A Sermon by Bruce Boucek
Bruce is the Social Sciences Data Librarian at Brown University. He has been one of the senior high youth group advisors for the past seven years. A third-generation Unitarian Universalist, he has many thoughts about what that means.
To listen to the audio from this sermon, click on the arrow at the left in the box below:
In my write-up for the Meeting House Times, I’d meant to have a question mark at the end of the title for my sermon this morning. It might be safe to assume that many UUs, visitors to this house of worship, and other friends of the “faith” would automatically assume there should be one. On the other hand such an assumption might be an example of the kinds of contradictions I hope to examine this morning.
In the description I provided for this morning’s sermon, I expressed an intent to explore the contradictions of being a Unitarian Universalist by examining what I see as failures and successes in my UU experiences and how they have molded my faith development over my lifetime. I also wrote that I would address the importance of story-telling, bearing witness, and seeking alternative frames for understanding and coming to terms with complex problems. I’m not sure how well I’ll address all of the things I promised to speak about this morning, but I do hope to leave you with more questions than answers, a desire to be more self-examined, a feeling of being unsettled, and perhaps provide some hope as well.
I had not initially planned to speak about the current reignition of the so-called “immigration crisis.” While this won’t be my primary focus, I will address it. And, before I go any further I will also say that our Seven Principles are very clear, at least to me, with regard to how we view the horrific actions of our government against people seeking asylum. I know we are a welcoming congregation, but If you disagree with me that our government is behaving horrifically then I question your presence here this morning.
Although it’s been almost 10 years, I’ve already spoken about being a secular humanist, pacifist, UU. While those themes may re-emerge in today’s sermon they are not the focus — except when they are. If you would like to see that previous sermon, I’d be happy to forward to you.
We all have stories that we tell when we want others to understand us more fully, when we’re interested in making connections with people, when we’re trying to build community, and for some, when they want to watch the world burn. That last part, though, that’s not me.
The narrative of our lives, of our existence, is iterative (each step adds to each additional step) and recursive (steps lead back to each other) in our interpretation but also material, real, in terms of our effect on the environment within which we exist and those who share it with us.
I want to tell some of my narrative this morning, some of my stories. I’ll tell them first, giving a brief pause for thought, and I’ll then revisit them and frame them around being a UU and related successes and failures and their contradictions.
Over 40 Years Ago
It was a beautiful summer day on Lake Kasshabog, almost halfway between Toronto and Ottawa. We were in the big cottage standing between the front door and the kitchen counter. I was 4 or 5 looking up at my grandmother. She was very sad. She and my grandfather were getting divorced. He had problems with alcohol and other women. I was very sad too. I told my grandmother I would always take care of her. We bake wild blueberry pie which she hates but she knows I love.
Years later, I’m 8 or 9, on the other side of the lake at my grandfather’s cottage with his new wife, spending a week with them by myself. My grandfather constantly smoking his pipe and drinking crappy beer, probably a step down from Labatts, my step-grandmother smoking cigarettes like a chimney. It’s Canada, in the 70s. My grandfather and I go fishing and catch a bunch of beautiful bass. Fresh caught bass, Ontario sweet corn, and peaches; dinner is lovely. One of the best weeks of my childhood. He had a love of Dylan Thomas and to this day when I hear Thomas’s recording of “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” my memory conflates their voices.
My UUism is heavily molded by my grandfather not just because of the many, many good things he did as a minister and as my grandfather but also because of his failures. Some of those failures were systemic. Theology and philosophy in his and his contemporaries’ and predecessor’s, sermons was all about “Man.” Modern UUism to a certain degree was molded by the same types of failures that he exhibited; his personal failings were/are common among clergy, and the intellectual stagnation that comes from a philosophy and theology guided mostly by privileged white men. The Seven Principles of modern Unitarian Universalism are a direct response to those failures as well as a substantial need to change the language and emphasis of the “faith” (see the history of the Seven Principles). Many of our hymns and readings still need substantial overhaul. While UU churches have made substantial improvements in my lifetime there are still substantial gendered divisions and issues of race and class. Perhaps soon we’ll have an 8th principle that guides us more fully on these issues! Also, a very important point here, my grandfather’s early career would not have been possible without my grandmother. Her work was and still is invisible.
30 Years Ago
I’m in a high school classroom. White painted concrete blocks. We’ve been told we’re all going to take a standardized exam to determine what kind of work we’re suited to when we leave high school. We’ve had no prior notification. We’re told the test is called the “M.A.T.” or Military Aptitude Test. I’m not happy about this situation. I request to speak with my mom on the phone. At the time my mom was working for the Unitarian Universalist Peace Network which had its offices in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia. SANE/Freeze shared the building with them. I think Fresh Air was also produced in the building at the time. A Vietnam veteran lived right next door. I was allowed to go to the school office and call my mom. Our friends in SANE/Freeze informed me that I did have legal rights and that I did not have to take the M.A.T. I was informed there was an appropriate process. I went back to the classroom. The soldier was waiting until I got back before handing out the exam. The other students were irritated that I was apparently the one holding things up. Once the exams were all handed out I calmly and politely got up from my desk and walked to the front of the room, ripped my exam in half, left the room, and waited in the hallway until everyone else finished. I was the only one in my high school to do this. To many of them I was godless traitor (in the most derogatory sense of the 2 words).
I know that many UUs serve in the military. On the UU spectrum of theology and philosophy I have a very strong affinity for the Quakers, except for that pesky problem of needing to believe in God. Over the years working with youth here at First U, I’ve been a little astonished at the lack of criticism of our Military-Industrial complex. I understand that the 4th Principle does not take us all down the same path in our faith development. In my Sunday mornings with youth I sometimes share my story about the M.A.T. I don’t expect that they follow my example, but sometimes I really wish they would.
