A Changing Faith that Changes Us – Rev. Kristin Grassel Schmidt

Time for All Ages                                                 Marsha Thrall              

Story by Jessica York, adapted

From Toolbox of Faith, a Tapestry of Faith curriculum

Unitarian Universalism is a living faith. We think that people should be free to believe what they must believe — the truth of their life experiences — instead of professing a belief in what we are told to believe. This is what we mean when we say ours is a “creedless” religion.

Being a living faith means that any one of us can change what we believe, if we experience a deeper truth that contradicts our previous beliefs. But in order to change, we have to be open to new thoughts, new ideas, and new experiences. We have to be open to the experiences of the people with whom we are in community. 

In 1948, most congregations and houses of worship in the United States were segregated (separated) by the color of their members’ skin. Some were segregated by law; others by custom or by a lack of actively trying to welcome and include all people. The First Unitarian Society of Chicago was one of these congregations. Although their church was located in a neighborhood with many African Americans, only whites could join, according to the written by-laws (rules) of the church, and according to the way the church had always done things before. 

The day came that many members began to believe they needed to take action against racism, if they really wanted to live their values and principles. The minister, the Reverend Leslie Pennington, was ready for this day and ready to take action. So was James Luther Adams. James Luther Adams was a famous liberal theologian and social ethicist — a person who studies religion, beliefs, and values. Rev. Dr. Adams taught at the Meadville Lombard Theological School, right across the street from the First Unitarian Society of Chicago. And he was a member of the congregation’s board of directors — a leader in the congregation.

Along with some others, Reverend Pennington and James Luther Adams proposed a change in the church’s by-laws to desegregate the church and welcome people – whatever the color of their skin. They wanted to include, not exclude. They saw this as a way to put their love into action. 

When the congregation’s Board of Directors considered the desegregation proposal, most of them supported it. However, one member of the board objected. “Your new program is making desegregation into a creed,” he said. “You are asking everyone in our church to say they believe desegregating, or inviting, even recruiting people of color to attend church here is a good way to tackle racism. What if some members don’t believe this?”

Desegregation was a very controversial topic. In 1948, anything about skin color and racism was controversial. Some people, even some who supported African Americans in demanding their civil liberties, believed in a separate, but equal policy which kept people apart based on their skin color. Respectful debate ensued at the First Unitarian Society of Chicago. Both sides felt, in their hearts, that their belief was right. Perhaps they were so busy trying to make sure their opinion won the day that they forgot to listen to each other. And so, they kept on talking. 

The debate went on in the Board of Directors’ meeting until the early hours of the morning. Everyone was exhausted and frustrated. Finally, James Luther Adams remembered that we should be listening twice as much as talking. He asked the person who had voiced the strongest objection, “What do you say is the purpose of this church?” 

Suddenly, everyone was listening. Everyone wanted to hear the answer to this crucial question.  

The Board member who opposed opening the church to people of color finally replied. “Okay, Jim. The purpose of this church is to get hold of people like me and change them.”

The First Unitarian Society of Chicago successfully desegregated.

With each new person who becomes a Unitarian Universalist this faith of ours changes, and as it changes it can change and shape all of us. May we all be open to being changed, shaped, reformed, always into our better selves. 

Reading                                         Rev. Kristin Grassel Schmidt         

Excerpts from “Who says Unitarian Universalism’s Principles are easy?”

By Rev. Meg Barnhouse

In UU World on 11/23/2009

I have gone to a lot of church services in my time. When I was eight, wearing Mary Jane shoes and white stockings, in a blue coat with a velveteen collar my mother had made, sitting next to my little sister in her coat, identical to mine, trying not to wiggle in the pew, I would make check marks as the sections of the order of service finished: hymn number one, pastoral prayer, scripture reading, sermon. I loved checking off the sermon.

We colored in our bulletins and we looked through the hymnals and made ourselves giggle by adding “between the sheets” to their titles. A Baptist friend says she and her friends added “in the bathtub.” “Turn Back, O Man,” between the sheets. “We Three Kings of Orient Are” in the bathtub.

Years ago I came into this Unitarian Universalist community of faith. I’m home. I listen to people talk sometimes about liberal religion as if it’s a thin gruel, watered down to please everyone. Our Seven Principles, they complain, are either too much like a creed or so general as to be meaningless.

My experience of the Principles is that they are deeply demanding. The first one asks me to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, which means that I can no longer subscribe to the cheerful Calvinist doctrine of the total depravity of human nature. Now I have to struggle with the worth and dignity of people who do unspeakably awful things, whereas the doctrine of total depravity made that one a no-brainer. I’m supposed to value the democratic process, hearing the voice of everyone equally, allowing everyone to have a say. The UU Principles are demanding enough to make me whine. 

For those who feel they are thin gruel, I have a suggestion. Let’s stick something onto the end of every Principle that will stop people from smiling and nodding comfortably as they are read. Instead of adding “in the bathtub” or “between the sheets,” how about attaching “beginning in our homes and congregations”?

