In this strange moment…

our UUCL community is reminded of how much more community means than just the building in which it comes together for worship. And yet. We do call our place of worship a sanctuary, and we crave sanctuary now. We need it for ourselves, we need it to hold together and repair the straining webs of all our different communities. Although our UUCL sanctuary raises up individual heroes, they all appear in groups, as leaders of communities that reach across time and space. Some of our heroes were heroes of religious faith in something approaching the way that phrase is used conventionally. Others are heroes who had no faith at all in the conventional religion of their day, and would not be revered in any church but our own sometimes rather peculiar one. As we think about the people memorialized in our windows, and why they are standing there grouped as they are, we are reminded that they and we have all been through a lot, sometimes certainly feeling alone but joined in hope and in faith that our communities will someday be repaired and healed. In the future, there will continue to be those who continue to work, as they worked, for the good of all. Some are working, even heroically, for it now.

The central windows of the sanctuary memorialize our country’s founders, and, opposite, national leaders in time of wrenching change. William Penn occupies the center panel of the east central window, and opposite him, Abraham Lincoln. The west central window, with its three panels, is generally referred to as “The Presidents’ Window”, as Lincoln is flanked by Thomas Jefferson (south panel) and Woodrow Wilson (north).

The choice of Lincoln seems obvious, since other panels, notably the one dedicated to Theodore Parker, focus on the issues of freedom and justice eventually joined in Lincoln’s presidency. Jefferson’s presence is usually said, in our church literature, to be motivated by his role in establishing freedom of religion in his home state of Virginia, and little if anything is made of the window thus juxtaposing Lincoln with a slaveholder. In general, it was part of the way the church ornamentation was planned, that people of different times and places should be represented together, to show how their different achievements contribute to progress shared along one or another specific trajectory, for example, science (in the northwest window) or philosophy (in the southwest). Yet we cannot help wondering how freedom of religion in Virginia is to be celebrated if the religion people were free to believe in supported their simultaneous belief in the superiority of white men and their inherent right to own people who were not white. No one, after all, would suggest we memorialize freedom of religion for people who consider it their sacred duty to tear out the heart of their eldest son and cast it into a burning pyre.

We sometimes think that the “Jefferson problem” has only been noticed in recent years, but then we think “noticed by whom, exactly?”.  

Sarah Hemings’s descendants will have noticed long ago, and public notice is nearly as old as the republic. A hint of this may perhaps explain a peculiarity of the Jefferson window. Like other windows in our church, the diamond panes are occasionally interrupted by small round ones, mostly plain frosted glass. Only a few have any interior lead seams, and among them, there is  one in the  Jefferson window that has so many seams it seems hardly to hold together. These are not repairs, but belong to the original design.We do not know why W.H. Ritter, the architect, designed the window that way, but one may wonder if it was not a sign of the “Jefferson problem”, especially since we know that in the neighboring Lincoln window, the crack in the Stars and Stripes can only refer to the crack in the Union, while the essay named in Emerson’s window, “Compensation”, is the source of his famous statement: there is a crack in everything God has made. Isn’t there just.

Yet the most problematic of the three panes in the Presidents’ Window is the third, the northernmost, dedicated to Woodrow Wilson. It deserves a separate small place in our thoughts, so we will return to it, God willing, tomorrow.

… remembering where we came from …

In our service memorializing the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment and the long history of the generations who worked to make it a reality, we noticed that Unitarians and Universalists were sometimes working with allies in other movements and sometimes working at cross purposes. We also noticed how easy it is to narrow our focus, seeing most clearly the achievements that we identify ourselves with. But why? Maybe we should look at it from the other end of the telescope: is our UU identity so limited? Are we really heirs only to those New England Congregationalists we keep on (and on and on) talking about? Our own congregation has connections not only to Boston but also to Northumberland and Philadelphia, for example, and, good Pennsylvanians as we are, let us not forget that our congregation and the building in which we meet was shaped, literally, by a man, Mr Garvin, born into the group of Quakers known as Hicksites, often accused, and often rightly, of being unitarian in their beliefs. It was one of the things that got them in trouble, and their suspect theology and arguments about it led to divisions and weaknesses in American Quakerism. As we heard in Reverend Barbara’s sermon on Sunday, Susan B. Anthony was also from a Hicksite Quaker background, from the time when the Great Separation, as it came to be known, was just bubbling up and cracking her denomination wide open. And the Philadelphia Unitarian congregation was enriched by new Hicksite membership when the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting disowned the Hicksites there.

