Different Beliefs, Common Covenant: Sermon for December 11, 2011

Posted by admin on January 11, 2012 under Sermons | Comments are off for this article

©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.

Excellence in Ministry: Sermon for October 2, 2011

Posted by admin on October 26, 2011 under Sermons | Comments are off for this article

©The Rev. Sarah C. Stewart

The collection we took this morning will support Association Sunday, a special fundraising effort of the Unitarian Universalist Association.  This year, Association Sunday is supporting Excellence in Ministry, an umbrella initiative designed to improve Unitarian Universalist ministry in a number of ways. The thing I am most excited about, however, within Excellence in Ministry, is an emphasis on multicultural competence and training. Now, I have my share of white liberal awareness about the need for anti-racism and multiculturalism, same as many of you. But recently, I’ve come to see the need for greater diversity and greater understanding of multiculturalism in our ministry.

I serve on a committee of the Board of Trustees of the Association which is responsible for appointing people to denominational committees. We are in the midst of a round of appointments now. Out of some 40 applicants to 15 positions, three were people of color. I spent an hour or so this week on the appointments for one committee, trying to figure out the ethnic and racial heritage of the four people going off the committee, and sifting through fifteen applications to see if we could provide any racial diversity or balance at all.

After all that work, I determined that all the applicants for a committee serving the seminarians of the entire western third of the United States were white people. People of color, people hoping to become Unitarian Universalist ministers, will come before that committee early in their seminary careers to be guided along their path. And they will see no faces which mirror their own, no person on the committee whom they could expect to have had similar experiences and challenges arising from race as they have had. A program to increase multicultural experience and skill in our ministry, in addition to encouraging more people of color to enter and succeed in our ministry, is sorely needed.

Multiculturalism is not just about race. The Rev. Mark Morrison Reed, an African American man and a minister of 32 years’ experience, has pointed out that the percentage of African Americans in the Unitarian Universalist ministry has kept pace almost exactly with the percentage of African Americans in the United States who receive a college education (“Perversity”). In other words, our association is even more class-bound than it is race-bound; as people of color move into the educated classes which make up our congregations, they also enter our ministry.

This shows us that race is not the only barrier members and clergy find in Unitarian Universalism: there is also a barrier of class, keeping our congregations largely middle- and upper-class. These divisions of race and class must be met by our churches in order to make a difference in our world. Right now people in the United States and worldwide are protesting because the middle class is ever more out of reach and because they think they may never get there. Unitarian Universalism must be open to the people engaged in this struggle.

Although the Unitarian Universalist Association’s effort is named “Excellence in Ministry,” the commitment to diversity must exist within congregations if anything is to improve. Take my committee, for instance. We look for people of color to serve on denominational committees, but in order for that to happen, those people must apply. In order for more people of color, and people from diverse class backgrounds, to apply, they must be members of Unitarian Universalist congregations. Their ministers and lay leaders must encourage them to get involved at the denominational level. This is just one example of the connection between good ministry and good congregations. Jack Mendelsohn, a Unitarian Universalist minister, wrote,

A Unitarian Universalist minister is a [person] who continually runs out of time, out of wisdom, out of ability, out of courage and out of money. He is hurtable.  His tasks involve great responsibility and little power.  He must learn to accept people where they are and go on from there.  He must never try to exercise influence he does not possess.  If he is worth his salt, he knows all this, and is still thankful every day of his life for the privilege of being what he is.

The future of the liberal church is almost totally dependent on these two factors: great congregations (whether large or small), and skilled, effective, dedicated ministers. The strangest feature of their relationship is that they create one another (11-12).

This congregation has created two ministers–Elizabeth Stevens and Paul Sawyer. I came out of a Unitarian Universalist congregation. Almost all our ministers do. Congregations like Starr King Fellowship form and grow leadership within themselves, and those leaders go on to create greater strength in their home congregations and in the wider faith.

I’d like to introduce you to someone who does Unitarian Universalist ministry in a very different way from how I do it. One of the joyful realizations I have had as a minister is that there as many ways of serving our faith and the greater good as there are people willing to do it. The person I’d like you to meet in this sermon is the Rev. Karen Tse, a classmate of mine from divinity school. Even in seminary, Karen knew she wanted to be a community minister. She was already trained as a lawyer when she started divinity school. She had worked as a public defender in San Francisco, and had traveled to Cambodia to train public defenders, judges and prosecutors under the auspices of the United Nations.

Karen understood her work as a sacred calling, but she didn’t see her career unfolding within a congregation. She had a vision: she wanted to start a non-governmental organization which would work for the rights of political prisoners in China when they went before the courts as defendants. She moved to Europe and started her own organization, International Bridges to Justice, in 2000, which works to strengthen public defense and support the rights of the accused in China and elsewhere, with a special focus on the rights of indigent people accused of crimes.

For Karen, this work is the work of ministry. It is work connected to the community of Unitarian Universalists because it carries out the vision of a world where the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and the practice of freedom, are respected and upheld. This is not congregational ministry, and it’s not even ministry connected to a particular area or congregation. It is Unitarian Universalist spiritual leadership and justice-making writ large. Karen will be preaching at next summer’s General Assembly, a meeting of representatives from Unitarian Universalist congregations specially dedicated to justice and the rights of immigrants and minorities in our country. Karen will remind us that her work has value in developing countries as well as in our own country, and can be brought home to our congregations.

“Excellence in Ministry,” the project we are supporting this morning, represents a project being worked on by our Association and the Unitarian Universalist Ministers’ Association. The funds raised today by Unitarian Universalist congregations across the country will support coaching for ministers; development of multicultural competency in the ministry; training for ministers, religious educators and musicians to learn how to create multigenerational worship together; as well as other initiatives.

Personally, I’m excited about the coaching program. Seminarians and ministers early in their careers must show that they are constantly improving and increasing their skills in the ministry. But once a minister passes that early stage–for me, after three years of professional ministry–no further certification is required. The coaching program will help experienced ministers get even better in certain areas of ministry.

I’m also excited about the emphasis on multigenerational worship and working together across the boundaries of our professions. Last year, our Director of Religious Education Cindy Spring and I began experimenting with multigenerational worship here at Starr King Fellowship. Once a month, we created a 45-minute-long multigenerational worship service, designed to appeal to adults and children alike. We learned along the way: the material has to be accessible at many levels and presented in an engaging way. Putting multigenerational materials on the one Sunday a month when we didn’t have Sunday school asked families to come to church every single Sunday, something we don’t ask other members to do. Attendance among both children and adults dropped on Family Sundays.

