Today I aim to explore with you a proposed strategic vision for our justice work here at West Shore.
It is a new story for us.
I want to tell where it came from, what it’s for, and where it would take us should the congregation vote to approve it at the upcoming annual meeting in May.
But before I go there, we need to know: it’s a new story that has old roots.
The oldest root for us as Unitarian Universalists is our direct parent in Christianity. 2000 years ago, Christianity was in a struggle with “The Peace of Rome,” which essentially was a rigid-status quo situation in which the Roman Emperor was at the very top of the social pyramid and wealthy men were right below. Only these folks had inherent worth and dignity; everyone else was a tool to be used, controlled, subjugated, humiliated. There was no compassion for the people at the bottom, who were women, and poor men, and children, and slaves, and the conquered.
This was the way of Rome, the way to a peaceful and unified empire. If you tried to fight Rome on this—even to avow religious faith in Gods whose values contradicted Rome’s—war would have been declared on you. Christians being torn apart by lions in the Coliseum is but one example of this.
And this is how our Living Unitarian Universalist Tradition began. A Rabbi by the name of Jesus dared to teach the Beatitudes. He dared to observe the Table Fellowship ritual. He dared to preach and teach and practice values which were directly opposed to the Peace of Rome.
He was judged treasonous, and he was crucified.
Pontius Pilate thought that that would have been enough to crush the spiritual rebels who rallied around Jesus, but it was not to be so. The love of Rabbi Jesus was too powerful to die. Rabbi Jesus died, but his spirit was resurrected in the lives of his followers, who refused the status-quo Peace of Rome.
It’s not that they did not believe in peace. They did. But they believed in a very different kind of peace: a peace that is not so much about the absence of struggle as the presence of Love stirring in our midst, calling us to acts of compassion and justice. Sometimes, this sort of peace is disruptive, and needfully so, when the status quo cruelly benefits some at the expense of others. Cruelty was what the Peace of Rome was egregiously guilty of.
The followers of Jesus, undaunted by continuing persecution, never let go of their vision of a Peace that is the presence of Love, calling for justice. This peace gathered them into communities. This means they acted not as separate agents, isolated and cut off from each other. No. They acted strategically. They organized.
Justin Martyr, one of these early Christians, who lived around 70 years after Jesus’ death, said, “We who formerly valued above all things the acquisition of wealth and possession, now bring what we have into a common stock, and communicate to everyone in need; we who hated and destroyed one another, and on account of their different manners would not live with men of a different tribe, now, since the coming of Christ, live familiarly with them, and pray for our enemies.” That’s what the Jesus followers did. They moved from individualism to collective action. They figured out how to leverage differences in background and temperament and ability to make them serve a common vision of Love.
That’s what they did. That’s how they survived impossible odds, and thrived.
Let me tell one more old story, before I turn to the new.
This old story is more recent. It’s from 1946, which was the year of this congregation’s very first worship service ever. The Rev. Wayne Shuttee (our very first minister) was preaching, and he spoke from a temporary pulpit that, right after the service, would need to be broken down and carted off to storage space, together with the 200+ chairs that, early that morning, had been set up temporarily in the Masonic Temple in Lakewood, together with all the hymnals and all the other necessary parts and pieces.
Rev. Shuttee’s sermon was entitled “Today’s Need and Our Answer.” It was but an updated vision of the Peace of Love, updated so that it might speak directly to the sensibilities of people in post-war 20th century America. What needed disrupting was the continued Peace of Rome-like system of haves and have-nots. What called for justice was all of the devastation from the war; the horrors of racism turned against Jews, with six million of them murdered in concentration camps; all the evidences of racism closer to home like redlining and Black exclusion from the GI Bill; and then the revelation of the atom bomb and how innovation in human technology was swiftly outpacing people’s ethical and spiritual capacity to use technology constructively and not destructively. All of this and more cried out for an updated and relatable vision of the Peace of Love.
Rev. Shuttee preached that vision during that very first service, and it continued to compel people to keep coming back to church again and again and again—even though, in those early years, everything needed to be set up every Sunday. The pulpit. All 200+ chairs. All the hymnals. All the other parts and pieces. Even despite the inconvenience of that. People kept coming back.
There are, said the Rev. Shuttee, four great needs of every human soul:
1—A feeling of security. “This, he says, “can come only by facing up to life, understanding the nature of the world as science shows it to us, and working with, rather than against, these fundamental laws of life.”
2—A sense of significance. “Each of us needs to realize how important he is to the fulfillment of the human venture whose goal is a good society.”
3—Development of sensitivity to the needs, desires, and worth of others. “Only by such development can we hope for a world of peace and plenty for all.”
4—The need to add another dimension to life: “The possibility of things that may be, that must be, if life is to reach its highest fulfillment.”
That was the beginning of the Peace of Love vision, for us. People organized around it. A new congregation’s wings were lifted by it.
