“In our experiment in religious community we are saying:
|begin with acceptance, begin with the openness which is a form of love,
begin with the love that lets others be who they are—
then personal growth is more likely to follow and truth—
living, relevant, personal truth—is likely to follow, too.”
- Roy D. Phillips
Over the years, I have spoken to you many times about the meaning of membership in our church, and, frankly, I’m not sure that I have much that is new to say on the subject. So this morning I want to take a somewhat different and more personal tack, and talk about the meaning which comes from membership. Perhaps what I have to say will be self-evident and resonate with you. I rather hope so.
What I know about this topic mostly comes from my experience of being part of a family, of growing up in a small town in Maine, of being a lifelong Unitarian Universalist and of ministering to a variety of Unitarian Universalist churches over the past thirty-one years, and, more recently, of my participation in the Unitarian Universalist Partner Church Council, my work as the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Ambassador to the Transylvanian (now “Hungarian”) Unitarian Church in Romania, and, more particularly, of my relationship with our congregation’s Unitarian partner church in Ujszekely in Transylvania.
My knowledge is, therefore, less theoretical than experiential. It is less about definitions and concepts than it is about matters of the heart: about love and about the mysterious sense that the journey of our lives actually has had a direction, even though that direction is sometimes hard to chart.
During my most recent visit in Transylvania, Borika Jakab, whom many of you will remember from her visit here in 2005, or from your visits to Ujszekely (Borika is the wife of the minister, for those who may not know), and I were speaking about the problems of many of the people in the congregation there and of friends and colleagues of Borika and her husband Zsolt. It was obvious that there are many problems there, and at one point we agreed that there was no such thing as a perfect family. Mental health issues, addiction, marital problems, wayward children, abuse, and disappointments of all stripes are the common currency of family life no matter where you live. There is no such thing as a perfect family, neither here nor in far-off Romania.
And yet, we also know that much of the meaning that we take from life comes from that primary familial relationship. It is the first place where we begin to form our identity and from which we may gather a sense of purpose in life. If we are lucky, those initial familial relationships are sound enough that we gain a mostly positive sense of membership and the meanings that it can bring. The family is the first place where we “belong,” the first place where we are made aware of the benefits of belonging. It is where we begin to understand who we are, and who we are in relation to the world.
My strongest sense of belonging after my family came from my upbringing in a small town on the coast of Maine. There was little question that I “belonged” in Castine, Maine. My grandfather was the physician in the little hospital which he and my grandmother, a registered nurse, had established there. My mother was a teacher in the local elementary school.
On her side of our family, our roots go back at least eight generations in that place.
Castine is situated on a peninsula. You have to want to go there. It was, in addition to being a beautiful place, a relatively secure and self-contained little world in which to grow up. It was from there that I learned that one’s understanding of one’s place in the world, of one’s identity, and of one’s participation in a larger whole, can bring rich rewards in the form of knowing who we are and can perhaps even help to give us a sense of why we are.
I grew up in the Unitarian, and after the 1961 merger of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America, the Unitarian Universalist church. It was literally a stone’s throw from my house. I attended Sunday School there until the eighth grade, when I left town to attend boarding school in another part of the state. I attended church there with my parents and my paternal grandparents.
It was there that I first explored the great questions of life, death, and in between. Even sex was a not-taboo subject! It was there that I first considered entering the ministry. Little did I know that my membership there would provide me with a lifetime of meaning and identity and an even deeper sense of belonging, with experiences I could not even have imagined at the time, and with relationships and friendships that have been profoundly impactful on my life. (If you have children here, you should consider this possibly lifelong benefit for them of having a church connection.)
After a typically dissolute youth and graduation from college and graduate school at the University of Maine, I finally decided to follow my early inclination and curiosity and enter into theological studies at Harvard Divinity School. In both of those places, Maine and Harvard, I had a strong sense of belonging and membership. I made friends who helped to give my life meaning by helping me to understand more deeply who I am in relation to the world and taught me things I could not otherwise have known, things which have brought beauty and solace and joy to me life. I was with people who shared common goals and a common outlook on life. Even in my darker moments, I always knew that I was not alone or isolated, but that I was surrounded by people who cared about and supported and loved me.
