First Unitarian Church of Baltimore

Rev. David Carl Olson

Rev. David Carl Olson

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Mr. Parker's Discourse

Tuesday, 25 August 2015 17:42 Published in The Minister's blog

This sermon was preached by our minister on August 23, 2015 during our Sunday morning service.

Unitarian Identity: Mr. Parker’s Discourse

It strikes me that the three documents I’ve been studying this month and sharing with you in sermons on our Unitarian Identity in the past two Sundays and today were all sermons themselves. All were prepared originally to mark the rites of passage into Unitarian public leadership. William Ellery Channing’s 1819 sermon, “Unitarian Christianity,” was preached in Baltimore to welcome Jared Sparks to the primary leadership position at one of our two predecessor congregations, First Independent Church of Baltimore, which would merge in the 1930s with Second Universalist to become the church we have today. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1838 Divinity School Address would encourage six divinity school graduates as they prepare to go into the world and take on the mantle of Unitarian leadership as ministers. And today’s matter of study is the 1841 sermon by Theodore Parker, the minister of Second Church in Roxbury, Massachusetts, “A Discourse on the Transient and Permanent in Christianity,” a sermon preached at the ordination of Charles C. Shackford to the ministry of the Hawes Place Congregational Society in South Boston, Massachusetts.

It may be a part of our Unitarian character that we take a deep breath, as it were, when we set aside time to be together to mark publicly the setting aside of some of our leaders for primary leadership. We don’t hold a theology that, as in the case of Roman Catholicism, exactly equates ordination for the priesthood with marriage for the laity; we don;t have much of a system of specifying certain acts as sacramental evidence of God’s grace; but we do set aside time at ordinations and installations so that we might learn; so that we might reflect together on the greater questions of our faith, of our churches, of the culture we inhabit, of our lives.

And we allow for substantial discourse! Mr. Channing, Mr. Emerson and Mr. Parker each gave a sermon of ten to twelve thousand words, about an hour and a half to deliver each one—and I did, in the pulpit in our Sanctuary, in the course of my study! We allow our pastor-scholars at these important public occasions a chance to reflect deeply on the subjects they choose, and we expect to be given something to think about.

Theodore Parker, one of the leading members of the Transcendentalist Club, was a startling personality. During his ministry in Boston, the 28th Congregational Society formed at the Odeon Theater, and then constructed the Boston Music Hall as a place for Parker’s preaching. This 3,000 seat hall included space on its stage for some 300 leaders. You may have seen the lithographs of those days, and the astonishing thing was that those 300 people on stage represent the membership of the church.  The thousands in the auditorium floor and loges are visitors—many repeat visitors—the public who came to church no longer because of Puritanical social requirements, but for their own moral uplift, and entertainment.

Preaching to 7,000 people a weekend was a great opportunity and a huge challenge, and Parker met that challenge by overwork. Here’s what Rev. Dr. Carl Gregg, minister of the UU church in Frederick and teacher of UU history at Wesley Seminary recently wrote: 

Unitarian minister Theodore Parker (1810-1860), “The great orator and important abolitionist . . . often credited with giving one of the three most influential sermons in Unitarian history” on “The Transient and the Permanent in Christianity” also worked himself to the point of exhaustion. To take just one example, in the 28 months leading up to a desperately-needed, year-long sabbatical, Parker “read at least 109 books (most of them scholarly tomes in languages other than English, and many of them multivolume), preached 221 times, lectured at least 64 times, wrote 194 sermons and 14 lectures, and published over 2,000 pages of material, including 3 pamphlets, 3 lengthy articles for the Dial, and 3 books” (Dean Grodzin, American Heretic). . . . [Parker] was forced into an early retirement because of ill health, eventually developed tuberculosis, and died at the far too young age of 50.

The sermon itself, “A Discourse on the Transient and Permanent in Christianity,” makes the startling assertion—that if all we have of the religion about Jesus were to pass away, all sects and orders, all theologies and philosophies, all moral codes and even all Scriptures—if all were the pass away, Christianity still would be in the Truth that Jesus exhibited in his own life. That which is permanent in what Jesus revealed is our capacity to know God directly, as he did, and to practice loving God with all our hearts and all our minds, and all our strength; and of loving our neighbor as ourselves. And for this, the man who made church in a music hall, the transient customs and institutions were on the one hand unnecessary, and on the other hand sure to pass away.

For a person like me who depends on the institutional church for my very livelihood (and some day even my retirement), this is a frightening notion, that our institutions are only transient accidents of a permanent truth; but remember Parker’s reality. The religion he practiced was the institutional church of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, since 1620 in Plymouth, since 1629 in Salem and 1630 in Boston; and it remained the established religion for over 200 years until it was disestablished in 1833, not a decade before Mr. Parker’s discourse. The congregation he addressed in Hawes Place was itself discovering the challenge of needing to live on its own resources—the substantial resources of a wealthy congregation, including the Hawes family that built the church, but no longer the system of public taxation that had supported the Standing Order of established churches. No. Something transient had passed away. The permanent needed to be asserted.

Mr. Parker challenges assumptions. Is the Bible permanent, for example. Isn’t that the inspired word of God which is eternal? No, says Parker. The Bible is a collection of oriental poetry and mythological history, creative prophecy and rudimentary law; but the Bible is internally inconsistent, understandable as coherent only by the construction of a secondary interpretive structure, one which, in the case of Protestantism, diminishes the meaning of the Hebrew text in itself to point to the Greek scriptures around the life of the Jew Jesus. The Bible itself, read with faith, has an interpretive coherence for a people in a time; but the discoveries of the 2nd century differ from the conclusions of the 6th century, metamorphose in the 11th century, get to be studied anew in the 19th century—the interpretive constructs are transient. 

The institutional church: transient, not permanent. The Bible: transient, not permanent. What about Jesus? Certainly he has to be one of the “permanents” in Christianity. Shocking to his listeners, even the person of Jesus is not permanent, to Parker. 

On its face, this is true for all of us. Our existence on this earth is just a moment, in the grand scheme of things. “For a thousand years in the thy sight are but as yesterday, and as a watch in the night,” says the Psalmist. Our lives are the blink of God’s eye; the man Jesus walked on theis earth not a full live’s length. And then he was gone.

