Sunday, August 16, 2015

Finding my UU Identity

This sermon was given on August 16th by Rachel Alvarez.

Reading # 1

“As responsible religious seekers, we recognize that we are privileged to be free, to have resources to pursue life beyond mere survival, to continually search for truth and meaning, to exist beyond bonds of dogma and oppression, and to wrestle freely with truth and meaning as they evolve.

“This privilege calls us not to be isolated and self-centered, believing that our single perspective trumps all others, but rather to be humble, to be open to the great mysteries of truth and meaning that life offers. And those mysteries may speak to us through our own intuition and experience—but also through tradition, community, conflict, nature, and relationships.

“As a faith tradition, Unitarian Universalism makes sacred the right and responsibility to engage in this free and responsible quest as an act of religious devotion. Institutionally, we have left open the questions of what truth and meaning are, acknowledging that mindful people will, in every age, discover new insights.”

—Rev. Paige Getty, UU Congregation of Columbia, Maryland

Reading # 2

“Unitarian Universalism is a fierce belief in the way of freedom and reverence for the sacred dignity of each individual… we have sworn eternal hostility against every tyranny over the mind.
“Unitarian Universalism is cooperation with a universe that created us; it is celebration of life; it is being in love with goodness and justice; it is a sense of humor about absolutes.
“Unitarian Universalism is faith in people, hope for tomorrow’s child, confidence in a continuity that spans all time.  It looks not to a perfect heaven, but toward a good earth.  It is respectful of the past, but not limited to it.  It is trust in growing and conspiracy with change.  It is spiritual responsibility for a moral tomorrow.”

--Ed Schempp, quoted in Our Chosen Faith:  An Introduction to Unitarian Universalism by John A. Buehrens and F. Forrester Church

Sermon: Finding my UU Identity by Rachel Alvarez

               My religious identity has shifted throughout my life, as I’m sure it has for many of you.  The way I identify myself, and my views of religion, have changed over time, and I imagine they will continue to evolve in the future.  As the child of a Jewish mother and a Catholic father (neither of whom were very religious), I found that attending a Unitarian Universalist church, which I began attending in first grade, confused me.  Growing up, I struggled to explain my religious background to friends, and often wished I could provide a clear-cut, familiar answer when the topic of religion arose.  Recently, however, I have been reflecting on my upbringing and find that I am grateful to have been exposed to a variety of systems of belief, and can now identify as a Unitarian Universalist, and explain our faith in a (mostly) coherent and effective way.

My father was raised in an Irish Catholic family.  As a child, he went to church reluctantly with his family, and he attended a Catholic high school.  He recounts stories of the nuns who taught him, and the trouble he caused at Archbishop Williams High School, just outside of Boston.  As a result of his antics, he claims, his three younger siblings were barred from his school and were instead sent to the city’s public high school.  As an adult, my father has never attended church. He studied philosophy and English in college, and has always encouraged me to think critically and question the ways of the world.  He is interested in different cultures and systems of beliefs, but as far as I know, feels very little connection to his Catholic roots.

My mother was raised in a reform Jewish household.  She attended Hebrew school and had a Bas Mitzvah, and her parents were active members of their synagogue.  They did not keep kosher, but did celebrate holidays each year.  My mother travelled to Israel with my grandfather when she was 20.  By the time my parents had met, my grandmother had passed away, but my grandfather was supportive of my mom marrying a non-Jew.  Coincidentally, one of my mom’s two brothers, by that time, had married an Irish Catholic woman who grew up in the same town as my dad!  Small world.  So, while Jewish, my mother’s family was rather liberal.  Aside from the occasional visit to a synagogue, my mom does not identify spiritually with her Jewish upbringing.

As a child, I grew up identifying myself as “half-Catholic, half-Jewish.”  Living in a predominantly Catholic town in Massachusetts, the Jewish part of my background made me feel unique, and was a source of pride to me.  This appreciation for my mixed religious heritage persists, although I do not feel much connection to the belief systems of either Catholicism or Judaism.  I found an article that resonated with me.  It was published in the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle, and written by Leah Blankenship, a graduate of the Jewish Cultural Studies program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.  She writes,
"Many children of intermarriage say they simply cannot turn their backs on the non-Jewish half of their identity.  This openness to multiple identities is particularly true among college students, according to Daniel Klein and Freke Vuijst, who interviewed hundreds of students for The Half-Jewish Book, published in 2000.  Klein says that those who consider themselves to be half-Jewish 'feel they are a combination, they are an amalgam, they are bicultural.' A 2005 survey by Hillel, The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, found that 48 percent of college students who consider themselves Jewish come from intermarried homes. It's from this population that a new subculture is emerging of 'people who draw from both sides of their heritage and synthesize their cultural halves into a remarkable new identity,' the authors write."
Like many young adults from intermarried homes, I felt a sort of crisis in trying to synthesize the two halves into a whole identity.

