Celebrating Our Heritage

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Today, I’m going to talk to you about celebrating our heritage as Unitarian Universalists and as the UU Church of Bowling Green, but before I do, I’m going to ask you to think outside the box a little bit.  There are ways that we share a common heritage, but there are many ways that our heritages are widely different and I think it wise to recognize that and to realize the challenges that that presents us with.

I’ll start.  My own particular bloodline has left me with the heritage of an Irish American.  That means a number of things.  My parents were Irish immigrants who spoke with accents (called a “brogue” after the heavy Irish work shoe).  That, and the food we ate and the expressions that were used at home, meant that we were brought up in a home culture and a public culture (which we experienced mostly as a school culture).  We brought some of the Irish expressions with us to school until we learned by ridicule and other means not to.  We looked forward to a big Sunday dinner when we came home from mass, usually of roast beef, roast potatoes and vegetables.  Later in the day on Sunday we had “tea,” which meant sandwiches made from cold roast beef and fresh made bread, Irish soda bread or caiscin— a delicious bran bread.  It meant that the whole family sat around the table for each and every meal– until we became teenagers and had schedules of our own and the rules became more flexible.

And did you notice I said “after mass”?  Yes, every Sunday we attended mass at the local church, St. Leo’s up till 1963, and St. Mark’s after that.  We sat as a family most of the time until St. Mark’s added a children’s mass.  It meant that we received Catholic doctrine from the earliest ages– and I don’t expect it’s going too far to say that we were indoctrinated.  It meant that we learned ritual and learned either to be discomfited by it or reassured– depending on our temperaments, I expect.  It meant that we believed in an omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent God– one who was all-knowing, present everywhere and all powerful.  We were taught to recognize sin, to repent, and to be forgiven.  We incorporated guilt into our very beings.  It was part of the culture and is now it’s part of the heritage.

We lived through Vatican II, which means that we learned that even things that seemed set in stone are liable to change and that in a hierarchical structure, the views of a single person at the top could change a whole culture– though not without creating some degree of conflict.  And so, some of the mystery of the mass was sacrificed and a greater sense of understanding and connection was established.  Things that seemed set forever in formality became more informal; the secular culture was changing at the same time.  One influenced the other.  Another lesson: cultures are interdependent.

We attended public schools.  Some of our cousins attended Catholic parochial schools.  We grew up, then, in differing cultures.  We heard stories of Catholic school students being punished by being struck with the rattan– a long slim stick that was applied sharply to the hands.  When you were told to put out your hand, you’d better do it quickly or you’d be in even more trouble.  There were no “Protestant schools” that I ever heard of.  Jewish kids were allowed to take off certain days from school that the rest of us were not– the Jewish holidays.  As a result, many kids wanted to be Jewish, at least for a while.  Catholic and Protestant kids were released early once a week to attend their respective church-based classes in religion.  Another indication that we lived in a society with several cultures.

Kids in the neighborhood had backgrounds of a variety of European nationalities.  Our landlord’s family lived upstairs.  They were from Italy and made their own wine from grapes in the garden next door– and their own pasta sauce from homegrown tomatoes– the aromas that filled the house!  And the shouts back and forth in Italian when there was a dispute.  Georgie Richard’s family was from England.  Billy Volkas’s family was Dutch.  Joe Sienkievitz was Polish.  Isidore Pina was Portuguese.  Sandor Varga was Hungarian.  I think Lucia Luscenko must have been Russian.  Jimmy Johnson was African American.  Alan Cohen was Jewish.  It was every bit the melting pot that we were taught that America is– and yet, in some measure, individual cultures were maintained.

To be Irish meant other things, too.  My father remembered the signs on businesses looking for help that said “No Irish need apply.”  Imagine what that does to your self-image.  And imagine how it solidifies your tribalism.  When my mother met my father, she was working as a maid– a domestic– in the home of a wealthy couple who lived in Scituate, a lovely seaside suburb of Boston.  Her sister Julia worked there too.  The family also employed a nurse and a gardener and a cook.  I don’t expect anyone had health insurance, but then, costs weren’t high and doctors made house calls when you were sick.  It was a profoundly different culture than what we know today.

