I recently was in Boston for the first time and took the time to walk the Freedom Trail through the city, making sure to visit the locations that are so important to our Unitarian heritage. I walked across Boston Commons to 25 Beacon Street–our old UUA headquarters–through winding streets past statues and plaques and buildings that held bits of our history. It was inspiring to stand in the same place that some of our forebears, like Theodore Parker and William Ellery Channing spoke and to imagine the lively debates and the downright arguments that took place over theology. Here was where our Unitarian roots took hold in America and blossomed. I walked 8 miles that day and imagined the people who traveled by foot or on horseback or by carriage to see the preachers of the time speak about religious liberalism. There is rich history in the old structures in Boston, and part of me understands the sorrow some UUs expressed at leaving that building on Beacon Hill.
The meetings I attended were all held in the brand new UUA headquarters, housed in the Innovation District of Boston. From the outside it is an old red brick building, worn and weathered by time. Even when you enter there are large beams holding up ceilings and walls and many antique items were moved from the old headquarters and incorporated into the decor. But there is also newness there–steel to reinforce the old beams, an elevator and a wheelchair lift for accessibility, tables with microphones and outlets in the top for technology so that people can meet virtually across long distances. It is a beautiful example of old and modern and of collaborative space, with large open areas for meeting and smaller rooms for privacy. It felt every bit like a representation of our modern day Unitarian Universalism, both honoring our history and looking forward.
Today we spend a lot of time talking about the future of our faith movement, perhaps rightly so. With statistics telling us year after year that people are not choosing to attend church or commit to a religious community, those of us who are committed to Unitarian Universalism are concerned for the longevity of our liberal faith. I want to believe that our living tradition equips us most elegantly to face the challenges ahead. After all, we haven’t stayed primarily a Unitarian or Universalist Christian tradition, we have embraced other sources of wisdom, welcoming pagans, humanists and atheists into our midst. We are an evolutionary faith, not content to rest in history, but determined to respond to the challenge of the modern day. I think our current challenge is to continue to honor the incredible men and women who have come before us and shaped our faith, and at the same to time to not be afraid to be bold and try something new. If people aren’t coming to church anymore, how can we get our message of inherent worth and dignity to them. Where do we draw the circle that takes them in? How do we work across faith borders to create lasting change in our society? Yes, there are many of us who will always go into a building that says “church”, but our movement can be so much more if we can stop thinking of ourselves as only brick-and-mortar congregations. After all, religion isn’t a building, rather it is a chosen community that transforms our lives.
We need open minds, loving hearts and helping hands to do the good work of Unitarian Universalism. Those can be found and nurtured any place.