as preached at Harvard Divinity School, October 16, 2015
The sermon I am going to share with you this afternoon is a result of one of those unpleasantries with which we preachers find ourselves saddled. I speak of the assigned sermon topic. We Unitarian Universalists like to celebrate our tradition of the free pulpit. And we should, it is a worthy tradition. But one of the things that your professors might not tell you is that you do not always get to pick your sermon topic. If you serve as a parish minister you will be often burdened with a topic of someone else’s choosing. You’re stuck with all of the holidays. Christmas, Easter, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, Flower Communion, Mother’s Day, come each and every year. But you also have to tend to the particular business of your congregation. Every minister I know dreads the annual pledge Sunday sermon. And what about Membership Sunday? You have to learn how to respond promptly to the events of the hour. Congregations across the United States will expect their ministers to preach about the results of the Presidential election next November.
This afternoon I find myself facing one of the assigned sermon topics that each of you who aspire to the parish ministry will face. I have to preach a sermon on one of the principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Our congregation in Fall River, Massachusetts invited me to take part in a series they are doing on the principles. They assigned me the fifth principle, “The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” And so, today I want us to consider democracy as a religious practice.
Democracy is a religious practice. At least, it is for us Unitarian Universalists. James Luther Adams, that great Unitarian Universalist social ethicist, liked to share a story that illustrates the way we practice democracy religiously.
In the late 1940s Adams was a Board member at the First Unitarian Church in Chicago. The congregation was in the midst of an effort to racially integrate. Unlike many pre-1960s churches, including some Universalist churches in the South, First Unitarian did not have any formal bar to people of color joining the congregation. It also did not have any people of color as its members.
Under the leadership of the congregation’s senior minister a resolution was finally passed at a congregational meeting. It read we “take it upon ourselves to invite our friends of other races and colors who are interested in Unitarianism to join our church and to participate in all our activities.” Hardly, revolutionary sounding stuff. It was divisive and possibly even radical in 1940s Chicago.
Adams relates that in the lead up to the congregational vote there was a contentious Board meeting that lasted into the wee hours. One openly racist member of the Board complained that the minister was “preaching too many sermons on race relations.” Adams writes, “So the question was put to him, ‘Do you want the minister to preach sermons that conform to what you have been saying about… [Jews] and blacks?’
‘No,’ he replied, ‘I just want the church to be more realistic.’
Then the barrage opened, ‘Will you tell us what is the purpose of a church anyway?’
‘I’m no theologian. I don’t know.’
‘But you have ideas, you are… a member of the Board of Trustees, and you are helping to make decisions here. Go ahead, tell us the purpose of the church. We can’t go on unless we have some understanding of what we are up to here.’ The questioning continued, and items on the agenda for the evening were ignored.
At about one o’clock in the morning our friend became so fatigued that the Holy Spirit took charge. And our friend gave a remarkable statement regarding the nature of our fellowship. He said, ‘The purpose of the church is… Well, the purpose is to get hold of people like me and change them.’
Someone… suggested that we should adjourn the meeting, but not before we sang, ‘mazing grace… how sweet the sound. I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.’”
Amazing grace, How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
Democracy is a religious practice. Let me suggest that in Adams story we find the basic elements of religious practice. In order for something to qualify as a religious practice it has to have an element of practice. It needs to be something that you do. Like most things we do in life, and especially in community, democracy is a learned behavior. You have to learn how to do it. Think about the other, perhaps more blatantly familiar, kinds of religious practice: prayer, meditation, reading the scripture, or sacred dance. Each of these is learned behavior. You have to learn how to pray. You might spend years trying to master meditation–or coming to understand that meditation isn’t something that you master. The same is true with democracy. In order to practice it, you have to learn it. To meditate you need to learn how to breath, how to sit, how to unfocus your mind. To practice democracy you need to learn rules of order, how to run a meeting, how to bring silenced voices into the conversation, when to speak and when to keep still.
