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Outsider, insider

Unitarian Universalists embrace a leader who knows what it's like to be "the odd man out.''

By WAVENEY ANN MOORE
Published September 10, 2006


ST. PETERSBURG - A downtown church seeking a compassionate leader has hired a Harvard-educated, openly gay former diplomat with a South Asian, Hindu heritage as its minister.

Everyone seems to agree that the Rev. Manish Mishra, 35, is the right fit for the Unitarian Universalist Church of St. Petersburg, an almost century-old religious community overlooking Mirror Lake.

"He is a very compassionate person, and that was the No. 1 trait that we were looking for," said Karen Coale, head of the search committee that was "blown away" by Mishra. "We're an inner city church and we have a lot of potential for growth, and we wanted someone who has high energy, someone who has ideas and vision and is, at the same time, compassionate. To me, it is unique to find that all in one person."

The son of orthodox Hindu Indian immigrants brings to his new ministry an Ivy League education and a life experience shaped by race, ethnicity, sexuality and religion.

"For me, those combination of characteristics led to a constant, constant awareness of difference, because, in almost any situation I was thrown into, I was the different person. I was the odd man out," said Mishra, who grew up in Pittsburgh. "I know extremely, extraordinarily, intimately well what it means to have power misdirected, misused ... to be taken advantage of, or taken for granted by others."

His experience, more acute in a post-9/11 America, causes him to sympathize with the downtrodden, Mishra said, adding that he finds stories of people being abused or oppressed especially troubling.

"It could be somebody treating a Jewish person poorly or a woman or a transgender person, whatever the situation might be, because I know so well what that experience of difference is about," he said.

That experience eventually would draw him to the Unitarian Universalist Church. "Being gay is completely unacceptable in Indian and in Hindu culture," Mishra explained.

His best friend suggested the liberal religion. One Sunday in 1998 he attended the historic All Souls Church Unitarian in Washington, D.C., where he and his then-partner were welcomed by two senior members.

"In the space of a hug they gave me the hope that I could have a religious home," he said. That set him on a path to Harvard Divinity School and ministry. Mishra, who will be installed on Nov. 5, remains a Hindu.

He explained during an interview Wednesday: "In Hindusim, if you're born a Hindu, there's this idea that you're always a Hindu. It's a culture as well as a faith and because it is a culture as well as a faith, I can never leave it."

That's of little consequence to Unitarian Universalists. The church has no creed, simply seven principles that members follow. The scriptures of all major religions are employed as a guide for living. Mishra, though, rejects certain Hindu customs, such as its caste system.

The new minister is single, lives with his dog, a Labrador-poodle named Luke, and a cat he adopted from the SPCA named Shadow. He has bought a house in the Euclid-St. Paul neighborhood.

Ordained in 2005, he most recently was the interim associate minister at the Unitarian Church in Westport, Conn. In addition to a master's degree from Harvard Divinity School, the former diplomat has a bachelor of science in foreign service from Georgetown University. He speaks seven languages.

Mishra's vision for growth and increased social justice work is shared by Davis Coale, president of the board of trustees. He said he wants the church at 719 Arlington Ave. N to attract new people, particularly families.

The congregation of about 120 members has weathered a difficult period and has not had a "settled" minister since 2001, said Sally Carville, former head of the board of trustees.

"We have found what seems to be such a perfect fit," Carville said of Mishra. "It's a new beginning for a very old community. Over the past years, we may have become complacent and self-satisfied. We want to be much more relevant to the contemporary issues. We are really looking for Manish to invigorate us, to inspire us."