Now thinking of being “half-Catholic and half-Jewish,” seems laughable to me.  Rather than fitting into both Catholic and Jewish communities, I did not feel that I could fit into either one.  After all, that “Catholic half” of me did not understand the rituals, like First Communion, CCD, and Confirmation, that my peers went through during elementary, middle, and high school.  I could not recite the Lord’s Prayer, and I felt entirely lost during the few Catholic masses I attended with friends after sleeping over at their houses.  I never knew when to stand up, when to kneel, what to say in response to the priest, or what to do while all those around me went up to the front of the church to get their communion bread.  I never felt that I fit in with Catholicism.  It seemed to me like an exclusive club that I would never be a part of.  And yet, I still called myself “half Catholic.”

Similarly, my “Jewish half” would have been lost in a synagogue, and, despite celebrating Passover and Hanukkah in addition to Easter and Christmas, I never felt connected to the holidays for their religious or spiritual significance.  Each year, until I was about 8, and a few odd years sprinkled in later, we went to my aunt and uncle’s house for a Passover seder.  According to ritual, the youngest person present at the seder asks the four sacred questions.  I was always the youngest, but as a shy little girl, I always hated this part, and refused to ask the questions, leaving my older cousin to take my role.  After the seder dinner, the kids looked for matzoh hidden around the house, and got little chocolate coins as treats.  These are my only memories of Passover, which I haven’t celebrated in nearly twenty years. For Hanukkah, my mom and I lit the menorah each night, and I would say the prayer with my mom, both in Hebrew and in English.  I took great pride in learning to pronounce the Hebrew, but didn’t really agree with what I was saying. This was about the extent to which I understood my “Jewish half.”

Even during the years that I called myself “half-Jewish and half-Catholic,” I could have provided another, albeit more complicated, answer.  Beginning in first grade, I started attending First Parish Church in Cohasset, Massachusetts, a Unitarian Universalist congregation, with my mother.  She decided that, as a compromise between the differing backgrounds of her and my dad, UUism would be a good solution.  UUism is quite common in that part of the country, where it originated, and First Parish is located right on the town common, where it was built around 1750.  Despite its impressive history and place in my hometown, I never knew how to explain UUism (something I still struggle with as an adult), and so, lacking a good description of it to share with my friends, I abandoned this identity and deferred to the Catholic-Jewish hybrid. 

In an article titled "The UU Identity Crisis," Rev. Dr. Todd F. Eklof writes,   
"Today I hear lots of talk about individual UUs needing to have an ‘elevator speech' prepared in order to readily tell others about our unique faith. But these statements are often so different they hardly seem to be describing the same thing, and many, even at that, have trouble coming up with just a few simple sentences to describe the essence of Unitarian Universalism. Some say it’s a religion that accepts all faiths and you can believe whatever you want. Others say we believe in the worth and dignity of every person, along with some other principles they can never quite remember. Still others highlight our emphasis on social justice in the wider world, while some describe our support of one another’s individual spiritual journeys. Although all of these touch upon some genuine aspect of who we are, none seems entirely adequate in expressing our UU identity, if there even is such an animal at this point."

