Minister’s Column February 2021

Dear Ones,

Our ministry theme for February is beloved community. Upon realizing this, and mindful that February is Black History Month, I found and re-familiarized myself with a book I’d read for a class in seminary, bell hooks’ 1995 Killing Rage: Ending Racism. In the final chapter, called “Beloved Community,” hooks critiques Martin Luther King’s vision of beloved community. King argued that the United States would become a beloved community only when race had been transcended, forgotten, when no one “saw” color anymore. Hooks disagreed. She argued instead that:

Beloved community is formed not by the eradication of difference but by its affirmation, by each of us claiming the identities and cultural legacies that shape who we are and how we live in the world. To form beloved community we do not surrender ties to precious origins…. The notion that differences of skin color, class background, and cultural heritage must be erased for justice and equality to prevail is a brand of popular false consciousness that helps keep racist thinking and action intact.

Still powerful words.

I think it’s important for us as a congregation to ask, always, whether our UU church culture tends to erase differences or emphasize and celebrate them. If we tend to erase our differences (for the sake of always getting along, reducing conflict, being “like-minded”) then it’s possible that some of us are keeping important pieces of ourselves out of our community. Is it really safe to talk about one’s mental illness? Or about one’s hidden (or visible) disability? Or about what it’s really like to be an elder (or a youth) in U.S. society? Or about what it’s really like to be a person of color (or a white person) in U.S. society? Or about growing up poor (or wealthy)? Or about coming from a conservative political family? Or from a conservative religious family? Obviously, if there are aspects of ourselves we can’t bring fully into congregational life, that’s not good. It may enable us to avoid conflict and difficult conversations, but I think bell hooks is right: it’s not beloved community.

We are not beginners when it comes to being a beloved community. I can think of many Sunday services, programs, committee meetings and small group meetings over the years when we’ve dug deeply into our differences; when we’ve tried to emphasize and celebrate different perspectives, different cultural backgrounds, different racial identities, different understandings of gender and sexuality, different life experiences. And, of course, we can and must continue to grow in this critical aspect of congregational life. I want UUS:E to be a place where no part of ourselves is left out. Furthermore, I hope we can learn to anticipate the kinds of human differences (different languages, for example) that aren’t currently present at UUS:E. How can we prepare to welcome people whose differences may be keeping them away? (That’s the topic of our February 28 Sunday service with C.B. Beal: “Preemptive Radical Inclusion.”)

No, we’re not beginners when it comes to being a beloved community. But we don’t want to become complacent either. Let’s not underestimate the power of our differences to deepen and strengthen our community. Thanks for the reminder bell hooks!

With love,

—Rev. JoshRev. Joshua Pawelek

A Sufficient Quantity of Faith

Rev. Josh Pawelek

In an interview with Krista Tippett for the American Public Media show “On Being,” Nadia Bolz-Weber, founding pastor of Denver’s House for All Sinners and Saints, said, “I don’t think faith is given in sufficient quantity to individuals…. I think it’s given in sufficient quantity to communities.”[1] She offers this thought as part of a broader, ongoing, playful yet pointed critique of American Protestantism, which she describes both as “Western individualism run amok in religion” and the “personal me-and-Jesus, how-I-feel, what-my-piety-is, [what]-my-personal-prayer-life-[is]—all of that stuff.”[2] As Unitarian Universalists it is easy to assume this critique doesn’t apply to us because, well, she’s not talking to us; she’s talking to Lutherans, Baptists, Episcopalians, etc. We don’t get all the jokes about high church Christian theology, but that’s OK. Her message isn’t really for us.

