Credit: Amanda Poppei.

An Interview with Amanda Poppei

Minister Amanda Poppei is a Senior Leader and Unitarian Universalist Minister at the Washington Ethical Society (Ethical Culture and Unitarian Universalist). She grew up in upstate New York. Here is her story.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Let’s delve into your own family background. What were your family’s geography, culture, language, and religious/irreligious beliefs, principles and values?

I was raised in upstate New York, in a white family grounded in academia–my mother was a college professor, and my father had been studying for his PhD in Biology before leaving to make furniture. He worked out of a barn in our backyard, crafting beautiful pieces–really an artist. In my earliest years I didn’t attend any congregation, but in 4th grade I went on a sleepover to a friend’s house and attended church with her the next day. I came home and promptly announced that I wanted to go to that church! My mother was a little worried–we were a humanist family–but quickly relieved to discover it was Unitarian Universalist congregation. She had actually been raised UU, just hadn’t gotten around to taking me to Sunday School. I attended religiously (ha!) through middle and high school, participating in their Coming of Age program in 8th grade. It was during that year that I first articulated a desire to become clergy myself one day.

My family raised me with a strong sense of social justice; my mother in particular followed in her own mother’s footsteps, building her life around making the world a better place. I knew I was raised with a lot of privilege (white, formally educated) and that part of the rent I needed to pay in the world was making sure that others had similar opportunities. My mother took me to Washington, DC for my first national march when I was in 3rd grade, supporting the Equal Rights Amendment. For his part, my father instilled a curiosity about how the world works, from the planets to the atoms, and a love of the outdoors. Both my parents raised me to challenge racism, misogyny, and homophobia. I feel incredibly lucky to have been raised with those values and to have the opportunity now to live them out in my work and home life.

You have many qualifications. Some selected ones include senior leader of the Washington Ethical Society since 2008, a Masters of Divinity from Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, District of Columbia and a Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies from Yale University. 

Most citizens in the US probably don’t know what ethical culture and Unitarian Universalists are. So what might be a good educational campaign for ethical culture adherents and Unitarian Universalists to pursue in the US?

I’m sure that’s true! Ethical Culture is a very small movement–just 24 congregations across the country–and although Unitarian Universalism is much larger–over 1,000 congregations–that’s still small in the overall American religious landscape. In many ways, I think the justice work we do is the best advertisement for both movements. We have always had an influence in the world that’s larger than our size, as we have fought for equal rights, fairness, kindness, and mercy. UUs and Ethical Culturists show up at rallies, marches, organising meetings, and town halls all across the country. Although we may have different beliefs (Unitarian Universalist is a pluralistic religious movement, and Ethical Culture welcomes people of all beliefs), we share a strong commitment to justice and a belief that every single person is worthy.

I think we also have a special appeal to families. More and more parents are choosing to raise their children outside of traditional religion–but they are still seeking a grounding in values, and a community to support their family. Both UU congregations and Ethical Societies offer that. Our education for children is based on encouraging questions and exploration, and creating a safe and nurturing space for children to spread their wings. We incorporate study of world religions, comprehensive sexuality education, and ethics education into almost every age group. And we mark the passages of the year, through celebrations like Winter Festival and Spring Festival, and the passages of life, through baby naming, weddings, and memorial services.

When did ministerial/chaplaincy/pastoral work become a ‘calling’ for you?

8th grade! I was on a Coming of Age trip to Boston with my Unitarian Universalist congregation, and had been visiting some of the sites around the city where famous Unitarians and Universalists had lived and wrote and worked. We went to visit the headquarters of the Unitarian Universalist Association, and as I stood in the bookstore and looked around at the titles I suddenly thought: I want to spend my life thinking about these things!

As time went on, I continued to think about ministry. In high school, I would have said that congregations seemed like the best way to organise people to do good in the world (and I still think that). In college, I was a Religious Studies major and began to learn more about the role of religion in American life. And then of course in seminary–which I entered a few years after graduating college–I deepened my understanding of the values, theology, and philosophy that ground my life’s work.

What is the best argument for ethical culture or for Unitarian Universalism that you have ever come across?

We are not alone in the world–we are connected to each other. We need to practice what it means to be human together, to be in relationship as a way of supporting our own growth and as a way of working for justice in the world. Both Unitarian Universalism and Ethical Culture remind us of these core truths, and give us a place to practice, learn, and transform.

What seems like the main reason for individuals becoming a member of the ethical culture and Unitarian Universalist community? For example, arguments from logic and philosophy, evidence from mainstream science, or experience within traditional religious structures?