And the story of the life of Jesus, again, is full of contradiction as it is told from disparate points of view by witnesses who may have not witnessed events at all but passed on what they were told or what they invented. What is a miracle story may be a teaching tool; what is a birth narrative may be a theological assertion; what is a philosophical treatise is but the working out of temporary answers to time-bound questions.

If Christianity is to be based on the Person of Jesus, we are lost; because the Person of Jesus is transient, not permanent.

But if Christianity is built on what Jesus discovered that we may discover; if it is built on a great and enduring Truth, a grand Permanence, then we may use Christianity to find ourselves the great Permanent Truth that undergirds human life.

Of course, what undergirds human life for this Transcendentalist is Nature. Not our theories of nature, not the sciences we create to dissect and understand and maybe control nature, not our natural constructs; but Nature herself. Nature (even as I anthropomorphism her and give her a gender), nature is permanent. 

Now the true system of Nature which exists in the outward facts, whether discovered or not, is always the same thing, though the philosophy of Nature, which men invent, change[s] every month, and be one thing at London and the opposite at Berlin. Thus there is but one system of Nature as it exists in fact, though many theories of Nature, which exist in our imperfect notions of that system, and by which we may approximate and at length reach it. Now there can be but one Religion which is absolutely true, existing in the facts of human nature, and the ideas of Infinite God. . .


Like the clouds of the sky, they are here to-day; gone to-morrow, all swept off and vanished; while Christianity itself, like the heaven above, with its sun, and moon, and uncounted stars, is always over our head, though the cloud sometimes debars us of the needed light. It must of necessity be the case that our reasonings, and therefore our theological doctrines, are imperfect, and so perishing. It is only gradually that we approach to the true system of Nature by observation and reasoning, and work out our philosophy and theology by the toil of the brain. But meantime, if we are faithful, the great truths of morality and religion, the deep sentiment of love to man and love to God, are perceived intuitively, and by instinct, as it were, though our theology be imperfect and miserable. . . .

Compare the simpleness of Christianity, as Christ sets it forth on the Mount, with what is sometimes taught and accepted in that honored name ; and what a difference. One is of God ; one is of man. There is something in Christianity which sects have not reached ; something that will not be won, we fear, by theological battles, or the quarrels of pious men ; still we may rejoice that Christ is preached in any way. The Christianity of sects, of the pulpit, of society, is ephemeral — a transitory fly. It will pass off and be forgot. . . .

If we look carelessly on the ages that have gone by, or only on the surfaces of things as they come up before us, there is reason to fear ; for we confound the truth of God with the word of man. So at a distance the cloud and the mountain seem the same. When the drift changes with the passing wind, an unpracticed eye might fancy the mountain itself was gone. But the mountain stands to catch the clouds, to win the blessing they bear, and send it down to moisten the fainting violet, to form streams which gladden valley and meadow, and sweep on at last to the sea in deep channels, laden with fleets. Thus the forms of the church, the creeds of the sects, the conflicting opinions of teachers, float round the sides of the Christian mount, and swell and toss, and rise and fall, and dart their lightning, and roll their thunder, but they neither make nor mar the mount itself. Its lofty summit far transcends the tumult ; knows nothing of the storm which roars below ; but burns with rosy light at evening and at morn ; gleams in the splendors of the mid-day sun ; sees his light when the long shadows creep over plain and moorland, and all night long has its head in the heavens, and is visited by troops of stars which never set, nor veil their face to ought so pure and high. 

The South Boston sermon was not heard in 1841 the way we might hear it today. The more conservative Unitarians (remember, the people who had been upholding the Standing Order) were shocked by some of Mr. Parker’s departures; but the fact that these departures were aired in public with other voices present was, for many Unitarian, difficult shaming. Three guests, a Baptist, a Methodist, and a Trinitarian Congregationalist, published the following statement that helped isolate Mr. Parker and the Transcendentalists from the Unitarian mainstream:

We the undersigned, being present by special invitation at the recent ordination of Rev. Charles C. Shackford as pastor of the Hawes Place Congregational Society in the Twelfth Ward of the City of Boston, heard a sermon preached by Rev. Theodore Parker of Spring Street, Roxbury, in which sentiments were advanced so contrary to our ideas of Christianity that we feel ourselves constrained by a solemn sense of duty to which we owe the Church of Christ, to inquire whether the Unitarian clergymen of Boston and vicinity sympathize with the preacher in his opinions as expressed join that occasion.

 You may know that many did not. And Mr. Parker, isolated from the Unitarian mainstream, found his ministry in his work for abolition of slavery, in his leadership among the Transcendentalists, and in his enormous and influential public pulpit.

This weekend, five people from our congregation are participating the the Jubilee Anti-Racism workshop offered among congregations in the national capitol region. Ginny Slothaur-Hudnall, Melissa Feliciano, Lynda Davis, Laura Laing and I are doing some of the work that needs to be done for us to be part of the transformation of our lives, of our church, and of the Unitarian Universalist Association toward an anti-racist reality.  (I myself will be leaving to get back to Bethesda as soon as the final hymn is sung!)

During our work this week, I was reminded of that peculiar moment in Unitarian history: when the US Senator from South Carolina, Unitarian John C. Calhoun, charter member of All Souls Church in Washington DC, proposed the Fugitive Slave Act as a part of the Compromise of 1850; when President of the United States, Unitarian Millard Fillmore, signed the Fugitive Slave Act into law; and when Unitarian Theodore Parker swore that he would meet the request for the guarantee of freedom by any fugitive slave with the loaded pistol that he kept in his desk. Parker would provide aid to anyone seeking freedom—even a lawbreaker. This set of contradictions in Unitarianism between an apologist for slavery, a conciliator with slavery, and a staunch abolitionist, represents the breadth of our movement at a particular time. It represents our social location in the halls of power, too; and the contradictions of an identity that finds itself in religious and political pluralism. There are some who see Fillmore’s act as taken in deference to his office and as a way to limit and gradually begin to dismantle slavery. Parker’s influence along with other abolitionists led to decisions by the governments of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, New York and Ohio to refuse to enforce the Fugitive Slave law. And thus Calhoun’s people began to advocate against “state’s rights,” demanding, instead, that the state police and state militias of those dissenting states be required to enforce federal law. The Civil War began, then, as a fight against state’s rights, in favor of federal control specifically to enforce slavery. A century later, those re-writing history would argue that the Civil War was about “state’s rights,” which it certainly was not; but then again, they were arguing in the 1950s and 60s for states rights against a federal power that was enforcing desegregation laws. This, of course, is the matter for another sermon; but the figure of Theodore Parker and his own bravery in defending the fugitive in spite of transient human-constructed laws in favor of permanent, divinely-granted law I find coherent with his sermon.

