Only a decade ago Unitarian-Universalism (UU) was largely confined to the US and Europe, having little little presence in the Third World. Because of their liberal orientation, the church did not encourage missions to convert people to the faith. Yet today churches have been formed in Uganda, Burundi, Republic of the Congo, Kampala and, most notably, Kenya.
Most of these congregations formed through Africans having contact with Unitarians in the US, but also by increasing Internet use in Africa. ”On a continent where Internet access is growing quickly, people in remote areas are discovering Unitarianism in Google-powered spiritual journeys,” writes Scott Kraft in the official magazine of the Unitarian-Universalist Association, UU World.
One African Unitarian leader, Patrick Magra, researched Unitarianism on the Internet after meeting some American UUs and subsequently left the Seventh Day Adventists, impressed by the Unitarian message of freedom and tolerance. He eventually brought fellow evangelical ministers with him to the UU. He claims to that there are now 68 congregations in the Kisii district among poor tribal groups in western Kenya with several thousand members.
While Magra estimates were impossible to verify, international UU officials verified at least several dozen congregations in this region. Another group of churches have started in the ethnically and socioeconomically diverse areas around Nairobi, with UU leaders stressing involvement in civic life and being open and welcoming to all people. Meanwhile, in central Kenya, UU churches tend to include many middle-class professionals. Most churches in this region do not have buildings but meet in a local coffee shop or in members’ homes.
Magra said of his own conversion to Unitarianism: “I was questioning things. I was surprised that even my own church leaders treated Africans like Children. And I was finding some weaknesses in my Christian beliefs. The idea that God was in each one of us was appealing.” The UU’s support of women’s rights, including opposition to domestic violence and such practices as female circumcision, also appeals to some Africans.
At the same time, the church condones multiple marriages, a practice widespread in tribal areas which most other churches oppose. Yet African Unitarians’ opposition to gay rights and abortion is worlds apart from the social liberalism of their counterparts in the West. In fact, some Unitarian leaders in Kenya joined a protest against abortion in front of Kenya’s Parliament, reports Kraft.
Most Unitarians in the US are hesitant to provide direct assistance to African, believing it would encourage paternalism, and instead press for a partnership model. These growing churches hope their ties with their co-religionists in the West could help sustain them financially.
African UUs believe they offer a unique alternative in the religious marketplace. One UU leader said, “There’s been a silent rebellion toward Christianity here. People have yearned quietly for a liberal religion, an open-minded religion.”
Richard Cimino is the founder and editor of Religion Watch, a newsletter monitoring trends in contemporary religion. Since January 2008, Religion Watch is published by Religioscope Institute. Website: www.religionwatch.com.