We Dedicate Ourselves to …

The Rev. Alison Cornish

Sunday, May 21, 2006 – 

Dreams and dedication are a powerful combination.

– William Longwood

If we pick up on the idea that we are always “stepping in to a story already in progress,” a narrative in motion, as we explored earlier with our Not for Children Only, we are, today, at one of the many high points of the story of our meetinghouse.

This afternoon, along with our friends and families and guests, we will dedicate this meetinghouse. Dedicate – the word, in a religious context, means to consecrate or to set apart for a specific use or function.

This afternoon, we will hear and say special words and sing and listen to particular songs that will do just that. But this morning I want to explore what it is that we may dedicate ourselves to … that is, what is it that we, members and friends of this congregation, set ourselves apart for? To what do we, the Unitarian Universalists of this South Fork, devote our life and energies?

It’s a good time to ask these questions.

A couple of weeks ago, the Alban Institute, a center for research on congregational life,posted an article on their website titled “The Post-Construction Blues.” In it author Dan Hotchkiss writes:

Few projects excite and galvanize a congregation more than a new building or major renovation. People complain about construction delays, capital campaigns, and the general din and dust, but their blood pumps, their wallets loosen, and their enthusiasm rises. As (congregations) convert their members’ cash into real estate, their spirits rise, peaking at the dedication service.

That’s right, folks, according to this article, we’re about to peak! But what happens then? What comes after the high peak? Sometimes, Hotchkiss says, nothing – a congregation goes from strength to strength, from project to project, never missing a beat. More often, though, there is a letdown, the “post-construction blues” he calls it.

You may remember some of that feeling last winter – I certainly do – when the Board presented to all of us a sobering financial reckoning, and we felt the full impact of the new costs of operating a building of our own. Ouch, we said, as we took in the news, and prepared for some new fundraising.

Then there’s the loss of a major point of focus. People love a project.

A building project, even a frustrating one, focuses decision making for a congregation. In fact, focuses everything – we are doing this now – other things will have to wait. When it’s finally done, and the goal disappears,

we are faced with many delayed and new opportunities, but no firm plan for the next step.

Finally, a building project attracts people who have skills and affection for fund-raising, financial planning and construction. Now that the building is finished, what’s next for them? Do they simply turn the page and easily find other ways to contribute to the congregation? You see, the post-construction blues come in many guises.

Now, I certainly don’t want to take the wind out of any sails, especially just before we walk back into this room this afternoon to celebrate. The dedication of a new building ranks among the most memorable highpoints of a congregation’s life. We have every reason to claim the great success and accomplishment of this new meetinghouse. But in pondering this idea of “dedication,” especially when we think of it as the devotion of energies to a specific task, I think it’s fair to say that this meetinghouse, this home for us all, is the result of the dedication of so many people.

Looking back over these eight and more years, perhaps it is useful to pause here and ask, what have we learned from the dedication that was required of us to build this meetinghouse? I find lots of lessons – ten, actually, though I imagine that each of you could come up with a few more.

But these are what I have observed:

  1. We’ve learned that we can sustain devotion to a dream over time. This is no small feat, for in the years since this meetinghouse was a mere glimmer in an eye, we have said good-bye to some people who were staunch supporters and cheered us along, and we have welcomed newcomers who have joined us on our journey. This means that we did not despair in our losses, and we became effective in communicating our passion and vision to new friends and members.
  2. We’ve learned that we can find the resources to achieve our goals. By resources I mean money, for sure, but also people with skills and connections and ideas. Building and furnishing a building calls for a great variety of people, and we left few stones unturned to get what we needed. We are not shy, and we have created some new and rich relationships.
  3. We’ve learned that we can work together, building agreement and consensus around all manner of issues. I’m not sure if it it’s completely accurate,but I did hear one of you say once that there was no vote taken in the course of the building project that was not completely unanimous. Even if that was a slight exaggeration, even if it was that most of the votes were passed by a large majority, that’s still impressive. It shows that folks were well informed about the issues, trusted the Boards and Home Team to make good decisions, and actively supported their work.
  4. We have learned that we are creative. This project presented not an insignificant number of stumbling blocks, and the next step was not always immediately obvious. Imaginations were often working overtime to keep the project moving forward.
  5. We have learned that we are patient. Say “Suffolk County Health Department” or “Elevator” – or “date for the dedication ceremony” for that matter – to anyone involved in our sometimes painfully slow progress, and they will likely roll their eyes and sigh deeply. Patience we have – I should add that others are much better at this than I am! – and perhaps we are now more spiritually advanced because of it.
  6. We remembered to laugh at the right moments. Most of us know the importance of laughter and humor in life, particularly between life partners or friends. But we are less mindful of this in our communal life, especially when the work at hand seems serious and important. Laughter was a constant leavening in this project – at Home Team meetings, work parties, late night Board meetings – wherever two or more were gathered.
  7. We bonded together across our differences. When a project is as involving as the planning, construction and furnishing of a new building, a lot of people power is required. That means a whole range of personalities, abilities, backgrounds, even religious beliefs and political persuasions, working together. There must be room for everyone. Our focus on a common goal meant that differences diminished in importance, and friendships developed through shared vision and action.
  8. We developed skills in the administration of a complex and long-term project. An extraordinarily large proportion of this project was guided day-to-day by in-house volunteers who brought their expertise to bear, and also learned new skills on the job. Because the project went on (and on and on), people had to pass the baton, even give up control to new folks, and yet stood by, ready to be of help. We had no history together to show us that we could do this, but now we have the experience of doing it well.
  9. We took responsibility for our own destiny. If we were a different group of people, with a different understanding of risk and possibility, we would, this morning, be sitting in the Water Mill Community House. And we would not be coming back here this afternoon – to our home – to dedicate a meetinghouse.
  10. We developed new depth and intimacy in personal relationships. It is not possible, I believe, to work side-by-side with one another over such an extended time and not get to know one another well. We exchanged stories and history while rolling paint onto walls. We heard each other’s joys and sorrows before meetings began. Lacking a congregational home of our own, we gathered in one another’s kitchens and living rooms and offices, seeing firsthand the pulse and rhythm of each other’s lives, and we are closer because of it.