Finally, if you will allow me, I offer Parker’s own words about the relationship between a congregation and the minister that they call. See if you think this is true.

Your own conduct and character, the treatment you offer this young man, will in some measure influence him. The hearer affects the speaker. There were some places where even Jesus “did not many mighty works, because of their unbelief.” . . .

But, on the other hand, you may encourage your brother to tell you the truth. Your affection will then be precious to him ; your prayers of great price. Every evidence of your sympathy will go to baptize him anew to Holiness and Truth. You will then have his best words, his brightest thoughts, and his most hearty prayers. He may grow old in your service, blessing and blest. He will have 

“The sweetest, best of consolation,
The thought, that he has given,
To serve the cause of Heaven,
The freshness of his early inspiration.”

Choose as you will choose; but weal or woe depends upon your choice. 

Blessed be.

Sabbath's Call

Friday, 19 June 2015 19:26 Published in The Minister's blog

Dear members and friends of this community that yearns to earn the name "Beloved,"

"Rev" here. I am sitting in my study watching the shadows grow as we approach the Jewish sabbath. Rabbi Elizabeth Richman reminds us that the Hebrew bible reading tonight would begin with a psalm of praise, "O Come, Let us sing to the Lord/Let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation."

In the light of the horrific attack on Christian people in their house of worship studying the bible in Charleston, SC two nights ago, I wonder how it is possible to make a joyful noise. How is it ever possible to point at some divinity as "the Rock."

Instead, I think we need to reveal "the Rock," and unleash the solidarity that is in our hearts, the promise to stand with others in prayer, yes, and in doing the work of justice that we might remove the power of racism and the brokenness it creates in our hearts and in our culture. I think we show our desire for justice by working to control the guns that are in our society. I think we affirm our respect for the interdependence of all existence by stopping to examine our own heart-minds, by recommitting to a more compassionate way of being in the world, and even by seeking the Spirit that our AME sisters and brothers sought in their study and devotion.

My heart is broken, dear friends. I think of our UU co-religionists in Charleston, and I wonder how they are. Beyond my meager expressions of love for them in e-mail and texts, what still can we do?

Personally, I will take some time in contemplation and deep breathing. I will sit in the back yard tonight in the darkness, awaiting the coming of Midsomar (Mid-Summer). I'll look for the green man in the garden (and may even wear a few ferns myself). And I'll light nine candles, nine silent and burning witnesses to the lives snuffed out. I'll wonder in amazement at the spirituality of the family member who said "I forgive you" to the man who shot down a relative. I'll consider the strength of my own faith, and prepare just a few more words for Sunday's homily about a fallen freedom fighter, the late Leslie Feinberg, transgender leader. And I'll think of the Love that sustains us, that is my Rock, that you have shown me in our life together.

With deep gratitude,
David Carl Olson
The Kids Call Me 'Rev'"

Old Men Dream Dreams

Saturday, 13 June 2015 15:29 Published in The Minister's blog

Rev. David Carl Olson preached the following sermon at the Service In Memoriam of Rev. David C. Casey on June 13, 2015 from the pulpit of Wayland Baptist Church, where Rev. Dr. Hoffman F. Brown III serves as Pastor and First Servant. Rev. Casey was the Executive Director of BRIDGE Maryland, the congregation-based community organization co-created by First Unitarian and over a dozen other congregations fourteen yeras ago.  

I take for my text this morning the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, verses 16 and 17. The Apostle Peter says,

“This is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:
‘In the last days it will be, adonai declares,
That I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.’”

Those words were spoken on the day of Pentecost. Seven weeks of seven days after the events that forever changed the lives of the women and men who followed Jesus, they experienced something new. Some thought it might be public drunkenness, but the followers of the Nazarene called it God. A Spirit that gave them a new way of looking at their world, a new way of looking at their work in the world. It was a moment that looked backward and forward, backward at the things that they held dear, forward at something that was yet to come. The prophet Joel was somehow speaking again in Peter, speaking about a new day of the coming of God.

Pentecost is not a subject that a Unitarian Universalist minister speaks about very often. The notion a people being swept up into such a spiritual frenzy that the crowd is filled with amazement and confusion—no, we Unitarian Universalists like our messages clear, ordered, intellectually challenging, and reasonable. Oh yes. So Reasonable.

But life is not always clear. Life is not easily ordered. The challenges that we face are not just intellectual bouts, but matters of broken hearts and busted bodies, of incompleteness and disappointment, reflecting what the Buddha said, that “all life is suffering.” And no, life is just not reasonable; and death is not something we can reason away.

No, Pentecost is exactly what we need when we face death.
A coming of the spirit into our consciousness. A revivification of our intentions. A recommitment to our calling as people of faith—faith in God for many of us, faith in the promise of democracy for all of us in this country, faith in each other when we prove that we are faithful. We need a coming of the Spirit that will unite us with power to do the work of what the Jews call tikkun olam, the healing of this world.