I think it’s a bit of all of those things. Most people who come to the Washington Ethical Society–the congregation I serve–have done a lot of thinking about what they believe. Whether they were raised in a traditional religion or raised secular, they’ve been thoughtful about their beliefs and worldview. Almost all of them share an essentially naturalistic worldview, and a sense that they want to be grounded in the here-and-now. What they’re looking for when they come to us is a community in which they can live out those values, where they can have the benefits of a congregation but without dogma that no longer works for them. They are looking for a place to support their family, or to care for them if they have a crisis, or just to provide a set aside time each week to be thoughtful and introspective. They often choose our community because they like our commitment to justice work. Ultimately, I think they are searching for a sense of belonging and a chance to make a difference in the world.

What tasks and responsibilities come with the senior leadership position?

I am responsible for our Sunday morning gatherings–I speak 2-3 times a month, and support guest speakers for the other Sundays. I provide pastoral care, visiting people in the hospital and offering counselling as needed (and I also work with a great group of members who do that work too). I serve as head of staff, and am responsible for managing the day to day operations of the congregation, everything from creating and tracking the budget to overseeing programming–although in all of that work I collaborate with a wonderful staff. And I work with the Board and the entire membership on setting vision and strategy for the congregation. Finally, I work out in the world, outside the walls of the congregation, fighting for what is right. That’s very often done in coalition, with interfaith groups or with secular groups.

What are some of the demographics of the Washington Ethical Society? (Age, sex, political affiliation, and so on)

We are a majority white, yet generationally diverse membership. We have slightly more women than men. Most WES members are progressive, ranging from pretty liberal to quite radical! We have Millennials, Gen X-ers, Boomers, and Silent Generation, plus of course children and teens who are the newest generational cohort. The number of people of colour in our community is small but growing. Most (but not all) WES members have a college degree, and many have a Masters or other advanced degree. They work in many different fields, but the helping professions (teaching, social work, etc) and public service and nonprofit work are highly represented.

What is pastoral care within an ethical culture/Unitarian Universalist framework?

It looks pretty similar to in any community. I work with a team of lay Pastoral Care Associates, members who are specially trained to offer care in times of crisis. We support members in practical ways–like bringing meals and giving rides to the doctor–and we also just visit with people and try to be present to them when they are struggling. I offer pastoral counselling as well, to people who are struggling with hard choices or just having a hard time in life.

How does it differ from traditional definitions, theory and practice? Are there major differences?

Of course we don’t believe that the things that happen to people are part of God’s plan, so there’s a difference perhaps in the overall conceptual framework. But the practice of caring for people is really the same no matter what your ideas behind it are–it’s about showing up for people when times are hard and celebrating with them when times are good.

You earned the National Capital Area Big Sister (2007) award from Hermanos y Hermanas Mayores/Big Brothers Big Sisters and the Anti-Racism Sermon Award (2006) from the Joseph Priestly District of the Unitarian Universalist Association for The Tip of the Iceberg. What was the background for the awards? What was the content and purpose of The Tip of the Iceberg?

That was a long time ago! I was talking about the differences between overt racism–like using racist slurs–and systemic racism, which is sometimes harder to spot but still incredibly damaging to individuals and to society as a whole.

How fulfilling is this recognition?

It was great to be recognised, especially at that time when I was still a seminarian, still training for the ministry.

What extra responsibility to the public comes with the recognition?

None. But certainly work on issues of racism continues to be a vital part of my work.

What is the importance of connecting youths to an ethical culture and Unitarian Universalist base for the sense of shared community?

Adolescence is a time of incredible transition. Having the support of a community bigger than one’s family can be so important–knowing adults beside your parents who care about you and want to see you thrive. Our LGBTQ teens know that they are supported and welcome in this community, as well. And in general our teens get to connect with others who support their values, who want to make a difference in the world. I am always blown away by their thoughtfulness and passion; we learn a great deal from them.

What do you consider the main threat to ethical culture and Unitarian Universalism in America? What have been perennial threats to them?

I’m not sure I think in terms of threats in this way. Injustice and bigotry are threats to all people, and we work against that. Not sure what this question might mean.

What are the common problems of community found at Washington Ethical Society?

Like any community, we have conflict–that comes from people being in relationship with each other! We are a diverse community, with many backgrounds and beliefs represented, which means we don’t always like the same music or styles of speaking. But that also is part of the richness in our community, and most folks really love the opportunity to learn from each other.

How can people become involved with or donate to the American Ethical Union or the Washington Ethical Society?

They can check out our website at www.ethicalsociety.org and click on the “give” button on the top right to donate…or explore the rest of our website to learn about our activities. To find other Ethical Societies, check out http://aeu.org/who-we-are/member-societies/ and to find other Unitarian Universalist congregations, try http://www.uua.org/directory/congregations.

Thank you for your time, Minister Poppei.

About Scott Jacobsen

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Scott is the founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing

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