Unitarians in Other Lands

Most UUs tend to think of our religion as confined to North America, and while that’s pretty much true, it was never wholly true and is less true as time goes on. A tribute to the Partner Church Movement with special attention paid to the Khasi Hills Unitarians in modern India and ESUC’s ongoing support, January’s 2nd Sunday recipient.

“Unitarians in Other Lands”

This winter/spring sermon series on the 7 UU Principles

            Where they came from?

How they signify, historically and personally?

But first I have three other worship services that need attention:

  1. Intergenerational MLK service on the 19th
  2. “Radical Hospitality” on the 26th,  and
  3. “Longings of the Heart/Queries of the Mind” on Groundhog Day, February 2,

in which I’ll try to ground the whole Seven Principles—or center them—in a fundamental question: How can these Seven Principles help us lead better, happier, more productive lives? How do they help the church fulfill its mission? That is, help all of us here, lay and professional, do better ministry? That’ll be on February 2.

As for the Seven Principles series—which begins the following week, February 9—I want to propose that we consider each Principle in turn as a spiritual practice. But more on that… in four weeks.

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We have already heard from the Khasi Hills Folks, reminding us of the important work going on in our Partner Church in India, and inviting everyone here this morning who wants to further their efforts to give generously when the collection plate comes around in a few minutes. These are fellow Unitarians living in the NE corner of India who have a community there doing what they can to help their members, just as we do here—but conditions in the Khasi Hills involves daily uncertainties and privations unknown to most North American UUs. Studying and visiting these far-flung Unitarian Universalist communities has been, for many people, life changing.

Unitarianism and Universalism were both pretty parochial in their nineteenth and early twentieth century years: almost all denominations were. And, in both denominations’ cases, this was amplified by the fact that neither had ever supported foreign missions. There were some English Unitarians, though they were “frosty” and clipped, according to lore, and long in decline. Counter-reformation zealots had whipped out a thriving Unitarian community in Poland. But in Transylvania (of all places) there remained the oldest Unitarian churches in the world—nearly five hundred!

From 1947 through 1990 Transylvania—part of Romania—was under a communist regime, the last twenty-five years of which with the ruthless dictator Nicolae Ceausescu at the helm. The state, being communist, was officially atheist. But beneath the radar Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Unitarian groups continued to operate—despite considerable oppression and virtually no money. In 1990 the Romanian Communist regime supporting Ceausescu’s despotic rule fell virtually overnight.

Leon Hopper was well into his ministry here at that time and the church was thriving! Leon, Peter Raible, and a few other UU clerics, long worried about state efforts to wipe out the Transylvanian Unitarians, resolved to go immediately to Torocko Szentgyorgyi [Tor-osh-ko Sent-george] and begin opening up communication channels between UUs in North America and those in the crumbling communist state. Leon and his cohort soon were organizing Transylvanian trips for Unitarian Universalists from here, and from the Kirkland, University Unitarian, and Westside churches. And the next thing you know, the program went national.

Soon Leon Hopper and his wife, Dorothy, forged a good relationship with the minister from Torocko Szentgyorgyi, Emese Finta, and her husband, Csaba. Once North Americans visited over there, they were easily and comfortably drawn into the village life of their UU co-religionists. In his organizing efforts, Reverend Hopper smuggled close to $30,000 to help the ministers and families of the Transylvanian UU community, including many thousands to the family of a boy to pay for a brain operation to remove a disfiguring though benign tumor.

In the thirty years since Leon’s bold ministry of international partnership started, dozens of East Shore people—and hundreds beyond East Shore—have been transformed by the experience. They may not have all had their minds operated on, but they’ve all had their mind’s blown—and creatively transformed. Barbara and John have testified! I spoke with ESUC Board member Paul Buehrens last week about his experiences journeying to Transylvania and he repeated the same: that it deepened his faith in many ways.

“At first,” reported Paul, “I saw how completely different these rural Eastern Europeans were from all the UUs I had known. But by the end of my pilgrimage among them, I could only see all we had in common.”

And this is the great benefit of getting out of town, of going somewhere new, of seeing the world from completely different perspective. As Rudyard Kipling once wryly observed, “What do they know of England who only England know?” What does anyone know about a place who has never been elsewhere? And what do humanistic west coast UUs know about progressive UUs whose path to our faith is far different than their own; far different, as it formed (and re-formed) in reaction to Catholicism and state communism in Transylvania. And out of Hinduism and aboriginal animism in the Khasi Hills.

I can hear Leon Hopper now, asking us here, “What do they know of Unitarian Universalism who only know the West Coast humanistic variety?”

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There’s a lot going on in the world, and much of it is dangerous, scary, and downright deplorable. It’s depressing. And a person has good reason to be depressed. As Bob Dylan wrote decades ago, “It’s easy to see without looking too far, not much is really sacred.” No it’s not. And those of us who are committed to holding up a better, more wholesome, cooperative way of being, pointing our way toward it, and struggling day after day to pull it off can get weary. And forlorn.

The Partnership Church Council is a good antidote to such feelings. The relationships forged in the early 1990s helped Transylvanian UUs negotiate the uncertain first steps out of despotic communism. Could it now be that they can help North Americans come to terms with state surveillance, political propaganda, and over-the-top Head of State braggadocio? Perhaps. And definitely worth a try.

The UU Partner Church is designed to help us transcend parochialism and become more truly Universalist in our faith. UUs in Khasi Hills, Transylvania, the Philippines, Kenya, and beyond all live simple, wholesome, striving lives in accordance with our same Seven Principles and Six Sources. We can only learn and grow from more interaction and communication together.

So may it be.               Amen.