On Gardens and Guardrails

Part of RR Teams

By CB Beal

A person with blue gardening gloves on their knees unrolling sod on a lawn

Imagine, UU's: 
In my neighborhood, the kids planted a nice garden and grassy play area in the middle of the turnaround in the center of our housing circle, and we all agreed to share it. We share mowing and weeding responsibilities. We agree not to drive on it.

Someone drives his car on the grass; there are two big divots.
I say, "Hey, what happened?"
He says, "Sorry, It was an accident. I won't do it again."
He helps me fix the grass.
Cool. It's over. We're good.

Someone drives their car on the grass; there are two big divots.
I say, "Hey, what happened?"
They say, "Sorry, I forgot. I won't do it again."
They help me fix the grass.
Cool. It's over. We're good.

Someone drives her car on the grass. There are two big divots and a flattened rose bush.
A neighbor comforts a kid who is crying over their wrecked rose bush.
I say, "Hey, what happened?"
She says, "Oh, gosh, I'm so sorry, it's automatic, and I didn't think about it."
She helps me fix the grass. 
A neighbor asks if she can think of any way we could all help her stop doing it. “Would guard rails or rocks around it help? Or reflectors on a stick?"
She says that red reflectors on a stick would be super helpful, so we put some in, 
and she didn't do it again.
Cool. We're good.

Someone drives his car on the grass; there are two big divots.
I say, "Hey, what happened?"
He says, "Sorry, I forgot about the garden. I won't do it again."
He helps me fix the grass.
Cool. It's over. We're good.

A couple of days later, he drives his car on the grass again. There are two big divots and a wrecked rose bush. A neighbor comforts the crying child.
I say, "Hey, you said you wouldn't do it again."
He says, "Oh, yeah. Whatever."
He goes home.

A few other neighbors and I fix the grass.
We're not good.

It happens a few more times that month.
A couple of us chat with him. 
We say, "Hey, seriously, you said you wouldn't do it again."
He says, "Yeah, well, it's easier to cut across the grass instead of driving all the way around. It's the way I want to do it."
He goes back inside his house.
The other neighbors and I fix the grass. We replant some flowers.
We comfort the kids who want to know why he is acting like a bully and wrecking their garden. 
We're not good.

This happens all summer. When we ask him to stop the simple behavior of cutting a corner across the grass, he says, "No." Or he says, "Yes," but then doesn't. 
We ask if guardrails or reflectors would help.
"No," he says.
We put reflectors up anyway, because we want to try to do something to get him to stop wrecking the kids play area and garden.

He says he never agreed to a garden. 
He says he cuts the corner because it's a shorter distance and easier to drive, and besides, before the garden, he always cut that corner.
We're not good.
Now, none of us are ok. The situation isn't ok. The children think the community isn't safe because the grownups aren't following what they agreed to, and they keep letting that one guy wreck things.

Now, in honesty, this isn't where I live and isn't about a neighborhood. It's a metaphor. But you had some feelings about that last person, didn’t you? This is a metaphor for a religious community that has promised, joined in covenant, to care for one another and live in accordance with our values. It's a metaphor for repeatedly causing harm without willingness to change behavior. I chose this particular behavior because it is so clearly out of bounds that we can focus on how we respond and because I hope it is a behavior that most readers don’t personally experience in their faith communities. We can discuss harm without replicating it.

The first three people were invited into the covenant and even supported to change behavior, and it was all good. We make covenant together. Covenant is broken together. Covenant is fixed together.

Then we have questions to reflect on as the last story goes on.

He keeps breaking the agreement and hurting people. He says he won't stop doing it. This is a straightforward position on his part. There is no complexity in this situation.

Can he claim he's in a healthy relationship with us, in covenant, and continually break it and cause harm?
Is he really part of our community, or is he occupying space in our community without contributing to it in the most basic ways (respect for the covenant, for others, follow-through, his word meaning something, helping repair what he broke)?

Do we, collectively, let him keep disregarding our agreements?

At what point is there a consequence for this guy for not following our agreement, for not acting as if he cares for his community, for not keeping his word to live together according to our highest values?
At what point does the community say that what he calls his individual right to drive the way he wants is unacceptable for the reason that it hurts others?

