The Rev. Alison Cornish
Sunday, August 28, 2005 –
Every year, our Unitarian Universalist denomination, like many denominations in this country, holds a grand gathering for all its clergy and lay leaders. Ours is called, “General Assembly.” A gathering of Unitarian Universalists for all comers from all corners is never for the faint of heart. Even in the best of circumstances, our General Assembly, or “GA” for short, can be – often is – an overwhelming event.
First, there’s the people. Lots of them. Most of us arrive by plane, and so the conversations start right there at the baggage claim – and suddenly you realize, gosh, somehow I actually recognize Unitarian Universalists – and they’re everywhere! Then there’s the ride on the shuttles and in taxis to the convention hotels – the exchange of stories and “where are you from and what is it like” already starting. And much like a vortex, in you are drawn – into the abbreviations and lingo, in to the knowing nods about Actions for Immediate Witness (AIWs, for those in the know), and SLT (Service of the Living Tradition, of course). Soon after checking in to the hotel, and then registering for your nametag and credentials, you, too, can join the throngs that surge along the city’s sidewalks, sporting stickers and buttons and ribbons that all say something – to everyone else – about your position on global warming (against), the Bill of Rights (for), the death penalty (against, mostly). The messages, and the buttons, stickers and ribbons, multiply through the week so that by the end of the conference (if you’re still standing by then), it takes several minutes to actually “read” the person standing before you.
That’s all just plain normal for our General Assemblies. But this year’s General Assembly was held in Fort Worth, Texas, adding a few wrinkles to this event that has such a distinctive culture of its own. First, we were many thousands smaller than usual this year – past GAs have drawn approximately 7,000 participants – in Boston, we were more than 10,000. In Fort Worth, only 4,000 attended. Was it because we were meeting in a “red” state? The Texas heat? The economy?
The lack of contested elections for our denomination’s president and moderator? Perhaps a combination of all of these. Second, well, there we were – in Texas. The Rev. Bill Sinkford, president of the UUA, said at the opening ceremony “It’s important we’re here in Texas. It’s important that this part of the country know that we are who we are, and bring a liberal religious message to the people of Texas.”
Well, I have to say, Texas seemed pretty indifferent to our presence, and maybe to our message as well. The Convention Center marquis carried no words of welcome to the UUA. While the Fort Worth Star-Telegram did cover some of the issues raised in plenary sessions, their reporter seemed more star-gazed by his interview with Pete Seegar than deeply interested in our religious identity or the work of our delegates. Word is, Fort Worth’s downtown is far less alive than its suburbs, so except for the packs of 20-somethings in town for the bars on Friday and Saturday night, we encountered few non-UU folks on the streets or even the restaurants.
For me, the reality of being in Texas was overshadowed by the way that conventions and conferences can make me feel as if I could be anywhere in the world. When the downtown and convention center architecture is so generic, and the experience of being in workshops and other conference activities is so consuming, I feel that I could be anywhere in the country. It is disquieting to be so completely removed from a sense of place and the hallmarks of locality.
Given all this, I was surprised into delight in the middle of my time in Texas when I was “gifted” with some words of wisdom, not from one of the conference’s featured speakers, but by one of the convention center custodians. As I was leaving the exhibit hall for a coffee break, I found myself walking next to one of the workers with his ever-present whiskbroom and dustpan. I struck up a conversation with him – “Are we a neat conference, or do we drop lots of things?” “Oh, doesn’t much matter to me,” he replied, “you don’t drop things, I don’t have a job.” We carried on small talk for a couple of minutes. I learned that the convention center was owned by the city, and that this man therefore was a city employee. “Do you get sent to different city-owned sites, then?” I asked. “No,” he said, “I’ve only been here for four months, and just in this building. Big building, y’know?” “Yes,” I said, “I’m tired by the time I get to the other end.” “Yes,” he said, “and I still get lost. In fact, yesterday, I got so lost, I had to go outside to see where I was.”