Except maybe it is. I actually think Bolz-Weber’s critique applies more to us than any other tradition, mainly because something at the heart of mid-19th-century Unitarianism—160, 170 years ago—something in its liberal world-view, its revolutionary spirit—something in its encounter with the artistry and theology of European Romanticism, something in it led many of our 19th-century Unitarian forebears to prioritize the individual spiritual search over and above the authority of the church. Something led the Unitarian-minister-turned-Transcendentalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, in 1841 to pen those enduring words, “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.”[3] Something led Emerson’s poetic descendent, Walt Whitman, in 1871 to contend “that only in the perfect uncontamination and solitariness of individuality may the spirituality of religion come forth at all.”[4] Something led the author and Unitarian minister, John Weiss, also in 1871, to declare that “America is an opportunity to make a Religion out of the sacredness of the individual.”[5]

While there were certainly Unitarians who prioritized the centrality of the church in this era, the emphasis on the sacredness of the individual began with us and still lives and breathes in Unitarian Universalism today. It may appear different than today’s American Protestant ‘me-and-Jesus’ individualism, but they share the same historical roots. This isn’t commonly understood, but current-day American Christianity has adapted its forms of individualistic spirituality from the Unitarians, Universalists, Transcendentalists and other liberal religionists of the mid-19th century.[6] So, what if faith isn’t given in sufficient quantity to individuals? What if faith is only given in sufficient quantity to communities? What might that mean for us?

Our November ministry theme is faith. The last time we used faith as a monthly theme was November, 2010. I recently re-read a sermon I preached on faith at that time, wondering how my thinking has evolved.[7] That sermon was helpful (I hope) in offering to UUs a more relevant definition of faith than the one the larger culture tends to use. If someone knocks at your door and wants to have a conversation about religion, you kinda know what they mean by faith. It likely has something to do with accepting Jesus Christ as their personal lord and savior, plus the good news that such acceptance is the path to eternal life. Beneath that good news is almost always a set of doctrines about who Jesus is, who God is, and why their church understands these things correctly. This kind of faith requires us to accept propositions for which we have no evidence other than that “the Bible says it.” It requires us to believe the unbelievable. That’s the common definition of faith in our larger culture. It’s certainly a valid definition—not everything we believe must have a rational explanation.[8] But as inheritors of the 19th-century Unitarian appeal to the sacredness of the individual, we need a different definition.


In that November, 2010 sermon I quoted Buddhist teacher, Sharon Salzberg, who says that the essence of faith, whetherconnected to a deity or not … lies in trusting ourselves to discover the deepest truths on which we can rely.”[9] Similarly, the 20th century Unitarian theologian, James Luther Adams, suggested that faith is the act of placing our confidence in something. He held no expectation that that something be unbelievable or other-worldly. He said “faith should take into account the realm of fact…. Every person is concerned with a basic fact, something in which one has confidence.”[10] This is a definition of faith that can work for people who don’t or can’t believe the unbelievable, for people who need their religious and spiritual lives to be grounded in a reality they can experience through their senses: through touching, tasting, seeing, hearing, smelling; through raising children, caring for others, working for a just society, or digging in dirt. This is a definition of faith that arises not from religious doctrines, but from the concrete experience of our daily lives, the realm of fact.

There is much in which we place our confidence. We are deeply faithful people. As I wrote in my November newsletter column, “we have faith in humanity, creativity, nature, love. We have faith in science, democracy, community, fairness, humility. We have faith in gratitude, children, education, diversity, the earth. We have faith in the seasons, the tides, the warmth of the sun, the darkness of night. We have faith in our neighbors, our principles, our interfaith partners, the words and deeds of prophetic people of all eras. We have faith in modern medicine, ancient healing arts, the comforting assurance of family and friends, the kindness of strangers. We have faith in reason, the power of speaking truth, compassion, honesty. Some have faith in God—a deep and sustaining faith. Some have faith in the ancestors—a deep and sustaining faith. And did I mention love? We put our faith in love.

When I invite you, at the beginning of worship, to find that place inside of you, that place where you may go when you long for comfort and solace, that place where you may go when you yearn for peace, that place where you may go to commune with whatever is holy in your life, that place where you know your truth, where your voice is strong, I am asking you to remember what is most reliable to you. I am asking you to remember those things in which you place your highest confidence. I am asserting that we are people of faith just as much as those who come knocking on doors, or who stand on city street corners yelling, Repent! or who experience a personal, intimate relationship with their lord and savior. By locating that place inside of you, I am keeping continuity with our spiritual forebears. That mid-19th century tradition of honoring the sacredness of the individual remains vibrant among us. For me, our UU identity is so deeply embedded in this tradition that, were we to give it up, we would cease being who we are.

