Workshop sessions will be held on Saturday, 1:45-3:00 PM and 3:15-4:30 PM.

Theme-based ministry

…is a worship and learning practice designed to give us a deeper and richer experience of our faith and practice as Unitarian Universalists. Each month we reflect on and explore in depth a different theme through sermons, newsletter columns, music, and through stories, resources and programs for children and adults.  We explore the themes in ways that will help all of us engage our spiritual and religious lives more richly and fully, ways that can aid us with the real life challenges and opportunities we encounter. Rev. Suzelle Lynch, minister of UU Church West, Brookfield, WI

Home grown Leadership-Harvesting our Power
We are pilot testing a 9 session leadership development initiative for current and emerging leaders using the UUA's Harvesting the Power and some secular materials (Kouzes/Pouzner). The sessions were attended by 10 people on Sunday afternoons. Dan Wiseman and Rev. Hilary Krivchenia designed and led the sessions and will share what worked and what they learned in this dynamic leadership-development program. Rev Hilary & Dan W are from Countryside UU Church in Palatine, IL.
Healthy Approaches to Leadership & Power

In this workshop, Rev. Marilyn Sewell will expand on her keynote themes. We will delve into power issues more deeply, according to the questions and concerns of the participants, and also consider specific power conflicts and how they might be approached.

Immigration and the Prison Industrial Complex

In this popular education-style workshop, participants will explore the connections between the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) and the targeting of immigrant communities. We will share stories and examples of how different communities are working for migrant justice and at the same time fighting the PIC, not supporting it. Join us to learn how your congregation can support this important work.

Presenter: Megan Selby, Temporary DRE of First Unitarian Church of Chicago January-March 2012, member of the Chicago Prison Industrial Complex Teaching Collective

Justice Beyond Immigration

The upcoming General Assembly is not just about immigration. How does one talk about the larger issues of justice? This workshop will focus on how to develop a social justice curriculum that integrates the vocabularies of justice and theology.

Kim Hampton is a former member of the GA Planning Committee and a 2011 graduate of Earlham School of Religion, a Quaker seminary, in Richmond, Indiana.

Phoenix: Rising or Flaming Out?

Justice GA 2012: Why are we not honoring the boycott of Arizona? How and whom are we planning to help? Will it still be fun, or too hot? (both, probably) Must we get arrested? (no!) Rev. Chip Roush, member of the GA Planning Committee, will answer questions and dispel myths.

Chip Roush Interim Minister, First Unitarian Church of Hobart, Indiana

When the Spirit Leads

The dimensions of congregational leadership are many and varied. One must create, organize, inspire and work diligently to accomplish or achieve often other-determined goals. We engage in leadership roles with grace and best intentions. Leadership can be very fulfilling; it can also be quite challenging. When leadership is our chosen spiritual path, we draw from the depths of our best and most resilient selves. How do we do it? Come find out!

Patricia D’Auria, District Consultant and leader at UU Church West, Brookfield, WI

Roundtable Discussion Workshops:

For Presidents…Join several of our District Consultants for an open discussion on matters of interest to presidents, vice-presidents and president-elects.

For Treasurers…Experienced congregational treasurers will be on hand to answer any questions that you may have about being a treasurer, best practices, etc.  Warren Thom,  CMwD Treasurer for the past few years and treasurer of UU Church of Joliet IL and Nancy Armstrong, incoming district treasurer and UU Church of Bloomington-Normal treasurer will co-host this roundtable discussion.

For Administrators… Sandra Robinson, Executive Operations Director of UU Church of Evanston IL will host this session for congregational administrators to network with each other and discuss the many complex aspects of this work.

Membership Engagement and Retention

Every congregation struggles with engagement and retention, and even those who do it well want to do it better! We will share some best practices from UU congregations and have time for questions and discussion.

Hosted by Marie Murton, Fox Valley UU Fellowship Membership Coordinator and the Unitarian Universalist Association of Membership Professionals, or UUAMP. See for more information and for membership resources.

Are We Growing Yet? Mapping a Plan for Growth

Facilitator will lead participants through a discussion of 10 best practices for engaging and encouraging church growth. Participants will then be asked to develop an implementation plan for 2-3 best practices and share them with the group, emphasizing practical approaches to growing congregations.

Jamie Boyce is currently Membership Director at Third Unitarian Church-Chicago, where she has served for three years. Prior to that, Jamie was Membership Coordinator for two years at North Shore Unitarian Church in Deerfield, Illinois.

Powerful Principled Multimedia

Multimedia can be used to inspire or distract. These powerful tools can artfully communicate, or get in the way. Now accessible at a comparatively low cost, how might we use these tools worship-fully, and mindfully?

Rev. Paul Beckel has served the First UU Church of Wausau since 2001. The content of this presentation ripples forth from a 3-day conference and brainstorming session among 30 colleagues.

Ideas for a Very Small Congregation

This will be a facilitated discussion by members of small fellowships/congregations in the District. We will explore ideas on worship, RE, Pastoral care and governance.

Jim Jaeger is a student at the Meadville Lombard Theological School. He is a student minister at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Rock County and a consultant for the CMwD, having worked with many small congregations. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

Stewardship Track

Join Laurel Amabile, the UUA’s Annual Program Fund Director and Dori Davenport Thexton, CMWD’s Faith Development & Growth Director, for two workshops on new approaches to fundraising in your congregations.

  • Generations and Generosity: You may have seen those descriptions of different generations floating around on the internet. Learn what these generational differences can mean in terms of conducting successful pledge campaigns. What inspires generosity is very different depending on when you were born!
  • Multigenerational Fundraising: Explore a variety of ideas for involving people of all ages – and yes, we mean children, too – in becoming faithful stewards of your religious community.

Come sing in the opening service choir at District Assembly!

Friday, April 27
Rehearsal 4-5:15
Opening service 6:45 p.m.
at the Marriott Oak Brook Hills Resort

Director: Marty Swisher

Tshotsholoza arr. Ames
Spirit of Life, 4 part by McDade

DOWNLOAD a poster to print and pass along!

You do not have to attend the District Assembly in order to participate in this choir!

Sign up here:

ChaliceLighters-color-logoDistrict Assembly 2012: Short clips:
Dori Thexton presents Chalice Lighter Grant to Chicago Area UU Council for continuing work presenting UU sermons on WCPT, Chicago's Progressive Talk 820AM.

Rev. Brian Covell, Third Unitarian ChurchService and Message
CMwD DA Opening Worship and Ceremony
Oak Brook, IL
Friday, April 26, 2012

Entering Music: Piano Blues No. 4

Prelude and Choral Anthem: Spirit of Life

Chalice Lighting
We light this chalice recalling the Unitarian desire for freedom against any oppression, and in memory of the Universalist belief that God's love knows no bounds.

Opening Words
Somebody once said, “We need a space program because we need explorers. Its in our souls.”  Liberal religion in the Midwest used to be known as the pioneering faith, on the edge of the American cultural frontier.  Will this endure as a value for us, a part of the spiritual discipline of leadership?

Opening Hymn #141, I've Got a New Name

Welcome and Introductions
Good evening and welcome to the Annual Assembly of the Central Midwest District of the MidAmerica Region of the Unitarian Universalist Association!
I am the Reverend Brian Covell, President of the District, and I join my fellow Board members and the District staff in extending a greeting and thanks for your gift of time in being with us.  I ask all of them, to stand to be recognized--in particular our Congregational Services Director the Reverend Dr. Ian Evison, his colleague Dori Davenport Thexton, our Faith Development and Growth Consultant, and the members of our district staff.

