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A Revolution of Libraries and Living Rooms: Margaret Fuller’s Legacy of Liberation

Sermon by the Family Minister

Sunday, March 21, UU Society of Sacramento

Hymns:

#207, Earth Was Given as a Garden;  #21, For the Beauty of the Earth;  #51, Lady of the Seasons’ Laughter

Offering Shared with St. John’s Shelter for Women & Children

Question for Reflection before the Offering and Music:

Consider the areas that our Unitarian Universalist movement has chosen to emphasize in our social justice work and social-service activities.  What is the religious principle on which we have based the social-action choices and priorities we have made?  What is the primary religious value that grounds our work?

Sermon:

It’s  my view that most of the social justice priorities of the Unitarian Universalist tradition are based on the values of human dignity and freedom.  The kind of freedom that grounds our social justice actions is not the freedom to be left alone, not the license to do or say whatever you want—though these values are important to many.  Our grounding concept is the freedom to self-development.  This is the right and the ability to grow and flourish to your own potential, to your full humanity.  We protect and promote the ability of people to grow, thrive and contribute to the world.  We strive to remove barriers and lend a hand.

For example, many Universalists and Unitarians were active in the abolitionist movement, or supportive of it.  Slavery is wrong because of the indignity and cruelty of holding another person as property, but also because to do so is to obstruct a person’s free expression and choice, to hinder the flourishing of their full humanity.  Civil rights legislation enables us all to participate as much as we choose in decisions of government and our shared public life.  Without fair and equal opportunities for work, we can’t express our vocation, put our talents to use, or provide for ourselves and those in our care.  Education is another area that determines whether people flourish and succeed, or fall short of their potential.  Universalists and Unitarians have established schools and colleges, brought about free public education, and founded the first free kindergarten in the country.

The cause of human flourishing and freedom grows wider in every era, expanding its embrace.

Many UUs have been involved in every one of the waves of feminism, supporting and leading the movement for women’s rights and free expression of their humanity.  Likewise, we welcome and affirm different gender expressions and sexual orientations.  We join in the struggle for equal rights and we often have led the larger religious community in the work.  We recognize that to be denied your identity or your love is to be denied your freedom to grow and flourish.

Consider this year’s controversy over health insurance reform.  Our personal and public health is key to human flourishing and achievement of our potential. The lack of affordable health coverage can hobble us  with pain and sickness, can sap our strength, drive us to distraction, bankrupt our family, or send us to an early grave.

Over time, the circle of concern and action grows wider for people who care about human dignity and the freedom to pursue your potential.  Such progress is not inevitable, and there have been backlashes and reversals.  Yet over history we have seen new awareness dawning, old prejudice discarded, people speaking up for themselves and speaking out for others.   Every advancement has been a gift to us from people who took risks, gave of themselves, enlarged the vision.  Today I’d like to tell you a bit about one of those people, Margaret Fuller.

Margaret Fuller cast a vision for a wider embrace of freedom in the United States, particularly for the empowerment of women. Through her work as a writer, critic, editor and friend,  Fuller advocated for the freedom of body, mind, soul and spirit.   For example, in her book, Woman in the Nineteenth Century, she says that what a woman needs is “as a nature to grow, as an intellect to discern, as a soul to live freely and unimpeded, to unfold such powers as were given her.”

Margaret was born to Unitarian parents in Cambridge, Massachusettts, in 1810, 200 years ago this May.  She was the oldest of nine children.  Her father was a lawyer and a Congressman.  Timothy Fuller taught his daughter himself, drilling her on Latin at age six, as well as other languages and teaching her Classical and contemporary literature. This kind of study was usually reserved for boys—and older ones at that.  Margaret had to study in the day and recite lessons to her dad in the evening.  She recalls:  this was a “discipline of considerable severity,” yet it made her academically confident and assertive—and quite productive later on.

When she was a child, Margaret’s father focused on her intellect, and neglected his nurturing of her emotional life.  He taught her to believe she had the ability and the right to do whatever she set her mind to doing.  Then, as she grew into adulthood, her father changed course.  He insisted that she learn to live like a lady.  He sent her to Miss Prescott’s Young Ladies’ Seminary, where other students read her social awkwardness and intellectual assertiveness as arrogance.  They ridiculed her.

When Margaret was 22, Mr. Fuller retired from politics and moved the family to Groton, out in the country in those days.  It was lonely to be so far from her intellectual and social circle, but she used the time to study more, reading and translating foreign literature into English.   Three years later, Margaret’s father died, and she became head of the family.  She did lots of housework, tutored her four younger siblings, and helped her mother manage the family finances.  For the rest of her life, Margaret never experienced complete financial security.

Later on, as a young adult back in Cambridge, she made friends with people in the religious and literary movement known as American Transcendentalism– including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Elizabeth Peabody and others.  These were among the leading writers, philosophers, and theologians in America at the time.  Margaret wrote essays and book reviews for The Dial, the journal of her circle of idealistic philosophers.  She served as its editor.  Though it lasted only a few years, The Dial had a large and lasting influence in American thought.

She was a prolific literary reviewer.  Fuller’s biographer Paula Blanchard notes that in the 1840s, the only other reviewer of significance besides Margaret Fuller was Edgar Allen Poe.  “The two were almost exactly opposite in their critical standards, but [at least they were alike] in having any at all.”[i]

For a time she taught at Bronson Alcott’s experimental school in Providence, Rhode Island.  His goal was to nurture the unique gifts in every child’s mind instead of molding children to society’s expectations.  Yet Alcott’s teaching was so radical that the school didn’t last long.  For example, he told students that babies are “the product of love”—he didn’t get any more detailed or specific than that, but it was considered a terrible revelation to let the kids know that the stork hadn’t brought them.[ii]

Margaret worked for a time as a translator and assistant for William Ellery Channing, the minister known as the father of American Unitarianism.  She remembers him as tender and respectful, and interested in the development of women’s gifts and opportunities.  She writes:  “He regarded them as souls, each of which had a destiny of its own… guided by the light of private conscience.”[iii]

Margaret needed access to the library at Harvard College to pursue her research.  In those days, that library was like a private men’s club, but she persisted.  She became the first woman ever allowed to work in Harvard’s library, but she still wasn’t eligible to enroll as a student.

