Austin Unitarian Universalists Rev. Chris Jimmerson and Rev. Nell Newton speak on broadening our sense of community, 12/27/15.
Rev. Nell Newton
“We Gather In Community”
When people chose those words – and it was a collaborative effort – this congregation was at a terribly beautiful moment. It was terrible because many people were still mad and hurt and angry and sitting far out on the edges. And beautiful because other people were crowding in close to see what they could do to be of help, how they could make things better. But let’s back up to what was going on before these words were chosen. Let’s start with a story….
Once upon a time there was a congregation that went looking for a minister. But not just any minister – no, they wanted a wonderful minister. They wanted a minister who would be bold and preach the paint off the walls. They wanted someone who would stick around and not just use them as a lower rung on his or her career ladder. They wanted someone who would challenge them! And that is exactly the kind of minister they got. It was wonderful and terrible. It was wonderful because the minster could preach the paint off the walls, but then terrible because it was hard to keep the walls painted. It was wonderful because the minister settled in and showed no inclination to leave them to better his or her own self-interests. But it was terrible because the minister didn’t show any inclination to leave for the congregation’s best interests either. It was wonderful because the minister challenged them. And it was terrible because, well, sometimes people need to be comforted too.
Ministers! But there was something else that was happening that the congregation had not experienced in a while. The minister drew people in – lots of people. Standing room only crowds of people who came to hear the minister. It was very exciting! But after the services, many of those people just got back in their cars and left. They were happy enough to hear the great sermons and watch the paint peel off the walls. They didn’t stay around afterwards to help repaint the walls or read stories to the kids or wash dishes after potlucks.
Now, in all fairness, those people were probably feeling pretty good about everything. They probably were feeling happy that they’d finally found a minister to listen to, so they could say that they had found a church. But what they hadn’t yet figured out is that sermons are not church.
Really. Church – if you do it right – is a verb, not a noun. And the folks who were just showing up for the sermons were missing the really hard, challenging, transformative part of church.
So, when things finally went “kaboom”, which happens if church is a verb, all of a sudden, the minister was gone! And the people who were there to watch the minister’s show, well, a lot of them just left. And that’s probably okay. It was a little sad to see the empty spaces where they had been sitting.
But, some of them didn’t leave. As the dust swirled and settled, they blinked, and as if waking from a magic spell, an illusion, and they began to notice that even though there was no minister, CHURCH continued.
And some of them began to recognize that the underlying, the foundational ministry in the church was the congregation. Those people they’d been sitting next to? They were all ministers. And good ones too.
It was during this time that the congregation – everyone who was still showing up – got to really see church as a verb – a process of creating and becoming together. It was pretty cool.
And when they set out to identify their mission, the reason for doing this church stuff, they all agreed that the most important part of what they were doing was simply coming together, gathering in community. Because while individuals are amazing and powerful, there are some things that you can only build where two or more are gathered.
I used to think of church as a wonderful banquet with welcoming tables, deeply satisfying food, and genial company. In this analogy the minister helps people find their place and points out good things to eat while the congregants take turns serving, eating and washing the dishes. The covenant serves as the house rules and there is a place for everyone at the table.
That’s a pleasant image, but it doesn’t include all of what really happens at church. It doesn’t include that radical bit about change.
These days I think of church more as a laboratory – a place where people can come and learn new ways of seeing and being. We’re building a new way and as we work sometimes there is a flash of light and a puff of smoke!
In this vision of church I see us conducting experiments with such titles as “Being Well Together” and “Walking and Talking”. Higher level experiments are also being conducted in “Not Walking and Not Talking”, and “Letting Go”. Church then becomes the place where we work at becoming a people so bold — a place where we change ourselves in order to change the world!
This version of church is explicitly a challenge to the people who identify as “SBNR” –“spiritual but not religious”. That’s how a lot of folks will explain why they don’t do church. They are just fine with their spirituality, no need to complicate things with institutions, or really, other people. Not even other SBNR people. Because, well, people. They can be so people-y. They can be so challenging.
