First Unitarian Church of Baltimore

Rev. David Carl Olson

Rev. David Carl Olson

E-mail: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

Touch the Earth Lightly, Consider the Poor

Monday, 09 November 2015 00:00 Published in The Minister's blog

Reading from Laudato Si’ of the Holy Father Francis

Saint Francis of Assisi

10. I do not want to write this Encyclical without turning to that attractive and compelling figure, whose name I took as my guide and inspiration when I was elected Bishop of Rome. I believe that Saint Francis is the example par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically. He is the patron saint of all who study and work in the area of ecology, and he is also much loved by non-Christians. He was particularly concerned for God’s creation and for the poor and outcast. He loved, and was deeply loved for his joy, his generous self-giving, his openheartedness. He was a mystic and a pilgrim who lived in simplicity and in wonderful harmony with God, with others, with nature and with himself. He shows us just how inseparable the bond is be-  tween concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace.

11. Francis helps us to see that an integral ecology calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it is to be human. Just as happens when we fall in love with someone, whenever he would gaze at the sun, the moon or the smallest of animals, he burst into song, drawing all other creatures into his praise. He communed with all creation, even preaching to the flowers, inviting them “to praise the Lord, just as if they were endowed with reason.”  His response to the world around him was so much more than intellectual appreciation or economic calculus, for to him each and every creature was a sister united to him by bonds of affection. That is why he felt called to care for all that exists. His disciple Saint Bonaventure tells us that, “from a reflection on the primary source of all things, filled with even more abundant piety, he would call creatures, no matter how small, by the name of ‘brother’ or ‘sister’.” Such a conviction cannot be written off as naive romanticism, for it affects the choices which determine our behavior. If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously. The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled.

12. What is more, Saint Francis, faithful to Scripture, invites us to see nature as a magnificent book in which God speaks to us and grants us a glimpse of his in nite beauty and goodness. “Through the greatness and the beauty of creatures one comes to know by analogy their maker” (Wis 13:5); indeed, “his eternal power and divinity have been made known through his works since the creation of the world” (Rom 1:20). For this reason, Francis asked that part of the friary garden always be left untouched, so that wild flowers and herbs could grow there, and those who saw them could raise their minds to God, the Creator of such beauty. Rather than a problem to be solved, the world is a joyful mystery to be contemplated with gladness and praise.



“Touch the Earth Lightly,
Condsider the Poor”

Rev. David Carl Olson
First Unitarian Church of Baltimore

What is an encyclical?

—simply a letter which is circulated, usually by a bishop, which invites exploration of ethical, theological and moral questions. Its authority lies in its capacity to express the tradition of the church and its application to new quesitons that have arisen.

How does Francis “place” his letter?

—in the tradition of Catholic Social Teaching (quoting John 23 “Pacem in Terris,” when the world teetering on nuclear war;
Paul 6 writing on the “tragic consequence” of human activity in the exploitation of nature; John Paul 2 on the degradation of the planet simply for human consumption; and Benedict 16 on the “dysfunctions of the world economy and correcting models of growth which have proved incapable of ensuring respect for the environment.”

—in the contemporary Church, international (quoting other bishops, especially South Africa, Latin America, developing world) and non-Catholic, (quoting Patriarch Barhtolomew of the need to repent of whe ways we have harmed the planet, and to “acknowledge our contribution, smaller or greater, to the disfigurement and destruction of creation.” 

—as a special, personal concern (as he named himself after Francis of Assisi). 

What problems does Francis see?

Our common home is being destroyed by 

  1. Pollution and climate change
  2. Depletion of water
  3. Loss of biodiversity of animals and plants
  4. Decline in the quality of human life, and the breakdown of society
  5. Growing global inequality
  6. Tepid and inadequate response by governments and corporations

Francis offers these thoughts. “60. Finally, we need to acknowledge that different approaches and lines of thought have emerged regarding this situation and its possible solutions. At one extreme, we find those who doggedly uphold the myth of progress and tell us that ecological problems will solve themselves simply with the application of new technology and without any need for ethical considerations or deep change. At the other extreme are those who view men and women and all their interventions as no more than a threat, jeopardizing the global ecosystem, and consequently the presence of human beings on the planet should be reduced and all forms of intervention prohibited. Viable future scenarios will have to be generated between these extremes, since there is no one path to a solution. This makes a variety of proposals possible, all capable of entering into dialogue with a view to developing comprehensive solutions.

61. On many concrete questions, the Church has no reason to offer a definitive opinion; she knows that honest debate must be encouraged among experts, while respecting divergent views. But we need only take a frank look at the facts to see that our common home is falling into serious disrepair. Hope would have us recognize that there is always a way out, that we can always redirect our steps, that we can always do something to solve our problems. Still, we can see signs that things are now reaching a breaking point, due to the rapid pace of change and degradation; these are evident in large-scale natural disasters as well as social and even financial crises, for the world’s problems cannot be analyzed or explained in isolation. There are regions now at high risk and, aside from all doomsday predictions, the present world system is certainly unsustainable from a number of points of view, for we have stopped thinking about the goals of human activity. “If we scan the regions of our planet, we immediately see that humanity has disappointed God’s expectations.”

What are his answers? And how does he respond when his answers are insufficient?

We must admit that Francis has college training in chemistry, but science has not been his career. Nor is he is a politician. He is a person of faith and a leader of morality and ethics. I think he says as much in his letter. What he offers will not solve the problems of maitaining the integrity of creation, but he nevertheless points to three overriding ethical positions that he hopes will help us address climate change.

First, that the challenges require a change of heart by humanity, what some might consider repentance. This, of course, is the Pope’s field, the notion of the human heart being changes, the question of our human capacity to live our lives another way. In my reading of what he writes, he shares a very optimistic view of what it means to be human; he is confident that we can perceive what we are doing, can appreciate the harm that we are causing, and that we can change our ways. He shares that in dialogue, we as a species will be able to hear newly our interconnectedness, our shared responsibility, and act in ways that show our care together for our common home.

Second, that the answers must exceed small technical solutions any of us might have. He speaks at length about the danger of imagining that there is one particular solution which will solve the “problem” of what we have done. Turning away from a dependence on fossil fuel as our primary energy source is something that we must do (and then there is the question of what we will depend on when the carbon is gone), but I think he imagines that there will be many solutions to the situation we face, and all solutions must work together so that, when we take a longer view, a more holistic view, that we can get beyond any sense that there is a single technique, a single Savior, which will save the world.

