Fresno’s new Unitarian Universalist minister plans ‘open-minded, open-hearted’ church

Rev. Tim Kutzmark, formally installed Feb. 27 as minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Fresno, defines religion as “more than words spoken in a sanctuary on Sunday morning. Religion is a call to bring wholeness to our broken world.”
Rev. Tim Kutzmark, formally installed Feb. 27 as minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Fresno, defines religion as “more than words spoken in a sanctuary on Sunday morning. Religion is a call to bring wholeness to our broken world.” Special to The Bee

The Rev. Tim Kutzmark says he’s excited to join the Unitarian Universalist Church of Fresno in being a “progressive religious voice” in the central San Joaquin Valley as the church’s new minister.

He was selected after a yearlong national search and was formally installed during a special service Feb. 27 attended by more than 350 people. Kutzmark replaces the Rev. Bryan Jessup, who led the Fresno church for past 15 years. Jessup left to do part-time ministry in Northern California and plans to retire soon.

Kutzmark served as a Unitarian Universalist minister in Massachusetts for the past 10 years and, previously, in Richmond, Va.

He talks with The Bee about his new role:

Q: Why did you decide to leave your former post to become a minister in Fresno?

A: After 10 years in liberal Massachusetts, I felt a yearning to again partner with a congregation in a more conservative area of the country that was looking to grow in size, especially with young families, and spiritual depth, and do the hard but necessary social justice work that is needed to transform systems of inequality that strip people of their dignity and leave them marginalized and devalued. The Unitarian Universalist Church of Fresno was exactly that congregation.

Q: What are the core beliefs of Unitarian Universalists?

A: Unitarian Universalists have a deep belief that all people deserve love. Unitarian Universalists believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person. We believe in “original goodness” (not original sin), and that our human goodness can be intentionally nurtured and grown, which is one of the reasons we belong to a church community, a place and a people that help recall us to our best selves again. We call no one a sinner, but we know how hard is the struggle to live a life that is good and true.

Unitarian Universalists believe that all people are connected to each other and to all life on this planet. We are interdependent and part of a miraculous web of all existence. This means we have a responsibility to treat all living things, human and nonhuman, with respect. And we need to be mindful of the Earth and the fragile ecosystems that sustain all life.

Unitarian Universalists believe in reason, which is our ability to question, discover and discern. We don’t teach one “Truth,” with a capital T, but champion the individual search for truth and meaning that arises from each human heart and mind. We celebrate science and all it reveals about life. We believe salvation isn’t something that happens in the next life, but something we create here and now by our actions to better the world.

We believe in the power of human hands joined together for justice. Some Unitarian Universalists believe in a God or higher power, and some do not. Some identify themselves as Christian, while most do not. Some are agnostic, atheist or humanist. Others find inspiration in such traditions as pagan/Earth-centered, women’s spirituality, Buddhism or Judaism. All these teachings are welcome and celebrated in Unitarian Universalism. What we ultimately share is common desire to stand on the side of love and help heal our world. We are committed to living more lovingly and gently upon our Earth home so that future generations may know wonder, beauty and life.

Q: How do you view your role as minister?

A: My role as a minister is to shine a flashlight on the path and then get out of the way as the congregation walks forward, turning talk into action. My role is to remind the congregation of who we are as a people of faith, to challenge them to live out this identity, and to remind them that they are good and that they are loved.

Q: What is your vision for the future of your church?

A: I envision the Unitarian Universalist Church of Fresno as being known as the place where young families bring their kids to experience a religion that is open-minded and open-hearted. I envision us being known as a church that dares to wrestle with the complex issue of race in America, and stands proudly and loudly with the Black Lives Matter movement, which is the new face of the civil rights movement.

I see us being known as the place to go if you want to explore your personal spiritual beliefs with classes and workshops, such as our current series of classes on “The Power of Forgiveness.” I envision people knowing that each Sunday there will be a service that will touch their hearts and stimulate their minds through inspiring preaching, exciting music and a palpable sense of community.

I see us becoming more multicultural as we create worship and learning experiences that reflect the diversity of Fresno. I would love to see us begin a liberal campus ministry for students at Fresno State. I see our future as an expansion and amplification of what is already present in the hearts and minds of this church’s fantastic and dedicated members.

Q: You’ve said people of faith should be involved in transforming injustice and inequality. What kind of social justice work have you done, and why is this important to you?

A: I’ve been active in campaigns for a living wage, death with dignity, Black Lives Matter, marriage equality, transgender rights, environmental sustainability and gun control, among others. Religion, for me, is more than words spoken in a sanctuary on Sunday morning. Religion is a call to bring wholeness to our broken world.

As a Unitarian Universalist, I inherit a long line of religious activists. Unitarians John Adams and Abigail Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson shaped the Constitution of the United States. Unitarians Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton led the movement to extend full citizenship to women, securing the right to vote. Universalists were the first denomination in the nation to condemn slavery, in the 1700s. We were the first denomination in the nation to ordain women to the ministry, in the 1800s.

Members of our faith were pioneers in the kindergarten movement, prison reform and the compassionate care of the mentally ill. The Red Cross grew out of Unitarian work during the Civil War, as did the modern nursing movement pioneered by Unitarian Florence Nightingale. Our Unitarian Service Committee rescued Jews from the Nazis during World War II. We sent more ministers to Selma to march with Dr. Martin Luther King than any other denomination in the country. Our faith tradition was the first to ordain openly gay, lesbian and transgender ministers, and is now an active voice in advocating for immigration reform and environmental sustainability.

Q: You’ve spent a lot of time overseas in areas fraught with conflict – Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Palestine, Uganda and Rwanda. What motivated you to go to these places?

A: My international travels have expanded the boundaries of my heart. What were once headlines have become human beings. When a car bomb explodes in Baghdad, I wonder if one of the bright-faced elementary school kids I had met was killed. When someone denounces the Iranians as haters of America, I know better because I have sat in Iranian homes and shared meals and conversations and know them as human beings, not as tools in a media and political war.

I bring this perspective back to the congregation, and the boundaries of their hearts also expand and they become connected to places and people that were once remote and defined by others’ agendas.

Carmen George: 559-441-6386, @CarmenGeorge