The Revolutionary and Countercultural Power of Caring Conversation

Rev. David Herndon
First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh
March 12, 2017



By David Herndon

12 March 2017

First Unitarian Church

Pittsburgh, PA

I will go directly to my main message this morning.  I would like everyone in our congregation to become better acquainted with everyone else in our congregation.  I would like everyone in our congregation to sit down with everyone else in our congregation over lunch or a cup of hot tea and share their stories and their observations and their aspirations.  I would like everyone in our congregation to know the name of everyone else in our congregation as a result of having had a conversation together.

I know.  That is a lot of conversations.  Some of you have heard me do the math before.  We have about four hundred adult members and friends here at the First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh.  If everyone in our church had a conversation with everyone else in our church, we would need to have 79,800 conversations with one another.  (Four hundred times three hundred and ninety-nine divided by two, for those keeping track!)  Each of us would need to have three hundred and ninety-nine conversations for all of us to become acquainted with one another.  If we started today – March 12, 2017 – and each of us had one get-acquainted conversation with someone else in our church community every day, we would not finish until April 15, 2018.

Yes, I have seen this congregation accomplish some remarkable things.  But asking each of us to have one get-acquainted conversation for three hundred and ninety-nine days in a row would be asking too much.  That would move us from the remarkable to the miraculous!

Nevertheless, I am sticking to my message that I would like everyone in our congregation to become better acquainted with everyone else in our congregation.  I have two reasons for this.  One reason is countercultural.  The other reason is revolutionary.

First, the countercultural reason.  After the United States census in the year 2000, social scientists began working their way through the data.  One finding was that approximately one quarter of all households in the United States have just one person.  This means that more people are living alone nowadays than ever before in the entire history of the United States.  Moreover, the General Social Survey of 2004 indicated that approximately half of all residents of the United States have just one person or nobody with whom they can talk about important things.

Rev. Peter Morales, current President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, brought these statistics to the attention of our Unitarian Universalist community back in the mid-2000s.  So these statistics, which paint a picture of a lonely society, were published more than a decade ago.  Nevertheless, these statistics reflect large-scale trends and I would expect that even if things have changed for the better since the mid-2000s, there are still a lot of one-person households and there are still a lot of people who have either just one person or nobody at all with whom they can have trusting conversations.

Here at First Unitarian Church, we are seeking to build a sense of community among ourselves.  We encourage participation in covenant groups, where people can have trusting conversations with others about their deepest concerns and their highest hopes.  We have a Pastoral Care Team which checks in with people who live alone and people who have chronic medical challenges and people who are having troubles in their lives.  We have a Connections Team whose mission is to ensure that everyone in our religious community is sufficiently connected with other people so that no one is left out.  We build community in many other ways as well.

From the perspective of the corner of Ellsworth and Morewood Avenues, we are simply seeking to be a caring community.  But from the larger perspective of census data and the findings of social scientists, we are engaging in countercultural activity.  Where the culture pushes us to eliminate relationships from our lives, here at First Unitarian Church we are pushing back and inviting people to build stronger relationships in our lives.  Where the culture pushes us to focus on shopping and sports and television, we are pushing back and inviting people to focus on values and community.  Because we are theological liberals, we welcome opportunities to engage with the positive aspects of contemporary culture.  But we also criticize contemporary culture when it tells us to be less human.

Next, let’s move on to the revolutionary reason for everyone in our congregation to become better acquainted with everyone else in our congregation.

Given the political landscape in our country today -- where billionaires rule and the democratically expressed will of the people has been thwarted by everything from gerrymandering to the Electoral College to the decision of the Supreme Court in the Citizens United case – given that political landscape, progressive people need to become more organized.

In the context of community organizing, common wisdom is that power is organized people and organized money.  But even in the context of a particular community of faith, such as our own First Unitarian Church, we are stronger when we are together than when we are isolated.

I have come to understand one-on-one conversations as an effective way of bringing people together – as a simple but effective organizing technology.  But given the political landscape in our country today, having a conversation with someone also has a revolutionary dimension.  Through conversation, people can become united in a common cause.  Through conversation, people can learn to trust one another.  Through conversation, people can find the courage they need to bend the arc of history toward justice.  Through conversation, people can find ways to translate values into action.  As Margaret Wheatley says, “There is no power for change greater than a community discovering what it cares about.”

You may be entirely convinced by these two countercultural and revolutionary reasons for building relationships within our church.  But you may still have difficulty following through.  For whatever reasons, our Unitarian Universalist community seems to include a large number of introverts, people who have a rich interior private spiritual life but who may struggle to make connections with others, even with others who share their values.

Pursuant to my vision that everyone in our religious community will become acquainted with everyone else in our congregation, I have invited two beloved members of our church to illustrate both the challenges and the rewards of building a deeper sense of community.

Our first presentation is called “Finding Other Things to Do.”  In this scenario, Susan is a member of the Caring Committee at her church.  The pastor asked her to check in with Jordan, another church member who recently had a medical procedure.

Jordon is still quite uncomfortable in the early stages of his recovery:

JORDAN:  Ohhhhhhhhhhhh!

Susan really wants to help.  She really does.  Really, she does.  But she is also just a little uncomfortable thinking about medical things.

SUSAN:  For example, what if I talked with someone about their sprained ankle and then a sprained ankle happened to me?  Do I really want to take that risk?

When we reach out to someone else about their troubles, we may have to deal with our own responses to that trouble.  In this case, Susan finds that she has other things to do.

