April 8, 2018
© by the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Athens, GA
The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched—they must be felt with the heart. ~Helen Keller
My faith calls on me to open doors, not to shut them.
~Rev. Diane Rollert, Canadian Unitarian Council
Religion should open your heart, not close your mind.
Reflection by Michelle Leebens-Mack
Karen and I want to thank this congregation and the Partner Church Committee for helping pave the way for our going to the 2018 Conference of the International Council of Unitarian and Universalists held in Nepal. The trip was rich and thought-provoking. We would also like to extend a special thanks to Manoj Sapkota, who shared a lunch with us and gave us previews as to what to see, what to do, and connected us with a personal friend of his, Shreena Pradhan. While we were in Kathmandu, Shreena took a day from her family and studies, taking us through the ancient city of Bhaktapur and to the Boudhanath Stupa, introducing us to the richness of her Newari culture and to delicious yogurt!
Karen and I have purposefully tried to make today’s reflections not a travel digest. We do invite you, if you are interested, to join us on Tuesday for Second Lookers here at the Fellowship at noon to learn more about Kathmandu, Nepal, and to see pictures of the beauty of this culture.
Prior to the conference, those of us attending from the United States were encouraged to spend more time listening and less time speaking. I took this request as a call to try to be aware of how my being a tall, blonde, white, Western woman of a certain age affects both my reception and my perception—that this conference and this world is not all about me. I came to this trip with the goal of observing, listening, being present.
My travel partner, Karen, and I had perfect energy paired to do this trip together. We’d be walking along, drinking in the sites of the wild scooter traffic, the colorfully dressed pilgrims at a holy site, the majestic vistas from a temple, and one of us would turn to the other and start to say “do you want to . . .?” (usually it was sit down). And the other would finish the question. Nice! Sometimes, I find, part of not being that stereotypic tourist is simply to slow down, to absorb the smell of the incense, to feel the slowly diminishing vibration of the chime of a bell, to follow the fading light as it moves behind the Stupra.
This conference was originally to have been held in the mountainous region of Shillong, India and to be hosted by the Unitarians in this finger-like projection nestled between Bhutan, Burma, and Bangladesh. The Indian government had concerns about christian proselytization and denied the hosting of our group. A mad scramble to develop a “Plan B” brought Unitarians, Unitarian Universalists, and liberal religious people instead to Kathmandu, Nepal. Serendipity brought us to this perfect, neutral place. A multi-ethnic, multiracial, multicultural, multireligious, and multilingual country, with a long history of religious tolerance, Nepal created a space—a neutral territory—for a peaceful gathering to explore the theme of “The Heart of Unitarian Universalism.”
Everywhere one goes in Kathmandu, one is greeted with “Namaste.” As Rev. Alison noted in her sermon just a couple of weeks ago, this greeting has the general translation of “I bow to the divine in you.” In every shop, at every corner, walking up the stairs, passing someone at the hotel, Karen and I were greeted with this warm welcome with an upward inflection: “Nam-es-te,” a bowed head, and, if one of arm was full, the other hand motioned toward the heart: “Nam-es-te.”
Some forty years ago, there was a Ziggy comic strip—at least, I believe that it was Ziggy, because it was so long ago. In the first panel, Ziggy is walking down the sidewalk. As he was passing another person, that person asks Ziggy, “Hi! How are you?” In the next panel, Ziggy responds, “Well, actually. . . .” To which, in the third panel, the other person responds, waving his hand, “Great,” as he scurries on his way, leaving Ziggy just standing there. Taking the time to acknowledge one another, truly see each other, listen to the other person, to truly hear and to acknowledge the divine in the other. . . . Wow! How often does that truly happen to you?
The conference organizers provided a number of opportunities for us to get to know one another better through several exercises in which we practiced the art of deep listening. We had Chalice Circles—much like our Small Group Ministry Groups. We also had World Cafes—similar to the one with a focus on Religious Education that will be held this coming Friday. One question that we all had the opportunity to reflect upon was “What are the four corners/elements/practices/principles of your beliefs/your faith?” How would you explain your answer to this question to individuals from Rwanda, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, the United Arab Emirates? Where is the heart of your beliefs?
