The pandemic might have permanently pushed my church outdoors and online--even after we can come inside again. The radically inclusive church that I work for, UU Lansing, has adapted so successfully over the past year that we've learned how to make better use of technology to reach more people; we've found creative ways to accomplish more effective community care without putting people at risk of disease transmission; and we've connected more deeply than ever with our land and local ecosystem.
As Molly Costello has illustrated with her generously shared activist artwork:
Crisis expands our imaginations around what is possible.
I'm so grateful right now to be a part of a respectably longstanding faith tradition
that never wastes an opportunity to learn a hard lesson and transform itself from the inside out. Unlike some centuries-old religious institutions, Unitarianism (and its more recently evolved form, Unitarian Universalism) had open-mindedness and adaptability baked into it from the beginning. Being flexible, having the energy to rise to new occasions, and constantly striving for growth are values consistent with the movement's identity. Of course, some congregations are better at implementing progress and actively aligning with their missions than others, and it feels good--especially during a global crisis--to be part of a trustworthy institution that I can contribute to in a meaningful way.
Over the past half-century alone, internal
revolutions have transformed my local
church's inclusion and welcoming of people of all gender identities,
sexual orientations, races, abilities, and economic classes. Making change is something UUs love to do, both internally and out in the world. In fact, they are often accused of being "not a religion" because they have no dogma or unchangeable creed. What they have, instead, are a set of ethical values and standards and a sense of responsibility for upholding them.
Of course, there are sometimes fiery arguments over which changes to adopt and how to go about reorganizing. But not all conflict, even heated conflict, is unhealthy. I grew up in an oppressive Catholic diocese that feared public scandal more than the violation of children, so I am relieved to be part of a community that would rather air out its dirty laundry in the open and get to work actually cleaning up its act than ask its most vulnerable members to choke to death trying to swallow the evidence.
Purity culture breeds filth and abuse. Accountability culture frees us to do the hard but deeply rewarding work of healing ourselves and the world.
Like individuals, institutions flourish in the long term when they know how to undo habits, rules, and coping mechanisms that are no longer relevant and to develop new skills and capacities to serve more needs, better, in each new era.
I am proud that UU Lansing
puts more energy into growing its own wisdom and spiritual maturity than
into filling seats with newcomers or opening wallets. Interestingly, though, our numerical growth has been steadily increasing as we've organically attracted the right
kind of people--as in, people who want to become their best selves and
to help our church figure out how to contribute its fullest gifts to an
ever-evolving world. People who are fully invested in the mission--so invested that they help to evaluate and rewrite our mission every so often. As the problems and challenges of the world change, so must our responses. As spiritual opportunities arise, we must learn to accept them.
Not all faith communities have done as well over the pandemic. Many were on the decline before the pandemic struck. Far-right fundamentalism and bigotry have infested many of our oldest religious institutions, and rot at their very roots has finally come to light, driving out the sane and the righteous in droves. Almost 30 years after Sinead O'Connor was broadly dismissed as "crazy" for tearing up a picture of the Pope on TV, the world is at last realizing that she was right to protest the Catholic Church's endemic sexual abuse.
Patriarchal and predatory religions are failing in the United States, and it's about time! America is awakening, both politically and spiritually. The whole human world is awakening. We're not realizing that religion is the problem in itself but that religion, like politics, is dangerous when it requires blind faith in bad men.
The human spirit cannot be conquered or saved by canon law and dogma, and yet, paradoxically, we do better at becoming our most stable, reliable selves and societies when we participate in supportive spiritual communities. Communities that provide spiritual benefits don't have to be religious, exactly. They can be spiritually oriented yoga practices, tai chi groups, culturally rooted karate dojos, meditation centers, or even (seriously) witch covens or non-theistic Luciferian groups, for those with sharper edges who can't sit with anything that feels too good-vibes-only. Healthy spiritual communities can exist in the form of organized religions, too, which come with greater difficulties but sometimes greater rewards too.
The Rev. Dan Hotchkiss, a Unitarian Universalist minister and longtime senior consultant for the Alban Institute, writes,
Religion transforms people; no one touches holy ground and stays the same. Religious leaders stir the pot by pointing to the contrast between life as it is and life as it should be, and urging us to close the gap. Religious insights provide the handhold that people need to criticize injustice, rise above self-interest, and take risks to achieve healing in a wounded world. Religion at its best is no friend to the status quo.
Organization, on the other hand, conserves. Institutions capture, schematize, and codify persistent patterns of activity. A well-ordered congregation lays down schedules, puts policies on paper, places people in positions, and generally brings order out of chaos. Organizations can be flexible, creative, and iconoclastic, but only by resisting some of their most basic instincts.
No wonder “organized religion” is so difficult! Congregations create sanctuaries where people can nurture and inspire each other—with results no one can predict. The stability of a religious institution is a necessary precondition to the instability religious transformation brings. The need to balance both sides of this paradox—the transforming power of religion and the stabilizing power of organization—makes leading congregations a unique challenge.
As a lifelong activist, I understand the value of a healthy, organized spiritual community to balance out the draining slog of pushing for social and political change. Spiritual community fills us with the understanding of why we are doing the work and for whom, which sustains us in the long term. True spirituality, like true self-care, is not a vapid, vain, self-centered endeavor meant to create individuals who don't need anybody else. Human beings need care, belonging, and purpose in a social context. And social justice is hard and confusing, beyond the scope of the brainiest individual working out solutions in their head. It is not only important to figure out how to create effective change; even if we all know better, we won't do better if we're all burned out. Effective social justice needs Jesus! (And by "Jesus," I mean Jesus or Buddha or Mother Earth or Mami Wata or the kind of humanism that isn't a thin veil of scientific credulity tossed lazily over dusty sexism and racism.) Committing to a life of justice-making requires authentic, courageous, loving human spirit, and that spirit thrives in authentic community.
Healthy religions contribute to resilient communities, from the individual to the family to the society in which they exist. There is no religion on Earth that can boast that all of its adherents and local communities are functional. Basic drama and human weakness can be found in groups of every political, cultural, and religious identity. And yet, examples of healthy congregations can be found within many religious traditions as well. Sometimes they are Unitarian Universalist. Sometimes they are Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Baha'i, Jewish, Muslim, or Pagan. It is always worth finding or helping to create them.
Most healthy spiritual communities will come out of the pandemic stronger and more relevant than before. I am delighted that my church is finding more ways to be together outside, around the fire pit and among the native pollinator gardens and the community food gardens, connecting with nature and with the land we care for and with our neighbors who aren't congregants. And at the same time, we are doubling down on reaching out with technology to create recorded and livestreamed experiences that can be accessed from anywhere in the world, by people of various abilities and conditions and circumstances. We are raising funds for better recording equipment to enhance virtual worship. We are putting more energy into our outdoor spaces that are open and accessible to both human neighbors and wildlife visitors. And we aren't going to stop going outside and online, even after we are able to hold services inside of our building again.
In the meantime, we are transforming the inside of our building to prepare to host a large, four-days-a-week community kitchen to feed anyone who comes to our doors with healthy meals prepared with fresh ingredients. We are looking forward to welcoming back the free English language school and refugee support center that operates out of our classrooms. While many of our everyday activities are still on pause due to the pandemic, we are building capacity to enrich the lives of more people and living beings, both locally and virtually, after this pandemic well and truly ends.