International Association of Religious Freedom: US Chapter


Towards Oneness–The Vision

25th Anniversary Sermon, Netherlands UU Fellowship 2007
Dr. Richard Boeke, 16 St. Mary’s Gardens, Horsham RH12 1 JP, United Kingdom

In February I was in the United States.  I met Lyn Conley, a trustee of the national Unitarian Universalist Association.   In the conversation she asked me to send her my “thoughts on the international aspect of the UUA.”   She said, “As we continue to wrestle with the subject, I’ll gratefully receive input.”

As I thought about my reply, I remembered the words of Isaiah, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”   This is the vision I will share with you, with Lyn Conley and other members of the UUA Board of Trustees.

A Unitarian Universalist was on the crew of the doomed spaceship Columbia.   The first day in space, Laurel Salton Clark wrote, “There was a moth on board and it was just starting to pump it’s wings up.  Life continues in lots of places, and life is a magical thing.”    The day before she died, she sent another email from space saying,

Hello, from about our magnificent planet Earth.
The perspective is truly awe-inspiring  …
I have seen some incredible sights:
Lightning spreading over the Pacific:
The Aurora Australia lighting up the entire visible horizon
With the city glow of Australia below,
The Crescent moon setting over the limb of the earth,
The vast planes of Africa and the dunes on Cape Horn …
Mt. Fuji looks like a small lump from up here,
But it does stand out as a very distinct landmark. …
Whenever I get to look, it is glorious.
Even the stars have a special brightness.

How many times have you been asked, “What do Unitarians believe?   And have been tempted to tell all the things that Unitarians don’t believe?    One wit says, “Unitarians are Atheists with children.”  Another says, “Unitarians believe in One God at most.”   And an Anglican priest said, “Ah, the Unitarians.  You are more honest about your doubts than we are.”

Unitarian Universalists!   What vision can I give?   When I told a Church History Professor that I had become a Unitarian, he replied with a smile, “Scratch a Unitarian and you’ll find a Calvinist.”    The professor had written a book on Michael Servetus, our spiritual ancestor.   Servetus was burned at the stake by Calvin.   Servetus was like The Man from La Mancha:  “To dream the impossible dream.  To fight the unbeatable foe, … to reach the unreachable star.”  For Servetus and many Unitarian Universalists, the quest for TRUTH is a compulsion, much like the Calvinist or Muslim quest for GOD.   Servetus preached THE ONENESS OF THE HOLY, with the hope of reconciling CHRISTIAN, JEW AND MUSLIM.

The vision of Servetus was taken up by Francis David in Transylvania.  July 2006, I journeyed to Transylvania to join UUs from Indonesia, Bolivia, South Africa, and North America.   35 of us from around the World joined with 35 Unitarians from Romania and Hungary.

We stayed in the New Dormitory Rooms of the Unitarian Seminary in Kolozsvar: rooms made possible by gifts from North America and Britain.   With the new rooms a new spirit is coming.  As Romania enters the European Union, a new openness is evident.  The Lay President of Romanian Unitarians says, “Our Unitarian Liturgy is out of date – obsolete!”

At the conference I said,
“To me our Unitarian Church is the Oneness Church.   Not One God in some far off heaven, but the sense of oneness in all existence.  In Transylvania, over the door of every Unitarian Church are the words, Egy Az Isten, ‘One is God.’  So Emerson wrote, “It is one light which animates a thousand stars.   It is one Soul which animates all men.”    Many find this Oneness in Eastern Meditation.   In the Netherlands UU Fellowship, Maureen Gilbert writes, “Many of you know, that Advaita Vedanta –non-duality– is one of my favourite teachings.”

I believe the nature of pilgrimage is the journey to Oneness: Whether it be the religious quest or the psychological quest for Soul.  It is the acknowledgement of the poet who writes, “I am a part of all that I have met.”  The journey to Oneness leads beyond the confines of any particular religion.  William Blake was once asked if he believed in the divinity of Christ.  He replied, “He is the only God. But so am I.  And so are you.”

Yes, the journey to Oneness starts with the individual.   We seek a peaceful heart.   We move on to seek a peaceful world.  As we let go of ego, we find our Oneness with all people, with all things – the joy and the pain.

The Civil Rights Movement of the mid-20th Century was such a journey to Oneness.   A year ago, the UU Partner Church Council held a retreat in which they focused on the Civil Rights Movement as a model for social change:  A good spiritual exercise.   One of the sources was Howard Thurman, whose book, JESUS AND THE DISINHERITED was recently republished by Beacon Press.

Howard Thurman had met Gandhi.  Like Gandhi, Howard linked the “Journey In” to the “Journey Out.”   He said, “My heart must be a swinging door, which opens in, and opens out.”    Like Gandhi, eh taught preparing your own spirit before going out to change the spirit of others.   To bring Oneness to others, first discover your link to all existence:  The Soul of your Soul.   Like the Astronauts seeing the earth from space, Howard Thurman had a mystic vision.

Howard Thurman could be called “the mystic heart of the Civil Rights Movement of the mid 20th Century.”  The day before I met UU Trustee Lyn Conley at the Atlanta UU Church, I went with my wife and a friend to visit the Howard Thurman Memorial at Morehouse College in Atlanta.   I had the good fortune to know Thurman in the last years of his life.  He spoke three times at our Berkeley UU Church, including his great lecture, MYSTICISM AND SOCIAL ACTION.   I attended his funeral at the UU Church of San Francisco, where Jessie Jackson said, “I have been given three minutes to talk on Howard Thurman.  Howard Thurman could pause for three minutes.”

