Spiritual Companions and Fellow Travelers

Part 3-B in a multi installment series for Lent.
Partners on Your New Path – What mentors or fellow travelers helped light and shape your new path?

Fellow Travelers

My first and longest serving spiritual companion has been my mom. She’s also been my spiritual mentor. See my last post for the details.

I found two spiritual companions during grade school. John Barber Jr., was a congregationalist and the oldest son of the local United Church of Christ minister. Derek Goldberg was Jewish (again, a Catholic, a Protestant, and a Jew walk into a playground…). There wasn’t much overtly spiritual on the surface of this relationship other than the three of us came from different religious backgrounds ..but this didn’t matter to us. The first interfaith conversation I ever remember having was an incident in the boys restroom – it must have been recess or lunch time – when a classmate made some comment about Derek being Jewish. This led to John, Derek, and I having a conversation about the differences between our respective faith traditions. I don’t remember many details at all about this conversation other than it was basic. Protestants don’t have a pope. Jews don’t go to church they go temple and on Friday night and Saturday not Sunday morning. To my mom, and I imagine their parents as well, these differences and the classmates attached to them, spurred neither fear nor hate nor suspicion, just a curiosity to learn more about a friend, to be a friend, and to have a friend. I posted a sermon that contained this story some years ago and I got a nice email from Derek who somehow had seen it online. John or Jackie as we called him to distinguish him from his dad, John Sr. left his first career to follow his dad into the ministry. I enjoyed a Christmas Eve service at his church a while back.  My ministerial career has been full of interfaith work, organizing, and cooperation. This approach started back in grade school.

I met Kathleen in college. We’ve been good friends since. We both grew out of and beyond the Catholicism with which we were raised. She still considers herself Catholic and I still readily recognize the influence Catholicism has had in my spiritual formation and imagination. Both of us have expanded our spiritual horizons far beyond that of Catholicism. Kathleen was my Reiki teacher and we share a love of the spirituality of art. We have not only been each other’s friend, but each other’s spiritual sounding board over the years. We’ve shared tips on spiritual directors, books, meditation, and many other things involved with our personal spiritual practices. We have walked each other through  job loss, divorce, cancer, and estranged family members. We’ve been calling each other anam cara (soul friend) since we ready John O’Donohue’s book Anam Cara in the late 1990s.

Richard was my first Unitarian Universalist fellow traveler. When I met him he was the librarian at Cathedral High School, the Catholic school I where I taught. He hooked up the school to the internet, got funding for computers in the library, and updated the book and periodical collection. I used all of these new resources and was assigned creative projects instead of daily homework. One day as my students were working on projects in the library he told me, “One day, you’re going to be one us.” Meaning, one day, I would be a Unitarian Universalist, too. And he was right. Over the years Richard has been the anam cara to the intellectual side of my spirituality and we talk about Buddhism, science, poetry, and books books books with big ideas and narrative beauty.

Few people can say they literally have a lifelong friend. I do. I’ve know my friend Hank since the day I was born. Our moms are friends and he was born six months before me. Hank has been a fellow traveler since day one. Our dads were in the same Masters in Teaching program at Bridgewater (MA) State College while teaching at the same high school in Wareham, MA. Even though my parents moved away from Hank’s before I was born, Hank’s parents lived a few minutes drive from my grandparents and Hank and I knew each other growing up. We lost touch by high school, but we reconnected when Hank was shopping seminaries to attend. Hank was raised Unitarian Universalist, so when I “converted” and then entered the ministry, Hank became not only a fellow traveler, but a  mentor, and anam cara. Hank is one of the most genuinely goodhearted people I’ll ever know. He truly practices the spiritual art of friendship. He calls if he hasn’t heard from you in a while. He’s always ready to listen. He reminds you of your best self. It’s a coincidence we both grew up to be Unitarian Universalist ministers. O.K., it’s probably not.

My most valued fellow spiritual travelers and spiritual companions over the last 16 years since I became a Unitarian Universalist have been two amazing cohorts of ministerial colleagues. One is the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship and the other is a group we initially called The Red Pill Brethren, after the scene in the Matrix where Neo chooses the Red Pill in order to stay aware and not fall back into the matrix.

