Long before the Rev. Chris Rothbauer became the lead minister at Auburn Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in August of 2019, the call to ministry spoke to the reverend.
Growing up in the Evangelical denomination, Rothbauer, who had felt the pull to Unitarian Universalist mainly because of the aligning of belief in faith, says that call first came in his adolescence as a want to reach people on a deeper level.
“I decided to become a minister because I wanted to journey with people in the good times and the bad times in their life,” Rothbauer said. “I also wanted to change the world to make it a better place.”
After several technical steps and becoming officially fellowshipped in 2015, by 2019, Auburn Unitarian Universalist was looking for a new settled minister for the fellowship.
“In 2016, the current minister, then, had left after 22 years in the pulpit,” Rothbauer said. “So by 2019, the fellowship was looking for a new minister and I happened to be looking at the same time for a position.
“It turned out that our interests, my interests and the congregation's interests really aligned in a kind of a profound way that I’m still amazed at,” Rothbauer said.
Living in the Louisville area at the time, Rothbauer, alongside their partner, made the thousand-mile trek to the Plains to submit his faith to a week-long candidacy process. By the end, when call backs were made, it was determined by the Fellowship that Rothbauer would be their new minister.
As the reverend stated, the journey as minister of AUUF has been more than interesting. Founded in 1961 in Lee County, the Auburn Unitarian Universalist Fellowship recognizes itself as a liberal religious congregation.
The denomination, Unitarian Universalism, is an offshoot of Protestant Christianity.
“Our members come from a variety of different religious backgrounds, identities and life experiences, united by our desire to build a world where all people are valued for who they are,” Rothbauer said. “Being in the area of Auburn University, a school that is known as being one of the more conservative universities, we have received a surprising amount of support and desire for progressiveness in Auburn.
“However, that's not to say there hasn’t been push-back about our message. There definitely has.”
The fellowship, led by Rothbauer, has been a leader in local social justice issues, organizing climate change actions, in racial justice protests and initiatives, and for the local LGBTQIA+ community.
It was this very belief in these social constructs that led the congregation to make a statement to the Auburn community — a statement that Rothbauer says originally started as a flyer for social media.
“It was actually done before I got here but the social committee wanted to make a statement to the larger community about who we are and what we believe,” Rothbauer said. “It was something that Unitarian Universalist churches around the country had done as well.
“My folks wanted to go a little bit further. One of our employees had created the image so it could go on social media with these six sayings: love is love, black lives matter, climate change is real, all genders are whole, holy and good, no human being is illegal and women have agency over their bodies. My folks thought why don’t we take this image and turn it into a banner.”
Initially, there was fear. But, according to Rothbauer, that fear was overwhelmed by the need to proclaim belief.
“We had fears but we felt it was more important to proclaim our values to the community,” Rothbauer said. “Especially in a community that doesn’t always agree with those values.”
After organizing a march through Toomer’s Corner with the new social banner, the congregation decided that the best place to spread their message would be the front lawn of the sanctuary off Thach Avenue. And so, the banner stood for over two years.
That is, until, one day, it was gone.
It was Jan. 9 when Rothbauer received the call that the sign, meant to be a message to the community, was silenced by a thief.
“We haven’t been in the sanctuary as often as normal due to Covid,” Rothbauer said. “So, one day when I got a call that our sign was missing, I wasn’t surprised but I was still shocked.
“When we examined where it had been taken from, we noticed that the zip ties had been intentionally cut, so we believe someone cut the lines and took our sign.”
However, Rothbauer says there's no ill will for the thief. Instead, Rothbauer simply has one wish — an understanding amongst differing opinions.
“I want them to be able to have what they need to survive and to thrive,” Rothbauer said. “If i knew them, I know I would try to sit down and understand their motivation and hope they try to understand ours as well.”
As for the congregation, according to Rothbauer, their message and support of their message, controversial or not, will continue to stand in the Auburn community.
“We don’t want less for other people,” Rothbauer said. “We want all for everyone.”