The Jews. These Pentecost participants. The Greek scripture calls them “devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.” These Jews were already expecting Pentecost. For them, the holiday is called Shavu’oth, the Feast of Weeks. Seven weeks of seven days after Pesach, Passover, the Jewish people celebrate Shavu’oth. Where on Passover they eat unleavened bread, on Pentecost, they eat leavened bread made from the first harvest of the spring barley. They drink milk and honey, and celebrate the giving of the Torah, the Law of Moses, delivered to the Hebrews not when they had reached the Promised Land, but when they were in the desert, when they were on the journey, when they were in confusion; on Sinai, tradition tells us, God revealed God’s own self, the divine presence of adonai, to Moshe, the chosen leader, Moses we call him. “I am who am,” “I cause what I cause,” “I will be what I will be,” the Sovereign of the Universe reached down to inscribe the Torah on the tablets, and thus gave order to chaos, gave direction to the wanderers, gave a promise of deliverance that would not be denied.

Those faithful people in Jerusalem, that city under occupation by the Roman empire, looked to Shavu’oth, looked to the Pentecost that followed Passover, and listened for the Word of God, sought the Day of Revelation. And what they found surprised them beyond their imagination: 

Hundreds who spoke in many languages, in all the languages present; hundreds who spoke and could be understood. The text says that there was speaking, but I think that has to mean that there was also a lot of listening going on. People were hearing other people’s stories, listening to other people’s cares and concerns; hearing other people’s trials and tribulations and truths, and recognizing their own stories, knowing their own lives, discovering that they had so much in common, in this system of oppression and pain; and hearing a promise of a way out through power.

Power! That’s what they heard on Pentecost; Power to address their situation; Power to advance their cause; Power to bring about their liberation. And oh, this was not the power of Rome, the power of the military and the occupation, the power that let people live in misery long enough to give up; power that gave land and wealth not to the people who had lived there for generations but rather to outsiders to whom the Empire owed something. The Roman power of Jesus’s time was like the Egyptian power of another day; power that would hold them as slaves.

No. This Pentecost power was the power of deliverance. Deliverance not at someone else’s hand, but deliverance by being a community with one another; by finding ways so to stand in solidarity with one another that they would march out of their oppression; cross the sea of reeds; risk the wilderness and even then and there in the desert discover a way together to get to the Promised Land. The Pentecost power was the power of a people who knew each other so well, who cared for each other so fully, that they would exhibit power-with, Power--With, hand in hand, arm in arm, heart to heart. They loved one another, those unruly, spirit-drunk folk, loved one another; and it was as if the fire of adonai, the fire of God, burned into their hearts a call to something new.

“Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,” said Joel in an earlier day, said Peter on that Shavu’oth, say I today; a Spirit is poured out on us and our sons and daughters shall prophesy. Shall speak of their intimate knowledge of the future they can believe in because we have shown them the Love that will not let them go. 

Your young men shall see visions; not the vision of closed community centers and no chance for an after-school job; not the vision of the school to prison pipeline; of children getting police rap sheets for living in the neighborhoods they live in and hanging out with their friends; not the vision of “Hands up!” “Don’t shoot.” Not the vision of too many deaths at the hands of too many police officers.

No! our young men shall see visions because our churches will hold them; our temples and our mosques will share with them the richness of our ancient traditions; our community centers and advocacy networks, our educational institutions and our unions and even BRIDGE Maryland shall listen to them and will hear from them their vision for their own potential; their vision for the world they seek; their vision of their success and our success because we find a way to write a new law onto our own hearts.

Your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. David Casey did not get a chance to be an old man. David Casey was taken from us far too soon. But just because David Casey was not an old man, it does not mean that David Casey did not dream dreams.

No, he was a dreamer; he dreamed that people working together can bring about genuine equality; he dreamed that the sin of racism which condemns us all could be overcome; that the social structures and the governmental and corporate policies that created a divided Baltimore could be reformed, could be replaced, could be rebuilt so that every child would be cared for; every teen be on a life path of fulfillment and joy; every young family have a place to live and place where children could be educated well; every able-bodied man and woman could have a job; every senior granted dignity in all the stages of their aging. David was a dreamer.

But David was more than a dreamer. He was a doer and he was a fighter. A fighter for inclusionary zoning, so that pockets of poverty in the city and the first suburbs could be transformed, and so that opportunity could be opened up for people coming out of poverty. A fighter for a transportation system that would move people out of concentrations of poverty and into concentrations of opportunity. A fighter for job opportunities and on-the-job training. 

In particular, I remember when the bill was being heard in the General Assembly to set aside 1/2 of 1% of federal transportation dollars coming into Maryland for training programs for our unemployed and underemployed people. This Law would make those funds not just available, as directed by Congress, but legally required ion Maryland to be spent for the uplift of our people. The bill was stalled and about to fail. It was David Casey’s eleventh hour heart to heart with an elected official that saved that bill; David telling the story of underemployed people in our congregations, in our neighborhoods, working families whose lives would be changed for the better by an opportunity to work in construction and transportation; David, telling that story, the elected official’s heart being changed, and we win one-half of one percent for training for people, for a better future for our families. David was a doer.

The DREAM Act. Organizing low wage workers at Johns Hopkins. Working to “Respect Security.”  Inclusionary housing, Raising the minimum wage. David Casey was a doer.

And he never did it alone. He did his dreams through organizing, through us. Coaching us. Training us. Encouraging us. Listening to us. Challenging us. Agitating us. He knew that alone, he did not have the power to deliver his dreams. He needed more power. Organized people, that’s us. Organized money, that’s up to us, too. David made “Power—With” a way of life.

David Casey did not live to be an old man. Nancy, I wish that it were different. Jesse, Spencer, I wish you had seen your dad become a crotchety, old man. Geoffrey, Jackie, how terrible this must be to lose a brother.

“Your old men shall dream dreams.” Brothers, sisters, there is only one way that David Casey will get to dream his old man dreams, and that is if you and I dream them. If you and I take up the challenge to transform our relationships and transform this broken and beautiful city. If you and I will be filled with a Pentecostal spirit that will be unleashed on this city, on this region, on this state, on our country. If Shavu’oth becomes our cry, each of us and all of us will find a way to be one, will find the ways to walk together toward that the Promised Land. If you and I will be in solidarity with all of those held down by rapacious Empire that turns people into things and all that matters into commodities . . . 

You and I will dream David Casey’s old man dreams. There is no other Spirit coming. No! We are the ones we have been waiting for. We are the ones who must be the change we hope to see. David Casey, beloved friend, we make this our solemn promise. By God, may we keep it true. Ashe, ashe. Salaam, shalom. Blessed be. Amen. 


