Rev. Virginia Jarocha-Ernst
CENTERING THOUGHT "All
endings imply a beginning. All accomplishments suggest preparation." ~ Eleanor Gordon
SEARCH FOR MEANING Laura
Leinick and Sarah Fischell
me Here? What Keeps me Here? Why is This Place Important?
Good morning. My name is Laura Lieneck.
I have been a member at UUCMC since Spring 2011. I am honored
to share with you what brought me to Unitarian Universalism, what
keeps me here and why I think the UU contribution is important.
As a teenager, I questioned many of the
religious teachings poured over me when I was a child. Raised
Episcopalian, I asked questions and received vague answers that urged me to “have
more faith”. I drifted away from the church even though it had been a big
part of my life .
In my twenties, I returned to my
Episcopal roots at St. Georges-by-the-River in Rumson. I wanted to be part of a
congregation, a larger community. I told myself it was okay to attend
church even though I lacked faith, because I tried to live my life as a good
person. I thought I could abide by The Ten Commandments if pressed—or at least
four of them. I didn’t lie, steal or kill others and I loved and respected
my mother and father. But when the then priest pointedly asked me, “…but
Laura, where is your faith?” I t was over. Religion wasn’t for me.
Then, in May 1999, my husband Brian
(then boyfriend) and I attended a wedding at the Unitarian Church in
Summit, NJ, officiated by Reverend Allen Wells. Reverend Allen spoke of
covenant, truth and loyalty, and bringing the best of ourselves into
marriage. It was the first time anyone’s wedding vows grabbed my attention. I
strained to listen to every word. I had to find out who this person was and
what religion he came from!
My husband never jumped on the UU
bandwagon. Raised a Catholic, his conservative roots go deep. I wanted to
come to UUCMC with my kids when they were born. Brian thought it
was a bad idea. I didn’t want to rock the boat, so I continued to sleep in on
After five years of discussion and
debate on the subject of religion with my husband, I rocked the boat. On Sunday,
January 23rd, 2011, I brought the kids to our first service at UUCMC.
Driving down our street away from our house on that crisp, cold, beautiful
sunny day felt like a new beginning.
I don’t remember the service, but I
remember how it made me feel. I felt I belonged. On our way home from the
service we stopped at Sunnyside Equestrian Center, here in Lincroft. I
have a clear memory of standing on a big, hill of snow, looking over the
horse paddocks with the sun warming my back. I felt great, and going to UUCMC
felt right. It was the beginning of what would become a deep-rooted shift
in my life to a spiritual home.
I describe my life journey now as a
journey in all directions. I have begun to look inward to find my own peace and my
own truths, while opening my eyes to goings-on in my community
locally and globally. I strive to be a better person today than I was
yesterday. Progress is sometimes slow. Every week I look forward to hearing
Rev. Virginia’s words, enjoying the amazing musical talent in this
congregation and to talking with all of you. Ask my kids why they like it here, and
they will tell you they like the bagels and the swings. Honest. But I see a lot
more than that… I see how intently they listen to
Michelle, the RE Director, when they sit on the steps during service for “Words of
Wisdom”. I know the respect they have for Rev. Virginia. I see them
making friends not only with kids their age, but kids ten times their age. Tara
knows as many adults here as I do. They are making a home here. Last week
Sean led me by the hand to the Community Room windows to point out the
beautiful “Earth” he made in his RE class. Most importantly, I see how
my kids are applying what they learn here to their everyday life—fairness,
inclusion, kindness, tolerance and being Earth’s stewards. The genius of
the UU RE program, is that the kids don’t even know it is an education. To
my kids, the seven principles are just common sense.
The UU principles of fairness,
acceptance and tolerance are the keys to bringing people, communities and
nations together. We teach to be curious about all religions, to ask the
questions and to seek the answers. We visit neighboring synagogs, mosques and
churches. Through this closeness and firsthand exposure we grow to shed
prejudice born of fear and ignorance. UUs connect with people and seek better
As an end note…
My husband Brian came to UUCMC for the
1st time last month to join me for a night out and a wonderful dinner
put on by “Men Who Cook”. He even enjoyed himself.
What brought you and keeps you at UUCMC and why it is
important that UUism be available to others in Monmouth County.
Good morning. My name
is Sarah Fischell and I’ve been a member here at the Unitarian Universalist
Congregation of Monmouth County for nearly 15 years. I have been UU-without-knowing-what-that-was
for far longer.
David and I were married by a Unitarian Universalist
minister in Maryland
many years ago, but we didn’t understand Unitarian Universalism very well then
– and for many years it seemed I didn’t have time for being part of a religious
community. Eventually after our children
were born I found time in my life to investigate “what is Unitarian
I came here after the congregation changed its name from the
UU Church of Monmouth County to the UU Congregation of Monmouth County. For me, seeing that change on the sign made
it possible for me to walk in the door.
