Finding Our Way in the Wilderness

by Susan Frederick-Gray, minister, Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Phoenix, Arizona

sfrederickOnce upon a time there was a child made all of salt. This child very much wanted to know who he was and where he came from. So he set out on a long journey, traveling many lands in pursuit of this understanding. Finally he came to the shores of the great ocean.

“How marvelous,” he cried. “How beautiful!” And he stuck one foot in the water. But then he saw how his toe disappeared and he became afraid. The ocean beckoned him in further, saying: “If you wish to know who you are, do not be afraid.” The salt child walked further and further into the water, dissolving with each step, and at the end, exclaimed, “Ah, now I know who I am.”

On May 29, 2010, the Rev. Peter Morales, President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, stood in our pulpit in Phoenix and said that the greatest challenge for our congregations was to find a way to create a new culture with a multiracial, multicultural spirit that could celebrate the growing diversity of our communities. Such a culture would speak to the realities of our children—who are increasingly identifying as multiracial—and be authentic to the message of our Universalist faith, which declares, in the words of UU theologian Paul Rasor: “Humanity—indeed all of creation— is ultimately united in a common destiny.”

President Morales’s charge got some of our leaders thinking and working. Jimmy Leung, the vice president of my congregation’s board, began talking to other Unitarian Universalist ministers and lay people about multiculturalism within our denomination. In what reminded me of the story of the salt child, Jimmy wrote in an email, “I feel like I am toe deep in an ocean that needs to be crossed.”

And being toe deep, I felt like the salt child felt—afraid. Have you ever come to a place in life, like the story describes, where you don’t know who you are, in which you have lost the surety of where you’ve come from and maybe you’re not even sure where you belong?

In the reading on the next page, Sarah York writes, “Wilderness is a part of every person’s soul-journey.” And when we are in the wilderness, “we are neither where we have been nor where we are going.” It is a middle place.

Ever since I was a child, I wanted to work in math and the sciences. Engineering was my dream, then biology. But by college, I knew I was on the wrong path. I went through a time of being lost. For as long as I could remember I had a path, a plan in front of me, and then all of a sudden, my heart and my passion weren’t there anymore. And the most difficult part was that I didn’t know where I was going. It was several years before I felt the call to ministry—so there was a long period of feeling lost, afraid, even depressed.

Maybe you have your own story of going through a big life change, a major loss, a crisis of faith, in which suddenly the things you long took for granted about yourself and how you defined yourself seemed to evaporate. Familiar roles and qualities, like husband, wife, good son, active, healthy, provider, successful, home owner—any and all can be changed by life circumstances, sometimes by choice and sometimes without our consent. And we often don’t just suddenly find new definitions, either; it’s rarely that easy.

There is a period of real struggle, grief— even destructiveness—as we journey into the “boundless territory of the soul” to discover our grounding, who we are, and the new path ahead. We make mistakes in the wilderness. And anyone who has been there would attest to Sarah York’s description of it as a place where “there is danger and possibility, risk and promise.” But these times of being in the wilderness are also times of renewal and transformation, even if it does not feel that way when you’re in the middle of it.

And the wilderness experience is not only individual. “Wilderness is a part of every person’s soul-journey, and part of our journey together as human beings who seek to live in community,” York reminds us.

Who would have guessed in 2010 that our Phoenix congregation would be called on to be allies in the streets, to take a major role in the Association on behalf of human rights and equality? But we chose to enter the wilderness. We are trying to learn how to live into this call. We’re trying to figure out how to be a public congregation, and the leadership of the congregation is feeling a call to take intentional steps towards being a multiracial, multicultural congregation.

I have a confession to make. Just making this commitment fills me with fear. Genuine fear. I feel like that salt child. We are all salt children, and when we step into that ocean, when we realize that who we are—our source, where we come from—is all one, the experience can be overwhelming. Society, civilization, colonization, geography, opportunity, poverty—all these things separate us in this world. They separate us by creating borderlands between peoples: sometimes a vast gulf of differences in experiences, language, interpretations, communication, and meaning—all the things that make up different cultures. But when we search for truth, when we look for the essence of life, when we look to the foundation of our Universalist theology, it tells us that we are all bound together, part of one creation—wrapped, as Dr. King described it, in a “single garment of destiny.” My fear is an acknowledgment that on this journey we will certainly make mistakes. I have already made plenty. After all, when the Jews were in the wilderness, and Moses went up on the mountaintop to meet with God, the rest of the people quickly began building false idols, following the wrong things.

I also fear the possibility that when we put our toe in the water, when we see it disappear, we will pull back and not venture further. Because change always means losing something. Making room to be more inclusive means letting go of some more stubborn aspects of a given culture. It means making room to be changed. But change can also bring new promise and possibility—something better than the past.

But probably more than any of this, my fear lies in knowing the depth of the truth that lies in that ocean…then reaching for it…and failing. Creating a truly multicultural religious community is not easy. Of all religious congregations of any faith in the United States, only 5% are multiracial, multicultural. What pastors leading these congregations say about the work is that it is exceedingly rare, incredibly difficult, and absolutely worth it.

It requires the ongoing work of being radically hospitable and radically inclusive, of being willing to always learn, to take risks with one another, to tell one another honestly but lovingly when we have been offended. It requires learning to open our hearts, our minds and our spirits wider.

It is, in short, a big risk. And if you have experienced the wilderness because of a choice you made—a time when you let go, walked away or made a change from what you knew in order to reach for the unknown—then you probably know the fear that comes with such a risk. Once in the wilderness, it is easy to wonder if you made the right choice. After Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt it was not long before they wanted to go back into slavery, rather than continuing to live on the edge, in uncertainty, wandering in the wilderness.

When we take risks and step into the unknown we take a chance at losing, at failure. Is it better not to risk? It can’t be. Because without risk, we would not know love. Without risk, we could not change. Without risk, we would never make it to the ocean, never find out who we truly are and what really matters. Without risk, we might never ask the question. And so this risk is worth it—fear and all.

And once the risk is taken, then the work begins. The work of finding one’s way through the wilderness, of practicing forgiveness and mercy toward ourselves and one another when we make mistakes, when we say the wrong thing and fall short. It means being intentional about the journey. It means walking forward into that ocean even as you see old assumptions about your world and your life dissolving. It means heading straight into the heart of letting go into who we most truly are.

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