Recording of our February 7, 2021 online worship service
This is the original work of the Reverend Mandy Beal (firstname.lastname@example.org), unless otherwise attributed.
Rev. Mandy Beal
Good morning and welcome to Birmingham Unitarian Church! I am the Reverend Mandy Beal, this congregation’s Senior Minister. I am joined in worship leadership by our Co-Directors of Music Ministry, Abha and Steven Dearing, as well as Worship Associate Donna Larkin Mohr. We also have technical support from our Communications Coordinator, Sara Constantakis, and Zoom Greeter Jane O’Neil.
BUC is a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Even in our virtual format, we are a thriving community with a place for everyone. Social justice is an essential component of our church life. We are a Green Sanctuary Congregation, a designation we’ve earned through our dedication to caring for our planet. We are also a capital “W” Welcoming Congregation. Our social justice work this year is focused on environmental action, economic inequality, civic engagement, and racial inequality.
Our worship services are hosted on Zoom every Sunday morning at 10:30 and then later posted on our website and our Facebook page. After the service, we invite you to stay for virtual coffee hour. If you are worshiping with us for the first time today, we extend a special welcome to you.
We have four announcements this morning:
It's Bake-Off time! Bake-Off is a time-honored tradition that benefits our Religious Education program. This year’s choices include $10-per-dozen Fan Favorites, like sugar cookies, or $20-per-dozen "Mystery Bakes." Don't want any treats but still want to support RE? For $5, the RE Council will send a handmade Care Card on your behalf to brighten another BUCer’s day. All baked goods will be available for pickup in the church parking lot on February 14 between 2:00-4:00 pm. All Bake-Off orders must be received by this Wednesday, February 10! So get your order in as soon as possible by using the blue Bake-Off button on our website.
The Membership Committee welcomes everyone to another series of Getting to Know Unitarian Universalism, starting today--right after service and coffee hour--at noon. Getting to Know UU is great for newcomers, those considering membership, or anyone interested in learning more about their own beliefs as well as those of others in this faith, and this community. Sponsored by the Membership Committee, this interactive, introspective, informative, and fun set of four non-sequential classes has been adapted from our in-person course to a virtual model this year. We will end coffee hour at 11:45 today so we can get the class started at noon. You’ll use a different Zoom link than the one you’re using for this service, and that link is on our calendar.
Also from the membership committee: Join us this Saturday for our second mid-winter mixer and game night. Let’s start the month with a fun-filled evening of icebreakers and the game Kahoot! We’ll laugh and connect and compete for fun prizes. Hope to see you Saturday at 7:00 pm. The Zoom info is on our calendar.
I want to draw your attention to the upcoming UUA Conference “New Day Rising.” Here’s the description: Is your congregation ready to take a new step in changing white supremacy culture? Want to learn what your fellow congregations are working on, and how you might apply it at home? Join a continent of UUs as we explore next steps in creating Beloved UU Communities. The conference is on February 27. There’s a $30 registration fee and financial support is available. More information can be found in an email we’ll send out later this week.
Thank you for joining us this morning, or whenever you’re watching this. Although we are not together physically, we are together in spirit, and it is good to be together again.
And now our service will begin.
Rev. Mandy Beal
We worship in our separate homes this morning, but we are joined with a multitude of Unitarian Universalists in lighting our chalice:
We light this chalice as a symbol of our dedication to growth and healing. May its light guide our way as we find new paths to the heart of our Living Tradition.
Read by Donna Larkin Mohr
The Rev. Marlin Lavanhar wrote, “Paul Wilkes is a religion editor at the New York Times and author of numerous books about religion in America. In his book [on congregations], he writes, ‘Religion should be a great adventure and not a leisure activity.’ He believes churches should be called to do things they think they cannot do, and should stick their necks out and take chances.
“Numerous church observers believe that in the coming decades, one-third or more of all churches in the United States will close their doors…. Among the churches closing may be 400-500 of the 1,000 UU congregations.
“Today people have powerful problems and seek a powerful faith. We have the talent and the financial means to create such a church. However, the jury is still out on whether we will empower clergy and lay people to lead us in this direction.”
“…Churches seldom die from taking risks. They expire from becoming complacent. A friend of mine recently said, ‘Religion requires guts!’
“Unitarian Universalism should be creating churches that make the world a more just, safe, and equitable place. This goal will not be accomplished if church leaders believe their primary role is to accommodate the people who are already there.”
As a faith, we are beginning to make significant changes related to race, racism, anti-racism, and changes in the way we involve, support, and accept leadership from indigenous people. Change is the name of the new game, the new way of being a Unitarian Universalist.
Rev. Mandy Beal
The mission of Birmingham Unitarian Church is to create a free and welcoming religious community that encourages lives of integrity, learning, service, and joy. The weekly offering serves as an ongoing reminder of this mission. Sharing in this weekly practice of generosity also strengthens the bonds between congregants and our high purpose. So let there be an offering in support of this Beloved Community and our good works. Contributions can be made through our website, Venmo (username @BUCmi), or a check in the mail. However you choose to give, please do so with a heart of gratitude and for each other.