Military Service and the Alternatives

Monday, 25 May 2015 00:00 Published in The Minister's blog

“Military Service and the Alternatives” 

In the early years of my ministry, I was asked to serve on a select commission of the Unitarian Universalist Association, a Presidential Panel called the Diversity of Ministry Team (DOMT). That team met three or four times a year in the President’s office, in those days, a corner room overlooking the Massachusetts State House lawn in one direction, and from the other windows, Boston Common. On the desk of Rev. William Sinkford was a treasured item: a reproduction of a Civil War cap on which were stitched a brass horn and the numbers 5 and 4.

This was the cap of the Massachusetts 54th Volunteer Infantry, the first infantry of free African Americans from the North recruited to fight on the side of the Union against the Confederacy. Rev. Sinkford, the first African American to serve as President of the UUA, held on to that cap not so much to indicate that he expected his time in office to be a time of battle, but rather to remember he had been recruited by his peers to volunteer to pursue that office; to remain aware of what it means to be a ground breaker, a pioneer, a “first”; and to remind himself that his Presidency was intended by many to be part of a decisive turning point in the story of Unitarian Universalism when we would emerge as a multicultural, anti-oppressive and anti-racist faith community.

Across the street from that Presidential Office in the old UUA is a sacred place in Boston: the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial, a key element of the Boston African American National Historic Site. This memorial by Augustus Saint Gaudens features the bas relief of a young adult, a 25-year old colonel, a Unitarian, on horseback leading his African American volunteers on their journey to South Carolina, where they would achieve “Glory,” Hollywood would later name it, in the valiant and calamitous attack on Fort Wagner, and where Col. Shaw would give his life. 

On this Memorial Day, let us remember people of our faith tradition who served their country in times of war. Robert Gould Shaw was born into a wealthy Unitarian family with roots in Boston and business interests in New York. They were staunch abolitionists, but Robert was still finding his way in the world. Business was before him, and his family’s philanthropy interested him; but his education at Harvard was not preparing him to find his true course. It was when the 7th New York Militia was organized to march in defense of the nation’s capitol in 1861 that Robert heard his calling. After 30 days in DC, he signed up with the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry and joined their campaigns in Winchester, Cedar Mountain and Antietam. It was in Antietam that he was wounded, and during his recovery, his father suggested that he might respond to the request of the Governor of Massachusetts that he lead the newly organized Massachusetts 54th.

African Americans had been organized to fight in earlier armies and navies of the United States. They served in the Revolutionary War and in the War of 1812 in both seaboard and frontier battles. But there were federal laws from the 1790s that forbade Blacks from bearing arms in the U.S. Army. Not until after the Emancipation Proclamation were Black Americans legally allowed to serve. Even after it became lawful, there was ambivalence on the part of many to allow Black men to serve, and ambivalence on the part of Black men to risk their lives for a country where they were treated as second class citizens. It was Frederick Douglass who encouraged military service as a mechanism for full inclusion into US civic life:  “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letter, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button,” said Douglass, “and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, there is no power on earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship.”

The 54th would fight valiantly; would lose two thirds of its officers and half its enlisted men; would yield martyrs for the cause of freedom and give the first African American to earn the Congressional Medal of Honor, Sargent William H. Carney of New Bedford, Massachusetts, who would save the company colors at the second attack on Fort Wagner. “Boys, I only did my duty,” he would later say, “the old flag never touched the ground.”

Confederate General Johnson Hagood refused to return Shaw’s body to the Union army, and to show contempt for the officer who led Black troops, Hagood had Shaw’s body buried in a common trench with his men. Francis G. Shaw refused to see his son’s interment as an insult. “We can imagine no holier place than that in which he lies, among his brave and devoted followers, nor wish for him better company—what a body-guard he has!”

This Unitarian family found meaning in their public life in the cause of abolition. Their son found his calling in military service. This is part of our legacy as Unitarian Universalists.

L. Griswold Williams was a Universalist minister whose faith gave him a radical approach to ministry and to World War One. He heard in his faith a call to the Universal Love of God, the compelling—if hidden—truth of the Universal human family, and the decision to resist war. Williams had studied at Meadville Theological School beginning in 1912; this just a few years after Maria Louisa Hyde Pratt, of this congregation, made a substantial donation to that school. Like Shaw, Williams was not entirely satisfied with educational setting. He was expelled during his third year at Meadville because of his outspoke support for Italian workers on strike. But with a willingness to endure the hardship of the ministerial preaching circuit in Ohio, and a native intelligence that allowed him to minister effectively to many people, and the social gospel in his heart, he was ordained and began to serve Universalist pulpits. 

Williams, like many social gospel Universalists of his time, held radical views about the Great War and military service. These are captured in the following letter to the editor, cited in the research of Quaker leader Donne Hayden:

I read only the other day that the exports of the United States had increased three billions or one hundred per cent in three years. It seems passing strange that in times of such prosperity, men, women and little children should be without food, starving in the midst of luxury. These half fed laborers are being told that they must be ready to defend our legitimate  rights by going out and murdering as many Germans as they can. I for one wish to register myself as one who refuses to do any of this defending. If the owners want the markets, let them do the fighting, not the workers. The workers of America have no quarrel with the workers of any other country. 


Is this unpatriotic? If you mean by patriotism the willingness to die for the  good of humanity, then I am a Patriot; but if you mean the willingness to die for the sake of bank accounts of the Capitalists of this country, I am not. For the sake of the working men of the world whose struggle for Justice is one, and in the name of the workingman of Nazareth, Brother of Humanity, I refuse to uphold or engage in any war.