Like other religious practices, democracy contains within it the possibility of personal and social transformation. Our racist friend ended up realizing after hours of unpleasant debate—probably around a ridiculous massive solid oak conference table sipping cold coffee in a room that did not have enough light and where the temperature was either too hot or too cold. Anyway, our racist friend recognized that “the purpose [of the church] is to get hold of people like me and change them.” And he realized “I once was lost, but now am found, / Was blind, but now I see.” And First Chicago became, as you may know, one of the most racially diverse Unitarian congregations in the country and a leader in the Northern civil rights movement.
Democracy is a religious practice. Can anyone here testify to the transformative power of democracy in your own lives? Raise your hand if you have ever had an experience like our friend in Adams story, where you went to a meeting and felt afterwards, “I was blind but now I see.”
Well, whether you raised your hand or not let me testify something to you. If you enter the parish ministry or devote yourself to some kind of community ministry you will experience the transformative power of democracy. You will go to a meeting—an emotionally wrought possibly indeterminably long meeting where the coffee goes cold—you will go to a meeting and you will leave that meeting a different sort of person. But more than that, the community that you serve will be different afterwards. You will practice democracy and undergo personal transformation. You will practice democracy and help usher in social transformation.
Such a transformative experience might take place in an exciting setting over what can be cast as an important issue. You may immediately feel, “I was blind but now I see.” The transformation also might take place in a more quotidian environment. Adams’s story is set at church Board meeting. The testimonial I want to offer you is from an equally banal setting, a congregational meeting. And the transformation that I can attest to did not occur in instant. It was spread out over years.
The congregation I served in Cleveland is small and urban. Like most Unitarian Universalist communities, my former congregation voted on approving its annual budget at a congregational meeting. By the time I got to Cleveland, the congregational meeting had devolved into an unpleasant ritual. A motion would be made to pass the budget and then an argument would begin. It was always the same. One small group of longtime members would voraciously complain that the congregation did not have enough money to pay its minister. Another group of, much larger, members would yell back that the congregation had over a million dollars in liquid assets. It could afford to support a full-time minister. The vote always went the same way. More than 90% of the congregation voted to approve the budget. But the energy of the community was drained. It was difficult for us to focus our energy on anything else.
This changed a couple of years into my ministry when the congregation got a new Board chair. She was brilliant. She was experienced in leading non-profits. And she cared about the process of decision making. Between the two of us we developed a plan transform the congregational meeting. It had a free wheeling affair. People got to speak until everyone was exhausted. We got serious about parliamentary procedure. We convinced the Board to adopt a set of rules of order that required discussion to alternate between pro and con positions. Each person was allowed to speak on an agenda item one time, instead of however many times they felt like. We set up pro and con microphones. We asked people to line-up behind the microphones if they wanted to speak on an issue.
This changed the congregational meeting. It meant that the same few people were not allowed to speak endlessly in opposition, making the same points over and over again. They got their say and then we moved on. Meanwhile, I made it a point to schedule pastoral visits with those opposed to the budget during the winter holidays and in the months leading up to the meeting. I got to know them and their concerns. Soon, the congregational meeting became a space where work could be done on things beyond adopting the budget. The congregation was able to shift its focus. Yes, there was still bickering about money. But it was not exhausting. We built a lovely community garden that served local public housing residents. We hosted refugee families from Bhutan. We were a founding member of a large interfaith and interracial network of congregations working on urban and racial justice issues.
I should come clean to you. I choose a boring story to share with you for my own testimonial. Congregational budgets? Rules of order? Parliamentarians? Did you have a good nap? Did my story turn you into a somnambulistic zombie? The truth is democracy, real democracy, is kind of boring. It is usually ploddingly slow. First Unitarian in Chicago passed its resolution in the 1947. It did not actually integrate until the mid-1950s. Democracy does not offer the kind of immediate satisfaction that many crave in a consumer culture. But that is true of other religious practices. It takes time to follow a process that gives everyone equal voice. But trying to meditate your way to enlightenment or connect to ultimate being through prayer are not quick paths.
