©The Rev. Sarah C. Stewart
“Starr King Fellowship is a multigenerational, welcoming congregation where different beliefs come together in common covenant. We work together in our fellowship, our community, and our world to nurture justice, respect and love.”
That’s our Who We Are statement, drafted following mutual interviews done by dozens of attendees at worship services and adult education sessions two years ago. A small group of people went through piles of anonymous interview notes, collected the responses into thematic groups, and distilled our thoughts and hopes about what kind of community this is into those two sentences. We read them this morning as after we lit our chalice. They are printed every week on the back of your order of service and in our weekly and monthly newsletters.
All of the words in this statement are precious to me. I want us to live up to every one. But the part of it that resonates most for me right now is in the first sentence: “[We are] a welcoming congregation where different beliefs come together in common covenant.” There are fewer and fewer places in our society where different beliefs truly come together. The more Starr King Fellowship can be one of those places, the better we will fulfill our mission.
When the Unitarians were first finding their voice and defining themselves as a religious movement in the early 19th century, they paid a lot of attention to what beliefs would be acceptable within their group. We might not like to think that, because Unitarianism, and later Unitarian Universalism, have always been religions without a creed, where no one need sign or assent to a statement of belief in order to be a member. But the men who gathered to consider organizing the several Unitarian churches at the beginning of the 19th century were just as eager to protect their “brand” as any creedal faith.
They called themselves the “Anonymous Association” at first. When a discussion was held about whether to form a Unitarian Association, so that they could promulgate their views of religion and organize liberal Christian churches together, some were in favor. But some were opposed. One historian writes, “[This] opinion was expressed by George Bond, a leading merchant of Boston, who was afraid that Unitarianism would become popular, and that, when it had gamed a majority of the people of the country to its side, it would become as intolerant as the other sects (Cooke IV).” Bond and others saw the danger in creating a name which would bring only like-minded men and women to their side.
The early Unitarians knew that once they formed an Association, many different kinds of people ascribing to liberal religion would join them. When that person was Theodore Parker, before the civil war, who offended the sensibilities of many Boston Unitarians with his militant abolitionism, they didn’t exactly throw him out–although all the other Boston ministers stopped exchanging pulpits with him.
Now, in our modern society, we face a new threat to the diversity of ideas. It is very possible to navigate our social and electronic worlds and only encounter people like ourselves. I have shared some of this before in terms of class: one summer I went in close succession to a show at the Silver Center, where I saw dozens of people I knew, and to a race at the now-gone Dirt Track Speedway in Wentworth, where the only person I even recognized was a check-out clerk at Hannaford grocery store. There are worlds of class difference in our area, and those worlds do not have much cause to overlap. I find the overlap at (coincidentally) the grocery store, at the hospital, and on the Concord Trailways bus. But it’s possible to go through much of your life in our part of New Hampshire, which probably has more class diversity than some parts of the country, and only interact with people like yourself.
We can also spend time only with our political allies. One of my best friends in the Plymouth area is my across-the-street neighbor. She and I run together, our families celebrate birthdays together, my son goes to her house after school three days a week. She was an incredible support to me when I was at the end of my second pregnancy and at the bottom of my emotional reserves. I enjoy her company and her friendship.
The thing is, I’m not sure, if she hadn’t moved in across the street from me, that we would have become friends at all. My friend is politically very conservative and I am very liberal; she is religiously conservative and I am liberal; our views on topics falling within the political spectrum almost always diverge; our views on religion are brought together only in the broadest sense. But the happy coincidence of becoming neighbors has allowed us to become friends nevertheless. We both enjoy crafts, we both enjoy parenting (and struggle with its frustrations, as well), we both enjoy getting outside and playing board games. We have plenty in common to be friends, and we have that enjoyment of each other’s company that is included in any good friendship. If we had vetted each other first for how we would agree, we might not have found our friendship. As it is, we are able to be friends despite our differences, and we have broadened each other’s understanding of those areas where we disagree. I wouldn’t give up that kind of connection for anything.
In our digital age, it is easier and easier to only see the opinions and ideas of those we agree with. Many of us encounter digital media through Facebook, where we can see the articles and ideas of our friends. We can watch movies recommended by friends, read books recommended by friends, get our news from the same sources as all our friends. It is possible to interact with the outside world through the bubble of our insular communities, never really learning how the other half lives and thinks, whoever that other half may be.
It has always seemed to me, however, that there is something special about our little corner of the world here in central and northern New Hampshire. Perhaps it is the same sort of thing I have heard said about Alaska, that people may be bitter political enemies, but it is still a community’s responsibility to make sure everyone gets through the winter. Our congressional districts are big enough that it is not practical to move just to be in a district with like-minded people. We live together, in our economically diverse region, helping each other and practicing the arts of neighborliness even when we disagree.