It’s also important to name that not just our UU identity, but a big part of the American identity is rooted in this individualistic tradition, so much so that, without it, we wouldn’t quite recognize America. It would take a series of sermons to unpack this claim, but if in recent years you’ve felt a shift in the American character, it may have to do not with the loss of this tradition but, as the historian Leigh Eric Schmidt contends, with its cooptation by market forces, with its commercialization, with what some call the “‘Oprahfication’ of American religion and culture…the spread of the feel-good spirituality that [Oprah] Winfrey urges upon her fans,”[11] and with what we might describe as the hyper-expressions of this tradition—narcissism and self-absorption that have eviscerated religious and civic connections[12] and, in my view, have spurred the rise of various religious fundamentalisms in the United States.

As far as I can tell, Nadia Bolz-Weber isn’t criticizing the individualistic spiritual tradition in American religion. In fact, she’s a shining example of it. But she is criticizing shallow, surface expressions of this tradition—“me and Jesus and all that stuff.” She’s criticizing the shadow side—the fact that we pay lip service to the sacredness of each individual but often don’t live as if it matters. She’s rightly wary about what individualism in religion can and has become. She understands how hyper-individualism in spiritual and secular settings has taken a toll on community cohesiveness. So, she asks all people of faith to take a TIME OUT! “I don’t think faith is given in sufficient quantity to individuals…. I think it’s given in sufficient quantity to communities.”

You could hear this as a re-assertion of the authority of the church over the individual, a call to doctrinal conformity, but she has too many tattoos for that to be true. She’s offering a course correction to Western individualism run amok in religion. She’s calling for balance. She’s reminding us that individualism can only take us so far. No matter how sacred, precious, worthy, and profoundly beautiful each individual soul is, none of us can make it alone. She uses the example of the Apostles Creed, saying “nobody believes every line of the Creed…. But in a room [full] of people … for each line of the Creed, somebody believes it. So we’re covered, right?”[13] It’s funny, not because it’s a joke, but because it’s true. As a Lutheran minister, she knows that were she to demand that every Lutheran believe every line of the Creed all the time, she would make Lutheranism inaccessible to people who need church in their lives but can’t believe in that “perfect” way. If I were to demand that each UU embody our principles perfectly all the time, I would similarly make Unitarian Universalism inaccessible to many.

The truth is we don’t bring our best selves to each new day. We don’t always live the ideals we aspire to live, let alone those our church calls us to live. We may come to church in profound pain, feeling wounded, broken, lost, empty, anxious or in despair from a difficult diagnosis, a lost job, lost memory, the death of a loved-one, a struggling child, a raging virus, an endless war, catastrophic climate change. Sometimes our faith fails. Whatever we place our confidence in can let us down, can go missing, can forsake us. Faith isn’t given in sufficient quantity to individuals. Sometimes we simply don’t have enough.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t enough. This is my evolution since 2010: Together we have enough. Faith is given to communities in sufficient quantities. Bolz-Weber says there are times she can’t adhere to the Biblical admonition to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. But, “if I’m at the point where I cannot pray for someone,” she says, “I will say ‘I cannot pray for this person, I really need you to do it for me.’”[14] That’s the power of community: if I can’t get there, there is someone else who can get there for me. There is someone else who can carry my faith until I’m able to carry it again.