Margaret’s friends included Elizabeth Peabody, along with her sisters Mary and Sophia Peabody.  Like Margaret, Elizabeth had been tutored as a child, though by her mother.  She had learned Latin and ten other languages.[iv] Among Peabody’s contributions as a social reformer was the founding of the first free public kindergarten in the United States.  As a businesswoman, she operated the West Street Bookstore.  It was as a center of literary thought and social reform.  At Peabody’s bookstore Margaret Fuller hosted a series of conversations for groups of women, and facilitated those discussions.  A college education was off-limits to most women, so Fuller’s program was a rare source of college-level lectures and intellectual conversations.  She provided the women in her meetings with an opportunity to express themselves without the judgment or intrusion of men–an opportunity to exchange ideas and learn from one another.  Stepping outside their housekeeping duties, the women found an invitation to grow in mind and spirit.

Fuller writes that every one of us—every person of every gender—is called to “be a student of and servant to, the universe-spirit”—the Divine.  Every one can have a connection to the universe-spirit.  Fuller does not refer to God as the Almighty, but as the All-Sustaining, the All-Creating.

All beings are kindred, she says, for they are the children of God. Each person can be an “angelic minister helping to “bring the planet into conscious harmony.”[v]

Unfortunately, she says, the human being is still “a stranger to [this] inheritance” of holiness.  As individuals, we have so many unused and unrecognized gifts.  As a civilization, we have so much unrealized potential.  Too much stands in the way of the full flourishing of the human family.

This faith underlies Fuller’s arguments in her major book, Woman in the Nineteenth Century.  Published in 1847, it sold out right away.  It caused a scandal and much discussion around the country.  Indeed, in its wake the first National Women’s Rights Conference took place, in Seneca Falls, New York.  Yet it was another 73 years before women achieved the right to vote in the United States Constitution.

Fuller proclaims:  “We would have every arbitrary barrier thrown down.  We would have every path laid open to woman as freely as to man.”  In her book she notes that only in the institution of slavery are women on a par with men:  “Each is [only] a work-tool, an article of property.”[vi]

Fuller shows the contrasts between the founding of the United States on values like freedom and equality and the ongoing and “monstrous display of slave dealing and slave keeping.”  Defenders of slavery, she notes, accuse abolitionists of trying to “break up national union, to destroy the country’s prosperity.”  Now, those who oppose giving freedom to women say such freedom will “break up family union,” destroy the beauty of the home.  As Fuller puts it, they say: “[You try] to take my wife away from [her duties at] the cradle and the kitchen hearth to vote at the polls and preach at the pulpit….  She is happy enough as it is.”  Fuller says:  “Have you asked her whether she was satisfied?”

Yet even men who led the cause against slavery resisted the involvement of women in abolitionist organizations.  In those times, women were not supposed to speak in public at mixed-gender events.  In 1840, at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London, women in the American delegation were barred from the convention floor.  That same year, closer to home, the chairman of the Connecticut Anti-Slavery society flew into a rage because Abby Kelley would not keep silent.  He said: “I will not countenance such an outrage on decency….  It is woman’s business to take care of children in the nursery.  She has no business to come into this meeting….”

What’s the problem you might ask?  Women interfere with men’s thinking, the chairman said.   “Where woman’s enticing eloquence is heard men are incapable of right and efficient action.  She beguiles and blinds man by her smiles and…winning voice.”[vii] Such opposition toward women in anti-slavery work and hostility toward them by men in the press had the effect of drawing many abolitionist women into activism for women’s rights.[viii]

Yet Margaret Fuller can show compassion for the kind of man who sneers at women’s demand for fairness:  such a man does not mean to be ungenerous, he is just not yet enlightened.  She says that such hostility is really a “cry for insight.”[ix] She shows confidence that insight will come:  “As men become aware that few men have had a fair chance…they can see that no women have had a fair chance.”[x]

Fuller attacks the prevailing paternalistic attitude of her day, known as the cult of True Womanhood.  This is the view that women, by keeping their innocence in the shelter of their domestic lives, were a civilizing force for the men in their life.  They contributed to society by limiting themselves to cooking, sewing, housekeeping and child-rearing duties, and the spiritual elevation of their husbands and children.  Men, for their part, were considered the protectors of their wives, mothers, daughters, sisters.  Fuller points out, however, that this arrangement does not protect thousands and thousands of women who have no husband or other source of male support in their family.  They must support themselves alone. Such women have “no choice but to work … or steal or belong to men, not as wives but” as prostitutes, she writes.

Scholar Donna Dickenson points out that many young working-class women “used prostitution to eke out low earnings through periods of unemployment.”[xi] In Woman in the Nineteenth Century, Fuller defends women in prostitution from the condemnation of polite society.  She points out that for most prostitutes it’s not a matter of sin but of survival.  Why else would a woman put herself at risk, or subject herself to degradation?  Then, Fuller looks at the situation of women in polite society.  She notes that an independent woman could almost never be economically secure.   Because of such insecurity, women essentially were the property of their fathers and then of their husbands.  Fuller describes how women in polite society learn how to get the attention of men, while not being obvious about it.  That’s unappealing in a woman:  shouldn’t look desperate.  When women hide their true selves in order to get the security of a marriage, when they have to package themselves into something worth buying, Fuller asks, how is this different from prostitution?

