Sermon: Like the Stars: Growing, Imploding, Shining On

Around this community and in much of the world, some of our Christian friends are celebrating All Saints Day today [this sermon was delivered Nov. 6, 2011]. We Unitarian Universalists are leery of saints, I think. We worry about what having saints might mean. Does that mean we think some people are better than most of us, that they manage to avoid all the little traps that we ordinary folks fall into? And if so, were they born that way? Sure, we may speak of some of our great liberal forebears as saints: William Ellery Channing, Clara Barton, and Hosea Ballou, but we don’t mean saints really, right?

Because saints aren’t people like us. They’re special, they’re different, in some way that seems a little strange, even if it’s to be admired. It’s troublesome, I suppose, but still I come to you today to make a formal application for sainthood. Not for myself—don’t worry—but for one of our liberal forebears, for one of those who came before us and to whom we owe a great debt of gratitude.

Therefore, here before you today, I nominate Munroe Husbands for sainthood.

Those of you who knew Munroe, who was for many years a member of this parish, who sat in that back left section over there, may wonder at this nomination. Munroe Husbands? He was no saint. He wasn’t perfect, as some of you know better than I, I feel sure. But Munroe Husbands has had a more powerful, more lasting, more profound effect on liberal religion and on the lives of tens of thousands of people in this country than any Unitarian Universalist I can think of.

Perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. As I said, Munroe was for many years a member of this parish. He was involved, attending services and was among the founders and most active members of the church’s “Wig and Whiskers” theater group. But he was more than just the man this parish knew within these walls. He was also a staff member at the Unitarian Universalist Association, where he carried out a radical, unusual church growth strategy. It wasn’t his idea, but he was the one who made it come to life.

You see, the American Unitarian Association didn’t have a lot of money for things like starting churches. Truth is, they didn’t have that much money for anything. They didn’t have missionaries to send to communities across America. What they did have was a country that was growing, and a religious movement that wasn’t. And they also had an idea.

Why not encourage small groups of lay Unitarians to make new congregations in the towns they had moved to? After all, this was post-World War II America, where millions of people were moving around the country for school, for work, for many reasons. Suburbs were springing up overnight. Unitarians, once found mostly along the East Coast, with pockets elsewhere, were suddenly moving to far-flung places—places like Cheyenne, Wyoming, and Denton, Texas, Phoenix, Arizona, and Bloomington, Indiana, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and Oxford, Mississippi, and hundreds of other such places, stretching all the way from Cape Cod to Honolulu, as one person put it.

Munroe Husbands had correspondence with Unitarians—some who had grown up in the church, others who were just interested in learning more—in these communities and in hundreds of others, giving assistance and encouragement as they founded new fellowships, as they called these lay-led groups. In all, more than 600 fellowships were founded between 1948 and 1967. 600!!!!! Many faded into oblivion, some are still small groups, meeting in backrooms and small, borrowed spaces, keeping the dream of liberal religion alive in isolated places. I know, because I’ve preached at a bunch of them, and John has too, if I’m not mistaken. And some have grown into large, successful churches, like the one in Knoxville, Tenn., where John began his ministry.

Here in the Northeast, the Fellowship Movement mostly seemed like a far-off, strange thing, I imagine. Massachusetts had only one congregation founded in the fellowship period, the church down on the cape in Falmouth, where I had the honor of preaching one Sunday last summer.

But in the part of the country where I grew up, it’s impossible to imagine what Unitarian Universalism would look like today without those fellowships. The story of Unitarian Universalism is in large part the story of those fellowships there. The Southwest and Rockies, an area stretching from Louisiana all the way to Arizona and up to Montana, had 10 churches in 1947. By 1967, 52 fellowships had been founded. 52!!!!

One of those communities was in College Station, Texas, where four Unitarians had the idea of forming a new fellowship. Billy and Betty Thomas and Richard and Georgine Tarble, who knew each other through the Department of Oceanography and Meteorology at the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas, which is now Texas A&M University, approached their friends and colleagues about starting a fellowship. Within months, in the October 1956, they founded the Unitarian Fellowship of College Station, now known as the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Brazos Valley. Those four people started with an idea, and that grew to a fellowship, and that grew into a community that worked for change in it community. A few years later, they had an offer from a local Baptist church that was folding. If you can take over the monthly mortgage payment, you can have the building, they were told. At the meeting, held in a member’s living room, they passed pieces of paper, and each person put the number they could afford to pay. The total wasn’t even close to enough, barely half what they needed.

