General Assembly 2004 Event 3110
"We are gathered here on a Saturday at five, in an unchurchy room, to worship together," said the Rev. Jan Rzepka, "To pause, to reflect a little, to celebrate, to gather our wits in the midst of General Assembly, and to recall why it is we are here smack in the middle of Unitarian Universalism. Welcome to every one of you. I'm glad you are here."
Rzepka, the senior minister of the Church of the Larger Fellowship (CLF), was giving the opening words for the annual worship service for CLF. CLF serves isolated religious liberals around the world through mail, telephone, and Internet ministries.
Rev. Jone Johnson Lewis, cyber minister for CLF, and Linda Berez, ministerial intern at CLF this year, spoke words for the lighting of the flaming chalice. "We light our chalice, fragment of stars and suns, to light our hopes and dreams," said Berez, "to make a way for peace and love." Lewis added, "We light the chalice in fellowship, in love, laughter, and praise."
Lorraine Dennis, administrator for CLF, welcomed the congregation to the worship service. The room was filled to overflowing for the worship service, with people sitting on the floor and standing at the back of the room. The congregation included CLF members, ministers, and other attendees of General Assembly.
"CLF is our Unitarian Universalist church by mail and cyberspace," said Dennis. "We have about 3000 members in every state in the United States, and about 50 countries around the world." Dennis then presented notes written by CLF members from around the world, read by CLF member Cheryl Wallace, Amber Beland, CLF's membership administrator, and Rev. Helen Zidowecki, the religious educator for CLF.
A CLF member who has a pen pal through CLF's "Prison Pen Pal" program wrote, "It does make me think about what incarceration is all about." A new member wrote, "CLF has been a salvation for us introverts.... Thank you for including me in your roominess, and thanks for the welcome."
A graduate student wrote, "It's a great way to stay connected to a Unitarian Universalist congregation if you're in a transitional stage of life." And finally, a member who is deaf wrote, "CLF is one hundred percent accessible to me regardless of whether I can hear or not."
Rev. Kathy Reis, CLF's Prison Ministry Director, led the responsive reading. Rev. Lynn Ungar, the editor of "Quest," CLF's monthly print publication, led the congregation in a meditation. During the meditation, a mother held her son in her lap, and the little boy sat absolutely still, mesmerized by Ungar's words.
Rzepka read a story by Rev. Stephan Jonasson about a young woman who lived in an isolated town in Georgia. This young woman found herself moving towards a liberal religious position, in a community that was not supportive of that position. She even entertained thoughts of suicide, but when she found Unitarian Universalism, it was like a life line. "Our ministry of kindness and hope really does offer hope to those who need it," Jonasson wrote. "It's saved me, and I'm willing to bet it's saved you, too."
In her sermon, titled "The Paper Preacher," Rzepka briefly told the story of Unitarianism in southern California. She noted the first Unitarians came to southern California in the late 19th C., before the consolidation with the Universalists. Those early Unitarians found that while the basic message of East coast Unitarianism was gladly received in southern California, the East coast "style" did not translate well.
The southern California Unitarians appealed to Jenkin Lloyd Jones in Chicago. At that time, Jones was the primary resource for "western Unitarians, that is to say, west of Rochester, NY." The Western Unitarians focused, "not on God, but on freedom," said Rzepka. They learned "to speak the language of Unitarianism that rang true to California."
Within a few decades, "thriving congregations had developed all over southern California," said Rzepka. Some of those congregations lacked professional ministers, and they were served by a group called the "Post Office Mission," which began with Jenkin Lloyd Jones in Chicago. The main publication of the Post Office Mission was called "The Paper Preacher."
"These Unitarians were intent on spreading the word and spreading it in their own Unitarian style," said Rzepka, "and just like us, they loved their religion and they wanted to invite other people in." They reached out to miners, ranchers, sailors, and others. They balked at the words "evangelism" and "missionary work," but like the Unitarian Universalist Association today, growth was a top priority.
"Do we outsiders understand the local culture enough?" asked Rzepka. Are Unitarian Universalists today able to stick to core religious values while reaching out to local people in many parts of the country, and of the world?
Rzepka told a story from her recent rip to China. She was staying in the home of a Chinese farmer, and was invited to share breakfast with the family. However, she found that she was not quite sure how to fit in. For example, she had a hard time using chop sticks, wasn't sure which dish to use for which purpose, and had thought a dish of sugar was a dish of salt. "Here I am with this gracious Chinese farmer, and I have food on my plate where the garbage goes, and sugar in my soup," she said to the congregation's laughter.
"When you breeze into a place," said Rzepka, it's hard to know how best to be effective. This applies to spreading Unitarian Universalism. "We don't want to keep the good news of Unitarian Universalism to ourselves, but, well, how do we begin the conversation?"
