Friday, September 22, 2017

Transitions in Unitarian Universalism preached by Reverend Tom Capo on 9/17/2017

Come into this place of peace and let its silence heal your spirit; come into this place of memory and let its history warm your soul; come into this place of prophecy and power and let its vision change your heart.” Reverend William Schultz, whose quote this is, was the president of the Unitarian Universalist Association in 1985.  I had joined First Jefferson Unitarian Universalist Church  in 1979, and by the time Bill will president I was deeply involved in teaching all kinds of classes at my church—from Building Your Own Theology to Newcomers Classes to High School Youth classes—all of them involving a fair amount of UU History.  In the 1980’s and 90’s, I loved this quote and felt greatly comforted by it.  As I reflect on this quote today, there are parts of it I understand in new ways.  But I get ahead of myself. 

            My story begins with the mental preparation I went through before attending General Assembly this summer.  White supremacy in our country—everything that was happening in the initial post-Obama phase—I felt like I could see and understand a lot of that, and I could continue to work against it, but the accusation of white supremacy without our denomination caught me a little by surprise.  Then came the resignation of the UUA president and other national leadership staff within our denomination over the controversial hiring practices—the hiring mostly white male ministers for leadership positions at all levels.  This was quickly followed by the arrest of one of our UU clergy, a man who had successfully run a church that was missionally based, helping the poor and marginalized in a small town in Oklahoma. This person who had been one of my mentors when I was in seminary had child porn on his computer.

            So, I got to Ministry Days, the professional days held before General Assembly officially begins and caught up with some old friends. They shared with me another issue that had recently come to their awareness.  Some of you may be aware of one of the keynote events of Ministry Days, the Berry Street Lecture.  It’s given by one of our top ministers—a highly esteemed, highly respected professional clergy person is invited to speak before the assembly on issues facing UU ministers.  I was astonished to learn that one of the past Berry Street Lecture presenters, a woman, had had her lecture, which is published on the UU Ministers Association website, redacted by a male minister.  He had brought a lawsuit against the UU Ministers associated to have his name removed/redacted from the Berry Street Lecture because the lecture pointed out his sexual transgressions as a UU minister; she had been speaking about our need to be more vigilant in dealing with sexual transgressions by our fellow clergy.

And then near the end of General Assembly, I, along with many others, learned of the shockingly large severance packages that were given to the president and leadership staff of the UUA who had resigned, when they were the ones who quit of their own volition—hundreds of thousands of dollars that could have supported any of several worthy causes that we as a denomination say we hold dear.

            It would be easy to say I was a little down on Unitarian Universalism.  At Ministry Days, I knew we would spend time talking about all our painful feelings over some of these hard knocks to our faith.  I did not look forward to spending days rehashing my feelings about these issues and the state of Unitarian Universalism.  In fact, you could say I dreaded it.  But you know what, after some deeply moving discussions by my colleagues about these issues, colleagues who were on the front line dealing with these problems, what I took away from Ministry Days and from General Assembly was a sense of renewed hope for our faith.

