A number of years ago, I was the guest preacher at one of our small congregations in northern New England. It was a bitterly cold Sunday in February, and the congregation at the first of two morning services was sparse—so sparse it was almost awkward. So there we were, the ten of us, including my husband Anthony and myself. And as I delivered my sermon, I noticed a middle-aged woman sitting in the very last row, with a boy about age ten next to her.
After the service, as I made my way out of the sanctuary, the woman from the back of the room caught up to me. “Reverend!” she called out. I wasn’t a reverend yet, so the title was still novel and made me a little nervous.
“Reverend,” she called again. “Can I speak with you a moment?” We found a quiet corner and she said, “I need to ask you a question. Today is our first time here, me and my son.” She took a deep breath and her voice shook. “I haven’t been in a church for a long time.” She paused. I waited.
She continued: “I need to ask if it’s okay that I’m here.”
“Of course,” I said. We are glad you are here. I’m not the minister here, but I’m sure someone would be happy to show you around…” I launched into my welcome pitch, not listening well enough.
“No,” she said, slowly. “You see, I’m gay. And I haven’t been in a church in a long time.” Her eyes filled with tears. And I understood the seriousness of what she was asking. “I need to know that it’s okay that I’m here.”
“Yes,” I said, answering as I had before, but this time my eyes filled with tears, too. “We are glad that you are here.”
She nodded. And smiled. “I just wasn’t sure. Thank you.”
I touched her arm. “You are welcome,” I said.
I think of the trust that stranger placed in me on that February morning. Of the courage it took to call out. But I just happened to be the person in the pulpit. She was, in fact, placing her trust in the congregation, in Unitarian Universalism, in the people of that place, and, by extension, in all of us.
What courage it took for her to bring her son to church that February day, to open her heart again, to seek relationship, to offer her full self. I would hazard a guess that each of us has a similar story. A time when we began again. When we put our faith in someone even though doing so was terrifying, and we didn’t know how it would turn out.
Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker is the former president of our Unitarian Universalist seminary Starr King School for the Ministry and author of Blessing the World: What Can Save Us Now. She writes, “All human beings have experienced the impasse and anguish of violated trust. We all know the pain…of hurts that feel personal, of betrayal, of being told that we are not welcome. It is part of the human experience, and it happens to all of us at one point or another.”
This is, in part, why what we do is so radical. UU historian Alice Blair Wesley reminds us that being part of a community like this, a freely-gathered, covenantal congregation, is a choice that involves not signing on to a list of beliefs, but rather a promise. In a speech for the 2000 Minns Lecture series, Wesley says: “Entrance into the covenantal community summons a lifelong, forbearing engagement of heart, mind and body.”
Choosing to enter into covenant with other people in a congregation, to make such a promise, begins with choosing to walk through the doors of a faith community again for the first time in a long time. It continues when we choose to try again after betrayal, when we choose to trust each other, though each of us knows the anguish of broken trust, when we choose to love each other instead of fear each other.
Being in covenant with one another means that we promise that we will engage our hearts and minds and bodies on this adventure of the spirit that we are taking together. It means that we promise to do our best to do what love asks of us, and to live together “with the integrity of faithful love.”
As Unitarian Universalists, we trace our roots back to congregations that peppered New England in the mid-17th century. Having fled the domination of bishops in the Church of England, our spiritual ancestors arrived here ready to embark on a new congregational experiment in which people attended by choice rather than decree, where freedom of thought and belief were paramount, where the way people treated each other became more important than whether or not they all believed the exact same things.
Alice Blair Wesley explored documents that chronicle the beginning of one of our oldest congregations—the church in Dedham, MA, gathered in 1638. She discovered that as the founding members of that congregation asserted their freedom from the Church of England, they sought to define what exactly a “free church” would look like. They declared (and recorded for posterity): “A free church is a group of people who want the spirit of love to reign in their lives.”
As Unitarian Universalists, we have inherited this definition. At our core, are we not a group of people who want the spirit of love to reign in our lives? We gather together bound not by creed, but by covenant; guided not by fear, but by love; informed not by suspicion and mistrust, but by promises we make to each other. Our ancestors in Dedham believed that the best way of being in relationship was to be in what they called “continuous consultation.” Doesn’t that just sound Unitarian Universalist?
Continuous consultation. Members of these early congregations also called it “walking together.” So committed were they to walking together in love, in continuous consultation, that when there was a conflict or a disagreement, they outlined detailed guidelines for the conversations to be conducted.
Members of the congregation committed to listen deeply to each other’s truths, to work with conflict, to walk with each other in respect and love. Today we promise each other many of the same things that our ancestors did. And many of us believe that this relationship, this way of walking together, is the most important part of our faith.
Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, of the UU Congregation of Phoenix, Arizona, writes:
We sometimes wrongly say it is the absence of creed that is most important to who we are [as Unitarian Universalists]. This is wrong. Any one of us could practice religious freedom at home on Sunday mornings. We could practice religious freedom all day long, every day, and never come into community.
It is covenant that brings us out of isolation, out of selfish concerns, out of individualism, to join ourselves to something greater, to become a part of a community that is working to practice love, to dwell together in peace, to seek knowledge and wisdom together, to find better ways to live our lives and live in the world. This…is sacred, religious work.
Like all people, all congregations know the anguish of broken trust. All congregations have had their share of conflict and broken promises. Walking in love, in peace, in continuous consultation, takes courage. It takes the courage to begin again, the courage to trust in others and to allow ourselves to be trusted.
In the congregation that I serve, we have created a covenant that guides our walk together as we seek to be our best selves, within and beyond our walls, as we join in what Pope Francis named as the heart of all religious traditions: “the proclamation of the truth and dignity of the human person and human rights.”
We come together to celebrate the blessing of true community: the freedom to trust each other with our vulnerabilities and our truths, to treat each other with dignity and respect, to engage with forbearance, to keep our promises, and to do what love asks of us.
Never forget that what we do is important. Not because we can believe what we want or say what we want, but because of the trust we place in one another and the trust others place in us. What we do is important because of the stranger who has yet to find us, who will one day come to us with the memory of trust betrayed and say, “Is it okay that I am here?”And we will say, “Yes, we are glad you are here. You are welcome.”
Megan returned to Connecticut in 2011 where she completed her internship at The Universalist Church in West Hartford. She was ordained by that congregation in collaboration with her home congregation, First Unitarian Church of Cincinnati, in 2012. Megan served the The Universalist Church as Associate Minister from 2012-2013 and then the Shoreline Unitarian Universalist Society in Madison, CT as consulting minister shortly after the birth of her daughter. She returns each summer to Spring Green, Wisconsin, home of her Unitarian ancestors where she preaches in the historic Unity Chapel. Megan was called to USNH in 2015 and lives in New Haven with her husband, Anthony Clark, her two-year old daughter, Arden and two cats.