Hence, when a woman needs to go into the world to provide for herself, Fuller says, “let her at least have fair play.”  Occupations must be opened for women.  In particular, she recommends training women for the fields of teaching and nursing, and the hiring of women into such jobs.  Nursing “was not regarded a proper profession or as a profession proper for ladies,” writes Donna Dickenson.[xii] This was nearly two  decades before Dorothea Dix and Florence Nightengale established nursing as a profession for women during wartime.

Fuller’s book was published by the printer of the New York Tribune, the newspaper of Horace Greeley, a political activist and member of the Universalist church.  Greeley had hired Fuller, and made her the Tribune’s literary and political editor.  She investigated corruption in New York, met with women in prison for the crime of prostitution, and recorded her summer travels on the Great Lakes.  In 1848, a year after Woman in the Nineteenth Century was published, Fuller headed to Europe.  The newspaper printed her dispatches from England, Scotland, France and Italy.  Writing from London, Fuller was happy to report on a new kind of business: laundry facilities for poor women—the  precursor to the laudromat—including water and wash basins, plus rooms for hanging clothes to dry, since outdoor space was scare in crowded city neighborhoods.[xiii] In Paris she discovered another new institution:  day care, which enabled “poor women to leave their children to be nursed during the day while they work[ed].” [xiv]

She moved to Rome, took the side of the pro-republic revolutionary fighters, reported for the newspaper, and began a book on the revolution.  This made her the first female foreign-war correspondent from the United States.   At age 38, she met an Italian man 12 years younger than she was.  Giovanni Angelo Ossoli and Margaret Fuller fell in love, retreated to a village, and had a son.  It’s unclear whether they ever married.  When his regiment was called into Rome to defend the republican cause, Margaret went along and worked in a hospital as a nurse.  Afterward, when their baby was two, they sailed to the United States, but could afford to travel only on a freighter. The night before its expected arrival in New York, knocked about by Hurricane winds and stormy waters, the freighter hit a sand bar and sank.  Margaret, her husband and baby all died.  Her friends Emerson and Thoreau went down from Boston to visit the wreck but could find no trace of Margaret’s family or her possessions, including the history she had been writing of the revolution.[xv]

In 40 brief years, Fuller had launched herself from a life of study, teaching and encouragement of others into a life of risk-taking, trail-blazing action.  In living rooms or parlors, Margaret Fuller and her friends led a movement of idealism in American literature and a revolution of spiritual expression and exploration in American religion.  In her discussion groups, she invited women out of sex roles and gender prisons to find confidence in critical thinking, and find themselves in the free exchange of ideas and opinions.  She named injustice, challenged hypocrisy, and called for the overthrow of all arbitrary barriers to human flourishing. Her work not only brought forward the cause of women’s empowerment, it enlarged the vision of human dignity and freedom for all kinds of people.

In every era, the circle of concern and action grows wider as new awareness dawns, old prejudice discarded, and people speak up for themselves and speak up for others.

A theme of Transcendentalism is that every person is a source of light and truth.  Each person can be—in Margaret Fuller’s words—an angelic minister, helping humanity to flourish and shine.

In spite of adversity, each one of us can help others to bring forth the light and the truth we hold within.  We can learn to know and value our own gifts, and bring those gifts forward into a world that needs us.

Amen.


[i] Paula Blanchard, Margaret Fuller: From Transcendentalism to Revolution (Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1987).

[ii] “Bronson and Abigail Alcott,” by Charles Howe and Peter Hughes, online Dictionary of Unitarian Universalist Biography , http://www25.uua.org/uuhs/duub/articles/bronsonalcott.html

[iii] Margaret Fuller, Woman in the Nineteenth Century and Other Writings. Donna Dickenson, ed. (Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 73.

[iv] “The Peabody Sisters,” by Susan Ritchie, online Dictionary of Unitarian Universalist Biography, http://www25-temp.uua.org/uuhs/duub/articles/peabodysisters.html.

[v] Fuller, p. 5.

[vi] Ibid., p. 38.

[vii] Ibid, p. 240, note 72.

[viii] Ibid., p. 240, note 72.

[ix] Ibid., p. 24.

[x] Ibid., p. 11.  Emphasis mine.

[xi] Ibid , Introduction by Donna Dickenson, p. xxv.

[xii] Ibid., p. 259, note 210.

[xiii]Ibid., p. 213.

[xiv] Ibid., p. 213.

[xv] “Margaret Fuller,” by Joan Goodwin, online Dictionary of Unitarian Universalist Biography, http://www25.uua.org/uuhs/duub/articles/margaretfuller.html

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whale watching near Maui
March 24, 2010, 11:28 am
Filed under: Travels

Aman took this from the boat after our snorkeling was finished. Humpback whales at no extra charge. Pacific Whale Foundation naturalists are the best!



Religious Education Ministry: Joys and Terrors

Religious Education Ministry: Joys and Terrors

A Sermon Dedicated to Janet Lopes, Retiring Religious Education Assistant

by Roger Jones, Family Minister

Unitarian Universalist Society, Sacramento, CA, Sunday, March 14, 2010

Hymns:  #324, Where My Free Spirit Onward Leads; #16, ‘Tis a Gift to Be Simple;

#299, Make Channels for the Streams of Love.

Reading:  “It Matters What We Believe” by Sophia Lyon Fahs (#657, Singing the Living Tradition)

Today’s responsive reading is based on the words of Sophie Fahs, the minister after whom our Fahs Classroom is named.