—L. Griswold Williams, Minister
All Souls Church Universalist

Williams was not alone in this perspective. The General Convention of the Universalist Church of America had adopted social principles put forward by Professor Clarence R. Skinner in 1915, which principles argued that war was a betrayal of Universalism. Skinner cited Unitarian leader Rev. John Haynes Holmes who argued that “war is the quintessence of evil, because it bears within itself all other evil” (the waste of land and natural resources, the destruction of the youthful generation, unemployment in useful pursuits, starvation and disease, anti-democratic authoritarianism, etc. etc.) For these practitioners of liberal religion, humanity is called us to a greater sense of belonging to one another, and war within the human family reduced us to our lesser selves. Universalism in the United States was ready to allow that European powers may, indeed, be involved in war which had both aggressive and defensive components; but for the countries of this hemisphere to choose sides in a conflict an ocean away seemed to Skinner and Williams and many others a betrayal of faith.

Griswold Williams lost his position as pastor of All Souls Universalist Church in Marion, Ohio, due to his outspoken rejection of entering World War I. Indeed, members of the leadership of his church turned his name in to the Bureau of Investigation for his purported pro-German point of view. But Williams , as an engaged citizen, registered with the draft board, and in pursuit of his principles, he was ready to serve his country’s cause—and the cause of greater humanity—in a non-combatant role. To do so, he joined with the Quakers of the precursor to the American Friends Service Committee, and erected housing on farms in France that had been overrun by war.   

This Universalist minister found meaning in his public life in the cause of resisting war. While his parish was unable to weather his public pacifist stand, still he served in alternative service in Europe. This is part of our legacy as Unitarian Universalists.

This week, a family of this church travelled to Westminster to inter the ashes of their parents, dear departed members of our church: LaVaughn Hanson Beard and Clarence Beard. We stood together in a beautiful morning breeze, atop a hill and under a chestnut tree, surrounded by the stone markers of dozens of relatives, distant and close. The Church of the Brethren holds the land that keeps those mortal remains; a traditional peace church, it was the Brethren who joined with the Mennonites and Quakers to create the Civilian Public Service, a governmental program which allowed conscientious objectors a chance to serve their country not in non-combatant roles related to war, but in projects such as soil conservation, forestry, fire fighting, and agriculture. For Clarence, this meant service in the Allegheny National Forest, and separation from LaVaughn. Then, when his service was transferred to Connecticut, the family was reunited, even as Clarence was allowed to pursue his national service within the boundaries of his conscience. This Unitarian Universalist man of music and his family found meaning in their public life. Clarence would come to this church and found the choir which sings for you today. This is part of our legacy as Unitarian Universalists.

A young adult who gave his life in the Civil War. A radical minister who avoided picking up the gun but rebuilt after the devastation of war. A principled family which pursued alternatives for the common good. These are the people we remember on Memorial Day. These are the Universalists and Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists who live on as we remember them. These are the ones we cherish because they made great sacrifices in the fulfillment of our still-being-perfected democracy. They acted on their belief in the universal and all-conquering Love which binds us together. They lived in the music that symbolizes our profound aspiration for all people to live in harmony. 

May our memorial today keep alive their memory; and may we live lives of morality and ethics, of spirituality and sacrifice, that their aims may be fulfilled in our living. May it ever be. Blessed be. Ashe, ashe. Peace, salaam, shalom. Amen.

This poem was read during Sunday's celebration of life. It accompanies the sermon "Military Service and the Alternatives" posted elsewhere on this blog.


by L. Griswold Williams, in France, 1918

I’ve been making windows—

Oak windows in our shop along the river—

Thinking of where they’ll go and what they’ll maybe do:

Windows to overlook the crumpled roofs of clattering towns,

To open out across the silent wastedness of trampled farms,

On white-scarred vineyard slopes,

Or shattered woodlands healing at the touch of Spring.

Some may be gates of magic liberation,

Giving on living worlds of leaf and sky,

Where those whose feet can never tread dear earth

Shall send their spirits wandering far;

At these will children climb to greet the infant moon,

Or press their noses tight, watching the first snow feathers fall;

Through here may little breaths of morning murmur;

This humble shrine day’s glowing altar fires . . .

And I’ve been making doors—

Doors that shall open as a sheltering hand to harassed hearts

Praying a solace in some broken place;

Doors guarding at last those helpless ones

Guns could not guard nor armies make secure.

Here homing age may fumble at a lock,

Or venturing youth push wide with eager hand;

This door may usher Birth with hopefulness,
Close quietly when Death has passed with friendly eyes,
Or part relentlessly two lovers, lingering with reluctant lips at dusk;
Here may a woman lean with shadowed face, Waiting a lad who lies in an untilled field . . .

I’ve not made doors and windows for chateaux or palaces—
Only for little wooden démontables*
To shelter mostly simple folk
Dripped from the grinding jaws of War.
Red tiles will be for roof, the walls be brown,
and green the white-knobbed doors.

The sections bolt together easily,
As barren as a shed for animals almost, Until my doors and windows make it—

Home . . .

O patient Master Workman of the world,
Shaper of all this home of humankind,
Teach me the truer trade of making doors and windows for men’s souls:
Windows for letting in Love’s widening dawn,
Doors swinging outward freely on Truth’s pleasant ways.

*“Démontable”–adjective describing something that may be disassembled. The “pre-fab” houses Friends constructed for French villages were called “les démontables.”

The following words were selected by Baltimore Ethical Society Leader Hugh Taft-Morales to open our consideration of “Separation Anxiety: the First Amendment at Risk.

Hear some Presidential words:

“We have solved, by fair experiment, the great and interesting question whether freedom of religion is compatible with order in government and obedience to the laws. And we have experienced the quiet as well as the comfort which results from leaving every one to profess freely and openly those principles of religion which are the inductions of his own reason and the serious convictions of his own inquiries.” (From proponent of Unitarian philosophy Thomas Jefferson in a letter to Virginia Baptists, the second instance of his use of the term “Wall of separation,” written to Danbury Baptists earlier.)

Another President:

“We in the United States, above all, must remember that . . . we were founded as a nation of openness to people of all beliefs. And so we must remain. Our very unity has been strengthened by our pluralism. We establish no religion in this country, we command no worship, we mandate no belief, nor will we ever. Church and state are, and must remain, separate. All are free to believe or not believe, all are free to practice a faith or not, and those who believe are free, and should be free, to speak of and act on their belief.” (In 1984, Ronald Reagan.)