Does the community have a fair and equitable plan to help him not drive in the garden? 
Are there people to help put up some guardrails? These things happen first.

But at some point, there must be a consequence. If he won't stop hurting the community, then the community needs to find a way to stop him from hurting the community.

It's never simple. It's never immediate. If a relationship is broken to this extent, any consequences must be determined with the same care and compassion the covenant was created with. Chances are offered. The harm is explained. More opportunities to change the behavior that hurts people are offered.

We Unitarian Universalists have long erred on the side of offering a multiplicity of chances (or even full-on passes) to individuals for their behavior, even as the community experiences harm. Often, this happens even as the community loses other individuals who can’t be present to that harm. But we must figure out how to set and maintain an actual limit for our covenant to mean something. At some point, after all the conversations and interventions, if this man in our metaphor can't stop hurting people in the community, he needs to be somehow outside of it. He can't be part of the community until he changes his behavior. It is the community that must determine how all of this happens; assess how out of bounds the harmful behavior is, how much the community attends to those who are being harmed, how we balance our commitment both to individual choice and community care. This is the ongoing work of covenant and community care.

And—this is the really important part—nothing keeps someone from being welcomed back after they figure out how to stop hurting people. 
It's not a contract, which if you break, you're out. Kaput.

It's a covenant, and there is always a way back into community. That's part of our deal as UUs.

Rev. Dr. Sofia Betancourt spoke of this in 2022 at a General Assembly panel called “Accountability, Justice, and Wholeness—UU Theologies of Liberation.” (I commend this wonderful conversation (Vimeo 1:04)) with Dr. Elias Ortega.) At the end of the workshop, Rev. Betancourt was asked to answer one more question: "How do we address harm with one another in UUism with a transformative, transparent model?"

The context and entirety of her response are important. Rev. Betancourt prefaced her answer by referencing the Berry Street Essay given three days earlier. The Berry Street Essay was established by Rev. William Ellery Channing in 1820 for the Ministerial Conference in Berry Street, and has continued annually since.

She answered, "I want to commend to all of you the work of Rev. Mykal Slack, who gave the Berry Street Lecture..." (More Faith, Power, and People: Breaking the Cycles that Separate Us From Unitarian Universalism.)

She called it “….Radical truth-telling that we saw and received, and some hard, really important conversation about covenant..."

In this historic annual event among clergy, Rev. Slack and others had shared about some really painful and specific harms that have happened in UUism, including by clergy.

Rev. Betancourt then said,

"We have to be willing to say "No" in UU spaces. ...We talk about covenants as floors, not ceilings; it's aspirational, it should be something that we lean into. ...All these things are beautiful. We need things that inspire us to grow spiritually and be our best selves.

But we can't do that unless we are willing to say to each other, "You are out of covenant right now. Will you talk to me about how?"

Or even, "You are so out of covenant that you cannot be back in this community until you are willing to do the work of repair.”

Covenant without consequences is not actually covenant. And this is hard for us, because the all-embracing love means we want to love everyone. And so, here's the thing. Love is unassailable. I can tell you ‘No,’ and still love you. Our Universalist promise is not that we're going to wait until the last, most recalcitrant person is willing to come along. That is not Universalism. Universalism promises that there is always a path of return when you are ready. But we do not wallow in harm until you are.

So honestly, we have to learn how to say no, with love, based on our principles, and end the ‘No’ with a loving reminder that we will be here when you are ready to do the work. You cannot break this community over and over again out of, whatever it is; trauma, fear, anger, loss, despair. I mean, these are pastoral issues. You can always come home, but you got to come correct. That’s a covenant.”

We can choose community care. We can choose to value our covenants so much that we hold the whole of the community with care as we invite, even support, people to stop harmful behavior. Because Love is at the center. Not me, not you—Love.

Lightly edited from the original public post on social media.

CB Beal, May 2024.

About the Author

CB Beal

CB Beal, M. Div. (they/them) is a national consultant, a writer, storyteller, and itinerant religious educator. CB works with individuals and teams to explore equity and justice through the practice of Preemptive Radical Inclusion, lifelong sexuality and consent education, and safer communities.

For more information contact .