Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Promise of Unitarian Universalism: Reviving The World

The Promise of Unitarian Universalism: Reviving The World
Revival Fort Worth Thur. Jan. 22, 2015
Rev. Ron Robinson
[The original text from which the talk was given, accompanied by our Miracle Among the Ruins Slideshow, which you can see at

Revival. Such a scary word, for many of us, but Revival literally means Life Again. And what could be more progressive  than that. Life so abundant and generous in spirit that it will always find a way to come back, be made new. Life Again is another way of saying one of our foundational beliefs—that more truth and light is yet to come, and will come, that revelation is unsealable, semper reformanda, we are always being reformed and reforming, revived and reviving. Not only the culture, not only ourselves, but the church as well, always in need of revival. As Unitarian minister Theodore Parker preached in 1841: the church that did for the first century did not do for the fifth century, and the church that did for the fifth century did not do for the fifteenth century, and the church that did for the fifteenth century was not doing for his 19th century, and the church of the 19th century, and 20th century, does not always do for the 21st century.  It is also a part of ongoing revelation that the old can take on new life again too; we aren’t creating out of nothing; today we often hear, for example, about ancient-future faith, the revival of old practices in new settings.  And Life Again for All is a core theological position; Glory is for all. All are revivable.
So with our minds maybe we can connect Revivals and Unitarian Universalism, but I know for many it is still hard to connect them in the heart and soul. Now I was raised a Methodist in my small community on the edge of Tulsa and I remember Revivals, and how I led a march for Jesus from our church to the local high school. For 40 years, however, almost all of my adult life, I have been a Unitarian Universalist and I know the revival spirit can be a challenge to our once dominant culture of looking at the hymnal and keeping in our designated places with little movement while we sing the Amen chorus, as if we were going to forget the words. But we should strive for a holistic faith; we know that a spirit of revival and reason can go together.  I also know that at the church that ordained me, one of the largest if not the largest UU church (being in the smallest I tend not to keep up with such things) at All Souls Tulsa there is now weekly as one of its three Sunday morning services a revival-style worship (the humanist non-revivalist one is growing too, btw) and under the church’s umbrella on another day than Sunday there is charismatic worship where I’m told speaking in tongues by a few might occasionally happen.

One of the most promising gifts of Unitarian Universalism to the world (though it can also for some be the most frustrating and challenging) is that in our tradition no one could come in from outside and tell the Tulsa church it couldn’t do that, follow its truth, embody Unitarian Universalism in that new way. Local people discerning together, risking together, is our way. It is why we have such a theological bigger bandwidth among us; non-creedal but with many liturgical expressions for a world of such pluralism. Churches where in worship God and Jesus are rarely mentioned liturgically, to our Trinitarian Universalists, to places like First Church of Christ, Unitarian. Alleluia for that!
And no one in authority came to me in Tulsa seven years ago and said that we couldn’t transform our small church, by small I mean 7 leaders and maybe a dozen in worship, that we couldn’t go missional and incarnational when we moved and took down the church sign and put up a sign for our newly-created community center and health clinic and food pantry and clothing room and library and art room, in which the church finds space for some of our worship; or when we started a nonprofit to partner with many in the community in order to buy and reclaim abandoned properties to improve the community health of our high poverty, lowest life expectancy, multi-ethnic neighborhood, nor did anyone stop us from going organic as well as missional, from following the saying that you don’t attend church, you become it, and so we could become it even without a building, bylaws, board, budget. We still worship though not just with ourselves and for ourselves, but with others often too, and with others not just UU, being church in ways that existed for centuries before 501c3s.
Unitarian Universalism is built for Revival.
We have a freedom in our movement, at our very heart, perhaps a calling even as well, to foster the spirit of revival, to experiment and make major changes; we believe in abundance spirituality, that the diversity of Creation is a good thing, that scarcity mentality and fear lead to spiritual dis-ease. And yet we too often it seems recoil from risk. Or we are great at thinking radical new ideas, but not at creating radical new forms of community for them.
But this too is changing. Halleluia. For we are in an emerging one kind does not fit all world, and that goes for church too. Many expressions of UUism are trying to sprout in our UU garden. They need to be watered right now in their early phases. Thank you for lifting them up here and for being one of their “master gardeners of their spirit.”

