Our Mission: Practice Inclusiveness
Universalist Unitarian Church of Santa Paula
Rev. Maddie Sifantus
June 2, 2019
READING We Are All More Human Than Otherwise Richard S. Gilbert
The human race is a vast rainbow bursting into view
of white and black, red, yellow and brown.
Yet for all blood is red, the sky is blue, the earth brown, the night dark.
In size and shape we are a varied pattern
of tall and short, slim and stout, elegant and plain.
Yet for all there are fingers to touch, hearts to break, eyes to cry, ears to hear, mouths to speak.
In tongue we are a tower of babel, a great jumble of voices grasping for words, groping for ways to say love, peace, pity, and hope.
Faiths compete, claiming the one way;
Saviours abound, pointing to salvation.
Not all can be right, not one.
We are united only by our urge to search.
Boundaries divide us, lines drawn to mark our diversity,
maps charted to separate the human race from itself.
Yet a mother’s grief, a father’s love, a child’s happy cry,
a musician’s sound, an artist’s stroke, batter the boundaries and shatter the walls.
Strength and weakness, arrogance and humility, confidence and fear, live together in each one, reminding us that we share a our common humanity.
We are all more human than otherwise.
SERMON Our Mission: Practice Inclusiveness Rev. Maddie Sifantus
“We are more human than otherwise.” Here we are, each of us, on a Sunday morning, with all our foibles—our idiotsyncracies, as an old boyfriend of mine used to call it. Here we are with all our gifts, all our needs, all our wishes to be part of something, to belong, to make meaning of our lives, to reflect, to understand our place in the world. Those needs don’t stop after toddlerhood, our teenage years or even into our aging years. And I believe that what we are about here in this congregation speaks to that tapestry of humanity, from our youngest to those richest in years. “Strength and weakness, arrogance and humility, confidence and fear, live together in each one, reminding us that we share a common humanity,” as Richard Gilbert says.
I wonder about that common humanity as we enter this time when we are addressing our official Mission as a congregation, revisiting it as is the Best Practice to do with any Mission Statement for any organization or congregation. How does our mission address what happens with the variety of humanity gathering within our walls, in our larger community and across the continent? You may remember that we started talking about Mission and Vision at our Annual Meeting back in January, I preached about it that morning and have touched on it here or there since. Your Board had its retreat focusing on it in April and we will be kicking off all manner of meetings, focus groups, circle dinners and whatnot over the next year or so to look at the Mission and think about what we want to look like/be like/act like in a year, five years or more. And you may remember that I said that it will be fun! I am depending on all of you to make that part happen.
Who are we called to be in 2019? Does our Mission still fit us? What does it call us to do? Remember, our Mission is:
“Practice Inclusiveness, Seek Justice, and Foster Spirituality.”
The Board concluded on that day in April that they, as your board, still liked our mission. My hope is that all our members and friends will get a chance to think about it going forward. But how did it come to be our mission? Yesterday I called your former minister Carolyn Price to see if she could enlighten me. She remembered that our present version came out of an Adult RE class—the new name for that is Faith Formation—that studied the Michael Durall book, “The Almost Church Revitalized.” My friend Howard Dana writes in a review of that book on Amazon, “This book calls ministers and congregations to the true work of religion. Mike Durall gently, though persistently, points out the places where UU churches get stuck, go astray, and avoid their true calling. In doing so, he calls us to our best selves. His refreshingly pragmatic approach points us toward a revitalized faith.” I wondered why I found a number of copies of his book lying about the place when I arrived. I was familiar with his previous book, “The Almost Church.” A revitalized faith seemed/seems like a good thing.
So it was that I heard from Rev. Price that ten or twelve of you met with her in 2011 to discuss what your true calling might be, going through a process inspired by Mike Durall’s book. Apparently, this group started from a longer mission statement that came out of a 2002 workshop with the Rev. Jim Grant which read: “We are an inclusive religious community drawing wisdom from many sources; dedicated to love and service; searching for truth and justice; embracing joy and mindfulness; caring for each other and for the wider community.” Nice but too long to remember. The group asked each other questions and did a lot of wordsmithing and got down to our three phrases, “Practice Inclusiveness, Seek Justice, and Foster Spirituality.”
