Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock, 11/29/15
Two hours into my first overnight shift as a hospital chaplain, a little old lady called me a coward.
I did my chaplaincy training at Carolina’s Medical Center, in downtown Charlotte, and if Charlotte isn’t the buckle of the Bible belt, it’s the next loop over. One of our responsibilities as chaplains was covering major trauma calls in the Emergency Department, the ED. The first time I shadowed one of my more experienced colleagues, she stood me in a corner while the doctors worked on the patient. After 30 minutes we left, and I asked what we had been doing – it didn’t seem like we were much help, and I had accidentally gotten in the way of a fast moving nurse or doctor a few times. We were there to pray, she told me, for the patient, the doctors, the family on their way in – those same family would want to know there was someone in the room praying while their loved one came in. This was not the northeast.
So it was with a little trepidation that I stood looking at the “ATC-1, 5 min ground” on my pager that first night. ATC-1, Adult Trauma Code 1, a life-threatening accident or injury, 5 minutes away by ambulance. I jogged down to the ED, met with the paramedics, and prayed in the corner as the doctors worked on an unconscious elderly gentleman, who had apparently fallen in his driveway. After half an hour I heard his family had arrived, and I went out to the waiting room to meet Mrs. Jessup.
Mrs. Jessup was 87, about five feet tall and 100 pounds soaking wet, and had that particularly Southern way of maintaining her composure and charm even in what must have been a difficult moment. I sat with her in the waiting room, making small talk and hearing about her grandkids, until she turned to me and asked: “You seem like a nice young man. What denomination are you?”
“Well ma’am, I’m Unitarian Universalist.”
“Oh. Well. I hope I don’t offend, but I just can’t respect that Unitarianism at all. I think it’s the coward’s way out.”
The first thing to go through my head was that I was, in fact, offended. But I couldn’t say that, not with her husband next door in the Emergency Department.
She went on to tell me how she felt Unitarian Universalists dabble in many beliefs, but that without some specific grounding, something that they couldn’t prove but where nonetheless committed to, they would always be cowards in her mind.
“I’m sorry you feel that way,” I got out. “What church do you and your husband go to?”
“Mr. Jessup and I are God-fearing Presbyterians. We don’t want any of your Unitarian Prayers.”
The second thing to go through my head was “Huh. This is going to be a sermon some day.”
Because we’ve all heard something like this before, right? Unitarian Universalism, the faith where you can believe in whatever you want, and so don’t have the same spiritual grounding as the God-fearing Presbyterians. UUs are spiritual dillitants, who spend time in committees talking about the finer points of parliamentary procedure rather than doing something about the problems in ourselves and in the world. We even tell jokes about it: “What do you get when you mix a Jehovah’s Witness and a UU? Someone who knows on your door and doesn’t know why.”
Maybe I’ve spent too long outside UU congregations, but Mrs. Jessup was certainly not the first time I had heard that critique, though perhaps the first time I had heard it that personally and specifically. Which is strange to me, because it is so far from the faith that I love, the faith that prompted Adrienne Rich’s description in our hymnal:
My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
So much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot with those who age after age,
perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.
This is the Unitarian Universalism that I know- the desperate, perverse hope that in the midst of a world that is so broken, so heart-rending, that not only is a better world possible, but it is possible because people of good will will make it so. And it is an absurd hope. The news in the last few weeks has been almost unbearable, dis-couraging, and it is almost impossible to see much hope. But the courage, the faith to hope in the face of hopelessness, seems to me a hallmark of Unitarianism and Universalism throughout their history. As we celebrate Thanksgiving, a holiday of appreciation of all that we have, I want to take a few minutes to tell a few stories of our Unitarian and Universalist predecessors, whose courage in the face of the world continues to inspire.
Stacie and I moved to New York from Baltimore, and I still maintain my membership at First Unitarian Church of Baltimore. First Unitarian is an old church, proud (maybe overly proud) of our history. American Unitarianism, in a real way, began in the pulpit of First Unitarian in 1819. William Elery Channing, the well known, well respected Congregationalist minister of the Federal Street Church in Boston was invited to preach the ordination sermon for Baltimore’s first minister.
At the time a division had opened up in the Congregationalist church in New England- the descendants of the first pilgrim churches. On one hand a liberal wing preached about a benevolent and loving God and a view of human nature that was far too optimistic for the more traditional, Calvinist wing. Orthodox ministers wrote tracts and pamphlets condemning their liberal colleagues with the name of an old Christian heresy they felt the liberals were getting too close to embracing: Unitarian.
Channing’s ordination sermon in Baltimore, entitled “Unitarian Christianity” did not defend against the charge but rather embraced it, giving the liberal movement a name and a concrete theology to develop. Within years the American Unitarian Association had been formed, and Channing had become a household name in the Northeast.
This is where the story often ends, with Channing returning to the Federal Street Church as the philosophical and practical leader of the emerging movement, deeply respected if not revered by his peers. But that’s not where Channing’s career ended. He was indeed a respected leader in the early Unitarian Church, but by the 1830s was increasingly at odds with his congregation over the issue of Abolition.
Channing, while never as strong an advocate of abolition by any means as some would have preferred, was appalled by the institution of slavery. In an 1835 pamphlet he wrote that slavery violated the basic rights shared by all children of God “no incidentally, but necessarily, systematically, from its very nature.” “God has breathed an immortal spirit more precious than the whole outward creation. No earthly or celestial language can exaggerate the worth of a human being.”
