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Leader Resource 2: First Experiences
Excerpted from Joseph Fabry, Making Sense: The Meaning of a Life, and Gail R. Geisenhainer, "We Who Believe in Freedom Cannot Rest."
Joseph Fabry was a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust who emigrated from Austria to the United States and settled in Berkley, California. In response to questions about God and Jesus from his daughter, Wendy, Fabry and his family became involved in the local Unitarian church, where the Rev. Raymond Cope was the minister. These words are from Fabry's autobiography Making Sense: The Meaning of a Life.
The word "church" had painful connotations for me. It was the place where "they" went, and in Vienna "they" were the Christians, the Aryans, the anti-Semites, the Nazis. Although the Unitarian Church displayed none of the symbols and paintings of the churches I had seen in Vienna, I felt uncomfortable. As the minister stepped to the pulpit in his churchly robe I was ready to leave.
I cannot remember everything Cope said that morning, but I know he answered questions I hadn't even known to ask. He mentioned two images that immediately had significance to me. Every carpenter knows, he said, that wood has to be sawed with the grain, not against it, or he will get hurt. In the same way we have to live with the grain of the universe and not against it. He also spoke of a "gyroscope" we all carry within us that keeps its balance... This was the first time since I left Vienna that I was assured that there was an order in the universe, and that it was up to me to discover it and live in accordance with it.
When I shook Raymond Cope's hand at the church door after that first service and he heard my accent, he asked me about my background. He said something to the effect that he hoped I would become active in his church, because as a Jew and a refugee I would have some special contributions to make to his congregation. And this after having been called a louse, spit on in the face, imprisoned, and unwanted by every country to which I applied for asylum!
Cope proved that he meant what he said. Not much later, he offered me the chairmanship of a committee that formulated the church school education. I told him I had never been on any committee, much less a chairman, and that I knew nothing about religious education. He said, with convincing assuredness, that he knew I could do it. So I tried. I later was given several leadership positions... Of course, I was scared. But Cope's unflinching confidence in me helped me overcome my self-doubts.
The Rev. Gail R. Geisenhainer has served several Unitarian Universalist congregations. These words are from her sermon "We Who Believe in Freedom Cannot Rest" which she preached at the 2006 General Assembly.
I was forthrightly evangelized into Unitarian Universalism. I was 38 years old, living in Maine, driving a snow-plow for a living and feeling very sorry for myself when a friend invited me to his church. He said it was different. I rudely refused. I cursed his church. "All blank-ing churches are the same," I informed him, "they say they're open—but they don't want queer folk. To Heck with church!" My friend persisted. He knew his church was different. He told me his church cared about people, embraced diverse families, and worked to make a better world. He assured me I could come and not have to hide any elements of who I was. So I went. Oh, I went alright.
And I dressed soooo carefully for my first Sunday visit. I spiked my short hair straight up into the air. I dug out my heaviest, oldest work boots, the ones with the chain saw cut that exposed the steel toe. I got my torn blue jeans and my leather jacket. There would be not a shred of ambiguity this Sunday morning. They would embrace me in my full Amazon glory, or they could fry ice. I carefully arranged my outfit so it would highlight the rock hard chip I carried on my shoulder, I bundled up every shred of pain and hurt and betrayal I had harbored from every other religious experience in my life, and I lumbered into that tiny meetinghouse on the coast of Maine.
Blue jeans and boots. Leather jacket, spiked hair and belligerent attitude. I accepted my friend's invitation and I went to his church. I expected the gray-haired ladies in the foyer to step back in fear. That would have been familiar. Instead, they stepped forward, offered me a bulletin, a newsletter and invited me to stay for coffee. It was so... odd! They never even flinched!
They called me "dear." But they pronounced it "dee-ah." "Stay for coffee, dear."
I stayed for coffee. I stayed for Unitarian Universalism. Over time, the good folks of that church loved up the scattered parts of me and guided me from shattered to whole; from outcast to beloved among many. And those folks listened to me. I and my life partner became their poster-children for the brand new Welcoming Congregation program. And they went on to provide important local pastoral and legislative ministries to gay folks in Down East Maine. We walked together and we helped each other to grow.