Shortly after I arrived in Tuscaloosa five years ago now, I received a letter from a young Mormon who wanted to give me his testimony as to why he converted to Mormonism. It was a several page letter filled with scripture verses that were intended to convince me that my path of Unitarian Universalism was not the correct path and his was correct. The testimony, however, did not meet its intended mark. I was left unimpressed and unmoved by his words. There was nothing personal in his testimony, nothing that revealed to me how this faith of his transformed his life. I knew nothing of how he handled the day to day drudgery we all face.
I was left unconvinced that his faith made any difference in the way he interacted with his family, his co-workers, his neighbors. All I knew was a string of scripture verses that were devoid of any meaning to me.
In May of this year, I was part of a delegation from the School of America’s Watch to Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Mexico. During my time there, we met a man who escaped the coup in Honduras. The military had tortured and killed his family. He made several attempts to migrate to the United States and he had been deported several times back to Honduras only to leave the country again. His story was filled with unimaginable pain and suffering and yet as he talked there was no sign of bitterness or resentment in his voice towards his torturers nor towards the events he suffered. I asked him how was he able to survive such an ordeal and not feel or express any animosity towards those who contributed to his suffering. He responded simply that he kept in mind that none of his experiences compared to the sufferings of Jesus on the cross. If Jesus, who sufferings outshone anything he had suffered and was able to forgive, then the meager sufferings he endured at the hands of others, he could also forgive. I listened to his words and I believed him. His faith had saved him, transformed him, enabled him to survive his days.
With the Mormon’s testimony, while I believe he was sincere in sending it, I could refute his words theologically. I could go through the words of scriptures and state why I do not accept the theology behind his impersonal words. This man from Honduras, however, while I could explain theologically why I did not accept Jesus suffering and death on the cross as redemptive, I could not refute this man’s experience of how his faith saved him. I believed him and to argue theologically how a blood sacrifice of God’s only begotten son makes no sense if God is Love; would have been cruel. The fact remains, whether I agree with his doctrines or not, it achieved its purpose to help him face his world with integrity and dignity.
So often Unitarian Universalists attempt to speak about their faith in the manner of the Mormon. We talk about the seven principles, we talk about the six sources. We discuss our stances on the social issues of our day. We talk about being a covenantal faith and not a doctrinal faith. The result of these discussions is that our listeners are left unmoved, untouched, unconvinced that this faith that we have come to love is able to carry them through the day to day drudgery of existence. They see no evidence that it has changed us or carried us through.
There is a biting criticism that in our dying moments no Unitarian Universalist is going to ask for the seven principles to be read for comfort at the hour of our death. True. But I have yet to hear of a dying person asking to recite the Apostle’s creed either. It is not our creeds nor our covenants that comfort us, but rather the human relationship of love in our lives. The man from Honduras had a relationship with the story of Jesus’ last hours because he could compare them with his own experiences. When he hears the story of Jesus being tortured, whipped, forced to carry a 100 pound beam of wood that he would contribute to his death, the man from Honduras can relate to the pain and suffering because he, too, has lived it. For this man, the Jesus in this story is able to carry his sufferings as well, enabling him to let go the rage and pain he feels.
Yesterday, during one of our adult forums after the service, one of our young adults led a discussion Unitarian Universalist evangelism. He asked the question how has Unitarian Universalism changed your life. One by one, people shared their stories of how this faith made a difference in the living of their days. They talked of struggles and sufferings that they were able to transcend because of their seeking to uphold the values they hold dear. They too talked about the relationships they had with others as being core to their ability to over come their travails.
These stories were just as powerful and transformative as the story of the man from Honduras. One could argue the theology behind their stories but one could not refute their experience. The experiences were rich and deep. They were personal. These are the stories we should be sharing when we are asked about Unitarian Universalism. Our principles are good but how do they translate into the living of our lives? How do they sustain us when the going gets tough? How has our faith transformed us? These are the stories that need to be heard.