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Right Relations: Congregations' Role in Local and Larger Communities
General Assembly 2006 Event 2050
Speaker: The Rev. Dr. James P. Wind, president, Alban Institute
Introduced by Jerry Davidoff, the Rev. Dr. James P. Wind, president of the Alban Institute, spoke to a large crowd in the Ferraro Theater of the America's Center in St. Louis. On the 2006 General Assembly theme of "Toward Right Relations," Wind said that this topic is "important to your denomination—and to the nation." Assuming that this meant seeking "healthy, life-giving, respectful, loving, and open relationships with one another," seeking a way of being that fosters full human flowering. He also noted that the word "toward" in the theme recognizes the sad truth that right relations are not fully present, sadly.
Describing himself as coming from Midwestern Lutheran soil, a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, and a historian and congregational researcher, with 11 years as president of the Alban Institute, he noted that he was at the General Assembly as an outsider with a truly different perspective, but even so a partner in the "grand American experience," one in which all have freedom to be ourselves within the context of religious and cultural pluralism.
Wind called attention to former President Jimmy Carter's book, Our Endangered Values: American's Moral Crisis. In this book, Carter enumerates the problems and challenges facing America, a "weighty list." Wind noted how important it was that Carter stated where he stood on each issue, while there is a temptation today to remain undecided. "Can congregations talk about these issues?" Wind asked.
"We live in a world of severely damaged relationships," he continued. "The human family is not in right relation with Mother Earth," and many people lack equal access to the goods of life. What are some solutions? We are all in this together. Right relations are a global need, not just a congregational or workplace need. What is needed is "global repentance," people acting together in the interest of the common good.
Looking at the Hebrew scriptures, Wind pointed out, from the beginning relationships were meant to be right, but were also from the beginning fragmented. Humans have constantly sought right relations, while finding themselves entangled in broken ones, alienated even from the ground of life.
What is the role of the congregation in right relations? Wind noted the high value on the role of the congregation in Unitarian Universalism, noting also that congregations can be of great value in the local and global situation. Wind pointed out two sources of the congregation's value. First, its roots are in Christianity, where the community was seen early as a possible light to the world. In Christian history, "little congregations of renewal and reform" have been important to correcting broken and fragmented relationships within church and state. Second, the roots of community are in the Enlightenment, which values "open discourse among peers." Wind quoted Edmund Burke's description of "little platoons of citizens." Today, congregations "do much more than we know," and, at their best, congregations "major in the right relations business."
Wind asked the audience to imagine their town—and then what it would be like with no religious congregations. The skyline would change—but beyond architecture, there would be less intergenerational community, fewer social services, no food banks or homeless shelters. Schools, colleges, universities, hospitals, fraternal organizations, civil leadership groups, and some businesses have been rooted in congregational life.
Congregations like the University of Chicago—largely founded by members of one Baptist church—and Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta have had large impacts on culture. In the local church, people learn to live with others in respectful, caring ways, and to link to those who are different, bringing us into relationships with them to do works of justice and mercy.
Answering questions, Wind noted that he is cautious about faith-based programming as it's currently implemented, as it may be misused, but he also pointed to potential for some good experiments. He also pointed to ways in which clergy (especially younger clergy) are rethinking traditional rituals, adapting them to new needs.
He addressed issues of the small congregation located where the church members tend to turn inward instead of reaching out. Then, he asked, what is the church's reason for being? He stressed the dangers of only relating inward, but said that members can build on connections that already exist.
Wind used the metaphor of butterfly wings that may cause a storm on the other side of the world. Whether or not the metaphor is scientifically accurate, he said, we can see congregations that way: "Very small steps taken in one local congregation can have enormous impacts around the world."
Wind cited James Luther Adams, Unitarian Universalist theologian, who said that passing the offering plate was one way that people learned the value of volunteering, building something larger than one's self.