OTTY Honoree 2020 The Rev. Galen Guengerich: Encouraging 'Deeds Not Creeds'

Under the senior minister's leadership, the Unitarian Church of All Souls has expanded into social-justice work

27 Feb 2020 | 10:45

It's a rainy Monday night in February. About 100 hungry men and women are huddled in the courtyard of the Unitarian Church of All Souls, waiting for the church's weekly free dinner service to begin. For many of them, this is the best part of the day.

A tall man in a green apron with "Rev. Galen" embroidered on the front works his way through the line, offering hot chocolate and a smile.

"Thank you, Reverend, and bless you," one man says.

"That's Rev. Galen - he's my friend," says another.

Rev. Galen enjoys it too. "Any problems I think I have in my life just disappear after I've been here for about five minutes," he says.

The rest of the week might find Galen Guengerich, senior minister of All Souls, a 200-year old Unitarian Universalist congregation on the Upper East Side, preparing a Sunday sermon, meeting with prospective members or writing his column on "The Search for Meaning" for psychologytoday.com. Some weeks, he attends programs at the Council on Foreign Relations or meets with the Partnership for Faith in New York City, a group of clergy from a variety of traditions who work to ease tensions among the city's religious and ethnic communities.

Several times a year, Guengerich (pronounced "Ging-rich") travels to Israel where he leads the "Humanities in Conflict Zones" initiative at Tel Aviv University, which puts future Jewish and Palestinian leaders together as they study the region's history and culture in hopes of forging developing new perspectives.

These days, Guengerich is also preparing for the publication of his second book, "The Way of Gratitude: A New Spirituality for Today," in May. At a time when nearly one-third of Americans describe themselves as "spiritual but not religious," the book is a guide forbeing spiritually fulfilled through the practice of gratitude.

His previous book, "God Revised: How Religion Must Evolve in a Scientific Age," addressed the disconnect between traditional religious teaching and the modern secular approach to life based on science and reason.

Both are part of Guengerich's efforts to develop a unique theological identity for Unitarian Universalism, which embraces people of all beliefs, including atheism, and encourages "deeds not creeds."

"Some people think we're the place in the center of the Venn diagram of religions where everything overlaps," he says. "But I think we are ready to move beyond being all things to all people and develop a distinctive identity."

That quest has made Guengerich one of the leading voices in the Unitarian Universalist Association and a popular speaker at its annual convention.

Guengerich took an unusual path to his Manhattan ministry. He was born on a dairy farm in central Delaware into a community of Conservative Mennonites, who are somewhat more mainstream than traditional Amish. ("We had electricity, for example, but no television," he explains.) His father, six uncles and a dozen of his first cousins or their spouses were Mennonite ministers and he was expected to follow suit. But he struggled to fit the Mennonite mold and found Unitarian Universalism while studying for his PhD at the University of Chicago and relished the chance to forge his own spiritual path.

After serving at a small UU congregation in Lincroft, N.J., Guengerich was hired as an Assistant Minister at All Souls in 1993 and was called as Associate Minister two years later. There he met his wife, Dr. Holly Atkinson, a physician, journalist and crusader for human rights who now works at the City University of New York, training young doctors to practice in underserved areas. Guengerich served alongside Rev. Forrest Church at All Souls and succeeded him as senior minister in 2007 after Church was diagnosed with esophageal cancer.

All Souls was already well-known for its social-service programs. Its Monday Night Hospitality and Friday Soup Kitchen, for example, have served meals to 300 to 400 community members every week since the 1980s.

Under Guengerich's ministry, the church has expanded into social-justice work as well, advocating for immigration and LGBTQA rights and against racism, economic injustice and sex trafficking. While those programs are now led by Associate Minister Audette Fulbright, Guengerich occasionally joins picket lines himself, such as the 2012 protest against a Village Voice-owned classified ad site being used to facilitate sex trafficking. "Seeing Galen out there was one of my proudest moments as a Unitarian Universalist," says Betty McCollum, a longtime All Souls member and former trustee. The site later closed under pressure from law enforcement agencies.

"When Galen speaks, people listen," says Peter Rubinstein, Rabbi Emeritus of Central Synagogue, now Director of Jewish Community at the 92nd Street Y and a past co-chair of the Partnership of Faith in New York City. "He's a thinker who uses his intelligence to prompt activities that make this community and this world better."

"I think we are ready to move beyond being all things to all people and develop a distinctive identity."