Questions probing the heart of Unitarian Universalism.
At the end of a June 21 public witness rally during the UUA General Assembly in Spokane, Washington, UUs and local activists form a heart in the park where hundreds called for criminal justice reforms (© 2019 Christopher L. Walton/UUA).
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Excerpts from the theme conversation at the UUA General Assembly, June 22, introducing questions for reflection about the heart of our faith.
UUA Co-Moderator Elandria Williams:
We continue our themed discussion this morning about what it means to be a faith community. We are here to grapple with the depths of the spirit and the scope of the great mystery and to figure out together how to find the strength and clarity to live a life of purpose, intention, liberation every day.
UUA Co-Moderator Mr. Barb Greve: At this General Assembly, we are exploring a new way of being with each other through the theme of our interconnection: the power of we. We’ve been following the threads of this all week together: the power of we, the possibility of we, the purpose of we, the struggle of we, and the joy of we.
Williams: This morning we will invite you deeper into a conversation with yourself and each other about what is at the heart of our faith. We know that if we want a Unitarian Universalism that is thriving and not just surviving, we must be clear about what is at its heart and bolder about what it calls for us to do. Are you ready?
Greve: Our discussion will be organized around three critical questions:
UUA Executive Vice President Carey McDonald:
Our first question arises from our first faithful Source, “direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and openness to the forces that create and uphold life.” At the UUA, we’ve been gathering stories of times when our congregations and communities embodied the power of we.
UUA Executive Vice President Carey McDonald (© 2019 Nancy Pierce/UUA)
This spring, the five congregations in Mississippi have been renewing their ties. UUA Southern Region staff visited each congregation to work on building relationships. A cluster weekend in Jackson, Mississippi, this March featured a tour of the UU Church of Jackson’s new location; remarks from Jaz Brisack, a member of the Oxford congregation and the first female Rhodes Scholar from the University of Mississippi; discussion groups; worship; and a visit to the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. It was a breakthrough in attendance by people of color and youth. In fact, plans are now under way for a Mississippi UU Youth Summit.
In Maine, the UU Church of Saco and Biddeford and the Sanford UU Church have a history of working together. Three years ago they entered a new phase of their relationship when they jointly hired an interim minister, who helped them deepen their collaboration. Last year they formed a joint ministerial search committee and have now called their first shared minister, the Rev. Shay MacKay.
In the early 1950s, First Unitarian Church of Cleveland, Ohio, split into two congregations after a close vote committed the congregation to move from the city to the new suburb of Shaker Heights. Those who remained formed another congregation, committed to staying, the UU Society of Cleveland. But six decades later, after two years of deep discernment, the congregations reunited this January to create a new congregation under the name the UU Congregation of Cleveland.
The UU Church of Boulder, Colorado, joined the growing number of congregations willing to offer physical sanctuary to immigrants who are under threat of deportation. After the congregational vote, their largest tenant left in opposition, taking a chunk of the church’s budget with them. The congregation rallied, increased its own giving, raised money from nearby churches, and completed a Faithify crowd-source campaign to close the gap. So when the call came last year to host a sanctuary guest, they were able to say yes. They are currently hosting Ingrid Encalada Latorre in sanctuary and we pray for her case’s swift resolution.
My personal answer to this question takes me back to the youth-led circle worship I experienced in high school as a UU. My peers from other congregations encountering the holy together in the same sanctuary, or sometimes under the stars; singing ourselves into the space, as we heard this morning: “We are a circle within a circle”; the love of the divine was an actual hug; nature’s interwoven tapestry was the sound of thunder in our hands; the affirmation that you, yes you, you, too, are worthy, as someone looks deep into your eyes while you look deeply into theirs: invented and inherited rituals I will remember for the rest of my life.
Do we choose our path in life or does the path choose us? The truth of collective salvation is that our destinies are inseparable. So much of our paths are chosen by the people around us in our families and our communities. I could not imagine that I would find myself here, before you today, but others knew. Others saw potential in me and loved me to where I am in ways I can only appreciate in retrospect.
