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"Radical Welcome"
A sermon by Rev. Liz Lerner Maclay, delivered at the First Unitarian Church, Providence RI, April 30, 2017

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As the morning hangs a signal, up on the mountain crest, amidst the silent darkness, the sky begins to lighten and colors start to seep into visibility upon the dark and ague shapes of things at night. And comes the call winding through waiting streets, twisting as the musical scale it wanders. In and out of minor keys, the syllables resolve themselves finally into the windows of homes and curl into the ears of everyone in earshot of the mosque.

The morning call to prayer lasts only a minute or two, and it goes right to the heart of the matter, with no pussyfooting around, acknowledging one of the greatest challenges to religious life, as it calls the faithful to communion with the sacred, it reminds all its hearers: "Devotion is better than sleep."

This is the time we set apart for our hearts and minds and souls, for communion with each other and with what we hold sacred. May we make the very most of this day, starting now, together.

Our ancient reading this morning is
Our modern reading is

Let's start with the big news. In case you missed it this week, scientists have discovered a worm, the wax worm that can chemically break down those polyethylene plastic bags that are everywhere; more than a trillion used each year. This is a potentially great breakthrough for the future of the planet, and people will be working on the details and honestly it has lifted my spirit this week and I hope it does yours too. Not that my spirit needed lots of lifting because I've had a tremendous week meeting you all, hearing your stories and hopes and concerns and experiences and vision for this congregation. In fact, I learned about the wax worm the same day I learned more about your sanctuary church process, and in an admittedly surprising turn they are linked in my mind. They both give me hope and are really exciting, they both are newly established and now the details about how both these new realities will manifest will start being filled in. So - amazingly similar, right? Except that the waxworm does their thing by chance, but you do yours with intent and with devotion.

It's so apparent here. I don't just mean in the inspiring architecture, I mean in your DNA as a community. I look at my schedule over the past week with you and it is a grid full of devotion and faithfulness. Deacons, Social Justice – which has so many initiatives under its umbrella, Stewardship, Religious Education, Standing on the Side of Love and the sanctuary church initiative, the Women's Alliance, the Prudential Committee, Worship, and the Transylvania Partnership and Mindful Grieving and Spirituality in Life and the Caring Network and Chalice Circles and Parish Suppers and Community Life and Heritage and Harvest the Power leadership development and lots of groups I didn't meet with yet – the youth group, and Coming of Agers and Yoga folks and members and leaders among you who are ill or away this week. I am amazed and inspired by all that you do, and all that you are.

Your care and faithfulness and intention are all the more precious, and all the more powerful to me, because as you may know, our larger denomination is experiencing some extreme growing pains right now, and people are not all behaving well as we go through them. It's been making me feel I have to gird myself just to go online and see what's the latest that people on all sides of the issues, the latest that our people are saying, and doing, to each other in our faith. In our faith that holds as our first principle the inherent worth and dignity of every human being. I read some posts and blogs and am reminded of words of the brilliant African American artist and writer James Baldwin: "How can one respect, let alone adopt, the values of a people who do not, on any level whatever, live the way they say they do or the way they say they should?"

Living up to, and into our first principle can be incredibly hard at times. Even though we believe it. Or maybe because we believe it – and so witnessing the diminishment of human beings can be literally maddening. And still, as our first principle it is the most elemental responsibility we all share. We know this, and still we struggle with it. This came up during my week with you a few times, including even in the report at the Prudential Committee meeting given by Kiera Roche, the youth representative. She talked about the ways, in the current social and political climate, the youth are wrestling with this very issue – how they can engage from a place firmly grounded in respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every human being.

