Hope is Creation is Salvation

two hands are shaping clay on a pottery wheel

By Annie Gonzalez Milliken

or "Some things I've learned while working at the UUA and trying to be a human in this broken world"

Today so many people I love are mourning the loss of Unitarian Universalist leader Wendi Winters, murdered in the shooting that happened yesterday at the Capital Gazette Office in Annapolis, MD. Emerging adults are mourning because she was there leading their youth conferences, young adults are mourning because she was their mentor, former ministers are mourning because she was their congregant, lay leaders are mourning because she was their friend.

When I saw that there was another shooting, at first I didn’t even flinch. I was still reeling from the Supreme Court upholding the racist and Islamaphobic travel ban, weakening our ever more necessary unions, and then Kennedy ditching us to leave us in even more dire straits, because sadly the court could get even worse. And when all of that landed I had still been reeling from Trump’s maniacal manipulation of border policies leaping around from “cruelest” to “still really freaking cruel” and calling it compassion. I didn’t have space for another thing. And when I found out a Unitarian Universalist had been killled, a leader who was important to the youth community, I just went into work mode figuring out how our office should respond.

The Supreme Court is in the background, with protestors holding "No Muslim Ban Ever" signs in the foreground

It is easy to shut down in the face of all the brutality and terror. Some of us can descend into a protected despair where we are not fearing for our lives, kids, or basic human rights. Others are in survival mode, just trying to get through another day after dealing with oppression and violence for years. I will admit that I have spent most of the past 17 months pretty fully shutdown with no hope whatsoever, moving forward with resistance work fueled by a mix of faith, guilt and workaholism (and by workaholism, I mean volunteeraholism, sorry UUA).

I did not want to grieve because I did not want to have to feel the rage in my body like I could jump out of my skin, the sadness in my chest like I might stop breathing. And I have not wanted to have any hope because as cynical and radical as I thought I had become, I still had some hope in November 2016 and boy was I wrong. I was mad at hope. I was done with feeling feelings. I took on more roles, attended more meetings, checked more emails, gave more money, coordinated food for giant convenings of organizers even though I didn’t know how, visited folks in immigration jail despite my extremely mediocre Spanish and complete lack of legal understanding. As long as I was doing too much, I couldn’t expect any more of myself could I?

And yet. I couldn’t fully escape the grief. I knew it was morally and spiritually irresponsible to do so. I took it in doses, listening to just the headlines on Democracy Now each day, sometimes literally shaking with rage and muttering “Fuck you, fuck you,” every time I heard Trump’s voice walking down the street in Jamaica Plain, sometimes unabashedly crying, tears streaming down my cheeks as I navigated the crowded intersection near South Station. I also went to worship. And sometimes I sang my heart out at Sanctuary Boston, other times I sat in the intimate silence of NightChurch, a small group Christian worship at Hope Central Church in Jamaica Plain, holding my stone that felt like a million pounds, thinking of the burdens, all that was separating me from God, obediently laying it down at the foot of the cross.

a table covered in decorative fabric holds 6 candles and a cross, in the background you can see Christmas decorations and more candles

The altar at NightChurch on Epiphany.

I was still mad at hope even as I still kept attending that small group worship with our never-changing liturgy that says “Hope is not wishful thinking, but the practice of moving toward the heart of God…” Hope is not wishful thinking. It is not believing a positive outcome will come to be. It is not optimism. It is the practice of moving toward the heart of God. It is the PRACTICE of moving TOWARD the heart of God. It is doing that is pointed at love and liberation. Hope, in fact, is creation. And somewhere in my soul I knew that, even while I threw my 17 month hope-hating hissy fit. I knew that hope wasn’t the thing I was mad about, knew that I had been engaging in hope all along, as I created new relationships, learned new skills, supported others in bringing about new networks and strategies.

But I will tell you, it wasn’t just the political landscape I have been feeling hopeless about. It’s the landscape of my paid work too: the landscape of Unitarian Universalist Young Adult Ministry. We lose most of our Bridgers, who joke about “cliffing” instead of bridging. We have about 50 campus ministry endeavors limping along, only a few of which are vibrant and sustainable. If a congregation does have a young adult group it’s more likely to be a 20s/30s group leaning pretty hard to the 30s side of things. Our congregations struggle to welcome and retain younger visitors and are challenged by the radical politics and increasing gender diversity our younger generations are embracing.

image is a line drawing of a cliff with one person rapelling down, one going down a rope ladder, one going over a bridge and one on a hang glider

We know there is still a cliff, but there are also ways to navigate it! For more check out The Cliff, The Bridge and Beyond.