This year marks my 40th Year as a Unitarian Universalist and In some ways I have been a poster boy for one of the promises of Unitarian Universalism--that you can change without having to change churches or religious affiliation; in fact at our best we should count on changing people; it should be one of our markers for success, on changing communities, and on how much our own communities can change to be able to do so.
Between the time I was 18, not long after having led that march for Jesus through my part of North Tulsa, and the time I was 20, I had come close to Mormonism, Bahais, Eastern Religion, and still kept enough of a tie with Methodism that I was married at 20 in the Methodist church. And then in college literature classes I kept seeing the term Unitarian applied to these major literary figures I was studying and loving so I studied it. I felt at home so I went looking for its actual home in my small college town in Oklahoma, where mind you the Mormons and the Bahais had a presence, and where I knew Muslims as well, but no Unitarian Universalists. Could Unitarianism have been a 19th century religious movement that had gone the way of the 19th century political movements I was also studying, the Whigs, the Know Nothings?
I soon found a UU church for real—when All Souls Tulsa hosted a meeting for activists working on the Equal Rights Amendment--and then I moved to Oklahoma City and joined my first UU church. I was a kind of social action interested agnostic humanist with my own “cross cringe.” Here, back then, the promise of UUism said to me, I could still be in church and think what I thought. Yes, I soon had a bumper sticker on a 1976 Datsun B210 that said To Question Is The Answer. Unitarian universalism. But the first UU sermon I ever heard was one on Christology based on a book published by the UU Christian Fellowship, so that should have been a sign that this was a Church where Change and Transformation Lay Ahead for me. And one Sunday morning a small Texan, a UU from Austin, whose grandfather had a small town in Oklahoma named after him, stood at the pulpit and guest preached a sermon called Taking Freedom Seriously, which was really about taking God seriously, in a revived way called Process Theology, and in doing so the great theologian, and not bad ornithologist, Charles Hartshorne, launched me on a path as a new Theist, giving the word God back to me. It most likely would not have happened without Unitarian Universalism in that mostly at the time humanist congregation. And, importantly, I have faith that my story happened in reverse for another; that they entered that free church on another spiritual trajectory and found there a different launching pad to the depths of the Spirit of Life and Love and Liberation.
What we often forget is that just as we change within our churches, and because of it, so too our churches change. Talking about this once during my student ministry years, a woman had a puzzled and then eureka look on her face as she said “I just thought when I joined the church that it had always been the way it is, and that it would always be the way it is now (it hadn’t been, and wouldn’t be, and she added], but I really don’t want a church or life to be like that.” She was realizing that a church shouldn’t be ultimately about us, us as individuals or as a community, particularly one set apart from the past or from the future or from other ones; it should welcome us, grow us, but be about us getting over ourselves and our egos so we can get into the lives around us and beyond us.                                                                                                                    

For many years growing up and for much of my time as a UU, religion for me was something I thought about; it was questions and conclusions, and being in a circle of people that supported that process and had fun doing so, with a little bit of service to others thrown in. In some ways, sadly I think now, Unitarian Universalism’s promise was that it promised to leave me alone in my pursuits of the good life and upward mobility, measured by my accomplishments and affluence and appearances. I was still involved in social justice movements and the church did help with those, but primarily only with issues and connecting with people who were a lot like me. It might have been about the personal freedom to think and act, but in many ways it was still about freedom from—freedom from the covenants of transformative community, especially from the covenants with the least of these, freedom from radical commitments of justice living that call us to live with those without justice.
Things got a bit more real, church was revived for me again and the movement incarnated and embodied in more communal ways when we moved back to that same small college town, still then without a UU church, and so, to abbreviate the story, we started a church. Unitarian Universalism’s spirit said go for it, but other UUs who knew about our town said “you are starting one where?” and those not UU in our town, knowing I wasn’t a minister, asked “Can you just do that?”…We found that there were liberal religious voices in our community but they needed a presence, a form, to amplify them. For many the risks of community’s downsides were too great for them to get involved, or their closets were too comfortable, but for those who did take the risk suddenly we emerged as a body among other bodies, a force in the community.