Today I start a three-part sermon series which will continue with part two on July 14th, perhaps along with a chorus of the Marseillaise for Bastille Day, when we will consider “Seek Justice” during the month when our theme will be Freedom and Responsibility. We’ll get back to it in September, taking the last phrase, “Foster Spirituality” as we kick off the new church year. But today I reflect on the first phrase, “Practice Inclusiveness”. What does that mean to you? What does it call us to do as a congregation? Think about it. I will want to hear from you, going forward.
As I was thinking this week, it is not lost on me this morning to note that we are in Pride Month which started yesterday and runs for the month of June. This congregation has a long history of including our LGBTQ members and you have heard me talk about the fact that we are what is called a Welcoming Congregation and that we are in the process of renewing that status. Every year, during the month of June, the LGBTQ+ community celebrates Pride Month in a number of different ways, although here in Ventura County, the Diversity Collective celebrates in August. But across the globe, various events are held during this special month as a way of recognizing the influence LGBTQ people have had around the world.
Why was June chosen? Because that is when the Stonewall Riots took place, way back in 1969. So this is a special Pride Month since it is the 50th Anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. The riots were prompted by a raid that took place during the early morning, at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, Manhattan. The LGBTQ community held a series of spontaneous, often violent demonstrations to protest against the raid and calling for the establishment of places that gays and lesbians could go and be open about their sexual orientation. In such places there should be no fears of being arrested. The riots served as a catalyst for the rights of LGBTQ people.
Here at UUCSP our Welcoming Congregation has been part of our practice of inclusiveness for many years. What do we mean when we say “Practice inclusiveness?” For me it means drawing the circle wide. You may know the Edwin Markham poem, “Outwitted”:
He drew a circle that shut me out—
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!
To me that is what inclusiveness is, drawing a circle wide enough to let everyone in. And the practice part means it’s not easy! We have to keep practicing how and where we draw the circle. My dictionary tells me that to practice is to perform an activity, or exercise or skill repeatedly or regularly to improve or maintain one’s proficiency. Those of us who are musicians or athletes—or those of us who learn any skill—know that we have to keep doing it to get better or even maintain the progress we have already made. So our mission calls us to keep drawing that circle wide and wider still in this world where folks seem to be retreating into communities and organizations where only like-minded folks gather, where they are sorting into places where everyone talks like them. More about that in a bit.
I put out the call to the congregation the last couple of weeks for your input of what “practice inclusion” means. I heard from three of you and would love to hear more. Ruth Ricards sent me this about “Practice Inclusivenss”:
If I break it up into two separate words, practice means to me, perfection. “Practice makes perfect,” is what I hear in my mind. There are a few things that I no longer need to practice to make better. I can count them on one hand. To not practice something means I have mastered it. Just when I think I have mastered cleaning toilets and washing dishes, I read or hear how someone else is cleaning them and I am back to practicing a different way. We can learn so much from others which leads me to inclusivity…
Inclusivity means to me, including everyone. When it comes to church, this word reminds me to be non-judgmental and to welcome (include) all who walk across our threshold. This includes good friends, guests I have never met before, church members that I struggle with, as well as the homeless coming in from time to time to get a free handout of money or food. In the past few months I have been working hard on being less judgmental. Very challenging for me. First, I had to become aware of how often I judge others. Then I had to become aware of how often I judge myself. I noticed it was easier for me to not judge others than it was to not judge myself. Interesting.
When we practice inclusiveness, do we include all the parts of ourselves? Do we bring our whole selves to church?
Pat English, our Worship Host this morning, shared this with me:
From congregation point of view, in my understanding inclusiveness means we open our arms and hearts to all gender types, all races and persons dealing with mental illness.
From my point of view inclusiveness means that if you’re in my sphere of experience/awareness you are a human being first, and I will not be passing judgment on who you are or what you do. Instead I want to know what informs you and what can I learn from you.
To me that is big part of the wide circle of inclusiveness. Part of the practice is to try to understand someone who does not share your background ethnically, racially, socio-economically, theologically, in educational background, generationally, which gender you identify as, or your ableism. Part of the practice is to stay in a place of curiosity, to see what we can learn. Unitarian Universalism calls for what I often call a big tent…a wide circle. In the circle are those who identify as humanists down the pew from those who identify as Christian. There is a place for all political parties…that’s one that many have trouble with these days. But if we have a truly wide circle, we open it to those who may not think…or vote like us…who we can learn from if we truly listen and give our lives a deeper texture. We have Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims who attend our congregations and who are in our communities. We have Republicans and Democrats. We have activists and folks who are not political at all.