For indeed it is good to be with one another, as we deepen our faith commitments: through the practice of democratic governance, which we’ll do at our business meeting; through the sharing of wisdom to build capacity in ourselves and in our congregations, and also to learn how we might, through our combined efforts, continue the work of social justice that’s at the center of our prophetic message.
The program this weekend offers a myriad of opportunities to experience our faith at its best, we hope, and at its most relevant. 

With our keynote presenters the Reverend Dr. William Schulz--himself a product of the CMwD--tonight, and the Reverend Marilyn Sewell tomorrow, we have a rare opportunity to hear two of the most gifted and lyrically prophetic voices in our movement call us forth to the spiritual dimensions of leadership.  And so for the next three days, let learning and inspiration, flourish among us. 
Someone once told me that if you’re a UU, the probability of transformation is always in the air.  Let me suggest it’s no less true this year.

The topic of regionalism looms large, to be sure, but even this concept is perhaps best understood as invitation to revisit the meaning of how we covenant to be in relationship to one another through Unitarian Universalism.
Covenant: to be called to deeper sense of meaning through relationship with others, for others.  In Marilyn Sewell’s words, let this be the “golden thread” that runs through us and among us this weekend.

It was W.E.B DuBois who said,
“Now is the accepted time, not tomorrow, not some more convenient season.  It is today that our best work is to be done and not some future day or future year.  It is today that we fit ourselves for the greater usefulness of tomorrow.  Today is the seed time, now are our hours of work, and tomorrow comes the harvest and the playtime.”

Spoken and Silent Meditations
From norther Wisconsin, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, through Illinois and into Missouri, we’ve come from a cross-section of the center of America to be in this place, at this time.

Our interests are different, but surely human needs are the same from one to another: acceptance of self and of others, the warmth of love, the meeting of basic needs, and the safety of home.  Mindful of all this, and of the cry of those who lack all or any of the above, I invite you to, prior to any work, settle into this worship through stillness, in a moment of silent reflection and prayer.
May the light of wisdom from whatever source, and the strength of pioneers past and present, be with you now and always.

Offertory Comments
The offering we take this evening is to benefit the work of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee.  From direct aid in Haiti, or in Africa, or for service learning opportunities here in the Americas, the UUSC affords all of us a context to “fit ourselves today,” in DuBois’s words, “for greater usefulness tomorrow.”  In so doing, we partner with all those congenial to the UUSC’s mission within and beyond our denomination who know that  “advancing human rights is the work of many hands.”  I invite you to learn about more about this storied organization through its Web site,, where you can read about the exciting new UU College for Social Justice or, like I do, follow the Reverend Schulz on Facebook.

“My Reunion, Our Connection”
Let’s start with a raising of hands: how many of you have been to a reunion, high school, college, whatever?  Good, I thought so, because we are UU’s, an educated bunch. I attended a mini-reunion of my high school class last summer.  In the past, I’ve debated whether I really wanted to see people with whom I didn’t really connect, or even like, since I’d stayed in touch with a small group of friends I knew well.  But I figured after 33 years, it was time.  Whatever grudges were once held, or conspiracies founded, would be long since forgotten, or so I thought. Plus, I must be honest--I wanted to see how everyone looked!  Would it be true what they say, whoever “they” are, about reunions--that the gals look great and guys look like, well, let’s not go there (but I know what you’re thinking...)?  And I was feeling pretty good about myself, and petty enough to challenge anyone to a half-marathon, so...

Was I wrong--I’ll be the first to admit it!  OK: the gals did look great, but so did the guys!  One guy, quiet in school, was a father of a beach volleyball pro in California, and since he lived and worked out with his son, he was like a walking infomercial on fitness equipment.  Another had just hiked the New Hampshire part of the Appalachian Trail.
So much for me and my vanity!  And once we got through the hugs  and “hey, you look...better than I thought you would” stage, then there were the stories, both banal, and unbelieveable: the prom queen turned newscaster turned genealogist, the bookish girl in the back row of the chorus--this was well before “Glee”--who’s now a banker; the schoolteachers, the radio talk show host, the meat-cutting blogger, the Elvis impersonator, and so on. And this woman whom, as soon as I saw her, I still had a crush on her.  No, I’m not going to tell you--this is being recorded; she’ll find out.  Yes, I confessed to my wife.  No, she wasn’t happy.  Another show of hands, please.  Has this happned to you?  Did you tell your spouse?  Who are you to judge me?

Anyway, the conversations were rich; astonishing, even.  The party didn’t end until the early morning.  No one wanted to leave.  So there we stood, in the parking lot on a starlit night.  “Let’s stay in touch,” we said, and said again.  And they’ve meant it.
Social media made the event happen, I believe, and it continues to work its magic with the Class of ’78.  So-called “friends” have been listening to my sermons on-line, and have been tougher on me than any critic at Third Church has ever been. 

And people once close have really, deeply, reconnected: two women fell out of touch in college.  One went away, did incredibly well for herself, and lives in France. The other, not so much.  Recently, the woman in France invited, and paid for, her friend and family to stay at her home near the Pyrenees. For a month. That’s extreme, I know, but that’s the sort of thing that’s happening.  Connections, stretched by time and circumstance, made closer by interest, and technology.

It brings me to the topic this weekend.  Everyone here prizes their connections at their home congregation.  And does your church have a Facebook presence? Those relationships inform why you’re here at DA, I would guess: to learn what’s of benefit to your church, and to strengthen that institution. But the form of the congregation, as we’ve known it, is under pressure.  Research shows that the emerging “Millennial” generation is reluctant to join voluntary associations, like churches, for understandable reasons. And as “Baby Boomers”--yes, that’s me, and many of you--get older, our capacity to give and support the notion of church we grew up with changes.  The “Greatest Generation,” our parents and grandparents, are nearing the end of their lives.

When I came to Third Church in 2003, within 12 months we lost 10 percent of the congregation to death and dislocation, mostly death. The nodding heads among us confirm the landscape in the mainline American faith traditions.  The local congregation is embattled--but not without hope. I stand resolutely with Warren G. Harding, not one of our greatest Presidents, when he said, “Let us not drop anchor until we are out of the woods.” This is a moment of opportunity for us--a time for reinvention.  For just as the locals may not have the money to operate like we did in the 50’s through 2007, the denomination has to adjust.

The District is no different.  We’re all likely going to have to rely on fewer staff, working strategically, to give more people the opportunity to be connected to our faith tradition within and beyond congregational walls. This means, I believe, that we’ll have to strengthen our understanding of covenant: to work with other UU’s, within and beyond our congregational walls, to share resources to enable ministries on the issues that matter the most. The Chicago Area UU’s have developed, through cooperation, a radio show that reaches people across this district, across the boundaries of our developing region, and into the homes across the globe. How do we know?  They tell us, on the program’s Facebook page.  It’s reconnected women and men to the faith of their youth, and brought others who knew nothing about us into a local church.  27 congregations make this happen every Sunday night.

We in the CMwD share staff across three districts, and the folks who know the most about fundraising, RE or church conflict now consult from Minnesota to Kentucky, or Michigan to Kansas. We need, I believe, to build a governance structure to support all this, and for you in your church homes, that’s sustainable, future-oriented, and agile.  And we on your district board will not, and cannot, do this without your advice and consent. That advice, and your consent, is what I aspire to secure this weekend.  This does not mean silent agreement when you’re overwhelmed by the issues. It does mean patient, deliberative discussion about how we might unlock the potential of liberal religion in this region--with Midwestern needs and emphases--to become a more vital presence in justice and religion in the 21st Century
In his personal odyssey statment given last night, the Reverend Dr. Lee Barker, President at Meadville Lombard, our MidAmerica UU seminary, shared an insight. 

He found, as he talked with other seminary presidents, that evangelicals--since they have a robust, almost unwavering theology--have the ability to take on great risk.  They’re less connected to buildings and locations, and thus more ready to move and meet the need of growth.
And that yet perhaps liberals are less able to take on risk, since we offer a more flexible belief system which is paradoxically grounded in the practices of a specific building and group of people.

