As Unitarian Universalists, we are a promise making people. Unitarian Universalism is a covenantal faith, not a creedal one. What does that mean?
Theodore Parker had this to say:
“Be ours a religion which like sunshine goes everywhere, its temple all space, its shrine the good heart, its creed all truth, its ritual works of love.”
His ritual really was works of love, he was an active abolitionist. Naming our creed all truth was also a definite challenge to the religious mainstream of his day.
A creed is a statement of beliefs that are taken on faith. Members of religious institutions that have creeds are expected to agree with the beliefs specified in that creed. If you question the Virgin birth, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, or his unique divinity as the only son of God, you can be labeled a heretic. During the reformation, many were burned at the stake for that kind of questioning. Today, people are excommunicated from some faiths because they do not believe or follow all of a church’s teaching.
Parker’s line, “creed all truth,” was an affirmation that people should believe what is true and also that truth is subject to testing, to analysis, to science as well as personal experience.
Unitarian Universalists believe things, of course we do.
As individuals we all have beliefs, some of which we hold fiercely and passionately. There are also a lot of beliefs that we hold in common with one another. Those beliefs are not a creed, however, because they are not a requirement for membership. They are also subject to change based upon new knowledge or new experience. Our creed, if we have one, really is all truth but what that truth may be at any given time or for any given person is open to both questioning and doubt.
Some people consider our seven principles a creed. Many of us when we first read them, say, “oh yes, that is exactly what I believe!” Let’s look at them now if you will. They are in the front of our hymnal.
Please note the introductory lines. It does not begin with “I believe” like the Apostles creed. It says instead that we covenant to affirm and promote– and what does covenant mean? Simply, a covenant is a promise. As Unitarian Universalists, we make promises; promises to do things. The seven principles of Unitarian Universalism are not statements of belief, but rather action plans that we try to follow both as congregations and as individuals. Action plans! Don’t you love it?
What matters most is not what we believe, but what we do, how we treat other people and how we care for our planet. It is our promises that hold us together, it is the ways we have pledged to live our lives. That is a lot harder work than simply saying you believe in the virgin birth.
Am I treating that person that bugs me with respect? Am I fair and just when I deal with others? Am I working toward the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all? If we are faithful to them, our seven principles call us to that kind of reflection and action every day of our lives.
And yes, I guess you have to believe that justice, equity and compassion are good things, so beliefs are a part of it. But the key is not the belief, but the promise of action.
Has anyone here ever been asked, “What do Unitarian Universalists believe?” It is really the wrong question as we believe a lot of different things, in particular about theology. A better one is perhaps, “What is Unitarian Universalism?”
The best answer is that Unitarian Universalism is a covenantal faith. We are bound together by our promises. Covenants are not contracts, but statements of intent. How we live into those promises, the actions we take in our lives and in the world, are what matters.
Covenants also aren’t rules or laws. You don’t go to jail or get throw out of the community if you break your promises from time to time. We all break our promises sometimes. We are human and we do not always live up to our best intentions.
But living according to covenant can bring us back to those intentions when we fail short. We can forgive each other and ourselves. Then, we can we begin again together in love.
The point is that we have promised to live our lives in a particular way, affirming and promoting certain principles that we have agreed upon.
Many of our Unitarian Universalist congregations have also adopted congregational covenants that contain promises about how we will be together in a religious community.
A sample is as follows:
“As a member of our Unitarian Universalist community, I covenant to affirm and promote our Unitarian Universalist principles. I am mindful, that as an individual and as a member of this community, I am accountable for my words, deeds, and behavior. Therefore, whenever we worship, work, or relate to one another, I covenant that I will:
Treat others with kindness and care, dignity and respect;
Foster an environment of compassion, generosity, fellowship, and creativity;
Share in the responsibilities of congregational life;
Speak truth as I experience it and listen to all points of view;
Practice direct communication. Speak to the individual –
not about them;
Act with respect and humility when I disagree with others;
Seek out understanding and wisdom in the presence of conflict;
Be true to my chosen path although the way may twist and turn, and support others on their journeys;
Resolve conflicts through intentional compromise and collaboration and, when necessary, request facilitation and/or mediation. “
The members of our board of trustees are in the midst of adopting a covenant for the board, promises about how they will work together for the good of the congregation as a whole.