And after a local dentist sold his house to a Black family, much to my everlasting shame and regret, our family moved to a “better” section of Dorchester– part of the “great white flight” that occurred in Boston and, I expect, in other American cities.  So racism was bred in the culture and racism is now part of my heritage, too.

A local– and prestigious– Jewish private university initiated an outreach program into some of the Boston public high schools.  I was pleased and proud to be accepted to Brandeis University in 1970 as part of this outreach.  Once there, I learned some uncomfortable lessons about what it meant to be a minority in a college that was 70% Jewish, 10% African American, 10% Asian American and 10% “other”– which was us.  One of the wings of the library was named after the Elfman family, the family my father cleaned house for once he lost his job at the First National Store because he’d been disabled by tuberculosis.  There was something odd about that.  Christie Hefner was in several of my classes.  Her father published Playboy magazine.  It was a puzzling experience for my family to see Hugh Hefner at graduation, smoking his pipe, gawked at as a celebrity, when we had been taught that Playboy was nothing but pornography and pornographers were to be shunned.

I tell this story– or these parts of my story– as an example.  You all have your own stories and your own blood heritages and cultural heritages.  Some of you grew up on Kentucky farms with a culture of planting and harvesting tobacco and corn and soybeans and other crops. Some of you grew up dirt poor in families plagued by the consequences of poverty.  Some of you grew up in a sheltered middle-class environment.  Some of you may have a background which included being discriminated against because of your race.  I’m well aware of the culture of the Boston Brahmans who formed the nucleus of the Unitarian religion in Boston and New England and aware that they may have had “No Irish need apply” signs in the businesses they owned.  Certainly, many had Irish servants.  And certainly, they were often the subject of derision for their accents and their lack of education and cultural refinement.  And that’s part of a puzzling, contradictory heritage that comes to me as a “convert” to Unitarian Universalism.  Certainly, some of my cousins found it strange, indeed, that I would convert to a denomination they considered “Protestant,” while the Catholics and Protestants were bitter enemies back in the old country.

We celebrate both Unitarian and Universalist traditions as liberal theologically– as the “big tent” religious traditions where all are welcome, all have inherent worth and dignity, where we accept and celebrate diversity.  Our sentiments are deeply felt and grounded in principles which bind us together.  Every time I take part in a “Getting to Know UU” session here at the church, I again feel pride in our theological development, our inclusivity, and our dedication to diversity.  But, there is more to us than our principles, more to us than our beliefs.  We have a culture, too, though it certainly varies from one church to another, one fellowship to another, one “society” to another.  (Just the use of those different terms indicates disparities within the culture.)  Perhaps it would be better to say that we have both many cultures and a shared culture.

The Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green has a different culture than the First Church in Jamaica Plain, Unitarian Universalist in Boston, where I learned about Unitarian Universalism, which has a different culture than the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Middleboro, where I served as a student intern minister.

The Jamaica Plain church had a large gilded cross displayed at the front of the sanctuary for decades, symbolizing the intersection of the human and divine.  Since the death of Rev. Terry Burke who served there for almost thirty years, the congregation has been experimenting with other options, including a laser display of the flaming chalice.  The Middleboro church displayed an American flag from the balcony at the rear of the sanctuary.  In recent years, a fierce division has occurred between those who want to keep the flag and those who think there’s no place for a nationalist, secular symbol in a church; members have been left quite dispirited by the conflict.

So, it’s fair to say and I think it’s important to say that “conflict” is part of the heritage of every church.  This church has had its conflicts, both before I was called as minister in 2009 and since.  A good measure of a church’s maturity is how it deals with its conflicts.  In that we have done good, hard work developing policies to deal with conflict and options for heading it off before it gains too much steam, in the form of our team of right relations facilitators, we have shown that maturity.  In that we don’t always avail ourselves of these options, we still have a ways to go.  There are not many of us who relish conflict– and we should be grateful for that.  But, we don’t always recognize that making room for a diversity of opinions, a diversity of personalities, a diversity of temperaments means making room for conflict.  And a UU church has as wide a diversity of those qualities as any place you are likely to name.

