He is called the savior of California. His accomplishments are the stuff of legends, and I’m thrilled very few of you have heard of Thomas Starr Kiing. The few who know of his work in California likely don’t know his background: how he got into ministry or his rise as one of the most vocal and effective abolitionists of his day.
I start the story in 1850, in Boston.
Although the Hollis Street Church boasted one of the grandest buildings in Boston, they had become a wreck of a congregation. Their departing minister, John Pierpont had been their minister, an avid abolitionist who pursued social justice, especially in his last ten years, with great passion but little tact. By the time he left, most of the wealthy members had already done so as well. The folks who remained weren’t very nice to one another. A respected seasoned minister who thought he could reform them left after two years declaring the congregation hopeless. No Unitarian minister was willing to serve them, and so they did the unthinkable among Unitarians back then: they called a Universalist minister! And worse, a scrawny little 25 year old who looked hardly looked 20. And even worse, who didn’t have a formal education. His name was Thomas Starr King.
Thomas Starr King’s father had been a Universalist minister, poorly paid, and then died when young Thomas was 12. Thomas’s mother was an invalid, and there were no resources to send him to school or seminary, but he found solace and connection in that scrappy small Universalist church where his father had served. At age 20 he became the minister in that Universalist church in Charlestown. Six years later, his natural talent as an orator captured the attention of a couple lay leaders of the Hollis Street Church, and they lured him to their pulpit, to the consternation of many.
But Starr King knew something that these wealthy highly educated Unitarians didn’t want to admit: that life—and real religious community—is often messy and imperfect. At age 26, he already knew how messy and imperfect life could be. He lived it. He had a deep sensitivity for the human condition and a capacity to express himself powerfully. When people disagreed with him, often with great passion and sometimes vitriol, he responded in a way that often disarmed them. He pointed out how imperfect we human beings can be all the while being capable of embodying the finer angels of our nature. He acknowledged just how messy congregational life can be and yet the importance of walking together in service of our most cherished ideals.
He loved to poke fun at this prestigious congregation. He liked to ask: do you know what the primary difference between Universalists and Unitarians? He said, “The Universalists believe that God is too good to damn them and the Unitarains? The Unitarians believe that they are too good to be damned!
He was a Universalist minister in a Unitarian church.
Despite his pastoral approach, he didn’t shy away from addressing the most controversial subjects of the day. The most vocal criticism leveled against him were from those who felt their minister shouldn’t take stands on the issues that the greater community were to vote on. They accused him of preaching politics. He responded in a sermon, “I never intend or want to preach politics but I must preach devotion to humanity as the highest outward form of the gospel.” During his 10 years at the Hollis Street Church, the congregation grew five-fold and he became known as one of the finest orators in New England.
This month we explore the theme of heritage. This congregation has such a rich heritage that is messy, imperfect and inspiring. You’ll hear more about it from Rev. Carrie McEvoy next week. This week, I begin this month’s reflection on heritage with what we all can learn from Thomas Starr King: congregational life is often messy, imperfect and inspiring.
I’ve got to say, here in Westport no one seems to do messy. Even the church kitchen here is so clean. Everyone picks up after themselves. Let me tell you what my greatest fear is being here, that you’re going to discover that I’m messy—and that I’m imperfect, imperfect in all sorts of ways!
At some point, I don’t know when it’s gonna be, but I’m going to disappoint some of you, maybe a lot of you. And you know what? In that moment, the real work begins. You get to decide whether to turn away from me because you’re disappointed or turn towards me. And the same thing goes for others, when some folks in this congregation disappoint you, what are you going to do? All sorts of opportunities for beginning again in love!
I was inspired into the ministry at the First Unitarian Church of Oakland where I met Laila Ibrahim. She recently shared a beautiful blog saying she’s filled a variety of leadership positions, from OWL teacher to Board president, usher coordinator, to stewardship co-chair. And in all those years, she says, “my congregation has had ample opportunity to disappoint me.”
She says, “I am disappointed when people don’t think my justice project is the one we should collectively work on; I am disappointed when people want different music than I do; I am disappointed that we don’t all agree that our Children’s Ministry is the most important priority in the church; I am disappointed that people don’t give enough time, talent or treasure to the church as I do.”
She says, “In nearly thirty years of relationship, there have been lots of disappointments. Two or three times over the years, I have been so disappointed that I seriously questioned remaining in my congregation. I have doubted its ability to provide the salvation of which we speak: lived beloved community. On those occasions I have thought, screw it. I can just stop going to church for a while or….forever. But staying away has never helped me through such times. Rather, coming in closer, telling people about my spiritual crisis – listening, sharing, caring, and worshipping – have helped me know that this is where I belong, even when church is the source of my frustration and disappointment.”
