February 10: “Finding What’s Next” with Rebecca Gant
Click here to start at the sermon.
How many of you have had to make a hard choice like the one described in the reading in your lives? Everyone, I would imagine. One such hard choice that stands out for me was when my husband and I bought our house. This was about 18 years ago and we had small children at home, so there were things we wanted in a house for our growing family. The right number of bedrooms and bathrooms. A basement. A yard where the kids can play outside safely. A location near an elementary school.
We finally ended up with two houses in a similar price range that met all of our scientific, measurable criteria. On paper, these houses were equally appropriate for our family. They had the bedrooms, bathrooms, basement, backyards, and proximity to an elementary school—but after that it got complicated. The things that were different about each house added value that could not be directly compared.
Would we like a newer or an older house? The one that was newer would probably need less work, but the older one had more character. The newer one was bigger and on a cul-de-sac, but the backyard was small and unlovely. The older one was on a busy street, but had beautiful wood inside and all you could see out of the back of the house was trees.
Making a pro and con list for this choice was an exercise in futility- not that we didn’t try. There’s no way to objectively compare the value of living on a cul-de-sac and the value of seeing trees out your back windows. What it came down to— as Susan Chang described in her TED talk — was the value and the meaning we made out of our choices.
We decided to become (and so we became) people who value looking at trees over living on a cul de sac. We became people who appreciate interesting old house features over the relative lack of maintenance that a newer house needs. And now, assuming all goes well and I am called to a church once I’m finished with school, we are looking forward to a future move and I think we will forever be people who value those things.
Our hard choices make us who we are on a very literal level- If we choose to live in a certain house in a certain neighborhood, we will have different experiences than if we had chosen a house somewhere else. But our choices also make us who we are when we find the meanings in them.
This fall, I took a class on Unitarian, Universalist, and Unitarian Universalist history. As part of a project for that class, I spent a lot of time with the book that was lovingly prepared for this church’s 150th anniversary. When I was at school last month, I also spent time in the archives at Meadville Lombard Theological School that hold correspondence between this congregation and the American Unitarian Association, as well as the Unitarian Universalist Association. It has been fascinating to see All Souls’ history as presented in the book alongside the archives of the official correspondence– while at the same time studying movements in Unitarian, Universalist, and Unitarian Universalist history.
Begun by abolitionists in 1867, All Souls certainly has had its ups and downs and faced its share of hard choices. And again and again, the people of All Souls have chosen to continue this community. This was sometimes despite the evidence looking them in the face. This congregation has experienced financial meltdowns, fire, threats from outside for its socially progressive positions, ministers who have resigned and taken half the congregation with them, conflicts within the congregation. Sometimes there were very few congregants left to make the decision about whether to continue or to just close the doors. And still, carry on they did. Even when the pro and con list would have said to quit, those who made the decision to carry on chose according to what they valued and what made meaning for them.
About 10 days ago, All Souls made a choice that, depending on who you are, was valiant or naive. Or naively valiant. On January 29, when the temperature here in Kansas City was forecast to dip to below zero with wind chills even colder, an email to downtown churches arrived asking if any of them would be able to open their doors to provide warmth for the people that the already full area shelters could not serve. After a little discussion, some emails and phone calls, the leadership of this congregation said yes. Now–This church and its members are not trained to provide services for people who are experiencing homelessness. The insurance policy is probably not written to cover offering overnight accommodations. If you made a list of the reasons why All Souls should open as a warming center and the reasons why All Souls should not, there would probably be more reasons not to do it. If All Souls was an organization that served a financial bottom line, those doors would have stayed shut. But All Souls is not beholden to shareholders to make a profit. It is an organization that serves and is fueled by its mission and its values and that is powerful.
This action has resulted in many conversations. Last week, people who spent time here during those cold days met to debrief the experience of serving as a warming center. At that meeting, some volunteers stepped up who were interested in and willing to continue the conversation about what would need to be in place if All Souls is to open its doors in this way again.
After the meeting, I spoke with Kendyl about the warming center conversation. As part of my internship here at All Souls, one of my assignments is to create a “focused initiative” to practice my leadership among you. This exploration of what might need to happen if All Souls were to choose to serve as an emergency warming center dovetails nicely with what my coursework is asking me to do. My task will not be to make any decisions, but to facilitate the conversation. The question I’ll be exploring with you all is this: If All Souls would like to serve as an emergency shelter for warming or for cooling, for that matter, what types of preparations would need to be made? What sort of training might volunteers need? What collaborations with other agencies might need to be explored or developed or deepened? What policies and procedures might need to be created?
