How We Love: On Growing a Soul

A Sermon Offered by Stephen C.  Kraynak

Unitarian Universalist Church of Tucson, AZ
November 18, 2012

“The hand you take across the aisle may not be one you know; but listen to its story before you let it go.”  These words by Georgeann Weaver, which the Desert Chorale and the Family Singers so beautifully sang for today’s introit, are a segue to my sermon.

This morning I will share some of the story of my journey to Unitarian Universalism.  My hand may not be one that you know.  But to all of you I extend my hand across the aisle, and before you let it go, I ask that you listen to my story.

Catholicism is the ancestral religion of my family.  My great-grandparents and grandparents brought their Catholic faith with them when they emigrated in the late 1890s and early 1900s from Slovakia.  They crossed the Atlantic Ocean with hope of finding better lives for themselves and their descendants.  Their greatest possession was their Catholic faith.

All of my relatives were Catholic.  We celebrated family life events — births, first communions, confirmations, weddings and funerals — with Catholic rituals.  Everyone attended Sunday Mass.  This was part of our family culture.  When I visited Slovakia, I learned that my maternal grandmother’s small parish church in the village of Trebisov had celebrated its eight hundredth anniversary in the 1980s.  Catholicism is a long and enduring family tradition.

As an infant I was baptized a Catholic, and I attended Catholic elementary and high schools in Cleveland.  When I pursued an undergraduate degree in education at the Ohio State University in Columbus, I began attending St. Thomas More Newman Center, the Catholic parish for the university community.  There, I remained an active member after I began my teaching career in the Columbus city schools.

I was a dedicated teacher and loved my work.  I had long suspected that I was gay, but found that investing my time and energy into work was a way to avoid dealing with this difficult personal issue.  Work itself, and the positive reinforcement I received for being a good teacher, became an addiction.  But there was an emptiness and loneliness in my life that work did not and could not fill.

At the Newman Center I made friends.  I was among liberal Catholics who welcomed pushing the boundaries of standard Catholic worship and community outreach.  The Paulist Fathers who staffed the Newman Center led this effort.  They preached about the boundless love of God for all of his children, without exception.  Yet, the possibility of being both Catholic and gay was not addressed from the pulpit.

In 1983 the Newman Center staff organized a Gay Men’s Support Group, called Dignity.  It was advertised in the church bulletin as welcoming to all.  I decided to go to a meeting.  I was surprised to find some of my Newman friends there.  They greeted me with open arms.  I found coming out to be awkward, a difficult change of life, and a different life orientation.  But the men were supportive and encouraging.  At times it felt like there was a group of us coming out together.

Often twenty to thirty men gathered for a Dignity meeting.  It was a group where we spoke freely, told our individual stories, and learned our common history.  We opened our homes for social and holiday gatherings and potluck dinners.  We went dancing together in the downtown bars.  We planned annual retreats for ourselves.  I felt welcomed and accepted in this group.  Being both gay and Catholic was possible.

On October 1, 1986, that changed.  The Vatican Office of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith issued a “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons.”

[From the Dignity website] “This (letter) instructed the Bishops to withdraw all support, or even the semblance of support, from any group vague on the immorality of homogenital acts… The Vatican had Dignity in mind.  And many found the letter harsh and uninformed.  Following (this), (Catholic) Bishops (around the country) began evicting local (Dignity) chapters for rejecting Church teaching and, most importantly, for opposing ecclesiastical authority.”

The Catholic Bishop of Columbus sent a letter to the Newman Center director, instructing him to evict us — all the members of Dignity, who had become such an affirming part of my life.  The Bishop owned the Newman Center building and its land, and he alone decided who was welcome there.

After a family history of more than eight hundred years in the Catholic Church, the Bishop of the Diocese of Columbus, at the direction of Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, under the auspices of Pope John Paul II, evicted me from Catholic Church property.

The letters from both the Vatican and the Columbus Bishop were clear.  The authority of the teaching hierarchy of the Catholic Church must be upheld.  Dissenting voices were not allowed and not welcome.  In simple terms the message was:  be silent or get out.  I had a choice.  Either I had to assent to ecclesiastical authority and accept church teaching, thus denying who I was as a person, denying my own truth and my own conscience; or I had to turn my back on my Catholic upbringing and leave the church.

Dignity moved downtown to the basement of the United Church of Christ.  I attended Mass at the Newman Center less frequently.  When I was there, I felt resentful.  I did not feel welcome.  I wondered how all of these liberal Catholics could simply accept unloving directives from their hierarchy without a word, without questions, and without any protest.  They allowed their Bishop to evict and silence some of their own members.

