Last month I took an intensive course in Unitarian Universalist Congregational Polity–and heard something from our instructor that frightened me: “Unitarian Universalism as we know it isn’t going to be around 50 years from now.”
He went on to say, however, that “just because our current association goes away doesn’t mean that our work will. Individual congregations will go on, and the task is to work together as part of a meaningful movement.” Then, in closing the course, our professor shared another thought, this one from Rev. Abhi Janamanchi: “The center of Unitarian Universalism lies outside of itself, in the stranger, in difference rather than in similarity. . . . We are called to create holy communities where strangers are not only welcome but where all are enjoined to do the work of healing and transformation by wrestling with the strangers within themselves.”
I found this interesting, because in building community, welcoming the stranger, and beginning that process with ourselves, we just may have the tools to ensure that UU is around for future generations of seekers. Naming this work, however, isn’t the same as doing it. We are indeed fighting for relevance–for survival–and the challenge facing us is not about recruitment. It’s also not about social justice, at least not in the issue-driven terms in which we currently frame it.
Let’s go back to Rev. Janamanchi’s thoughts. Welcome the stranger, he says, and start with the stranger within ourselves. I think we have all heard this; it may even speak to us in a powerful way. Yet very rarely do we tie our words about radical hospitality to a set of concrete actions, or even to a larger applied theology. In fact, I wonder if “welcoming the stranger” is perhaps Unitarian Universalism’s “Sunday-only” theology.
Friends, are you familiar with how this works? In my ELCA days, week after week, I’d find myself in the pew listening to “lamb of God” and connecting deeply with the communion ritual. Brought up short by Christ’s sacrifice, I’d reflect passionately on my own need to practice a little self-sacrifice for the good of others, wondering how I could put something so momentous out of my mind. And then, washed of my sins–and of the annoying burden of thinking about them–I stepped out into the bright sunlight, resumed my life, and forgot about it until the next Sunday. Then, there I’d be, reciting the Kyrie and thinking, again, “Oh, crap. This. Why can’t my wayward heart remember?”
I didn’t beat myself up too much, though; I had the doctrine of original sin on my side. (Heck, it was right there in the liturgy.) I don’t think about these things, or change my actions, or change my heart, because I can’t. I will never remember. Only here, on this hard bench, can I hope to become a better person–and even then, not through my own efforts.
You can probably tell: one of my favorite things about UU—one of the things that makes this faith a living and meaningful part of my life—is that the message only starts at church. It is never intended to stay there. And it’s clearly and immediately applicable to my life. There’s no fire or brimstone, yet our pulpits pack quite a punch: here’s the vision–now get off your rear ends and make it so. Thus, I find myself continually afflicted, with an urgency isn’t washed away by our rituals. Rather, it bleeds into my daily life, and it compels me to action.
In this way, I am invited to think differently about money, challenged to live into greater generosity, encouraged to help create a just distribution of resources. I am pushed to consider how my actions affect our neighbors and the larger world. I am called to strengthen my relationships, accepting and celebrating that we are held together in the bonds of covenant.
Yet there remains an issue around which I do not see much action. I hear the call sometimes, and I feel it in those moments . . . and then I return to complacency. And in fact, I think complacency is where many of us are on this challenge: the call of radical hospitality–the relentless demand that we welcome the stranger.
And how, as a movement, do we justify our ongoing failure (refusal?) to do the deep work to find the strangers within ourselves and to recognize, hear, and welcome the unfamiliar in others? Forgive us, Lord, in our amnesia and blindness, which are not at all willful, as we are deeply flawed people and simply cannot do any better. . . that doesn’t work here. We don’t have original sin. We have humanism.
What if we treated that humanism less as a license to believe nothing and more as a set of goalposts? What if we saw ourselves in the waning minutes of the first half (or of the game, if you want to get apocalyptic in your atheism) and looking to advance the score? We are responsible for our actions, and equally so our inactions. . . there’s nobody here but us chickens, so let’s get our behinds in gear.
And so I’m asking: why don’t we act on this piece of what we believe? I’ve been wondering about this for months, and I have a theory. Are you ready? It’s deep: I think we don’t know what to do next. And in the meantime, concerned for our very survival as a movement, we are arguing amongst ourselves about a “bottom line theology” (can I interest you in a creed, anyone? How about some dogma?), and chasing willy-nilly after a group of largely, almost definitionally, uninterested people.*
Frankly, whether Unitarian Universalism exists in the next century depends on our community-building skills. We must construct the beloved community, and, having built it, we must dedicate ourselves to its care and feeding. We must know and value our freedom, and the individualism that demands it—and, holding that freedom, we must nonetheless choose “we” over “me.” And friends, building a “we” is going to start, end, and move forward by truly learning to listen to one another.