Whose path are you shaping today? Who is shaping yours? Do we have the courage, the humility to live openhearted in a world where we hold one another in the palm of our hands, while knowing we are being held at the same time? When you think about when you have felt the power of we, think about when you most knew this interdependence to be true, when you felt it in your bones.
UUA Co-Moderators Mr. Barb Greve and Elandria Williams. (© 2019 Christopher L. Walton/UUA)
UUA Co-Moderator Mr. Barb Greve:
For me, the answer to this question is simply that I am willing to sacrifice for the saving, loving message of Unitarian Universalism. I would not be alive today if it were not for this message.
I’ve known my gender identity since I was very small—probably about age 4 or 5. Because of being raised UU, and our insistence on lived experience as part of the holy, I was able to trust my own understanding of my identity. I was never taught that my internal truth was wrong or unholy, as so many queer and trans folk are taught today. That teaching, that trusting of my inner voice and experience and God’s love (however you define God), the trusting of love of community, that message was truly lifesaving for me.
As an adoptee, I’ve always been very aware of our faith’s impact on my life. Had I not been raised in a family that embraced the pluralism of Unitarian Universalism, I wouldn’t have had the creativity and capacity to live my life in the ways that I have. I had to be creative because there were few or no role models for nonbinary people when I was growing up. So I never take for granted the fact that I was raised by a family that gave me the gift of a faith with such a loving message.
But at the end of the day, sacrifice is also about letting go of something that we hold dear individually, that thing that is holding back the collective we. Sacrifice is about what, for the love of the faith, each of us is willing to offer up and let go of. When people collectively come together in faith, we become more than our human limitations, and when we enter into a faith community, we are entering into a space that exists beyond us as individuals, so the sacrifice that we are called to do is a loving letting go of what keeps us separate from one another.
That letting go is different for each of us depending on social location and power. Already most UUs with multiple marginalized identities have made great sacrifices and regularly continue to sacrifice in order to believe that this faith can live into its fullest potential. If practicing this faith has not already asked a lot of you in terms of your own comfort, it’s time to consider what you need to lay down on the altar that is dear to you but keeps you out of connection to others in our faith community. Allowing ourselves to be changed is what allows our communities to thrive.
In many ways, I have sacrificed—or, I prefer to say, dedicated—my life to our faith, from becoming a Sunday school teacher at age 11, to revitalizing my congregation’s youth group as a teen, to serving on the UUA staff as a young adult, to going to seminary, to serving in congregations, to saying “yes” to being your co-moderator. The reason I keep showing up for our religion that has let me down time and again and broken my heart time and again is because I want that same loving, saving message that I have internalized to be available to everyone.
At our best, Unitarian Universalism embodies a love that is all-encompassing and a pluralism that is truly embodying the “both/and” of communities. We can build the world that can coexist, find meaning together, and encourage one another’s spiritual growth. That is the saving message. But the word sacrifice comes from the Latin words sacra and facere, meaning “to perform sacred rites.” As you think about what is so important in Unitarian Universalism that you would be willing to sacrifice for it, I also invite you to think about this process of letting go—this practice of giving up “me” in service to “we”—as a sacred rite. What makes this an act of faith is trusting that making a sacrifice, and moving through the feelings of loss or fear or discomfort that might accompany it, will eventually and ultimately bring you more joy, more fulfillment, more love.
The question of what in Unitarian Universalism is worth sacrificing for gets at the heart of why this religion matters—not just as a place to go on Sundays, but why it matters in your life and the world. Thank you for opening your heart to the question and the answers that arise.
Put your feet down, because we’re about to do embodiment.
Close your eyes. Breathe in and breathe out.
When you hear the word liberation—liberatory spirit, liberatory life, liberatory possibilities—what does that conjure in your soul?
When you hear, “We are the liberating force, spirit, light, and love,” what does that conjure in your spirit?
When you hear that we have the power to transform the world around us, what does that mean in your bones?
When you hear, “We are the people that we have been waiting for”—we are!—how does that feel in your blood?
