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Religious freedom at the First Unitarian Society of Ithaca

First Unitarian Society of Ithaca located at 306 N. Aurora St.
By Ciara Lucas and Ian Stone 

After being raised a Catholic, Loretta Heimbuch, a member of First Unitarian Society of Ithaca for 33 years, dropped her strict religious background once she got married and started a family of her own.

“My husband and I wanted to choose a religion and we were both from Protestant/Catholic backgrounds,” Heimbuch said. “We weren’t terribly happy with bringing up our child under those doctrines, so we opted for the Unitarian Church and became involved.”

Heimbuch joined the First Unitarian Society of Ithaca in 1982, and has since made her way throughout leadership positions as a Sunday school teacher and an administrative assistant.

“It [First Unitarian] allows folks an option to choose a religion that is not dogma driven,” Heimbuch said. “We encourage each individual to search for their own truth, and their own individuality that may be.”

With around 150 members, the First Unitarian Society of Ithaca is described as a “spiritual home for religious free thinkers.”

First founded in 1865, First Unitarian was established alongside Cornell University in order to introduce a progressive church to the community.

First Unitarian functions as a church open to all people with any belief system under no set doctrine. Instead of having a religious foundation, members of the church are focused mostly on community building.

“Our members define themselves as world citizens, trying to be better members of the Ithaca community,” Program Coordinator Timothy Nelson-Hoy said.

“For myself, it is a place of worship,” Nelson-Hoy said. “It’s a place of community as well, where I can welcome others, and be welcomed.”

The Unitarian church abides by seven principles targeted towards human compassion, spiritual growth, and the search for truth. Members of the organization are able to express their religious freedom in any unique way they choose.

“People can be atheist, or have no religious background at all,” Heimbuch said. “So it’s actually a church of the thinkers I would say.”

Weekly services resemble traditional church gatherings including a sermon, song, and the opportunity to share joys and sorrows. First Unitarian’s new interim minister, Jane Thickstun, prepares sermons by choosing a relevant passage from the Bible, or pieces of writing from famous philosophers like Emerson and Aristotle. In August 2015, Thickstun joined the church and will be serving at First Unitarian for the next two years.

“We embrace a variety of contradictory, sometimes clashing doctrines,” Nelson-Hoy said. “Services are open to anybody in the community, but not in a ‘we want to convert you way either.’”

Aside from the First Unitarian Society being a space for worship and spirituality, church members are also involved in a number of committees aimed to improve the community climate. Groups have been created for recruitment, music, religious education, natural lands, and social justice.

Members dedicate themselves to remaining knowledgeable about local and national social justice issues that the church community seeks to promote.

“Some of the issues we’re involved in are separation between church and state, women’s reproductive freedom, and the right to living wages,” Heimbuch said.

On Saturday Oct. 24, minister Jane Thickstun and church members joined the Black Lives Matter march in downtown Ithaca to rally support for the movement.

“There’s a lot of pressing issues like the Black Lives Matter movement…so we try to keep up with a lot that’s going on,” Heimbuch said.

Nelson-Hoy says The First Unitarian Society of Ithaca serves as a place of mutuality, where Ithaca residents can be united under one roof in the search for truth and understanding.

“I’m not interested in a community that makes me the same person I already am,” Nelson-Hoy said. “First Unitarian is expanding my horizons and helping me grow.”

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