After I finished my ministerial internship, I took a half-time contract position at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Smithton PA. Looking back, this was perhaps my happiest time as a minister.
During my time in this tiny town of 400 souls, we celebrated the 150th anniversary of the congregation, one of last remaining Universalist churches in the Pennsylvania Convention. Each member epitomized what I saw as the best of our faith tradition. While interested in intellectual discourse, they most valued relevance of their church in their lives and in the greater community, and loving every person for who they were. With nine members and a budget barely exceeding $10,000, they ran an LGBTQ coffeehouse in a conservative, rural area; they marched in Pittsburgh’s Pride Parades; and we reached seekers who lived far away because the message we delivered spoke to them.
A self-proclaimed atheist, my first exposure to the church was a wooden plaque hanging near the pulpit proclaiming, “God is Love.” This artifact of the church’s Universalist roots brought me shockingly face-to-face with a seminal philosophy that my largely Unitarian exposure had for the most part ignored. I wrote a sermon in which I posed the question, “What exactly do we mean when we proclaim that ‘God is Love’ from a Unitarian Universalist pulpit?” I used that sermon to promote the then new Standing on the Side of Love campaign.
Today, however, my answer to that question would be very different. Today, saying “God is Love” from a Unitarian Universalist pulpit does not emulate the First Epistle of John the Apostle that says, “Since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us…God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”
Modern Unitarian Universalism treats love as a desirable commodity; a commendable practice, but not truly fundamental to being Unitarian Universalist. Love is something we do on weekends when we are not too busy. We love when it doesn’t really cost us much time, or energy, or money. We love so long as it makes us feel good.
I know that sounds harsh. But these words only hurt because we have yet to realize the true depths of love and what power lies in that love. We Unitarian Universalists proudly proclaim long lists of “famous” people in our history, including scientists, politicians, reformers, and authors. But for me, our single most noteworthy figure was none of these. She was not famous, or influential. She was not rich or highly educated.
Viola Liuzzo was an average person – a wife and mother raising her family in Detroit – when she heard the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s call for people of faith to come to Selma. She answered the call. Weeks later, she was shot to death by Klansmen as she drove with another volunteer.
I am not saying we must die for our beliefs. For love to have meaning, however, it must involve sacrifice. Parents often sacrifice greatly for their children. Children sometimes sacrifice to care for their elders. But how much do we sacrifice for the stranger? How many of us would willingly enter a Covid-19 ward day after day, living apart from our loves ones, with inadequate personal protection to protect the lives of strangers?
Siding with love means education and advocacy; it means service and action. But siding with love ultimately must mean being willing to give up anything, perhaps everything, to abide in love and to let that love abide within us. Through this, love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things.
Let us resolve to become a religion that loves unconditionally and without limits. Let us abide in love so that love will abide in us whatever trials we face. Without that love, science cannot fix our brokenness, money cannot buy solutions that heal us, and reason cannot unite us as one human family.