Covenant vs Universalism

How many times have we UUs attended a stirring Sunday service which ended with Theodore Parker’s exhortatory call “May ours be a religion, which like sunshine, goes everywhere…”  Today, under tons of rain, I woke up thinking how much is wrong with that mission.

Its first problem is theological. Although Parker carefully says, “like sunshine,” he then calls on us to model our behavior on the characteristics of an immeasurable sacred essence. We are finite, each of us, not only individuals but religious communities, and cannot be God or God’s body. We can only be a part of it. And to be a part of something is to humbly, with experimentation and dialogue, fit oneself into a niche. Eventually a joy comes from being in that niche, and there excelling in providing a service the whole body requires.

To go everywhere is to wander. Not all who wander are lost, but neither are they reliable to those they have encountered. That is where covenant comes into it. Covenant means, “I will be back at three different times: in a rhythm you can count on (because I have other places to be as well), in your times of need, and in times of memory, hope and vision as you make your own journey.”

If we really were sunshine, there would be no problem with constantly meeting and serving new people, communities, purposes, because we would be immeasurably large and energetic. We are not sunshine. We are not immeasurably large and energetic. And behaving as if we were sunshine has set up a counter-covenantal pattern of service that’s throwing off our numbers faster than water floods down a deforested hillside. Ministry is a zero-sum proposition, not because God and goodness are finite, but because we, the servants, are very much so.

The opposite of covenanting is abandoning. Here are the communities which, by my calculation, we have abandoned — and the new communities to which we made our next jump.  I do not include here examples of outright racist rejection, which have been so well and accurately chronicled by others. I am talking about folks we started to work on uplifting, and then left behind because, as James Ford puts it so well, we are so “easily distracted by shiny things.” And our shiny thing is the next group that seems to need our uplift. In every case, what I write seems as true of other faiths as of our own. This social justice thing is not a denominational community, but an interfaith one which moves on at the point when it has to either filter back into its own faith community, or move on, as a group, to a new location. The faith communities themselves reject this alternative rooting process, because it seems to syphon energy from the normal pastoral work of living, working, raising kids, caring for elders and dying.

But Unitarians have plenty to be proud of, and in much of it, we did indeed form a key part of a leadership phalanx. Despite some egregious problems, we actually got off to a pretty good start on anti-slavery work. Not that we were unique in this, but we were persistent, and we did stay the course, even to the point of giving up our lives, until the work was done. But after the Civil War, the valiant efforts of Radical Reconstructionists to radically equalize the races in the South petered out. These efforts were tremendous, and one group who have received far too little attention are the northern women who went south to teach freed hostages how to read, write and cipher. If they couldn’t have forty acres and a mule, at least they might have the skills to hold their own in the monetarized economy.  Up here in Burlington, Vermont, one young lady sallied forth, and received occasional donations for her supplies.

As lynchings set in — targeting the men, and sometimes women and children — who were building success by application of these tools, northern Unitarians discovered a new group of the dispossessed: urban slums of Eastern and Southern Europeans. And for the less adventurous, there was the question of women’s suffrage. Yes,those were serious problems. Those who solved them sometimes paid with their lives, and I am the beneficiary of everything they did. But nothing had happened in the South to improve the lot of freed hostages; in fact, during the Social Gospel years up North, the Southern Black situation got worse. Is that a coincidence?

In these same years, as European-American culture, with some African-American co-participants, spread West, a new wave of attentions began. Even as Asian Americans suffered outright rejection, including “back to China” laws, massive sums of money and attention were put into providing First Nations children with an “education” we now understand to have been pure cultural genocide. But again, as misguided as it was, it represented a turning of attention away from the covenant with the South, both Black and White, which had been desperately degraded by the war, and into the issues of the West and urban North.

