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'Free-thinking' flock keeps Falls Unitarian church going without a pastor

NIAGARA FALLS – At 11 a.m. on Sunday morning, as light streamed through the church's tall, arched windows, the service began.

The topic was science.

Although that focus might be unusual for some churches, no one batted an eye at the venerable First Unitarian Universalist Church of Niagara, which prides itself on welcoming people of any religion or even no religion.

The message on the sign in front of the Main Street church says, “Atheists, Buddhists and Christians belong to this church. No specific belief is expected or required.” In fact, the members proudly call it "a church for atheists."

"Everyone is always welcome in this church," said longtime member Peter Diachun, who opened the service. "We're particularly putting out the welcome mat for people who are seeking an alternative church."

That welcome – for those of any faith, no faith or those who just aren't sure about faith – was expressed in words and images. Colorful fabric banners representing the world's major religions, from Christianity to Hinduism, lined the side walls and two Unitarian Universalist banners hung in the front.

The program on this day was one of the summer sessions geared toward "Free Thinkers," a term used for a person "who forms opinions on the basis of reason, independent of authority," said Diachun.

Free Thinker programs also will be held starting at 11 a.m. on July 23 and Aug. 6. On July 23, the service will include a video of author Alain de Botton's lecture "Atheism 2.0."

A free thinker, said Diachun, can be – but doesn't have to be – an atheist, an agnostic or a skeptic. The free thinker "does not necessarily have wild or unstable beliefs, but they simply choose to question the validity of claims that come from an authority."

The local congregation meets in an impressive church, dedicated on Jan. 15, 1922. With its four Doric stone columns, it resembles a bank building. It is faced with a striking pattern of deeply recessed, rustic cut-edge limestone slabs that were excavated from the site while it was being built. "We like that kind of thing," said Diachun.

Its appearance tells a story the congregation still enjoys sharing. "It doesn't look like a church – where is the steeple?" Diachun asked.

In fact, the building was intentionally built without outward religious symbolism except for the words "Unitarian Church," with the U's carved as V's in the Latin style, over the main door. That's because the congregation wasn't entirely sure that they would be able to support such a building.

The main hall, which is filled with light from the arched clear-glass windows, was built with a working stage in the front in case it might have to be marketed as a theater. It wasn't until 1955, when the congregation was booming, that confident leaders converted the backstage area into classrooms.

Suzanne Cole of New Orleans speaks during a discussion session at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Niagara. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

"It's a very UU thing, to be a little skeptical," said Suzanne Cole of New Orleans, one of several young people who attended the service after coming to the area for the Quaker Friends General Conference Gathering held at Stella Niagara.

There are 64 Unitarian Universalist congregations in New York, with about 8,500 members. Some 150,000 members belong to 1,016 congregations across the country. The church has 20 more congregations outside the United States.

In Niagara Falls, the fortunes of the congregation have waxed and waned over the decades, and now the active membership hovers around 40, with about 20 attending services regularly.

The congregation is no longer large enough to support a minister.  Its programs – which in the fall, winter and spring are often led by a visiting minister or lecturer – are coordinated by the board, which is led by Elizabeth "Betsy" Diachun, Peter's wife and the longest-tenured member of the congregation.

Betsy Diachun has scheduled ministers and guest preachers, including several with Unitarian Universalist educations, to lead services starting in September.

"I think this makes it much more interesting, because we get so many different points of view, rather than hearing just one person every Sunday," she said. "Of course you get consistency if you have one person. But a lot of our members would prefer not to have a minister just for that reason."

Cole, who is affiliated with both Quakers and the Unitarian Universalists, said she seeks out one of those congregations whenever she travels. After attending a service at the Niagara Falls church, she preached there on July 2 "in honor of our loyal skeptics," she said. "I talked about how loyal skeptics propel an organization forward by helping us reconnect to a mission in a changing world."

The Free Thinkers service began with the lighting of an oil-filled chalice, flanked by two candles on a small table in the front of the room.

"A Hungarian minister began this during World War II," said Betsy Diachun. "We feel that it demarcates the time that is special to us. At the beginning of the service, we light the chalice and say that we hope to heal instead of harm, and at the end when we blow it out, we wish to stay safe until we meet again."

