Pushed Forward By Our Spiritual Ancestors

Rev. David Herndon
First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh
February 28, 2016

Yesterday morning, Cindy and I traveled with our older daughter Rachel to New Brighton, Pennsylvania, which as you may know is located about an hour down the Ohio River near the place where the Beaver River flows into the Ohio River.

The purpose of our visit to New Brighton was to attend a re-enactment of the 1965 March from Selma to Montgomery. This semester, Rachel is taking a course called “Social Movements” and one of the requirements is to attend a social justice rally. At this time of year, social justice rallies can be scarce. As I learned about various events, I would let Rachel know. Eventually, I learned about this particular event through Facebook. It caught Rachel’s interest, and we all decided to go together.

The re-enactment of the march began at Townsend Park, which is located directly across the street from the New Brighton Town Hall. We heard two or three welcoming speeches, and we sang a couple of songs, and then we waited for the march to begin. Despite the distance from Pittsburgh, the three of us encountered two other Unitarian Universalists there, so a total of five Unitarian Universalists were present.

I suppose one would have to say that this re-enactment was more of a commemoration than a literal re-creation. We did not have hundreds of people participating; instead, there were less than seventy-five people present. We did not encounter hostile state troopers; instead, we were escorted by one friendly African-American police officer driving one police car. We did not cross a bridge; instead, we walked down the main street of New Brighton. And we did not end our march at the state capitol; instead, the march ended at the historic Wayman Chapel African Methodist Epsicopal Church, which had been founded in 1837.

At the Wayman Chapel A.M.E. Church, the marchers became a congregation. Cindy, Rachel, and I enjoyed the songs and the prayers and the sermon; and we enjoyed the delicious lunch that was served afterwards in the church basement.

On the drive back to Pittsburgh, we agreed that although the New Brighton march was not an exact duplicate of the 1965 March from Selma to Montgomery, important elements of the 1965 march were nevertheless present. There was a public presence; there was heartfelt singing; there was passionate black leadership; there was gracious hospitality extended by the black participants; there were white allies; and there was a religious foundation for the moral values that were being expressed. Thus, I hope that Rachel’s experience met the requirements for her course. It was certainly a memorable and worthwhile experience for the three of us.

There was one other way that the New Brighton march differed from the 1965 march, namely, no one was killed at New Brighton, whereas three people lost their lives at Selma. Along with Jimmie Lee Jackson, the other two people who experienced violent deaths at the hands of white supremacists were Rev. James Reeb, a Unitarian Universalist minister, and Viola Liuzzo, a Unitarian Universalist lay person.

Rev. James Reeb came to Selma from his home in Boston, and Viola Liuzzo came to Selma from her home in Detroit. But other Unitarian Universalists lived in the Jim Crow South and gathered in their Unitarian Universalist churches on Sunday mornings, sometimes a little uneasily. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was challenging to hold the progressive values of Unitarian Universalism in a region that was so hostile to those values. Last year, Unitarian Universalist minister and historian Rev. Gordon Gibson published a book called Southern Witness: Unitarians and Universalists in the Civil Rights Era. In this book, Gibson tells many stories of faithful courage in the face of sometimes violent opposition. He tells the story of Rev. Don Thompson, minister with the Unitarian Universalist Church of Jackson, Mississippi, who was shot and wounded while walking to his apartment late in the evening on August 23, 1965.[1] Just moments earlier, Rev. Thompson had given a ride home to Johnny Frazier, an African-American member of his church who was planning to attend theological school in September of that year to become a Unitarian Universalist minister. Gordon Gibson also tells the story of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Chattanooga, Tennessee, which had been active in racial justice efforts. Their church building was damaged by fire in 1965 and again in 1967 when Molotov cocktails were thrown into the church.[2] Finally, Gordon Gibson tells the story of Rev. Albert D’Orlando, who served as minister with the First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans, Louisiana, and who had actively promoted racial justice in the larger community.[3] On the evening of March 13, 1965, a firebomb explored just outside his home. And then, two months later on May 11, 1965, another firebomb exploded in the church building, causing extensive damage.

Gordon Gibson’s book provides many other accounts of dedicated and courageous Unitarian Universalists in the South who persevered with their efforts to put their faith into action. I don’t know about you, but I find these stories of dedication and courage deeply inspirational.

Here is another story that tells about dedication and courage in a different way. Here, Rev. John Buehrens retells a story originally told by James Luther Adams, one of the leading Unitarian Universalist theologians of the twentieth century.

In the 1950s, while teaching in Chicago, Adams served on the board of the First Unitarian Church. The minister had already been outspoken about local issues of racial justice. One night, at a meeting from which the minister was absent, one of the trustees began to complain, suggesting that this was politics, not religion, from the pulpit; that it was alienating people, including him and his wife; and that both the minister and church should be "more realistic." When he lapsed into racial slurs, his fellow trustees, including Adams, interrupted.

"What is the purpose of a church?" they asked. Did he want the church only to make people comfortable? Only to confirm them in their prejudices and not morally challenge them?

"Well, no," the so-called "realist" admitted.

"Then what is the purpose of a church?" the others kept asking.