"Maybe we need to learn the lessons of southern California," said Rzepka. "Westerners cared more about freedom... than traditional theology" when they were starting Unitarian congregations in the western United States. "Unitarianism needed to morph a little. People are different," she said. "But they learned another lesson, too, that people are the same."
Early Unitarians in southern California learned to make their Unitarianism "radically inclusive." Rzepka asserted the Unitarian Universalists of CLF are still doing the same thing, getting the words out, and modeling what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist.
"It's important work that we Unitarian Universalists are doing, important crazy work," said Rzepka. "The people will come," once they learn Unitarian Universalism's unique message.
Rzepka closed the worship service with these words: "As we move through the ages, may we find the courage the spread those words that matter most, whoever we are, wherever we find ourselves."
More information about CLF can be found on the CLF website.
Reported by CLF member Dan Harper; edited by CLF member and cyberminister Jone Johnson Lewis; video by CLF member Stan Cocheo.
Sermon by the Rev. Jane Rzepka
I'm not from here. A lot of us aren't. The good weather, the good-looking people—we're not really accustomed to either one, most of us, and five minutes out of the airport we can tell we're not at home. Truth be told, we're tourists, tourists in Southern California.
Did you look up what there is to do around here before you left home? I like to see a new thing or two wherever General Assembly is in a given year, so I jotted down the promises that the Web offers tourists about this part of the country.
First of all, Arnold Schwarzenegger himself welcomes us, and the web site promotes the Stars of Hollywood tours, Camelot Golfland, Air Combat USA, Go Kart Racing, Paintball, Hidden Mickeys of Disneyland, and Riley's Frontier Hoedown. The AAA map highlights auto racing, public shooting ranges, and sport fishing. More locally, a restaurant here in the neighborhood hold's the world's record for the most beers on tap, and a shop nearby holds the record for the largest selection of fashionable hats. Women's Waterpolo is big these days here in Long Beach. And Knott's Berry Farm has a hot rod roller coaster, with chrome-plated flip-top, flame-emblazoned '57 Chevys sporting candy-apple red or purple fin-tailed hot rods, that launches you at 82 miles per hour in 2.3 seconds.
The area has a lot to offer—never mind that what it chooses to publicize is a complete mismatch with what the average, stereotypical Unitarian Universalist would want to see and do. So I looked up Southern California poets, hoping for a different perspective from the Southern California hype, and what I came up with, as I should have guessed, was the "Poets of Southern California Swimsuit Calendar."
I myself could quite happily launch in a candy-apple red '57 Chevy roller coaster or buy myself a fashionable new hat. None of us quite fits any kind of mold. And we all know better, really, than to believe that the multiplicity of hats and the hot rod roller coaster and the Stars of Hollywood Tours and the poets' swimsuit calendar tell the story of the lives and souls of Southern Californians. We know that here in this dazzling place, some people are dedicated to the Long Beach aquarium, to prison reform, to Interfaith work, to providing shelter for people who are homeless, to supporting the Children's Peace Choir-activities not mentioned at all by the on-line promoters of tourism. And we know that a number of the people here in Southern California are committed Unitarian Universalists like those of us in this room-indeed some of you are in this room.
It seems a little unlikely, don't you think? If you're from the East Coast as I am, you're thinking, "There are Unitarian Universalists here, 3000 miles from King's Chapel, so far from Boston, so far, as we like to say, so far from the ocean? How did this happen? How can this be?"
And so begins the story. It's true-everybody agreed even in the 1870's, that California is very far from Boston. So when a group of Unitarians began to gather here in Southern California, they wrote not to Boston but to a fellow in Chicago, Jenkin Lloyd Jones, for advice. "How could they start a church?" they asked. "How could they put worship services together?" Exactly the kind of letter that new groups of Unitarian Universalists write today to us at the Church of the Larger Fellowship.
Jones told them that the only ministers willing to venture out to California were men who desperately needed a change of scene, or who suffered from feeble health or a feeble mind; he told them they'd be better off on their own. So he sent them a pile of sermons to preach; he sent Sunday School materials. He offered letters of encouragement, just as we do today when small Unitarian Universalist groups contact the CLF office. The little congregation in California developed outstanding lay leadership and quickly became a fully functioning church.
Jenkin Lloyd Jones published a magazine of sermons and articles by ministers for far-flung Unitarians, just as the CLF does today. Designed for Western Unitarians (that is to say for Unitarians west of Rochester, New York), its focus was on freedom-not on God, not on Jesus, not on Christianity. The point was not to spread Unitarianism as it was known in Boston, but rather to speak the language of Unitarianism in a voice that rang true to local Californians.