In 1937 the American Unitarian Association hired her to edit the children’s materialls in a new series of religious education curricula.  Her books include Tomorrow’s Children and Yesterday’s Heritage; Jesus, the Carpenter’s Son; Beginnings of Life and Death; The Old Story of Salvation, and The Church across the Street.  She taught at Union Theological Seminary.  She was ordained a UU minister in 1948, at age 83.

Sermon

If you haven’t visited our Community Garden (out at the end of the parking lot), I invite you to do so–today or any day.  Last Sunday morning in Religious Education we had a Garden Day, thanks to the organizing efforts of several volunteers.  Children and youth decorated bird houses made out of hollowed-out gourds, which were then mounted on the wooden fence.  They made signs to stick in the raised garden plots or take home for their own use.  Then they explored.

Children, youth and adults wandered around our enormous garden, investigating, collecting, chatting, wondering, delighting.  A few kids wanted to show me the many ladybugs crawling on a pile of composting weeds–and crawling over their arms and hands.  Others harvested shiny green snap-peas and greenish-yellow broccoli flowers.  One showed me green onions and the skinniest little carrots, with fresh brown dirt clinging to them.  The carrots were a far cry from those uniformly cut mini-carrots  you find in a plastic bag in the supermarket, the ones that look like big orange capsules.  On the last Sunday in April, we will invite youth and children again to the garden–to do a lot more hands-on work, and by then the harvest will have more variety.

Wandering in the garden gave me a chance to chat with adult volunteers as well as kids—much less rushed than I usually am on Sunday.  It seemed that once you entered the garden, the boundaries between being a teacher and student, between leader and learner, became fuzzy.   People of all ages were giving one another a helping hand.  We showed one another new discoveries.  We learned again about feeling excitement about ordinary things, like plants and bugs.

Some of you might think this sermon is a plea for volunteers in our religious education program for the summer or next fall.  Not really.  I do hope that you can appreciate the ministry that we do with youth and children, and the ministry they do with us.  Even if you never spend more than a few minutes interacting with a child, your support of our religious education ministry makes possible so much inspiration and insight, so many transforming moments.  Well, to be truthful, I hope you can’t resist stopping by the Religious Education table outside to ask how you can be part of the fun.

Often when we say the words “education,” what goes off in the mind is an image of teacher and pupil, of children in rows hearing facts and not saying much in return.  Or maybe it’s an image of kids not staying in rows and not hearing a thing, all talking at the same time, a great chorus of chaos and noise.   Maybe when you hear the words “Sunday school” you think about learning rules, doctrines, dates, famous names, and other forgettable facts.  That’s not really the way it is, and not how it should be, if we are true to our liberal faith tradition.

The late Harold Howe was a professor of teacher education at Harvard and a Commissioner of Education in the federal government.  He was also a UU.

After a church service, he gave this note to his minister: “Here’s a definition of a Unitarian Universalist: a person who can ask children, ‘What is God?’ and listen seriously to their replies. P.S.: I once went to Sunday school for about 7 years, but no one asked me ‘What is God?’ Instead, they told me.”

Our tradition affirms the value of hearing what stirs the spirit of every person, at every age and stage of life.  When we ask another:  “What do you think?  What do you feel?” we open ourselves to be changed.  This interchange is the heart of religious education.

I asked a few volunters in our own Religious Education program for their reflections.  One writes:  “Given my own Sunday School experiences of expecting to be proper and very quiet, I am constantly amazed that UU kids are … polite, not afraid of adults, confident that their opinions matter and won’t be laughed at, and [that they are ] able to ‘pass’and not say anything as an option.  UU religious education is such a good foundation for children.”

The Reverend Til Evans is retired from a career as a director and minister of religious education and as a professor of seminarians at Starr King School for the Ministry.  Now in her late 80s, Til says that whoever we are, when we give time and attention to children in our congregations, we are educating them religiously.  It’s not about giving them facts and concepts, she says.  By our actions and by our presence, we’re teaching about relationships, community and love. We’re teaching children and teenagers about their own dignity and worth, and about the value of their own ideas and sources of inspiration.

She adds that when we religiously educate others, we are religiously educating ourselves. We are engaged in the work of transformation, not for those we teach, but with them. We are all changed by what we do together.

Several years ago, in my former congregation  I interviewed some Religious Education volunteers.  I asked, “How has doing this work changed you?  What have you gained?”  One volunteer said: “Doing this teaches humility! The more you learn, the more you realize what you don’t know.” Another said that helping with kids, even on an occasional basis, teaches patience and self-confidence.  One teacher said she became more flexible and observant: “I listen better now.” Another said he was learning to use his intuition, especially when a dry lesson called for some spicing up.

A fairly new member of the church said working in religious education has “Made me more accountable to working thorough my own journey in becoming a Unitarian. These kids are so sharp. They want to know how this material relates to their lives. Teaching has made me do my own reading and walk my own path.”

A religious education volunteer here at this church says this:  “I … know from watching my own kids that having adults other than your folks take an interest in you is so important.  It gives the kids another perspective and an opportunity to see themselves in others’ eyes.  (School) teachers are helpful, but at church we can serve in a personal way for the kids. I also believe it’s important to give parents a break and allow them to be in roles other than mom and dad all the time.  I remember as a mother of small children, I really needed adult contact, interaction and accomplishments.  I’m pleased that I can give back to my church community by being with the kids.”

Often when we talk about volunteer work, teaching, or other kinds of service, it can have a sense of duty about it.  We want to think well of ourselves, so we might think we should be of service, should help out.  How about if we approach our altruism… selfishly!  How about asking: What’s in it for you? What are you getting out of this experience?  How is it changing you?

You could ask these questions to anyone, about any of their chosen activities, in or out of the congregation.  How has joining this venture changed you?  What do you gain from giving?