He had to go outside to see where he was. I knew exactly what he meant. Several times I had found myself seeking out a rare window or exit to orient myself as to where I was in the largely windowless, doorless building – ah, I see the lonely building next to the parking lot – or, there’s the park – now I know where I am. Like a shopping mall or a casino, the convention center was built to create a completely internal environment, where all the rooms and all the halls look the same, and was terribly disorienting.
But, of course, his words were also a perfect metaphor. So many times, we should listen to that urge to go outside to see where we are – just as Henry David Thoreau did every day of his life – he went outside, to see what the creek was doing, where the wind and clouds were coming from, what was in leaf, in bloom, had berries. And, I thought, what a perfect metaphor for Unitarian Universalists meeting in Texas. I got so lost, I had to go outside to see where I was. It was a metaphor that completely turned around Bill Sinkford’s words – it’s not about us bringing a word to Texas – it’s about what we might hear from being in Texas.
You see, one of the struggles I have with General Assembly, and Unitarian Universalism, for that matter, is that we end up talking to ourselves about – well, us. We get real comfortable talking amongst ourselves, sometimes, as I said, even in code language. And I do understand how – and why – this happens. There are so few Unitarian Universalists, and we look forward to having conversations with others “just like us.” We are addressing issues of concern – to us. Strategizing about how to help congregations grow. Discussing “our” theology. Affirming and cheering for “our” causes. It’s a conversation for insiders about already being inside. Some of this is worthwhile, even necessary, in order to feel stronger and more sure of our identity. But some of it is also self-indulgent. Some of it really is like circling the proverbial wagons, and making sure we know the difference between “us” and “them.” And friends, this, I think, is when we get “lost.” We lose our bearings when we forget that we don’t live in isolation from the world around us – or, worse, when we make that world “the other.” When we draw boundaries between who we consider “in” and who we regard as a part of “the rest of the world,” however we define that.
After I encountered this young man who handed me such wisdom, I started looking at General Assembly differently. I started listening for, looking for, moments when there was an opening to the outside – a window in a largely windowless experience, a moment when we might glimpse the larger world, and how we relate to it. And I found there were others there seeking the same viewpoint. That’s when General Assembly started being interesting for me. Here are some highlights:
∑ Dr. Loring Abeyta and Rev. D. George Tinker presented an all-morning lecture entitled “America as Dry Drunk,” about how, as Americans (yes, even Unitarian Universalists) we are deeply invested in a world view loaded with assumptions about the order of nature, and the place of humanity, that determines virtue and deviance, and in which violence is an integral part of our way of living life. We are caught up in this world view and cannot easily see beyond it.
Abeyta and Tinker invited us into a deeper understanding of what we’re doing from within a world view that finds violence to be the most convenient solution to the problems we encounter at a personal and global level. “Like an addict,” they said, “we keep telling the story to convince ourselves that it’s real.” Repeating a story over and over is one way to keep us looking inside.
When there is an inbreaking of a different “truth” – a window to the outside – there is also a risk that our old and comfortable story will fall apart.
Pete Seegar came to General Assembly to sing. He sang songs in English and Spanish, filled with a poetry that longs for the end of oppression. Though Seegar has little singing voice left, his songs and stories are like freshly picked flowers on an overcast day. But he also came to remind us of the work the world still needs. “The biggest problems of America are long-term problems,” he said: “air, water, soil and freedom.” In an America distracted by the trinkets of consumerism, the larger problems “out there” tend to fade far into the background. Pete threw open yet more windows.
I spent much of my time at General Assembly in the Exhibit Hall, working at a booth for a multi-faith organization, “Partners for Sacred Places.” This group helps congregations of all denominations to find partners in the community with whom they might share their building space and thus become more integrated and connected with their communities. As I stood in that windowless room, I heard about congregations that transformed themselves by sharing their space with other congregations, with programs for children and families, with people in recovery. Windows, windows, windows into, onto, the world.
