A Beautiful Complicated Story

By Wren Bellavance-Grace

red heart made of yarn on a tree

I call that church free which is not bound to the present... It earns and creates a tradition binding together past, present, and future in a living tether, in a continuing covenant...
~ James Luther Adams

“I am not a church person. I came here because of Rev. Jane Doe, and when she leaves, I’m out.”

I heard those words in conversation with a member of one of our New England congregations recently. This “not-a-church-person” person also happens to serve on the board of his congregation now.

We all come to Unitarian Universalism in our own way. For some of us, it’s a birthright—I have met a few folks who could trace their congregational roots all the way back over seven or eight generations! Some of us were brought in by friends, or were drawn by a faith home that would help us raise our children with the values we hold dear. And yes, some of us happen to arrive during the tenure of a minister we just adore. To this day I’m pretty sure my first minister wrote their sermons just for me.

But I stayed after she left. Because after I joined my congregation, I found a religious home—not just in the denominational sense, but in the radical, down-to-the-roots sense. The Latin roots of the word religion means that which binds together. First I joined my minister’s church. Then it became my church. Eventually I understood myself and my congregation to be part of a much wider, deeper, more complex and dynamic faith tradition. It’s a tradition—really it’s our traditions, plural—that hold contradictions and embrace diverse theologies. At first, it was as simple as “I can be an atheist here” or “I can love G-d here.” Did I say simple? No, how profound it is, to claim a faith that makes room for and embraces the truth in both of those theological statements. How rare it is for a religion to bind together such disparate statements of faith. Where on earth did such a faith come from?

It did not spring fully formed from any single genius, nor did it arrive into the world on a single date. Our tradition has been growing and evolving for centuries. But a milestone in our American tradition of Unitarianism came to our shores with a scrappy band of religious exiles. They were fleeing persecution in their homeland, where they were legally prohibited from practicing their faith. They faced discrimination—and even execution—for practicing their religion. They sailed toward unknown shores and created a new community, and they penned the Cambridge Platform in 1648, which serves as a theological pillar of our contemporary covenantal faith.

What a story for us to lay claim to. But you see the problem, right? Those faithful people gifted us the blessing of a Covenant that binds us one to the other, even and especially in times of conflict; a covenant that binds all of our congregations to each other and calls us to show up in mutual support. If it’s not clear yet, these same religious pilgrims landed their boat not on ‘unknown shores’—the shoreline was well known by the Wampanoag people. The homes those newcomers built, and their houses of worship—so many of them our houses of worship—were built on land that was stolen or claimed through bloody, disproportionate battles. This also is our religious heritage, another story we must lay claim to.

How not simple. How profoundly difficult to embrace a religious tradition that holds both stories of liberation and oppression. How on earth do we do that?

Our New England Region team has written about Spiritual Leadership as a form of leadership available to each of us by birth. Spiritual Leadership is the way we navigate between our power and our powerlessness. Spiritual Leadership shows up when we recognize that some of our ancestors in faith profited by the attempted eradication of indigenous people. We seek to understand how we benefited from that injustice and we seek restorative relationships with our neighbors and with the land itself. It’s hard, and long and deep and profound and transformational work. It is our religious work.

One of the five interconnected practices of Spiritual Leadership we identify for Unitarian Universalists includes the practice of *Binding to Tradition. We have written that while choosing Unitarian Universalism... as a spiritual community may be an individual act of religious freedom, it also means moving away from ME and into WE. When we claim Unitarian Universalism, an obligation is placed on us to faithfully do two things:

  1. build on the gifts and wisdom of the tradition, especially to carry them forward toward what is yet to come; and
  2. learn about and work to repair the damage our religious ancestors have caused or perpetuated over time.

When we claim this faith, it claims us as well. We are called to tend the flame for future generations. We must put in the hard work of sustaining and returning to covenantal relationship with members in our own church and with our wider community of Unitarian Universalism. Claiming our faith—all of it—means keeping alight the beacon of Hope our chalices represent, and reckoning with the same faith that has delivered deep harm. Our theologian James Luther Adams affirmed this as the work of a truly free church—to “{earn} and {create} a tradition of binding together past, present, and future in a living tether…”

This is our good work, friends. Yours, and mine, and my new friend’s, the ‘not-a-church-person’ person. Would you like to know the end of that story?

“I came here because of Rev. Jane Doe, and when she leaves, I’m out,” he told me. “That’s what I’ve always said.” But now, Rev. Jane Doe is leaving the congregation. And he’s not. Because Rev. Jane wouldn’t want him to, he says, but also because this place, this faith has made a claim on him. He needs his congregation and they need him. This faith has made a claim on his heart and he is binding himself together with his community to move their church—and our faith—forward into the future.

May we all be so bold as to stay, bound together in our beautiful and complicated story.

* We have recently changed the name of this practice to Tending Our Tradition, in recognition that the metaphor of binding may have a charge that is harmful for Black people, people of Asian descent, and others.

About the Author

Wren Bellavance-Grace

Wren works with the New England Region team to support congregations across New England with particular experience in Safer Congregations, faith formation, and spiritual leadership.

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