A couple of years after we started, when the lone black church in town was firebombed on Martin Luther King, Jr. day, our church took the lead in the response and hosted the gatherings for the wider community to take action. And on a Christmas Day when it fell on a Sunday, ours was the only church to be open in the morning for worship, about the only place open back then at all except for the police station across the street—ten of us showed up to worship—but because we were open, a man travelling alone from Iowa with all his belongings in a truck and looking for companionship on that morning of all mornings had a place to go. He said just the words Unitarian Universalism sounded welcoming. Now I am one who still finds that group of syllables problematic in many ways, and I did then, but that day it worked and I was grateful for the blessing he bestowed upon us. Because he was there, our own presents could wait  we told the kids, we visited with him longer than we would have after the service, long enough for another man to drop by who said he’d only been to the twelve-step group in the church but he was nervously out for a walk to get out of his head, so to speak, and needed a place to be that day and was glad to see a few cars still parked outside, while other churches and businesses were closed.
 So The missional lesson came early to me and I did not know it; as the reading from Genesis printed in our hymnal says, Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it. Church happened as much or more after the worship service that day as it did during it. I would say even Christ was surely born again as well among us that Christmas day, there inside a building where many other faiths in town, through their closed doors, thought Christ could never be experienced without being named in specific ways.
I will say here that one of the many different challenges for us today than it was back then in the early to mid 1990s is that no matter how well we do as congregations, how much we get our message out, more and more people aren’t looking for, or waiting for, or reading about, religious congregations. There are alternatives to form their spiritual communities and social justice actions or to even think about religious things freely; online and in many places and ways these needs are met that once upon a time were the domain of congregations. And it takes more and more resources to connect with folks than it did back then. We are feeling that stress in our Association, and we are not alone.
But the promise of Unitarian Universalism is that Life Again can come, and will come as we open ourselves up to the Spirit that is now creating a wider and wider, bigger bandwidth of forms of churches that together make up the Church Universal. Even Unitarian Universalism can be revived, and can be transformed as it seeks the transformation of the world.
But here is where I want to revive our history as an heretical faith and say heretically that all this talk I have been doing about Unitarian Universalism and its gifts and promise is not what I ultimately came here to preach, and that if we only hear this good news about ourselves then we will not be heard by the world today, and it will ironically keep us from becoming our most promising selves and realizing the vision and mission that calls us into being Unitarian Universalists in the first place, and the ends toward which we aim, and the why we are here.

I love the theme for this Revival: The Promise of Unitarian Universalism. But what I love most about it is the power and layers of meaning in that word Promise. For me the promise of the movement is not ultimately about what the movement can become, what the future holds for it. For me it is about the promise the movement makes to the world. The promise of UUism is its promise, its faithfulness, its covenant to the world. Covenant is that great other word of promise; in our relationship to the world, which is one of the great covenants of our tradition that makes us a church and not just a collection of religiously oriented individuals (as UU historian Conrad Wright wrote).
We are a covenant making, promise making, covenant breaking, promise breaking, covenant remaking, promise remaking, people—this is because we are The Love People, siding with love, loving the hell out of this world, doing small acts of justice with great love, love beyond belief, or like St. Paul wrote, faith hope and love these three, but the greatest of these, greater than what we think, believe and have faith in, greater than how we feel, hopeful or not, greatest is love, that is how we live, commit, respond to the world, and I would say especially to parts of the world so desperate in need of someone making and keeping promises, faithfulness, and being in covenant with them.
And so I am only interested in the revival of the church if it leads to the revival of the world, bringing life again to the dead and dying parts and people of the world, for that is where the real mutual transformation and blessing will happen.

Here is a glimpse of what revival of Unitarian Universalism in the world looks like in our Welcome Table parish, our two mile radius of far north Tulsa. We are ever changing, so much has changed since the UU World did a cover story on us four years ago, but this is the picture now. Come and see, the early disciples said to those curious about Jesus, and we echo that about our place and people, our miracles among the ruins as we call it. [come join those who come on mission trips to stay with us; come to a missional revival life on fire gathering may 29-31 focusing on spiritual practice in missional settings].  There is a bigger bandwidth of missional church too, but here is our part of it, and stay tuned for more changes.

