Mission and covenant are an antidote to individualism. They remind us of the responsibilities that come with an affirmation of interdependence.
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‘Has there ever been a time when you wanted to give up?” I was asked this question on a recent podcast. “Have you ever wanted to give up in activism or in ministry?”
My answer was, of course, “Yes.” There have been times when my heart has been so broken by disappointment, or times when the work of building beloved community, both inside and outside the walls of our congregations, has felt insurmountable. In these times, I cannot deny wanting to throw in the towel.
One of those moments was after the deportation of a beloved community member in Phoenix. It happened at a time after there had been so much positive momentum, so many cases that had been won. It made me question if our efforts really could make a difference. But what I did next is what made this moment of doubt temporary.
I reached out to a colleague and friend, someone who was also deeply involved in the movement. She offered me her witness. She listened to my grief, my anger, my fear. And finally, she prayed for me. It wasn’t a prayer for answers; it was a prayer for compassion and healing for my own heart and spirit. The next day I got up and went back to work.
Remembering this story, I realized that what kept me going is a reflection of our theme for this year’s General Assembly, “The Power of We.” In a moment of tremendous doubt, reaching out to someone else reminded me I’m not alone.
It’s a lesson I learn again and again. We don’t create any real positive impact alone. Community gives us strength. Love gives us courage. Remembering we are not alone—remembering the people, the family, the community, the ancestors we belong to—gives us resiliency and power to keep on loving, keep on acting, keep on working for the values and commitments we hold dear.
I suspect I am not the only one who has ever wanted to give up. It’s not just about the long-haul work of justice making. I know there are times when, as members and leaders in our congregations, we want to give up. Disappointment is a part of human community. We come to expect it from our elected officials and from our workplaces, but it is far more painful, more personal, when we experience it within our spiritual community. Right alongside the “power of we” is the “struggle of we.”
In movement and justice work, a shared commitment to a larger cause helps bond people together into a powerful “we.” It’s one of the reasons that mission is so important to the health and vitality of a congregation. In the absence of mission, we can easily see ourselves as merely a collection of individuals. Purpose reminds us that we are in it together.
Read a UU World excerpt from Fredric Muir’s essay “From iChurch to Beloved Community,” from the Winter 2012 issue.
Within Unitarian Universalism, individualism has been a central unresolved tension in our theology and culture. In his essay “From iChurch to Beloved Community,” the Rev. Fred Muir writes of the “trinity of errors” that have come to define Unitarian Universalism. They are individualism, exceptionalism, and our allergy to authority.
For now, let’s consider individualism.
As an alternative to individualism, Muir offers an understanding of individuality. Individuality celebrates the very real differences between people, without denying our fundamental interdependence, while individualism understands a person as separate, dependent on no one. Individuality recognizes that each of us, varied as we are, exist within a context of mutuality, shared fate, and collective responsibility.
In practice, mission and covenant are an antidote to individualism. They remind us of the responsibilities that come with an affirmation of interdependence. In shaping General Assembly this year, “The Power of We” is not just about one event, but a broader shift in our faith to move from individualism to a shared belonging to one another, to our communities, and to a larger mission.
Especially in this difficult time in the country, staying committed is a challenge, but it is also essential to our efforts to dismantle long-term unjust structures and build liberating alternatives that nurture life and dignity and embody our values.
This General Assembly is an opportunity to engage nationally, across our faith, in theological reflection and deep listening. It is an invitation to be held by and renewed by the power of we.
Yours in love, Susan
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The Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray is the ninth president of the Unitarian Universalist Association. She was elected in June 2017 to a six-year term after serving congregations in Phoenix, Arizona; Youngstown, Ohio; and Nashville, Tennessee. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Brian Frederick-Gray, and their son.