Saturday, January 20, 2007

Spreading the Faith

This is C*UUYAN and 25 Beacon's take on spreading the faith.

Written by David Concepcion

(Quite lengthy) Don't have cut and paste option on blogger, sorry. :-(

“UUvangelism: Spreading the Word of UUism.”

The gym was the last place I expected to get into a theological discussion, but that’s what happened to me a couple of months ago. I was working with a personal trainer at Bally’s. They have a rack of TVs set up over the elliptical riders to give some of us something else to focus on while running. CNN is almost always on one channel. At the time I think there was a news segment about gay issues, either one of the states’ decision to ban same-sex marriage or the Kansas religious group that tours the nation protesting the gay lifestyle. In any case, my trainer was upset about all of that and didn’t really understand what all the problem was about. We had a bit of a conversation about that stuff, but then he asked one of those questions we Unitarians cringe at, but always expect to hear at some point: “Are you a Christian?”

I don’t know about you but I never know exactly how to answer it. The short answer is, at least for me, is no I’m not. I have been a life-long Unitarian Universalist. My parents were married in a UU church, one of the only denominations at the time that could really officiate a mixed Jewish-Catholic nuptials. With that and the fact that I’ve spent almost my whole life in UU churches, I consider myself a Unitarian by birth. Not a Christian. However I do recognize that the history of Unitarian Universalism stems from a Judeo-Christian background. And many Unitarians do in fact consider themselves Christian UUs. We read from the Bible, and take that tradition as one of our own. But we also take from so many other religions, including Eastern philosophies and other Earth based traditions. So it is hard to say a firm no to the question “are you a Christian?” So with that murky background, I tried to explain what I am and my spirituality in between getting my already sore muscles stretched out.

“What do you believe?” he asked. I briefly mentioned the idea of the seven principles and brought up one of them, because like all good and upstanding UUs, I don’t remember all seven principles. I brought up the inherent worth and dignity of all human beings, mainly because it’s one of the easier ones to remember.

“So do you guys support gay marriage?” I said yeah and that many of our ministers were the ones marrying gay and lesbian couples. I spoke about this for a bit and said it’s a fairly liberal faith. “So you guys are mostly democrats?” I of course said no, and then tried to explain the demographics a little, which is very diverse. With each question asked, I wound up giving a succinct answer at first. But then in order to have a fully rounded answer, a more accurate answer, one that tries to fully encompass our entire demographics and theologies, I had to backtrack and convolute what I had already described. When I finished my conversation, I never felt I accurately said anything about Unitarian Universalism.

This isn’t exactly the elevator speech that Reverend Bill Sinkford, the President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, urges us to formulate. Still it is part of the same process: the process about engaging other people and being able to explain what our religious identity is, who we are. It is about honestly and straight forwardly declaring our religious affiliation and not hiding who we are. It is about spreading the word about Unitarian Universalism. I know this is a concept that is almost anathema to many UUs, but it is a concept we need to embrace.

Now, when I started writing this sermon, it was about spreading the word of Unitarian Universalism, not necessarily about how do we as UUs explain ourselves to the world. However, it is almost impossible to talk about one without the other. These two ideas are linked. In some ways, one can argue that a big factor in telling more people about Unitarian Universalism is that we already have a hard time explaining Unitarian Universalism, either to other UUs or ourselves.

If there’s one thing has always disappointed me about being a Unitarian it is that though I have spent my entire life as a UU, experience day to day existence around me from a UU perspective, I have not been given the tools to clearly articulate that existence to others. When I was in Sunday school, we learned about the Judeo Christian tradition, Buddhism, Taoism, a little bit of Islam and Hinduism, but didn’t really learn much about Unitarian Universalism until I was 14, which is when most of the youth enter the Coming of Age program. When I was in that program, it was good on teaching the history of the religion and helped us to formulate our own theology, in my opinion the language given to us to explain that theology, or our denomination, to others wasn’t adequate. Without that language, any conversation about Unitarian Universalism is a struggle.

For those that come to us from other religions, it can be equally tough to explain this faith. How can someone who grew up in a fairly dogmatic religion explain what it is now like to be a part of a covenantal and non-creedal religion? How do people use a language other than the language of the faith that they grew up in to explain Unitarian Universalism? When we compare our religion in relation to others, we succeed in explaining what Unitarian Universalism isn’t, but still not truly describe what it is. At best, people get the gist of us as one of my coworkers termed “some sort of all inclusive thing.” At worst, the explanation of Unitarians can come across as “you can believe anything you want” which is far from the truth.

Still there has been enormous progress in developing a language of religious explanation. When I was a teen, the seven principles were not even a concept. Now they are almost the first thing that people first thing people say—or take out of their wallets. Programs such as Building Your Own Theology and Articulating Your Faith are helping our youth, young adults and other members to gain the tools they need to express their beliefs articulately. Next year there will be a pilot testing of a uniformed Coming of Age curriculum for all UU congregations. So our ability to express what our faith is, is growing and our vocabulary is expanding.