This congregation was founded as a home for liberal religion and Unitarian Universalism in the Plymouth area. As we have grown, our reach has grown, and we now welcome individuals and families from all over central and northern New Hampshire. We are diverse in many ways. We are intentionally welcoming to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, having gone through the Welcoming Congregation process ten years ago. We have had some racial diversity, as permitted by the very racially homogenous nature of rural New Hampshire. I believe we have a great deal of class diversity, which we may not even see. One of my hopes for our fellowship is that we will become a spiritual home to people of all economic backgrounds and circumstances whose journey has brought them to our liberal congregation.
One way to express the mission and values of an organization is to contemplate what difference will have been made in the world–in one year, in five years, in one hundred years–because we have been here. Let’s go back to our statement about Who We Are to see if we can paint a picture of what kind of world we will help create. First, we say we are multigenerational. Every year, as we continue to welcome children into our community, and send them out into their futures, I see a world with young people full of the commitment to tolerance and justice which they have learned here. I see them as young adults, bringing their understanding of the value of reason and the truth of diversity into their friendships and their workplaces. I see families supported by the programs we offer for young children, for elders, and for parents. I see our community continuously strengthened, not only by the support we offer directly to those who come to our programs, or those whom we serve in the community, but by the inspiration people get in worship and in the life of the fellowship to be kind, respectful, justice-making people in all aspects of their lives.
We say we are welcoming. This morning we heard two readings about how people get together in a congregation. In the mid-to-late twentieth century, James Luther Adams extolled the value of the church social action committee, which brought people together around a shared passion for justice and fomented change in the community. In the early twenty-first century, Philip Clayton argues that the minister and lay leader must be hosts and hostesses in the congregation, inviting people into shared experience both in person and on-line. We have ever more ways of being in touch with each other since Adams’ time, but our connections have not deepened as they have proliferated. The values of Adams’ committees–that they bring people together, that they provide forums for exploring dominant and minority points of view, that they knit the fabric of community ever tighter–are still present in our congregation. We must become hosts to invite people into these sorts of relationships. By being welcoming, Starr King Fellowship will create inviting spaces in our building, in our community, and on-line, where people’s human and spiritual connections may be strengthened and deepened.
We are spiritually diverse. We are a place where “different beliefs come together in common covenant.” Now, in my mind, the way we know our beliefs is through our actions. Someone said to me recently that if we can all agree to act in concert, to worship in a certain way or combat poverty together, then our beliefs must not be that diverse. But different beliefs can lead to the same shared actions. I was in a meeting with other Unitarian Universalists recently in which one older gentleman spoke fervently about his support for his local Occupy movement. His congregation was considering whether to open their church kitchen to the protesters, who were camped very near the church. He was actively involved in helping to make that happen. Later in the meeting, someone complained about congressional districts being redrawn so that there was no one to vote for except the Republican. This gentleman responded, “What’s wrong with that?” It shows us that principled, good-hearted people can agree on action while disagreeing on philosophy, theology, or religious practices. Our covenant is our agreement of how to be together. Within that covenant, we should be as welcoming as possible to all people and all philosophies of life.
The last sentence of our statement about Who We Are says that we will “work together in our fellowship, our community and our world to nurture justice, respect and love.” This is the great purpose of our covenant. We will not be a chapel, here merely for the spiritual well-being of those within our own walls. We will help to create a fairer community and a better world because we are in it. In the new year, we will begin a project in partnership with the Whole Village Family Resource Center to educate ourselves, and others who will join us from other churches, to learn more about poverty, class difference, and our own location in the class structure of America.
From there, we will see what kind of outreach and support we can offer to poorer families in our neighborhood, or those families with whom Whole Village works. We will not engage as “do-gooders,” offering solutions to those who have none, but as partners, offering our resources and willingness to help to those who might benefit from them. Because we have been here, children have been served in after-school programs, civil marriage rights for all couples have been defended, and intercultural understanding was promoted after September 11th. Because we are here, in the future, we will continue to create a world where more people find justice, respect and love than if Starr King Unitarian Universalist Fellowship was not part of our community.
I want to share with you something I’ve shared with our new member classes this year. It is first that membership in the fellowship means finding that your own mission and the fellowship’s mission are in alignment, and that you can adopt the fellowship’s mission as part of your own. But it also means that we will all be like those 18 people who founded our fellowship in 1980. If we suddenly woke up one morning and this fellowship were no longer here, each one of us would be the stem cells in the body of this community who could recreate it. The fellowship is us, it resides in us, and our spirits will carry it forward into the future. Every one of you here today is a part of what makes our community special and spiritually powerful, and every one of you will help us step into the mystery of faith together.
Adams, James Luther. An Examined Faith: Social Context and Religious Commitment. Ed. George K. Beach. Boston: Beacon Press, 1991.
Clayton, Philip. “Theology and the Church After Google.” The Princeton Theological Review. 43 (Fall 2010): 7-20.
Cooke, George Willis. Unitarianism in America: A History of Its Origin and Development. 10th ed. Project Gutenberg, 2005. iBiblio. Web. Accessed 10 Dec. 2011.