So this year, we will are building on what we learned. We will have some Sundays of full-length multigenerational services. Whitney Howarth, who went to a conference this summer on multigenerational worship, is going to work with me to create just such a service on the Real Story of Thanksgiving next month. On other Sundays, once a month or so, the children will once again join us for the first fifteen or twenty minutes of the service, before heading downstairs to their classes. But instead of moving through the ordinary opening of our services and telling the children a story, we will recreate the entire time they are with us to be multigenerational and engage our worshiping bodies and senses as a whole congregation.

Whether as a full service or the beginning of our services, we will work more to break through the forms and boundaries of our traditional worship service, to open up a place where people of all ages and generations can worship together. We are Starr King Fellowship together–not one fellowship for adults and another for children. We come together in worship to approach the world of the spirit.

Congregations need ministers and create them; and ministers need and create congregations. I reflect from time to time on the nature of what I’m doing. It’s fair to say that when I started out, I had no clue, so it’s probably also fair that in another ten or twenty years I will look back at this moment and think I still had no clue. But as best as I can figure out, ministry is the process of becoming oneself in the midst of community.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said it was “life passed through the fire of thought.” I find, as a minister, that it’s not a matter of trying to live my life perfectly as a paragon of virtue–which is a good thing, because I, like any human being, would fail. Instead it’s about living my life as best I can. I apologize when I mess up. I stand for things I believe in, even if other people disagree. I make the best decisions I can. I try to be as compassionate as possible, and I’m very aware that sometimes it’s not enough. In other words, I try to be human on purpose, which is what we ask of each other as Unitarian Universalists in the first place.

Professional ministry is a collection of skills and abilities. It is a calling, in the sense that people don’t become ministers because of the great pay or the high esteem in which society will hold them. They don’t graduate from college and think, “The best way to repay these student loans and retire early on the beach is to head off to divinity school.” On the other hand, the quality of life and the work we ministers get to do is extraordinary.

This week I met with a couple about their wedding, helping them prepare for the moment when they will say, “I do.” I made appointments to visit people in their homes. I met with people who give their time and energy to this congregation out of the goodness of their hearts, because they believe in the possibility of what committed people can do in this world by working together. I made plans for Pakistani musicians to perform here and share a meal with us together here. I spent a day writing. It’s fantastic work, and it is a privilege to do it. It is an even greater privilege to share the blessings and work of ministry with you, an engaged and faithful congregation of Unitarian Universalists. The ministry of all of us grows together and will flourish, with our help, for generations to come.


“Karen I. Tse.” Wikipedia. 17 Sep. 2011. Accessed 1 Oct. 2011. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karen_I._Tse.

Mendelsohn, Jack. “Excerpt from Why I Am a Unitarian Universalist.” Association Sunday 2011: Celebrating Excellence in Ministries: Organizing and Worship Resources. Ed. Unitarian Universalist Assn. Boston: UUA, 2011. 11-12.

Morrison-Reed, Mark. “The Perversity of Diversity.” General Assembly. Salt Lake City, 25 June 2009.

All That We Do, All That We Teach: Sermon for Sunday, September 18, 2011

Posted by admin on September 21, 2011 under Sermons | Comments are off for this article

©The Rev. Sarah C. Stewart

This morning, our children are beginning their religious education classes. They are downstairs (and our middle and high school youth are in the conference room) beginning a year of learning about Unitarian Universalism. They are using new curricula from the Unitarian Universalist Association, expertly honed to work for our fellowship by our Director of Religious Education, Cindy Spring. Cindy has also recruited 40 teachers, both parents and non-parents alike, to work with our children this year, from volunteering with Wendy Rowbotham, our Nursery Caregiver, in the nursery, to being “Advocates” who will work with our Coming of Age Youth. Other adults will accompany children on field trips or help in a pinch.

You may not know that before becoming a member at Starr King Fellowship, Cindy spent her career as the Director of Religious Education at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashua, and later as the Program Consultant specializing in Religious Education for the New Hampshire-Vermont District of the Unitarian Universalist Association. We are very lucky to have her decades of experience and wisdom working with our children. We are also lucky to have had many other members of this congregation serve as our religious educators: Jane Clay, Amy MacDonald, Mary Hazelton, Cappy Hahn and Mary Mayshark Stavely have all done this important and sacred work. Just yesterday, I was teaching Bible Study for Religious Liberals in Room Two downstairs, and noticed how open and pleasant the room was, how all the supplies teachers might need were neatly stacked on the shelves, and how lucky our children are to have dedicated religious educators and volunteers at the helm of their Religious Education experience.

That pleasant and inviting room is important because we don’t learn about faith or anything else just from the content of the curriculum our teacher uses. What our children, and us, learn in the context of this fellowship encompasses almost everything we do together as a fellowship. Unitarian Universalist religious educator Connie Goodbread has said this in a striking way, which we heard in one of our readings this morning: “All that we do is faith development. All that we teach is Unitarian Universalism. The congregation is the curriculum.”

All that we do is faith development.

One of the statements in Goodbread’s trio is “All that we do is faith development.” Faith development is a more encompassing way of thinking about religious education. We hear the word “education” and we tend to think about children. Goodbread reminds us that faith development is something all of us do throughout our lives. When thinking of a congregation’s programming, it is common to divide up our work into “worship,” “activities,” “adult religious education,” “children’s religious education,” and so forth. Goodbread is saying that all of that together, plus gardening days, canoe trips, congregational meetings, committee work and pricing things for the yard sale all combines to form our faith development.

When teachers are enthusiastic to teach their children’s classes and engaged with the material, the children learn that Unitarian Universalism is an exciting thing in their lives. When we treat volunteers with respect by asking them to do important work, support them in that work, and thank them for it, they learn that mutual respect is part of our life together in a faith community. If we talk over one another at a meeting and no one addresses the problem, everyone present learns that sometimes we have to accept rude behavior on the road to our spiritual goals. Many of us speak with relief about Unitarian Universalism in contrast to the faith communities in which we grew up. But every time Unitarian Unviersalism makes us feel badly about ourselves, we are learning the same lessons we abandoned in childhood: that sometimes we have to be hurt what is supposed to be the peaceable way. For good or for ill, all that we do together as a congregation contributes to the development of our faith. For good or for ill, every moment together is a moment to develop the faith of Unitarian Universalism in a holistic and positive way.

