Bold Then, Bold Now
The reading today is from medical doctor Rachel Naomi Remen’s book, My Grandfather’s Blessings:
Often, when he came to visit, my grandfather would bring me a present. These were never the sorts of things that other people brought, dolls and books and stuffed animals. My dolls and stuffed animals have been gone for more than half a century but many of my grandfather’s gifts are with me still.
Once he brought me a little paper cup. I looked inside it expecting something special. It was full of dirt. I was not allowed to play with dirt. Disappointed, I told him this. He smiled at me fondly. Turning, he picked up the little teapot from my doll’s tea set and took me to the kitchen where he filled it with water. Back in the nursery, he put the little cup on the window sill and handed me the teapot. “If you promise to put some water in the cup every day, something may happen,” he told me.
At the time, I was four years old and my nursery was on the sixth floor of an apartment building in Manhattan. This whole thing made no sense to me at all. I looked at him dubiously. He nodded with encouragement. “Every day, Neshume-le,” he told me.
And so I promised. At first, curious to see what would happen, I did not mind doing this. But as the days went by and nothing changed, it got harder and harder to remember to water the cup. After a week, I asked my grandfather if it was time to stop yet. Shaking his head no, he said “Every day, Neshume-le.” The second week was even harder and I became resentful of my promise to water the cup. When my grandfather came again, I tried to give it back to him but he refused to take it, saying simply, “Every day, Neshume-le.” By the third week, I began to forget to water the cup. Often I would remember only after I had been put to bed and would have to get out of bed and water it in the dark. But I did not miss a single day. And one morning, there were two little green leaves that had not been there the night before.
I was completely astonished. Day by day they got bigger. I could not wait to tell my grandfather, certain that he would be as surprised as I was. But of course he was not. Carefully he explained to me that life is everywhere, hidden in the most ordinary and unlikely places. I was delighted. “And all it needs is water, Grandpa?” I asked him. Gently he touched me on the top of my head. “No, Neshume-le,” he said. “All it needs is your faithfulness.”
From Catholic author Richard Rohr comes these profound words: “We do not think ourselves into new ways of living, we live ourselves into new ways of thinking…. The most courageous thing we will ever do is bear humbly the mystery of our own reality.”
It’s a mystery that is just like the little paper cup in today’s reading, which Rachel Naomi Remen’s grandfather hands her when she is four years old, and she looks inside, expecting something special, but it’s just dirt. Very disappointing. But then he says, “If you promise to put some water in the cup every day, something may happen.” “Life is everywhere, hidden in the most ordinary and unlikely places.” “All it needs is your faithfulness.”
129 years ago, in 1882, when the Rev. George Leonard Chaney first came to Atlanta, it was just a lot of dirt. And by that I mean the prospects for liberal religion. The Civil War had ended only 17 years earlier, and Atlanta as a reconstruction-era southern city was decidedly unfriendly to northern Unitarian Christianity and abolitionism. On average 190 lynchings a year from 1877 to 1900 in Georgia and other states. The Ku Klux Klan in full force of terror. There had been two other attempts to plant liberal Christian and abolitionist congregations in Georgia—one in Augusta and the other in Savannah—but both had experienced vicious attacks and by the 1850s, both were totally out of business, buildings sold, ministers gone. That’s what the Rev. George Leonard Chaney faced when he came to Atlanta. Colleagues warning him, telling him it would be a great waste of time.
But he just watered the cup every day, faithfully. Humbly bore up the mystery of the reality he found himself in. Once in Atlanta, he made arrangements for his first public address—it would take place February 19, 1882, in the Senate Chambers of the State Legislature. He located all the known Unitarian families in the area, posted advertisements in the newspapers, did all the things you do when you’re wanting to plant a new congregation, and guess how many showed up? Eight. Among all the many possible ten thousands of people. Eight. For Rev. Chaney’s next address, entitled “The Positive Principles of Unitarian Christianity,” ten showed up. People already known to Chaney. No one who was not already a convinced Unitarian. “This went on for six months,” he says—“the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, and awakening few responses beyond its own echo.”
But he kept on. He trusted that life is everywhere, hidden in what is ordinary and unlikely, moving and growing in its own good time. One year later, in 1883, a new congregation was founded with not eight or ten people but twenty-seven charter members, called “The Church of Our Father.” A building was built, and the young congregation was finding ways of serving the larger world. Saw, for example, that there was a private Young Men’s Library in Atlanta, a library of 12,000 volumes. For a fee, you could use it; but what if you couldn’t afford it? And forget about even trying, if you were a woman, or if you were a person of color. So the congregation, under Chaney’s leadership, organized the establishment of a free lending library for every one, male or female, black or white, poor or wealthy. Paul in the Christian scriptures talked about how there was neither slave nor free, male nor female, Jew nor Gentile, but all are one in Christ Jesus—and here was our ancestor congregation incarnating these words practically, entrepreneurially, in the form of a lending library. Talk about prophetic religion—social reform that expresses a clear spiritual vision! Eventually the Carnegie Foundation got wind of it, saw how successful the venture was, and was inspired to establish no less than the Atlanta Public Library. That’s where it comes from. Us!
