A Community of Communities
by Rev. Kevin Tarsa
A sermon delivered April 25, 2021 via Zoom to the
Unitarian Universalist Community of the Mountains
“There is no me without you.
We shape one another.
… we can only find ourselves through shared becoming.”
~ enfleshed ~
Shared becoming. That’s the reality, if we allow it, of being community, our focus for this time together.
I am going to invite us into this morning’s exploration of community and becoming by blaspheming.
But first, an image that I had in mind last week when we were speaking of climate change and the earth. It’s the image of a food forest, or forest garden.
The typical garden or orchard has areas of single kinds of plants – fruit trees here, vegetables there, each in their separate rows or areas, blackberries here, strawberries there…
The idea in a Food Forest, on the other hand, is to cultivate an ecosystem of interconnected layers where a variety of plants live in relationship to one another.
- Large fruit and nut trees toward the north or the back;
- Dwarf fruit trees around them, partly underneath;
- A shrub layer of currants and berries underneath the dwarf trees;
- Herbs and greens growing around the berries;
- Root vegetables underneath those;
- A ground cover at the bottom – like strawberries, or a woodchip mulch in which edible mushrooms grow;
- And, finally, some fruiting vines that climb up the larger trees, as vines do in the wild.
A food forest is a set of interconnected layers rather than a monoculture of single kinds of plants. It is a metaphor for community: Not all the same. Not all needing the same things. Not all producing nourishment in the same ways or at the same time, but, all together, sustainable and sustaining with attention and intention in the design, with ongoing gentle support, watering, and continual adaptation as plants grow and change.
So, that is one physical, earth-based, concrete metaphor for community and Beloved Community, in particular: interconnected layers of different kinds of plants in a mutually sustained ecosystem. It’s a far cry from the garden rows I weeded for hours and hours as a child in the hot sun.
Beyond the “Family”
So now to blaspheme in another way…by sharing the blasphemy or the vision held and invited by Paula Cole Jones.
Paula is a lifelong Unitarian Universalist, founder of ADORE, the acronym for A Dialogue on Race & Ethnicity, and a former president of DRUUMM (Diverse and Revolutionary Unitarian Universalist Multicultural Ministries), an organization of and for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color) UUs. Paula, who lives in Washington, D.C., is a consultant specializing in multicultural competencies and institutional change. She brings all of those gifts to her insight.
Paula suggests that we UUs let go of the metaphor of community as “family” – that we stop thinking of ourselves as a family.
I know! Blasphemy, especially in this time after more than a year of being held away from each other physically by the virus, when the pull is so strong to connect and reconnect to one another and warmly so. But now’s probably the perfect time to consider her proposal – as we reconnect and reimagine our way forward.
Paula Cole Jones has been sharing this vision for 11 years, most widely in a lecture she gave at UU General Assembly in 2019, our big annual gathering, our last onsite General Assembly before the pandemic. I’m going to ask Beth to please paste the link to Paula’s presentation in the chat right now, so you have it. I encourage you later to listen to Paula’s entire piece, the 1019 Sofia Fahs lecture, which is less than an hour.
In it, she asks us to consider the dynamics that come with the metaphor of community as a family. It sounds so warm and wonderful, and in many ways it is. It served us well for a long while, but no longer, says Paula. Families, she points out, “have a structure, often a pecking order, there is a narrow lineage, and everyone knows, [or discovers,] where the authority is. Spoken or unspoken,” she says, “we all know who we can bring home and who we cannot.” At least comfortably.
Family comes with a sense of everyone being similar in important ways, forming an inside, insular group, no matter how large and open and caring, who choose to let others in, or not, that defines the family, often without even realizing it, through its own set of rules, and traditions, and habits and expectations that new members have to learn and adapt to in order to be included.
[The metaphor of community as family] is a beautiful sentiment,” says Paula, “but it doesn’t work as a vision. It’s too narrow to describe who we are,” she adds. She recommends to us that we claim a new identity.
A Community of Communities
Paula says that the metaphor that matches who we truly are as a tradition at our best, that matches our theology, that matches this moment in time, that matches our congregations already, really, is the metaphor of being not a family, but a community of communities, just as the UUA is a community of congregations.
People who study religious community dynamics have taught for a long time that as a community grows, it has to shift from thinking of itself as a single organism – as a family – – and has to understand that it becomes more like a cluster of cells, each cell distinct, but part of the whole. Paula Cole Jones goes further than that, to say that it’s not simply about organizational dynamics and the size of the community, although that has an influence, it is about our core sense of identity as UUs and what we are about – of being a food forest, in essence, no matter our congregation size.
In Call of the Forest, the film I spoke of last Sunday, Diana Beresford-Kroeger speaks with Japanese botanist Akira Miyawaki, a man who promotes the building of forests in Tokyo, Japan, the most populous metropolitan area in the world, with about 38 million human residents. He looks for even very small city spaces, working with local people to plant micro forests. In the film they show the smallest of them. It is this tiny narrow space at the very corner edge of a city block. It has all the layers: tall trees, understory trees, shrubs, lower plants, in soil rich with the life that such a forest requires and sustains. Professor Miyawaki says that to build a forest one needs a space only about 80 cm or 31.5 inches wide.
When we think of the congregation as a family, Paula says we focus on the individual, rather than the more wholistic ecosystem, often to the detriment of community. We can allow any individuals in, even as exceptions to our norms, without ever changing anything about ourselves or how we do things. “We can like you,” she says, “and still distance ourselves from you and your community.” Cuz it’s OUR family.