Then we’d be faced with affirming things like “the goal of . . . peace, liberty, and justice for all, beginning in our homes and congregations.” Everyone who has raised children knows that peace is often at odds with liberty and that justice demands a disturbance of the peace. To put those three together in one Principle is outrageous and lovely. It’s easier to think about working towards them in a global context than in the context of Cheerios and pajamas, car keys and cleaning up one’s bedroom. 

For me, this faith isn’t a thin gruel. It’s not even a rich and hearty gruel. It’s walnuts and bananas, pancakes, mangoes, arugula, ginger, and avocado. The feast is prepared with effort, enjoyment, persistence, and commitment. Care to join me? 

Homily “A Changing Faith that Changes Us” Rev. Kristin Grassel Schmidt

When I first went to seminary one of the things I looked forward to most was learning about the Nicene Creed. Having been raised in a Unitarian Universalist church since age eight I’d grown up hearing about how terrible creeds were, and what a good thing it was that our faith didn’t have one. So, as everyone else in the class groaned and rolled their eyes, I was delighted when Dr. Young said we’d be going line by line through the creed in his Systematic Theology class. Finally I’d learn what the big deal was about this creed, why so many people hated it so much. Finally, I’d get to taste the forbidden fruit!

I learned a lot more about that creed in that class than I ever bargained for, but the most important thing I took away from that class wasn’t really about the creed. What I took away was a deeper understanding of the different ways my classmates and I understood the nature of truth. For most of the people I went to seminary with, truth was something that has already been revealed, in scripture, in a person, in sacraments. While the Bible may be re-translated, the creed re-articulated for more modern audiences, they themselves remain the same. They can be understood in new ways, and the truth within them can be applied to new situations to achieve a deeper understanding of that truth. But according to orthodox Christianity, truth and God don’t change; they are cornerstones, they are solid, they are the only constants that can be depended on in a changing and chaotic world. 

Our Unitarian Universalist tradition defines the nature of truth differently. Our faith has long recognized the wisdom and truths available in sacred writings, in traditions and customs, in the lives of prophets and sages. We encourage people to seek truth wherever they might find it. But in our tradition, God learns and evolves, truth is not static, and revelation is not sealed. We are free to seek after not only deeper truth, but entirely new truths. We can embrace the truth that even our most dependable constants – the sunrise and sunset, the phases of the moon and turning of the tides – are in fact finite. They will come to an end when our solar system dies. And we can embrace the truth that the building blocks of this solar system may eventually be remade into a new solar system, with new planets, new sunrises and sunsets, new tides and moon phases, and new creatures to appreciate them. 

For a tradition that understands truth as something that can evolve and change, it should come as no surprise that the things we say we believe in, our Principles, have evolved and changed over the years, too. Back in the 1800s the Unitarians would periodically release statements of the “Things Most Commonly Believed Among Us.” These statements would be written up by a respected minister and voted on at Unitarian conferences. By 1961 the Unitarians and Universalists officially joined forces and after a lot of arguing and wordsmithing they adopted six principles:

About twenty years later the UU Womens’ Federation began to push for changes to the original six UU principles. Many Federation members were leaders in the feminist movement and were eager for the principles of their faith to reflect the full humanity of women. So, at a General Assembly, the UU’s annual business meeting, they proposed new, gender-inclusive principles. But the UU Christian Fellowship opposed that first proposal because all mention of the holy and the sacred had been removed, too. So a committee was formed to take a year to rework things. And as they worked, they wound up making far more changes, adding the seventh Principle, and even adding the Six Sources. Thanks to their hard work, the adapted Principles were adopted almost unanimously in 1985. Since then the UUA has used these Principles to guide its work. Whenever people write new RE curricula or propose new projects for the Association to undertake they are expected to explain how those things are in keeping with the UUA’s mission and which Principles they reflect.

Unlike a creed which does not change, our UU principles are written and re-written through the generations. Because ours is a tradition that embraces not only deeper truth, but new truth. Ours is a faith that grows, changes, and evolves, and that encourages all of us to do the same. And all of this is important to keep in mind because as many of you know, UUs all over the country are advocating for the formal adoption of an 8th Principle.  

It all began with Paula Cole Jones, former UUA field staff and anti-racism, multiculturalism consultant. As it says on the 8th Principle website, “after working with congregations on these issues for over 15 years, she realized that a person can believe they are being a “good UU” and following the 7 Principles without thinking about or dealing with racism and other oppressions at the systemic level… She realized that an 8th Principle was needed to correct this…” The Church of the Restoration in Philadelphia was the first to adopt the 8th Principle, and they were soon followed by several more. 

Since then a committee to study the proposed 8th Principle was formed so that eventually delegates from every congregation in the United States can vote to adopt the 8th Principle. In June this congregation will have the chance to vote to adopt the 8th Principle. And in the meantime, other congregations like ours are deciding whether or not to adopt it on our own, to set an example and tell the whole Association that the work of “dismantling racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions” is absolutely core to our faith. Congregations like ours are choosing to adopt this Principle to claim unequivocally that the work of building multicultural Beloved Community is foundational to who we are as Unitarian Universalists. That it is as important to our faith as our belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every person. That though it takes a lot of work to change our Principles, the way this addition will shape the way future Unitarian Universalists understand their faith is more than worth it.

We change this faith, and this faith changes us. May it be so, and may we make it so. Amen.