Because of all this, I've been thinking about the necessary relationship between radical welcome and faithfulness. I don't want to just give a definition of radical welcome; I want to tell you a story about it. But before I do, I invite you to remember what it was like for you the first time you came to a church, maybe this church. It's easy to forget when years - or even sometimes just months - have passed, and we have some traction in a church. But cast your mind back. Some of us came with confidence and anticipation, accompanying a friend or family member, or as a child following the authority of our parents, or out of easy curiosity about the building, or to attend a concert or special event. But some of us came with uncertainty, not confident of our welcome, or shy, or lonely, or in pain at a devastating life event. Some of us came, having left another faith that treated us obnoxiously or even abusively. Some of us walked in and saw very few people – or no one – who looks like us. Some of us came wary as a deer entering a glade at twilight, driven by our need for spirituality or religious community, but all too aware of the possible hurt we might suffer. I ask you to bear that in mind – how much it can take sometimes for us just to mount the stairs, walk down the aisle, and plant ourselves, seeking, in a pew, next to a stranger. How it is to be new and unsupported in a setting where we know no one.

In recent years I've become good friends with some Ahmadiyya Muslim leaders in Maryland. Last August I was their guest at their Jalsa Salana – their annual world conference - in England. The Jalsa is an extraordinary gathering- the word ‘jalsa' is a Hindi and Urdu word that means ‘gathering' or ‘conference.' Bear with me, because I have to tell you some stats about it for you to really appreciate it. The Jalsa Salana is a unique and massive enterprise. It happens on a farm in Hampshire. Every year in August, they set up tents, generators, kitchens, fans, carpets, temporary metal roads, trailers with toilets, a satellite television studio with live streaming capacity, audio and video feeds throughout the campus, galleries, shopping areas, education and display areas, free meals, food you can purchase between meal times, and everything else you would need for a conference for 36,000 people from all over the world. All this for just three days. Then they spend the rest of the month breaking it down again.

Here's the thing: volunteers staff and service every one of these elements. Volunteers cook food for 36,000 people. Volunteers manage security, which is significant, with bag searches and metal detectors and name badges and paperwork, for 36,000 people. Volunteers manage parking and ushering and sound systems and camera work, help people who are lost, staff snack booths and trash pick-up, repair whatever breaks, offer emergency medical care, do whatever else needs doing and see to the transportation, care and feeding of the almost 1000 guests invited to attend from all over the world. Volunteers pass constantly through the crowds offering people cups of water in the hot weather and crowded spaces. Volunteers run the translation system, with 13 different translators on 13 different channels speaking 13 different languages, and earpieces repeatedly distributed for all those who need translation.

It's also a great endeavor for the attendees, who come from Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Belgium, Germany, Kenya, Guatemala, Ghana, Holland, New Zealand, Sweden, Micronesia, Spain, Turkey, England, the US and many other places. This is a big deal because it meant that the only thing that everyone – well, almost everyone excluding myself and a small handful of guests – had in common, was faith. Faith. Nothing else to bind or ease or interpret them with each other. Not race, not heritage, not nationality, not culture, not dress, not traditions, not even language – only faith. And the care and power in the way they manifest their faith – their central tenet, which is "Love for all, hatred for none" - was so palpable. I have never been in a less judgmental, more respectful, more beautiful human environment in my entire life.

I don't take that for granted, because having been to many Unitarian Universalist General Assemblies in my time, I know that even with the best of intentions, at our own faith conference, we can be prickly, entitled, impatient, even quick to take offense. It's not easy to be in large groups of strangers, to truly, deeply welcome and honor each other when we don't know each other. That's one of the reasons I've been so moved by the welcome you have offered my family and me this week. It's one of the reasons that I think radical welcome is so challenging – and also so essential. And it's part of why I've been thinking so much about the Jalsa again.

The first day we were being driven to the Jalsa I saw a sign declaring we were in ‘Jane Austen country.' I mentioned that I didn't realize this was Jane's neck of the woods and that I should call my mother and tell her where I was – she is a great Austen fan and always has been. The driver, Mr. Hafiz Ijaz, was one of the thousands of volunteers staffing the conference. He looks about 40, was born in Pakistan but lives now in Hampshire, and works as a teacher. He said that Jane's house was very nearby and that he too is a great Austen fan. In fact, he said with his Pakistani accent, Pride and Prejudice is his favorite novel. I told him I'm named for Elizabeth Bennett and he said the book has created a great problem for him because once he read Pride and Prejudice he had to read all the rest of Austen's books and now they have spoiled him for any other author. All other novelists seem to pale in comparison, no matter who he reads. I asked him what got him started on Pride and Prejudice in the first place and he said he read it to gain insights into ladies' character and thinking.

