Our Board of Trustees at the Unitarian Church of All Souls performed yet another Lay Sunday for the Ages last Sunday, January 31st, 2016. Here is our program. We wanted to showcase our Vision 2020 project in a worship manner and we succeeded. Truly, we are indebted to All Souls for nourishing our spirit, our open minds and open hearts. Special thanks to Renée Anne Louprette who served as Music Director this Sunday wearing all 4 hats, conducting, directing…, to the All Souls Choir and the Community Choir, to James Backmon who had the New Amsterdam Boys and Girls Choir perform “Wake Up Everybody”.
Thank you for your support. You wanted my sermon – it is below (and also here thru podcast or download here).
I want to express my deep gratitude to the Unitarian Church of All Souls! Thank you! I could not have done this sermon without my Dear wife, Heather Floyd, who is my Master Editor and Web-Mistress and has much patience with me! Thank you Sweets!
IT’S OUR RESPONSIBILITY
A Sermon Preached by Victor Fidel
Unitarian Church of All Souls, New York City
Sunday, January 31st, 2016
I want to tell you a story about redemption.
When I first joined the board of trustees, I felt inadequate. I did not have fancy credentials, or a prestigious job, or any sort of pedigree.
I will admit, some days I didn't feel respected among my board colleagues. It was a struggle, and I had disappointments. I had anger, and I almost quit.
You all know I had no committee or leadership experience and was never asked to join any committees those first years of my board tenure.
I had no trust from my colleagues, and I don’t blame them.
I’m going to have to be honest with you; I acted like a scrappy little kid.
I’ve exhibited ruffian qualities. I really wasn’t the listening type. I have to admit I behaved stubbornly. And when you’ve grown up hearing the word “no”, you make it a point to go the other way and insist your own way is the right way. Call it my own immigrant survival machine. I am after all, an Immigrant American.
I guess I’ve been an underdog of sorts.
I plugged along on the board in despair. I wrongfully kept on thinking that these people I was serving with were enemies of mine.
And then there was a moment after an arduous disagreement and argumentative quarrel about a contentious issue, when we all looked at each other and recognized that we were all people who loved the church and wanted the best for All Souls. The moment was a breakthrough. We each saw that we were not adversaries, but true stewards standing up for the congregation in our own ways. It was the moment I learned what compassion meant. I finally understood that I had actually hurt my fellow trustees, particularly because I had assumed a certain malicious intent, because I had not felt they cared for my opinion. I daresay, I know they also felt the same way. We could see clearly now, that we were all trying our best to uphold the inherent worth and dignity of every person. There and then, we accepted one another and realized the encouragement of our own growth – we exhibited our first and third Unitarian Universalist principles, all at once.
Sometimes we struggle too hard for the things we want but in reality we need to let go to be fulfilled. The Tao Te Ching says:
If you want to become whole,
Let yourself be partial.
If you want to become straight,
Let yourself be crooked.
If you want to become full,
Let yourself be empty.
If you want to be reborn,
Let yourself die.
If you want to be given everything,
Give everything up.
We laid down our defenses and offenses, no swords of words, no shields to wield, no armor, and we became vulnerable in front of each other.
This was the turning point in my relationship with the board. It was how I learned that I could change myself for the better. This was the point when listening to others became crystalized in the quintessence of a true leadership philosophy. It was also the point when, from that moment forward, I would strive to assume the best of others, and this had to be part of a leadership credo, one that would transform our board, because we inherently knew that as leaders, at our best, we would set a tone and culture of integrity for the organization with the highest ideals.
If this is your first time here, let me tell you, we Unitarian Universalists love to discuss things, sometimes too much, and yet, at our best, we strive for the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process, whether that is within our congregations or in society at large (it’s our fifth Unitarian Universalist principle).
And so, we are deeply invested in justice and fairness, or at least being part of the discourse.
Prior to my transformation on the board, I was exhibiting no better qualities than the xenophobes who discriminate against Muslims, the African-American community, or any group of oppressed people. When we assume malicious intent in the other, things go badly. People on the outskirts feel powerless. This is the intractable problem in our society, a microcosm of our present day reality. We cannot let the inner insecure voice do its worst. We must maintain our steadfast integrity in the service of the voiceless.
This experience of being on the outside made me hyper-aware of other people on the board, and it became essential to me that people be in a safe circle, where bullying by one or the group does not exist.