All That We Teach Is Unitarian Universalism

The importance of education has been closely linked with Unitarianism and Universalism for a long time. Sunday schools began in Britain as a way of providing working families with education for their children. In these families, children worked alongside their parents six days a week. Churches provided access to education for children on the only day they had off work: Sunday. Using the Bible, beginning in 1781, Gloucester working children were gathered together on Sundays and taught to read and write. Four years later, 250,000 working children were being educated in Sunday Schools across England. By 1831, 1.25 million children were educated in Sunday Schools. The British Unitarians founded a Sunday School Association in 1833 (“Sunday School” 1.1).
In the United States, American Unitarians also saw the connections between faith development and education. The Transcendentalists believed that people had within them wisdom, genius and greatness, and needed only to uncover and discover their innate talents. The leading Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson used to give lectures for the working people of American cities, which were crowded with hundreds of laborers wanting to hear him speak. This philosophy of education, of bringing out the natural understanding and wisdom within people of all classes, sparked in the mind of one Unitarian children’s educator: Elizabeth Palmer Peabody.

Peabody was a gifted student and later an educator and writer. She formed close friendships with both William Ellery Channing, the founder of Unitarianism, and Bronson Alcott, a radical educator and father of writer Louisa May Alcott. She herself was a teacher at a girls’ school in Salem, and she was captivated by Bronson Alcott’s school, which emphasized outdoor play, children’s moral development, and kindness in teaching, as opposed to the traditional, very strict boys’ schools common at the time. She became aware of German theories on early childhood education, and Peabody spent the last thirty years of her career establishing educational opportunities for young children, named after similar schools in Germany: kindergartens.

Consistent with Peabody’s Transcendentalism and her Unitarian belief in the essential goodness of young children, she organized kindergartens which would respect the inner wisdom and development of each child. As one biographer has put it, Peabody believed that “As gardeners cultivate flowers according to what each needs for full bloom, so teachers must nurture children to become whatever they were created to be (Edwards 223).” Her biographer continues, “The kindergarten curriculum included arts, crafts, nature studies, science exploration, singing, dancing, conversation, and reflection–but not reading and writing, which inhibited children’s creativity and imagination when taught too soon. The emphasis was on children [sic] achieving success, learning through experimenting, appreciating nature, appreciating the individuality in themselves and all humans, and finding joy in working and playing together (223).” As a result of Peabody’s efforts, a kindergarten movement was born in the United States, and now all the states in the union (even New Hampshire!) offer free public kindergarten for five-year-old children.

My older son is now a student in one such kindergarten, and I realize how much respect and gratitude I have for the profession of the teacher. I know how to read; but the special patience and skill with which professionals teach young children to read is something I am proud to honor and support in our schools. The current climate in the United States, in which teachers are denigrated because their paychecks come from a government we imagine to be up to no good, is poisonous. If we are not careful, this climate will become part of the sum total of the education our children receive about their country, and we will lose some excellence in a future generation of teachers. Teachers deserve our respect, our thanks, and adequate pay and support through our civic structures.

I imagine that, to Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, there wasn’t a big divide between her religious beliefs in the possibility of the human soul and her civic work for the education of young children. Connie Goodbread says, “All that we teach is Unitarian Universalism.” For Peabody, her work in early childhood education was an aspect of her Unitarianism. For us, Unitarian Universalism is not limited to this year’s curriculum for our children, even though its focus is our faith. The sum total of what we teach children and adults in our congregations is Unitarian Universalism. Everything we teach: from conflict resolution skills, to the spiritual practice of leadership, to how joys and sorrows fit into our worship life together; all these things become the Unitarian Universalism we are sharing with ourselves, our children, and our world.

The congregation is the curriculum

Connie Goodbread has probably read a writer and religious educator whose book I read in divinity school. Maria Harris writes in her book Fashion Me A People about the three curricula of any congregation. There is the overt curriculum, which are the Sunday school plans, Bible study guides and meditation techniques we use to engage in faith development together. Then there is the hidden curriculum, which are the things we teach our children and each other which are more subtle, more “hidden” within the method and manner of the classes and events. If events in a congregation always start late, for instance, then part of the hidden curriculum is that we don’t respect published start and end times. If people bring snacks to every meeting without being asked, then the hidden curriculum could be both that we nourish our bodies along with our souls, and that contribution to the whole is expected from participants but won’t be asked for.

Finally, Harris writes, congregations have a null curriculum. Unlike the hidden curriculum, which is present but not overt, the null curriculum instructs through what is absent. If a congregation never shows pictures of families with two moms or two dads to its children in Sunday school, the null curriculum is that only heterosexual families are welcome. If a congregation doesn’t offer childcare during worship services, there are two potential understandings of the null curriculum. It could be that children are included in the worship life of the congregation with their parents, or it could be that young children and their families are not really wanted in the congregation. The null curriculum is what is present through its absence. By becoming aware of it, we become aware of what we are teaching our children is not a part of Unitarian Universalism.

In this way, the entire congregation is the curriculum. A curriculum in a school is the total schedule and content of classes a student will take over the course of his or her education, at the end of which, that phase of education will be understood to be complete. Here in our congregation, the curriculum is not just the schedule of classes our children take in Sunday school, or the offerings in the brochure your Adult Religious Education committee is working on (and I encourage you to go to their session after coffee hour this morning). The curriculum is the whole of what we do together, the path we walk through our Unitarian Universalist faith.

All that we do is faith development. All that we teach is Unitarian Universalism. The congregation is the curriculum. Together, as a whole congregation, we show our children and ourselves the way forward in love. We do this through the formal classes and programs of the congregation, but we do it also in myriad other ways. When we show each other love, kindness and understanding, these things become the Unitarian Universalism we live and teach. When we let our impatience, irritability or worry get the better of us, these things become our Unitarian Universalism, and we are the worse for it. By being the best people we can be when we are together, by teaching, doing and living our best lives, we create the best faith we know how. It is convenient, and helps with planning, to consider religious education of children and adults as two of the program areas of our congregation. But don’t get tricked into thinking education only happens within those programs. All we do together as a community of faith develops that faith and deepens our connections with the universe and with each other.