The group sat in silence, until one person spoke up. Perhaps, she said, we should pass those papers around again. They did, and when the number was added a second time, it was enough. They bought that building. And it was into that building, just a few years ago, that I walked. I had known about Unitarian Universalism my whole life. My mother had grown up in a Unitarian church in Texas, but we never went when I was young. I attended sporadically in college. But it was a day in January 2006, when I walked into that building on Wellborn Road, and my life was saved. I had been struggling, anchorless, stuck in my life and grieving the death of a friend. And the community in that old building, in the congregation that had been started by just four people, fifty years before, was what saved me. They gave me a place to belong, a way to talk about my feelings, a place to think my thoughts and come to some truths, and a place to learn to live out a life worth living. It is my home church, the congregation sponsoring me for ministry.

And all of it started with those four people, the Thomases and Tarbles, and the advice and support they got from none other than Munroe Husbands. Husbands provided assistance to all those hundreds of fellowships, and he changed the world. He took what have become legendary trips. On one, he drove more than 7,000 miles, visiting more than 30 fellowships (forming and already formed) in 28 days.

Husbands, whose background was in communications and advertisement, was a master at helping fellowships get their message out to the community and to find others who might be interested. He wrote this advertisement, which many fledging fellowships used to promote their new organizations:

What is your idea of true religion?
Unitarianism is a way of life, a life of vigorous thought, constructive activity, of generous service – not a religion of inherited creeds, revered saints, or holy books.
Unitarianism is not an easy religion. It demands that people think out their beliefs for themselves, and then live those beliefs. The stress is placed upon living this life nobly and effectively rather than on the preparation for an after-existence.
If you have given up “old time” religion, Unitarianism has the answer for you.

These fellowships changed lives for those who were a part of them and for those who live in the communities where they are. My home church opened the first racially integrated daycare in that part of Texas, at a time in which that was a dangerous thing to do. That church in Knoxville ran day camps where black and white children could spend time together, one of the few places where such things happened in the Jim Crow South. In other communities, those fellowships have run food pantries,

In short, I am making the case today that Margaret Mead, the brilliant anthropologist, once articulated so beautifully: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” —Margaret Mead

These fellowships, more than 300 of them still in existence today, have changed the world, and mostly for the better.

That doesn’t mean there haven’t been problems. Many of the fellowships have a reputation for being closed communities, not welcoming to newcomers, and not eager to have ministerial leadership, perhaps because of the beginning they have had as lay-led groups. There’s more than a little truth to this. But many of those fellowships have grown into large, thriving communities, and many more are doing great religion in difficult situations, where their tight community is a necessity.

All of these people, those who have founded fellowships and those members of them now, I consider saints, as Munroe is as well. And as all of us here are today, too. We are saints not just because of what we have done in our lives, but what we still have the potential to do.

There’s a hymn sung in many churches that gets at this:

“I sing a song of the saints of God, Patient and brave and true,
Who toiled and fought and lived and died For the Lord they loved and knew.
And one was a doctor, and one was a queen;
and one was a shepherdess on the green:
They were all of them saints of God, and I mean,
God helping, to be one too.” – Lesbia Scott

I mean to be one too. Today, I see this hope in the Occupy movement, among many places. A handful of people went to occupy Wall Street less than two months ago. Who knew what would happen after that? Certainly not the people who went to that protest, and not anyone else, either, I imagine.

We have the power to make things happen, if only we have the courage to do something about it. Those groups Mark asked you to join earlier, just four in each, have the power to change the world. I absolutely believe that, and I hope you do too. I think the people here in this room have greatness in them. We do, just like those who founded new communities of faith across the nation, just like the brave souls out in tents in the cold right now at Dewey Square. They may fail, they may succeed beyond our wildest dreams, but either way I consider them saints today.

And truly, all of us are saints. Not because we are perfect, not because we always do the right thing. We are saints because of the potential we have, the potential to do great things. We, all of us, have the chance to do amazing things, and we are better when we work together.

May we have the strength to recognize our power, to work together for great purpose, and to know that a saint lies within each of us, waiting for the chance to make a miracle. And so may it be always.

This sermon was given at the First Parish in Needham (Mass.), Unitarian Universalist, on Nov. 6, 2011. It owes a great debt to Laile Bartlett’s Bright Galaxy and Holley Ullrich’s The Fellowship Movement.


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