Transformative Connections in a Fragmented World

In a world threatened by nationalism, xenophobia and trade wars, it is sometimes difficult to maintain a global perspective. Our UU faith upholds the principle of “world community with peace, liberty and justice for all.” This service will renew your faith in humanity. Experience the joy of East Shore’s personal connection with our beloved Unitarian partners in Transylvania Romania, and the Khasi Hills of India. We also invite you to join in a conversation following the service.


by John Chmaj

How do we build connections in the world as it is today?  Our toys, tools and technologies segment and distance us – we often drive miles to be in community, we stare into computer screens to interact with each other, text instead of talk, we watch as our default mode of participation in television and broadcast media.  The pace of life itself often reduces our time to be and bond with each other to slices of a sequenced schedule. We try to cram more into every day, leaving little time to reflect, respond and renew each other in more natural rhythms of relationship. The Dalai Lama summarizes this most succinctly:

“We have bigger houses but smaller families; more conveniences, but less time; We have more degrees, but less sense; more knowledge, but less judgment; more experts, but more problems; more medicines, but less healthiness; We’ve been all the way to the moon and back, but have trouble crossing the street to meet the new neighbor. We’ve built more computers to hold more information to produce more copies than ever, but have less communications; We have become long on quantity, but short on quality.

These times are times of fast foods; but slow digestion; Tall man but short character; Steep profits but shallow relationships. It is time when there is much in the window, but nothing in the room.” – The Dalai Lama

And yet we crave connection – deep in ourselves we know we are at our largest, at our best, in community, as connected, compassionate creatures, not as islands of self-satisfying, egoistic ‘consumers of experience’.  In short, the best experiences of our lives are shared ones:  times when we are truly and deeply SEEN, when we participate in a larger circle of human connection, where our tissues of thought and feeling connect and resonate in harmonious action.  Whether it’s in family, in teams, in groups of shared values and action, the outcome of any community is enhanced and evolved CONNECTION.  The essence of our church vision includes Practicing Love and Building Community – it’s why we are here, not just in this room, but on this planet, here, now.

And so it is a supreme irony that one of the movements within our UU church traditions, that of the Partner Church program, helps us build some of the strongest community connections in our fragmented world by LEAVING our families, friends and homes.  This occurs through reaching out and across to others in churches and communities thousands of miles away – people who speak different languages, have completely different social and economic environments, may share little common understanding of history or the world, and yet…and yet, somehow we find deep common ground and connection as Unitarians.

As UNITARIANS – what’s up with that?  Aren’t we all rugged spiritual individualists, intent on preserving the uniqueness and integrity of our own religious experience?  Don’t we live to question, to challenge, to adhere to principles, not shared doctrines, stories and myths?  Well, it turns out it is precisely these principles which bond not only Unitarian theology but our Unitarian views of the world, in ways so fundamental that they can transcend cultural, linguistic and geographical distance.  In contemplating these fundamental commonalities, we can start to see how they form the seeds of common purpose and perspective that do indeed “Unify” us as Unitarians and as human beings.

Let’s consider a few core Unitarian principles we share, and how they’ve played out across the world with a few brief quotes from Unitarian leaders in Romania and India:

  • The Inherent Dignity and Worth of every Person

“The most wonderful thing of all was the discovery that central to the teaching of the Unitarian church was the conviction that had long been growing on me, that the place to find God was not in anything external but in the hidden depths of my own being.” – Annie Margaret Barr, Unitarian Educator to the Khasi Hills

  • Respect for the Interdependent Web of Existence

“The Khasi…lives and has been living in harmony with nature.  Before the world started talking about equality of human beings, not to mention the interdependent web of existence, the Khasi already believed in their myths and legends that all creations are equal…in the golden era of the Khasi…human and animals were not only talking to each other, they lived as equal creations of god.”  H. H. Mohrmen, Religious Scholar, former President of the Khasi Unitarian Union