With me now, please turn your hearts and minds toward the Eternal in prayer.

We pray this morning to that which is greater than our individual selves, that greatness of the human spirit to which we aspire and which is most alive and present when we are together. We are better together than we are alone; together we find more human possibility, more spiritual diversity, and more opportunities for compassion. Help us come together in understanding to seek fellowship.

Give us the courage to live out the ideals we profess. Help us to be respectful in our disagreements, caring in times of need, and enthusiastic in our friendships. Help us turn our spirits out to those who suffer in our communities, to use the spirit of our faith to connect with our fellow humans across the barriers of class and creed.

We ask the blessings of this community on our children and grandchildren, our nieces, nephews and young friends. We hope that they will grow up in families and congregations of acceptance and love. We pray that they find all the encouragement they need to grow into adults who lead lives full of compassion and live up to all the ideals we profess. Amen.


Edwards, June. “Biographical Sketch of Elizabeth Palmer Peabody.” Standing Before Us: Unitarian Universalist Women and Social Reform, 1776-1936. Ed. Dorothy May Emerson. Boston: Skinner House Books, 2000. 221-223.

Harris, Maria. Fashion Me a People: Curriculum in the Church. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989.

Peabody, Elizabeth Palmer. “Spiritual Aspects of Early Childhood Education: From Lectures Delivered in Boston, 1872-1882.” Standing Before Us: Unitarian Universalist Women and Social Reform, 1776-1936. Ed. Dorothy May Emerson. Boston: Skinner House Books, 2000. 243-245.

“Sunday School.” Wikipedia. 18 July 2011. 1-7. Accessed 16 Sep. 2011. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sunday_school.

Immigration Reform: Sermon from Sunday, October 24, 2010

Posted by admin on November 2, 2010 under Uncategorized | Comments are off for this article

By the Rev. Sarah C. Stewart

This summer, Unitarian Universalists from all over the country, including friends of mine among lay leaders and ministers, traveled to Phoenix, Arizona to protest Arizona’s Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act, commonly known as Arizona SB1070.  They arrived in late July, planning for a day of resistance to Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s planned enforcement of the new law.  SB1070, as written, would require Arizona state and local police to ask after the legal status of people they suspected of being in the United States illegally.  If police had any legal encounter with a person in Arizona, and then suspected that person might not have proper documentation, they were to ask for identification and proof of legal status.  Citizens were empowered to sue police departments if officers did not enforce the law.  Police were required to arrest anyone who could not produce proof of legal status.

In Phoenix, where Sheriff Arpaio has taken on enforcing illegal immigration as a personal mission, he and his department planned a day of rigorous enforcement of the new law when it came into effect on July 29.  Immigrants’ rights groups, Latino and Latina rights groups and progressive allies came together to coordinate a Day of Noncompliance in response.  This is what Unitarian Universalists traveled to Arizona to join.  They received training in non-violent resistance.  They had planned to be allies and witnesses with brown-skinned Arizonans, challenging the authority of the police to question them.

As it happened, a United States federal court stayed many of SB1070’s most controversial components on July 28.  The police could no longer demand documentation from anyone on the street, and citizens could not take the police to court if they failed to do this.  Still, the coalition of progressive groups went ahead with their protest.  Some friends of mine, joining others including the Rev. Peter Morales, President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, joined hands outside the Phoenix jail, blocking the door.  They sang songs of protest and peace.  They were arrested.  Another friend of mine, the Rev. Colin Bossen, who is the minister at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland, occupied a busy corner in Phoenix with other protestors committing civil disobedience.  He, too, was arrested, and has written about his experiences in Sheriff Arpaio’s jail.

Colin writes that the arresting officer, from the Phoenix Police Department, apologized to him for his arrest.  The officer gave Colin time to hand his personal belongings to a friend and did not cuff him tightly.  Colin wonders how much of his “good” treatment was because he is a white member of the clergy (he was wearing a clerical collar to identify himself) and that the media were present (Bossen).

Another friend, the Rev. Melissa Carville-Ziemer, who serves the Unitarian Universalist Church of Kent, Ohio, writes about the brutality she saw the Sheriff’s department show to a Latino protestor (a man who was protesting, but not committing any act of civil disobedience).  This man was standing in on a sidewalk, chanting, when police ordered the area cleared.  Melissa saw that before he had a chance to comply with the deputies’ orders, they grabbed him and moved him toward the jail.  He yelled, “I am not resisting arrest!”  The deputies insisted he was.  Once they had him inside the jail, Melissa writes, “they threw him to the ground and kicked him repeatedly in the ribs while one of the officers yelled racial epithets at him (Carville-Ziemer).”  Perhaps Colin’s suspicion that he was treated well because he is white and holds a position of privilege as a member of the clergy was correct.  Melissa also reports that she was treated very respectfully by the Phoenix Police Department.  Both they and others reported that the local police were much more considerate, professional, polite and–most importantly–law-abiding than the Sheriff’s department officers.

Once in the jail, the protestors were processed with the general population, most of whom were in jail for being drunk and disorderly.  Colin writes that there were no windows and no clocks in the jail, so prisoners never knew what time it was.  There were benches in the holding cells, but they were divided every two feet by metal bars, so it was impossible to lie down except on the floor.  Each cell had a toilet in the middle of the cell; there was no privacy while using it.  Dinner consisted of sugary peanut butter, two smooth white rolls, Kool-Aid, cookies and an old orange.  When Sheriff Arpaio came to meet the prisoners, Colin writes,

He was able to engage one of the older Unitarian Universalist men in some polite political banter. The subtext of that conversation was clear enough. It was, “Hey, white dude why are you in jail here for all these Mexicans? Can’t you see that you and I have more in common than you have in common with those Mexicans?”…Arpaio is one of these people whose ego fills whatever room he enters. It is sickening feeling to be in his presence and it was clear that he came to us to gloat. It made him feel powerful to have us in his grasp. It was an opportunity for him to try and intimidate us (Bossen).