Think about it.  Don’t you know folks who define themselves by the UU church, who say that they’re a “(Name your modifier) Church Unitarian,” and not as a member of the UUA? I’m a minister at a church I love dearly, but I’m an adherent of our Unitarian Universalist Association first.  I seek to live our “Principles and Purposes,” wherever I serve, following the guidance of our UU Minister’s Association.
We need strong congregations, yes, but ones that can help people live UU values beyond our walls.  And, I believe, a new regional governance system, one not set in stone to last through eternity, but one agile to meet the needs of the moment, is what we need.
That’s where I stand, anyway, or am moving toward.  And I will engage you on this.

The reunion confirmed for me that my friends are hungry to stay close to those who knew them when, and who stay connected in new, deeply moving ways, physically and virtually. So do you, I think, so do you.  There are new ways to be in relationship that enrich what we know best. There’s a president in a small Iowa church that can use your wisdom; different, perhaps, than holding the hand of that member who just lost a loved one, but it’s still a way to walk your faith. Just like the Waterville High Class of ’78, you are my people.  I take what you say and do seriously.

And “now is the time, not tomorrow, not some more convenient season” to ensure that the legacy of our past embraces the promise of tomorrow.

DA is our reunion.  Let’s reaffirm our covenant, our connections, to become the faith we can only dare imagine.

Closing Words
Intellect and spirit, body and mind, heart and soul--let us covenant again to lead the faith we love.

Postlude: Siyahamba

Rev. Hilary KrivcheniaDan WisemanDistrict Assembly 2012: Home Grown Leadership - Harvesting our Power … Countryside Church is pilot testing a 9 session leadership development initiative for current and emerging leaders using the UUA's Harvesting the Power and some secular materials (Kouzes/Pouzner). The sessions were attended by 10 people on Sunday afternoons. Dan Wiseman and Rev. Hilary Krivchenia of Countryside UU Church in Palatine, IL, designed and led the sessions and shared what worked and what they learned in this dynamic leadership-development program. The video is in two parts.

LEADERSHIP AND SPIRITUALITY -- Keynote address by Rev. Marilyn Sewell

Rev. Marilyn SewellI've been asked to speak about leadership and spirituality. What is the relationship between these two concepts, I began to ask myself. Are they compatible, or is “spiritual leadership” an oxymoron? Let me explain: spirituality is not essentially pragmatic, leading to a goal. It is a relationship, a relationship with the Mystery. It is about listening and yielding, about opening and softening, about letting go. The fruits of the spirit are classical through the ages, and similar, no matter what the faith tradition: humility, compassion, gratitude, kindness, presence, and generosity of spirit. In contrast, leaders are generally thought to be tough—powerful and unyielding, strong of ego, passionate about their vision, thrusting boldly where none have dared to go. I ask you – are these concepts compatible? Is spirituality from Venus and leadership from Mars?

No, not at all. Good leaders are both yin and yang — that is, they evidence a combination of masculine and feminine principles that are complementary, not contradictory. Certainly our greatest leaders, both religious leaders and political leaders, have been spiritually grounded. I give you, for example, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Margaret Sanger, Eleanor Roosevelt. This is not to say that any one of these individuals was saintly, without flaw — but each was moved by purpose and principle beyond himself or herself, and each changed the world for the better in significant ways. Note that they were very different personality types.

So being a leader does not require having a certain personality type. Well, what are the criteria? Let me clarify. One might say, by some measures, that Hitler was a great leader, or Jim Jones – these two men certainly were strong leaders – they were charismatic, and they inspired many to follow their vision. But I'm not including such leaders in my definition of a great leader. The ancient linguistic root of the word lead means “to go forth, to die.” The forward motion is there, or the yang, and the dying to self, or the yin.

True leaders don’t necessarily set out to be leaders — I believe they are called into leadership, by history and by circumstance, and a by their own qualities of character. Some kind of adaptive change is needed—in an institution or society at large--and a leader comes forth. They are visionaries who see a future that is not yet visible to their followers, and they can articulate that vision in a way that will inspire others to own the problem, and redeem it.“To go forth, to die”-- this is the operative phrase: great leaders are able to die to self, in service to the greater good.

A story.

This story is about Eleanor Roosevelt and the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II. These pilots were excellent fliers, but as we entered the war, they were not allowed to fly in combat simply because they were African Americans and therefore not trusted. It looked as if they would spend the war grounded on their Alabama training field. Then Eleanor Roosevelt learned of their situation.

Against all advice, she traveled to Tuskegee and visited the airmen. It looked to be nothing more than a “photo op.” But then she surprised everyone by asking one of the pilots to take her up for a ride. He agreed, she climbed into the small plane, and an hour later they landed. The wife of the President of the United States led the country to the understanding that the Tuskegee Airmen deserved to fly for their country.

And fly they did. They were escort planes for the B-17 and B-24 bombers attacking Germany’s industrial complex toward the end of the war. The Tuskegee Airmen proved themselves to be such superior pilots in their P-51 Mustang fighters that bomber crews universally requested them as their escort. Tuskegee Airmen earned approximately 1000 awards and decorations by the end of the war.

The Tuskegee Airmen led, that others might have an easier path to follow. And what about Eleanor Roosevelt? She embodied many of the qualities of a leader: she was tough and willing to go against the grain; she was not caught up in her ego needs, but rather had given herself to a higher purpose; she acted decisively, out of her own convictions; and she was grounded in sound values, elevating the values of those around her.

Leadership requires courage. It requires saying yes when the powers that be are saying no. It requires making some people uncomfortable, and chances are that those people will make you uncomfortable. If you want to be popular and well-liked, if you're afraid to ruffle feathers, if you want everybody to love you, you will not be able to lead.

Good leaders are clear and decisive — they are willing to take a stand, even though they know they will never have all the information they may need. We have all seen people in positions of authority who refuse to lead--maybe the mayor of the city, maybe a board chair.If a leader doesn’t lead, followers are left insecure and without direction. Remember what Alice asks the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland?

“Would you tell me please, which way I ought to go from here?” Alice asked the Cheshire cat.

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

“I don’t much care where—“ said Alice.

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

“So long as I get somewhere,” Alice added as an explanation.

“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if only you walk long enough.”

That wonderful kind of nonsense in Lewis Carroll’s book hits so close to home! All too often churches fall into that kind of aimlessness.They don’t know what their mission is, other than pleasing themselves. I was talking with a church staff recently, and they could not articulate their church’s mission. Finally, someone said, “Our mission is to grow!” To grow to what end? Every institution needs to constantly ask, “Where are we going, and why?” If we’re clear about that, the easier piece is getting there. A good leader helps an organization define and clarify its purpose.

Leaders are willing to put some greater objective ahead of personal gain. Leadership is not about individual accomplishment or self-aggrandizement—in simple terms, it is about giving one's talents and energies to making the world a better place.A leader can draw from a people qualities they never knew were even there, can call them to be their noblest selves.

Let me tell you about Sir Ernest Shackleton. In 1914, he went on his third trip to Antarctica. His ship, ironically named “The Endurance,” got stuck in the ice in 1915, was slowly crushed, and went down. Shackleton was faced with the daunting task of getting his 27 men safely back home. It’s not that they didn’t know what they were in for—this is how he advertised for his crew: “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages.Bitter cold.Long months of complete darkness.Constant danger.Safe return doubtful.Honor and recognition in case of success.” After they lost the ship, the ship’s doctor said Shackleton showed a spark of real greatness when he “told them simply and calmly that they would have to spend the winter in pack,” or on an ice floe. After almost two months, the ice floe broke in two, and Shackleton ordered the men into life boats. After five days they landed on an uninhabited island, and then Shackleton chose five companions, and they rowed 800 miles over stormy seas in constant peril to S. Georgia Island. Shackleton and two others then traveled 32 miles over mountainous terrain to the whaling station; he engaged Chileans and rescued the 22 others who had been left isolated for 4-1/2 months. Shackleton’s men looked to him for physical and emotional support through a saga that went on for two years. His calm and confidence brought them all home safely.

