I have just completed my final Sunday service at Our Home Universalist Unitarian Church in Ellisville, MS. I was the consulting minister there for four years. In reflecting back on my service there, I have learned a wonderful lesson about what it means to be a minister and what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist.
Four years ago, Eunice Benton, District Executive (now retired) of the Mid-South District of the Unitarian Universalist Association asked me to consider coming to Mississippi to serve two congregations at half-time each. She asked if I had ever lived in the deep south before and the answer was no. Eunice wisely asked me to come down and visit before making any decision. I met with the two congregations. The first congregation asked me the typical minister search questions; what was my theology, what are my views of religious education, etc.
The interview at Our Home held over dinner was one question and one question only. “How do you eat your grits?” I was a bit startled by the unorthodox question but I answered, “with butter, salt and pepper.” I was then welcomed to come to Mississippi and be their minister. The rest of the dinner conversation was filled with logistics of transition and good humored conversation. If I had answered with sugar or maple syrup or heaven forbid, “what are grits?” I dare say I would not be here to tell the tale.
How we create and sustain loving relationships with one another is the essence of our covenantal faith. Cultural competency is one important aspect of our faith that enables us to be in relationship. The grits question certainly addresses this point.
Theology, creeds, or doctrines we might hold, while important to have them defined for ourselves, take a much smaller role in living the Unitarian Universalist faith. The real question, the vital question is how do we translate our theologies, creeds, doctrines into our day to day relationships with one another. In short, how do you eat your grits? Are you going to be able to relate to people who come from a very different background, a different culture, a different theological perspective on what is true and still find common ground?
This is where our work is. This is what defines our faith as different from other faiths. 16th century Unitarian minister Francis David is quoted as saying, “We do not have to think alike to love alike.” It does, however, help if our thinking, our theologies, our doctrines, and our personally held creeds aid us in loving alike. If they do not help us in loving our neighbor as ourselves or to do onto others as we would want others to do onto us, then it may be time to reconsider our theologies, our doctrines, or our personally held creeds.
Our Unitarian Universalist faith is not concerned with whether you are a Christian or a Humanist, a Buddhist or a Muslim, a Pagan or a Jew. Our faith is more concerned with how the doctrines of those beliefs help you build sustaining loving relationships with others.
If your beliefs empower you to be more loving, more generous, more able to fulfill your highest potential, more able to be just in your relationships, then that is what is vital to this life. If they hinder you from being inclusive of the other, cause you to shun and fear others who are different, solicit an attitude of me and mine first, then those beliefs are not serving you well. It might be best to either let them go or re-examine them to find how they can aid you in living a more generous of spirit and heart life.
Unitarian Universalists recognize that what enables one person to become more loving and more generous may not enable another to do so. And so for one person Christianity may be the path that empowers this love, for another it may be Buddhism, and for yet another it may be one of the Earth centered faiths. This is reflected in our fourth principle: A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.
Rev. Doak Mansfield, former minister at Our Home Universalist, once stated that Unitarian Universalism in the deep south is about grace and relationships. We best express our faith in how we relate to one another. It is our personal relationships that are our best calling card for our faith. It is also in how we develop our public witness for justice. The desire to create partnerships with those who are oppressed and to follow their lead towards freedom. Grace and relationships.
Wherever two or more are gathered, it is in the relational aspect of the gathering that the spirit of love is either present or absent. Unitarian Universalists strive to allow the spirit of love to be present. That is the essence of our faith the rest, to paraphrase Hillel, is commentary.