The congregation watched a video of a TED talk by author and neuroscientist Sam Harris titled "Science Can Answer Moral Questions." Then they passed around a hand-held microphone and shared their opinions on the topic.

Michael Miano of Middleport speaks during a "Free Thinkers Sunday" session at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Niagara in Niagara Falls. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Michael Miano of Middleport, a newcomer to the church, kicked off the spirited exchange by saying that he disagreed with Harris' points. Next to take the microphone was Nan Simon of Youngstown, who said of Harris, "I think what he said is absolutely correct."

"As usual, we seem to have a wide spectrum of ideas on these topics," said Peter Diachun as he handed the microphone around.

From there, people discussed the elitism of scientific work – "Let's not make science so exclusive that only the rich and powerful have access to it," said Cole – and whether science can ever be totally objective.

Even the first-time participants expressed their views passionately. Spotlighting the cultural impact of religion, Sky Stewart of Franklin, Ohio, asked, "Is this thing you're being asked to do by your religion making a person greater or making them less?"

Sky Stewart of Franklin, Ohio, one of several people visiting the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Niagara, expresses his opinion. Stewart is both a Quaker and a Unitarian Universalist, which is not unusual in the church. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

After the service ended, announcements were made about coming social events, and discussions and conversation continued in the aisles.

Betsy Diachun said the congregation "would love to attract more members," but there are challenges.

A comfortable rocking chair for mothers with babies is positioned in the last row of the sanctuary, but the church has not been able to keep families with young children. "We are prepared to offer a Sunday school or baby-sitting," said Betsy Diachun. "But unless we have two or three families, they want to go someplace where their child is going to have interaction with other children."

Starting in September, services will become more traditional. They include music on the grand piano and hymn-singing, readings, a time for sharing joys and concerns, and a homily.

"They have a beautiful grand piano and they have a fabulous musician," said Cole.

"Niagara has a lot more than many small churches, they have a beautiful building and they have a position in the community, but I know that they are also challenged for members, especially families and young adults," she said.

After services during the year, members take turns bringing food for a coffee hour, said Betsy Diachun. "We are always telling people not to go overboard" with what they prepare, she said.

"That is supposed to be a big thing with Unitarians, instead of 'Holy, holy, holy,' they have a hymn that goes, 'Coffee, coffee, coffee.' There are lots of jokes about Unitarians and coffee," she said.

Having traveled and visited many congregations, Cole is optimistic about the future of the liberal religious tradition to which some Quakers and the Unitarian Universalists belong.

"We're the type of groups that people don't find until they are really desperate to find us," she said.

"People don't know to look for something that's further left than anywhere they've ever been. Folks who were raised very liberal socially often say, 'Religion doesn't meet me here. There's no faith acting here.'"

Liv Monck-Whipp of Ontario speaks during a discussion session at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Niagara. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

However, said Cole, "To be a UU, you don't agree to believe a set of things, but to interact with the people around you in a set of ways. Most people want to be more moral, and they want to be more principled and they want to change the world. Worshiping with any of the faiths in the liberal tradition equips us and enables us to be those people that we are hoping to be out in the world, by finding solidarity when we worship."

On the Free Thinkers Sunday program she attended with her friends, Cole said, "I can tell you there were at least two atheists in the room, a Christian, two pagans. That is the composition of most UU churches. The church I worship with in New Orleans is at least 50 percent atheist."

In the Niagara Falls church, "We have people who are quite Christian, and we do have a lot of humanists and atheists," said Betsy Diachun. And, like Cole and Stewart, some members belong to another religion, too. "We've had ministers who were Sufis as well as Unitarians," she said.

Members understand that a church for atheists – and everyone else – might be a stretch for some to accept. But they believe that what they have to offer is valuable.

"We can't offer salvation, because most of us don't believe there is life after death," said Betsy Diachun. "What we can offer you, though, and why you should come to this church, is that it would open your mind to consider ethical and moral questions from different points of view, and that it would give you a terrific feeling of companionship of others who are walking the same path in life."

The services on Sunday morning, she said, are "a way of getting our moral compass aligned, once a week, if we've gotten astray, which is so easy with all the distractions."


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