The Rev. Robin Tanner, the new leader of Piedmont Unitarian Universalist Church, defies the stereotype of the standard minister. She's young (26), grew up learning as much about Buddha as Jesus — and she's openly gay.
And her path to preaching wasn't conventional, either.
"I was working in a trauma center with children who had experienced abuse or trauma early on in life, and working with these kids, with the counseling model we had, they were doing well in what we would call 'wellness outcomes.' They were staying in school, making friends and getting better grades in all the things that we wanted," said Tanner, who hails from upstate New York. "At the end of the program though, a lot of these kids would ask me: 'Why did this happen to me?' Kind of the question: 'Why do bad things happen to good people?'"
Tanner decided that in order to do the kind of work that would answer those questions, she had to go back to the drawing board regarding her career. She felt called to do spiritual healing. "I intended to be a clinical psychologist but realized I wanted to step into a spiritual role, not just therapeutic," she said. "I just had some great folks in my life that led me to a Unitarian Universalist church, which I hadn't heard of before."
The Unitarian Universalist's doctrine has its roots in 18th century liberal Christianity, where members of the Unitarian Church and the Universalist Church worked to abolish slavery. In 1961 the two churches merged and expanded their focus to include an appreciation of other religious traditions and were significantly influenced by humanist thinking. Learning about the faith, Tanner said she realized that religion was much bigger than the box she'd placed it in.
According to a 2009 Harvard University study, in the past two decades, many young people began to view organized religion as a source of "intolerance and rigidity and doctrinaire political views," and therefore stopped going to church. Tanner said for people who feel that way, there has to be a reframing of what religion means and that's what she plans to do at PUUC.
"Unfortunately [what religion and faith means] has been taken over and narrowly defined by some people," she said. "But it is so much more than that and so much bigger than we think of the church being."
When looking for a church home, Tanner said she was in search of a congregation that wanted to make a change in the community and the world. She said she found that at PUUC, which has a membership of 140 people. As the church was her choice, she was also the choice of the church — as the reverend was unanimously approved by the congregation.
"I found, not only the church, but this entire community to be incredibly welcoming. You have some of the small town dynamics of people actually saying 'hello' to you, which is radical coming from the Northeast, and you have the advantages of a city where you have concerts that you can go to and attractions that you can go and see."
But Tanner also acknowledges challenges in the Queen City when it comes to accepting the gay and lesbian community. "Whenever we come out as GLBT persons and whenever we come out as persons of faith, too, we risk resistance and people who are, unfortunately, very hate-filled and will levy those fear politics against you. But you also risk reaching people who didn't realize there's a church that welcomes and affirms them and for that reason, I think it's worth the risk."
She said that as the church does work in the community, she hopes for the best and walks forward with trust in the world, but she isn't naïve enough to think that there are not people out there who violently disagree.
"I would hope that we can find a way forward in the midst of our differences. That's what we try to do every Sunday in our sanctuary. We have folks of different beliefs sitting right beside each other," Tanner said. "The challenge really is: 'How do you live into a relationship when you have great differences?' I believe it's possible to move forward together. We can move beyond tolerance into acceptance. We have to begin to realize, by developing relationships, that my sexual orientation isn't a threat to your gender identity or your sexual orientation. My faith is not a threat to your faith. There are those who disagree. Will there be difficult times in outreach? Of course. But it is absolutely worth the risk."
For more information about Tanner and Piedmont Unitarian Universalist Church (9704 Mallard Creek Road), visit www.puuc.org.