The Beloved Community

September 29, 2013
Rev. Dr. Leonard DeRoche

A few days ago at the men's meeting at the parsonage I mentioned that John Dominic Crosson, a professor of theology at DePaul University, has said that the function of most organized religion since ancient times has been to "provide community and work for justice." We are here to provide community. There are many characteristics of community. We can have a dysfunctional community, a healthy community or a blessed community. Healthy and blessed communities welcome people, grow and become a society that others want to become a part of. The best a dysfunctional community can do is to maintain the status quo. I have also mentioned to a few of you the concept of right relations in conjunction with some of the issues that have plagued your community the past few years. So I decided to address this concept this morning. One of those questions I was asked was, "do all congregations have right relations committees?" I answered, "only the healthy ones.

Basically, right relations is to relate to each other in a way that reflects and promotes a healthy relationship. I tried to get one established at a former congregation without success. Their unwritten process was to encourage members to leave when conflict arose. They had no mechanism for handling conflict. There, mostly the sensitive people left, which left the least sensitive members. You can probably see what dynamics can develop with this kind of unconscious policy. The least-sensitive tend to contain bullies who don't care about what they do or say, just so they win. They have no care for another's feelings. They practice our principles only verbally. I have not found this dynamic within your community. But you find these dynamics in all sorts of organizations. Public education has attempted to address this bullying problem for a few years now with some success. Churches are more reluctant to face up to issue. One reason for this is the idea that the church is really family.

I think this is an erroneous concept. I suspect many of you will disagree with me on this, but will address this later or talk to me after the service. Anyway the dynamics of dysfunctional behavior can become part of the culture of the congregation, or a family or any organization. One bully was on the board of my best friend's congregation and he was called out for bullying a female member of the board. He replied if he didn't do what he was doing, she would not do what he wanted. He obviously thought that behavior he was correct. This is a typical justification for the behavior. We find these bullies in all of our congregations. It is usually seen as aggressive actions and loud exchanges, but it can also be seen on committees where all ideas are not dealt with equally. It is usually projected against women. But women are known to bully other women too. This is why congregations need some sort of process to address this type of behavior. The idea of right relations is one such process.

Another justification we hear is that the congregation is trying to "limit my voice or opinions". This is not so. It usually has nothing to do with free speech, but behavior, and inappropriate venue for voicing dissent or degrading speech. Sometime it is heard as making a personal attack on someone who has a different opinion as the bully. While we say we can believe anything, we are not free to say anything we would like. This is because we are in a covenantal relationship with each other. This goes back to our very roots in Massachusetts' Pilgrim society. You stated some of the Salem Covenant in our responsive reading. But there are other covenants for that time like the Mayflower Compact that affects us too. Part of the Salem Covenant modified in 1639 states"

Wee promise to walk with our brethren and sisters in this Congregation with all watchfullnes and tendernes, avoyding all jelousies, suspitions, backbyteings, censurings, provoakings, secrete risings of spirite against them;

In publick or in private, we will willingly doe nothing to the ofence of the Church but will be willing to take advise for our selves and ours as occasion shal be presented.

Wee will not in the Congregation be forward eyther to shew oure owne gifts or parts in speaking or scrupling, or there discover the fayling of oure brethren or sisters butt atend an orderly cale there unto; knowing how much the Lord may be dishonoured, and his Gospell in the profession of it, sleighted, by our distempers, and weaknesses in publyck.

In other words, from the beginning of our establishment as a religious community, Unitarian Universalism has put behavioral conditions on membership. Somewhere along our journey as a faith, this has been forgotten and replaced with rights of an individual to exhibit freedom of speech and action. It is a delicate balance. Some of you may feel what was done here in the past was unjust, but let me tell you from what I observed of this process and there were hundreds of volunteer hours that went into the process up to now, no decision made by leadership is a casual decision. Decisions in our church democracies are made by caring people who have a deep love of community as well as individuals who for whatever reason choose not to be in covenant with the rest of us.

This morning you heard the thoughts of Martin Luther King Jr., say "In the beloved community hatred and prejudice of all kinds will be replaced with a willingness to transcend whatever are our differences and work together in a spirit of cooperation. In the beloved community we are inspired to be curious about and accepting of the differences among us rather than looking at each other with suspicion and fear." Let us remember that in all leadership positions there are sometimes no easy decisions, and doing nothing would have also been a decision. A choice for the status quo would have made you a less-gentle community because it would have condoned uncivil behavior and perpetuated a community deemed unsafe for other members.

