Our Victoria Unitarian Universalist Story: History in the Un-making
Updated: Jul 9, 2018
By: Lisa DeVries
On May 29th, 2018 a car collided into our church, demolishing our library and worship area. We were fortunate to learn that the two passengers, a mother and infant, were unharmed in the accident. Amidst the ruble and wreckage, our congregation gathered the pieces of our church and worked to board up the building before night fall. More about the accident can be found by following the link below.
In the days following our congregation looked for inspiration to rebuild and was offered refuge by the local local mosaic to hold our services. The following entry is the sermon given the Sunday after the accident by long time UUVictoria member, Lisa DeVries.
Maybe it was the heat pouring in to the now open-air sanctuary of our church on Crestwood that made me think of Hawaii's current volcano crisis. Over the past month I, like many of you most likely, have watched video after video of the slow-moving, viscous lava spreading across the landscape of one of the most beautiful island chains in the world.
Monica Devlin, a retired schoolteacher whose home was destroyed by a lava flow this past week said of the destruction, “My house was an offering for Pele...I’ve been in her backyard for 30 years...In that time I learned that Pele created this island in all its stunning beauty. It’s an awe-inspiring process of destruction and creation and I was lucky to glimpse it” (Romero, NYTimes).
This process of making and unmaking, of un-manifesting our destiny, of creating and destroying and creating again, is what held my thoughts this past Tuesday, as folks removed car parts, broken glass, wood, and drywall, possible asbestos-covered siding from the church library and sanctuary.
A family of neighbors from next door had come to help with the cleanup, sweeping and piling debris; people that we didn't know until this car accident. Familiar faces showed up, some alone, some in pairs; some with tools and ladders and some with just their hands; but all of us with a singular purpose: get to work. Something we care about has been damaged and we need to repair it, together; or perhaps, someone I care about is working and I want to help them; or even, I would want someone to help me.
And the helping felt good, even in the heat. Being together felt good. Using hammers and nails and sweat felt good.
One of the seven principles that UU congregations affirm, promote, and hold as strong values and moral guides is the "Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part."
Until recently I had only considered this in terms of our natural environment, most notably how humans are slowly destroying it. But I realized it also means our individual web of connections, even if they're small, and the connections that make a community, and the communities that make a society. Martin Luther King called this interconnectedness "an inescapable network of mutuality."
One task was to decide what things we needed to take, and what we could leave. We definitely needed to remove "the goods" from the church – I took this to mean: anything you would grab if you could only take what you could carry...in your car...which is why I have a microwave, a keyboard, and the holy coffee maker from 1970 in my car. Yes, I have the UU Church of Victoria in the backseat of my car.
The library was my favorite room in the church, and last Tuesday I was reminded of things we worked hard to build: selecting the books with care, and the bookshelves and the wall art, now strewn and in need of collecting.
It was as if I was seeing things going backward, seeing things being un-made: the library turning back into a storage room, turning back into a garage, turning back into an empty lot.
One of my favorite writers, Ursula Le Guin, expressed this "un-making" idea in a short story called "She Unnames Them", originally published in The New Yorker in 1985. She had recently won a literary award, and as she recalls, "I felt amazing, like I could do anything. I felt like I could rewrite the bible." I kinda wish she had...
Le Guin's story rewrites Genesis by reversing Adam's naming of the animals. "Eve clearly views names as a way to control and categorize others.
In returning the names, she rejects the uneven power relations of having Adam in charge of everything and everybody.
"She Unnames Them" is a defense of the right to self-determination. As Eve explains to the cats, 'the issue was precisely one of individual choice.'
It is also a story about tearing down barriers. Names serve to emphasize the differences between the animals, but without names, their similarities become more evident...
Though the story focuses on the animals, Eve's own unnaming is ultimately more important. The story is about power relations between men and women; it rejects not just the names, but also the subservient relationship indicated in Genesis, which portrays women as a smaller part of men, given that they were formed from Adam's rib. Consider that Adam declares, "She shall be called Woman,/Because she was taken out of Man" (Genesis 2:23)." (Sustana, ThoughtCo)
Looking at three different kinds of church siding made me feel like we were unearthing the church's history, peeling away the years, like looking at the rings of a tree to see how old it is.
