A Stranger in My Own Hometown

Sermon/Theme Talk by Barbara Wells ten Hove
Paint Branch UU Church (7/11/04) & Southeast UU Summer Institute (7/22/04)

Hymn #114 [one verse sung by Barbara]

Forward Through the Ages in unbroken line, move the faithful spirits at the call divine.
Gifts in differing measure, hearts of one accord, manifold the service, one the true reward.
Forward Through the Ages in unbroken line, move the faithful spirits at the call divine

For some of you here today, this tune may remind you of a hymn sung in many Christian congregations throughout the world. In that case, the words you may have been hearing in your head while I sang are not likely the ones that came out of my mouth. For this hymn is more widely known as "Onward Christian Soldiers."

But for me, the tune carries a different weight. I never knew it as "Onward Christian Soldiers." As someone who grew up Unitarian Universalist, this hymn has always been "Forward Through the Ages."

This hymn was sung often in the three Unitarian Universalist congregations my minister father (John Wells) served during my growing-up years. "Forward Through the Ages" is full of images of what our faith is and could be. It is upbeat, triumphant, and speaks of the movement of souls through time, living and enlarging our faith.

Forward through the ages, in unbroken line. It is this image that caught my attention as I began to think about what I wanted to say to you today. In an "unbroken line," the song says.

The song implies that our people have passed on the faith of their forebears through generation after generation. Throughout the ages, the song tells us, our prophets have spoken, our vision has grown wider and, in one living whole, we have moved on together to the shining goal.

It’s a wonderful vision, and it reflects the 19th century in which it was written, when human potential seemed limitless and our faith was at its pinnacle. Singing it now, in the 21st century, invites us to reflect on it anew. How are we moving "forward through the ages"? Are we really moving in "an unbroken line"?

I do not think we are. In fact, I think our faith looks a lot more like a dotted line than a solid one. A line of faithful people moving "forward through the ages" requires of us something we haven’t done a very good job of in the last 50-60 years: teaching our children to grow up to be active and committed Unitarian Universalists.

I have been thinking for a long time about my experience growing up Unitarian Universalist and asking myself why I am still an active and committed UU. As someone who has spent a lifetime in this faith, I have, I believe, a valuable perspective to bring to this conversation. Thus, I want to invite you to see the Unitarian Universalist world from where I—and others like me—sit. For too often, my friends, in UU settings I feel like a stranger in my own hometown.

Let me give you an example of this. Some years ago, during a large gathering at our annual UU General Assembly, I had an experience that disturbed me. Rather than try to explain it to you, I will invite you to role-play it with me right here.

The leader of the program was exploring the diversity of people in the room. He asked a series of questions, inviting people to raise their hands if they fit into certain categories of religious backgrounds. So, please do so now as I mention categories similar to the ones he offered. If you were raised Catholic, please raise your hand. Jewish?… Muslim?… Methodist?… Presbyterian?… unchurched?…How about fundamentalist Christian?… Or some other version of Christian?… If you’ve been a UU for 10-20 years raise your hand… 5-10 years?… 1 year?… Less than a year?…

After he finished, he happily acknowledged the diversity in the room. But I felt angry and frustrated because none of those categories fit me. For I was raised UU. And yet the man, who was a minister, completely forgot or ignored that there are such animals. What we call "home-bred" Unitarian Universalists may be rare birds but we are not extinct. In fact, I bet there are a few of us here right now.

So let me ask those of you in this room the question not asked of us in that moment. How many of you here were raised Unitarian Universalist, at least from the time you were in high school?… In any group of this size, there will very likely be some of us home-bred UUs. But far too often, there are only just a few, as here now. Why is this so? There are a number of reasons, but first among them, in my opinion, is this:

The primary metaphor we adults use to describe our faith is one of exodus and exile. Those of us who never left the church of our upbringing hear story after story of people who did. Is it not then surprising that many of us home-bred UUs do end up wandering away from our faith community? After all, isn’t that what we’re supposed to do?

I am grateful to my friend and colleague Rebecca Cohen [minister at Accotink UU Church in Burke, VA] for her thoughts on this. Like me, Rebecca grew up UU, also the daughter of a minister. (Our parents actually served the same church during different eras!)

Rebecca speaks eloquently of the challenges we face as a religion if we only define ourselves against who we were and where we came from. In a sermon she wrote for our ministers’ regional study group, Rebecca said:

Because a majority of modern day Unitarian Universalists still come to our congregations from other religious traditions, one of the biggest dangers we face in defining ourselves is that we will do so only in negative terms. "We don’t believe this. We have rejected that…" and so on.

