Half of the thirty-seven letters we received in response to the November/December issue were inspired by Rosemary Bray McNatt's essay, "To Pray without Apology." In addition to letters remarking on theism, humanism, Christianity, and the impact of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., several correspondents took up the theme of prayer. E. Ruth Guerrieri of Jacksonville, Florida, says, "Please do not pray for me or to me. I'm capable of doing that for myself." For William Cleary of Burlington, Vermont, "Talking to God is always like talking to my dog. I use human words with my dog but he largely ignores that in favor of how I smell. Similarly I speak to God in words every day, but I suspect God cares much more about the aroma of my true feelings, of my surrender, and of my compassion for the poor."
Aaron De Groot of San Diego, California, writes that David Zucchino ("Dignity under Seige") "is too pessimistic when he laments that 'imposing Western values of democracy and human rights' on Afghanistan is doomed to failure. There is a condescending, even racist attitude behind the notion that only white Europeans are capable of democracy and adherence to widely recognized principles of human rights."
Warren Ross's article about the fellowship movement ("A Precarious Path") brought back happy memories of childhood and early adulthood in the Princeton fellowship for Gail Costanza of West Trenton, New Jersey, who writes that her current "UU fellowship, which we call a 'community,' truly lives up to that generous title."
Several letters remembered with gratitude the gifts of contributing editor Philip Simmons, who died in July. Joan French Baumel and Herbert Baumel of Yonkers, New York, write, "David Reich's beautiful tribute to the late Philip Simmons comforted us more than we can say. Simmons's essays throughout the years delighted and inspired us with their wit and wisdom."
It takes physical courage to report on war, and it takes moral courage to report on U.S. bombings of civilians. David Zucchino's article "Dignity under Siege" (November/December) about the unspeakable plight in Afghanistan stirs up a veritable hornet's nest of thoughts and feelings.
If each "trouble spot" on the face of the earth is examined out of context, it will appear to be driven by irrational, mostly local, and mostly incomprehensible forces. Thus Latin America is hopelessly prone to La Violencia. Thus Yugoslavia is hopelessly "balkanized" into warring regions and can only be bombed into some semblance of peace. Thus Iraq, hopelessly victimized by its sinister dictator, needs to be rescued from itself.
And Afghanistan? What an exotic collage of savagery and nobility David Zucchino presents. He takes us on a time-trip to a "preindustrial age" where the treatment of women "disturbs" him, the cultivation of poppies "raises ethical and moral questions," and the capacity for violence "fascinates" him. The bombing of civilians by our military forces disturbs him as well, naturally. He seems, however, reassured that among the twenty-five locations he visited, only in one were the people prepared to stone him. Everywhere else people seemed to understand the logic of collateral damage and were prepared to forgive us our "mistakes." Am I to understand that our presence in Afghanistan is justifiable because the country is primitive and anarchic, and its mysterious people, capable of heroic humor, have faith in America?
Just like the colonial powers of the nineteenth century, we really only care about resources. Thus the burning issue in Afghanistan is neither democracy nor the equality of women nor the traffic of heroin nor the bombing of civilians. The burning issue is how to find and bankroll the "stable" war lord capable of policing the pipelines.
Now that horrible damage has been wreaked on the country, should we be sending them "care" packages? I would have been the first to do so in the past. Now, however, slowly and painfully, I am coming to the conclusion that sending my contribution to buy a blanket or a can of milk for the refugee camps might be just a way to get myself off the hook. The work of "the manic Italian lawyer Alberto Cairo" is heartwarming, and we long for our hearts to be warmed against the cold fact of hundreds of thousands of people hopping about on artificial legs. Of course milk and blankets and high-tech limbs help, but can we really stop at that?
We should be involved, but the question is how. Should we continue to bully the rest of the world into serving our interests, or should we actually participate in the difficult work of living together on this tight planet? Only if we reinvent ourselves and our country can we in good conscience offer lessons of democracy to the rest of the world.
Galina L. De Roeck
Pray or Stand
Rosemary Bray McNatt asks what might have happened if Martin Luther King Jr. "had said not to God, but to one of us that he couldn't go on anymore, that he was afraid? . . . Might members of our congregations have prayed for him, or with him?" ("To Pray without Apology," November/December).
Some would certainly have prayed with him. I would hope that others, instead of praying to something that is not there, would have embraced him and said, "Do not be afraid, my brother, for we stand with you, and together we will face them."
Early in the fifty-six years I have been a Unitarian I learned that God was in my fellow Unitarians. Singly and collectively they would give me strength.
Praying is a safe and satisfying way out. Retreating to the faith of our childhood is always an option for those who grow tired, and that's all right. All of us who believe life is a journey can and must stick together in our diversity. My path is not for everyone, but let us not lose sight of anyone as we go.
