Several years ago, I spent an evening discussing Covenant Groups with members of a New England church who were interested in starting a small group ministry program. Part of my ministry is dedicated to helping congregations start and sustain small group ministries of six to twelve persons who meet regularly as a spiritually empowering practice.
Different Unitarian Universalists congregations call small group ministries by different names—covenant groups, chalice circles, shared ministry groups, or engagement groups (in England)—but the different names refer to a common ground of experience: the personal experience of a change of heart, of being loved beyond belief. The usual opening ritual for covenant group meetings calls forth this feeling by creating it. As the members sing a song together, light a chalice, offer a prayer, pay attention to their breath, attentively notice the sounds in the room, hear their own heart beating and so much more, the time when how we do something, the manner in which we say something, the tone of voice we use when speaking become as important as what is said. The time when we will feel loved beyond belief is created by the gathered community. Sacred time begins.
At the end of my formal remarks in the New England church, I asked the members of the audience if they might be willing to simply get together in small groups over a meal and talk about their unmet needs for community in their church.
One of the most respected elder statesmen of the church stood up and slowly walked to the front of the assembly, faced his fellow congregants and said he was interested in joining such a group. He had wanted something like this for years, he said, because he was lonely. "I do not have any friends," he finally confessed.
Waves of shock rolled through the gathering. How could he be lonely? He was a revered and beloved member of the congregation, a pillar of the church. Many persons expressed incredulity.
When the group quieted down, the man spoke again, saying "Every man in this room who is my age knows what I am talking about. Our social upbringing has taught us not to talk about our feelings. We are not supposed to be emotionally vulnerable or close to anyone except our wives."
Something happened to me as he spoke. I felt the man's vulnerability. I could feel his vulnerability because his heart spoke the hidden language of my own heart: loneliness. My own social upbringing had taught me not to talk about my feelings to any one. I had learned to be emotionally invulnerable and closed to everyone. But now, here, in the midst of this gathered community—someone so much like my self—had stepped forward and said "I'm lonely."
He did not step forward as an authority figure, or as someone whose racial identity or class status was at issue. He stepped forward to talk about his own unmet needs for intimacy. His story was my story. My story was his story. He had heard a call and he responded.
All of us in the room were now in the presence of an open space, an opened heart, a change of heart; a call for healing that could be performed only by a religious community because human salvation is not a solo act.
Together, we loved this man beyond belief, beyond our own mistaken ideas and thoughts about who he is. Together, we had created an ethos of care and compassion in which we could simply love him.
I call this atmosphere of care and compassion created by religious community the second major element of personal experience for us as Unitarian Universalists.