In his Aug. 22 column, "Hate the sign, love the signer," Ken Trainor does me the honor of quoting my Sunday call to worship at Unity Temple: "Whoever you are, wherever you are on your life journey, you are welcome here." Then in parentheses, he says "he stole it from the UCC Church."
It's not the first time someone has alleged this. I first encountered the wonderful phrase in the call to worship of my Unitarian Universalist colleague Rev. Thomas Anastasi in Seattle who took it from our colleague Rev. Richard Gilbert who, as far as we know, was the first to use and publish the phrase in 1991. The United Church of Christ (the "UCC" referred to) adopted a very similar phrase 10 years ago, which has been seen on some of their banners and literature.
Whoever you are, wherever you are on your life journey, you are welcome here. This is a theological vision for a congregation to embody — and a constant challenge. There are always people who look and act and think differently than us who tempt us to fail to see the holy in them — or to see how much we share in underlying values. Variations on this wonderful phrase that both Unitarian Universalist and United Church of Christ congregations often use were originally adopted to signal that we and they strive to be welcoming of gay and lesbian people, as well as other people on the margins.
Trainor uses my liturgical phrase to affirm the freedom of speech of political conservatives in predominantly progressive Oak Park. That's great! I applaud him, and I would have loved to see him go even further and acknowledge the common ground he has with political conservatives rather than veer into taking aim at particular politically conservative positions, especially since he named specific people — John and Mary Howell — in his article.
I know the Howells well. They were the first Oak Parkers outside my religious circle who invited my wife and me over during our first year here — all because Mary Howell saw that her daughter-in-law and my wife had a lot in common (and now are best of friends). When we went to their home, we saw their huge Bush-Cheney sign. I turned to my wife with raised eyebrows and said, "This could be interesting."
That evening, I became acquainted with the wider Howell clan, some of whom are politically conservative and others who are politically liberal — and the conversation was dynamic, all the while with a commitment to respect and care for one another.
Mary and I stayed in touch. A couple of years ago, when her beloved younger brother died, I was asked to officiate the memorial service. This experience bonded me even closer with this remarkable family, which holds together people of strongly divergent political views. They understand something critical: grief and sorrow — just like kindness and compassion — transcend political ideology. And I'd add that they transcend all differences, including religious and cultural.
To get to know people who are different from us — different political views, different theology and religious practices, different cultures — as human beings is one of the most countercultural activities we can engage in. For I believe character isn't based on one's religious belief, political ideology, or cultural perspective, but the quality of relationships we have with a broad spectrum of people.
When I first arrived at Unity Temple just over nine years ago, a member of the congregation asked me in a forum whether it was possible to be a religious liberal and a political conservative. I shot back, "Absolutely! A religious liberal is one who is open to a wide range of perspectives and uses one's own experience and reason to determine how to be and grow in relationship with the sacred, though there is plenty of latitude to define 'the sacred.'" For me, what's at stake is the capacity we have to change the world according to our values as we grow in relationship with others, with oneself, with the sacred, no matter how one conceives it.
Mary Howell tells me that her sign originally was erected at the same time that a politically liberal friend of hers put up a similarly large sign expressing his views. The sign was born out of a communal relationship. Once the other sign came down, the Howells felt the need to continue to make clear we are not a homogenous community, just as they are not a homogeneous family.
Hats off to the Howells. I encourage Ken Trainor and all Oak Parkers to do the countercultural work of cultivating relationships with people who are different, just as each of us tends to organize with others who share our values. For life gets really exciting when suddenly we find common ground and discover shared values with people we thought were completely different from us — and our circles grow wider.
Whoever you are, wherever you are on your life journey, you are welcome here. This is a spiritual practice not only for congregations to strive to embody, but also for human hearts.
Rev. Alan Taylor is senior pastor at the Unity Temple Unitarian-Universalist congregation in Oak Park.