Building FAITH in Community, Part 2:
A Church for All Souls

A sermon by Barbara Wells
February 20, 2000

As most of you know, I grew up in the Washington D.C. area. As a child, I always heard a lot about our mother church, All Souls Unitarian Church in the District. I remember finding the name very appealing even as a youngster and wondered why more of our congregations were not called by that felicitous name.

Many years later, when I was the minister of a new congregation in the Seattle area, I preached a sermon as we were settling on our permanent name, about why I thought that church should change from the working name of Woodinville Unitarian Universalist Church to the more meaningful All Souls Church. I felt that our working name said very little about who we were since so many people are unfamiliar with Unitarian Universalism; whereas calling the church All Souls said so much about what we believe and who we are. They chose not to follow my advice, but I still think the name "All Souls" is a good one.

Over the years I have continued to reflect on what would it mean for a church to really be a church for all souls; to be a church where the door was open wide enough to include people of many different beliefs and backgrounds; to be a church where being in community meant more than just getting along-where it meant deepening our relationship with each other to a profound level, the level where real transformation takes place. Are Unitarian Universalist churches in a unique position to really live out this ideal? I keep asking myself that question.

This morning I continue the series that Jaco and I began two weeks ago. This series is called "Building FAITH in Community," and over the course of five sermons we will be exploring many facets of community building and why we think it is important that Unitarian Universalists-in particular Paint Branch Unitarian Universalists-look closely at these ideas. If you recall, we are using the word FAITH as our guide, with each sermon reflecting concepts suggested by a letter in the word. Last time we talked about foundations and many other "F" words like family, freedom and friction.

Today I move onto the letter "A," and thus I will be reflecting on what a church community that is seeking to reach out to "All" souls might look like. I'm going to do this from two different directions. First, I want to look a little bit at our history and what it has to teach us about creating community. Second, with awareness of that history, I will look at the challenges and opportunities that await us if we are able to hold in a delicate tension the community and the individual.

Unitarian Universalist ministers generally like talking about our history. This is often because so many marvelous figures from the past are a part of our religious heritage. How many of you can name some people from history who were prominent Unitarian Universalists? Many individuals made marvelous contributions to American (and other) history and we are proud to claim them.

But let me ask you a harder question. How many of you can name the congregations, groups, or communities that were prominent and were also Unitarian Universalist? Most of us, when we think about history-particularly Unitarian Universalist history-we remember the famous individuals who preached or talked or lived the doctrines of liberal religion. Few of us know of the communities that, over time, have made a difference in the lives of these same individuals.

There are, of course, reasons for this. History is always more stimulating when we tell the tales of individuals living out their lives in exciting and intriguing ways. Few groups or communities are as interesting as the individuals within them. Yet most, if not all of the individuals that we cherish so much in our history were nurtured and sustained by the groups of people that were their communities.

If you walk down the main streets of many of the most prominent New England towns today, you discover church after church called First Parish, Unitarian Universalist. These congregations-ranging from large churches like the one in Concord, MA, to small village churches like the one in Petersham, NH-have served the needs of Americans, some quite famous, for over 200 years. Yet we usually hear little about them and the role they played in shaping the individuals we hold up as great models to our children.

Take, for example, one of the most famous writers and thinkers of the 19th century, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was the son of a Unitarian minister and grew up as a part of a church community. Then, as a young minister he served a church in Boston for a few years, though it is said he did not find the politics of church life much to his liking. But while he quit the formal ministry to establish a career as a writer and lecturer, he continued to preach in a small church in East Lexington, Massachusetts, for many years. In his later years he also attended services at the church in Concord. These congregations, seldom if ever mentioned in Emerson's writings, were nonetheless instrumental in his religious and cultural awakening.

Yes, Emerson found the politics of church life very difficult to bear. He also believed that the individual was paramount and that God should and could be approached directly, not through the auspices of a minister or the church. This perspective-that an individual can have a direct relationship to the holy-has become an essential element in Unitarian Universalist theology. We love to quote Emerson, holding up his doctrine of self-reliance as one of the most important things about being a Unitarian Universalist.

But I think we have missed something here. For despite Emerson's vaunted individualism, his life was lived deep in the midst of community. The town of Concord, his group of friends, even the church that he sometimes scorned were important communities of people to whom he remained attached and committed throughout his life. He may have thought he didn't need community but he lived his life in the midst of it.

Emerson died over 100 years ago. Yet each of the congregations he touched is still going strong. That's one of the most important things about religious communities. Every one of us will die but our values and principles can continue on if we sustain them through the institutions we create.