Our growing group of Religious Education volunteers here ranges in age from 18 to 80, and older.  They must be getting something out of it.

One of our newer volunteers writes this: “The RE kids always enrich me with their honesty, openness, confidence, and humor (even if they don’t mean to be funny).  I go away feeling like the future will be okay.”

I myself never wanted to work in Religious Education.  When I was asked to teach Sunday school for the first time,  I was 26 years old.  It was a year or two after I had joined my first UU congregation, in Springfield, Illinois.  I didn’t want to work with kids; I had barely spoken to them.   Why would I want to give up hearing the speaker every Sunday or give up mingling with adults?  To be honest, I was afraid. But somehow, I said yes.

It was a small class of early elementary-school aged kids.  My co-teacher was a guy named Steve, older than I was, and the father of two children, one of whom was in our class. I forget the topic of our curriculum, but one Sunday we learned about Harriet Tubman, the black slave in the American South who escaped from slavery and then risked her life by going back to help many other slaves to escape.  For this we made a house out of a cardboard box and crawled in and out of it on the floor.

One day I led a discussion that included pussy willow branches. The thin branch of a pussy willow tree has buds covered in a furry skin—hence the name. The size of a vitamin capsule, the buds are fun to hold and feel. As I sat there talking to the kids, a girl named [Annie] said: “Roger?” “Yes?” I said. “[Jenny] has been playing with a pussy willow bud that she took off the branch. And she put it up her nose and now she can’t get it out.” Sure enough, tears were rolling down Jenny’s little face.  She was poking in her nose, pushing the bud up farther as her panic increased.  Those were the days before churches had two adults in the classroom all the time, so I was there alone.  To the other girl, I said, “Would you please go upstairs to the service and get Kathleen?” She did. Kathleen was not the girl’s mother, but a woman I knew who had seemed to be a take-charge kind of person. Either I didn’t know who the girl’s mother was, or I was afraid of getting into trouble. Kathleen came downstairs and held the girl in her arms. She spoke easily to calm her down. She coaxed her to blow gently till the alien object came out. Crisis over.  Jenny must be over 30 now.   I don’t know if she has remembered that traumatic experience, but I know I’ll never forget it.

Last year I spoke to a group of seminarians at Starr King School.  One of them was Annie, the helpful girl from that class.  She’s going to become a minister!

That same year that I began teaching Sunday school, my aging mother’s  health declined fast.  One Thursday evening, a few days after Mom had been hospitalized, I received a call that I should come home right away. It was a four-hour drive to Indianapolis, and I wouldn’t get there till after midnight.  I was scheduled to teach the coming Sunday.  While packing to leave I called my co-teacher to tell him. I offered to drop off the lesson plan and supplies on my way out of town.   Steve was more than willing to cover for me on Sunday, and happy to come to my apartment to pick up the materials.

We had a brief exchange at my door, and he wished me well. He didn’t say much, and all we did was to shake hands. But it made a difference to have some friendly human contact before setting out on that late-night journey to the hospital.  Had I not been in a teaching relationship with Steve, I wouldn’t have had his kind words to take with me on that long and lonely drive.

I did receive more than I gave in that volunteer job. We cannot predict how we will be changed, enriched or blessed by the experience when we decide to participate.

How might being involved in this congregation change you?  Or has it already?  I believe that any kind of activity can be a source of insight and growth, if we only take the time to reflect on why we’re doing it, what we’re experiencing, what it makes us feel, how it stretches us, how it affects our outlook.  What are we getting out of it?

What is your participation giving back to you?  This is not a cost-benefit analayis.  It’s a question for spiritual reflection.  Giving and receiving, speaking and listening, lending a hand or reaching out for one, we are changed by what we do together.  We are changed by making this congregation our home.

Another one of our religious education volunteers writes this:  “Working with the kids feeds my soul.  It’s so wonderful to see them learn and develop.  I learn so much from them and gain insights about myself.  I’ve also been blessed with great teaching colleagues and have learned from them as well…. I truly believe that helping children grow into fully functioning adults is the most important thing I can do.  Thanks for letting me do that.”

As Professor Til Evans says, when we work with youth and children in our churches, we are educating religiously—educating ourselves no less than them.

In my early 30s I was a member of the Second Unitarian Church of Chicago.   After many years doing other kinds of church work, I started helping out  with our teenage youth group.  It had meetings on Sunday mornings as well as service activities in the church and local community, field trips, and weekend parties.  My role was to show up, be present, and sometimes be a chauffer.

I rarely got any evidence that my presence made a difference or that I might be a valued source of advice.  Little did I know that many parents have the same experience with their own teenagers.  That church’s Minister of Religious Education told me not to worry—many teenagers don’t like to show what they are thinking, especially if they appreciate something you’ve done for them.  This advice has given me the courage to reach out and greet the youth of any congregation, including this one. Even if the expressions on their faces look as if they would prefer to do anything else in the world than talk to me, I force myself to ask them what’s going on.

One year I was a  chaperone for some of our Chicago teens at the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association.  After our return, I helped them to put on a service about their experiences.  Both were funny and full of passion. Willy, a classical pianist, played music in that service. In his remarks he said he had been inspired by the social action discussions at General Assembly, including a vote in favor of same-gender marriage equality. This was 1996, and he was only 14.

Ten years later I was a minister in California.  I flew back to Chicago for a national conference of religiously-based advocates for low-wage workers, especially for the right to organize a union. It was interfaith, with Jews, Catholics, Protestants, UUs and Muslims participating. And it was inter-generational. Many of those faith-based activists were in their 20s and 30s. They were sharp, optimistic, and passionate. They spoke well, sang well, and could articulate practical strategies and long-term goals.