Unitarianism was born out of conflict– conflict with a Trinitarian interpretation of the nature of God, originally.  Universalism was born out of conflict– conflict with a rigid theology that insisted that only some could be saved and that God’s will determined that, regardless of how much good work we did in the world.  The Unitarian Universalist Association was formed through many, many meetings that attempted to address the concerns of both Unitarians and Universalists– was it a merger or a consolidation of traditions?  There are still those who make it a point to argue that distinction.

And you may be aware that even now, a conflict of some significance is occurring within the denomination– we referred to it briefly in the weekly update that went out on Thursday.  I’ll give you the bare outline now because we’ll be talking about its implications at greater length in early May.  I was pleased to learn a couple of weeks ago that a minister I know and like and respect, a member of the Board of Trustees of the UUA, was named to lead the Southern Region of the association.  He posted the news on Facebook and I sent him my congratulations.  (He’s had quite a journey himself from evangelical Christianity to UU ministry.)

Within a few days, I began to hear from various quarters bitter disappointment about a UUA decision; it took a while to find out that the controversy was over Andy’s appointment.  Among the finalists for the position was an African American woman, also on the Board.  She was disappointed not to have received the appointment, but, more than that, was deeply disturbed by the language that was used to explain to her the reason for the decision.  Word of her frustration and the developing conflict quickly went “viral” to use the term of the moment.

The President of the association, Rev. Peter Morales, weighed in, though he had no role in the appointment.  I thought that the letter he provided showed his usual balance and restraint– except for one section where he expressed his frustration at the tone of the conversation, using language that was seen as perhaps paternalistic and condescending.  This escalated the conflict as other Board members weighed in and members of Blacks Lives Matter UU and groups with other affiliations.  One result was that Rev. Morales has resigned his position as President, apologizing for his choice of words, defending the progress the UUA has made in diversity under his leadership, and publicly recognizing the significant shortcomings of the association in placing people of color in leadership positions.  He said that he believed that his presence had become a distraction and that the association would be best served if he took himself out of the equation.  Subsequently, two other veteran members of the Board, both white, have resigned their positions.

As a result of the controversy, the use of certain terms has risen to the surface.  They include the terms “diversity,” “inclusion,” “white centrality,” “white privilege,” and “white supremacy.”  Some of these terms are seen as weak and accommodating white sensibility at the expense of full equality for people of color; some have been labeled as too extreme.  All of this is to be expected when some people feel that they are being fair minded and others feel that they are being victimized.  And the whole history of race and racism in America rises to center stage in an association that prides itself on recognizing the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

As you hear these words, I expect you feel emotions rising in yourself.  You may feel defensive, you may feel righteous, you may feel threatened, you my feel vindicated.  None of us here is fully informed; all of us are at least partially informed by our own background, our own privilege, our own prejudice, our own culture, our own heritage, mixed as it may be.  I don’t intend to say more about this today, but I do intend to talk about its implications on May 7.  And I don’t expect it to be an easy or conflict-free conversation, but I do expect that we will speak our truth in love, which is what we commit to do in the spirit of our association.

Our association has a history and our congregation has a history.  And though it is wise to recognize that conflict is inevitable and forms part of the texture of every institution, it would be unwise to dwell only on this dimension as, after all, our strength is that we have persevered and we are in a healthy place.

Celebrating our heritage as the UU Church of Bowling Green means, first and foremost, I think, celebrating the fact that we have managed to create and sustain a congregation of free believers, people bound by principles rather than beliefs, over the course of a 55-year history in a town of conservative values in a section of the country deservedly known as the “Bible Belt.”  It means celebrating a spirit of independence, of freedom, of dedication in the face of adversity.  We have been able to stay true to our message while, at the same time, forging bonds of friendship with institutions with very different belief systems from ours.

Monthly, I meet socially with a group of ministers for lunch or coffee that includes clergy from Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, the Disciples of Christ, the Islamic Center, and most recently, Christ Episcopal Church.  I’ve socialized one-on-one with the ministers of the Bowling Green Christian Church, Christ United Methodist, and Holy Apostles Eastern Orthodox Church.  I’ve enjoyed table fellowship with them and prayed with them and they’ve prayed for me and for the work of this church in this community.  When the Daily News does a story on a controversial issue, we are often the church they come to for the so-called “liberal” position.  And I’ve always found their treatment to be fair and even generous.  We have a respected place in the community.