Channing’s congregation preferred a less obviously political ministry, as did many prominent Unitarians. At the time, many Unitarians were well-off merchants in New England, who were concerned about the economic impact of abolition, or at least on abolition done too quickly and without thought to the consequences. John Quincy Adams himself, recently returned from his presidency, wrote of that same pamphlet that it was an ‘inflammatory, if not incendiary publication.’ Members of the Federal Street congregation took to stopping Channing on the street to insult and berate him for his views. By 1840 Channing had resigned his position in the pulpit on Federal Street, but did not cease writing and arguing for abolition.
Our next example moves from Boston to upstate New York, ten years later and with the Universalists, rather than the Unitarians, and from a figure that’s well known to one that has all too often been overlooked. 1850 was a major year for the Women’s Rights movement. Building on the success of the Seneca Falls Convention, a Women’s Rights Convention was held in Worcester Massachusetts. The rhetoric against it, even in prominent Universalist circles, was appalling. Thomas Whitmore, a prominent Universalist writer and editor, wrote that “some distinguished female talkers were there, whose husbands, at home, must have had a time of heavenly stillness during their absence. This is the only good, as far as we can see, that will grow out of the convention.”
Four month later, Whitmore commented on reports that a Lydia Jenkins had begun to preach in upstate New York. “We have no occasion to have any disrespect personally to this woman preacher, but we regard her resolution to preach as unwise. It were better for her to remain at home and attend her domestic duties.”
It is unfortunate than none of Lydia Jenkins’ sermons seem to have survived, and in fact she was mostly forgotten until the 1980s. Putting together the information that has survived, we can put together something of a picture:
Lydia Jenkins was born in 1825 or 26 in upstate New York. By the time she was 20 she was involved with and making speeches at Women’s Rights conventions and events. By the time she was 25 she was preaching and providing pastoral care, while married to the Universalist minister of Clinton, New York. Her sermons across the state drew large crowds, and she was fellowship- and possibly ordained, by the Universalist governing body of Ontario. If she was ordained, she would have predated Olympia Brown by almost a decade, making her the first woman to be so by an American Denomination.
She was a commanding preacher. Thomas Whitmore, who had so condescendingly referred her to her ‘domestic duties,’ eventually had occasion to hear her preach, and wrote afterward that her sermon was ‘one of the most effective, tender, instructive, truthful discourses…that we have ever heard.’ She and her husband did not stay in ministry long, instead going to medical school in New York City before opening a hospital in Binghamton. She was, by all accounts, an extraordinary human being.
The last example I want to talk about is more recent, and probably well known to many in this congregation. The work of Martha and Waitsill Sharp and the founding of the Unitarian Service Committee is a compelling story. In the days leading up to and during World War 2, the American Unitarian Association sent the Sharps to Europe to assist refugees fleeing Nazi persecution. The story is better told in other places, and I’m certain I’ll preach on it again, but I do just want to bring up this first hand account, by Lion Feuctwanger, of dressing up in a shawl and dark glasses and “secretive and conspiring, [driving] to a gloomy station. There I addressed a total stranger, known to me by description only, introduced myself to him under an assumed name which, for the next new weeks, had to be my name, that that stranger- he was your Mr. Sharp- answered “Fine. Splendid that you have come. Now let’s go.”
Each of these people, Rev. Channing, Lydia Jenkins, the Sharps, did their work in the face of great opposition and at great cost. Channing lost his pulpit. Lydia Jenkins died after a fire at age 49, Martha and Waitsill Sharp separated in 1949, citing their wartime experiences. These are not the coward’s way out.
But that’s not what I said to Mrs. Jessup in North Carolina. I simply stayed with her, talking about her worries and where her husband would go next. I was eventually paged away, and as I was leaving I asked if, for myself, she would mind if I prayed for her and her husband that night. “Ah well,” she said, “I guess quantity over quality.”
That’s fine, and I wish her the best, but I do wish I could have told her what I’m telling you this morning: Unitarian Universalist are heirs to a long and deep tradition of proclaiming the worth of human life, be that through abolition, women’s rights, refugee assistance, so many other moments in time. It’s hard for me to imagine what some faced, from condemations from a former president, aspersions that housework was more ‘natural,’ or the full terror of the final solution. The courage they and so many others –Servetus, Reeb, Skinner- exhibited is awe inducing.
And each were eventually shown to be in the right, the world came around. Abolition is… well thought of now, the Sharps are heroes, and I, as a straight white dude, am in a minority of new UU ministers. Channing, Jenkins, the Sharps- none could have hoped for the outcome they had, but all would be happy with where we are.
I believe that the roots of that courage lie in the faith itself: the faith that no earthly or celestial language can exaggerate the worth of a human life. That simple belief calls us to act in the world, becomes the absurd, perverse hope of Adrienne Rich that in each age those of no extraordinary power reconstitute the world.
Two weeks ago Tom Schade preached here on the challenges facing the UU movement. In his analysis we will live and die as an Association on the success or failure of movement beyond our walls. He may very well be right about that! – I suspect he is – Still, rather than start with specific movements, I want to know how your faith is calling you to be in the world. We’re blessed with a tradition that can inspire incredible courage in the face of a world of fear and uncertainty- where is that leading you today?
If you were at Soulful Sundown this month you heard me talk about our closing hymn this morning, “We’ll Build a Land.” It’s a song of hope- hope that not only is a better world possible, but it will be built by human hands. That courage and hope is fundamental to Unitarian Universalism. Let’s sing it together this morning.