By Art McDonald
In the Fall of 2002 Melanie and I visited here twice, I preached each time and was asked to accept the call. We arrived in July of 2003, began with a big party at the Tyler’s in late August and the journey here at FUCE began in September!
Bruce as moderator and I as called minister are a curious team for this almost 200 year Universalist church. I discovered just how curious to a long term member a few months into my ministry here. I was sitting with this particular member who grew up in this church and was now in his 90s when he said to me with a chuckle, something like: “so what do you make of this – the current moderator of the Universalist Church in Essex is a Jew and the new minister is a Catholic?” Sensing this member was having a good time with this comment, though, at the same time, expressing out loud a certain quandary about the situation, we both had a hearty laugh; there was no need to respond.
Now, over 13 years later, as I reflect on what has transpired in that time, I would say that there has occurred a certain transformation in this congregation from a fundamentally liberal yet still Universalist Christian church that I was called to – to a more fully Unitarian Universalist church with a more plural identity, where, yes, hopefully, Jews and Catholics and other Christians and Buddhists and humanists, even agnostics and atheists, can find space to pursue their own faith or spiritual journey – no small feat. I think some of the older members didn’t find that transition so easy and, in some cases, disengaged. Change can be difficult as we know.
And such change always raises the question: who are we as a community, why do we gather, how do we explain ourselves to one another and the outside world, what are we trying to create? And I have constantly asked myself these questions going back to 1972 when I entered a Christian seminary – why ministry, why church-community building? And when folks show up in search of answers and community I ask the same questions and am often reaffirmed by the answers. Now approaching my 70th year on this earth, so many of those answers have kept me happily engaged in ministry as an incredibly meaningful profession.
One such experience I’ve shared before, though many of you have not likely heard it. While in my early year’s at the Pittsburgh UU church I received a phone call one day from a fellow named Fred. Fred was church shopping and interviewing ministers to see where he and his partner, Ed, might be welcomed. He went on to say they were a gay couple, had been together many years, and were looking for a church. He further stated that ours was the 5th church he had called, each time speaking with the minister, and all 4 others had similar responses: the ministers each said they were very open to the possibility but maybe their church members weren’t quite ready to embrace their way of life. What about your church, reverend, asked Fred? Why not give us a try, I answered. We’re not just Christian, I went on, like the other churches you mentioned, we have folks with many differing beliefs, but I think you’ll find us warm and welcoming; I hope to see you soon.
The next Sunday Fred and Ed appeared, early, to check out the place. We had a nice chat and they stayed for service. Fred, a relatively young man, walked with a cane, appeared pretty weak and thin. I guessed he might be sick; his partner, Ed, was strong and healthy looking, also in his late 30s. After the service at coffee hour Fred said they wanted to join. As time went on, Ed told me that Fred had AIDS and that he was church shopping to find a church to die in and have a religious service and burial. Fred only lasted about 4 months and we planned his memorial service with his mother, an evangelical Christian, who was grateful her son died in a loving, comforting religious community. A few years later Fred’s partner Ed became President of the congregation.
My experience with Fred and Ed was one of so, so many I’ve had that have demonstrated to me the beauty and purpose of religious community and made me so grateful and privileged to be called to ministry, first in the Catholic tradition, and now in UU.
Bringing this right up to date, although I wasn’t there to experience it first-hand, some events even in UU are not fully inclusive for very good reasons, many of the women in our church, including my partner in connubial bliss, Miss Melanie, attended a wonderful party and celebration and ritual for our Religious education Director, Allison, to offer her love and support as she prepares to bring new life into our midst. Melanie reported to me how beautiful the event was and, once again, reminded me of the richness and purpose and meaning of religious community.
All of you are here for some reason, seeking something in your life, something that reminds you of life’s bigger issues and life’s greater meaning, something I presume you sense can be best found in a community such as ours; a sacred space to learn, to share, to discover, to grow, to change and become the person you are called to be. You came for your children, to work in the wider community, bringing service and justice, to make relationships, find new friends, marry or be buried, to explore, to find fellowship. And, hopefully, along the way, have realized that there is something going on in this universe bigger than us all, enlightening us, drawing us, inspiring us to be our best selves together.
I chose the reading I did this morning, words of a great Unitarian Universalist minister and theologian, James Luther Adams, because he, better than most, expresses in those words just what it means to be part of a community such as ours – we are all, not just the ordained, called to be priests, who heal and nurture, and prophets, who as we spoke of last week, protest and demand that our world be more just and equitable. This vision of church came out of the so-called Radical or Left-wing of the Protestant Reformation, a vision of a decidedly non-hierarchical, democratic form of religious community, what Adams called Radical Laicism, the non-ordained, lay people, not clergy, are in charge – the clergy is called to special ministry, but is always accountable to the people. Participatory Democracy at its best – with this religious, community model, we have much to teach our so-called democratic society, ever more dominated and controlled by the wealthy few. Here the people truly decide. It’s a laboratory where people learn to be leaders and I’ve watched that happen over the years so many times. And I look at our current church leadership and I am in awe at their competence, their concern and their compassionate ways. This is one of the greatest gifts a called minister like myself can experience; a truly shared ministry where the called minister is one among many who has to earn respect and love like anyone else.
I know another model of church community and , despite my deep roots in the Catholic tradition and my gratitude for what I have received from that tradition, Melanie and I walked away from it in search of a religious community more respectful of all voices. Back in Pittsburgh in 1986 when a priest friend got in the pulpit on Sunday and announced, not a church meeting but rather a declaration from the Bishop that the church would be closing, Melanie and I left that day and said: we are done. It was a hard decision but a necessary one. Sometime later while walking by a church in Jamaica Plain, where I grew up, we saw a sign advertising a church educational program called “Build Your Own Theology,” all invited, I read the sign and it said Unitarian Universalist. Let’s give it a go, we agreed, and that began our UU journey in faith where we found everyone has a voice, and everyone has a responsibility, for if everyone doesn’t take ownership and play an important role, then democratic religion doesn’t really work, much like democratic society becomes in name only.
Three weeks ago at the end of our Ingathering water service I observed a wonderful symbol of democratic religion when our ministerial transition team stood in front of all of us at the end of the service and proclaimed their willingness to help lead us all through an exciting process of planning for change. Their presence gave encouragement to all that despite the challenge of change, there is an opportunity for growth and further development as a faith community. After service today this group will lead us in a discussion and dialogue as we look to the future. If you can stay, wonderful; bring your loving hearts and caring minds to the gathering. If you can’t, think about how you can participate in shaping the future at UU Essex. And if some are feeling ambivalence about the future, thinking maybe it’s a good time to flee, I ask you to instead focus on what has been created here over the last 13 years, or even better, 185 years, and determine to give all your energy to making it even better going forward. Healthy, happy and engaged religious community, nurturing its members and friends, and adding a healing touch to the community and wider society is one of the greatest gifts we could offer to the world we live in.
Bruce Lefenfeld (and his wife Sandra, who was treasurer while Bruce was moderator) wrote me when he received my letter about recalculating my life after next June and said as moderator in a time when the church was close to closing that he was “most proud of 3 things he did while leading the UU Church in Essex;” Read them. What a great question for all of us to ponder: as to what we have given or plan to give to this community, what can we tell future UUs of Essex we are most proud of as members of this church?