SUSAN:  OK, here is my schedule for today.  So far there are just two things on my list:  Water the plants, and check in with Jordan about his medical procedure.  I will water Plant Number One.  Now I will water Plant Number Two.  OK, all done.  Now, what was the other thing on my list for today?  Oh, yes, call Jordan.  Hmmmm.  Actually, I had been thinking that today I would rearrange the clothes in my closet.  And I know that April 15 is still six weeks away, but actually, I had also been thinking that today I would do the taxes.  And actually, I had also been thinking that I would watch reruns of “All in the Family” this evening.  So, maybe I will call Jordan today.  Or, maybe not.

Actually, Susan did call Jordan later in the day, after she rearranged her closet but before she started on the taxes.  And here is one surprising thing she acknowledged in the course of her conversation with Jordan:

SUSAN:  You know, Jordan, my cousin had exactly the same medical challenge that you do.And I saw how it disrupted her life.  So to be honest with you, I had been feeling reluctant to call you just because whenever I thought about calling you I started thinking about my cousin, and that was upsetting to me.  But I also remember how much it meant to her when friends and family reached out to her.

So, good for Susan.  Now let’s move on to our second presentation, which is called “I Don’t Even Know This Person.”  In this scenario, Luke is a member of the Community Committee at his church.  The pastor has asked him to check in with Anna, who began attending the church about six weeks ago.  The purpose of his call?  To offer hospitality; to make a personal connection; to inquire whether Anna would like to join a group at the church.

Luke really wants to help.  He really does.  Really, he does  .But he is a little uncertain about how to proceed.  Let’s listen in as he talks among himself.

LUKE:  To call or not to call?  That is the question, but here is the problem:  I don’t even know this person!  How can I have a meaningful conversation with someone I don’t even know?  And to make matters worse, this person, this Anna, does not even know me!  What will she think if I just call her out of the blue?  What if she is not really interested in the church?  What if she misinterprets the purpose of my call?“  Hey, Anna, this is Luke from the Community Committee at the church.You don’t know me, but . . . Hello?  Hello?”  What if she just hangs up on me like that?  How embarrassing!

Meanwhile, Anna has been having her own internal conversation:

ANNA:You know, I started attending that church six weeks ago, but aside from a message from the pastor, no one has reached out to me at all.  It’s like they haven’t even noticed me.  But the people seem so interesting, and I’d like to get to know some people a little better.

For Luke, there may be some theological confusion.  Early in the theological development of the Christian tradition, religious writers and thinkers identified three different kinds of love.  Eros referred to passionate love.  Philia referred to the deep affection between personal friends.  And agape referred to the willingness to care for others simply because they are human.  Church tradition has usually focused on agape as the ideal.  Accordingly, Dr. King could express non-violent agape love toward his opponents even though they despised him and wanted to hurt him.  In this situation, Luke is taking things a little too personally.  Ideally, Luke’s task would be to reach out to Anna simply because she is another human being with vulnerabilities and aspirations who has come to the church seeking spiritual community and the promise of healing and wholeness that a spiritual community can offer

Let’s listen in as Luke does his best to extend a warm welcome to Anna:

LUKE:  Hey, Anna, this is Luke from the Community Committee at the church.  I’m sure you don’t know me, but on behalf of the church I just wanted to welcome you and find out whether you would like to build a stronger connection with our community.

ANNA:  You know, I think I do remember you.  On Sunday, you were at the front door shaking hands with everyone, even the people you did not know personally.  I was impressed with that.

LUKE:  Well, yes, that was me, and thanks for saying something nice!  I wish I could become personally acquainted with everyone, but at least I can try to offer hospitality to everyone no matter whether I know them or not.  And I’m just one of many at our church who try to do that.

So, good for Luke.  He was able to remove himself from the center of his concern and reach out to Anna in a way that reflected the loving spirit of the church, a loving spirit that welcomed everyone in their always worthy although sometimes challenging human condition

Now let’s move on to our third presentation, which is called “Wow, That Was Really Rewarding.”  In this scenario, Avery and Jonas have made arrangements to have a get-acquainted conversation at a local coffee shop.  Both of them have been members of the church for a few years, but they had never had an opportunity to get acquainted with one another.  So they created an opportunity.

JONAS:  Thanks for making time for this, Avery.

AVERY:  Thanks to you, too.  What could be more important about church than building relationships and creating community?  In any case, what brought you to our church?

Let’s give Avery and Jonas an opportunity to have their conversation out of the public view.  And for the moment, I would offer everyone here this morning the following pledge to get your priorities in the proper order.  Please repeat after me:

I am part of First Unitarian Church.

I care about this community.

I support the values and affirmations of this community.

I understand the power of caring conversations.

I understand that caring conversations can be countercultural

Because they expand our circle of relationships.

I understand that caring conversations can be revolutionary

Because they enable us to put our values into action.

Therefore I promise

To make time in my busy life

For caring conversations.

I will create community by building relationships.

I will have caring conversations with people I already know.

And I will have caring conversations with people I do not yet know.

In this way

I will generate power

That can change lives

And transform the world.

Let’s check in again with Avery and Jonas.  They spoke for nearly an hour while we were reciting our pledge of caring conversations.  I think they are just about done with their conversation.  Let’s hear how it went:

AVERY and JONASWow, that was really rewarding!

Remember your pledge!  And let us thank our dramatic participants this morning!!

© 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
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