There is no steeple on Al Henriksen's church in Rancho Palos Verdes. No cross or Star of David beckons the faithful. No sacred scriptures or hymns are heard when the congregation gathers for Sunday services, or for weddings or funerals. Much is said and sung about the joy of living in the here and now, but little or nothing about hopes for an afterlife.
Still, Henriksen says, the Pacific Unitarian Church is a place of spiritual communion. Its small but influential membership--atheists, agnostics, pantheists, Christians, Jews, Buddhists and virtually anyone else with a set of beliefs, or nonbeliefs--struggle with the same issues of living and dying that occupy people in mainstream churches, he says.
What draws the diverse group together, says Henriksen, who retired last week after 24 years of ministering to his Pacific Unitarian flock, is a common conviction that each member's response to the great questions of the human condition--Who am I? Where do I come from? Where am I going?--must be a personal choice.
"We do not have a hierarchy or a sanctified book that tells us what to think or believe," he said. "Everyone is free to arrive at his or her own beliefs and we try to provide a warm, supportive atmosphere in which this diversity can be expressed and honored."
Early Unitarians denied the doctrine of the Trinity, accepted the moral teachings but rejected the divinity of Jesus and held that God exists in only one person. However, those no longer are issues in the church that has taken on a humanist cast over the years.
In reflecting on nearly a quarter century at Pacific Unitarian, Henriksen noted that while the church has become firmly rooted in the South Bay, its membership has not grown nearly as much as at more conservative churches. Indeed, membership at the church--one of only two Unitarian congregations in the South Bay--has fallen by about 100 from the high point of 350 in the 1960s.
Henriksen, a tall, white-haired man of 65 with laugh wrinkles ingrained in his face, attributes the decline to a general waning of religious interest, although, he acknowledged, a resurgence of fundamentalism in recent years has boosted membership in more traditional churches.
"The new evangelicalism has been very effective, particularly among young people," said Henriksen, a Boston native who earned degrees in history, sociology and divinity at Tufts University and the University of Iowa. Unitarians, he said, tend to take a strong, liberal stand on the social and political issues of the day--world peace, the threat of nuclear war, the rights of minorities, the plight of the poor--"and for bucking the trend, we have to pay a price. Churches that focus on such issues scare away some people," he said. "Most people want to be spiritual on Sundays. They don't want to come to church and hear a discourse on the same issues that they read about all week in the newspapers."
Then, he added, Unitarians are essentially an elitist group. Most of the local church's membership is drawn from professionals and other upper-middle-class residents of the Peninsula and other areas of the South Bay. The rationalist, independent-thinking approach of Unitarians dates back to the early years of Christianity, Henriksen said, and attracted such intellectual luminaries as John Milton, Sir Isaac Newton, John Locke and Ralph Waldo Emerson, but it has never drawn many adherents from the working and poorer classes.
Still, Henriksen said, the South Bay is a "literate and intelligent community" that provides the Unitarian church with a strong core of liberal and influential thinkers. He said Pacific Unitarian has always coexisted peacefully with even the most conservative churches, and he has served as president of the local ministerial association. He sees a brighter future for the free-thinking principles of Unitarianism in the glasnost , or spirit of openness promoted by the Russians, and what he believes is the approaching end of the conservative Reagan era.
He recalled the '60s as a high point for the local church and about 1,000 other Unitarian Universalist congregations throughout the world. "It was an exciting, dynamic time," he said. "A time of change and great openness to new ideas."
He recalled that when he arrived in the South Bay in 1963, after stints at churches in Maine, Iowa and Texas, the big news of the day concerned the attempts of a black family to settle in Torrance.
"We fought for the rights of those people to live wherever they chose," he said, "and now we can all take pride in the fact that the only color that matters any more is the green of the grass."