And this is all very discouraging and we could spend all day talking about it. We could analyze and talk about cultural trends and the history of Unitarian Universalism and the Baby Boomer generation and our own wounds and dreams. And the wounds and dreams part is important for processing, but the rest of it isn’t going to fix anything. No, what we need is hope in the form of creation. Like when a bunch of Bridgers crowd sourced a Google spreadsheet this year tracking what UUs were doing, or to what college they were going, so they could connect. Grassroots proactive creativity! Or like when our Youth and Young Adults of Color Ministry Associate thought up the idea of having Thrive@GA roles for youth and young adults of color to support their peers after noting how impossible it was for her to fulfill all those roles at GA. Savvy leadership development oriented creation!

Not all young adult ministry endeavors succeed. Many fail. But even those can be fabulous learning opportunities. Like when some of the (now defunct) Continental UU Young Adult Network leadership worked hard to create Faith Architects, originally dreamed up as a series of young adult leadership cons that would equip young adults to build true multigenerational faith homes in their congregations. This endeavor came to a close in 2017 but the ideas and learnings live on. One place they live is in the Meaning Makers program our office created during my time here. And at General Assembly when I got to watch Meaning Makers alumni serve on the Right Relationship Team, promote the College of Social Justice, facilitate workshops and networking sessions, show up at the Young Adult of Color lunch, and work on passing some of the most crucial GA business, I didn’t even try to fight off the hope.

Now I’m not trying to tell you that the young folks are gonna save us all. A of all they shouldn’t have to and B of all they can’t do it alone. I’m not saying Unitarian Universalism is gonna be ok. I’m not saying the world is gonna be ok. Everything is really awful and it’s impacting some of us much more than others. But what I’m trying to say, from one anti-hope faithful pessimist to anyone out there who needs to hear it, is that hope is creation and creation is the best path that I can see to salvation. I’m sure there are other paths because I’m a Universalist and I know we’re all getting there. But it’s the path I’m trying to take, the path those I respect most are taking.

a group of UU young adults gather on a set of stairs making U shapes with their hands

Meaning Makers participants from the first retreat making "UU" hands.

For example, there was the Safety Team at General Assembly this year. This team, co-convened by India Harris and Chris Crass, was exactly what it sounds like. A team of skilled de-escalators whose purpose was to keep General Assembly safer for all participants and for the folks we interacted with in the local community. The Safety Team was there to be used instead of police and was also there to de-escalate if police were already involved in a situation.

For those who were not at General Assembly you may be wondering what that was like. You can view a re-cap of one of the incidents the Safety Team intervened in at 1:26:00 in this clip from closing ceremonies. For me, it was a novel experience. I’ve never been part of a community, even a temporary one, where there was a designated team gathered for the purpose of authentic community safety, with the exception of marches and rallies where there are teams of marshals for that purpose. And you know, it’s one thing to recognize that racism is a major issue in our system of policing. It’s one thing to decry the constant racial profiling, the collaboration with ICE, the murders, the tearing apart of families and communities that policing and the interlocking criminal justice system bring about. It is not too hard, even for white folks like me who generally are protected by policing, to see the problems and to say something about them.

But it is a different thing to create an alternative. Because when you create an alternative, the dismantling seems more possible. When you create an alternative you get a little taste of another world, you get to feel it in your body and not just think about it in your mind. I know it must have been a ton of work for all those who served in that capacity and especially those who brought it into being. It took resources. And it was so worth it. Experiencing an alternative is key to being able to change patterns. That’s why I loved Occupy Wall Street so much back in the day when I lived in New York City, because they created an alternative community smack dab in the middle of the one they were critiquing. That’s why I love the Boston Immigration Justice Accompaniment Network I’ve been blessed to be part of, because I get to experience in my body, spirit, wallet and cell phone what mutual aid and solidarity actually feels like, instead of just criticizing Trump and confessing my complicity as a white citizen.

Chris Crass stands in an orange vest while India Harris speaks on the mic at General Assembly

Saftey Team leads addressing the General Assembly during General Session.

So let’s keep creating. And by the way, by creating I do not mean producing. Creativity and productivity are profoundly different things. One way I can tell if I’m producing or creating is that producing feels like: a slog, an ego win, or like I just proved to someone that I have worth as a human being and deserve a paycheck. Creating feels like: a puzzle, a collective win, or like I knew every human was worthwhile all along anyway.

So while you may need to keep producing for a variety of reasons including paychecks, I exhort you to keep creating. Keep creating alternatives to policing. Keep creating restorative justice processes. Keep creating covenants. Keep creating new worship services (some in circles some not on Sunday mornings). Create new accompaniment networks, new pieces of art, new ways of describing gender, new words to limited hymns, new ramps, new ways of ministering on college campuses, new bond funds. Create new human beings, new relationship structures, new cooperative communities, new forms of pleasure, new crowd sourced Google docs with the information people need, new organizing networks within our faith community, new ways of communicating using our voices or our tiny pocket computers. Keep creating more love, keep living this kind of hope, keep saving yourself and your loved ones and your faith and your world