The Story of SWUU
Preached 5/2/2021 at SouthWest UU in N. Royalton OH
By Rev. Meg Mathieson
Ten years ago today, this building experienced something that it had never experienced in its many years of standing here, on Royalton Road: it experienced the unbridled joy of a Unitarian Universalist worship service.
Perhaps unbridled is too strong a word. We UUs tend to be a little bridled. But we know how to do joy, and doubtless this space was filled with joy. Were you here? What were you doing, 10 years ago today? In May 2011.
In May 2011, I was searching for something. I had no idea that I would find it a few months later: I was searching for a community, a place to land. You see, I had taken a terrifying leap out of the cocoon of my tightly-knit religious community. Many of you know that I was brought up Eastern Orthodox. Both of my parents were and still are well-known leaders in their community. And in order to come out as gay, I had to risk alienating my entire social circle. My family, my friends, everyone I knew was a conservative Christian. In October 2010, I separated from my husband of 10 years and by May 2011, I was a single mom, deeply in debt, and teetering on the edge of poverty.
It was so lonely and it was so hard. And as depression began to creep in, I sought out a therapist. My therapist suggested that I find a church community. I was resistant at first, since I had placed all of the blame for my bad situation on religion! But she pressed, reassuring me that with a little research I could find welcoming congregations.
I had heard the term “Unitarian,” and associated it with the general idea of a religion that didn’t really believe in anything, something kind of wishy-washy. Maybe a feel-good New Age group of ex-hippies? Curious, that summer, I visited a few local UU churches. When the minister at the downtown Baltimore church made a joke from the pulpit about being a gay man, I was hooked.
This was so foreign to me: joking around during a church service? Not being ashamed of being gay? In addition to being openly gay, this pastor was openly atheist. My brain could not compute.
And the people were so kind and so friendly. I was a pink-haired, tattooed mom of three young kids, and the good people at First Unitarian of Baltimore opened their hearts to me. That is where I was ten years ago right now.
On a path towards the open arms of a loving UU community.
That’s my story. This month, as we look at the theme of stories, I’d like to encourage you to look at your own story. The way that we choose to tell our stories about ourselves really impacts who we are. I could say that my story is one of someone who was a victim. I had horrible conservative people surrounding me who rejected me. Or I could tell it a different way: it’s a story about a journey. My journey to learning to accept and embrace myself and finding others who would embrace me the way that I deserved to.
My story has a very happy ending. I met the love of my life, and we get to live a happy, quiet life here with you wonderful folks. Even my parents eventually came around. After a lot of pain and a lot of hard emotional work on both sides, the happiest day of my life, right up there with the birth of my children, would be the day of my ordination, because my parents attended with pride, and my parents even spoke about how proud they were.
Notice that the painful bits of the story are around losing community. About losing connection with loved ones, about wanting to be accepted and loved.
And the happy parts of the story are finding a loving community. Finding social support. Openness and love.
We humans are a deeply social species, and even the most introverted among us long for acceptance, connection and love.
This is my story, this is your story, this is the story of SWUU: searching for connection. Building a beloved community. Finding acceptance, taking rest in the open arms of the larger community that comforts us.
10 years ago, a group of folks stood where I am standing now and began something beautiful. SWUU had already existed, of course, but 10 years ago, the chapter in the story of SWUU as we know it, the SWUU that is connected to this building, the SWUU that looks like this - 10 years ago that chapter opened on a sunny May Sunday and a small group of liberal religious folks who were dedicated to the story that they were writing.
Whatever joys and sorrows are infused into your personal story, your story of yourself, you have found acceptance. You have found support simply by being here with us today. If this is your first time worshipping with us or your thousandth time, it doesn’t matter. You are welcome here. If you have trouble being a good person, if you kicked a puppy yesterday, you are welcome here.
If you have trouble loving yourself, if you were taught to be ashamed of yourself, you are loved here. If you experience chronic pain, emotional or physical, if your body isn’t kind to you, if you have no money to give, you are supported here. If you are a registered Republican, well, we might tease you a bit, but you are welcome here!
The story of SouthWest Unitarian Universalist Church is ongoing, and now you are a part of it. We are now in a complicated chapter of that story, a chapter that includes the loss and fear and isolation of a pandemic. A chapter where we lean into our resilience, and those of us who have experienced less loss are able to be a support to those who are experiencing more loss. This is also a chapter of our story where we are talking about racial justice and the 8th Principle, an opportunity to make history and be a part of the greater story of the UUA. I invite you to join us on Friday nights at 7 for conversations about the 8th Principle.
The story of SWUU is a story of inspiration, a story of resilience, and a story that is still being written by all of us. The stories we choose to tell actually shape who we become. An example of changing the story would be for instance, it can be an innocent habit for UU folks to refer to our denomination as a “white church” when we bemoan the lack of racial diversity that we tend to find within our walls.
But we, SWUU, we are not a white church. We have nonwhite members, and it is hurtful to gloss over or erase them. We are not a group of great racial or ethnic diversity, but we have some, and we can write a story about SWUU not as a white church but as an open church. A beloved community.
Let us join together in writing that story, a story of openness, love, and diversity as we sing our final hymn, Lift Every Voice and Sing. This song is sometimes called the “African American National Anthem,” and I encourage you to think about the stories of the African American people, and the ways that their stories intersect with SWUU - not as two different stories, but intertwining stories. Like streams of water pouring together. We are that beloved community. Please, even alone in your house, go ahead and sing along. Lift Every Voice and Sing.