Rebecca then goes on to write,

It makes sense, perhaps, that we, both as individuals and as a denomination, need first to separate ourselves from those traditions or ways of thinking that we have left behind, whatever they may be. But unless we move beyond that, unless we find some way to define ourselves in the positive, we will be stuck forever reacting to someone else’s religious tradition.

It is both a gift and a challenge that so many in our churches come to Unitarian Universalism as adults. On the one hand, we are forever learning from new perspectives, forever challenged to continue the search in ways that invite people in. At the same time, it can be easy to lose sight of our history, to fall into the trap of believing that each of us gets to invent Unitarian Universalism in our own image, turning it into whatever we want it to be.

As a home-bred UU, I can’t help but agree with Rebecca. UUism has a long and distinguished history that does feature a continual evolution. But that evolution, like any change, is founded on centuries of thought, feeling and action. Our religion is not some lightweight faith that sprang up in the 1960s; our roots are deep.

In preparation for this sermon, I spoke to a number of people who were raised UU and still consider themselves so. Almost without exception, they spoke of how much they love our faith and our congregations. But many of them also spoke of their frustration at the negativity toward other religious paths that can emerge from within UU churches, especially toward Christianity.

For those of us who grew up UU, our relationship to the wider religious world is generally pretty open. I think this is because we see Unitarian Universalism as one religion holding its own among the many others of the world. This is what we were taught in Sunday school. We do not carry the same baggage that others might from childhood religions that were rejected.

Almost everyone I talked to expressed that they felt blessed to have been raised UU. Such an upbringing planted in many of us a commitment to justice, a moral compass to help us navigate the world, and a belief that all religions and all people have the potential for good within them.

If being raised UU was such a blessing, why then do so many of us not stay within the faith and continue to be active in congregational life? I have struggled for years with this hard question. Here are some of my tentative conclusions.

First, as I mentioned earlier, the message preached too often from pulpit and pew assumes that the people who are listening are not home-bred Unitarian Universalists. Many of our leaders even fall into this trap. In a recent article published in the UU World, well-respected writer and minister Victoria Safford wrote these words:

Unitarian Universalists are accustomed to self-identify as exiles, or at least as emigrants either from some other religious traditions or from an utterly unchurched secular life. For most of us, our emigration has been voluntary. We were not excommunicated or banished from the churches and the temples of our childhood; we walked, and nothing forced us to come here.

Her short article reiterates this point repeatedly. Our faith is composed of willing exiles, she proclaims, standing in opposition to those who would impose their religion on us. While there is certainly merit and truth to her claim, I felt angry when I read her words. Once again, I was left out of the story of our religion. Evidently, if I lacked an experience of exile and exodus I was not truly UU.

I was so grateful that another colleague (and home-bred UU), Joel Miller [minister in Buffalo, NY], took the time to write in response some of what I was feeling. Here is a portion of his letter.

Victoria Safford ignores those of us who grew up Unitarian Universalist. She assumes all Unitarian Universalists are people who could not "with integrity abide imposed belief or imposed religious practice." She cannot assume this. My UU faith was imposed on me just as fully as if I had grown up Catholic, Jewish or Muslim. …

I’m a parent now. Like all parents, I impose a faith upon my children merely by being alive. So, I choose to impose Unitarian Universalism. I impose it gently, with love for their unique spirits. In my experience, a faith not good enough to impose on a child is not good enough for me or anyone else.

Joel’s letter brings me to my second point. Because so many in our congregations lived the story of exile before coming through our doors, too often that story gets communicated to our children in ways that make it far too easy for them to leave. Unwilling to "impose," we frequently give our children way too much permission to see their religion as something to leave behind when they are grown. And far too many do. Better that we should impose our religion on them in a way that makes them want to stay, as I and many others did and do.

I learned something very important from my parents because they imposed Unitarian Universalism on me. I learned that religion matters. I learned that our faith in the oneness of God and the universal spirit of love is a saving and life-transforming faith. And I learned from them that you can’t be a Unitarian Universalist alone, that you have to bring your soul and your energy and your commitment into religious community for it to be effectively shaped and formed.

And that brings me to my third point, one I heard from many of the home-bred Unitarian Universalists I talked to. When I asked them why they stayed in our faith, they spoke, almost without exception, of the feeling of belonging that emerged for them during their formative years, a feeling that never left them. Home-bred UUs become deeply attached and committed to their church when it commits itself to them. Most of us who stayed in the church did so because at some point in our upbringing, we got the message that faith and church matter. How did that message get transmitted? Primarily through our involvement in what I believe lies at the heart of the liberal church—worship, justice, and community.

This leads me to express some thoughts I have had for a long time, which may prove valuable in understanding how we might encourage and support more life-long commitments to Unitarian Universalism. I begin with worship.