You just can’t predict ahead of time what’s going to come up out of the cup. It’s a mystery you just water faithfully, and let happen. Every generation gets its turn.
Which is not to say that every generation bears it up well. As we look to the period following the founding of the Church of Our Father in 1883, up to the late 1940s, we find a congregation that is muddling along, some ups but mostly downs, with a membership roll that never goes above 50 people. The four-year-old Rachel Naomi Remen from the reading comes to mind—the part where she’s starting to resent her promise to water the cup every day, the part where she doesn’t even want the cup anymore, wants to give it back. Faithfulness dwindling, faithfulness coming apart. So, for example, we find our ancestor congregation struggling financially. The Rev. Bob Karnan describes this rather frankly: “[The members of the Atlanta church] were, according to my readings of the financial records, a very cheap bunch. They constantly begged the American Unitarian Association for money to subsidize the operation, yet they never really supported it well themselves. Contributions of $5.00 per year were quite normal. Finally, in 1908, the president of the American Unitarian Association, Samuel Eliot, wrote the Atlanta members a letter, outlining their inability to keep a minister longer than three years (most left after one), their organizational mismanagement, and their constant expectations to be bailed out. Dr. Eliot told them to fish or cut bait. Choose death or choose life.”
You can’t get any clearer than that. But our ancestor congregation continued muddling along anyway. It was lost. Born with a vision of serving all people, whatever their race and gender and class and on and on—as the free lending library initiative so wonderfully incarnated—but somehow the vision was forgotten, and the congregation now found itself caught up solely in the drudge work of institutional maintenance and inwardness and dramas of all types. This, unfortunately, is the larger context of the merger of Atlanta Unitarians with Atlanta Universalists in 1918, leading to the very first Unitarian Universalist congregation in history, a full forty three years before the two parent denominations came together in 1961. Sounds exciting—but again, the historical reality is disillusioning. Says one of our Interim ministers in 1940, Frederic W. Perkins, “the merger was prompted more by a desire to offset the weakness of each than by a large-minded devotion to a common spiritual objective which was bigger than either, to which each could contribute its distinctive gifts, and which they could serve better together than apart. Furthermore, the Unitarian group was largely of an urban type and the Universalist group one of rural backgrounds, coming from small communities in Georgia and elsewhere. […] They have never, except in the case of large-minded individuals on both sides, gotten much beyond the stage of viewing each other ‘with distinguished consideration’—and not always that.” All of which explains why our ancestor congregation back in 1918 and beyond was … idiosyncratic. Universalists sat on one side of the aisle, Unitarians on the other; a Universalist usually held the treasurer’s post, while a Unitarian became president of the board. If the present minister was Unitarian, you better believe the next would be Universalist. Back and forth, like a game of tennis.
All drama. Power plays, controversies, intrigues. And no issue provoked more of it than that of integration. In 1948, Dr. Thomas Baker Jones, an African American, applied for membership, and he was refused. Like dominoes, the rest followed. The minister at the time, the Rev. Isaiah Jonathan Domas resigned; the American Unitarian Association blacklisted the congregation and urged that no Unitarian minister serve it; and the Universalist Church of America did the same. Our ancestor congregation dug in its heels. Then, in 1951, the American Unitarian Association, which owned the building and practically everything else because the congregation was a cheap bunch, sold the building out from under them. Dirt in the cup bone dry, and seed dead.
But not game over. Every new generation gets a new shot, gets a chance to bear up the mystery of its reality. So, one year later, in 1952, the American Unitarian Association commissioned the Rev. Glenn Canfield to create a Phoenix miracle and re-establish the failed congregation, give it a new birth. The commitment, unequivocal and right from the start, was to human and civil rights. If you could go back in time and see an order of service from that era, this is one of the things you’d read in it: “Our fellowship includes all people, regardless of race, color, nationality, or station of life. We believe in the essential unity of humanity and that only together can we work out successful ways of living in happiness and peace.”