That was one of many conversations created by the environment of the Jalsa, all of the revealing both sameness and difference, differences that fascinated rather than threatened, and commonalities that created bonds, with everyone I spoke to. I'll never have the time to talk about all the people I met, and all we had in common and, most importantly, all we had to learn from each other. Because we Unitarian Universalists know we need to stand by our Muslim brothers and sisters, especially now when the media and our government stoke the fires of prejudice and persecution and violence against them. But also, we can learn from them, and part of what we can learn is how to inhabit more deeply, more continually, more faithfully the principle we share: love for all, hatred for none, affirming the inherent worth and dignity of every human being.

The depth and spirituality and capacity of their commitment to love for all, hatred for none, so evident in their welcome to each other and all their guests - this takes enormous intention – devotion, as well as alignment. There are explicit expectations of everyone who attends. Here are just a few of those expectations, as laid out on a Jalsa webpage I read before my trip:

"This is no ordinary gathering. There are many benefits of the Jalsa to the participants. Members should utilize this opportunity to renew their personal faith and spirituality, meet and establish friendship with other members of the community, welcome new members into the fold of the community and remember those who have passed away in the previous year and pray for them.
Jalsa participants should:

  • Pray for safe travel of all members to and from Jalsa
  • Show respect to your elders and act in a kind manner to those younger than you.
  • Wear Islamic clothing. Men and women should cover their heads.
  • Make sure that children as well as teenagers are at their best behavior.
  • Constantly pray for the success of the Jalsa."
  • This etiquette was expected of everyone except the guests - like me – I had a head covering with me but I wasn't expected to wear it and I mostly didn't. I think – I hope - that's the only rule I didn't follow myself. It wasn't hard to follow the etiquette because it was manifest everywhere, not in solemnity or stuffiness, actually rather in a sense of focus, a sense of gladness and fulfillment, in the attention and respect everyone brought to everything that happened – and I mean everything. People were interested, open, warm, thoughtful, patient, helpful, to each other, constantly. A woman showed up without documentation she needed to receive her conference identification badge – necessary to get anywhere around the conference – and many strangers from many countries speaking many languages worked to help her reach the rest of her family and get what she needed to pass through security. Older people were attentively served and supported by family and by strangers – if they needed a ride, or a seat, or a chair in the middle of an open area, they got it, immediately, with graciousness and good humor. If people seemed lost or tired or hot, others were there with support and information and tangible assistance. If you were looking for a place to sit, a stranger invited you to sit next to them, quickly, gladly. People all looked out for each other, equally and utterly. One day when I was standing waiting for my friend Tazeen to text me where I should meet her next – and in no distress, just hanging out in the shade looking at my phone, a young woman, maybe 17 years old, came up to me to ask if I was lost or needing any help. I thanked her and said no, I was fine, just waiting for word from my friend. She asked my name and where I was from, one thing led to another, and eventually I met her delightful mother who had sent her to check on me, and her older sister and we went to get a snack together and I had my first Kulfi, a delicious Pakistani cardamom ice cream pop after which I will never be the same.

    One of the most exciting initiatives of the Jalsa was that all the Ahmadi were invited to participate in creating together a single hand-written Qur'an, every person writing a single line of text in their own hand, and then signing a book with their name and where they came from and how it felt to help create a copy of the Qur'an each of them, all of them, together. Like everything on such a scale, it was challenging to manage. The line of women waiting to do this was so long, the organizers had to add extra times for them to come back over the three days in order to accommodate everyone.