In short, we have a lot more than a new building to show for these last eight years. We have a congregation that has grown in all these ways – in knowledge and skills, in temperament and experience, in closeness and in confidence.

So, as we ponder what’s next, what’s ahead, I wonder – what might we be able to do if we take on a project, or an issue, or a cause, and apply this kind of dedication? What could we accomplish, working together, bringing these ten lessons – and the organizational structures they have created – along with us? It seems to me that there are a myriad of possibilities. (Just to be clear – a building addition is not one of them!) Standing here, near the peak, it seems like we can see all the way to the horizon – yet, what of the many paths will we travel next?

Perhaps this is a time to pause and turn back to our foundational document, our mission statement, to remind ourselves of our larger vision. Here’s a pop quiz – does anyone know our mission statement? OK, how about – where to find it? Great, let’s read it together.

We, the members and friends of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Fork, have joined together in community:

  • to affirm our liberal, non-creedal religion;
  • to examine our beliefs and values, allowing each to seek his or her own truth;
  • to seek spiritual growth;
  • to work individually and as a group to benefit the greater community;
  • to guide our children in developing their own beliefs and values to meet their own experience and needs;
  • to welcome diversity in our Congregation and our world;
  • to celebrate life’s wonder.

Not surprisingly, it says nothing at all about the building of a meetinghouse,

but it does say quite a lot about many other things. And, it is both abstract and general, the way these things tend to be. The Unitarian Universalist principles, printed just under the mission statement, are of the same character. While these do say, in the broadest of terms, what we are dedicated to, they don’t really give us a clue about our next journey.

Actually, I think we do know our next steps, the journey that awaits us.

Many of us wrote it on those rocks that you now hold in your hands, or have already tucked into a bag or pocket. Sixty three rocks carrying sixty three hopes and dreams. Sixty three individuals united by a common vision and moment, but with thoughts and wishes that go far beyond the building we sit in today.

We’ve achieved some of those things recorded on those stones – a home, new chairs, better bathrooms, more windows, a better sound system, a new kitchen – you can see how realistic and pragmatic some of us were! – And also – a South Fork presence for our faith, community, good times, fellowship, welcome, friendship, involvement. All these have a good start now as we are poised at this celebratory moment.

But there are other hopes penned on these rocks. Peace is there – twenty times. In fact, on just Seth P. Barrows’ stone, Have peace, peace, peace, peace, peace, surrounding a heart. There’s unity and diversity. Love. Joy and Compassion. Freedom. Truth. Wisdom. Salvation. Yes, we dream big in this congregation.

Big, but not improbably. For even while we raised the money for our meetinghouse, we also raised money to help victims of natural disasters and poverty – love in action. While we filed for permits and waited our turn in the bureaucracy, we protested war in the face of the U.S. “first strike” against Iraq – waging peace. While we waited for an elevator to be installed, we read the U.S. Constitution out loud to a crowd of 100 – lifting our voices for freedom. While we awaited that long-elusive Certificate of Occupancy, we visited one another in the hospital, gave each other rides, and brought soup to those laid low – compassion. And all the time, we also dreamed – big.

If we could gather together all the dreams expressed on these stones, perhaps we could put one grand name to it – and perhaps that would be, the Beloved Community, a term rich with tones of justice, equity and compassion. Here are words from Unitarian Universalist minister Richard Gilbert about this – he says [A] Beloved Community implies that ours is a project in loving the neighbor near and distant, an endeavor that is squarely in humanity’s hands –

keeping in step with the long Unitarian Universalist tradition of trying to build a heaven on earth. The Beloved Community, then, is a constellation of values

to be lived out by the individual and the religious community in the wider society. Unitarian Universalism seeks to be a “church without walls” in which social concerns become the agenda of the people as they take their spiritual

and ethical values into the public arena.

Our congregations seek to become communities of moral discernment and social action on the frontiers of living, teaching [our] children by what [we] are and do. Congregants become conspirators for the Beloved Community –

conspiracy meaning “to breathe together.” There is, then, in Unitarian Universalism a seamless garment of spirituality and social action; we are a “spiritual center with a civic circumference.”

In the course of the journey of building our meetinghouse, in creating for ourselves a home, we have glimpsed the Beloved Community – for ourselves. We have built a little bit of heaven here on earth. Through this project, we have truly “breathed together,” becoming Community. And the lessons we gleaned during our project give us the tools we need for our next journey.

Our next step is to metaphorically dissolve these walls – yes, these new, freshly painted walls – and become the “congregation without walls” that works to build the Beloved Community beyond this site, on the Turnpike, the East End of Long Island, and beyond. What will we bring to the task? Our precious ten learnings –

We can sustain devotion to a dream over time.

We have resources – of all kinds.

We build consensus, and use well the democratic process.

We have creativity. And patience. And laughter.

We build unity in the face of differences.

We know how to manage complexity.

We take responsibility for our destiny.

We have, and will have more, relationships that have depth and intimacy.

And, we will bring one another. Ultimately, this is about breathing together, working together, loving the future into being with our dreams as our guides. Whether we dedicate ourselves to ending poverty, waging peace, healing the planet – or any other big hope we can dream – we will do it – together.

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