Over the Long Haul

by Donna Morrison-Reed
February 25, 2001

We stand today, at an auspicious moment in Canadian Unitarian history, poised on the cusp of one of the most significant decisions we will make this decade, a decision that may well determine the course of the next fifty, one hundred years for Unitarianism in Canada.   Do you feel the excitement?

Do you even know what I am talking about?   This is not about “belonging,” “spiritual maturity” or “ministry opportunities.”   Not about same-sex marriage banns or polyamory.    Not about smallGROUPs or “humanism vs. earth-centred spirituality” or the “three-minute” rule or new guidelines for Chaplains.   I’m talking about the decision we will make in Montreal this May on whether Canadian Unitarians will separate from their American counterparts.   I’m talking about whether the Canadian Unitarian Council (CUC) will move from being a Canadian branch of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) in Boston to being an independent Canadian entity, opening up the possibility of two equal voices for Unitarianism on the North American continent.   Two equal voices instead of one mamouth voice – a step which will move us closer to a more balanced and cooperative world association of Unitarians and Universalists.

The other day Anne Orfald, Unitarian Universalist minister in Peterborough, said:

I don’t see this move as a divorce, and don’t understand how anyone could see the relationship we have had as a marriage. …   It seems quite obvious to me that the appropriate analogy is of parent and child, and that the “adolescent” CUC is reaching the point of “growing up” and “leaving home.”   … All the anxiety, all the questions, … all the everything that is going on is because there are uncertainties, … disappointments, … loyalties, … attachments, … mistrust, … all the feelings that happen when the kids leave home.   Will I be able to make it on my own?   How will I be able to support myself?   It can be hard on the kids and hard on the parents. Oh the agony I remember when my 18-year-old first born took off across the country hitchhiking, and ended up with the Scientologists in Portland Oregon. … He wanted us to send him money for the “courses” and the “books” he needed, and as respectfully as we could, we explained that we didn’t want to put our money into that “church” and that if it was really for him, we truly hoped he would finish school and get a job and earn the money he needed to pay for what he wanted to do. Although it was really hard, we didn’t put him down or put down the Church of Scientology and tell him he was making a stupid choice. … [We said] we trusted him to work it through, and eventually he did.

The “adolescent” CUC is growing up and leaving home.   How will we support ourselves?   Will we be able to make it on our own?   It’s exciting and it’s scary.

We are talking about a “leaving home” that has been a long time in coming.   In 1828, three years after the founding of the American Unitarian Association and seventeen years before the founding of this congregation, a letter writer in a Scottish Unitarian periodical asked:   “May we not hope soon to hear of the establishment of ‘The Canadian Unitarian Association’ corresponding with the British and American?”   In 1912, this warning was voiced: “Unless our Canadian promotional work [can] be conducted under the auspices of a board drawn exclusively from the Canadian population, [points of view imported from the United States will] continue to prevent all possibility of making an effective appeal to the general public.”   And in 1956:   “… the existence of Canada as a political entity, a nation, is a fact of significance for the religious liberals who live here … we have responsibilities toward the national life that are of collective concern to all Unitarians living in Canada.”   Eagerly sought and long awaited, there are many among us who are finding it difficult to sleep at night, so excited are we by the possibilities.

There are others among us who are grieving over the coming separation.   Rebecca Scott spent a formative year as an intern at UUA headquarters in Boston.   Al Boyer’s son is a Unitarian Universalist minister in the United States.   Jacob Larson is the youth delegate on the UUA Board of Trustees. And Mark Hamilton attributes the Unitarian Universalist youth movement with saving his life.   He told us about it in a sermon last September.   “If I had to choose one thing in my life for which I am most grateful, it would be the fact that I grew up a Unitarian Universalist.   Hands-down, no question about it.“   Mark asked us to cast our minds back to high school.

What do you remember?   …   I remember being taunted endlessly for being a nerd, for being weird; I remember being punched in the back in the middle of French class … for no apparent reason; I remember being uncool because I didn’t think the important things mattered – things like hair, clothes, and the latest music.   I remember being constantly made aware that I was Different, and unworthy because of it.   Difficult?   It was toxic …

Now imagine for a minute, a place where you are accepted unhesitatingly for who and what you are, where you are loved unconditionally, hugged frequently, affirmed, and applauded.   Where you can do crazy things, say stupid things, wear what you like, do what you like, and it’s all okay. … That is what UU youth conferences, and UU summer camp, were like for me. …

Can you imagine what it is like for an unconventional teenager to be in a community which values “the inherent worth and dignity of every person,” and which lives that value? …   Whatever confidence I may possess, whatever poise, whatever self-assertiveness, whatever leadership skills – the ability to stand up here and speak before you all – I credit in a large part to my experiences growing up as a UU.