    And no one complained about the line. In fact I never heard anyone complain about anything the whole time I was there. I found this remarkable – people responded to every challenge, every discomfort, every disappointment, with grace, with kindness, with respect, readily and fully. They were extraordinarily and truly forgiving of circumstances and of each other. Even of a speaker who spoke at great length with almost no affect and almost no eye contact – and still everyone listened with attention and earnestness. One listener later attributed her own irresistible sleepiness during that speaker's address never to any lack of ability on his part, but rather to the great restfulness and solace he projected. Talk about a forgiving audience!

    As one of the few white people attending the conference I stood out like a sore thumb. Many people asked me where I was from. Every time I told them the US, they asked me about Donald Trump. Every time they asked me about Donald Trump, they spoke of him with respect as well as dismay. They called him Mr. Trump and spoke with gravity and decorum about their deep unhappiness regarding what he says about their faith and their people. I answered them in kind, expressing my own dismay and frustration with him and his movement, but in their terms. "Mr. Trump." And I thought about our first principle, and my own despair about the ever-deepening rifts in this country, and what difference it might make – perhaps – if I reached out across those rifts with language that was not just clear but respectful, with love for all and hatred for none, like the Ahmadis, I, whose language has mostly lifted up my contempt for him even though I have so much less at risk from him than they do. Because they are not enfeebled by their care and respect, they are empowered by it, and ennobled. In some parts of the world Ahmadis are legally persecuted, even killed, for their faith. And it happens. And yet their movement is growing because the power and grace of the way they live into ‘love for all, hatred for none' is absolutely real and therefore it is not only humbling and surprising and inspiring, it is, most of all, compelling.

    ….It came up in conversations as well as meeting reports that living deeply into our own first principle is also something many of you are working on here at First U. How do you make sure people coming through your doors feel truly, profoundly welcomed and appreciated, whoever they are, whatever their gifts or needs or hopes or wounds? Many of you have this beloved community as a foundational part of your identity and life. Some of you have found this church both appealing and complicated, a little hard to get traction with, a little hard to find your place in. I am grateful to all of you for your honesty, your commitment, your willingness to share all that you love, and all that you wish for, in this church, with me. It's not always easy to do that, and it's essential that I understand what the experience of First U is for different people here, so that I am as informed as I can be, if we are to move forward together, to serve the growth and deepening and empowering of this church.

    Because when UU communities are at our very best, we are like the Jalsa for each other. This week you have treated me as I was treated there, with consistent and deep and warm welcome. To some degree, these are inherent in Unitarian Universalism, but also they are inconstant. They require commitment, just like the expectations laid out for the Jalsa, commitment that includes awareness and dedication.

    We come here because we are seeking something – connection, relationship, inspiration, education, maybe solace from our pain, maybe work for our hands, maybe hope for our hearts. If we really engage, along the way we can encounter what is best and deepest in ourselves and in our world. That is why we also must offer each other care, respect, honor, welcome – radical because it is so consistent – and thereby faithful - welcome. Not because it is polite, and not because it is expected; because it is what we believe and that makes it necessary.

    In the wake of the election last November, people are turning to First U as a rallying point, a place of hope, a way to make a difference, a source of renewal. You have been here for the people of this city and this region, and this state for so long and in so many ways. You are called again now by the people coming, or coming back, into your next incarnation. Especially now in these days that so readily call forth our anxiety, our anger, our condemnation, even our contempt, may we dig deep to renew and strengthen our ability to live into our first principle, making sure these are not only our words, but also our deeds, within and beyond these walls. When we succeed in this, we build bridges and grow ourselves along with our community. With radical welcome and honor for each other and for the remarkable work and vision of this church, you can do and be all you wish, not only a blessing to all who come here for all the many reasons people come here, but also a blessing far beyond the bounds of this church. And the prospect of doing that with you is profoundly exciting. I am so grateful now, to be reminded here among you, with you all, of this lesson I learned from my Muslim friends. We all have so much to share with each other. May the reality of their Jalsa be also the reality of our faith, in all our communities, among all our people, even one day for our nation. Insh'Allah. May it be so?