This led me to reflect on the ways we’ve responded in worship to mass shootings. I’m remembering in particular the Hartford Distributors shooting in August, 2010 and the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in December, 2012—both so close to us here in Manchester. These were worst-nightmares-come-true—the human potential for evil becoming real before our eyes. Many of us, myself included, felt our faith in humanity faltering in a very specific way. We questioned the validity of our first UU principle—the inherent worth and dignity of every person. In the aftermath of such shootings our hearts go out to the victims and their families. We say their names in worship. But what of the shooters? They have crossed a moral line, have launched themselves beyond the pale, have made themselves enemies in the Biblical sense. Our hearts don’t naturally go out to them. Instead we recoil at the thought of them. Yes, we are admonished to love the enemy. Yes, we UUs affirm the principle of the inherent worth and dignity of every person—but surely that doesn’t apply to these shooters? For so many of us it is enormously difficult to affirm the inherent worth and dignity of the perpetrator in the aftermath of horrendous evil. Even the act of just saying their name in worship feels like too much.  And yet there were people in our community in both instances who felt strongly that the names of the perpetrators needed to be said, that in addition to their crimes their deaths also needed acknowledgement. To name them in this way does not condone their crimes. It is simply to remember that they were human too. Though something went horribly wrong, they came into this world surrounded by hope and promise too, and their deaths—though different—are tragic too. These shootings were profoundly difficult moments for me, and I was so grateful to know others were keeping my faith for me.

Someone will remember. Even when we can’t, someone will carry our faith for us. And there will be times when we maintain faith for others who can’t—after the difficult diagnosis, the lost job, the loss of memory, the death of a loved-one, as a child struggles, a virus rages, a war continues and climate changes. That compelling tradition of affirming the sacredness of the individual continues to live and breathe in our congregations. But there are times when it isn’t enough. When we come to those times, may we always remember: faith is given in sufficient quantity to communities. And in the midst of community, may we have faith.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] The text to this interview is posted at Or watch the interview at The segment I refer to in this sermon begins at 1:08:53.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Emerson, Ralph Waldo, “Self Reliance,” in Whicher, Stephen E., ed., Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1960) p. 149.

[4] Whitman, Walt, Democratic Vistas, quoted in Schmidt, Leigh Eric, Restless Souls (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005) p. 4.

[5] Ibid., vi.

[6] My primary resource for making this claim is Schmidt, Leigh Eric, Restless Souls (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005).

[7] Pawelek, Josh, “I Know This Rose Will Open: On Being a Person of Faith,” Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT,  November 14th, 2010:

[8] Ibid., third paragraph.

[9] Salzberg, Sharon, Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience (New York: Riverhead Books, 2002) p. xiii.

[10] Adams, James Luther in Beach, George K., ed, An Examined Faith: Social Context and Religious Commitment (Boston: Beacon Press, 1991) p. 21.

[11] Schmidt, Leigh Eric, Restless Souls (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005) p. 285.

[12] Schmidt names this phenomenon in the final chapter of Restless Souls. Another take on what I call the “shadow side” of the American tradition of spiritual individualism is Claude Fischer’s blog-post “Self-Absorbed” at

[13] The text to this interview is posted at Or watch the interview at The segment I refer to in this sermon begins at 1:08:53.

[14] Ibid.

What A Long Strange Trip It’s Been

Dan Thompson and Rev. Josh Pawelek

Part I, Introducing the Grateful Dead


This morning’s service explores spiritual insights in the music of the Grateful Dead. The Grateful Dead was an American Rock and Roll band, formed in San Francisco in 1965.  They lasted 30 years, through many changes in culture and taste, until the death of one of their founding members, Jerry Garcia, in 1995.   They fused many musical styles including folk, rock, reggae, jazz and bluegrass.  They played some 2,350 shows. The remaining members continue to perform to this day, collaborating with a huge array of musicians.  

To those of us who loved them, the Grateful Dead spoke to two spiritual yearnings: freedom and community.  Freedom to be who you really are, to pursue the things you really like, to step away from the button-down world of business and school and see and experience things in a different light. And in proclaiming that freedom, what emerged was a community—not only of fans and music lovers, but of fellow travelers, searchers, experimenters, counter culturalists, peace-lovers, and out-of-the-box thinkers—people who still share a common bond today, nearly twenty years since Jerry’s death.  