At that time in our lives David and I had two young
children, and I think we were seeking a way to talk with them and with each
other about important spiritual and ethical matters. We didn’t know it, but we were also looking
for a congregation, a community, where we could explore ideas that were
important to us but that somehow we did not explore with family and
friends. Ideas about right and wrong,
about the nature of the universe, about ethical action, about the wonderfulness
and sadness of the world we live in. And
we found that community here.
I think it is really good for people to be part of a
spiritual community. Work and family and
friends are not enough to enable most of us to do the most we can to make the
world a better place. Congregational and
spiritual life helps us each grow as individuals. It gives us a safety net when we need it
most. It leads us out into the
world. It is something I value and I
hope with continue to grow in numbers and in strength here in our little corner
of the world.
As Melissa Harris-Perry, a life-long UU, says in the new UU
Pocket Guide: “The journey is the
joy. The companions are the
comfort. The work is the faith.”
SERMON The Pioneer Spirit Rev. Virginia Jarocha-Ernst
They tell me it is a minister’s job to comfort the afflicted and
afflict the comfortable. Which one should it be today? Just the idea of change and growth is
unsettling to most of us! We all like
and crave the familiar and the comfortable, even we brave and courageous
liberal religious heretics. But I think
it is our discomfort, our troubles and our discord with the status quo that
causes or at least precipitates the need to grow and change. This is true personally and institutionally.
That is what a growing edge is – a place that is uncomfortable, and unhappy,
even. Our growing edges are not easy or painless. Just one example of a growing edge is this
congregation’s creation of a Sunday Morning Dialog. Six years ago, UUCMC had two Sunday morning
services and RE programs. The
demographics of the RE program shifted to the later service only and the 9am
service experienced a decline in attendance. All of this occurred during many unsettling staff transitions. In a stroke of genius and creativity, a group
of your leaders tried something new. They created the Sunday morning Dialog as an adult learning and
community building program. Now we get
to hear engaging stories of our members’ interests and advocates for social
justice from within and without every Sunday, in addition to worship and
children’s religious education. Without
that rub (and threat of failure), without that unmet desire for community
dialog, we would not have this success story to be proud of! From a time of stress, something new and good
took root and grew. I wonder if it would have ever happened if everyone here
was totally comfortable?
A little discomfort can be a good thing for all of us! But comfort has a way of creeping in - all
warm and fuzzy, it drifts in and surrounds us. Now we like our Sunday morning ritual of 9 am Dialog, and then service
and religious education at 10:30. The
trouble is it is starting to show some rubs and rough edges again. Our RE classes are crowded, we run out of
parking every week, and there are too many chairs in the Earth Room to be
comfortable and accommodating. Right now, it is difficult to see the wonderful
art work of Lisa and Diane because of the chairs. But we need the chairs when
children and teachers are here. And welcoming all children in this service
every week is part of our mission.
I’m thinking we might need to create some space and choices for our
worship and religious education times…. but I’m not sure. I hope you respond to the survey that went
out this week to help us think through the issues of how we each engage with
our congregation. It is meant to be a tool for reflection and a way to give us
some information about barriers and opportunities for your participation. And
to let me know if you are feeling like a pioneer!
That is what is needed when times are rough… a few courageous people
who will venture outside their comfort zone, endure hardships and try new
things for the sake of a greater good. The members of the Iowa Sisterhood were examples of this pioneer spirit. The story of the Iowa Sisterhood is one that was nearly lost in our UU history,
and it is one that has nurtured me in my own pioneering efforts. The story begins with the childhood
friendship of Mary Safford and Eleanor Gordon and the expansive vision for
growth of Jenkin Lloyd Jones, the secretary of the Western Unitarian
Unitarians and Universalists began
ordaining women as ministers during the Civil War. Ministry became available to
women in those times in part because so many young men had been lost to battle,
and there was a surplus of new congregations that wanted professional ministry.
Nearly all of these newer congregations were in what was considered the “wild”
West, which in those days was roughly between Chicago and Denver.
This frontier of white European
settlement was a place where women had to be strong if they expected just to
survive. Unlike Eastern congregations, settlers on the prairies of the West
were quite happy to have a strong, intelligent woman serving as a minister. And
with the exception of a few radical feminist male ministers, the vast majority
of men wanted to stay in the East, where life was considerably more comfortable
and the pay was better.
It was 1880 when the
Rev. Mary Safford was ordained by the Unity Church of Humboldt, Iowa. Safford
had grown up on a farm in Illinois, just across the Mississippi. Mary and her
friend Eleanor loved to play at preaching. They loved reading, learning and
teaching. They boldly started their own Unitarian church not too long after
their 21st birthdays!
