I recently sat down for an interview with Andrew Davey at Haymarket Weddings. Read the full interview below or on their website:
Rev. George Freeman may be the spiritual leader of the most influential church that you may not know that you know about. For some 45 years, Rev. Freeman has led the Universal Life Church Monastery through an era of remarkable growth and evolution. Not only has the Universal Life Church Monastery (ULC) opened the doors to people to become ordained ministers and officiate weddings, but it’s also blazed new trails in the fight for civil rights and religious freedom.
So, who is Rev. George Freeman, and what exactly has he been doing at the Universal Life Church Monastery? We recently had the opportunity to speak with Rev. Freeman about his life and his life’s work. Let’s learn more about this esteemed minister and the incredibly unique church he leads.
First, Let’s See How Did Rev. George Freeman Started His Church
Just as the ULC is no typical church, Rev. George Freeman is no typical minister. Upon moving to Seattle, Washington, from New York City in 1977, this military veteran and entertainment entrepreneur found a 1920s era former Methodist church downtown, and he decided to buy it. Not only did Rev. Freeman rehabilitate this church, but he reopened it as The Monastery.
As Rev. Freeman explains himself, “Back in the 1970s, I built restaurants and nightclubs. In 1977, I saw an old church that was for lease, and I thought that would be really a great nightclub and restaurant. Never, ever did I think from a perspective of, ‘One day, this will morph into a church.’”
Yes, The Monastery actually started a nightclub! In fact, Rev. Freeman reached out to his old nightlife contacts in New York City, then convinced some of them to make the journey to Seattle to reinvent nightlife in the Pacific Northwest. Here’s something else that made Freeman’s club stand out from the crowd: From the start, Freeman’s club was a queer-inclusive club. He had experience catering to LGBTQ+ customers during his time in the New York City nightlife scene, and he continued to serve the LGBTQ+ community when he brought the party to Seattle.
Wait, So How Did a Queer-friendly Nightclub Evolve Into a Church?
As Rev. Freeman recalls, “When we first opened The Monastery in 1977, we had a line around the block. We had a great start, and we managed to keep up those numbers. However, we were also confronted with things that I’d never been aware of, or familiar with.” Back then, mainstream American society wasn’t such a welcoming place for LGBTQ+ people, and The Monastery was a special place where queer patrons could actually find a welcoming community.
Soon enough, Freeman could tell that patrons saw The Monastery as more than just a fun place to spend the night—They saw The Monastery as a welcoming spiritual home. “Because people recognized it as a former church, they came with their problems. With The Monastery, we gave people a place to be somebody,” Rev. Freeman notes. He continues, “We gave people a place where they saw each other as friends, family, brothers and sisters. Regardless if they were white, black, gay, straight, young, or old, they morphed into a family, and they became a congregation.”
As The Monastery evolved from merely a nightclub into a social services provider and a comprehensive community center, this motivated George Freeman to make The Monastery a church again. Yet with that said, he also wanted to make it into a new kind of church: “When I look at churches and nightclubs from my religious background as an African American Episcopalian, I recall Jesus saying, ‘Where two or three are gathered, I am there also,’” Rev. Freeman notes. He goes on, “You can’t have Jesus only on Sunday. You got to have him on Saturday night, on the dance floor and everywhere else.”
This prompted Rev. Freeman to look for a larger family of churches for The Monastery to join. He noticed the welcoming vibes and rapid growth of the Universal Life Church, and this convinced him that the ULC was where The Monastery belonged. By the 1980s, a clique of far-right politicians pushed to enact new legal restrictions with the intent of shutting down The Monastery. Though they succeeded in closing the original Monastery in 1985, they couldn’t stop Rev. Freeman from serving the community—Rather, this prompted Rev. Freeman to build a new Universal Life Church Monastery that stands strong today.
Here’s Some Background on the Universal Life Church
Kirby J. Hensley founded the Universal Life Church in Modesto, California, in 1962 as a place where people from all religious backgrounds could come together and “do that which is right.” During their early years, the Universal Life Church exploded in popularity, particularly since they didn’t enforce any set of strict theology or doctrine, yet they did let anyone become an ordained minister with their church.
Yet by 1984, the IRS had collected evidence that Hensley wasn’t always “doing that which was right,” as he was promoting tax evasion schemes within the church. The IRS subsequently revoked the Modesto-led Universal Life Church’s tax exempt status, and the Hensley family fought the IRS in court until they reached a $1.5 million settlement with the feds in 2000.
Once Rev. Freeman realized how much trouble the Modesto church had fallen into, he knew that the larger Universal Life Church needed greater change. Or as Rev. Freeman himself recalls, “I did realize that we had to separate because we’re not about making tax shelters for people who take their garage, turn it into a church, and have the main church in Modesto pay all their bills.”
