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Vermont Quarterly

Daniel Kanter ’89

Steps of Faith

Daniel Kanter

Departments / Alumni Profiles

Steps of Faith

DANIEL KANTER '89   Exploring the community beyond campus is often part of the college experience for UVM students. Usually that means downtown, the tightly packed neighborhoods of the Old North End, Red Rocks Park, rambles along the lakeshore. For Daniel Kanter, it meant a weekly seat in a pew. Together with longtime friend Paul Steege ’89, Kanter set out to visit every church in Burlington during his senior year. Greek Orthodox, Christian Science, Jewish temple, Quaker meeting house, a small Pentecostal church where the congregation of thirty spoke in tongues—the open-minded, multi-faith odyssey of his senior weekends, typified Kanter’s time at UVM and his path since.

In January, Daniel Kanter was installed as senior minister of First Unitarian Church of Dallas, assuming leadership of the fifth largest Unitarian Universalist congregation in the country. The UU church is in his heritage. His parents, both UVM alumni, David Kanter ’59 and Dorothy Aurora “Rory” De Cecio ’60, were drawn to Unitarianism from their study of Transcendentalism and got involved with the faith as undergraduates through the UU church at the top of Church Street in Burlington.

But the Kanters’ background also included the Jewish and Christian faiths. Raising their children in the Unitarian Universalist church, their household was rich in religious tradition, celebrating Passover Seder and Easter, Hannukah and Christmas.

“As many college students experience leaving home, and in some ways leaving the faith they grew up in, I was really searching for who I was going to be as a person of faith,” Kanter says. He focused on religion and psychology at UVM, spent a study abroad year in India exploring Hinduism, dug deep closer to home on those Sabbath field trips in Burlington.

Post-UVM, Kanter’s search would draw him east again, as he studied Buddhism in India through Antioch College. During that time, he and a friend embarked on a silent retreat, trekking north of Kathmandu. “In some way in my mind, it was preparation to be a zen monk,” Kanter says. Caught in a Himalayan snowstorm at 14,000 feet, the friends sat in contemplation one morning. Recalling what would be a turning point in his life, Kanter says, “The words came to me ‘return home and serve your people.’” In retrospect, Kanter sees that call as an awakening from within, a realization that the grounding he sought in the exotic was better found in his own life.

Before seminary and joining the UU ministry, Kanter would live on a kibbutz in Israel, teach troubled teens in Burlington, and work in apple orchards in Vermont and New York, adding to the texture of experience that informs his work today with his congregation and the community beyond.

Scarcely a month into his new job as senior minister, Kanter describes his dual role as spiritual leader and CEO with a staff of twenty-five and a budget of $2 million. He keeps balance with a disciplined schedule, devoting Mondays and Wednesdays to spiritual practice, reading, and writing; Tuesdays and Thursdays are reserved for “meetings, e-mail, all that other stuff.”

Kanter hopes to lead the Dallas First Church into a more prominent community role. He notes that in the religiously conservative South, UU congregations can be insular, the “sanctuary becomes a sanctuary from that conservative culture.” Kanter says he envisions the Dallas church “moving out a little more into the city and into the world to be effective. Because, ultimately, Unitarians are about deeds and not creeds. We’re not going to get to agreements about what we believe so much as whether our work is effective in society.”

Thomas Weaver

Originally published in the Spring 2009 issue.

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