This was a message I presented at the Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship at Burlington, IA almost five years ago. I believe the core of the message remains applicable today as we negotiate our way through what at times can seem a very hostile public square.
Most of us who have been part of Unitarian-Universalism for any length of time know about The Principles and Purposes of our Association. They are the general points on which we come together in agreement for our work and our way of relating to each other within our congregations. These principles were first articulated as part of the merger process which began in 1956 and was completed in 1961. The original statement of principles was:
In accordance with these corporate purposes, the members of the Unitarian Universalist Association, dedicated to the principles of a free faith, unite in seeking:
1. To strengthen one another in a free and disciplined search for truth as the foundation of our religious fellowship;
2. To cherish and spread the universal truths taught by the great prophets and teachers of humanity in every age and tradition, immemorially summarized in the Judeo-Christian heritage as love to God and love to man;
3. To affirm, defend and promote the supreme worth of every human personality, the dignity of man, and the use of the democratic method in human relationships;
4. To implement our vision of one world by striving for a world community founded on ideals of brotherhood, justice and peace;
5. To serve the needs of member churches and fellowships, to organize new churches and fellowships, and to extend and strengthen liberal religion;
6. To encourage cooperation with men of good will in every land.
These principles were revised in 1985 and became the Statement of Principles and Purposes that we currently have.
There are seven principles which Unitarian Universalist congregations affirm and promote:
- The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
- Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
- Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
- A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
- The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
- The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
- Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
Rev. Steven Protzman visited our congregation in July and shared some of the discussion that surrounds the Principles in today’s movement, and whether they have become a de-facto creed for our congregations. While that is a valuable discussion to have, that is not where I want to take us in our exploration of the Principles. I would like to take some time to explore how we, a small Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship, might implement these principles in our life together as a congregation.
This week we will look at the First Principle. To start our discussion I want to share two stories to help frame our discussion. I chose these intentionally to set the extreme limits of our exploration, knowing that our balance will be somewhere between the two.
The first story involves a Christian church that called a new minister.
Pastor Jeremiah Steepek transformed himself into a homeless person and went to the 10,000 member church that he was to be introduced as the head pastor at that morning. He walked around his soon to be church for 30 minutes while it was filling with people for service, only 3 people out of the 7-10,000 people said hello to him. He asked people for change to buy food - NO ONE in the church gave him change. He went into the sanctuary to sit down in the front of the church and was asked by the ushers if he would please sit n the back. He greeted people to be greeted back with stares and dirty looks, with people looking down on him and judging him.
As he sat in the back of the church, he listened to the church announcements and such. When all that was done, the elders went up and were excited to introduce the new pastor of the church to the congregation. “We would like to introduce to you Pastor Jeremiah Steepek.” The congregation looked around clapping with joy and anticipation. The homeless man sitting in the back stood up and started walking down the aisle. The clapping stopped with ALL eyes on him. He walked up the altar and took the microphone from the elders (who were in on this) and paused for a moment then he recited,
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
‘The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
After he recited this, he looked towards the congregation and told them all what he had experienced that morning. Many began to cry and many heads were bowed in shame. He then said, “Today I see a gathering of people, not a church of Jesus Christ. The world has enough people, but not enough disciples. When will YOU decide to become disciples?”
He then dismissed service until next week.
Being a Christian is more than something you claim. It’s something you live by and share with others.
Yes, this is an apocryphal story, one that has been called into question at many levels. But the core of the story resonates with many congregations, both Christian and otherwise. No, we may not have rejected someone who visited us because of the way they dressed or how they presented themselves. But all of us have, at one time or another, experienced at some level the discomfort those Christian congregants experienced, even if we did a good job of hiding it from others.
The second story I want to share sets the other boundary of our exploration today. It is a true story, unfortunately, one that ended in tragedy for a UU congregation in Tennessee. It is the story of Tennessee Valley Unitarian-Universalist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee, and what happened there on the evening of July 27, 2008.
On July 27, 2008, people gathered in the sanctuary of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville to watch the children and youth of the congregation present the musical Annie Jr. Suddenly, a shot rang out. At first, many thought the noise was part of the musical, but they quickly realized there was a gunman in the sanctuary. Some people ran from the room, others threw themselves and their children under the pews. The gunman killed Greg McKendry when he moved in front of others to shield them from gunfire. The gunman wounded several other adults including Linda Kraeger, a visitor to the congregation, who later died of her wounds. People in the sanctuary tackled and subdued the gunman, who had concealed his shotgun in a guitar case as he entered the church. The police arrived and took into custody the shooter, David Adkisson. A witness said, “Everybody did exactly what they needed to do. There was very little panic, very little screaming or hysteria. It’s a remarkable congregation of people. I’ve never seen such a loving response to such an overwhelming tragedy.”
