Sunday, December 05, 2010

A Force for Healing

In 2008, Archbishop Desmond Tutu came to San Francisco to speak at an event for the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. I didn't know this at the time, but it was his first direct address to a large LGBT gathering in the U.S.

I had waffled about whether or not to go. It was a weeknight, and I'd been busy and exhausted at work. The idea of schlepping up to Grace Cathedral from my office, and then schlepping home afterwards on transit, felt like a lot of effort. But almost all of my colleagues were going, and I wasn't sure I'd ever get another opportunity like this. In the end, I just couldn't pass up the chance to hear him in person.

When Paul Loeb was here [as a guest speaker] a few weeks ago, he mentioned Desmond Tutu's amazing humor and joy, and I couldn't agree more. As we waited for the evening's program to begin, someone I was sitting near mentioned that the Archbishop hadn't been feeling well that day. Yet when he came out on the dais, he had such a sense of delight about him. Elfin, laughing, down-to-earth, a little mischievous – I could see the twinkle in his eye even from my pew halfway back in the crowd.

The most astonishing moment, though, came when he asked for our forgiveness for the way the church had treated LGBT people. Time stopped. I thought, "Desmond Tutu? One of the world's most renowned moral leaders – is asking for MY forgiveness?"

Looking back, I think, "Yeah, he was. Which is what makes him one of the world's great moral leaders."

In that moment, it didn't matter that we didn't share the same religion. What mattered was that he saw the spiritual and emotional wounds inflicted in the name of religion. What mattered was that as a religious leader, he put his faith into action as a force for healing, not as a weapon.

As Unitarian Universalists, I think we have a responsibility to examine the ways we're putting our faith into action. Not just in terms of organizing for social justice or environmental issues, because in some ways, that's the easy part. It takes a lot of time and dedication, for sure, but it doesn't require us to risk being transformed. The really grueling work of a faith community is in how we treat each other, day in and day out.

For example, there was a time when Unitarians who didn't call themselves Christian were met with opposition and ridicule. Yet today, I know many UUs who speak dismissively of Christianity, as though anyone who follows that tradition is automatically a tool of oppression or just not very advanced. Any religion, even our liberal one, can be used as a force for good or ill.

Unitarian Universalism gives each of us the freedom to decide for ourselves what we believe, rather than being asked to subscribe to a particular dogma. But that also means we need to choose wisely. If we're going to live out the principles and values that bring us together as a faith community, then it matters very much what we believe, because those beliefs will drive our action in the world.

I believe that we're all connected, and that we need each other. I believe that each of us is integral to the richness of existence. I believe that as human beings, we share a capacity for deep awe, whether we find it in the experience of a divine being or a jaw-dropping sunset. I believe that when we act from a place of justice, compassion, and love, we align ourselves with forces that make our souls sing.

When Desmond Tutu asked for my forgiveness, he recognized the way his church was impoverishing the world by depriving it of the beauty and potential of humans who happened to be queer. His sincerity and humility opened doors to new possibilities for reconciliation. Because humility isn't about making yourself small. It's about understanding that each of us can grow our spirits beyond our wildest dreams – and the universe will still have infinite capacity to hold us in all our fullness.

It's about a diminutive 79-year old with a sparkle in his eye looming larger than any cathedral.

I wrote and delivered this piece as the Credo for the December 5, 2010, service at the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco.

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