Now a while ago I said that it was erroneous to think of this church as a family. I recognized that this is exactly opposite of the way you might view this community. But even in fellowship-sized congregations where the matriarchs and patriarchs reign it is not a true family. In these smaller church units that consider themselves extended family, they are not really family. The Handleman's are a family, the Yardley's are a family, the Babcock's are a family. You are a voluntary community who come together based on and held together by common principles and agreed covenants of action or behavior. These actions are how our principles becomes the culture of our community. When a church community fails to live by its principles, it allows the dysfunction of a single member or small group to become the usual pattern of behavior of the whole congregation. For example, if we allowed our wilderness behind our lower playground area to be used as a dump we would be acting in violation of our respect for the earth, and no amount of preaching about the environment will bring us into covenant as long as our actions do not reflect our words. Likewise, if we permit an individual to pollute the emotional life of the congregation with behavior that is outside our principles, we are not in covenant with those principles.

Now none of us can probably claim to have been raised in a perfectly functional home, but one of those rules of home is that when we return we are always taken in, even the most prodigal among us. That is fortunately and unfortunately the way most families work. It is unfortunate because if the prodigal returns with the same dysfunction that she or he left, the family revolves around that behavior. I grew up in a family that had a drunk. My Uncle Les was an alcoholic for the entire time I knew him. He was a functional alcoholic who held a well-paying job. My family and I lived in New Jersey and for most holidays, my mother's sister and my uncle Les and my grandmother and grandfather would either come to us or we would drive into Staten Island. It was a couple hours' journey each way. Well, wherever we were, we were dominated by my uncle's disease. He was moderately tolerable until he became drunk and then became emotionally abusive. He was family, so no one did anything, except maybe wait until he got so drunk he went to bed. No one enjoyed the holidays, but no one did anything about it either. When my brothers and I married, our wives were subjected to this bully. I stopped visiting my only aunt. My brothers stopped visiting my aunt. Les constantly belittled one of my brothers and when he grew, he would have nothing to do with the family. Les's dysfunction became our dysfunction. This is one of the reasons that family is not a good analogy for a congregation.

There is a story that helps describe how the Uncle Les's of the world affect the family system. It comes out of the stories of Uncle Remus. Who remembers them when they were politically correct to read? It is the story of Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox. It is the same theme as the cartoon about the Roadrunner and the Coyote. In the story Uncle Remus tells the stories to a little boy and the little boy asks "Does the Brer Fox ever catch Brer Rabbit?" "Yes he does," says Uncle Remus and tells the story of the Tar Baby. Well, one day Brer Fox built himself a doll out of tar and turpentine and it looks just like a little boy. He then places it in the path where Brer Rabbit frequently runs. Then Brer Fox hides in the bushes and watches. Brer Rabbit comes by and sees the Tar Baby and says, "Nice day, isn't it?" The tar baby says nothing. So Brer Rabbit says it louder. "Nice day, isn't it?" The Tar Baby still says nothing. Brer Rabbit gets louder and angrier. So he says, "if you don't say something I'm going to hit you." The Tar Baby is still silent. So Brer Rabbit hauls back and hits him right in the Tar Baby's face. His paw goes in and he becomes stuck. So the Rabbit then kicks the Tar Baby and then his foot is embedded. It goes on- the more the rabbit fights the more it becomes entrenched.

Uncle Les's are like that, they suck you into their story and you find you can't get out of it. When you get stuck in their story you are enabling them to act in dysfunctional ways. In my family that was how the story went until he died. He and his sickness were always the center of any time the family met. One of the last times I remember being with them was when I lived in England and they came to visit me. He was a golfer and we went to meet my aunt and uncle in Edinburgh, Scotland. It was my first time in the north, but we drove my aunt and uncle around for a week. We saw the golf courses at St. Andrews, Glen Eagles, Carnoustie and I don't remember all the rest. You see, life with Uncle Les was for all of us, doing what he wanted. We could see Scotland, but only through his prism. We'd drop him at the course and meet him at the 19th hole later. I loved my aunt, but she really never had a life that was her own. She really didn't want that and her buy-in to Les's alcoholism enabled him to continue. After Uncle Les died, we saw more of her. She'd visit and when I was in the states I'd visit her. My one brother never reconnected with the family. Life with Uncle Les was always on his terms. We were all stuck in his disease, stuck in his tar baby, and that disease still has my family affected, even twenty-five years after his death. For the 10 years I lived in Pennsylvania, my brother lived 3 miles away and would never return calls or make contact.

We were family and that was the relationship we had. I guess in retrospect we could have done something to help Uncle Les. But in reality, he felt he didn't have a problem and he had to want to solve the problem. We all knew he would not. If we did approach him, he would see us as the problem. By accepting his dysfunction to exist we enabled that dysfunctional behavior to identify our family, and it was easier to just leave than fix it. Currently even after my parents' generation is gone, Les's affect on the family is still evident.

But that is not your story; your leadership has done something. It is an attempt to make us more like that beloved community where agape is the tar the holds us together. For the past two months I have listened to you telling your story. It is not a story as much about what happened as a story about trust. We covenant to the democratic process, when you elect your leadership. When they are elected, they are legally bound to make decisions for the whole of the congregation. This is their fiduciary responsibility. They are required by law to keep personnel issues in confidence. When you covenant to democracy, let us covenant to trust.

In an ever-evolving and never-ending world Amen