In November as we talk about memory, I have many thoughts on how we remember the important things in our lives. Remembering is active — it is something we have to choose to do, and in so doing, we choose to remember certain things and people above others. We may choose the to hold on to the pleasant things that happened on that trip to Estes Park and to let go of the memory of the terrible hotel service. Unitarian Universalists make choices in our stories, songs, and in the shape of our worship services about what we want to remember and what we will let go, and at times it is worth it to look back at what we’ve lost and gained in making those choices.
Some of you may have noticed that last weekend I wasn’t at church. I first of all want to thank Lydia Vagts who stood in for me as DRE for the Day, and also the volunteers who taught and helped set up and clean up and be there with our children and youth in my absence. I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in a meaningful professional development experience.
I went to LREDA Fall Con – that’s the Liberal Religious Educators Association Fall Conference – in Baltimore, MD from last Thursday through Sunday. The theme of the weekend was “Theologies of Suffering and Wholeness,” which sounds heavier than it really was. The weekend included keynote presentations by Rev. Sofia Betancourt, assistant professor of theology at Starr King School for the Ministry; Dr. Elias Ortega-Aponte, the president of Meadville Lombard Theological School; and Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt, president of Starr King School for the Ministry (and the first woman of color to hold that role). All three of these UU theologians are bright lights in our faith, and spoke hopefully and energetically about how Unitarian Universalism can go even further to meet the spiritual needs of all those who turn to it in difficult times.
I’m still processing what I heard at Fall Con, and also some of what happened. LREDA and religious educators have been quick to respond to calls for change in our faith. For example, in discussing racism and white supremacy in Unitarian Universalism, LREDA has been among the organizations at the front of the pack trying to honor our colleagues of color and dig into how we can create a more just and equitable faith tradition. Yet we still make mistakes. Fall Con includes a set of Caucus Groups that meet daily to reflect on questions of equality. There were caucus groups for those who self-identify as white, those who self-identify as people of color, and a “third caucus” for whom neither of those groups felt right. We were asked to consider abstract questions about race and equity in our congregations and our organization. However, when we learned that some of the choices in the weekend’s programming had hurt people in marginalized groups, we sat with those and talked about how we could be better allies—or better yet, better accomplices. It was uncomfortable in a good way. I had personally noticed and wondered to myself about one of these choices – but my New England protestant good girl upbringing told me to trust in the powers that be and not make a fuss. Turns out, that’s the wrong answer, and I’m having to overcome 50 years of programming to learn to speak up – so that marginalized people don’t have to. Far too often, in order to make justice out of certain messes, the people who have been harmed have to speak up; otherwise no one seems to notice the mess. And by speaking up, people who are already vulnerable have to make themselves more vulnerable. I for one want to be part of the effort to develop trust and equality among all our people in deed as well as in word, and because of this, I am making a decision to remember the problems that arose this weekend as well as the happy parts.
I’m also choosing to hold onto the wisdom that Unitarian Universalism, especially in this troubled time, needs to find ways to connect us to our own souls. All of us have a place within us that longs to be nourished. Many people would turn to church to fill that longing: ritual, confession and repentance, the search for wholeness. I love our intellectual form of worship much of the time. It speaks to me as a lover of books and of history. However, when someone is suffering, when someone is in pain, telling them the uplifting story of Fannie Barrier Williams making her famous speeches to the World’s Parliament of Religions and the World’s Congress of Representative Women is not going to help them heal. When we feel guilty for having done wrong or caused pain, no amount of discussing the 6th Principle and its impact on the world will assuage our guilt or help us remediate our wrongdoing. In times of struggle, pain, suffering, guilt — Unitarian Universalism can sometimes fall a little short in helping us heal.
In his Friday keynote, Dr. Ortiz-Aponte suggested that we all need to work together to create a Unitarian Universalism that brings all the healing-home qualities of the kitchen table into our sanctuaries. Kitchen tables, metaphorically, can hold our rituals — saying grace over a meal, raising a glass to a departed loved one — and our most beloved conversations. When two people hunker down over a cup of coffee at the kitchen table, the comfort of that space can allow them to acknowledge their mistakes, talk over their troubles, and come to new understanding. Dr. Ortiz-Aponte also reminded us that as UUs, it is our conviction that the parent is a child’s primary religious educator, and so he also asked us to consider how to help bring our sanctuaries to our kitchen tables: supporting families in bringing meaningful rituals and conversations into the home, so that we may all not just live our UU values, but also nurture our UU spirits in the wild as well as on Sunday morning. I’m thinking through how to make this a reality, and I’d be glad of a chance to talk about it with anyone who has ideas or thoughts.
A dozen pages of notes, several hours of video to review, hours of meetings and presentations and workshops — I came home very full from Baltimore. What I’ve shared here is only a tiny piece of the experience I had at Fall Con; I hope to bring what I’ve learned to our families in the coming months.