The focus of the ICUU conference, “The Heart of UU,” laid the groundwork for me to think about where I do see UU. Earlier this year, to commemorate the 450th anniversary of the signing of the Edict of Torda, a panel of theologians came together to discuss the “Heart of UU.” The panelists were from Transylvania (now part of Romania), Burundi, India, Indonesia, and the US. Each shared the unique history of the Unitarian or Unitarian Universalist church in their country—and there is a difference!
The Unitarianism that we practice here in the US has branched off from the church in Transylvania, but the other theologians told the story how Unitarianism came to their part of the globe through the reading of the Bible, which led the founders of their community to begin to ask questions—just as we do.
Burundi, India, and Indonesia—all once colonies of Western Christian nations—had Christianity forced upon them. Their Unitarian founders began to observe, “Wait, I’m not finding where it says the thing about original sin.” “Where is the place that says that there is a trinity?” These UU churches took the book and the faith that had been forced upon them, and they carved it into something that fit their interpretation of the Bible, that meshed with their world understanding, that supported them in their struggles, and that became their own faith tradition.
Although a service in their church may not look or sound exactly like a UU congregation here in the US, they are very much like us! They came to their beliefs also through questioning, through seeking truth, through a spirit of holy inquiry, through community.
Meadville Lombard theologian, Michael Hogue, says that “(Theology is) something we do in relationship.” He explained that we “construct/deconstruct/reconstruct” when we come together. When “we listen deeply—our two worlds meet, are enlarged, and then emerge into something 4-dimensional.”
In my explorations of Kathmandu, meeting the people in the cafes, speaking with the guide at the temple, doing the paired listening exercises with Unitarians from the other side of the globe, I have been given the opportunity to learn about them and their beliefs. Through this experience, I have also learned more about myself. For, as Hogue says, “You need another person to see yourself.” In the book The Marriage of Opposites, by Alice Hoffman, the character Jacobo Camille Pizzaro says, “when someone begins to tell you her story, you are entwined together.”
So where is the Heart of Unitarian and Unitarian Universalism? I have come to believe that if we take the time to look truly with compassion at what others hold in their hearts, if we listen to the another person’s story, and if we muster the courage to open our own heart and share our stories and our heart, we would come to embody the spirit of our Seventh and First UU Principles, recognizing that we are all connected and we are all one, and that the seed of the divine is in all of us. Namaste!
Reflection by Karen Solheim
Sharing about my experience at ICUU this past February is really not possible without first sharing a few thoughts about my experiences in Nepal, for ICUU’s being in this country definitely impacted my interactions during the ICUU Conference. Believing in the transactional nature of reader-response theory in which the experiences of the reader impact the text always creating new meaning with each reading, my thoughts about ICUU are colored by the setting in which it was held and would have been different were ICUU to have been held in any other location.
Also part of the equation for these remarks is not wanting to present just a travelogue . . . and also having to compact 10 days of experiences into less than 15 minutes.
Of course, when I returned from this 10-day sojourn, folks (many of you sitting here today) asked the proverbial, “How was your trip?” . . . which became an extremely difficult question to answer.
The trip itself was fine . . . long (the time from leaving the hotel in Kathmandu to arriving in my house in Athens was over 45 hours) and without incident, although Michelle and I spent some unplanned “quality” time commiserating about hours of layover time in a holding area feet away from the international terminal at the Delhi airport with UUA President Susan Frederick-Gray.
However, the answer to the “how-was-your-trip?” question is more much more complicated, necessitating a great deal of contemplation. My response to having been to a poor and undeveloped country, victim of a 2015 earthquake, halfway around the world could not be the same as that of having been to Tybee Island. While most aspects of this trip, such as being able to eat a plant-based diet easily, were pleasurable, many, while not unpleasant, were eye opening.