We are the light, we are the wisdom, we are the ancestors, we are those yet to come. How do we fully hold all of that in ourselves?
Open your eyes. Look at the people around you. Imagine the babies that aren’t here. My happiest thing was with middle school camp yesterday. And I remember they’re the reason why we are here. It’s not some of the people that I run into every day, but it is those 11-, 12-, and 13-year-olds that desperately need our faith to be what they have called us to do. Our young people need us to get ready and move, so that we can be the faith that holds them in and the people that say, “You are worthy, now.”
For me, what it’s about—to fully embody we—is that I was raised up in a church that has loved me the whole time. Now! Still! Love me then and love me now: that’s embodiment of we. Not, “Now you’re mad and you’re mean so we’re kicking you out,” but “We want all of you and your annoying, unnecessary self,” at times, and to have the minister ask me what I needed to stay in my church, what I needed to feel that my church was still mine.
So what I’m asking of you is to ask each other, “What do you need for this church to be yours?” and to listen to people when they say what they need—and if it’s not nice to other people, maybe not do it—but do it in love and care.
And go out and organize. I just need to say this thing: it is not about going to the border. The border is in everybody’s communities. To fully embody we, you need to work in your homes, not just going somewhere else. Right now, we have ICE agents coming where I live and where you live, and so when we get out of this place, please do the work in your spot, not just how it’s easy.
Julia Landis and Cammie Horne, GA youth business managers, speak at the 2019 General Assembly. (© 2019 Nancy Pierce/UUA)
We are Julia Landis and Cammie Horne, the business managers for the GA youth staff.
Julia Landis: This year, these theme conversations are a big part of the business at GA. We want to share with you our perspective on the power of we, and why we believe that centering youth voices is so crucial to these multigenerational discussions.
Cammie Horne: As a UU youth, I have great expectations for how our denomination can shape the world. We are the next generation to carry Unitarian Universalism forward, so when we express our opinions today, we do it to shape our future selves. Our generation deals with so many challenges: technology, the rise of social media, gun violence, a warming planet, and irreversible climate change.
Landis: Historically, young people have often helped lead change. In our denomination, the youth and young adults were among the first groups to begin to merge Unitarianism and Universalism. In other social movements, youth sat in at lunch counters and desegregated schools across the Jim Crow South, protested against the Vietnam War, and called for democratic reform at the Tiananmen Square protests in China. Youth have always known the power that can be harnessed from many of us working together.
Horne: When I think of the power of we, I think of music. For my school’s band to be successful, we all have to appreciate what each person does to come together into one sound. Woodwinds carry the melody, brass make the sound fuller, and percussion keep time. This can be challenging, but it is definitely rewarding. At my school, a Title I school where we do not have the financial resources many wealthy suburban schools enjoy, our band makes up for this by drawing on our unique talents and the hard work and spirit we bring. This power of we extends to our community with the help of parents, small businesses, and staff members. Because of this, we consistently score in the top tier of concert and marching competitions.
Landis: Every summer, my youth group serves a community for a week rebuilding houses with the Appalachia Service Project (ASP). There, I have seen our group come together and feel the power of the crowd. One year, after my group had finished creating a safe entranceway to our homeowner’s home, she told me and my group that our work and devotion had made her believe there were good people in this world again. The power that not only my youth group had, that not only the other youth groups at my center had, but all the youth groups at all the centers across all of Appalachia had—and continue to have every summer through ASP—shows the power of the collective. So many people’s lives have been completely altered through ASP motivating huge groups of youth to create change.
Horne: It can get overwhelming to think of all of the problems that my generation will face in the future. But the power of we reminds me that there is always a way forward. Youth have a different perspective on the world’s problems and a sense of urgency, so when you hear from us, we hope that motivates you to keep fighting for a positive change. The movements in a piece of music can change quickly, as can situations in the world. We will undoubtedly face new and difficult challenges as time goes on. To counteract this, Unitarian Universalism must respond with all of our voices, experiences, and perspectives to amplify our sound, to make sure that our message of love, justice, and respect is heard.
