Why are you here?
I got that a lot when I first got here. Most of you knew that I had previously been an intern minister in the Richmond congregation, so why was I doing a second internship? There are a lot of different reasons why I wanted to do two internships, but all of them had to do with learning about congregational life. For those of you who are unaware, the Richmond congregation had over 600 members and the majority of UU congregations are around 100 to 200 members. While my time in the Richmond church was valuable, it was not going to prepare me for most UU congregations, so I needed to find another internship.
Enter the Fellowship of the Peninsula.
So here I am 9 months and 25,000 miles later and what did I learn? I made a list of things that I learned while I was here. I was able to come up with 10 things in about 3 minutes, which is good sign, but I want to concentrate on just three of those things. The first is that Relationships Matter. One of the biggest reasons that people look for a church is to find community, to find people who have beliefs similar to their own. Now, I am well aware of all of the UU jokes about how no two UU think alike, if you have 10 UU’s in a room, you’ll have 20 different opinions. It doesn’t seem that we have a common belief among us, does it? But how many of you, after visiting for the first, second or tenth time said to yourself, “These are my people!”? How does that happen if we don’t all believe in the same exact thing?
You talk to each other. You have these wonderful fellowship circles that allow you to respectfully listen to each other and explore spirituality in a brave way. (Notice I didn’t say a safe way, engaging big questions in never safe. But risks need to be taken if growth is to be had). The connections that I saw in groups like the Adult Forum and Earth Rising are strong. You take care of each other very well. These bonds are a large part of why this congregation is holding steady. You all love each other.
The second thing I learned from you is to never waste a good crisis. When I got here I heard about a flood that happened a few years ago and how so many people pitched in to get the sanctuary up and running again. I heard a similar story about a roof that needed to be replaced. A congregant told me early on, “we are really good at coming together in a crisis” and I got to see this first hand in November. After the election, there were a few people who worried about what was going to happen to the country. We opened our doors on Wednesday night and had a fair amount of people come to be in community with each other. Some came looking for comfort, but most came to be in community, to just sit with others and listen. Some brought food, because nothing says comfort like food. Some just stayed to help clean up and keep things in order. You all knew it was going to be a bad night and you showed up for each other.
It is my belief that the election played no small part in the Black Lives Matter banner being raised. There was a sense of urgency after the election. That we needed to do more and the banner was a result of that. It is my belief that is the purpose of a crisis. It is a call for us to do more than what we were doing before. The hope is that what we do after the crisis will prevent another from happening.
Perhaps the most important thing I learned during my time as an intern is that vision counts. We had a vision statement at my last congregation that drove me absolutely crazy. It said “We grow in search of wisdom, care in support of community and act in service of justice.” And was abbreviated into “Grow, care, act” It was everywhere. On the order of service, on the stationary, on the website. It was mentioned in board meetings and small groups. After about two months I was sick to death of seeing, hearing and reading: Grow, care, act. When it was brought up in a staff meeting at some point, I made a comment about how sick I was of seeing it and one of the staffers said, “The point where you are sick of hearing it is the point where the congregation is just starting to hear it. It made sense. I was at the church 5 days a week and most congregants were only there for a few hours a week. It needed to be everywhere in order for people to see it.
Why did people need to know what the vision of the congregation was? Because everything a congregation does should point back to the vision, it should inform every decision a congregation makes. Over time I began to see congregants take in the vision and start to apply it to their board meeting, there social justice work, in worship and even in how office staff worked together. How does what we are doing now, fit with the vision of the church?
The vision of this congregation is as follows: “We believe in an individual and collective search for truth and meaning. A community where we commit ourselves daily to honoring the inherent worth and dignity of each person. In a constantly evolving world, we strive for social justice for all.” It took me a little time to find it on the website. It’s not on the order of service and I don’t think it’s written anywhere on the bulliten boards. That’s okay. To be honest, I think you all can create a better vision statement and I know for a fact that over the next year or so you are going to be creating a new one. While you are doing so, I want you to remember this, a good vision statement is the backbone of a congregation’s personality. It is their voice, their motto and their drive. It is a statement that points to who you want to be, to yourself, to the community, to the world. Be bold with this statement! Think big!