And beyond the practical, nuts and bolts of the “how might this happen,” we will also explore the spiritual implications. How might we be changed by offering hospitality in our building? What might we learn that will influence our behavior in the world? What meaning will we attach to this action and to how we answer these questions? What if we decide not to pursue this? What does that mean about our congregation?
This challenge is not all that All Souls is facing this winter. Members of this congregations should have received a letter this week about a significant budget shortfall and what the ramifications of not meeting the budget could be. A logical place to make up the shortfall is in the biggest budget item—staffing. But reducing hours for staff has consequences not only for the staff themselves, but also for the congregation and its capacity to fulfill its mission. This is a crucial time of self-reflection- what do we want this church to be? What programs are important to each of us? What is it that we want to be for and what can we put our agency behind? How we respond will be another of those choices that will determine the next page of our history.
All Souls is not facing this financial challenge alone. Our denomination and, indeed, all religious organizations are facing challenges. In another of my classes this January, we explored the idea of the “post-denominational age.” As you may be aware, the number of people in religious communities is declining. Churches are closing. Unitarian Universalism is holding its own for now, but even in a time when we have a message that seems more relevant than ever, it is not growing. Religious communities are grappling with changes in our culture, including the impact of our digital media, changes in family structure, increasing numbers of people who identify as Spiritual but not religious, increasing numbers of people who do not have any religious affiliation, decreasing participation in churches, and others. The way we have been “doing church” is not working in our post-modern, individualized society. And yet, people still long to be connected. We want to have a place to think about what is most important to us. We need to know there is someone out there who cares. In class, we explored new kinds of spiritual and religious communities that are being created. Some are programs of established churches and others spring up seemingly on their own.
Choosing to meet this challenge will require courage and agility. How our denomination responds to these very real pressures will determine if we continue to exist down the road.
Our histories—and our lives — are the result of those choices we make. As I consider my personal choices, I sometimes think of what the impact of them might be on the generations that will follow. I’m reminded of the quote attributed to Jonas Salk, the creator of the vaccine for polio. He once said “Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors.”
Often when we think of ancestors, they are those people to whom we owe gratitude for sacrificing so that we could have things a little bit easier. But that model is based on an infinite amount of resources. It says that things just keep getting better, that there’s always more. This model no longer works. Things are not necessarily getting better for our children and grandchildren, at least in terms of the physical world we are leaving them. The earth is warming, and we are seeing the effects of that in global climate change with more severe weather events, droughts, and fires. The dark underbelly of capitalism is becoming more apparent as the United States’ economy is not improving- at least not for those of us in the 99%. In the past, we could tell our children that if they completed a college degree, they would certainly be better off financially than they would be without it. Now, while a degree may be helpful, the certainty is gone.
So in the face of those facts, what does it mean in our time to be good ancestors to the coming generations? As Quiyamah Rahman wrote in the prayer I used for our opening words, “It is that time and that place to know that it is our turn, that we must leave a legacy for our children. And all the children”
I believe- and I ask you to consider- that the ancestral task is to grapple with these very questions. We must examine our values. And following our values, we must make hard choices and find the meaning in what we choose. Our legacy, then, is the passing on of meanings we have found to future generations. For example, consider the decision to open All Souls as a warming center. We can look for the meaning of that choice—was it the work of some people who naively risked too much or was it a valiant effort to save people from freezing to death? Or a little of both? The meaning we make from that is what forms us, what forms our story, and what we can pass to our descendants.
Here, in religious community, we can grapple with all of the hard choices we face. Here we can find resources to help us to make meaning in our individual and our communal lives. We are here to learn and grow together, and maybe, together, we can create change in the world. Making meaning is hard work, and it can be joyful work, but either way, it’s the work of our human condition.
The choir sang in the introit:
Awake, arise, the journey’s begun. We travel on together as one.
We know not where the road will lead, But we move in faith making love our creed
As we follow; The journey is our home.
Good travelers walk with company, Sharing bread with those in need.
Giving help along the way to those who fall Who wander astray
As we follow: the journey is our home.
Join with us in jubilee. Celebrate our family. Sing together joyfully.
Alleluia. Praise for evermore!
Earth moves with us as we go. Our cry is heard, our pain is known.
Yet far beyond the setting sun, There shines a light of victory won;
The journey, the journey is our home.
Join with us in jubilee. Celebrate our family. Sing together joyfully.
Alleluia. Praise for evermore!
This perpetual journey of learning and growing is where we reside. It is our task as individuals and as a community to find the meaning in the journey as it takes us from our past to our future. I wish you courage and joy on your journey. May it be so.