I will say that we do have youth with great courage. One of our youth is a youth representative to the UUA; another of our youth stood up to her high school principal to protest gun violence this past year. But, I believe we could be doing much more here at First U to nurture courage in all its diversity (and not just for the youth). Related to this but possibly a whole separate sermon on its own is the need to stop focusing on creating leaders. I don’t want to be in a community that has courageous leaders heroically leading us. I want to be part of a courageous community.
More from 30 years ago
I’m at one of the many youth conferences I went to as a teenager. It’s coffeehouse. I’m sitting cross-legged up on the stage. I have my Joy Division, Unknown Pleasures, t-shirt on. Not the one you can buy at your grocery store, but the real deal. I’m reading emo poetry (before we knew what emo was). I’m with 50 or 60 teenagers treating me as a peer. Listening intently to my words. Respecting my space, not making fun of me because of my lisp. We’re not LRY, we’re YRUU. We’re generation X, not the tail end of the baby-boomers (thank god!). We listen to Joy Division (which becomes New Order), The Dead Kennedys, the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy. We listen to gritty music that helps us confront the ennui that’s been left to us by previous generations.
During the same period of time I was back at home in my room listening to The Dead Kennedy’s album “Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables,” which had been released 5 or 6 years earlier. My mom walks into my room, irritated, and she asks me what that horrible noise is. The album cover has the lyrics to the songs on the back side so I hand it to her so she can read the lyrics to some of the songs. She still didn’t like the music, but the lyrics were about the injustices that certain politicians were responsible for here in the US and abroad. She asked me “Are these guys UU?”
Looking back again
I’ve had push back over the years with regard to involvement in youth conferences and how it might not be the best way for our youth to spend their time. When I was doing youth conferences as a teenager, the Seven Principles hadn’t been fully adopted yet and we didn’t have a tradition of creating a youth covenant for each event (some youth groups still don’t do this). I will say that if I hadn’t been involved in the youth activities I was involved in when I was a teenager, I probably wouldn’t be up here speaking to you today. I wouldn’t be speaking to anyone, anywhere. I went to probably 20 or 30 weekend youth conferences as a teenager, three-week-long Continental Youth Conferences, and was the UU youth representative to the International Association of Religious Freedom one summer. Youth conferences literally saved my life (perhaps another sermon for yet another time).
While I’ve been a youth advisor here at First U, a majority of the youth who have become involved in the conference community have seen great benefit from doing so. A few have had some negative experiences; conferences either aren’t for them or relationships have gone astray as they sometimes do when youth transition to being young adults. Some of our youth have made amazing friendships along the way, and I think some of the parents who have had the opportunity to participate have also had enlightening experiences! Many of the youth I went to conferences with became ministers, do RE work, work in social justice, are excellent artists, exceptional lawyers, amazing academics, and professors.
The past two days
Shifting gears is sometimes difficult for me to do. For most of this week I was doing my work as Social Sciences Data Librarian in my office which is 500 feet from this podium. A big chunk of that work was producing some reference maps for Brown University’s First Readings program. Then I needed to write this sermon. The maps I created illustrate eviction in the city of Providence. The supporting maps I created also illustrate a number of correlated demographic variables including renter-occupied housing, poverty, race, and the 18 and under population. Examining or exploring these maps together provides a context for who and where in the city might be impacted by eviction. I encourage you to read “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City” by Matthew Desmond and to visit the website for his project: evictionlab.org
The reason I wanted to include this in my sermon is that I believe it’s indicative of many UUs. We can’t always do all of the many things that we’d like to make the world a better place but many of us find professions that build on our values. I help people find data and make maps and do the research necessary to examine the complexities of the human condition. Doing this work also keeps my perspective open to a very wide diversity of experience.
There are four lessons I’ve addressed in the stories I’ve told. Those four lessons broadly interpreted are:
- We are all flawed but progress can be made with good intentions, and we shouldn’t allow our contradictions, our past failures, to impede that progress.
• Sometimes we don’t know where or when opportunities to be courageous will emerge. I would like to encourage us to more intentionally be there to support those who seize such opportunities.
• We need to provide as many (and diverse) opportunities to build community, inside and outside of this Meetinghouse, as possible.
• Follow a path that works for you but don’t necessarily expect others to follow yours.
All of that being said, I frequently feel that our principles are not enough and other times they are too broad or need to be balanced in a more nuanced way against the other principles. This congregation, and many other New England UU congregations, places particular emphasis on the “democratic process” portion of the Fifth Principal which reads,“The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” I’d like to propose that sometimes the “right of conscience” itself along with our other principles outweighs the need for democratic process especially when we’ve already agreed on all of the other principles. I was appalled at how long it took this congregation to support Black Lives Matter and happy to see improvements with our adoption of Sanctuary, but in some ways even that took too long. I didn’t address our nation’s currently horrifying immigration disaster in any depth earlier but I feel it fits right here. Our nation is built on genocide, enslavement, racism, theft, and kidnapping. This is our history. It is time for us to change. Our government, our military-industrial complex, and now our prison-industrial system are responsible for the circumstances of those seeking asylum in our country. They are responsible for children being ripped away from their parents. They are responsible for camps that look a hell of a lot like concentration camps to me. Who are they? Are we, “they”?
UUs are constantly exploring their personal theologies and philosophies. I know that there are things I believe that not everyone here in this Meetinghouse believes and perhaps can’t even find common ground with. But, is there enough common ground here that we can continue walking on the same path awhile more? And, if so, for how much longer?
This atheist has a prayer that, “If god exists may that god reward those who show compassion, extend love, create rather than destroy, and generally make the world a more complex, interesting, and beautiful place.”