When our values are threatened, a congregation is an anchor against despair.
Members of First Parish in Brookline at the Boston Women’s March, January 21, 2017 (Marion McCollom Hampton).
People who have never been Unitarian Universalists often ask me why we bother with the whole church thing. Buildings and ministers are expensive. Committees and classes and Sunday services are time-consuming. And for what? Our churches don’t promise to take us to heaven. At the end of the day, we’re going to make up our own minds about the big questions anyway, and choose a path through life according to our own consciences. So what’s the point?
Sometimes UUs respond that we’re looking for community, an answer which (in my experience) has never impressed anybody. People join other religions to fight the cosmic battle between Good and Evil, or to keep the devil within them at bay. By contrast, “community” makes it sound like UUs are looking for a fourth for bridge.
Sometimes we are, and there’s nothing wrong with that. (The bulk of my lifelong friends are people I met at UU churches.) But these last few months have brought home just what our kind of community means, and what it is for.
A Unitarian Universalist church is not just a community of interests or tastes or people who happen to get along. It is a community of values. The UU Principles are not a list of opinions about the cosmic order or the nature of God or the afterlife; they are visionary statements describing the world we are trying to bring into existence: a world where all people are valued, are free to find truth for themselves, and live in harmony with the world around them, to mention just a few.
At times, this last election seemed like a referendum on those values. Should we pursue a world community with justice for all? Or put “America first” regardless of justice? Should those of us who are white or male or straight or economically secure or English-speaking or native-born or able-bodied (I am all seven, at least for now) care about those who lack our privileges? Or is that very concern the “political correctness” that is ruining America?
Most disturbing of all, open white supremacy was back on the public agenda, as if racists were just another constituency. Even if no candidate officially embraced its vision of a white ethno-state, the alt-right movement was not treated as toxic. Its memes could be shared and retweeted. Its allies could take prominent roles in the campaign. And if its open endorsements were still disavowed, they were sloughed off casually rather than shaken off in horror.
If it was unsettling to watch our core values put up for a vote, it was devastating to lose that vote.
I am just a few years too young to have found my political identity in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, but many of my friends did. To them, the election felt like a personal rejection. (One of my social-media friends is a lifelong political activist who had already been battling depression. “My life has been wasted,” he wrote.) Feminists must also feel rebuked: not only are women still held to a different standard, but a dozen independent reports of sexual assault can simply be ignored.
My gay and lesbian friends are worried, and some are afraid: Are their hard-won rights secure? How much discrimination against them will be legalized under the guise of “religious liberty”? Even more immediately, Hispanics and Muslims are concerned about their physical safety. And those who have been asking whether black lives matter might well interpret the election as an answer: no, they don’t.
At times like this, “community” means a lot more than just people you can make small talk with, or a place to hold social events.
On the weekend after the election, I was leading the Sunday service at the Unitarian Church of Quincy, Illinois, the town where I grew up, but haven’t lived for many years. Adams County had voted 3-to-1 for Trump, and the local Unitarians were feeling not just defeated, but encircled. To them, the voters who had rejected their values were not some abstract demographic like “the white working class.” They were the neighbors.
Church was well attended that morning. I think the members just needed to be together, to look each other in the eye, and to know that they were not alone. We read #594 in the hymnal, the responsive reading that lists the UU Principles. It felt good to say them out loud and hear others say them too.
No, we implicitly assured each other, we are not going to fall into despair. We are not going to retreat into our individual homes and hide or hibernate until some future time when (we hope) the dangers will have passed. If we were alone, fear and discouragement might overwhelm us, and those options might seem irresistible. But we are not alone.
Have our countrymen forgotten why these values are important? Have issues we thought were closed forever come open again? Do we have to go back and make our case all over again from the beginning?
Very well, then. Let’s get started. Together.
Why are we a congregation? This is why.
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Doug Muder is a contributing editor and columnist for UU World. His articles have also appeared in Religious Humanism, The Humanist, and Public Eye. He blogs at The Weekly Sift and Free and Responsible Search, and is a member of First Parish in Bedford, Massachusetts.
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