I am deeply grateful that many of you took part in our ‘Vision, Mission, and Ends process last fall (Vision 2020), where you were invited to give us your vision for this church. The board designed this process in such a way that people could share their stories in a non-judgmental way. The board wanted to listen to your stories and find out what is in your minds about the congregation you want to be, what values you want to uphold. We wanted to ask the questions: What are we going to do together and for whom are we doing these things? What change do we want and what are the things we want to move forward from the past?
We discovered that the big themes are about a huge yearning to make connections, and make a difference by serving the world. The futuristic magazine covers created as a final exercise reflect a deep thirst for outreach work and a hunger for social justice outside the doors of our sanctuary. Your vision is inspirational beyond measure. You reflect a mission of serving the world and transforming lives, creating endless possibilities of connection where transformation occurs inside yourselves but also in the lives of your neighbors, whether that is across 96th Street or beyond.
Like Albert Einstein said, “Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Only a life lived for others is worth living.”
You want to feel connection and nurture possibility. Your most meaningful experiences have been when you connected deeply, when you made that moment possible and became transformed in this religious community.
When I think back to myself, having my breakthrough moment on the board, that was my transformational moment at All Souls, that was where I recognized possibility could become reality, that I could grow internally and improve my character by being involved and truly connected. When I recognized my personal inability to see that my colleagues also had good intentions, I became free and realized my connection to the church. I felt empowered because being on the board gave a deep desire to make a difference.
A couple of years later when I had the opportunity to serve the board as its Chair and President, it made me realize how far I had come, having originally been the rebel in the back of the room. But I brought the rebel lessons with me. I recognized that the new board would feel connected and responsible to the church if they felt respected and listened to by the board members around them.
My biggest goal was to create a sense of trust, to promote the idea that people have good intentions and worthwhile ideas about our church. We have a collegiate board who listens to you. The best leaders follow the will of the people – this board is no exception. They invite and are worthy of your trust. And they have been able to undertake and accomplish some very challenging and complex projects. They embody the same philosophy of respect for all people and the right to voice their opinions.
Friends I want you to know that the trustees are not the only special folks here. Everyone in this congregation has the power to make a difference. Whatever problem you see in the church, or challenges we should take on, if you want to be successful, you have to follow the same philosophy. Know that all the people involved want the same ends. A healthy debate about process should not break down in negativity and finger-pointing, so if people have a different idea, it doesn’t mean you can’t work together. With collaboration, we always come up with a stronger solution.
My wish for this church is that every person sitting in these pews feels that this is their church, feels a sense of ownership for our institution and our programs. We should feel empowered and feel personally responsible for the success of this community.
I must remind you that we frequently forget to take ownership of some of the things we do here, on Monday and Friday. Everyone in here has a right to feel pride – and responsibility – for our feeding programs. Downstairs is our fellowship hall, where we imbibe our sacred Unitarian Universalist drink of coffee (and sometimes mimosas). It is in this hall where we also feed over thirty thousand people a year. The folks that come in are our neighbors, whom we share a feast with each Monday night and Friday noon. We feed them with compassion, hospitality and humility. In the words of our program leaders, “Our guests are used to people telling them ‘no,’ but here we tell them ‘yes’.” We treat them as human beings worthy of regard.
These are programs that do not exist without this institution. It’s up to us to make them happen. They need your ownership – they are All Souls and cannot be separated.
I charge you to stop asking what this church can do for you and your very own personal vanity project, and instead ask: What can I do for my church and community?
We are all in the journey together and we can and we will build a land, where justice shall roll down like waters, and peace like an ever flowing stream. It’s our responsibility. Amen.
The 2015-16 All Souls NYC Board of Trustees
Top Row: Carol Kirkman (First Vice President), Sabrina Alano, Heidi DuBois, Carol Emmerling
Bottom Row: David Poppe, Neil Osborne, Victor Fidel (President), Li Yu (Second Vice President)
Special Collage by Lotus Do:
A dear Unitarian Universalist friend told me once, "I always like the Lay Sunday service. It reminds us that at the end of the day the church IS us." I always thank him and the Unitarian Universalist Association for helping our character grow so deeply "and out from within us". Thank you All Souls NYC and thank you UUA!
"It's Our Responsibility"
"Sermons can have a smile about them", a wise Unitarian Universalist friend once told me...so I followed her advice!
All Souls NYC's Benediction: "And now in our going, may God bless and keep us. May the light of God shine upon us and out from within us and be gracious unto us and grant us peace. For this is the day we are given. Let us rejoice and be glad in it. Amen"
Tao 8 says, "In work, do what you enjoy. [whether that be voluntary or not!]"