Porch Building

Jan Carlsson-Bull  July 18, 1999

In a valley cradled by Utah's Wasatch Mountains over 3,000 Unitarian Univeralists gathered for four days this June for the 38th annual convention of the Unitarian Universalist Association. It was an intriguing juxtaposition of communities of faith. Just over 50% of the population of Salt Lake City is Mormon. It offered up an even more intriguing set of connections. The father and grandfather of Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon Church, were Universalists, who converted to Mormonism.

Wheels turn. Several members of The Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City are former Mormons, with a congregational support group to help with the painful transition that commonly defines departure from the faith of their fathers. So there we were, surrounded by Mormons, with a theological certainty that was inescapable in the discourse of the two young missionary women who guided us through Mormon Square; in the company of multitudes of Unitarian Universalists, with our exuberant all-stops-out theological ambiguity. We worshipped; we sang; we celebrated; we remembered; we considered; we advocated; we prioritized; we played.

Fulfilling the Promise was the theme of this assembly as it has been for the last few years. It defines "a participatory process for congregations to re-covenant with each other and as an Association" as we develop agreement "regarding our shared goals, our resource commitments and the supportive structures need to realize [the promise of Unitarian Universalism] in the world....Each year at General Assembly, the Fulfilling the Promise Committee....presents the results of the prior year's process as it unfolded in congregations and asks delegates to reflect on them...[through]... special focus programming....Process recommendations [are presented] for the coming year, inviting all to participate....as we create our covenant for the coming years." (Fulfilling the Promise Committee, adaptation)

How did we fulfill the promise of our faith during this special time together, and how might we continue to fulfill the promise within the community and extended neighborhood of All Souls and in our world?

We celebrate life and the intersections of our lives. Denny Davidoff, moderator of our Unitarian Universalist Association, the UUA, introduced the opening ceremony. One of the first to speak was Forrest Cuch, of the Utah Bureau of Indian Affairs. Mr. Cuch is descended from the nations of the Uintas and the White River Utes.

"Welcome to the crossroads in the land of the numic speakers and tribes," he proclaimed, "--the tribes of the Goshute, Shoshone, and the Ute, and further south of the Navajo and the Peyote. We welcome you all to this crossroads....If my people were truly savage, the Mormon people would never have entered this valley....My grandmother and many of our elders...have told us: 'We don't know that this [the North American conquest] is the way things were supposed to be.' It was her way of saying, 'grandson, don't grieve too much [about] what has happened. Try to understand, try to learn, try to make something of yourself, and make a contribution to this country and this land...'"

In sharing the legacy of his people and his grandmother, Forrest Cuch set the tone for how we sought, as an assembly of congregations, to fulfill the promise....trying to understand, trying to learn, trying to make something of ourselves, and make a contribution as a community of faith to this country and this land.

For Forrest Cuch and his grandmother, the North American conquest is still unfolding. All of us can finally uncover it in our history books. Today, we are faced with a different North American conquest, more subtle, more seductive. It is a conquest whose assets are technology, information, mobility, entrepreneurialism, a booming economy, and a rhetoric of celebrating our pluralism and taking the lead in global peacemaking. It is a conquest whose liabilities are technology; information; mobility; entrpreneurialism; an economy of desperate straits for a growing number of our citizenry; and a reality of increasing violence against women, gays, people of color, and distant strife-ridden nations.

What can we do? What steps should we take first? Where are our heroes? And do we really have enough time and money to make a difference?

There is so much we can do, and it really doesn't matter which steps we take first, if we try to understand, maintain a readiness to learn, and commit to making a positive difference. And yes, we do have heroes. One of them was in our midst for many years and received a loving tribute from Denny Davidoff and another former UUA Moderator, Natalie Gulbrandsen, during the opening ceremony. I refer to Sandra Mitchell Caron. In 1977, Sandy became the first woman to serve as moderator of the UUA. She was a member of this congregation for 42 years. In June, Sandy died after a long illness. Denny spoke of her with passion for her life and sadness in her absence:

"She was the first Moderator who had a vision of doing the work all the time, instead of at board meetings and at General Assemblies. She was the first Moderator who had the audacity to demand a travel allowance, and...she was hilariously funny....I can remember sitting down there where you are, absolutely fascinated, raptly attentive...."

Part of the wisdom that Sandy passed on was the reminder to her successors to "'Be yourself, and don't ever forget the congregations.'" She never did, we were told. And all who remember Sandy know how true that is. As Denny asked for a moment of silent tribute and remembrance for Sandy, I ask you to join with me this morning in a moment of silent tribute as we recall Sandra Mitchell Caron, a beloved hero.

[moment of silence]

Among the beneficiaries of Sandy's legacy are our young people. Elizabeth and Julia--Elizabeth Martin and Julia Friedlander--carried the All Souls Banner in the Parade of Banners that heralds General Assembly. Throughout the week, our delegation from All Souls reveled in the workshops and worship services, the plenaries, and the interludes of recreation and respite. We considered what is truly important for our congregation and ourselves as individuals and families.