Francis also expresses some doubt about expertise. When someone develops expertise, it is likely that the expert will narrow their focus sufficiently to investigate a small area, but may lose the ability to step back and see how everything fits together, can lose the complex entirety of which creation is comprised. The comprehensive answers (plural!) we must find must not get lost in the smallness of their area of expertise, but placed in the greatness of all that is.

But the place that I really hear Franscis’s heart is this third ethical concern, that proposed solutions must call attention to the plight of the poor. We may know that it is the poorest people on the planet who are most bound to the earth itself, most tied to the economies of land or sea that they may have practiced in community for generations. As markets change the way poor people work, the consequences on those communities and our greater ecology can bring death. When a community that has been harvesting shrimp as their way of participating in a trade economy have to compete with newly created industrial enterprises in another part of the world, the shrimpers can’t just pack up and move the way a corporation can. When the climate changes so that fruit that have been harvested in a particular way by a particular people for generations suddenly can no longer be viable due to a change in temperature or rainfall, the poor cannot simply abandon their land and purchase and plant in other places. The world’s poor are bound to the land in ways that people in more developed countries may never understand.

A Unitarian Universalist appreciation, and our actions of study, dialogue, consideration of the green and the poor, appreciation of the whole.

It strikes me that Laudato si’ provides us an opportunity to realize our aspirations to be a religion that is guided by universalism. We are a small movement, just a few hundreds of thousands of us in the whole world; and we are by no means the sole practitioners of the liberal religion which locates the attention of our study and practice not in ancient texts alone but in the modern world. This letter written by the leader of a billion member religion and addressed to the whole world provides an opportunity for us to practice our universalism, to understand our own catholicity. What opportunities arise for us to be in conversation with Roman Catholics in this neiighborhood and in this city; with secularists and people of faith seeking a “greener” way of being in the world; with all who understand the myriad ways the poor are tied to the earth and most vulnerable to the changes in climate and other environmental realities that we are all experiencing; and all who, like Francis of Assisi, will call the Sun “Brother” and the Moon “Sister,” see as kindred each animal and hear the songs and prayers of every plant and rock. The call of Pope Francis is for us all to be in a great dialogue of religion and science, and what richness the scientists in our community can bring to this conversation. The reverence expressed in the encyclical for this great creation—of which we are a part, in which we are responsible, by which we see God—resonates with our own story, told by Emerson and Thoreau, by Joseph Priestley and Linus Pauling, maybe even by Tim Berners-Lee.

This letter is not our letter, of course, it is the statement of the leader of the Roman church. But Francis aims to make it a part of a great tradition, of the Christian faith, of Catholic social teaching; it is an invitation by the church to be in dialogue with science, a call for ethics that will shape economics and politics by a call for a theological anthropology that treasures each life, and especially the lives of the poor. (Theological anthropology answers the question, what does our faith say it means to be human? For us, this includes our interconnectedness with all existence, and our declaration of the inherent worth and dignity of each.) Francis invites us to be part of a great conversation among the world’s peoples, a step forward for humanity’s quest for truth; that same search which our faith endorses.

The letter is a call for humanity to be a whole people, shallow and profound, inhabiting this one planet, sacred and profane. Like our own congregation, Francis names us a people, a whole people, the whole of humanity one family; and assures us that we are all on a  journey together. We have a common home; we cannot escape it; it holds us and we have responsibilioty for us. May we find ways to deepen the conversation and to exhibit, in our practice of religion, a clarity of purpose and a heart filled with love for all of creation. Blessed be.


At the end of “Laudato si’” are two prayers, one specifically for the Christian faith, and the following for all the rest of us.

A prayer for our earth

All-powerful God,
you are present in the whole universe 

and in the smallest of your creatures.

You embrace with your tenderness all that exists. 

Pour out upon us the power of your love, 

that we may protect life and beauty.

Fill us with peace, that we may live

as brothers and sisters, harming no one.

O God of the poor, help us to rescue 

the abandoned and forgotten of this earth, so precious in your eyes.

Bring healing to our lives, that we may protect the world and not prey on it, 

that we may sow beauty, not pollution and destruction.

Touch the hearts of those who look only for gain

at the expense of the poor and the earth.

Teach us to discover the worth of each thing,

to be filled with awe and contemplation,

to recognize that we are profoundly united with every creature

as we journey towards your infinite light.

We thank you for being with us each day.

Encourage us, we pray, in our struggle for justice, love and peace. Amen.


You Are the Man: Stay Woke from the Dream

Monday, 26 October 2015 00:00 Published in The Minister's blog

“You are the Man”
a sermon preached by Rev. David Carl Olson
for the Joseph Priestley District Racial Justice Conference
in Cherry Hill, New Jersey
October 25, 2015
Unitarian Universalist Church in Cherry Hill

I bet you’ve heard the challenging and perhaps ridiculous thought experiment, that suggests that, statistically, if we put an infinite number of monkeys into an infinite space with an infinite number of typewriters, there is sure to be one that will type out “Hamlet.” Well, a “pilot experiment” of this mind game was actually accomplished over a decade ago when researchers at Plymouth University in the United Kingdom placed six Sulawesi crested macaques into a room with an old computer, and left them alone for a week.

The macaques played with the computer, bewildered a little by the monitor but picking up the keyboard, and tasting it (always important!), knocking each other around with it, banging it into the desk, but finally noticing that it controlled the face of the computer, the monitor.

And so . . . they typed! For a week they typed, and the researchers published their writings as a scientific study entitled “Notes Toward the Complete Works of Shakespeare.”

It will be hard for me to quote from the publication, except to say that one of the opening words was aaaaaaaaaaaaasssssssssssddddddfff. You get what was going on—it was gibberish!

Lead investigator zoologist Amy Plowman concluded, “The work is interesting, but had little scientific value, except to show that the “Infinite Monkey” theory is flawed.”

Jonathan Gottschall in his book The Storytelling Animal cites literary scholar Jiro Tanaka who pointed out that while “Hamlet” may not have been written by an infinite monkey, it was, indeed, written by a primate. That some time in pre-history, “a less than infinite assortment of bipedal hominids split off from a not-quite infinite group of chimp-like australopithecines, and then another quite finite group of less hairy primates split off from the first motley crew of biped. And in a very finite amount of time, [one of] these primates did write ‘Hamlet.’”  