Eventually I went to Mass at the Newman Center only on special days, such as Christmas and Easter.  For several years I was un-churched, but I continued to meet monthly with my Dignity brothers.

Out of curiosity, I began attending occasional Sunday worship at the nearby First Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbus.  I had heard that they were a very “unusual” church.  I had been told they did not believe in God, and that they had no dogmas or doctrines.  But I found them to be friendly and welcoming.  Although their worship services felt strange to me — lacking the ritual of the Catholic Church — I sat in the back and kept watching and marveling at how those Unitarians did things.

At a Dignity meeting in October, 1992, we learned that the Office of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had sent another letter to all US Bishops.  “(This) document urged Bishops to oppose gay/lesbian civil rights laws in certain instances, such as placement of children for adoption or foster care, (the) employment of teachers or athletic coaches, or military recruitment.”  [from the Dignity website]

Although this Vatican letter had no direct effect on my teaching in the Columbus city schools, it was blatant and purposeful discrimination.  There had been a prior, failed attempt to ban all gay and lesbian teachers from the California public schools.  The Catholic Church now supported other such initiatives, everywhere.

In their obsession with whom I love, the Catholic hierarchy failed to see that how I love is most important.  I did not feel beloved in this Catholic Church, the church in which I was baptized, educated and confirmed.  The teachings of the hierarchy were not life-affirming for me.  I was not acceptable just the way I was.  And I was told to live a lie.

These are the words of song number 1053 in our hymnal:  “How could anyone ever tell you, you were anything less than beautiful?  How could anyone ever tell you, you were less than whole?  How could anyone fail to notice that your loving is a miracle?  How deeply you’re connected to my soul.”

Yet, this is exactly what the Catholic Church hierarchy told me:  that I was less than beautiful.  I was less than whole.  My loving was not a miracle.  And my soul, which they had taught me was immortal, was not connected to theirs.

I made a choice.  I rejected this Catholic Church teaching and stood in opposition to ecclesiastical authority.  I refused to hide my own truth and would not be silenced.  After sustaining the faith of my ancestors for centuries, the Catholic Church had evicted me and was now actively urging my oppression.  I felt rejected.  I felt betrayed.  I felt that my cultural heritage was taken from me.  I left the Catholic Church with much anger, resentment and hurt.

I began to attend the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbus on a regular basis.  The members welcomed me with great kindness and hospitality.  I must be very clear about this.  I was not interested in returning there because of the Sunday worship.  Rather, it was the vibrant, happy human energy I felt when I walked through their front doors.  The church was alive.  Above all, it was the outgoing, sincere kindness of the church members, and how they warmly welcomed me, a newcomer, among them.  I will never forget their kindness.

Those Unitarians loved their congregation and their church.  They built it.  They grew it.  They were happy there and they genuinely enjoyed being together.  And they were thrilled to share it with all newcomers.

I joined Interweave, their support group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.  I participated in adult classes they offered, such as Building Your Own Theology and Owning Your Religious Past.  Both classes were intended to “…help Unitarian Universalists grow in their faith, moving from a space of discomfort and awkwardness to a space of affirmation and wholeness.”   [from the UUA website]

Being able to talk with other adults, some of them church members, and to listen to their personal stories, was most helpful.  They offered me different perspectives on my crisis of faith.  They supported me as I dealt with my painful loss.  They encouraged me to live my own truth and find meaning in my struggle.

Several people from the membership committee personally invited me to attend the Path to Membership class.  They assured me there would be no pressure to join the church.  But, they said, I would learn more about their church and their faith.

In the autumn of 1993, I participated in the Path to Membership class.  I learned some of the history of their church and about its structure, such as the Board of Trustees and a Church Council.  Of course, they eagerly informed me about… committees.  Some large standing committees had their own impressive tri-fold handouts which detailed their respective ministries.

I heard about time, talent and treasure — that members are expected to provide volunteer service to the church and make a meaningful financial contribution.  I learned about congregational polity — that this church governed itself and had a written constitution and standing rules.  It was a revelation to learn that the members called their ministers by a majority vote.  For me, this was an entirely new way of doing church.

Although membership was not expected or required, I understood that in order to be fully involved in the life of this church, membership was a necessary commitment.  So I made another choice.  For the first time in my life, I freely and intentionally chose a faith tradition.  I signed the membership book of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbus on the 18th day of November, 1993, nineteen years ago today.  Today is the anniversary of my liberation from an authoritarian, coercive, and punitive church hierarchy.  On that day, my story became part of the living tradition of Unitarian Universalism.  Nineteen years ago today, I began to grow my soul.

In the years that followed, I became more committed to the life of that congregation, and got involved in its ministry through volunteer committee work and, of course… meetings.