This past week I went to the Adelanto Detention Center with Rev. Betty and a member of our congregation in Santa Clarita, as I sometimes do. It is another way I “practice inclusion”, the mission of this congregation and my UU faith calls me to. This time I met with a young woman named Zahara Muhammed Nakiyaga, an asylum seeker from Uganda who has been at Adelanto a couple of months. She landed at LAX and was immediately sent by the immigration authorities to Adelanto, despite the fact that she had a visa. She said she was flustered from the very long trip when she reached customs. As I sat with Zahara, I noted her headscarf. She told me that she was Muslim and did that matter to me? I wondered if it mattered to ICE at LAX. We had a wonderful conversation where I was able to talk with her about Ramadan and her prayer practice as a Muslim. Fortunately I studied Islam in seminary, have done a number of activities with mosques in the Boston area and have had Muslim friends. It has been part of the way inclusion shows up in my faith life. For us, here at UUCSP, I believe inclusion should be a practice of learning more about our neighbors. Our universalism calls us to say the old phrase, “We don’t have to think alike to love alike.”
I want to end my words this morning by talking a little bit about a powerful book I have been reading this week, “The Big Sort” by Bill Bishop. It was published in 2005 after extensive research by Bishop, using what was then startling new data to show how Americans have been sorting themselves into extremely homogenous communities—not just by region and state, but by city and town. The book has been on my pile probably since then when it was recommended to me by then President of Andover Newton Theological School, Nick Carter, but I was finally nudged to read it from an article in a recent issue of Christian Century magazine. In the article the author, C. Christopher Smith says, “Homogenization is another force that contributes to the fragmentation of our days. Journalist Bill Bishop call this force ‘the big sort’—that is the increasing desire during the past half century to live, work and worship with people who are of similar economic, ethnic, racial and ideological backgrounds.” I could probably do a whole sermon series on this book and found myself wondering what Bishop would be writing today 15 years later. I was brought up short by much of his data and sentences like “We now worship in churches among like-minded parishioners, or we change churches, maybe even denominations, to find such persons.” I wondered if that is what I did when I found Unitarian Universalism? He goes on to say, “We join volunteer groups with like-minded companions. We read and watch news that confirms our opinions. Politics, markets, economies, culture, and religion have all moved along the same trajectory, from fragmentation in the nineteenth century to conglomeration in the twentieth to segmentation today.”
When I found Unitarian Universalism, part of the appeal to me was the drawing from Six Sources and the culture of life-long learning—Faith Formation—that encouraged me to get to know my faith neighbors in the community. That I would listen to them, witness with them and sometimes worship with them. Those Six Sources meant to me that there were people down the pew from me that came from different backgrounds theologically and that our hymnal had readings and hymns from humanist to Christian traditions. We choose to NOT be homogenous even though in many of our congregations it looks that way, which is why there has been such a big push in recent years to address white supremacy. Here at UUCSP, you chose to put “practice inclusivity” first in the Mission Statement.
So what does that look like here? Audrey Vincent reflects:
At coffee hour, go first to those who I’ve not spoken with before.
When planning events, ask myself how can our Latino neighbors engage with us, how can we include them in the planning and actual event…
When there are civic issues that come up, like the proposed closing of the hospital, I ask myself how can I use my privileged place to advocate for the whole community….
Also, the elderly, especially those who no longer drive, are often left behind. Part of my reason for bringing Marian to church is to include her in my circle of friends, which is so easy because she’s such a pleasure. But I suppose it could be seen as practicing inclusivity — pushing against ageism.
How would you define inclusion here? For me, it has a large component of a dance we do with each other. Sometimes one person follows and another leads. Sometimes perhaps it is a free form rave. But we choose to join the dance with each other—to share the laughter, to bear the pain. Can we be better at all of it? Do we make missteps? Certainly. Can we learn new dances? I hope so.
 Christian Century, 5-8-19, 29.
 Bishop, Bill (2005). The Big Sort, 37.