So now having said that, why do we as Unitarians have such a hard time letting people know that we are Unitarians; and letting people know that we are out there? Like my conversation in the gym, there isn’t an easy answer. In my opinion, part of it has to do with how other religions try to grow their ranks. Historically we all know the stories of conversion by the point of a sword or of missionaries converting indigenous populations to a religion alien to their culture, and we are repulsed. But more personally, I think we have all been repulsed by people of other faiths making us feel that our beliefs and faith are worthless—for some people it is why they have come to our faith. It need not even be fanaticism that hurts us, but even the genuine belief that one way—their way—is the only way that turns us off, as if somehow our own experience is moot. So to ensure that we don’t hurt others the way we have been hurt, we choose to affirm all paths, recognize each person’s unique perspective of the divine truth. We refuse to evangelize and proselytize to ensure our respect towards others. It is very admirable to do so. However by trying to not force our beliefs onto others, we create a bind for ourselves because we inadvertently keep ourselves from even broaching the subject of what our beliefs are, keep ourselves from the potential to share, not force, our faith with others. Even, to a great extent, ourselves. A few years ago at the UU General Assembly in Cleveland, Ohio, I ran into an old high school friend outside of Kinko’s. We looked at each other startled to see each other in Cleveland of all places, until it struck us that we were both there for General Assembly. It turns out he was a life-long UU like myself, but neither of us knew it. We never talked about it, we never had any communication about such things, so it remained a secret for about 16 years. This shouldn’t by any means be a secret, but by limiting our communication with others, we lose any opportunity to define who we are and let people know that we exist.

It would be nice to believe that we only need be receptive so that those may find our doors; that if we are truly an answer for people, they will seek us out. At best, that is na├»ve; at worst, arrogant. How can we be a faith who actively promotes democracy and not provide people with choices? When you withhold information from people, how can you expect them to come up with the right answer? It is akin to getting people into a voting booth and expect them to make an informed decision when some of the candidate’s names are blacked out. Granted they might get the right answer, they might make a correct choice for them, but it will be more from stumbling upon it rather than knowing it. We should not let people stumble around in the dark. I remember some years ago, when involved in a discussion about people coming to Unitarian Universalism, one young woman mentioned that a man at her congregation told her, “Well, if you’ve found us, you’re welcome to stay.” This is second hand information of one anecdote, but if it even represents a small percentage of UU congregations, this religion is doomed.

The late Minister Emeritus of Boston’s First and Second Church, Reverend Dr. Rhys Williams, used to end all his sermons with a benediction using the words of the Reverend Theodore Parker:

“May ours be 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;
its profession of faith, divine living.”

It is very moving and a wonderful benediction and it should be a good and genuine call for our religion to achieve its potential. However it fails to reach the level of a call. As a writer, especially a screenwriter, I know it is extremely important to always write in an active voice. Your words have to be doing something, you have to do something. Parker’s prayer, as lyrical and descriptive as it is, should not really be used as a call because it is in the passive voice. “May ours be a religion…” “its temple is…” “its shrine is…” It is not active, it simply is. Even the part about ritual, an active religious practice, is “works of love.” Where “work” should be a verb, it is used as a noun. Again there is no action, it just is. The activity isn’t on the part of our religion; action relies on the various metaphors. It reduces active participation to passive observation. Again, this is a prayer, not a call to arms; and prayer, in some sense, requires sublimation and implies action elsewhere, often beyond ourselves. But this seems to me very similar to how we as UUs approach professing our faith. We act passively, hoping people come through our doors, then later discuss why we are a smaller religion and what we can do to grow our ranks. But action gets hopelessly lost in committee. Making sure our faith, like sunshine, goes everywhere requires action on our parts.

So how do we do this? How do we spread the word of Unitarianism, even our own theologies. And I don’t mean converting people. I simply mean telling people we exist. We need to realize that there is a huge difference between proselytizing and marketing. Granted in today’s commercialized and branding infused society, it doesn’t always seem like it, but there is. Proselytizing is trying to recruit or convert people from one faith or another, often on the idea that one faith is the only true faith or religion. Marketing is simply letting people know that something exists and is out there. We need to do more of the latter, and not confuse it with the former.

Simply put, I think the most radical thing we as UUs can do to spread the message of our faith is to open our mouths. Speak to others about who we are, who we truly are. Let people know that you are a UU and proud about it, and if it comes to it, explain what you believe. We feel it is a very difficult thing to do, but it is deceptively simple. We already speak openly about these things within our own community, with each other. We debate, discuss, communicate our ideas and beliefs all the time. We just need to take it to the next step. If we truly believe in the sacred community, if we believe in widening the circle to encompass all, we need to push the boundaries outward. To do that we need to speak openly outside our boundaries.