77 years later, we are still going strong.
And there you have it. Two old stories, which are the essential layers underneath the new story we are exploring today.
Stay tuned for part 2, and what the new story is all about.
Did you hear how the two “old” stories echo each other? In these ways:
1. The need to confront contemporary injustice—some version of the Peace of Rome, whether we explicitly call it that or not.
2. The need to do this with some countercultural vision of the Peace of Love.
3. The need for the Peace of Love vision to translate into a strategy that can engage an entire community, because communities can do things way beyond what individuals, acting alone, are capable of. Remember the proverb from Burkina Faso in West Africa, which says, “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.”
These are the layers I am drawing on, as I now go on to articulate a new vision of the Peace of Love, which could be our new story moving forward. Although, truth be told, the new story started in 2021. That was when I convened the Justice Visioning Task Force and charged them with developing a Congregationally-based, Congregationally-approved vision of where West Shore’s Justice Program could be five years into the future, together with an effective strategy for implementation. The Justice Visioning Task Force (or JVTF for short) included Amy Dillon Cody (Chair), Warren Campbell-Gaston, Joan Clark, Cil Knutsen, Jeff Modzelewski, Cathy Ross, and myself.
Thanks so much to these folks for their leadership!
The Task Force engaged the congregation at large in numerous ways. It hosted a “World Cafe” to explore ideas, issues, and questions related to Social Justice at West Shore. JVTF members attended meetings of all the Church Councils, Committees, and Task Forces to present concepts and receive feedback regarding Social Justice work. JVTF members made themselves available for private and personal discussion. Archival and historical materials were reviewed. On January 23, 2022, I preached on this issue explicitly, in my sermon entitled “A Vision for Church-Based Justice Work” (and I encourage you to take another look!).
The Task Force recorded what people said. It noticed repeating concerns and themes and hopes. It acknowledged the creative tensions that lay beneath desires which, on the surface, appeared incompatible. It honored our many accomplishments and witnessed to past mistakes and disappointments.
From this work of careful listening and discernment, the JVTF completed my charge to it. It fleshed out the Congregationally-based vision. It shared it with West Shore’s Board of Trustees, which affirmed the vision at its Oct 27, 2022 meeting and added it as an agenda item for the annual meeting to be held on May 21, which is when the Congregation will vote on it.
In other words, it’s not going to be imposed from above.
It’s got to be owned by us all as our collective Peace of Love vision.
It’s got to sound like us, who we are, what feels good as we envision ourselves in the near future.
This proposed collective vision is in your order of service—it’s the beautiful pamphlet crafted by Debbie Elliott in the office. Bring it with you to the Sermon Chat after this service at noon, here in the sanctuary, where JVTF member Joan Clark and Board member Kathy Kosoriek will hear your feedback, answer any concerns, and just listen. Take the pamphlet home and reflect on it. Continue to offer feedback to me or Joan or Kathy via email or phone or conversation. It’s not written in stone. Be on the lookout for the four separate Town Hall meetings to be held in advance of the Annual Meeting, where further discussion can take place. We’ll need to solidify things for the May vote, but feedback up till then is welcome.
Right now, though, let me ask you to set the pamphlet to the side as I guide you through some of the main things, as I see it.
In doing this, I’m actually going to follow the Rev. Shuttee’s lead with his 1946 statement of the four great needs of every human soul. I promise you, this wasn’t really on the radar when the JVTF was doing its work in framing the proposed congregational vision. But, surprisingly, and with wonder, I have only recently sensed a deep harmony between the two.
Here’s what I mean.
Take Rev. Shuttee’s first great human need: A feeling of security. The need to face the laws and limits of life and work with them, not against them.
One of these laws and limits is about anyone’s capacity to bring more of the Peace of Love to the world. That capacity is not unlimited. Violate that law, transgress that limit, and the result is a compassion fatigue, which is being emotionally overwhelmed to the point of paralysis and numbness. You start out dreaming big justice dreams and acting big justice actions–and you end up disillusioned and struggling even to get out of bed in the morning.
Compassion fatigue can happen in all sorts of ways. One way is when you feel burned by the thought of all the things left undone, all the things needing doing. It won’t matter if, in your justice work, you’ve accomplished 10 impossible things. You will feel guilty–you will feel tormented–by that 11th impossible thing that didn’t get accomplished. The guilt and torment is debilitating.
It’ll burn you out.
On the scale of a church, what this burn-out track looks like is blowing past every justice accomplishment without telling the story, without celebrating the victory, and rushing onwards to the next thing, and then the next–and all the while, what you say to others and what you say about the church in general is that “we’re not doing enough. It’s never enough. MORE!”
Talk about a fast track to people feeling cynical about church. Church-wide burn-out.
So, look at this proposed justice vision–the whole thing–as an effort to create some security in our justice work. We can’t do everything all at once. But can we agree to focus on at least some things that, democratically, most of us value? Can we be busy with Peace of Love work and still save ourselves from burn-out?
