Discovering who I am through Unitarian Universalism

On September 13, 2015 I gave a Sunday service for the UUs in Covenant. They are a congregation that was created out of a crisis point in the life of my church. This is part of a process of reconciliation that I’m sure will continue into the future. I began with an opening reading from Dennis McCarty’s “Thoughts from a Gentle Atheist,” then we did a responsive reading of quotes from Harvey Milk, then I did a reading of the Al Chayt, from Geneen Roth’s book “Appetites: On the Search for True Nourishment.” The sermon is below.

Sometimes in life there are moments that change everything. Ever had one of those moments? This morning I’m going to tell you about two of them in my life. Both of them happened the first time I attended the Southeast Unitarian Universalist Summer Institute, or SUUSI for short. SUUSI is a UU summer camp for the whole family. There is music, a great nature program, and a myriad of ways for people to connect with each other. Traditionally this summer camp for UUs is held in the third week of July, usually in Virginia. Starting next year it will be held in Cullowhee, NC which is very exciting and I encourage you to consider attending. In any case, I had the opportunity to attend SUUSI twice, the second time was about five years ago. Both times I worked with the children’s program half time, the first year I was with the three year olds, the second year I was with the nine year olds.

As you can imagine, to run a camp of about 1000 people, and a large number of them are youth, requires an incredible amount of organization and structure. I was blown away with the amount of detail that goes into making this camp happen. Two activities that are part of the youth program are art and music. What kind of program for kids could exist without art and music?

When I attended SUUSI the first time I had only been a Unitarian Universalist for a few years so I was still getting a handle on what the principles meant. I believe that Unitarian Universalism is an experiential faith; I can talk to you about it all day but until you’re living it for yourself, you can’t really get it.

So there I was working with the three year olds and one day we went to the music class. I don’t know what I thought would happen, but in that music class with a group of three year olds my heart was broken open. Right there teaching the class was a woman named Kiya Heartwood. Kiya’s partner is Meg Barnhouse, a UU minister in Austin, TX. I got to see Kiya and Meg perform at my church, the Unitarian Universalist of Greensboro, a year or two earlier so I was familiar with who she was.

As excited as I was to see that she was leading the group of three year olds learn about basic rhythm with boom whackers, I have to admit I had a thought that I will never forget: “Do they know she’s a lesbian?” All throughout SUUSI, gay and lesbian people (I don’t know if there were any transgender people but I wouldn’t doubt it) were in all kinds of leadership positions but Kiya working with children totally blew me away. You see, I grew up in a very conservative family, many of whom still don’t accept me for all of who I am. I won’t bore you with my whole coming out story but I can say that parts of it were traumatic.

Despite the fact that marriage equality now exists in all 50 states, I expect discrimination and second class treatment. Having grown up in a family that made it very clear where they stand on glbtq issues, the internal homophobia still exists and the tape still runs through my head at the most unexpected times. In the world I grew up in, gay and lesbian people, number one, wouldn’t be at church at all and if they were they certainly wouldn’t be working with kids. At SUUSI, they were not only working with kids, everyone loved them. The kids absolutely loved Kiya.

I didn’t say anything then, and I’ve never told Kiya or the SUUSI staff, but I can say that that moment was pivotal in my understanding of Unitarian Universalism. Who Kiya is as a person is far more important than who she loves. In actuality, who she loves, Meg Barnhouse, is greatly respected in the UU world. If that doesn’t make me love Unitarian Universalism even more, nothing will.

Unitarian Universalism has a long and consistent history of accepting gay and lesbian people. In 1989 the Unitarian Universalist Association began a program called Welcoming Congregation. It is a program of study for congregations to undertake so they learn about glbtq issues and learn how to become allies. Once a congregation completes this program, they receive a sign that declares them to be a Welcoming Congregation and on the UUA website, the congregation is marked as a Welcoming Congregation on the directory. This helps potential visitors and members know that the congregation has “done its work” around glbtq issues and that they will most likely be “safe” from intolerant attitudes, or at a minimum they will be with people who know that if they have an issue with glbtq people, the issue is theirs not the gay or lesbian person’s.

But UUs don’t only accept gay and lesbian people, they/we accept everyone. Quite literally everyone. Sometimes we have to create boundaries because of specific behaviors that might hurt ourselves or others, but we always hold out for the belief in the inherent dignity and worth of all people. I got to see that in person when the group of three year olds went to art class. There in the art room was the art teacher, who I only know as “The Art Guy” and for the sake of this talk I’ll call Mr. Art. Mr. Art was covered, from head to toe, in tattoos. I don’t think I have ever seen anyone else in person who was so completely covered in tattoos. And again my internal judgements flipped out, “Whoa! He’s working with the kids?” But I’m telling you, the kids LOVED the art guy. Mr. Art had crafts planned that were perfect for the kids, he was patient and kind. I personally learned a lot from him about how to better interact with my class.

I don’t know the history of Mr. Art being a teacher at SUUSI, but I can say that it is theologically in line with how UUs live our lives. We would not only be happy to have people using their skills in the best way for them, but it also shows the children that people with tattoos aren’t treated differently than non-tattooed people, in fact they should be celebrated because they’re being who they’re meant to be. Again, the faith of my childhood would not have given Mr. Art the same kind of recognition.

