The Paradox of Welcome

Rev. David Herndon
First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh
September 24, 2017


By David Herndon

24 September 2017

First Unitarian Church

Pittsburgh, PA

Dag Hammarskjold served as Secretary-General of the United Nations from 1953 to 1961.  Hammarskjold died in an airplane crash during a negotiating mission in Africa.  Evidence suggests that his airplane was shot down by colonial interests to which he was deeply opposed.  Hammarskjold kept a spiritual diary from the age of twenty until his death at the age of fifty-six.  This spiritual diary was published with the title Markings in the 1960s.

One entry in Markings was this:

If only I may grow:  firmer, simpler, quieter, warmer.

As Secretary-General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarksjold had tremendous influence on the course of world events.  He could have thirsted for power and pursued grandiosity.  Instead, these were his modest aspirations:  “If only I may grow:firmer, simpler, quieter, warmer.”

In the story about the Monkey King that we heard earlier this morning, we encountered a similar attitude on the part of a leader.  The priority for the Monkey King was not his own comfort, not his own pleasures, not his own preferences, but rather the safety and well-being of the community that he served.  Recently I encountered this description of leadership: “Leadership is not simply taking charge, but taking care of those in your charge.”  That may not be the whole story of leadership, but it surely is an important part of leadership.

Starting this past Wednesday evening, our Jewish friends and neighbors have been celebrating the Jewish holidays known as the Days of Awe.  This interval of ten days begins with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and concludes with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

The ceremony marking the Day of Atonement invites participants to reflect on situations in the preceding year where they may have acted in self-centered, thoughtless, or egotistical ways – that is, situations where one has been insufficiently concerned about the rights and the well-being of others.

This morning, in accord with our spiritual theme for September, which is Welcome, I am inviting all of us to adopt the sprit that is presented in the writings of Dag Hammarskjold, in the story of the Monkey King, and in the Day of Atonement with regard to welcoming others.  For each of us, I offer this invitation or challenge:  See if you can make a little more room for others by taking up a little less space for yourself.

Our church is one of two hundred Unitarian Universalist churches that belong to the Soul Matters Sharing Circle.  The Soul Matters Sharing Circle provides opportunities for our churches to share worship resources, religious education resources, music resources, and covenant group resources, all connected to a set of monthly spiritual themes.  Here is what the leaders of Soul Matters said about Welcoming, our spiritual theme for September:  “Welcoming regularly involves the smallness of humility and willingness to learn and listen.  The great spiritual teachers remind us that they key to feeling at home in the universe is seeing ourselves as a tiny but precious part of a greater whole, rather than believing that the whole world revolves around us.  Downsizing and living simply allows us to welcome in more experience, adventure, and peace.  And, of course, there’s also the work of downsizing our egos enough to admit mistakes, ask for forgiveness, and welcome in the work of repair.”

This is the paradox of welcome:  sometimes we have to become smaller as individuals so that we can become larger as a community.

It might help if we were to consider the opposite of what I am suggesting.  Years ago, Unitarian Universalist minister Roger Brewin wrote this new verse to a familiar hymn tune:

I come to church to find a way

To get my needs met every day.

I wish these other folks would see

This church exists to service me.

Keep in mind, folks, that this is the OPPOSITE of the attitude I am suggesting.

You might be saying, “Why is this minister pointing out our faults and shortcomings?  That’s what I have always disliked about religion – this holier-than-thou attitude, this constant criticism.  Why can’t we focus on original blessing rather than original sin?”  Speaking in the spirit of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, Rabbi Harold Kushner has said:  “Religion sets high standards for us and urges us to grow morally in our efforts to meet those standards.  Religion tells us, ‘You could have done better; you can do better.’  But listen closely to that message.  Those are words of encouragement, not condemnation.  They are a compliment to our ability to grow, not a criticism of our tendency to make mistakes.  We misunderstand the message of religion if we hear it as a message of criticism . . .”

Yesterday afternoon Cindy and I attended a production of “The Scottsboro Boys” at the Pittsburgh Playhouse, which is used by Point Park University for its dramatic presentations.  As you may have learned, but probably not in one of your history classes in school, nine African-American teenagers ages 12 to 19 were falsely accused in 1931 of sexually assaulting a white woman in Scottsboro, Alabama.  A series of trials took place over the next few years, with all-white juries in Alabama declaring guilty verdicts and courts overturning those verdicts.  None of the so-called “Scottsboro Nine” experienced life in particularly pleasant ways.

“The Scottsboro Boys” opened on Broadway in 2010, commemorating a story that had begun seventy-nine years earlier.  The creators of this production used a truly remarkable dramatic device to provide both musical interest and twisting irony.  The device was to frame the entire production as a minstrel show.

