The Rev. Rebekah Ann Montgomery preached at the 2014 Service of the Living Tradition. ©Nancy Pierce/UUA. All rights reserved.
An energetic crowd filled Providence’s Dunkin’ Donuts Center Friday night to celebrate and honor Unitarian Universalist religious professionals at the annual Service of the Living Tradition. In her sermon at the event, the Rev. Rebekah A. Montgomery, a U.S. Army Reserve chaplain, called UUs to reach out to the “Other” and offered tools for packing a UU “ruck sack.”
Montgomery is the first military chaplain to lead the Service of the Living Tradition, according to the Rev. Sarah Lammert, the UUA’s director of Ministries and Faith Development.
(Read a transcript or watch video of the service at UUA.org.)
Montgomery described the experience of driving her unit’s ministry-team Humvee long distances while deployed in Afghanistan, stopping to stretch in small villages where surprised locals had never seen a female soldier. She said it sometimes felt like landing on a strange planet where you think you are ordinary but everyone else perceives you as “a purple dinosaur with green spots and yellow feathers.” She then got a big laugh when she compared appearing on stage at the Service of the Living Tradition to emerging from that Humvee.
But humor aside, Montgomery stressed that the GA theme “Love Reaches Out” calls for UUs to go beyond their comfort zones and walk “with the Other.” “I am the Other,” she said, explaining that UU military chaplains are the Other within Unitarian Universalism as well as within the military chaplain culture that leans heavily towards conservative and evangelical.
Montgomery said that, as a soldier, a pillar of her existence is physical training, which steels her resolve to do the difficult work required during missions. She described going on long marches carrying a heavy ruck sack.
“A ruck sack carries everything you need for a journey,” she said, and offered three lessons “for your ruck sack and the ruck sack of our beloved denomination and wider movement in the world.”
The first is that symbols matter. Symbols have power because they remind us who is present, remind us of our history, and speak to where we are heading. “I am a symbol,” she said. “My military chaplain colleagues sitting in the front here are a symbol. Our presence signals to this gathered, great community that we belong, where once we may have been overlooked, at best, and, at the most challenging of times, openly not welcomed.”
The second tool for your “ruck,” she explained, is valuing relationships over theology. To illustrate, she related a story in which the simple act of some kind conversations with a non-UU soldier led him to trust her enough that, before heading out on a mission, he asked that she perform his memorial service if he didn’t make it back. And relationships, she added, depend on us showing up, like UU ministers in Michigan recently did when they married 200 couples during the slim window when same-sex marriage was legal.
The third tool Montgomery offered is that diversity is important. She acknowledged that we naturally tend to gravitate toward those who are similar to ourselves. “What is challenging is seeking the other, building partnerships with people and organizations that may not align with our own values,” she said.
“The tool for our ruck is to honor diversity as a part of building the beloved community, where differences still persist and yet everyone has a seat at the table.”
At the conclusion of her sermon, she received a standing ovation.
The Service of the Living Tradition recognized ministers receiving preliminary or final fellowship, religious educators and musicians receiving professional credentials, and ministers completing full-time service. The service also honored ministers who have died during the last year.
Music helped keep the audience energized during the two-hour service. At one point, as the energy in the room threatened to flag, the choir revitalized the crowd by leading them in “Fire of Commitment.” Later in the program, they had the crowd clapping along to “Love Is My Religion,” and waving their hands in the air for rousing renditions of “In Times Like These” and “Life Calls Us On.”
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Sonja L. Cohen is deputy managing editor of UU World and a lifelong Unitarian Universalist.