And, there’s the problem with trying to do spiritual but not religious: if you’re off doing it all alone, there’s no one around to call you on your nonsense or useless abstractions, or self-indulgences that don’t ask you to look closer, work a little harder and become the best version of yourself. And there’s no one around to point out other versions of the holy, or new ways of giving thanks. Sometimes you need a near perfect stranger to point out the gaps in your theology.
So, come into this community of love and learning and falling down and getting up and starting over. It’s how we are doing our theology. Gathered in community.
Rev. Chris Jimmerson
Community – to connect with joy, sorrow and service with those whose lives we touch.
That’s our topic for today’s second in a series of sermons on this church’s religious values. Values that are at the core of this religious community and out of which our mission that we say together every Sunday arose.
I’d like to start by talking about what we mean by community – how we create and sustain religious community within the church, because I think sometimes when we talk about community we kind of have this Hallmark view of community where we’re all going to love each other all the time, and we’re only going to have joy and hugs and fun together, sipping coffee, munching on delicious bonbons and singing Kumbaya together.
And, no, we are not singing that today. Or ever; at least when I am leading worship.
Anyway, I think all of that is part of it. One of the things that I love about serving this church is that we do have fun – that we do demonstrate physical affection with one another – that we share a great sense of humor and joy.
Like, with a lasting marriage though, I think there’s more to it than that. I think that we also have to be aware that there will be struggles – that we will disagree – that we will have conflict from time to time, and in fact I would be wary of a religious community that never had conflict because it could signal that perhaps what we had actually created is a club of like minds, not a true religious community.
We have to be committed to and willing to do the work of maintaining relationship – of sustaining an ever-evolving, ever-changing religious community.
In fact there is a theology that says that God or the divine emerges out of the messiness of creating community. Now leaving aside for a moment that this theology envisions a supernatural version of the divine, which I don’t, I will say that I was fortunate enough to see exactly the process this theology tries to capture occur here in this very church after, what Meg refers to as the time of trouble had occurred. At a specially called congregational meeting, the congregation had voted by a fairly narrow margin to dismiss the person who was then senior minister.
It was messy. We had disagreements. We had hurt feelings. And yet leadership emerged that was wise enough to bring in outside help and to provide opportunities for members of the community to begin to speak with each other, both on and intellectual and an emotional level.
This community began the long process of forming a covenant of healthy relations that describes how we will be with each other – what promises we make to each other within the religious community. This community began to discern our values and to create our mission that gives us common purpose.
Out of the messiness and disagreement and hurt feelings, because some folks this religious community stayed in the struggle with each other and did the work of building and rebuilding relationship, this became a church even stronger than it had been before – a church that is providing a religious and spiritual home for more and more people -a church that is making real differences in our larger community and in our world – a church that I am so proud to serve.
Now, that’s an example from an extraordinarily challenging and thankfully rare situation. However, I think this willingness to stay in the struggle with each other – this willingness to embrace that true community will sometimes involve messiness – is necessary even during times such as the one that this church is undergoing right now, when things are going well, when there is joy and goodwill within our membership.
Because smaller but potentially destructive disagreements and conflicts will still happen that if left unattended and unspoken can fester and grow into larger problems. Because we are all human, and we will sometimes unintentionally fail one another.
And so, even during times such as this, religious community demands of us that we abide by our covenant with one another – that we ask for help when we need it -that we speak with one another directly and from the heart even over our smaller hurts and disagreements. Here at first UU church of Austin, we are fortunate enough to have a healthy relations ministry team that can help when doing so seems difficult.
It can be difficult. It can feel very vulnerable.
And perhaps that’s the key point. Without vulnerability, there can be no real religious community.
Only through being vulnerable with each other, can we create that true sense of religious community – can the divine emerge from among us.
Earlier, I talked a little about Community within our church walls. Now I’d like to talk about living this value Beyond them.
