In a rousing and often-humorous sermon at the Service of the Living Tradition Thursday night, June 22, the Rev. Cheryl M. Walker exhorted Unitarian Universalists to recognize the difference between making change and having an impact, and urged them to realize that “the times we live in right now are ripe with the potential for great transformational seeds to be planted.”
“Go out and climb your own mountains. Speak your own truth. Make your own impact. Make your difference. This is what we are called to do—not just those of us on this stage, but each of us who call ourselves Unitarian Universalists,” said Walker, minister of the UU Fellowship of Wilmington, North Carolina, at the service, held at General Assembly 2017 in New Orleans.
With music directed by DeReau Farrar, director of music at First Unitarian Church in Portland, Oregon, and a commissioner on the newly appointed Commission on Institutional Change, the service was marked by upbeat singing and a spirit of joy and hope. When the band finished playing the opening hymn, “Rank by Rank Again We Stand,” the crowd continued to sing and sway, and soon the band struck up again to play another stanza. Farrar and Jyvonne Haskin, staff singer at UU Community Church of Santa Monica, lent their voices to song throughout the service.
Elizabeth A. Terry, congregational giving specialist at the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), gave remarks during the chalice lighting, urging UUs to resist “hiding our light under a bushel—Enough of that!” She added, “We are needed now, all of us—all of us together.”
Jessica York, interim director of ministries and faith development at the UUA, and the Rev. Sarah Lammert, acting chief operating officer, gave the welcome, seguing into the “Calling Forth in Celebration” portion of the service, in which ministers receiving preliminary fellowship and those receiving final fellowship, credentialed religious educators and certified music leaders, and ministers completing full-time service, were called to the stage and honored.
The interim UUA co-presidents Sofía Betancourt, William G. Sinkford, and Leon Spencer read the roll call of and gave a prayer for UU religious professionals who died over the past year. “The legacy of these leaders are acts of love and service,” they said.
In introducing the offering for the Living Tradition Fund, former UUA moderator Denny Davidoff spoke of how much her husband Jerry loved the Service of the Living Tradition, which “became the annual event in his religious life, maybe the annual event in his entire life.”
In encouraging the audience to give generously to the fund, which provides scholarships to seminarians, support for ministers with educational debt, and emergency financial aid to ministers, Davidoff said, “The truth is we mistreat our ministers financially. We call them into our congregations for as little money as we can get away with—get away with!—and we blithely expect them to help us raise the money that will fund our collective dreams.” She asked the recent seminary graduates seated behind her on the stage to stand if they had student loans and other educational debts—nearly all did so, as did many people in the audience. Describing ministers who faced medical emergencies for themselves or family members that insurance didn’t cover, Davidoff said, “We like to say that Unitarian Universalism saves lives. I can attest tonight that the Living Tradition Fund saves ministers’ lives.”
Walker’s sermon elicited laughter while also offering a serious message. On a Facebook post that urged people to “badly describe your profession,” Walker described finding responses from ministers that she shared, to loud laughter, with the audience:
“Once a week I talk about stuff I’m interested in, and I get mad if everybody doesn’t come to listen. The rest of the time I worry about money.” Another response said, “I patrol the parking lot making sure no one is parked in the spot reserved for the minister.”
But the final post that Walker read to the audience offered an important lesson, she said: “On Sunday I tell people they can make the world a better place. When things don’t improve that week, I repeat myself.”
“We tell people that they can make the world a better place and we repeat ourselves,” Walker said, “and we’ll keep repeating ourselves over and over and over again, because if we didn’t believe that we can make the world a better place I suspect most clergy, religious educators, and musicians would give up this endeavor called Unitarian Universalist ministry. We repeat ourselves week after week, and we hope, we pray, that someone is actually listening . . . that we are actually making a difference.”
Each year at the Service of the Living Tradition, Walker said she is particularly moved by the reading of the names of religious professionals who have died and who made significant changes, one life at a time, often with little recognition. “This calling, any calling, isn’t about making a name, it’s about making a difference,” she said.
“I know that one day my name will be called, a long time from now, inshallah, and there will be people who do not know my name. And that will be fine,” she said, adding, “When that day comes and someone calls out our names in remembrance, let it be said of us, you may not know our names, but know this—we made a difference.”
Following on that theme, the recessional was “Man in the Mirror,” a popular Michael Jackson song, the lyrics of which include, “I see the kids in the street with not enough to eat—who am I to be blind? . . . If you wanna make the world a better place, take a look at yourself, and then make a change.”