One of these activists was Willy, the kid from my former church. Now a college graduate, he recognized me before I figured out who he was. By this time he was no longer Willy, but Will.  Tall, with a mop of reddish brown hair, he was cheerful and energetic, speaking to people of all ages with confidence and conviction. After graduating from an Ivy League university, Will had volunteered for an election campaign in Ohio—his side lost.  Then he moved back in with his parents in Chicago. He told me that in college he had he let his piano practicing slide so he could do a little studying and a lot of activism. Now he was looking for a job as a labor organizer. His mind was set on being an overworked, underpaid activist on behalf of low-wage working families.

Now, I can’t be sure that Will would be any less visionary, self-confident, hopeful and happy if he had not gone through years of Unitarian Universalist religious education activities

with not-so-confident volunteers like me. I cannot be sure of that. But I am sure that I wouldn’t have come to know him if I hadn’t been one of those volunteers. If I had not stretched myself to do what I felt awkward about–to do what I thought wasn’t sure was making a  difference– I wouldn’t have been able to witness the development of inspiring young Unitarian Universalists.

In the words of another volunteer:  working in religious education “makes me “optimistic about life in general.  It gives me hope for humanity.”

Last Sunday in the garden, I chatted with a few kids who have recently begun visiting the church.   One recent young visitor had been dragged here—I know that’s true because his grandfather told me he had dragged him here personally.  This young man showed me a handful of green peas he had collected in a Ziplock bag.  He said to me, “You know, this church is 100 times better than I thought it was going to be!  You have a garden… and all these other things to do!”

“I’m glad to hear that!” I responded, and told him about the program that we would have waiting for him on the following Sunday.

My hope is that before long he won’t say “You have a garden and all these other things to do”—he will say, “We have a garden and all these other things to do.”  If we convey only one thing to youth and children here, let it be that this community is theirs.  In this congregation, we belong to one another.   May we teach this lesson to them, learn it from them, learn it from one another.

Giving and receiving, speaking and listening, lending a hand or reaching out for one, we are changed by what we do together.  We are changed by making this congregation our home.

So may it be. Amen.



Pledge Card Countdown: Day 56!
March 14, 2010, 1:31 pm
Filed under: Church Finances and Stewardship

It’s been 56 days since the Stewardship Campaign began.  Pledge cards continue to come in, with new and renewed commitments to continue the good work for another budget year.  However, about 25% of the expected pledge cards are still outstanding–not yet submitted.  If you are a member or friend, you can find and print out a pledge card  at http://uuss.org/Forms/Pledge%20Card%202010-2011.pdf.  Your pledge can make a difference.  Out-of-town blog readers, we are happy to offer you a donation button on our home page if you are moved to give.  But of course what keeps a congregation vital is the participation and support of its regular friends and members.  Thanks to all of you!



A Comfortable Church

Sermon for the Installation of Lucas Keith Hergert

UU Church in Livermore, CA                                                                           Sunday, March 7, 2010

I’ve served congregations for about 15 years.  Every now and then, someone says to me:  “I like this church.  I feel comfortable here.”  Often it’s been a newcomer who has said this, but sometimes not.  When they do, I smile and nod.  But inside, I think, “You do?  You feel comfortable?  Well, just stick around.”

I don’t say that, but I think it.  To me, a congregation is not a place for predictable ease.  It’s a place for relationships of depth and meaning.  Of course, in meaningful relationships, there will be times of comfort, and it’s worthwhile to remember them.  But any relationship of depth and meaning has its times of challenge.  And that is not a recipe for comfort.

For example, some day you might find yourself in a meeting of a committee, or maybe of the whole congregation, engaged in a disagreement of principle or perspective.  Sometimes in your life in this church, you might feel stretched and stressed –tired, frustrated or even a little crispy around the edges.

Someday you might find yourself so connected to this community that you cannot imagine how you ever got along without it.  You might find yourself making friends and then having to say goodbye to some of them when they move away, or when you do.  Some afternoon you might be sitting here in this room for a memorial service, recalling how a member touched your community and your life.

I don’t think predictable ease is what we are about.  Hope? Healing?  Love? Yes, yes!  Friendship?  Yes, we try to foster that.  Fun?  You bet!  Compassion… Inspiration… Transcendence?  I hope so.  But not comfortableness.

Our congregations are not hiding places; they are sanctuaries of renewal.  They are a place to forge stronger lives, a network to exchange caring and compassion, a home base from which to reach out in care, service, and witness to a hurting and hurtful world.

Unitarian Universalist minister and professor Thandeka writes that  “Our pastoral work as churches is the protection of souls, and the care of souls that need healing.”  Our social justice work is put our values into practice to change the conditions that break souls—the conditions in our economy, politics, workplaces, streets and schools—as she puts it,“to alter the conditions that produce broken souls.  We  work to stop the assault.”[i]

Marge Piercey, in her poem “To Be of Use,” writes:

“Greek amphoras for wine or oil, Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums but you know they were made to be used.”  In that spirit, I say: churches look nice but you know they were not meant to be museums or living rooms or bedrooms.  Given the topics that too often pass for important converstaion in our church meetings, and the ways we try to be all things to all people, one might think church is  a bedroom furnished with a king sized bed with a Tempur-pedic mattress or even better, a Sleep Number mattress, so everyone here can dial it to fit you just right.

The work of a religious community is not comfort, but transformation.  By transformation, I mean personal growth, joy, depth, and connection.   And by transformation, I mean promoting freedom and justice, healing human lives, and protecting the planet.  Transformation is not easy.  Transformation does not look easy when a caterpillar becomes a butterfly, and it does not feel easy when we are in the middle of it.  It is not easy when a snake sheds its skin, and it is not easy for human beings and organizations.

