I find myself outside and not quite able to look in this week.
Today is the final day of the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly in Charlotte, North Carolina. I had planned for a few weeks now to fill this blog space with my personal impressions of what I guessed was going to be a deluge of information through the Internet. This once-a-year denomination-wide event would surely spur enough onsite coverage, mainstream news reports, and full-text versions of speeches that my difficulty would be in narrowing down what I wanted to reflect on and respond to.
I was therefore a little shocked and disappointed with the results of my googling. Wednesday, the day GA opened, my news search results yielded only 6 results, four of which were from UUWorld.
It’s okay, I told myself. GA has just started, if a reporter were there it will obviously take a while for the article to be written and published. So I checked back Thursday, and Friday, and Saturday. Not until this morning did my Internet searching yield any significant results.
Perhaps I am being unfair with my definition of significant. There was, the entire time, UU World’s event coverage and streaming video. Unfortunately, my years-old computer is not quite able to handle streaming video. I was rewarded by a minute or two of shaking footage of typical-UU-looking, white, middle-aged, folks wandering around an exhibit hall with the kind of audio my grandfather’s camcorder picked up when he was in a crowded room or a light breeze. There were also plenty of blogs written by folks in attendance who were rapturous about the event: that they were amazed by the crowds and how important our faith was, how moving GA was, how they were blessed to witness… and I couldn’t quite understand what they were talking about because the writing I was able to find focused on their emotional reaction, rather than describing what they were reacting to.
So, there is the crux of my difficulty. I am a Unitarian-Universalist in her early thirties who has always come from a family of limited means and almost non-existent time to travel. Ours was never a choice of touring Europe or spending a week in Charlotte to get connected to our national faith organization. Ours was the question of whether we could afford a week camping. Ours was also the typical UU experience of members of a congregation that shuts down for the summer. For late June through early September, church did not exist. Out-of-sight and out-of-mind for three months of the year.
So, I try to imagine what General Assembly must be like, and I can’t. I try to understand my minister description of worshiping with thousands of Unitarian-Universalists together, and I lose her on the word worship. I’m distracted by my question of how many in the assembly hall would describe what they were doing with the same phrase. I suspect it’s fewer than half.
But what if almost all of those people lucky enough to go to GA do indeed feel the way my minister does about those heady things like “great spirit” “connecting power” and so forth?
Maybe my real fear isn’t that I will never be able to experience General Assembly. Maybe what I truly worry about is that if I did, it would show me that I don’t really belong there. Maybe it would be the final experience that proves I’m not really a Unitarian-Universalist after all. Or at least, that my religion is not the same as those who call themselves Unitarian-Universalists.
A few weeks ago, I realized that part of why I couldn’t sit through services in my local congregation anymore is because I was consistently feeling like I was being told how to feel. And, what I was being told I “must” see and was “absolutely universal experiences” just didn’t match what I saw and experienced. I thought that being a good Unitarian-Universalist meant allowing every individual to decide for themselves what the greater truths were, and that our individual beliefs and experiences were valid fodder for our faith. But, maybe my questioning humanism is so ill-matched to other individual’s definition of UUism, that it’s really me that’s deficient somehow.
Aside from what I want to classify as the spiritual reports from this event, which I know I will probably never understand, there is the few mainstream media reports, which focus on where our faith stands on politically polarizing issues. These I can read and breathe a sigh of relief, for they affirm my self-definition of being a UU.
This morning, I found two brief news article from the Charlotte Observer. The first reported “Liberal denomination stands up for its causes.” It went on to give details of the march to the statehouse in support of same-sex marriage. Another was titled “Imam: ‘Dream still alive’ for Islamic center”. It described how our denomination has reached out to the Imam of the so-called “ground zero” mosque and invited him to speak about religious tolerance.
Yes, I think. This is my church. This is the faith I chose that demands equality for all who love, and who think listening to the other point of view is a sacred duty.
And, perhaps in a day or two, there will be more coverage of the Imam’s speech to this funny little denomination that is guided by seven principles that next to none of it’s members can recite. Perhaps it will inspire more Unitarian-Universalists to put down Thoreau for the summer and spend some time with the Qur’an in order to truly understand what so many fear. Perhaps we can fight our political battles for same-sex marriage, illegal immigration, and freedom of religion with the same religious fervor that those on the extreme right do.
But, then there’s the internal struggle I referred to earlier. The fight that is not with other faiths or political agendas, but the fight for our spiritual homes. Surprisingly, I’m not alone in being anxious over it. The GA blog page (http://blogs.uuworld.org/ga/) includes Daniel Harper’s musing on music, in which he quotes UU composer Nick Page: “The huge epic battle” in Unitarian Universalism, said Page, “is between those want to feel something, and those who want to think. And the other battle is liberal fundamentalism, where people believe that they are right, and everyone else is wrong.” The blog went on to focus on liberal fundamentalism and music, perhaps because that first question of feeling and thinking was too frightening to consider for more than a moment.
So, there it is again. The ahh… and the aha… the quieting and the questioning.
I wonder if the real struggle is that when we want to think, we more readily understand that others may not think the same. But feelings are so bone deep, we are not as willing to accept it when others don’t share our feelings. Or perhaps that feelings are so individual it is difficult for those like me to see feeling as a group activity – whether it is in a congregation of twenty or a GA hall of thousands.
If you tell me what you think, I feel invited in to your mind, whether I agree or not. When you tell me how you feel, I can sympathize and understand, but if I do not feel the same we are separated by the barriers of our consciousness. It is more difficult to give each other the necessary space to feel differently, because our feelings are so important to us. The great cliche UU’s like to repeat is that we need not think alike to love alike.
But, what about when we just don’t love alike?
Am I allowed to love as I do, with my analytical self, while you feel love is beyond thought? Are these distinctions more polarizing than whether I believe in a Christian god and you believe in a pagan great spirit? Can we hope to support same sex marriage and the Islamic center if we can’t agree on how we know our own souls – what paths lead us to what we know is right and wrong?
Perhaps if I were at GA I might have been able to track down Daniel Harper and explain how I enjoy his writing and ask him these kinds of questions. Or perhaps I would have gotten into a great conversation with someone in the convention hall which would crystalize some of these thoughts that are still not fully formed in my own mind. Perhaps if I had been able to hear the Imam speech in person, or had walked through the rain in Charlotte promoting love and marriage equality I would have some clue as to what most of the bloggers about GA, as they describe their transcendence but not the details of the actual experience.
Perhaps if I were there, I would look as happy as Peter Morales did when he held up a hard copy of the Charlotte Observer with a photo of that rally on page one. But I am here at my computer, in my little office. My church is closed for the summer, and even if it were open, I don’t know how many members and friends would have the slightest idea or desire to know what is happening at GA.
And, with the help of my computer, I can see that it was only the Charlotte newspaper that covered our little rally. Our national convention is a local interest story. When I type ‘Unitarian Universalist’ into a google news search, this morning, I get 576 results. Most of them aren’t about General Assembly.
And maybe I have to be analytical when I consider my religion. Because if I allow myself to feel rather than think, I feel lost.