In the 12 years of our existence as a church, we have met in ten different fairly regular spaces, and have also worshipped in many more places even then those (including at abandoned buildings, in closed school grounds, and at our first community garden area on land owned by another church, and now regularly we worship in the two properties that once were abandoned and are now owned by the non profit foundation we started; in addition to that, we regularly now worship with two non-UU churches each month as well). And during that same time, we have had four different name changes.
Of course, four years from now, 12 years from now, sooner, or later, we might also be non-existent as a group, that is always a part of the risk of being an organic missional church, and of Life itself,  but I trust that even were that to happen that the relationships we have formed would continue the mission of the church and find new forms to do that [how many of the first century Jesus follower gatherings can you point to as continually existing, even back then beyond a few years? Few to none, but the missional living they did continues to be present and changes the world today].  
At heart, ours and other missional churches say that the church does not have a mission; instead, The Mission has, creates, the church. The why of what we now call The Welcome Table Church is what determines the how of The Welcome Table.
And in talking about the why of our church, we always start with the people outside of us in our zipcode. That is one of the key markers of what is called the missional church movement. The problems of the world come before the problems of the church because the church is a response to what ails the world. So what is the promise of Unitarian Universalism to these people? Remember, too, The point is not to become the Best Church In the community but the best church For the community.
We live and have our ministry in the 74126, a zipcode that covers far north Tulsa, we are on the edge, more ways than one, part in the city and part outside the city limits. The main number we focus on as a church is not how many are worshipping with us, but what drives our church is that we die 14 years sooner than in the zipcode with the highest life expectancy just 6 miles away down the same street we are on.