Members of our delegation carried the banner in many ways. Guy Quinlan presided at a table in the exhibit hall, sharing information and how-to's on what congregations can do individually and collaboratively on the issue of Nuclear Disarmament. Nancy King Bernstein promoted Inward Springs, that compelling periodical for liberal religious families. Nancy is co-founder and editor-in chief of Inward Springs and the new Executive Director of the Lifelines Center, which also held a reception during the week. Of course, we all salute Alison Miller, who played a stellar role in our larger association as the Young Adult Outreach Coordinator for General Assembly. Alison will be Vice Moderator for the Young Adult Caucus when we convene in Nashville in the year 2000.

One of the high points of General Assembly is the Service of the Living Tradition of the Unitarian Universalist Ministry, which "recognizes those ministers who have been granted preliminary fellowship, achieved final fellowship, or completed full-time service and commemorates those ministers who died" during the past year. I was honored to be among those received into preliminary fellowship--with a big bear hug from John Buehrens....who does, as so many of you know, hug like a bear. John is President of the UUA and former Associate Minister here at All Souls. Our hearts stirred to words and music, and the spirits of many soared when we were told later in the week that women now count for more than half of our Unitarian Universalist clergy!

One of the high dramas of the plenary meetings of General Assembly is the selection of a Study/Action Issue. As member congregations, we can shape the social justice agenda of our wider community of faith. Any of our congregations may submit a single proposal for study and action over the next two years. The Commission on Social Witness pares the number of these proposals to a maximum of ten and distributes them to congregations as "Congregational Directives for General Assembly Action." All Souls had the opportunity to express our preferences this spring and did so. In Salt Lake City, we were presented with the five issues that received the most congregational votes. After considerable discussion, with attendant workshops, the issue receiving the majority vote was "Responsible Consumption as a Moral Imperative." Issue specific curricula will be circulated to congregations this fall. After a two-year process, this item may become a Statement of Conscience, setting forth the views of our Association on the issue we have studied.

"Responsible Consumption as a Moral Imperative"....now that's a mouthful. In fact, we as a nation have taken a very large mouthful of global resources--try 5% of the world's population consuming 40% of earth's resources-- ergo our decision to hone in on the proposal to do something about it. Energy use, landfills, waste management, farming practices, food distribution, water management; each area of consumption suggests its own arena of accountability.

Unitarian Univeralists can take the lead in promoting what has been termed by some, as voluntary simplicity. There are questions to study: For example, "How can we harness our individual and collective purchasing power to encourage the sale of ecologically friendly and energy efficient services?" And there are actions to take: For example, "...we could use our buying power to redirect the economy toward producing goods of greater quality and longer life span.....When buying a new vehicle, we could reject fuel-inefficient Sport Utility Vehicles and purchase more fuel-efficient models." I especially like this one: "Once a week, we could take public transportation..." Here's to the Metrocard! And then, "Our...Religious Education curricula, sermons, music, and liturgy could be used to challenge the morality of materialism...."

My own strongly held opinion is that responsible consumption is an entree to the future and a strand from the past that carries the hope of a more compassionate connected society. It is good for our planet; it is good for our lives; and it couldn't be more timely in the life of our nation. It is, in the words of William Henry Channing, "to live content with small means....To be worthy, not respectable, and wealthy, not rich....To let the spiritual, unbidden and unconscious, grow up through the common."

In another high point of General Assembly, the Ware Lecture, Mary Pipher, psychologist, author of Reviving Ophelia and The Shelter of Each Other, and member of the Unitarian Church of Lincoln, Nebraska, talked about families and what it takes to support our families.

In our hearts and minds this morning are the families of John F. Kennedy, Jr., Carolyn Bissette Kennedy, and Lauren Bissette. We join in that wide circle of support as our hope and our grief seem to walk hand in hand. Our memories brim with other hopes and other losses connected with this family.

Mary Pipher, as she spoke to us in Salt Lake City, suggested that what adults remember most from their childhoods are family meals, family vacations, and time outdoors. She spoke of the loss of community and of elders in the lives of our children, the loss of family conversation and personal accountability to a neighborhood. She spoke of family togetherness and isolation under the same roof. An entire family can occupy the same dwelling at the same time and be fully disconnected--with one glued to the TV, another to the computer, another to headphones....all in air-conditioned comfort on a lovely summer evening.

Now I want you to know that Melaney and I--Melaney Mashburn, our Director of Religious Education here at All Souls--are prescient. The day before, we had burned out on the meetings and the plenaries and run off with a sizable segment of our delegation to the mountains. We even connected with family. A cousin, whom I haven't seen for a span of decades, just happens to work as a family physician in Salt Lake City and resides there with her family--all of whom just happen to belong to of the First Unitarian Church there. Cami led us on a hike into the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains, and we took respite in the delicious quiet that envelops one in an escape from the air-conditioned comfort of hotels and meeting rooms. We trekked alongside a mountain stream and stopped to smell the wildflowers. We gawked at the sky, a sun-radiant blue, and rested on the languorous roots of age-old trees. There was time to talk and time to be silent, and we relished both. I walked alongside Cami, taking in her commentary on each member of the family in which she grew up....all of whom had been distant stars in my limited galaxy. I suppose that from breakfast on, we could describe that morning as a family meal, a family vacation, and time outdoors. I know we will remember it.

