As Unitarian Universalists, our journey is to transform the big and the small, to transform ourselves, and to transform the world.
The Unitarian Universalist feminist and peace activist Margaret Moseley called social justice work moving mountains one stone at a time. Margaret was born in Dedham, Massachusetts in 1901. She dreamed of being a nurse, but being African American, she was turned away from all of the nursing schools in Boston. She went on to help found Cooperative Way and Freedom House and to lead the anti-McCarthyism movement and the Community Church of Boston.
We move mountains, one stone at a time; as Unitarian Universalists, our journey is to transform the big and the small, to transform ourselves, and to transform the world. Universalism means no one is outside of the circle of love, and no one is disposable. We stubbornly seek out the spark of the divine in each other, no matter what. Interdependence means none of us is truly free until we are all free, and our thriving is bound up in the earth’s thriving. We struggle for liberation from the violence of white supremacy, sexism, ableism, classism, and heterosexism. Our covenants mean we make promises to our communities to honor love and justice above all else.
Unitarian Universalism is there in the youth group at the Pride Parade, covered in rainbows and glitter. Unitarian Universalism is there in the climate activist on trial for doing what she sees as necessary to return to a right relationship with the earth. Unitarian Universalism is there in the congregation providing space, childcare, and dinner for the coalition organizing after the police killing of a young person. Unitarian Universalism is there in the justice team that accompanies an undocumented person to her court dates, raises money for her legal fees, and builds community with her family.
Unitarian Universalism is for those who have seen the arc bend toward justice and those who doubt it will ever bend but know we must organize as if our lives depend on it anyway. Some theologies say that only some people are saved. From those theologies flows a world where people are criminalized for their identities—for being Muslim, transgender, black, undocumented. Our theology says that we are all saved, and salvation is what we strive to build now, for each other. So we resist any laws, policies, or practices that deny anyone their humanity. We know that now on earth is our chance to create heaven. We know that love crosses borders and prison walls, lives in queer families and disability justice organizers, thrives among trans young people and working-class elders.
Some religions think of suffering as something that happens to individuals, which individuals must heal from. As Unitarian Universalists, we know suffering is also collective, and that we heal collectively. The original wounds of slavery and genocide in this country cannot be fully repaired in any one individual life. Instead, we work for collective healing and liberation.
Our Unitarian Universalist justice ancestors like Margaret Moseley remind us that we are not alone and that we come from a long legacy of healing and repair. Our legacy includes those who have sacrificed for justice and those who have been cowardly in the face of injustice. We know that behind the struggles for the abolition of slavery, for voting rights, for LGBTQ justice that can look so pretty in the newspapers, there is messiness, betrayal, falling short, and the seduction of choosing comfort over convictions.
Unitarian Universalism is there, too, reckoning with all the ways we have broken our vows and all of our imperfection. With the parent trying to figure out how to get through the day and show up for that community meeting. With those of us who are white, trying to speak up and act out against white supremacy and also love ourselves and our families. With those of us who are people of color, trying to unapologetically live our values, knowing the cost that can come to our careers and our spirits. We are already saved from perfection. Unitarian Universalist community, songs, prayers, and spiritual practices are there to remind us when we forget.
For me, it’s singing. Because when I’m singing, I’m breathing. When I’m terrified that the meeting is going to fall apart, when someone I trust and look up to is giving me feedback that’s hard to hear, or when I’m about to knock on someone’s door or engage in direct action or sit down with the elected official or write the grant, that’s when I try to remember that I can sing.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not a good singer. But it’s not about being a good singer. It’s about remembering that singing brings me back to courage, possibility, and enough space for spirit.
Unitarian Universalists practice living our values, not just on Sunday mornings or on our best days. We practice embodying our deepest truths under pressure, when our backs are against the wall. This is a thorny spiritual truth—that who we are on our worst days is who we actually are.
Organizer Caitlin Breedlove often says that we respond to crisis with our highest level of training, not with our highest values. Buddhist teacher the Rev. angel Kyodo williams writes that “today’s progressive leaders must systematically and lovingly prepare us to tolerate the inherent discomfort of change now in order to wedge open the way to transformation in the future . . . They must do this under pressure; they must do this while in motion; and they must do this with and on behalf of others.”
Pressure reveals to me where I am so practiced and where I have never done this before. Pressure reveals to me where I embody my values—they are not separate from me—and where they are the first things I forget about. Whatever we practice, we get really great at. If we practice flexibility, humility, courage, we get strong at those things. If we practice rigidness, ego, cowardice, we get strong at those things. If we practice saying no one ever trained me to do that or we don’t have enough or I’m afraid to try, that muscle gets more and more practiced.
