Speaker: Rev. Carolyn R. Brown
Ours is not an easy religion. It asks that we follow a religious or spiritual path by showing the paths others have taken, and the way is not ONE way but many ways, many paths diverging in a wood, and the road not taken may be the road the person sitting beside you walked to arrive here this morning.
Ours is not an easy religion. We are not compelled to take our message to the people around us in order to save them from eternal judgment. It is not clear to some of us what we would say to encourage the people across the street to join us or what we would walk over there to share with them.
Ours is not an easy religion. When we are asked about it, we sometimes find answers elusive, at least an answer that the questioner would be able to understand out of context. We hesitate to answer at times rather than mislead others with insufficient responses.
Our religion requires some searching and risk taking. Being a Unitarian Universalist requires that we make choices, again and again on issues of faith and ethics. It requires that we continue throughout our religious lives to reformulate answers to the major questions facing humanity. It requires that we intentionally find words to express how important our free faith is to each of us, and each of us describes this essential ground of our religious life in different terms, reflecting our personal journeys to date.
With such a mixture of beliefs, ethical positions, religious yearnings and questions with various answers, it is sometimes confusing to a newcomer to know who we are. We offer our principles and purposes and the sources of our living tradition. We print these on our order of service each Sunday. They reflect a starting point towards understanding who we are.
We share a vital community and care for each other. We encourage shared values and respect differing beliefs. We nurture exploration of many paths. Through the many different groups in the church, we deepen our relationships and work to grow our congregation. This is our vision and it is also printed on the order of service each Sunday. Our vision statement gives the visitor or seeker more information about who we are.
Of nearly equal importance to the principles and purposes and our vision statement for understanding who we are is our mission statement. A mission statement answers the question “why are we here?”-(two pages of the play)
A more concrete statement of this quandary is illustrated by a story told by my mentor during my internship, the Rev. Martha Munson. A group of people who lived on a dangerous seacoast, where storms often resulted in wrecked boats and sailors’ lives in peril, set up a rescue operation. They found that when they were organized they were much more successful in saving people’s lives than when they worked individually. In time, they built headquarters from which their activities could be supported by special equipment and communications systems. With the camaraderie that so often develops from working on a worthwhile project together, they began to socialize among themselves as well as to engage in their rescue endeavors, and in time the headquarters building was beautified and made more appropriate for their social events.
Gradually, the rescue operations became less important than the socializing, and there were people who began to feel that they shouldn’t engage in a rescue more often than once a week, or in one that was likely to take a long time, or to result in danger to the rescuers or wear and tear on the property. They had great parties, though, and their numbers increased, and they were generally considered a success, even though as time went by they lost the skills of rescuing people from the sea and even the wish to do it, figuring that was best left to other people — or perhaps, indeed, it was best to simply let Nature take its course. In this case, they forgot why they were there.
This morality tale demonstrates the continued need for a group to revisit their mission. Why are we here? In 1998 this congregation decided to write a new mission statement. Please read it with me from the front of your order of service:
“Our mission, consistent with Unitarian Universalist principles, is to provide a joyful, safe, healing environment where diversity is embraced. We will inspire and uplift the whole person through enriching programs and services for all ages, and serve the larger community through social action and active promotion of the arts.”
The Rev. Dr. Josh Snyder writes:
“There are three basic functions of a mission statement if it is to serve us well. The first is that a mission statement is part of the Church’s identity, how we think of ourselves collectively. It should be the answer to the implied question, “Why are we here?” “What is the purpose of this institution?”
Our mission statement describes what we publicly present as our special role in the world both for ourselves, and for those unfamiliar with who we are and why we are here.
The second function of a mission statement is to provide guidance for the Board in decision making. Does a proposed action reflect the mission of the church? The Board can defend its decisions by making the connection between the decision and our mission statement. Related to this second function is the work we do on program development. This is the proactive side of the mission. What can we do together to give members and friends a challenge to act? Is it a class, a first hour, a group that works on these issues? How do we translate the mission statement into intentional work of the congregation? Our mission statement can function as a guide to where we put our resources, to where we reach out to the community, to where we invest our energies. Ultimately, our mission statement leads us to be able to fill in the blank at the end of the statement, First Unitarian Universalist Church of Wichita is the church that ____________.
