as preached at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Medford, May 30, 2016
A few weeks ago I gave a talk at Starr King School for the Ministry on the challenges facing Unitarian Universalism. Starr King is, as you know, one of the two explicitly Unitarian Universalist seminaries in the United States. Located in Berkley, California, it is a center for training both future ministers and social justice activists. Over the last few decades it has been at the forefront of theological education by serving as a multi-religious training ground. In addition to training Unitarian Universalists, it has a commitment to training liberal Islamic religious leaders.
Since, I am a both a historian and a theologian I opened my talk at Starr King with nod to the past as a way of setting us on the path to the future. I gave them the same reading we just had, Mark Belletini’s “Reading for the Day.” Belletini is a Starr King graduate and he has been a transformative figure for liberal religion. He was the first openly gay man called to a Unitarian Universalist congregation. He is grounded in a multi-religious practice. Raised a Catholic, he has been profoundly influenced by Jewish liturgy and Islamic poetry. He channels the sacred through the fine arts and the human art of connection. He is devoted to teaching and cultivating the Unitarian Universalist tradition. It is a tradition which, in the words of Marilyn Sewell, teaches “that heaven and hell are not found in any kind of afterlife, but simply in the life we create on this earth.”
Mark retired this past year. In many ways, his forty year ministry has been a testament to why Unitarian Universalism was able to grow steadily over the last several decades. For the majority of the later half of the twentieth-century we have been at the forefront of proclaiming that our religious communities are open to everyone. For a long time we were one of the few places where people who not heterosexual could bring their whole selves to worship. At a time of rising interest in religions other than Christianity, we have since the middle of the nineteenth century affirmed that there are multiple paths to the divine.
Today, Unitarian Universalism is at a turning point. While we grew in numbers steadily between 1980 and 2012 for the last few years our membership growth has either been stagnant or slightly declining. What I am going to do this morning is lay out three interrelated challenges that liberal religious communities face in the twenty-first century. I am going to interweave these challenges with autobiographical illustrations and some cursory reflections on how we might meet those challenges.
Before I continue let me say that each of these challenges takes place within the framework of what we could call the great challenge. The great challenge is the question of whether or not we as a society and a human species will be able to manage the ecological catastrophe that we have created. This catastrophe emerges from our economic system of racialized capitalism. In racialized capitalism, the wealth of the world has been built off a dual exploitation. The raw resources of the planet–magnificent forests of pin straight pine and whale large redwoods, pitch coal, or tarry oil–are combined with the exploitation of primarily brown and black bodies to form the basis of mostly white wealth. To confront the great challenge of our rising ecological catastrophe we will have to confront the system that has created it. This means, as Unitarian Universalist theologian Rebecca Parker would have it, that we have to learn to live after the apocalypse. There are great catastrophes behind us and there may be great ones ahead of us. We need to learn with the present resources at hand, as Parker says, we need to engage in “salvage work, recognizing the resources that sustain and restore life.” All this, however, is something of another sermon. So, rather than focusing on the great challenge this morning, let us instead focus on some particular challenges that face our faith.
As an introduction to each challenge, a verse from Mark’s poem: “You are alive, here and now. / Love boldly and always tell the truth.”
I love to dance. I mean I love to dance. I grew up in the Rust Belt in the 1990s sneaking out of the house late at night to hustle off to warehouse parties in Detroit or Chicago. Anyone know what I am talking about? The kind of parties where the DJs played too loud house music, techno, soul… In desolate abandoned factories where everything was somehow rendered with impossible beauty I learned a passable New York liquid and a decent Detroit Jit. In those crumbling old buildings the constant throb of the bass, the unsteady footwork of the crowd, and the sheer press of multitudinous human bodies all combined into a palpable beloved community. There’s a poem called “Ode to the Dancer” that captures a little of this:
Break-dancin’ thru the impossible to eat.
The fruits of labor never tasted so sweet.