Now it’s my turn to ask you: Why are you here?
Why are you a part of this congregation? Why are you a Unitarian Universalist? What brings you in for the first time? What brings you back for the next time? I talked a bit about community earlier. How the need for community often brings people into a church. This specific community, UUFP, welcomes them into a spiritually diverse and creates tight bonds of friendship that can keep people coming back. So is that why you are here? It is the community what sustains you?
A few weeks ago, I went to the UUA Southern Regions Spring meeting, which is a meeting of lay leaders and religious professionals where they can discuss new ideas and workshop together. One of the events at this meeting was a debate between the three women who are running for president of the UUA. During the debate, one of the candidates spoke about how her congregation asked itself, “If our church were to disappear tomorrow, who would notice aside from us?”
Think about that for a second.
When I first heard that, my instinct was to go down the list of groups that this congregation works with and wonder if they would really miss us. If they could survive without us. What groups come to us, knowing that we support them? Who do we consistently champion?
Being in community is important, but Unitarian Universalism is more than just a community, it is a faith community. How many of you are familiar with James Luther Adams and the Five Smooth Stones of Liberal religion? In his essay, “Guiding Principles for a Free Faith” Unitarian minister James Luther Adams lays out five things that are vital for liberal religion to not just survive but to thrive. (Just to clarify, “liberal” does not mean politically liberal, liberal refers to being open to new ideas and willing to reinvent itself.) The five points that Adams lays out are: 1) Revelation is not sealed. The very basis for liberalism itself. 2) Consent in relationships. We are not coerced into being here or in being in relationships with others. You can leave anytime you like. 3) We have the moral obligation of justice. It doesn’t matter where that obligation comes from, what matters is that we have it. 4) Good things don’t just happen. If the arc of the universe bends towards justice, it is because we are the ones who are bending it. And 5) remembering that the resources needed to make that justice happen are within our reach. These are the five stone that give liberal religion its heft.
The first two stones are key to liberal religious community. By agreeing that there is more than one way to approach the divine, we are able to respect different spiritual paths. By entering into relationships with each other willingly, covenanting with each other, we are able to find ways of being with each other. When it comes to creating a respectful and spiritually diverse community, this congregation is an expert at this vital and necessary work, but if that were enough we would not feel an ache when we ask “if we were to disappear, would anyone else notice?” and we answer, probably not.
We are a community of faith, and part of our faith is to make to world a better place.
The third stone that Adams speaks of is the desire for justice. I know for a fact that this community has a strong desire for justice. I was on that bus to Washington for the women’s march. I was here when you open the sanctuary up to people of color in the community as a safe space. I see Carey at that table of he on Sunday selling the t-shirt and getting you to sign up for bus trips and walks and blood drives. I know that the desire for justice is strong in this congregation. The question is how do we do it.
How many of you are familiar with the game Dungeons & Dragons? It’s a role playing game that became popular in the early 1980’s. People create characters based on a set of attributes and those characters then go on medieval adventures. Characters had six attributes: Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution and Chrasima. In creating your character, you were given a certain number of points to divide up among those six. If you wanted to play a mage, you put your points into intelligence. If you wanted to be a fighter, you put your points into strength. Each attribute suited a different class better than the others. In order to be good, you focused on one area. If you split your points evenly along all six attributes, you would probably get killed pretty quick because you weren’t very good at anything.