Now consider the next of Rev. Shuttee’s list of great human needs: A sense of significance. Each person realizing that their unique contribution to West Shore’s justice program matters. That everyone is needed.
Several of the top priorities of the proposed vision address this need, but the one I will mention here is: #3. Increasing Opportunities for Social Justice Participation at All Levels to All Congregants. Part of this is about better communication about what’s happening and what service opportunities are available. Another part of this is being more strategic in identifying community actions to which the entire congregation is invited (as opposed to inviting everyone to come to everything, which results in few people going to anything). And then there’s this: While honoring the multitude of initiatives already in place, can we develop a process for how the entire congregation might select a broad social justice focus and then collectively implement it? Is there a way we can honor our diverse interests and yet, at the same time, become known in the community as the church in Rocky River that’s making a concrete difference in Cleveland about poverty, or literacy, or environmentalism, or something else? Not all of them all at once, but one of them, one at a time. Maybe for a long time. Maybe just for three years or so, and then we decide to focus on another….
Beyond this, yet another aspect of the proposed vision which addresses the “everyone is important” need is the incompleteness of the 5 year implementation plan. When you read the implementation plan in the brochure, you’ll see this. There are some significant gaps in it. It’s not because of laziness. It’s because none of us are psychics and can see five years into the future. Things happen. Things change. Ongoing feedback is needed. Also, the more you live into a strategic plan, the more you learn about what’s needed and when. That’s why, if this plan is approved by the Congregation, the next step will be to recruit a Steering Team whose job is to help flesh out the practical implementation plan, as well as to (1) monitor achievement, (2) report to the Board and myself ongoingly, and (3) report to the Congregation annually.
This plan needs all of us to make it a success–ongoingly.
Back to Rev. Shuttee’s four great human needs: the third is the development of sensitivity to the needs, desires, and worth of others. “Only by such development can we hope for a world of peace and plenty for all.”
One way in which the proposed justice plan seeks to do this is by emphasizing the spiritual growth dimension of justice work. Actions that seek to bring the Peace of Love to the world, if they are to be a part of the solution, need to emerge out of genuinely sensitive character–what I call “justice-heartedness.” Specifically, I am talking about personal character which contains some of the following things:
- A sense of agency—that no matter how bad things seem, there is still hope
- An ability to show up and do one’s part and then let go of results
- A capacity to work from a place of love and not from resentment
- An ability to make peace with the world’s imperfection and one’s own imperfection
- Living a life that balances saving the world with savoring the world
- Growing awareness of unconscious biases that unwittingly create suffering in oneself and others (which the 8th Principle of Unitarian Universalism names explicitly).
The proposed plan includes the idea of creating a program of one-on-one or group spiritual counseling to support people’s growth in this direction. The resulting growth towards fuller justice-heartedness will, in turn, support justice actions which heal with minimal side-effects of harm.
Finally, the last of Rev. Shuttee’s four great human needs: the need to add another dimension to life if life is to reach its highest fulfillment. You may be wondering about what exactly Rev. Shuttee is referring. Here’s my thought: he’s talking about the added dimension of accountability, which is really a spiritual sensitivity to how any individual’s well-being is wrapped up in the well-being of the whole. To how my well-being and your-well being involves responsibility and responsiveness to the ethical and religious values we hold in common. None of us gets a pass. None of us gets to slack off. Each of us has to do our part to help build the common good.
The proposed justice vision seeks to underscore this dimension of accountability in several ways. One is for our justice Task Forces to set annual goals for themselves, work to achieve them, and then assess achievement at the end of the program year. Another is for us to go to the next level in our 8th Principle institutional transformation work, so that we are providing meaningful and life-changing resources to people who want to do their part in healing the evils of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and more.
Yet a third aspect to accountability is probably the broadest one possible. It’s simply this: for we, as a congregation, to take another look at the statement of our congregational mission. Currently the statement is: to inspire more people to live lives of meaning and purpose. Don’t get me wrong: it’s lovely. But, the proposed justice vision would have us wonder: does this get to the heart of our basic reason for existing as a congregation NOW? The JVTF was sensitive to quite a few comments from you all that the mission says nothing about justice work. Justice isn’t in there explicitly. I think it’s in there implicitly. But is it time to make it more explicit? Is it time to say, with greater forcefulness, that we exist to rally people of liberal faith to act in service to greater love and justice?
The Peace of Love is ancient and will always be there between the lines.
Rev. Shuttee’s 1947 vision will always be between the lines of who we are.
But new times require new expression, and new direction, for relevance’s sake.
Even if the proposed justice vision does not garner enough votes at the May 21st annual meeting, still, the need remains: what are West Shore’s collective justice goals?
Where are we going? Where are we headed?
Can we define this collectively, so that we can go together and therefore go far?
Let’s do this.
I believe we can.