This blank has been completed by UU churches in many ways. Some years ago, The Rev. Dr. Marilyn Sewell had just arrived as the new minister in Portland, Oregon. She had not been there long. Oregon had just introduced a referendum that would undermine the civil rights of gays and lesbians. With her leadership the Portland UU church decided to wrap the entire city block that they own in downtown Portland with a yellow ribbon and declare it a hate free zone.
It was soon in the press. It made the state and national press. It caused an uproar. The initiative was defeated. And the Portland UU Church has grown like gangbusters ever since, nearly tripling in size since that time. It is the church that tied a yellow ribbon around an entire block of downtown Portland.
How can we make a powerful statement of our mission as a liberal congregation. What would we like to be known as in Wichita – the church that …………fill in the blank.
We have an opportunity on January 10 to join with other liberal religious people from across the state on the south steps of the capitol building in Topeka, to show our legislators that they have our support on keeping Kansas a hate free zone. Our most recent newsletter is full of information about this demonstration of our principles and purposes in concert with the Coalition for Justice and Unity, Equality Kansas, ACLU, NOW and other groups.
I invited The Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy to be our keynote speaker. He agreed to join us. Gaddy is the leader of the national organization, Interfaith Alliance. Many people in our community and our congregation are working to make this a success. My dream is that we could rent a 50 passenger bus and arrive en masse at the capitol steps to demonstrate our commitment to social action. And I suppose it wouldn’t hurt for us to tie a yellow ribbon around our building and perhaps festoon our new land with yellow ribbons, creating new hate-free zones for our beloved friends in the gay and lesbian community of Wichita. During a workshop entitled “Vital Congregations: Growth Resources for Small Congregations” at General Assembly last June in Long Beach, California, the presenters commented that growing congregations are those that focus on the outward needs — “spreading the good news,” “doing” in the larger community, opening programs to the public, reaching out. “The single most important way to grow,” one summarized, “is an outward focus.” Seeing newcomers as “fodder for the church machine” doesn’t work. Instead, a congregation needs to look for ways to help newcomers transform their lives.
Part of our mission statement is to inspire and uplift the whole person. This is indeed transformation. Transformation taking place in a joyful, safe, healing environment where diversity is embraced. All of us who hold the principles of Unitarian Universalism dear, practice an ongoing free and responsible search for truth and meaning with an emphasis on accepting one another and encouraging each other to spiritual growth. So many of us have expressed the transformation that has taken place in our lives after finding this religion.
My initial response after attending the Fellowship in Billings, Montana in 1973 was that I had come home. I found a religion where I felt I belonged. An imperfect place, yet one where I found hope, not hell; where I experienced acceptance, not judgment; where my path was equally important to the paths of others in the fellowship.
As we provide the new and ongoing home for those who join us in our liberal religious congregation, we continue to fulfill the promise to make this the place of refuge and support for all who join with us. We also have opportunities to reach out as a congregation to speak with one voice about issues. January 10 in Topeka is a very important opportunity. The food cupboard for the hungry is another needed outreach that has been reorganized recently. Our ongoing series of chamber concerts can be complimented by a continuing series of public forums.
Why are we here? What do we want to put into the blank as a congregation?
We experience personal transformation as Unitarian Universalists, and we express our principles in our daily lives. We work as individuals to improve the world in which we live.
The congregation as a whole we must do the same. We call this kind of outreach a social action program, reflecting our congregational efforts to live our mission statement. An ongoing program of social action demonstrates to newcomers and visitors “why we are here” in a vital fashion. With our vision statement and an attitude of abundance, we can rally the resources of time, talent and treasure to pursue successful congregational outreach.
We have a history of such outreach. Many of the longtime members of this church remember past accomplishments in Wichita such as the founding of the Wichita Little Theatre. Along with this cultural success have gone other successes in the area of social action, including the hard work of supporting choice in Wichita during the summer of 1991. Tutoring programs took place here in the church. As a congregation, we can continue to make a significant difference in Wichita and the state of Kansas.
In closing I share these words from the Talmud:
Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief.
Do justly, now.
Love mercy, now.
Walk humbly, now.
You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.