Mary Safford’s father had a very large collection of books. Especially
prominent among them were the writings of some radical Unitarians like Ralph
Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Theodore Parker, and Margaret Fuller. Mary’s father had died when she was ten, and
in order to survive, her mother had to run the family’s farm. So Safford was
used to seeing a strong woman at work. Her mother was so successful at running
a farm that she paid the highest taxes in the county – but she could not vote
and had no say in how those taxes were spent. Iowa was at first a state of true
pioneers. The first settlers who began farming in Iowa were frequently
Unitarians or Universalists, including one who created the town of Humbolt. The
dream of this city was that it would be a community “with equal rights for all”
for women and men, blacks and whites. It was also to be a community of
religious freedom and tolerance. Being the true pioneers they were, these
Unitarians proudly ordained Mary Safford and called her to be their minister.
Eleanor Gordon was
gifted as an educator. She became the first principal of the church school in
Humbolt, Iowa, where Mary was the preacher. Eleanor was a natural
conversationalist whose talents were complimentary to Mary’s. As young women, they each vowed not to marry
but to work and live together as a team to spread liberal religion.
Mary Safford and Eleanor Gordon, who was later ordained as well, were
very successful at growing their church, and throughout the next 30 years they
helped a stream of women enter the Unitarian ministry. Together they also
started a dozen more churches in Iowa with the support and encouragement of
Jenkin Lloyd Jones. And because the women carefully involved the members in
sharing the work of the church, they made this group of Unitarian congregations
in the Iowa Unitarian Conference thriving and exciting.
The story of the Sisterhood’s ministry is one of bravery and courage.
Not only were they some of the first to break through traditional barriers to
women in the ministry, they were on the forefront of what would be major
changes in Unitarian thought and congregational life. Their theology tended to
be humanistic, emphasizing self-reliance, human progress, and freedom from
irrational dogma. They believed that one could know the Divine through
intuition. The scriptures were to be read in light of human reason. Scriptural
authority was not absolute. They were accepting of varying theologies, and
maintained a firm commitment to pluralism. Theirs was a strong “social gospel”
message. They preached that the wrongs of society should be made right through
social justice work.
Eastern Unitarianism tended to be
more conservative, both theologically and politically. It was the religion of
the establishment, while the Unitarianism of the western states was a religion
of the radicals, the reformers, those who advocated changing the very
structures of society. Over the next fifty years, Unitarianism would absorb
many of these changes, evolving into a more inclusive faith. Social justice
work would become an integral part of the Unitarian faith tradition.
But the radical messages preached by
the Sisterhood were not viewed with favor by the late 19th century
Unitarian leadership in Boston. The women were scorned, and excluded from the
movement’s centers of power and influence. Harvard Divinity School, a
traditional center of Unitarian theological education, continued to refuse to
admit women, even at a time when its enrollment had dwindled to but a few
students. Fewer and fewer men were entering the ministry. Unitarian
congregations could not find enough men who would devote their lives to the
ministry. Even so, Harvard remained steadfast in its “males only” admissions
policy. And the Unitarian leadership discouraged women seeking ordination.
It was the experiences of being
excluded, of being the outsider, that made these women so well-suited to
minister to frontier congregations. Unitarians there were called heretics. They
were persecuted and ostracized for their beliefs. They endured public ridicule,
and suffered when their businesses were boycotted. Their ministers knew what it
meant to be a minority of religious outsiders, rather than a part of the
The Unitarian headquarters in Boston
would, from time to time, send young seminarians from Harvard to preach to the
frontier congregations. But what the western Unitarians longed for was not
abstract theological discourse from privileged men, but practical,
down-to-earth sermons from people who were working and living alongside them.
The western Unitarians came to Sunday services seeking guidance to that
question that is at the heart of religion: “How shall we live?”
The Iowa congregations of the day
tended to be small and rural, unable to pay the salary a man would expect. At
first, the women were filling jobs the men would not take. And some of these
women, self-educated and ordained by a Sisterhood congregation, simply started
their own congregations, bypassing the need for approval by Boston’s Unitarian
leadership. The western congregations, less bound to traditional ways of
congregational life, were also less bound to the notion that a minister must be
The ministers of the Sisterhood
brought changes to congregational life. They opened the doors of their
churches, not only on Sunday, but every day of the week. They felt called to
make their churches more home-like, places of rest and renewal, after the
rigors of day-to-day survival on the frontier, open every day for educational
programs, church socials, and shared meals. They built their churches with
practicality and comfort in mind. They looked less like cathedrals and more
like homes, with furnishings that were frugal yet inviting.
These were tremendous innovations in
the late 19th century. Just as the Unitarian movement would later
incorporate the Sisterhood’s theological innovations, congregational life
changed over the years to incorporate the concept of the church as a home.
Perhaps we still need rest and spiritual renewal, a place to come to after the
rigors of day-to-day survival in our fast-paced, technological world.