And so, because of the challenge in truly explaining what UUism is, I found difficulty in explaining it to others.  Even so, it was a wonderful community to be raised in. First Parish had a strong religious education program, and I grew up attending Sunday school, singing in the church’s junior choir, participating in our annual traditions, and eventually participating in the UUA program, Our Whole Lives, which was sexual education.  Thinking back, it’s pretty interesting to me that I took sex ed at my church, and it was very open and progressive, from what I remember.  Since the time we first started attending First Parish in 1991 my mom has been very involved in the church.  I still attend with her when I am up in Massachusetts, and it feels like home, among people who have watched me grow up. My dad doesn’t attend, but each Sunday, when my mom is heading out to get to church, he jokingly reminds her, “Say hi to God for me!” 
During my 7th and 8th grade years at First Parish Church in Cohasset, Massachusetts, in addition to Our Whole Lives, I took part in the church “Coming of Age” program.  For the program, we were instructed to choose a mentor in the church, a supportive guide along our path of religious exploration.  I chose Janet, a woman around my mom’s age who took me out for lunch dates, recommended books for me to read, and bought me a nice journal in which to record my thoughts and reflections.  Along with the other 13 and 14 year-olds, I spent two years exploring religion and trying to formulate my own beliefs.  During our 7th grade year, we visited several different UU churches all over Massachusetts, to compare them with our own experiences at First Parish.  During our 8th grade year, we visited places of worship representing other religions, including Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism.  At the end of the two years, each of us gave a presentation to the congregation called our “Statement of Belief.”  I don’t recall exactly what I said, but I think I mentioned that I don’t think God is some white man with a beard in the sky, but that some kind of higher power exists.  I remember I was given a hymnal, signed by our minister and a necklace in the shape of the chalice from my mentor, which I decided to wear today.  I felt very grown up, worldly, and sophisticated.
Although I felt confident as a graduate of the Coming of Age program, I continued to question my religious identity.  Growing up, I knew I wasn’t Catholic, because of my meager participation in any of the rituals and rites of passage.  I also didn’t feel Jewish, but since my mom was Jewish, and since I was “more” Jewish than most of the people in my hometown, I felt connected to that side a little more strongly.  As a senior in college, I heard about an opportunity to learn more about my Jewish half.  Someone told me about The Birthright program, and I decided to go to Israel.  For those of you not familiar, Birthright is non-profit educational foundation that sends Jewish young adults to Israel for ten days to explore their heritage and beliefs.  The trip is completely free, funded by philanthropists and the Israeli government, in the hopes of helping young adults forge a stronger connection with their Jewish heritage.  Thinking back to the study I mentioned earlier, that states that 48% of college-aged Jewish people came from intermarried homes, I can see the reasoning behind the efforts to strengthen connections to Judaism.  Because of my strong sense of wanderlust, I really wanted to go, not so much to explore my spirituality, but to visit a far-off land at no cost.  I was worried that I wouldn’t be “Jewish enough” for the trip.  After all, I didn’t attend synagogue, I didn’t speak Hebrew, and I didn’t know much beyond the basic beliefs of Judaism. However, once I made it through the application process and phone interview, I was surprised and comforted to find that many of the others in my group of about 30 people, ages 18-26, had similar feelings.  Many had been raised in a similar, secular home, by parents of different backgrounds.  Throughout the week, we hiked at Masada, floated in the Dead Sea, sang songs, learned about the history of the Jews, visited the Western Wall, toured historic synagogues, and even celebrated Shabbat, the Sabbath, with an orthodox family.  I remember at one particular session, one of the leaders, Michael, discussed the insecurity many people have with “not feeling Jewish enough.”  It felt wonderful for these feelings that I had held for much of my life to be spoken aloud, acknowledged, and validated.  Michael assured us that, no matter our background or upbringing, we would be welcomed and embraced in Judaism, and just knowing that made me feel so good, so accepted.  I felt a new interest in my Jewish side.  I started imagining that, upon returning to the States, I could join Hillel, the Jewish organization on campus, for my last semester, and start attending synagogue.  Still, though, I had trouble reconciling my beliefs, or lack thereof, with the tenets of Judaism.  I had an amazing time in Israel, but upon my return, my enthusiasm waned, and I never did make it to a Hillel meeting.

After graduating from the University of Richmond in Virginia and moving here to the RGV, I did not attend any religious services for about five years.  When I first moved here, the lack of separation between church and state turned me off religion completely for a while.  So many coworkers asked me which church I attended, that I felt the urge to rebel by proclaiming that I did not attend church, and no, I did not want or need help in finding one.  However, during one of my visits home to Massachusetts, when my mom and I attended a service at First Parish, I was struck by the sense of community I felt, and the thought-provoking discussions people held afterwards.  Back in the RGV, I decided to finally check out this fellowship that I had driven by so many times, and I am so glad that I did.

