Owning the Story – Gathering of the Waters

by BC

There is a moment, no matter where I am, that brings me great joy.  It’s something that causes me to sigh in familiarity, proclaim with joy, point at it frantically if I am with other people, sometimes scaring them, sometimes making them wonder what on earth is wrong with me.

It’s one of those simple spiritual moments in a life, nothing extravagant, nothing earth shattering.  But every time I see a decal on someone’s car or hat or clothing for the Chicago White Sox – there is this “Aha!” – a piece of home moment.

That baseball team is so much a part of my personal and familial story.  It goes bone deep…and not just because they are the best baseball team to ever exist.  But you know what I mean – there are things, images, and moments that remind you of where you’ve come from, where you’re going, and what part of your story is still with you and always will be.

Seeing the logo of that baseball team carries within it a pushing away and a reclaiming of the story of an entire people – that of Chicago South Siders, who are unlike any other group of people in the city that birthed generations of my family.

It was a story I denied of myself for quite some time.  It was a story that I did not want to claim.  I wanted to fit in with the culture around me, even though my home life and family life was sharply different.

The customs were different.  The way of relating with one another was different.  We were louder, rougher around the edges, suspicious of outsiders, and blunt with everyone.  We had the appearance of being angry when we would just say it was our normal way of talking and being.

The accents were different.  We couldn’t pronounce the letters “th” to save our lives, and we dropped the endings and combined syllables without hesitation.  We talked of a graj, not a garage, a mare, not a mayor, windas, saaaasage, potatas, melk not milk, pop not soda, Chicago, not Chicaaago – and the only teams that mattered were the Sox and Notre Dame.  Forget the rest.

To us, the city began and ended with the old stockyards and the sprawling rowhouses of the South Side.  Our blood was in the gears of the south works, the steel mills of Chicago, our power was in supporting “the party,” no matter what, because loyalty mattered above all else, and the good life was in earning what you needed, supporting your neighborhood, and not making a big deal out of nothing.  These were my people, the South Siders of Chicago.

These are my people.  And as a child suddenly whisked away to the western suburbs, I quickly learned that in order to survive in a relatively wealthy school system, I had to not be blue collar.  I lost my accent.  I pressured my parents for the trendy clothes.  I made sure I knew the right people.

I was a fraud, a fake, someone that the old neighborhood would want nothing to do with.  And today, that lost identity means more to me than anything else.  Above being a man, an American, an LGBT person, a redhead, a liberal, a minister, and yes, even a Unitarian Universalist – I will always first be a South Sider.

It is funny, but in my experience so far as a minister, in working with colleagues, other congregations, and all of you – I so often hear stories similar to this.  The setting is different, the circumstances are wildly diverse, the identities and stories are vibrantly personal to the person sharing them – but so many of them end with a reclaiming of what was lost.

A piece of ourselves that is near and dear, but pushed away, and now reclaimed – to be cherished, loved anew, and important in our becoming wholehearted and authentic.  What are the stories about yourself that you have pushed away and avoided?

Are they about where you come from, what you believe or believed, the things you’ve done in the past, the places you were, the people you knew?  Why did you even do this?  Was it to survive?  Was it to wait until you were strong enough to reclaim them or bear them?

We all have stories within us that are waiting to be remembered, waiting to be told.  Human beings, are, if nothing else, creatures of the fantastic and wondrous, the mundane and ordinary – creatures of stories that are as simple as a life lived and as grand as the stories told by the worlds’ religions thousands of years since their first telling.

We are, as far as we know, the only creatures on this planet capable of looking into the dark expanse before us, staring into the abyss, and from that darkness, beauty, terror, radiant things.  Much of this radiance belongs to truth-telling, the order of our lives, and yet still much of it is a glorious fiction.  We are, indeed, creatures of story.

What is your story?  What story have you not been telling?  What tomes in the corner of your innermost-self need to be dusted off and cracked open once more?  Does that thought scare you?  Does it make you worried? Happy?  Relieved?  Dusting off my own roots and claiming them fiercely was a fearful thing for me.

I was afraid people would roll their eyes, think less of me, or – if they were my own people to begin with – reject me for returning to the fold.  The fears were unfounded in my case.  But they were still valid fears.  Sometimes fear can tell us not of something that threatens our safety or livelihoods, but instead it can tell us that we are breaking the mold of our wider culture.

It can be hard to claim a blue collar, rough around the edges culture in a national temperament that prides itself on prosperity and wealth.  It can be hard to claim the story of our health when Americans are still convinced they’re the only people on earth that will not die, it can be terrifying to claim a story where we were mistreated – sometimes horrendously – when we have a culture that blames victims so readily.

Our fears are not always unfounded.  But so, too, the other side of our stories can be bring about just as much apprehension.  When have we sacrificed telling a story of joy?  When have we, either because of some sort of personal martyrdom or the circumstances before us, not claimed what we have every right to celebrate?

