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Love is the Spirit of this Church, by Rev. Josh Pawelek

“Love is the spirit of this church, and service its law. This is our great covenant: To dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another.”[1] Enduring words from the late 19th, early 20th-century Unitarian minister, the Rev. James Vila Blake. These words were part of the 1894 covenant of the Church of All Souls in Evanston, Illinois, which Rev. Blake helped found.[2] Enduring words, and fitting words, on this first Sunday of March when we launch our 2024 Annual Appeal, when we invite each of us to reflect on the value UUSE holds in our lives, when we invite each of us to make the most generous financial pledge possible for the coming fiscal year.

Love is the spirit of this church. What does it mean to belong to a church that centers love at this moment in history when love of self, neighbor, stranger, enemies, the other, animals, land and earth is so desperately needed?

And service its law. What does it mean to belong to a congregation that takes the world beyond its meetinghouse walls into account; that responds with compassion to needs in the larger community; that advocates courageously for social and environmental justice?  

To dwell together in peace. What does it mean to belong to a congregation that invites us continuously to be together in multi-generational gatherings, or in small groups, theological study groups, book groups, craft groups, or for meals here or in members’ homes?

To seek the truth in love. What does it mean to belong to a congregation that day-to-day, week-to-week explores the truths as the heart of our principles and offers companionship as we endeavor to center them in our living?

To help one another. What does it mean to belong to a liberal congregation that cares for you in times of crisis, challenge and need?

We ponder these questions all year long, but March is the month we ponder them as part of making our financial pledge to the Annual Appeal. We ponder them in dialogue with each other at pledging potlucks (please sign up if you haven’t already) or with Annual Appeal stewards (please respond promptly if a steward contacts you). We arrive at answers. And we make the most generous financial pledge to UUSE that we can. That is the essence of our Annual Appeal. As always, thank you, thank you, thank you, for your financial generosity.

Thank you also to the UUSE Finance Committee for preparing our proposed budget; and to the Policy Board for their work on that proposal. And many, many thanks to the members of our Stewardship Committee who run the Annual Appeal: chair, Patricia Wildes, along with Louisa Graver, Jean Knapp, Larry Lunden, Stan McMillan, and Phil Sawyer. Thank you finally to all of our Annual Appeal stewards and potluck hosts.

***

            I want to share with you some experiences I’ve had here at the meetinghouse, and out in the wider community since returning from my sabbatical last month. None of this is earth-shattering, life-transforming, big-picture, visionary stuff—which I can do, and which can certainly be helpful in reminding us of the value of this congregation in our lives. But I also feel strongly that the value of a congregation—the evidence for its health and vitality—is just as easily found in its small details, its mundane interactions, its day-to-day life: the eye-contact, the smiles, the hugs, the conversations, the committee meeting check-ins, the Sunday-morning sharing, the artwork on the walls—all those very simple acts that enable us to know and be known, hold and be held, love and be loved.

            First, last Sunday I joined our Children and Youth Ministry (CYM) elementary program. In children’s worship we talked about one of our Unitarian spiritual ancestors, the 19th-century Philadelphia-based poet, author, educator, lecturer and abolitionist, Francis Ellen Watkins Harper.[3] Emmy talked about Harper’s efforts to protest the institution of slavery by boycotting its signature agricultural products, cotton and sugar. This led to a lively conversation with the kids about boycotts, about workers’ rights and unions. Then, they played a few rounds of the games “Unfair Monopoly” and “Unfair Candyland” under the guidance of adult volunteers and one slightly older kid who’d heard about the games and wanted to help out. In “Unfair” Monopoly and Candyland, different rules apply to different players. Some players get ahead more easily, some players fall behind more easily. It is patently unfair. The kids understood this before they played. But even so, they learned the lessons in a visceral way, so much so that during “Unfair Candyland” the kids decided to boycott until the adults made the rules fair. The follow-up discussion was critical: the real world is often like this. What can we do to change it?

            Across the hall Spirit Play was hoppin.’ The Our Whole Lives was meeting. The middle school Twilight Zone class was meeting. Afterwards I was feeling great about our CYM. It’s challenging to implement. It requires a lot of coordination and organizing, a lot of committed volunteers, and a talented staff. Sitting in the chapel with the elementary kids, witnessing them learning a little about UU history and boycotts, playing games to experience fairness and unfairness, and receiving into their lives that critical question, ‘how can we make a difference?’—it was clear to me all the effort is paying off. I am so glad my own children received their religious education through our CYM. I am so glad that so many young parents are currently exploring whether our CYM is right for their families. I am so glad that our ‘shared ministry’ model allows me to spend time with our young people so that they understand they have a minister.

            Second, one of my goals in these first few months back from sabbatical is to visit with as many members as possible, especially members who’ve been dealing with health or life challenges. I am also slowly trying to catch up with various people. If you think you should be on my list for a visit and you haven’t heard from me, please don’t be shy. Contact me.

