Within These Walls
I always enjoyed walking around the city of Chicago in the winter. The long stretches of concrete and skyscrapers felt more imposing and present than in the summer months. If you could withstand the sudden gusts of wind that paid no mind to how many layers of clothing you were wearing — you were in for one astonishing walk.
Blue-greys reflected off every window, steam rose from the sidewalk vents and sewers, and the people were in even more of a rush than usual — forming tight clusters of wool jackets and puffy coats all headed onward to whatever their location. I especially enjoyed these walks in the most brutal of winter months — January.
In January I had regular classes in seminary and commuted down every morning and made the mile and a half walk from the train station to the school near the lakefront. I took note of the familiar faces I would see every day. The Salvation Army volunteer always stood at the end of a long indoor tunnel handing out their magazine for donations.
An older grandmotherly type passed out resumes under the nude stone formations of the lyric opera building. And countless others demanded ones attention — beggars, street musicians, campaigners and protesters, confident evangelists, and peddlers of street market goods. All the while — everyone else just wanted to get to somewhere warmer.
There was one evangelist in particular I expected — morning, noon, and night. She camped outside of the art school, which was right next door to my seminary, handing out her pamphlets to the film makers, painters, and musicians. I could only imagine her reasons for choosing that location.
And I couldn’t help but wonder what she would do if she found out the Unitarians were right next door. I avoided her — I went out of my way, going to the other side of the gigantic Michigan Avenue sidewalk to get to the door of my school. She wasn’t particularly imposing or loud — she was soft spoken and simply made presence known by stepping in front of people.
But by the end of that morning walk I had had enough of sin and pamphlet salvation. I knew, also, she would be there when the day was out — this, it appeared, was her full time mission. And so I went on avoiding her morning and evening and our unspoken relationship of ignoring one another was working out just fine. Until one evening.
I’m not going to pretend I was on her radar or I was particularly special to this woman. I hardly imagine she kept thinking “There he goes again, I’ll get that red head someday.” But one evening after class — I began my walk in the cold and there she was. In my path.
I tried to skate by but stepped right back into my path. She held out her pamphlet — adorned with a picture of a Jesus I knew I wouldn’t get along with — and she waited. Here was my moment. I held up my hand and refused, saying, “Sorry. But I’m a Unitarian Universalist. No thanks.” Her eyes widened, she withdrew her hand, and she replied, “A Uni-what?”
What followed was probably one of my less finer moments as a soon-to-be minister at the time. I launched into a mumbled mess of jibber jabber where I talked about principles, mergers, and liberal free thought. My elevator speech was not meeting expectations. Needless to say, the conversation ended awkwardly. We both avoided each other again after that day.
As Unitarian Universalists, it is not an entirely simple matter to describe exactly who we are — even for those of us that have been UU for quite some time. By it’s very nature — it’s adaptability — it leads to lists and caveats and impossibly long responses. And how can it not? There is a lot of ground to cover. Because within our definitions there are our own paths right there with Unitarian Universalism: We are UU Buddhists, Christians, Pagans, Humanists, Naturalists, Theists, Atheists, you get the idea.
And so, when we find ourselves on the receiving end of pointed conversations about what we believe. Often with friends, family, or random strangers on the street. It can be difficult to encapsulate the big picture of UUism because it is so vast. And I know I’m not alone in experiencing this,
For people that are not completely familiar with who we are as a people of faith, the conversation quickly turns to the basics: “What do you believe?” followed by “No, really, what do you believe?” and, in frustration, “Just tell me what you all believe.” From there it gets specific. People want to know about: God. The afterlife. Heaven. Hell. Jesus. The Bible.
In my experience, it is often here that people begin to suggest that, Oh, yes, you are the church that believes anything. For me, even as a minister, it can be frustrating to be a Unitarian Universalist. And I contend it is not frustrating because of its lack of dogma or its freedom — it’s frustrating because deep down many of us still know what it felt like to first walk in to a UU church and experience it.
We call this a feeling of “home,” a feeling of acceptance, a feeling of being embraced — but to fully share that experience we cannot use words alone — we need to invite others in to experience it themselves. And so, the frustration is in trying to convey and be believed when we say that we do not offer a tidy package for living, but we offer an experience that is ever changing and growing. I cannot blame many people for wanting a laundry list of beliefs. This has been the dominant narrative of Western religion for quite some time.
Through all of this, I’ve found that the more I have the conversation about who we are as a people — with all of my missteps and fumblings — I’ve begun to lose patience with some of the mischaracterizations of Unitarian Universalism. Chief amongst these is the idea that this is a faith that has no roots — it has no anchor — and we can believe anything.
