Friday, May 13, 2016


My First Flock

In the beginning I was a youngster with a Presbyterian mother and a Prairie Humanist father trying to find my own path through the life mazeway, shadowed by WWII. Then in college (NU) I was introduced to the vast opulence of institutional “religion” through classes in Philosophy of Religion and Comparative Religion. The Sixties found me on the Blackfeet reservation, a new world not adequately described by anthropologists. In the Seventies my faith locus was Unitarianism. In the Eighties I became pastoral, ordained. In the Nineties I mostly read and thought. By the 21st century I was ready to return to Blackfeet country to write.

Fort Worden workshop spaces

On a July evening in 1975 at a fort converted to a conference center at the mouth of Puget sound, thirty-six leaders of Unitarian-Universalist churches and fellowships gather for a week-long training session. When they sit down for supper, their first meal together, they find 3X5 cards by each place and are asked to write on the cards -- anonymously -- a short description of one of the happiest moments of their lives. The cards are gathered at the end of the meal.
About 9 PM after an orientation and business session, the group is ready for the first worship service of a projected daily sequence through the week. It is now dark outside. One of the three worship leaders asks the group to take hands and to sing “Simple Gifts” as they are led outside into the night and across the wide lawns to the dark gymnasium building. When the group enters the building, they see a huge dark space with what appears to be a candlelit camp in the middle of it. The other two worship leaders sit on a taped-down square of butcher paper, about twenty feet square, with half a dozen fat candles, the only light, clustered in the middle like a campfire.

The group is asked to stand holding hands and sing another familiar hymn. It is pointed out that the statements each person had written earlier are now printed on the paper with fibertip markers. Each person is asked to sit on one piece of writing, not the one they wrote. The leaders explain that each person, in voluntary order, should read aloud the writing on which he or she is sitting. It is necessary to pass the candles around in order to hold them close enough to the writing to read. This is done. One man finds himself reading about the experience of giving birth, but he’s game. Some of the moments are dramatic and others are serene.
When everyone has read, one of the worship leaders asks for a moment of silent meditation. Taped instrumental music ends the silence and continues for a few moments. Another leader rises to read a “collect” prayer, which gathers up the ideas of the statements and talks about the “differences that unite us” and the happy times we expect to share now. Then another leader gives a spoken prayer to which the people are asked to respond with the same short repeated phrase.
The people stand again, sing another hymn with hands joined, and then file back out the door and across the lawn. The line is not broken and the song is not stopped until everyone is inside the main building again.

In spite of its apparent simplicity, the three leaders had spent considerable
time and thought on designing this. Everyone present was either a leader with experience or someone who was seen to have “potential” as a leader. There had only been one previous Leadership School, so no one was experienced with this specifically and many had driven a long distance after a full workday. These people are usually verbal, open, and trusting. Still, it was a little bit spooky not to know what would happen. This was “in-gathering”, more like a summer camp game than a religious service. Nevertheless, the principles apply.  We were entrained into the same mindset.
The walk in the night over the lawn holding hands is a child’s sort of thing to do, disarming.  Dark is scary but someone’s hand is reassuring, no one could freak and decide to stay behind. Once into the gymnasium, the “campfire” effect drew everyone together in a natural liminal space. Sharing the writing was both funny and moving. We had a chance to focus on each of us but we had something a little difficult to do — adrenaline producing — while people were looking at us. The “collect” served as a homily. Then the reversal took us back out over the limen again. It was quite natural, like a dinner party.

There are two scripted orders of service (written out) often used in UU services based on this sort of potluck pattern. One is historical, the Flower Communion created by Norbert Capek (1870-1942), who founded the
Unitarian Church in Czechoslovakia. Everyone brings a flower to leave in the front of the church during the service, and then after the service takes away a different flower.

The other is “Coming Home Like Rivers to the Sea”, the first Water Ritual held at the November 1980 Women and Religion Continental Convocation of Unitarian Universalists in East Lansing, Michigan. Created by activist Carolyn McDade and UU leader Lucile Schuck Longview, it was a way for women who lived far apart to connect the work each was doing locally to the larger movement. It has come to be used as an ingathering/homecoming ritual for UU congregations. Over the summer people take a little water from a place or event that is meaningful for them. At the fall ingathering the water is poured together with explanations of where it came from, and then each takes away a bit of water to do some symbolic thing at home, often baptizing babies. The same pattern has been used for seeds or earth.
What is missing from the Leadership School Ingathering is the Evil, the broken heart, the tragedy. At no point was there anything but the pleasant summer dark. The sin, brokenness and limitation of humans were not invoked, unless you count the dark itself and the sound of the sea close by.  It is this awareness that the demonstration of community is meant to oppose and overcome to be fully religious. The Flower Communion now derives much of its meaning and poignancy from the fact that Capek was martyred at Auschwitz. When congregations find the historical references to this “depressing” or even “creepy” and cut them out, they greatly diminish the worship experience. A flower might be just a flower, but the symbolized children who died were real.
Likewise, the original feminist “Coming Home Like Rivers to the Sea” begins with the spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” to express the rejection and subjugation of women, their powerlessness and homelessness. If the water is brought in the spirit of offertory, then the statements made by each woman become testimony, witness to both personal losses and sources of strength.
But the In-gathering at Leadership School was not meant to be a complete worship service, only an opening exercise in a week long sequence.

In each of the three “schools” I attended over three summers, on about the fourth day there was always an upwelling of nastiness or some other kind of breakdown when people were tired, pressured, homesick, needing solitude, or had run into their limitations and habitual temperament problems. It was in confrontiing and overcoming that phenomenon of “hitting the wall” that the real leadership learning took place. This was a specially chosen group of people in an exceptionally open denomination. Their weakness was their unwillingness to fail, since they were already leaders, high scorers, and highly educated. This tended to make them rigid and committed to past successes instead of exploration. The sheltered week among people who would disperse afterwards gave them courage. They could fail and laugh, which freed them to try again.

But some of the dark went home with us.  The example that sticks with me is a night supposed to be themed by play.  One group decided to do “role reversal” in which they staged a beauty contest for men.  The guys were in swimsuits, draped in kelp to look like mermen.  Actually the effect was a little more animal than vegetable.  Not all of them wore cups or athletic supporters, but the moment was arousing.  They were exposed.  They had not understood that women are prepared to be examined that way, because they have to be.  A few went to their room and cried alone.

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