For tens of thousands of years, before old computers or new, before typewriters and ink and pen and paper, before written language, we had stories. Telling stories, hearing stories, being instructed and entertained by stories, being moved by stories, it was stories, some say, that made us human. 

Stories being so central in helping identify who it is we are, it is no surprise that stories carry the human institution of religion. Indeed, these stories that get passed on from people to people, generation to generation, form the basis for the sets of practices and beliefs that are what religion is.

In the Hebrew Bible, we are introduced to this character David in the story of innocence, faith and valor, the story of David and Goliath. In that story, the shepherd boy David becomes quite a hero in taking down the threatening giant, delighting his king.

But that story doesn’t point us toward the story that we are thinking about today: the story of David’s taking as his third wife the wife of another man. Bathsheba is the wife of Uriah, and you may know the complicated story of David’s use of his high office as King to seduce Bathsheba; his attempt to cover up his seduction by sending her husband straight away to her so that they would have sexual relations and that Uriah might believe that he is the father of the child Bathsheba is carrying; the story of Uriah’s dedication to battle and thus his decision not to have relations with his wife when he needed to be a ready-to-go soldier; and finally David’s decision to have Uriah placed on the front lines and abandoned by his comrades so that he would be killed and Bathsheba would be free to become David’s wife number three.

We are story tellers, we human beings; and here we have a religion that places side by side two stories that seem to upset each other: the virtuous youth and the despicable adult; the innocent who slays the threatening enemy, and the greedy ruler who slays the loyal. We are less astonished by stories of battles being used to eliminate enemies, less concerned about the stories of multiple wives in that period of patriarchy’s story; but the distance between Little David, with his harp and his sling and his five smooth stones, and Big David, with his desires and his arrogance and his power, is a great distance, and we are shocked; and it is as if they are not the same person, as if these two are not on the same path. It seems as if David, in these stories, has missed the mark, has lost his way.

And so into this Hebrew tradition enters the corrective: the prophet, Nathan, who is sent to speak to David with the power of God. David who was chosen by God (as evidenced by his success in battle), David who knows God so well that he can sing directly to God and about God; this David is lost to God; and the messenger sent to bring him back is his prophet. And what does the prophet do? He tells a story.  A rich man and a poor man. An act of thievery by the rich and violence against the poor. A story that compels a response. We are people of story.


Baltimore native Ta-Nehisi Coates tells a story. The story he tells is in an extended letter to his teenage son; a letter that shares some of Coates’s life story, but also his great explanation of what his story is about. He is convinced that his life, maybe our life, is captured by a greater story, is enveloped in a Dream.

This great story is the story of being White in America; the story of the people who think that Whiteness is real, that dream to be White. Our country, in this telling of the story, is ensnared by this Dream which is based not on identifiable, verifiable, sensate truth, but shielded in story, animated in myth.

The founders of the First Church in Boston, Massachusetts, an ancient “cousin” church of ours in our Unitarian faith, a partner of ours in the covenant we formed with them to create the Unitarian Universalist Association; that church began its journey from England telling a story about themselves, that they were to be “like a city on a Hill,” a city chosen by God with a people chosen by God. They were to be the exemplary people for the establishment of God’s rule and realm.

These aspirations about God, are not they aspirations about the Good? Should those stories not be told with admiration and wonder.

But what is the basis for that story, that myth? Does it not also include the notion of the superiority of the people and their culture? Does it not take the notion of Anglo-Saxon superiority and permit, even encourage, the annihilation of the First Nations people? Does it not set up the conditions for viewing the people of Africa as less than fully human, created to serve the people who believe the Dream of the establishment of God’s own city?

Ta-Nehisi Coates wonders if we are all asleep—if we are all in a kind of Dream state where we don’t know, for sure, what is happening among us. Most clearly, he calls us back to the body, not the imaginary body of Whiteness and Blackness, but the true bodies in which we live. The Dream allows us to not notice the bodies of people afflicted by poverty, to ignore the pain of Black bodies lack of transportation to good jobs, to accept as normal the incredible effort of some bodies to hold down two or three part-time jobs to sustain the bodies of one’s children. The Dream makes excuses for the shooting of Black male bodies by the police in Ferguson, and the strangulation of Black bodies by the police on Staten Island, and the rough rides of Black bodies in Baltimore.

We’re in a Dream in this culture of Whiteness-as-Normal, in this absolutely artificial distinction of skin color being the chief marker by which actual bodies of all colors are measured. And it is from this Dream, this myth, this story of Anglo-Saxon superiority that we must awaken; for the story of Anglo-Saxon superiority is the great sin of our nation, the sin that sets us over all people and all the earth; and this story leads to the subsequent sins of environmental degradation, of racism, of “The Dream.”

The prophet Nathan tells a story to David the king; paints a picture so vivid about the clear abuse of power, draws so direct and convincing a logic that David himself erupts in declaring the injustice of the scenario. David hears the Truth of the Story.

But David is asleep. David is so lost in the Dream of the world that he inhabits—the mythic world that excuses all his behavior because he was the chosen one of God—that he cannot apply the very understanding that he has. He knows—but he cannot know. He is asleep in the Dream.

“You are the man,” says Nathan, to shake David out of his sleep, to smack him to attention, to prod him into action that he may resist the Dream.

“You are the man,” is his wake up call. You are the one who inhabits that very body. 

Are we the man? Are we the ones so caught up in our sense of the way things ought to be in our societal dream that we can’t see the way things really are? Do we tell our congregational story as if it were all innocent children slaying fierce giants—or is our story, even our actions as we live our mission today, a more nuanced, complicated, incomplete and human story?

How shall we wake up? How shall you wake up? How shall I?


Professor Kelly Brown Douglas of Goucher College argues that we need to embrace morality by developing these four morals:

Moral memory

Moral identity

Moral engagement

Moral imagination

James Baldwin argued that moral memory meant going back in your story as far as you can to tell the truth about the price you’ve paid to be where you are now. What was the price of the ticket for becoming White, Professor Brown Douglas asks. White is not a real ethnicity, but a relationship of superiority over others; to become White, what did the Irish have to give up? The Italians? The Eastern European Jews? Go back, Baldwin argues, and tell the truth. Know the truth in the past; decide what of the past ought to be brought forward; find ways to make right whatever can be righted. Moral memory, a way to wake up from the Dream.

Our moral identity as a Unitarian Universalist congregation includes recognizing the inherent worth and dignity of every human being; recognized the beauty of every Black body we encounter, the sacredness of every life we meet. Paul Tillich argues that the courage to be is the highest morality, to recognize self as self and to be what one truly is. Moral identity is both discovered and chosen.

