Contents: July/August 2002
The Heart of the Work
When I was meeting with a Coming of Age group in my office not long ago, one of the young men asked, "What do you do?"
In my mind, I began to list the things I've done in this first year as your president: preached to or visited with more than seventy congregations; been interviewed by dozens of reporters; met with most of the volunteer continental committees of the Association; helped imagine a comprehensive, mission-based reorganization of the UUA staff; traveled to India to visit the Khasi Unitarians and with the organizations that pursue justice for the poor with the support of the UUA's Holdeen India Program; attended the Large Church Conference in Portland, Oregon, and the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association Convocation in Birmingham, Alabama; visited Washington, D.C., six times as part of my commitment to the public visibility of our faith; wrestled the UUA budget into balance in a year of uncertainty; offered pastoral support to our congregations and their leaders in the aftermath of September 11; led our public witness efforts in support of affordable housing and safety for our children from sexual abuse; supported congregational justice-making against racism in Tulsa and Cincinnati; and called for a U.S. policy in the Middle East that addresses the legitimate needs of all sides. It has been quite a year.
But I realized that was not what my visitor was asking. The question was not about tasks, not about calendars, not about conference calls. The young man wanted to know what the heart of this extraordinary job is, what gets me up each morning, what gets me to the airport at least once each week.
What do I do? I try, in every meeting I attend, in every congregation I visit, in every public witness statement I make, to be the religious leader this great faith needs and deserves. The primary work of the president is religious leadership asking challenging spiritual questions, framing conversations in terms of our values, resisting the temptations of ego and arrogance, grounding our work in the great legacy of religious liberalism that is our heritage. That is what I try to do.
This is a wonderful job and an exciting time to hold it because there is so much energy in our faith today. As I have traveled this year, more often than not I have preached to full sanctuaries, some with standing room only. Public visibility for our faith has never been greater. This is thanks in part to my election that I'm the first African American to lead a traditionally white denomination tends to attract reporters' curiosity but it's important to note that more and more of our ministers are also getting calls from the press for a liberal religious perspective on these troubled and troubling times.
In the coming year I will continue to do the various tasks, the "what" of being your president: traveling to Central Europe, Japan, and Great Britain; visiting our congregations, though I will be reserving more time for public witness than in my first year; reaching out with our interfaith partners to work for peace and justice; searching for ways to bridge the categories of race, culture, and faith that divide us; and working to conclude our capital campaign, hopefully exceeding our ambitious $32 million goal.
But the heart of my work will be to continue to ask challenging spiritual questions. How can Unitarian Universalists move beyond our affirmation of "I" into a more effective "we"? How can we live more deeply this pluralistic faith that we love? Can we reclaim the use of religious language while still honoring our humanist lineage? What would it mean to dedicate ourselves to the growth of Unitarian Universalism?
Our faith is moving forward, maturing in significant ways. It is such a great privilege to serve as your president. My devotional life stays centered on gratitude for the opportunity and the responsibility you have entrusted to me.