  • A Free and Responsible Search for Truth and Meaning

“We wish that in our country … freedom shall reign. We know furthermore that faith is a gift from God and that conscience cannot be constrained.” – King Sigismund (John II) of Romania, Unitarian, 1569

“The Khasi Unitarian concept of God is not God in the Judeo-Christian context – the father in heaven, God in an anthropomorphic form or God in human image. The concept of God in the Khasi Unitarian context is … a Universal and formless God.” – H. H. Mohrmen

“We are the religion of the open mind, the open heart, and hopefully the open hands – reaching out to ALL.” – Derrick Pariat, current President of the Khasi Unitarian Union

So as we see, we Unitarians DO share fundamental perspectives on the world, across hundreds of years and thousands of miles.  But it’s something more that creates connection with our Partner Church brothers and sisters.  Something beyond principles and practices.  Our common Unitarian heritage creates the context, the vessel in which we can share a bit of our human/spirit journey together when we meet.  Within those meetings, those moments, we find a bit of the deepest grace, the most powerful love and purpose, precisely BECAUSE we are sharing with others who are living on the same level of loving reality at that same moment.

Life in these villages is simple and spare; it quickly strips away all the distractions and preoccupations of our modern, ADD existence.  One is left with the opportunity to re-engage the world as a child would – taking it as it is presented, open to whatever happens, being attentive and also enjoying attention as a minor celebrity, or at least an object of curiosity.

For example, during our last visit to the Khasi Hills we worked with children in several schools, ages 4 to 17…we were literally dumped into their classrooms, suggested to ‘teach something’, and left with the kids for an hour or more to sort out what that might be, starting with some agreement on what words to use(!) Most of the time, after some preliminary fumbling, we learned some way to communicate – and once a seed of connection is established, it can quickly show the path forward to building true human interaction.  Very quickly we learned to find the humor in the situation – on both sides.  At one point I was asked to give an ‘astronomy lecture’ to a group of 8th graders.  I started in and realized very little of my English was getting through.  Then I realized very little of my ASTRONOMY was getting through.  8th graders are the same everywhere…they’re just discovering their hormones, so seating 30 boys and girls into the same room creates much higher emotional than intellectual attention(!) By the time our host came in to sit down and see what was going on I had been reduced to drawing 6-armed space aliens on the chalkboard in a desperate attempt to retain their attention…I’m sure he wondered where I got my ‘astronomy info’ from! (I just told him they were ‘alternate astronomical facts’…well, maybe I didn’t…)

At the same time, religious services could be profoundly moving, as without understanding the language we learned to FEEL the people, their voices, hear sermons and music as pure, faith-laden SOUND. The music rises up from the pews like a soft, swelling wind, carrying outward and forward into the church as the Khasi hymns take shape in the room.  Plaintive and pure, tinged with pathos yet earnest and loving, it’s a sound somehow both ancient and child-like at once. Again, without language or cultural cues to guide us, our experience became simplified, focused, pure…we got INSIDE the energy of each service, and learn to flow with it.  Mercifully, we were spared the 2-3 hour sermons we were told were commonplace (the Khasis had the courtesy to leave THOSE off the program).

By visiting each other in an open, respectful yet committed spiritual context, we create the grounds for being truly present to each other, for SEEING each other deeply.  Since there are no pre-conditions for prejudice – no shared conflict in the past, specific judgments about our place in the hierarchy of cultural, social or economic expectations – we are left only with each other, guests and hosts, across the table seeking commonality.  It is in these moments that our capacity for openness, for flexibility of thinking, for curiosity and compassion, serve us the best. The very traits that mark us as Unitarians create the perfect make-up to evolve new communities.

We discover that the vast majority of our humanity can be completely shared, without the accoutrements of cultural norms or even language.  We learn to live in each others’ homes and communities as common spiritual adventurers.  We are welcomed, loved and appreciated, even as we find ourselves flowering into ever-expanding tendrils of emotional connection.  It is in this context that we discover that Unitarianism DOES have a shared outlook on life, through sharing and celebrating the simple common purposes of open faith, respect for community, and the need to harmonize as humans.

