation, are calling themselves nonreligious and are leaving mainstream churches – and those people are attracted to a place like the Unitarian Universalist Church.
The local church is one of nine UU congregations in the state, some of which have single-digit attendance numbers, Connolly said.
Crawford remembers when the church was in its infancy; back then its attendance peaked at 10 people. Crawford started attending the local UU church in 1970, eight years after the church began in a couple’s State Street home.
Crawford was introduced to the denomination while living in Bloomington, Ind., and she discovered the local meetings through a blurb in the newspaper.
When she moved here, Crawford tried other, more traditional churches, “but I did not feel comfortable there,” she said. “When I first started coming here, I liked the people; I liked the message. There wasn’t one way to do things, one way to think, and that appealed to me.”
At that time, the church gathered in Western Kentucky University’s Newman Center. For Crawford, the most defining moments were when the church moved into its first building on the U.S. 31-W By-Pass in 1999, and when the church got its first minister, Connolly, in 2009.
Like Crawford, most local church members were not raised in the Unitarian Universalist Church. Some even claim they’ve been kicked out of other churches over disagreements, members say.
“Nobody ever gets thrown out of this church,” said Joan Martin, a church member.
Martin, who used to attend a Presbyterian church, was looking for a local church when she and her husband, Jim Martin, moved to Bowling Green about 12 years ago.
“When we found this one, it was a perfect fit. And we never left,” she said. “There was a sense of community immediately.”
It’s a community that members such as John Downing find interesting, because the people have different beliefs and backgrounds. Downing came to the UU church 40 years ago. After studying comparative religions, his ideas about religion had changed, and he was looking for something different. The UU church, with no creed and wide acceptance, was a good fit.
“We believe each of us has the right and responsibility to study and believe what seems most reasonable to us,” he said.
The church traces its roots to Christianity and Judaism, but it does not believe that religious authority comes from a book, one person or an institution, but rather from each individual person. The church describes itself as a liberal denomination, according to UU documents.
Still, the church celebrates beliefs and rituals of religions around the world. For example, they have Christmas services, but they also celebrate the pagan holiday of Winter Solstice, the Jewish observance of Hanukkah and the African-American celebration of Kwanzaa, around that time of year.
Instead of Sunday School, children attend Religious Exploration classes, where they learn about different cultures and belief systems. And some church members with similar beliefs meet in small groups. For example, a group of people who lean toward Buddhist teachings meet monthly at the church.
“People who come and join our congregation do not have to give up their past beliefs,” Jim Martin said.
The church doesn’t tell its members what to believe, but it does encourage them to live peaceful, ethical lives. During services, speakers often emphasize social principles, such as justice, equality and environmental awareness.
“It’s not what we believe, it’s the kind of lives we live,” Jim Martin said. “Like many other people who don’t know much about it, I would have thought it was some kind of cult. But that thought dissolved immediately” when he first attended.
In fact, one of the biggest misconceptions about the church is the idea that it’s a cult, which is far from the truth, members say.
“In a cult, you are told what to believe and told how to behave, and we have the very opposite,” Connolly said. “The idea that we’re a cult is way off-base.”
The church battles those stigmas mainly because many local residents don’t know much about the denomination, Joan Martin said.
There are some challenges to being a UU in the Bible Belt, which is heavily populated with conservative churches. Several local residents attend the churches they were raised in, and most people who would be attracted to the UU church do not attend any religious institutions, which can make outreach tricky, members say.
Being a Unitarian Universalist in this area also means dealing with judgment from others. For example, some children who attend the church have been teased about their religion.
“We’re adults, and we can handle things. But it’s hard for the kids” when their peers question their beliefs, Joan Martin said.
Connolly noticed a difference when he moved here from Boston. Raised in the Catholic Church, Connolly drifted from his childhood religion in college and discovered the UU church. He was drawn to the church’s laid-back atmosphere and liberal theology, and he eventually decided to become a minister – a drawn-out process. After seven years of studying, he was matched with the Bowling Green church.
When he came to Kentucky, Connolly left a state that had more than 40 UU churches, some with very large attendance numbers. While he enjoys Bowling Green, Connolly has encountered his share of people who are wary of his beliefs, even if they know little about them.
“Because it’s in the Bible Belt, one of the first questions asked is what church you go to. That’s meant to be a question that brings people together,” he said. “But I’ve had the experience that the conversation ends at that point.”
Some people are suspicious of the UUs’ reliance on reason, Connolly said. Because the UUs are open to all beliefs, they emphasize certain principles from different religions, such as humanists’ trust in reason and science. But, they also embrace the Christian teaching to love your neighbors and pagan traditions that stress the importance of nature, for example.
UUs are simply trying to follow their own spiritual path, and the church supports them by attempting to answer their questions, they say. It’s not uncommon for church attendees to speak out during services, asking questions and making comments.
“We’re bigger on questions than answers,” Downing said.
But there’s no question about the church’s goal: to increase both attendance numbers and understanding of the UU beliefs, Connolly said. And the church seems to be on the right path to meet that goal, he said.
“I think there is a real thirst for spirituality in this country, even though the number of people going to church is going down all the time,” Connolly said. “At the same time, there are people who identify as having no religion, who are still very interested in the spiritual life. Those are people who are more likely to come to a church like ours.”