The point of this service is not to turn you into a deadhead. But rather to use the Grateful Dead experience—and to identify music in general—as a kind of stepping stone to enlightenment, our May ministry theme here at UUS:E. The Grateful Dead had some unique successes in terms of their longevity, their output, the huge record breaking crowds that attended their shows year after year, the poeticism of their lyrics, the sense of community that grew up around them, and tie dye.  We cannot forget tie dye.  And so I invite you this morning, as they themselves might invite us, to “come hear Uncle John’s band by the river side. Come on along or go alone, he’s come to take his children home.”

 Rev. Josh:

Dan purchased this service at last year’s Goods and Services Auction. Just a reminder: this year’s auction will happen on Saturday the 18th and yes, there are sermons for sale! Today is a little different than the usual bought sermon in that Dan has written quite a lot about spiritual insights he draws from the Grateful Dead’s music and he will be speaking this morning as well.

A few years ago Dan had read a story in the New York Times about two rabbis who offered a weekend retreat in Litchfield County called “The Grateful Dead: Blues for Challah” (which was a play on the title of a Grateful Dead album, “Blues for Allah.” It was a weekend of discussions, sharing, playing music, singing and philosophizing about the connection between the Grateful Dead’s music and Jewish people.  And Dan thought, there must be connections between the Dead and Unitarian Universalists. And that’s what this morning is really about.

But before we go further, I want to confess a fear. Unitarian Universalists often profess a strong identification with the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Because UU ministers marched with Dr. King, because a few UUs lost their lives protesting segregation, the Civil Rights movement is a primary lens through which we view our relationship as a faith community to American history. It is also true that quite a few UUs have a fairly strong identification with (or at least fond memories of) the 1960s counter culture—peace, love and happiness; sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, Woodstock, bell bottoms, long, beautiful Hair, alternative spirituality, communes, co-ops… and hippies. Though not entirely by their own design, the Grateful Dead was and is the quintessential 1960s counter culture band. In a 1989 Rolling Stone interview, Jerry Garcia said the real part of the 1960s was not the political part or the social part, but the spiritual part.[1] There’s a lot about the counter culture that I like, but my fear is that we 21st century UUs will become overly associated with that culture as in, “oh, they’re a bunch of 60s lefties,” or “a bunch of 60s radicals,” or worse, “a bunch of hippies.” the problem is that in today’s world  the hippy identity is not what it used to be. it’s become a stereotype, and quite often a negative one. I’ve never wanted to serve a 21st century congregation with a 1960s reputation.  So, a service on the Grateful Dead? Uh-oh! Wear your tie-dye? Yikes!

In the end, I’m not really concerned. In the end, there is something much deeper here than hallucinating hippies frolicking naked in the mud at Woodstock. The Grateful Dead subverted and even shattered many norms and crossed many lines through their music, their lyrics, their do-it-yourself business practices, and their invitation to their fans to be present or, as writer and music producer Steve Silberman says, “to be however you wanted to be, however you felt just at that moment.” Indeed, he goes on, at a Grateful Dead concert “people were freed up to do what they naturally do—to play, to ponder the mysteries at the heart of everyday existence, and to build community with kindred spirits.”[2]


Part II, What A Long, Strange Trip It’s Been: Freedom


Grateful Dead concerts—shows—were always unique, never carbon copies.  Night after night the band changed the set list and the song arrangements.  Time was an elastic concept on a Grateful Dead stage. A song ended only when every possibility embedded in the structure, and set loose by the group’s improvisational empathy on that particular night, was tested and fulfilled.  The band would often flow from one song to another without a break, and although sometimes those transitions were entirely too long, they were remarkable transitions—as much a part of the show as the songs themselves. The band would often drop into weird time signatures, 7s and 11s (instead of 3s and 4s) sometimes with members playing each to their own time… Fans rarely heard the same song played the same way twice. Perfection was not the point. Where most other artists try to perfect their stage show and get everything just right and repeatable and synched up with the lights,  it was the sense of imperfection, of change, of adaptability that made a Grateful Dead show an expression of freedom.  

