The Need for a Transformational Narrative

Rev. David Herndon
First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh
November 8, 2015

Veterans Sunday

One of my ministerial colleagues has spoken about her days as a social justice activist prior to attending theological school. She remembered occasions when she was attending social justice rallies or providing humanitarian service to undocumented immigrants. On these occasions, she found that she was particularly attracted to the religious leaders who were engaged in prayer, sometimes at the center of these events, sometimes at the edges. What particularly moved her was not the soaring sacred rhetoric, not the brilliant, accusatory speeches, not the chanting in the streets. Instead, it was the deep spirituality that made an impression on her – deep spirituality that prompted these religious leaders to take significant risks as they stood for justice and human rights and compassion.

Thirty years later, my Unitarian Universalist ministerial colleague is still deeply engaged in social justice work. No doubt she has discovered and nurtured a spirituality of her own that has sustained her.

We might suppose spirituality and social action as opposite end of a spectrum. We might suppose that soul work and justice work as unrelated pursuits. We might suppose that spirituality people in our church as a very different crowd from the social justice people.

Instead, I have come to believe that spirituality and social action both become stronger when they are connected and interdependent.

In recent weeks, I have been engaged in a conversation with Rev. Robin Zucker, our Assistant Minister, and Steven Mead, our Interim Director of Ministries with Children and Youth. We have been speaking about the spiritual journeys of all of us here at First Unitarian Church. More precisely, we have been speaking about three different parts of our Unitarian Universalist spiritual journeys.

One part of our spiritual journeys is personal and individual. This part has to do with calling or vocation, with our relationship to God or our source of inspiration and purpose, with our individual interior life. At First Unitarian Church, our worship celebrations provide an opportunity for church members and friends to explore this part of their spiritual journeys. Our mission statement uses the term “Inspire” to refer to this part of our spiritual journeys.

A second part of our spiritual journeys is relational or communal. This part has to do with our relationships with people we regard as our spiritual companions. This dimension calls for sharing our stories, experiences, and insights with one another. At First Unitarian Church, our covenant groups are an important opportunity, although not the only opportunity, for church members and friends to develop this part of their spiritual journeys. Our mission statement uses the term “Connect” to refer to this part of our spiritual journeys.

Finally, a third part of our spiritual journeys is directed outward. This part has to do with humanitarian service and justice work. This part has to do with how we live our lives. This part has to do with our interdependence with others, from communities experiencing oppression to our next-door neighbor. At First Unitarian Church, our social action groups are an important opportunity for church members and friends to develop this part of their spiritual journeys, but these groups are not the only opportunity. Our mission statement uses the term “Serve” to refer to this part of our spiritual journeys

In the course of our conversation, Robin, Steven, and I found that we shared the view that all three of these parts of our spiritual journeys are mutually reinforcing, and that all three are essential for a healthy and balanced Unitarian Universalist life. Perhaps we could think of these three parts of our spiritual journeys as vitamins – Vitamin I for Inspire, Vitamin C for Connect, and Vitamin S for Serve. Then one could say that a healthy and balanced Unitarian Universalist life requires Vitamin I, Vitamin C, and Vitamin S. Alternatively, in more poetic language, one could say that living a healthy and balanced Unitarian Universalist life means that we wonder daily, love radically, and serve gratefully.

This may sound reasonable, appropriate, even pleasant. But listen a little more carefully, for this way of understanding our spiritual journeys may be surprisingly demanding.

What surprising demands might we encounter when we understand our spiritual journeys as having three inseparable and interdependent parts?

The first surprising demand of this view of our spiritual journeys is that we do not grow spiritually in isolation. Vitamin I for Inspire is essential, but Vitamin C for Connect is also essential, and Vitamin S for serve is also essential. Becoming inspired without also connecting and serving is not our brand of spirituality. Becoming inspired alone on the lonely mountaintop in isolation from other human beings omits significant portions of our human context. To be sure, we may find spiritual renewal in solitude, we may find it refreshing to be alone out in the natural world, and we may find that spiritual practices such as meditation leave us feeling centered and patient. Nevertheless, for us as Unitarian Universalists, these are temporary sojourns, and eventually we bring our Inspiration with us back into our communities where we can Connect and Serve.

Here is another way to say this: If your spirituality does not eventually express itself in humanitarian service or justice work or just being kind to those you encounter, perhaps your spirituality is too narrow. You can pray, you can sit quietly, you can read poetry, you can create an altar or shrine in your home, you can dance or hike or exercise, you can read holy texts, you can believe in zero, one, or more than one divine beings, you can believe that you are a random collection of waves and particles or you can believe that the divine light of the universe shines through you and through everyone. But if your spirituality does not call you to Connect, if your spirituality does not call you to Serve, then maybe it is insufficiently healthy and balanced. Maybe you are missing some essential spiritual vitamins.

The second surprising demand of this view of our spiritual journeys is that we do not Serve well as Unitarian Universalists without being Inspired. In other words, our service to the world needs to have spiritual depth, spiritual roots, a spiritual foundation. Vitamin S for serve is essential for a healthy and balanced Unitarian Universalist life, but Vitamin I for Inspire is also essential. I am thinking again of my ministerial colleague who found that as a social justice activist, she was attracted to the religious leaders who were engaged in prayer at justice events. Perhaps she observed spiritually-based personal qualities in these people – spiritually-based personal qualities such as compassion, humility, radical hospitality, hope. To be sure, social justice work needs to be tough and courageous and unyielding and sometimes even angry when it confronts the powers and principalities of this world. As Unitarian Universalists, however, we are more effective doing our social justice work when we can be mindful of affirming and promoting the inherent worth and dignity of all people, when we can recognize our interdependence with all people, and so on.