Finally, the vision that inspired the lending library initiative in Rev. George Chaney’s day had come home. And it’s amazing what happens when a vision is recovered. Without a vision the people perish—but with a vision, everything becomes possible. It’s like that wonderful story about the building of Chartres Cathedral. “I’m piling stone upon stone,” says one worker, embittered by what seems a useless task; “I’m building a wall,” says a second worker, not so much embittered but definitely not excited, not on fire, like the third worker who knows what it’s all for, who has a vision of the future, the worker who says, “I’m building a cathedral!” Rev. Canfield brought vision like this, and so did his successor, the Rev. Ed Cahill, and all of a sudden, the congregation that never went above 50 people shot up to more than 100 members, and beyond. “We believe in the essential unity of humanity and that only together can we work out successful ways of living in happiness and peace.” The congregation lived it. For example, when Coretta Scott King was leader of the youth group at Ebenezer Baptist Church, our congregation and theirs arranged joint Sunday evening programs, alternating between them, so black and white young people could get to know one another. The Klan called and threatened violence at the next Sunday evening meeting. Congregation officials consulted Coretta King regarding the options and she said to go ahead with the meeting. All parents were called to give them the option of keeping their children home. Not one parent held back. That evening, all the fathers came and ringed the church outside to form a visible wall of protection.
These are true hero moments. So many stories like this. Vision becoming real. You don’t just pledge $5 dollars a year to something like this. You throw money at this. You throw your time and you throw your energy, because it’s changing lives in a way no one can deny.
People in this generation—the generation when Civil Rights was the central, galvanizing social issue—watered the cup faithfully, and the seed grew, and who would have known that the seed was that of a redwood. In 1974, at the end of the pastorate of the Rev. Eugene Pickett, the congregation that was stuck at 50 for so many years would be at 1040 members, making it the largest congregation in the Unitarian Universalist Association. A spiritual redwood. That’s what it was, and that is what we are today.
But every new generation gets its turn. Gets handed a new cup of dirt. Trying to live completely off the legacy of the past, no matter how inspiring, is no life at all. Especially because the world never ceases moving forward, and we must move with it, to stay relevant. This is not the 1960s any more. There is no single moral and social issue galvanizing us as Civil Rights once did. And the very ground we walk on is shakier than ever. As theologian Philip Clayton reminds us, we live in a “google-shaped world.” “We are facing a transformation of how human society is organized that is as revolutionary in its implications as was the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg over 500 years ago—perhaps even as revolutionary as the fall of Rome. If that’s right.” Philip Clayton asks, “what does this mean for those who are called to be leaders and to guide [our congregations] into the 21st century?” That’s what this generation’s cup of dirt looks like. We have to face it like George Carlin once said, in the spirit of Vueja De, which is opposite of Déjà Vu. As in, “Man, I’ve never been here before!” Because we haven’t.
And that’s what our Long Range Plan is all about. To chart a new course forward, in our google-shaped world. Phase I is complete and ready for a vote at the congregational meeting after this service. If the vote is positive, Phase II begins, and the work of the four strategy groups—one group for each high-level aspiration—commences. If you have the interest and skill and vision, I hope you will consider serving on one of these teams. Be faithful. Then, finally, comes Phase III, when we implement. It looks like this. Each one of us, every day, watering our congregational cup of dirt, so that the life that is hidden in our time finds a way to be born. Who knows what will grow? Who knows what it will lead to? We’re on the road to find out. But only faithfulness will take us there.
And as we go, let’s keep our history in mind. The golden moments, of course, but also the leaden ones. Growth—progress—is just not inevitable. As we saw with our ancestor congregation roughly between 1890 and the late 1940s, we have the capacity to muddle along in our DNA. It’s just part of us. We can tap into that as surely as all the other good stuff that’s also there. We can starve this congregation with cheapness, OR we can go bold with our giving. We can get caught up in the dramas of our internal diversity, with all our different groups all expressing how they feel marginalized, OR we can sacrifice our individual senses of entitlement to a larger purpose of being united as Unitarian Universalists bringing a Spirit of Life message to the world. We can falter in the face of the big spiritual and social challenges of our day, OR we can step forward in prophetic witness and incarnate love and justice as best as we know how. We can also make decisions that in the moment seem expedient and wise, but they are fear-based and small-minded, OR we can make decisions that are courageous and truly needed in service to the bold spiritual call of becoming more than we ever thought possible.
The Rev. George Leonard Chaney came to Atlanta in 1882, and pretty much everyone considered it a lost cause, a wasted effort. Only eight people showed up for his first address, ten for the second. “I’m like a voice crying out in the wilderness,” he once said. But he kept on crying out, and he found a way, he bore up the mystery of the reality of his day and time humbly, and we were born.
He was bold then. We need to be bold now.