The Rev. Schuyler Vogel says his congregation is “able to do things that we weren't able to do before, so that feels very rewarding.” Photo: Madeleine Thompson
The Rev. Schuyler Vogel, 34, looks the part of the reverend — suit and tie, inviting demeanor, confident speaking voice — and has the historic church to go with it. But his take on religion, and the kind of congregation he leads, are probably not what you're imagining. Vogel is senior minister at Fourth Universalist Society on Central Park West at 76th Street, where people from all backgrounds and faith traditions are welcome to practice Unitarian Universalism. This belief system has no creed and does not revolve around a central text, but rather seven principles including the inherent worth of every person and a free search for truth. “I really couldn't be a minister in any other tradition,” he says. “I wouldn't bet that there's a God, if I had to bet on it.”
Since Vogel took the reins two and a half years ago, the Fourth Universalist Society has made headlines for sheltering a Guatemalan immigrant family from deportation. After the 2016 presidential election, Vogel describes his community as “disappointed,” so the choice to offer their space as a sanctuary was an easy one that was confirmed with a unanimous vote. It became less easy when the church had swastikas and hate speech carved into its doors a few weeks later. “That really reminded us that ... there are people out there who have very strong and sometimes hateful feelings about what we're doing,” Vogel says.
Then, in 2018, Aura Hernandez and her family moved into the church. Members helped freshen up their living space and care for Hernandez's daughter. “Because we have all this theological diversity, where you have people who believe in God and those who don't ... part of the challenge of that is what brings us all together,” he says. “What does ground us is the experience of being a human being.” Vogel can't share details of Hernandez's current situation, but says it's in the best place it can be.
Vogel grew up in Milwaukee, WI as a Unitarian Universalist but never intended to make a career out of his faith. In fact, he never considered himself a religious person. He attended Carleton College and majored in history, intending to be a teacher, but took a job at the college chaplain's office. “I was kind of expecting to be more of an anthropologist, so I could learn about stuff and talk to people about their faith and their religion, but it turns out it was actually leading discussion groups and services” he says. “So that was sort of my first taste, and the chaplain suggested, 'oh, you might be a good minister.' Which I thought was absurd at the time.”Becoming a Religious Person
But he graduated in the midst of the Great Recession, and after a long search the first job he was offered was at a small church in Florida. He took it, and then one at another church in Chicago, and then wound up at Harvard Divinity School. “In some ways the push to be a minister, particularly to start working for churches, came more out of economic need,” he says. That said, Vogel has always been interested in religion conceptually, and it shows when he talks about the origins of Unitarian Universalism and the history of the Fourth Universalist Society. He has become a religious person after all.
The Fourth Universalist Society Vogel helms has struggled for about a century, he says. In 1838 it was the — you guessed it — fourth Universalist community to be established in New York City, and is one of only two remaining. The congregation now counts around 150 people — twice as many as there were before Vogel began. The minister before Vogel left amidst some controversy, but Vogel says the work the congregation has been doing to heal and unite since then has been paying off. “The feeling in the congregation is that we are growing and being able to do things that we weren't able to do before, so that feels very rewarding,” he says. One of those is a capital campaign to restore and repair the church itself. So far the community has raised $1.3 million of a needed $1.5 million to replace the roof and preserve the historic building.
Outside of work, Vogel likes doing classic New York City things, like visiting museums with his fiancée and having dinner parties with his friends. He describes himself as an “architecture nerd” and is a big fan of Central Park. He carries his beliefs and principles with him everywhere, and encourages others to do the same. “How we define religion is living intentionally to make ourselves and the world a more kind, loving and just place,” he says. “If you can kind of buy into that, you have a place within our sort of religious world.”