None of the churches in Emerson's life were called "All Souls" but throughout their histories they sought to be inclusive communities, or at least as inclusive as they could be given their era. They are also all historically Unitarian congregations. But our Universalist forbears also tried to create communities that lived out their belief in God's love for all people. For Universalism, as it has evolved over the past three centuries, is a doctrine that says that true community is made up of people who come from many different walks of life, all with something to offer. Historically the Universalists were among the first to try to create communities where all people were welcome.

One such community was the radical experiment called Hopedale. In the mid-1800s, America was a place where the ideals of freedom and liberty were often talked about more than lived. For instance, women could not vote, people in the South still owned slaves, and many waves of immigrants coming from Ireland and other parts of Europe were generally despised by the resident population.

Into this milieu came the radical Universalist Adin Ballou. Ballou became a Universalist in 1823 and he was, in his day, an important social critic. Ballou was convinced that Universalism was a doctrine that needed to be lived as well as believed, and so he imagined a community where Universalist ideals would be put into practice. His dream of such a community was inspiring to others and in 1841 the community of Hopedale was formed outside Boston.

Hopedale was not a church, but it was a religious community where people lived together following the principles of what Ballou called "practical Christianity." Ballou's dream was that "the community would not only afford a haven and a refuge from a corrupt church and an oppressive world, but would be a basis for missionary activity. If such communities could be multiplied indefinitely, the reign of ignorance, selfishness, pride and violence would be terminated ... and the whole great Brotherhood [sic] of our race dwell together in unspeakable peace."

When the community was founded in 1841 Ballou's Universalist idealism led him to insist that its members make very deep commitments to Hopedale. They could not drink alcohol or gamble, must commit to non-violence, and were to refuse to participate in the government except to pay taxes. Hopedale grew and over the course of its 15 year history reached a peak of 300 residents. But it did not last. When two brothers who owned the largest portion of Hopedale shares pulled out, the community collapsed for lack of funds and ultimately became a part of the town of Hopedale, which still exists today.

Perhaps such utopian communities are unrealistic in any generation, but the vision that Ballou held in his heart reached far beyond that small group of people in Massachusetts. For Ballou really believed that community could be a place where all souls are welcome. At Hopedale women, African-Americans, and others on the margins of society were-at least in theory-welcome to participate at an equal level. (For instance, Ballou said that while women could hold leadership positions, they probably wouldn't want to!) Hopedale attempted to model a community where the ideals of Universalism were acted upon; a worthy goal, even if it did not last forever.

Does the Hopedale community have any bearing on Paint Branch UU Church today? We are not a residential community of people who come together to live and work in the same place sharing our goods and our livelihood. Thus, in many ways, we are very different from the Hopedale community of the mid-18th century. But I think it's important for us to remember that what happened at Hopedale was valuable if for no other reason than it showed the world that people could live together in a radically inclusive fashion if only for a few years. The Paint Branch church community, like other Unitarian Universalist congregations, seeks to be a place where people of all ages, races, gender, and beliefs, can be together in a community of all souls.

Earlier this week, at the pre-sermon discussion, a participant suggested that one of the most important things he found when he first came to Paint Branch over 10 years ago was a place where he could be himself with others. He spoke of how at his work there was a very strict hierarchy but at Paint Branch he felt such relief to be in a community where people came together without worrying about where they stood in a pecking order. While he might not have called it this, he saw the doctrines of Universalism being lived out here and it made him want to return and become a part of this congregation.

But others in the discussion group also brought out some of the challenges of trying to create community in a church with a diverse and inclusive approach to religion. Together we wondered aloud whether or not real community could be created in a place where people conceivably could disagree about many things. (Don't you imagine these kinds of conversations also happened at Hopedale?)

The question arose about how much of our own individual beliefs or attitudes we may need to let go of in order to be in a deeper relationship with people who are very different from ourselves. This gets to the heart of what I see to be the challenge embedded in our history, because for many of us what makes being a Unitarian Universalist so appealing is our religious tradition's emphasis on the value of the individual. For most UUs, particularly if we were raised in a more traditional religion, to be given the freedom to think for ourselves religiously is powerful.

The ideals of liberal religion also influenced in profound ways the American culture. But those early liberal thinkers and leaders, like Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Adin Ballou, lived in a time very different from our own. They lived in a land with far fewer people than we do today. They lived in a nation where the nearby frontier with all its freedom beckoned constantly. And they lived in a world-a religious world-where the hidebound traditions of the past still held sway even as they were being challenged.

For people like Jefferson and Emerson to hold up individualism as paramount was so liberating that it would lead to many of the freedoms that we now enjoy. But it did not come without a cost. I do not think that Jefferson or Emerson would ever have thought that their beliefs would lead to the kind of rampant individualism that borders on selfishness and isolation that many of us experience in the 21st century today. And certainly Adin Ballou would be appalled. Community, for them, was built into their very lives.

