Tennessee trend piece hits the mark

It's a simple thing, really.

One of the mantras of GetReligion is that journalists should give people of faith the opportunity to explain — in their own words — what they believe.

In a recent trend piece on Unitarian Universalists, Godbeat pro Bob Smietana of The Tennessean in Nashville did a nice job of that, and I wanted to make note of it.

The top of Smietana's 1,200-word news-feature:

For Nathan De Lee, going to church as a kid was an ordeal.

De Lee, a Unitarian Universalist, grew up in rural Kansas, where members of his faith were few and far between. Attending services meant an overnight trip to Kansas City, where the nearest Unitarian Universalist congregation was.

Today, getting to church is easy for De Lee, an astronomer at Vanderbilt. He’s a regular in the choir on Sundays at First Unitarian Universalist Church in Nashville, a congregation of about 500.

“It’s just a 10-minute drive away,” he said.

De Lee is one of a growing number of local Unitarian Universalists, a faith that’s found growing appeal in recent years. From 2000 to 2010, the denomination grew by 15.8 percent in Middle Tennessee and by 20.8 percent statewide, according to the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies.

While they remain rare in Tennessee — with about 3,000 adherents statewide — Unitarian Universalists believe their open-minded faith has a bright future as an alternative to more exclusive brands of religion.

Here's what I liked about this piece: The Tennessean nailed the statistical angle (with specific numbers attributed to a trusted source) and the expert source component (the newspaper provided relevant analysis by an author who has studied liberal spiritual groups). And, just as I started to grumble to myself, "Yeah, but what do they believe?" Smietana hit that crucial aspect of the story with flair.

To wit:

The Rev. Gail Seavey, the minister at First Unitarian Universalist, said some of her more conservative neighbors aren’t sure what to make of her faith.

Some think that inclusive means anything goes — but that’s not the case, she said.

Instead of a common theology, Unitarian Universalists have a set of common values. They believe in the worth and dignity of every human being. Conscience, rather than a creed, guides their spiritual life. Ethical living matters more than correct theology.

“We are the church of the open mind, the loving heart and the helping hand,” Seavey said. “We always try to pull those things together.”

That belief in the individual choice in faith can been seen in a practice known as water communion. In most churches, communion bread and wine start in a common vessel and then are passed out to church members.

In water communion, everyone starts with a cup of water and pours it in a common bowl.

“We are bunch of individuals finding our own path — but we are doing it as a group,” said De Lee.

Whether or not one shares the beliefs of the Unitarian Universalists, the reporter does his job by allowing the adherents to describe their beliefs in easy-to-understand terms.

It's a simple thing, really.

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