By The Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, President of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA)
When my son was just 2 years old, I found him bringing all his stuffed animals into the shower. When I asked what he was up to, he answered, “It’s shower church.”
I smiled and asked, “Oh yeah, what’s happening at shower church?”
He told me he would be preaching. When I asked what he was preaching about he answered simply, “Love, mommy. It’s always love.”
There’s an old saying that even the best preachers only have one or two sermons—we just keep finding new ways to share them. In that moment, I thought my son clearly figured out mine.
Love is a core foundation of my religious understanding, but it is not a love that is simply an emotion, a feeling, or an expression of the bonds of loyalty felt within a group. In personal relationships, when we love someone, we wish for them the fullest unfolding and development of who they are. We wish for them freedom, safety, joy, and life. Love as a religious practice extends our compassion, solidarity, and care beyond the personal to seeking the liberation and wholeness of every person. It reminds us of our fundamental interdependence with all of life.
It is this understanding of love that formed one of the most precious gifts Unitarian Universalism has given me: the gift of a religion that teaches that the work of justice is inseparable from a faith rooted in love.
This understanding that love and justice are inseparable was nurtured by my UU atheist and activist mom, who told me as a young child she did not believe in god, but if she did, she would believe god is love.
It was reinforced by the stories and theology of Unitarian Universalism—that no one is outside the circle of love.
Each Sunday, reciting the covenant beginning with the words “Love is the doctrine of this congregation,” I was and am reminded that love is the core teaching and practice of what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist.
This is why it can be so painful, even faith-shaking, when our institutions or our leaders fall short of that love, where we reinforce domination, exclusion, or oppression, when we act as a mask instead of a mirror for our freest, fullest selves. To be a faith of action with love as our doctrine doesn’t mean we live it perfectly, but it does mean we are called again and again to learn, to make amends, to restore relationship, to choose love.
I am especially mindful of the inseparable relationship between love and justice in this time where we need to strengthen our work for justice and human rights. Too often, I hear people say, “we need more focus on spirituality, not justice” or “we need more focus on justice, less on the pastoral.” And yet, to divide the two is to weaken both.
In 2000, the black feminist writer and scholar bell hooks wrote:
I feel our nation’s turning away from love . . . moving into a wilderness of spirit so intense we may never find our way home again. I write of love to bear witness both to the danger in this movement, and to call for a return to love.
These words echo in my mind when I think of the challenges before us. I know amongst all the injustices, the issues are not just political, partisan, or economic. On a fundamental level, they are spiritual challenges and they reflect the way we have come as a society to denigrate the value of love and compassion as an essential spiritual and moral value.
In response, as we work more actively and effectively for justice, may we equally tend to the teachings and practices that nurture our very humanity, our capacity for love, because that is where our desire for justice emerges. And if our justice work does not emerge from the moral and spiritual value of love, in the end it will reinforce practices of domination and violence, just in new forms.
To be a Unitarian Universalist, in the context of a pained and unjust world, is to be moved by a love that recognizes and honors our interdependence. It is my hope we do not turn away from responding to these times with our faith, our worship, and our ways of nurturing community. May all of these offer us deeper spiritual practices that cultivate the sustenance we need to be a powerful, faithful force of love and justice.
Yours in love,
This article is reprinted from the summer 2019 issue of UU World.
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