To Know Where You’re Going, Know Where I’ve Been—Part I

October 15, 2023
Rev. Rita Capezzi—Unitarian Congregation in Mississauga

The end. It’s the end. Of something, I don’t know what. Maybe you know? It’s the end of something—a period of time, a familiar way of doing things, the presence of a beloved face here at the podium or out there in the congregation. And the beginning of something else.

When does the past end and the present begin? How are we always, at this moment, slipping into the future? Memory reminds us of the fluidity between the past and the present. Memory allows us to be somewhere else, allows us to be Yesterday right now and here. You might already be doing it—going to another place and time. Rather, going to another time in this place. Do that now—think back, as far as you can, to your beginnings with this congregation. It might be just a half hour or so, when you first come through the door, ending one relationship with religion and beginning another. It might be a few months ago or a few years ago or a few decades ago. Some vivid memory will likely come to you, of “earlier,” if not right at the beginning. When it was, though, doesn’t matter, because you conjured those so-called earlier times right into this present moment. The past is never dead. It’s not even past.

Some memories are very vivid, aren’t they? Events, often collectively experienced events, that happened in the past feel just like yesterday, or right now. Americans a mere decade older than me know where they were when President Kennedy was shot or when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. People my age and up to 50 years younger know where they were when the terrorists flew into the Twin Towers in Manhattan. I’m sorry I don’t know the indelible Canadian moment of intensified collective memory, but you know them. And perhaps you have conjured them into the now, right now.

Yesterday—it is all-to-easy to be nostalgic about a time when the church was vital and lively, when beloveds were volunteers side by side with you, before death had parted you. When spouses were still living or still attending next to you. Even those whose history here is not so deep, you might have a sense of a shift following covid, things are not quite what they were. Even newer folk still, you feel the good will and kindness, the welcome. Your reference point is more immediate, but perhaps you feel a tension, a sense that loss is present here, that anxiety is present here. When I first learned of your mission, I had to chuckle a bit. DNA—Deepen. Nurture. Act. It’s a lovely saying, catchy and you get to play on DNA as a metaphor, like our individual and persistent genetic blueprints that linger and influence our futures. That’s lovely, not funny. But I did chuckle, because when ministers talk about DNA, we use it as a metaphor to describe the way that past ruptures and destructive patterns of behavior create generational trauma in a church, how those challenges persist in the church systems long after the events occurred and even long after the active participants are gone. UCM has been a congregation for about 70 years, the life span of a human. That’s plenty of time to acquire baggage that never quite gets dropped. So, here are some of the strands of UCM’s DNA, your creation and your inheritance.

First the beautiful news—If you participated in the gratitude exercise last Sunday, you might have been one of the significant number of people who showed thanks for this congregation during times of great pain, sorrow, and distress—that the people were here for each other in the worst of times. So many beautiful statements, naming individuals as well as the feeling of compassion they received. Take a moment with the group of questions on the slip you found on your seat this morning: When did you first find UCM? Who was already here when you arrived? Who do you continue to be in intentional connection with?

[. . .]

So many of you saying how you want now to be the agents of the compassion and care granted to you, to return what you received into what you could give—that beautiful benediction you sing to each other each Sunday. That is in your DNA. And also, in the beautiful work done yesterday at the leadership retreat, in the clear dedication whether long-hauler or short-timer in the congregation, building together on the value discovered when each first arrived, showing respectful honesty for the realities of church life in these days, risking a future. Your DNA, it’s in the ceremony commissioning the Board—an old practice with new words, the past and the future, the different, converging. Your DNA, it’s in your status as a 2SLGBTQIA+ Welcoming Congregation, affirming the beauty and value and thriving of queer lives. Your DNA, it’s in your Green Sanctuary work, in your dishwashing and cleaning product purchases, in your gardens and green space. Your DNA, it’s in the many years and many families served by your welcome and fostering of refugee families, fleeing violence and persecution, looking for a future. I know you have supported other causes. These three stand out for their scope and longevity.

And there are some other strands in your DNA, persistent patterns that lie buried, sometimes just below the surface and sometimes deeper, which are also beautiful but in a different way. Any human being can get stuck in a past that seems golden and perfect with the distance of time, that nostalgia for the way it used to be. We all do that—Oh, how great things were when I was a young student in my twenties, newly married. If only life could be that simple again. And to conjure this past, I have to leave out significant parts of it—the merger finances, the old broken-down cars, the self-doubt. The past is never as golden as I can pretend. And yours here at UCM isn’t either, even with all the compassionate community you have created here.

