as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, February 18, 2023
He drew a circle that shut me out–
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!
Those words might be familiar. They have long been popular in Unitarian Universalist circles. They come from the poet and lifelong Universalist Edwin Markham. Active in the last part of the nineteenth century and opening decades of the twentieth one, his words would have been known to the people who founded this congregation more than a hundred years ago.
As far as we know, the first sermons preached in our tradition in Houston were given in April 1895 by the Universalist minister Quillen Shinn. Shinn was what used to be called a circuit-rider. He did not serve a specific congregation. Instead, he travelled from place-to-place, encouraging the growth of new religious communities in cities and towns without Universalist churches.
His travelling habits were so great that once, when asked for his address, he replied, “Everywhere.” He came to Houston repeatedly over the course of a decade.
We have some of the titles of Quinn’s sermons. One of his initial addresses was called “The Great Love.” The Houston Daily Post records him, in 1899, as having preached on the subject of “Paradise.”
“What are we to live for but to make this world a Paradise, a pleasant, happy place for all to live in,” he is reported to have said.
To make this world a Paradise, the words from the earliest known text of a Universalist sermon in Houston also offer the oldest articulation of a vision for our faith in this part of Texas.
To make this world a Paradise, I offer you these historic words at the beginning of my sermon on the congregation’s proposed vision, “Widening Love’s Circle,” because I want to make a simple proposition. I suggest that “Widening Love’s Circle”—making this Earth a little bit more like a paradise filled with love and justice—has always been the vision of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston.
As you might know, we are preparing to vote on a new covenant, vision, and mission. Last month, I spoke with you about the proposed covenant. It is an attempt to answer the question: What does it mean to be a member of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston?
This month, we are considering our vision. It is an effort to respond to the query: What is the purpose of our congregation?
In a couple of weeks, right before the congregational vote, we will reflect on our proposed mission. It proclaims how we will live into our vision.
Visions are supposed to be forward looking. They are statements about what we intend to do together. In claiming widening love’s circle for our vision, we are not just making a declaration of what we hope to accomplish in the future. We are honoring what we have done in the past. We are making a declaration of continuity.
Widening love’s circle, the history of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston goes back some 128 years. Though it was not until 1914, almost twenty years after Shinn’s first sermon here, that an enduring congregation was organized.
That congregation, or perhaps I should say this congregation, was part of the American Unitarian Association. Most of its early members, though, were Universalists. They believed that God loves everyone, without exception. And that the purpose of religion, as Shinn claimed in his sermon “Paradise,” was to make this the best of all possible worlds—a world where all souls can grow in unity with the divine and with each other.
In our more than hundred-year history, we have done this imperfectly. We have done this imperfectly because we are humans. And we have done this imperfectly because we are institution that was formed in the historically segregated South. In naming widening love’s circle as our vision, we should both celebrate the ways in which we have successfully lived into it in the past and be honest about the work that is left to be done.
In her reflections on the unfinished business of Unitarian Universalism, the theologian Rebecca Ann Parker tells us that we have “broken our covenant with the earth and with one another.” Ours is a faith, she observes, “of promises unfulfilled.” As a tradition, an institution, and, no doubt, as individuals, we have failed to fully live into “practices that embody loving, just, and sustainable community.”
Taking widening love’s circle as our vision, and seriously embracing that vision, will mean inspiring each other to do better than we have in the past. At the same time, it will call us to be tender with each other as we consider our collective failings—which is one reason why this work is best done alongside the practice of covenant. A truthful understanding of the past will allow us to more fully live into our vision in the future. It will give us a clearer conception of what is to be done.
The event I turn to now is the congregation’s 1954 decision to desegregate. It came three weeks after the United States Supreme Court issued its ruling in Brown v. Board of Education and outlawed school segregation. It came a decade before the Supreme Court ended segregation in restaurants. And almost fifteen years before the final lawsuits over desegregation in the city’s public schools were settled.
It meant that the congregation was the first historically White religious institution in the city to desegregate. It might have meant that we were the first historically White institution in the city of any kind to do so, though I am not certain about that.
Whatever the case, it is generally regarded as one of the congregation’s proudest moments. In the 1960s, longtime member and unofficial First Unitarian Universalist historian Alice Cowles described part of the debate that took place around the congregational vote. It was originally suggested, she records, that “church integration … [be delayed] to correspond with school integration”—it should be remembered that Brown v. Board did not call for immediate desegregation but rather deconstruction of segregation with “all deliberate speed.” Instead, a more loving vision of the congregation prevailed. The members decided that our theology demanded that we “must lead in desegregation.”
The vote was not without dust and heat. However much members of the church might have believed in widening love’s circle in the abstract, there were those who were far more committed to segregation and white supremacy than they were to the historic Universalist commitment to the transformative power of love.
Reading through the church’s archives, it is possible to find some pretty chilling stuff written by White members of this community as they left it over the congregational vote. Horace Westwood, the minister at the time, received letters telling him he made “our church appear to be a pawn of the Communists” and objecting to his willing to accept “radical left wing thinkers into the membership.” One even went so far as claim that his sermons were little more than “very cleverly disguised propaganda … which follows the communist line” while another stated that the vote to desegregate had reduced “the church into an atheistic organization with its primary emphasis on left-wing politics.”