Yes, in opening our mouths, we make ourselves vulnerable. I was taught long ago that without doubt, there can be no faith. While doubt in spiritual matters is a good thing, it is not necessarily a good public thing, and increasingly, and unfortunately, these days it is often not a good public speaking thing. So keeping to ourselves seems to be a safe option. Dennis Palumbo in the reading from his book, Writing From the Inside Out, points out that to come from a “core of who we are, is damned hard. Often the results are just painful, ambiguous, uninformed.” Certainly I experienced this just trying to talk to a guy at my gym. But since then, the conversations I have entered into when talking about my spirituality have improved. I’m talking to friends even coworkers outside of the church community about what we are and the response is very receptive. I am getting better at explaining what Unitarians are and aren’t. I am able to talk about who we are a lot more clearly than that time in the gym. It is only by working through the awkward conversations that we improve the ability to express ourselves; not even our spirituality, express ourselves. As Palumbo points out, “the most important things a writer needs is the awareness that he or she is enough.” Similarly all we need is the awareness that we, our spirituality , our theology, our faith, are enough. Armed with that awareness, who are we not to speak our faith out loud? As Marianne Williamson wrote in her book A Return to Love, in a quote often incorrectly attributed to Nelson Mandela:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?”

To put it even more simply, using the Jewish philosophy, for if not us, who? We should be able and willing to let people know who we are, all of who we are, for no one else will. No one else can describe our faith better than we can, and we need to open our mouths to do it.

Luckily, our denomination is getting better at spreading the word of our faith, too. Over the past two years or so, the Unitarian Universalist Association has been working hard at a media campaign called “the Uncommon Denomination.” You may have seen or even own one of the bumper stickers. The campaign was a combination of public relations work, media outreach and welcoming and hospitality outreach training for participating congregations. The successes of the campaigns in Kansas City, Long Beach, California, and Houston and Fort Worth, Texas, has led to the campaign becoming a full program along the lines of the Welcoming Congregations or the Journey Towards Wholeness. It has also led them to expand their outreach work. At this past General Assembly, Reverend Sinkford announced more and diverse approaches to community outreaching, including getting larger member churches to contribute money to major marketing campaigns in their areas, and a telemarketing strategy in some places. In all honesty, the telemarketing idea made me cringe, and it made me think that we’re willing that UU joke to life: “What do you get when you cross a Jehovah’s Witness and a Unitarian? Someone who knocks on your door for no apparent reason.” Despite that, it does prove that the UUA is serious about growing the ranks of our religion.

The Uncommon Denomination bumper stickers are one method that has gotten a lot of visibility. Bumper stickers are actually a fun way of making a statement. A bumper sticker that a friend of mine had on her car was all letters that said, “IM A UU R U?” Of course that works perfectly for our faith since we are a religion that loves acronyms. Some people have asked her about it and she has struck up conversations because of it. But a bumper sticker I saw recently had a word and its definition. It says “UUvangelism” defined as “spreading the good word about Unitarian Universalism.” It definitely made me smile and brought me to speak to you today. The comedy of the bumper sticker is fairly obvious. Using language to take back something from a dogmatic religion and apply it to our own faith tradition. What is funny to me is that it is easier for us to stick a bumper sticker on our car and advertise who we are, yet we can find it hard to talk face to face about it. I was handing our a couple of bumper stickers about family values from the UUA at my office, and as it turns out one of my coworkers is a UU. I never knew this, because once again no one ever talks about spirituality. This is an attitude that needs to shift. We need to open our mouths, for if not us, who?

I think I’ve heard every UU minister say in every sermon that our faith has a message that the world truly needs. If that is true, then we have to take the discussion of that message out from our own communal walls and to the general population. We don’t necessarily need to learn to shout from the rooftops, but we need to be willing to engage people and talk about who we are. If ours is truly going to be “a religion which, like sunshine, goes everywhere,” then we have to be active and open our mouths. Yes our faith has a message that this society, this country, this world needs now more than ever. So it is more important than ever to be, at the very least, willing to tell that message to others. It is both simple and not easy. A lot of times this will mean struggling to find the words to say what you mean. It will mean having to try and condense your own theology into a “elevator speech.” It will even mean having to step out of your comfort zone and try to reconcile the notions of recruiting and elucidating. But if we can learn to do this, if we can truly and openly be ourselves, our whole selves which includes the spiritual self, we can glean a little information bout our faith to people who are willing to listen and who will be receptive to hearing about a faith that is meaningful to them. If by doing this we come closer to letting people know that yes, our faith does exist, then yes, it will be worth it. So may you all have struggling, awkward conversations about your faith, and may you open your mouths to let people know who you, and we, are.

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