Building the Beloved Community

January 21, 2007
Walter Lefore


Sometime late last fall, colorful banners started popping up all around campus at Andover Newton Theological School. For the longest time, weeks, maybe a month or more, I was only vaguely aware of their presence. I noticed only that they were new and colorful. At some point I was startled to find they had words on them. They said "Building the Beloved Community, and noted that the year 2007 was the school' s bicentennial.

After that, I realized that I couldn' t go by one of those banners without reading the words Building the Beloved Community. I liked the way the words sounded. I liked the feeling the words evoked. Building the Beloved Community.

I thought about the words and realized I really didn' t know what they meant. I found myself wondering and thinking: "what is a beloved community?" For a long time, the words just wouldn' t go away. They seemed to lurk in my subconscious and pop up every now and again. And each time I focused on them, I had a warm and comfortable feeling. The words had deep resonance for me. I realized it wasn' t the specific meaning that was important but the concept, the idea of the Beloved Community that had me hooked.

On the campus of Andover Newton Theological School, standing looking up at a banner, it occurred to me: "that' s why you are a UU and training to be a minister, that' s your work, to help build the Beloved Community". I think we, as Unitarian Universalist have a legitimate claim to such a community. It seems to me, if we live our seven principles, truly live our principles, we will have gone a long way toward building the Beloved Community.

In a recent Spire I said that Martin Luther King first coined the term The Beloved Community. Apparently, I was wrong about that. It seems that an early 20th century philosopher/theologian by the name of Josiah Royce first used the term. Dr King, however, seems to have gotten all the credit for the term.

Dr. King believed that the cornerstone for the "Beloved Community" was love and justice and that the foundation of the Beloved Community was integration and total relatedness. He believed that love and trust were higher values than fear and hatred. That peace and justice are not just words and concepts, but a powerful counter-balance to war and military conflict. He saw the struggle to resolve conflicts, rather than the absence of conflict, as the fertile ground upon which to build the Beloved Community. In other words, for King, the Beloved Community was not about there being no conflict, no hurt, or pain, it was about HOW we deal with such things. King' s definition of love is really wonderful: "the binding power that holds the universe together, tying us in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality."

For me the Beloved Community is some form of the idealized family. I say idealized because I suspect virtually nobody has a family that is consistently loving. For me, it' s a community where one is fully accepted as one is. It' s a place where we can truly be ourselves. It' s a place where there is no need to keep your public face on; And yet, be loved and accepted.

For me, the Beloved Community includes us all. It' s a place where we are not only loved and accepted, we are supported and encouraged to be our full selves. It' s a place where we are supported to be the biggest and best that we are able to be. It' s a place where we honor and take care of one another… And all that, despite freckles, odd behavioral traits and bad breath! Now that' s the Beloved Community that I envision.

It seems to me, all of this is possible using the seven UU principles as our guide, our tools and template. The inherent worth and dignity of every person would be lived out; every person would feel like they had worth and dignity because they were treated that way. It seems justice, equity and compassion would naturally flow from treating every person with dignity.

And if we truly Acted with respect for the interdependent web of all existence, of which we Are a part, it should be easy to see the worth of the people and things we interact with. If we truly felt connected to that interdependent web, we would recognize the outer as some form of ourselves. If we are indeed an interdependent web, there is no there there, only an extension of me.

Now, "okay, "isn' t this a little over the top?" I can imagine some of us asking? "Isn' t this a little idealistic? This is the real world after all." I can imagine some of us thinking that the principles make perfect sense, as principles. But expecting the principles to be put into action every day, under all circumstances, treating every person with dignity, may well be too much to ask or expect.

Perhaps such pushback, questions and concerns are perfectly appropriate. As for myself, there is no need for you to fear that I am going to tell you what you should do or believe. These are questions we all need to grapple with and answer for ourselves. For me, these are questions of faith. I use faith as a bridge between current reality and that to which I aspire. And I try to pay attention to the great saying they have at Alcoholics Anonymous, "one day at a time".