Of course this was not the unbridled freedom we might associate with musical anarchy. Each band member was an individual creative entity, but creative in relation to every other band member. They trained themselves to listen intently to each other and to feel each other’s energy. And they trained themselves to listen to the audience, to feel the audience’s energy.  They played to that energy.  They had a saying that the music played the band. For them the entire experience—the audience, the venue, the song selection, the energy—made a whole. Freedom yes, self expression yes, innovation yes, creativity yes, but always responsive and responsible to the whole.

So what you were left with, with a good show, was this feeling of being lifted up, of participating with the show, of anticipating where the show would go, and moreover, experiencing this with the entire audience… because the audience reaction often guided where the band went with its music.  And so, yes, you had this organic whole… a unique experience. And that is the experience that people still talk about today…

It seemed natural, easy, free. It seemed to just flow. But it actually took years of practice. It took hard work.  At the beginning they practiced almost daily, and sometimes twelve hours or more.  The incredible jams that they played, that we deadheads loved, with changing time signatures and keys that seemed to float around on their own didn’t just happen, they took thousands of hours of practice.  And this reminds me that anything that seems new or interesting or exciting or simple, often takes many hours of practice to make happen.  

It reminds me that to be successful, to gain joy, to spread joy, it is really, really important to do what you love and love what you do.  Because it can take years to become really good at something.  We might say practice brings freedom. Is that enlightenment? I suspect it is.

Rev. Josh:

I want to address two aspects of freedom that seem to coincide with peoples’ experience of the Grateful Dead. First, freedom within the music. Although Jerry Garcia is often identified as the leader of the band, there was no leader. Bassist Phil Lesh once said that “nine times out of ten if someone tried to take charge … it would just dissolve in their hands.”[3] Guitarist Bob Weir said it is pointless to try to tell each other what to play.[4] Each musician was free to bring their ideas, their energy, their creativity into each song, night after night, such that no performance was ever repeated. Garcia once described the band as a process rather than an event.[5]

It strikes me that this is akin to what we expect our Unitarian Universalist faith to look like. We want each member and friend to bring their full self to the life of the congregation—their energy, their creativity, their passions, their beliefs. If we told each other what to believe—if we asked everyone to confess the same creed—if we expected everybody to think and act alike—it would dissolve in our hands. We wish for each other the freedom to be who we are. But what keeps it together? There must be some limit to our freedom, some boundary. Well, in talking about what kept the Grateful Dead together, philosopher Horace Fairlamb says the band’s unity was not “the spontaneous product of selfless yea-sayers, but more like the opposite. It was the product of strong personalities who shared a vision with enough commitment to make it work.”[6] And what was the essence of that vision? It had something to do with valuing community as much as individual expression. It had something to do with a desire to listen and respond to what others are doing—to revel in the way one’s own ideas can be shaped and positively transformed by what others are doing—to recognize that in a community where acceptance matters more than agreement and diversity matters more than sameness, we have enormous opportunities for growth. Freedom yes, self-expression yes, innovation yes, creativity yes, but always aware of the other, always responsive to the other, always accepting the other, always open to the possibllity of change in oneself, always responsible for the health, well-being and positive growth of the whole.

Second, freedom beyond the music. In working together in spontaneous, creative ways; in the nightly discovery of new musical paths, members of the band and members of the audience would describe an intense, communal, even spiritual experience, the emergence of a group consciousness. Fairbanks cites drummer Bill Kreutzman’s speculation that “there is some great power, be it God or whatever, that enters the Grateful Dead on certain nights , and it has to do with us being open and getting together with the audience.” Garcia, more cautiously, called the experience “some kind of intuitive thing.”[7]

I can vouch. It was Tuesday, September 27, 1994, the first of six shows at the Boston Garden, and my first Grateful Dead show. I was not a deadhead, though my then girlfriend, Stephany, was. We went to see the show. I was skeptical. I was more of a hard rock, alternative rock, heavy metal kinda guy. The Dead? Nah. Not my thing. I promise you I took no drugs that night and I saw very little drug use inside the Boston Garden. I was moderately impressed through most of the show, until they played the song “Standing on the Moon.” Something happened. Some spirit of the music, of the evening, of the crowd swept me up and for a moment I was enveloped. Whatever it was, it was palpable. For a moment I lost myself in the whole. And I’ve heard countless Grateful Dead fans talk about a similar experience.

