Reprinted by permission of the Dallas Morning News.

A little more than a year ago, Pleasant Valley Unitarian Universalist Church made some dramatic changes in its Sunday service. Members started lighting candles for the elements: earth, air, fire and water. Sermons became more focused on natural themes, such as gardening. And worship leaders started using the words God and Goddess.

It was time, the Garland, Texas, church had decided, to "go pagan," to become the first avowed "earth-centered" Unitarian Universalist congregation in Texas, and the third in the country.

That's not such a stretch for the 217,000-member Unitarian Universalist denomination, which has roots in many religions and encourages members to develop their own concept of a creator. The denomination is known for its liberal approach to theology, and many members do not believe in the trinity or the divinity of Jesus.

"In our church, the majority were earth-centered, so I chose to emphasize that," said David Minesinger. "The church had been struggling with that question for several years."

Pleasant Valley's literature reads this way: "We respect the Earth we live on and seek to live in harmony with all who share it. We believe that there is no 'one true way' to spiritual enlightenment and invite all gods to share their wisdom with us. We invite the elements (earth/air/fire/water) to join us as we celebrate the turning of the year."

A few people left the 55-member church because of the proclamation, but new ones filled their places, Minesinger said.

John Snyder is still formally a member of Pleasant Valley, but he began attending Community Unitarian Universalist Church in Plano after the Garland church went pagan.

"I have no trouble with the concept; I love the earth," said Snyder, who lives in Garland. "But when they get more ritualistic and dismiss the elements, I feel a little uncomfortable," he said, referring to a ritual in which members light oil lamps for each element in the beginning of the service and snuff them out--or "dismiss" them--at the end.

The change didn't cause any commotion in the Unitarian Universalist community because the denomination allows each of its 1,050 congregations to choose its focus, said John Hurley, information director for the Boston-based association. The denomination's other two "earth-centered" churches are in Kansas City and Chicago. Other Unitarian Universalist churches also have pagan members, he said.

"We have become a home for people who otherwise wouldn't have a place to meet," Mr. Minesinger said.

Although the rise of paganism hasn't fazed the Unitarian Universalist denomination, encouraging interest in the supernatural, goddess worship, witchcraft, or magic represents a drastic step for a church, said Dr. J. Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara, Calif.

"It's certainly unique," Melton said. "The Unitarian denomination has provided them a legitimacy."

Few churches accepted paganism when the movement began growing in the 1970s, he said.

"But that's beginning to happen," Melton said. "With the long-term presence, the congregation trusts them."

Although Pleasant Valley members have different beliefs, they share the denomination's principles of individual worth and freedom of religious expression.

Interest in paganism grew in the late '60s with the feminist and environmental movements, Hurley said.

"You can see traces of both of those in earth-centered spirituality," Hurley said. "It grew, and some wanted to form separate congregations."

Pleasant Valley members worship in a living-room size chapel in a former real estate office in downtown Garland. They've spent months renovating the building, which they bought in April.

Members come from throughout the Dallas-Fort Worth area. The church attracts people of various races who range in age from toddlers to senior citizens. The mood and dress code is casual, with members often wearing jeans and tennis shoes.

The church has no minister, so services are led by members.

At one service, a member read an essay that applied principles of gardening to everyday life. On another day, the congregation sang "Mother Spirit, Father Spirit," a hymn from "Singing the Living Tradition" from the Unitarian Universalist Association. The book also features readings by Alice Walker, Mother Teresa, and Ralph Waldo Emerson--a Unitarian Universalist.

Shannon Ader, the church's vice president, became a pagan several years ago, following the path of her mother, Janice, who is also a church member.

"I said, 'Mom, that's pretty much what I've always thought,'" Shannon Ader, 28, said. "If you don't take care of the earth, it won't take care of you."

Shannon Ader said she used to be defensive about her religion.

"I've learned you don't have to be in competition--they're so much alike," Ader said, comparing various religions' focus on principles such as community and truth. "I just don't understand contention between religions anymore."

But as pagans, Pleasant Valley members know conflict first-hand. Some don't tell coworkers about their beliefs for fear they will lose their jobs.

"Pagans have a problem of being persecuted," said longtime member Linda Loden. "This is a comfort zone."

In addition to Sunday services, the church also provides social groups, a men's group, and a monthly full moon circle to honor the turning of the wheel of time.

Pleasant Valley has reason to celebrate, but the last year hasn't been easy, members said.

"This church made some very tough decisions that caused some members not to want to be with us any longer," said Janice Ader, getting emotional during a service to mark the church's one-year anniversary. "But we're very proud of what we've done in the last year."

At the close of the service, she blew out the oil lamp representing each element.

"Thank you for your presence. Go in peace," she said.

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