Sunlight floods the little room where they gather every Sunday morning. The wood beams creak under the weight of the congregation as a bell announces the beginning of service.
The Unitarian Universalist Church of Oxford is nestled just outside of town down County Road 198. An oak tree looms over the parking lot and shrubbery threatens to overgrow the wooden fence behind the small, white building. A few dozen file into the sunlit sanctuary and sing together, listen to one other and talk about their community.
It’s removed from the traffic and bustle of Sunday mornings in Oxford and is similarly detached from the conventions of most Sunday morning congregations. A primary focus of the church is to welcome everyone – every religion, every orientation, every gender, every race and every ethnicity.
Nearly 16 years ago, the congregation welcomed Gail Stratton to their church. On Sunday, she was ordained as their new minister.
‘I wasn’t looking for a church’
Stratton, a biology professor on campus, grew up riding horses, camping and hiking in New Mexico. Her father was a scientist, and she credits him for her interest in biology.
She received her bachelors, masters and doctorate degree in biology. She taught in Ohio, Illinois, Michigan and Tennessee before moving to Oxford to teach at the university.
Stratton says there is beauty in the variety of life, and people often try to break down and generalize that diversity.
Take spiders, for example. Boxes of spiders, which are Stratton’s research focus, line the walls in her office. In a recent interview, she walked down the shelves and picked out one and then another, describing their differences and similarities. She says you can never call a spider “just a spider.”
“It’s like saying every person is just a person. No. You lose the depth of who they are,” Stratton said. “Every person comes from a family. Every person comes from a particular history. We all bring that to everything that we do, but that makes us just that much more interesting.”
Stratton moved to Abbeville in 1995. She came to be with her wife, Pat Miller, who was a professor at Northwest Community College. Stratton said though she knew being a lesbian in Mississippi was taboo and even dangerous, she was not afraid to move here.
“I never felt unwelcome,” Stratton said. “I never felt unsafe, but I know a lot of people who have felt unsafe and a lot of people who have lived with a lot of fear. That’s something that I have known but have been fortunate enough not to experience.”
When her son, William, was teased at school for having two moms, Stratton said he looked for a community that would accept him – and his parents – just as they were. He found that community in a Unitarian Universalist youth group, and for the first time in decades, Stratton found herself in church.
“I was religious as a child,” Stratton said. “I’ve never lost my religious feelings, but it was clear for a long time that there wasn’t any kind of place for me in the organized church. I had decades not thinking of myself as religious at all.”
Stratton said despite this long divorce from religion, it wasn’t hard to become a part of the congregation again.
“Not when I found a church that welcomed me,” she said.
And the family stayed. They became a part of the weekly Sunday meetings; they stood in the sunlit room and sang with other members of the community. As time drew on, Stratton and Miller began leading classes and small groups. They found a place where they belonged.
“We were not looking for a church. We were busy. I wasn’t looking for a church,” Stratton said. “It found us. I think I didn’t know that there was a religion that would be open like this.”
Growing the church
Unitarian Universalism is not new to Oxford. Mary Queyja, one of the founding members, remembers meeting in people’s homes when the congregation was small. She was there in 1993 when a few families met each Sunday in the Student Union on campus.
Queyja moved to Oxford from California in 1963, just six months after the university was integrated. She said the church grew, in part, in response to the question everyone asked her.
“That’s one of the questions people ask when you come to Mississippi,” Queyja said. “Who’s your mama and where do you go to church?”
In 2001, the church bought a little building outside of Oxford.
Seven principles guide the church’s moral teaching: The inherent worth and dignity of every person; justice, equity and compassion in human relations; acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations; free and responsible search for truth and meaning; the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large; the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all; respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
That web of existence is particularly attractive to Stratton, who knew that she had an infatuation with nature from a young age.
Stratton said she tries to bring her sense of wonder for the natural world into her classroom, too.
“To see somebody see something they’ve never seen before and say ‘Oh my gosh. That’s really interesting,’ is a very satisfying thing,” Stratton said.
Her love of diversity is encouraged in her church. The Unitarian Universalist congregation comprises a variety of beliefs and backgrounds.
