Sunday, March 26, 2006

UU Worship: Legendary Moments

A legendary thing happened in church today. Well, I thought it was legendary.

The setting: a Union Service in a beautiful, historic New England church attended by five UU congregations and choirs and led by four of their ministers.
The theme: Justice Sunday. The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee's focus this year is on Worker's Rights, and the Living Wage Campaign.

The time: Three-quarters of the way through the service.

Three of the ministers have given homilies highlighting some aspect of the worth and dignity of workers. One colleague speaks about sanitation workers at Ground Zero in New York. Another speaks of the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man, using Martin Luther King, Jr.'s interpretation of the story to emphasize that the Rich Man didn't go to hell because he did the wrong thing, but because he did nothing-- because he walked by Lazarus every day and treated him as though he was invisible. The third colleague tells a story of laborers in India. He winds his compelling, morally complex story into an exhortation that we make our every day choices reflect our religious values. He uses Free Trade Coffee as an example.
A fourth colleague leads a prayer. The choir sings. The congregation sings. It is energetic and positive. People feel chagrined in a good way. They have been woven together.

The service has been designed to culminate in an Offering for the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee.
The eldest of the colleagues gets up. He is retired and serving as an Interim Minister for one of the participating congregations. He is an eminence gris, with hearing aids in both ears and a gray beard. His reputation as a lion of social justice is well known. He is a fierce grandfather elder of our tribe.

Whereas all of the other ministers have spoken from the pulpit, he takes the microphone off its stand and walks directly in front of the first pews, speaking without notes. Every phrase is eloquent; every pause is dramatic without being contrived. His heart and soul are truly in every phrase. He is the real deal.

He begins by talking about Unitarians 150 years ago, "when giants walked on Beacon Hill." He talks about the Unitarian minister Samuel J. May, who met the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and said, "Sir, you're on fire!" To which Garrison replied, "I must be on fire. I have icebergs of indifference to melt" (Or maybe it was Garrison who said it to May. But that punch line is what matters).

"Fast forward," says the elder minister. He talks about "our great state senator, Ted Kennedy" who spoke at a prominent local UU church just two months ago about another kind of slavery: slavery to debt, slavery to poverty. Wage slavery.
People are sitting up in their pews. You can hear a pin drop.

The minister says, "Unitarian Universalists believe that in every human being there is a spark of the divine." He is really getting hot. "We ought to be in the business of fanning that flame. We are playing with fire. Yes we are. We are playing with fire!" He points to the chalice. He says it is our symbol because we believe that within every man, woman and child there is a spark of God. "And when any man, woman or child is oppressed, God is in chains. God is in chains." He says this, and his voice breaks.

People are really sitting up now. Eyes are misting.

The minister continues. "You've heard the stories. You've sung the songs," he says. "Now it's time to give the money." There are nervous titters around the church. The minister pauses and looks out over the congregation with fierce expectation and affection. "I want to know which one of you will be the first one to write a thousand dollar check to the Unitarian Universalist Association."

Nervous laughter breaks out.
The minster says, dead serious but not condemnatory, "What's funny about that? Why are you laughing? There isn't anything funny about it. I know that here in this room, within hearing of my voice, there are people who can write a thousand dollar check. There are those who could write a five thousand dollar check. Which one of you will be the first to write a thousand dollar check?"

Silence. Whispering. Some angry faces, some in awe. Whispered consultations between couples.

The minister props his elbow on the pulpit. He has all day. He is totally comfortable with the silence. He waits. We all wait.

Then a man stands.
"BLESS YOUR HEART!" says the elder minister, and the man comes forward out of his pew to a burst of applause. He stands at the front of the church and the minister puts his arm around him. "I don't know this man," he says. "I don't know his name, and believe me, he isn't a plant. But I know he believes in justice. He believes in justice and mercy."

The minister goes and gets the flaming chalice and puts it in the man's hands. He says, "I want you to hold this." And the minister asks for another thousand dollar check, and damned if a woman doesn't come forward to applause, and yet another.

Then the minister calls up the ushers and says that they are going to "graciously and lovingly" collect the other offerings to the UU Service Committee. The choir sings a beautiful (believe it, it's true) version of "Kumbaya" and the four ministers in the pews are practically high fiving each other. They are saying, "I have NEVER seen anything like that before" and "People are going to be talking about this for YEARS!" They are wiping away tears and cracking up at the same time. They feel awful that they have left their checkbooks in the robing room back in the parish house.

After the service, there is a mighty buzz. When I find out how much money was raised for the UUSC I'll let you know.


So, what do you think?
I am guessing that some of you may be thinking that the elder minister was offensive for these reasons, all of which reflect Unitarian Universalist egalitarianism:
(1) Ministers should never tell people what to do.
(2) You never single out someone for special treatment, especially on the basis of financial generosity.
(3) You never coerce a group of people into giving money by holding them hostage and waiting until someone meets your demands.
(4) You never guilt people into doing things, especially when some of them may have already made contributions to the very organization you are touting, and others just as worthy.

I agree with you on every point.