Adkisson, an Army veteran, had left a letter in his car expressing his frustration with being unemployed, and stating that he was motivated by hatred of liberals, democrats, African Americans, and homosexuals. He said in the letter that he had intended to continue shooting until the police came and killed him. The police affidavit reports that Adkisson later stated that, “he had targeted the church because of its liberal teachings and his belief that all liberals should be killed because they were ruining the country, and that he felt that the Democrats had tied his country’s hands in the war on terror and they had ruined every institution in America with the aid of major media outlets.” He further stated: “This isn’t a church, it’s a cult. They don’t even believe in God. They worship the God of secularism. The UU church is the fountainhead, the veritable wellspring of anti-American organizations.”
Press reports indicate that his former wife had at one time been a member of the church, but there is no evidence that Adkisson ever attended any events at the church. Nonetheless, he wrote, “They embrace every pervert that comes down the pike, but if they find out your [sic] a conservative, they absolutely hate you. I know. I experienced it.”
In early 2009, Adkisson pled guilty to two counts of murder and six counts of attempted murder and was sentenced to life in prison.
The Tennessee Valley Church was rededicated a few weeks after the shooting and a relief fund for those affected was created in the Southeast District and at the Unitarian Universalist Association. Just before Adkisson’s guilty plea in 2009, Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church named its fellowship hall for McKendry and its library for Kraeger.
We do not post armed guards at the door of our Meeting House, nor should we. Because of this event, for a time, many UU congregations wrestled with how to best protect their people during activities, and there was much soul searching about how open we should be to visitors. When George Tiller was shot at his church less than a year later that discussion intensified. Yes, your Council at the time also discussed what, if anything, we needed to do in light of these attacks and in light of our proximity to a conservative activist group with a very public record of endorsing violence. At that time the Council chose, wisely, to continue as we had in the past and to not allow fear to motivate us.
But in many ways I want us to pick up from that discussion point and move forward, considering what I see as the challenge of the First Principle. If we agree with both its literal wording and the spirit or intent it represents, then I see it imposing two duties upon us as a congregation:
1) We must respect each other as individuals and as an intentional community, covenanting together to create an environment where we may gather safely and grow spiritually.
2) We must respect those who choose to come among us, even if for only a short time, extending the benefits of our community to them as they are willing and able to accept.
There is a natural tension between these two. Most of us greatly value the safety we have here in our congregation, the way we care for each other and can be open and vulnerable without fear of being hurt. That sometimes causes us to be a bit hesitant in fully welcoming and engaging new people who come among us. We’ve also experienced instances where an individual came among us, was part of us for a time, and became a source of pain or discord that harmed people we all care about.
On the other side, most of us have a desire to see our fellowship grow. We are an aging congregation, and many stalwarts who helped build and maintain our fellowship have died, trusting that we would be able to carry on the work they started. To do so we need to find people willing to truly be part of us, and that requires us to become vulnerable and open to them. That is the only way that trust can grow, and that new people can truly become part of this community we create.
The tension between these two points, the desire to be safe and the desire to grow, must be held in balance. We all know of congregations who have fallen apart because of unhealthy situations that arose and were not addressed in a positive manner out of fear of giving offense or causing disharmony. Yet in almost every instance the problem did not resolve on its own. It spread, and resulted in permanent damage to the congregation.
Likewise we know of once vibrant congregations that were known both for their service to the community as well as their reputation as a place where individuals could grow. We’ve heard stories of these communities where complacency overtook the desire to reach out, and the congregation slowly but surely lost its vitality as membership declined. Soon burnout among the leadership was common, and these congregations struggled to find quality leaders who could give the time and energy needed to help turn the tide.
As a small congregation we feel that tension. Some would say that we are heading for extinction, and certainly our numbers have been in decline for some time. The fear that we must grow or die calls out to us, pushing us to sometimes make poor choices as we deal with problems in our congregation.
And yet, we continue along, in many ways stronger than we have been in some time. We are restoring the sense of sanctuary, of community, the feeling that has been far too long absent from our Meeting House. We come together now better able to encourage each other, reach out to each other when there is need or when there is reason to celebrate.
We are having new people join us from time to time. We occasionally have young people among us, something that has been lacking for a long time. We’ve had individuals express an interest in joining us formally, and next week at least one will sign the book during our service.
So we must be doing something right! We must be striking some sort of balance that works for us. From my vantage point I see two things that we as a community are doing that might be contributing to the more positive feeling we all seem to enjoy here these days.
First of all we have refused to give up. It would have been easy to close the doors and call the auctioneer a couple of years ago. But we chose not to go there. Instead we chose to repair our building, and in doing so we repaired our community. We made a statement to each other and to Burlington that we were not going away quietly. We demonstrated our intent to do the work necessary to rebuild, to go forward, and to reestablish ourselves as a center for liberal religion in the tri-state region.
By doing this we accomplished a second thing. We became attractive again. Not only does our building now look healthy on the outside, but when people come to visit us they always mention how positive it feels here, how welcome they feel as individuals. Our programming, our coffee hour, our religious education, our small group activities…all of this contributes to the aura of positive energy that now fills our Meeting House.
All of this because we did not give into fear and distrust. All of this because we made the choice to truly honor each other, and ourselves, in the spirit and letter of the First Principle.