We, had the Buddhist monks challenge the
Egyptians to B-Boy battles
and had Gandhi tagging up graffiti in the
bathroom walls of the club.
Where he left messages to
The dancers and the DJ’s
To tell the people that
“You may be black, you may be white,
you may be Jew, or Jenti, but it never
Made a difference in our house!”
Those early experiences dancing in clubs and at illegal rave parties across the desolate deindustrializing landscape offer two important lessons. We live at a moment where the modes of religiosity are ever increasing. I have had religious experiences at all night warehouse parties where the music is interlaced with gospel vocals, appeals to the universal spirit, and reminders that “we are souls clapping for the souls;” at storefront yoga studios; at a meditation retreat. And, yes, I have had them on Sunday morning at church when the preacher offers the right combination of words, when the choir sings an unexpected anthem, when there is a pause between one breath and the next. What about you? Where have you had deep experiences of connection?
We might call those deep experiences of connection, in an intentional echo of Martin King, experiences of the beloved community. The beloved community can erupt anywhere. You might find it here, on Sunday morning, in this beautiful sanctuary, just past the mid-point of spring. It is that glimpse of the world as it should be. Rob Hardies, senior minister of All Souls, Unitarian, in Washington, DC, describes the beloved community this way. It is “the human family, reconciled and whole… where the divisions that separate us in our daily lives come tumbling down.” Marilyn Sewell casts its felt experience “as a moment outside time… no longer constrained by fears that us back, keep us small, keep our God small.”
We live in a period of ever increasing modes of religiosity. The beloved community can erupt anywhere. These two observations present the first challenge that liberal religious communities face in the twenty-first century. Traditional religious institutions have to re-imagine themselves to remain culturally relevant. We all know this. For those who care about congregational life, the statistics are grim. Sunday morning worship attendance is shrinking. Churches are closing. Seminaries are closing.
In the coming years, Unitarian Universalists will increasingly have to figure out how to offer guidance, inspiration, and prophetic vision to a society where there is no reigning religious norm. We will have ground our efforts to understand and transcend the great challenge in a desire to teach and explore both emerging forms of religious expression and long established ones.
“Your heart beats now, / not tomorrow or yesterday. / Love the gift of your life and do no harm.”
I left the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland to return to academia in the autumn of 2012. Since then I have been doing pulpit supply throughout New England. New England is the historical heartland of American Unitarian Universalism and my itinerant wanderings throughout the region have made me feel, at times, like an old-fashioned circuit rider. In the last years, I have led worship at the some of the largest Unitarian Universalist congregations and some of the smallest. Some of the smallest congregations in our tradition are quite small. This is a recent phenomenon for many of them.
Last year, I was invited to preach at a historic Universalist congregation in the center of a small Massachusetts city. Two centuries ago, the congregation had been served by Hosea Ballou, one the founders of American Universalism. During Ballou’s ministry, the congregation had numbered as many as a couple of thousand. The sanctuary was huge–walls with white paint, wooden pews with glistening varnish, a balcony that wrapped around the edges of the room and sat at least three hundred, a gigantic old fashioned New England pulpit that was way up there–just beautiful. It could easily accommodate fifteen hundred hardy souls. Anyone want to guess how many people were there on my Sunday morning? Anyone? Less than ten. That number includes me, my son, and my parents who were visiting from out of town.
The presence of only ten people in that cavernous sanctuary did not make the gathered congregation’s needs any less real. The struggles and aspirations of the community are present no matter how large or small the group. No matter how big or small the congregation we have bring ourselves fully to whatever religious community we enter. This instant we have together is all we have. We must make the most of it and remember that the beloved the community, that sense of the spark of the divine within each, can erupt at any moment.