All told, about 10% of First Unitarian Universalist’s membership resigned. Their correspondence suggests that they believed that widening love’s circle was all good and well as theology. But putting that theology into practice, moving from the ethereal realm of rhetoric to the more difficult ground of action was too much for them.
Here I am reminded of a line from the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” Working to widen love’s circle, not in the abstract but in real life, demands that we move outside of our comfort zones. It calls us to accept the challenge that building the world we dream about starts here, in our own lives, when we push our institutions—our businesses, museums, schools, and, yes, religious communities—to be more loving and just.
Let me ask you a question. If this congregation was to truly embody the world we dream about, the world filled with justice, the world in which all souls can grow in ever greater unity with the divine and in which all being is honored, would you feel comfortable here?
This sanctuary was built in 1952. Some of the people who used to sit in the pews you are now sitting in—some of the people who raised the money to construct those pews—decided that they were not comfortable staying in a church that did more than talk about creating paradise on Earth. Talking about love was all fine and good for them, but putting it into action, well, that was another matter.
James Baldwin, writing a few years later, observed how shattering love in action, the work of widening love’s circle, could be for people who believed themselves to be White—for let us never forget that race is a belief that people have sought to make real to preserve and extend their own power rather than a biological reality. He warned that widening love’s circle means giving up control, “Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does.” It means understanding God as liberation and accepting that sometimes figuratively and sometimes literally, “Love is a battle, love is a war; love is growing up…”
Love is growing up… It is hard to grow up. Growing up, reaching towards what we might call spiritual maturity, means recognizing that sometimes doing the right thing, the loving thing, requires sacrifice, it necessitates drawing boundaries. In 1954, when the congregation took its vote to desegregate, its membership told the people who belonged to First Unitarian Universalist who were openly committed to white supremacy that they were no longer welcome here if they continued to oppose racial equality.
The congregational vote took place on June 7, 1954. According to material I have found in the church archives, African American members joined almost immediately. By 1955, there were a few Black children in the religious education program. In the 1960s, the minister, still Horace Westwood, was active in the Civil Rights movement. He was serving on the Board of the Unitarian Universalist Association when, in 1965, the entire Board decided to suspend its meeting in Boston and travel down to Selma, Alabama, to take part in the civil rights movement there.
He marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. He had a colleague—James Reeb—who was beaten to death by white supremacists. He shared sermons from this pulpit about “tear gas, billy clubs, knots on one’s head … bull whips [and] songs [that] defied the cold night.” He warned that injustice and white supremacy were maintained by “the indifference of ministers … [and] the irrelevancy of the church.”
Widening love’s circle, we live to make this world a Paradise, it would be easy to this sermon into a self-congratulatory celebration. Welcoming Black people into the membership and Black children into the religious education program was no minor thing in 1954. Marching in Selma, Alabama, was not insignificant in 1965. But despite all of this, the congregation has remained overwhelming White for the past sixty-nine years.
There is a clue about why this has been the case in our archives. There is a letter from the Board President to Rev. Westwood dated July 6, 1954, just a month after the congregational vote. It in the Board President, his name was William Gray, reports that members of the youth group had made some friends with kids in one of the African Methodist Episcopal churches over in Fourth Ward. The youth group wanted to go over to their friends’ church one Sunday and “explain to them all about Unitarianism and the meaning of our Resolution.”
The Mr. Gray assured Rev. Westwood that he had “discouraged” the leader of the youth group who had approached him. Mr. Gray told the young man, “such an action would be in the nature of proselytizing” and that was counter to “the spirit of the Resolution.” This congregation’s decision to desegregate did not “mean,” in his words, “that we were to go out looking for [African American] converts.”
Rev. Westwood apparently concurred with the Board President. He took no action to reach out to the Black community. While he and First Unitarian Universalist did much to work for civil rights, and did do something to widen love’s circle, the congregation, at that time, was not ready to become too uncomfortable. Maybe losing a significant chunk of the membership and suffering vitriol and bile from people whom they had thought were their friends was too painful. Maybe they were scared of what a truly just society—and a congregation that actually embodied the Beloved Community—looked like and meant for them. Maybe they were prisoners of their time—only able to see so far and do so much—just as we bound by ours. I do not know.
But I do know this, if we vote in a month to take widening love’s circle as our vision, we should do so ready to embrace with full seriousness what living such a vision will mean for this community. It will require change. It will require discomfort. It will call for us to lean into our covenant and live out words like those of Patrice Curtis:
My kindness lays upon You, and surrounds You;
And when I fail, I frail myself,
I turn yet again and again,
to be gracious to You.
Widening love’s circle, if we vote to make this our congregation’s vision then we will be committing to two things. First, be re-affirming our historic commitment to bringing love and justice into the public square. We will be saying that the purpose of this congregation is build the beloved community and be a harbor for those who cannot find love elsewhere. We will be telling each other, and all who wish to join us, that to be part of First Unitarian Universalist is to become part of a story that revolves around a belief that it is our calling to make of this world a paradise for all.
And second, we will be acknowledging that our work is not yet done. That we will have to work to change not only society, but our institutions and this community, even if it makes us uncomfortable.
He drew a circle that shut me out–
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!
Widening love’s circle, that it might be so, I invite the congregation to say Amen.