Excerpt from an essay by Parisa Parsa on the 5th Principle, found in The Seven Principles in Word and Worship
Read by Donna Larkin Mohr
It’s the right of conscience, not the right of ego, that we preserve in our fifth Principle. The distinction is important. A. Powell Davies, the great visionary and activist Unitarian minister of the mid-twentieth century, called conscience “the sight of the soul” - the soul being that innermost part of each person that yearn to move toward greater insight and wholeness Our conscience is not something that is directed by a God who acts outside of us but the emanation of a God dwelling deeply within us. Brahman, Buddha-nature, Spirit of Life, Jehovah - call it what you will, it is an undeniable part of humanity; sometimes deeply hidden, other times sorely stifled, but always there to be recognized and cultivated. The inner point of connection that speaks to us in stillness is our compass and our guide when the rules of the human world are broken or have become abhorrent. That place in us that affirms life and love in all their glory and messiness is where we must return if our conscience, our soul, is to flourish.
Everyone who has lived with other people knows that we can commit to a community and then find ourselves at odds with the community’s decisions. The ego is tempted to rail against the community and even to stomp away in anger. Ego freedom lets us walk away in a huff. But freedom of conscience, having already committed to a life of accountability to this community, demands fidelity even in disagreement. A community to whom we have connected ourselves must be offered the same respect we demand from the community - the opportunity to hear our objection, fear, or pain and to respond to it according to the dictates of the communal bonds. In a healthy community, each individual among us should occasionally be in the minority; the experience promotes spiritual growth, maturity, and a deepened understanding of the cost and the rewards of community. It reminds us of our need for God and what is asked of us if we are truly to be a people of God.
I used to believe that my own freedom was too precious to be stifled by the challenges of those who disagreed. My confidence in my own way and, deeper still, my fear that I could not be worthy of the deep connection of abiding community, were the one-two punch that had me step out soon after stepping into a new community - or worse, staying on the fringes, joining in name but not risking too much. It’s tempting to pick and choose the more attractive parts of what is offered in community and lie low when the more demanding tasks need attention. And it’s easy to get discouraged, and then walk away, disappointed and righteous.
The Puritans demanded evidence of an experience of grace as requisite for entry into the religious community. They understood that we are not really ready to be in full community with others religiously until we have had at least one experience of conversion. They would have put it in terms of conversion to the acceptance of Jesus Christ. I would put it as a witness to turn one’s heart, one’s conscience, to that place in others where God dwells. It is the turning of one’s heart toward rather than away from connection with others, the opening and the willingness to be vulnerable, that comes of the deepening life of faith. Religiously, our commitment to the democratic process asks us to bring our piece of revelation, our knowledge of grace into relationship with others in the place where God dwells in them. It invites us to live communally from that kind of openness.
by Rev. Mandy Beal
Oh man, I am so excited to get into a month of explicitly exploring Unitarian Universalism. Our worship theme this month is officially “Devout Unitarian Universalism.” And so we ask ourselves: What does it mean to pursue our religious ends with devotion? We’ll start today with an exploration of living by our 7 Principles.
The 7 Principles are one of the most well known parts of Unitarian Universalism. They are our foundational covenant; a set of aspirational statements of how we want to live in the world. They are not a statement of belief, but an agreement of how we will treat each other, how we will behave. When you cast your lot with a UU congregation, you become a part of the covenant of those 7 Principles. This is why I very explicitly ask people if they agree to the covenant of our 7 Principles when they join our church. It’s not a test or gatekeeping mechanism, but a way of making sure everyone knows what’s expected of them.
There is no test or faith requirement to be a UU. But, our religious tradition has a shape, there are defining characteristics and things that we have in common. There is no limitation on what we can believe, but there are limits placed on our behavior, and those limits are spelled out in our 7 Principles. We know ourselves to be UUs because of our covenants, or it can be said that covenants are how we “do” Unitarian Universalism.” We are who we are because of how we are.
UUs are compelled to find our own answers to life’s big questions and covenants give us the structure we need to do that work. But, as it says in the gospel according to Spiderman, with great power comes great responsibility. What if someone decides their best path to God is bonking other people on the nose? It’s not ok to hurt other people and justify it as your right to your own beliefs.
That’s where the 5th Principle comes in. Here’s our 5th Principle in its entirety, “We the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, do covenant to affirm and promote the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” This is currently my favorite principle because of how much we need it to navigate this cultural moment. It speaks to the tension we hold between individualism with group health. There’s a reason the right to conscience and the democratic process appear in the same principle. It creates an elegant balance between the two.
It must be said that the appeal of Unitarian Universalism, for many of us, is our freedom. Many of us come to Unitarian Universalism from other religious traditions that were oppressive, restrictive, or even abusive. And when we find our way here, there’s a moment when we realize - I really can believe what I want and I really can be who I am! That moment is precious, and it is right and good to cherish the freedom we find here. And yet, for that freedom to be real for everyone, we must accept limits on our freedom. No nose bonking.