A colleague of mine once remarked that the only two things you could not believe and still call yourself a UU were the trinity and the concept of eternal punishment. Historically that is true. But beyond those, I believe our tradition, in all of its openness, outright rejects any belief that diminishes human dignity and worthiness. While I can find common ground with Christians in the teachings of Jesus, I cannot pretend even for a moment that the threat of hellfire is to be cherished or accepted.
Any belief, Christian or otherwise, that tells a young gay kid that he or she is damned, or any belief that tells women their bodies are objects, or any action that suggests human lives are expendable are beliefs that we do not welcome through our doors. And while what we do cherish and unite behind is so very subjective — changeable — evolving, the work of our communities of faith makes having a dogma kind of tempting.
But we’ve chosen another path — a difficult path — that requires us to find common ground amidst diversity, to covenant to be our best selves and to call one another back to our best selves when we fall short, to not avoid conflicts, and to have difficult conversations. This is the work of finding a way forward — of finding the good and right for our communities that we uphold. And of looking at the world and saying, “There is a more loving way.”
This was the belief of Rev. Dana McLean Greeley in 1961 when the merger of the Unitarians and the Universalists formed our association. Greeley served as the first president of the association. He believed that Unitarian Universalism was the next great world religion — that it would accomplish impossible things and unite peoples across the world, and that it was a new way of being religious.
While Greeley was not quite right in his predictions — one thing that he did get right is that we are indeed a new way of being religious. This piece rings true today and is evidenced by all of you here in this moment. In this room there are pagans of diverse paths, buddhists, christians, agnostics, humanists, and religious naturalists like myself.
There are democrats and maybe a few republicans, there are gay people and straight people — and so many more people from innumerable paths that I could not even begin to do them justice. But with all that we are and all that we aspire to be — with all of our varied beliefs, our values stand as the foundation for our way forward.
I want to believe Unitarian Universalism will continue to be great. It will not be the next major world religion but it’s voice and values can still be heard. It’s easy to believe such a thing in a room like this. I want to see it continue to save lives, I want to know it brings joy and hope, safety and courage.
Especially here in Lexington as the only Unitarian Universalist congregation, I want these things to be true so long as there are churches that preach intolerance and fear. So long as there are communities that stoke the fires of racism, classism, homophobia, hellfire, and on and on.
I want people to know loud and clear that while our umbrella is wide and welcoming — we cannot, in good conscience, let human indignity go unchecked. But believing in the possibility of these things only goes so far. How can we, as a congregation, within and beyond these walls speak our values with clarity and conviction? And I ask this knowing that the ways in which we engage this religious tradition are varied because we are a varied people.
How will you put our values into action in the world? How will you continue what you’ve already begun? Living our values need not be overly complicated or time consuming. Perhaps you will welcome visitors on Sunday morning, or teach Religious Education to our youth. Perhaps you will find yourself in this pulpit sharing the meditations of your heart and mind, or maybe you’ll invite someone to experience our living tradition.
It can be as simple as being kind to those that do not share our beliefs — or letting someone know that, yes, there is a place for them here. And I do not suggest some of these things as if I am easily practicing them myself. It is hard for me to be kind to someone that believes I am going to hell. It is hard to speak truth to power when the power could threaten my life or make life more difficult.
It is no small task to stand up for dignity when our tiny denomination is often the only one. From women’s rights to marriage equality we’ve often stood vigil alone for some time. While I am tempted to say that all we need is each other to make it through the work ahead I know that is not enough.
It would be the Disney movie answer. It is all joy and happiness — except when it is not. And so, too, is it with church. We need one another not just for support but to challenge, question, and confront. We have to be willing to live in to our promises and remind each other of those promises. Yes, we need one another, but so much more as well. We need each others hearts, and minds, and passions.
I often think back to that evangelist on the streets of Chicago and wonder if she is still there, stepping in front of people and handing them her pamphlets. I doubt she would remember me and I doubt she knows, even to this day, what a Unitarian Universalist is.
What breaks my heart is not that she doesn’t know but that so many other people passing by don’t know as well. It breaks my heart that some of those people don’t know that they are worthy, they are enough, they are not alone. Our voices and our experiences are needed. They are needed on Sunday morning and they are needed in our daily lives.
We may be the only ones to witness our way of being religious with others — but it is needed. Your voice matters here and beyond Lexington. What will you say the next time someone says, “A Uni-what?”