And on Sunday evening, Elaine Pagels, eminent professor of ancient Christianity at Princeton, talked with us about the diversity of the early Christian gospels, especially the “lost” Gospel of Thomas. In fact, Bill Sinkford introduced Pagels’ as someone who might “provide a kind of outside view to our faith community,” to help us be “outside our comfort zone” as Unitarian Universalists, but to thereby deepen our own faith understandings. It is a fascinating idea to me that, in order to really examine our own historical roots, our own religious inheritance, we need to step “outside our comfort zone.”
You get the picture. With each and every new “window” I discovered, I felt less lost in the windowlessness of General Assembly, and more affirmed that there were other Unitarian Universalists seeking to connect to the world around us in very real ways. The conversations became more interesting, my spirits rose, and I returned here to Long island with more energy and ideas than I had when I left.
This week, as I have revisited my General Assembly experiences to share with you this morning, the words of that young custodian, “I was lost, and had to go outside to see where I was,” continued to speak to me. As I have followed the story of Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a young soldier killed in Iraq who has camped out near President Bush’s Texas home, and the solidarity that she has inspired across this country, I thought, “yet another word from Texas.” And her words, through all of her grief and determination and spunk, seem to me to be saying the same thing – “get out there, George, and see for yourself what is happening. You are lost. You need to go outside and see where you are.” An op-ed piece in last Sunday’s Newsday touched the same chord. Tina Packer, artistic director of Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, Massachusetts, reminded readers of Shakespeare’s King Henry V, who “had entered a war with the endorsement of the church and his chief ministers. He’d had an early victory at Harfleur. But by the time he got to Agincourt, there was dissension among his troops – especially in the ranks of the ordinary soldiers who did the fighting and the dying.” In Packer’s words:
“But Henry V didn’t drive past his discontented followers. He didn’t close his windows. He didn’t think he and his countrymen had nothing new to say to each other. Instead he disguised himself as Harry Leroy, and moved among them, listening, sensing … he moved among them as they sat on the ground around the campfires … He questioned them and he found out what they were thinking and feeling. It wasn’t pretty. They wanted to be home. They were outnumbered. They were poorly equipped. It was not clear why they were fighting. What would happen to their families if they were killed? And they didn’t believe the king would lay his life on the line as they were being asked to.”
(Tina Packer, “A Heavy Reckoning,” Newsday, August 21, 2005, p. A47)
You see where this is going. In one sense, the story points to the timeless themes of war – violence carried out by and upon a beleaguered underclass, while the ruling class finds ways to protect themselves and their allies, even though we perhaps cannot draw a straight line connecting the monarch Henry V and the Commander in Chief, President Bush. But the other theme Packer raises – of isolation, of the knowledge and wisdom that comes from seeing and hearing another side of the story – that, I think is most relevant for us all.
Each of us has cause to think of where, in our lives, “we are lost, and have to go outside to see where we are.” Perhaps it is in understanding another generation’s language or music; maybe it’s the values and political views of friends with whom we disagree; it could be encounters those who call themselves Christian, or Muslim; maybe it’s just a neighbor we’ve never bothered to welcome to the neighborhood. We can start in such simple ways – listening to a radio station never tuned in before. Picking up the newspaper always passed over. Riding the blue bus for the next round of errands. Getting up early and having breakfast at Mickey D.’s. Shopping in a new – to you – community. Listening, and learning.
Henry David Thoreau knew the purpose of life – it was to live it, deliberately, yes, but also to know where he was, to go outside, every day, and see where he was. I close with his own words from Walden:
For many years I was self-appointed inspector of snow-storms and rain-storms,
and did my duty faithfully; surveyor; if not of highways, then of forest paths and all across-lot routes, keeping them open, and ravines bridged and passable at all seasons, where the public heel had testified to their utility.
I have looked after the wild stock of the town, which give a faithful herdsman a good deal of trouble by leaping fences; and I have had an eye to the unfrequented nooks and corners of the farm… I have watered the red huckleberry, the sand cherry and the nettle-tree, the red pine and the black ash, the white grape and the yellow violet, which might have withered else in dry seasons.”
Let us be as Henry’s attentions and ministrations, and bring water to the world – not just in words, but with our presence that listens and learns – “else [the world] wither in dry seasons.”