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Going to church in Second Life

Second Life, the much-hyped online virtual reality world, is home to a growing Unitarian Universalist congregation.
By Kenneth Sutton

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Avatar Cathryn Cleanslate in Second Life

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Cathryn Cleanslate, the avatar of the Rev. Christine Robinson, with the First UU Church of Second Life in the background (Otenth Paderborn/Kenneth Sutton). Click 'View Larger Image' for a photo of the church during a biweekly worship service (Bizarre Berry/George Byrd).

A dragon, an angel, and a bug-eyed monster sit down in a Unitarian Universalist church. No, it’s not the beginning of a bad joke. If you’re in the popular online world of Second Life, it may just be a few friends having a conversation.

Second Life is a popular virtual reality program, an interactive game of sorts that plays out in what appears to be a lavishly detailed, animated three-dimensional world. People who take part represent themselves with an avatar, an animated graphic figure of their choosing. The avatars can fly, change appearance, interact with other avatars, and modify the Second Life landscape. Avatars can shop, build, learn, play games, sightsee, and, yes, go to church—or have virtual sex. Nearly everything in this virtual world has been created by other “residents.”

The world may exist only in computers, but for some users Second Life meets real and even religious needs. Marie Harriman, 43, of Shelton, Conn., says she has been disabled with chronic illnesses for four years. But in Second Life her avatar, Aesir Agenomen, can do things she cannot. “My husband and I were able to dance in Second Life for the first time in several years,” she says. “It’s been a real positive thing for me and for us.” She joined Second Life a few weeks after her husband joined. He’s the one who found the Unitarian Universalist church in Second Life. “I instantly went there because I’m a UU as well,” she says. “Both of us are.”

The church they found looks nothing like a typical “real life” UU church. People sit in three rows on round cushions around a pond. (Some look more or less like regular people in casual clothes; others wear exotic costumes or look like furry creatures or the aforementioned dragon.) A waterfall and a large flaming chalice frame a stone pulpit. A quilt interpreting the Seven Principles hangs amid the trees, and there’s a painting that becomes a video screen. An animated giraffe and several ostriches roam near the church. And the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Second Life is quickly attracting a congregation that takes its church quite seriously.

It holds biweekly worship services (on Thursday nights and Saturday mornings), and sponsors covenant groups and discussion salons. Services include opening words, a chalice lighting (the chalice flame erupts like a bonfire from the pond!), music, a period of silence, joys and concerns, and a topical discussion. An offering plate is passed, there’s more music, closing words, and then, of course, a lively coffee hour. People also come and hang out at the church at other times.

The church site was designed and built last fall by Bizarre Berry, the avatar of 37-year-old real estate broker George Byrd of Columbus, Ohio.

After exploring Second Life in the summer of 2006, Berry—who quickly developed an “in-world” reputation as a creative builder—says he started looking around for churches. He found a few, but they seemed built for show. “I thought, I want to create a real live UU church and see if anyone shows up. I want to make it real and I want to have services. I want it to be a place where people come and they hang out and congregate and they can make friends and find other people to talk to, basically something that will draw and attract people and keep them interested in Second Life instead of logging in and seeing a couple of shopping malls and casinos and sex clubs and then leaving.”

As Berry was building the church in August, other users were forming an affinity group for Second Life users interested in Unitarian Universalism. “Unitarian Universalists in Second Life” has grown to 180 members since August 2006—too many to attend a single service. The technology behind Second Life limits the area to 40 people at a time. The church is working to buy a different space that can accommodate more than 40 people.

Berry compared the church he built to his real life congregation: “It’s very similar in many ways, except in real life my church has 700 people. You show up and there’s lots going on and lots of people are involved. There’s a whole machinery that’s working around you, whereas I started this one from nothing and saw it grow. I can’t say I grew the church. It grew on its own, which is the most amazing thing to me.”

One member of the church in Second Life, Jonathan Ayres, has maintained his Unitarian Universalist connections through online forums for many years. Ayres is the avatar of Jon Angel, a 55-year-old information technology specialist for the US Public Health Service from Rockville, Md., who grew up UU, but agreed to raise a Jewish family when he married in 1990. He says he “hungered for the old UU contacts” and started participating in Unitarian Universalist email discussion groups in the late 90s. He appreciates having a virtual UU community when he cannot participate in a real-life congregation.

Ayres says the virtual worship services aren’t as compelling as real-life services. “There’s a real difference in goal and result,” he says. “In real life . . . it’s possible to come away with the glow of community, of whatever it is you’ve heard or absorbed, in music and reading and sermon. You can’t come away with as much from a virtual service. It really has to rely on the sense of community more than anything that might reach you through music or even poetry or ambience.”

Ayres also expresses some ambivalence about Second Life itself. “It’s so obsessive for me that I think it inevitably is taking away from what I’m doing in real life,” he says. “I feel sometimes enervated by that.”

Another member of the church started out skeptical but says she has been pleasantly surprised. “I was just intrigued with the idea of a virtual church,” says Cathryn Cleanslate, “and how it might meet people’s religious needs, which I didn’t actually think was possible when I started [in Second Life]. But now, I do.”

In real life, Cleanslate is the Rev. Christine Robinson, 54, minister of the First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque, N. Mex. During her visits to the Second Life church, she met people who grew up UU, people who were actively involved in real-life churches, and “quite a few people who knew UUism and were attracted to it but didn’t go to church in real life.” Some were disabled, poor, or disaffected. She says she was intrigued by the virtual church’s outreach potential, “especially to people I assumed were young adults.” (The average Second Life user is 33, according to Linden Labs, the company that created it. Teenagers are restricted to a teens-only area.) But the worship services and covenant groups convinced her that the online church does meet some people’s spiritual needs. “They have some very special moments,” she says.

Cleanslate says she thinks of her involvement with the Second Life church as “my own little radical welcome project.”

“I hope that it helps teach others about us, and bring new folks to us—our real congregations, that is—and that it will function as a healthy religious community and opportunity for some who can only participate here,” she says.

Bizarre Berry, the dynamo of the church, has large ambitions for Unitarian Universalism in Second Life. Other people have built religion-oriented places in Second Life for Buddhists, Mormons, and Jews. (My avatar, Otenth Paderborn, built a Quaker meetinghouse for members of the Religious Society of Friends.) But the UU community is perhaps one of the largest congregations holding worship services in Second Life. “We have the opportunity to be a first mover and be in there early,” Berry says, “and we were.”

“Unitarian Universalism allows you the opportunity to feel connected to people on a greater and deeper level,” Berry says, “and you’re allowed to define that how you want. I want to spread that message to people. My ultimate goal for Unitarian Universalism in Second Life is to really help grow it as a religion itself, among the wider earth’s population.”

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