Unitarians at the Newcastle Community Green Festival 2014, by Louise Reeve
“It seems like only yesterday that the Newcastle and Stockton Unitarian churches were taking part in the marketing project led by Marketwise Research, to look at how we could better promote Unitarianism in the North East. However, it was actually back in January; and as June appeared, some of us wondered where the time had gone.
One popular idea from the Marketwise strategy was to have a stall at the Newcastle Community Green Festival, where we might encounter like-minded individuals who would be interested in hearing about our message. Now in its 19th year, the Newcastle Community Green Festival happens each June in Leazes Park in Newcastle upon Tyne, and exists to “spread a message of environmental protection and social justice”. It is run entirely by volunteers, and back in March, we applied for an Information Stall.
Three months and much frantic planning later (I think in the week before the festival we broke all records for the number of emails sent about designing banners and badges!), we rolled up on Saturday 7th June at Leazes Park beneath an ominous sky, and set out our stall of posters, leaflets, free cake, badges, and Unitarians happy to talk about our faith.
Three hours later, the heavens opened, and from then the Saturday became something of a mud bath. Did it matter? No. We were having a great time. Based in the big blue Information Tent, we encountered many people, from the genuinely curious, to those who had dashed in to avoid the weather, to people who were happy to stop, pick up a free badge and some cake, and have a chat about Unitarianism into the bargain. The most commonly asked questions were “What’s Unitarianism? I’ve never heard of it” and “What are your core beliefs?” Most people were open-minded and happy to hear about it, even if one or two decided it wasn’t for them.
As if to make up for the preceding day, Sunday was warm and sunny, although the ground was reaching Glastonbury Festival levels of mud! Everyone in the tent helped put straw down to make the conditions underfoot a bit easier. Meeting the other stall volunteers was a very enjoyable part of the festival. We encountered people ranging from Sea Shepherd to the North East Humanists and the Green Party, several of whom expressed an interest in Unitarianism (or at least in hiring the church’s rooms). We tweaked our stall a little to make it less cluttered, and more clearly about Unitarianism; each time we run our stall, we learn a little more about how to do it better.
The banners were a huge success; Elizabeth and Fiona should take a bow for organising them! Seeing the Newcastle Unitarian banner proudly standing alongside the other organisations’ flags at the tent entrance was a very happy moment. Many thanks are also due to Helen, Maurice, Joan, Jamie, Elizabeth, Fiona, and Brian for their sterling work staffing the stall and engaging with everyone who stopped at the stall. All in all, it was a success and a very enjoyable way to spend a weekend.
Newcastle Unitarians at The Green Festival, Newcastle, 2014 by Jamie
Can I firstly say what a great job Louise Reeve, and her willing band of helpers, did in putting together our stand at the Green Festival? Speaking personally, it gave me reassurance when talking to strangers about a church that, for the most part, they hadn’t heard of before. Knowing that the material we were giving out was relevant, up to date and in the main chiming with the way we are as a community, not only reflected well upon us, but also made me proud to be there. Yes, there will inevitably be wrinkles that could be ironed out but considering that a) it was the first time the community had done this and b) it was orchestrated on a voluntary basis, I was absolutely delighted with how it turned out. I for one am raising a glass to its success. Well done.
An observation that I found interesting was a response from a recent Northumbria University alumni. Having sat exams in the Durant Hall she was aware of the church and gleefully admitted that the last thing on her mind at that time was interrupting her well earned Sunday morning hangover. She has since been considering her spiritual life, looking for a ‘lighter touch’ religion (her words) and has attended churches a couple of times, exploring which ‘fits’ best. Vaguely remembering our existing beyond an academic examination hall, she could only recall the ‘D’ word in our building’s title and as such felt it was not for her. I’m not sure if I actually changed her opinion on our suitability to her quest but she left the stand certainly less opposed.
Having tried a couple of unsuccessful approaches to attract those passing our stand I found that being honest that ‘we are a bit odd in that we are a religion that doesn’t have a religion’ gained better ground. It appears that to present oneself too seriously, however strong our own thoughts and feelings might be, can be off putting to those that have never heard of us. Also the fact that there is a different speaker coming in each week, something that I know we would ideally rectify, was also a draw, as was the presentation of us, as historically, Dissenters. Variety is indeed the spice.
Publicising Unitarianism: The Newcastle Green Festival, by Maurice Large
Well, I did it! I helped on a stall at the Newcastle Green Festival, advertising- there’s no other word for it- our Unitarian faith. And I spoke to people and told them it was the best thing since……Well, you know what I mean.
I was brought up to understand that Unitarians were tolerant of other peoples’ beliefs. And that that tolerance extended to not talking to them about our faith lest we be thought to be trying to convert them. Or trying to suggest that their faith was somehow inferior to ours. (When I discussed this attitude with David Warhurst, he added the thought that maybe we were afraid that they would offer us sympathy!) However it was formulated, and for whatever reason, Unitarians did not talk about Unitarianism. It was simply not done.
So helping on the stall on 7th June was a liberating experience. It felt a little strange at first, but soon became automatic. There was the stall with its leaflets and posters. People asked questions about them which led naturally to talking about it. One of the commonest questions was, “I’ve never heard of you, what do you believe?”. Or, “Do you have a church in Newcastle?”.
Both questions would have been unnecessary had it not been for the traditional attitude to not speaking about ourselves. We’ve been in Newcastle since 1662 but nobody knows we exist. Nor do they know what we believe in, because we don’t talk about it. But that has started to change, and about time too. How can we hope to survive, never mind grow, if we don’t tell people we exist and try to explain our USP (“unique selling point”), our ethos and our philosophy? I’ve broken the habit of a lifetime. Will you join me in doing it too? Again, and again….and again?