Then there was the evening when Polly Leonard hosted us for drinks and hors d'oeuvres on the verandah of one of the city's gracious restaurants. Polly invited the full delegation. And we talked and laughed and revitalized, getting our third wind for the energy consumed by the week--responsibly consumed, I assure you.

"The work begins anew," proclaimed Denny Davidoff, in our closing ceremony. "Praise for the work, the vision, the heritage and the devotion that binds us all into a community of purpose and practice."

We were, as a delegation from All Souls, and as that gathered community of autonomous congregations assembled once again, a family of sorts--intergenerational, to be sure. And we found ourselves living out a richly textured sequence of what Mary Pipher calls "conscious moments."

We gathered then and we gather now at a crossroads, pausing to consider our shared goals, our commitment of resources, the structures of support we need to realize the promise of our faith in the larger world. We gather to understand, to learn, to make something of ourselves, to make a contribution and weave a legacy worth leaving our children and our children's children. We gather to honor those whom we revere and miss. We gather as people of a living tradition, where truth unfolds in dynamic communion with one another and earth's myriad life forms. We gather to consider how we might use our energy--all our energy--with compassion and accountability to our global neighbors. We share precious time and create memories that are energy-conscious fuel for those who will live out their lives in the 21st century.

"Gather in peace, gather in thanks.

Gather in sympathy now and then.

Gather in hope, compassion and strength.

Gather to celebrate once again.

There are few structures I know that accommodate the comings and goings, the respites and reveries, and yes, the celebrations, of family life and neighborhood as gracefully and graciously as the porch. It is a venue of passing and a threshold, a refuge and a resting place, a time for talk and a time for silence. As a child, I spent hours on the front porch of my home in Iowa carving bulky bars of Ivory soap into what I was sure would be fine sculpture. My family spent soft summer evenings, sitting in the porch swing, drinking lemonade and watching the stars. The first house I bought as an adult was as a single parent when two of my now three children were still small. And my mother bought us a porch swing as a housewarming gift. We literally wore it out. So many decisions, so much angst, so many tears, so much laughter rocked back and forth in that swing on that porch. We celebrated birthdays and served picnics there. We still laugh at the time that he who is now my now husband sat on the porch and downed two homemade birthday pies all by himself.

In the city there are stoops, and when the air conditioning doesn't work or folks are too poor to have it in the first place, the stoops are filled on summer nights.....or at least they once were. As oppressive as the heat was a few weeks ago, there was something so appealing in the photo on the front page of the New York Times of families barbecuing on the sidewalks. Neighborhood happened.

I wonder if Fulfilling our Promise as Unitarian Universalists is not a process of building porches, of creating venues of welcome and thresholds for new ways of being, ways in which conspicuous consumption is not the norm, times in which conversation is more precious than chatlines and shared silence more dear than what beckons on cable, times to consider what is really important and readiness to share it. On the porches I have known, I have enjoyed family meals, vacations, and time outdoors. I have paused to notice my elders and my children. Porch-like moments were the most precious moments in a week when 3,000 Unitarian Universalists descended on a city claiming land once occupied by the ancestry of Forrest Cuch.

Fulfilling the Promise is to reach forward by rescuing our connections from the past, monitoring our connections with the present, and regarding our accountability to the life that follows ours. With Mary-Ella's reading, we left Richard Bausch "[looking] back from the new car window at the light on that porch, the people standing there waving good-bye." Bausch continues.

"That was thirty-four years ago....I let the memory walk into me, through me. I greet it.

And I think how the house we live in now has its own wide porch, where my children watch storms and bask in the twilight warmth, and sing and slowly swing on the wooden swing, and with me, raise their voices in one another's hearing--and where, on a lovely night five summers ago, one of the youngest of them, Maggie, just two years old then, danced with my father, danced to the Benny Goodman music he has always loved so much, making a perfect end for a lovely day's celebration, of a new house, a new baby, Amanda Louise, and, as ever, the strength of this good family. And I think how, if the feeling is right and the love is as excellent and brave as it was when I was young, these children will carry the porch with them out into the harshness and turmoil of the world, and it will go on providing for them, even when they are far away, even when this house, too, is gone, and they have all come to see other places as the places they have for love and shelter."

Day by day, year by year, let's join together as a congregation, as an association of congregations, to build memories and carve legacies that our children and our children's children will draw upon years hence...memories of picnics and potlucks and Monday Nights and Friday Noons, memories of precious time--"conscious moments"--of gathering to make this crazy world a hospitable home, memories of breathing the air, singing the songs, embracing one another, and welcoming all, memories that ride the wind with precious days, holy nights. Day by day, year by year, let's fulfill our promise by ensuring that the porchlight's on, somebody's home, and all are welcome at this crossroads of time and space.  Carpe diem. Amen.   çopyright AllSouls 1999.

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