Far too many of our children grow up in our congregations with little or no experience of what it means to worship in a UU church. Children and youth usually spend their time with each other (and a few adults) learning ideas, but only rarely worshipping with their parents in the "regular" service.

Or, if they are active in youth programming, they become accustomed to worship that is more emotional, more participatory, and often, frankly, more spiritual. As home-bred UU seminarian Colin Bossen [of Meadville-Lombard Theological School] says, talking about his experience in Young Religious Unitarian Universalists: "We had always worshipped in circles and now we were expected to worship in rows. We were not recovering Christians. Our own churches felt like alien cultures to us" [from The Bridging Program guide]. Ouch.

We have a lot to learn about worship from our young people, particularly if we open ourselves to diverse forms of music, spirit and style. But I do not think we should simply give up on some of the beauty that is found in more traditional UU worship. However, unless we teach our children to appreciate it, they will likely leave, instead of offering their wisdom and energy to congregations as we all grow and change, together.

This is why, at the congregation I serve in Maryland, some of us are so committed to having monthly all-ages services and regular chapel services that involve more children. You can’t learn about church if you never do church. Far too many of our home-bred UU young adults leave the church because they never really experienced church—only Sunday school and youth group.

Then there is justice-making. Those of us who grow up UU are more likely to stay committed to the faith if we are given opportunities to live it during our formative years. One of the recent graduates of Meadville/Lombard Theological School—the UU seminary in Chicago where Jaco and I spent our recent spring sabbatical—was raised at a church well known for its commitment to social justice. Not surprisingly, this young man sees himself making a real difference in the world through his evolving ministry. He credits his UU upbringing with giving him the tools to make the hard choice to offer himself in service to others. And he continues to do so within, not beyond, the confines of his church community.

My experience resonates with his. I remember vividly helping out in the weekly thrift store held at our church in Lexington, MA and learning that the profits went to help the poor. I remember my parents taking me out of school—a very big deal!—so I could, at age 10, participate in Moratorium Day protests against the war in Vietnam. These and other experiences like this taught me that being a Unitarian Universalist meant walking the walk as well as talking the talk.

Thus, it is no surprise to me that one of the most popular programs at our congregation in Maryland is "Warm Nights," when we take our turn being a shelter for homeless families during one week in the winter. This project involves a lot of support roles for church people and I honor the parents who help their kids participate.

But I wonder if they remember to remind their kids that they are doing so because they are Unitarian Universalists and a part of a church. Helping others in this way is our religious values in action and it goes a long way toward deepening a child’s commitment to their faith.

Finally, I learned from my home-bred UU compatriots what a difference it made to them to feel they belonged to a community that cared about them, just as they are. Those of us who stayed have done so because we learned at an early age that church was a place where people cared for one another, during good times and bad. Bill Sinkford, the president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, himself a home-bred UU, left the movement angry as a young adult but returned some years later and became deeply committed once again. Why? Because when his mother died and he returned to his hometown to grieve, a church lady came by with, in Bill’s words, "a bad casserole and an open embrace" to welcome him home without reservation. The church he had left—imperfect in so many ways—was there for him when it really mattered, and because it was, he not only returned but became an outstanding leader.

I was taught as a child and still believe that our religion, Unitarian Universalism, is a saving and life-transforming faith. I have stayed within our tradition because I truly know that this is my faith, and Unitarian Universalists are my people. But I admit that I still, at times, feel like a stranger in my own home town. When do I feel this the most? When I find myself, again and again, a minority in any group of UUs. When I hear people speak, with something close to pride, of how their children, now grown, choose not to be active in our congregations because "We taught them they could be anything they wanted." And I feel like a stranger when people who should know better assume that everyone in the room grew up anything but Unitarian Universalist.

It is my hope that this attitude toward home-bred Unitarian Universalists is changing. The work of the UUA’s Young Adult and Campus Ministry Office has made a huge difference, helping young Unitarian Universalists bridge the gap between adolescence and young adulthood. We may finally be moving beyond the assumption that our children will leave the church when they become adults. And I am heartened by the growing emphasis on positively expressing the tenets of our faith instead of talking about what we don’t believe. Such attitudes help make me feel more at home, and show promise that our future may include more and more people who are Unitarian Universalists for a lifetime.

Certainly, our faith can and must continue to bring in converts from other traditions and from the secular world. We will not survive without the powerful energy and commitment that arrives along with those of you who "come in" to Unitarian Universalism. But I have a vision that soon, maybe even in my lifetime, when a group such as ours is asked to show how many were raised UU, over half will lift up their hands in joy—no longer strangers but companions on a shared journey of building a better world.

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