This sermon was delivered by Reverend Andrew Millard during Sunday Service, July 4, 2021.
We live in a complicated and perilous time.
Sixteen months ago, when the global coronavirus pandemic was declared, we — like every other Unitarian Universalist congregation, like almost every other religious community — we moved all of our programs on-line. Sunday services, the Forum, religious education for children and youth, Fellowship Circles, the Book Club, Fiber Fuun, EarthRising, many group activities and other programs, Board and committee meetings — we moved everything on-line. Yes, there were logistics to figure out, like how to use Zoom, but the decision was simple, because it’s not like there was any other choice.
Now though, we do have choices to make, and our decisions are far more complicated.
For instance, vaccines are now widely available, and it would be easy to say that if someone doesn’t get vaccinated and gets sick, then that’s their own fault. Only it’s not that simple.
Some people have valid health reasons for not getting vaccinated, and that’s their doctor’s advice. Someone I know is pregnant, and her doctor has said to wait until after she’s given birth. Someone else is in remission from cancer and has other health concerns, so their doctor has said to wait for now, too.
What about someone with a job where if they missed a couple of days’ work they’d be fired? They might be able to schedule their vaccine appointment okay, but if they have the fairly common reaction of aches and fatigue that lay them low for a day or two, then they’ve lost their source of income. And there’s a whole demographic group, namely young African Americans, who aren’t hearing about the importance of getting vaccinated from anyone, not their pastor, because they don’t go to church, and not their doctor, because they don’t have a doctor.
Then there’s the Delta variant. This is on track to become the dominant strain of the coronavirus here, as it already has in India and in the United Kingdom, because it is so transmissible. And though you won’t end up in the ICU with it if you are vaccinated, it can still make you sick. A friend of mine — about my age, fully vaccinated, and a nurse — was sick with it last weekend, with a fever, aches and fatigue like a bad case of the ‘flu, and there’s a greater chance this affects people over fifty. Given the spread of Delta, the World Health Organization has recommended that even fully vaccinated people should be wearing masks.
Oh, and when did we forget that we wear masks not to protect the mask-wearer but to protect other people? It’s like the CDC changed its guidelines and suddenly we were all, “Freedom! I’m alright, Jack, and forget the rest of you.”
So on the one hand we have many people now vaccinated, but we have everyone under the age of twelve who cannot be vaccinated. There’s widespread impatience to get back to doing everything we used to do, but there’s also concern that we don’t mess up just as we’re approaching the finish line. And there are people who for more than a year were working on-line or otherwise isolated in their homes, and have been yearning for human contact, but there are also people who had little choice but to continue in retail and other public-facing jobs when, so much of the time, the public treated them horribly, and they’re still traumatized.
We live in a complicated and perilous time, because, unlike sixteen months ago, the decisions we must make now are not simple and there are consequences to everything we do decide.
So in late April the Policy Board charged a new task force with figuring this out. The Transition Task Force has met eight times since then, and has, amongst other recommendations, proposed a multi-phase plan for resuming in-person programming based on indicators such as daily new cases, positive test rates and infection rates in our area. The Board approved that plan and is now updating the Limited Building Use Policy that has restricted in-person activities during the pandemic, but the intention is that, assuming the indicators continue to trend downward, we would begin some in-person meetings and programs as soon as possible.
You’ll hear more details about this very soon, once the Limited Building Use Policy has been updated, but I want to share with you a values framework that has helped the Transition Task Force with its work. And it’s important to have such a framework because when the way forward isn’t clear, when we live in a complicated and perilous time, we need to fall back on our values to support us and guide us.
This framework comes from the Congregational Life Staff of the Unitarian Universalist Association, and it’s based on the fact that what we’re doing in navigating this transition — in fact, what we’re doing in every aspect of congregation life — is all about mutual relationships and interdependence. And so the UUA’s Congregational Life Staff lifts up four values that we can practice mindfully: inclusion; care; consent; and covenant.
I don’t know of any UU who has said that we shouldn’t be welcoming and inclusive. Inclusion isn’t mentioned in the Seven Principles — the closest they get is in naming “acceptance of one another” — but it’s arguably been something we’ve valued for a long time.
In the 1950s, for instance, there was a growing movement within Universalism to become a truly universal religion, broader than Christianity and inclusive of diverse religious beliefs and practices. And that same decade, the Unitarian Fellowship of the Peninsula was founded and was racially integrated from the start.
Of course, sometimes our actual practice of inclusion has fallen short of our intentions. In her reflection as part of “The Promise and the Practice”, my colleague the Rev. Carol Thomas Cissel acknowledges two sets of reactions she experiences when, in a UU congregation’s description of itself, she comes across words like diverse, multicultural, inclusive and welcoming. First, Cissel feels the embrace of those words, the warmth of recognition, the eagerness to pull up a chair and take a place at the Welcome Table. But then, she remembers how often she and other African American UUs have been disappointed when the promise of those words fails to manifest in practice, and it hurts. As Cissel notes quite simply, words matter. Empty promises hurt more than no promises.
