Byline: JEFF BRUMLEY
If the Rev. Ron Hersom feels right at home being an outsider, as he says, then he definitely came to the right place.
He's the new settled minister of Jacksonville's only Unitarian Universalist Church - a congregation known for its support of the civil rights movement and for membership consisting of everything from Christians to atheists and pagans.
Oh, and he's openly gay, a fact that makes him particularly empathetic to those who exist on the social and spiritual periphery, especially, he says, in a region dominated by conservative evangelicals.
But Hersom's role as religious underdog didn't begin in mid-August, when he took to the pulpit at Unitarian Universalist Church of Jacksonville. It began decades ago when he was living in Maine and Connecticut.
"In New England, I was a Southern Baptist singer and evangelizer," he said. "That rubs against the culture up there."
Hersom says the Unitarian Universalist penchant for harmonious disagreement with others is especially needed in an age of religious intolerance. The second-career minister (he was a consultant to the military and social activist before his ordination in 2007) said the approach would also be helpful in a city touched by religious strife.
"'We don't have to think alike to love alike' - that's a quote from one of the founding fathers of Unitarianism, and it's true today," he said.
The Times-Union caught up with Hersom, 59, last week. Here's some of what he had to say about his faith and his vision for his congregation and new city.
WHAT IS A UNITARIAN UNIVERSALIST?
The Unitarians and the Universalists merged in 1961. ... [Unitarians] challenged their sense of Christianity, using reason to come to know the sacred, to know God. ... Universalists came from England. They had a sense of universal salvation, which is a sense of heart. ... Our worship seeks to challenge the mind and engage the heart.
THERE'S JUST ONE CHURCH IN JACKSONVILLE?
Yes. There are pockets of UUs around. It's such an expansive area. Many folks live 30-40 miles away. ... When I was in Albuquerque, we started satellite branches where we videoed the sermon on Sunday morning and uploaded it to the Internet. These branches downloaded it and had their own worship service using our sermon. That's something we're thinking about here.
HOW DIVERSE IS THE CONGREGATION?
We welcome agnostics, pagans - whoever you are and wherever you are in your journey.
How do you minister to Buddhists and Christians, pagans, and even atheists and agnostics?
You honor and respect who they are. …