Well, it can’t be called pure Unitarianism, because despite their name, the First UU Society of Burlington has actually been Universalist in affiliation as well as Unitarian since 1867. Universalist culture thus plays a big role in its culture. But I ask myself, as I say hello to neighbors, is this a religion, or is it Vermont? Because Vermont has made a commitment to preserving the kind of social assets that too many cities and towns lost or rejected in the mid 20th century. We avidly maintain traditional neighborhoods, historic architecture, multiple transportation options, highlighted by a walkable Burlington
This month, I learned more about why we do this. Our neighborhood has several stray cats, as well as other cats who live with their families but get to go outdoors. The cat people know who is who, and one of them even trapped and removed the most aggressive stray.
So when I got curious about one especially friendly stray — and yes, I know he looks exactly like the cat I lost last year! — a lively conversation developed, both on Front Porch Forum and in person. He turned out to roam a wide territory, on which several households — including me — were feeding him. But if you left your door open, he’d come in immediately. Turns out he had been living like this more than a year, including through the Vermont winter last year. Lynne and I volunteered to take him to the Humane Society, to see if he could land a forever home.
But that was July and the heat broke nicely for most of the month. I decided to give him more freedom, at least for awhile. But two weeks ago, he showed up with a lame leg. So we took him to the hospital, where both he and his leg were fixed. He passed a few health screens, and life changed dramatically. We brought him home and set him up in a cage in the garage. As it got hotter, I let him out of his cage,to stretch his legs in that one room. As we went in and out of the garage to care for him — or, in the heat, sat in front of its open door in our lawn chairs, keeping him in his preserve — people stopped to see how he was doing. How we were doing. To chat about the other strays and wanderers. To cheer us on and thank us for taking care of him.
All this support and friendliness got me wondering about my constant call for a more connected pastoral network within our congregations. Was it true, as people told me, that your main networks come from your kids, your neighborhood, the interest group you see once a week for bridge or to demonstrate against the wars?
But then, one of our neighbors distinguished herself. We had mentioned our financial outlay to various people, especially the condo society across the street, who really wanted to get rid of this little home invader — but it was a co-religionist up the street who actually opened her wallet. We know her because we have all, at various times, worked together on UU staff, making us, in effect, a small group ministry together. We are not the same theology, but we share a commitment to — and gratitude for — the Society. We were just talking as she walked by, when she took out forty bucks and put it in our hands.
This, I decided, is why religion still matters: when someone asks for help in a neighborhood project, it matters what stories we tell ourselves about the request. The condo people were said to hate having this stray wandering in and out, but in the end, they seem to have just wanted someone else to solve the problem. Our UU neighbors, on the other hand, immediately recognized that my roommate and I were taking on an unassigned challenge in the midst of our own busy lives. To them, we are not “other people;” our problems are not “someone else’s misfortunes.”
Most of all, our efforts to assist one little animal, right or wrong, was to them a living witness of the faith we share. They joined us in choosing to participate, not just formally, in the pledge drive and Sunday morning show-up, but deeply, generously, spontaneously. They agreed with the story we had told ourselves, when we extended ourselves to help one little stray cat move closer to his dream of a forever home.
Ministers are learning more and more about the importance of telling stories in bringing faith alive. We have always listened to them as a way to help people feel better about their lives. But this month I learned that these stories then give back to the faith, live after the unburdening moment. They form that great cloud of witnesses by which we somehow define ourselves. Emerson said, “As we associate, so we are.” That cat introduced me to a lot of wonderful new neighbors — but he also deepened my gratitude that I have a religious community.