I agree with her that we are not in church to be with people who want to sing the same music, or rally for the same cause, or attend the same retreats. We are in church to learn to love better. And this can only happen when we love past our disappointments and return to a place of acceptance and affirmation. This is true in our personal lives, in our work lives, and in our church lives. It is a deep spiritual practice.
There is really only one choice: Between imperfect community and no community. Again and again, we are all called to choose to commit ourselves to building a more just, more diverse, and yet ever messy and imperfect beloved community.
I know Laila. To hear how she has struggled is surprising on one hand, but it also is deeply affirming. It brings solace to be reminded by one who is so engaged that religious community takes work and it doesn’t always go the way we think it should. Disappointment is part and parcel of not only life, but also congregational life. What matters is how we walk with one another not only when things go well but also in the face of disagreement, disappointment, and failure. That is the essence of being in covenant.
For Thomas Starr King the notion of covenant didn’t stop with the congregation. For him, it extended to his nation. Thomas Starr King believed very strongly that Americans should participate in covenant with one another and the country as a whole. He shared Abraham Lincoln’s faith in the Union, and the fact that the national covenant was broken from the beginning, and the only way to make this covenant whole was to eventually abolish slavery.
Back in 1860, the great institutionalist of the American Unitarian Association was Henry Whitney Bellows, serving All Souls in New York City. When leaders of the Unitarian church in San Francisco asked him to convince a promising young minister to come out their way, he turned to Thomas Starr King. King enthusiastically agreed to take the call.
The day Thomas stepped off the boat, the San Francisco church leaders were stunned. Here was a scrawny little man only 5 foot 2 with a boyish face and a high pitched voice. But when he ascended the pulpit on Sunday, he mesmerized and energized his audience. He was known to say, “I may be only 120 pounds, but when I get angry I weigh a ton!”
Now, California had been a state for only a decade. As the United States fell into Civil War, the governor of California and a majority of its legislators were sympathetic to the Confederacy. It didn’t look good for Lincoln’s newly formed Republican party and their hopes of scaling back slavery, let alone abolishing it, and keeping the United States united. The newly called minister of the San Francisco Unitarian Church took it upon himself to travel up and down the golden state, draping an American flag in front of every pulpit or lectern from which he spoke. With simple elegance in a high-pitched sing song voice, he swayed the hearts and minds of so many in California to oppose the institution of slavery, to throw their support to the Republican Party, and to hold faith in national union. He is widely credited as saving California for the union and in so doing was a critical player in saving the union. As the Civil War unfolded he continued his speaking and raised funds to help establish the Sanitary Commission, the precursor to the American Red Cross. He personally raised way out there in California over a quarter of the nearly $5 million raised throughout the United States to aid soldiers wounded on both sides of the conflict.
Thomas Starr King is the namesake for my seminary. He was a pioneer of effective public ministry. Yet the people in his congregations remembered his kindness, his open-hearted counseling, his going out of the way to be of service, even if it meant walking miles through the rain.
But there’s a shadow looming at the end of his story. He accomplished all of what he did in California in four short years. For at the age of 39, he contracted diphtheria and died.
We all experience disappointment in a multitude of ways. Five years ago, I was plagued with disappointment over the limitations of my own physical body. A this time, I found solace in a teaching by a rabbi who lived almost 2,000 years ago, Rabbi Tarpon. He taught: It is not your obligation to complete the work [of perfecting the world], but neither are you free to desist [from doing all you can do]… Another translation says: “You are not obligated to complete the task before you; nevertheless you are not free to leave it.” This is a statement of being bound in covenant.
When I was on medical leave for two months five years ago, I had an insight. Many of us UUs hold the grand vision of building beloved community among us and contribute to building it in our wider community. It is a wonderful vision, a grand and noble vision. The problem that crops us is when we have grandiose expectations of ourselves—and grandiose expectations of others. For me personally, such grandiose expectations only lead to suffering. We can never be enough. It’s as if we’re trying so hard to be like the Unitarians Thomas Starr King noted who believed that they are too good to be damned!
Please understand, here in a faith community, we are not seeking perfection. We are seeking engagement, honesty, the cultivation of wonder and hope and courage. We are seeking to love more deeply, to give of ourselves more openly, to live more meaningfully. And in this collective journey, it’s messy. We’re imperfect as human beings. And yet, and yet, there is so much possibility. There is so much creativity and wonder within the human spirit waiting to be nurtured and ignited. I’m discovering there is so much inspiration among you to be a blessing to one another and the wider world that is both so beautiful and so broken.
And we’ve got to remember It is not our obligation to complete the work [of perfecting the world], but neither are we free to desist [from doing all we can do].
How shall we walk together to bless the world.? I believe there is much to learn from our heritage, even the most ugly parts of it.
It begins with practicing curiosity and compassion. It flowers when we can turn towards others who disappoint us with curiosity and compassion.
Blessed be. Amen.