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Hope in an unmarked envelope

A young woman wanted to know about Unitarian Universalism, but added: 'Please send the pamphlets in a plain, unmarked envelope.'
By Stefan M. Jonasson
May/June 2005 5.1.05

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Before the days of e-mail lists sponsored by the Unitarian Universalist Association, I subscribed to the Unitarian Universalist forum offered by the commercial e-mail service I then used. One day came a message asking what Unitarian Universalism was all about, posted by someone who had come across a reference to us in the Encyclopedia Britannica.

I sent an e-mail indicating that I was a member of the staff of the UUA and offering to send her literature. After three weeks, I had given up hope that I would hear from her when a message appeared in my inbox. Yes, she would like to receive the literature. Her address was a post office box in a small town in Georgia. In the last line she wrote, “Please send the pamphlets in a plain, unmarked envelope.”

It seemed a strange request but I wasn't inclined to ask questions. I was guest preaching in North Dakota the following Sunday, and I decided to mail the envelope from there, rather than from my home in Canada, since privacy seemed to be a concern. After all, who would find anything suspicious about a postmark from North Dakota? I felt like I was sending contraband through the mail.

Several more weeks passed before I received a message thanking me for the literature. Over the next few months, my correspondent revealed her story. She was a high school senior in rural Georgia who had been having doubts about her faith, something that was next to impossible to talk about in a small town where the Southern Baptist church was the most liberal in the vicinity. Sadly, she had become convinced that there was something wrong with her, and her thoughts had even turned to suicide. When her history teacher gave her an assignment on the United Nations—-specifically, to write about its “shortcomings”—-she stumbled upon the encyclopedia entry about Unitarian Universalism. Maybe, she thought, maybe her thoughts weren't crazy after all!

When she confided to her older cousin, who lived in a nearby city and used a computer, they decided to check out Unitarian Universalism online. That's how she came to post her question and also why there was always a three- or four-week gap between the messages I received from her.

She went on to college and then graduate school, the first member of her family to do so, and I continued to hear from her from time to time. Then the messages stopped, but not before she had told me that Unitarian Universalism had saved her life, both figuratively and literally. More than ever before or since, I realized then just how much our liberal faith can make a positive difference in people's lives.

Since then, whenever I've been asked to talk about why the growth and extension of Unitarian Universalism is so important, I almost inevitably tell the story of this young woman from Georgia. Many times, people have come up to me afterward and exclaimed, “That's my story!” or “I'm like that girl from Georgia!” So I was quite unprepared when, after I had related this story in a congregation I was visiting, some ten or twelve years after mailing that unmarked package from North Dakota, a woman approached me, her young daughter in tow. She had waited for the cluster of people surrounding me to depart and, with tears streaming down her cheeks, whispered, “I'm your correspondent from Georgia.” It took a moment for me to realize that she wasn't speaking figuratively. She was that high school senior from so many years before, now a bright and beautiful woman with a family of her own and a church that is at the center of her life.

Whenever I wonder whether all our efforts to create liberal religious communities really matter, I think of this young woman who entered my life quite accidentally, and I find myself compelled to acknowledge that our ministry of kindness and hope really does offer salvation to people in need of it. We may avoid such words all we like but it doesn't change the fact of the matter: Unitarian Universalism offers salvation to longing, sometimes broken spirits who stumble along in this fragmented world of ours. It saved a young woman in Georgia. It's saved me. And I'm willing to bet that it's saved you, too.

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