I read your history, and there are those perennial problems: with funding, with decision-making, with so many buildings to maintain, meant to provide economic security but never quite getting there. There are perennial problems with ministers. I was ever-so-slightly shocked when I saw the list of how many ministers have served with this congregation, so many in such a short 70 years. There were deaths, by suicide and disease—tragic deaths. There was a splitting of the church, one group following the minister elsewhere. There was grave disappointment in particular ministers, and years without ministers. There were bad endings and surprise endings. A lot of challenging endings. That all has an effect on the folk in the community—lingering pain and loss, some anxiety and suspicion of religious professionals, perhaps. Given all that baggage, you demonstrate amazing hope and faith in your willingness to partner with professional staff and credentialed ministers. You don’t have to like us to respect our expertise, to see how this moves your community beyond a social justice agency, a social club, a rental hall—this is a church, you are part of a religious institution and a religious tradition—bigger than you and embracing you, helping to uphold you through all the challenges and disappointments, a holy place, made holy by the love and dedication that is from your past, still living on in the memory and in the mission of this church.

Yet here is the hope we can live in, the faith that can sustain us in uncertainty. Religion offers something that no other cultural institutions do—and because I am a Unitarian Universalist, I am not talking about a supernatural being or a doctrine or a fixed set of ritual and belief that we all equally subscribe to. I am talking about imagination. Yes, imagination. In her award-winning sermon, “The Land of Enough,” the Rev. Cecelia Kingman Miller says, “Communities of faith perform a singular function. They have what sociologists call an alternative imagination, an ability to posit a future different from, and better than, the present we know” (5). A singular function—a function not performed in any other area of society. Here at UCM, you offer an alternative imagination, a mission re-stated each Sunday morning as your chalice lighting words—to deepen the spirit, nurture community, act for an equitable and sustainable world. You live into these words, reminding you that they provide our reason for existing, there is a purpose and a direction for the existence, for the thriving of this community. That chalice lighting might be the best reason to attend Sunday morning worship.

“Be Ours a Religion,” an alternative imagination, a mosaic Tree of Life, each part imbued with memories and meaning; each fragment holds a piece of truth. Here at UCM, like all Unitarian Universalists, we are mosaic makers. We are a ­people who bring together the broken pieces of our histories and the shining pieces of our seeking and, piece by piece, create a mosaic religion. We come as individuals—inherently worthy as we are and as we endeavor to be—with our talents and our limitations and our potentialities.

But our mosaic making tells another story too, one that is often more difficult to see. One that is essential to the purpose of religious community. One that lies not in the beautiful and broken bits and pieces but in the grout. In a mosaic, the grout holds the image together, unifying disparate pieces into a whole. The grout of a community takes years to lay and ­settle. The grout is what makes the individual into a community, where the pieces come into relationship with one another—complementing or complimenting, or creating dissonance or juxtaposition, or giving rise to unexpected harmonies and synergies. And grout holds all that energy together, keeping the pieces from flying apart and acting alone or getting lost. How strong is the grout here?

Take a moment with that other question on the  slip of paper you found on your seat this morning. How has this congregation broken your heart?

[. . .]

Grout happens in board meetings and committee meetings and endless emails and slow-moving institutions. It is in weekly potlucks shared by neighbors, a ride to church, and coffee in the social hall after worship. We help to make the grout when we learn each other’s names and when we reach out across generational divides. We help to make the grout when we show up on Sunday morning without having checked first to see if we’re interested in the sermon topic. When a newborn arrives to be blessed by the community, it is the grout that enables us to welcome them. And it is in the grout that we rest when we gather to grieve and memorialize a beloved one who has died. It is the grout which enables us to weather change and to lean into transformation.

Hold us, O Grout. Gather us in, through time and space, and make all our broken pieces whole in community. In our multiplicity, make us one in the here and now and in the future unfolding. From our past, our ancestors call to us, asking “whence we come, and how and whither?” We are grateful for their gifts, their lessons, and their challenge; expecting of us accountability and responsibility to fulfill their hopes and aspirations, for “What they dreamed be ours to do.” We call on those who strive to build beloved community, representing diverse cultures and traditions, including the [First Nations] peoples of different tribes. May our ancestors guide us on our way. In this interim time of transition, as we commit to continue our free and responsible search for Truth, may we covenant to honor the many paths that have led us to this community of faith. Let us return, again and with deep awareness, to both our commitment and our covenant of hope, renewed strength, sanctuary, rejoicing in this community of faith.  May we keep ourselves in this holy place, may we keep a holy place inside ourselves and for each other as we imagine an alternative future. as we end one beginning and begin again anew.


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