Let’s listen to the Supreme Court:

“Those who would renegotiate the boundaries between church and state must therefore answer a difficult question: why would we trade a system that has served us so well for one that has served others so poorly?” (Justice Sandra Day O’Connor)

And from our own Maryland General Assembly:

The issue of church-state separation was framed perfectly during an Annapolis hearing on proposed state constitutional amendment to ban same sex marriage. Republican State Senator Nancy Jacobs said, “As I read biblical principles, marriage is intended, ordained and started by God—that is my belief. . . . For me, this is an issue solely based on religious principles.” State Senator Jamie Raskin replied: “People place their hand on the Bible and swear to uphold the Constitution. They don’t put their hand on the Constitution and swear to uphold the Bible.”

And then there is George Carlin who said:

“I’m completely in favor of the separation of Church and State. My idea is that these two institutions screw us up enough on their own, so both of them together is certain death.”


In the Order of Service, the following quotation was published for our consideration:

“[The Founders] knew that to put God in the constitution
was to put [humanity] out.
They knew that the recognition of a Deity
would be seized upon by fanatics and zealots
as a pretext for destroying the liberty of thought.
They knew the terrible history of the church too well
to place in her keeping or in the keeping of her God
the sacred rights of [humanity].
They intended that all should have the right to worship
or not to worship, that our laws
should make no distinction on account of creed.
They intended to found and frame a government
for [humanity] and for [humanity] alone.
They wished to preserve the individuality of all
to prevent the few from governing the many
and the many from persecuting and destroying the few.”

(Robert Ingersoll)

Motherless Chil'

Tuesday, 12 May 2015 11:13 Published in The Minister's blog

This sermon was preached for the Unitarian Universalist Association weekly chapel service on May 12, 2015.

“Sometimes I feel like a motherless chil’.” Such a distant notion for me. I was fortunate to grow up in a household with a mama who was there for me, a Mama who taught me to read at the age of 3 so that when I showed up at J. R. D. Oldham Elementary School in Riverside RI, they didn’t quite know what to do with me.

I had a mama and I had a neighborhood of mamas. Gramma lived just seven houses away, and between our house and gramma’s, I had an aunt on one side of the street and a great aunt on the other. Two blocks away were two other aunts. And in between, all the mamas of my childhood friends. Plenty of mamas in my life.

We were working people. Some of us had daddies with skilled jobs, some of our mamas worked outside the home, and some of us were poor. But it was a time when there was tremendous public investment in our communities. New schools were being built, and an emphasis on mathematics and science as key to our country winning the space race meant that I could take AP physics and Calculus.

While I knew that I would be headed to college, I really didn’t have a clue about how I would get there. It was people from my church who encouraged me in looking at college catalogues, in visiting campuses, in making the decision about where to apply. It was when my pastor announced in church that I had been accepted to college, and my church burst into applause, that I knew that I was being held by a church that was there to help me on my journey.

Baltimore is in pain right now; pain that has been brought to the surface in the uprising that happened just hours after Freddie Gray, Jr., another Black young adult, was placed in the ground. Freddie’s body was buried, but the pain could not go underground. An entire generation of Black girls and Black boys, now Black young adults, women and men and all sorts of gender identities, an entire generation of children are in pain and so are their mamas.

For thirty years now, it has been illegal in Baltimore to be young and poor and Black; there has been zero tolerance for hanging out with your friends. A generation of youngsters have been harassed and oppressed, brutalized and beaten, captured and even killed, by the Baltimore Police Department. A community completely alienated from the Police. A whole generation of people whose mamas could not protect them.

I’m struck that one of the abiding images in the media was the video clip of Toya Graham, the Baltimore mother who saw her son Michael Singleton about to throw a rock at a line of police officers. She “lost it,” she later said, when she stopped him from throwing that rock, when she confronted him, reached up and pulled off his mask; hit him; when this fierce mama would not let her son throw his life away.

I wonder, is there now a church that can be fierce in its relationship with people who live in concentrated poverty, a faith that can, with authenticity and clarity of purpose, be there to help poor people in Baltimore on their journey?

That is what we’re talking about in Baltimore, you know. Poor people trapped concentrated in areas of little opportunity. It is a mistake to look at Baltimore and point to generalized “white flight” as to what created this situation. The people who left Baltimore after the Second World War and in the urban tumult of the 1960s were people who had the capacity to do so. People who had access to government secured mortgages, people who could use the newly built interstate system as a way out of the city, White people and Black people who had the capacity to leave to more robust neighborhoods did. It’s just that our social investment gave more resources to people who had more resources, and the historically disenfranchised people were abandoned as corporate and governmental investment left the inner city. It is a poor people’s problem, and it is a Black people’s problem. And that’s a community that might feel like a motherless chil’.

The state of emergency has been rescinded; the curfew in Baltimore lifted; a new consciousness of the problem of policing is being raised; many things are returning to normal.

But if the norms continue to include a lack of opportunity for poor people in Baltimore City, those are unacceptable norms. They are unacceptable today, and they have been unacceptable for decades.

Twenty years ago, urban planer and former mayor of Albuquerque David Rusk pointed out in his book Baltimore Unbound that without a metropolitan approach to solving the problems of the inner city, both Baltimore City and the surrounding counties would be mired in inequity. And indeed, the Baltimore that needs a new transit system that allows people in areas of high concentrations of poverty to get to jobs in areas of high opportunity, cannot accomplish it without a metropolitan approach. The Baltimore families that are trapped in high concentrations of poverty will not succeed unless a metropolitan approach to housing equity is adopted. The educational system that is populated by poor children will not succeed without a broader, more metropolitan approach where peer relationships between poor and middle income children give all of them a richer experience and give poorer kids a chance to dream of the possibilities that a better education might bring them. And this cannot happen until a more metropolitan approach to education is advanced.

There is good news here for Unitarian Universalist congregations, because it will take people in areas of opportunity—like where many of our congregations are located—showing strong solidarity with people in areas of concentrated poverty to advance an agenda for metropolitan organizing and metropolitan action. Using the substantial power of our congregations and organizing our work with other communities of faith, with our state legislative networks, with experiential learning in the College of Social Justice, with more spontaneous efforts like Standing on the Side of Love—and especially living into a relational commitment to the Black Lives Matter movement, we may be part of the solution that will turn around the situation in Baltimore and, I believe, the many metropolitan areas across the country where an equivalent of the Baltimore Uprising is waiting to break out.