We will transcend boundaries, build coalitions, overcome the petty differences which block the way to meaningful agreements, and care more, and more deeply, for one another, simply by learning to close our mouths and open our hearts and our minds as others speak their truths. I don’t mean “we need to listen” as a platitude. I mean WE NEED TO LISTEN as a set of skills. This means something we might teach each other in small groups, practice within our own congregations, and then model within our wider communities.
What does this look like? It’s a set of values and goals, and also a set of procedures. Both can be modified; the overall objective is to elicit, recognize, and respond to the humanity in everyone we meet. Every single person. Does that jive with our deeply held beliefs? Does that sound like inherent worth and dignity?
Listening skills aren’t a new-age, ethereal concept—we needn’t be suspicious. And we needn’t reinvent the wheel; there are a number of highly effective models for learning to listen deeply, even around highly polarized and sensitive issues. The novel thing is bringing it to church. The revolutionary thing is taking it from there out into our communities, and doing it as part of the movement.
This is hard work—the hardest work we will ever do. In listening, we take the exhortation to love one another and we make it manifest; it’s the task of an entire lifetime. But there is nothing more important, and we have everything we need to begin this process. And friends, it is urgent. We want to bring healing to our fragmented neighborhoods, to our hurting communities, to our stratified and unjust world. I agree with all of our noble goals—it’s just that all of our efforts are tilting at windmills until we truly learn to stand shoulder to shoulder with those whom we see as “other.”
Amy has a different dream for the capital campaign. Adam thinks that a personhood standard for making abortion decisions best fits the ideal of honoring inherent worth and dignity for all. Jared is gay, and a member of Log Cabin Republicans. I know this, but do I know why? Do I know how to find out? Do I even know how to start a conversation that acknowledges and honors difference? Maureen has a child with a diagnosed mental illness. Anna was briefly homeless last year after a job loss. Jason’s wife died by suicide. Do I acknowledge this? Do I avoid certain subjects? Do I create a space where it’s safe to talk? And if someone does begin to speak, do I listen? What value do I place on listening as a personal ministry, or as a ministry of the larger church?
CS Lewis advises, “If you’re seeking comfort, you won’t find truth.” In these uncivil, fragmented times, what might happen if we stepped out of our comfort zone with a sense of curiosity and a true zeal for our mission to build community? It is possible that the answers would amaze us all.
Consider the following.
In 1994, in the midst of a bitter local and national polemic on the subject of abortion rights (sound familiar?) five people were shot in Planned Parenthood clinics in the Boston area. Recognizing that something needed to change—not in the law, in the clinics, or in women, in general, but in the conversation itself—the Archdiocese of Boston, together with the Public Dialogue Project, attempted something risky and innovative. The plan: break the deadlock by changing the culture, through an idea so radical that the women involved truly feared for their safety should others find out what they were doing. That idea, friends, was nothing more or less than intentional listening.
Six women–three leaders from each side–were recruited to take part in the project. At first, they agreed to meet together four times for a series of moderated discussions. The sole objective was to understand each other better. What actually happened was that every one of the women held to their covenant to stay in conversation with each other over those initial meetings—and then continued to meet and to listen for a period of five years.
And in this time—not right away, but soon—things began to change. Again, not the law, at least not because of anything these particular women were working on. And not the underlying issues surrounding abortion. What changed was the larger conversation happening in Boston. It became less toxic. It became less violent. It became more personal, in the sense that those involved began to put down some of the accumulated armor and acknowledge the other participants as people. As women, as mothers, as loving and beloved members of larger communities.
There is something else that I find fascinating about these conversations—an outcome-that-wasn’t: not one of the participants changed her opinion. If anything, engaging in this sort of long-ranging, open conversation allowed each to become more clear about what, at the heart of things, she held dear. Further, it didn’t matter that neither group changed its opinions, because in stepping back from the bitterness, the judgment, and the slogans, these women led their respective movements in doing the same.
With commitment and training to love by listening, we can create the safe space necessary to have the kinds of conversations that change things. Safe space is required if we are to acknowledge the conflicts we feel around our own positions—this is the “stranger within each of us” that Janamanchi mentions. These internal conflicts—our own strangers—are critically important, because in acknowledging them, we can reach a place of comfort in seeking compromise, a third way that makes life better for everyone involved.
Thinking about abortion, a third way might look like support for women around the challenges that make it difficult to choose to parent a child in all but the best of circumstances. It might be ready access to birth control. It might be excellent and early prenatal care. It might be affordable and high-quality childcare and preschool. These are not difficult points to agree on, but they are impossible things to talk about when we’re locked into a position—and an associated identity—and view listening as a show of weakness.
You want a message of hope and redemption? This movement is as strong as the communities we build within it, and we have every tool we need right now to shore up the foundation. What would happen if liberal religion listened?
We might just recognize that in love, there are no sides . . . just one very big table. Welcome to it, friends. Now what can you learn about the person sitting next to you . . . and what tools are you going to need to do it?