A grim day twenty years ago

Twenty years ago today, Timothy McVeigh blew up a truck bomb in front of the Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people.

I was in the middle of my ministerial internship not so far away in Tulsa, and I was getting ready to go to church when the news came over the television. What I remember more than anything else that day was

  1. How quickly one of the national news anchors suspected Arab terrorists. That made no sense to me. In Oklahoma? I guessed it was a revenge act by someone who felt hurt by the government, like a bankrupted farmer, which was closer to the truth.
  2. I shaved my beard immediately. Tulsa had a decent Muslim population, in part from its petrochemical industry and training, and the mosque wasn’t far from where I lived. I feared for them — if that’s how the news went — and feared for me, since (for reasons I’ve never understood) I read Arab. And, indeed, had to escape a mob of drunk sailors, a couple of years prior. (Perhaps after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.)  But I don’t recall any violence in Tulsa that night.
  3. I do recall the sadness. Particularly at a gay bar I went to that night. Many of the patrons were EMTs and ER nurses. But the devastation was so complete that they weren’t needed in Oklahoma City.

Selected parts from “Universalist Momement in America” available gratis

Ann Lee Bressler’s The Universalist Movement in America is an important resource in understanding Universalist history — and it’s incredibly expensive. A hard copy is now $90. (I got a reader’s copy ages ago.)

The good news is that you can read a “Free sample” — the introduction and chapter one; which are incredibly important — in Google Play, to help you decide if you want to buy the epub ($68!) or rent it ($34!) … or read it at a theological library.

The old Messiah Universalist Home

Then and now. The old Messiah Universalist Home, a Philadelphia retirement home, dedicated in 1902, today houses a Chinese grocery.


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But no wistful tears. If memory of the successor institutions serves, it survives today — and probably more practically — as UUH Outreach.

Unitarian worship resource for Union soldiers

This small 1865 American Unitarian Association assortment of rousing songs and Bible readings (arranged for unison or responsive reading, and with headings like “Those who turn from Holiness are condemned”) isn’t explicitly for Union soldiers, but songs like “Arise, New-England’s Sons!” and “The Massachusetts Line” weren’t likely to appeal to Johnny Reb.

The Soldier’s Companion: Dedicated to the Defenders of Their Country in the Field by Their Friends at Home.

Why the Fellowship Movement will never come back

Following on yesterday’s post, we can talk about the Fellowship Movement with either praise or scorn, but either way, it will not come back. We have to understand what it was, good and bad, before deciding what we want. (Or what some of us want: I’m not suggesting Unitarian Universalists need to act as a united front with one missions policy.)

So, we can have something today that draws upon the lessons of the Fellowship Movement, but it’ll come with its own rewards and challenges. We do not live in the demographic world of the 1940s to 1960s. Anything we learn from those days needs to be translated for today.

Let’s count out the obvious differences. Can you think of others?

  1. We do not have a culture that defaults to church membership.
  2. Indeed suspicion of religion is at all time high, and despite our rhetoric of how different we are, we are still a religious institution to anyone criticizes religion.
  3. We don’t have a mass exodus to newly developed suburbs.
  4. There are a few areas where there is no liberal religious congregation. (But many are underserved.)
  5. We do not have a shortage of ministers.
  6. Women, who more likely worked at home in the Fellowship Movement era, and so may have been available for the volunteer roles necessary to run fellowships, are now more likely to work out of the home.
  7. Opportunities for social service in secular settings are more robust now they were in the Fellowship Movement era.
  8. The Internet makes it easier to connect with communities of religious liberals without actually having to be physically present.

It’s not polity LARPing or worship re-enacting

Here’s the word: Christians and the nameless group who appeal to accustomed polity standards (like plain congregationalism) not play-acting. We have something to say and something to offer.

I’ve been in this game for a long time now. And so it’s not hard to tell when I’m being sidelined or even gently insulted, although I didn’t understand this at first.

  • Oh, you’re a nineteenth-century Universalist.
  • I didn’t know there are any Christians left.
  • That’s fine for traditionalists like you but what you suggest isn’t practical.