Ronald Heifetz, who has written and lectured widely about leadership (Leadership Without Easy Answers), says that the single most important characteristic of a leader is self-differentiation. What is self-differentiation? It includes first and foremost a knowledge of self: a leader can be clear because he knows himself well, accepts both his strengths and his weaknesses, and knows what purposes he is living for. She has convictions that are strong and clear, and an ability to stand firm when pressured by others. In the self-differentiated person, boundaries are clear, projections of others are not taken in. They know who they are, and feel no need to please everyone.

Another story. A man was traveling down a long, dusty, road, with his wife and child and his donkey. They passed someone on the road who said to the man, “Shame on you, letting your child walk. You should let your child ride on the donkey.” So the man put his child on the donkey and continued. Soon they passed another traveler who said to the man, “You should be ashamed, making your wife walk on this hot day. You should let her ride on the donkey.” So he put his wife on the donkey. They went on and soon came to a third traveler, who said to the man, in no uncertain terms, “You should be ashamed! Look at this poor donkey carrying this heavy load in this sweltering heat.” Whereupon the man put the donkey on his back and continued down the road.The self-differentiated leader doesn’t put the donkey on his back.

To be self-differentiated, though, does not mean that the leader is inflexible and will not listen to others. She should always be testing her views against competing views, rather than defensively sticking to a particular perspective. He needs to be in touch with the emotional state of his followers. A good leader knows that change is difficult and, understanding the human need for protection and order, he is compassionate when others find change distressing. Your church is growing! You may think that this is just great, having all these new people—but oldtimers are saying, “I don’t know the people anymore,” or “I can’t find a seat on Sunday.”This is not a soft kind of compassion, though, for the good leader doesn’t allow the followers much leeway to escape the difficult work they must do.

Sometimes change needs to happen, but an organization or society may not feel enough stress or pressure to make the needed change. This is our problem at the present time with the danger of global warming. Until people are uncomfortable enough, until gas prices are high enough, until weather is unbearably hot, until storms are even more destructive, until the edges of the country go underwater, we will not change our ways – we will continue in our flagrant use of fossil fuels. Unfortunately, knowledge is not enough to stimulate change – only felt experience will do that.

So in order to bring about change, a leader sometimes has to raise the level of anxiety. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Lyndon Baines Johnson colluded together to do just that in 1965, to fuel the Civil Rights Movement. In private meetings early that year Johnson encouraged King to push voting rights, believing that public pressure might allow legislative action. Johnson wanted to ripen the issue.

On Sunday, March 7, 1965, black Americans and whites in solidarity with them set out to march from Selma to Montgomery, AL, to demand voting rights. Selma had around 29,000 people, and slightly more of them were black than white—but only 3 percent of the people on its voting rolls were black. Laypeople, nuns, priests, and ministers from all over the country--including many Unitarian Universalist ministers and most of the UUA Board — drove in, bused in, or flew in to Selma. Governor Wallace sent the state police against the 600 marchers, and Americans all over the country witnessed with shock and deep anger the televised scenes of black men and women and children being clubbed to the ground, choking on tear gas, and being bull-whipped by troopers. One of our ministers, James Reeb, was clubbed by a group of white men, and died a few days later. Demonstrations sprang up all over the country, demanding that President Johnson do something. The pressure grew. Pickets surrounded the White House with signs shaming the President. The issue had ripened, all right.

The following Sunday, while 15,000 demonstrators sang “We shall overcome,” Johnson asked to appear before a joint session of Congress the next evening to do what he had wanted to do all along: make his historic speech asking for voting rights for all citizens. By inaction Johnson raised the level of tension, says Heifetz, so that people could no longer ignore their own responsibility. The issue could no longer be framed as "states rights." The issue was racism, and it was witnessed in living rooms on television every night. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act on August 6, 1965, and six months later 9000 black citizens in Selma were registered to vote.

This would be a good time to talk about the proper use of power. A lot of us fear power, and for good reason: we have all seen power misused, sometimes personally and often institutionally – consider the suffering caused to millions by the recent misuse of power in the financial industry. Unitarian Universalists as a group are particularly ambivalent about power. We distrust it. Ours is a free faith, and that is what makes us unique as a religious people. No religious tradition, no scripture, no priest or prophet, no authority is predominant over the conscience of the individual believer. But there is a shadow side to our freedom of belief, and that shadow is our discomfort with authority. In fact, one of our favorite bumper stickers reads “QUESTION AUTHORITY.” We attract highly intelligent people with strongly held opinions, many of whom find it difficult to play in an orchestra, so to speak—and are more comfortable as soloists. The problem is that in order to build a strong institution, close attention must be given to structure and leadership—and yes, the exercise of power.

This fear and distrust of authority is particularly problematic when it adversely affects the relationship of the congregants to their minister. The minister is pastor, preacher, as well as institutional leader. In this leadership role, the professional minister works with lay leaders to keep the church focused on mission, and gives lay leaders guidance and support in carrying out that mission. It is a contractual relationship, in that the minister is paid for services rendered, but that contract is wholly subordinate to the convenantal relationship, which is a sacred partnership grounded in love and trust. However, in many of our churches, lay leaders have patterned their relationship with their minister after the model of the Federal government, with its checks and balances of power, and the relationship becomes adversarial, with lay leaders making sure the minister doesn't gain too much power. When we went to policy governance, the cry was “the minister will have too much power!” Wonder what I would do with all that power? Do you trust your minister? If the relationship is a healthy and trusting one,power is shared and enhanced, towards a common end.

In and of itself, power is neither good nor evil: it is morally neutral. It can be used for nefarious ends, or it can be used to heal and to bring justice. It just depends on the spiritual maturity of the one who wields the power, and the purpose for which it is used. The word power comes from the Latin potere, meaning “to be able.” If one is powerful, then, one is able, one is potent, one is capable. But then the element of dominance or control begins to rear its ugly head.

And so the question arises: can we act, can we exercise power--or indeed can we dominate--without domination becoming onerous? An adjunct question is whether or not we should do away with hierarchy in our organizational life.

The term hierarchy has a strong negative connotation these days in Unitarian Universalist circles, because of its association with economic or social class. Let me be clear: no Unitarian Universalist should support a hierarchy of value. Our First Principle says it well--everyone has inherent worth and dignity, and “inherent” is not subject to conditions of wealth or happenstance of birth. But when hierarchy refers to the order and discipline of an organization, the word takes on positive value, in that such an arrangement makes it possible for the mission of the organization to be clearly focused upon and carried out.You will note that the Occupy Movement purports to be nonhierarchical, to have no leaders, but of course leaders have emerged, because they always will. Because leadership is necessary for any organization to operate and exercise ongoing influence.

Again, let’s define some terms, before we go further. By dominance, I mean “to exert the determining or guiding influence.” This is what leaders do. A board president once said to me: “A leader puts a leash on the big dog, and then follows where that dog pulls you.” Wrong! The “dog” might pull you, for example, to remove civil rights from gays and lesbians. Or in earlier days, into a lynch mob. Leaders often go against the “will of the people.” In fact, by definition, leaders must see beyond what is to what could be.

