Arriving on These Shores of Hope: Thoughts on the New Normal

[Note: This homily was addressed to the congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Society: East in Manchester and the Universalist Church or West Hartford]

In a new collection of Unitarian Universalist pandemic meditations entitled Shelter in This Place, my colleague, the Rev. Daniel Kanter, writes: “Arriving on these shores of hope, embrace the here and now, the blessings and the presence of holy matters. Here, now, we are together and we are stronger for it. Whether you are forlorn or uplifted, let us together enter worship as if it [were] a new matter, a new day, a new chance at life.”[1]

Members and friends of the Universalist Church of West Hartford: You may remember when you visited us in virtual Manchester this past January, I spoke about the need to interrogate the concept of “normal.” The old normal failed too many people. We need a new normal once the pandemic recedes. It has always been my intent, here in late June, to name the emerging new normal we have helped or are helping to create; to name, in Rev. Kanter’s words, this new matter, this new day, this new chance at life.” What prominent landmarks ascend from these shores of hope on which we are now arriving?

I’ll speak first about the new normal regarding our relationship to the wider community; and then share thoughts on the new normal in congregational life.

We know the pandemic exposed and exacerbated the already stark racial and class inequities in our larger society. I first started talking about a new normal in April of 2020 in response to the stories of colleagues of color – Black and Hispanic clergy serving predominantly Black and Hispanic congregations – about how the pandemic was impacting their people. Illness and death from Covid 19, job loss and financial hardship were clearly much more prevalent in their congregations than in ours. Furthermore, names like Breonna Taylor, Daniel Prude, and Ahmaud Arbery had already been making headlines that spring when a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd on May 25th, unleashing a racial justice uprising across the nation. Given all we were witnessing, how could we remain content with the old normal?

And so we engaged in a number of social justice organizing initiatives aimed at creating a new normal. From one angle the outcomes are impressive. In June, 2020, members of both our congregations joined Moral Monday CT’s eleven-day “Solemn Fast for Justice” at the State Capitol, demanding that the legislature reconvene to substantively address police accountability. The legislature did reconvene, and a number of us provided testimony in support of the bill, which eventually became law—still one of the farthest-reaching efforts in the country to address police violence.

Both our congregations are members of the Greater Hartford Interfaith Action Alliance (GHIAA). All year long, with a variety of institutional partners, GHIAA has engaged in legislative advocacy on a number of issues. We won on Clean Slate, which expunges most criminal records after a certain period of time so that formerly incarcerated people can get a true second chance at building a meaningful, productive life. We won on the abolition of welfare liens, which had required welfare recipients to repay state assistance, a requirement that often kept them in poverty for life. We won on the statewide declaration of racism as a public health crisis which, among other things, directs the state to reduce racial inequities in education, health care, criminal justice, and economic matters.

With our partners in the Domestic Worker Justice campaign, the Manchester and Danbury UU Congregation helped secure funding to prevent wage theft for this highly vulnerable worker population.

These are victories. Even though most of us here weren’t directly involved in the organizing, you supported those of us who were. We can all feel proud that our congregations contributed people, passion, expertise and money along the way. We can take a moment for celebration.

But do these victories amount to a new normal? They all address racism and class inequity at a structural level, so they certainly represent more than symbolic change. But the change is incremental. It doesn’t touch the deeper roots of oppression in our society. If they do amount to a new normal, the degree to which it differs from the old normal is minimal at best. I suppose most social change, at any given time, is minimal at best; and I’ll take that over change in the opposite direction.

Yet there’s a harder truth: we were involved in campaigns that could have touched those deeper roots of oppression had they been successful. The Campaign for Affordable Health Care sought a state sponsored health care public option, an avenue for undocumented immigrants to access HUSKY, and an overall expansion of eligibility for Medicaid. These efforts would have transformed health insurance in Connecticut, would have signaled a new day: health insurance for people’s health, not for corporate profits. These efforts largely failed. Similarly, the Recovery for All Campaign sought a transformation of the tax code to definitively address Connecticut’s starkest-in-the-nation racialized income inequality. That effort largely failed. Despite everything we’ve learned from a year of pandemic and racial justice uprising, the old normal is proving highly resilient.

Reflecting on it now, I’m certainly proud. There’s been a lot of effective Unitarian Universalist social justice organizing in the political realm over the last year. I’m also mindful that when progressive people of faith engage in that kind of organizing, we can easily forget the faith that inspired us to act in the first place. That’s an all-too-common feature of the old normal for Unitarian Universalists. But I think we’ve learned over this year to not forget. We’ve learned to loudly and proudly proclaim our faith in the public square. We don’t engage in these campaigns because we are mostly Democrats, progressives, left-leaning culture warriors, or part of a liberal social club. We engage because we are Unitarian Universalists. We engage because our principles require respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every person; and when social and economic structures erode human worth and dignity, action becomes necessary. We engage because our principles prioritize justice, equity and compassion in human relations; and when social and economic structures result in injustice, inequity and the absence of collective compassion, action becomes necessary.