Colin spent that night in the jail, sharing a small cell with a Latino activist named Tupac Enrique, the coordinator for Tonnatiera.  Enrique made the point that the current dispute over illegal immigrants at the Mexico-Arizona border is just the latest battle in a long war between the authority of the United States and the indigenous peoples of the Americas.  During the Mexican War of 1846 to 1848, Mexico was ultimately forced to cede what is now New Mexico and California to the United States.  It also accepted the loss of Texas, which the U.S. had annexed in 1845, and accepted the Rio Grande as its north-western border (“Mexican-American”).  At this same time, the United States was fighting wars against the Indian throughout the west of the North American continent, seeking to expand the United States’ influence and control all the way to the Pacific.

We tend to think of North American Indians and Mexicans as two separate groups, but they have only been separated by the artificial lines of war and colonization.  The native peoples of our continent, especially the native peoples living in what are now Arizona, New Mexico and California, are one people.  The Mexican War placed an artificial boundary in the midst of families and communities.  The attempted destruction of those families and communities is continuing today.

My friends, and all the other Unitarian Universalists who were arrested as they protested Arizona SB1070, were released from prison the following day.  They met with their lawyers and were able to return home.  Unless they contest the charges against them, they will likely only have to pay a fine.  Unlike them, the Latinos and Latinas living in the Southwest continue to live under the thumb of a frightened and xenophobic culture.

It’s ironic that during the recent recession, and current period of low employment, migration northward from Mexico has slowed dramatically.  In the early 2000s, an average of 850,000 migrants crossed the border illegally each year.  Between 2007 and 2009, the annual average was 300,000.  In addition, analysts believe many illegal aliens already in the United States may have returned to their countries of origin, although there is no way to quantify this perception (Olson).  Yet just at this moment of slowed migration, white America’s furor over illegal immigration has reached its highest pitch.

Just like our culture’s prejudice against Muslim-Americans or Middle Eastern men, we have a prejudice against people with brown skin, who may be of Mexican origin.  The Arizona law clearly assumes that any brown-skinned person may be an illegal immigrant.  Illegal immigrants die in the desert as they try to make their way north, and it is illegal in Arizona for anyone to help those immigrants in danger or to leave food or supplies for them.  The Obama administration deported more than 392,000 illegal aliens  last year, the majority of whom had broken some other law in addition to entering the U.S. illegally (Carroll).  The Obama administration deported more than 80,000 more illegal aliens than the Bush administration did during its last year in office.  Still, the cry goes up from some communities in the Southwest that the federal government is not enforcing its immigration laws.

Two and three generations ago, the government did not have to enforce immigration laws, because the borders of our country were open.  Of course, all Americans of European, Asian or African ancestry come from immigrant stock.  We are a nation of immigrants.  My own great-grandparents emigrated as children from northern Italy.  At the time they came, 1898, the borders were effectively open.  Immigration and a path to citizenship were open to all white Europeans.

Alarmed that the waves of new immigrants were mostly southern and eastern Europeans, whose cultures and languages were different from the northern Europeans who had made up most immigrant groups in the nineteenth century, the United States passed the Immigration Acts of 1921 and 1924.  These acts introduced quotas for all European immigrants and banned Asian immigrants altogether.  Quotas for immigrants from Germany, Great Britain and Ireland were higher than quotas for Italy and Eastern Europe.  In the decade from 1900 to 1910, 200,000 Italians immigrated annually.  After 1924, the number dropped to 4,000 (”Immigration“).  My great-great-grandparents actually came to the U.S., made some money, and then moved back to Italy.  Once back, my great-great-grandmother realized that she had lost her taste for village life, and the family emigrated once again, settling in Albany, New York.

I would guess that many of us here share a story like my great-grandfather’s.  Our families–perhaps even we ourselves–came to America to pursue a new life and new opportunities.  America provided work opportunities.  It provided education opportunities for one’s children.  My grandfather, the son of an Italian immigrant tailor, was able to go to college and eventually graduate school in chemistry, a life that would never have been available to him growing up in an Italian village.

Far from taking jobs from U.S. citizens, immigrants help grow our economy and our culture.  In fact, they are often the first victims of recession, fleeing–as we suspect hundreds of thousands of Mexicans have done–back to their home countries when work dries up.  Our country has become richer with immigration.  The birthrate in the United States is flat–we have babies at the replacement rate.  Our population has grown, and our economy has grown, because of immigrants.  Not just that, but our culture becomes richer, too.  In cities in the United States we can experience cuisine, culture and languages from all over the world.  We are better off for that diversity.

The truth is, it’s not just that we should oppose draconian and probably unconstitutional laws like Arizona’s.  SB1070 does everything it can to sink the teeth of local law enforcement into current U.S. immigration law.  The uproar over SB1070 leads to another truth: U.S. immigration law is unjust and unfair.  It is harder for brown-skinned immigrants to come to America than it is for white-skinned immigrants.  For people from certain countries, it is nearly impossible.  Enforcement of the current laws separates families and encourages deadly traverses across the desert bordering the Rio Grande.  It encourages illegal residents in America to avoid anything run by the government, from driving tests to parent-teacher conferences.  Having brown-skinned illegal immigrants as a scapegoat keeps the minds of working-class white Americans conveniently unfocused on their own loss of job opportunities and real income.  “Mexicans took our jobs” is an illusion which covers up the truth: “Rich white people took our jobs.”  If Arizona’s law looks ugly and racist, it is only reflecting certain directions in American life, directions which lead to a virulent nationalism and fear of the other.

As Unitarian Universalists, we are committed to push ourselves, always, to be more open, more loving and less fearful of the other.  We affirm that all people have inherent worth and dignity, and we hope for the day when all the world’s peoples live as one.  Our attitude toward someone different from us is curiosity and respect, not fear and hate.  We remember that our families, too, were once wayfarers looking for a better life.  We ourselves have experienced the bitterness of exile, and the joy of finding home in a new land.  We stand ready to welcome all who seek honest work and a better life in our great country.


Bossen, Colin.  “An Arizona Chronology.”  The Latest Form of Infidelity.  2 Aug. 2010.  Accessed 22 Oct. 2010.  http://infidelity.blogsome.com/2010/08/02/an-arizona-chronology/#more-191

Carroll, Susan.  “Obama administration touts record-setting deportation figures.”  6 Oct. 2010.  The Houston Chronicle.  The Chron.  Accessed 23 Oct. 2010.  http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/metropolitan/7235311.html.