"How should I know?" the man said. "I'm no theologian."

"But you're a member here, and a trustee of this church," said Adams and the others, refusing to let him off the hook.

As Adams tells the story, the discussion continued until about one o'clock, when fatigue combined with the Holy Spirit and the man blurted out. "Well, I guess the purpose of a church is, uh, to get hold of people like me, and change 'em."[4]

“Religion changes people,” says Unitarian Universalist minister Rev. Dan Hotchkiss; “no one touches holy ground and stays the same. Religious leaders stir the pot by pointing to the contrast between life as it is and life as it should be and urging us to close the gap. Religious insights provide the handhold that people need to criticize injustice, rise above [self-centeredness], and take risks to achieve healing in a wounded world. Religion at its best is no friend to the status quo.”

Historically, Unitarian Universalists have been part of the so-called Radical Reformation, along with the Anabaptists, the Quakers, the Dissenters, and other groups who moved the furthest with the Protestant Reformation. We have been no friend to the status quo, theologically but also socially and politically. Our tradition has included people like John Murray, who as we heard during our Time for All Ages brought forth one of the most radical religious ideas of all, namely universal salvation. Our tradition has included William Ellery Channing, who challenged many religious orthodoxies of his day; and the vast majority of the visionary Transcendentalists, including Emerson and Thoreau; and Theodore Parker, who first gave voice to radically democratic phrases such as government of the people, by the people, and for the people as well as the arc of the moral universe bending toward justice; and the Iowa Sisterhood, the female ministers who created radical new ways of understanding religious community in the late nineteenth century; and the religious humanists of the 1930s who once again challenged many religious orthodoxies of their day; and the many Unitarian Universalist ministers who answered Dr. King’s call to join him in Selma in March of 1965 in the struggle for racial justice; and the many women who entered our ministry starting in the 1970s and once again moved us toward new ways of understanding religious community; and our gay and lesbian religious leaders who publicly claimed their identities starting in the 1970s and 1980s and whose witness eventually helped to make marriage equality a reality in the United States; and so many others as well, sometimes well-knows, most of the time not well-known, people who kept our churches going through difficult times and in difficult locations, including those who came before us right here at the First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh. These are our Unitarian Universalist religious ancestors, and their radical witness calls to us, their dedication and courage speaks to us. They ask us to move this tradition forward, not by repeating what they did, not by copying what they did, not even by re-enacting what they did, but by daring to accomplish acts of justice and compassion and hospitality that are just as radical in our time as the acts of justice and compassion and hospitality that they dared to accomplish in their time. And so we are pushed forward by our spiritual ancestors.

James Luther Adams, the Unitarian Universalist theologian I mentioned a few moments ago, largely focused his scholarship and his writing on social ethics. But in that context, he had some worthwhile but challenging things to say to those of us who care about congregations. For example, here is something that Adams said that has guided me throughout my ministry: “The decisive forms of goodness in society are institutional forms.”[5]

I interpret that statement to mean that although it is essential to stay focused on our mission, we also need to support that mission with strong and healthy institutions. Those engaged in community organizing would say something very similar. They would say: Power is organized people and organized money. I might say it yet another way: Our hospitality needs to be just as radical as our theology and our justice work.

Here at the First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh, we could probably benefit from a little more attention to making our church a little stronger, keeping in mind that there is strength in numbers. At the meeting of the Membership Committee this past Thursday, we struggled to imagine how our small group of half a dozen volunteers could possibly do all the tasks of welcoming and including all those who are new or relatively new to First Unitarian Church. Yes, we could double the size of our committee, and in my opinion that is essential. But there is something else that needs to happen. There is something else that needs to happen if we are to keep faith with the boldness of our spiritual ancestors. There is something else that needs to happen if our church is to be decisive form of goodness in society. What needs to happen is a culture change within our religious community, a culture change that will move us toward becoming a more welcoming and more hospitable and more open congregation.

Let’s do a scientific experiment right here and right now. On a scale from one to ten, with one being least and ten being most, how hospitable do you think we are toward guests? How friendly do you think we are toward new people? How welcoming do you think we are toward people we do not already know? Think about that for a moment. Does everyone have their number? You could even write your number down on your order of service, but no peeking at your neighbor’s number. OK, let us begin our scientific experiment. How many people gave us a one, two, or three on the hospitality scale? How many people gave us a four, five, or six on the hospitality scale? How many people gave us a seven, eight, or nine on the hospitality scale? And finally, how many people gave us a ten on the hospitality scale?

Apparently we have some work to do, and we’re going to get started on that work right now. In order to accomplish that culture change, everybody in our church needs to be a member of the Membership Committee. Well, at least an honorary member of the Membership Committee. So here we go. I invite you to stand up. And now, by the power invested in me as senior minister of this Unitarian Universalist religious community, I hereby commission, deputize, appoint, charge, assign, designate, empower, certify, specify, and ordain each and every one of you as Honorary Members of the Membership Committee. In particular, you now have immunity from feeling foolish whenever you approach someone you think is new and learn that this person has actually been a member here for twenty years. In other words, go forth and be friendly. You may be seated.

