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“Making Space”

Pluralism. Plural. Many. More than one. And by extension, more than one way of being, of living, of doing. More than one way of expressing beliefs and values which themselves are many and diverse. This is the human condition. To accept pluralism is to accept this simple truth of our humanity and to make space for it; to make space for the coexistence of beings in this plurality.

The proposed UUA Article II Bylaw revisions say about pluralism that,

“We celebrate that we are all sacred beings, diverse in culture, experience, and theology. We covenant to learn from one another in our free and responsible search for truth and meaning. We embrace our differences and commonalities with Love, curiosity, and respect.”

It says that we all have something to bring to the table, some gold nugget that once unearthed will aid us in our search for truth, for meaning. It implies that all these nuggets are of differing shapes and sizes and hues – your nugget and mine are not the same except that they are both worthy of embrace. The more different I may find your nugget from mine, the more curious about it I should be. “How did it come to be that way?” “What experiences have shaped it thusly?” And if I am uncertain about it – don’t understand it or maybe can’t quite wrap my head around it, still I can respect it as the unique nugget that it is.

This is closely tied to the proposed language around equity which says that,

“We declare that every person has the right to flourish with inherent dignity and worthiness.”

A right to flourish – a step above or beyond – with vigor and favor. So, no matter what else I think about what you think or say or even do your humanity remains intact. Your being has inherent worth even if some of the ways you may choose to be do not align with how I choose to express myself. If I can get to this point, and I will grant you that it is not always so easy, but if I can get there, I am more likely to mine for the gold nuggets that you bring to bear on our world. And maybe that should be a prompt – the harder it is, the more willing to do that mining I could be. If I can believe in our equity as persons, the battle is half won.

We have come to a place in our society where such ‘making of space’ has become increasingly difficult. David Brooks, in an August article in The Atlantic entitled, “How America Got Mean” suggests that we are currently coming of age in a world that is morally inarticulate and self-referential. We are focusing on our own shiny gold nuggets with no regard for any others. We have forgotten, or as he says, have not been taught in recent generations, how to act around difference. People yearn to feel worthy of respect, that their lives have some moral purpose and meaning. They look to fill that void with whatever makes them feel good about themselves. An American Enterprise Institute study revealed that lonely people are seven times more likely to say they are active in politics, which has become for them a seductive form of social therapy. As such, the line between good and evil runs between groups of people rather than within the individual human heart. The tribalism of politics seems to be giving people a sense of belonging. We identify with ‘our group’ when we feel isolated or under threat, fleeing to ‘totalizing identities.’ Our moral stature is no longer based on our conduct, but instead on our location. Morality is equated with ‘like me’ and those who are unlike me, who identify differently, be that gender or political party or style of politics or what part of the country we are from – are cast as evil. Our participation in civic life consists of being properly enraged at the other side, your righteousness tells you that you are engaged in caring about our world. These are just some of the nuggets I mined from Brooks’s ponderings!

All of this to say that we have arrived at a place of us versus them in a country that is supposedly grounded in the idea of pluralism. E pluribus unum after all, – out of many, one. Our oneness arises from our many ways of being. But this contentiousness has a way of seeping into our religious spaces, too. We proudly proclaim our Unitarian Universalist values and traditions, a fair amount of morality taught here and, in our churches, where young people are coming up in the world. But do also we run the risk of this identifying to the exclusion of all else? Do we huddle together in our progressive enclaves, letting our rage at what doesn’t fit in with our commonly held beliefs carry the day? It is a slippery slope.

If we are going to espouse pluralism as a faith tradition, we need to be able to make space for the many, for the voices of the many, the alternative ways of responding to life - of the many. What does it mean to truly celebrate this? It asks us to make space for what is hard to hear, for what is “surely not how I would go about that!” If pluralism is to be a byword of Unitarian Universalism, we need to be prepared for all comers who may enter our doors. Because we have in a sense said that they are welcome here by virtue of our pluralist stance and we can expect difference to cross our threshold. We make space for starters because we are all human beings and because they have this nugget of truth within them that we can learn from. To be inclusive is to be willing to be changed – to let our nuggets be shaped over and over again as they rub up against the others.