My experience that year at SUUSI helped me to have a more complete understanding of Unitarian Universalism. These were people who were living their faith in everything they do. UUism calls us to treat everyone with respect and dignity. The people at SUUSI did just that in very subtle ways but also in overt ways, specifically in calling each other into covenant.

The UU world’s acceptance of gay people, tattooed people, and everyone else for that matter, is an incredible way to live into our principles. I would be remiss to not mention the first principle: inherent worth and dignity for all; the second principle (which doesn’t get much airtime but it’s contained in everything we do), justice, equity, and compassion in human relations; and I can’t leave out the sixth principle: the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.

I believe that living our faith means we take it everywhere with us. It is with us when we are at the grocery store, in our interactions on social media, and yes at church camp while working with three year olds. There is nowhere that my faith is not. My Unitarian Universalist faith calls me to live the principles in everything I do, not just when it’s convenient or easy.

Living our faith is powerful. It has the power to heal ourselves and others. To be quite truthful, even though we now have marriage equality in the United States, I still feel like a second class citizen. I know I can still be discriminated against in employment and housing. But, my faith and my faith community give me the strength to know that I have value and worth, it is not dependent on others to give it to me. I have value because I am.

I can’t overstate the importance of being loved for who you are. Our culture as a whole is very much focused on shame, criticizing, and judgment. Because UUism is based on love, and in fact has an entire campaign called “Standing on the Side of Love,” it has the potential to have great impact both for individuals and for the world.

This Saturday, September 19 Greensboro Pride will be held downtown. Pride is a way for glbtq people and their allies to come together, support each other, and celebrate who we are in a safe environment. There is usually entertainment, laughter, and opportunities to make new friends. It is also a great place for glbtq people to find out about local resources and positive, accepting faith communities. As someone who grew up in a church that repeatedly said, and I’m sure still says, that gay people are bad, I can’t overstate to you the importance of accepting faith communities. Many people, particularly transgender people, are still hurting. Gay and lesbian youth are still being thrown out of their homes by unaccepting families. According to the True Colors Fund, a fund that works to end homelessness among lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth, last year there were 1.6 million homeless youth. 40% of them were glbtq. Glbtq youth are only 7% of the youth population and yet 40% of the homeless youth are glbtq. Glbtq youth become homeless because their families kick them out, they age out of foster care, there is abuse in the home, and because of family poverty. The highest percentage is due to being forced out. That tells me that there is still a lot of work to do both for the youth and for parents. There will be people at Pride who have been kicked out of their families. I was kicked out of my family as an adult. There will be people who have lost their jobs, their housing, and denied healthcare. Many, many glbtq people have experienced trauma in their lives based on their sexual orientation. Faith communities can be part of healing that pain. Just being there can make people feel welcomed and reminded that there are people who care.

I represent the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greensboro. Our church, UUs in Covenant, and the Winston-Salem Fellowship will be staffing a booth together at Greensboro Pride. We are embarking on an exciting new phase in Unitarian Universalism. There is a mantra that the Southern Region is using that is a guiding force for the work that is happening now in the Region: We are better together. We are better together. Can you repeat that with me? We are better together.

A few months ago when UUCG was planning our booth for Pride, I decided to reach out to UUs in Covenant because I think it’s time to heal old wounds. We are all Unitarian Universalists, with the same principles, the same desires both for spiritual growth for ourselves as well as to make the world a better place for others. I have no agenda or plan for how that will happen but I wanted to make an effort to reach out. I don’t have an attachment to people at Pride hearing about one church over another; we are not in a competition. I believe Greensboro can more than sustain two UU churches, we both bring different gifts to the table.

After I reached out to UUs in Covenant, I was asked me to come speak today. At first I didn’t know what to think. As former board trustee, then Vice President, and now President of the Board, I believe in loyalty to UUCG. I am an institutionalist. However, I also believe that Unitarian Universalism isn’t lived only one way and that there is more to UUism than my particular experience or church. Writing this talk has also helped me personally heal old wounds. Thank you for this opportunity.

I find it entirely appropriate that tonight marks the beginning of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of the new year on the Hebrew calendar, and is celebrated among the Jewish faith as the start of the High Holy Days. The words “Rosh Hashanah” translate into “head of the year.” Rosh Hashanah is a time for new beginnings. It is followed ten days later by Yom Kippur, a day of atonement.

In the reading earlier I shared the Al Chayt, a prayer typically read on Yom Kippur. I find it to be very powerful. It is a great reminder of both what we have done – and haven’t done – in the past year and it helps us to move forward in the new year.

Towards that end, I would like to make an atonement myself to you. I would like to atone for not reaching out to you earlier, for holding a grudge and staying in a place of anger. I apologize for not always understanding and for not making the space available in my life to listen. Moving forward, I open up my heart to you and I make a promise that UUCG and UUs in Covenant will work together, will support each other, and will live into our principles in the Greater Greensboro area.

As I learned from the three year olds in the class at SUUSI, humans need space for creativity, for laughter, for silliness and even forgiveness. When we listen to each other, whether it is people who are marginalized or people who have been in disagreement, we learn that we truly are better together.


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