There’s the insinuation that anyone who’s a Christian is being obstinate, or that our presence is indulged as some sort of polite inheritance. The same goes for anyone who insists that the processes within our religious institution should be held to a higher standard of democratic and spiritual accountability, using historic models of how Unitarian and Universalists organize. What better way to sideline people than to tell them they don’t belong, or that they belong to another era.

There’s the cruel insinuation that our religious lives are some kind of live-action role playing (LARP) game and that the way we worship is more about re-enacting then having moments of profound spiritual joy or insight.

They're probably not talking about the Universalist General Convention.  CC-BY-SA, Wikipedia/user, JensNiros
They’re probably not talking about the Universalist General Convention. CC-BY-SA, Wikipedia/user, JensNiros

To me, the issues are fundamental. Does Unitarian Universalism include a assortment of customs and churchmanships (we need a new word for that) that can cooperate without trying to undo each other? Meaning that there needs to be room for each to grow. Unitarian Universalism is increasingly a brand name: a kind of politically-involved, community-focused, liberal eclecticism, within in the bounds of respectability.

Or are we just subject to the American fascination for the new? Unitarian Universalists have the uniquely unsavory prospect of outliving what they have come to know is good and true.

I bring this up now because I have been posting so much historical material lately. I don’t necessarily feel old works should be used as-is, but the tendency to write off any resource or development (except trust funds) that’s more than a few years old means that we don’t dwell with our ancestors long enough to learn from them. Would it hurt to try? We don’t get inside their heads to see what they valued and what they rejected; we don’t understad their process. And because we don’t understand well what made them tick, it’s hard to see the arc of Universalist or Unitarian culture, past individual personal preference. How we do what we do is not an accident, but in many cases an inheritance. (I’ll post a couple of examples of “living fossils” within Unitarian Universalism when I come across them again.)

And once we understand how our traditions evolved, it become easier to draw on old cultural resources, adapting them to our own time. This is a serious practical matter. We have a thinner corpus of go-to worship, education and (perhaps) administration resources than we did 25 years ago. Through the Internet, the cost of storage and “duplication” has dropped to nearly nil, so we should be awash in resources, but we aren’t. It makes sense to reuse and recycle; I suspect money’s going to get tighter in the next 25 years. Room for everyone, and resources for all.




Taras Shevchenko bicentennial

Thanks to Stefan Jonasson I learned that today is the 200th birthday of Ukrainian national hero and poet Taras Shevchenko. Since I live very close to the Shevchenko memorial here in Washington D.C. I took our dog Daisy for her morning walk to visit the memorial.

Shevchenko statue, Washinhton, D.C.Schevchenko poetry inscription

After all, the Ukraine is much on our minds now.

We followed up with a visit to the Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk memorial around the corner, whose birthday was March 8. Masaryk was the first president of Czechoslovakia; he was also a religious reformer, ending up as much a Unitarian as Jefferson, no doubt in part to the influence of his American Unitarian wife, Charlotte Garrigue.

2014-03-09 09.57.45

(I’ll be writing more about what makes successful floral tributes closer to Memorial Day.)

Daisy, unimpressed

This is Daisy: it’s not her birthday today, but she is going to go to the groomer.

Later. The goomer did quite a job, but where’s the rest of my dog?

If you don’t have millions to buy a Bay Psalm Book

This week one of the eleven surviving copies of the 1640 Bay Psalm Book, the first book printed in English North America, sold at auction.

The owner was Old South Church, Boston, and the sale reminded me of all the old Unitarian communion plate that was sold to keep the staff paid, the furnace stoked or the roof on.

Though I respect our history, I respect the institutions more. And there’s something sad when a communion cup or psalter becomes so valuable as an artifact that it loses its intended use; it’s like the Velveteen Rabbit in reverse. As treasure, the silver and the printed pages become less real. They were real because they were instruments of praise and thanksgiving. Better then, I think that they can be sold, conserved and placed on display, as indeed the new Psalm Book’s owner, David Rubenstein, intends to do. (He owns two of the eleven.)