As you may know, minstrel shows peaked in popularity in the 1840s.  They poked fun at African American people, reinforcing negative racist stereotypes.  White actors appeared in blackface in minstrel shows.  By 1910, professional minstrel shows had largely been replaced by vaudeville, except that amateur productions of minstrel shows continued even into the 1960s.

I personally found it quite unsettling and uncomfortable to watch the tragic tale of injustice unfold against the hollow, clanging, clownish minstrel show music.  It was unsettling and uncomfortable to see how the deeply offensive minstrel show of the nineteenth century, so widely accepted as a normal, unremarkable form of entertainment throughout white American culture, helped create the deeply entrenched mindset that led to the miscarriage of justice in Scottsboro in the 1930s.  I expect this response from a white person was exactly what the creators of the show had in mind.  In the language of community organizing, this was an agitation.

But just because I found the show unsettling and uncomfortable does not mean that I object to it.  And just because I found the show unsettling and uncomfortable does not mean that I will walk around feeling perpetually accused and perpetually ashamed.  Instead, I think of it as pointing me further along my personal path of spiritual growth.  To paraphrase Rabbi Harold Kushner, what I experienced was encouragement, not criticism.  What I experienced was a vote of confidence in my ability to grow, not despairing insistence that I am forever stuck.  Agitation can be a gift.  Someone has observed that in sports, you can feel reassured when the coaches are still yelling at you, for it means they have not yet given up on you.

In the membership class that took place yesterday morning, we noted that in the history of Unitarian Universalism, we Unitarian Universalists have often set forth aspirational goals that have taken time to attain.  We are proud to claim that in 1863, the Universalist Church in Racine, Wisconsin, ordained Olympia Brown as a minister, the first instance of any woman being ordained with full denominational authority.  But in was not until the 1970s, more than a century later, that significant numbers of women entered our professional ministry and found churches that would call them to their pulpits.  One of our most respected ministers, who passed away a few years ago, was called to serve one of our larger congregations in the Midwest as assistant minister.  Nobody knew that he was a gay man.  And if anyone had known he was a gay man, he would have been quickly dismissed from that settlement.  Years later, however, once our Unitarian Universalist community had done enough spiritual growth, this minister emerged from the closet and became deeply admired and widely appreciated.  Still, when I arrived at First Unitarian Church in 1990, a survey administered to the congregation showed that a significant number of church members would not have been comfortable with a gay or lesbian minister.  In 1965, at the height of the Civil Rights movement, the number of Unitarian Universalist ministers who joined Dr. King in Selma was the largest of any faith community.  But just a few years later, at the height of the Black Power movement, our Unitarian Universalist community faltered in what became known as the Black Empowerment Controversy.  Since that time, many Unitarian Universalists have become involved in the struggle for racial justice; and yet, this past spring we still had a significant controversy about hiring practices at the Unitarian Universalist Association.  On and on it goes.  We set high standards for ourselves; we feel disappointment when we do not live up to those high standards; we try again, hoping that we can learn and grow.  From a distance, we look back and feel pride.  In the moment, the leaders may feel alternately terrified and demoralized, while the rest of us feel attacked, annoyed, uncomfortable, and, in the end, maybe relieved and maybe proud.

The work of Welcome is more than simply shaking hands and saying a cheerful, “Good morning!”  It can mean discovering that your preferences about how church ought to be done and your assumptions about how church ought to feel are not necessarily always at the center of church life.  It means having some humility about culture.  It may mean being less vocal and less judgmental and less bothered by different ways.  It may mean taking up less psychological space so that others can find their way into our community on their own terms.  Not that we should stop shaking hands and saying a cheerful “Good morning!”  But it might mean taking the time, more time than you might have thought necessary, more time that you might have thought you had available, to listen carefully and thoughtfully and compassionately and respectfully to the response when you ask, “So what brings you to our church this morning?”

We can totally do this.  As Unitarian Universalists, we have proven to ourselves that we can.  We may need a reminder, a prompt, a word of encouragement from time to time.  We may need to express our puzzlement about how to proceed from time to time.  We may need to acknowledge that we have been moved out of our comfort zones and we are feeling uncomfortable.  But what our faith tradition tells us is that we can learn, and we can grow, and we can find ways to take positive steps toward becoming the people our Unitarian Universalist values call us to be.

© 2017 by David Herndon


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
(412) 621-8008     Map and directions
Worship Services
10:30 AM
Office Hours
9:30 AM to 4:30 PM
Tuesday - Friday
Stay Connected
Sign up for our Weekly News Email
Read The Chalice, our monthly newsletter