I use that example to be a little light and provide an easily accessible illustration of the limits we must accept in order to have a healthy community. But the ways that we can cause harm to each other are more serious and insidious. At the beginning of Black History month, it’s appropriate for us to be frank about the history of white supremacy culture in Unitarian Universalism. When I say white supremacy culture, I mean the bias that white culture is the correct or default culture of our nation. From this follows the belief that cultural expressions that fall outside of the standards of whiteness are inferior, incorrect, or disruptive. American cultural institutions, founded by white people, are rooted in and shore up white culture as the default American culture, and so we are steeped in this bias. That’s true for all Americans, but white people are often unaware of that bias. Unexamined bias leads to unintentionally racist behavior, which causes just as much harm as intentionally racist behavior.
That lack of awareness of unexamined bias exists in predominantly or historically white institutions as much as it exists in individual white people. That includes Unitarian Universalism. The Unitarian Universalist Association was founded in 1961 through the merger of the Unitarians and the Universalists. Both were Christian denominations and both were almost exclusively white. We are an institution founded by white people who believed their culture to be superior to others. And that assumption has been woven into our tradition and remains there until this day, although we often do not notice it.
But we’re starting to notice it. The awareness of UU white bias has grown dramatically in the past 5 or so years. This was prompted by some internal hiring issues that brought UU racial bias into sharp focus and it coincided with the movement for Black lives. These two forces have held a mirror to our bias, the bias many white people don’t even know we have. And the confrontation with that bias has spurred us to action. Since that time, our churches and our Association have entered a period of rapid change and growth about how we talk about and understand race.
Uncovering the painful history of white supremacy culture in our tradition has been a painful process. UUs like to believe that we are a justice-seeking, justice-making people. Or at the very least, we believe that we don’t actively cause any harm. However, we tend to think of, and speak of, race as if it exists somewhere else. And that causes harm.
We tend to talk about how social identities don’t matter in our churches because we’re all just people. And then we look around our congregations with a deep sigh, wondering why more people of color don’t join us. And then we tell ourselves that “they” (people of color) just don’t know about us, or it’s because of a lack of public transportation, or because they prefer a more animated worship style. I’ve heard these words in several UU churches, including ours. It’s time we move away from these assumptions about other people’s behavior and take a critical eye to our own.
As race talk has both shifted and become more prevalent in Unitarian Universalism, there has been pushback. Sometimes strident pushback. Talking about race is uncomfortable and talking about race in our churches is new. At least, talking about our own complicity and complacency in racism is new. One of the tactics that white people use to avoid the discomfort of examining our bias is denial. This is the “but I don’t see color” or the “we’re not racist, we’re just doing church according to our traditions” or “I don’t use racist language” lines that we tell ourselves and each other.
As UU lay people and religious professionals of color have continued to hold white UUs accountable, it has become more difficult to slip out of it using these lines. And when those mechanisms are no longer effective, some white UUs have reacted with anger. And many of those white UUs have a platform. And they use the 5th Principle as their justification for not accepting the newer ways of talking about race.
They claim “I have the right to conscience so I can’t be told what to do.” It is in the name of the right to conscience that they refuse to use the language our siblings of color have asked us to use, especially the phrase “white supremacy culture.” I understand that phrase can be startling when we first hear it, but if our siblings of color are asking us to use that term, can’t we just get curious about why instead of defensive and resort to “UUs can do what we want?” You don’t have the right to do whatever you want. You have the right to believe whatever feels real and true to you. You have the right freedom of thought, not behavior. Your right to do whatever you want only goes so far as it allows others to thrive in the same space. And sure, technically you can do whatever you want, but actions have consequences.
To hold up the 5th Principle as protection from accountability is a distortion of the principle. As Parisa Parsa wrote, it is the right to conscience, not the right to ego, that is ensconced in that principle. Again, there is a reason the right to conscience is coupled with the democratic process. If the majority of us want to go in a certain direction, that’s the direction we go. Hopefully we go there together.
Antiracism work is the future of Unitarian Universalism; it is the future of Birmingham Unitarian Church. And as they say, the future is now. Antiracist, anti-oppressive, multicultural work is how we stay relevant in a rapidly changing culture. This is a pivotal moment in the history of our nation and our religious tradition. And we get to decide to move with times or defend our choice not to. The work of dismantling racism is not easy. It’s messy and we’re all going to make mistakes and feel uncomfortable sometimes. But we have to do it. Not because someone is making us, but because we care about each other. Love is calling us to new ways of thinking and talking about race in church.
The outcomes of our actions are being lifted up for us to see. If we can’t or won’t accept responsibility for the images that are being lifted up, it has nothing to do with our right to conscience. It’s about our right to comfort. The right to conscience requires us to be challenged, which in turn requires us to grow and to change. We’re being asked to grow and if we choose not to, let’s not call it the right to conscience. Let’s call it what it is - the right to ignorance and arrogance.
Our 5th Principle strikes the balance between our Unitarian heritage of self-improvement and our Universalist heritage of social concern. Undertaking explicitly antiracist work in our congregation is how we join the two. We can be better and we can love more. Our 7 Principles describe a world without oppression. That’s what we aspire to do and to be. That's the dream to which we have devoted ourselves. Creating that world is an act of devout Unitarian Universalism.