From the very beginning, this non-Bostonian Unitarianism had a different spirit. Indeed, historically, the language of reverence for these Unitarians were words like freedom, fellowship, character, truth, love—the kind of language of reverence Unitarian Universalists voted into our Purposes and Principles a century later.
Within two decades, toward the end of the 19th Century, thriving congregations had developed all over Southern California, and a well-orchestrated marketing campaign was underway. The first incarnation of the Church of the Larger Fellowship, the "Post Office Mission," financed and run by Unitarian women, as Stefan Jonnason said in our reading, bought ads in newspapers and magazines inviting readers to write for "free literature about Unitarianism." A new marketing publication, the Pacific Unitarian, carried our Unitarian message to "isolated towns and ranches, and mountain homes." They called this magazine the "paper preacher," designed to be "breezy and bracing," "not unlike," they said, "the Pacific Ocean." These Unitarians were intent on spreading the word, and spreading it in their own Unitarian style.
Just like us. Just like us, they loved their religion, and they wanted to invite other people in. Just like us, they were justice-seekers, and they wanted to respond to the desperate old miners who never struck it rich, to the sailors who were stranded, and to the families whose savings had been spent on the journey to the West Coast. And just like us, they were sensitive to the common offenses of evangelism and missionary work, and balked at the very words. They wanted Unitarianism to spread, and they wanted to do it respectfully.
The Californians were successful, as we know—we only need to look at the UUA directory of congregations to see that our religion spread all over California. But the desire to grow our religion isn't over-indeed growth is the Unitarian Universalist Association's top priority.
Tomorrow morning our General Assembly will invite the local non-UU public to a worship service featuring what we believe is great preaching and inspiring music. Will the service work for today's Southern Californians? Do we outsiders understand the local culture enough? Are we able to stick to our unique identity as Unitarian Universalists while at the same time adapting to the hearts and minds of the people who live here? Tomorrow the experiment begins.
I know how hard it can be to figure out what will work. Just when you think you've really arrived, gotten the lay of the land, familiarized yourself with the whys and wherefores of a particular place, the whole construct can so easily fall apart.
Only a few weeks ago I sat at a breakfast table in the home of a farmer. Three platters of food were on the table, and it looked pretty good. Smelled good too. I was ready to dig in when I noticed that my own plate was the size of a teacup saucer, the platters were heaped with pickled cabbage and strings of white stuff—some kind of grey wild grass—and a host of other ingredients that I couldn't even begin to identify. And it became clear that eating this breakfast was going to be all about chopsticks, the use of which as been a reliable source of humiliation for me since the fourth grade.
I was in the home of farmers outside of Xian, China, and it was time to eat.
Did I mention that soup was involved? And a tiny bowl of salt? Probably salt. Salt for the soup? I did my best pantomime for "salt in the soup?" and my hosts nodded enthusiastically. Everything's under control; I'm fitting right in.
After contemplating the logistics of getting the salt out of the salt bowl and into the soup with chopsticks, I realized that the only strategy available to me was to will the salt to stick to the chopsticks, and it worked like a charm.
Apparently, though, I was supposed to be eating the main dishes at this point, not ditzing around with the soup, so with my chopsticks I willed the sprouts and things onto my little saucer, after which my hosts modeled the right way to do it—to reach into the center of the table and eat straight from the platters, using the little saucers for seeds and peels and later, eggshells.
By now it's painfully obvious that the salt isn't salt, but sugar, and any numbskull would realize that sugar's for tea, not the preserved egg congee soup/gruel that I had so successfully sugared.
The sun isn't up yet, and I am sitting at the breakfast table of a gracious Chinese farmer, and I have food on the plate where the garbage goes and sugar in my soup. This is all to say that when you breeze into a place, it might be trickier than you think to know what's going on. To know how best to be effective. Or even to know how simply to be a competent breakfast eater.
We are trying to grow Unitarian Universalism. I am—I hope you are too. And we sit down with a true-blue Southern Californian, a Chinese farmer, a high-school girl in Georgia who found us online, or maybe it's your barber in the suburbs of St. Louis, or your brother-in-law who seems to care about weekend computer game conferences to the apparent exclusion of all else, or the 14-year old neighbor girl who's babysitting to beat the band so she can get an iPod with a bigger memory chip and some of those new very pointy shoes. We don't want to keep the good news of Unitarian Universalism to ourselves, but, well, how do we even begin the conversation?
Maybe we learn the lessons of Southern California.
First of all, here in California early Unitarians learned that people are different from one another. Westerners cared more about freedom than convention, they cared more about plain-spoken ethics than traditional theology; they cared more about frontier politics and Western issues of social welfare than East Coast debate. Unitarianism needed to morph a little. People are different.