They also think it would be good if we can adopt a congregational covenant, something similar to the one I just read. Such covenants have been proven to enhance the positive feeling of community and to reduce the rancor that can sometimes be involved in conflict situations. Disagreements are inevitable and if voiced respectfully can actually serve to make a community stronger and more committed to its common mission. They can help refine that mission and make it real. But nothing will drive people away faster than conflicts that are not discussed openly, respectfully, and directly.
Being in a religious community that really lives our values is very hard work. How many of you have been hurt by an unkind word by someone you thought was a friend?
What if you discover that you have hurt someone else by a thoughtless act or comment? How did you get back in right relationship? A covenant can help with that, as it is a reminder of how we have promised to be with each other.
Like marriage vows, which are a form of covenant, covenants of right relationship are best if they are created by those who are making the promises to each other.
Those of you who have participated in Chalice circles all have some recent experience in creating covenants.
Those covenants vary, but there are some common themes such as listening respectfully, keeping personal information confidential, sharing time fairly, and honoring the commitment to show up.
If UUP decides to create a congregational covenant, then each of the members will need to reflect upon what is important to them in creating and maintaining a strong and resilient religious community. How do you want to handle conflict? What is the difference between gossip and sharing someone else’s news?
Speaking directly to each other and not about each other is probably the hardest promise in any covenant. What fun it is to complain to a sympathetic ear about something someone else has done! How much harder it is to tell the person directly that you don’t like what they did and why.
One clarification on that: it really isn’t necessary to tell people to their face every little thing we don’t like about them. We all have personal flaws and quirks that it would be a bit rude to have pointed out to us. We all make mistakes. But if we are upset enough about something that we begin to gossip or complain to others about someone else, then we need to express those feelings directly.
It is about respect. It is how most of us would like to be treated. It also prevents misinformation from being spread and the community becoming unsettled by rumors and innuendo. Acting with respect and humility when you disagree with someone is also important. None of us can be right all of the time, and opinions expressed in arrogance can be very destructive in any community.
We also have a culture, both as a nation and as a faith tradition, that tends to be suspicious about anyone in any authority, and that tendency can make it difficult for anyone serving in a leadership capacity. It is not always just about the minister, although the minister rarely escapes such reactions, and most of us have learned to expect it, even if it is not pleasant.
How many of you have served on the board or on a committee and received criticisms that were hurtful? That demeaned your character, ability, or your intentions? Luckily it doesn’t happen very often here, but when it does it can be very hurtful.
A congregational covenant that establishes a practice of acting with respect and humility when we disagree with each other, of treating others with kindness and care, can go a long way in making the inevitable disagreements less personal and hurtful.
There are literally hundreds of congregational covenants that have been adopted by Unitarian Universalist congregations.
If UUP wants to create one of its own, a good way to start would be to create a task force of interested members who could look at a number of samples and then develop a draft to propose to the congregation. If you would be interested in participating in such a task force, please let me or a board member know.
I will end with a poem by the Rev. Derrick Jackson
We Are Called
In these times, we are called:
Called to step into the mess and murk of life
Called to be strong and vulnerable
Called to console and to challenge
Called to be grounded, and hold lofty ideals
Called to love in the face of hate
We are called
And it is not easy
And we will not always agree
And we will yell, and scream and cry
And we will laugh and smile and sing
We are called to be together
There is so much work to do
And we cannot do it alone
We need one another
Holding each other accountable to our covenants, to the holy, to love and justice
In these times, we are called.
Bottom line, the test of faith in a Unitarian Universalist congregation is not about believing the right thing; it is rather about doing what is right. May we all strive to live up to our highest aspirations for the common good.
