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Interview with Minister Amanda Poppei – Minister, Washington Ethical Society


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): Canadian Atheist

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2019/02/25

Minister Amanda Poppei is a Senior Leader & Unitarian Universalist Minister at the Washington Ethical Society (Ethical Culture and Unitarian Universalist). Here we talk about her life, views, and work.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was early life like for you, e.g., geography, culture, language, religion or lack thereof, education, and family structure and dynamics?

Amanda Poppei: I was raised in upstate New York, and went to a Unitarian Universalist congregation that was quite humanist in orientation.

My strongest memories of Sunday School include learning about Taoism and other world religions, and participating in a Coming of Age class where we really delved into what we believed, what values shaped our life. It was part of that class that I first thought about becoming a minister. 

Jacobsen: What levels of formal education have been part of life for you? How have you informally self-educated?

Poppei: I was a Religious Studies major at Yale as an undergrad, and really enjoyed that–it was primarily a history major, so a lot of learning about religious history around the world and especially in the United States.

I focused on women’s roles in American religion. A few years later, I went to Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC for my Masters of Divinity, which is a required degree for people preparing for the Unitarian Universalist ministry.

I completed that preparation–which also includes doing a unit as a chaplain intern at a hospital, and an internship with a congregation–and then when I was brought on as Senior Leader at the Washington Ethical Society I also went forward with preparation to be a certified Ethical Culture Leader.

That work is mostly independent study, working with existing Leaders to prepare. Now, I’m lucky to be able to take continuing education classes through the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association and through the American Humanist Association! 

Jacobsen: As a Minister for the Washington Ethical Society, what tasks and responsibilities come along with the position? 

Poppei: In terms of what I *do*, it’s really a lot like a minister in a more traditional religious setting.

So I speak on Sundays (although we also have wonderful guest speakers at times), I provide pastoral care and counseling to people going through difficult times in life, I teach classes and run small groups, I work with a great staff to provide programming in the congregation, and I engage in justice work–usually in coalition with other clergy or community organizers–out in the world. 

Jacobsen: For those who do not know about it, how does an ethical society differ from atheism, agnosticism, humanism, and Unitarian Universalism?

Poppei: Ethical Societies are part of a movement called Ethical Culture, which was founded in 1876 by a man named Felix Adler. Adler really started the movement as a way to bring together people who believe differently from each other, so they could act for justice together.

Ethical Societies share most of their core values with Unitarian Universalist congregations, and sometimes the two can feel pretty similar on a Sunday morning, but they have different histories–and those histories influence them today.

So whereas in a UU congregation you would likely use historically Christian language (even though the movement isn’t Christian now, but more pluralist), in an Ethical Society you’re going to hear more secular language for some of the same things–for instance, instead of “sermon” we say “platform address” and instead of “minister” we say “leader.”

Atheism and agnosticism are both descriptors of personal belief, so those lables would apply to individuals who might then attend an Ethical Society or an UU congregation. Humanism I think of as a broad tradition, which has connections and roots and influence in Unitarian Universalism and in Ethical Culture–and it’s also a way people describe themselves.

At the Washington Ethical Society, we say we are a “humanist congregation,” which says something both about what we value (human experience, human responsibility, human worth) and about how we organize ourselves (as a congregation, which meets regularly, runs a Sunday School, etc). 

Jacobsen: Moving into 2019, what do you see as the difficulties for the activism and maintenance of community for the ethical societies under the current Trump Administration?

Poppei: I think people are tired right now–the last two years have felt like such an onslaught, with policy after policy that hurts people we love.

So my job is to figure out how to both care for people, to nurture them and bring joy and some sense of groundedness to them, while at the same time continuing to encourage them to resist, to be active in working for the world they want to see. It can be hard to balance those needs in a community, but I do think they’re both important. 

Jacobsen: How can other societies and secular groups work to coordinate activist efforts in the locale of Washington Ethical Society?

Poppei: We love working in coalition–in fact, that’s how we do almost all of our justice work. So come join us!

There’s always room for more folks to engage, whether with immigration reform and support of individual immigrants and asylum seekers, or with efforts to make affordable housing more available in DC. 

Jacobsen: For those wanting some Spring reading on ethical societies, what do you recommend for them? Also, what about intellectuals – known or not so much – in the history of the high-level thought of ethical societies? 

Poppei: I recommend The Humanist Way by Ed Ericson, who was the Leader here at the Washington Ethical Society in the 1960s. I think that book is still the best description of Ethical Society. 

Jacobsen: How can people become involved through the donation of time, the addition of membership, links to professional and personal networks, giving monetarily, exposure in interviews or writing articles, and so on?

Poppei: We love having folks tune in on Facebook, where we livestream our Sunday platform services–and if you’re enjoying them and finding something there that nurtures you, of course we invite you to give toward our work as well, using our text giving link!

And I’m always glad to connect with people across the country who are thinking about the same things and trying to live good lives and build a more just world.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Amanda.


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


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