During the week after Christmas, I watched Cloverfield and War of the Worlds. Two totally different movies, but they had a similar trope that I’ve seen in a lot of disaster or horror films. There’s a place the protagonist has to get to. In War of the Worlds, it was Boston where mommy and grandma and grandpa are. In Cloverfield it was 57th street. There are lots of movies with this general concept. 2012 was all about getting to the boat as the planet is dying and Bruce Willis once did a movie called 16 blocks about trying to get to the court house. It’s a common plot point, and one that likely rings familiar even as the rest of the story- about aliens or assassins or whatever – is entirely outside of our experience.
The thing about all those movies is that people know where they’re going and why. They know what’ll happen. I have to get to my girlfriend, my mother, the police, to safety of some kind; I have to get to a place where things are calm, where we can be safe, where there is no chaos. That clarity is convenient and necessary for a 2 hour story.
Americans in general, New Yorkers more specifically and American liberal churches unambiguously are in that part of the movie when we’ve been pushed out of the place that was familiar, driven from the comfort of our lives by outside forces and we’re starting on the journey to safety, we hope. But, no one has written this script for us. No one can tell us where we need to go or what we’ll find when we get there.
It’s on us to write the script.
As a nation, and as a city, and as a religious institution, we’ve been here before. In 1702, the smallpox vaccine was invented and the theology undergirding the Puritan churches collapsed and the churches emptied and people thought that was the end of American religion. Then the Great Awakening hit. In 1920, Rev. John Haynes Holmes had about 1600 congregants here at Community Church when he lamented that people just don’t go to church any more. And today, we’re again watching buildings empty, wondering if there’s even a reason for us to exist.
My answer is YEAH. There’s work to be done. There’s a beloved community still to be realized, there’s inequity and injustice and division abounds. People are hungry, cold, tired, afraid. Democracy is collapsing even faster than the climate which is saying something. Our vision for the world is desperately, dreadfully, frantically needed. Yes, we need to survive. We are necessary. American Liberal Religion has been the backbone for progress for hundreds of years. Giving up now, at this critical moment in human history, isn’t an option.
The question for us is “What will Community Church be in this new world?” How can we be relevant, be vibrant, live boldly into our vision of Beloved Community? Can we be nimble and mobile as is required? Can we be committed enough to our vision of inclusion that we inspire others to join us? Can we embody possibility and covenanted community, demonstrating what could be next with our own being?
Yes. Yes, of course we can. We have before. I see us embracing and defining ourselves more intentionally around our path of art and spirituality, creating beauty as a core of our shared path. And I see us embracing and defining ourselves more intentionally around our path of spirituality and justice, building systems of hope and liberation. I see us living into Rev. Jude’s model of openness, mindfulness and reverence, deepening our shared lives, becoming beloved community through spiritual practice. And I see us embracing the 8th Principle, becoming a people committed to racial justice and equity, dismantling oppressions in ourselves and in our institutions.
For a century, Community Church was a beacon for liberal faith. Part of my vision for us is to take an outsize role in the work for human rights in Ethiopia as we once did in South Africa. We’re starting to talk about Jordan and will travel there this spring to see if there is fertile ground for our theology of welcome. I’d like us to bring our UU theologians together to collaborate on a new theological framework and I’m hoping we will start an annual lecture series on Black UU history and Vision so we can expand our understanding of our religious ancestors and rethink or rewrite the UU narrative.
When Paula Cole Jones was with us to discuss the 8th Principle, she talked about a community of communities. I see this as a framework for people to connect the way they want to. We are an umbrella church. There are painters and sculptors and singers and musicians and dancers and writers in our midst. There are anti-racism activists and climate change activists and prison abolitionists and reproductive rights activists and LGBTQ activists in our midst. There are parents who want a village in which to raise their children and elderly people who want to be that village. There are people who are grieving and those who are celebrating and those looking to make sense of a very complicated and quickly changing world and we all- every one of us – need each other.
We’ve been pushed out of the comfort of the lives we had 2 years ago. Pandemic. Insurrection. Fires. Floods. Threats abound. We’ve started on the road, entered the portal, hoping we can get to a place of rest, something new and safe. I have no doubt we will arrive if only we agree to hold hands, and stick together. The world we’re creating will be new and if we work together, embodying both courage and kindness, the new world will be gorgeous.