Marking 50 years of inclusiveness

‘DOING EQUALITY’ | Inclusiveness has been a tenant of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Oak Cliff for all of its 50 years. Church members, from left, Kelley O’Conan, Kimberlyn Crowe, the Rev. Mark Walz, Michael Cipollo and the Rev. Marcia Shannon stand in front of a banner in the UUCOC sanctuary that reads “Marriage is a civil right.” (David Taffet/Dallas Voice)

Oak Cliff Unitarian church has moved beyond tolerance and acceptance and has been doing equality for a long time, leaders say

DAVID TAFFET | Staff Writer
taffet@dallasvoice.com

At the Unitarian Universalist Church of Oak Cliff, the LGBT community isn’t just accepted. LGBT members are an integral part of the church.

The church is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

The Rev. Mark Walz said that his church was the first in the country that was chartered after the merger of the Unitarian and Universalist denominations in 1961. He said that actually 15 churches were admitted that day, six of which are still in existence. But in the records, the Oak Cliff church was first.

Board member Michael Cipolla has been a member of UUCOC for two years. He was raised in the Catholic Church and tried a number of other faiths, including Mormonism. But then he and his partner found UUCOC.

“For the first time, I feel incredibly normal,” he said.

Cipolla is not the first gay board member and he doesn’t know who was. He said the church has just been “doing equality” for a long time.

Walz said that the first time he presided over a same-sex wedding was in 2004. He was almost embarrassed that his first took place so late because the denomination had embraced marriage equality long ago.

“That was the first time I was asked,” he said.

The denomination was one of the first to welcome gays and lesbians and one of the earliest to openly welcome LGBT clergy.

Walz said he has mixed feelings about denominations that finally get it and open their ordination to everyone. He said he’s glad that they’re finally doing the right thing, but what’s different now than 15 minutes ago?

Like Cipollo, congregation president Kimberlyn Crowe was also not raised Unitarian but has been a member for about 10 years. She said that at UUCOC she can put her values in action.

“I can only be enriched by supporting someone else’s journey,” she said.

Member Kelley O’Conan said, “I was afraid to come to this church because I didn’t think I would fit in.”

The group laughed at that idea but agreed that she was different from most of the church’s members — she’s fairly conservative.

Crowe said one issue that the congregation is dealing with now is immigration. O’Conan said her views on immigration might not be the same as many other members. But at UUCOC, differences are not just tolerated, they’re embraced.

Walz said that it was so freeing to be in a congregation where he can let everything go. He called all the prejudice that so many people live with a burden.

Because the Unitarian Church is liberal in a conservative area, Walz said he gets hate calls. One recent caller asked if he required every member to be baptized. He said that while most were, it wasn’t a requirement to come to his church.

“You’re going to burn in hell,” the caller told him.

Walz was amused that someone who probably considered himself religious would call another church with that message.

The Rev. Marcia Shannon was ordained a Methodist minister and is the church’s director of religious education.

“It’s freeing not to have to worry about prejudice of people around you,” she said.

She is surprised that more people do not know more about the denomination.

Universalist churches across the South were integral parts of the Underground Railroad and Unitarian churches in New England and across the north worked to abolish slavery.

Walz said that a misunderstanding of history leads fundamentalists to claim that the country was based on their right-wing Christian values. At least five presidents were UUs including John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. More signers of the Declaration of Independence were associated with their faith and other founders like Paul Revere and Ben Franklin were also Unitarians.

But part of the Universalist belief was that God doesn’t play favorites.

Each of the members of the Oak Cliff church just wanted others to know how welcoming their church is — even if you’re conservative.

O’Conan said, “And it’s the only church I’ve ever been in where you can bring your dog into the sanctuary.”

—  John Wright