I love the people from which I come.  I am joyful when I hear my speech slip into a cadence that is part of the story of my people, because that means I’m standing on familiar streets.  But it was not always so.  It is the greatest of shames when, for whatever myriad reasons, we feel shame when life enriching joy is before us.  What are your stories? Your painful, joyous, wholeness bringing stories.  Which ones are still waiting to be told?

Today we join in a shared story – the story of what is commonly called Water Communion – the Gathering of Waters.  It’s a story that is as much a part of this faith tradition as baptism is to Baptists.  It is a decidedly Unitarian understanding of a word that often invokes images of a priest consecrating bread and wine, grape juice thimbles in the pews, and loaves fresh from the church oven.

These images might bring joyful memories, but to many that word also brings discontent or indifference.  But for us, for Unitarian Universalists, as we do with so many things, flip this word on its head.  For most, the idea of communion is about what you receive.

For us, in this tradition, in our practices, it’s about what we bring.  We bring our senses, our uniqueness, our emotions, our hesitancies, our agreements – we gather them all together in a ritual that is about unity – even if just for a moment – instead a travelogue.

Many of you have heard this story, perhaps just recently, or just last year, but it is one worth telling again.  It is a part of the mythopoetic tapestry that this new religion of ours is creating each day.  It is a story that, should humanity and religion survive ages from now, will hopefully be told – about a time when women gathered to share their grief, their hope in one another, and their resolve to transform their faith.

Over thirty years ago, the Unitarian Universalist Women and Religion Convocation celebrated a ritual that was also transformative – and it became the foundation of what we celebrate today as water communion.  But their ritual was decidedly different than common practice today.  A call went out for these women to bring water from their homes.

I like to imagine that many of them were perplexed by the request.  But what these women would soon find out is that the water they brought would come to represent all of their collective grief and joy, renewal and transition that they had brought with them as women.  As it was then and still is today in many ways, the challenges of women were felt in Unitarian Universalism.

They brought their water, stood in a circle and began to sing.  They sang and sang and then they began to share their experiences.  And they shared for hours – with laughter, tears, deeply felt grief, and hope. Upon sharing their oppressions and their joys they joined the water they brought together into one bowl.

And when everyone was done sharing, they went back to the bowl and took some of the mingled waters with them.  They carried the collective experience with them from that place.  It was the first Unitarian Universalist water communion.  And in that moment, they reclaimed their stories, as women, in a faith that had brought them joy but also great disappointment.

From that gathering of women in 1980, Unitarian Universalism saw renewed leadership from women.  That gathering paved the way for the hymnal to be gender inclusive, it inspired greater participation by earth-centered traditions in Unitarian Universalism, it saw our seventh principle be adopted:  The interdependent web of all existence of which we are all a part.

That is the story we are telling today.  The story of courageous women gathering together their emotions and experiences and finding something new emerge – and that is the gift they’ve given us today, in this moment, in this congregation, in countless congregations this month across this good and fragile nation.

The gift to reclaim our power, to reclaim our identities, to take hold of the stories within us and let them be poured out in this community, gathered up with the stories of the ages, and wash over our scrapes and bruises – a balm of gilead.

And so, in the spirit of that original gathering of the waters, we are here.  We are here in whatever state the world has left us with stories to tell, stories still emerging, and stories waiting to be reclaimed.  What is the story of you, here in this congregation?  How will you be a gift to this diverse tradition of which we are a part?

Will you be behind the scenes make things go smoothly, will you be a mover and a shaker, someone that dabbles, someone that overdoes it?  Ask yourself, really ask yourself, how does your story fit in to this place – and what will this place contribute to it?

This is less of a call for volunteers – though they are always needed to make a church run – but more of a call to discernment.  How are you being called to pour out your gifts upon this place and what is waiting to be given to you?  The answers, the next chapters, are infinite in their great possibility.  They are grand and they are humble.

Just as in that first water communion service.  Those gathered women gave praise and thanks for water from a simple tap, a pond, a river, or a remote village in Switzerland – what they gave thanks for was not the miles travelled, but the expression of their emotional core as one community.

That was part of the power of that original water communion.  I cannot pretend to know exactly what those women were feeling on that day – I just know what they did.  And I give thanks for their courage, for today we celebrate that unique tradition they gave us.

Part of me should’ve known all those years ago that I never was nor could be like the upper crust I spent most of my childhood with.  But soon enough, that story of who I was and still am came rushing forward without asking me whether or not the time was right.  The waters gathered within my innermost-self and washed over me.

It was a baptism that saved me from an inauthentic self and there was a peace in embracing what was true and good and wondrous in my story.  What are you waiting to reclaim?  What part of your story is overflowing and rushing toward you?

Together may we find out in the days, months, and moments before us as one congregation, full of stories waiting to be told: grand fictions and settling truths.  What wonder is this that we can pour out our stories here? What wonder? In blessing.  In triumph.  Blessed Be.