In 1999, the Reverends George Freeman and Daniel Zimmerman incorporated Universal Life Church and ULC Monastery as an independent corporation, and they developed a higher set of rules and ethical standards for the new ULC. As Rev. Freeman notes,“We officially separated from the corporation in Modesto, and our non-profit corporation still runs now. Rev. Zimmerman has since passed away, and I have since taken the role of fulfillment. In other words, I oversee our process of ordaining people online.”
Now, Let’s Talk Ordination… and Lawsuits
This leads to perhaps the one thing that the Universal Life Church is best known for: its universal acceptance of people seeking to become ordained ministers. This is one practice from the early ULC days that Rev. Freeman continues to oversee at the present-day ULC, albeit one that he constantly strives to keep to the highest legal, ethical, and spiritual standards.
For Rev. Freeman, this is not merely a matter of convenience. Rather, the ULC’s ordination policies are part of a larger struggle for religious freedom: “Around 2010, I realized that there are a number of states that fight legal and procedural battles against ministers, states where wedding officiants can’t actually officiate weddings. This was a problem in states like Pennsylvania, Nevada, and New York. Just recently, we finished a case with Tennessee. We’re still watching a case that may pop up in Virginia.”
Once again, Freeman and the ULC went to court. But this time, under Rev. George Freeman, the ULC sued to protect the right of ministers to practice their faith and officiate ceremonies like weddings. As Rev. Freeman himself explains, “We’ve been fighting court cases for our ministers and wedding officiants. I’m very proud of our efforts, and I thank the gods that we’ve won every one of these lawsuits.”
Like the original Modesto-led Universal Life Church, the present-day Universal Life Church Ministries continues to open its doors to everyone, and that includes allowing anyone to get ordained. Not only does the ULC continue to make it easy for anyone who’s interested to get ordained, but the ULC was also one of the first churches to begin officiating same-sex weddings. The ULC continues to support efforts inside and outside the courts to protect religious freedom for everyone inside and outside the ULC, and the ULC continues to partner with multiple charitable organizations to give back to the larger community.
The Universal Life Church Is a Different Kind of Church
If you’re still trying to wrap your head around the concept that the Universal Life Church is more than just a place where anyone can get ordained, that it’s really more of a holistic institution dedicated to social justice and equitable spiritual growth, Rev. George Freeman has plenty more to say on the state of religion and faith communities in contemporary society.
For Rev. Freeman, the ULC represents a new kind of religion where people can practice their faith in new ways: “We’re the new church. We’re the new guys on the block. We are a little different. We’re not going to tell you what to do, or what you should believe in. We’re going to tell you that we’re a family, and we let you keep your own beliefs.”
As he notices the growing disparity between young people and the more traditional churches, Rev. Freeman sees the ULC’s approach to religious freedom and unfettered spirituality as a way to bridge this generational divide. Or in Rev. Freeman says, “The young people haven’t found the churches to be the place where they belong.” He continues, “Once we get to where we have thousands of ministers throughout the world who preach their own truth in a supportive community and share the love as they gather together, I think that’s where we’re going to find the change we need. I hate to say it, but Jesus is down on the 50 yard line. Jesus is not in any of those buildings that those Christians built.”
Go Ahead, Get Ordained, and Check Out More of What the ULC Has to Offer
Whether you want a special someone to officiate your wedding, or you’re looking for a new spiritual experience, the ULC opens its doors to you. Under Rev. George Freeman, the ULC continues to practice radical acceptance, including (but not limited to) opening the doors for anyone to get ordained. To date, over 20 million people worldwide have been ordained as ministers through the Universal Life Church, including a number of celebrities and a variety of adventurous spiritual seekers.
However, this is not the entirety of the ULC’s mission and story. According to Rev. Freeman, the ULC is a church that’s truly rooted in moral values: “I remember Martin Luther King’s mission for justice, and I just want to honor his legacy and do the right thing. I believe very much in King’s philosophy, theology. I want to follow his example.” Rev. Freeman continues, “I want to be a messenger who rings the truth from the tallest mountain. I want everyone to know that we’re family. As long as we’re a family, nothing can stop us from where we want to go. That’s what this planet needs. We need to be a family again.”
So next time you’re looking for a different kind of minister to officiate your wedding, don’t be afraid to reach out to a ULC minister… And don’t be afraid of reaching out to the ULC if you want to become a minister and officiate weddings. And while you’re at it, feel free to stick around. This church not only invites you to get ordained, but they also keep the doors open to anyone and everyone seeking a new spiritual home.
For more information about Haymarket Weddings, or to read the article on their website, please visit: Tea Time With Rev. George Freeman of the Universal Life Church – Haymarket Wedding