The Courage to Do Local History

Not that I would downplay the importance of knowing our own congregational histories, but in writing one of them, I have found that local history — the context in which my forebears operated — has completely upended what I thought I knew about Unitarian Universalism.  I do not mean on the fancy level where some of my own historiography takes place, with Ivy League degrees and prominent historians as grandfathers.  Here I speak of this faith tradition as taught to me in New UU and sermons.  The stuff we repeat among ourselves and tell to others.  And after working in three different localities as a UU historian, I can tell you frankly that some of who we think we are is just plain not true.

In particular, we are NOT a prophetic religion politically.  And the reason we do not fund or enjoy learning our history is because our history does not justify an aspiration in that direction.   There is nothing unique, through most European presence in the United States, about how Unitarians and Universalists have envisioned and worked to improve society. Liberal?  Yes — in many ways.  But not radically utopian.  To promote this myth, we have abandoned the liberal faith mission in which our forebears invested their lives to create a new core mission — and thereby thrown out most of our elders.

Whenever we tell this story, that our tradition consists, at its heart, of a few radical progressive visionaries, we commit two mortal sins.

The first sin we commit is against ourselves.  This myth of our political progressivism de-lists a great many genuine co-religionists.  These were women and men and children who subscribed to non-radical views about the proper organization of society but sought freedom for personal freedom in matters of God and religion.  Especially in the last fifty years, as theology about God and worship as a bonding force have lost any presence among us, the exodus has been cataclysmic.  People we have known and loved simply lost interest in hearing their carefully-considered social views described as sins, week after week, with a casually self-righteous sense that “this is what all of us believe.”   I am not talking about the radical extremists of segregation by race, class, gender, age, etc, but the gradualists and the pragmatists who insist on calling attention to the flaws, costs and heartaches which are inevitable when a society undertakes fundamental change too quickly, too philosophically as opposed to proceeding carefully, with pragmatic and pastoral pauses.

The second sin we commit is to erase from the picture of secular social progress a great many people whose views of God and worship are different from ours, but whose social and political views have agreed with our radical visionaries.   Did our radicals influence their radicals?  Certainly yes.  But did that make them our co-religionists?  To say so is to insult their consciences, their genuine faith in a different type of God and worship than our forebears held, even at that time.

Selma?  If we were there in such force, who are all those other folks, in collars and dark skin, who composed the vast sea upon which a few of us bobbed?  Where were we the first week?

Abolition of slavery?  If we were such prophets, why does the North Star above the Ohio River mark the home of a Presbysterian minister?  As refugees struggled up the Champlain Valley, why were they harbored by Quakers and, here in Burlington, a Calvinist?  Why was John Brown an avid evangelical Christian?  This was no Unitarian or Universalist prophetic stance, but a community of radicals, drawn from many faith communities.

I need hardly mention that when it comes to the questions of war and opposition to war, Unitarians and Universalists have varied wildly among ourselves, as well as over time.  And in each case, we have found allies for our political positions not so much within the pews on Sunday as in meetings, rallies and political campaigns we share with other faiths.  The Society of Friends.  Seventh Day Adventists.  Even the North American Roman Catholic bishops and holy orders have often stood against war more firmly than their parishioners.  For what its worth, these are faiths whose commitment to radical political views gains genuine endurance from an unwillingness to tamper severely with the bedrock consolations of God and worship.

The only position I can see where we have truly stood prophetically is full equal rights and dignity for same sex relationships and diversity of gender identifications, up to and including equal marriage and gender reassignment.   And it comes as no surprise that it rests on a solid theological proposition — marriage as sacred covenant (as opposed to “an institution ordained by God”)– which we have held and reaffirmed repeatedly since our modern re-birth in the Radical Reformation.

This has been a hard learning for me.  Like many UUs, I came into this faith community because I needed political and cultural collegiality to feel affirmed on Sunday mornings.  To gain that community, I was willing for many years to suppress as private my more conservative views of God and worship.  So what if I was a UU Christian?  How did my petty personal spiritual needs matter as much as the injustices placed on others by a rigidly segregated and corporatized society?

