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Amanda Michaels | Thursday, February 19, 2004

Notre Dame students have probably passed Christy Ruggiero’s church dozens of times without noticing it. The First Unitarian sits on the corner of Indiana 933 and North Shore Drive, simple and unimposing amidst the bustle of South Bend traffic – much like Ruggiero herself who is a quiet breach of the norms of belief at an overwhelmingly Catholic university.Though Ruggiero harbors some suspicion that her grandmother secretly had her baptized, she has been a practicing Unitarian Universalist for over 10 years.The daughter of a former Catholic and a disillusioned Dutch Reformist, both Ruggiero’s parents rejected their respective religions at a young age, largely leaving her to her own beliefs. After her parents’ divorce, she and her mother joined a new faith community – one made up of a diverse group of people who lost touch with their own religion, or just sought acceptance. A largely tolerant religion, as described by Ruggiero, Unitarian Universalism functions on the tenets that there is just one all-loving, all-powerful God who is not divided into the Trinitarian Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Ruggiero said there is salvation for everyone because “such a God would never create the race of Men just to damn them to Hell.” Besides those basic ideals, the practices of the church celebrate the teachings and holidays of a wide variety of faiths, as Ruggiero discovered when her religious education classes examined Buddhism, Islam, voodoo and traditional Protestantism.”At first, I was a little confused by this new world view and got very angry. I had always thought the Holy Wars were fought some over huge difference, but there I was, 12 years old, realizing that Jesus, a man that tried to bring the church together, was causing all of this violence and death,” she said. Coming to Notre Dame was a difficult choice for Ruggiero, for she feared how she would be accepted on the strongly traditional, conservative campus.”My father is a physics professor [at Notre Dame], so I came for the free tuition and the academics,” said Ruggiero. “But I was unsure at first. I have a friend at the University of Indianapolis, which is Methodist, who was singled out for not worshipping with them. Though that didn’t happen to me here, Catholicism was uncomfortable for me freshman year, because of my lack of exposure to it.”Three years later, she has gained a deep respect for the religion and the attractions of what she calls “the Catholic Disneyland”.”Though I don’t believe in Jesus as a savior in the Catholic sense, I can still look at Touchdown Jesus and be reminded of all those who were persecuted for beliefs,” she said. “But the crucifixes in every room are kind of creepy, because in my church, we focus on Jesus’ life, not his death.”Only once in her years at Notre Dame has anyone ever directly insulted Ruggiero’s beliefs, questioning whether it was a “real religion.””That had never happened to me before, and it moved me to tears,” she said. “People are pretty tolerant, but I just want them to realize that we’re not some tiny little bizarre sect. So, we don’t believe in the Trinity or Hell. When it comes down to it, the differences between our religions are really not that big.” Ruggiero chooses to go off-campus to mass when she can, saying that her services are “very different from the inter-faith services provided by the University.” She also thinks that students would benefit from the opportunity to go to a Unitarian mass on-campus, even if only once a year.”[A mass] would give students an opportunity to experience different beliefs, especially if they’re not from a background like mine,” she explained. “It breaks my heart to see some of the intolerance on campus that stems from simple misunderstandings about things like homosexuality. Why not try to expose students to these new ideas while they’re still in college?”