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A UNITARIAN UNIVERSALIST CONGREGATION
2125 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia PA 19103 Office (215) 563-3980 www.philauu.org Fax (215) 563-4209
EMBRACING THE NEW
How and Why I Became a Unitarian Universalist
Delivered by Janice Tosto on Sunday, June 27, 2010
From the late 1980s through the mid 1990s, I was a member of a nondenominational church that proclaimed to be “God’s One True Church.” I joined this church because of its message that God would use us to help create a just and peaceful world built on cooperation and not competition. I left this church after an experience that chilled my soul. At one of our holiday services, our pastor general announced that he had received death threats from disgruntled members of our church. These members opposed the changes in doctrine our church had made, such as endorsing the right of members of different races to date and marry. I myself married a White fellow member. In fact, this was the most culturally and ethnically diverse church I had ever attended. It frightened me to know that fellow members of my church felt so strongly about protecting our old ways of being and doing to the point of committing murder. I did not care that people, including my husband, thought that I was on my way to eternal death for leaving this church. It was no good for my soul to be in an environment where people would rather kill than make an effort to understand and embrace the new. After leaving this church, I refused to affiliate with any church for over a decade. I gave up any hope of finding a new church. Religion and church had always been a part of my life. At one time, I even aspired to be a minister. But for over ten years, I simply lived my life, and kept praying to the God I believe in. Soon, I hardly missed church at all. A couple of times, I visited a church whose radio program I started listening to around 2002. I liked the service, but I could not see myself regularly attending this church. I realized that quite a few of my beliefs had changed, and they were incompatible with what I heard at this church. I started to embrace some new ideas and beliefs, far removed from what I had grown up with or believed in my early adult years. In 2005, I was doing some volunteer work with a women’s foundation. The foundation sponsored a forum on women, spirituality and philanthropy. One of the panelists was a Unitarian Universalist. I listened intently to her presentation about her church’s philanthropic activity and was quite impressed. I had seen listings for Unitarian Universalist services in the New York Times’ Saturday editions. But my impression of Unitarian Universalism was that it sounded like some type of New Age religion for affluent Whites. The presentation awakened my curiosity, however, and I decided to learn more about Unitarian Universalism. Thanks to my being an information junkie, I located a Unitarian Universalist radio broadcast on Sunday mornings on a local classical music station. The late Rev. Dr. Forest Church was particularly inspiring to me. I love his saying: “Do what you can, want what you have, be who you are.” His messages touched me in a way that made me feel that this religion,
Unitarian Universalism, would have a place for me, a Black woman who had grown up in a poor, single parent home. But I still couldn’t make my way to a church just yet. Then came 2007. To quote Queen Elizabeth II, this was my “annus horribilis” or horrible year. I dealt with illness, coming close to death on at least one occasion; my beloved cat Cosmo, who was great company when my marriage ended, and who was very much a surrogate child to me, a woman who had been unsuccessful in her efforts to become a mother, passed away suddenly, breaking my heart; a longtime friend and I parted ways; I was disappointed in a potential romantic relationship; and a therapist who was supposed to be helping me with my grief and other issues angered me by forgetting appointments and spending time during my sessions talking about his issues. Toward the end of this horrible year, I was worn out. I was questioning my direction in life, even questioning my desire to live. One evening, I was looking at the website of All Souls Church in New York City when I read the title of the year’s final sermon “Finding Life’s Purpose.” That brought me to my first Unitarian Universalist service. I still have my notes from that service: • • • • • What I make of the new year depends on me. Hopes are only hopes unless I decide to make them more. I must search and live the purpose for my life. I have a purpose unique to my being. It doesn’t matter when I find my purpose—it only matters that I do.
I had embraced the new. But I did not want to make a commitment to this church, because I had also made the decision to embrace some geographic newness. I had decided to get serious about relocating, and had chosen Philadelphia as my potential new home. I thought it was wise to visit a Philadelphia-based Unitarian Universalist church to see what it was like. I remember exactly where I was sitting, what I was wearing, and who was sitting around me when I first walked through the doors of this church. And I don’t mind telling you, I was feeling terribly broken when I came here. I had come off a challenging year and was still hurting. I will never forget how Rev. Nate first approached me. It was his initial welcome that made me feel so comfortable. I enjoyed the service (except for the part where I had to stand up and identify myself as a visitor; introverts like me like to stay in the background) I stayed for “UU and You”, shared my story, and came back home to New York City. I visited a few more times, and liked what I heard and saw: people openly talking about the pain of suicide, which I had once contemplated; a minister giving people hope, not hell; a depression support group; a religion where gays and lesbians are welcome. I wish my sister had known about Unitarian Universalism years ago. She struggled with living as a lesbian in a family whose members, except for me, would not accept her sexual identity. I visited with Rev. Nate during a day trip to Philadelphia and talked about my interest in Unitarian Universalism, but thought it too soon after just a few months to join a church. And could I even join this church when I lived in New York City? When I came home that afternoon, however, something within me stirred. My soul was telling me to embrace the new, embrace this religion and this church. On April 13, 2008, I signed the membership book of the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia. Unitarian Universalism has given me so much religious freedom. These days, I am busily working on “growing my soul,”as Unitarian Universalist Minister Bruce Southworth often says.
I love being a Unitarian Universalist, and I am proud to proclaim myself one whenever I have the opportunity. Up until I left my last church, I identified as a Christian. Today, I am eclectic in my beliefs. I can appreciate and embrace principles and practices from different religious traditions. I am not sure if there is a heaven or an afterlife, so I believe that I have a responsibility to help make this a more just and peaceful world. To be sure, embracing the new is not always easy or convenient for me. There are new things that I struggle with all of the time. And in fact, sometimes I find it is best to maintain the tried and true. But there are times when we absolutely must have the courage to embrace the new. It is that courage that led me to our wonderful religious tradition, Unitarian Universalism. Amen.
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