In our recent Path to Membership class, a few participants shared stories of previous attempts in Unitarian Universalism. They said, they’d tried really hard to make a connection in those other churches, but it never really worked for them. “I’d show up on a Sunday morning, and I felt like I was at a political rally. It just wasn’t what I was looking for.”
I was sad to hear their stories, their longing for religious community, and the ways we as Unitarian Universalists had failed to offer them a space for holding and even healing the brokenness of their lives, failed to lift up a message grounded in the spirit. I was sad. But I wasn’t surprised.
We have at various points in our history, but perhaps most especially since the consolidation of 1961 and the intensified question of “who are we” -gotten mixed up in our yearning for justice, and confused our spiritual path with a political one. Even now, we wrestle with these issues. We know we have a calling to bend the arc of the moral universe towards justice, to paraphrase Martin Luther King, Jr., who was referencing Unitarian minister Theodore Parker. And yet, what does it mean to engage issues of justice as a community of faith? What does it mean to talk about service and social change as a spiritual practice?
One of my favorite stories from the Jewish tradition offers one perspective. It’s a story of a man who loves to read the Sunday newspaper. Cover-to-cover, slowly, methodically. There is just one problem.This man has a five-year-old daughter who, for as much as her dad loves to read the paper, loves to interrupt him while he tries to do so.Every Sunday, the man tries everything to keep her occupied, but to no avail.
Finally, one Sunday, he has an idea. There, across the whole front page of the Travel Section, there’s a map of the world.He rips the page off, and tears it into little pieces.He shows his daughter all the little pieces and says,“Honey, here’s a game for you.It’s a puzzle.Go grab some tape, and then see what you can do to put these pieces back together the way they are supposed to go.”
With that, his daughter cheerfully agreed, and ran off. Five minutes later, however, his daughter came back, with the page all taped together.The man shook his head, amazed.Though he wondered if she had just put the pieces back haphazardly, a careful inspection revealed the map was perfectly reconstructed.
He looked at his daughter in disbelief.“How did you figure it out so quickly?!”
She shrugged, and said,“It was easy Daddy. On the other side of the paper, there was a picture of a person.I know what a person looks like.I just put the person together, and the whole world fell into place.”
In our religious communities, we are called to tend to the brokenness of the world, and the brokenness of our own hearts -as these are two sides of the same page. Our justice work must be grounded in our personal stories, in the healing we yearn for in our own lives, and must ask us to grow, change, and deepen our own sense of interconnectedness with the whole world. And just as much, in our individual acts of kindness and compassion, we might recognize that we are doing the work of changing and healing the world, just as much as when we march, or organize, or petition, or witness.
Engaging social justice from this perspective underscores how one ministry in the church flows easily to any other. What we might lift up as justice ministry could just as easily be considered inter-generational ministry. What we might call small group ministry can equally be called the work of justice. And all of these find overlap and deeper meaning in the connections we build with other Unitarian Universalist congregations, our partners in this larger project. All of these are pieces of building the Beloved Community.
Put the person together, the whole world falls into place.
We risk sharing our stories; we listen deeply and with an open heart; we meet brokenness with tenderness and joy with gratitude. And slowly, step-by-step, breath-by-breath, we create the world we dream about. Poet Adrienne Rich says it this way: “Putting together, inch by inch, the starry worlds. From all the lost collections.”