Several weeks ago, in a class of Unitarian Universalism, we read a book by Michael Durall, many of you may have read the book as well, its called "The Almost Church". Durall is a consultant to churches and he apparently works with a number of different denominations. The Almost Church is a critique of the Unitarian Universalist Church and makes recommendations to enhance the UU church of the future .

Let me suggest that before you read this book, you put on your seat belt. The reading makes for quite a bumpy ride at times. Lets just say that he doesn' t lack for opinions nor critical critique. The book got at least as many jeers as cheers in my class. Although, we all agreed the book made us think about our faith and our collective Unitarian Universalist Church.

Durall lists five factors that summarize the traditional UU church. The moderate Middle. Avoiding offense. Preserving unity. Valuing the normal. And Gradualism. He believes these are the factors that many UU churches embody.

The moderate middle, is defined as "nothing too extreme". Avoiding offense is defined as "going to great length to avoid criticism. Preserving unity is "the desire to keep everyone in the congregation happy. Valuing the normal means that change is seen or experienced as a threat to the comfort zone. Gradualism was seen as a time honored myth that the best changes happen slowly. Perhaps, you can catch his drift.

The class tossed these things around for quite some time. And to a person, I' m happy to report, none of us saw examples of these things in our own churches. However, by the same token, I must admit that most of us saw signs of these factors in other churches we have attended or know about.

In large measure, we agreed that many UU congregations do tend toward the moderate middle, where there seems to be the greatest likelihood of everyone being comfortable. In general, we agreed that many UU congregations seemed to place comfort above all else and placed a higher value on feeling good than on doing good. It seems, that in many congregations there is little real discussion of our religious and philosophical beliefs, for fear of alienating some segment of the community.

Many of the seminarians in my class felt that many UU churches lacked a way or a place or a mechanism to support people being more fully who they truly are. There was general agreement that people often don' t feel comfortable in their church communities, talking about what' s real in their lives, like their divorce, or bankruptcy or their addiction to drugs, alcohol or on-line gambling.

In a very sincere discussion, we future UU ministers, wondered whether our collective churches were so bent on being and feeling comfortable, that it got in the way of people being able to be truly who they are. We wondered whether comfort got in the way of people being able to be open about the trials and tribulations that we all have, as we walk the paths of our spiritual journeys.

Michael Durall, in The Almost Church, argues that creating an authentic church requires a conviction in our hearts and minds that Unitarian Universalism can change people' s lives for the better in some fundamental way. He quotes the poet Anne Dillard as saying: "when people come to church they should not be handed an order of service with a smile, but should be given hard hats and life preservers; because church should be a dangerous place, a zone of risk, a place of new birth and new life, where we confront ourselves with who we truly are and who the church is calling us to become."

I must admit I like the notion of the church being a hard hat zone, a work zone, where people do the hard work of growing and loving and caring. I like the notion of our churches implementing our third UU principle: acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.

I believe a hard hat work zone mentality is necessary if we are to build the Beloved Community. Its hard work to see the worth and dignity of the guy who just cut you off as you tried to exit the freeway on your way to work. Its hard work to see the worth and dignity of someone with whom you vehemently disagree. Its hard work to see the worth and dignity of someone who has violated your dignity.

I think its hard work to not judge someone who has not met our expectations. I think its hard work to take off our public face and let others have a clearer view of who we really are, despite our freckles, odd behavioral traits and bad breath.

Are we ready to truly accept and welcome into our midst the proverbial bag lady if she were to join our service this morning? Are we able to convert the good words and beliefs expressed in our seven principles into action and deeds?

If we are to build the Beloved Community we are going to have to be able to do things that we have not consistently been able to do before. The Beloved Community requires that we truly welcome and accept even the least of us.

I believe when we are able to consistently apply and Live our UU principles, we will be well on the road to Building the Beloved Community. Building the Beloved Community just might require hard hats.