Postcards promoting Unitarian Universalist congregations from St. Petersburg to Tampa and Sarasota to Tarpon Springs began arriving in mailboxes last week.
The postcards are part of a $236,000 marketing campaign that includes billboards on U.S. 19 and Interstate 275 and magazine, newspaper, television and radio advertising, all aiming to spread the word about the liberal religious group that embraces diverse beliefs.
This is a first for an organization that traditionally shies away from evangelizing and is part of a broader effort that has spanned Kansas City, Mo.; Houston; Southern California; and the San Francisco Bay Area. It's an effort that's long overdue, said the Rev. Kenneth Hurto, district executive for the Florida District.
"I am very excited. We have been teaching a gospel of loving one another for hundreds of years. That is our faith commitment, to affirm the worth, the dignity of every soul. We have not known how to convey well that primary message. This effort is showing us how to do that. We're not anti telling the good news. We're just not skilled at it,'' said Hurto, whose office is in Orlando.
The campaign, which began in February and will end in April, had a genesis of sorts when the Rev. Manish Mishra, of the Unitarian Universalist Church of St. Petersburg, and the Rev. Abhi Janamanchi, of Unitarian Universalists of Clearwater, independently decided to pool their congregations' advertising resources for greater impact.
"There was a lot of synchronicity around it,'' Mishra said.
The two churches were discussing ways to advertise jointly when Mishra was asked to preach at the Florida District Assembly's 2007 meeting.
"I said, we're not doing enough, that our advertising resources are not being used effectively,'' Mishra recalled.
"I put that out last April, and I didn't know it was going to go anywhere.''
About the same time, the Tampa Bay area congregations joined forces to advertise in publications for St. Petersburg's gay pride weekend.
The Unitarian Universalist Association — the national body — also was trying to determine where to launch its next regional campaign.
"Without even blinking an eye,'' Hurto recommended a marketing campaign for the Tampa Bay area congregations.
"That's where all the energy in the state is right now,'' he said.
Last year, church members became heavily involved in supporting former Largo City Manager Steve Stanton — now Susan Stanton — after the manager announced plans to have a sex change.
Local congregations also have been active in other issues, including advocating for the homeless, migrant workers and the people of Darfur. In six months, they raised $236,000 for the regional marketing effort.
Church officials hope the campaign achieves two main goals, said Tracey Robinson-Harris, director of congregational services for the national organization.
"One is just generally trying to make the community more aware that we are there, but more specifically, we want to reach out to younger adults in the community and we're also reaching out to families, particularly families with younger children. We are also advertising in some specialty publications for the GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender) communities in the area,'' she said.
The campaign is running on radio station WMNF-FM and on certain television programs, The Oprah Winfrey Show, Dr. Phil, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report.
Janamanchi, whose congregation of about 320 members is the largest in the area, said Unitarian Universalists want to spread the word that "there's a healing, transformative faith out there that believes in humanity and in the human spirit to be good and do good. And that our differences need not divide us, and that our different spiritual paths can enrich and deepen our appreciation of the holy, and that alone can inspire us to work for justice and peace.''
By all accounts, the campaign is working.
"I've had people coming into the church who've said they have been seeing the TV ads when they've been watching the Oprah show or saw our billboards on U.S. 19,'' said Mishra, whose Mirror Lake church has about 140 members.
Janamanchi said the promotion also is working for his congregation. "We're seeing some real positive signs, not in a tremendous surge of new people coming in our doors, but certainly a spike in guests who have been coming ever since the campaign began,'' he said.
At the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tampa, the Rev. Sara Zimmerman is noticing a "significant increase'' in visitors.
"We have seen an increase in the age group 18 to 35 and are starting a UUs at USF program and a young adult group at the church,'' she said.
Victor Beaumont, who heads the regional marketing campaign, said the congregations are making a special effort to welcome newcomers and give them information about the non-dogmatic faith.
They'll learn that Unitarian Universalists belong to a free-thinking tradition with Judeo-Christian roots. Members do not ascribe to a creed, but instead are guided by a set of principles. The organization also advocates freedom of belief.
Billboards on U.S. 19, near Ulmerton and Klosterman roads, and I-275 near Memorial Boulevard attempt to sum up Unitarian Universalism in four words: "Many beliefs. One faith.''
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2283.