Born this way! By Sue Bencuya – Nov. 21, 2014
To be nobody but yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight, and never stop fighting. -E.E. Cummings
I’ve been a member of this congregation for 25 years now. Most of you know that I served as board president for FUSF for the past two years, before Doug took over. When I first stepped into that position, I started getting notices from the Ballou Channing District (the BCD) as well as the UUA, about workshops and meetings for leaders and board members. I tend to suffer from Imposter Syndrome anyway, and I wanted to at least look like I knew what I was doing, so I was happy to be invited to these things.
That’s when it occurred to me that when I joined FUSF in 1989, I joined FUSF. Not really the UUA (I didn’t even know what the UUA was). I joined this congregation, these people, this minister, this place, and I never thought much about the wider world of Unitarian Universalism. Oh sure, I appreciated the worldview of UUism and I thought that by banding together with other likeminded people I probably had a better shot at changing the world than by pounding my own little fists against the wall.
But 25 years go by like that—fzzt!—and eventually you realize that you haven’t looked much beyond these four walls and the job of keeping them standing. You kind of forget that this isn’t a social club and that part of our ethos as Unitarian Universalists is deeds, not creeds—that “the quest for truth is our sacrament, and service is our prayer.”
I enjoyed stepping outside of our congregation with my little nametag on, and it was really interesting to get out and talk to other people from other congregations who were struggling with some of the same things I was. Even just seeing some other churches (the one in Taunton, for instance—it’s one of those gigundous stone things that has been standing, like, since Stonehenge—it’s really imposing, but you wouldn’t believe how much it costs to heat, and what an albatross it is to maintain).
I went to the State House and demonstrated with other UUs on Mass Action Advocacy Day. I took a BCD workshop on adaptive learning. I even spent a pretty unforgettable day singing with Dr. Ysaye Barnwell of Sweet Honey in the Rock—that was a workshop offered by the UUA, and you certainly didn’t have to be a congregation president to enjoy it.
Anyway, going to General Assembly, at the end of my two years as prez, struck me as a proper fulfilment of a question that had been growing in my mind for a while. And that question was: Are these my people?
That’s what I went to GA to find out. And oh boy. I’m telling you, the first day was a shocker. Of course I brought with me my natural cynicism. Strolling around thinking, I am at a religious trade show—who would have thought? And: I have never seen so many earnest people in my life. Am I really one of these? The very first plenary session, that morning, I was sitting there with my coffee staring at the backs of a couple. One was definitely a male with long curly hair. The other had a shaved head, but like many males with shaved heads, he had that kind of fat roll thing going on, back of his neck. So I thought, That’s a guy. But he was wearing some kind of purple mumu. I thought, The people watching here is going to be superb.
By the end of the second day, I was starting to roll with it. And I was starting to really enjoy looking at all these people, who despite, or maybe because of, what they were wearing or who they were with, were all definitely being who they were. I’m not just talking about gender. I’m talking about people who were comfortable in their own skins. Nobody was pretending to be anything but themselves. There were lots of high-school-age kids. I noticed one with a t-shirt that read Born This Way. It made me smile so hard because I remember being in high school and trying so hard to fit in that it made me want to explode. If only someone had told me I didn’t have to. None of these people felt like they had to—at least, not here.
And along those lines? I just have to say something about the unisex bathrooms. I was prepared for this because I had read about last year’s GA in Phoenix, and I thought it was a great and hilarious idea. Honestly, what’s the big deal? Most people go to the bathroom just… to go to the bathroom. Ah, let me reassure you—there were still men’s and women’s bathrooms—it was your choice whether you wanted to use the unisex one. But at some point during the week, I was late for a workshop and I was rushing and I thought, Well, I’m going to use the unisex john now, because, let’s face it, that means there will be men in it and so there won’t be a line and I’ll get out fast. Right? So I walk in, and there are three people ahead of me. Natch, I’m the only female. First in line is a guy, six feet tall, long gray hair, in a dress. Behind him, a disabled guy on a motorized scooter. He can’t fit the scooter into the stall, so he just pretty much leaves the door ajar. No biggie, he had his back turned anyway and nobody was looking. The guy in front of me? Came out of the stall, left the seat up. (Just like home, right?) I don’t know, something about this whole idea amused me so much and seemed so incendiary and so subversive. I’m pretty sure there are people in this world who would find it even more terrifying than gay marriage.
Born this way!
Besides the excellent people watching, there were several good workshops that I attended, and the fun trade show—yes, there was a trade show, a whole ballroom full of chalice necklaces and ministerial glad rags and fair-trade items and banned books—yep, the UU Humanist group had a table full of books that had been banned in places like Arizona and Texas (most of them involved immigration issues)—what a great idea, the book has a sticker on it that says it has been banned, you’re supposed to read it and then leave it somewhere someone else can pick it up, thus thumbing your nose at people who dare to censor books (I loved that). And of course there were worship services. Whoa, people. I mean, like, thousands of people singing with me. In an arena. UUs! I made a point of joining the GA choir—180 people. The only choir I’ve ever sung in in my life was ours, here at FUSF. (Let’s see: 15 people?) Singing with so many other people made me feel like the guy in the Maxell commercial, the one sitting in the chair with his hair blowing back—it was incredibly powerful and so cool.
I had been wondering how I was going to feel about five days of church services. I enjoyed all of them. The music was great. One of the things I liked best was the minister’s choir. I should say here that I spent several years on FUSF’s ministerial intern committee mentoring three, count ‘em three, interns. One of them was Joanne Giannino, who was in the minister’s choir. Oh, man, they had soul! I was so jealous. Another of our interns was Jill Cowie. At the Service of the Living Tradition, which is a lovely worship service that celebrates the UU ministers who have reached various milestones over the past year, I saw her “graduate”—I mean, she took her final fellowship as a full minister. I was so pleased I was there to see it. And it made me understand a little more about the job of being a minister.
I have to say, by the end of the five days, I was thinking, So when did “earnest” become a bad word? Can’t I be earnest too? And as I stood and sang with the choir at that last service, I thought, I feel accepted, I feel forgiven. In a way I never felt coming out of a confessional. In a way I never expected to feel. It got me to the true heart of Universalism, which is, Yeah, you too–we meant you, too. Come, come, whoever you are. You know? My heart was moved. My pond had become a whole lot bigger and I was swimming with everyone else. Yeah, I guess these are my people.
And this is the message I’m bringing back to you: There is a much bigger pond that you are swimming in, whether you know it or not. It’s not that you need to fly out to Portland next year for General Assembly (though you probably would have a good time). What I want to say is that maybe it’s time for our church to start looking outward beyond our walls, to start thinking about what we have to offer the world. And this is a great time for me to mention a pet project of mine, that I’ve been thinking about: I’d love to revive the kind of social action trip I took in 2009 to New Orleans, with Jill Cowie and several of our youth, and several of you who are here today. Not necessarily to New Orleans, but maybe to New York City to work on building after Hurricane Sandy. (The UU College for Social Justice is running one such trip.) I’d like to see that happen again. I’d like us all to consider swimming a little farther, out to where the pond becomes an ocean.
And I’d like to say that just like that boy I saw at General Assembly, I was “born this way.” And I am proud of it.