With that as background, I would now invite you to turn your attention to the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network, or PIIN. First Unitarian Church was at the table when this congregation-based community organizing group was founded fifteen years ago. We have been members ever since. PIIN has made it possible for people in our congregation to become involved in several significant social justice issues in our city. PIIN has also made it possible for people in our congregation to become acquainted with people we might not otherwise encounter. Speaking personally, attending the week-long community organizing training that PIIN offers was for me a life-transforming experience.

For many years, PIIN worked on a variety of local concerns. PIIN was certainly doing many good things, but in a somewhat disjointed way.

That has all changed. PIIN is one of about fifty congregation-based community organizing groups that work together under the leadership of the Chicago-based Gamaliel Foundation. Over the last year, the Gamaliel Foundation decided that it would have a single focus – ending structural racism. This transformation culminated last June in Detroit when representatives from all the Gamaliel affiliates met together with national Gamaliel leaders.

Those who attended that meeting were introduced to the so-called Dominant Narrative. Rooted in oppressive cultural practices and political structures going back four hundred years, the Dominant Narrative represents the views of religious and social and political conservatives – the opposite of Unitarian Universalism and the opposite of PIIN. The Dominant Narrative appears on a blue sheet of paper in your order of service. You can read it in detail when you have a few moments. You will find that it is racist and oppressive and inhumane. You will also find that the words and phrases of the Dominant Narrative have become so familiar in the United States that we can repeat them without really thinking. That’s how narratives work: they get inside us, and they shape our views of the world.

On the back of the Dominant Narrative is the Transformational Narrative written by Gamaliel Foundation leaders after recording comments from focus groups involving hundreds of Gamaliel activists.

Please read it with me. You do not have to read the parts that you may disagree with.

Personally, I find this to be an exciting and refreshing document. It is focused. It calls us to action. It provides a big dose of Vitamin S for Serve, but it also includes Vitamin I for Inspire and Vitamin C for Connect. And it can bring us, as Unitarian Universalists, into coalition with other progressive congregations.

This Transformational Narrative will be presented at the PIIN Public Action at 7:00 PM on Wednesday, November 18, just up the street at Rodef Shalom. PIIN leaders would like to have two thousand people present for this Public Action. Regarding that turnout, one of the PIIN ministers offered this challenge: we gather for worship fifty-two Sundays each year; for just one evening, why could we not gather the same number of people to promote justice and human rights? Accordingly, PIIN leaders at our church have set a goal of having one hundred and fifty people from our church attend the PIIN Public Action ten days from now.

This would be a really good way to get some Vitamin S for Service into your life. You do not have to attend monthly committee meetings to get this Vitamin S. You do not have to inform yourself by reading books or attending lectures to get this Vitamin S. You do not have to prepare a meal or make things to get this Vitamin S. You do not have to risk getting arrested to get this Vitamin S. You just have to show up. PIIN leaders at our church will even serve dinner from 5 to 6 PM on Wednesday, November 18, just prior to the Public Action.

Wonder daily. Love radically. Serve gratefully.

Vitamin I for Inspire. Vitamin C for Connect. Vitamin S for Serve.

This Unitarian Universalist church invites you to advance along your spiritual journey in all three of these ways. All three of these ways are essential for a healthy and balanced Unitarian Universalist life. One part is developing a stronger relationship with your source of inspiration, however you understand and name that source. A second part is developing a stronger relationship with others in a religious community that can accept you as you are and encourage you to become more than you have been. A third part is developing a stronger relationship with the world around you, that is, developing the public dimension of your life, and thereby serving the world around you with persistence and humility. These three parts of a healthy and balanced Unitarian Universalist life are mutually reinforcing and they are interdependent.

Wonder daily. Love radically. Serve gratefully.

Vitamin I for Inspire. Vitamin C for Connect. Vitamin S for Serve.

Attending the PIIN Public Action on Wednesday, November 18, is not the only way to get enough Vitamin S for Serve. There are many ways for all of us to put our faith into action. There are many ways to promote our Unitarian Universalist values in our daily lives. Here at First Unitarian Church, you could join forces with the Green Sanctuary Committee. You could attend the annual meeting of the Unitarian Universalist Pennsylvania Legislative Advocacy Network in Harrisburg on Saturday, November 14. You could participate in the Alternative Gift Market later this month and in December. You could help prepare a meal for the homeless shelter at East End Cooperative Ministry. The PIIN Public Action simply offers one opportunity to be part of something powerful and collective on a single evening. Please sign up with one of the members of the PIIN/UUPLAN Bridge Team.

Wonder daily. Love radically. Serve gratefully.

Vitamin I for Inspire. Vitamin C for Connect. Vitamin S for Serve.

They are all essential. They are all interdependent with one another. They are the mission of our church.

© 2015 by David Herndon


Come to be moved and held in mutual embrace. Come and be made whole.
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