Better still to keep the Great Thanksgiving at table, and our praises in song. And if you want to pray from the Bay Psalm Book… well, then thank God: you can read it online, in this 1903 facsimile reprint.

Calling North Carolina Unitarian Universalists…

A seminary classmate, the Rev. Martha Brown, contacted me to reach out to North Carolina Unitarian Universalists about a television project she’s working on. If you have “first-person accounts from North Carolinians who participated in the legendary March on Washington” please keep reading and contact her to participate in the video production.

I removed the contact info. Leave a comment and I’ll send it to you — to help keep the spam at bay. Perhaps.

And please pass the word.

Calling All Who Marched

(May 31, 2013) On a hot Wednesday afternoon in August 1963, thousands of Americans from all parts of the nation converged on the Washington Mall, determined in mind and spirit, demonstrating collectively for jobs, freedom, and equality. This day would go down in history as the pivotal March on Washington and culminate in the delivery of the now famous “I Have A Dream” by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This summer will mark the 50th anniversary of that momentous event…were you there?

UNC-TV is seeking first-person accounts from North Carolinians who participated in the legendary March on Washington, which took place on Wednesday August 28, 1963. We want to know how you got there, what you experienced, was it life-changing or did it help you to make a difference in your community? From the child who was carried in her mother’s arms to the day’s young civil rights leaders and working class adults, every person present contributed to the overall spirit and energy of the movement, and it is important to acknowledge each one. Among those, however, are some very special stories.

Thanks to a PBS grant, UNC-TV has an opportunity to capture three of these special stories on video to share as local/national content online through the PBS Black Culture Connection hub and on-air.

If you participated in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, please sign the North Carolina March on Washington Roll Book by submitting your first, middle and last name (including maiden name), city of residence at the time of the March, current age, race or ethnic affiliation, whether you attended as a child, college student, or adult, and your current age (optional).

To be considered for the video feature, please submit all the information outlined above as well as a working telephone number and email address to contact you and, if possible two to three sentences about your journey to the March, your experience there, and any lasting impact.

Ensure that the March on Washington—the people, the purpose, the lasting impact—will be remembered into time…share your story!

Deborah Holt Noel
Producer, UNC-TV
[contact info]

Martha Brown
Production Associate
[contact info]

A fiddle-and-lecture order of service

In one step, from the medieval to Modernism.

bitb_jenk-jones1907The Western Conference Unitarians — think of the middle third of the United States a hundred and more years ago — were known for a kind of bibical rationalism and a minimalist style of worship sometimes known as “fiddle and lecture”. And I’ve been looking for some simplified options.

Without directions, it’s hard to know what exactly this kind of worship looked like. Yesterday I found a piece of ephemera: an order of service from Jenkin Lloyd Jones’s All Souls Church in Chicago, from January 27, 1907. That should be a representative sample from one of that movement’s leading lights, maturely developed.

I. Organ Prelude.
II. Voluntary (with “From all that dwell below the skies…”)
III. Poem.
IV. Choral response.
V. “Prayer, ‘Our Father,’ chanted.”
VI. Scripture.VII. Hymn.
VIII. Sermon.
IX. Solo.
X. Offertory.
XI. Hymn.
XII. Benediction.
XIII. Organ Postlude.
XIV. Social Greeting.

I can confirm that the hymns map back to Unity Hymns and Chorales, so the “Choral reponse” was surely one from that book, too.

All Souls Church, Chicago, order of service
All Souls Church, Chicago, order of service

What strikes me is how little congregational repsonse there is. Little, perhaps nothing spoken in the pews — only hymns and chanting. Perhaps a small step from the Middle Ages, when the silent congregants would look devotionally upon the sacrament: here, the preaching.

Theological qualms aside, such a service can be sensible, even wholesome and devout in a large congregation — not unknown to “the Unity men.” In small congregations, the effect would surely be stilted, and with an unsteady preacher, deathly.

I’ll keep looking.