So what about control? To say that someone has “a controlling personality” is not a compliment. And yet we all admire those people who can take control when the situation calls for it. We talk about “crowd control,” the absence of which brings chaos and even death. We all are familiar with the situation in which the facilitator of a question/answer session is passive and allows audience members to drone on with lengthy comments of their own, ignoring the needs of the group. Why doesn’t the leader take control?we think. Presumably, we want a President of the United States who has a strong sense of control, given all the forces coming at him. Control by definition simply means “the power or authority to manage.”

I am simply advocating for leadership here. And I am speaking for leadership grounded in a formal structure, so that everyone in the organization knows who is responsible for what, and who is accountable to whom.When organizational structure is formal and clear, communication flows easily, questions are answered readily, and responsibility is taken. On the other hand, when leadership of an organization is ambiguous, the result is confusion about responsibilities and bottle-necking around decision-making. There is no such thing as a “leaderless group,” for if there is no assigned or elected leader, an informal leader will emerge. Also, if power structures are unclear, power will be exercised in covert ways, under the table, instead of exercised openly by persons who are accountable for decisions.

Those who actively seek power because they are insecure or needy are the least able to handle it well, and in our churches these people are too often allowed to dominate groups and meetings. There is a kind of deference to the underdog in Unitarian Universalism — i.e., nobody’s opinion should be considered better than anybody else’s. And then many lay leaders and many ministers are simply conflict averse, and would rather not risk offending anyone, even at the expense of the health and well-being of the institution. Power used in the service of others should be honored and supported. Power that is colored by ambition, tyranny, or selfishness should be called out and resisted. Note: to be a spiritual leader is not to be a weak or passive or permissive leader.

During the last year of my ministry in Portland, the economic downturn came, and gifts were way down, so we didn’t make our budget. I took an extraordinary step – I exercised what some people might consider overweening power. You judge for yourself.We were facing a financial crisis.We were already operating on what I considered a bare-bones staff, and I hesitated to cut staff, nor did I want to reduce the salaries of my hard-working staff. So what to do? I knew that there was more money to be had in the congregation, but people were afraid, given the dire predictions about the economy. I decided to put before congregants the consequences of the failed canvass: after explaining my plan to the board, I announced to the congregation that we would close the church for the month of July. It was a simple and straightforward solution: the staff would not have to work, if they were not getting paid. Pastoral emergencies would be seen to, as usual. There were two results from this decision. First of all, the news was reported in the local paper and on the radio, and traveled from there all over the country – Local Church Closes Because of Weak Economy! And then, appalled that our church might actually close, someone in the church donated a large sum of money as a challenge grant, so that the church could stay open.

Had I cut staff, or cut the salaries of all the staff, the congregation would have accepted that easily enough, and said, "Oh, well.” The solution, however, shifted the problem from the ministers and staff to where it belonged – to the congregation.

That story has a happy ending, but all my decisions did not turn out so well. First Unitarian in Portland was my first church, and I made many, many mistakes. But practically speaking, you can make a lot of mistakes and still be an effective leader (lay or ministerial) if you focus on two of the most significant things: (1) stay on your spiritual path and (2) stay focused on the mission of the institution. In terms of spiritual path, as I said, this was my first church, and it was a large church, and I knew no one in Portland when I arrived. I knew instinctively that I would fail beyond any hope unless I threw myself absolutely on the mercy of my God, as I would put it, and so I maintained a consistent spiritual practice during my ministry. And I became clear in the early months of my ministry about the mission of our church – it was an urban church, and every day I saw homeless people walking the streets, needles and condoms left on the sidewalk from the night before, teenagers sleeping in the doorway to the church on Sunday morning – I got it: the purpose of the church was for the members to grow spiritually and to bless the larger world. We became a strong justice church – how could we be other?

And then to lead, you must know yourself. By knowing yourself, I mean first and foremost becoming intimately acquainted with the issues of your family of origin. Sometimes we uncover patterns that have to do with social class or with certain trauma that occurred in the family – like alcoholism, the early death of a family member, financial difficulties, or abuse of one kind or another — experiences that have affected the way you see the world and your place in it. And virtually all of us have issues with our family of origin. Generally, we can count on the fact that when we become “hooked” over some issue, defensive and confused, unable to handle it well, we have dipped into some unresolved childhood stuff. Of course I’m not suggesting that you can change your childhood — none of us can — but you can be aware of these formative experiences and how they affect you as an adult.

Moving on now to spiritual development. When I use the word spiritual, I’m not talking about theology here—let me be clear. I’m not talking about whether you are a Christian or Jew or a Buddhist or atheist or an agnostic. And spirituality is not something esoteric and other-worldly — it’s not about fasting or traveling to some holy site or sitting at the feet of a revered teacher. We may do all these things, and they may help us along the way. But spirituality is much more basic than that:it’s the essence of what we are as human beings — it’s about ultimate meaning. What are you ultimately accountable to? Whose are you?

We are generally led to spiritual growth out of suffering. We want relief. We find that living as we have been living is becoming increasingly intolerable. Our addictions aren’t working so well, and our fantasies are growing shaky.

Once I heard Jungian James Hollis say in a workshop, “Most human behavior is an effort to escape anxiety.” I think he’s right. So how do we do that? How do we attempt to escape anxiety? We tell ourselves stories. In other words, we construct a reality. Our brains are really good at this, and so they work overtime, keeping us “safe” from reality.

Of course we already have some basic stories that were constructed as we grew up, some positive and some not so positive. We elaborate upon these stories, change them somewhat according to our unfolding experience, and construct what is known as an ego. We also call this a “self.” This ego or self then goes about in the world interpreting events, people, words, etc., according to the story that has been constructed. The ego is the “me” and others are the “not me.” Others get to take on all the characteristics that we don’t want to own, or the shadow parts of ourselves.

We find that we can’t entirely escape the realities of life, however — you know, realities like death, loss, betrayal. We can’t escape suffering. Bingo! We begin to look for a new way. But some of us are stubborn—count me in that lot. We try for a long time to avoid just accepting who we are and being with reality as it is.

One of my chief coping mechanisms is trying to be good. If I can only be good enough, pure enough, totally unsullied, actually, then I can hold my little constructed world together. I learned to follow all the rules. It’s not for nothing that I was elected “Best Christian” when I was a senior in high school (an honor which failed dismally in attracting the opposite sex). Naturally enough, I became a minister. Now this persona of personal virtue I’ve adopted is absolute, unadulterated fantasy, of course. I think I latched onto this particular one early in life because of the flagrant sins of my charming and handsome alcoholic father. Somebody had to balance out my father’s badness, and it might as well be me.

But the fact is that I have a huge amount of aggression in me. I get in touch with this in certain predictable situations—for example, at the airport, when I find myself surrounded by people separated from one another, connected to their respective cell phones,whiling away the time, in chatter. I’ve done a lot of traveling lately, and I’ve been stuck in airports for long periods of time — not long ago, I spent 7-1/2 hours right here in your Chicago O’Hare Airport.

Let me tell you what happened. So I’m sitting there, packed in with thousands of other people who have had their flights cancelled by too much wind in the windy city — what the airline is calling “an Act of God,” so they won’t have to give us any food or put us up for the night — when this svelte blonde, perfectly coiffed, and dressed to the nines comes up and asks if the seat next to me is vacant. She sits gingerly on the edge of her seat. She is carrying inside her jacket a live creature that pokes its head out to survey the scene — it is a dog, a little Yorkie, and she begins feeding it a MacDonald’s hamburger, saying how little Fifi wouldn’t eat anything else.

She engages me in conversation, and I reluctantly put down my contemplative reading and pay attention to her and little Fifi. She asks me where I’m going, and I foolishly tell her. I say, “I’m going to Lexington, KY, to marry my best friend.” And then realizing that she might misinterpret my remark, I add, “I mean, I’m going to do the ceremony. I’m a minister.” Big mistake.