Unitarian Universalists often speak
proudly about the fact that both denominations were the first to ordain women
to the ministry. But that is only part of the story, and the rest is painful to
hear. The story of the Iowa Sisterhood was nearly lost as were their
ministries. Many of the women were forced out when their congregations became
successful. Some left and sought to put their faith into practice as social
workers, or by working to secure for women the right to vote.
There is no doubt that they and their congregations embodied the
enthusiasm of the missionary, the urge to share the good news of liberal
religion, not to tell people what they should think and feel, but to offer
people a community that values freedom
so that they can think and feel for themselves! Following that urge to pioneer, break new ground, try new ways of doing
things, in order to make the world a better place for those who really need it
to be better, is the work of the missionary, the pioneer who does indeed
enlarge their tent.
Fast forwarding a hundred years or
so to 1997, I and many others came together to start a new congregation in
Somerset Hills, NJ. We, too, were pioneers, although we had far more
institutional support than the Iowa Sisterhood experienced. The UUA, The Metro NY District, the Chalice
Lighters program, and 3 surrounding covenanting congregations were actively
supporting our efforts. The vision to
start a congregation in this part of New Jersey came from the ministers and
congregations nearby. We were pioneers, with their support, in the wild western
hills of New Jersey back then.
Mary Safford and Eleanor Gordon were
my guardian angels during that time. Their strong voices and characters echoed in our struggle to build a new
faith community. The times were
different, but I believe it was another chapter in the same struggle - the
making of a home for liberal religion, creating something new out of our hopes
and struggles for our faith. We were pioneers, whose enthusiasm and devotion
were infectious, whose risk taking was rewarded with gratitude from those who
benefited by it, and who were satisfied by the knowledge that we did indeed
make a difference in this world, right here and right now.
Starting something new is risky,
creative, adventurous work. Even within
our own healthy thriving congregation it takes us to our growing edges. We will
have to examine our own comforts and challenges to live on that growing
edge. We all carry some assumptions that
might need a little nudge – like this congregation will always be there for me
when I need it, that we will not change, or that if things could just stay the
same we would all be happy! These are
the understandable, and partly true, things we tell ourselves over and over
again, for comfort. We need to say them,
and then we need to look at where they might be very wrong right now.
This is my litany of fallacies about
congregational life: I will invite you
to say them out loud… and then think about what they might really be saying:
A litany of fallacies:
We tried that once and it didn’t work.
We tried that once and it
Yes, you did. But in a changing environment sometimes you have to try
We like being all together every week.
We like being all
together every week.
Every week about 40 to 50 % of our membership attends service and
religious education. So actually you do
not see the same people every week. Everyone would have to come every Sunday for that to be true! (And you know that will only happen in my
dreams!) In addition, every year we welcome 30-40 new members whom you cannot
have not met yet, and we say goodbye to others who move or die or leave for
their own reasons. The truth is we do like being together each week… but who is
in that “we” is never really the same!
New and younger members are too busy to lead.
New and younger members are too
busy to lead.
Folks who enter into leadership want to do something meaningful. If they have to fight old fights and get
bogged down in unnecessary administrative details they will not be
satisfied. If we allow new leaders to be
creative and to actually lead I trust they will take us in some
wonderful new directions.
No one else is interested in liberal religion in our area.
No one else is interested in
liberal religion in our area.
You know, we do practically no advertising, and we are still
growing. Imagine what might happen if we
shone our light a little brighter out there? There are many people who do not even know what a Unitarian Universalist
is but who hunger for spiritual growth and meaning making that honors their own
experience and voices. We here come
together to hold each other to account, to comfort and be comforted and to
build beloved community again and again. Who else might be looking for this commitment and growth? We might be surprised to find the answer.
Adding another service means getting rid of the Dialog.
Adding another service means
getting rid of the Dialog.
No, no, no! The Dialog is a great success and no one is trying to take
it away! Really! Take a deep breath and let’s think creatively
about this many-sided problem of access and room to grow. We will find a way to
do all that is important to us!
believe that there are pioneers in our midst. Those of us who will chose adventure over comfort and lead us to a new
place, a new home for all those lively spirits that are ever on a quest. Take that survey, add your voice and your
ideas and engagement to our growing edge! Until there is peace and justice in
every corner and every home, we cannot rest.
the place of your tent…
not back, lengthen your cords & strengthen your stakes.
we take pride and joy in the adventure of growing together. Amen.
HYMN # 121 We’ll
Build a Land
Safford believed in the power of community to “save” people. She believed that
the free search for truth was as much a real part of the human experience as
“the law of gravity or as the solar system” and that people would evolve, “not
in solitude but in society.”
discover who we are in relationship with one another!
this deep relationship be our guiding star as we venture out into this new
we walk with respect for the people who came before us,
for the future,
with respect for the earth that is a home for all.
Go in peace. Amen.