Carville-Ziemer, Melissa.  “First Thoughts on Protest and Arrest in Arizona.”  Standing on the Side of Love.  4 Aug. 2010.  Unitarian Universalist Association.  Accessed 22 Oct. 2010.  http://www.standingonthesideoflove.org/blog/first-thoughts-on-protest-and-arrest-in-arizona-from-rev-melissa-carvill-ziemer-of-kent-ohio/

“Immigration Act of 1924.”  Wikipedia.  1-6.  20 Oct. 2010.  Accessed 23 Oct. 2010.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Immigration_Act_of_1924.

“Mexican-American War.”  Wikipedia.  1-11.  23 Oct. 2010.  Accessed 23 Oct. 2010.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mexican%E2%80%93American_War.

Olson, David.  “Mexican Immigrants See Signs of Recovery in U.S.”  23 Oct. 2010.  The Chicago Sun-Times.  Accessed 23 Oct. 2010.  http://www.suntimes.com/news/nation/2829184,CST-NWS-mex24.article.

Open Wide the Doors: Sermon from Building Addition Dedication, October 3, 2010

Posted by admin on October 21, 2010 under Uncategorized | Comments are off for this article

By the Rev. Sarah C. Stewart

Beginning in the 1850s, Weirs Beach became the most popular tourist destination spot in New England.  Four express trains steamed in from Boston’s Union Station each day, discharging tourist families all summer long.  They enjoyed the cool, country air; swims in the lakes; and they went to their churches on Sundays.  By the turn of the twentieth century, Weirs Beach, long a sleepy agricultural town, had seen fifty years of summers bustling with tourists, railroads and resort living (Ames).

In the 1890s, these tourists had a new kind of religious experience at the Weirs.  At first a few people gathered, and then more and more, to hear the legendary Universalist circuit preacher, Quillen Hamilton Shinn.  For seven years, they gathered in the Weirs Universalist summer meeting to hear him preach.  He spoke to them of a God who loved all human beings, even the sinful, even the proud.  He recited the Bible from memory, telling the gathered people about the times and places when the Holy One had shown boundless love to human beings. As he did in Sebago Lake in New York; as he did in Saco, Maine; as he did in Ohio and Kentucky and throughout the South, Shinn planted the seed of Universalism in the American countryside (Miller).

Men and women who had no church home, or were Methodists or Congregationalists searching for something different in the Spirit, came to hear Shinn preach.  They were drawn in by his reputation, and they stayed for the message they found there.  They found a religion that believed in following a moral compass without the threat of eternal damnation.  They found a religion set on temperance, on prison reform, on education, and on equal opportunities for all people.  They found a religion that definitely preached God–it was not quite as theologically radical as the Unitarian church of the time–but preached a loving God, a parent to all.

Here in Plymouth, Universalism had made its debut in 1850, when the Rev. James Shephard opened a seminary in the Holmes Academy Building.  In addition to running the seminary, and eventually buying Holmes Academy, Shephard preached Universalism to the townspeople of Plymouth.  Although he was forced to close his school in 1853 and moved to Center Harbor in 1856, he had planted the seed of the church of an all-loving God in this area (Plymouth).

The Plymouth Universalists met in the old courthouse and were served by a number of preachers over the next twenty-five years.  Some only preached in the summer months, when they were inclined to be in Plymouth on vacation anyway.  The Plymouth Universalists got their next big injection of life when Quillen Shinn settled as the minister here in 1881 (Plymouth).
Shinn was more theologically conservative than the Universalist denomination as a whole.  He believed in God and Jesus; he believed in the Bible; he believed we created our own suffering for our sins; and he believed in an all-loving God who would bring everyone into salvation.  Socially, he was an enthusiastic supporter of temperance and prison reform, which were also goals of the national denomination.  But he decried the Universalists’ move toward liberalism, thinking it took the church too close to the heathen Unitarians.

The Plymouth Universalists, to all appearances, welcomed Shinn and his theology–which just goes to show that some things have changed in Plymouth!  Shinn stayed as minister for four years.  Under his leadership, the Plymouth Universalists built their church home, the building that is now the sanctuary for the Church of the Holy Spirit on North Main Street.  Shinn was an energetic and moving preacher, able to draw crowds wherever he went, but he was never one to be tied down to an institution.  Once he had seen his congregation through the task of building a meetinghouse, he moved on to continue his missionary ministry.  Over the next twenty or more years, the Universalists in Plymouth struggled to keep their doors open and retain a settled minister.  Somewhere we have a postcard identifying the church building as the Universalist church in the 1930s.

Just a century before, when Universalism first emerged in America, it had been a radical religion.  Even then, it had its roots in rural America.  The first Universalist creed, the Winchester Profession of Faith, was adopted (as its name suggests) in Winchester, New Hampshire.  At that time, in 1803, it was so scandalous to be a Universalist that women stayed away from local churches for fear of their reputations.  Without the threat of hell, many conservative Christians believed, what would compel people to behave morally?  They could see, as we still do today, that many sins and crimes go unpunished during a person’s lifetime.  If there were no hell, the conservatives reasoned, then those wrong acts might go unpunished forever.  It was not unlike being an atheist today.  Universalists found themselves part of a tiny minority in the American religious landscape, trying to convince their neighbors that they were still good and upright people even though they didn’t believe in eternal damnation.

Over the years Universalism grew and changed.  Its emphasis on the basic goodness of human beings and the loving nature of God brought them ever more into the realm of social justice and social change.  It remained popular in rural areas and what was once the American frontier: Ohio and Kentucky, especially.  The Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association tried many times over the years to merge.  They recognized their mutual interest and shared values, even if their theologies were slightly different.  Finally, in 1961, nearly fifty years ago, the two religious communities came together to form the Unitarian Universalist Association.    It was a merger of necessity, for two of our country’s smaller religious associations to come together.  But it was also a moment of faith in the future and hope for what could be accomplished together.

Universalism lasted in Plymouth until at least the 1930s, but by the modern era, the congregation had died.  When religious liberals in 1980 decided they wanted a Unitarian Universalist home in the Plymouth area, there was no longer any remnant of that old Universalist church.  Thirty years ago, a dozen or so people met in Ruth and Irv Macey’s living room to see about the possibility of starting a Unitarian Universalist gathering in the area.  They might not have been meeting in a revival meeting in a wooded grove, and they might not have been waiting on the circuit riding preacher, but they were just as enthusiastic and committed to liberal religion in our area as their Universalist forebears had been.  Eighteen people signed their names, in the membership book we still use, to found Starr King Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.  Eighteen people stepped into the unknown together, relying on their faith in the future: that they could continue the tradition of liberal religion, that they could create a place to rear their children according to their principles, which were the principles of reason, tolerance, justice and love.