Landis: In assemblies of people, there are two different types of power. There is a motivating power that enables people to create large and powerful change, and there is the power that binds us. Unitarian Universalists have felt this motivating power for a long time, being on the front of large social movements affecting our country. We are now at a time where we need to work on us, we need this binding power as much as the motivating power. In order to face the change that we need to make, and do the work that needs to be done, we need to also have ideas and theology that can unite us and keep us bound together during the trying times ahead.
The Rev. Sofía Betancourt of Starr King School for the Ministry and Elias Ortega-Aponte of Meadville Lombard Theological School speak at the 2019 General Assembly. (© Nancy Pierce/UUA)
The Rev. Sofía Betancourt, assistant professor of UU theologies and ethics at Starr King School for the Ministry:
Drawing on our inherited theological tradition to more fully engage the power of we allows us to be intentional about the ways that we move through the world as a faith community. If we are to affirm the power of we as central to our faith, we need to be committed to the work of collective salvation. That language encourages us to move out of our comfort zones—a comfort that some feel entitled to, but that has caused far too much harm in our community. The idea that we are saved together means we invest in communal accountability and shared work for justice as the very things that give our lives value, even in the face of all that seeks to drive us apart. We choose instead by our living to bear witness to another way, a way that moves us out of toxic individualism into the “community of communities,” as Paula Cole Jones asked of us in this year’s Fahs lecture.
Elias Ortega-Aponte, member of the UUA Commission on Institutional Change and president-elect of Meadville Lombard Theological School: If we believe in collective salvation, we must also believe in collective sacrifice. It is powerful that our faith community is working to reclaim this sacred practice that Barb spoke of just a few moments ago. Reclaiming what it means to be sacred in personal sacrifice without the power of we is the very thing that desecrates the practice. The belief in collective salvation means that there cannot be small groups of UUs whose personal sacrifice we depend on every time to move us forward as a collective whole. That kind of hierarchical membership undermines the very inherent worth and dignity that we lift up as our First Principle. Living into the power of we holds us accountable to repairing the legacy of theological harm we have perpetrated against some in our community.
Betancourt: Believing that we are all saved together, that one life cannot reach its greater meaning unless we center the liberation of all, means not only a willingness to invest in one another and in the greater good, but also responding faithfully to the call to live into the work together.
Ortega-Aponte: Julia and Cammie reminded us that even in the face of oppression, suffering, and the legacy of white supremacy culture in the world, we believe that there is a way forward. We aspire to be transformed by love and justice, and—to take a cue from the disability justice activist Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, who details how often we draw resources for resistance from systemic oppression—to affirm the power of we as a faith community, we need to strengthen ways for our people to draw nourishment and strength from this faith. We must fashion ourselves into a faithful people that draw wisdom from our inherited tradition. This is not an individual task, but a collective practice.
Betancourt: Elandria reminded us that everyone deserves to be asked, “What do you need to make this your church?” That we might draw on that message of interconnectedness, of the circles within circles that we sang of this morning. Another way to think about this is: How do we live with a deep and abiding commitment to the call of the power of we?
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Elandria Williams was a co-moderator of the Unitarian Universalist Association, a member of the education team of the Highlander Research and Education Center, and a member of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Carey McDonald is executive vice president of the Unitarian Universalist Association.
The Rev. Mr. Barb Greve was appointed co-moderator of the Unitarian Universalist Association, with Elandria Williams, on August 1, 2017, and served in that role through June 2020. A Master-level credentialed religious educator, Greve received a Master of Divinity degree from Starr King School for the Ministry and works as an interim religious educator. He is one of the cofounders of TRUUsT (Transgender Religious Unitarian Universalists Together) and a tri-founder of the Guild of Interim Religious Educators.
The Rev. Sofía Betancourt is assistant professor of theology and ethics at Starr King School for the Ministry. In 2017 she served the Unitarian Universalist Association as Interim Co-President for Institutional Change.
Dr. Elías Ortega is president of Meadville Lombard Theological School and a member of the UUA Commission on Institutional Change.
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