            As General Assembly began Black Lives Unitarian Universalists were everywhere; providing guidance to people at General Assembly.  Educating us on what Unitarian Universalism will need to become if we are truly going to take this opportunity to reknit our brokenness as a denomination—brokenness that has its roots in that General Assembly of 1969, almost 50 years ago.  Reknit our denomination to authentically embrace and support people of color in our churches and in our denomination, and lift them up into power and leadership at every level.  An African American who left Unitarian Universalism in 1969, Dr. Mtangulizi Sanyika, preached ( “Unitarian Universalism at its best is an instrument to transform humanity so that humanity can transform to its highest level.” And as he says, so too do I believe. But he also said "We have to be a faith that is always under construction", both within our hearts and minds, and within our denomination.   If we ever think we are a perfect or a sophisticated Unitarian Universalism, we are prone to begin excluding others, perhaps not intentionally, perhaps outside of our awareness.  We have to always watch, to not let ourselves become stagnant or too full of ourselves, thinking Unitarian Universalism is what everyone needs, Unitarian Universalism is what everyone who is rational needs, or Unitarian Universalism is the best thing since sliced bread, for if we do we can begin excluding others, marginalizing others, minimizing others.        
              My friends, this is a message of challenge, and a it is a message of hope.  The crowd assembled for our denomination’s annual meeting was electrified by this message.  It’s the same message of hope that so many of you in this church live out in your lives  as we do the work of anti-racism, restorative justice, and being a congregation that is radically welcoming to the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Gender Fluid and Gender Queer community.  We are in process.  We do not have to have everything right; we do not have to know everything right now; we can make mistakes and begin again in love.  And we can grow.
            Let me revisit the quote projected to my right: “Come into this place of peace and let its silence heal your spirit; come into this place of memory and let its history warm your soul; come into this place of prophecy and power and let its vision change your heart.”  When I was new to Unitarian Universalism, this quote comforted me, pacified me.  Now almost 40 years later, it challenges me and energizes me.  Come into this place of peace.  Yes there are times when this place is a peaceful, during meditations, prayers, and rituals and that is important.  But what you can achieve when you work from a place of deep inner peace is also important.  There are wounds we must heal together, and when we apply the salve of understanding, when we tend our wounds cautiously, we are renewed to do the hard work of co-creating a world that reflects the peace we feel.

            Come into this place of memory and let its history warm your soul.  Remember the good—Universalism ordained the first woman minister in America to ministry, Olympia Brown; Unitarian Ralph Waldo Emerson encouraged graduating Harvard Divinity School students to look within themselves for inspiration, not at the Bible or religious tradition—our denominational history is populated by a long line of women and men who were not only great thinkers; they turned their visions of a brighter future for all into reality.  Remember the good, but not at the expense of forgetting the bad.  There are scars that mark our history, and what is done cannot be undone.  Learn our history—all of it—and let’s work together, with slow precision, to repair the wounds—not to cancel or deny them.

            Come into this place of prophecy and power and let its vision change your heart.  Prophecy is speaking truth to power.   And Unitarian Universalists have done that – Henry David Thoreau and Theodore Parker writing and preaching about the abolition of slavery.  Many of our ministers preaching against wars in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan.  Albert Schweitzer speaking out against nuclear weapons and working to stop their proliferation.  But we have to be careful with power.  Power corrupts.  Power can lead us to thinking we are a perfect or sophisticated Unitarian Universalism, stagnant and too full of ourselves, too self-satisfied, too self-congratulatory to ever realize how we are excluding, marginalizing, or minimizing others.

            We have a vision of a world with peace, equity, justice, compassion, respect.   This vision, and the work we do to bring this vision into reality, rekindles my heart and renews my hope.  Yes, I will continue to speak truth to power, it is more critical today than it ever has been.  I will name injustice to people in political power and I will continue to work for justice, for the poor, the future of our planet, and for people of color.  And I hope you do the same. 

The SMILE project, a social justice project still in its developmental stage here at this church, rekindles my heart and renews my hope.  We’re creating a program of summer internship and mentoring for under privileged and discriminated youth, so they can have a chance of success in this world.   This is a direct result of the multi-cultural outreach we’re engaging in with PTMAN, the Proviso Township Ministerial Alliance Network, for the past couple of years.  When I see all of the individual and group efforts of members of this church—letter writing, calling, and emailing congressional representatives, marching in rallies, standing loud and proud in support of Planned Parenthood—all of this rekindles my heart and renews my hope. 

            I read in the prayer today:

What is done cannot be undone.

What is done next must now be done with care.

We gather because we are hopeful,

Because we have visions and dreams of a brighter future.

May the strength of this time together help us to walk forward.

May the wisdom of this experience help us to know our path.

May we have courage to return, as often as necessary, until our way is clear.

May we have perseverance, together, to see it through.

May we cause it to be so.

            We do have dreams and visions for a brighter future, and we must work for that future with persistence, courage, and caution.  If we are mindful, we will develop wisdom along the way.  And we will redefine and reimagine what Unitarian Universalism is as we adapt to become responsive and effective in these difficult times.  We are not static, either individually or as a denomination.  We’re under construction.  It’s time to add some new rooms to our house of prophecy.  Let’s pick up our tools and build a new way forward.   Amen, Amen, Amen.

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