Blessed Be and Namaste
A couple more short readings:
From THE INVISIBILITY OF WHITENESS By john a. powell
White people have the luxury of not having to think about race. That is a benefit of being white, of being part of the dominant group. Just like men don’t have to think about gender. The system works for you, and you don’t have to think about it.
So they live in white space and then they don’t have to think about it. First of all, they think about race as something that belongs to somebody else. The blacks have race; maybe Latinos have race; maybe Asians have race. But they’re just white. They’re just people. That’s part of being white.
from the Rev. Karen Quinlan,
But more often, I’m learning, true change happens only when we take the time and the risk of sitting with something hard. True change in the world is intimately related to our internal transformation, which is intimately related to our presence to our selves.
Culture is simply everything that’s around us. At some point in our lives, we learn that there are other ways of being. Our human tendency is to think that ours is better than theirs.
When we are white, thinking that ours is better is supported by the fact that our social and political systems have been built through the same frame through which we’re looking.
We learn that our way is the right way and the best way. Simply put, this is white supremacy culture.”
She also says, ‘Come on and look inside you–it’s the best place to start.’ The greatest revolution is a simple change of heart.’ So that is where I am going to start. I am going to tell some stories about how I, as a white woman, learned about race and about white supremacy. Just to be clear, white supremacy is the system we all live in, you don’t have to be a racist to participate in it, or, if you are white, benefit from it. As I tell my story, you might want to reflect on whether your own is similar or not.
I grew up in Watsonville, CA, a relatively small, primarily agricultural town. Unlike many white people who grew up in racially segregated suburbs, the town was very ethnically diverse and I was aware of that from an early age. Many of my friend’s parents were first generation immigrants and English was their second language if they spoke it at all. Our next door neighbor, who took care of me while my mother worked, spoke mainly Portuguese. I remember my mother explaining, when I was very young, that the town was settled by waves of immigrants who came mainly to work on the farms. Italians, Slavonian’s, Portuguese, Germans, Filipinos, Japanese, Chinese, Okies, and Mexicans were the groups she mentioned. I asked what we were, and she said Okies. Everyone had an ethnicity of some sort in my mother’s opinion, and she used it to describe virtually everyone we knew.
Phyllis was my Chinese friend, John was Slavonian, David was my Jewish friend, and I was named after my mother’s German friend, Theresa.
I remember asking her what we were. She said we were Okies. She’d moved from Texas to California in the 1930’s to find work as a waitress in Hollywood.
I have been thinking about Jordan Edwards a lot this week. He was the young African American teenager who was recently killed by the police in Texas. He was only 15 and had been at a party with his brothers and some friends. When someone said that the police had been called, they got in their car and tried to leave. An officer shot at the departing car, and Jordan was killed by a bullet to his head.
I have been thinking about it a lot, partly because when I was a teenager I went to a friend’s party. Some of the kids were drinking and her parents called the cops. We all got in our cars and tried to get away. In a panic, my friend David backed his car into a muddy field and we got stuck, but finally managed to get the car out and get away. We were scared, but because we were white, our lives were not at risk. The worst case scenario would have been a phone call to our parents and being grounded. That was white supremacy at work although I did not realize it at the time.
I was not totally unaware of racism as a teen, however. My US History teacher in high school, Mr. Hashimoto, had been interned with his family during WWII and talked about that on more than on occasion.
He also told us that it was because of racism that the US dropped the atom bomb on Japan rather than on Germany. He taught me to question things.
In college, although I had the opportunity to hear Eldridge Cleaver, Angela Davis, Bobbie Seale and other Black Panthers speak during those turbulent times, it was also the first time I was exposed to a pretty monolithic white middle class culture. Almost everyone in my dorm was white and most of them came from upper middle class white suburbs. White supremacy became the water I swam in.
