Jan 26, 2020
The Rev. Robert Lloyd Schaibly faithfully served the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston as its senior minister for twenty years. He is remembered by many who knew him as one of the congregation’s most influential ministers. He was the first openly gay minister to serve a congregation in the city that was not affiliated with the Metropolitan Community Church movement. This was not the only reason why the Rev. Schaibly’s ministry was historic. During his two decades in Houston, First Houston became the first sanctuary congregation in the state of Texas. It offered refuge for undocumented migrants fleeing the reigns of right-wing terror sponsored by the United States government in El Salvador and Guatemala. It also started the Houston Area Teen Coalition for Homosexuals, or HATCH, the state of Texas’s first program for GLBTQ youth. It expanded facilities--adding the three-story office and classroom building--and grew its membership to more than 500 members. Throughout this time, First Houston served as a major cultural and spiritual center, hosting numerous speakers and programs and, in the Rev. Schaibly’s words, an “uncountable” number of meetings “on the issue of war and peace and human rights.”
The visit of the anti-war activist and Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh to First Houston was of great significance to the Rev. Schaibly, the congregation, and the city. Nhat Hanh was then, as he is now, one of the world’s great spiritual leaders and primary proponents of Zen Buddhism, a religious tradition that inspired him to work tirelessly for, in his words, “peace in our hearts and on earth.”
The Unitarian Universalist minister and the Zen master developed an enduring relationship. The Rev. Schaibly visited Nhat Hanh’s Zen monastery Plum Village in the South of France several times. In 1988 Rev. Schaibly started the Zen meditation group at First Houston that eventually evolved into the Houston Zen Center.
In 1989, he preached a series of four sermons on his first visit to Plum Village and his developing connection to Zen practice and philosophy. His visit was transformative and he wanted to share what he had discovered with his beloved congregation. The Rev. Schaibly found himself opened to the practice of mindfulness, “waking up to the world,” more present to the basic realities of existence, an “appreciation of what I was eating and drinking.”
Over the course of a month he spoke with the congregation about meditation, impermanence, joy, and wishlessness. I want to focus on one of these for moment: joy. The late 1980s were a time, like today, when, as Rev. Schaibly put it, “you cannot watch the news, read the news, without becoming depressed.” Today we are also holding a memorial service, an event that is necessarily weighted with sadness. A man that many of us loved, a man who served as a religious teacher, an advocate for peace, and an inspiration, is dead.
And yet, and yet, in the face of necessary sadness of the hour, I suspect that if the Rev. Schaibly were with us here he would want us to focus on the joy and beauty of life. He believed that in our lives each of us makes a choice. Do we seek to “enliven... ourselves to all of life or deaden... ourselves to all of life[?]” He urged this congregation, which is to say many of you, to choose to wake up to the world and embrace the joy and beauty that is enmeshed with pain and suffering. Reflecting on the challenges of the late 1980s--which included the AIDS crisis, Iran Contra, CIA fueled civil wars in Central America, the so-called war on drugs, and the hole in the ozone layer--he suggested that Unitarian Universalists and all people of good heart needed to stay grounded. “And what would ground us?,” he asked rhetorically.
“The same sort of thing that grounds a lighting rod--a connection with earth. What would ground you is the reminder that the world is worth saving, that life has loveliness, that joy and beauty are also realities of the world, every bit as much as problems are, every bit as much!” It was only by staying so grounded in the joy and beauty of the world that each of us can, he believed, give to human society and our blue green ball of a planet what is required. “What your world needs from you is a calm joyous presence that is as marginal as possible to the madness of this world,” Rev. Schaibly told this congregation.
I did not know the Rev. Schaibly, or Bob as he would have wanted me to call him, well. We spoke on the phone only twice. Both times after he had lost much of his voice to the throat cancer that prompted his early retirement and ultimately took his life. In each instance, I was impressed by his thoughtfulness, his commitment to First Houston, and his calm joyous presence. After our conversations he sent me small care packages, containing material from his life with the congregation. In one of them he included this note:
It was nice meeting you by phone. Forgot to add I had few pieces of debris left from days before T-Storms were Hurricanes, and everyone was downsizing as an updated form of Transcendentalism.
