The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

UCM—Rev. Rita Capezzi

My father was without doubt the most influential person in my life. He taught me, mostly by example, the tough lessons about endurance and persistence, about loyalty and devotion, about right action and truthfulness, and above all the need for humor and laughter to bear life’s challenges. We also argued incessantly, about everything. We leaned hard into the stereotype of loud Italians, most of our discussions involved yelling and hand gestures. I remember vividly one occasion, when I was a teenager and probably after taking a high school psychology class. I whined, loudly and with hand gestures, that I needed to “Find myself!” And my father said, “What are you talkin’ about? You’re right here!!” A typical conclusion to most of our “discussions” was “Che cosa volete da me?” Whaddaya want from me!?

The last time I saw my father alive, we argued. He was 81 and I was 59, and I felt he was treating me like as a child and I told him “You can’t talk to me like that.”

We both went pretty quiet. Later when he took me to the airport, he said “You know I didn’t mean all that.” And I did know. Words matter, and sometimes they are only words. There is more than words. And we hugged and were reconciled.

The last time we talked, my father dialed me instead of my spouse—he couldn’t be bothered remembering two phones numbers! about a hunting trip. I wasn’t surprised or upset. My father was thrilled after a lifetime that finally he had a grandson, and a son-in-law, who would go deer hunting with him. I had no interest in hunting.

The very last time I saw my father, he was only a shell of himself. Just three weeks after the hunting trip, he was dead. He was a big strong man—a size 50 coat and a size 36 pants. He’d just brought a new snowblower and had lifted it from the truck. He died on the front porch, and my mother and my sister could not let him go. They resuscitated him for an hour, got him on life- support and into the hospital. I would have to fly from Minnesota and be the one who declared it was time to let him go.

He has been gone almost 4 years, and he’s not really gone. The foundation—the learning and the love—is always there.

I came to UCM just about 10 months ago to fulfill a call as your interim minister, a very specific form of ministry, and one that I think was unevenly understood. Some of you welcomed the leadership and skills I brought. Some of you thought I was like a substitute teacher—just come in and do the lesson plan already mapped out. Some thought I was the new one—here she is, she’s staying right? Some thought I was an impediment—do we really need a minister? Can’t we do church on our own? Don’t we already? Some thought I was a kind of cut-out doll—just move the cardboard around to the spot where “minister” looks needed Oh, can she show up at an event promoting the congregation? Can she do a sermon of a spiritual nature? Can she do a hospital visit? But don’t put the cut-out figure anywhere else. Some thought I came to destroy the congregation—stop telling us things we don’t want to hear about ourselves. That perspective remains the most perplexing to me.

As I said in an early sermon, I came with my training and skills and love of Unitarian Universalism to hold up a mirror. That might seem innocuous on first blush, but we all know that looking in a mirror is always a fraught experience. Look long enough, and the freckles become age spots, the scars and wrinkles deepen, we are smaller than we want to be in real life. I came to hold up a mirror for you, so that you could ask the questions that matter most in a religious community: Who are we as a collected people? Are we who we want to be, who we say we are? How are we living out the greatest aspirations of our faith? And, to be a little more specific to our context: How do we, each of us, embody Unitarian Universalism? How do we, as a community, embody Unitarian Universalism? How do we, individually and collectively, proclaim to the hurting world, and it is a hurting world in which we live, how do we proclaim the saving power of Unitarian Universalism.

As an interim minister, I lean on the relationship between the words “ministering” and “administrating.” Once I was a university administrator. Now I am a minister. The roles overlap. Minister and administrator, ministry and administration, ministering and administering, these words all have as their root, as their core definition, the act of paying attention.

Paying attention. Paying attention, what the poet Mary Oliver called the beginning of devotion.

When you administrate, you are trying to make things work. You are paying attention to the details of the workflow, to the roles of the people involved. You are paying attention to the outcome that is supposed to follow from the process and the people. Paying attention in this way is crucial in congregational life, too. We are an organization, and we have an organizational structure, a way to get things done, a way to be together. In that way, a church is like other kinds of organizations.

But here is the difference. When you minister, that is when you administer in a religious community, it is not so much about paying attention so things work that matters. Rather, when you minister, you pay attention in order to make things real. To make things real. And what is “real”? Ministry is about loving, in the broadest sense—a way to create healthy, thriving relationships so that goodness can prevail in a world seemingly bent on destroying itself. When you minister, when you are about the tasks of ministering, love is the ultimate requirement, and the only reason to do any of it. Ministry, all ministry no matter if performed by a lay person or a trained professional, is about building lively relationship were all the people thrive. It is about moving the aspirations of the mind and heart into reality by the work of the hands. Ministering for us is about making Unitarian Universalism real in our lives and in this world.

