"I don't know" are safe words at Rochester's First Unitarian Universalist Church, and they're welcome words in the Frana household, too. Karmen and Drew Frana live in Oronoco with their two daughters, Ella and Rose. They've attended the church for about seven years.
I recently got the chance to gather with all four family members to learn more about their congregation. Early evening light radiated into the living room as we got seated. The family's warmth filled the space.
The Franas first visited the First Unitarian Universalist Church about 2010. "We looked into it more after we had kids," Drew said. The pair's childhood spiritual roots started in the Lutheran and Catholic traditions. Karmen, a Wisconsin native, ended up in Rochester to teach. Drew moved to the area to take a job at IBM. After getting married and having their daughters, the couple was in search of a spiritual home that would be a good fit for them both.
The openness toward spiritual questions was something that intrigued Karmen about the church from early on. "I think there's something out there but I don't know what it is. In our church, I feel that that's OK," she said. "They encourage us to question things and to research things or to say 'I don't know.' I didn't necessarily feel that was OK in the church where I grew up."
For Drew, the sense of community has been a big highlight of joining the Unitarian Universalists. "I really enjoy the people who are there. … That's what really attracted me to the church," he said. "We have people of all different beliefs. Nobody is critical of where other people are on their journeys."
Karmen added, "It's a really caring community."
The stated mission of the congregation is "to be a compassionate, welcoming community that nurtures spiritual growth and practices justice." The Franas value that this mission is evident in the curriculum of the religion's education program, in which both their daughters are participants.
"I really want my children to be very accepting to other cultures and faiths and people and to have a value for all of humankind," Karmen said. "I think the Unitarian Church does a very good job of instilling those values."
Rose and Ella, the children of the household, both enjoy religious education. It is an interactive space during which kids get to learn and do projects. "I like to learn about different religions. I can share my beliefs, and other people won't be offended by them," said Ella, 11. "I've learned that everybody should be treated respectfully."
The core values of the congregation are outlined in the seven principles shared by all Unitarian Universalist churches. Social justice is central to the identity of the local Rochester congregation.
When reflecting on challenges faced by the church, Drew and Karmen said the recent search process for a new pastor took time, patience and discernment for everyone. It wasn't easy, but the wait paid off as the congregation recently welcomed the Rev. Luke Stevens-Royer and his family to the area.
For the Franas, their involvement in the congregation stretches well outside the confines of Sunday morning. It guides their lives, careers and parenting. "It gives us a basis for how we raise our kids," Drew said. As a teacher, the Unitarian Universalist principles remind Karmen to "keep an open mind and remember that everyone has a story."
When asked about what she most wants the people of southeastern Minnesota to know about the church, Ella said, "It's free-thinking. And it's open to everyone."
Worship services are held at 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. each Sunday during the school year. To read about the congregation, visit uurochmn.orgor call 507-282-5209.