I was four months away from entering medical school and attending the First Unitarian Church of Oakland. The ministers. Rob and Janne Eller-Isaacs, were building a liberal religious community that brought together a spiritual depth, a commitment to social justice, and a vision of shared ministry. As I led small groups, listened to Rob’s prayers, and marveled at their capacity to cast a vision for building beloved community there in inner-city Oakland, I caught myself thinking, I’d love to learn how to preach and lead religious community, but I already figured out to what I’m devoting my life. When the epiphany hit me, “I don’t have to go to medical school.” It was clear what I felt called to do.
I returned to Oakland and shared my thoughts with Rob Eller-Isaacs. He said, when someone comes and tells me that they want to go into ministry, I tell them “don’t, the ministry is fraught with so much heartache. So I never encourage parishioners to enter the ministry. But in your case, it might just work. Now I knew how cranky and gruff Rob was—and that this response was clearly a ringing endorsement!
Today, I entitled today’s service A Cloud of Witnesses because we are approaching All Saints Day, All Souls Day, and the Day of the Dead, El dia de los muertos. It is a time to invoke the love and memory of those whose love has shaped us. On Homecoming Sunday, together we read the names of those members of this congregation who have died. It is a deeply meaningful practice, I typically include on the Sunday prior to All Souls Day. When we recited the names on Homecoming Sunday, there was one name that I was surprised was not on it. That of Denny Davidoff. When I inquired of someone about this, I was told that she died more than five years ago. I said, impossible, I remember so vividly her memorial service that I watched online. It was the most meaningful service I think I ever watched online and I could have sworn it was only a couple years ago. So I checked online and sure enough, Denny died in 2017. But my point is, Denny Davidoff is among the cloud of witnesses that supports my journey. She is one of the people whose love and commitment touched me and stays with me.
And I know she touched and stays with many of you. Who else are among your cloud of witnesses? Whose life and love has touched you and continues to shape or guide or inspire you? I’ve come to believe that our cloud of witnesses includes all who have touched us, whether they have passed or are still alive. But that’s another sermon This morning I had intended to share with you what I’ve learned from multiple members of the cloud of witnesses that guides my life, but as I prayed and reflected this past week, the spirit beckons me to share with you about only one. Rob Eller-Isaacs, who died of pancreatic cancer at age 70 a year ago July.
Here at UU Westport, this congregation has inspired and mentored more people in the Unitarian Universalist ministry than hardly any other. Perhaps the only exceptions are the first unitarian church of Oakland and Unity Church Unitarian. Two memorial services were held for Rob, one where he retired to a year earlier in Portland Oregon where twenty-five ministers gathered and then a week later in St Paul Minnesota at Unity Church Unitarian, where I was among the 40 ministers that robed and processed.
When asked what experience led him to embrace his vision of shared ministry, he shared his memory of participating in the children’s choir of Chicago, a racially diverse choir that met at the First Unitarian Church of Chicago. He explained how everyone had to attune their own voices and at the same time listen to everyone else. This became a metaphor of how to build community and seek justice—cultivate spaces where everyone speaks up and where everyone listens to each other.
When Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed, Rob was overcome with grief and despair and anger. As a 16 year old, he didn’t know what to do with all those feelings. He was with his friend Mark Morrison-Reed and instinctually they headed to their church, The First Unitarian Church Chicago. They ascended the bell tower, and there began to toll the bell. To toll the bell is different than ringing the bell. It takes a lot of energy to stop the sound to toll. Rob and Mark took turns until they were exhausted and then descended the bell tower.
To their great surprise, they found the sanctuary below filled with people. People who had been drawn in their own grief to the church by the tolling of the bell.
He took from that experience a powerful conviction that when we’re lost, when we don’t what to do, when there’s no other place to go, when we need one another, the church is where we gather.
In one of the very first sermons I heard from Rob, he addressed the topic of suffering. He said, “We shouldn’t ask why we suffer, that is a question that doesn’t have an answer. Don’t ask why we suffer. Instead, focus on how we suffer.” How. How lives in the we. Suffering in isolation is hell. Suffering in community is liberating. Only in relationship with others do we ultimately know that truth We are not alone. You are not alone. How we suffer is that we live together suffering in community. A burden shared is a burdened lightened. In love is born the way.
I remember when Rob had recently facilitated a Board retreat at one of our prominent congregations and shared about it. “In what ways,” he asked them, “does church involvement foster transformation in your lives?” After a discomforting period of silence one of the trustees said, “I’ve never thought of our church as a place where people change their lives. It has always been a liberal refuge for community connections, cultural enrichment, making friends and opportunities for learning.” I was taken aback. Shared ministry offers a very different understanding of liberal religious life. It posits that the primary purpose of religious community is the transformation of individuals, groups and society as a whole. The Church is not primarily about building community, though community is built. The Church is not primarily about making friends, though friends are made. The Church is not even primarily about alleviating suffering, though suffering may well be relieved. We are meant to be communities of accountability in which both the world and we ourselves are changed for the better.
Out of his deep commitment to this vision of shared ministry, he became the denomination’s lead advocate for policy governance. A form of governance that frees up the board to reflect on the mission and values of the congregation and not be involved in running it. Rob was a governance guru, and Here’s what Rob taught me about governance. Good governance is not about efficiency, it’s about depth. Good governance is a framework for covenant, for the promises to ourselves, to each other, and to the world for the impact we seek to make in each other’s lives and in the world. And in moments such as the ones we’re facing now with global violence, national uncertainty, and local anxiety, those promises are more important than ever.
Now, Rob had his rough edges. As his wife could say, with an expletive, he could be so __ complicated. He could be so arrogant at times and judgmental. He could be consumed with the rightness of his vision that it was hard for him to see other perspectives. And there would be moments where he would recognize his folly.
Watching Rob’s comfort with and habitation in his own imperfect self was a deep gift to me. It’s also one of the great legacies he left our movement. He wrote the litany of atonement that I shared for the service that repeats: “I forgive myself, I forgive you, we begin again in love. “
He was one of the few ministers that acknowledged we all have brokenness, we all have need for confession, and we all are capable of forgiving and being forgiven. I appreciate how Rob Hardies says, “This is not UU-lite. It’s the kind of committed, faithful UUism that Rob believed in, that he practiced, and that he preached. We forgive ourselves. We forgive each other. We begin again in love.”
I am grateful for the opportunity to testify, to testify to the love and vision of Rob and Janne Eller-Isaacs. I joined the First Unitarian Church of Oakland because I was lonely. I wanted community, but I found so much more. I found a congregation that lived out a growing faith in shared ministry. I found a vision that people lived into, albeit imperfectly, and it transformed me. It changed me so much I didn’t enter medical school that fall but instead seminary.
Let me close with a reflection on yesterday’s vigil where about 50 of us gathered. Jeff Lundberg got up and walked to the podium. He shared how he knew people killed in Viet Nam, in Korea, in World War II. He said, I despise violence, and it’s exploding all over the world. I am feeling hopeless. What is it that we can do?
My answer, when your heart is broken by what is happening in your beloved world, open your hearts, let your heart break open rather than break down.
Open your hearts in community and build a shared ministry..
Remember you are not alone in your grief or your despair.
You have the capacity and the community to learn to listen and learn to develop your voice.
Do not fear suffering, but learn how to suffer, not alone but with others.
Do not fear your grief as large and consuming it may be, learn to grieve with others.
And remember the cloud of witnesses that travel with you. For the cloud of witnesses include those who have come before us as well as those with whom we covenant here and now to live into religious community, the kind of religious community that transforms lives.
Blessed be. Amen.