I will always remember my first annual membership meeting.  I was a novice in congregational polity.  Other than in communal prayer, I was not accustomed to speaking in a sanctuary.  Or to doing church business through discussion, and making decisions by majority vote, conducted according to Robert’s Rules of Order.

I have forgotten the issue that compelled me to take the floor at that annual meeting.  But as I stood and began to speak, a member from the back of the sanctuary yelled out:  “Tell us your name!” I apologized, and began again with my name.  As I continued, another member yelled out: “Use the microphone!”

I have told this story many times to other newcomers considering our faith.  The church of my ancestors told me that my voice was not welcome.  It told me to be silent, or get out.  Unitarian Universalism raised its welcoming voice to me and said:  Tell us your name, and use the microphone!  I learned that in this faith I am a welcome and valued member of my congregation — just as I am.

The Unitarian Universalist Church of Tucson, and this faith tradition, have no Bishop who owns this property and can tell me I am not welcome here.  This church has no hierarchy which can silence me.  The final authority in this congregation, in matters of finances, policy and procedure, resides with us, the members.

Unitarian Universalism is a non-creedal religion, and has no dogmas or doctrines.  Rather, it is a covenantal religion which asks me to promise to live my life faithful to myself, to my congregation and to the world.  Instead of waiting for a future heaven, it encourages me to work toward heaven on earth, here and now, in Beloved Community.  This is what I find to be most welcoming — and most challenging — about my faith.

As I live this faith, I spend no time or energy in the pursuit of personal salvation in another life.  I neither seek heaven nor fear hell.  What matters is what I do with my life and how I do it, in community with others.  What matters is how I love.

I will never, ever, ever forget how I felt when my ancestral church evicted me because of who I was.  And I will always remember how I felt when Unitarian Universalism welcomed me, just as I was, and encouraged me on my journey toward wholeness.

In today’s story for all ages, We Are A Rainbow, the author, Nancy Tabor, describes my experience with the Catholic Church hierarchy with these words:  “When we do not understand each other, we feel bad… We hurt.  We cry.  We separate.  We stop trying to find a way to be together.”   She concludes her story with words that depict Unitarian Universalism: “…Rainbows… they shine for everyone!” Unitarian Universalism is a faith which celebrates all the colors of the rainbow.  De Colores.  It welcomes all people of good will.  And together, we stand on the side of love.

When I chose this faith, the greatest doubt I had was this:  Is Unitarian Universalism enough?  Is this faith enough to support me through difficult, life-changing events, and at the end of life itself?  For what is the logic of being part of a faith community which professes no doctrine or dogma, promises no salvation or eternal life, but still asks for personal commitment?

The Unitarian Universalist Association Commission on Appraisal best states why I have come to profess that being a part of this religious movement is life-giving, and why I believe this faith is enough for me.  In their document Belonging, The Meaning of Membership, the Commission on Appraisal writes the following:

“The possibility of growth and change, of transformation, is the real basis for participation in a religious community.  We have all experienced losses and disappointments, pain and grief.  We have been broken by life and need healing.

The closest that contemporary Unitarian Universalists may come to a concept of salvation is to offer opportunities for growth and transformation, for becoming more whole.  As one of the great ministers of the past century, Rev. A. Powell Davies, memorably put it, ‘Life is just a chance to grow a soul.’ “ [from Belonging: The Meaning of Membership, p.  3, report of the UUA’s Commission on Appraisal in 2001 – Chapter 1: The Process of Commitment]

In this, my chosen faith, I have been on a nineteen-year journey toward wholeness, and I have been free to live my own truth.  During this week of Thanksgiving, I affirm my gratitude for having found Unitarian Universalism, for it continues to offer me opportunities to grow my soul.

This morning I have extended my hand across the aisle to you and asked you to listen to my story.  Before you let go of my hand, and I of yours, I have some closing words taken from a song by Beth Nielsen Chapman, called How We Love:

Life has taught me this:
Everyday is new
And if anything is true
All that matters when we’re through
Is how we love.

Faced with what we lack
Some things fall apart.
From the ashes new dreams start
All that matters to the heart is how we love.

Sometimes we forget trying to be so strong
In this world of right and wrong
All that matters when we’re gone
All that mattered all along

All we have that carries on
Is how we love.

De Colores!  So be it.  Amen.

Stephen C. Kraynak

Stephen Kraynak taught for thirty-five years in the Columbus Ohio City Schools.  He met his husband at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbus, and they have been together for twenty years.  On October 17, 2014, they were the first same sex couple to be married in Pima County, Arizona, within hours after marriage equality became legal in the state.