It may be true, as the Bible says, that we human beings are the children of God, but we are also the cousins of reptiles.  We can think and reason more than lizards can.  We can feel compassion more than snakes.  We can, but we don’t always do it.  We have in us the remnants of a reptile brain—quick to jump to conclusions, quick to strike out if we feel hurt or afraid.  We’re prone to disappearing the scene when we feel some anxiety.  The reptile brain asks: “Should I eat it, or get away from it?  Should I shout him down, ignore them, go behind her back?  Should I subdue them with red tape, parliamentary procedure, or verbal pummeling?”

To be sure, our fight-or-flight instincts can be helpful in true emergencies.  But in human communitities, it’s better to make some explicit expectations about how we will live together.  Covenants make sure everyone is in the loop about how we will share the work, make decisions, and exchange feedback.  Covenants are promises about how we speak to one another and how we listen.  In church life, covenants outline what we expect of one another and of ourselves in the roles we take on:  member, teacher, volunteer, elected leader, called minister.  Covenants describe how authority is shared and assigned.  They say how we will handle disagreements or pursue reconciliation.

Our way of religion is  not based on creeds, not based on statements of belief that members must agree to in order to belong here.  Nor is our way of religion based on a culture of  comfort.  Churches will not thrive for long if they depend only on warm feelings, good intentions and easy familiarity.  Those things are nice when they exist, but a free and open church cannot live by them alone.    Our congregations live and thrive not by culture or creed but by covenants.  In congregations we live according to the the promises and pledges that we make to one another.

Today with your minister you make one of many kinds of promises that sustain and shape this community. I am happy for him and for you.

You have called a young minister with much maturity, talent, dedication, and faith.  He has the the potential to live out his vocation for many decades to come.  I am grateful that he is dedicating his life to this ministry and this movement.   Our heritage is full of stories about hard working UU ministers–some whose gifted, visionary and courageous leadership has been pivotal in the life of our movement and the life of our nation.

One of the stories is that of Thomas Starr King.  He was born into a Universalist family on the East Coast—a preacher’s kid.  Losing his father at a young age, he had to provide for his family, which left him neither time nor money in order to get a formal degree from a college or seminary.  But he sat in on lectures at Harvard, and was befriended by leading Universalist and Unitarian ministers in Boston:  Ballou, Parker, Emerson.  They mentored him and gave him opportunities to preach.  The Universalists ordained him at age 21.  He got an offer to fill his father’s pulpit near Boston, but he knew the elders there would always remember him as a child.  After Unitarian minister Henry Whitney Bellows asked a church in New York City to consider Starr King for its pulpit, it offered to call him.   Given his young age, however, the congregation wanted him to take  a year of course work.  He wouldn’t, and they parted ways.  Eventually, even though he’d never been to college, Harvard just gave him an honorary master’s degree. He was 24 years old.

Starr King began to serve the Hollis Street Church in Boston.  It was a part-time position, as the church had lost members over controversies about moral issues, including activism against slavery.

Though the church did grow in attendance and financial support, Starr King needed to supplement his income with public lectures, just as Ralph Waldo Emerson was doing.  His eloquence, resonant voice, deep thought and sense of humor made him very popular, but after 10 years of traveling around New England, he grew tired of it.  He wanted only to serve a church.  He had several choices in the East and the Midwest, but he felt the best call was to the Unitarian church all the way out in San Francisco.  He moved his wife and child to California in 1860.   Starr King conducted three kinds of ministry here:  pastoral leadership in the congregation, spiritual leadership in the wider community, and prophetic social activism in the state and country.  The church grew in size.  It drew people of deep values, with brilliant minds; people in roles of power and importance, and people who just wanted to be good neighbors, good fathers and mothers.

Outside the church, by writing and lecturing around the city and other parts of California, he promoted a more open religoius approach in society at large—the way many best-selling interfaith authors do these days.  In my city of Sacramento, two well-publicized lectures by Starr King led to the organizing of a Unitarian church.  As the national crisis over slavery grew, he became involved in electing Abraham Lincoln as president.  Then, the young state  of California was at risk of seceding from the Union over slavery.  By traveling around the state to give speeches for the Union cause, Starr King was the primary force for keeping California from seceding.  Then, during the Civil War, he aided  one of his East Coast mentors in founding the United States Sanitary Commission, which would provide first aid and medical care to the troops, many of whom were dying not from their wounds but from infections.  From a state with only 380,000 people,  Starr King raised over a million dollars—a quarter of the national total—to establish what would later be called the American Red Cross.  In only four years, he helped to change the course of our state and our nation.  Then he became sick and passed away at age 40.

I recount this history not as a promise that Lucas will be another Starr King, even though he did come all the way out here from Massachusetts, and even though Lucas also is spiritually grounded, talented, passionate and has a keen mind.   Nor is this history meant as a prescription to Lucas for a proper model of ministerial leadership.  I don’t want him to overdo it and do himself in.

We have many stories of great ministers, men and women now aged and many of them long dead.  Their legacies are so important.  Let us remember that great ministers began as young men and young women in ministry, where their gifts were vital and fresh and their wisdom already growing.  And let us remember that in our movement, clergy and congregation rely on one another.  They work together, and grow together.   Their accomplishments rest on trusting relationships—relationships based on covenant.   Again, I think of Starr King.  With his talents wedded to passion, with trust of congregation members and support of colleagues, mentors and friends, his best ministry was the one he was engaged in at any given time.

His ministry took place at a time of trouble and fear.  It was a time of political uncertainty and social injustice, of division and many kinds of violence.   Our religious values—and the courage to pursue those values—made a crucial difference.  The ministry that you and Lucas have begun is taking place at a time of trouble and fear.  It is a time of political uncertainty and social injustice, of division and violence many kinds of violence.   Our values and our courage can make a crucial difference, for us and for the world.