In 1985, Arthur Vaeni came to serve Starr King Fellowship as its intern minister.  Two years later, the congregation called him to be the permanent minister, first half-time and later full-time.  Moving from internship to settled ministry was unorthodox then and now, but for this congregation, it worked.  In the early 1990s, the congregation received a bequest of property.  Starr King Fellowship, then meeting in rented spaces, sold that property and used the proceeds to buy the land we meet on today.  Through a capital campaign, financing from the Unitarian Universalist Association, and the hard work of members and friends, the congregation built what is now the eastern part of this meetinghouse in 1994.  This sanctuary was and remains the heart of the building.  It opened into the foyer and a kitchenette through those doors.  Downstairs, there was an office area, a large religious education area, and one classroom.  An elevator had been planned but had to be put on hold because of cost concerns.

In 2006, our congregation began seriously planning for our expanded building.  We drafted a strategic plan that focused especially on growth in membership and program strength, and prioritized what we needed in a new building.  With a plan before us, we successfully raised more than $400,000 to pay off our old mortgage and build our addition.  Then, just when energy was really high, we entered into a difficult period.  The cost of our proposed addition turned out to be far out of our price range, in part because of the cost of steel, which was to be the framing material.  We ended our church year in 2008 not knowing how we would move forward.  The congregation seemed split evenly between going ahead with the larger addition, finishing what we could, or constructing a smaller addition which we could afford but which would not give us everything we needed.

Over the summer, the spirit worked in mysterious ways.  The Governing Board planned a series of small group meetings to work through the impasse, and in the meantime, Stu White, our architect, reflected on the barrier of cost and especially on a letter from one longtime member and fellow architect.  Stu offered us a revised plan.  The new plan proposed wood construction instead of concrete and steel; a lower roof on the addition; and fewer changes to our original building.  Excitement began to build again.

In the spring of 2009, we broke ground on this new addition we dedicate today.  New donors  and new creativity came into the community to continue to support the project, providing everything from paint to artistry, everything from a new sign to a new dishwasher for the new kitchen.  I think now of how our children used to meet in an open area for Sunday school, squeezed in among daycare furniture; I think of how we used to gather for fellowship after the services–all of us–in the foyer, unable to move from one end of the room to the other; I think of how the Director of Religious Education’s workspace used to be a desk in a shared area that was also a sort of lost-and-found depository; I think of how wheelchair users used to be able to enter and use each floor of our building but not move between them without going outside and down the road; and I think: we did a good job building this new building, creating the space for ourselves and our children that we have needed for a long time.

This space is for us.  But we also stand in the long tradition of liberal religion in central New Hampshire.  We stand with Universalists in Weirs Beach, in West Rumney, and here in Plymouth.  We stand hand in hand with those courageous Universalists who first gathered to hear the Rev. Shepherd preach in 1850.  We stand with that congregation as it struggled to meet and hear the preaching of universal salvation through the 1860s and 70s.  We stand with the congregation that, with Quillen Shinn’s leadership, built their first building only to part ways with their minister the following year.  We stand with the eighteen men and women who gathered with their children to found a Unitarian Universalist congregation in 1980.  We stand now with Unitarian Universalists all over the country who are celebrating almost fifty years of our association of congregations.  And we stand with all those people who have yet to come through our doors, people hungry for liberal religion, people who now live far away or are not even yet born, who will come to know a religion of tolerance, love and respect because we are here.

Now that we have expanded our building, our next task is to fill it with our love, our energy, and our spiritual community.  I wonder what awaits us, what new adventures we can begin now that we have a larger space.  I invite you to dream big, and to let your dreams expand to fill this sacred space.  Let us together continue to proclaim the good news of a universal love for all the people.  Let us open our doors wide to welcome the world in.


Ames, Robert.  “History.”  Weirs Beach: Where Lake Winnepesauke Begins.  Feb. 2008.  Accessed 1 Oct. 2010.  http://www.weirsbeach.com/topten/reason9.html.

Miller, Russell E.  The Larger Hope: The Second Century of the Universalist Church in America, 1870-1970.  Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 1985.

Plymouth Historical Society.  “The Universalist Church.”  Accessed 1 Oct. 2010.  http://www.plymouthnh-historicalsociety.org/MinistersandChurches/universalist_church.htm.

More indexes

Posted by admin on April 8, 2009 under Uncategorized | Comments are off for this article

Hello! I happened to stop by Starr King Fellowship last week and saw the land cleared for our building expansion. How exciting! I am so proud of you for the years of work and dedication that have brought us to this moment.

All right, back to the hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition. Class, turn to page 661 in your books. There you will find the “Alphabetical Index of Tunes.” Hymns come in two parts: the hymn itself, which are the words, and the hymn tune, the music to which we sing the words. Some hymn writers also write their tunes. Carolyn McDade comes to mind as a modern example; she wrote the words and music to numbers 123, “Spirit of Life,” and 121, “We’ll Build a Land” among others. (Although I heard her say once at a workshop that she does not write her own harmonies, as you can see if you look at the attributions to those hymns.)

Hymn tunes have names, and this index allows you to find a hymn tune by its name. Suppose you loved the tune Hyferdol, and wondered what hymns had been set to it in this hymnal. This index allows you to see that “Hail the Glorious Golden City,” “Years are Coming,” and “Earth Was Given as a Garden” are all set to your favorite tune.

Moving backwards, starting on page 654 we find the “Index of Composers, Arrangers, Authors, Translaters, and Sources.” This is a straightforward author index as would be found in most anthologies. I feel it has some shortcomings, which I’ll save for the next post.

Happy Passover to all of you who will be celebrating it!

The indexes in our hymnal

Posted by admin on April 1, 2009 under Uncategorized | Comments are off for this article

At the last sermon discussion I led before leaving on sabbatical, I was answering questions about my project to write an index for our hymnal which would cross-reference hymns and the references they make to the Judeo-Christian scriptures. Someone asked, “What are the indexes in the back of the hymnal?”

So here you go: if you have wondered what all that small type text at the end of the hymnal is but were too afraid to ask, I’m here to help. Class, open your hymnals to page 682. We’ll work backwards from there.