“It’s a different way to do religion,” Stratton said. “There are people in our congregation that come from various Christian religions. There are people from Jewish religions. There are people who are absolutely at this point in time atheists.”
Although this might pose a threat in some religions, Stratton said it doesn’t hinder worship for the group.
“One of the characteristics of liberal religion is that we say revelation is not sealed. We don’t know everything. There is no one source that says everything,” Stratton said. “It’s certainly true that scientific knowledge is still growing. Why not think that spiritual knowledge is still growing? It makes sense to me.”
Before the call
In 2010, a minister who was a guest speaker at UUCO officially married Stratton and Miller in Connecticut, but the marriage wasn’t recognized in Mississippi until just last year. It was hard, she said, to live in a place that didn’t recognize the one you loved as your partner.
“It makes you less than,” Stratton said. “Even separate from feeling fear, because some people hate you, it makes you feel less than. It is an example of being a second-class citizen.”
And being a lesbian in Oxford wasn’t accepted then. Stratton said she remembered a time when members of the LGBTQ community would meet in secret because they were afraid to advertise where they met.
“I have friends who went to this university who saw their friends beat up,” Stratton said.
Looking back now, Stratton says it’s amazing how much has changed.
On June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court made same-sex marriage a right nationwide. Stratton and Miller were with William when they heard.
“We happened to be there visiting the day that the ruling happened, and he saw it first and he held it up and we just stepped outside and cried. We just cried,” Stratton said.
Stratton said she and Miller couldn’t believe the news, but William thought differently.
“We both said we never thought it would happen, and he said, ‘I always knew it would happen.’
“He said, ‘Mama, I always knew it would happen.’”
After Stratton and Miller returned home, Stratton said she began to consider her place within the church. She said she believed the faith and community she found in the church was needed in Oxford. She said people like her needed a place to belong.
“One of our big challenges as humans – as humans in this time, on this university, in this town, in this state and much broader than that – is how do we behave respectfully in a way that honors different groups of people without saying ‘Oh, there’s a norm, and you’re different?’”
The dichotomy of normal and abnormal, of accepted and rejected, often drives people from religion and church, Stratton said.
“One of the root words of the word religion is to tie or to bind. I think religion ties people together,” Stratton said. “There’s not a small number of people who left religion because they didn’t find a place for them.”
In her church, however, Stratton said she saw people of all different kinds in a welcoming community. Stratton said people are hungry for that kind of bond.
That’s when she started considering going to theological school.
A natural fit
Greg Johnson is the Blues curator in the J. D. Williams Library’s Archives and Special Collections. He has been a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Oxford since 2003.
Johnson said the church’s emphasis on social justice and activism kept him coming back each Sunday. While at rallies, sit-ins and demonstrations, Johnson said he would see members of the church protesting the same thing he protested.
“There are a lot of people who feel that they don’t have a religious group that speaks to their interests and their passions about what’s wrong and what needs to be made right in the world,” Johnson said. “I think it’s important that we have a group for people like that.”
Johnson said he wasn’t surprised when Stratton told him of her plan to go to theological school.
“It just seemed like the most natural thing in the world,” Johnson said. “It was absolutely right. It was a natural fit.”
Stratton began seminary in 2014 at Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago and graduated last spring. She said the classes challenged her spiritually and made her ready to lead a group as diverse as the congregation in Oxford.
On Sunday, more than 100 people gathered in the Paris-Yates Chapel to attend her ordination. In his introduction, Johnson said this was the first Unitarian Universalist ordination in Mississippi in living memory.
Paula Shank, a member of the church, sewed the stole for Stratton’s ordination. Every stole is different, with images and colors that represent the person who will wear it. Stratton’s is a multicolored shawl with sections of floral cloth, bright colors and the word “love” on the left shoulder. After a speech from Rev. Dr. Nicole Kirk, one of Stratton’s professors, Miller laid the stole on her wife’s shoulders.
Then, the congregation that had welcomed her 16 years ago stood around her with hands stretched out and welcomed her as their new minster.