But for us community is not a given. Often our lives are lived in neighborhoods where we know few people in a deep way, in workplaces where the environment may keep us from strengthening relationships, and even in families where we might live thousands of miles apart. For Jefferson and Emerson and others like them, traditional communities were assumed. For us they are something we have to work for and create together.

So how we do that? How do we build community when our religious tradition encourages us to be individuals?

Clearly, people come to church today for community. We hear that over and over again from people entering through these doors. While our liberal theology is certainly an essential piece of why people come here, for most people the community is equally if not more important.

But the kind of people who find Unitarian Universalism appealing are generally people with a strong sense of their rights and responsibilities as an individual. In other words, people come to Paint Branch and other Unitarian Universalist congregations with strong opinions. And when those strong opinions clash, our hope for community may be challenged. We could, like Thomas Jefferson, decide to be "unitarian alone." It isn't hard to be alone these days. We could just as easily sit in front of our computer reading up on all the great Unitarian and Universalist thinkers without ever coming into contact with someone who might challenge or change us.

But for most of us sitting here today the pull to be in community is greater than the desire to be alone. And so we come to this place, giving up a little bit of our individualism, in order to be in a deeper relationship with others. It isn't always easy. It never has been, as the Hopedale community reminds us. But no one said the creation of community would be or should be easy! For while we may not ask as much of you as Adin Ballou did of his Hopedale community members, we can ask of each other some important things.

Those things, in a Church of All Souls, might be these (and in keeping with our acronymic theme, I will offer you some "A" words to reflect on):

The first is Acceptance. If a church is to be a community open to all people, we must learn to accept each other in our wholeness. This is the element of individuality that none of us would ever want to lose. Every person here is a unique spirit. For us to truly accept one another is to see that uniqueness as a gift even when at times it may drive us crazy. But in our acceptance, we also have the opportunity to expand our horizons about what is "acceptable." A church of all souls will be by definition open to new ways of looking at and accepting each other.

The second "A" word is related to the first. In a true community we have the opportunity to be Authentic and real. Authenticity challenges us to tell the truth even when the truth may hurt. Our religious forbears fought long and hard to be able to speak the truth as they understood it. In their time, most religious communities told only one truth. But today I suggest that an authentic religious community is one where we acknowledge each other's differences honestly and lovingly. This kind of authentic community is also a place where we encourage and support each other as we struggle and work to become more truly who we are. I like to think this is one reason why people in the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender communities generally feel comfortable here. A church that accepts people in their authenticity is bound to be a place where many people feel welcomed.

The third "A" word, which is even more challenging than acceptance and authenticity, is Ambiguity. No liberal religious community is ever going to have all the answers. As someone said the other night, if we had all the answers there wouldn't be any need for questions, and questions are how we learn and grow. Here at Paint Branch I hope we can be a community that accepts the ambiguity that is inherent in life. I hope we can be open to wrestling with the questions life brings. And I hope that we will want to do that wrestling together, for we all know that we learn more from sharing our questions than by insisting that our answers are correct.

And finally, I hope that we can be a community that has high Aspirations. We may not want to be a community like Hopedale. Yet what I like about the story of Hopedale is that its founders had a dream of being more than they already were. They aspired to be a truly loving and peaceful community and to be a model for the world. They chose to do it in a way that was, perhaps, unrealistic and utopian. But just because creating a perfect community may be beyond our grasp doesn't mean we should give up our aspirations to be more than we already are.

Can Paint Branch Aspire to be a religious community where All souls searching for Authenticity and Acceptance are welcomed to walk their path with us, even as we struggle with the Ambiguities of life?

I believe we can, but it won't happen without some work on our part. At our discussion the other night we talked about how hard it is to learn to let go of our prejudices and expectations, as we learn to live together in the shared life we call community. Yet everyone there seemed willing, even eager to make it work. We all recognized that the price we pay for community is worth it. OK, we can't always have it our way (despite what the advertising jingle would have us believe). But would we rather sit alone in our rightness or be together in a loving (and at times challenging) compromise we call community?

Emerson scoffed at the church and convinced generations of his followers that religion is best experienced alone. Today, we've seen the limitations of this approach to the spirit even as we celebrate the ability we have been given to walk our unique spiritual path. Perhaps what we are finally learning is the balance that enables us to walk together, sharing the journey while carrying our own packs. I like to think that Paint Branch can be a place where all of us backpackers on the journey through life share the path together. That's the kind of church I want to be a part of-a church of all souls. I hope you'll join me on the journey.

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