Now, as I wrap up my twenties, I have found myself revisiting my beliefs.  Despite what I said as part of my Statement of Belief so many years ago, I have begun to question the existence of God.  I feel grateful to be part of this fellowship where, whether one believes in one God, many gods, or no god, we are all encouraged to pursue our own spiritual paths, while also being accepted by such a supportive community.  In preparation for this presentation, I looked through the archives of the NPR series, “This I Believe,” and found an essay by Penn Jillette, the comedian/magician.  In his essay, titled “There Is No God,” he states that,
“Believing there is no God means the suffering I’ve seen in my family, and indeed all the suffering in the world, isn’t caused by an omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent force that isn’t bothered to help or is just testing us, but rather something we all may be able to help others with in the future. No God means the possibility of less suffering in the future."
As part of my shifting religious identity, I have begun to question the existence of God for these same reasons.  Why would an all-powerful God allow such horrors to occur, without intervening?  I used to say that, “everything happens for a reason,” to comfort those going through a challenging time.  However, the more I think about it, I doubt that I believe that.  With all of the terrible tragedies occurring around the world each day, would God continue to watch it unfold for the sake of testing our faith?  Would he or she watch people die young, tragic accidents occur, deadly wars ravage thousands of lives (often over religion itself), doing nothing?  Do these things truly happen for a reason?  In the words of Rev. Marisol Caballero of Austin's First UU,
“…healing, peace, and even happiness may be found in the direst of circumstances – not because of some half-baked theology that causes people to say such things as, 'everything happens for a reason,' and, 'God never gives you more than you can handle in a day.' That's crap! The gaping holes in this thinking are apparent in the face of tragedy, stark injustice, and disease."
So maybe these tragedies do not follow rhyme or reason.  Instead, as Jillette states, could it be that we have the capacity to work on resolving those challenges?  Of course, the prospect of us humans solving some of these big problems, whether by developing a cure for cancer, bringing about peace, or ending racism and poverty, sounds ambitious and overwhelming; still, for me, it brings me some comfort to think that we could be in control of the future, rather than letting that higher power have all of the control over our world. In both First Parish and the UUFHC, I have found myself surrounded by people who are active in social justice issues, and I am proud of UUism as encouraging us to take action and face these challenges affecting our global community.
Along with the presence of God, I wonder to what degree, if any, fate exists.  I used to think that each little piece of my life was like a puzzle piece, and that the pieces would fit together for a reason.  Now, I’m not so sure.  For example, did I move to Texas because I was destined to meet my husband, Mark?  I don’t think so.  However, I do at times reflect upon the small, seemingly meaningless choices that led me to where I am right now.  If, when confronted with the choice between taking Spanish or taking French in 7th grade, I had chosen French, perhaps my whole life would have turned out differently.  That one decision, seems to have contributed to many of the major life events that I have experienced.  I chose Spanish.  I majored in Spanish, I studied abroad in Spain, and I ranked the Rio Grande Valley region as my first preference on my Teach For America application partly because of my interest in utilizing my Spanish language skills.  So, did it all happen for a reason?  Did I choose Spanish because I was destined to make my life here?  I’m not sure I would go that far. 

I do feel that the decisions we make add up to make the lives we lead.  I guess this is different from the concept of fate.  I, after all, was the one to make each of those decisions.  But, it still makes me wonder at the amazing importance of the many choices we make along the road of life.  We are in control of our futures.  This comforts me more than the idea that God has a plan for us laid out, a plan over which we have little control.
Because of my lifetime spent in the Unitarian Universalist community, I feel comfortable with my questions and my evolving religious identity. I enjoy thinking about these concepts, like the existence of God and the reason things happen. My more recent move toward agnosticism/atheism can still fit into UUism, and, as a UU, I feel I can still honor my family's backgrounds, both the Irish Catholic Doyles and the Eastern European Jewish Litvins.

I feel very lucky to have been raised in an amazing, supportive, liberal, open-minded congregation in Cohasset.  Now, as an adult, I truly appreciate having rediscovered UUism as an adult, here at the UUFHC.   No matter one’s individual beliefs or backgrounds, whether he or she was raised Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Hindu, or atheistic, all religious journeys are welcomed by our faith.  While this can make our religion a difficult one to define, the diversity of UUism makes it richer and gives us great potential for affecting change in the world. 

In Our Chosen Faith:  An Introduction to Unitarian Universalism, UU leader Wallace W. Robbins is quoted as writing:
Ours is a church of reason-- not because the mind is free of errors, but because the dialogue of mind with mind, and mind with itself, refines religious thought.
Ours is a church of moral work-- not because we think morality is a sufficient religion, but because we know no better way of showing our gratitude to God, and our confidence in one another.
Ours is a church of conscience-- not because we hold that conscience is infallible, but because it is the meeting place of God and the human spirit.
Ours is a non-creedal church-- not because we have no beliefs, but because we will not be restrained in our beliefs.

Often, I have described UUism by what we are not.  We don’t have dogmatic beliefs, we don’t have requirements for membership, like specific rites, rituals, heritage, etc.  However, it can be useful to consider what UUism is and what it provides to us as members of this community.  For me, it provides a sense of identity and fellowship, and an opportunity to consider my impact on the world around me.   

Now, instead of identifying myself as “half-Jewish, half-Catholic,” I proudly identify as 100% Unitarian Universalist.  Just as the title of the book I referred to indicates, I feel now that I have truly chosen UUism as my faith, and feel proud of this community.  As a UU, my years of feeling incomplete, or not enough to fit into any religion have been replaced by an understanding and appreciation for the challenges, for the uncertain journey, for the freedom to question and reinvent oneself that is part of Unitarian Universalism.