'Our deeds, not our creeds'

The news from Knoxville last weekend – “Gunman opens fire in church; at least 2 dead” – brought shock, sadness, and maybe a little curiosity.

The victims were Unitarian Universalists, and police said the shooter targeted their church because of its liberal leanings and acceptance of gays and lesbians.

Amid the public's sighs of “not again,” some wondered: What exactly are Unitarian Universalists?

“UU's,” as they often call themselves, claim four U.S. presidents and, since the late 1700s, have played major roles in reform movements. Two martyrs of the civil rights movement were Unitarian Universalists.

And as a church with no creed – and membership rolls that include atheists, Buddhists and fans of Jesus' teachings – it's also been the butt of gentle jokes on “The Simpsons” and Garrison Keillor's “Prairie Home Companion.”

Hear the one about the UU who got in trouble with the Ku Klux Klan? They burned a question mark on his lawn.

Still, for all their history and pop culture appeal, the public profile and numbers for Unitarian Universalists fall well below those for, say, Southern Baptists or Roman Catholics.

“Many people have never heard of us, or they confuse us with Unity (church) or others,” says the Rev. Jay Leach, minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Charlotte. “And there are more Southern Baptists in North Carolina than there are Unitarian Universalists in the whole country.”

Nationally, about 220,000 members attend 1,040 UU churches. Mecklenburg is home to two UU congregations. Leach's church, which celebrated its 60th birthday last year, has 630 members, not counting children. And 20-year-old Piedmont Unitarian Universalist Church, in the University City area, is home to about 120 members.

This week, both local churches held vigils for the Tennessee victims. Members lit candles – the UU symbol is a flame within a chalice – and sang hymns. They also rose, many of them fighting back tears, to share their reflections.

Some worried about the children in Knoxville, who were in the middle of a musical presentation when Jim Adkisson, 58, started shooting. Others saluted the heroism of Greg McKendry, a UU usher who was gunned down as he tried to shield members. Still others stressed the need to not let fear keep them and other UU's from speaking up – about gun control, about refusing to seek vengeance with the death penalty, about keeping their liberal banner high.

“We must continue to courageously stand up for our values,” Joyce Lemmond of Davidson said at the Wednesday night vigil at Piedmont UU Church. “And we must, must, continue to make our voices heard.”