The last index in Singing the Living Tradition is the “Index of First Lines and Titles of Hymns.” SLT usually uses first lines for titles, so the hymn you may know as “Simple Gifts” is only listed under “`Tis a Gift to Be Simple.” A few are listed under titles, however, like the Starr King favorite “Chant for the Seasons.” This index is straightforward, allowing you to find the number of that hymn you have stuck in your head.

Before that, starting on page 669, is the “Topical Index of Hymns.” This arranges hymns by likely topics, so that worship leaders and preachers can find hymns to match their service or sermon topics. This index also points to sections of the hymnal. For instance, under the entry “Beauty,” you’ll find a reference to the “Beauty, Truth, and Goodness” section of the hymnal, hymns 326-332.

Continue moving backwards in the hymnal. The next index starts on page 664, the “Metrical Index of Tunes.” This is a great index for musicians, and an index like this is in almost every hymnal I’ve seen. The meter of a hymn is found by counting the number of syllables in each line. So the meter for “Amazing Grace” (205) is (A-maz-ing-grace-how-sweet-the-sound/That-saved-a-wretch-like-me.) This particular meter is also known as Common Meter, because so many hymns are written in this meter. If you wanted to sing the words to “Amazing Grace” but to a different tune, you would turn to the Metrical Index to find other tunes that fit common meter hymns. There you would find that you can sing it to the tune of “Joy to the World.” (Try this. It sounds very strange.) For a better explanation of hymn tune meters, see this Wikipedia article.

More tomorrow!

Going to church: Church of the Holy Spirit

Posted by admin on March 23, 2009 under Uncategorized | Comments are off for this article

This week my son and I went to Holy Eucharist at Church of the Holy Spirit, the Episcopal church here in Plymouth. We were warmly welcomed when we arrived for the 9:30 service. I met the teenager who provided nursery care and her mother. At CHS, nursery children play downstairs with the caregiver for the bulk of the service (the first two hymns, several prayers, and the sermon) and then come upstairs for the second part (the offering, communion, and the closing hymn). This has the advantage of letting the kids participate in the service (young children may receive a blessing during communion). It could have been a problem for a stuffy congregation, because my son (at almost-three-years-old) is very interested in the liturgy and comments loudly on it. But CHS was charmed and not at all stuffy, so it was no problem.

CHS’s website says they have religious education classes for school-age children, but all the children there on Sunday seemed to be in the service. So perhaps RE classes happen at a different time or location. CHS is hampered in its worship space–the church on North Main Street consists only of a lovely sanctuary and a fellowship hall below it–so perhaps there is no space for Sunday School concurrent with church. They have new buildings on Highland Street. (You’ve seen them if you’ve been to the Plymouth Farmers’ Market in the summer, which CHS hosts.)

The nursery caregiver’s mother stayed with me for the service, showing me where things were and introducing me to her family. She was very friendly and helped me feel included. I liked the liturgy (Episcopal priests get to wear such beautiful vestments) and was reminded of the Episcopal church of my early childhood. Rector Susan Ackley’s sermon was great and delivered without notes! Coffee hour was fun. I was pleased to talk with several friends from around Plymouth and share a connection between Starr King and CHS. Several folks from CHS are planning to attend Starr King’s auction this month, because they are hoping to do a similar fundraiser in the future.

I have felt that our two churches, while having very different theologies and worship styles, are kin in our social justice aims and the friendliness of our communities. It was nice to have that feeling confirmed during Sunday’s service.

Going to church: Winchester Unitarian Society

Posted by admin on March 11, 2009 under Uncategorized | Comments are off for this article

On Sunday, my son and I attended the worship service at Winchester Unitarian Society in Winchester, Massachusetts. The co-ministers are friends and classmates of mine from Harvard Divinity School.

I liked the service, from the centering words on the order of service, to more centering words offered by the worship leader (in this case, one of the co-ministers), through the pastoral prayer and the sermon. Announcements were solely in the order of service, with the worship leader calling attention, at the beginning of the service, to a particularly important all-church event coming up. The order of service itself was printed on two folded 8.5×14 pages, giving lots of space for information, as well as those centering words I mentioned earlier. The music was excellent and very well integrated into the theme of the service.

Several people greeted me, especially during coffee hour. Behind me in the pew before the service, I heard a very promising conversation between two members and a newcomer. The members took the initiative to start a conversation with the newcomer, and drew her out as to what had brought her to WUS and what she was looking for. They shared their own enthusiasm about the congregation. The whole conversation sounded natural and unscripted. The congregation can be proud that there are folks in their midst doing such a good job of welcoming newcomers.

My only (very minor) complaint was about finding the childcare room for my son. The church building is enormous, and I entered through a downstairs door adjacent to the parking lot, about 20 minutes before the service began. There was no way to tell how to get to childcare (or Sunday school) from there. I flagged down two women who were downstairs on other church business, and one was very kind and led me through the many hallways and over many staircases to get to the childcare room. Once there, the room was welcoming, ready for children, and staffed with a teenager (an additional adult came later). There was a sign-in sheet where I was able to leave information about myself and my son. Still, finding the room in the first place was daunting–and I’ve been to this church before.

However, overall it was a very positive church visit and a spiritually deepening Sunday morning. I’d go back if I were in the Boston area on a Sunday again.

General Assembly

Posted by admin on March 2, 2009 under Uncategorized | Comments are off for this article

Today I made housing reservations for General Assembly, the annual meeting of the Unitarian Universalist Association. This year it will be held from June 24 through 28 in Salt Lake City, Utah.

This year’s GA will be especially exciting, since we’ll be electing a new president of the Association. The Rev. Peter Morales and the Rev. Laurel Hallman are the candidates. GA is always an opportunity to have fun, meet Unitarian Universalists from all over the country, and gather ideas for expanding the work of our fellowship.

Even if you can’t go to Utah, take a look at the candidates’ websites. Starr King Fellowship has three votes to cast in this election, which can be cast either in person in Salt Lake or absentee. The two candidates are very different and present different goals for our association.

I attended GA the last time it was in Salt Lake City, in 1999. I was part of the Young Adult Caucus and was a delegate for First Parish in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Salt Lake is a beautiful city and the locals were very welcoming. On such a snowy day, it’s nice to think of going somewhere warm and friendly–even if I have to wait until June.