Building the Beloved Community


as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, March 5, 2023

As some of you know, I was not with you last week because I had the honor of preaching the ordination sermon for the Rev. J Sylvan down at the Bay Area Unitarian Universalist Church. Ordinations are special affairs. They typically mark the culmination of years of effort on the part of the new minister and the moment when a congregation decides that they want to elect someone to our ministry.

In our tradition it is the congregation, and the congregation alone, that has the power to ordain someone. The fellowship committee of the Unitarian Universalist only recommends someone for ordination. The actual act, the actual ability to make an individual a minister, is vested in a specific religious community.

It is the membership, gathered in a congregational meeting, that has the power to call settled ministers, elect officers, adopt statements of covenant, and determine the direction of the community. In the long history of our movement in North America, uplifting the democratic power of the assembly has been one of our most enduring practices.

There is something moving between us that we cannot tame and cannot measure.

The purpose of the church is to get hold of people like me and change them.

These two quotes offer different expressions of the power that can be present in congregational meetings. They express aspects of what we Unitarian Universalists call our living tradition. We do not take our theology as fixed. To be a Unitarian Universalist, and to be a Unitarian Universalist congregation, is to constantly be reworking and reimagining our understandings of what it means to be religious and to be alive.

We have a great deal of theological diversity amongst us. But we have settled on a few things. As James Luther Adams pointed out years ago, we agree that both life and salvation–whatever that might be–take “place in community and in time.” This sense of nowhere else but here is tied our belief that revelation is not sealed. New knowledge, new forms of experience, new kinds of creativity, new ways of being, are always arising. Scientific discoveries challenge and expand our knowledge of life, the universe, and everything.

We “believe,” Ethelred Brown wrote, “that Religion and Science are not contradictory but complimentary.” It is not a coincidence that Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin, amongst other leading scientific thinkers, have connections to our faith. Nor is it a coincidence that many Unitarian Universalist theologians, such as Thandeka, look to the most recent scientific findings as a resource for their work.

I mention all of this on a Sunday in which we will be holding an important congregational meeting. I want to offer you a gentle reminder that to be part of this congregation is to be open to change. And following the second service, those of us who have been members of First Unitarian Universalist for sixty days or more will be voting on two items. First, we will consider approving the proposed vision, mission, and covenant. Second, we will be deciding whether or not to accept the new bylaws.

Each of the documents that the membership will contemplate is the result of months worth of effort by dedicated lay leaders. Through intentional engagement, numerous conversations, and not a little debate, committees of the Board have worked to carefully craft an entwined set of texts that represent two dimensions of the congregation’s aspirations: to determine the community’s purpose and to practice self-governance.

There is something moving between us that we cannot tame and cannot measure.

The purpose of the church is to get hold of people like me and change them.

The spirit of this congregation is greater than something that can be put into words. It is found in the acts of kindness, the practice of worship, the devotion to inquiry, the insistence on justice, that we share together. It is expressed in our commitment to build the beloved community–a world which in the human family is whole and reconciled and we live in ever greater harmony with the Earth.

Building the beloved community requires individual change, individual transformation. James Luther Adams’s story is a favorite example of this. In it, the antagonist finally recognizes that to be part of a congregation is to accept the possibility that life together will alter us for the better–though that reshaping will not always be easy or comfortable. Indeed, the company of that “something moving between us that we cannot tame and cannot measure” can sometimes even be overwhelming.

Last time I was with you, I spoke with you about one of the moments in the history of this congregation that changed how the then membership understood what it means to build beloved community. I shared with you something of the story around First Unitarian Universalist’s 1954 decision to desegregate. And I described how, after that decision, about ten percent of the membership resigned.

They were afraid of change, personal transformation. They did not want to be part of a community whose purpose included getting ahold of people like them and pushing them to live out their values, rather than merely talk about them. Instead of the discomfort of a living tradition, in which what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist shifts some from generation to generation, they wanted the comfort of fixity.

But a Unitarian Universalist congregation, like Unitarian Universalism, is anything but fixed. The vote on the proposals this afternoon is a reaffirmation of our living tradition. It is an expression that the members of First Unitarian Universalist are the ones who control its fate and its corporate identity. And it is an acknowledgment that the nature of this community alters across time.

In the lead up to such a vote, it is worth reviewing the living tradition of this particular congregation. It is unique, though it follows many of the larger trends within our movement.

As I shared with you a couple of weeks ago, the initial impetus to organize this congregation came from the Universalist circuit rider Quillen Shinn at the end of the nineteenth century. But it was not until February of 1914 that the First Unitarian Church was gathered. At its first congregational meeting, the members–there were eight of them at the time–elected their leadership. At its second one, they passed a resolution to describing the purpose as devoted to the promotion of “the high ideals of a reasonable, reverent and helpful religion” and adopted a covenant that explicitly linked the new community to liberal Christianity.

The Rev. Arthur Winn was one of the ministers from this early era. Described by congregational historian Alice Cowles as “a white haired, ethereal looking man,” he preached sermons in which encouraged the members to take Jesus as a moral exemplar. He exhorted them with statements like, “we would do well to think of Jesus as he was, the champion of freedom, the teacher who did not look back to scribe or prophet, and ‘the leader of those who would rise to the highest possibilities … of the spirit that dwells within.’”

The minister who followed Winn was the Rev. John Petrie. He began his work here in the autumn of 1938. Prior to him all of the ministers had served short terms–some only for a few months and others for a couple of years. Unlike them, Petrie was the congregation’s first longstanding minister. He stayed just over a decade.