Moral engagement involves making a commitment to living a particular way in the world; of deciding how to relate to one’s neighbor; of choosing to confront the realties of how our bodies find freedom, which is the highest aim of human life. To create ways to increase the freedom of the bodies that are held in bondage. The prophets of old said that moral engagement involved caring for orphan widow and stranger, feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, providing shelter and healing and setting the captives free. Moral engagement means, today, standing on the side of those whose communities are under attack by the police called to serve us. Moral engagement seeks freedom for each of us and all of us, in our very bodies.

Moral engagement can only happen with moral imagination; when we are not asleep, when we are “woke” from the Dream. My great privilege yesterday in New York City was to be part of a national march against police terror; to walk with a few dozens of Unitarian Universalists; to deliver two families from Maryland that they might march, too; to listen deeply, and to hear the stories of dozens of surviving families, those who had lost family members to encounters with the police; to witness the rage and the conviction thet we can change things; indeed, that we must change things.

This is what I think is meant by moral imagination. And so I must ask:

What is the moral imagination of a mother of a child killed by police? What imagination drives her to to say, “This is an act of L-O-V-E. Love is what compels us to create systems of accountability.”

What moral imagination equips Kadiatou Diallo, mother of Amadou, her son, shot at 41 times, shot 19 times, in the vestibule of his own apartment? What moral imagination prepares her to say, “I am not bitter.” This from a woman who in the last few years has attended other funerals in Staten Island, in Cleveland, in Ferguson?

 “We need to change.” This moral imagination in spite of the boot on her neck, on the necks of her immigrant people.

“We must learn what is going wrong, and correct it.” Her moral imagination rises above her grioef, and she proclaims, prophetically, “We are not anti-police; we are against police brutality.”

An act of L-O-V-E, the sister cried; an act of love.

The moral engagement we need can only happen when we cultivate moral imagination; when we live not in the Dream, but when we “stay woke,” and awake to the deep truth that liberation is already here; that the freedom we know is the emblem of the freedom that all should know; and that our attempts to find freedom for ourselves we must imagine are indicators of the attempts toward freedom that others may make. For David and Nathan, for the prophets and the kings, the moral imagination allows them to believe that God, by whatever name, really rules; that the rule and realm of the Good are not in some distance venue, but among us now; moral imagination realizable now, by our moral engagement of our moral identity instructed by our moral memory.

“You are the man,” Nathan said; to condemn David, and to call him to be not someone other than who he was, but to be himself in a way that was truly alive. “You are the man,” Nathan said, to wake him out of his slumber, so that he could understand how his actions in the world touched people in their very bodies. “You are the man,” Nathan said, to call David back to the journey, the journey of building a world where wholeness heals community, and whole communities are on the journey of healing the world.

Are you the man? Am I? Are we the ones?

Blessed be. Ashe, ashe. Peace, Salaam, Shalom. And Love. Amen.

To Keep Hate Out and Hold Love In

Tuesday, 03 November 2015 10:56 Published in The Minister's blog

“Strong Enough to Keep Hate Out and Hold Love In”
sermon preached at First Unitarian Church of Baltimore
by Rev. David Carl Olson
Dedication Sunday, November 1, 2015
(197th Anniversary)


May nothing evil cross this door,
And may ill fortune never pry
About these windows; may the roar
And rain go by.


By faith made strong, the rafters will
Withstand the battering of the storm.
This heart, though all the world grow chill,
Will keep you warm.


Peace shall walk softly through these rooms,
Touching our lips with holy wine,
Till every casual corner blooms
Into a shrine.


With laughter drown the raucous shout,
And, though these sheltering walls are thin,
May they be strong to keep hate out
And hold love in.

(Louis Untermeyer)


Friends, here is a letter I found in my mailbox. I’m not quite sure when it arrived. You may know that sometimes things pile up for me. But I’m glad that I found this, and hope it speaks to you. Well, I’ll just read it . . .



Dedication Day 2015


Dearly beloved, 


I am holding you now; holding you as I have for these many years of our relationship. Holding you with great joy, because you are so important to me; your life matters so to me. Our past is our past—vibrant and sensational, turbulent and tranquil, a relationship of caring and nurturing, of creating together a community of religion generous and free, a liberal faith where reason guides our hearts and love rules our actions. 


We have a vibrant story of dedication, you and I; I dedicated to holding you, to providing a focus for your diverse life. You dedicated to caring for me, with my architecture grand, and my music brilliant, and even my pulpit bold, which, while some may name it the Channing Pulpit, is and always has been the pulpit of this congregation, First Independent Church, First Independent Christ’s Church, First Unitarian Church, First Unitarian (Universalist & Unitarian). Always your pulpit, always your voice. Your leadership, your passion for this faith and for this city. Your visionary public figures, artists and merchants, teachers and learners, inventors and investors, civic leaders and prophetic critics of the status quo.  


I remember it told, in this house, of visionaries of earlier times, stories of the prophets of God Nehemiah and Ezra, warriors and builders of a restored Jewish community. You may remember that community had been divided north and south in a series of civil wars after the death of Solomon. The Northern Kingdom was crushed by the Assyrian empire in the eight century before the Common Era. The Assyrian empire later fell to the Babylonians, and in the seventh century before the Common Era, the leaders of the Southern Kingdom were taken into exile in Babylon, political rulers, religious leaders, the chief lawyers and the storytellers, chroniclers of a people’s history and myth-makers of the “good old days.” These people sought to be true to the faith of their ancestors; but they realized they needed to modify their faith, too. They no longer occupied the land that their forebears said had been given to them: could they perform holy rites in an unholy land? They no longer had ready access to olive trees: would their God hear their prayers when the offerings they gave were made with sesame oil instead of olive oil as tradition required? And they had no temple: could study be the equivalent of sacrifice? Could their intentions to live holy lives be considered faithful?


As Babylon had defeated Nineveh, now the armies of Persia defeated Assyria; and in a change of the practice of empire, Cyrus and later Darius allowed the captive elite to be returned to their homelands. And so these prophets Nehemiah and Ezra were sent back to Jerusalem; sent back to rebuild the city and to recreate the mechanisms for the market, so that the Persian empire would not bear the cost of maintaining the elite; but that the people who had been living in Jerusalem and environs for several generations would now be required to maintain a restored court, a restored temple cult, and something new—tribute payments to Persia. The elite returned to a city they remembered as grand and holy, a place that needed fortifications and a temple, and they set about rebuilding temple and city. Against great opposition.


