The Back-Door Church
A sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on November 18, 2012.
The CD recorder has broken. Until it gets replaced, no audio. Sorry!
On a cold night in December in 1985, this church building burned to the ground. Only the original stone walls remained. Rather than move to the suburbs, as many congregations were doing in those times, First Unitarian decided to rebuild. Not only to rebuild, but to use those original stone walls as the structure and foundation upon which to build again.
As you can tell when you first walk into this sanctuary, the original stone walls are all that remain the same as before the fire. Before the fire, those large windows to your left were the main doors of the church. They opened to the back of the sanctuary, which was long and narrow. The front of the sanctuary was where the bay window is in the social hall.
As I understand it, the plans for the rebuilt church originally intended for these doors here, facing York Street, to be the main doors. There is a nice lobby in there where a welcome table could be set-up. And the view when you look up at the Steeple is, truly, unique. You can see some of the old wood timbers, the smoke-scorched stone – it is like looking up into history.
So those York Street doors were going to be the main doors. But the construction folks used the doors off the alley between 3rd and 4th streets, otherwise known as Library Lane. The back doors. That is also where the ramp went in. When the sanctuary was still under construction but Heywood House was accessible (where the offices were) that back door was how people got access to the building. Besides, the parking lots are all out in that direction.
And so it was that the Library Lane doors became the main doors of the church. We became a “back door church.”
The more time I spend here, the more apt the metaphor of a “back-door church” becomes. After all, who usually uses the back door?
Friends and family, for one; people who are dear to our hearts, with whom we share our lives. In some places, that is the measure of friendship – you know you are important to someone when they tell you to use the back door.
This is a very friendly congregation. Which is particularly a good thing right now, because we are getting so many new folks each week. I’ve heard over and over from folks who stay that what made them want to come back was the welcome they received. We occasionally leave our guests to their own devices during coffee hour, but it is usually not long before someone steps in with a friendly greeting.
And like dear friends and family, we share the milestones of our lives with each other. Anniversaries, births, graduations – all sorts of happy occasions get applauded. And when a sorrow is shared, I can sense the heavy silence as we all feel the weight of the announcement. We care for each other, deeply.
This does not mean everything is easy all the time. No indeed! Like a family, we sometimes disagree. We argue with each other, we challenge one another. A few weeks ago, I talked about getting up on the balcony – that as we generally go about things, we are down on the dance floor, doing our own thing. We can become immersed in an issue without looking at the big picture. When we get up on the balcony, we get a view of the dance floor. We see how our dancing might be affecting others – something we may not have realized while we were down on the dance floor.
When we inevitably disagree, when we remember to get up on the balcony (rather than caught on the dance floor) with one another, when we remember to assume good intent, we are able to find ways to be healthily in conflict – the kind of conflict that enables growth and deeper sharing, rather than the kind that shuts growth down.
And even in conflict, even when we are still stuck on the dance floor, we care for one another. We work with one another. Because this is what it means to be privy to using the back door: to recognize that each one of us deepens the pool of shared meaning. Each of us enters the community with our own personal pool of opinions, feelings, theories and experiences. When we share our own pools of meaning with one another, it deepens the pool of shared meaning. It brings ideas to the table that would not be present otherwise, it helps us understand ourselves and the world better. This is one way we are a back-door church: People come to church looking for ways to form these deep relationships, and we welcome them.
And who else traditionally used the back door? Servants. Each one of us here is called to serve: to serve a higher good; to serve the goal of a world community with peace, liberty and justice for all; to serve one another; to serve the legacy of First Unitarian Church. This church would not, could not, exist without your service. Each one of us has a part to play. We serve through providing a financial pledge to the church; through greeting people on Sunday morning; through cleaning up after a luncheon or providing food for a memorial service. We serve through taking leadership positions on the Ministry Council or Board of Trustees; through providing daytime help in the office; through being a religious exploration teacher for our children, youth, or adults. And so much more. This congregation needs each of us to do our part.
And we serve our larger community, outside the walls of this building. We supported a refugee family earlier this year, we strive to once again be a fair share congregation with the Unitarian Universalist Association, we serve through our work with the HELP Office, and in many other ways.
Now sometimes, service gets confused with helping. But they are not the same thing. Rachel Remen, Clinical Professor of Family and Community Medicine at UC San Francisco School of Medicine, helps us to understand the differences: When we help someone, she says, we are in a position of power whereas the person we are helping is not. We use our own strength to help someone with less strength. In fact, it is easy to take away more than we give when we help, because it can diminish the self-esteem and the sense of autonomy of the person we are trying to help.
Serving is also not the same as fixing. When we try to fix someone, we are, in effect, judging them, and finding them broken. Again, we are in the power position of making a judgment.
