Gil Leclair is the Treasurer of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Lethbridge Alberta. Here he gives a little insight into a small UU community.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was religious upbringing?
Gil Leclair: I was born in a French Canadian village in southern Manitoba where most people were Roman Catholic. I did the regular thing that Roman Catholic boys do. I became an altar boy and went to a Catholic church. The church was a very strong influence on my background.
Certainly, my parents were regular churchgoers, going to church was something you had to do. It was a cardinal sin to miss Sunday mass. As an altar boy, I served my time fairly regular: Sunday mass, weekday masses. Often going to church in the morning before school, and sometimes, there was a church service after school.
Being a small number of altar boys in the village, we took turns. I did my time. By the time I was 15, I started asking questions as many teenagers do. A lot of questions came from a program before your time, by a person named Garner Ted Armstrong.
He would espouse the religious beliefs on the television. He would offer booklets in the mail for free. I asked for one like ‘Does God Exist?’ I took that apart and dissected it. I realized there was no point in believing in God.
I basically became an atheist at 15. By the time I was in my early 20s, I was coming back around and regaining a faith. Jesus with a different narrative. Jesus as a non-divine human. I went with that for quite a few years and studying and learning as much as I could about Christ.
I came around yet again to come to understand that, “Yea, the guy didn’t live, let alone be a man.” Like a lot of Unitarians, my path is a winding one. Many Unitarians can tell that some people are Unitarians just by how they hold religion. Some will say, “Such and such is a Unitarian without knowing it.”
There are qualities of being Unitarian that deal with searching for truth in an open and honest way, exploring many different religions, testing religions under the microscope of science, and that sort of thing.
Jacobsen: What is your current position in the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Lethbridge, Alberta?
LeClair: I joined the Lethbridge Fellowship in 2002. I have always been an active member. I have held every position: secretary, president, vice president, treasurer. Everything except pastor [Laughing] in the congregation.
Now, I am treasurer. I have always been actively involved as well as I guess webmaster and chief of correspondents, Facebook poster.
Jacobsen: How big is the congregation? What activities do you do? How do you give charitably to the community that you’re involved in?
LeClair: We have never really gone over 20. We have always been a small congregation. I am not sure why that is. We tried to figure that out ourselves. We tried to grow beyond a certain number. Churches in Canada across the board are struggling with membership.
The Unitarians are no exception. I think we need to work at branding ourselves differently. A lot of people when they see the word “church” if they are Unitarians at heart will say, “I will avoid church altogether.” That can mean simply seeing the word.
If we include the term and call ourselves a church right away, people would not bother with us. But we cater to people who don’t go to regular church or who don’t want the dogma of the church. It is a kind of a contradiction in a sense.
Our congregation has always been older members. I think if you were to go to different Unitarian churches across the country that you would find the average age is up there. They don’t often attract younger people.
I am not certain as to why that is, especially with the people questioning religion on a steady basis. You think they would come more to Unitarians, but that is not the case. Contributing to society, that goes up and down over the years, and changes and varies.
But because we have an older and smaller membership, we find it hard to create events in which people would be drawn to them. I often think we need one big annual event, but there just isn’t enough people in our membership to make that happen.
Our members being over 60 can become an issue with physical health. The issue of having the energy and drive to do that. We want to have younger people in to do that. We insist on making childcare available to attendees and so on. Without that, we would almost certainly have the door closed to parents. We try to have that for parents, so they can have their kids taken care of during the service.
In order to answer your question, the answer is “not a lot” in terms of community participation.
But there are certain members who are certainly current with political events.
Jacobsen: What do you see as the near-term future – 5, 10 years – of the community, of the organization?
LeClair: There are certain fellowships that have a good membership and growing, bucking the trend sort of thing. If we were to attract 2 or 3 people with enough energy to move this ahead, that would be a game changer, whether we are able to do that…I don’t know.
My prediction or prognostication for the Unitarians in Lethbridge is pretty bleak. I don’t know whether we will survive another 5 or 6 years of low membership and not a lot of young people coming in.
A lot of young people, their religion is more of a New Age brand of religion, whether an interest in crystals or mediumship, or astrology, or whatnot. There is a lot of “New Age stuff,” where it doesn’t require any religious background – any religion per se, but it has all of the qualities of religion, in that, it has no science behind it. It is faith-based. There is a lot of hope in these being real and true. But my personal belief – and this isn’t the Unitarian position, and I don’t know if you could consider anything a formal Unitarian belief because we are quite diverse – is that a lot of the New Age stuff out there is crap.
This isn’t the particular Unitarians in this fellowship, but there are those who believe in UFOs, life after death, and a lot of other New Age ideas that are not commonly expressed at any other church. That is just what I am seeing here with this congregation.
Oddly enough, maybe, if that was to be more expressed and nurtured, then maybe the Unitarians in Lethbridge would grow in numbers – if people wanted to hold those beliefs and dig into that whole part of the New Age movement.
That might be a way and means that this church would survive. My own participation would be called into question. I don’t know if I would want to be a part of that. I guess I will cross that bridge when I get there.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Gil.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen founded In-Sight Publishing and In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal.