This Sunday, I and my family are heading south to participate in a service of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Mankato. We have a Muslim foreign exchange student named Farzad living with us until June. Although church attendance is generally considered strictly voluntary in our household, I informed our student that this excursion was required. Why? Because I feel one of our duties as foreign exchange hosts is to give our exchange student some opportunities to learn about different cultures and also to learn something about American history. When we were visiting family in Iowa for Christmas, he was also required to come with us to a Christmas Eve service at the conservative Evangelical Church Göran's step-dad has been attending lately. I felt that the UU Fellowship would expose him to yet another unique religious perspective in America, and I also wanted to take him to see the Buffalo Monument, and educate him a little bit about Native American history as well.
Farzad was born in Afghanistan. His family spent a few years in Iran and they are currently living in Finland. So when Farzad asked me to explain exactly what a UU was, I found myself a bit at a loss. How do you answer that question for someone who has almost no context for understanding American religion? As it is, I've struggled to explain Mormonism to him in terms that might be meaningful to him. The temptation is always to tell too much, or to start with details that -- while significant to you personally -- have no meaning for someone who still has some pretty distorted notions of what Christianity is. And I had to do it in fairly simple English. This is harder than it sounds, folks!
My best stab at it was to ask him if he was familiar with the Christian concept of the Trinity. "No," he said, "What's that?"
"That's this notion that God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit are all Gods, and that they are one God," I explained.
"Oh, yeah, yeah," he said. I wasn't completely sure he had the faintest idea of what the Trinity was, but I didn't doubt that he'd at least heard of it.
"OK," I said. "Unitarians believe there is only one God who is above all things." (That was my best stab at including the notion of transcendence in my explanation of the Unitarian notion of God.)
His eyes lit up, and he nodded. "Oh, OK!" he said. I could tell that, as a believing Muslim, he approved.
"OK," I said, feeling I was getting somewhere. "The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship is also known for being a very liberal church."
"What does this mean, 'liberal'?" he asked.
I was surprised, but not surprised, at having to explain this to an Afghan Muslim 18-year-old! I really, honestly found myself at a loss having to explain this from scratch. Sometimes it's the most basic terms -- the ones we take for granted the most -- that we have the hardest time explaining. This was turning out to be a good exercise for me!
"They believe that free thought and free expression is very important. They also believe that the church should be about striving for social equality. They are against racism. They believe in equality for women and for gays and lesbians. There are lots of gay people who are members of this congregation. And they believe in helping the poor."
"Oh," said Farzad, "They are very good people then."
"Yes," I said, "They are very good people." I was satisfied that this was the take-away point.
I could tell he was anxious to play the FIFA World Cup Soccer video game we gave him for Christmas, so I figured the Unitarianism 101 lesson was over. He'll hopefully learn more when we actually go there on Sunday!
Did I do a good job? I don't know. How would you explain it?