Center City: The First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia Welcomes All

The church has various different pamphlets and flyers available that cater to minority groups.
The First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia was founded on June12, 1796 and has since become a hub of community activity.
The First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia was founded on June12, 1796 and has since become a hub of community activity

The First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia has become more than just a church in the community. Acting as a regional community center, it hosts a variety of events catering to the diverse people of the community. These events range from yoga classes, stress management workshops and various support groups, to musical and other stage performances.

“I’ve seen concerts and plays here,” said Matteo LeCompte, 37, a local actor in Center City Philadelphia. “I’m hoping to maybe perform something I’m writing here.”

Since its establishment on June 12, 1796, the church, located at 2125 Chestnut Street in Center City, has been a haven for minority groups that are not widely accepted by other religious institutions. In 2006, they officially became a “Welcoming Congregation” that is inclusive toward the LGBTQIA community.

“I know this church is so open to musicians and artists,” said LeCompte. “I think it’s only natural that they’re going to be open to different sexual preferences.”

Stephanie Cawley, the Communications Director and Religious Education Coordinator at the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia.
Stephanie Cawley

The Welcoming Congregation Program that the church adopted is a program that helps Unitarian Universalist congregations take steps to becoming more welcoming and inclusive of people with marginalized sexual orientations and gender identities. This program was formed in 1990 from an understanding that prejudices and ignorance about these groups resulted in their exclusion from the congregation.

“I think there shouldn’t be a question about gay or lesbian,” said Matt Shevlin, owner of Shevlin’s Lawn Care in Drexel Hill. He does not go to church but believes in a higher power and religious freedom without prejudice. “Why wouldn’t they be open is my question? Doesn’t make any sense to me. Let people be people.”

An underlying principle for a Unitarian Universalist congregation is being inclusive, while also providing a place for the search of religious truth and helping people explore their own personal faiths.

The church’s current senior minister, Reverend Nathan C. Walker, became the first openly gay minister in the church’s history in 2007, presenting an example of the accepting atmosphere that the church provides to the community.

“We are inclusive of their community [the LGBTQIA community] and we do have a strong showing from that community within our congregation,” said Stephanie Cawley, the communications director and religious education coordinator at the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia. “Unitarian Universalism has pretty much always been inclusive of all people. It’s a part of the core values of Unitarian Universalism to honor the inherent dignity of each person so that is what’s built in to the theology of the church.”

Text and Images by Susan Dong

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