When my father’s family came to the United States as refugees from Vietnam, a woman named Ruth in Wisconsin opened her home and welcomed them. Ruth had somehow gotten enough practice living her values under pressure that she was willing to have her family’s life transformed by mine. There is a thing that happens for so many of us: that some things are news and other things are family. For some of us, increased Islamophobia is news. For some of us, increased Immigration and Customs Enforcement or surveillance of activists or stop-and-frisk or addiction or climate chaos or cash bail are issues or headlines. For some of us, it’s family.
As Unitarian Universalists, we live our values because they are morally right but also because we know that we are family. We are going to fight for each other like family because, in the end, if we believe in our words about interdependence, they actually are.
I once saw a little sign, carved in wood, that read, “There is only the hard way.” Many of us have been harmed by theology that told us that suffering was a sacrifice that would bring us closer to God. Many of us were told that our suffering would redeem us, even when we knew that actual redemption would have been to be free from the suffering to begin with. Many of us are only here because of the sacrifices of others. So much of what is possible to carve out in this world requires some giving up, some letting go, some sacrifice.
That is the truth of that little wooden sign: there is no easy way. There is only the hard way. In particular, the work of justice often asks us to do impossible, hard, terrifying things. There is no easier way. There is only this one hard way. Folks with more privilege sometimes get caught up here. “If it’s hard, maybe we are doing it wrong,” we tell ourselves. We are lulled by our experiences of choosing between a hard choice and an easier one. Folks with less privilege know that many of our choices are between a horrific choice and a horrific choice. We learn to live with that and keep going.
Many of us want to do the right thing, the just thing, the generous thing, and also to not have to give anything at all. We want to share our opinions but not actually donate our evenings, our weekends, our doing-dishes-while-on-the-conference-call to get to understand the work enough to be able to offer meaningful thoughts. We want people to trust us and let us shape the vision but not actually risk inviting folks out to tea, dinner, beers, or church to build a relationship that endures and carries us forward. We may want to post the cute meme without actually making the phone call to the city councilor or state representative. We want to be part of that powerful, courageous, game-changing, direct action without the long-past-midnight planning meetings, the messy decision making, the frayed relationships, and the constant wondering if this is even worth it. We want to talk about being bound together in interdependence but do not actually want to give our guest room to a stranger, give a paycheck to someone we’ve never met, or turn our schedule inside out to do what needs to be done.
The word sacrifice might be too much mess for some of us, too tainted by oppression and coercion. What matters more is that we are willing to live our lives in the shape of what is being asked, not hope that what we are asked to do will fit the shape of our lives.
I can’t unknow the sacrifices that my parents, my grandparents, and my ancestors made for me. I can wish there had been another way, but that’s an alternate world. In this one, what others have done for me becomes fuel for figuring out how to “keep moving with your heart hurt and your body starting to tire,” as Toshi Reagon sings. One of the principles of Movimiento Cosecha is sacrifice: “Our seeds come from the tree of sacrifice. We honor the hard work of all the people who bring their gifts to the movement. We believe that people’s work in Cosecha is for the collective well-being of everyone and not for personal gain or to advance individual interests.” Mary Hooks, in her work leading Southerners On New Ground, offers this mandate: “to avenge the suffering of our ancestors, to earn the respect of future generations, and to be transformed in the service of the work.”
As Unitarian Universalists, we lean into the hard questions: What do we value that we are willing to let go for something we value even more? What must we do to earn the respect of those who come after? What is the hard way we are willing to go?
What about when we disagree? It happens, all of the time. Our spiritual muscles are what allow us to stay in community across difference, differentiate the fake disagreements from the real ones, and sort out when to be humble about what we might not understand, and when to be unwavering in what we know to be true.
As the Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt has written, “The truth is this: If there is no justice, there will be no peace . . . if we cannot bring justice to the small circle of our own individual lives, we cannot hope to bring justice to the world. And if we do not bring justice to the world, none of us is safe and none of us will survive. Nothing that Unitarian Universalists need to do is more important than making justice real—here, where we are.”
This essay is adapted with permission from The Unitarian Universalist Pocket Guide, Sixth Edition (Skinner House, 2019).
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The Rev. Elizabeth Nguyen roots for the Wisconsin Badgers, lives in Boston, and is learning all the time about liberation, solidarity, courage, and cowardice. She is a community minister and part of the Boston Immigration Justice Accompaniment Network. She serves on the Beantown Society advisory board and the Unitarian Universalist Community Cooperatives board. Singing at the Sanctuary Boston, cooking, and remembering to pray are some of her spiritual practices.
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