I saw the class issues, because I was a scholarship student, but my social life was almost completely white and I was clueless about it. We were all for racial justice, but we didn’t really know any black people at all. One thing I have learned over time, is that while ideas and values are good things, you can’t really know someone else unless you take the time to listen. You can’t live our first principle without a deeper understanding of the inherent worth and dignity of all, which is so much more complicated than just accepting the sometimes very self-centered individualism of people with a lot of privilege.
I learned so much during my 25 years working for Social Security in Richmond CA. With almost 2000 employees when I started, it was something like 40% African American with a good mix of other ethnic groups. White people were not the majority, although something like 60% of the management staff was white.
What that meant is that people of color felt safe enough to talk about race and racism openly.
During the OJ Simpson trial, there was a clear racial divide and people argued about it. Most of the white folks thought he was guilty, and most of the black folks wanted him to be freed. When the verdict was announced, the black people cheered. A black man accused of killing a white woman was declared innocent. It was an historic event, something that rarely happens when you live under the thumb of white supremacy. I learned something very real about the reality of black lives
I shared with a black co-worker, a lay sermon I wrote about how Anne and I created our family as lesbian parents. (It was my very first sermon.) She cried when she read it, and told me she thought her church was wrong in how they treated gay people. She then told me of going to a sleepover camp where she was the only black child. She was 9 or 10 and could not swim very well. All of the other kids had swum out to a platform on the lake and she was left on the shore. She gathered her strength and her courage and swam as best she could out to the platform. She was exhausted when she got there, but when she tried to get on the platform to rest, the other kids wouldn’t let her. I am not sure if they used the “N” word or not. She did not say, but she cried again as she told me of almost drowning as she made her way back to shore. I was so honored that she trusted me enough to share that story. I did not make any excuses for the kids who had been mean to her. I just cried with her.
That story was a hard one, and I have more like that, but I have a few funny stories too. My assistant manager Hazel was complaining that I got internet access at my desk before she did. She said it was racist, that all the black managers were going to be last. I looked at her with a straight face and said, maybe, but maybe they are just giving the internet to all the gay managers first, because everyone knows how good we are at technology. We laughed for a solid half an hour about that one.
Conversations about race can be difficult. They can be uncomfortable.
The history is full of pain, and too often white people can get defensive because they don’t want to feel guilty. The very term, white supremacy, is one that is particularly hard for those of us who consider ourselves liberal and certainly not racist.
But you don’t have to identify as a racist in order to acknowledge white privilege and that we live in a culture, a system, where white people and white culture is what is most highly valued. It shows up in all kinds of decisions, including hiring, including within Unitarian Universalism, including in our headquarters, our regions and our congregations. Despite principles and written commitments to diversity, the white candidate is often seen as just the “better fit.” My friends who are ministers of color know that they are less likely to be called to serve a UU congregation than are their white peers.
Straight white cisgender men are also still the most likely to be called to serve our larger churches.
Racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia are unfortunately very much alive within Unitarian Universalism. It isn’t always blatant, and the specific instance can be complicated, but if we were really who we say we are, who we want to be, the end result would be different.
Driving home to Utah from the Phoenix General Assembly I was stopped at the Arizona border in what was clearly a speed trap. The state trooper was almost apologetic to this older Anglo woman who maybe looked like his mom. I got a ticket, but he did not call immigration to see if I could be deported. I wasn’t shot and killed as so many people of color are during traffic stops. I did not have an Arabic sounding name so I wasn’t a terrorist. He didn’t ask to search my car looking for weapons or drugs.
I was white, so I was automatically one of the “good people” the “safe people.” The system of white supremacy took care of me. Every day of my life I have reaped the benefits of being white.
And every day, I have suffered from it too. It has kept me separated from other people me so that those moments of sharing across racial lines are as rare as they are precious. I can’t really be free until everyone else is free too.
This is too long already, so I am going to end by asking you to think some about your own lives and how you learned about and understood racism and white supremacy. You might want to share those thought with others during coffee hour.
This work will take a lifetime, but it is what will finally save us. We can all find some of the amazing grace we will sing about in our closing song, one that was written by a man who earned his living as a slave trader. Blessed Be