The challenge was so great and the opposition so strong that Nehemiah needed to establish a method of rebuilding that rewarded those who took a risk. He named certain merchant groups, certain farming communities, certain trades guilds, certain proiestly clans, as the ones who rightfully could hold land and conduct business when the city was re-established; and he managed their work—rewarding when he could, providing help in removing rubble and ruin, arming the builders against the indigenous non-conforming population, and bringing in the wealth of an empire to be about the reconstruction. Each working group agreed that the new city was theirs to build and would be theirs to occupy; each took responsibility not for the whole of the city, but for the portion that they agreed to work, for their own interest, and for the good of the whole. They declared themselves a renewed people, and took up the task that each was willing to do.


Over the years, sweet friends, you have taken up the task that you have been willing to do. Some families of great wealth, in earlier generations, understood that it was their responsibilities as the owners of pews in this Sanctuary, knew that they were called on to provide for the professional leadership of this community, educated ministers and skilled musicians. When a national organization of Unitarian churches was created after the Civil War, you heard the call for a more modern church that would serve the community seven days a week, and you built the lovely Chapel—now Enoch Pratt Parish Hall—that became my sister edifice on this site. In another day, as the leaders of this church changed their expectations of religion, so they changed this space; adding religious imagery even as they began to call themselves “Christ’s” independent church; adding things that were anathema to the first builders here, iconography and altar, a more liturgical architecture and ritual. Even as our Unitarian sisters and brothers elsewhere were choosing to remove the primacy of Jesus in their understanding of liberal religion, here in Baltimore, our ruling families and a long-term minister sought to be more specifically Christian.


That was but a brief moment in the story of our relationship; but it established how I would look and how you would worship for more than a hundred years. 


There are ways that you stood true to the convictions of your ancestors. In the days of the 1930s when you were on hard times, you welcomed into this community the Universalists from the Second Universalist Society. You found and settled a minister together, and you were able to sell the Universalist house of worship so that old bills might be paid for this united community of Universalists & Unitarians. So generous were those Universalists who gave up their building and lost their name to a set of parentheses.


And in the baby boom after the second world war, when many imagined the future was out in the suburbs, you cared for me by building another companion, a religious education building that allowed for some expansion of our program of developing liberal faith.


And then the great challenge came when a great number of our members did, indeed, move to the suburbs, and there planted a daughter church. Towson benefitted greatly; they created a very different center in which to live a new life; but here we were, and here you still cared for me.


As Baltimore burned in 19868, I heard you make a promise: “We will stand on this corner, as we have for generations. We will love this city, and we will love this building.”


I am so close to tears.


I have held you these may years, and you have cared for me. 


In the 1970s, you began to show an appreciation for other religious paths. You added these shields (gesture) that said that we were more than a Christian community, and the human family more than children of Europe.


In the 1980s, you demanded the full equality of women. You burned sexist language from scripture and hymnbook and church writings . . . and you made banners (gesture) that named us a people of science, with evolution in our bloodlines and the world a part of an infinite and majestic Universe. And you shared notions of community, a planet with near neighbors in our csolar system, and a human community standing in a circle before the cool wisdom of the moon, a circle with open spaces so that our people will always be reaching out to “the other.”   


In the 1990s, you let me hold a new community of sorrow and surprise, embracing the community of gay men who were in such pain over the disease that ravaged their families. You raised this banner (gesture) to welcome with rainbow and pink triangle all who sought recognition of their inherent worth and dignity.


In this millennium, you have continued to show your love for me—you rebuilt windows, and removed old carpets, and cleaned a mosaic, refinished our pulpit, replaced many, many lightbulbs, commissioned a beautiful chalice for this day, and this summer, painted my chancel . . . I am overwhelmed with affection and appreciation, awe and love.


We’re dreaming new dreams together, and like Nehemiah of old, we’re going to find ways each to do our part. Some of us with greater mean may fund large projects of restoration and reclamation; others will fund more modest efforts. Some of us will join together in special procjects that speak to the special nature of your love for me. And many will give a measure of their devotion to this faith in volunteering time and talent.


You did it, you do it, because of love.


I have been holding you, your love, your hope, your faith, for nearly 200 years; and I will hold it, will hold you, even as we mature into our next stage of living. Who will take a part in the rebuilding of these walls? Who will accept as their responsibility, for the good of all of us, to do the deed that they can accomplish; the great beneficence for the costly transformation; the generous gift of time and talent. Who will choose to volunteer to keep the doors open, the gates not keeping the world out but the doors open to welcome the world in? Who will choose to be part of a team which imagines the next steps for this building and this corner; celebrating our history, of course; but more fully noting our Dedication; our mutual Dedication to being a place with walls strong enough—in structure, yes, but also stronjg enough in compassion, strong enough in generosity, strong enough in hopefulness and in charity—“strong enough to keep hate out.” Who brings the Dedication to being a renewed community inside this holy hall, a community of welcome, a community of vulnerability, a community of caring, as you have cared for me; a community that “holds love in.”


I do love you, so.


Your Temple of Truth

Becoming "At One" on the Journey

Monday, 21 September 2015 17:33 Published in The Minister's blog

 “Becoming At-One on the Journey” 

A prayer:

May our supplication rise up at evening,
Our pleas arrive with the dawn,
our songs transform the dusk.


May our voices rise up at evening,
Our righteous acts arrive with the dawn,
our redemption transform the dusk.


May our suffering rise up at evening,
Our forgiveness arrive with the dawn,
our purity transform the dusk.


May our prayers rise up at evening,
Coming to You with the dawn,
Transforming us at dusk.


Thus unfolds the Day of Atonement, built upon two strong pillars. The first is S’lichot, forgiveness, and the second Viddui, confession. This prayer of forgiveness describes a day that begins in the evening, with supplication and suffering, prayers and raised voices; that proceeds to dawn, with righteous acts and forgiveness, a plea and a presence; and finally at the end of the day, the transformation of songs and purity, redemption and personality. The Jewish Day of Atonement, an evening and a morning, a long day of introspection and memory, fasting and prayer, and soon, at dusk, a clean slate, a chance at something new, a promise realized of forgiveness. S’lichot tells us that ruler of time and space is merciful, that the divine is forgiving; and promises that we, too, are forgiving, are merciful. Viddui, on the other hand, confesses that we are insolent and obstinate and sinful, and that our days are but a passing shadow; but with an assurance: that there is a presence that is gracious and compassionate, patient and merciful, One who is for time without end.


