Northwest’s Next 50 Years

There are inherently many unknown factors when you’re trying to predict the future. That truth goes many times over when you’re talking about the future of liberal religion, because we’re responsive to a society whose direction is uncertain, and we’re organized in a decentralized manner. If you do want to make predictions, it’s probably going to be hard to even decide whether you were right or wrong, given there’s no simple metric for determining our success. For example, let’s look back in history 50 years. Are we the denomination of James Reeb, Jimmy Lee Jackson, and Viola Liuzzo, martyrs of the Civil Rights movement who have been featured in recent films about that era? Or are we the denomination of the Black Empowerment Tragedy, when we made and then failed to live up to financial commitments to our Black Affairs Council, that led to a General Assembly walk-out? In truth, we are very much both, so it’s complicated to make those judgments even looking back, much less forward.

And I have to admit, I love metrics, I love numbers, I love keeping score. I love looking back and knowing who won, and by how much, and what would have been the right decision at a given time based on how things worked out afterwards. That’s definitely what makes me the kind of sports nerd who plays Strat-O-Matic and fantasy sports and GM Mode on NBA 2K. But even more than that, what appeals to my love of numbers and analysis is…the stock market. I may disagree with the decisions a basketball general manager made a decade ago, but there’s no real way to know how things would have been different if they had been done my way. On the other hand, I can look back and tell you EXACTLY the difference that it made to buy Apple stock in September 2009 instead of the ProShares UltraShort S&P Fund. The Apple shares went from about 24 to a close this week of 178, and the UltraShort shares went from about 700 down to a closing just under 14 this week, which means you’d have done 375 times better investing in Apple than in the UltraShort fund. I wish this were a hypothetical example, but it’s not. I can say that at least I sold my UltraShort shares in about 2013, after learning by far the most expensive lesson of my life.

Now, it’s fair to hear that story and feel the urge to keep me at a very safe distance from all future Endowment Fund meetings. But it hasn’t stopped me from thinking about what stocks are appealing for the future. So, I’d like to offer a potential comparison for a US corporation that liberal religion might successfully emulate in the future.

Let’s start with process of elimination. I’m pretty sure I’d get my ordination revoked if I compared Unitarian Universalism to Monsanto, Philip Morris, Exxon Mobil, or Smith and Wesson (now known as American Outdoor Brands Company). If you or a family member work at any of those, I understand you’ve got to keep a roof over your head and that it’s possible to work for change from the inside. A more favorable comparison might be Beyond Meat, the company that makes delicious vegetarian fake meat that will be going public later this year, and has its eye on where the world is going in terms of the well-being of people and planet.

We could compare ourselves with longtime LGBT equality leader Home Depot. The Advocate writes “Back in 2004, the company began extending benefits to employees’ same-sex partners… Even when Home Depot received a petition with 500,000 signatures asking the company to stop supporting LGBT employees and customers, chairman Frank Blake did not back down.” So, they get an honorable mention.

As many of you know, our Unitarian Universalist Association was led by a Black woman as Co-President for the first time in 2017, Rev. Sophia Betancourt; I was hoping to compare our UUA with a company whose CEO is a Black woman…but since Ursula Burns left Xerox in 2016, there are currently zero Black women who are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. Ursula Burns was the first and only person to hold that distinction.

The company I would like to suggest has the most to offer us in terms of future comparisons is…Etsy. Etsy is an online retailer of hand-made arts and crafts as well as vintage items. There’s two aspects of what makes it special that I think we as Unitarian Universalists can learn from. First, is that there is a productively diverse array of participants in the Etsy community. Their ecosystem is rich with artists and craftspeople who know what they do well, and describe it for buyers in a helpful way. I have similar hopes for our faith movement and for the possibility of each of our congregations to know and to describe to the world what they each do particularly well. We should not offer a cookie-cutter experience, we shouldn’t try and have every congregation look the same way or do the same things. By and large we are pretty good at the non-conformity side of this. I rarely walk into a UU congregation and hear that their culture is quite typical, and similar to what is found elsewhere. The part we have to work on though, is effectively describing why each of our congregations is special and important. That may begin with a list of traits and values we strive for, but it doesn’t end there. A good seller on Etsy doesn’t just provide adjectives about their custom-engraved champagne flutes, for instance, they give pictures and specific examples about work they are proud of in the past. If we want to be able to describe our congregations with the same enthusiasm as an Etsy seller describes their custom-engraved glassware, here are some suggestions:

  • Memorize the names of all our Share the Plate partners from the last year, and be prepared to rattle off the full and impressive list when someone asks what difference we are making in the world;
  • Our intrepid President Hannah Cowart printed up hundreds of little cards with our congregational covenant on them earlier this, and I encourage you to carry several of them in your wallet at any given time (when someone asks what you believe, it’s often more effective to show them the commitments we make to one another than the ideas we all agree on), and we also have cards with the seven principles printed on them that serve that purpose well too;
  • Spend some time thinking about relationships and experiences you’ve had at Northwest or as a UU, and tell people about them or post about them on social media.

Yes, I like numbers and I want us all to be good salespeople for the community we’ve gathered in, but more importantly, when we reflect on these sorts of things, it helps us to clarify in our minds who we think we are as a congregation, and who we want to be. It helps us to get past assumptions and stereotypes, and to be more ready to talk specifics.

The second way that we can benefit from being like Etsy, is that a big part of the value-add of that website is the way it fosters relationships between participants, including makers and purchasers. It’s tricky asking someone on Amazon about their product before you buy it, but if you have a specific question or request for them on Etsy, you can usually get a person-to-person answer for it very quickly. That’s not just a customer service advantage, it adds an element of human connection to people’s time on Etsy that greatly enhances their connection with it. And when it comes to liberal religion, relationships with other people aren’t just a nice add-on, they’re the whole shooting match. Everything we do comes down to how we relate to one another as people, whether it’s how our faith shapes our families, our communities, or our social justice efforts to collaborate with folks we might never otherwise know. Eventually, it all boils down to relationships. My social, emotional, and spiritual world would be so much smaller without the relationships I have formed specifically through Unitarian Universalism. Yes, some of that might have been replicable on another path. But at our core, there is truly something unique and valuable about UUism. I’ve spent years in our neighboring faiths, including Quaker, Jewish Renewal, and United Church of Christ communities, but I am a UU at heart, and at the end of the day it’s because of the weird, challenging, astonishing, beautiful friendships I’ve formed over nearly three decades of coming to our congregations. And I know that many of you feel the same way, because we’re in a metropolitan area with lots of houses of worship you could be at this morning but here you are, probably thinking of some of the weird, beautiful friendships you yourself have cultivated here. I know those matter to you, and I know this place matters to you, and ultimately, Etsy and its $9 billion valuation have nothing on that.

This month, we at Northwest are asking each of the members and friends of this congregation to make a pledge of time, talent, and treasure to keep this place growing and thriving over the next year. Don’t worry about pledging during your first six months attending here, we want you to take some time to get to know us and to form the sorts of life-changing relationships I’m talking about, and that takes time. But if you’ve been here longer than that, as you consider what pledge you want to make, I want you to think back to the people you’ve connected with here who you wouldn’t know otherwise. And, I want you to think about all the LGBT youth and adults who’ve found safety and support inside our walls for decades. All the environmentalists and charitable caregivers and people working for change who’ve needed to come here Sunday after Sunday after Sunday for many years because they spend every other day of the week out there losing important battles in heartbreaking fashion. I want you think back to James Reeb, a Unitarian minister who was beaten to death in Selma, Alabama for daring to march in support of African American voting rights, and of Bill Sinkford, who left our movement during the Black Empowerment Tragedy and later returned to become President of our UUA because even when our relationships break, we are resilient and can still come back to each other in love.

I don’t know what the next 50 years are going to bring for us, and as I described above, I’m not great at making predictions. But I do know that our faith has an important role to play in the world, and that there is something we can provide that won’t be found anywhere else. I do know that Northwest is exactly the sort of unique, relational community that is going to be crucial to modeling and building a better world over the next fifty years.  Enthusiastically supporting such a community will pay rich social, emotional, and spiritual dividends. Together, we are capable of so much more than we can imagine.

May it be so, and may we be the ones to make it so!

Delivered at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation

March 3, 2019

© Rev. Jonathan Rogers