This is not to say that African Americans did not have their own abilities to be fulfilled, only to say that no one makes it without allies.  It is as allies that we proved difficult. And as Eastern and Southern Europeans, along with African Americans, unionized the Midwest and Northeast, Unitarians and Universalists redoubled our efforts to get our own sons and daughters into universities from which they would join the ranks of management. Samuel Atkins Eliot made this explicit in his call for closing down urban churches — some of them great landmarks — in favor of suburban and university-tied communities. This conflict erupted hugely during the 1960s and 1970s. Good-bye to all that Social Gospel harmony. Hello, we hoped, to a new era of common cause with African Americans.

But with African Americans we ran into exactly the same problem we had experienced with European-Americans: when it was time to bring the comforts of their culture into our culture, we balked. Not because we are bad people, but because our congregations still consisted, as all congregations do, of people looking for support in the exhausting work of growing up, launching their adulthoods, raising their kids, struggling with their jobs, dealing with elders, illness and death.

Happily, as this mission got difficult, Stonewall and the GLBTQQ movement gave us something to work on. Those early victories glittered — not because they were easy, but because they were so obviously necessary.  Thank God young people no longer know the devastation which AIDS wreaked in the 1980s, wiping out an entire generation of promising gay men. How unfortunate that we’ve forgotten this pain as AIDS has spread itself into communities we no longer serve, the urban poor, especially African American.

Then came equal marriage. This mission is not yet finished, but once again, once we picked off the low-hanging fruit, UUs as a movement have moved on. Once again, we’ve abandoned our own, as congregations in states and territories seek our support to pass these laws, state by state, and our media-driven denominational staff has moved on to the immigration rights of Latin Americans among us.  Somehow, a pattern of discrimination which has plagued our country for generations has suddenly gotten its moment in the sun, and UUs, pretending once again we can be everywhere, have caught its glitter, donned their yellow teeshirts, and hit the picket lines.

Meanwhile, what about our parishioners in Rhode Island, whose chance at Equal Marriage just went down? What about our community in New York, where it is the governor, not our president, who leads the charge?

“We will get back to you at some point,” is not the definition of covenant. I write this facing a window which opens onto a sky of heavy clouds. From the local news (Vermont is one news district, so this includes the whole state), I know of two or three congregations whose parishioners might well be in shelters right now due to flash flooding. Where is our network for that project? Why is my district staff not sending out, right this minute, a flash message letting me know what has happened to the Universalists of Barre and St. Johnsbury, and the UU Fellowship under Mt. Mansfield, since their valleys got yesterday’s five inches of rain in two hours? All night long, my television station was blaring out its warnings to them, “Take shelter, don’t drive on flooded roads.” Why does my religion have no way to tell me how they’re doing?

Unitarian Universalism is a lovely vision — so long as one combines it with humility. Even sunshine doesn’t always pour itself out as abundantly as is needed. How much less can we do so. Only by acknowledging the role of interfaith and denominational alliances — not so much in league with the national media as with our local communities — can we undo the devastating floods of bad luck and injustice.  Somehow they have managed to form the penetrating root systems at which our social justice leap-frogging has totally failed.

In fact, they have succeeded because of our social justice leap-frogging. All that it takes for evil to triumph is for good folk to do nothing. A related corollary is, to find some other place to spread their goodness.

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A Tale of Two Robinsons

It took a little time to find Eugene Robinson’s Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America in my local Borders chain.  It might be because Borders itself is in backruptcy, and stocking fewer titles, and it might be because Vermont is either the first or second whitest state in the nation (I never saw those numbers from Maine).

But Vermont has one of the nation’s strongest records of caring about racial justice (and yes, there WERE slave-owners who had to dispossess and start paying when the state constitution was written) and all other things liberal.  We are comfortable with these beliefs — and in Disintegration, Robinson looks just as critically at liberal comfort zones as racist ones.

The first thing he does is challenge the whole concept of being anti-racist — among African-Americans.  Despite their growing rarity, we latch onto symbolic examples of egregious racism, he says, precisely because we have so few other unifiers across our newly-fragmented class positions.  On pages 23-24 of the hardcover edition, he quotes MacArthur fellow Charles Johnson as saying the single African-American narrative of group victimization has ended.  Telling his own story, Robinson, who is apparently in his fifties, says this leaves him in a strange place socially. He was formed for a certain community experience — nodding at every African American he passes on the street, for instance — which no longer applies.  As part of this, he spends several pages rebutting the commonplace statement that there are more African American men in prison than in college.