We engage because our Unitarian forebears bequeathed to us the theological conviction that our character—as fraught, limited and human as it may be—matters; that our character—

who we are and how we live—matters; that our character, in the end, is the only thing we possess that can lead us to any semblance of salvation in this life or, if you wish, the next. We engage because our Universalist forbears bequeathed to us the simple and stunningly beautiful theology of an all-loving, inclusive God, and we want our lives to bear witness to that love and inclusivity. All are welcomed. All are saved. All are loved. May our actions in service to that theology be our new normal.


Now some thoughts on the new normal in congregational life. Earlier we heard the story Cat Knit by Jacob Grant, about a cat whose best friend was a ball of yarn. One day the cat’s owner sews the yarn into a cat sweater. “Cat did not like this new yarn one bit. He was itchy and stuffy and no fun at all.” Eventually Cat adjusts. The lesson of the story? “Warming up to something new takes time.”

So many congregations across the country are warming up to something new right now. It rarely feels good at first. We’re warming up to the idea of a soft reopening. That is, we’re not moving back to full in-person worship and programming right away. We’re taking our time, making sure, from a public health standpoint, that we are being responsible, safe, inclusive, ethical, and grounded in the best scientific data available. We are recognizing that our reopening decisions are not just about us, but about how we potentially impact the health of the wider community. That’s never been a priority concern for us. Now, it’s part of our new normal. It won’t feel comfortable in these early months of reopening, but it is a new matter, a new day, a new chance at life, a hopeful shore.

We’re warming up to this idea of hybrid or multi-platform congregational life, so that as many of our programs as possible can be experienced simultaneously in person or online. At the heart of this new normal is an assertion of the value of inclusivity. People can join us from other parts of the country, from sick beds and hospital rooms, during cold and flu season if they’re feeling vulnerable or ill and wish to stay home. People we never imagined would explore our congregations now have a new way to engage through technology. This is a new inclusivity normal for us. It won’t feel comfortable in these early months of reopening, but it is a new matter, a new day, a new chance at life, a hopeful shore.

I’m wondering also about our new spiritual normal. We don’t yet collectively know how these past fifteen pandemic months have shaped and transformed our spiritual lives, but surely they have. Humanity has been and continues to journey through a public health trauma. Each of us has navigated, to varying degrees, fear, anxiety, despair, illness, loneliness, loss; and for many of us there have been equally profound moments of joy, elation, courage, steadfastness, learning, growth, connection, relationship. I’ve been asking members and friends of our congregation these past few weeks: do you have any words to name the impact all of this has had on your spiritual life?

The responses are wide-ranging. People speak of a deepened sense of gratitude for life’s blessings great and small; a deepened appreciation for simple pleasures, for the mundane, for steady routines, for reliable, everyday experiences; a deepened understanding of the value of human connection, human relationship, face-to-face, flesh-to-flesh, body-to-body human interaction, human presence, human love, human being; a deepened sense of embeddedness in the natural world, a more focused attention to critters and creatures, a sense of earthly oneness more felt than named; and a deepened sense of divinity breathing, flowing, reaching, stretching, dancing, quieting, resting, bringing comfort, solace, peace, and joy, carrying us and all life on and on and on.

Of course, after all we’ve been through and all that is still coming, how could there not be a spiritual deepening. But will this depth become our new spiritual normal? Or, as the infection rates drop, the risks fade from our consciousness, the uncertainty wanes, the ambulance sirens sound more infrequently, the arguments over masks and what is true recede into the background, will this deepened spiritual sensibility recede too, the tide going out from these shores of hope?

I hope not. However these fifteen pandemic months have so far shaped your spirituality, however they have introduced you to realities larger than yourself, I hope it will become your new spiritual normal, a new matter, a new day, anew chance at life. I hope you will keep it all alive, in motion, on fire, pulsing, blowing like a soft summer breeze. I hope you will continue to practice, be present, pay attention, engage, relate, connect, embody. I hope you will remain open, humble, resilient, courageous, caring, loving. I hope the tide will keep carrying you in to these shores of hope.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Kanter, Daniel C., “The Shores of Hope,” in Riley, Meg, ed., Shelter in This Place: Meditations on 2020 (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2021) p. 103.