In summing up five centuries of the Unitarian movement in Europe and America, the historian Earl Morse Wilbur writes that the core values of our tradition are freedom, reason and tolerance—that is, tolerance for differing beliefs.  These core values were refreshed for me a few years ago by a person I met in Virginia.  I flew there for another Sunday-afternoon installation ceremony.   Saturday evening I went out to dinner with a few church members.  I heard about a church member who recently had run a campaign for Virginia’s state assembly.  He was a professor of environmental studies named Peter.  At the church service on Sunday morning, I saw numerous cars in the church parking lot bearing his name on bumper stickers, even though the election had ended five months earlier, and he’d lost.  I heard that he would be taking me to the airport Monday morning, but I didn’t meet him.  He was in the choir at the Sunday afternoon ceremony, but I didn’t meet him at the reception either.  I did meet his wife.  I asked her about the campaign.  She said it had been his first run for public office.  It had been a lot of work but they both got a lot out of it.  She said, for one thing, they showed that a Democrat could get 40% of the vote against an incumbent in a conservative district.  I asked, “Was he expecting to lose when he entered the race?”  “Oh, no,” she replied.  “Peter runs to win. We will always run to win.”

The next morning, I met Peter when he picked me up for the airport.  His car did not have his name on the bumper.  On the way to the airport, I asked him why he’d run for state assembly.  He said that one night he had gotten a call at home from a friend from church, who was in a meeting with two other leaders of the local Democratic Party. They were recruiting candidates for the election.  They told Peter they had chosen him.  At no time in his recounting the story did he use the term “sacrificial lamb.”  Peter was surprised at the request, and said he and his wife needed some time to consider it.  (For those of you who may be concerned about the partisan nature of this story from that UU church, I should explain that in Virginia the radical religious right has taken over the Republican Party.)
Peter told me that the weekend after that phone call, he and his wife had attended an afternoon worship service at another UU church in Virginia—a building dedication or anniversary service, perhaps.  The guest preacher there had not given a sermon, so much as a call to action.  In the sermon, the preacher said that the core values of the UU tradition were freedom, reason and tolerance.  Those values were the same ones that inspired this country’s founding, and those values are under attack.  He said that Unitarian Universalists need to stand up, speak out, get involved, and take those values back!  When Peter heard this, he looked at his wife.  He said:  “We’ve got to run, don’t we?”  She nodded yes.

Peter liked that preacher’s words so much that he used them in his campaign stump speech.  He also added justice to the list:  freedom, reason, tolerance and justice.  His opponent granted him only one debate, and it was in a rural area, especially conservative.  An audience member asked about civil marriage for same-sex couples.  The incumbent gave the familiar slogans about protecting heterosexual marriage by denying equal rights to gay couples.  When it was Peter’s turn, he said that his guiding values were freedom, reason, tolerance and justice.  For this reason, he said, he supported marriage equality for same-sex couples and opposed changing the state constitution.  For this forthrightness he even got a little applause.  And in the election, he showed that a liberal could get 40% of the vote against a strong incumbent even if he speaks the truth about what he stands for.

Peter spoke the truth about his values.  He did this because his UU movement supported him in doing so, inspired him to do so, and gave him the courage to do so.  Our congregations are not museums or cozy living rooms.  They are incubators of inspiration, courage, healing and hope.

Jack Mendelsohn is one of our elderly ministers distinguished by a long career of brave and inspired service.  In one of his many books, he writes that great ministers need great congregations; indeed, they create one another.[ii]

Most ministers don’t do ministry with an eye to what will some day be  seen as “great ministry” or what will make us and our congregations famous.  I trust that ministers, like most of us, would like to live in ways that are true to our values and to one another.   We seek support in speaking in words that are authentic and loving.  We seek the courage to stick our necks out on matters of principle.  We try to give encouragement and support to one another.

Most ministers don’t keep an eye on what will some day be seen as “great ministry.” That’s because if we are doing ministry for the right reasons, at the right time, with the right people, it is always great ministry.  May your ministry together be great in faithfulness to your covenants with each other, and great in courage and boldness.

May it be great in trust, courage, joy, and love. Amen.



[i] «Healing Souls, Healing a Nation,» by Thandeka, in A People So Bold, edited by John Gibb Millspaugh.  Skinner House Books, 2009, p. 73.

[ii] Paraphrased from Being Liberal in an Illiberal Age, by Jack Mendelsohn.  Skinner House Books, 1995.



News from Headquarters–the UU Association of Congregations

If you are a congregation member, you may have received your paper issue of the UU World in the mail.  If not, you can find much of the content online; click the link on the magazine’s name.  Of special concern are several major layoffs of staff and office closings as part of a $1.5 million budget cut.  UUA revenues have declined in recent years due to investment losses in UUA endowment funds and a drop off in annual program fund (“Fair Share”) dues payments from congregations, a drop off which includes UUSS, of course.  See an article here.

This just in!  From the UUA ministry and professional leadership department:  The Reverend Keith Kron has been chosen as the next Transitions Director beginning June 1, 2010. (The Transitions Office supports congregations in finding settled and consulting ministers–like Doug and me–through the search process. A close friend of mine since 1991, Keith received his M.Div. from Starr King School for the Ministry.)

He has been Director of the UUA Office of Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Concerns since 1996.  His prior career was in elementary education. He worked his way through college as a football and basketball referee. Keith has visited and consulted with over 400 of our congregations and even more of our religious professionals in his years with the UUA and brings a wealth of significant experience and knowledge to the Transitions position.  He joins Emily Schwab, Transitions Administrator, in the Transitions Office and will work with retiring Transitions Director, John Weston, through June, including at General Assembly.