The book follows a highly-readable path, beginning with “When We Were One” about the Jim Crow/Great Migration era, and moving to “Parting of the Ways.” He then devotes a chapter to each of his four classes: the Mainstream, the Abandoned, the Transcendent and the Emergent (aka immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean).

What made this book so powerful to me is how much it charted my own experience as a completely-Caucasian-currently-restocking-the-sunblock citizen of the same country. While it is true that African Americans still experience last-hired-first-fired, the firing has been going on long enough that many white folks are now being treated to the same abandonment process.  Jobs outsourced. Schools defunded. Unions busted. Recreational and cultural access — not just as an audience, but as a participant — denied by money, not by law. Robinson notes several times, with pride and love that his wife, Avis, runs a program of preparing African American youths for college, in which he takes part as well. He also praises William Raspberry, his retired Washington Post colleague, for returning to the rural south to set up a comprehensive family uplift program called BabySteps. And when I walk around my own impoverished neighborhood, with its strong Caucasian majority, I see plenty of young folks whose public parenting problems suggest that this is neither a black nor a southern uniqueness.

For us Unitarian Universalists, the end of the segregation narrative means an end to the narrative we have told about ourselves. In fact, our part of the narrative appears in Gene Robinson’s discussion  of why Hillary Clinton, rather than Barack Obama, attracted so many leading African Americans to her presidential run. According to Robinson, the Civil Rights generation had achieved Transcendence only with help from White Allies, of which none were better than the Clintons. Obama, famously, asserted that “Yes, We Can” make it with only our own merits and efforts. And if someone wants to point out that part of his advantage was white family mixed with black, well, the difference between family and allies only clinches my point.

We UUs, of course, were among those white allies. And our contribution to the breakthrough moment is rightfully a source of pride. But now that the breakthrough is over, where do we go from here? Some folks, nostalgic for the rule of white allies, have attempted to shift the label of disadvantaged to the Latino immigrant community. But as Robinson points out, the Emergent, despite their lack of money due to immigration, bring substantial assets from their home cultures. These elements of social capital have long since been stripped from the Abandoned, and justice for the Abandoned requires substantial and personal reinvestment, family by family, block by block.  I came away with a deepened attraction that Rev Ron Robinson is on the right path with his Third Place ministry in Turley, OK.

But there are two things about Ron’s ministry that fly in the face of our UU comfort. The first is our love of personal distance. We don’t even talk much about our own personal needs. Hitting a hard time is one of the sure prescriptions for leaving this religion, although the small group ministry movement and the growth of care networks are trying to find a compromise we can live with. And in fact, readers of Ron’s blogs and FB pages will note that his commitment to Turley is centered in lifelong ties, and his extended family is still there.

This points to the second comfort issue we face with the end of the white-allies position: the end of us-them altruism as a ritual culture. The worst that can be said about the yellow Standing on the Side of Love tee-shirts is that they have a pathetic desire to separate the wearers from the people being assisted.  More positively, I would describe them as the Easter outfits of our newly-recast liturgical calendar, proudly displayed to announce our faith to the world. Except, as so many cynics have pointed out for almost a century, instead of showing up to be saved, we are there with the arrogant commitment of saving others. As Gene Robinson points out, applying this to economic immigrants is a misplaced generosity which mightily angers the Abandoned.  African immigrants are only temporarily poor, victims only of unusually high moving expenses, with no expectation whatsoever that this will be the case for their children and grandchildren.

Latino-Americans certainly do suffer various forms of discrimination and harassment that do not apply to African and Caribbean immigrants.  But the structural de-employment of America that Robinson describes raises serious questions about whether well-meaning white allies of immigrants are carrying on or undoing the effort to help the black underclass. Ironically, the admirable effort to decouple racism from poverty has failed the very people it was meant to serve.  Once again, we are casting our lot with the emergent of a different color, rather than removing ourselves from the tougher issues of structural disinvestment.