The Thurman Memorial at Morehouse College in Atlanta is a tall stone shaft, higher than Cleopatra’s needle.  It towers over the front of the Martin Luther King International Memorial Chapel.  On the other side of the entrance to the chapel is the statue of King, with his prophetic words, “I have a Dream.”  The Thurman Memorial illustrates the Oneness to which he witnessed.  There is a reflection pool with symbols of 12 different religions.  On each of the four sides of the shaft are quotations from Thurman.  I copied his words:  “It is my belief that in the presence of God there is neither Gentile nor Jew, Protestant or Catholic, Hindu, Buddhist or Moslem, but a human spirit stripped to the literal substance of itself before God.”

As often happens on a pilgrimage, there was a surprise. 100s of people were entering the chapel.  We had arrived at the 140th Anniversary of the Founding of Morehouse College.  The college was started at the close of the Civil War to free former slaves from the bondage of ignorance.    One stage were eight great African Americans who gave their testimony.

The most memorable was Senator Leroy Johnson, who graduated from all black Morehouse College, when I was attending all white Georgia Tech.   There were no black police or public officials in Atlanta.  One week, Morehouse President Benjamin Mays spoke to the student body on the evils of segregation: “Every time you buy a segregated ticket you are supporting segregation.”   Johnson said, “On Sunday I had paid to sit in the segregated balcony of the Fox Theatre.  I never again attended a segregated theatre.  …  On graduation, I determined to break the artificial ceiling.  In 1962 I was elected to the Georgia State Senate.  For 40 days not one senator spoke to me.  I would say, ‘Good Morning, Senator,’ and they would say, ‘Humff.’

“But one day I arrived late to a committee meeting.  The committee was evenly divided on a bill.  As I came in, Senators from both sides stood up and shook my hand, ‘Good, Morning Senator.’  I learned the vote is the essence of politics.   Years later I sought to be chairman of the Judiciary Committee.  The Governor said “I’ve promised my support to someone else.’  I went to the Lieutenant Governor who also would not support me.   But then the Senate was divided on an important vote.   The Lieutenant Governor phoned & said if we have your vote and win, you have the appointment.  The bill won by one vote.   I became chair of the Judiciary Committee.  I learned, You get not what you deserve, but what you negotiate.”

The Senator put clearly a lesson I have been slow to learn: The importance of alliances in accomplishing the vision.  Others do not see the vision in quite the same way you do.  Truth does not win its own battles.  A dozen years ago, I asked Denny Davidoff how to get world witness on the UUA Agenda.  In essence, she said, “Organize Support.”  I listened.  With Leon Hopper, Judit Gellerd and others, I co-founded the Partner Church Council and worked with Spencer Lavan to send an English teacher to the Unitarian Seminary in Transylvania.  As a result in summer 2006, dozens of Romanian Unitarian ministers could share in English in the ICUU Seminar.  And they are opening up.   In the words of Bishop Szabo, “The Unitarian faith has so enlarged its boundaries that no narrow line of descent can be claimed.”

The Partner Church Council and the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists are two of the five organizations, which bring a sense of World Connection to hundreds of UU Churches and Fellowships.    The UU Service Committee and Religions for Peace (WCRP)  also help  congregations  overcome Xenophobia, a 21st Century Plague sweeping America.

The Fifth Organization is the oldest:  The International Association for Religious Freedom (IARF).   Sadly, it is also the one in most difficulty.  I plead guilty to being in a small way responsible for this.  In 1964, the IARF met in The Hague.   Up to that time, the IARF was the “International Association for Liberal Christianity and Religious Freedom.”  To open the IARF up to other faiths, I spoke for changing the name to “liberal religion and religious freedom.”   Sadly, some delegates, especially from Canada, saw liberal as a political term.   “Liberal Religion” was dropped in the proposal sent forward to the next IARF Congress.  As I feared, over the years, many newcomers have lost sight of the original version of “A World Community of Free Religions.”  To them the IARF was a kind of Civil Liberties Union.

In Japan, the IARF continues as The International Association for Free Religion.    In Japan is the strongest support for the IARF.
The “Father” of that support is a Unitarian Minister little known outside Japan.    Shinichiro Imaoka trained as a Unitarian at Harvard in 1915.   Back in Japan the small Unitarian Congregation could not support his family.   He became a teacher, then principal of a High School in Tokyo.   On Sundays he led Unitarian Services in the School Auditorium.  His congregation was called, “Daichi Kyodan – The Oneness Church.”

Dr. Imaoka helped organize the Japan Free Religious Association, which brought together a half dozen Buddhist, Shinto, and new religious movements.  These joined the IARF in Boston  in 1969, and continue as one of the major forces supporting the Peace Article in the Japanese Constitution.  Their link to Unitarians in the IARF and Religions for Peace re-enforces their support of this article.

In 1984, Japan hosted the IARF Congress.  Dr. Imaoka called for the English name to be changed to International Association for Free Religion.    This is what it is in Japanese.   Dr. Imaoka wrote, “It is not enough to have an organization for religious freedom without reference to religion itself!”    As the IARF Office moves to Japan in 2007, I hope the UUA will join Japan in supporting the vision of “The International Association for Free Religion.”

At the 1990 IARF Congress in Hamburg, Hans Kung, the author of the Global Ethic, was asked, “Do Unitarians have a place in the dialogue of World Religions?”   He answered, “OF COURSE.  BUT YOU HAVE TO BE AT THE TABLE.”    To fulfil our vision of Oneness, we have to be at the table.

In the words of Senator Johnson at Morehouse College,
“It is not what you deserve, but what you negotiate.”

IARF Congress  Fo Guang Shan, Taiwan   March 2006

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