When we understand ourselves as a community of communities, we realize that we have to nurture relationships between the communities, not just between the individuals.
So, when a person arrives, looking for, longing for a home, a person who does not feel or look or act or present exactly like the majority of others, we understand that we are called to nurture a relationship not only with that individual, but also with the community of which THEY are a part. That person is not an exception that made it through our barriers, but an invitation to reach out in relationship.
I think about the challenge that we’ve felt, certainly that I’ve felt, to hold the community together as a singular thing, in essence as a family, where everyone has to belong to the whole. But in reality, that has never been completely true, even in the earlier days. This congregation has always been a community of communities, even when small, and even though we often try to squeeze it into one big family shape.
This shows up noticeably when we face our theological diversity. If we think of ourselves as a single family, with established rules and norms and expectations about what it means to belong, then talking about God on Sunday morning has some people wondering whether this is really their home. And NOT talking about God has other people wondering whether this is really their home. Or if someone is more politically conservative or on the outside edges of progressivism, and we are thinking of ourselves as a singular family, it will never feel completely like home to them, when the expectation and pressure is to be “family.”
If, instead, we understand ourselves, from the start, as a community of communities, with a range of needs, and expressions, and we look for common ground without expecting everything to be held in common, then we can truly build Beloved Community, says Paula Cole Jones.
Like I said, blasphemy! I come from a lifetime steeped, warmly, in the family metaphor.
And many of the wonderful attributes of families that call to our hearts – intimacy, similarity, shared concerns, connection – are still available, once in a while even in the entire large group, but more consistently and deeply, within the smaller communities that make up our community:
The Choir. The Finance Committee. The Board. The Walking Group. The Humanist Group. The Writers, Artm Men’s, and Women’s groups. Soul Matters Circles. The Buildings and Grounds Team. Art and Aesthetics. The Care Team. The Justice team and the Climate, Challenging White Privilege and Nisenan task forces, the Worship Team, Family Ministry, Stewardship, Nominating Committee, the Pandemic Health and Safety Committee, the Singing Meditation Circle, and all the groups, current and yet to be formed: all communities, if we expect and help them to be communities, that make up this community.
We’ve misnamed committees, Paula, says. In truth they are communities – in which people express care, reveal themselves, share common interests, serve others, grow their spirits, and connect to the mission and vision of the whole congregation.
For example, I’ve been hearing of and recognizing the need for a circle of people who can speak of and explore their relationship with God or spirit or the divine, without fearing that they’ll be attacked or ridiculed or dismissed, without feeling a need to apologize or to bring others along. Perhaps a caucus or circle of BIPOC or young adults ,is on the horizon, or….the community that YOU have in mind and heart.
Like in the food forest, as the seasons turn and plants grow, and die, the communities will keep arising, changing, falling way, shifting adaptively, always maintaining the mutual ecosystem that supports them all.
We know that unless people get connected to others in smaller groups, they tend not to find a home in a congregation like this one. Members of mega churches with 5000 or 10,000 members or more say that what they love most about their church is the intimacy. Because in order to be that big, churches have to do “small” really, really, well.
As we emerge from the initial heart of the pandemic, our work is to be conscious about building a community of communities, I think, rather than a community of individuals – and to nurture the small groups in which people can be known, find real connection, and have their spirits deeply fed.
The Opportunity Fair this afternoon, highlighting some of the teams, and committees and task forces of the congregation may sound like business, but is an invitation to find your community for this next piece of the journey. Not for forever, but for now. Working together in a small group to serve the whole, is what nurtures the larger community, and, at its best, is a powerful relationship builder as well as a deep opportunity for spiritual, emotional and intellectual growth, if we intend for and help it to be that.
I strongly encourage you to join in the Opportunity Fair this afternoon at 1:00 not because it will give you all your answers, but because you’ll have a chance to talk, connect, imagine, laugh, explore, try on possibilities in your own heart and mind. If nothing else, come to support the people in those groups by listening to them and asking questions, learn more about what they are doing, even if you are not feeling like you have the time and energy to join them in the work.
“we can only find ourselves through shared becoming. This is loving and being loved.”
~ enfleshed ~
In many ways, we need to build and rebuild this particular community of communities for the new day. Today, and in the weeks and months ahead, come, see where you might best find your sustaining community now within this community, and consider how you might help others find theirs.
If we all do that, and become a community of healthy, thriving, communities, we’ll not only transform this congregation, we’ll be building skills to help the community outside our walls to do the same. And we’ll even find some of what we thought we needed in a family.
So may we be.
Works Cited, Referenced, Consulted
Building a Community of Communities. 2019 Sophia Fahs Lecture by Paula Cole Jones. 56 minutes. https://www.uua.org/ga/past/2019/workshops/sophia-fahs-lecture
Creating a Community of Communities. A 2020, online follow-up workshop to Paula’s original address. With Paula Cole Jones and Renee Ruchotzke. 1 hour and 29 minutes. https://www.uua.org/leadership/library/communities
Call of the Forest: The Forgotten Wisdom of Trees. –A video available on Vimeo and Amazon. 1 hour. http://calloftheforest.ca/
Take a walk in the woods with acclaimed Irish-Canadian scientist and author, Diana Beresford-Kroeger, as she reveals our profound human connection to the ancient & sacred northern forests and the essential role that they play in sustaining the health of our planet.