The result often leads to moments that burst with joyous wonder as we realize how and how much we ARE connected.  In those moments, we become family – mated for life.

Through these familial experiences, one comes to naturally SERVE – the urge to communicate and collaborate emerges organically from these connections.  We were enthusiastically encouraged to visit other churches and communities, and so we bounced in boxy old SUV’s from one village to another on jagged trails of dirt and rock that could only generously be considered ‘roads’, sometimes for hours at a time, to visit, give services, and participate in many communities.  Home visits are much regarded and expected.  On a good day you could knock off 4 or 5 of them, with all the tea and cakes you could stand…I mean, enjoy!

In my experience the deep, transformative power of engaging in service with a partner church community grows from the core connections built with people, through shared service and worship.  This all takes place in a visceral, simplified and focused context that comes from being parachuted into a community both foreign and yet quite aligned with one’s own deepest truths.  And the Khasi people make this easy.  Khasi people are inherently open, trusting, quick to laugh and love, unhindered by the burdens of position, power or privilege. They have huge extended families, so adding a few of us to their brood is no sweat.  However, beware of what you’re getting into:  once you join the Khasi family you are IN, and will feel the tug to return again, and to reconnect those loving bonds.  It’s beyond friendship – it’s a family initiation!

So what may seem like a basic community exercise looking from the outside in – visiting another country for cultural exchange, sharing time with other Unitarians – becomes a transformative connecting experience when one actually participates in it.  We find that WHO WE ARE is what we truly are giving – service is indeed just a prayer within the rhythms of connection.

And we bring these experiences and the expanded capacity for connection home with us. We’ve learned to surrender to people & situations as they are, to simplify our experience, to enter into the energy and intentions of others.  Service becomes a mode of perception, a way of entering into any situation.  Most of all, we bring back the sense of unconditional love that shared spirits evolve for each other, naturally, when they  interact with humility, joy and earnest intentions.  We BECOME the connection we seek, and we find, paradoxically, that it those we have partnered with who have given us these great gifts: those simple, devout, loving Unitarians.

If one is looking for the ‘soul of the Unitarian faith’, beyond principles, practices and purposes, it is this:  we share a common inherent hope in and for humanity, just as it is. Through that shared humanity we connect and grow together as spiritual creatures, unfolding the richness of ourselves through community.  The Partner Church programs give us a rare opportunity to experience the stripped down, essential truth of Being, to see each other anew and re-learn the art of loving, through simple service to each other.

Our own Leon Hopper, one of the primary founders of the partner church movement, shared these words on partnership with the Khasis almost 20 years ago:

We come here to the Khasi Hills in love, as sisters and brothers
We come in partnership
Partnership can build bridges of friendship
Partnership is a long-term relationship, like a marriage
Partnership needs mutual trust and respect
Partnership is both giving and receiving
Partnership connects people – young and old, men and women, one-on-one and communities
Partnership thrives with good communication, which can take many forms
Partnership should encourage a free and open exchange of ideas
Partnership is listening and learning
Partnership gives us a way to see, understand, and appreciate the differences between our traditions, cultures and beliefs
Partnership is shared celebrations
Partnership is sharing our experiences, both our joys and our sorrows
Partnership can help us become better men and women
Partnership can help us overcome the evil in the world created by human beings
Partnership can help us preserve and improve the world for our children and our grandchildren
Partnership can help us strengthen the forces of love, truth and justice in the world
Partnership can help us bring understanding and peace to our world

Our Partner Church group wants and needs new members.  We need YOU to help us build and extend our bridges to our fellow Unitarians across the globe.  We are going to the Khasi Hills this fall.  There is room for YOU to join us.  All you need to do is say “yes” to the adventure!