That simple practice changed my ministry. (I believe that if I had not stood there and greeted people I would not be president today. Really.)
I was overwhelmed at how people responded. They loved being greeted. (Well, duh, I can hear you saying.) I continued the practice when I became a parish minister in Colorado. Again, people responded warmly. This practice taught me much about the people attending our services. I saw clearly how new people were coming desperately seeking spiritual community. The potential of our faith was palpable—Sunday after Sunday.
I am proud of our long history of prophetic public witness. I love seeing our bright yellow “Standing of the Side of Love” t-shirts at all kinds of social justice events. We work tirelessly on issues like marriage equality, immigration reform, and environmental justice. We are not afraid to stand on the side of love.
But love does not only take a stand. Love reaches out. And while we do a terrific job of taking a stand, historically we have not been as good at reaching out. There are lots of reasons for this. There are deep historical roots, going all the way back to the Great Awakening of the 1740s. Our Unitarian forebears were people who were skeptical of intense religious emotions.
Of course, the story of our Universalist ancestors is quite different. They felt they had a saving message and went out “into the highways and byways” preaching hope to people who were accustomed to hearing about sin and damnation.
Love reaches out. That is the essence of love. Love is our longing for deep connection. A search for connection is at the heart of all spiritual traditions and practices. The spiritual journey is a pathway into the depths of our being and also a journey of transcending the stifling confines of the self. Profound spiritual experiences are experiences of union—with others and ultimately with the great mystery of life. We are profoundly and fundamentally relational creatures.
When I forced myself to reach out, I did it out of a sense of duty. I thought my role required it. Ultimately, the reaching out changed me. It heightened my awareness. It opened my heart. I connected. It became a spiritual practice.
What is true for an individual is true for a congregation and for a religious movement. Reaching out may begin as something we feel we ought to do or need to do, but the very act of reaching out changes us. I have seen it happen in congregations again and again.
In a time of such human isolation and alienation, of such hunger for true community, reaching out in love is more than a spiritual practice. It is a moral obligation. It is the equivalent of feeding the hungry. People around us are hungry for someone to reach out to them.
Every congregation in our association has unique opportunities for reaching out. Think of the people around you who hunger for spiritual community. Think of the people you might partner with and engage. This isn’t about getting people to become members (though that is a byproduct). This is about living our faith.
Love takes a stand. Love also reaches out. And the very act of reaching is transforming.
This article appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of UU World (pages 5).