Or, in visual form, thanks to David Hayward, the minister turned artist who creates cartoons under the name “NakedPastor”:
There’s even something known as the New England Welcome, and I apologize to anyone who is from New England because it goes something like this: “We sincerely welcome you into our church, so long as you know how to get here and know what to do and can find your way around. We’ll be happy to talk to you if you come up to us, and otherwise we’ll leave you alone.”
Inclusion is easy to claim, but it’s harder to practice. The example of inclusion that the UUA’s Congregational Life Staff gives in the context of resuming in-person programming is to “Plan all events so that those who are not vaccinated or not protected by vaccination can participate. Any ‘open’ event that is limited to those who are vaccinated is exclusionary.”
If we want to practice inclusion, we need to offer more than the New England Welcome. If we truly want to include someone, we need to care about them, too. After all, our Second Principle is a consequence of our First Principle. If we really believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person, then we’ll treat them with justice, equity and compassion.
Again, the UUA’s Congregational Life Staff applies this to resuming in-person programming: “Don’t make sudden changes to meet in person or to stop requiring masks indoors. Allow people time to consider how they will feel without masks in their small group or at an outdoor congregational event, then work out a way to listen to each other before deciding on any changes. This is a compassionate way for us to respect and respond to the trauma of the last year and its varied impacts.”
Caring about other people means we don’t assume that everyone else is in the same place that we are. It also means, I’m afraid, that we need to bring some nuance to the Golden Rule. Yes, treating other people the way you’d like to be treated is a good start, a reasonable first approximation to what it means to care about someone else, but better is treating other people the way that they would like to be treated, and that means talking to them, being in relationship with them, to find out how they would like to be treated.
If we care about someone with whom we are in relationship, then we practice consent. We don’t just treat someone the way we’d like to be treated and steamroll over their objections. We find out how they want to be treated and we confirm that it’s okay to treat them that way.
Now consent isn’t mentioned in our Seven Principles either, but it is part of the foundation of all liberal religion, not just Unitarian Universalism. As theologian James Luther Adams put it, in what has become known as the “Five Smooth Stones”, relationships between individuals ideally rest on free and mutual consent, not on coercion. Truly including someone means we care about them, and truly caring about someone means we are in consenting relationship with them.
This is how the UUA’s Congregational Life Staff applies consent to resuming in-person programming: “Adopt an individual practice of consent among friends within the congregation, even when you are meeting outside of congregational events. Ask one another what is comfortable and safe. Respect what the others might need at this point in time even if you don’t have the same needs. We know that before hugging someone, we should ask first, then wait for a yes or no. Similarly, we should ask and wait for an answer before meeting without masks. Asking for consent builds trust, inclusion and muscle-memory.”
At the UUA’s on-line General Assembly last month, I attended a workshop on consent as a decision-making tool. This is known as “sociocracy”, which literally means “rule by companions”, as opposed to majority rule or other options such as tyranny, charismatic leadership, a hierarchy of elders or consensus. It’s not about making the perfect decision every time; rather, it’s about making a decision that is “good enough” to get the job done.
In breakout rooms during the workshop, for example, we got to play with a very simple process of consent to select who would report back to the whole group about what we had done in our breakout room. As I know many of you have experienced in such situations, asking for someone to take on such a task usually either results in crickets, or the same person who volunteers for everything does it while everybody else sits on their hands. Aside from spreading responsibilities around more fairly, I like this consent process because, in deciding who’ll take on some task, even when it’s low stakes, it builds community and deepens relationships, which is arguably what we are really about rather than task management.
And fourth, covenant.
Unitarian Universalists and our religious forebears have been practicing covenant for four hundred years. It is the best way that we’ve found to be in mutual relationship, explicitly sharing our expectations of how we will be together as our community navigates complicated and perilous times. A covenant doesn’t mean there won’t ever be misunderstandings or conflict, but it does provide a container for holding us together when there is misunderstanding or conflict.
Practicing inclusion means that everybody’s expectations are represented in the covenant. Practicing care means that everybody’s anxieties are heard during the making of a covenant. And practicing consent means that the covenant might not be perfect, but “good enough” is good enough.
As the UUA’s Congregational Life Staff put it in the context of resuming in-person programming, “Respect the wide range of ways people may be reacting to the CDC guidance around masks, including members of your church community. This includes unvaccinated people with compromised immune systems, parents of unvaccinated children, and others who don’t yet find that this guidance prioritizes their well-being. Our covenants call us to work through these differences.”
Unitarian Universalism calls us into mutual relationships. Our religious community is navigating this complicated and perilous time, so we need to rely one one another, and we need to rely on our values to support and guide us. It’s when we practice our values of inclusion, care, consent and covenant that we are living our interdependence. It’s when we intentionally practice our mutuality that Unitarian Universalism becomes a life-affirming, life-saving faith. For every task, no matter how big or small, is an opportunity to deepen relationships and build community, and that is what truly matters.
May it be so.