Gainesville attorney finds new calling in Unitarian Universalist Church
Published: Saturday, August 3, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, August 2, 2013 at 9:57 a.m.
David Etherington was a Red Cross volunteer during Hurricane Katrina, when he arrived at a realization.
He was in charge of a shelter set up in a Leesville, La., high school where about 600 people, many of whom had lost all material possessions in the devastating storm, were dealing with rising racial tensions, death and a lack of provisions.
He remembers working to keep the desperate situation from escalating in the shelter crammed with hot and hungry people. While the people looked to him for guidance, Etherington said he looked inward to his faith for direction.
"I think it's just human nature to want to make meaning of our lives," said Etherington, a Unitarian Universalist for 20 years. "Folks were looking at us to have answers, and we didn't have answers."
Etherington, 56, was an immigration lawyer at the time, working to help clients seeking political asylum. Immigration law allowed him to use his legal work to make a difference, he said. But his path to affecting people's lives in lasting ways began to change after the month he spent with hurricane victims.
Etherington was ordained into the Unitarian Universalist ministry at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Gainesville in May. He will work as a community minister, focusing on social justice.
Etherington's desire to be on the front lines, he said, was one of the reasons he chose not to become a congregational minister.
"Many people who go to seminary, their ultimate goal is to be a church minister, and that was never my interest," he said. "I really wanted my ministry to focus on social justice work only, and to have all my energy go into that as opposed to shepherding a congregation."
There were times the work at the shelter left him exhausted, Etherington said. And one woman took notice.
Every now and then, Etherington would help lift up the elderly homeless woman when she needed help getting off the ground. But it was her words that lifted his spirits from under the strain of the shelters demanding conditions.
Etherington said the woman told him to sit down. She then offered Etherington something to eat and gave him some advice.
"She said, ‘If you don't take care of yourself, you can't help all of us here.' " he said. "For her to take hold of me when she had no idea what her future was going to be and to say, ‘take care of yourself,' that was probably the most meaningful moment."
Etherington would leave the shelter and take that moment with him on his journey into faith. Etherington became a member of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Gainesville in 1993. He was introduced to the church through one of his law practice clients.
Unitarian Universalism integrates beliefs from world religions and provides its followers with the freedom to explore their own spiritual beliefs. At the church, Etherington was able to use his law experience in working with immigrants. He started an immigrant justice initiative helping undocumented workers qualify for the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, also known as the Dream Act.
He said he identifies with the Unitarian Universalist Church principals and its acceptance of all people.
"Unitarian Universalists have been a very strong advocate of equal rights of gay, lesbian and transgender folks," he said. "And growing up in an evangelical type community, there was no place for gay folks in communities. Being a gay person kept me away from the church for decades, thus my exploration into Buddhism and other non-creedal things."
Etherington, who traveled to Canada in 2006 to marry, said his partner, Jeff Dunn, helped him understand that he needed to make theology a greater part of his life.
"He was the inspiration for me to leave behind my practice of law and go into a theology seminary and make my everyday work something of meaning," he said.
While Etherington has left his law practice behind, he continues to work to help people understand humanitarian law.
Etherington, a certified Red Cross trainer of international humanitarian law, travels around the country speaking on humanitarian law and humanitarian issues.
"Stories are powerful," he said. "If people can relate to my justice and humanitarian stories, I feel that my life has value."
In 2010, Etherington attended the Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago for three years to become a Unitarian Universalist minister. As part of his seminary curriculum, Etherington had to complete a one-year chaplaincy internship, which he completed at Baptist South Hospital in Jacksonville.
He also volunteered at the St. Francis House for his seminary training. As a Baptist intern, Etherington had to use his faith to help families of patients with serious illnesses.
"I had to help them know that their life and fear matters, and that it's real," he said.
LoraKim Joyner, Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Gainesville community minister, said Etherington's choice to go to seminary school was a natural fit for him.
"I think he really listened to his heart and to his experiences to know that a life of meaning and service was the best life that he could lead," she said. "People feel like he wants to be around them, and that's a really good tool for service in the world."
Joyner has been on the receiving end of Etherington's service.
She said that when she was in the hospital, he took the time to visit her.
"He really leads an intentional life that goes toward taking care of other people," she said.
Etherington said he is drawn to help people in crisis.
In 2012, he traveled to Palestine to work on a UN refugee camp. Etherington worked with young Palestinians living in the refugee camp and helped them to organize work camps.
Etherington said the living conditions in the camp were appalling.
"There was a lack of water, health care and human rights," he said. "There was a real scarcity of what some of us have come to expect of basic human rights."
Harold Henderson, minister of Forest United Methodist Church in Silver Springs, said he understood Etherington's decision to become a community minister.
"David can go anywhere and do anything," said Henderson, who has known Etherington for 20 years. "He is going to be working a much broader field that has international dimensions."
Etherington recently began working for the national Unitarian Universalist Service Committee as the executive adviser for institutional advancement.
The committee promotes human rights and justice internationally.
Etherington will spend time abroad working to further humanitarian aid and human rights.
He will travel to Africa in the fall for the committee.
"Part of my work now is to bring the message of human rights and social justice to Universalist congregations across the country, and to any audiences that want to hear," he said.
Since volunteering for the Red Cross in Louisiana, Etherington said he has found an ability to be within the chaos of crisis and maintain a sense of calm and hope.
He said he will continue to help communities in crisis.
"I am called to walk in companion with people who live a life of struggle," he said.