You have a strong desire for justice, but your points are spread to thin amongst all of your attributes. Black Lives Matter, women’s justice, class issues, the environment, the list goes on. If you were to pick one cause that this congregation were to always show up for, one cause that you focus on and research and organize around. You will be able to effect some real change. Personally I see three issues that this congregation could very easily champion. Climate change is a huge problem and I know for a fact that many in this congregation are already personally invested in it. Black Lives Matter and racial justice are issues that concern this area of the state and there is a lot of work to be done there. Being so close to a large public housing project, work in income inequality would be able to take of very quickly. Any of these three are great causes to support, as are immigration rights, LGBTQ rights and reproductive rights. By making one of these your focus, you will be able to be a force in the tidewater area that is desperately needed.
I do want to make it clear, making one area your focus doesn’t mean completely ignoring the other issues. Going back to my Dungeons and Dragons metaphor, a good fighter concentrated on strength, but also had some points in constitution as well. If you decide to focus on climate change and a march comes up because a black man was killed by police under suspicious circumstances, you can still go to the march. Showing up when events arise is important and necessary, but by focusing on one area an being proactive about it instead of reactive will help make the world a better place, and our faith calls us to make the world a better place.
You see how that desire for justice that the third stone mentions leads so easily into the fourth stone, the need to create justice. Desire leads to action. That is why that new vision statement is so important, it calls you to action. If the first two stones are about faith community, the second to are about faith in action. That just leaves the fifth stone. The idea that everything you need to make the world a better place is present. As Adams says, “At the depths of human nature and at the boundaries of what we are, there are potential resources that can prevent a retreat to nihilism.” All of this is just a fancy way of saying one simple word. Hope.
I have spent 9 wonderful months with you. I have witnessed it firsthand. I know for an absolute fact that all of the people in this congregation have exactly what it takes to make the world a better place. You have the intelligence, the have the compassion, the heart, the resources, everything. Everything you need to make change in this world is already under this roof. I believe that you can do it. You give me hope. The obstacles that you have to overcome to achieve this are so manageable, you just need to believe you can do them. You just have to have faith in yourselves.
The biggest obstacle you have right now is space. You either need to relocate to a sanctuary that can comfortable fit 200 people (not members, people) or rebuild this one. You will not grow in this space as it is. You need more classrooms, offices, handicap accessible bathrooms, a gender neutral and family bathroom, a larger kitchen and a parking lot. Once you have more room, you will be able to have visitors come into this space without feeling claustrophobic and you will be able to host more events with more classrooms.
Once you get more members, you need to start warming them into leadership roles. It is said that in every congregation 10% of the people do 80% of the work. That when it comes time to electing board members and committee chairs, it’s the same pool of people everytime. It is my opinion that if a congregant is in a position of leadership for more than 5 years, they become burned out. Let them rest. Look for people who have yet to be more involved with the congregation beyond being a member and ask them what they like doing. Ask them to come to a meeting or even just to Skype in and listen to one. Attending committee meetings in your pajamas is a huge selling point, especially if you want people with young children to have a voice in leadership.
Lastly, this work of justice is not cheap. I know that the canvas just finished up and most of you have already made you commitments for the next year. Thank you. Having a reliable and steady source of income helps this church accomplish its mission. It is my belief that every single member of this congregation should pledge. 100% participation. This is coming from a guy who is actually earning a negative income and still pledges $500 a year to my home congregation. If you are on a fixed income, or no income or a negative income, I would ask that you make a pledge of one dollar a year. A gesture to mirror your commitment to this congregation. For those of you who are able to live more comfortably, I would challenge you to increase your pledge even more or consider making a considerable donation when the capital campaign to rebuild or relocate starts.
Why are you here? I think many of you started here in search of community, but you stay because you can sense that something greater that is ever present when we gather. You sense that there is something more than a collective of individuals. Something more than intellectual stimulation and warm coffee. Something the coalesces when we sing Spirit of Life, when we light the chalice, when we all hold hands at the end of service and stand as one spiritually, if not literally. You sense the potential to create something more than yourselves. Do you feel it now in this moment? That feeling is you. The feeling that together we are more. The together we have a faith that can make the world a better place. Do you feel it? I do.
I believe in you. You are blessing waiting to blossom.