When I left the Catholic Church, I could not leave Christianity behind. Jesus is too central a character, the Gospel stories too ingrained into my head. I loved learning that there are and have been liberal, open minded, ways to think about Jesus and the Gospels. I was at first disappointed that I hadn’t originated the idea of universal salvation, but then I was elated. When I discovered a theological tradition that allowed me to have a human teacher Jesus and a God who wasn’t a jerk that sent people to eternal torture, I was relieved to find my theological home. The more I entered into Unitarian Universalism, the clearer it became to me that I was indeed too Unitarian Universalist for most, not all Christian churches, but I was still too Christian for most Unitarian Universalist churches. What was I to do? I found myself inhabiting this in-between spiritual tribe of liberal Christians who nonetheless call Unitarian Universalism home. The Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship is where I’ve found the spiritual people to whom I best relate and among whom I feel the most at home. It still bothers me when Christians don’t think of me as Christian enough because of my Unitarian Universalism and it still bothers me a lot when Unitarian Universalists find me suspect because of my Christian perspective, especially because both Unitarianism and Universalism are long standing Christian traditions and the parents that gave birth to what we now call Unitarian Universalism.

I was part of a workshop ten years ago when I heard about an approach to church that was common among evangelical and other Christians, but still relatively unknown in Unitarian  Universalist circles – Missional church. What if church was actually about being concerned with the missio dei – the mission – the purpose – of the Gospel? What if we focused on the things that drove the early Jesus communities? Things such as feeding the hungry, healing the sick, releasing the prisoner, fighting oppression, accepting everyone, even the outcasts of our time? So much about church was about arguing over the order of service or what kind of music to have or what religious education program to run or what color to paint the blessed youth room. What if we focused on Why we bothered to come together as a church at all? How different would that be? I began to see what mission focused looked like in non Unitarian Universalist churches. Approaching church in this fashion requires, as Reggie McNeal outlines in his books, three “shifts” in how we approach church.

1. People over Programs – Too often congregations put their energy into providing programming that people like, instead of programming that really requires people to continue their spiritual, emotional, and moral development. What if we focused on people, helping them become whole and healed? When we do, those people tend to want to help others with more vigor and enthusiasm.
2.Outward Focus over Inward Focus – Most churches are but social clubs that gather like minded people to hang out with each other on Sunday mornings. This shift requires the church to be more concerned with the needs of the world around it than the preferences of those within its walls. Interestingly, the greater the first shift from programs to people, the greater the shift from inward to outward focus.

3. Community Leadership over Church Leadership – We tend to teach church leaders how to manage the church, which frequently means teaching them how to keep the peace, keep the traditions, and keep things as they are. We teach church leaders how to manage conflict, deal with disruption, and keep the world outside at bay. Instead churches should teach people leadership skills they can apply to their home lilfe, their jobs, and activism in the community. Things such as how to form relationships and partnerships across differences, how organize a diverse group of people, how to listen, and how to assess community resources and needs.

At first, those of us focusing on this missional shift were few, a handful of us. And we didn’t even put our own names on things we wrote on blogs and other public places of publication for fear that it would harm our standing in the Unitarian Universalist professional world in which we needed to function, receive calls to ministry, and support our families. We called ourselves The Red Pill Brethren because awakening to the missional shift was like waking up from the matrix, taking the red pill and seeing how far the rabbit hole of transformational, mission-focused church could go.

We eventually dumped the Red Pill Brethren moniker because their is a fundmentalist men’s group of the same name as well as it’s sexist language. We began referring to the missional movement as the missional cohort.  We began to run “unconferences” to share missional ideas.  I eventually developed a mission centered leadership development small group program called Firewalking. 

Over time, due to our evangelizing, our cohort grew and it steadily became not the outlying view of congregational and church development in Unitarian Universalism, but the mainstream paradigm for congregational life promoted by the Unitarian Universalist Association. Our current UUA president was elected on platform of mission focussed Unitarian Universalism.  Common phrases you may have heard in Unitarian Universalist circles have come from this cohort such as “Love the Hell Out of the World,”  “Who does your heart break for?”, “Why is your church here?”  and “Organizing for Impact.”  If you recognize any of these phrases, you are familiar with the work of my fellow travelers in the UU missional movement.


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