Universalism: There Are Still Villages

Yesterday I had the great fun of doing a wedding for excellent First Universalist Church of Barre, Vermont (ministers please note, they’ll be in search this year or next).  Shawna and Daniel Badger — two of the world’s great people — and their two wonderful children already turning out well.

Of 183 people there, almost everyone had known each other for decades.  If they worked together, they had also gone to school together — not college, necessarily, but high school, elementary school.  The bride and her matron of honor have been best friends since age 2!  At dinner I sat with a couple who were no longer social with the same group — but they still lived on the same street, had worked with the groom, and amused themselves spotting people from the high school they had all attended together.  And nobody stood on ceremony.  The bridesmaid who was usually on the dance floor appointed herself to glide through the room and collect used salad plates so the Elks Hall staff could get the dinners out faster.  When the groom stopped by my  table, he passed along news of a new job opening which might interest my dinner mate — who said no, but he had a brother-in-law who might like to hear more.

What amazed me was the body language of the many babies and toddlers.  At my urban religious education jobs, I spent much serious time being sure everyone respected boundaries, touched carefully and with permission.  But here, any and every adult seemed happy to hold or dance with every child — who totally expected to be held by and danced with all around.  The babies could be seen eating, dancing or sleeping completely comfortably with anyone who held them.  These kids might not know the phrase “interdependent web,” but they are living it.

Yes, these village social circles can easily mask an abuser — which is why the  “Stranger danger” is such a dangerously wrong strategy for preventing child abuse.  But what struck me as I chatted with people over the rehearsal dinner (a huge backyard potluck and playfest) was that they have a culture which looks out both for trouble — and personal growth.   They were jocular about the new dent in somebody’s pick-up truck, but nobody drove away drunk from that picnic.  The bride teaches pre-school and knows how to organize a rehearsal when the minister fails to show up (missed a crucial turn and wound up in a different part of Vermont).  I chatted with a couple who have five kids under five in their blended family, and he couldn’t say enough good about his wife’s work running their home.   If anything appeared to bother any of these kids, this whole network appears ready and skilled to take an interest.

But no one is stuck in traditional roles.  My table partner also took a pay cut to work closer to home and now gets dinner every night while his wife commutes home from her job.  The matron of honor just had her fourth baby (first son), but her gift for participating in the wedding was a portable light backdrop for the photography business she’s planning.  One of the groomsmen is a Yankee fan, and he was given Yankee regalia, while members of Red Sox Nation got their preferred stuff.  The three year old carried the rings on a White Sox throw pillow, although no one can explain how he picked this team to admire.

Yes, these kids undoubtedly get “whuppins” and the dads hunt and fish.  But they also model helpful reliability, especially this groom.   The three-year-old son, who was totally having trouble with the whole big event until it was time to help his adorable one-year-old sister scatter the flowers.  At that point, he took her hand and began repeating, as best he could, the simple instructions they had been given.   This is the first groom who has asked me to dance (I evaded it) and when we said good-bye, the bills long paid and the license signed, he asked me when he should schedule the renewal of vows.  I was stunned, and muttered, “I’m sure you’ll renew them every day.”  No, he wanted an anniversary.  I gave him “Twenty-five.”  “So we’ll see you then,” he responded.  He has full freedom to choose — and this is his choice.

These are not “stereotypical” UUs, according to the culture we bemoan — and yet this is exactly how Universalism got started in our part of the country: thoughtful clans who respect traditional religion, except for its judgmentalism.  Yes, these kids undoubtedly get spanked, and the menfolk hunt and fish — but does that really rule them out of our faith?  Danny and Shawna chose a ceremony which was thoughtful and prayerful but Bible-free– despite the presence of Catholic relatives.    They handed out wildflower seeds for us to scatter next spring, as a prayer against breast cancer, for which the groom’s mom has been in treatment (clear blood test just before the wedding, I thank God to say).

So what do we lose when we let traditional Unitarianism — urban and suburban– form our sense of UU norm and history?  What if we spent more time trying to learn from, and live up to, the rural village origins of Northern New England Universalism… with their circuit riding ministers and eminently stable social ties?  As corporate America loses interest in taking care of the majority of us, I can’t help thinking this might be our best hope of universal salvation.

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