Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Sermon: "What's In a Name?" (Delivered 12-11-11)

I remember, as a child, looking through the bookshelves of the house I grew up in and discovering a book of baby names that belonged to my parents. On the inside cover there was a pair of lists, handwritten in ink. The list of boy’s names had “Thomas” at the top, followed by a handful of inferior choices. My curious eyes scanned across the page to the list of girl’s names. How many of you know what your name would have been if you had been born the opposite gender? Apparently, my name would have been “Bambi.”

At least that’s what I believed for many years, until I realized that I had misread the handwriting in the book of names. My father’s name is Thomas. And, my mother’s name is Barbara. My name wouldn’t have been “Bambi.” It would have been “Barbie.” A modest improvement, I suppose...

In thinking about stories about names, I was filled by vivid and powerful memories. Earlier, our Intern Minister Lane Campbell shared the story of a renaming ritual for a transgender friend. So much is in a name. I have a vivid memory of college and an acquaintance telling me of the poem she had just published, a courageous, powerful poem about the poet coming face to face with the true origins of her name and struggling with what exactly this means for her identity. [I didn’t mention this in the sermon, but the poem’s title is “In the Name” and can be found in Blue Mesa Review #10, published in 1998. The poem deals with her tracking down an image of the woman for whom she was named – a Playboy playmate – and reflecting on this discovery in terms of her own emerging identity as a feminist and a woman.]

As your minister, you may have noticed that I try to learn as many of your names as I possibly can, as well as the names of the children in our church. I’m not perfect, but I am pretty good at it. Knowing your name, how you pronounce it, and how you spell feels important to me.

Names are deeply meaningful. There is a history and a story behind every name. You may have been named after somebody, a relative perhaps, and there is a story behind that. Or, you may not have been named after anybody, and there is a story behind that, too. You may accept the name you were given, or alter it to make it your own, or choose your own name. There is a story behind that. Even if you are ambivalent about your own name, even if you don’t particularly care for your name, your name has a story with meaning attached to it.

As a congregation, as a congregation moving in 2012 to a new location, we’ve decided to open up a conversation about our name and whether we should change it or not change it. Let me be entirely up front and say that on the question of whether we should change our name or not, I don’t have an opinion. I don’t actually care that much. However, and this may sound a bit confusing, I am extremely in favor of having a conversation about our name. I’m in favor of such a discussion because such a discussion is an exploration of our identity as a religious community, and it seems to me that it is really healthy and important to spend some intentional and deliberate time focusing on our identity.

I’m also excited that the decision was made to have this conversation, because I am very hopeful. It is not that I’m hopeful about a particular outcome. The outcome actually does not matter to me. What matters to me are the conversations we’ll have and the process of thinking about our identity. I’m positive and I’m optimistic because you, as a congregation, are healthy enough and capable enough and mature enough to have this conversation in a productive way. It is a conversation that you’ll bring your best selves to: your dreams, your views, your stories, your longings, your humor and joy, your hopes and fears and vulnerabilities, your respect and love and wisdom and understanding. I have the utmost faith in you.

What I want to do this morning is to frame a discussion about church names, the various issues we may want to think about, and how it all relates back to who we are. I’m told that we were formed as a congregation in 1967 as the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Society. But, even this I have some questions about. Over in Saeger House, there is a poster on the wall commemorating our first meeting with a “paid minister” on September 7, 1969 and signed by all those in attendance on that day. Curiously, the heading reads, “First meeting with a paid minister of the Johnson County, Kansas Unitarian Society.” Despite this confusing poster, we were known as the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Society through the 70s and 80s until, in 1994, our name was changed and we became the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church. This change was made to reflect accurately the full name of our religion, Unitarian Universalism, and because our identity as a “society” confused people. It was thought that we should more clearly identify ourselves as a religious community. This change was made in 1994, and what those of us who were here seventeen years ago remember is that the decision was made very quickly, without a lot of input, and that many found the decision abrupt and jarring.

About our name, there are many things I could say. But for this moment, let me say that I do not believe that it is a perfect name, but that I also believe that there is no such thing as a perfect name. In Islam we learn about the ninety-nine names of God. God is too expansive to have one name. One Islamic interpretation of the ninety-nine names is that those are just the revealed names, and that there are perhaps an infinite number of hidden names, names beyond our ability to even perceive. It seems to me that we too, as a church, could come up with at least ninety-nine names. In fact, we are well on the way. I will guarantee you that none of those names alone is perfect, but that in the practical world we have to put something on our street signs and letterhead. And, if having an imperfect name is vexing and aggravating to you, I’d urge you to accept it, for all of us, you and especially I, are also imperfect.