She perks up. Fifi perks up. She grills me, with one question after another. What kind of minister? Oh, I’ve never heard of that. What do they believe? That’s interesting. Does it bother you that some of your people are not saved? Do you believe in Jesus? I believe in John 3:16 — do you know that verse? Have you ever read the Bible?

At that moment I truly wanted to smash a framed copy of my Ph.D. in theology over her head. As I remember, I did the verbal equivalent of that. This is not what I call acting from my Buddha nature. So I’m supposedly a peace-maker — but I have a huge amount of aggression in me. So what do I do with that? I need to ask myself that question.

Another fantasy that we construct for ourselves is the belief that things won’t change — things that we like, situations that make us comfortable. Things won’t change. But of course they do, ever and always. And the shift always feels like such a violation, somehow. The other day I was moving a plant, a gorgeous blooming amaryllis, the last of the season, and I hit the stem against something, and the flower broke off — just like that. For a moment, I considered scotch tape, but no, that wouldn’t work. The flower was so beautiful, and now it was dying. How often is something we love — a vase, a job, a home, a relationship — how often is it just perfect, just the way we want it, only to have things surprise us by disappearing or becoming something else as we watch, helplessly.

Let me tell you a story about impermanence — and compassion. And this is a true story, told to me by one of the family members. A husband and wife were hosting a fancy dinner party, having brought out all of their best china and silver and crystal for their guests. Everyone was having a lovely time, and then one of the women accidentally broke one of the very expensive crystal glasses. She gasped in horror. Everyone stopped talking. At this point the host, fearing the judgment of his wife upon their guest (for the wife tended to be judgmental), the host promptly picked up his glass, smiled and said, “Don’t worry about it, happens all the time,” and he nonchalantly broke his crystal glass against the side of the table.

The one thing that we can depend on is that we cannot depend on anything — everything in this world is unreliable and temporary. So what do we do? We do not add another dimension of suffering to our original loss by saying to ourselves, “Things shouldn’t be this way” or go into denial or try to change something or someone who cannot be changed. We learn to go forward, in love, knowing that all is precisely as it is, and all is impermanent. I hear the echo of that man’s words at the dinner party: “Don’t worry about it — happens all the time.”

Some of you may have experienced the peace and grace of a Japanese tea ceremony. Even though the pottery used in the traditional ceremony was made of the simplest of materials, clay and basic glazes, the cups and bowls were prized for their clean lines and spiritual qualities. They were treated with great care and respect, and so a cup from a tea ceremony was rarely broken. When one was broken, however, the cup was sometimes repaired with gold, leaving shining tracks clearly to be seen. Rather than trying to cover up the break, the cracks were celebrated, announcing to the world that the cup had been broken, was repaired, and vulnerable to change. And in this way its value was even further enhanced.

Why is it that we tend to deny and to cover up our mistakes? It is so freeing to say, “I’m sorry”; “I misjudged the situation”; “I was wrong”; “I behaved like a real jerk. I hope you will forgive me.” When we break, we change, we mend, we may very well grow stronger. Maybe some of you have read Kathryn Schulz’s recent book, Being Wrong. As she points out, it's so difficult to admit that we were wrong, and it's such a positive act—it’s the only way we can grow.

When we have had enough of the false escapes, enough of the trying to look good, enough of the self-righteousness that divides us from others and from the Holy, we want transformation, and we come to our spiritual practice. We come to pray. Or we come to contemplate. Or we come to sit in meditation. And what do we discover? Same old stuff--anxiety, anger, envy. More false escapes, trying to be holier than others, even through our spiritual practice! And so we sit with all of this human stuff. And sit and sit and sit. We give up our shoulds. We say, “I am who I am, right now.” We stop trying to fix ourselves and stop judging and fixing others. For this present moment, this moment of presence, at least, we have broken the illusion that we are separate.

We accept ourselves as we are, in that moment. We accept reality as it is, in that moment, and we ask only for that awareness and that acceptance. The mind quiets, we’re breathing more deeply now, more air coming in. The story that we’re not good enough, not worthy to be loved, goes. The story that everything will stay the same goes. The story that our hunger will one day be met—that goes. And yet, paradoxically, all is well, all is well, with our soul.

Myth, prayer, poetry, meditation: these take us into “deep time,” where we can experience healing and a new kind of consciousness. There are many paths, many kinds of spiritual practice, and one may be more compatible with your personality than another. You may find that you wish to go with one for a while and then change to another, or combine several. The time and method matter not, only the true longing of your heart, and one day you may find that you are "praying without ceasing," that your life has become a prayer. You are not so apt to be shaken by the surprises that existence lays on all of us. You are still enough, strong enough, soft enough to lead.

Church leaders with spiritual grounding can help church members see themselves as a people called out to a larger purpose in the world, a purpose larger than their own needs. A church’s mission should be more profound than hanging out with people like ourselves—yes, we will gain community at church, but in the context of a devotion to something larger than ourselves. We would be aware that we are called to use our power for the good in a world in which the worst hold power through greed, and people follow, blindly. Who will redeem such a world?

At church it’s important to build spiritual components into every meeting, every retreat, every dinner — a church is not just any secular group getting together about an issue. Every meeting, including board meetings and finance committee meetings, every gathering should have a sacred dimension because that meeting is generated by and held in a church.

And we can offer support—covenant groups of various kinds, and classes—to deepen the spiritual lives and the consciousness of our members and friends. We would provide a place where people can grieve and meditate and pray and play—a place to be renewed spiritually and emotionally, a place where people can be safe to share with others their struggles, their hopes, their failures and successes.

When people come together in the name of something larger than themselves, to heal, to grow, to work for change, they feel their power, their creativity, their unity, and their joy. These are sustaining feelings that will take us through the tough times, keep us focused, give us courage. This is not spirituality somewhere off on top of a mountain alone – this is a relational spirituality that acknowledges our kinship one with the other.

The spiritually grounded leader doesn't have to act powerful – such leaders are powerful by virtue of their bearing and presence. Others feel this power before a word is spoken. Such a leader invites others into their own power. When a leader accepts the challenge, and steps faithfully into appropriate power, and leads with strength and love, power will be greatly multiplied. Then the body of people are likely to be blessed, and in turn, are likely to use their power to bless the world. So be it. Amen.



Raw Faith DVD - at Amazon.comRev. Sewell's documentary DVD is now available online via

marilyn-sewell-from-oregonliveDistrict Assembly 2012: Healthy Approaches to Leadership & Power …In this workshop, Rev. Marilyn Sewell expanded on her keynote themes. We delved into power issues more deeply, according to the questions and concerns of the participants, and also considered specific power conflicts and how they might be approached.

Video consists of a Question and Answer session prior to working in small groups. The first question was about dealing with difficult people.

Raw Faith DVD - at Amazon.comRev. Sewell's documentary DVD is available online via

Saturday Worship Order of Service

April 28, 2012
8:00 a.m.
Marriott Oak Brook Hills
Oak Brook, Illinois

Solveig's Song by Edvard Grieg
Peter Storm, Pianist

Chalice Lighting

Opening Words

Hymn #21, For the Beauty of the Earth


Spoken and Silent Meditations


Message – Rev. Ed Searl

Hymn #143, Not in Vain the Distance Beacons

Closing Words

Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum by Claude Debussy
Peter Storm, Pianist

YASC Exhibit TableSaturday Vespers Service at DA2012, led by the CMwD YASC (Young Adult Steering Committee).

Photo: YASC exhibit table.

Dori Thexton and Nic CableDrawing on the writings and experience of Eboo Patel, Nicolas Cable's sermon was titled "Acts of Faith: Interreligious Engagement as Transformative Spiritual Practice." Nic was the winner of the Annual DA Sermon Contest and delivered this sermon on Sunday, April 29, 2012 at the UUA Central Midwest District Assembly. Photo is Dori Thexton presenting Nic with the award.