Mark’’s UU conferences and summer camps happened in the United States.   Those experiences belong to the UUA.   For Rebecca, Al, Jacob, Mark and others among us, this coming May stands as a dark shadow on the horizon.   For they deeply love their Unitarian Universalist continental family, and this coming separation, this “leaving home” risks the loss of powerful experiences.

What I’’m really talking about this morning is not institutional politics, but change as a fact of life and about our individual struggles to live within the context of that reality.   Have you seen the play Wit at Canadian Stage?   That’’s what I am talking about.   And what of the changes in your own life?   How and where are you “leaving home”?   Where is the grief tearing you apart?   Where is new growth being stimulated whether you want it or not?   At the end of this summer, our children leave home.   No plans to hitchhike across the country and hook up with the Scientologists as far as I’’ve heard.   (Of course I’m only their mother. What do I know?)   Even as I speak, Charlotte is planning her move to another city; Elliot is getting ready to graduate from high school and, in his own laid-back style, applying to university.   This time next year we will be empty-nesters.   And other changes?   I’’m feeling my age in ways I could never have imagined ten years ago.   This winter some friends have had serious illnesses and others have died.   Mortality is not as easy to ignore as it once was.

Howard Thurman called it “The Growing Edge”:

All around us worlds are dying and new worlds are being born; All around us life is dying and new life is being born.The fruit ripens on the tree; The roots are silently at work in the darkness of the earth Against the time when there shall be new leaves, fresh blossoms, green fruit. Such is the growing edge! It is the extra breath from the exhausted lung, The one more thing to try when all else has failed, The upward reach of life when weariness closes in upon all endeavor. This is the basis of hope in moments of despair, The incentive to carry on when times are out of joint And [all] have lost their reason; the source of confidence When worlds crash and dreams whiten into ash. The birth of a child – life’s most dramatic answer to death –This is the growing edge incarnate. Look well to the growing edge!

Unitarians in Canada are growing up and leaving home, not an acrimonious divorce but a natural maturing that will see two close allies continue to collaborate on all sorts of projects and priorities.   Eliot Institute, a UU camp in Washington state, has already made a commitment to continue strong cross border ties and plans are forming to open Eliot North in Canada.   As Canadian Unitarians we are coming of age, moving from dependence to independence, a move that will open the door to true interdependence in the decades to come.   This is both a birth and a death.   It is our growing edge.

A Spanish proverb goes like this:   “Traveler, there are no roads.   Roads are made by walking.”   At auspicious moments like these it is important to pause for a moment, to reflect not just on where we are headed, but on how we will get there, on the road we are making.

Anne Orfald in Peterborough says:

… how well we manage this “separation” or “leaving home” is what’s in question for me right now.   We need to take adult responsibility on both sides, and if we handle it maturely, and carefully, we won’t feel like we’ve been “divorced” or “disinherited” or whatever – we will learn and grow from the experience.   Life won’t necessarily be better, but it will be different, and we won’t have anyone to blame but ourselves for how we live our lives (and let’s hope we won’t be carping at each other as some siblings do) but just “getting on with it” in the most responsible way we can.

Think back on the transitions in your own life, the births and deaths, the divorces, the “leaving homes”?   Is there any pattern in how you manage change?   Do you shut your eyes, hold your breath and jump real quick?   Do you drag your feet and moan and complain forever?   Can you barely wait to get out the door or do you pull the covers up over your head and try to pretend it just isn’t so?   We stand today, at an auspicious moment in Canadian Unitarian history, poised on the cusp of one of the most significant decisions we will make this decade, a decision that may well determine the course of the next fifty, the next one hundred years for Unitarianism in Canada. How will we manage this growing edge?   How will we live by our highest values as we forge the road ahead?

I think what I find so exciting is the chance I see for us to make our own road.   What will it look like?   Where will it take us?   What will the word Unitarian come to mean in Canada in the decades ahead? What wonderful “children” might we birth together? The answer depends on us.   We stand at the beginning of the twenty-first century holding in our hands the opportunity to mold a twenty-first century Canadian faith.   And how shall we treat each other, those of us who are celebrating already, those of us who are crying?   How we “leave home” is what’s in question now.   Religions do not have the best track record when it comes to ideal meeting reality.   Here is our chance to do it better.

Leonard Sweet writes:

No one “discovers” the future.   The future is not a discovery.   The future is not a destiny.   The future is a decision, an intervention.   Do nothing, and we drift fatalistically into a future driven by other people’s need, greed and creed.   The future is not some dim and distant region out there in time.   The future is a reality that is coming to pass with each passing day, with each passing decision.

We stand today, at an auspicious moment in Canadian Unitarian history, poised on the cusp of one of the most significant decisions we will make this decade, a decision that may well determine the course of the next fifty, one hundred years for Unitarianism in Canada.   We are the growing edge incarnate, alive for this brief moment to create the future.   May we build our roads carefully, so the future we await may be the future we attain.   Look well to the growing edge.