Walking The Walk – GA 2004

Speaker: Rev. Carolyn R. Brown

I’ve been on a journey that started in 1973 in Billings, Montana when I first learned about the Billings UU Fellowship. I had heard of the Unitarian Church in my home town of Akron, Ohio as a church for rich people in an upscale part of town. Attending BUUF, as the members now call it, in a rented room full of a collection of college students, teachers, several cowboys, the leader of the local Planned Parenthood Office, a newspaper reporter, some secretaries, two doctors and a realtor did not fit my former idea. Being with these people and hearing their radical talk about religion and life and social justice was transforming for me. I felt like I belonged there, this was the place I had been looking for. Ten years without a church home was enough. I was hooked. As I learned more about Unitarian Universalism, I was able to incorporate some of the religious and philosophical ideas I picked up during college. Ideas that I couldn’t talk about with my evangelical church family.

Since that time my social life and my spiritual life have been primarily connected with one of several UU congregations. My call to ministry came in 1985 but family responsibilities kept me from a plan where both Will and I would have attended and become co-ministers. Then in 1994, our friend, Grace Simons left her science teaching job at the Los Alamos high school and entered Starr King School in Berkely, California, one of our tow UU Seminaries. It was very painful for me to imagine her in the classes I longed to attend. The next spring I phoned Starr King and spoke with Keith Kron, who was a student there at that time. He said I had 30 days to complete the application process. Somehow I pulled it off. For insurance, I also applied to Pacific School of Religion in Berkely, just in case. I was accepted at both schools.

We sold our home in Los Alamos, and bought a house in Berkely. In August, 1995 Will and I entered Starr King School, I was the student and he was the partner, entitled to take a course free each semester. During the next five years, four were in Berkeley and our internship year was in Jamestown, New York. We spent one summer in Rochester, NY where I was hired as their summer minister. I began sending my application packet to churches in December of 1999, and came here to precandidate in the spring of 2000. I will never forget the phone call from Laurie Showell telling me that I was chosen as the candidate for this church. In order for this to happen, I had to go through a number of hoops, to complete a number of passages. Psychological testing at the beginning took two full days. I completed a 400 hour practicum as a Chaplain in a hospital. I completed the required course work with some extra credits. Then I had to meet with the Ministerial Fellowship Committee. During my first meeting with them, I was in a state of panic, for my fear was so great. They said we see you as a minister, but come back again. A year later I breezed through my meeting with them, after realizing they were my allies and not a doctorate program testing panel. I didn’t have to know everything, but I had to be able to hold the room and let them know I could talk about the questions they asked.

This gives the new minister preliminary status, making her qualified to be in the UU minister’s association, and become an ordained UU minister. The next hoop is to complete three years of full time ministry which require annual evaluations by the board of the church, the committee on ministry and the minister, herself. Once again, the Ministerial Fellowship Committee grants final fellowship based on the information in these evaluations. The committee granted me final fellowship in December, 2003.

The service of the living tradition each year honors those who have achieved preliminary fellowship, final fellowship, retirement and those ministers who have died. It’s a coming together at General Assembly of the leadership of the department of ministry, the president of the association, the minister’s choir and all the people to be honored. It involves walking across the stage to receive the document and to shake hands with the association’s leaders.

I must admit that I dreamed of that moment, but had difficulty believing it would ever be a reality. But the reality is that the moment came, I smiled all the way across the stage and for the next hour or so. Grace Simons, who began her studies before me, received her final fellowship in the same service. And to top that, we both sang in the Minister’s choir and for the processional, we came together and walked out arm in arm. Several people from the Los Alamos church told me they were in tears seeing both of us walking together.

And so it is with us. We walk through life together. We walk through hope, fear, dreams, loss and success together. We experience life changing decisions, we share transforming moments that come to us because of our willingness to be open to life and the possibilities of life.

The Rev. David Bumbaugh uses the language of “transformation,” when he writes: “The business of the Church is transformation: the transformation of individual lives, of the community, of the world. … We invite you to consider the opportunities for ministry which this church offers you. …In ministry to others, you will find the path to your own spiritual growth.”

By ministering to the needs of others, my own deepest need — to be a giver, to serve ends larger than myself — is being ministered to. It’s a kind of transaction, a giving in order to receive, and receiving so we can give. And when it happens (and I believe it does happen again and again in our beloved community), that’s the kind of transformation I’m talking about.

I believe we are a “transforming church” –a church that not only transforms people and communities, but also is itself in a continuous process of transformation. My transformation took place over decades and resulted in my living a life that I love, despite all the challenges of my life. We have witnessed the transformation of individual people in our congregation. They have spoken about it during Joys and Sorrows.

For me the greatest gift of our liberal religion is the acceptance I have learned, not only the acceptance of the church, but my ability to finally learn how to accept myself. Our liberal religion offers each person the opportunity to walk a new path of their own choosing within a community of seekers who value the search for new understandings and accept the journeys of others.

The transforming faith that we share is one which offers safety and challenge. This is a safe place for sharing diverse views about God, about life and death, about justice. The challenge is to develop a passion and commitment to this liberal religion to assure its continued health. One transformation that is needed now is to invite others to share what we have discovered. Another is that each of us consider what this faith means to us.

The walk across that stage in Long Beach for all of the ministers present represents the ongoing movement of Unitarian Universalism. The diversity of the current crop ranged from a Navy Chaplain (female) to a wheel-chair bound religious educator to Carolyn and Grace. We walked together as I hope all of us here in Wichita will continue to do, arm in arm, hand in hand, deepening what our faith means to us, how we commit ourselves to promoting and affirming our principles in the wider world, what we can give to others.

During the Monday afternoon worship service at General Assembly, my friend and fellow student from Starr King School, The Rev. Lilia Cuervo asked the congregation what they were leaving behing and what they were taking with them as they went home from General Assembly. Here are some of their reflections:

“I’m taking with me enthusiasm that will create momentum throughout our congregation,” said a woman from the Sitka Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Alaska. A woman from the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration in Philadelphia said, “I’m leaving behing a sense of working alone spiritually in my little community, and I’m taking with me a sense of being connected to a very large and inspiring movement.” Similarly, a man from Denver, Colorado, who is a past president of his congregation and attending his first General Assembly, said, “I’m taking back with me the knowledge that there’s a great big world of Unitarian Universalists out there, and it’s been a wonderful experience.”

What will you take with you today and what will you leave behind? I hope you will leave behind any idea you have that ours is a part time religion, that we do not have to accept responsibility for the health and depth of our faith. I hope you will take with your the awareness that ours is a participatory faith, one in which all members and friends minister to each other, walk with each other. I hope you will leave behind any feeling that you do not belong here. I hope you will take with you our deepest regard for you and your journey through life. Leave behind andy loneliness of our post modern world and take with you the warmth and challenge of this liberal religious community. Leave behind the despair that sometimes strikes us in our highly charged political climate and take with you the hope that freedom will survive because hundreds of thousands of UUs are working passionately to assure this outcome.

Most of all take with you that this is a faith of substance, a faith of depth, a faith that teaches that it matters what we do with our lives, and we don’t have to do it alone. May we continue to walk together.