Instead, serving honors the wholeness of life. Remen says “When you help, you see life as weak; when you fix, you see life as broken; and when you serve, you see life as whole. When we serve in this way, we understand that this person’s suffering is also my suffering, that their joy is also my joy…We may help or fix many things in our lives, but when we serve, we are always in the service of wholeness.”
At First Unitarian, we aspire to be servants: to one another, and to our larger community. And at the same time, we are leaders: struggling to make peace and justice a reality for all, to bring about the beloved community.
This makes us something that Robert Greenleaf calls “Servant Leaders”. This was a very popular understanding of ministry when I was in seminary – that we both serve and lead our congregations. But it is true for all of you as well.
Greenleaf said that servant leaders serve first, then they lead. They make sure that other people’s priorities are being served. The test, he said, is “Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous”?
This is another way we are a back-door church: we serve one another, and those in our community. We serve our highest ideals, as servant leaders, hoping that those we serve grow, become healthier, wiser, and more free.
Now, there is another back-door metaphor that I struggled to try to work into this sermon. I come from a computer science background, and so no talk of the “back door” would be complete without mention of the “back door” that programmers write into programs, games, computer systems and more. In this case, the back door grants access to a program or system, without having to go through the usual guardian protocols.
I could not really think of a good correlation to this type of back door. We don’t claim to hold the monopoly on truth that would need a back door. There are no creeds or test of membership that you need to pass to belong here that a back door might circumvent. So I got stuck. However, I would love to hear if you figure out a correlation!! Please share it with me, if you do!
So, getting back to the original concept…who uses the back door? Family, friends, servants. It is an apt metaphor.
Let us not forget, however, that there is a shadow side to being a “back door church.” Not the least of which: the back door can be hard to find! And even if someone finds it, they might not be comfortable using it. I went to a restaurant not too long ago, or tried to, and the sign said to go around the side. But the side was in this dark alley, and I wasn’t sure it was the right side, and it was not very welcoming. Not like I imagined the restaurant in the Arlo Guthrie song “Alice’s Restaurant”, when he says: “Walk right in, its around the back.” The food might have been great, but I never made it in the door! Even a sign saying “go around back” can be a barrier for some people.
A back door might also be like a secret: something you need to be in the in-group to know. And if you have to be in the in-group to know about how wonderful this faith tradition is, then we are doomed to become extinct. And we are not letting our light shine.
There are so many folks who need just the sort of religious community that we have. I can’t help but think about how today is Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR). This is the day set aside to memorialize the people who were killed due to anti-transgender hatred or prejudice. Since 2008, more than 700 people murdered because of their gender identity did not meet someone’s requirements. This year, more than 50 murders have been reported. This is horribly sad.
Connected to this, I heard an interview on NPR last week with Kevin Ryan, co-author of the book “Almost Home: Helping Kids Move from Homelessness to Hope.” He reported that close to half the homeless youth he encounters are Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, or Transgender youth.
If we are the type of “back-door church” that remains a secret, who are we missing offering a welcome to who might desperately need it?
Unitarians, in particular, have a history of elitism, of being a faith tradition for the white, highly educated, upper-middle-class-or-higher crowd. In fact, there is a whole book on it. Elite: Uncovering Classism in Unitarian Universalist History by Mark Harris. He points out that “The wealth, standing and religious conviction of [our] forebears converged in actions and ideas [such as eugenics and social control] that would be appalling by modern standards.” In it’s own way, First Unitarian Church is a part of that history. This congregation was not always as socio-economically diverse as we are now.
We have made some great strides in understanding how a community is enriched by a diversity of people. Great strides in understanding that when a congregation welcomes a new group of people to the community, the church changes. We put in ramps to take aware barriers that would prevent people with physical difficulties from participating. We put kid-sized chairs in the childrens’ religious exploration rooms, and strive to make sure the needs of adults of all sizes are met as well. We print large print orders of service for those who have difficulty seeing, and having assisted listening devices for those who have difficulty hearing. Someday, if we have someone who was interested in translating the services to Spanish, or Sign Language, I would love to take away those barriers to participation as well. And perhaps add an evening service for those who have to work on Sunday mornings. We strive to remove barriers to participation, but we fail sometimes. If you know of such a barrier, one that feels forgotten or left out, please let me or others in church leadership know, and we can work on removing that barrier, together.
Because we are not a secret society, and you don’t need a password to get in. We avoid the shadow side of being a “back-door church” not by denying it, but by paying attention to it and by shining a light on it.
That light also helps us better see where we are going. It shows us a vision of the church were all are welcomed regardless of their political beliefs, their theology or lack thereof, their gender identity, sexual orientation, age, social class, education, abilities, needs, or family structure. A vision where all are welcomed. Where we each are servants to one another. Where we find deep community with enriching relationships. Where we both support and challenge each other.
During this season of Thanksgiving, this is truly something for which we might give thanks: That those of us here have found, and are able to serve, such a religious institution. May we continue to be a back-door church, literally and (with special attention paid to the shadow side) figuratively.