I would like to close this sermon with two stories from the book Radical Hospitality by Daniel Homan and Lonni Collins Pratt. I offer these stories as a reminder that hospitality is far more profound than simply shaking hands with someone who has a visitor’s nametag, and a reminder that we build religious community one relationship at a time, one person seeking healing and wholeness at a time.

Here is the first story:

Many years ago Lonni and her family lived across the street from a little log cabin. The place was abandoned and in rather rough shape. One autumn, a man moved into the cabin. Lonni’s husband, David, being the outgoing type he is, went over and introduced himself. Lonni, being the introvert she is, did not. Upon his return from the first visit with their new neighbor, Les, David reported that Les was going to fix up the place and sell it.

Lonni didn’t think much more about Les until a few nights later when screaming suddenly cut through the peace of the neighborhood. . . . Lonni got out of bed and went to a bedroom window that was opened just a bit. The screams were coming from the little log house. They were not actually all that loud – loud enough to hear, but not ear-piercing. It was the suffering that was so loud. They were the screams of a grown man.

The next night, Lonni woke up to his screams again. And the next. Then silence for several nights before the screams happened again.

One day, Lonni came home from the office for lunch. It was a cool October day. She took a bowl of chili and a thermos of coffee and some apple cake to Les. She introduced herself. He was a soft-spoken man who looked a bit like Willie Nelson with less hair. Lonni didn’t ask him about the screaming and he didn’t bring up the subject either.

He talked about a marriage that failed and he said he would never marry again. He told her that he had fixed up quite a few old houses. He lived in them, repaired them, sold them to “nice young families for a good price,” and then he moved on. And finally, as he drained the last of the coffee he talked of Vietnam. He said, “I’ll never get out of those fields.”

Les never said the words, but he asked Lonni to understand his screaming. He asked her to give him a chance to repair the house and move a nice family into it. He asked her to be the kind of neighbor who will smile at you in the morning after you have spent the night screaming against the dark. He took a chance by telling her his story and asking her to accept him and live for a season with his suffering. But he never said any of that.

Winter shut the windows and the drapes in the quiet neighborhood. Lonni didn’t hear his screams as often, but when insomnia hit, she would sometimes hear something coming from the locked windows across the street and she would pray for the man who would never stay in one place, because he could never forget another place.[6]

And here is the second story:

It was in the post-Vatican II days, when monasteries all over the country were struggling to find ways to be more open to laity. This particular monk was against such a thing.

“There will be women in shorts running around,” he grumbled. He had gone to the monastery to avoid women in shorts. But he couldn’t stop the strong hand of the Spirit throwing open locked doors in those days, and the laity and the women showed up.

One day Bede was praying in the chapel. From behind him, in the area roped off for visitors, he heard a young woman crying. Her cry pierced his brittle heart, and before he knew what he was doing, he was heading toward the area roped off for visitors.

When he reached the velvet cord, he grabbed it almost in anger. He knew now that love was never meant to be bound. Unhooking the rope, he half-flung it to the floor and moved toward the pew.

The young woman who sat there had not heard him approaching.

“Please,” he asked, “is there anything I can do?”

She looked up into his face, seeing what she would later describe as an exact copy of her father’s face, only older. Her father had cancer and she feared for his life. The father she adored might soon be gone. . . .

The monk soon discovered that the young woman was his granddaughter, which neither the monk nor the girl had known. He had been in a relationship and had intended to marry a young woman before World War II, but had gone off to war. While he was gone her family had forbidden her to marry him. She was expecting a child by then – his son. He went straight from the war to the monastery without ever looking back.

Bede did not know his son was looking for him . . . Then, the son received a call from his daughter saying she had met a monk “who could easily be your twin if you were twenty years older.”

If the monk had kept his heart clenched, he would never have known his granddaughter and would not have been able to be with his son, nursing him back to health. . . . He had to overcome all his worst fears to get past the ropes that kept the suffering girl at a distance. . . . In taking on the pain of others we act in the transformation of the world. We ourselves are changed, and we make a small push against the darkness. We make a difference. [7]

In our own ways, within our comfort zones and sometimes outside of our comfort zones, may we all offer radical hospitality here at First Unitarian Church, and thus may we ensure that we have a strong foundation for building up one another and for building up a more just and compassionate world.



[1] Gordon Gibson, Southern Witness: Unitarians and Universalists in the Civil Rights Era (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2015), p. 194.

[2] Ibid., pp. 119-120.

[3] Ibid., p. 210.

[4] John A. Buehrens and F. Forrester Church, Our Chosen Faith: An Introduction to Unitarian Universalism (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989), pp. 65-66.

[5] James Luther Adams, “Guiding Principles for a Free Faith,” in On Being Human Religiously, edited by Max L. Stackhouse (Boston: Beacon Press, 1976), p. 18. The section of the essay in which this quotation appears is entitled “The Five Smooth Stones of Liberalism.”

[6]Daniel Homan, O.S.B., and Lonni Collins Pratt, Radical Hospitality: Benedict’s Way of Love (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2002), pp. 209-211.

[7]Ibid., pp. 197-200.

Come to be moved and held in mutual embrace. Come and be made whole.
First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh
605 Morewood Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15213
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