For Mr Garvin, Unitarian activism was in no way at odds with his Quaker advocacy for peace. He was born, after all, in a border area in the months before the Civil War started, and his family lived on both sides of the Mason Dixon Line. He talked about growing up without a father, but he also grew up mostly without his mother as well, and in a war zone, and he seems not to have left much of a record of how he remembered that. He did, however, revisit the people and places in Maryland where he had spent his childhood, and he restored what he could of the places, in memory of the people there. In 1933 a visitor studying the Quaker meeting houses of the area contacted Mr Garvin about his family’s former meeting house, and Mr. Garvin responded:

‘I am sorry I have not a copy of the history written by Belle McSparran on the occasion of the dedication of a smaller meeting house, which my uncle and I erected there in 1911. The old, log meeting house, which was built in 1826, had been unused for some years, and was beginning to fall apart, in fact, had about fallen down, and the graveyard was in a wretched condition. My grandparents, Thomas and Tobitha Garvin, are buried there, and so we had the place cleaned up and a fence put around. Then we decided it would be possible to put up a chapel there for the use of the neighborhood, of any denomination, or no denomination. This present chapel was dedicated June 9, 1912, and since that time, it has been much used for many purposes. A First Day School was conducted for several years and was largely attended, but that has passed away. There has been less demand for the chapel during the last four or five years than had existed previously.’

The letter is quoted from a manuscript notebook compiled by T.C. Matlack, which is also the source of the photograph of the Octoraro Meeting House. These materials are used with the kind permission of the Quaker and Special Collections of Haverford College Library.

So things pass away when the demand is less. Quakers often did not even mark the graves of their deceased, and the old meeting house, the Octoraro Meeting House as it was called, was never more than a small building used by a few families too far from the larger community to get to meetings there. The Meeting House fell into disuse, Mr Garvin rebuilt it, it fell into disuse again, and hardly anyone nearby remembered anything about it even within Mr Garvin’s lifetime.

And so our congregation derived much of its early strength from someone who had a superfluity of it to give, from a source we have little attended. When we identify ourselves as a UU congregation, we can be proud of the richness of all our sources, because our UU movement has been the place where so many and so diverse a range of people have chosen to build their shared home. And we can honor the memory of all our ancestors, as they have worked to honor the memory of those who went before them.

Octoraro Meeting House

Don’t hit the books! They’re the good guys! Or: Some thoughts on diversity in books and in sermons

Well, it’s been awhile, eh? UU churches are known to estivate, and your Borrower Bee has been estivating to beat the band. She’s been dropping by the library occasionally, putting up a few signs, sorting donations, and being glad to spend time in our nice, cool basement, with the books. In these troubling times, books set a good example. They come in all sizes, all ages, and every color of the rainbow, and they espouse different points of view; yet they sit together on the shelf, rubbing shoulders amicably enough, and thereby make up our library, a modest but useful contribution that none of them could make alone.

If only people could negotiate differences so easily! Our library, in fact, attests to how many different and often incompatible viewpoints have at one time or another concerned people in our congregation. Evident in a number of ways, diversity is especially noticeable in our collections that document some of the great spiritual paths that humanity has embarked on: early Christian thought (and a few shelves on the other Abrahamic religions), the history of the Amish, Buddhism (Zen and Tibetan), Taoism, Native American, atheism, humanism … As in every congregation, some parts of our UU background are widely represented in the congregation, others less so.

