Service is our prayer

Universalist minister L. Griswold Williams edited a volume of prayers and meditations useful for services of liberal religion in the 1930s. These words which he compiled are in our hymnal and used by many congregations even today:

Love is the doctrine of this church,
The quest of truth is its sacrament
And service is its prayer.

To dwell together in peace,
To seek knowledge in freedom,
To serve human need,
To the end that all souls shall grow into harmony with the Divine—

Thus do we covenant with each other and with God.

Williams first served Universalist congregations during World War I, and was an outspoken opponent of the United States joining the war. His argument was that the capitalists of Germany were at war with the capitalists of France and Britain, and that the workers of the United States should not be sent into war by the capitalists of our country. For this, he was accused of holding pro-German sympathies, and was under surveillance by the Bureau of Investigation while serving All Souls Universalist Church of Marion, Ohio. When he registered with the Marion Draft Board, he cited his religious objection to war and asked to be classified as a conscientious objector. When his congregation told him they would not renew his annual contract with him, he became Minister of First Universalist Church of Lockport, New York, where at least some who supported his pacifism.

Williams would not serve his country in war; but in following his conscience, he was drafted for non-combat service and allowed to serve his time in France with the American Friends Reconstruction Unit (now known as the American Friends Service Committee). As bombs fell in the Marne Valley, Williams worked with Quakers and others in erecting pre-fabricated shelters—the French called them démontables, disassembled. Service, in the midst of grave danger, was indeed his prayer. He wrote this poem about his experiences:

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

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

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

Such service is, indeed, a prayer that we might not say yet know and do. Universalists of an earlier day, and we, too; called to act in ways that open wide our doctrine Love, that pleasantly pursue that sacred Truth, that show the world and even ourselves how we have used these lives we live to pursue harmony and grow our souls.

Lots of activity at First U this month! Let’s find ways to serve each other and our cause.

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