Ron Robinson is right about two things, as Gene Robinson makes clear: you have to give up the grand efforts and get local, and you after that, you have to give up the meta-narrative to put yourself in the story that is unfolding.

With what little denominational pride I can still muster on this topic (but ask me about Equal Marriage), I humbly propose that we shift our historical modeling to an earlier generation’s work and take up the old Social Gospel effort again. You are probably drinking coffee or juice mixed with water from a clean public pipe system. You are probably going to take a walk on a clean street, without worrying about sewerage in the gutters. Your home, whether rented or purchased, meets certain criteria for cleanliness, density and structural soundness.  All of these goals were achieved be armies of middle class Victorian women and men, of every faith community, who spent their days “going downtown to the slums,”  often door-to-door, in order to assist immigrants who really were victims of more than moving costs, mostly fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe.

In fact,when Samuel Atkins Eliot began his ministry of prophecy, he did exactly what Rob Robinson is doing now. Despite being the scion of Boston privilege, he chose to start in Denver, Colorado, where settlers and cultural leaders were trying to tame a frontier outpost. Archives of his work there tell not of demonstrations but of countless urban leadership meetings about amenities we take for granted. Schools, water, public decency — these were his focus. And if his commitment to educating native Americans can only be seen now as cultural genocide, it was the only thing his mind could envision as entering  progressive civilization.  And he took a lot of flack for providing the same kind of services for numerous decades to a more appropriate population: prison inmates and newly-released. He would be appalled at our wholesale abandonment of jurisprudence reform, except, of course, for complaining indignantly about the way it damages African Americans.

It is no accident that in working to shape his own ministry, Eliot sought local connections for liberal religion, traveling tirelessly to plant congregations and found the Rocky Mountain Conference of the National Conference of Unitarian and other Christian Churches. Ironically, when he moved to unify AUA structure — as a prelude to consolidating with the Universalists — it was because he thought progressive culture was so widely ensconced it did not lead local leadership any more. Marx’s “withering away of the state” describes Eliot’s excitement perfectly.

These days it looks like Eliot should have spent a little more time on the physical sciences (his father was a chemist). He might well have consulted a few comparative studies of empires and civilizations. What goes up, eventually comes down. And as both Eugene Robinson and Ron Robinson are here to testify, that’s happening not just to other folks in our country,  but to us. One of them has a white “us” and one of them has a black “us,” and in neither case does it matter.

To use Gertrude Stein’s phrase in a way that was once descriptive and may yet be again, “There isn’t any there there.” Nope, now it’s a “here.” “To abandon” is the reverse of “to restore.” Restoration is an artisanal profession, with lots of returning, attending to detail, redoing mistakes, and at the end of the day, saying, “not good-bye,” but “see you tomorrow.”

Can we do that? Can we give up our own meta-narrative, which is wandering into wildernesses that need saving, in order to grasp the more humble task of “putting our own house in order”? Adolescents set out, to conquer and transform the world. Grown-ups know better. They put down roots and get rhythmic about time and space. Our history says, there was a time when we were those grown-ups. Can we give up our adolescence, and do that again?

Rethinking the Exodus

It was the late C. Conrad Wright, in whose memory we will gather this Sunday afternoon at First Church and Parish in Cambridge, MA, who first told me that the social justice as a top mission had decimated the ranks of the Unitarian Universalist Association. This did not sit well with me — since I agreed with most of the Association’s positions — but I’m a sucker for membership statistics. Over time, he convinced me it must be true.

Last week, as I wrapped up writing on the third quarter of the twentieth century at First Burlington (VT) UU Society, the data forced me to consider the possibility that the explanation is more complex. And the  ah ha! moment didn’t come simply from the data. It happened when All Things Considered one evening announced, with great pride, that they had a cake in the studio to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of their first broadcast.

