Rev. Elizabeth Mount – who identifies as nonbinary and uses “they/them” pronouns – already seems at home in the space, a modestly-sized church building at 3005 Thomes Ave. The church’s exterior walls are hugged by flowers and an overflowing vegetable garden. Walking among the thriving plants, the minister was eager to give away mint and squash.
Cheyenne’s UU congregation was a product of the church’s “fellowship movement” across the U.S. and parts of Canada, Mount said. The Unitarian Universalist Association’s website says the movement formally took place between 1948 and 1967.
About one-third of all current UU churches spring from this “massive church-planting effort,” Mount said. All began as “very, very small house churches.”
“They tend to just have this really close-knit, energetic lay leadership style, where people take a lot of responsibility for themselves and the continuation of programming,” the minister said.
Mount said they’ve already seen this sense of ownership on display at the Cheyenne church, which has about 120 members.
“This is a really sweet church. They’re just excited to be doing things,” Mount said. The minister said one of the teens in the congregation suggested holding a potluck and movie night this Friday.
“I’m like, ‘Yes, let’s do it,’” Mount said.
Mount described their philosophy for what they’re calling the church’s “Year of YES,” which stands for “Your Experimental Space.” It’s about trying out new programming and ways of doing things, and saying “yes,” unless there’s a good reason to say “no” – for example, a congregant’s recent suggestion to bring back a drum circle held on the Equinox.
Before coming to Cheyenne, Mount served for three years as minister of a UU church in Indiana, Pennsylvania, a small city outside of Pittsburgh.
Mount, who was born in Denver, said Cheyenne “feels a lot closer to home in a lot of ways.” They said they enjoy this part of the country and feel like there’s a lot of room for the UU church to grow here.
“My sense is, there’s a lot of folks who would love to be part of communities, and are looking for ways to connect that don’t necessarily mean that they’re stuck with a whole set of political or religious taboos and prescriptions. We’re looking to make a kinder world, not a controlling one,” the minister said of the UU church. “I think the thing that happens when you stop focusing on one set of scriptures as the only way to find truth is you start turning toward one another, and paying attention to people, and what makes people able to live good, healthy, inspired, contented lives.”
‘Love is the purpose’
Mount said that Unitarians, half of the merged religion, “historically have emphasized the oneness of God, and Jesus as a teacher and exemplar, rather than as a separate being who is also God.”
“They really believed that all of humanity has the potential to find holiness inside of them, and so congregations became a place where people could work to make themselves, each other and the world a better place,” they said.
Universalists “were folks who believed that any god who was all-knowing, all-powerful and all-loving would not condemn people to hell for eternity – that it was impossible for an infinite being to be unable to forgive finite sin. Because people are not as big as God. So you can’t sin big enough that God can’t forgive you.”
The two relatively small religions merged in 1961, with the common belief that “love is the purpose,” and that “what we are trying to do is make this world better, secure in the knowledge that the next world is taken care of,” said the minister.
Both religions have roots in Protestant Christianity, according to the UUA website.
Mount said the UU church has a long history of working for immigrant rights, supporting unhoused populations, and fighting for LGBTQ+ rights and inclusion.
Although they didn’t have exact numbers, the minister said the church surpassed half of its religious professionals being women in the 1990s, and estimates that number now sits between 60% and 70%. The church also has a “significant number” of nonbinary religious leaders, they said.
“When I started seminary, it seemed very possible that I was going to be the first out nonbinary minister ordained in UU-ism. That didn’t happen, and by the time I was ordained, I was not even in the top 10,” Mount said. “We have had rapid growth, which I’ve just found fabulous.”
Transgender Religious Unitarian Universalists Together, or TRUUsT, which is an organization of transgender UU religious professionals, was, for a period of time, “doubling their membership every year,” Mount said.
The minister said they think there’s “a pretty solid range” of political beliefs within the UU church, but “I don’t know that anybody would be comfortable long term in a UU church if they believed any particular kind of people were an abomination or unwanted.”
“You can certainly come with those beliefs, but they may have to be reshaped if you’re going to stay long term and feel good about being here,” Mount said. “I mean, that’s one of the things that we do is love people through their awkward belief moments. And I think we all have places that we can grow.”
Mount entered the UU church through their family. Their mom came from a Jewish background, and their dad “a nominally, but not very practicing, Christian background.” After Mount’s parents realized their child’s interest in religion, the family began exploring different churches.
“My mom said the UU church that we went to was the first one where she didn’t want to go and argue with the minister after church,” Mount said, laughing. “So, they stayed.”
During their middle school and high school years, Mount was “really drawn to paganism and pagan ritual,” going to study groups with a coven of UU pagans in their congregation at the time. For a while, Mount said they’d probably have identified as an atheist, and were encouraged by the congregation to spend time with a humanist group.
“The ability to be part of a church where I can have different theological groundings throughout my life, and figure out the truth in that without ever feeling like I was going to lose my community over it, or even have anybody be particularly upset about it” is something Mount believes is unique to the UU church.
In their free time, Mount enjoys hiking and reading – often science fiction, fantasy and philosophy. They have an orange cat named Miel, which means “honey” in Spanish. Miel is “the child of an Amish barn cat” – one carryover from Mount’s time as a minister in Pennsylvania.
Now, in Cheyenne, Mount is looking forward to building a legacy here through the church’s people.
“Often, I never see the outcomes of what we’ve planted together: programs, sermons, whatever. Here, I hope that I will get to dedicate children in this space, and then watch them go to school and watch them turn into teenagers,” they said. “And there’s no guarantees for that, but the ability to plant one little thing and then see what grows.”
Hannah Black is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s criminal justice reporter. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 307-633-3128. Follow her on Twitter at @hannahcblack.