Alice Cowles remembers him as “very hard of hearing.” She observes that his wife Ethel accompanied him almost everywhere, conducted much of the pastoral care, and was known for the gifts of “fruit or flowers from her yard.”

It was under Petrie’s ministry that First Unitarian Universalist really began to develop its particular living tradition, though not necessarily in ways that he approved.

He was one of the most politically and theologically conservative Unitarian ministers of his generation. He began his religious service as an aspirant for the Catholic priesthood, converted to Episcopalianism, then moved on to our tradition, and arrived in Texas as the kind of Unitarian who proclaimed, “the Fatherhood of God, the Brotherhood of Man, and the Leadership of Jesus.”

These were the years when humanism was growing in dynamism and popularity amongst our congregations. Petrie did not approve. He published statements that almost read like creeds in First Unitarian Universalist’s newsletters that affirmed his commitment to Christianity. He attacked the “atheistic philosophy calling itself ‘humanism [as] … the worst enemy of man” and decried those who “preached [it] from the pulpit.” He publicly called Unitarian ministers who he disagreed with Communists. And then he began to urge the congregation to leave the American Unitarian Association, one of the precursors to our present Unitarian Universalist Association.

He actually managed to go so far as to successfully convince First Unitarian Universalist to disaffiliate with the Southwest Unitarian Conference. He then managed to persuade the members, at a congregational meeting, to affiliate with the Texas Conference of Congregational Churches. For the rest of his ministry, First Unitarian Universalist took the name of First Unitarian Congregational Church.

His signature accomplishment was raising the funds to build this sanctuary. The congregation had been meeting on this property since the early 1930s. During his ministry, the congregation held a meeting and decided to stay on this lot rather than move out to the suburbs. Though it was not articulated as such at the time, the vote marked the beginning of the membership’s enduring commitment to be a center city congregation.

Though the membership grew tired of Petrie’s tirades by 1949, they did not do so before the design of this space began. I have not seen direct evidence of this in the archives, I suspect that it was due to his influence that a subtle cross was installed in the big Fannin facing windows.

Following Petrie’s departure, the congregation met to call the Rev. Horace Westwood as the minister. Westwood was far less doctrinaire than Petrie. His father was a noted Unitarian minister, and he was the first clergy person to serve this congregation who was devoted to theological pluralism. Shortly after he arrived, he began pulpit exchanges with the Rabbi of Temple Emmanuel and preached sermons in which he affirmed “unity in diversity.” He also spoke respectfully of humanism from the pulpit, though he claimed to be a variety of theist.

This quickly proved to be too much for the members who had found Petrie to be inspirational. They decided to leave en masse and form what is now the First Congregational Church of Houston. Interestingly, this congregation decided to support them in their effort to form a liberal Christian community. Our newsletters from this time have encouraging articles about their efforts. It is notable that their present mission is quite similar to this congregation’s initial covenant and that their minister for many years, the Rev. Bob Tucker, used to meet with the Houston Unitarian Universalist ministers on a regular basis. He joined First Unitarian Universalist upon his retirement.

A few years after the congregation aided in the establishment of the First Congregational Church, it formed another Unitarian church. Emerson was initially served by Westwood for a year before calling their own minister. The story is told that he would finish preaching here and then get on his bike and ride over to Bering Drive, past what’s now the Galleria area, to preach it again.

By the time the Westwood era had ended certain key characteristics of this community had been established. These included a commitment to being a center city congregation, a centering of the struggle for justice within community life, a dedication to supporting other Unitarian congregations, and a devotion to religious pluralism.

Westwood left in 1972. He was followed by the Rev. Webster Kitchell, who uplifted his interpretation of indigenous spirituality as part of an expansion of the community’s sense of pluralism. His ministry also saw the congregation support the formation of yet another church. This time lending encouragement, aid, and an initial meeting space to the Metropolitan Community Church–a Christian community explicitly focused on serving the LGTBQ+ community.

Kitchell was here for about a decade. The minister after him was the Rev. Bob Schaibly. Many of you knew him. I spoke with you about his ministry several weeks back during my sermon on the proposed covenant. It included pathbreaking work with the LGBTQ community and important advocacy for the city’s immigrants. What I did not share at the time, and which longer term members will recall, was Bob’s relationship with Buddhism.

It is because of him that we have a Zen garden in our courtyard. It was because of him that this congregation was once again able to expand its commitment to religious pluralism. He studied with Thich Nhat Hanh and, while serving as your minister, was one of the founders of the Houston Zen Center.

There is something moving between us that we cannot tame and cannot measure, the living tradition of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston. When we hold our congregational meeting this afternoon we will be affirming that we are a living tradition. We will be honoring this community’s evolution from liberal Christian to religious pluralism. And we will be stating the nature of our living tradition today.

I hope we will be adopting a covenant, a statement about what it means to be a member of this communion. I hope that we will be voting to approve a vision, a statement describing what this community aspires to do in the world. And I hope that we will decide upon a mission, a statement of how we will realize our aspirations.

Let me address that last point, the mission, before I close. I have not focused on it throughout this sermon for a single reason. I suggest that a review of the congregation’s history reveals that it is not a new mission. Instead, it is the mission that you, and your religious forebears, have come to over the course of the congregation’s more than hundred-year history. If you adopt the mission, you will affirm what is already the living tradition of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston. You will recognize how you have strived to build the Beloved Community in the past and recommitting to do so in the future.

There is something moving between us that we cannot tame and cannot measure.

The purpose of the church is to get hold of people like me and change them.

In reverence for the living tradition that is Unitarian Universalism, and with respect for that which is greater than all but resides within each, I invite the congregation to say Amen.

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