In 1982, in a little prairie town in southwestern Minnesota, I embarked upon my ministerial career. I could not have chosen a more spectacular place to serve my first church. Hanska, Minnesota sits in an ocean of corn. On a little hill (called Mt. Pisquah after the mountain on which Moses stood to gaze into the Promised Land into which he would never enter—an amazing metaphor for life!) stands the Nora Unitarian Universalist Church. It is a beautiful setting, if perhaps a bit isolated. Founded by Norwegian immigrants, it is about as opposite to our usual UU demographics as you can get. Most of the members were farmers. Most had never attended college. Some still spoke Norwegian.
Of course, I bumbled through my three years in Hanska, totally embraced by that small and loving congregation in spite of all I didn’t know. Those people taught me much about why one ought to belong to a church. I watched as they supported one another through heartbreaking loss and occasional tragedy. I watched as they worked and had fun together. I watched as they struggled with family issues and with an economy that was not kind to farmers in the early 1980’s. I simply cannot imagine my life without that experience and without those people. A piece of my heart will always belong there. No matter what self-doubts I may have had about my ability to become a minister, they put their confidence in me. I owe them much.
After that early experience in Hanska, I served five other churches before coming to Newburyport. I spent six years in Attleboro, Massachusetts, in a larger congregation in a very different kind of place, a declining manufacturing town, and in a church with roots in the Universalist side of our tradition. Though not the happiest period in my life, still I was embraced by the congregation there, and, though I was having some second thoughts at that time about remaining in the ministry, I continued to learn from the experience of belonging to a community striving to provide a spiritual home for themselves in challenging times and to make a difference in an often troubled world.
As in Hanska, there were profound and tragic events from which I continued to learn about the vicissitudes of life, its joys and its sorrows, and to count my blessings, to grow, and to learn more about myself. Again, those people taught me things I could not have known about life had I not been a part of their community, and which I hope helped to make me a kinder and more compassionate person. I received far more from them than I ever gave.
After a two year hiatus from ministry, during which I returned to the community of my childhood, I re-entered the ministry as an interim in the Rockland, Maine UU church, followed by a year as a circuit riding interim in three small congregations in the Oxford Hills region of western Maine. In all of these congregations I met people who taught me important lessons about life and death, people who remain dear to me though I no longer see them, and whom I shall never forget, people who made me feel that I belonged in their midst.
Through all these changes, my identity and membership as a Unitarian Universalist was part of the glue that kept my life together and gave me a sense that I had a place in the world. My many relationships across the Unitarian Universalist universe are actually a perpetual surprise and joy and even a mystery to me. It is hard, when you are so deeply involved in something over so many years, not to feel how empty your life would be without that amazing web of relationships and experiences, relationships and experiences which have of course been enriched tremendously during my increasingly lengthy tenure as your minister!
In 1995, after coming here to the First Religious Society, which had already established a partner church relationship with the church in Ujszekely under my predecessor Bert Steeves, I began to get involved in the work of international partnership. This work has led not only to now fifteen trips to visit our partners in Transylvania and even a trip to visit our Unitarian brothers and sisters in northeastern India, but it has given me a more global and I trust less parochial view of the world in which I live. It has given me a much deeper sense of our Unitarian Universalist faith and the ways that it can help sustain very different kinds of people in very different kinds of places. That work has profoundly deepened and enriched my own spirituality and, I dare to hope, at least a few of yours as well, either by direct experience or if only by hearing about it second hand. In short, this work has changed my life.
I sometimes say that I have a second family in Transylvania, and it is true. Not in my wildest dreams growing up in a small town in Maine during the Cold War could I have imagined such a possibility, and yet, it has been one of the most meaningful blessings of membership and belonging of the many that I have received in my life.
In short, I cannot imagine my life at all without those friendships and experiences, and without all the meanings that membership–in my family, my community, and particularly in a Unitarian Universalist church–have brought to my life. Whatever it may mean to become a member of a church, it is clear to me that membership in all its forms can bring incredible meaning to our lives. What that meaning is will vary from person to person, but I can almost guarantee that it will be there if you make the effort and commitment to become part of a striving religious community like ours.
That, at least, is my hope, for each and every one of us, on this day of new member recognition, and in all of the days of belonging still to come. Amen.
- The Rev. Harold E. Babcock
Reading: on membership, by the Rev. Donna Morrison-Reed