As to the diversity of Unitarian Universalist church names, allow me to count the ways. There are roughly 1,000 Unitarian Universalist congregations in North America. Most are named for a location on a map. Every UU congregation in Kansas except for us is named after the city in which it is located. We, in fact, are named after a district that stretches across several cities.

Naming a church after its city – such as Springville Unitarian Church – harkens back to a 1950s ideal although it is a much older practice than that. Churches in the 1950s thought of themselves as denominational outposts, as cookie-cutter franchises. McDonalds’ golden arches communicated a menu and taste that was completely standardized. Similarly, First Presbyterian of Springville in the 1950s had the same hymns, same communion schedule, same Sunday school classes, and probably much the same sermon as just about any other First Presbyterian.

There is a certain utilitarian quality to naming yourself after your location. But, how specific should you be? In Bethesda, Maryland, there are two UU churches: River Road and Cedar Lane. Many UU congregations go larger, naming themselves after their county. Some have directional names. Northwest UU Congregation is located in the suburbs north and west of Atlanta, but should not be confused with a different congregation, Unitarian Universalist Metro Atlanta North, which is known by its acronym UUMAN, pronounced like “human” with an almost silent “h.” Northwest UU Church, meanwhile, is located north and west of Detroit, but is also located in the suburb of Southfield, Michigan, making it, yes, the Northwest UU Church in Southfield. Not all location names are named after geopolitical locations such as streets, towns, cities, or counties. Lots of UU churches name themselves after geophysical features. UU churches have incorporated natural images into their names, including river, lake, harbor, bay, valley, island, mountain, slope, foothills, high plains, prairie, and woods. Congregations are also named after regional after local plant life: Live Oak, Cedars, Wildflower, River of Grass. At least three – Caribou, White Bear, and Manatee – have animals in the names of the congregation. I’m pretty sure that we couldn’t get away with putting “Manatee” in our name.

Here’s how two congregations incorporate natural images. The UU church in Memphis is named the Church of the River, and the sanctuary looks out on the mighty Mississippi. Meanwhile, the Thermal Belt UU Fellowship in Tyron, North Carolina is named for the temperate weather caused by geologic formations. One suspects this congregation has several scientists for members.

Naming a church after pleasant images of nature causes me to recall an old comedy piece by Molly Ivins in which she tells us that suburban housing, shopping, and office park developments are named for what used to be there but was destroyed to make space for developments. Fox Meadows gets its name because there used to be foxes and meadows. Willow Creek gets its name because there used to be willows by the creek. At the Oak Park mall there are exceedingly few oaks and no park.

Of the largest churches in America, many have secular names that would work just as well as an upscale mall, housing development, or country club: Lakewood (the largest church in America with a weekly attendance of 43,500), North Point, North Ridge, Lake Point, Saddleback, Willow Creek, Prestonwood, Woodlands, and Eagle Brook. Just as popular with mega-churches are secular abstract terms: fellowship, new life, community, horizon. The very first time I drove by a “Prairie Life Center” I actually thought it might the name of non-denominational mega-church, and not a fitness center.

There next largest group of UU churches are named not for a place but for an idea. Some of those names are fairly old and some are fairly new. For example, in the mid-1800s it was all the rage for Unitarian churches to name themselves, “Church of the Messiah.” Confusingly, later in the 1800s, in was in vogue for Unitarian churches in the Midwest to take the name “Unity.” This was not a reference to the Unity School of Christianity (which wasn’t founded until 1889) but to the godhead as a Unity and not a Trinity. And, of course, there is the very popular name All Souls. In fact, one name that was considered when our church was founded as an offshoot of All Souls in Kansas City was “Southwest Souls” as we were south and west of downtown Kansas City. (Thank goodness that name was rejected.) Tulsa, Oklahoma is home to All Souls Church, the largest UU church in the country as well as three other smaller churches named after concepts: Hope Unitarian Church (named, in fact, for a woman instrumental in founding this church), the Church of the Restoration (named for a Universalist doctrine), and The Welcome Table Church, which describes itself as “A free, universalist, Christian, missional community.” More recent UU congregations that have named themselves after concepts include Pathways, Wellsprings, Tapestry, Mosaic, Spirit of Life, and the Church of the Open Door.

There are, of course, many names of Unitarian Universalist congregations that do not have to do with places or ideas, but with historical figures. A few have chosen to name their congregations after figures that are most people have heard of, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. (It is odd that our largest church named for Emerson and our only church named after Thoreau are both located in the Houston area, an area not particularly known for its transcendentalism.) Others have named their congregations after fairly obscure figures. It can be challenging enough to explain Unitarian Universalism to someone who has never heard of us, much less also trying to explain who Michael Servetus was and why your church is named for him. I know of four congregations named after their ministers. Just sayin’. (Of course, this was after their minister had died.) One UU church is named for someone who was very clearly not UU. That would be the Abraham Lincoln UU Congregation. But, it is also in Springfield, Illinois and if you live there you sort of have to name to yourself after Lincoln.