Now, why was this a totally fantastic and thrilling moment?
For me,
(1) It's never a bad idea to speak from your passionate convictions and invite people to come along.
(2) Ministers are leaders and they need to lead, not always "invite" (P.S. I am relatively sure that this minister gives very generously to the UUSC, as he used to hold a very important leadership position in that organization).
(3) It's always powerful to state simply and clearly our ultimate commitments, and then to ask people to act on them. We DO believe that a spark of the divine resides in every human being. Why not put our money where our mouths are?
(4) A little tiny bit of shame isn't going to kill any of us. The first guy to stand and offer $1,000 is special, and he gets to hold the chalice. I don't. Too bad.
(5) Because it just was. It was AWE. SOME.

Tip to dear and reverend sirs and ma'ams who are thinking of trying this at home: I wouldn't unless you're the most sincere person in the world, unless you have not even one ounce of show-bizzy glad-handing persona about you, and until you have the years and experience to give you total street cred. Otherwise, you're just asking for a ride out of town on a rail, and don't say I didn't warn you.


Blogger Jess said...

I think it's absolutely beautiful. Wish I could have been in the room, damn.

While I do, in principal, agree with your reasons people might find this disconcerting (to say the least!), I think that we as a denomination need that kind of kick in the pants on a semi-regular basis. It's not enough to be chagrined, it's not enough to just feel it, one has to ACT. And sometimes what it takes to move people into action is to put them on the spot.

And action is really what Unitarian Universalism is all about - we don't have a creed or ascribe to dogma because we believe it is how a person lives their religious beliefs that is more important than what the specifics of those beliefs are.

Blogger Transient and Permanent said...

I don't have too much trouble with this, even though I barely have a penny to my name and would've been sitting there a long time. It's a sure-fire bet someone else in there would have the dough, and if they can afford the check I can't think of ANY way to spend it that would've made them feel an ounce better. That guy is gonna remember being handed the chalice for the rest of his life. Besides, UUs are nothing if not able to stand up for themselves vocally. You can't hold a room full of UUs hostage with mere verbiage. He would've had to have had a gun.


Blogger PeaceBang said...

Jess, wouldn't it be funny to stand and say, in a really emotional voice, "I don't have any money but if someone will give me their checkbook, I'll write that check WITH MY VERY OWN PEN!"?

Blogger PeaceBang said...

I mean JEFF, not JESS!! All confused!

Blogger Jamie Goodwin said...

In the tradition I grew up in (Apolstolic) this kind of service happened every couple of years. Usually when another church was in need. I remember once when a church in the southern US had burned down and a minister sat in the front of the congregation and wouldn't budge until someone brought up the amount of money he was waiting for.. and then asked for more.

I love it.. I wish we would do it more often, and although I never really expect to be in a situation to be a 1000 dollar check writer so maybe it isn't my place to say it, sometimes it is ok to ask people to put their money where their mouth is.

Blogger ronia the resilient said...


Our service was good this morning.
But your service kicked some big butt.
And I'm jealous.

I wanna have street cred like that some day.

And yes, I read your blog regularly!

Blogger Kim said...

i wanna know the minister's name. Because I am thinking of someone it sounds like and want to know if I'm right.

Blogger Transient and Permanent said...

LOL, that would rock, PB. In fact, I'm gonna do it next Sunday during the offering. I'm already practicing my cry-on-demand.

However, I'm gonna sign that check "Jess Wilson."


Blogger Jess said...

PB, I'd be one for pulling that, too!

But all kidding aside there is a fine line to walk. I remember feeling in our first church right after John went through a period of unemployment and I was trying to make a home business work that we were in a congregation of rich people and wondering if we really fit in there. There were donation rallies for every little thing, adult RE classes cost money, we had to pay to register our kids for RE or fill out a waiver - come on, who wants to fill out paperwork that you don't have enough money to help buy dixie cups for your kid's Sunday school class?

What I would love is for someone to integrate a drive for money with a drive for volunteer time. The people with money write the checks, and the people with time fill out vouchers committing to x number of hours devoted to the task at hand.

Blogger LaReinaCobre said...

That's a great idea, Jess - a pledge of time. I would definitely do that! I will pass that idea on to my church, which is looking to expand its facilities.

I remember attending quite a few "dinners" when I was in the Islamic community, and something quite similar would happen. We'd have a keynote speaker or two (or three), and then one of the Muslim leaders would get up and start talking about how we needed to raise money for a particular project (in this case, we were trying to purchase a building for a school - and usury is against Islam, so we needed the money outright). Usually it would start off with, "We need a pledge of $10,000. Who here can give a pledge of $10,000?" And, in a room of maybe 200 people, some of them children, there would usually be someone who could. Then $5000, then $2500, and so on. Usually it would stop at $1000 or $500, then all of us little people would make our little pledges of a few hundred or $20.

We had to hold several of these, plus hit up some bigger pockets who never came to our events, but I think in two years we raised $250K. I think if the Muslim community can do it, then UUs can!

Some people didn't like this approach because they said it created regret in people who gave too much; it shamed people who were too poor to give the large amounts; and it gave special attention to the wealthy. I think those are all things you mentioned. I guess there are pros and cons. What some wealthy people would do is write the check and ask for the presenter to not say WHO gave the check.

I've often wondered why UUs don't do more fundraising this way. Auctions seem to work pretty well, though.

Blogger Errantfrogs said...

I don't think a minister could pull that off every week, or even every year, but for an occasion like that: Kudos to the minister for picking the right moment. I'm not just talking about the thousands he raised for the UUSC, but for the memory of his admonition, because all in attendance will remember his appeal to their generosity. It also sounds like it was completely authentic, an in-the-moment kind of thing. People just eat that up!


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