The Grout

The Unitarian Universalist congregation where I served as an intern made a mosaic Tree of Life the summer before I arrived. Congregants of all ages came together to craft the tree’s leaves, using bits and pieces of broken ceramics, jewelry, glass, and stone. There are many precious personal items in the tree, including fragments of the Berlin Wall, a father’s watch face, pieces of great grandmother’s china, and a key to the front door of a loved home. Like the members of the community that brought them together, each part is imbued with memories and meaning; each fragment holds a piece of truth.

A mosaic--made with many pieces of broken glass--forming large tree.

Unitarian Universalists are mosaic makers. We are a ­people who bring together the broken pieces of our histories and the shining pieces of our seeking and, piece by piece, create a mosaic religion. Our Tree of Life is found in the stories of our living tradition. The bead from a transformational moment of worship at a youth conference. The bit of paper stamped with the blazing emblem of the Unitarian Service Committee that saved lives during World War II. The button or patch on a backpack that proudly proclaims the first justice issue that lit our souls on fire. But our mosaic making tells another story too, one that is often more difficult to see. One that is essential to the purpose of religious community. One that lies not in the beautiful and broken bits and pieces but in the grout.

Grout. The chalky, gritty stuff that is squeezed between the cracks of tiles. In a mosaic, the grout holds the image together, unifying disparate pieces into a whole. The grout of a community takes years to lay and ­settle. Grout happens in board meetings and committee meetings and endless emails and slow-moving institutions. It is in weekly potlucks shared by neighbors, a ride to church, and coffee in the social hall after worship. While the folks who show up for church only on Christmas and ­Easter will hopefully enjoy the beauty of the mosaic they find, they may never know the power of the grout that holds us through all the seasons of life.

We help to make the grout when we learn each other’s names and when we reach out across generational divides. We help to make the grout when we show up on Sunday morning without having checked first to see if we’re interested in the sermon topic. When a newborn arrives to be blessed by the community, it is the grout that enables us to welcome them. And it is in the grout that we rest when we gather to grieve and memorialize a beloved one who has died.

Hold us, O Grout.

Gather us in, through time and space, and make all our broken pieces whole in community. In our multiplicity, make us one. From each of our jagged edges, give us the shape of a communal beauty.

About the Author

Marcus Hartlief

Marcus Liefert is an intern minister at the Unitarian Universalist (UU) Church of Berkeley, California, and a seminarian at Starr King School for the Ministry.

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