My Nepal takeaways include the following:
First, I had a lovely time experiencing a culture that had aspects not at all
like mine. During taxi rides in Kathmandu, I saw my life flash before my eyes. Atlanta traffic now seems like a joy ride. The interconnected web was literally in place in Kathmandu . . . electrical lines were everywhere . . . and no one seemed to be upset, and I experienced no power outages.
Second, what I saw also reflected of this country reflected great beauty . . . both of the land and of the people: Mount Everest; Colorful flowers—mainly marigolds—everywhere; colors and textures of grains and spices at outdoor markets; prayer flags adrift in the wind.
Concerning the people: I never heard or saw anyone being angry or upset. The Nepalese with whom I engaged were nothing but polite, accommodating, and wanting to please. Of course, Michelle and I being Westerners may have impacted these interactions.
And then there’s Mina, who, at a stupa known as the Monkey Temple, saved me from having my banana stolen by one of the monkeys. Mina runs a little trinket stall near the Monkey Temple and has done so since her youth. We ended up hiring her to guide us around the temple grounds. In addition to teaching us about the temple and the Hindu faith (though she is Buddhist), she explained that her mother was pregnant with her when they fled Tibet. Mina, who never had the opportunity to attend school, proudly spoke of her four daughters whose educations she contributed to financially. Thank goodness for that wily monkey.
And the ICUU Conference . . . wow . . . relationship, connection, interconnected web . . . with folks from all other the world . . . over 100 individuals from 20 different countries, folks I never had met before and may never see again in person, but thanks to modern technology are now Facebook friends and on some level were already friends before we gathered in Kathmandu.
One of the hymns that we sang at ICUU was the one with which we will close today: “When Our Heart Is in a Holy Place.” The words of this hymn have rung true here at UUFA and at GA; they also resounded loudly at ICUU. After a few purposely orchestrated interactions and several serendipitous ones (usually involving food), there was no doubt I was among people who had similar values. Although not everyone attending had covenanted to promote and affirm the seven principles of the UUA or looked to Transylvania as the origin of UU, trust among conference participants soon emerged. We were Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists from across the world . . . and the following echoed as truth:
When we trust the wisdom in each of us,
Ev’ry color ev’ry creed and kind,
And we see our faces in each other’s eyes,
Then our heart is in a holy place.
Of course, each day began with worship and included small-group opportunities to build more intimate relationships with the idea that in listening, the world becomes one. These activities helped to deepen the relationships among individuals and among the group, which took on a life of its own. At one point, instruments appeared, music began, and those present began to sign John Lennon’s “Imagine.”
When we share the silence of sacred space,
And the God of our Heart stirs within,
And we feel the power of each other’s faith
Then our heart is in a holy place.
In Chalice Circles (similar to the Small Group Ministries at UUFA), participants discussed topics such as, “Do you believe in a form of salvation?” and “Describe a moment in which you sense God, the holy, the ultimate.” “What brings the deepest meaning to your life?” and How do you hope the heart of your Unitarian/Universalist faith might affect the world?”
Hearing the answers from these Unitarian and UU attendees from across the world reinforced through a conversational theology the feeling that I have experienced here, at other UU congregations that I have visited, and at UUA General Assembly: I am indeed exactly where I need to be . . . with my tribe, with like-minded people with whom I feel safe and with like-minded people whose values I share.
When we tell our story from deep inside,
and we listen with a loving mind,
And we hear our voices in each other’s words,
Then our heart is in a holy place.
So where is a Heart of Unitarian and Unitarian Universalism? Internally it is within me. Externally, it is wherever two or more are gathered . . . wherever two or more Unitarians or Unitarian-Universalists are in relationship . . . there beats a common heart.
Questions for Reflection & Discussion
- Is theology something that is done in relationship?
- What religious questions are most important to you?
- What are the four corners/elements/practices/principles of your beliefs/your faith?
- What do you find a heart of Unitarian Universalism?