Ministering requires the kind of love that looks real trauma in the face and says: we can bear this together. Ministering requires the kind of love that admits some real problems don’t have solutions and says: we can carry this together. Ministering requires the kind of love that acknowledges real limits and appropriate boundaries, that knows some problems are not problems at all and we should let them go.

Ministering recognizes that some real conditions, even with all our devotion and dedication, cannot change, and this love says: we can remain present to such tragedy and bend but not break, supporting each other even when we long to move away.

You don’t have to be a minister in order to minister. We all can minister. You all are already ministering: ministering in care for our children and youth, ministering in care for the building both practically and aesthetically, ministering to secure the past and build upon it into an unfolding future, ministering to bring healing to those among us in pain, ministering to bring more justice into our community and world. You all are already ministering as you imagine how this congregation might grow in spiritual and ethical awareness and as a beacon of hope and faith in a world ravaged by violence, pollution, and pain.

I see all around me, out there, the great love and commitment you bring to these sacred ministries, ministries sacred because your compassionate attention makes it so. Through ministering, we commit to what is good and right. Through ministering, we commit to that hard road, that heavy burden. Through ministering, we commit to sharing the load. Companionship eases our way, soothes us as we seek right relationship. Our hearts are set ablaze when true community—diverse, honest, trusting, compassionate—community together takes on this long, hard journey of living. We seek together more love, greater love. We say together, “Yes!” to truth, to life, to love.

When I arrived 10 months ago, I could see that you were a people experiencing hurt and pain, loss and conflict. Some of you only a little aware of it. Some of you a lot aware of it. Some of you vaguely sensing something amiss but not knowing quite what it was. Some of you already gone—some returned but others upsettingly absent even now. There was a pervasive sense of grief and a tendency to unilateral words and actions, words and actions that did not invite collaboration for solving problems or making things happen. Words and actions that caused harm but where the harm went on unacknowledged and sometimes still does. Words and actions that people felt unable to address directly. Words and actions that disabled the elected leaders and staff of your congregation, discounting the structures by which this organization operates and dismissing the efforts of leaders and staff to follow the charges and duties to which they had been elected or hired. A lot of dissatisfaction everywhere, and not a lot of pulling together. A lot of yelling and hand gestures signaling anger and frustration. Not so much listening and understanding as is good for all of us. “Che cosa volete da me?” Whaddaya want from me!

And, and, and, so much and! the foundation of love was here. The seeking for a spirit-filled life was here, a sense of life being bigger than the conflicts and frustrations, more crucial than the ugly words and tendencies to pull apart. The sense of resilience and endurance through all sorts of losses and traumas—losing beloved ministers and enduring dissatisfying ministers, church splits and church growth, change and transformation. This congregation is in its 70 th year of being and change. We are set to celebrate in a wide way next year—motivated by a love of this community—this place and this people, an evolving people drawn to the place for its faithfulness and its persistence. We will celebrate because of the dedication of a large committee of people (that is what a committee is, people with commitment) committed to inclusion and celebrating all that is good and valuable as we gather together. We deserve to celebrate, because the larger world rages against diverse and inclusive religious community, and yet we persist. The world rages against religious community like ours, where we know that multiplicity is the way of nature, that diversity is a strength of human relationships, that finding a good way for all to thrive is not only right but necessary. And UCM is here to say, we are here to stay! We know what is of value, we know what is worth working for, we know the way is hard and we do it anyway.

In the coming weeks and months, your leaders will be telling you more about the efforts a number of us are making to find healing and more productive ways to deal with some of the conflict that has been very painfully active since even before I arrived.

Be at peace with this information. Wounds hurt before they heal. This is normal, and we will be better for it. Your leaders will be telling you more about how you will search next year for a minister who is not like me—who comes not to hold up a mirror, or not only to do that. A minister who will learn to grow and change with you, who will journey with you as you transform, in ways longer and deeper than is my role with you. The route to finding that minister may not be what you expected. Be at peace with this information. Be aware, engage in the process, speak your minds, unite your hearts. Be prepared, and welcome, more change.

The foundation, despite the strife, is here as the road presents itself. The foundation of love is all of you. It is not about what you believe. It is always about how you will be together in your differences. Trust that you together can make a good, thriving way. I trust that you can, I have faith in you, and I was made for this work, challenging as it is. My father made me so. In our next year together, I am here to help you find good paths to the ultimate goal—a vital, loving Unitarian Universalist community, blessing all of you, blessing Mississauga, blessing the world. May it ever be so.


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