Closing Words by Rev. Tom Goldsmith Volume 5

09 November 2020


If a church could smile, not smugly but as joyous relief following the presidential election, our church would be beaming the length of the state. This is in keeping with who we are, always engaged in a political world that needs fixing. May I remind everyone, however, that such unanimity within a congregation remains atypical of any ecclesiastical institution regardless of denomination. Congregations generally avoid the third rail of politics in order to circumvent controversy. There would have been plenty of Trump supporters in my previous congregations, at least enough where we would have had to suppress a smile in order not to offend anyone.  

The number of ministers tempted to transgress the taboo of mixing politics with religion equals the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin. But they are restrained by the bottom line of church budgets, which generally rely on the generosity of all their parishioners.  

Yet some ministers have been bold enough to widen their theological charge to include secular needs that had to be addressed. In fact, the ministers best remembered by history earned their distinction mostly through some form of notoriety. The ministerial profession taken as a whole, likely evokes a sense of bland goodness. The public’s expectations of clergy demand model behaviors in decent citizenry, a calm and dispassionate demeanor, and what most people like to consider as being “virtuous.”  

But those ministers who veer from being typecast as stern and obedient servants of God, not only have more fun than most clergy, but are also elevated to the pantheon of exalted ministers. They are fondly remembered for getting themselves into what the late John Lewis called “good trouble.” 

In the UU tradition, the ministers who are worthy of meaty Sunday School lessons for teaching little ones, are those who usually violated the wall separating religion from politics. The wall was meant to preserve the congregation’s spiritual well-being from any interference from worldly struggles. Contrary to Biblical exhortations that we are our brother’s keeper, the preferred role of religion underscores the need to be one’s own keeper. “Getting right with God” overlooked the possibility that God may be more pleased if shown a bit of concern for the welfare of others. 

Theodore Parker, the daring Unitarian minister/abolitionist decreed, “piety is not enough.” Justice placed a larger claim on the souls of people, a view that isolated him fully from all the other Unitarian clergy in Boston who no one remembers.  

Parker, along with Thomas Wentworth Higginson, were the two Unitarian ministers comprising The Secret Six, not to be confused with the Chicago Seven. Parker and Higgins entered the political fray as financial and moral supporters of John Brown’s 1859 Raid on Harper’s Ferry. Higginson and Parker were also on the front lines battling for women’s suffrage. They were ministerial renegades, and we remember them with tenderness. 

And Higginson had also quite a literary bent. But I can only wonder if Emily Dickinson knew of Higginson’s political proclivity when she wrote him: “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my verse is alive?” Too occupied with what? Why did Dickenson couch her request in this manner when people believed ministers had all the time in the world as they were only scheduled to be on duty one day a week? I don’t want to start a conspiracy theory, but perhaps Dickinson knew that not only had Higginson breached the wall separating religion from politics, but had done so as a revolutionary. Perhaps the Secret Six were not as clandestine as they hoped. But then again, who would not have made time for Emily Dickenson even in the midst of running a revolution? 

We mostly remember the Unitarian ministers who pushed the envelope like John Haynes Holmes, co-founder of the ACLU in New York, and A. Powell Davies from Washington, D.C., who fought against McCarthyism. They knew that piety alone would never suffice in shaping religious sensibilities. Jack Mendelsohn, who ran unsuccessfully for UUA president in 1977, was viewed as too radical to hold that office. He served as close adviser to Jesse Jackson, perhaps too political for a religious chief.   

Although not a minister, Civil Disobedience as outlined by Thoreau, authorized conscience to motivate making changes to an unjust government. The ministers we remember well have all followed that admonition through many of our nation’s conflicts up to the present day.  

If morality occupies preeminent space in religious life, how can it succeed if concern for the wider world is closed off? Morality, or exercising a system of values that impact who we are and how we act, must extend beyond the periphery of church grounds.  Our church never waited for its ministers to act politically. It was an expectation. Social justice was always our religious calling.  

Thirty-four years ago I arrived as your minister fresh from my previous congregation comprised mostly of Reagan supporters. Imagine my surprise in that first autumn here when about thirty members from our congregation went to Nevada to protest nuclear testing. They never asked me if I wanted to join them.  I was told when to be ready. The remaining members of the congregation held a lay service in honor and support of our participation at the Nevada test site. This was new territory for me. 

Having been instructed that I was to lead a communion service among all the protesters. I went to Pierre’s Bakery and asked if they might make two loaves of bread with the peace sign baked into them. They didn’t take special orders. I explained the reason for my request. I went to Nevada with two beautiful loaves of peace bread.  

It was my first trip to the desert. As Judy Lord and I were driving to pick up our fellow church members who got arrested  (we were the only ones who weren’t), she asked me if I ever saw the night sky in the desert. No. Pull over she said. I looked up and the billions of stars visible to me for the first time confirmed my calling to the ministry, and told me that I was in the right place. 

This church pushed me out the door into the politics of our day. I will be forever grateful, because I had repressed my own need to expand the Unitarian mission beyond individual spiritual growth.  

The novelty of our church’s leadership in extending progressive values into the wider community is hard to describe. Suffice it to say that over the years we have had five members cycle through our congregation and enter theological school to pursue UU ministry. Exposed to other churches, be they east coast, west coast or the heartland, they all lament that their social justice experiences have never been duplicated anywhere else.  

Together, you and I have surfed the waves of six different presidents in the past thirty-four years. Some have been more effective than others, but our work in extending justice and peace and equity to the world never really depended on the White House occupant. The ministry of our church never fluctuated. 

As we now prepare for our seventh president together, I have the feeling our work will continue as it always has. Justice work remains constant. What a real blessing to be in this together.


Tom Goldsmith