As many of you know, we started small– very small.  A group of seven individuals, all affiliated with Western Kentucky University, began to meet around a kitchen table in 1961.  After reaching out to a UU minister from Atlanta for advice and meeting with him more than once in Bowling Green, and after contacting the UUA representative serving the area, in 1962, we the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Bowling Green at that time, was recognized officially as a congregation within the Unitarian Universalist Association.  I expect that we were among the first, if not the very first, to receive that recognition because the UUA, itself, did not come into existence until that same year.

We were established first in the home of Jean and Max Thomason at 1249 State Street.  My second and third years in Bowling Green, I lived at 1248 State Street, right across the street, and I had the pleasure of seeing our first “sanctuary”(so-called) every day from my bedroom window.  (I also got to see Forrest Halford zooming down the hill at an unholy speed on his recumbent bike from time to time.)

From there, the church moved once, twice, three times– ten times.  If I am right, this is our eleventh location since 1962, and we hope it will be home for years to come.  Along the way, we converted ourselves from a fellowship to a church.  We added a building to the campus to serve the needs of families with young children and to have an expanded space for fellowship and special events.  And we (I suppose I should say “you”) called your first settled minister in 2009.  We’ve grown from a family-size and family-style church to a pastoral size church, incorporating more reliable bylaws and governing structures while holding on to some established patterns.

We have joined couples together in matrimony (including some couples who met here at the church).  I and others have officiated at commitment ceremonies and, remarkably, same-sex weddings when allowing such ceremonies became the law of the land.  We’ve celebrated baby dedications and even a Christening.  And, more often than any of us would ever wish, we’ve hosted memorial services for well-loved members and friends.

As a religious tradition, we go back hundreds of years officially and thousands of years unofficially.  We started out as a pair of Christian denominations.  Along the way, we opened our arms wider, we opened our hearts and minds wider; we’ve welcomed a diversity of beliefs from Jewish to Christian to Buddhist to humanist to atheist and agnostic, pagan and neo-pagan, mystics, searchers and true believers.

We’ve invited folks from all kinds of perspectives to speak to us.  Imam Sedin Agic and his wife and members of the Islamic Center of Bowling Green have taken part in programs several times.  Taylor Chapel, AME, members have joined us for a worship service and for fellowship.  Rod Goodman has spoken to us about the work of Habitat for Humanity.  Jessica Hays Lucas, Dana Beasley Brown, and Jeanie Smith have all spoken at various times about the work of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth.  Saundra Ardrey spoke two weeks ago from the perspective of African America.  Several of us have attended and contributed to the community Kwanzaa celebration for seven years now.  Captain Jon-Phil Winter from the Salvation Army will speak to us in May.  Yes, we celebrate diversity!

There is always the danger, though, that in casting a net that is wide, our roots don’t go deep enough (to create a well-mixed metaphor).  So, we might ask, in this liberal religious tradition, in this UU Church of Bowling Green, what is it that holds us together?  More than you might think, at first.

Most centrally, we have a mission in the world: to be a “caring community that encourages spiritual growth and actively works to improve our society and the environment.”  Everything we do should be towards this end.  We have a vision for this church.  In part, it says that “We envision our church as a wellspring of spiritual exploration, learning, and action, where all are inspired and empowered to connect with our wider community and to improve our world.”

The covenant that we say together most weeks is a third thing that joins us together.  In saying it, we recommit ourselves to treat one another as we would wish to be treated, ourselves.

We have seven principles, a fourth thing that binds us together.  (One understanding of the Latin term religi-o, the root of “religion,” is “to bind together again, to reconnect.”)  I think it’s important that we honor our principles as we do at the start of each calendar year, reminding us to keep them alive, as we celebrate Chalica.

Finally, we are bound by the words we sing at the close of the service each week, “Let there be peace on Earth and let it begin with me.”  It is a prayer of a sort and a promise, as well.  We come from different homes, we are the product of different cultures, we bring to the church each week a variety of heritages, striving to create one beautiful harmonious whole that allows for the sound of dissidence and accepts that growth includes pain, maturity of spirit strives to resolve conflicts, and our heritage as a church is what we, together, make it be.

So be it.  Amen.

 

Presented by Rev. Peter Connolly

at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green, KY

on April 9, 2017

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