Who knows what opens our minds and souls in such a way that pieces of old information suddenly fall into a pattern that might make sense? Here’s what happened in my history-stuffed mind that evening.

I’d been charting the demise of Forum, a wonderful denominational program that used to meet on Sunday mornings at 9:30 with weekly presentations by public leaders, followed by Q & A.  Back in Cincinnati, my father never missed it; it was his church. He checked out the rest of the offerings (and brought me to them, which is what got me here), but Forum was it for him. And up here in Burlington, it was the same story. Thirty to fifty devotees assembled weekly for almost two decades, listening and discussing.

Forum was no spaghetti-on-the-wall attempt at growing membership.  During the Standing Order of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, every minister was responsible not only for two sermons on Sunday –whose job was explication of the Scripture — but he also crafted a weekly lecture on public topics. He was, after all, an employee of the town, responsible for its public morals and education. Different ministers lectured on different nights, in order for a group of lecture fans to hear their favorites. If you remember the story of Theodore Parker walking from West Roxbury, three parishes south of Cambridge, to hear Ralph Waldo Emerson address the seniors graduating from the Theological School in 1838 (and walking back the same night, reflecting under the stars on what he had heard), you have been introduced to a remnant of this institution.

In the early twentieth century, this institution made a sort of comeback through the Laymen’s League, which gathered for dinner-discussions once a month. Here in Burlington, what impressed me is how many of those presentations featured two group members taking opposite sides of the same issue to offer something that probably stood somewhere between a classical debate and a general conversation.

I will say right now that in my late middle age, I wish we had Forum again. Those Laymen’s League conversations would be good, too. Those presentations have migrated to public radio and television, but they lack a covenanted community for mutual religious edification. The attempt to restore balance in our General Assembly Resolutions is all well and good, but you can’t really grow good food without strong grassroots, which Forum and Laymen’s League used to provide. After all, there are folks of many different faiths listening to public radio and watching public television, and inspecting the information through different religious lenses.

Nothing has been so likely to drive me out of the UUA as the recent pronouncement from headquarters that our ministry has been a long tradition of ruckus-raising.  It is factually wrong. Our ministry has been a tradition of information-sharing and covenanted discussion, with no obligation on the participants to arrive at a single sharp conclusion with which to slash its way through public discourse.

I know for a fact that Unitarians were among the founders of public radio and television, dedicated to raising the level of public discourse to what they experienced in their congregational gatherings. Instead, they seem to have taken that civility with them, and departed for parts unknown. Some of them will return for memorial services, but many have made their peace with some other religious or social group which doesn’t impose the onerous burden of achieving a crusaders’ consensus. They pledge where they listen, even as public radio and television do more and more to build connection and community for their donors.

Conrad always said there was much to learn by deeply examining the histories of our congregations.  The narrative up here in Burlington doesn’t contradict his statement that the social justice mission did us in. It does show how we managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Even as the larger society has come around to so many of our prophetic positions, we threw off the civil and pastoral discourse such change requires, and thereby lost the chance to bring them in.

What Would UU Do?

Remembering the Reverend Joshua Young, who believed to his dying day that First Congregational Society (Unitarian) of Burlington asked for his resignation because he conducted memorial prayers at the burial of terrorist (to that generation) John Brown.

Nurturing Adults with Easter Eggs

Yesterday while Lynne and I drove to choir rehearsal before the second service, we were astounded to see The Easter Bunny walking down our quiet Vermont street.  And although the rational adult mind immediately concluded that it must be an adult in an Easter Bunny outfit, going to work somewhere, my first impression — the immediate imprint on my retinal brain — was that I really was seeing the Easter Bunny.

First UU Burlington had an Easter Egg Hunt this year, so perhaps he was heading in that direction.  But the sight of him called up memories of a different UU congregation, and an Easter Egg Hunt which has been transformed from a commercial ritual to a multi-level congregational experience.  I speak of First Church (Unitarian Universalist) in Jamaica Plain, MA, where I had the privilege of serving as Director of Religious Education for six happy years, 1999-2004.  Rev. Terry Burke, and his wife, Music Director Ellen McGuire, met there, married, raised three wonderful children in that program, and still lead meaningful rituals.  This is one of them.