When William Ellery Channing spoke in Baltimore nearly 200 years ago, he gave us all an instruction: speak from the heart . . . preach from experience, that the truth which you dispense . . . [is] not merely words on your lips, but most affecting realities to your mind, and springs of hope and consolation, and strength, in all your trials.

And Sly and the Family Stone urged us further:

You’ve been sitting much too long

There’s a permanent crease in your right and wrong.

There’s a cross for you to bear
Things to go through if you’re going anywhere.

Let’s go somewhere, sisters and brothers of so many other mothers, so many mamas. Let’s go somewhere. Let’s go somewhere. Let’s stand.

Blessed be.

Prayer after a Funeral

Wednesday, 29 April 2015 09:58 Published in The Minister's blog

After attending the funeral of Freddie Gray, I shared this prayer with our Unitarian Universalist Association.


A Prayer after Freddie Carlos Gray Junior’s funeral


O Thou whom no person at any time hath seen,
and yet who hath been revealed in all cultures of the human family
in the simple love of parents for their children as they grow,
in the creativity and imagination, the energy and yearning of youngsters
whose lives reflect the vibrancy of stars,

we grieve at the loss of all human life,
but especially the death of the young.


Make real in our hearts the possibility
that our grief may be transformed in the promise

that our weeping “may endure for a night,
but joy cometh in the morning.” 


O Mystery, make of us a people willing to be held accountable for our actions,
and help us hold each other accountable, too,
a community of resistance and hope,
that the justice proclaimed by prophets of many ages
may be real among us now,
that peace may fill our people,
and Universal Love overwhelm our estrangement and fear.


This we pray by every sacred name, in every sacred tongue,
for every sacred moment. Amen.

Why I Organize

Wednesday, 08 April 2015 11:37 Published in The Minister's blog

The resurrection story always stimulates my heart to go to the people I miss so much. One of these is Jim Drake, a community organizer and United Church of Christ minister who believed in me, shaped my public personality, and held me to a high standard as we formed Greater Boston Interfaith Organization. Jim died at the end of the summer of 2001, about 18 months after he shared these thoughts with me. I hope they reveal something of a great man to you.

“Why I Organize,” by Jim Drake (c. 2000)

As a child, I grew up in a home which was regulated by the seasonal and daily schedule of the public school calendar. This was of great comfort to me in my youth. Every summer, my father and mother had about three months “free,” and my vacation and theirs aligned perfectly; my dad came home promptly at 4:00 p.m. and we ate “supper” at 5:00 p.m. on the dot. We never missed a Sunday in church together.

I did not choose a life that would toss all of this order and sensibility into the toilet. Somehow, it chose me. When I was 24, I was drawn to the movement madness of the early 1960s.  I moved from being a humble servant of the farm workers causa to being a driven, half-mad “organizer.”  I sacrificed health, family, and wealth on the altar of winning-is-everything.
I was like a $5 a week professional football player.

Organizing, until I was 40, meant winning on the short term. Get the grapes out of the A&P Grocery Chain . . . every store was a victory.  I enjoyed a million victories of this sort, but all ended in defeat. The organization itself crashed and burned, and the pyramid of victories is little more than raw material for a novel I hope to write around the year 2005.

But, at 40, even with a little perspective on how the first 15 years of my organizing career had been for naught, I moved ahead into even more complicated contexts in which to organize. Somehow, I began to understand that organizing was for the purpose of organization, not for victories. I went to Mississippi determined not to let the cause, the issue, dominate.  I had a gut feeling that just bringing persons (black and white) into new configurations of relationship was worth the bother. The vehicle became a woodcutters association. The cause was now relational power. I had never heard the term, had not encountered the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), but somehow I was on a new track.

Now, there is an irony in my effort to honor relatedness.  With my personal family, father, mother, wife, and children, I was totally at sea in the area of reciprocity and respectful relationship. For a time, in Mississippi, it all fit together. But, the more I figured out my role as organizer, I (again) lost perspective as husband/father. What became shaky while on my own, free-lancing in Mississippi, became shattered in the excitement of the years in Texas with the IAF. The IAF became a new toy, and Texas-wide travel to form a new “network” became a cause again.  There is a Texas network today, and it exists in a very small part because it was built at the expense of the Drake network.

Today I organize, I must organize, because I want integrity both for my family network and for the world in which I live. Objectively, the lessons of the IAF tell me that I organize because relatedness in public life, the very survival of our society, and the world’s future depends on my being successful. The symbiosis of family to neighborhood, neighborhood to city, city to state, state to nation, and nation to world, relies on me . . . us as organizers.

Subjectively, I organize because my own mother, sisters, brothers, children, have no hope of inheriting a good world unless I/we succeed.

But, now I organize with a determination that what I build will never again become my causa.  When it consumes me, I consume my family.  And so, for the rest of my organizing career, I want to organize in order to integrate. Integration of the public and the private becomes my new causa.  If any particular issue or institution, IAF included, demands more than the private can sacrifice, then it is no longer organizing. Why do I organize? For Jim, Matt, Tom, Christopher, Mali, Katie and Adrian.

The Womb of Stars

Tuesday, 07 April 2015 20:23 Published in The Minister's blog

The Antiphonal Reading
by Joy Atkinson
we shared on Easter:

The womb of stars embraces us;
remnants of their fiery furnaces
pulse through our veins.

We are of the stars;
the dust of the explosions
cast across space.

We are of the earth;
we breathe and live

in the breath
of ancient
 plants and beasts.

Their cells nourish the soil:
we build our communities 
on their harvest of gifts.


Our fingers trace the curves 
carved in clay and stone

by forebears unknown to us.

We are a part 
of the great circle of humanity
gathered around the fire, 
the hearth, the altar.

We gather this day 
to celebrate our common heritage.

May we recall in gratitude 
all that has given us birth.

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