No matter the size of the congregation, it can serve as an important voice for justice in its community. I was reminded of this recently when I led worship at another tiny little New England congregation in an old mill town. They asked me ahead of time what I planned to preach on. I told them the lasting impact of global white supremacy. It is a topic on which I preach frequently. It was notable enough in that town that the congregation made the local newspaper. Two full paragraphs. Page three. When Sunday morning came round the sanctuary was the fullest it had been in a long while. Afterwards, several people came up and told me that it was the first time they had heard white supremacy denounced from a historically white pulpit.
There is a truth that I am grasping for here. Even if some of our liberal religious institutions are declining they can still make an impact. In this country, movements for social transformation have always had a religious component. Re-imaging liberal religion for the twenty-first century means recognizing that it needs to continue serve the people well, no matter how few or how many. Whatever the size of a congregation we must remember that it can be a space for collective liberation. In some sense this just means remembering the truth of that well-worn quote by Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
“Life is struggle and loss, and also / tenderness and joy. / Live all of your life, not just part of it.”
I come from a long line of troublemakers, political malcontents, social agitators and religious dissidents. My grandparents, on my Mom’s side, have a connection to the Amana colonies, a Christian socialist community in Iowa. Many people on my father’s side are or were secular Jewish socialists. I was raised on stories of family members who fled this country or that to avoid fighting in another bloody capitalist war.
It is should not be a surprise that I have devoted a considerable portion of my life to the project of collective liberation. This has taken me to a number places that most people who have my privileged class background do not normally end up. Over the years, I have helped organize an independent union of bike couriers and a wildcat strike that involved over twenty thousand workers. I have gone to jail for civil disobedience and spent about seven years working with indigenous communities, including the Zapatistas, in Mexico.
It is one of the lessons that I learned from the Zapatistas that I want to lift up to you this morning. The Zapatistas, you might remember, originated as a guerilla movement in Southern Mexico. It January 1994 they seized control of about one third of the state of Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state. A movement of indigenous Mayan peasants, among them I found remarkable resonances with the Unitarian and Universalist theological traditions. Consider these words from Commandante Ester, a Zapatista leader, describing her community’s decision making process. She said, that her community tried to make decisions “without losing what makes each individual different, [in doing so] unity is maintained, and, with it, the possibility of advancing by mutual agreement.” That sounds a fair bit like the approach to community life found in our congregations.
Indeed, one of most remarkable things that I witnessed in Chiapas was the processes of community decision making. I visited a village where there was a discussion on whether or not to renounce Catholicism in favor of non-Christian indigenous religion. For several days, from morning until late into the evening, all of the community members stood around a basketball court and debated the theological merits of Catholicism and of their Mayan religion. Which did they believe was the true? Which would guide their community best in the project of collective liberation?
On other occasions, I had conversations with Zapatista educators about their educational model. They told me that its goal was to enable people to become more fully human. That sounds an awful lot like Sophia Lyon Fahs writing that the goal of religious education is “to become one’s true self.”
We have to recognize that our theological tradition has a power that extends far beyond the white and professionally classed enclaves that have been liberal religions historic strongholds. The challenge, remember I promised I was going to get to a challenge, is that for liberal religion to grow in the twenty-first century those of us who are white have to recognize our theological solidarity with a host of communities of color that articulate theologies similar to our own. This means cracking open Unitarian Universalist culture in its stuck places. This means confronting the culture of whiteness that prevents many amongst us from seeing kinds of Unitarian and universalist theologies outside of our congregations. It means expanding our conception of our religious tradition and, in doing so, meeting the challenges we collectively face in the twenty-first century.
Rising modes of religious expression; shrinking institutions; and opening ourselves to Unitarianism and Universalism outside of our historic congregations. These challenges, within the broader context of the great challenge, are some we face. Let us collectively continue upon the path of re-imagining liberal religion and liberal theology for the twenty-first century. In doing so, let us have the faith that our efforts will serve all of humanity.
And remember that every single human word is
finally and divinely cradled in the strong and secure
arms of Silence.
Amen and Blessed Be.