And for that time and place, that hierarchy of priorities was probably accurate.  But even in Cincinnati, one of the most politically conservative cities in the nation, that is no longer a uniquely UU mission.  My mother’s Presbyterian congregation, for instance, takes great pride in national leadership as that denomination grapples with equal marriage.   There are now more gay couples openly living outside the major cities than in them.  And African Americans are moving back to the South in record numbers, undoing the Great Migration they once embodied.

These times are different.  The change process has landed us in a different space, resembling other eras, and presenting other challenges.  To do our history now, and find the forebears we need to understand to embrace this era,  our first step must be to undo the sins of those recent oversimplified denominational definitions.

And to do that, we need to re-partition those social movements in which we take such pride.  No longer is it accurate to call them denominational — which is why so many of us are now involved in interfaith community efforts which use one-on-one community organizing to cross religious boundaries.

And likewise, no longer are we served by keeping our UU forebears of different political views outside our community of faith — past or present.  Yes, there will be some who are never congenial to us, for segregations and superficial labels have no place in universalism.  They are partialisms, as fully as any other.  But few of our forebears are going to land fully inside those camps.  Most will be more ambiguous, more diverse in their personal views, once we congregational historians are able to learn their names and find enough records to learn their real stories.  In my political days, I scorned genealogy as an overemphasis on transient flesh.  Now I know it is the key to recovering the witness of souls whose good was interr’d with their bones.

As I have wrestled with this loss — which is genuine to me, and does not, in fact, change my political views in any way — an old story has provided consolation, over again.  It makes me laugh, it makes me cry.  It tells me, above all, that there’s an acceptable human universality in wanting to locate oneself before adding in others.  I assure you, it took place in my life, and has not been embellished in any way.

Back in 1979 or 1980, on a clear sunny afternoon, fairly warm, I sat on a large but nearly empty jet airplane, riding the 90 minutes from Cincinnati, Ohio to New York’s LaGuardia Airport.  A happy-sad ride, the end of another family respite from my graduate studies at Columbia.  My fellow passengers were few: a couple of bored businessmen, and a husband and wife with a son of about five or six years and a daughter of less than one.  I could tell that this young man was the serious, self-disciplined type, for he amused himself with books and such while the parents made sure the baby had a good flight.  A nervous flier myself, I marveled at the young man’s composure, and even occasionally steeled myself to look out the window.  Sometimes on flights like this, we could see the Statue of Liberty and Manhattan skyline.  It was always worth the shock of remembering we were up in the air.

Bummer.  New Jersey.  A sea of rooftops, neatly arrayed around streets which had character only to their residents and public servants.   The size of New York’s sprawl never ceased to amaze me.  Never ceased to bore me.  Thank God I did not live in suburbia.

And all of a sudden, this young man began to shout to his parents, with his first full-bodied excitement of the whole hour.  “I see our house!  I see our house!”  He shook them and pointed.  They politely pretended to agree.

I looked again.  What street, what rooftop, got him going?  What was this kid thinking?

Perhaps that entire community was “our house” to him.

Perhaps “our house” was to him a generic unit, details unimportant.

Perhaps he really had searched out a configuration of cul-de-sac or cross-street that made him feel at home.

A genealogist, two hundred years from now, might rejoice with such vague information about his home at the age of dawning knowledge — sufficient to establish the birth and death dates, maybe even the professional status of his family.  But a biographer or local historian would not stop here.  To us, that cul-de-sac, that network of streets and shops, would be simply a narrow passage through which, at last, to enter that family’s fuller reality.

Each congregation is full of that child, and that family, over and over again.  Each of us wants first to recognize our own home in the sea of rooftops.  But we are wrong to blot out the other rooftops which comprise other people’s whole lives — and then say we know our religious history.

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2 thoughts on “The Courage to Do Local History

  1. Pingback: Boy in the Bands - Blog posts I’m reading today: our past and future

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