Our 6th, 7th and 8th graders in the Neighboring Faiths class took a trip two weeks ago to a very large, very vibrant, black Baptist church in Boston; a church with which I have a long relationship. I spent some time processing the event with them after church last Sunday. It was great fun.
The class began with the kids talking about their experience. The service made them feel uncomfortable, especially at first. As the only white people in the room, they felt exposed and different. Not only did their physical appearance make them stick out in the room, but they felt self-conscious and awkward as they compared their reserved behavior in the pews to that of the worshippers around them. “There was a lot of clapping and hands in the air and yelling.” “It was so loud! And so long.” “People were dancing around and crying. It was weird.” “They think Jesus solves everything.” The other kids giggled.
“Stop. Here’s what I want you to know,” I said, probably a little too forcefully. “We–our church–we are not better. I’m going to say that again. We are not better. Our faith tradition is not better. If there is one thing I want you to learn in this class…one thing I worry that we don’t teach well in our churches…one thing I worry that NO CHURCH IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA teaches well or at all…We are NOT any better than anyone else who goes to church on a Sunday morning, nor are we better as an institution. Our worship style doesn’t make us better, our theology doesn’t make us better, our history doesn’t make us better, our lack of a need for Jesus doesn’t make us better. We have different ways of doing things based on the circumstances we have found ourselves in. We have different ways of understanding God based on the privileges we hold, or don’t. We have different ways of knowing and feeling and acting. But we are not better.”
The kids looked at me a little stunned, like “Whoa, there, settle down, buddy. Who peed in your Cheerios this morning?” Then they continued talking about the experience at the church they visited, with far more admiration and appreciation than they began with. We talked about how important Jesus might be to some people. We talked about why the idea that Jesus triumphed in the end despite persecution might be a deeply held and beautiful belief to those who live with cultural persecution every day. We talked about the desire to worship a God who used prophetic people to free slaves…to lead slaves out of bondage. We imagined why that kind of God might make us cry, or dance, or shout for joy. Our youth slowly took their armor of skepticism off and admitted that they loved being in that two hour long service. “The music was SO GOOD.” “The people were CRYING and hugging each other!” “I think they really healed that man. I believe he was healed.” “We felt so welcome.” “There was so much spirit there.” “I felt the energy.” They talked about the things we held in common with the church members there, like the beautiful baby dedication they witnessed, and the doxology after the offering. They found beauty in the abandon with which people approached worship. “The people that worship there didn’t seem to care what anyone thought of them while they were in that building! I wish I could be like that at school,” they said.
We are not unlike our youth. I know I’m not. We spend a lot of time “church shopping” for the church that makes us feel most comfortable, most known, most un-offended, most alive. And we care deeply about the values and the theology our church claims. This is good and noble and understandable. But we are not better, and we need to tell ourselves this. We need that humility. When we see every other neighboring faith through our own lenses, we start to lose our ability to look for understanding; to access genuine curiosity. We lose our empathy, and a little bit of our humanity. We fail to live faithfully.
Sometimes our UU churches, just like every other church I have encountered, have a tendency to hold up our unique way of doing religion as superior, and more evolved. To that I say “nonsense.” We don’t go to church to attend a pep rally for Unitarian Universalism. We go to church to remind ourselves that we are not the center of the universe. And then we go again next week, because we need that reminder as much as we can get it. We are not the best, nor are we the center of the universe. And thank God for that. We are a flawed community of people just like all the rest. In fact, this is the heart of our saving message. We are more alike than we are different; connected in our sins, our suffering, and in our capacity for good. We are all just trying to get through this life as unscathed as possible, with as much opportunity to feel as possible.
Let’s all try to live that truth and love with more abandon, and a little more humility. Our souls deserve to have their armor removed, and so does the soul of our world.