The confession goes:


Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu, dibbarnu dofi,

It is a confession that is easy to memorize because each word begins with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet: alef, bet, gimmel, daleth . . .


In a modern English confession, each offense begins with another letter of our alphabet.

Children, can you hear the “a, b, c’s” in this litany, this list?

We abuse, we betray, we are cruel, we destroy;
we embitter, we falsify, we gossip, we hate, we insult, we jeer,
we kill, we lie, we mock, we neglect, we oppress, we pervert,
we quarrel, we rebel, we steal, we transgress, we are unkind,
we are violent, we are wicked, we are extremists,
we yearn to do evil, we are zealous for bad causes.


Our religion does not teach that there is some kind of hereditary stain that has power over us because the first man disobeyed God, and that sin has been passed on from generation to generation. We don’t teach that. But I think that the human condition is one where we have the capacity, with these big brains, to imagine life beyond the life we each will live. We have an awareness that our lives are beautiful, that our existence is precious. We have the consciousness that our life must one day end. This has set our species up for anxiety, for fear, for attachment to that which is unattachable. and thus, from a Buddhist perspective, for suffering; and so we are separated from the deep joy of momentary being, and get lost in reliving the past or anticipating that real living will happen some day in the future.


We are not at-one with this moment; no, we are at-two or at-three or at-a-hundred different places, imagining a thousand different versions of our life, a million different selves.


And yet there is but one reality; this one, right here; one self, this one, right now, which self is itself an illusion in its permanence, and is most true in our awareness that, as the Bible says, we fly away. All of us.


Human beings, I think, like to push the Re-set button; like to have a chance to Do-Over; celebrate when the year turns and we can make new resolutions. And so the New Year comes, Rosh ha-Shana, the head of the year; this year is 5776 since the creation of the world, and the New Year begins in the seventh month of the year, what in the Biblical book of 1st Kings was called Ethanim, the strong month, perhaps the month of the strong rains; now referred to as Tishrei. It might be tempting, for us, to create a new on-line identity, to start anew . . .


And yet, are we not kidding ourselves? Can we ever really start anew?


We can be At-One with this deeper truth of the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur; that we will always be broken and striving, always be fractional and impermanent, always self-centered, always make promises that we will not keep . . . and yet, there is something about this world we live in that is Eternal, that is ever-generous, that can offer forgiveness and blessing, even as we abuse, betray, are cruel, and destructive.


Two pillars hold up this being At-One: confession and forgiveness.


You heard Jim play a beautiful meditation on a moment ago on Kol Nidrei. (sing) Kol Nidrei. Kol Nidrei is the opening prayer of the night of Yom Kippur. You remember, “there was evening and there was morning, a first day” the Bible says. Hebrew days begin with sunset. The sun sets, and Kol Nidrei is sung. According to the prayerbook, “Kol Nidrei is an Aramaic legal formula created in response to a widely felt need to nullify unfulfilled personal vows, a desire to enter the new year with a clean slate. In the 9th century, Babylonian Jewish leaders opposed its recitation. Therefore Rabbenu Tam (France, 12th century) changed the language from past tense to future.” Not saying that past vows were renounced, what kind of vows might those be? But that the vows yet to be made are already retracted, and we already need to ask God to forgive our inability to fulfill our vows. “Kol Nidrei expresses our fear that even our best intentions for the new year will not be fulfilled. . . . At the same time, it expresses how much we regret what was not accomplished in the past year.” (Machzor Lev Shalem)


All vows, renunciations, bans, oaths, formulas of obligation, pledges, and promises that we vow or promise to ourselves and to God from this Yom Kippur to the next—may it approach us for good—we hereby retract. May they all be undone, repealed, cancelled, voided, annulled, and regarded neither as valid nor binding. Our vows shall not be considered vows; our renunciations shall not be considered.


So do we still make vows? Shall we make new year resolutions? Yes, of course; and we shall know that the coming of the New Year is, in some ways, a chance at a new start.


And there is a promise. “The entire congregation of the people of Israel shall be forgiven, as well as the stranger who dwells among them; for all have erred.” Moses prays, “As befits your abundant Love, forgive this people.” God responds, “I have forgiven, as you have asked.”


And the response is a song.


Barukh atah Adonai eloheinu melekh ha-olam
She-hecheyanu v’kiy’manu v’higi-anu la-z’man hazeh.


Blessed are thou, adonai, sovereign of time and space,
for granting us life, for sustaining us, for bringing us to this moment.


Confessing who it is we are, really. Human, impermanent, out-of-connection with each other. Anxious. Sorrowful. Powerful. Capable. Curious. Energetic. Intelligent. Big-hearted. Strong. Generous. All of these we confess.


Forgiving and being forgiven. All of us. And all the strangers among us.


100 Women are strangers among us; 100 Women on a Pilgrimage to meet the Pope; 100 Women walking 100 miles to call attention to the world crisis in migration. 


Unitarian Universalists are walking with these women. Eleven years ago, we declared that immigrants were part of the new civili rights movement, In 2007, we held public actions at General Assembly to call for a more just immigration policy. In 2008 we accepted the report “Welcoming the Stranger.” In 2009, we founded Standing on the Side of Love to stand with immigrant families, and in 2010, we decided that the 2012 General Assembly would not be business as usual, but a Justice GA, where we spent a year developing relationships with national immigration reform organizations; where we placed staff in the field to allow us to be effective in showing up for people fighting Sheriff Joe and his jail system. And in 2014, we adopted a statement on Immigration as a Moral Issue, and heard from Sister Simone Campbell about our capacity to learn and grow and love by walking towards trouble. Walking not away from the challenges that face the widow and the orphan, the prisoner and the stranger, but walking into the trouble that they know. That’s how we learn. That’s how we grow. That’s how we love. That’s how we atone.


This pulpit is not the place to name my support for a political candidate; but it is the place for me to exercise the freedom to say that the anti-immigrant sentiment that is receiving tremendous support in public debate is a sentiment that troubles me, that seems against my sense of what is smart, and is certainly against what I think is the perspective of our faith.  I enjoy when the Mexicans in my life share videos of the piñateros—the people who make piñatas—whose number one piñata currently is the Donald Trump piñata. I love that they can laugh at what I consider the extreme views that he shares. But I also fear for my country and its soul.