They learned another lesson, too, and that lesson was that people are the same—as the song we just heard says, "We are all the same it seems behind the eyes." They learned that when religion, when Unitarianism, is about freedom and community and trying to do the right thing, the people will come. If you engage church-goers with talk and action grounded in truth and grounded in love, they will find that you're speaking right to them. Their Unitarianism became radically inclusive.
And one other thing. They learned here in Southern California that you have to get the word out. They put sermons in the mail. They took out ads. The still do that around here. They recruited their friends. They lived their religion with enthusiasm and modeled what it means to be a Unitarian.
Members of the Church of the Larger Fellowship try to remember. We're out there on the Web, in the mailbox, on the phone, and right here in person, not only with one another in mind but with the people we haven't met yet in mind too. We try to get the word out, knowing that everybody is different and that everybody is the same. It isn't easy of course—the sugar's going to land in the soup now and then—but at least we're sitting at the table together.
It's important work that we Unitarian Universalists are doing. Wonderful, crazy work. May we ever have the zest for it, for:
In a world with so much hatred and violence, we need a religion that proclaims the inherent worth and dignity of every person.
In a world with so much dogmatism and falsehood, we need a religion that challenges us to a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.
And in a world with so much inequality and strife, we need a religion that strives toward the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.
So may it be with us. Amen.
By 1908, Unitarianism in California was so strong that one of its ministers, Frederick Lucian Hosmer, wrote the hymn that we'll use as our closing hymn. Forward Through the Ages, which you will find in your order of service.
As we move forward through the ages, may we find the courage to spread those words that matter most-whoever we are; wherever we find ourselves.
By Rev. Stefan Jonasson
One of our UU ministers, Stefan Jonasson, who lives in Winnepeg, has been spreading the word for a long time. He tells this story:
Before the days of the various email lists sponsored by the Unitarian Universalist Association, I subscribed to the "Unitarian Universalist" forum offered by the commercial email service that I once used. I often found myself embarrassed by the messages I read from this forum, but never more so than when I saw the responses to a message asking what Unitarian Universalism was all about, which had been asked by someone who came across a reference to us in the Encyclopedia Britannica.
I sent a private email to this inquirer, explaining to her that I thought she had been misinformed by the responses to her question, and I offered to send her literature. After three weeks, I had given up hope that I would hear from her when a message appeared in my inbox. Yes, she would like to receive the literature I offered and she included her address, which was a post office box in a small town in Georgia. In the last line she wrote, "Please send the pamphlets in a plain, unmarked envelope." I felt like I was sending contraband through the mail.
Over the next few months, my correspondent revealed her story. She was a high school senior in rural Georgia, and she had been having doubts about her faith—something that was next to impossible to talk about in a small town where the Southern Baptist church was the most liberal one in the vicinity. Sadly, she had become convinced that there was something wrong with her, and her thoughts had even turned to suicide. When her history teacher gave her an assignment on the United Nations—specifically, to write about its "shortcomings"—she stumbled upon an entry about Unitarian Universalism on her way through the encyclopedia's pages to the U.N. Maybe her thoughts weren't crazy after all!
When she confided to her older cousin, who lived in a nearby city and used a computer, they decided to check out Unitarian Universalism online.
In our electronic age, it turns out that things aren't so different from the days of the Post Office Mission, the precursor to the Church of the Larger Fellowship, when nineteenth-century Unitarians—women mostly—spread the liberal gospel through the mail. They witnessed to our liberating faith one person at a time, spreading words of comfort and hope to isolated inquirers like this young woman in Georgia, across the far reaches of North America.
Over the years, I continued to hear from her from time to time. The messages eventually stopped, but not before she had told me that Unitarian Universalism had saved her life, both figuratively and literally.
Since then, whenever I've been asked to talk about why the growth and extension of Unitarian Universalism is so important, I inevitably tell the story of this young women from Georgia. Many times, people have come up to me afterward and exclaimed, "that's my story" or "I'm like that girl from Georgia!" So I was quite unprepared when, following an event where I had related this story, more than a decade after mailing the unmarked package, a woman approached me, her daughter in tow. She had waited for the cluster of people surrounding me to depart and, with tears streaming down her cheeks, said "I'm your correspondent from Georgia." It took a moment for me to realize that she wasn't speaking figuratively. She was that high school senior from so many years before, now a bright and beautiful woman with a family of her own and a church that is at the center of her life.
Our ministry of kindness and hope really does offer salvation to people in need of it. It saved a young woman in Georgia. It's saved me. And I'm willing to bet that it's saved you, too!
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Last updated on Thursday, September 8, 2011.
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