Reading #1 From Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation Pages 37-38 

My first college memory is at the gym. There are three basketball games going on--a black game, an Asian game, and a white game. I am confused, but not about who I am. I know I am white. I have spent years making myself so. That is why I started playing basketball in the first place. It is what the popular white kids at my school did. I figured the physical defect of my brown skin would be overlooked if I perfected a fifteen-foot jump shot. The basketball court, to my eyes, was a big bucket of skin whitener.


I looked at the black and Asian kids. They seemed so comfortable. They shouted at one another up and down the court in a distinct flow, ran pick-and-rolls and give-and-gos in their own unique rhythms. Didn’t they want to play on the white court? Hadn’t they spent years studying the white game so they could make its moves their own? Isn’t that what it means to be colored in America?

The world has never seemed so new to me as it did during those first few months of college. My first lesson was on race. I was stunned to realize that not everybody wanted to be white. I remember seeing a Korean girl I had gone to high school with across the hall at the Illini Union. “Kristen,” I called out. But she didn’t turn around. “She went back to her Korean name,” a mutual friend, also Korean, later explained when I told her about the incident. “She won’t answer to Kristen anymore.”

What the hell is that about?” I asked.

“It happens to a lot of Koreans when they go to college. They become more involved in their own ethnicity and culture. They hang out only with other Koreans.”

She was using college as a place to de-whiten herself. The more I looked around, the more I realized that she wasn’t the only one. Cafeterias were balkanized by race and ethnicity. Unlike in high school, where the popular (mostly white) kids sat at one table and others longed for a place there, people wanted to be where they were. In fact, they were fiercely proud and protective of their own zones.

Reading #2 From Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation Pages 104-105

The first time I met Azim Nanji, I got the sense that he was a man who would play a key role in my life. A well-regarded professor of Islamic studies who had chaired the Department of Religion at the University of Florida, Azim had recently been appointed by the Ismaili Imam as the director of the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London. I went to see him in the fall of my first year at Oxford and told him that I was interested in doing a doctorate on Ismaili religious education programs. He nodded his approval...

But Azim knew that I was interested in something more significant than a doctorate. I was embarking on an intensely personal journey. The perspective I brought to Islam had been shaped by my admiration for Dorothy Day, Mahatma Gandhi, and the Dalai Lama, as well as my friendships with Kevin and Brother Wayne. I loved the spirituality and social justice in Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, and Buddhism. I had no interest in Islam until my most recent trip to India, when the Dalai Lama had told me to be a good Muslim, and when I had seen my grandmother model what that meant. Now I wanted to learn about the tradition behind her spiritual equanimity and service ethic. Were there heroes in my faith like Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King Jr.? Did it have poets like Tagore and Blake? Philosophers like Maimonides and Aquinas? Had my faith helped free countries the way that Gandhi’s Hinduism had? Did it have mouth-widening beauty, like the Sistine Chapel? I knew nothing of Islam except that it lived in my bones. I desperately wanted it to be magnificent.

Without my explaining any of this directly, Azim somehow understood that this was the animating impulse behind my dissertation topic. He looked at me intently as I explained what I wanted to research, then said, “So many of us begin our careers by studying our history and then locating ourselves within it. My own dissertation was in a similar area. You are living at a time when Islam can go in many different directions, and it will be young people like you who are shaping its next steps. Having an understanding of the humanistic dimensions of Muslim history and how to teach them most effectively is about as important an education as you can get. I want you to know that my door is always open to you.”

Sermon: “Acts of Faith: Interreligious Engagement as Transformative Spiritual Practice”

Originally delivered on October 30th, 2011

Slightly updated for 2012 Central Midwest District Assembly Sermon Contest

We live in a very precarious time in human history. Countries around the world are facing economic collapse, political revolution, and intense social upheaval. Here in America, not much is different: our daily papers and nightly news reporters fill our hearts with sadness of the constant barrage of human suffering and death that is being inflicted upon our fellow brothers and sisters. Young boys are being shot down on the South Side of Chicago, an Iraqi Veteran was sent to the ICU for protesting at Occupy Oakland, the unemployment rate remains very high, and all the while it seems our elected officials remain deadlocked in an ideological stalemate. Without a doubt, our earth remains in a state of shock, busting at the seams as it approaches seven billion residents.

But amidst all of this turmoil, surrounded by all of this darkness, there is hope. There is hope. It is in you and it is in me; it fills this space in which we have gathered and made sacred by our shared presence, this morning. We come together as Unitarian Universalists each Sunday because we believe in a world unseen, in a world unfolding beneath our feet, becoming manifest by our compassionate hands and our warm, loving hearts. And every weekend billions of other people around the world gather in places of worship, like this one, not to run away from the realities out there, but to remind each of them of the headlines that didn’t make the New York Times or The Today Show.

When I worked for Dr. Eboo Patel, the President and Founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, he spoke often about the stories that we were not being told about by the media, those that signified not only the potentiality for social cohesion, but the reality that people from diverse backgrounds actually do come together and work together to make this world a better place each and every day. We live in a world where it is easy to get pessimistic, cynical, and just plain tired of trying to hold it in one piece. Progressive people, religious and secular alike, are becoming frustrated beyond measure by the widening division in society as made clear by the Occupy Movement which continues to gain momentum in cities and towns throughout this country and the world.

But what is more troubling than living within this tenuous, globalized world is the fact that hundreds of millions of people are coming of age and entering adulthood in this time of great uncertainty. As a young adult and a life-long Unitarian Universalist, I resonate already, retrospectively considering the difference between my transition into this stage of life compared to many of you here this morning that are only now becoming aware of the grand complexity of the world that you are about to dive head first into. It seems as if in just the last five years or so, we have journeyed into dangerous waters, not uncharted, but rarely traversed in recent history. And so I ask all of us today to consider how we as a religious leaders will respond to the needs of our youth and young adults, as they progress through this time of great revelation and transformation.

This discourse is not solely related to the wellbeing of our youth and young adults, but to the entirety of our faith tradition. As Unitarian Universalists, we promote the interconnected web of existence of which we are ALL a part. We cannot subdivide this symbolic web, for our souls and our hearts are woven in together. Clipping away South Sudan or South Chicago, or the cares and needs of any part of our global family must be understood as a serious spiritual detriment, which will only foster a similar ideological stalemate—that is, who is my brother? Who is my sister?—as the one in Washington D.C. So, the pursuit of effective youth and young adult ministries is the pursuit of dynamic intergenerational ministries. And I believe this journey towards effective leadership around this issue begins and ends with a greater realization of, appreciation for, and an engagement with our 4th Unitarian Universalist Principle.

The reality of our 4th Principle is that it is not only a very progressive theological stance, but it is also a very demanding task. I once delivered a sermon where I articulated the disparate demands the adjectives free and responsible present to us as we travel along our spiritual paths towards truth and meaning. Freedom is a wonderfully simple qualifier; like a kid in a candy shop, we can run for the Skittles, follow it up with a couple Malted Milk Balls, completely avoid the Twizzlers altogether, and finish it off with some terribly time consuming, but ultimately satisfying Gobstoppers. But, then, we must push the metaphor further and question our level of responsibility as a result of our candy binge and sugar high. What parts of our diet are we not fulfilling to remain healthy individuals? The reason I bring this up is not scold the sweet-tooths in the audience; rather, I want to lift up the dual reality to show my deep appreciation for both the freedom this principle grants us, as well as its demands for spiritual responsibility, individually, as well as collectively.

