250 Years After John Murray

Please visit our YouTube channel to watch Rev. Ann Marie’s video recording of this reflection.

You have heard the story of Thomas Potter, the man at the Jersey shore 250 years ago, ready to receive the message John Murray carried. Mr. Potter had a chapel that had been ready for ten years. Finally, the person with the message Mr. Potter had been waiting to hear, had longed to hear, arrived. 

Murray carried across the wide sea his broken heart, memories of the wife and child he had buried, memories of all that he had known, now gone. He came to this New Jersey shore by a twist of fate, on his way to start a new life.

He promised himself that he wasn’t going to risk speaking about Universalism; it had caused him too much loss, too much grief. Then he met Thomas Potter. Murray was compelled to talk about a love that would not let him go, to speak the truth as he knew it, in Mr. Potter’s chapel, all because the wind didn’t change. 

I am here to tell you that for some of us, it still hasn’t. The wind still anchors too many of us on the sandbar where we are stuck. Speaking the truth will set us free.

We will stay stuck on whatever our sandbar is, until we learn how to say, how to live, how to embody the good news, the truth about the love that will not let us go. 

Thomas Potter built a chapel, but he knew that it wasn’t the walls he erected that were important. It wasn’t the walls, it was the message that would fill those walls, that did fill those walls, and with Murray’s travels, spilled out into the streets of the new America.

The message for their time was a message of universal salvation, of a God who loved everyone, who promised heaven to all, no matter what. A God who loved all without reservation.

This isn’t a quaint children’s history story. It is a powerful story of origin, one that continues to inform us about who we are, and who we must be.

Are you ready? Are you ready to proclaim, to take accountable action to fulfill the radical message of Universalism?

Not in the language of two and half centuries ago, but of now?

All are worthy. No life is inconvenient, expendable, unworthy of consideration.

All belong.

It sounds easy to mouth those words. To put a sign in your yard, or on your building.

Yet there is a sharper truth to consider.

Put yourself in Thomas Potter’s shoes.

What chapel are you building? What message are you expecting it to hold?

If people were standing on the street outside your building, what would they hear?

The Unitarian Universalists in Louisville built several sanctuaries. First Unitarian’s historic congregation dates back to the 1830s. They opened their doors to women’s suffrage movement speakers in 1895. People on the streets heard. They have been on the forefront of progressive movements their entire history, regardless of what particular building they occupied, regardless of the risk. Last week, they were ready to open their doors, to shelter protestors from harm, to offer water and food and support.  Protesters who were outraged that there was no justice being offered for the innocent—yet dead—Breonna Taylor.  

The message from First Unitarian Louisville and from Thomas Jefferson UU was in the streets, loud and clear. All are worthy. No life is so inconvenient, no life so expendable, so unworthy, that we ought not to expect justice to be forthcoming. Yet it was happening, again—another Black life that was in the way; inconvenient, collateral damage.

Last Wednesday, when the grand jury in Louisville announced there would be no murder charges against the police officers who murdered Breonna Taylor, the UUs were ready, as were other people housed by loving faith who hold to the same universal message that can be heard in the streets outside of the UU chapels. 

The UUA President Susan Gray issued a press release on Thursday: “This news [of no murder charges] is both heartbreaking, and heartbreakingly unsurprising:  it is yet another affirmation that Black lives are disposable to the state, and that police are allowed to kill Black people with impunity.”

We didn’t need another reminder of that. 

What we do need is Rev. Gray reminding all of us that our UU faith has a core value, one that was first heard on these shores in Thomas Potter’s chapel—that “every single person is equally embraced by that great Love from which we are all born, and which holds us without exception.” Rev. Gray spoke Universalism in today’s language.

Last Wednesday, when the grand jury in Louisville announced there would be no murder charges against the police officers who murdered Breonna Taylor, the UUs offered their building as shelter for what they knew was coming.   

There was a mandated curfew when people were expected to be off the streets, and it had been made clear that houses of worship and their properties were exempted from the curfew. That first night of the curfew, it was a tense situation and the clock was ticking.

In the minutes before the curfew was to begin, rage and grief in Louisville brought protesters inside the open courtyard of the downtown UU church, seeking shelter. Yet before the curfew was to have begun, police in riot gear began arresting protesters. They arrested the Kentucky State Legislature’s only Black woman representative, Rep. Attica Scott, along with 22 other protesters, including her daughter and Shameka Parrish-Wright, co-chair for Kentucky Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression. They were arrested two minutes before the curfew was to begin, and on the sidewalk in front of First Unitarian, where they were headed. 

It was scary even for those who made it into the courtyard. The riot gear-clad police surrounded the courtyard, threatening to enter and arrest all inside. Faith leaders in the church called other faith leaders, some national.  My understanding is that the powerful voices of the national faith leaders prevailed, and soon those within the Louisville UU church courtyard were able to go home, after the police backed down. 

The faithful in Louisville and all over this nation imagine a state, a nation, a world that shelters every person, finds no person expendable, inconvenient, less than worthy; a nation where the right to protest, to dissent, to call us all back to a moral center is respected, valued.

The faithful who hear and proclaim the Universalist message continue to insist that no building is more important than the message. 

We grieve. We are angry. We will not give up.

No building. No state. No curfew. No institution is more important than a life. And it continues. The struggle to right this ship continues.

What can be heard outside your chapel’s windows? What shelter are you offering?

Some of you know that the co-moderator of the UUA for the past few years, a past trustee of the UUA board, a member of the Tennessee Valley UU Congregation, Elandria Williams, known by many as E, died last week during a heart cath procedure. She was only 41. An African American, she grew up in the Tennessee Valley UU congregation. She spent many years as a youth and then as an adult, learning and training at the Highlander Center. E helped found BLUU (Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism); E was an organizer, a prophet, and a Unitarian Universalist. Elandria was well known and much beloved and will be sorely missed.

E’s words:

We are worthy
Not because of what we produce
But because of who we are
We are divine bodies of light and darkness
You are not worthy because of what you offer,
Not because of what is in your mind, not for the support you give others.
Not for what you give at all
We are worthy and are whole just because.
In this great turning, in this great pandemic,
In this radical readjustment and alignment
We are not disposable, we are needed, we are the
Very people that have withstood everything that has been thrown at us as a
People and as Maya Angelou would say
Still I Rise
We arise from the pain
We rise from the grief
We arise from the limits people place on us and
The limits we place on ourselves
We rise to be the children and the ancestors
We rise to be our true selves
We are worthiness personified…

We are, each and every one of us, “worthiness personified.” 

There will be death. Too young, too soon. We will grieve.

Some deaths will make us angry, so unnecessary, so unfair.

Some will fill us with sadness, too soon, too fast.

We live in a moment in time with so much loss.

Yet we are our ancestors’ dreams. We are what John Murray and Thomas Potter hoped for:

So many are willing to take up the banner. To keep moving forward, even when one of us falls.

To move grounded in the belief that “every single person is equally embraced by that great Love from which we are all born, and which holds us without exception.”

Each of us builds a chapel, a sacred space within our souls for our dreams of what can be, must be. 

Fill the chapel you are building, the one that shelters you and yours with “that great Love.”

Keep moving out into the world full of people who need to know how powerful that love is, how good the news is that all are worthy, no matter what.

E reminds us from the other side now, with the words she wrote not long ago.

“It’s time
Embodiment time.
Living one’s values out loud time.”

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