Our congregation in Charlottesville, Virginia is named after Thomas Jefferson, as are three other UU congregations. One of our denominational districts in the south had been named after Jefferson but recently voted to change its name due to its concerns about naming itself after the slave owner and architect of Native American removal policies. The congregation in Charlottesville is currently considering changing its name, an issue it struggles with at a deep level.

Their brand new senior minister, Erik Walker Wikstrom, shared this reflection in the possible name change in his sermon entitled, “What’s In A Name?” that he delivered in October.
What are we to do with this? What are we – an overwhelmingly white congregation that would like to become more truly diverse with regards to race, and ethnicity, and class; a congregation that occupies the highest point in Charlottesville, Virginia, a stone’s throw from Monticello – what are we to do with this? If, in the 1950s, the American Unitarian Association saw Thomas Jefferson as an exemplar of all things right and good in liberal America and thought it proper to build a Memorial Church in Charlottesville, then now, in 2011, we know that the truth is much more complicated. And perhaps we think that continuing to align ourselves with this slaveholder who truly believed that blacks were inferior and “made to carry burdens,” makes us complicit.
In his sermon, Erik asks a number of tough questions, but also seems to oppose changing the name.

I bring him up because, like their church, our church is named after a part of our local and national history that is complicated and hurtful. Technically, our name is derived from the name of the postal service district in this area. The postal district derived its named from the Methodist mission to the Shawnee Indian tribe as well as members of more than a dozen other tribes that were expelled from the East and sent to live here beginning in the 1820s. The Mission was established in 1830, moved to its location in Fairway in 1839, and closed in 1862. The Shawnee Mission was run by a Methodist minister named Thomas Johnson, as in Johnson County, who had been a supporter of slavery, but who was killed by supporters of the Confederacy after taking an oath of loyalty to the Union at the outset of the Civil War.

The history of the Shawnee Methodist Indian Mission is worth exploring at greater length than I am able to this morning. But, allow me to make a few points. As Unitarian Universalists, we’re not complicit in what took place in northeast Johnson County in the first half of the nineteenth century. As Americans, however, we live in a country whose legacy includes slavery, oppression, colonization, racism, and the destruction of peoples and cultures. Shawnee Mission is a part of that story, albeit a small part.

In the field of anti-racism, there is a concept known as white privilege. Part of white privilege is the ability to tell stories and use language that is blind to the lived experience of people of color. Speaking of how many African Americans view Thomas Jefferson, brilliant Jefferson historian Annette Gordon-Reed said, “[They] find his conflicted nature a perfect reflection of the America they know: a place where high-minded ideals clash with the reality of racial ambivalence.” When we say “Shawnee Mission” and imagine just a school district or just a part of Johnson County that is white privilege. A Native American may hear the term and think, “Yep, that’s where our children were taken to be civilized by the white folks who had kicked us off our land.”

Of course, changing our name does not change history. If only it was that simple. Erasing names does not overturn centuries of imperialism, oppression, and violence, nor does it address or redress inequality today.

Early in my ministry I attended an interfaith clergy luncheon with a distinguished theologian. As we introduced ourselves, one of the ministers in attendance introduced himself as the minister of the Country Club Christian Church. The distinguished theologian was taken aback and exclaimed, “That is a most intriguing name for a church.” The minister replied, “Our name reflects our geography, not our philosophy.” The same might be said of our name.

The final chapter of Freakonomics, the 2005 mega-bestseller by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, deals with the subject of naming. The authors find that there is a correlation, but not causation, between names and socioeconomic status and education levels. Their stories are more interesting than their statistics. One story they tell is about a large family in New York that named their sixth child “Winner,” and then, for some inexplicable reason, named their surprise seventh child “Loser.” Winner’s life path was one of crime. He was arrested some three dozen times for all manner of criminal behavior. Loser, who went by Lou, turned out to be an upstanding citizen, civic leader, and Sergeant with the police department.

In conclusion, I share with the name of a church in Denver, Colorado. This church calls itself “the church for the right-brained and the left-out.” On their web-site they write,
Our name doesn’t sound like a church name… on purpose. We really want to connect with people who have no interest in “church” by society’s definition. There are plenty of churches for normal people and we think we have a unique calling to reach out to our otherwise unchurched friends…. Who have been outcast by society or even by the church itself. Most important to us, however, our name is humble and implies that being people of faith does not mean that we are better than anyone else.
The name of this church, you ask. Their name is actually Scum of the Earth. Yes, that’s right. Scum of the Earth. Let this be a reminder to us that a name is a name, and that beyond that name is our ministry of lives changed, free faith inspired, community created, services rendered, and justice advanced.