Gifts From the Past, Gifts For the Future

March 3, 2019, First Universalist Church of Auburn, Maine

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I had been told that the congregational archives were no place for the faint of heart.

I was in Chicago for my annual January intensive classes at my seminary, Meadville Lombard. Meadville is home to the Wiggin Library, which houses the congregational archives of all the correspondence between the Unitarian Universalist Association’s headquarters in Boston and its member congregations. Every training minister is encouraged to take a look in the archives of our teaching congregation’s history. But this encouragement always comes with a warning: sometimes students find things they didn’t expect and which might upset them. The archival materials are sometimes not discussed, or might even have been forgotten, in the churches that made them. Maybe the church broke off from another, and the split was traumatic. Maybe there was a hidden scandal lurking in decades past. Like our sharing of Joys and Sorrows, history is the study of our failings and faults as well as our triumphs and achievements.

So when I opened the archive box and pulled out the inch-thick file folder labeled “First Universalist Auburn,” I had no idea what to expect.

The first thing I noticed was the scent: not unpleasant. The comforting dusty smell of old documents. Yellowed onionskin paper and mimeographed text of letters, paperwork, and even telegrams as far back as the 1920s and 30s filled the folder. Many of these records came from decades before the Unitarian Universalist Association even existed. As I moved forward in time, I began to notice names that I recognized, including the names of some people I’ve met during my time here. I had faces that I could imagine and match to these names. The story of this congregation’s ancestors, their record of service and dedication, was unfolding and coming alive under my fingers.

But one name that I didn’t recognize left many letters in the archive that stuck with me.

In the years leading up to World War II, the Auburn congregation’s minister was a man named Rev. Weston Cate. His wife Arlene served as the director of religious education, and the two of them lived here in Auburn and shepherded the church for over a decade. He was, at that time, the longest-serving minister in the church’s history. The story I found in the letters revolved around a big career decision for Rev. Cate.

His letters back and forth from the headquarters of the Universalist Church discussed the possibility of his accepting a new call to the Universalist parish in Malden, Massachusetts. Rev. Cate was presented with this opportunity and pursued it with interest for some time, and his letters describe some of his thought process. A call to Malden would have increased his profile in the world of ministry. It would have meant more money, more power, a larger audience. But ultimately, he chose to withdraw himself from consideration with words that made me quietly cheer “yes!!” when I read them.

“…[S]alary, social prestige, and preference in advancement,” he wrote, “are and always have been matters of secondary consideration for me. I can only be happy serving a people to whom religion is a matter of deep spiritual concern and whose loyalty to their church is demonstrated by their whole-hearted, voluntary dedication of time, talent, and self to its work. The Auburn people have this spirit and as long as it continues [my wife] and I will consider it a privilege to serve as their leaders.”

This church community—the spiritual ancestors of the ministry we share here together this very day—so inspired this man that he turned down a prestigious position with a significant salary increase elsewhere. He believed in the work that was being done here, and he attested proudly to the spirit of the people of the Auburn parish.

Those words exist as a matter of record in our faith’s history. Anyone can go in and read them. These words weren’t just empty; they were a Word, in capital letters, that needed to be shared with you. Not just shared, but directly quoted.

This minister loved this church and its community, but it’s more than just that. That day in the library, Rev. Weston Cate—and the people of this congregation’s past and present—gave me a gift. He described in that letter exactly what made this congregation an inspiring, faithful, dedicated community. In thinking about what those people of our past had done for him—and those people, for some of you here today, were your own families—I understood what this community, in the present, might be able to do for each other, and for this faith, right now.

We are not identical to the congregation that used to exist here in years past. Do you think we are still a people of the same spirit Rev. Cate talked about in his letters?

Today, our ministry affirms the holiness, the dignity, and the worth of everyone. We strive to open our arms wide and our minds and hearts even wider. We welcome inside our doors anyone who seeks a gentle community and a place to be called into their best self. We work for justice and compassion, denouncing a culture that proclaims that only some of us are worthy of love and care. We dare to insist that everyone matters, that every voice is welcome, and that everyone deserves the space to grow, flourish, and explore. In this place, we create a life-saving community strengthened by our connection, our diversity, and above all, our shared mission of love.

This is the religion that calls us together today, the tie that binds us to each other.

It sounds like, as Weston Cate might say, religion is a matter of deep spiritual concern for us, still.

How, today, can we honor that religion and that spiritual concern? How can we show our dedication in the same way our congregation was able to in days past?

Rev. Cate spoke of the Auburn people’s whole-hearted commitment to voluntarily bringing their time, talent, and entire self to the ministry of the church. In my nearly two years working with this congregation, I have seen that the gifts here continue to amaze me even now. Looking out at this group of people, I see so much. I see singers, musicians, and actors. I see teachers, caregivers, and cooks. I see leaders and generous givers. I see financial wizards and authors and philosophers and truth-tellers, and all of these gifts are necessary to make a thriving spiritual community. All around me are people who show me what church can be every week. 

The challenge before us now is the same challenge that existed then. Lest we forget, Rev. Cate’s letters extolling the joys of this church’s work came just before World War II. The faith of both Unitarians and Universalists saw this country’s people through that hard time. Once again, we face challenges on a worldwide scale, and even more than with a look through the congregational archives, this work is not for the faint of heart. The enemies of prejudice, racism, exploitation, militarism, and imperial cruelty that we faced in that second world war were never vanquished, and they still remain with us. But so too, do we Unitarian Universalists remain to position ourselves against those enemies of the human spirit. Our message, that all are holy and loved—our deep spiritual concern—remains now, as it did then. In these letters from generations ago, we hear the call for faithful ministry, the use of our gifts and talents and treasures, just as we do today.

When we decide this year what it is we can give to our faith community, I urge us to think of the rich and varied gifts we’ve been given. Let it be like a spiritual potluck where all dishes, big and small, are welcome. Bring your songs, your sermons, your ushering. Bring your money and your time. Bring your children and your parents and let them be part of our good news. The road to our future is littered with the gifts we bring, and even more we have yet to discover. When you decide what commitment is calling you in the present, remember the call of this community’s past. Together, let our visions awake to the wealth of what’s possible, and let love guide our giving and spreading of that wealth. Let us be stewards of that wealth together, and become greater with its use.

The dream of the past calls us now to bring to life a community where all of us will feel privileged to be contributors, guests, and leaders. It is this dream that beckons us into the future, and through it all, the spirit of love, compassion, and justice to guide us.

Like Rev. Weston Cate, I am convinced that the Auburn people have that spirit.

Show me now what that spirit looks like in action.

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