As many of you know this past summer, our church provided sanctuary to Sulma Franco, who had sought asylum in the U.S. because she feared persecution for having spoken out and organized on behalf of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights in her home country of Guatamala. Due largely to her immigration lawyer making a mistake and the systemic injustice of our immigration system, she had been held 9 months in a detention center and was facing an imminent order of removal or deportation.
Working with a coalition of local immigration and human rights groups, other churches and faith leaders, we engaged in a campaign to pressure Immigration and Customs Enforcement (or ICE) to do grant Sulma a stay of removal so that she could remain in the U.S. while her immigration legal case could proceed. In August, the ICE office in San Antonio told Sulma’s new lawyer that they would grant the stay, but that Sulma would have to accompany her lawyer inside the ICE offices to sign the required paperwork. Not surprisingly, Sulma was afraid that if she went in the ICE offices, they might put her back into detention and deport her instead.
After much planning with our allies, and after our Senior Minister, Meg, received assurances from the officer in Charge of the ICE Office that Sulma would not be detained, we made plans for a whole entourage of folks to go to the San Antonio, where were joined by more folks from San Antonio outside the ICE building and several members of the press, whom we had invited.
We hit a snag when the ICE officer told us over the phone that by ICE policy he could not come outside and state in front of the press, that they would not detain her, so Sulma had to decide if she would still go in, with only the private assurances he had made to Meg. She decided that if Meg and I would lock arms with her, one of us on each side of her like this, and go in with her and her lawyer, then she would do it.
The ICE officer met us as we entered the building. Sulma was trembling. I could actually feel her shaking with fear. I only hope that if I ever had to, I could summon the courage it took her to walk in that building.
She was too terrified to let go of either Meg or me for any reason. To go any further, there was one of those metal detectors and X-ray belts you have to put your cell phones and bags and such on. The ICE officer took mercy on us as we fumbled around trying to figure out how to get things out of pockets and onto the conveyor belt while still locked arm and arm. He told us we could just go around but the space between the screening area and the wall though was very narrow so to get through still connected with Sulma, we had to kind of do this sideways shuffle.
I looked around, and there were these long lines of folks, almost all of whom where people of color, waiting and waiting to see someone about their immigration status. I thought, they must wonder who this woman is being escorted right past the lines and into a private office area, locked arm in arm with two white people one of them wearing some strange, bright yellow scarf. I thought, many of them must be terrified too.
After what felt like hours, ICE provided Sulma with the paperwork legally stating they would not deport her, and we left the office, Sulma holding her documents of freedom high in the air as her supporters cheered and celebrated her.
I think that on that day what Martin Luther King called “Beloved Community” had arisen. Now, I think that’s a term that gets overused, but as King used it, it involves a community of radical love, justice, compassion and interdependence. And to make the beloved community, we needed others. Our individual efforts to do justice are wonderful and needed AND our mission says that we gather in community to do justice. We have so much more power to do justice when we act together. We have so much more power to create the beloved community when we act with our interfaith partners and our larger denomination and a broad coalition of folks, some of them religious and some not, like we did that day in San Antonio.
Because we do these things not just to save one person, though that is vital and important, but to shine a light on our broken and inherently racist and LGBT oppressive immigration system, so that one day, if can build larger and larger coalitions, we might bring the change that will free all of those other terrified folks we passed by in that ICE office that day.
Building the beloved community requires, in the words of our great UU theologian James Luther Adams, the organization of power and power of organization. That’s why we gather in community to do justice.
That’s how we create the conditions for the divine to emerge in this world – in this time – here and now.
As you go back out into the world now, know that there is a love that you carry with you beyond these church walls.
Know that our interconnectedness contains seeds of hope for justice and compassion to be made manifest.
Know that together, with one another and the many others who would join us to create a world wherein each is truly beloved, together, almost unlimited possibilities are still ours to create.
Go in peace. Go in love. Go knowing that this religious community awaits you and holds you until we are together again.