Now in the revivals of old, there was a time during the sermon about here where the general sins of the people were highlighted, reminding people of their need for rededication and renewal in the Spirit. Here likewise are some general sins, and they aren’t sins of the people who make up the statistics.
In 2009, the University of Oklahoma did a nutrition study with us that found in our area 60 percent can't afford healthy food even if there was access to it; 55 percent worry about amount of food they have; 29 percent skip meals. In 2013 we did another study with OU of those who came to our free cornerstore pantry. It showed that 52.6 percent of those who come to us have high food insecurity; and 42.1 percent have very high food insecurity, experiencing hunger symptoms when surveyed; 68.4 percent of households have at least one member with nutrition-related chronic disease; 53 percent suffer depression and admit it; 47 percent with anxiety; 53 percent have high blood pressure; 32 percent high cholesterol; 47 percent obese. And don’t forget that almost 100 percent of our church and foundation volunteers and leaders are among the statistics reflected here; we are grassroots; not coming in from elsewhere.
Pretty much mirroring our neighborhoods, 42 percent of those we serve are black, 36 percent white, and 63 percent have under $10,000 annual household income, meaning they are part of the couple hundred thousand Oklahomans who are too poor for Obamacare because our state didn’t expand Medicaid.
 I say instead of, or at least along with trying to combat racism and classism by welcoming people inside our sanctuaries, let’s take Unitarian Universalism to where they live; live with them, serve with them, learn from them.
in our area 40 percent of the vacant residences in our two mile service area, our “parish”, have been abandoned, are not for sale or for rent. Many are damaged, burnt. And that doesn’t count the abandoned commercial buildings. On one short three block stretch of homes, 17 at last count were abandoned; but, but, but, equally importantly, right in the middle of them are some well kept homes by people refusing to let despair win, and one of our partner groups is there transforming them into small group homes for those in need, and the best block party in the area is thrown there each summer.
Recently our post office was closed (even though many the people in our area don’t have computer access for email and there are no alternatives like ups or fedex, and we have a rising aging population and there is limited public transportation or the means to have or keep up an automobile or pay for gas; while the government kept open post offices in wealthier zipcodes with many resources).
Here is what I want to emphasize too about the promise of Unitarian Universalism and its revival in an emerging world. In our area, We do Unitarian Universalism and we do non-creedal Christianity together; we are part of the small Council of Christian Churches within the UUA, and we do them both together without the ultimate aim of making more UUs or more Christians or more UU Christians. That is not our mission; spreading God’s radical love is; if anything else happens, great. Most people just know us as either the Welcome Table Church or A Third Place Community Foundation. We live and serve in what is called an Abandoned Place of Empire, and it is not just UUism that hasn’t had much presence in it. There is only one small mainline church still in our area, and it is the community’s very first church, and has come close to closing in the recent past. The other mainline churches fled along with white flight in the 60s and 70s.  
The term Abandoned Place of Empire makes reference to the early centuries of the common era as monasteries and alternative communities left the major cities to live a different way of life and in a different set of values than that of the Roman Empire’s dominant culture of war and wealth and power and honor and shame.  Now it is used to designate those very uncool, unhip, under resourced high poverty low life expectancy zipcodes of the American Empire where business investment and public investment flees, where people who remain often feel shame for their lives because, they think and have been told, if they were only rich enough, smart enough, had made better choices in their lives, hadn’t gotten sick and broke, they too they often believe would be able to move to the places where the supposed American Dream good life happens.
The point of the mission of the missional church, you might say, and I hope one of the promises that can be made to them by Unitarian Universalism even if they never become UUs, is to let these people know that the American Dream might have left them behind, in a kind of worldly Rapture it feels like in our area, but that they are still and can be still a part of a Loving God’s Dream of justice for all.  
What would Unitarian Universalism and other progressives gain by being present in the Abandoned Places of Empire? Well we love being in a place where a little bit goes a long way. Where we are reminded daily that life isn’t ultimately about how much we have, or how much we can experience and take in and feel good about, but about how much spirit of life and love and liberation we can grow with and for others.
It is vital to know that Only after we had lived here and listened to our neighbors did we make our missional move. Only then, as a way of relating to those we knew and loved, did we start a center for community meetings and holiday events and a free bookstore. A computer center. Free wifi access even when the center is closed (people huddle up against the building to use it, as they use our hydrants for water when we are closed, and as they use our outdoor electic outlet to charge their phones when we are closed). Only then did we grow our free foodstore that serves between a thousand and two thousand people monthly. Only then start the take what you need leave what you can clothing and household items room. Or the community art room. The recovery group. Provide showers and laundry.
Recently we made news by giving away space heaters and coats and water during the freezing weather to people who live in cars, campers, houses without electricity or water; what the news didn’t show is that same woman who received a heater gave up one of her two coats for us to give to someone without one; she is also one of our new volunteers, as just a few days out of prison I asked her to take on one of our most important positions, and she often worships with us now too. Of course every worship is a part of a meal; it is how mission, community, discipleship, and worship can all intertwine. She is like the People who receive food who bring us food, or slip me money, when they have it.
This too is Unitarian Universalism, and much more.
As it was that our faith led us to stand in the gap for four years that we hosted a health clinic, and now partner with the local health department which eventually built a new medical center and clinic in our area.
And Many Unitarian Universalists joined with those of many faiths and helped us to buy a block of abandoned houses and turn it into a community gardenpark and orchard where events and meals are also held as well as where we teach nutrition, health, form relationships, grow food with one another and for our foodstore. It is in an area where hills of trash and debris and dead animals were, and where many people from other parts of town were and are still afraid to come to, but where this past Fourth of July three white women aged 30s, 60, and 80, stayed up by themselves, unarmed, until three in the morning talking and watching all the fireworks gradually die out.
We worked to get more than 25 abandoned burned out houses torn down and up to 250 pieces of property cleaned up. We partner with three of our schools in our area and have worked behind the scenes to help get one closed school reopened, and we helped start a foundation for support at one of them, our public high school, my alma mater that went during white flight from 95 percent white to 15 percent white in just one decade. We support the few other nonprofits in our area and work together to throw community resource fairs, and have helped provide beautification at some of our struggling local businesses. By paying some of our local neighbors on contract at $10 an hour when they work for us we seek to set a standard of fairer wages, and through it have helped several to remain in their homes.
All of this I believe is the promise of Unitarian Universalism in reviving the world, being good for nothing you might say.
Remember We don’t have church membership (yet anyway); that no one gets paid a salary either in the church or nonprofit we created (we are not averse to that; we would like to see that happen but with limited resources it hasn’t yet taken top priority). Miracle among the ruins indeed.
We have done it through partnerships with others and not caring whether they became a part of the worshipping part of church or not, whether they believed like us or not. We have done it by reminding ourselves and those who come to us that all we do is just forms of what we really do, what we really give out and redistribute, and that is community—what theologian Jorgen Moltmann says is the real opposite of both poverty and wealth—what we really redistribute is God’s radical peaceful Love for All.  Knowing this helps when we get stolen from, when we get vandalized, when we have our buildings burned down by people passing through and using them; yes, we curse then we realize our blessings of being in the right place serving the right people and getting the chance to grow our spirit of generosity and abundance and help others experience it too.
 We have done all this with whole new groups of people who cycle in and out of missional relationship with us. Only a very very few have been with us from the time we started in 2003 trying to build a normal kind of church in a fast growing suburb. Even almost all of those who were with us when we made our missional transformation leap in 2007 and created the community center for others in which we as a group would then gather for worship have moved or died. But there is Life Again always.

The promise of our faith, the revival spirit, is that it call us, prompts us, guides us into Life Again. The promise is that we can and should continually recreate ourselves as church in order to meet our mission, the mission of making justice and love visible in the world, especially with and for people and places that others choose not to see or love or live with. And to bring to the world Life Again, and Again, and Again.