Last week my eblast from the UU Minister’s Association shared that their Board of Trustees had signed on to a statement organized by the group MPower Change in solidarity with student protests for Gaza. It supports the right to peaceful protest and the calls for ceasefire. They denounced the use of this issue as a means to spread hateful rhetoric and advance hateful views. I was glad they did this, joining nearly 200 other organizations at the time of her writing. The author, the Rev. Melissa Carvill-Ziemer, Director of Ministries and Programs at the UUMA, had been called in the early 2000’s to serve our church in Kent, Ohio. Just yesterday we remembered the anniversary of the Kent State violence against students in 1970, protesting in a similar fashion to what we see today. As a local minister there she participated annually in commemorations on the campus, that community affected still so many years hence.

I share this because the issue illustrates the complexity of views surrounding what is happening in Israel and Palestine. People are easily activated when they feel “their side” is threatened. When we cling in this way, identifying as a side and not a person, we make no space for the sharing of truths as they well up from the human hearts we encounter. One can be pro-Palestinian without being anti-Semitic. There is a both/and available to us that we overlook when do as Brooks highlighted. I listened once again this week to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story and I commend it to you if you haven’t ever heard it. She gets to the same point. The single way of understanding something – a person, an event, a culture – leaves out the other ninety five percent of the truth. How shallow an understanding of life that would be. As Unitarian Universalists we are called to deepen such understandings and to make space for that to happen, to celebrate that happening.

I share my colleague’s story also as a way to say to us that there are acceptable means for churches with their inherent nonprofit status, our “501c3 – ness” to express views that can be seen as political in nature. Our UUA has a lengthy document that outlines what is and what isn’t acceptable – and by acceptable, I mean legal – per the IRS when it comes to such expression. I reviewed it again and while there are some intricacies to it, what I have followed all these years is a good baseline for us.

We – UUMH - should not throw our backing behind a political candidate or a political party. It is fine to back an issue that we find aligned with our values or to support the democratic process as we have affirmed in our Principles for many years. By we, I mean the whole of us, and we would need to do some work to determine what the whole of us believes in any given circumstance, an exercise that would likely be good for us if we were up for it. The finer line comes for me in particular, as the minister, whether I am standing up here or on a street corner with a sign in my hand because I am associated with this place and could easily be confused as representing this place when I make a statement. It is important to be cautious about that, to state clearly that my views are my own and not necessarily ours. This goes for any of you also who could be confused with the organization in a similar way. If we follow these basic guidelines, we will be okay! Even finer lines are drawn regarding the invitation of people involved in political elections to speak here and I will leave it to you to study up before you do anything like that. But there is value in inviting opposing candidates – bowing to pluralism. This is an election year in a polarized time, and we need to be mindful of how we proceed.

But back to this idea of celebrating pluralism within these walls. If we are going to say we do this, we should be prepared to do so. And if we believe in this inherent worth, this sacredness of each of our gold nuggets, which I believe is the case if we really search our hearts, then why wouldn’t we want to be that open place that intentionally makes space where different views can coexist. The more I reflect on this, the more I come to believe that pluralism and equity call for grace on our parts, each of us. No one can earn the favor we offer. It’s not something based on any behavior or belief. It is a baseline for human relationships, a starting point.

In our reading this morning, Black Elk’s vision saw all these interconnected circles of being, all of humanity, all peoples as being gathered up into wider and wider circles, a oneness of all existence. He saw that as holy it says – set apart – untainted – deserving of deep respect, awe, reverence. An understanding of humanity grounded as such is an ideal and may feel hard to get to, exacerbated by the times we live in. But isn’t that the point of all this – coming together as a body who seek to do the hard thing – to live and be and do in ways that create a more just and compassionate existence for all the world? If we are nothing else as Unitarian Universalists, we are justice seeking people and we have declared it a part of our mission to be so.

When I visited Thelma yesterday, I told her what I would be talking about this morning since she wouldn’t be with us on Zoom. And we agreed that it’s a lot for a fifteen-minute talk! She wished me luck! So, knowing that I have only scratched the surface, my invitation to you today is take this as a jumping off point for an important conversation about who we believe ourselves to be as Unitarian Universalists, but mostly as persons encountering other persons on the journey. May we make space in our hearts and lives and here where we gather for the many ways humanity expresses itself.

So may it be and Amen.

Rev. Tracy Johnson

UUMH Chatham, May 5, 2024



​Unitarian Universalist

Meeting House of Chatham
Sunday Services  10:30 AM

819 Main Street
All MAIL To: PO Box 18​​
Chatham, MA 02633
(508) 945-2075

Serving our Cape Cod Community in Chatham since 1986

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