I will further admit that I picked boring or difficult readings to highlight this. A chunk of Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America” and a passage from Fannie Lou Hamer’s moving speech “We’re On Our Way” do not usually form a part of worship fare. They are probably better suited for a graduate seminar. I imagine that you were hoping for more poetic texts, maybe a little Rumi: “Until the juice ferments a while in the cask, / it isn’t wine. If you wish your heart to be bright, / you must do a little work.” Or Audre Lorde: “Quick / children kiss us / we are growing / through dream.”
Instead you got a splash of insight into the relation between a community’s perception of the divine and its polity. Tocqueville, “There is virtually no human action, no matter how particular we assume it be, that does not originate in some very general human conception of God.” Instead you got the entangling words of a modern prophet. Hamer, “we are living in a captivated society today.” Hamer reminds us that like other religious practices democracy contains both the possibility of transformation and the possibility of stagnation, even oppression. Prayer, meditation, and scripture reading cannot all be cast as universal goods. People kill each other over their differing interpretations of scripture. Meditation and prayer can both lead to self-absorption. Democracy can go awry.
In my former congregation someone once tried to get me dismissed because we did not have congregational vote to change the color of a curtain. When practiced wrong, when focused on issues that are marginal, democracy can be immobilizing. Part of the religious practice of democracy is learning to distinguish between the issues that are important to the community and the issues that are not important.
Another part of the religious practice of democracy is finding a definition for the term. It is a term that means different things to different people. As a religious practice, democracy is a process for making decisions about matters important to communal life. In a democratic process all members of the community have equal voice and either representation or a vote.
With this definition in mind, we can remember that in the United States democracy has often gone awry over matters far less trivial than the color of curtains. It has not just immobilized communities. It has destroyed lives. In this country democracy, even democracy as a religious practice, has been far too often linked to white supremacy. The clause “all members of the community” has for much of American history meant that only white males are understood to be members of the community. And this limited notion of democracy has been used to justify slavery and genocide. I picked a reading from Hamer because she reminds us that there have been mighty struggles to change this dynamic. And that religious communities have a had a complicated role in those struggles.
Take Hamer herself. She was one of the great figures of the sixties civil rights movement. She spoke truth to power. She scared President Lyndon Johnson. He once called a press conference explicitly to take the cameras away from a speech she was giving.
Hamer, you may remember, came from a family of sharecroppers in Mississippi. She encountered the civil rights movement when she was middle-aged, after years of regular involvement in her church. In fact, the only education she received after the age of twelve took place in Bible Study. In church she learned to interpret the Bible for herself and lead hymns.
Hamer’s story reminds us that religious communities themselves provide important resources for the practice of democracy. She was critical of the church and its male leaders. Yet she took hymns and scripture, she learned in church and turned them into a powerful resource for inspiring people. She took the religious resources of the church and used them in a movement to recast society, used them to cast a vision of a society that included all members in its decision-making. She sang “This Little Light of Mine” and “Go Tell It on the Mountain” during protests and in jail to teach that democracy only truly exists when every human is valued, to proclaim that black lives matter.
Democracy is a religious practice. Hamer helps us recall that as a religious practice it is about manifesting the spirit of a community. She was effective because her songs and words made that spirit palpable.
Those of you are aspiring clergy must learn to make the spirit palpable in the communities you serve. So, my charge to you, my beautiful, vibrant, hopeful, powerful, future colleagues, is to take the religious practice of democracy seriously. Recognize that is a practice, a skill, in which you must engage in repeatedly, over and over, if you are ever to master it. Understand that your congregation will look to you help teach them the practice of democracy. Recall that democracy carries with it risks, that it can go deeply awry, when it is misdirected or, worse, held as province of the few. But most of all, remember that like all religious disciplines, it contains within it the possibility of transformation. So, go forth and study your congregational polity. Learn how to run a meeting. Memorize the important bits of Roberts Rules of Order. And prepare for the possibility that one night, during a long meeting, after the coffee has gone cold, you may find yourself singing, “I once was blind but now I see.”
Amen and Blessed Be.