First Church JP still includes a graveyard in its church enclosure.  Far from being a place of fear or revulsion, it forms a peaceful and beloved part of the congregation’s identity.  Congregational Historian George Wardle has led the way in bringing to life its inhabitants.  On a sunny spring day, if it seemed to need it, I remember sending a restless Sunday School class out to carefully pick up its litter.    It plays starring roles for the honoring of All Souls, and again at Easter.  In my day, the older classes — bribed with the promise of a surplus of chocolate they could appropriate as they worked — would assemble early to stuff candy into multiple plastic eggshells.  Then — still early, they would head out to plant these treasures amidst the markers, mounds and dried out winter weeds.  Many eggs were stuffed into crevices in the stone wall that edges the site — sometimes with scoffing comments that, “That’s too hard for a little kid!”   When the eggs were out, the message was clear: resurrection attends the dead, personal and visible; make of that assertion what you will.

After intergenerational worship — where voices of all ages might be heard during Prayers of Intercession, and silence lasts until every pulse in the room has found its calm — the little children claimed paper bags and scattered into the graveyard for their hunt.

The youngest, of course, immediately looked for help.  Parents might get them started, but the veterans, anyone over about seven — took pride in claiming only a few eggs for themselves and then looking for a little child to assist.  This gave the older children an alternative mode of participation, rather than simply filling their bags competitively, while showing the youngsters that Religious Education is a community.  The older child would check the younger child’s bag to see what they had, offering congratulations and reassurance if any egg were there.  Then, often hand in hand, the older child would guide their charge to spot the brightly-colored plastic.  Together they would struggle safely over intervening tree roots, around gravestones, even reaching to the stone wall itself.    During this stage of the hunt, I more than once saw older children check among themselves, to be sure there were enough eggs remaining for the younger ones.  If not, they would then surreptiously reach into their own bags to plant a target further ahead, for their classmate to point out to some happily ignorant toddler.

But one of the most touching experiences I had with those older children came when one or two of them called me aside for a private conversation.  “I’m wondering if I’m getting too old for this Easter Egg Hunt, Elz.” they confessed, each one by one.  It was a major decision, a transition they knew would forever cut them off from a joy of childhood.  “Do you think it’s time for me to come before church and put the eggs out?”

We would discuss the pros and cons.  How did it feel to help the little ones?  Were there enough older kids to keep helping the little ones, if you and your class made the shift?  It’s a personal decision, I would say, not a statement for any one class.  When you’re ready, you’ll know.

Each of them chose their own pace for closure.  Some wanted to do this year and then one more, knowing this would be the last.  Some were ready to say that this would be the last, and next year, they’d be arriving early.   Lots of personal factors went into each decision, not least whether one’s siblings were older (before church crowd) or younger (hand-holding stage of life).

I think of those conversations now as I watch my friends with fatal conditions venture forward along their final journeys.  As with the Easter Egg Hunt, these are decisions that can’t be redone.  Adulthood — that long era of holding younger hands — eventually gives way, in a healthy family or society — to the joy in investing in youngsters less personally known to you.  They are yours not through shared play, but shared stories, shared values, common dreams.  And as their feet walk where yours walked before, as their hands reach into the stone walls and bushy thickets where you have placed those plastic shells — the ones you filled with your own hands, and carefully sealed against spillage — your childhood comes alive for just a moment, not for you, but for another child, another family.  What has happened to our world, that there are people — childless by choice, like me — who take no delight in lingering by the fence, to watch our future unfold with faith and ethics?

Investing in a collective future.  That’s only one of the lessons taught by these stages of participation.  Whoever it was this month in Vermont, who hired that adult to wear that costume and hide those eggs, had no idea how much they were depriving our youth, our elders — and our future.