We bring a lot to the relationships and communities we join. So, let me tell you a little about where I come from.
As I write this, I have been president of the Unitarian Universalist Association for exactly two weeks. (Thanks to production and shipping times, though, you are receiving this almost two months into my presidency.)
I am packing up my home and office preparing to move to Boston, which reminds me of the story of two travelers who are looking for a new place to live. Each of them arrives at the outskirts of a town where they see an older woman just outside the city gates. Each of the travelers explains they are looking for a new place to live and asks if she can tell them something about the city. To each she says, “Tell me about where you come from.” To this the travelers have wildly different answers. One complains about their old community, the selfishness of the people. The other raves about the generosity and caring of their previous neighbors. To each the woman gives the same response: “That is about what you’ll find here.”
It is a good reminder that we bring a lot to the relationships and communities we join. So, as I set off for a new town, let me tell you a little about where I come from.
The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Phoenix, Arizona, is a community that experienced many of the difficulties of religious community. They were stuck for years in cycles of conflict, they went through a church split many years ago, they had silos of ministry that often saw themselves in competition with each other rather than part of the same team. Of course, they also had great religious education, caring ministry, strong friendships, and worship, but it was often challenging to be in the community.
But then something changed. A few lay leaders began to get on the balcony—to look at the congregation as a whole—and said, “You know, we are not doing this community thing well. And we need to do it better, because this community matters.” At this very same time, Phoenix political leaders and law enforcement were using caustic rhetoric to incite fear and abuse against the immigrant community. It was immoral, inaccurate, and unjust, but it was effective in growing their political power.
The lay leaders in this UU community said, “We need to be a stronger community because our voice, our presence, is needed in Phoenix.” Nearly eleven years ago, they took that sense of purpose and turned it into a clear vision to become a beloved community. They worked on strengthening covenant and right relations inside the congregation. They moved past silos of power to unite around a common purpose. Those changes allowed them to act powerfully for justice in the larger community.
With them, I learned how a collective sense of mission and a commitment to internal right relationship helped unlock the health and vitality of the congregation. I share this because our communities matter. They are absolutely needed. The health and vitality of our communities matter to the adults, children, and families in them—and our communities provide a foundation from which we can do powerful, collective justice work grounded in our principles and theology.
There are stories like this all across our movement. I can’t wait to learn and share more of them. I am deeply honored to be president of our Unitarian Universalist Association, particularly at this moment when we are embracing the conversation around de-centering whiteness and dismantling systems of white supremacy within our communities and beyond. The momentum coming out of General Assembly to do this work is inspiring. We have meaningful and deep culture-shifting work to do—work that will enable us to embrace mission and live the loving, courageous, generous, and inclusive spirit of our faith more fully. It absolutely matters that we do.
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The Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray is the ninth president of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). 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.
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