Sitting with members and friends of the congregation in my office, in your homes, over meals, over coffee, on hikes, walking dogs, playing Scrabble and other games, has always been a highly gratifying for me. It’s important to me not only to learn what is happening in your lives right now and to try to discern how I, or the Pastoral Friends Committee, or the congregation can be supportive; it’s also important to me to learn your life stories—especially the life stories of our elders: where you’re coming from, the lessons you’ve drawn from your experiences, how you’ve applied your UU principles to your living, the meaning you make of your life.

            In my meetings over the past month, one thing continually leaps out at me, especially for those who are facing difficult life challenges. Other members of the congregation are aware, are checking in, are helping, are listening, are caring. They’re giving rides to doctor appointments. They’re bringing meals. One member moved into another member’s house to help out after a surgery. One member is helping another with their taxes. One member is taking care of another’s cats while they’re on vacation (that’s not a crisis, but it still matters). One youth member asked an elder to mentor them on a school project related to ecology.

            This is church at its best. “To help one another,” as the Blake covenant says.  Or, as our UUSE mission statement says, “we care for one another.” Based on my experience since returning from sabbatical, that part of our mission is alive, well, and flourishing. I take it as a sign of our congregational health and vitality, a source of great value in our lives, and one more reason to pledge as generously as possible to our Annual Appeal.

            Finally, as many of you know, last Monday I was one of three recipients of the Manchester African American and Black Affairs Council’s Community Service Award. The plaque reads “Outstanding Community Service Award … presented to Rev. Josh Pawelek … in recognition for your tireless dedication and commitment to social justice and community service in Manchester, CT.” I am proud and humbled to receive this award, especially to receive it with the two other recipients, Pamela Floyd-Cranford and Diane Clare-Kearney, for whom I have immense love and respect, and from whom I’ve learned a lot. Rhonda Philbert, who conferred the award on the three of us said, essentially, that we were receiving it because, for 20 years we’ve each been deep in the struggle for racial justice in Manchester. This is true. I can recall many ways I’ve leant my voice, my energy, my power, and my vision of a beloved, antiracist, anti-oppressive, multicultural, multiracial, multi-religious society to that struggle, not only in Manchester, but statewide and, at times nationally. It’s no secret that I have a reputation in this regard.

However, it isn’t my award alone. It’s our congregation’s award. This isn’t me being humble or modest. It’s just true. As the parish minister, I am often the most visible representative of the congregation, the one speaking, the one quoted in the newspaper or on the evening news. But none of that is possible without a congregation that shares ministry with its professional minister the way you do. None of it is possible without both the implicit and at times explicit agreement of the congregation that you support your minister in being that public voice on issues that matter most to you and that align with past resolutions of the congregation and the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly. None of it is possible without the support and advocacy of our Social Justice / Anti-Oppression Committee or our Sustainable Living Committee. None of it is possible without our mission, which says “We are committed to living our Unitarian Universalist principles in our daily lives, including working for justice and peace, and living in harmony with the earth.” The award has my name on it, but make no mistake, it would not have my name on it if it weren’t for this congregation, this beacon of liberal religion, here on the ancestral lands of the Podunk and Wangunk people, here on Elm Hill on the Manchester/Vernon line, above the Hockanum River, east of the Connecticut River.

It’s our award—another sign of our health and vitality as a congregation; another indication of the value it holds in our lives, and one more reason to pledge as generously as possible to our Annual Appeal.

***

               

These experiences come from the day-to-day contours of congregational life. I’m sure each of you can think of your own positive and joy-filled experiences of regular, mundane congregational life. Of course, if you look at our proposed budget for the next fiscal year, you won’t see these experiences reflected in dollar amounts. And these stories won’t tell you why we hope to raise pledge income by four percent.

This year’s cost-drivers the usual cost-of-living increases for our staff; the cost of our new bookkeeper, which is essential in reducing the burden on our finance leaders; and we’re continuing to increase our building reserves to meet future building needs. There’s more, but those are the big ticket items. The Finance Committee and Policy Board are also proposing some strategic cuts in order to keep our commitment of presenting a balanced budget to the congregation at our May annual meeting.

As you consider your financial pledge for the coming fiscal year, I urge you to  understand the proposed budget and what’s driving cost increases. But it’s just as important to ask and answer the question about the value this congregation holds in your life. And it’s just as important to remember that so much of that value lies in the day-to-day, the mundane, the Sunday morning interactions, the caring for one another, the children’s lessons, the commitment to a more just society, and all the love that holds, nourishes and expresses the spirit of this church.

Thank you for your generosity.

Amen and blessed be.


[1] Blake, James Vila, “Love is the Spirit of this Church,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: UUA and Beacon Press, 1993) #473.

[2] Jacqui James, ed., Between the Lines: Sources for Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1998) p. 109. Also visit the Harvard Square Library, an online collection of Unitarian Universalist biographies, history, books and media, at https://www.harvardsquarelibrary.org/biographies-new/blake-james-vila-1842-1925/

[3] Learn about Francis Ellen Watkins Harper at the National Womens History Museum website at https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/frances-ellen-watkins-harper.

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