Simply put, I find no greater embodiment of this responsibility in spiritual formation than in the moments of engagement between people across religious and philosophical boundaries. When we come together not despite our differences, but because we share a common longing for peace and justice in the world, we begin to see the magic manifest. The Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 60s was an example of this, when Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. marched together in solidarity for equal housing, employment, and voting rights. 9/11, while a horrible day in world history, helped us realize our need for building authentic interfaith relationships between communities and nations. Since then, the growth of interfaith organizations in the world has skyrocketed, as people began to realize that we need to come together, that we have a stake in each others’ lives.

The Occupy Movement is one of the most recent manifestations of people wanting to come together regardless of religious background. Occupy Wall Street is inherently an interfaith movement. One experience I have had with the Occupy Movement was chanting and singing in downtown Chicago with Muslims and Jews, Christians and Atheists, and individuals from various life journeys. And in this diversity, in our shared longings for peace and for greater economic equality, we began to see that world unseen, we began to realize that our future was springing up beneath our marching feet, emitting warmly from our shared embrace, and pouring out from our loving songs.

As a result of this movement reaching from coast to coast and everywhere in between, and because it is holding strong throughout the cold months of winter, awaiting the coming spring, I am reassured that something greater than frustration and anger is being realized by tens of thousands of people around this country. There is an energy and life present at these rallies, a palpable exuberance among the people at these gatherings, perhaps consequence of many factors, but one of them, I am sure, is of a growing awareness of what it means to be human living in the 21st century. Identity formation is an inevitable component of social justice movements, as the movement causes us as individuals to ask the question, “Will I move?” But to answer this question, one must consider first the existential and age-old question, “Who am I to move?”

Every single religious community asks this question, along with those related to our origins “Where do we come from?”, our journeys “Where are we going?”, and our associations to others “Who am I in relation to the world around me?” Gandhi asked these questions on his ashram in Gujarat, the Dalai Lama in his monastery in Tibet, Mohammad in Mecca, Maimonides in Morocco, and Jesus in the land of Israel. Countless others, including each and every one of us in this room, today, repeatedly ask ourselves these deeply personal questions. This is our 4th Principle.

This is also the case for members of youth groups in our UU churches throughout the country. This time of life, which I am still in, is a particularly challenging time in life, no matter which way you approach it. We, as young people, are beginning to grapple with issues of sexuality and gender, race and class, vocational direction and economic worries. We balance between on the one hand complete eagerness to take this world by storm, go to college, and be free; and on the other hand, a deep fear of the unknown overwhelms us, of the world that awaits us, and the path our journeys may take.

Eboo Patel’s memoir, Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation, articulates this dual journey of discovering one’s self, while understanding it in relation to the collective time we share together on this planet. Patel, who grew up in Glen Ellyn, IL, a primarily white and relatively wealthy suburb of Chicago, struggled to understand his identity as an Indian American Muslim growing up in a culture where we was clearly “other”. As our first reading indicated, his time growing up was fueled by shame and even self-hatred. He desired to fit in with the hegemonic white culture that surrounded him, where he could simply shoot hoops and just be normal. In college, he began to realize that this longing for singularity in identity was not the norm; College became a laboratory for experimenting with one’s identity, where one could be free to express oneself without rebuke. Through this struggle of understanding about who he was as an individual, he began to realize the richness and diversity of human existence and experience.

Patel came to an affirmation of his own identity and family history in part through meeting and engaging with people from different religious backgrounds. His encounters with religious people in college carried over into his doctoral studies, when he eventually got his PhD in sociology of religion from Oxford. In other words, Dr. Patel wanted to understand the power religion could and does have in uniting people around common causes to make the world better. He learned about the Beatitudes of Jesus, the Noble Truths of Buddha, the concept of Tikkun Olam in Judaism, and Tawhid in Islam, and was overwhelmed by the compassionate points of intersection in these traditions and teachings. Could bringing people together around these shared commitments be a venue for eradicating the injustice and conflict in the world?

Patel surely believes so, as his organization, the Interfaith Youth Core, has become one of the largest and most successful interfaith nonprofits in the world. The IFYC strategically considered the various venues to engage communities with opportunities for interfaith engagement. Empowering young people in college was agreed upon to be the most logical approach; for young people in this country are not only the shapers of tomorrow, but also a powerful factor for social change today. The Occupy Movement is just one example of this because it is largely run and maintained by young people under the age of 35.

This book articulates in my mind a growing edge we as Unitarian Universalists could take to heart. Not only does it offer us an opportunity to consider the method of spiritual formation of our youth and young adults in our religious tradition, but I think it also allows us to have a much deeper discussion: Are we responsibly living out our 4th Principle? Are we called to greater engagement with people of various religious traditions to learn from each other and work together to improve the world of which we are all co-residents? Or, perhaps even a deeper question: how can we engage more holistically with the religious diversity within our own congregations?

I have felt for several years now that we, as Unitarian Universalists, stand as a faith tradition at a great precipice of revolution. Not a violent or political revolution of which we are more accustomed to, and even perhaps frightened of, from media representations of them; rather, we gather today at the genesis of what I hope is an ongoing spiritual revolution, a revolution of the heart, of the soul, a spinning dance of repositioning our focus towards a greater attention of the power interreligious engagement can play within our spiritual practices, individually, and faith tradition, collectively.

We are primed for this revolution. Our UU Principles practically present a 7-point argument about why we should engage with people of various religious traditions. Many congregations are already doing this in various ways. For example, First Unitarian Chicago in Hyde Park where I attend regularly has a Spiritual Pluralism project, which seeks to give space for those who are interested in engaging with people who embrace various theologies, rituals, and/or religious practices. These encounters foster a spirit of religious pluralism within the larger congregation. Some congregations try and work with neighboring religious communities on issues of advocacy and community service. These two examples show that diversity is not just beyond these four walls, but also right here in this room, this morning.

Now, I am not trying to be controversial or suggest we completely re-write the script of what it means to be UU; that would be impossible—We have a script? What I am advocating for is that we continue to consider the place of interfaith engagement in the work of our congregations, our Association, and each of our own life journeys. Interreligious programming at your congregation will inevitably be different than at First Unitarian in Chicago, as it would be different on the East Coast or the West Coast. However, I believe that there is an intimately profound connection possible between this book and the future of Unitarian Universalism.

Acts of Faith was named this year’s Common Read by the UUA, which means churches throughout the country will be organizing events and book-reading groups to consider how this may become a source of great inspiration to our progressive religious movement. Ultimately, I consider this book to not only be well written, but also written for individuals like all of us--young and old and everywhere in between. Identity formation does not stop at 18 or 21 or 30 or 90. Truly, struggles regarding sexuality and gender, career path and economic stability are issues that do not discriminate by age, and especially do not discriminate by religious tradition.

It is not farfetched to consider that interfaith ministries may be a path towards effective intergenerational work because we are all here, now, in this place… not this place, this place—earth, our home—together. Whether you are Buddhist or Muslim, Christian or Jewish, Unitarian Universalist, none of these or an amalgamation of all of these, we must affirm our shared humanity in this world. We are all on a journey and we are all in this spiritual revolution, as one global family. If we can unite in this venture, oh the possibilities that will emerge!

A central part of the Unitarian Universalist Coming of Age curriculum is the time when we send our youth to various places of worship so that they may experience the culture and practice of different religious traditions. This was a powerful experience for me and perhaps it was what initially got me interested in interfaith engagement. I can’t state this enough, the children and youth in this room and at your congregations are bright and shining symbols of the future before us. They are coming of age, I am coming of age, and yes you too are continuing to spiral down your spiritual path.

Seven billion is a very large number; it takes a certain level of maturity and leadership to build a cohesive global community amidst this diversity. It also takes a certain nuance in religious leadership to address the needs of the day in our religious communities. May our leadership in our churches and wider communities be beacons of hope and promise. May we never stop coming of age, growing in love, or journeying together along our paths of spiritual revolution.

May it be so. Amen.