This week when I went to York Pennsylvania to stand with the 100 women and to be with the members of the York and Gettysburg UU congregations, I was saddened when people drove up to the march and yelled at these women; when an officer in uniform began pointing at each of them and menacing them; when a car drove far too close to the marchers on a curve. I stepped in with my dog collar and stole on, and said “bless you” to each curse, “thank you for your support” to each gesture, shared the two fingered peace sign to every single middle finger.


If we are to be At-One, in this high and holy season; if we are to be At-One religiously and politically in the democracy building that I see as a sacred act, you and I must both confess the incompleteness of who and what we are, and seek forgiveness for the ways we’ve allowed the deck to be stacked; for our inability to organize our faith response more clearly and powerfully; and for our willingness to treat the unfortunate immigrant as “the other,” the problem, the thing.


And we must offer forgiveness: to each other; to those we have abandoned and ignored; to those we have belittled and despised. “We abuse, we betray, we are cruel, we destroy” the Yom Kippur liturgy states.  Our Unitarian Universalist faith confesses that we affirm the inherent worth and dignity—of each other, and of immigrant women seeking familial restoration, and even of political candidates and their supporters who take positions at variance with our own. We are, all of us, on a journey, together. We are connected to one another and to this precious planet in ways that we do not know. And we seek to be At-One, to be at peace, to be whole.  


May it be so. Blessed be. Ashe, ashe. Muchisimas gracias. Amen.


Pastoral Prayer and Personal Meditation


Response     “Mi Shebeirach”    Debbie Friedman


Mi shebeirach avoteinu
Mekor habracha l’imoteinu
May the source of strength who blessed the ones before us
Help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing
And let us say: Amen.


Mi shebeirach imoteinu
Mekor habracha l’avoteinu

Bless those in need of healing with r’fua shleima:
The renewal of body, the renewal of spirit
And let us say: Amen.


Straight Outta Compton

Friday, 11 September 2015 00:00 Published in The Minister's blog

I was late in seeing the movie, and I've been holding my reaction to it to myself through a sleepless night and a moist-eyed morning.

Last night, I saw "Straight Outta Compton," and about half-way through the film I began weeping. The truth of the violence it displayed was so real, and felt awfully present (in Baltimore in the era of Freddie Gray's death at the hands of the police). The tears emerged from a deep place of disappointment and fear.

I wept for the people we humans have become under capitalism (which turns all things into commodities) and imperialism (which establishes that those with the power to do so can dominate the world). (Sorry, that's just the way I see it!) "Who have we become?" I cried to myself.

And as I judged the "lifestyle excesses" shown in the film, I thought of my own self-righteousness regarding other peoples' male supremacy, heteronormative attitudes, substance abuse, violence, etc., etc. (And I kept wondering about my own life, my own short-comings: "What did I think in 1988? Where was I in 1992?" and so on).

I continued to wonder at the way I so easily can categorize people and build hierarchies. (We had a conversation today in the Transgender Day of Remembrance planning committee about "good trans" and "bad trans," as I had certainly known "good gays/bad gays" in other times . . . and always argued that it was the job of the "good" gays never to isolate and "other" the "bad" gays--who were usually bad because they were too working-class or too revolutionary!) So my weeping was for the system, and for humanity, for the film's protagonists and for my own distorted perception of all that is.

And then we (in the movie) moved on to HIV. Suddenly I was sitting at my partner Leonel's bedside. I was with his family as they struggled with their sense of shame and loss. I was with his religious community that rejected him (when they figured out who he and I were to each other) and his family's religious community that held him, especially if he was silent about his deepest truths. I was with my own family, too, and the shock in their eyes as I revealed a loss that they might have been better prepared for if I had let them know about my joy in my relationship with him. And I was with my astonishing grieving group of HIV-negative men whose partners had died of AIDS--just as the cocktail was being developed, just as men with access to health care were learning to deal with HIV as a chronic and manageable disease. 

I saw the film and was brought to a deep and confusing truth. And I left wanting to be part of changing the world as it is to a world that is more beautiful, good and true. "Let justice roll down like waters," the prophets said, "and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream." And even, I think, the streams that are our tears.

Labor's Story's Told and Told . . .

Tuesday, 08 September 2015 12:19 Published in The Minister's blog

We celebrated "Labor in the Pulpit/Labor on the Bimah/Labor at the Minbar" this weekend with hundreds of congregations around the country, many affiliated with Interfaith Worker Justice. Our special guest was Patricia Lippold, Vice-President of 1199SEIU. What follows are the words of our Minister, along with music from Little Flags (Labor) Theatre and a prayer by Cesar Chavez.

Labor’s Story’s Told and Told


Labor’s story’s told and told,
Just not so’s you can hear,
Labor’s story’s told and told,
You believe me, don’t you dear?


We all tell stories. All of us! We tell stories, in part, to know who we are. To know who our people are, and where we fit in to the larger story of this world. For nearly two hundred years, people on this corner have told a story, of our religion based on deeds, not creeds; built on covenants, not tests of belief, agreements with one another about a higher, more ethical way of being with each other and in the world.
“We need not think alike to love alike,” is a story we tell ourselves, mis-ascribing those words to the sixteenth century Transylvanian Francis Dávid. It rings true for us, places us on the long journey of liberal religion. (You see the big heart on the cover of our order of service. We want to be “the Love people.”) It is a story we tell that helps us understand who we are. It helps us determine where we next will be going.


You don’t know their names now,
Most didn’t know them then,
Those hundreds of thousands of laboring men,
Who worked dawn till the dusk and on to the night,
Who died far too young, and that’s never been right.


My dad worked dawn to dusk in factories. I remember him working at Thompson Chemical in Hebronville, Massachusetts, when I was young. He showed me his complicated shift schedule. One week he’d work first shift, and then after a day off he’d move to second shift (that is, from about 3 in the afternoon to 11). We need to be careful about being too loud in the morning, because that was when dad got in his sleep. Then after another day off, he’d have a number of days working third shift, “graveyard,” they called it; going to work when everyone else was headed to bed and being up until the first shift arrived at 7:30 a.m. Then he’d go back to working first shift for another week. It was kind of crazy, hard to plan a family life around, or a church life, or even his reserve life when he had his weekends with the National Guard. He didn’t think that he had died far too young, though. He lived until week shy of his 75th birthday, and as he put it, since his dad had died at age 67, just a few months after retiring from his factory job, my dad thought that he would have a good deal if he lived longer than his dad. (I insisted with my dad I was not going to anticipate my own longevity on the length of his life!)


