The first woman leader of a local church plans to pave the way for a new golden era. 

Personal Theology

The Rev. Enid Virago is a single mom who loves to fish and watch birds. She also has some radical ideas about religion and how people should practice it. Virago received her Master of Divinity degree from Starr King School for Ministry in Berkeley, Calif. And on Feb. 3 she will be the first woman to become senior minister at the century-old First Unitarian Church in Richmond.

The Rev. Bill Sinkford will officiate at the installation service. Sinkford was recently elected as president of the church's national organization, the Unitarian Universalist Association. He lives in Cambridge, Mass., is the first African-American leader of the Unitarian Universalist church and represents more than 1,000 congregations. Virago and Sinkford became friends while attending seminary together more than a decade ago. Style recently caught up with Virago to see what she has in store for Richmond.

Style: What path led you to Richmond?

Virago: I answered the call to ministry about 10 years ago. Before coming to the ministry, I was a psychotherapist and specialized in sexual trauma and domestic violence. I was a therapist for about 18 years. Because of my background in psychotherapy the [Unitarian] church asked me to do a few different things before I settled into my own ministry.

I was an extension minister down in Pensacola. They had had a parishioner shot while he was working in a social responsibility program with other church members. It was controversial — he was escorting a doctor to an abortion clinic. The congregation was hurting. So I was asked to go down and spend three years with them. During that time, we had a capital campaign and bought a new church and moved in. It was good work.

After that, there had been a congregation that had some conflict out in California at Solana Beach, and they asked me to go there and spend some time with them. I did that for two years. At that point, I was free to find where I really wanted to go.

I looked at about 11 places and I fell in love with Richmond. I fell in love with the congregation. They are amazing. I can't think of a better community to be a part of. I like the friendliness of the people because they have the best of the Southern qualities. I think it's easy for Northerners to come down and feel very much at home. And I love to fish [laughs]. I haven't caught anything yet and, of course, everybody is teasing me about that.

How did you make the transition from being a psychotherapist to going into the Unitarian church? Was there any particular event or situation in your life that served as a trigger moment or epiphany?

It was gradual over about eight years. I wasn't even a UU [Unitarian Universalist] until about 15 years ago. It's a 1,700-year-old religion and most people don't know that. We split off in 325, right around there, over issues in the Council of Nicaea.

We're called Unitarian because we believe God is one, meaning no Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Just God. That's the Unitarian part of it. And the Universalist part of it: There was a very popular grass-roots movement in religion about 150 years ago that [espoused] a universal foundation. I grew up in a liberal Congregational church so it was similar right off the bat. I liked the emphasis on education and social action, because I believe that's how we put our faith into action. It's wonderful to have faith and just sit back and talk about it, but I think if you have faith you have an obligation to put it into action.

In Unitarian Universalism each of us is expected to take the responsibility of a personal theological search. It's supposed to last an entire lifetime. So we are constantly learning about other religions; we're constantly putting our values and beliefs up against things like current events to see what our personal theology is, and how to live and work in community with other people.

How would you describe your personal theology?

Oh, God [laughs]. UUs ask me that all the time. Some UUs say, well, "I'm a Christian UU" or "I'm a pagan UU" or "I'm a Buddhist UU." I really just say I'm a UU. I value the rational aspect of humanism. I value Jesus through Christianity. I value the compassion of Buddhism. I value what nature has to teach us through nature-based religions. For me, they just all come together in one theology.

Do think that, as a woman, you lend something different to the role that you assume? How do you view this role, and how would you like to see it develop in Richmond in terms of topics and experiences you choose to address?

Wow, good question. Well I'm a second-generation woman Unitarian minister in my family. Carolyn Bartlett Crane, who was a minister in Kalamazoo, Michigan, is my great-aunt. She was there in the early 1900s. Back then, what the woman ministers added was a sense that our church community was a home for all of us. … I think people are very comfortable with me because I am a woman. I'm a chubby little blonde [laughs], and I think I'm approachable. I'm told that I place a very high value on family and children. I think it's true. I bring a conversational style to preaching. But I'm not sure that comes from gender. Because of my background as a psychotherapist, I'm also very interested in social action.

If you could dispel any myth about the Unitarian church what would it be?

The first one is that we're a brand new religion. People are so surprised when I say that we're 1,700 years old. The second one, which is so strange to me, is that some people say to me, "I heard you were a cult, and I didn't come until I met a member who explained." So there's the misconception that we're new and we're strange. And really what it is, is that we're quiet, unfortunately. Sometimes people who hold our same values have a difficult time finding us. That's what happened to me. The most common thing we hear among new people is: "I never knew there was a place like this that could be a home for me," which is just so poignant because a lot of UUs have felt like outsiders most of their lives.

In recognizing the needs and strengths of one congregation to the next, what do you see as the direction your Richmond congregation will take?

It's the largest UU church in Virginia outside of the Washington, D.C., area. Just by its placement in Richmond, I think, it offers a lot of opportunity. Here's the woman part: They called me here specifically wanting a woman, although they would have accepted a man if they thought it would have been a better fit. It's part of a statement they're making in terms of liberal progressive values. And they're poised on the brink — this congregation — of entering into a new golden era. You can feel it. We have not defined what that is going to be yet. But the energy is palpable. It's a very, very exciting place. I think the challenge is going to be to come together and decide what that golden era is going to be about. S


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