I hope you enjoy First Church Houston...
Enclosed are sociology papers by two Rice students passed onto me “illegally.” What’s important is they present me in a pretty good light!”
I cannot be sure but I suspect that Bob’s note to me captured some essential elements of his ministry with First Houston. Humor was clearly important to him, one of those sociology papers records that the sermon on the day the student visited was “dotted with laughter.” And, reading through many of his sermons I detect a repeated insistence that, as he often said, “Joy is always a possibility to each life and every moment we awaken to joy we set life right.”
Alongside a reminder of the persisting presence of joy, there are at least three other elements present in Bob’s words. First, there is his sense of himself as someone located in time. He mentions “days before” to indicate that he is thinking about the past. This may seem like a trivial observation but we ministers are ever present to the reality that human existence is fleeting and we each inhabit particular moments of time. The span that Bob was allotted has now elapsed and so we are here celebrating him. Just as one day, someplace and somewhere, each of the threads of our own lives will be cut and we will be remembered.
Second, Bob wanted to be well remembered. Like most clergy, he wanted to have an enduring impact on the world. And he wanted to be liked. He appreciated that the papers showed him “in a pretty good light.” He cared about this congregation and its mission and it was important to him that its members have a “good relationship” with its ministers. In all of his sermons he displays an enormous affection of First Houston. He was not afraid to tell members that he loved sharing his life with them. And from all the stories I have heard about Bob since I arrived here I know that those of you who knew him loved sharing your lives with him.
Third, he understood himself as located within the lineage of Unitarian Universalist ministers. The passing reference to Transcendentalism--the most famous variety of Unitarian theology--invokes this. Bob attended Harvard Divinity School, served four Unitarian Universalist congregations as their minister, worked at two others, and grounded himself in our theological tradition. In a sermon on the great nineteenth century Unitarian theologian William Ellery Channing, he offered you words that are similar to what both I and many other ministers have told you from this pulpit, “The purpose of religion is to promote virtuous lives.” And in the congregation’s centennial sermon he preached, “This church has been a place to deal with that conundrum of being human and wishing for humanity to do better.” A sentiment again shared by myself and almost any other Unitarian Universalist minister you might encounter.
Joy, his place in time, the importance of being well remembered, the lineage of Unitarian Universalist ministers, you will note that I have largely left out Bob’s biographical details from this eulogy. You can read his obituary in the Order of Service. But I would be remiss not to highlight or include a few additional elements before I close. Bob shared his life for many years with his beloved husband Steven Storla. Steven shared Bob’s ministry with First Houston in many ways--offering you a loving presence alongside Bob and even preaching on occasion. Steven will be offering some of his own words shortly.
Before he partnered with Steven, Bob was married to Elinor Burke. And while their marriage ended in divorce I think Bob wanted everyone to know that they remained friends throughout their lives.
Finally, as a young man, Bob marched from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In Steven’s words, “It changed Bob’s life to see religious institutions witnessing for justice.” It also gifted him with the belief that, in his own words, “the future will find us increasingly liberated.” In his ministry and his time on Earth he sought to help bring about that liberation. A gay man, he thought of the movement for gay liberation as part of the larger effort for collective liberation. A Buddhist and a Unitarian Universalist, he sought to expand the amount of love and joy in the world. And as a human being he hoped that everyone would wake up to the glory of the world around us, a glory that is present with us today, despite the pain we feel in Bob’s death, despite the pain of mortality, despite the conflicts and crises of the hour. That’s why he often told the congregation, quoting Thomas Starr King:
“‘What a year to live in! Worth all the other times ever known in our history or any other!’
May we here feel that same love for life. These may not be the best of times but they are our times and we shall make the best of them.”
I will let Bob’s words provide my closing and say to you, as he did, Amen, Shalom, Blessed be!