South Nyack, New York
Rosemary Bray NcNatt's wonderful article, "To Pray without Apology," focused on what many of us, including Martin Luther King Jr., have seen as a tough issue for modern religious liberals since Channing: What to do with the uncomfortable truth that "sin," or the human capacity to hurt and harm others, is equally as indicative of our lives as is the "upward and onward" optimism that far too often provides no solace to those suffering, almost as if they themselves were responsible for it?
A sunshine faith may be fine if the world suits you well, but some other kind of spiritual energy is required for those who are poor or oppressed by racism. Maybe one day, none of us will have to apologize for talking about God, much less Jesus. We still have a long way to go to live our value of respecting differences.
The Rev. John C. Morgan
First Unitarian Universalist Church of Berks County
Rosemary Bray McNatt implies that humanists are somehow responsible for "losing" Martin Luther King Jr. to Unitarian Universalism! As a movement dedicated to freedom of conscience, how do we ever lose when someone follows their conscience? We lose points for scaring away King. Do we get points for Whitney Young and Thandeka?
McNatt is in error theologically, as well. By her own admission, King rejected Unitarian Universalism as an option because he felt we had an inadequate appreciation for the power of "sin" in human nature. Her argument, then, is with William Ellery Channing and Hosea Ballou: Unitarians and Universalists jettisoned the Calvinist "depravity of humankind" theory while they still considered themselves faithful Christians.
McNatt also seems to see a rather odd connection between religion and ethnicity. When I first left the Roman Catholic Church, some in my family insisted that I couldn't leave because "the Polish people have been Catholic for over a thousand years!" McNatt seems to believe that all African Americans are theists. But then, what will she do with the Rev. Dr. William R. Jones-African American, UU, and humanist? Or Dr. Maulana Karenga, creator of Kwanzaa? How about A. Philip Randolph, Zora Neale Hurston, and James Baldwin, agnostics or atheists all?
Leo V. Nagorski
Rosemary Bray McNatt's thought-provoking article raises some valid questions regarding our stated desire for inclusiveness. However, in our quest to include more of our African-American brothers and sisters, we must not lose sight of another minority. While humanists may be perfectly comfortable living in northern states, as I did for most of my life, those of us who live in the southern "Bible Belt" states find ourselves in an all-too-frequently uncomfortable situation.
The congregation to which I belong, the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Lakeland, has members who travel as far as sixty miles each Sunday morning because it is the only refuge for those who do not hold a traditional (to say nothing of fundamentalist) Christian belief. When one lives in an area in which belief in a "personal savior" and in the absolute truth of the Bible are assumed, and where one draws glares of disbelief when one admits to not being "saved," one needs a place to go for occasional respite.
Although we can know nothing of the level of persecution and injustice endured by African Americans, we nevertheless require someplace to go in which we are not considered anathema.
Unitarian Universalism helped free me from Christian churches and theologies that persecuted me as a gay man. It helped teach me the value of my own experience. It also helped me discover the heart of a Christian journey that is so right for me.
When I "came out" as a Christian, many although not all Unitarian Universalists rejected me. The "we don't talk about God here" attitude pointed to by Rosemary Bray McNatt was normative for me in many UU contexts.
The abhorrence of all things Christian that I have witnessed among many Unitarian Universalists reveals a depth of misunderstanding not dissimilar to the fears that support the hatred of gay people in my Southern homeland. In a word, I call it prejudice.
At best such prejudice is unbecoming of a Unitarian Universalist; at worst it is deadly. I believe that people like my gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender sisters and brothers are literally dying for want of the saving messages of Unitarian Universalism, and such prejudice closes doors that so desperately need to be opened.
Warren R. Ross's interesting article ("A Precarious Path," November/December) describes the split in the Boulder, Colorado, church in 1979, leading to the formation of a new fellowship. Ross credits this break-off to "ambivalence about the effects of growth." Not so! The cause was the calling of a new minister who did not please a number of members, particularly among our older members.
This split was apparent in the search committee, of which I was a member, before the nominated candidate came for his Candidating Sunday. His sermon that day was controversial and upset a number of (older) members.
Jean D. Messimer
Small Is Beautiful
As a member of the Prairie Unitarian Universalist Society in Madison, Wisconsin, I appreciated "A Precarious Path" by Warren Ross. The article points out that the leadership of our denomination has largely abandoned support for new fellowships. I think the policy mistaken and the rationale faulty.
The policy neglects some important niches of actual and potential support for the UUA.
It neglects small places. Our congregations in places like Stevens Point or Sauk City, Wisconsin, can evidently expect little assistance from the denomination, and there are large regions of the country like them.
The policy neglects potential recruits from nonreligious backgrounds or with anticlerical orientations. There are many such persons who share our values and beliefs and would benefit from joining us. They might find fellowships more congenial, at least at first, than minister-led congregations.
I find the emphasis on growth disquieting, too much like business models: Do market research, start big congregations, and make them bigger. Small is beautiful, and the multiplication of small things can be big. Think of living things.
Warren O. Hagstrom
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UU World XVII:2
(March/April 2003): 10-13