Strong women beside them, who wed them, and tried
To work double shifts in factories,
      where too many of them died,
It was courage they had then that made them struggle on,
Those legions of warriors, nameless shadows in the dawn.


My father was offended when his pay was unable to meet all the needs of our family. He felt insulted, his ego was injured, when “his woman” worked outside the home. (Sigh. That’s part of my story, too, that fragile male ego, that male supremacy, that sense of personal insufficiency.) And yet my mom would talk about the jobs she had. In high school, working the ice cream counter at the creamery. After high school, assembling jewelry boxes at one of the jewelry shops in town, or going downtown to do clerical work at Automobile Mutual Insurance Company of America (AMICA). Once she married, she was home raising kids; but when my youngest brother began first grade, my mother flipped burgers at the Burger Chef, and later was a church secretary where she used some of her clerical skills and her “mothering” skills to turn out orders of service and prepare a cup of tea for a person who was having a hard time and wanted to talk to the minister.


These are the stories I tell myself to remind myself of who I am—who I really am. I’ve told you the story, I think, that my dad sat me down before I went to college, an New England university, and he reminded me of my own story. “Remember,” he said, “your grandfather was a working stiff, and your father is a working stiff, and no matter how high you might go, you will always be the son of a working stiff.” And then he gave me my marching orders: “The son of a working stiff knows that when you go to work, you join the union; and if there isn’t a union, you build one. And you never cross a picket line. And when it comes time to vote, the Democratic Party is the party of the working stiff.” (We never quite saw eye-to-eye on that one, but I will admit that I’ve worked for independent candidates and independent-minded Democratic candidates in most of my electoral life.)


This is the story that I know forms my identity; and when there has been an opportunity to walk on the picket lines with janitors and nurses, I’ve done it; when there’s been a chance to perform a benefit concert for paper workers and coal miners, I’ve done it; when there has been a chance to argue for jobs in East and West Baltimore in the construction of the Red Line, I have argued it; and when I’ve had a chance to bring people of faith together to raise the minimum wage, that’s where I placed myself, that’s where I invested my energy, that’s where I’ve found the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. That’s my story, and that’s my journey.


Companions on that journey have been the good people of 1199SEIU, a people who are in mourning this week. With them, we mourn the loss of Mr. John Robert Reid, Jr., who passed away on August 31, 2015 surrounded by many of his closest family and friends. A strong and deeply respected leader in the labor movement, we will remember John as a champion for working people and social justice, whose legacy will live on through the countless lives he touched.


John’s vast and substantive career began when he was drafted into the United States Army at age 18. He served in the Vietnam War, and due to an injury was honorably discharged and awarded a Purple Heart. In 1975, John began work as a Psychiatric Technician at Philadelphia’s Thomas Jefferson University. His talent for healthcare and passion for civil rights led him to become a union organizer for Philadelphia-area hospitals in 1979.  For the next 26 years, he served as a Vice President and then Executive Vice President in various areas throughout 1199. In 2005, John Reid relocated from New York City to Baltimore, Maryland, to take on the challenge of uniting the city’s healthcare workers together in a union. 


Let us pause and hold Brother Reid, all that he loved, and all the lives he touched, in our hearts. (pause) Blessed Be.


Our guest speaker Pat Lippold serves on the Executive Council of 1199SEIU, is a Vice President At Large representing the Maryland/District of Columbia region, and is one of my “go to” persons for thinking ethically, morally and politically about Maryland. I have had the great privilege of working with Sister Lippold both as a part of Good Jobs Better Baltimore, as a guest invited to the SEIU National Convention in 2012, in the successful struggle to raise the minimum wage in Maryland, and in solidarity with low wage workers at Johns Hopkins Hospital—where I am a patient—in getting an acceptable contract in 2014—again, another victory! As our part of the national movement of “Labor in the Pulpit/Labor on the Bimah/Labor at the Minbar,” may we welcome into this pulpit our sister in the struggle, Pat Lippold. (Note: We hope to post these remarks as a podcast on the church’s website.)


(A response sung after Sister Lippold's speech) 


A miner’s life’s full of work and pain,
Lying on his back in a dark coal vein,
Livin’ on slag piles that break away,
Workin’ so his kids gonna see a better day.

He works a buddy system with death.
He works a buddy system with death.


Methane gas, sudden rock fall,
Black dust so thick he hardly breathes at all,
Sets his fuses, shoots the coal,
Sucks the dust and powder into his soul.

He works a buddy system with greed.
He works a buddy system with greed.


Company owns the town, the sheriffs, too,
They’ll buy of everything before they’re through,
Judges, senators help them rule,
the people are used as a fast-buck tool.

They work a buddy system with greed.
They work a buddy system with greed.


A miner’s life’s full of work and pain,
Lying on his back in an anthracite vein,
Livin’ on slag piles that break away,
Workin’ so his kids gonna see a better day.

He works a buddy system with death.
He works a buddy system with death.


You can’t kill the spirit of working, folk:
We’re survivors!
We built this country brick by brick,

And fed it potato by potato,
And after all the dust is settled,
This land we worked, and built and fed
Will be ours. Oh, yes!
It will be ours! I know!


[Musical selections from The Furies of Mother Jones,
book and lyrics by Maxine Klein, music by James Oestereich]




César E. Chávez, Founder
United Farm Workers


Show me the suffering of the most miserable,
so I may know my people’s plight.

Free me to pray for others,
for you are present in every person.

Help me to take responsibility for my own life,
so that I can be free at last.

Grant me courage to serve others,
for in service there is true life.

Give me honesty and patience,
so that I can work with other workers.

Bring forth song and celebration,
so that the Spirit will be alive among us.

Let the Spirit flourish and grow,
so that we will never tire of the struggle.

Let us remember those who have died for justice,
for they have given us life.

Help us love even those who hate us,
so we can change the world. Amen.

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 Midsommar (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.

  • «
  •  Start 
  •  Prev 
  •  1 
  •  2 
  •  3 
  •  4 
  •  5 
  •  6 
  •  Next 
  •  End 
  • »
Page 1 of 6

Newsletter Sign-up

Happenings (Weekly Newsletter)

The Beacon


Minister's Blog

Pledge Here

Make a Donation or Pledge Payment

Find us around the Web


Shop Amazon and help the church

When you use this button to make a purchase from Amazon, a small percentage of your purchase price will go directly to First Unitarian Church of Baltimore.


Our Connections