Of course we have a good selection of works by and about UU ministers and other distinguished leaders in our own tradition. It is especially rewarding, though, when we have a chance to encounter viewpoints we usually hear less about. Your Bee has no idea how we came to invite the guest who preached yesterday’s sermon, but she appreciated the opportunity to learn something about Islam from Dr Muqtedar Khan, a professor of political science and scholar of Islam, the religion he practices. Among other heartening aspects of his sermon, Dr Khan spoke of the connection between the words for “worship” and “service” in Arabic, a connection we also have in our English-language notion of a “worship service”. Dr Khan’s focus on serving humanity as a way of serving God, and his attention to the language of his texts, reminded me of a Biblical passage that we in our congregation may be more familiar with: Abraham’s response to three angels that he sees but doesn’t recognize as angels, right outside his tent (Genesis 18). We all remember that Abraham offers them hospitality. Less well remembered is something else. Before he sees the three newcomers, Abraham has already noticed that he is being visited by God himself — and with God right there, he hurries from his tent to take care of his other visitors. The Christian Bible at this point has Abraham now address the “gentlemen” (adonai), inviting them to stop for refreshment. In contrast, the Jewish tradition reads the text as Abraham’s turning to the Lord God (Adonai) to ask him to wait while he attends to the visitors’ needs. Both meanings are contained in the Hebrew text, but the English language insists that we take one way out or the other. For whatever reason, Jewish tradition favors asking God to wait. The Christian translation tradition seems more neutral, making God a kind of witness or divine authority whose presence sanctions the angelic mission. The Christian version of Abraham in no way asserts himself in relation to God, nor, in the Christian tradition, would he be expected to: for Christians of course God is specifically “the Father”. Perhaps the rich pictorial tradition of Christianity contributes to the substantiality of the connection between God and family hierarchy, while Judaism, like Islam, is more tentative about religious images. Our description of the Six Sources of our faith lists “Jewish and Christian teachings” as one source, a vestigial elision of two different religions into a single “Judeo-Christian tradition”.  Hearing a thoughtful sermon by a Muslim faith leader reminds us of the diversity of our heritage, and both smooths and broadens the path we choose to walk together, and the paths on which we can hope to meet our neighbors. It can also remind us that when we remember our stories, it’s a good idea to read the texts – and we have quite a few of them (notes your librarian) in our Behrens Library.

… and their use in our church life

Besides the slim volume on the Fellowship Movement, also of note among our new books is the current edition of a well-known book by John A. Buehrens, Universalists and Unitarians in America: A People’s History.

Behrens Library also has several copies of slightly earlier editions, and the book is highly recommended reading for the course on UU History and Heritage currently underway at UUCL. The course is taught by our developmental minister, Rev. Barbara Coeyman, with course meetings on Tuesday nights, from 7 to 9, at UUCL. The course is free but registration is required.

Among our newer acquisitions …

We don’t spend all our time shuffling old books around. Sometimes we add new ones! We have a surprising range of topics, but today I’d like to point out a couple of newish goodies that fit neatly into our core UU mission. They’re mostly, in fact, from either Skinner or Beacon, the UU publishing lines. Among the books that appear in the blog picture, one book  is in an area that isn’t directly connected to our own congregational history but highlights an interesting aspect of the history of UU-ism, namely the Fellowship movement. Fellowships have sometimes been formed by liberal religious groups too small or too isolated to become fully-fledged church congregations, and there was a moment in our history when forming fellowships was a very active way of supporting liberal religion. Even now many UU congregations are small and always have been, and some small congregations have no interest in getting bigger, even if it is hard to keep them going, or, in some cases, even if anyone who wants to locate them needs a really, really good map. The book we have just acquired on The Fellowship Movement discusses the movement in full and serious historical context, but my favorite bits are the stories about, literally, wandering country roads with a torch trying to find some of our more elusive co-religionists. There is also some pretty wry commentary on UU congregations too small to support a minister, and on the fact that some of them think they would rather not have a minister, thank you very much, as well as colorful  descriptions of why some ministers probably wouldn’t want them either.  And this, of course, is just the American story. One of my favorite readings in the sober British Unitarian press of the early 20th century discusses the Unitarian Religious Revival. The point of the article seems to have been to raise the question of whether there was one and whether one was wanted. The answer seems to have been ‘no’, on both counts. But being British, of course, the discussion was very polite and one was so glad the question had been raised. The issues of congregational size and the formation of new congregations continue to be important, of course, and they have direct connection to current questions of the covenantal relationships that exist among congregations and congregational polity. For the history of those issues in American UU-ism, you can check out the Minns lectures by Alice Blair Wesley.