According to Joe Painter, one of our founding members, our church began as a Universalist Fellowship in 1960 and it met at the Jewish synagogue on Main Street.
This history of our first name surprised me; I would have thought a Unitarian Church, more Christian in its focus than a Universalist one, would have been the first liberal religious community in Victoria...
Universalism, a two-thousand-year-old belief, means universal salvation; it means that no person will be condemned by God to eternal damnation, and perhaps more radically, that hell does not exist; all people will be saved.
In 1961, the Unitarians, meaning "the oneness of god" or the unity of god, joined the Universalists, and so the name changed again. Early American UU minister Thomas Starr King said of us: “Universalists believe that God is too good to damn people, and the Unitarians believe that people are too good to be damned by God.”
In 1963, the now Unitarian Universalist Fellowship met at Foster Field, a former US Air Force base, and now our local airport; another historically important site in Victoria. The peeled-back layers were revealing a history of the town as well as the religious community.
In 1970, The Victoria UU Church moved to its current location on Crestwood. I'm not sure why the name changed from Fellowship to Church – maybe it was to appeal to the largely conservative area in which we live; maybe it was to announce the legitimacy of the Unitarian Universalist faith tradition; maybe the smaller name fit better on the sign – I don't know; I wasn't there. I do know however, that plenty of UU congregations still name themselves 'fellowships', and some name themselves churches...and I wonder if the difference is primarily regional, or if there even is a difference.
I've often wondered why Unitarian Universalism never took off in the south, and I think it is because of the fierce, and primarily northern, abolitionist struggle of the 19th century...if you visit UU congregations in New England or the Midwest, their buildings – some of which are over two hundred years old – are large and palatial; some are outwardly indistinguishable from large Christian churches. In the south though, UU churches tend to remain small, and many meet in buildings that were once family homes.
In recent days, some local folks on social media have asked if we're are indeed a "real" church...some seem to express genuine curiosity while others seem to think we should not have named ourselves such.
I decided to look up the definition of "church", even though I tell my students to avoid quoting the dictionary like the plague. I also tell them to avoid clichés. 🙂
Dictionary.com lists 17 definitions for church, most of which contained references specific to the Christian tradition; several definitions mention 'God', some with a big G, some with a little G.
My sister Sarah helped me craft a definition of church in response to one social media query: the UU church serves the function of a religious community for those who don’t necessarily share in the traditional Christian dogmas, but for whom the function of a church - community, support, institutionalized ceremonies and programs, camaraderie, etc. - is important and desirable. The core beliefs come out of the tradition of humanism and celebrate diversity, respect, and justice.
What has the church been for me? A liberal religious community that welcomed me with open arms when I first moved here and knew no one, the first building of my local interconnected web; Discovery of my spiritual path, paganism; a place to celebrate my mom's life
I asked some other folks about their names or definitions for our local religious community or Unitarian Universalism in general.
My Dad said that UU is a community of righteous dissenters; and he would know – he's Baptist and Catholic.
I like that, the Church of the Righteous Dissenter. Can we fit that on a sign? Mark Harris, author of "UU Origins: Our Historic Faith" says that "Unitarians and Universalists have always been heretics. We are heretics because we want to choose our faith, not because we desire to be rebellious."
Jonathan Berry, a good friend, and our new Treasurer said, "The UU Church creates a home for people on the fringes – LGBTQ folks, immigrants, people of color – we embrace the fringe."
And as Rene Ramirez, our past board president likes to remind us, "Unitarian Universalists are mosaic makers. We are a people who bring together the broken pieces of our histories and the shining pieces of our seeking and, piece by piece, create a mosaic religion." (Hartlief)
We have plenty of broken pieces at the moment, but we're going to put them back together and create something new.
Please donate to our GoFundMe account to help rebuild from this devastating accident