I don’t for a minute believe this essentially mystical experience they’re describing is unique to Grateful Dead concerts. People report these kinds of experiences in response to all sorts of music, all sorts of art, all sorts of physical activities, all sorts of worship. It’s an experience of ourselves stepping out of ourselves into a larger connection, a feeling of oneness. In our Unitarian Universalist sources we call it the direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life. Often fleeting, often momentary, it’s an experience of freedom beyond the constraints of our daily lives, our bodies, our culture. It’s refreshing. It’s rejuvenating, even inspiring.  This kind of experience is one of the reasons the Grateful Dead were so immensely popular. And I believe this kind of experience is one human beings long for.


Part III, What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been: Community


Philosopher Steven Gimbel writes that the spirit of the Grateful Dead “gave rise to a culture all its own. The traveling carnival that landed in fields, parking lots, and campgrounds across the country several times a year was filled with folks eager to dance over all the conventions that were socially enforced in the white-bread world they sought to leave. Each tour was a living laboratory, an experiment that was one part social engineering and one part chaos theory. There was an ethos to the parking lot, a social code, an economy, and customs all its own. It was a nomadic culture within a culture that attracted those who felt that there must be a different way.”[8]

I certainly agree. For deadheads, the Grateful Dead was much more than a band.  It was a reason for gathering together. To unite.  It was a shared experience.  The people who self-identified as Deadheads sometimes spent summers trailing the band from venue to venue.  Some of them set up camps and makeshift markets where they sold trinkets and beads and tie-dyed clothing.  They knew not only the lyrics to all of the songs, but the order in which they had been played at the shows they had attended.  It became a community of like-minded people who simply wanted to be there for the joy and connectedness it brought them.  

I never called myself a Deadhead, at least not until fairly recently.  But what did it for me was that I came to realize that if I brought my guitar to a sing along there was probably a handful of Grateful Dead songs that everyone knew and could sing along with and maybe even play along with.  And that was the case more than any other group I could pull from.  And that finally made me realize that yes, there is that thread of community and as much as I might want to deny it, I am a part of it.

 Rev. Josh:

I can vouch. It was spring break, March 1987. I was on tour with the Oberlin College Steel Drum Band in the Washington, DC area. The Grateful Dead were playing four hours away at the Hampton Roads Coliseum in Hampton, VA. We had a day off. We decided to drive to Hampton and set up our drums in the parking lot at the Coliseum.

The first thing I noticed when we arrived is that people were living there—tents, campers, vans everywhere. Lots of laundry drying in the sea breeze. Then I realized we had set up in what appeared to be the middle of an open air bazaar. People were selling jewelry, clothes, food, drugs. I’d always heard about the phenomenon of people following the Dead. Now I was part of it for a day.

We played and played and played. A crowd swarmed around us and danced. It seemed to go on for hours. People came with hand drums and tambourines and joined in. At this point, I can’t remember how long we actually played. I do remember people talking to us once we were done, people wanting to know who we were, where we were from; people thanking us for being there. I remember people wanting to feed us. I could perceive an underground economy in the parking lot, one in which sellers would try to earn a few dollars, but certainly would not balk at bartering or giving away their product for free. There was a sense of flexibility, of many ways to conduct business, of friendliness, of mutual concern, or genuine interest in strangers—a sense of real community. All of it mirrored the way the Grateful Dead conducted their own life as a rock band. I liked it. I was glad I went.


Music can tell us about truth and beauty.  It can enlighten us, or just as easily pull us away from enlightenment in the glitz, the glamour, the selling of sex. But the Grateful Dead preferred its audience to seek enlightenment. They said “come join us, be as you are, if you’re weird, that’s ok; if you’re not that’s ok too. We accept you just the way you are, and you accept us just the way we are. Acceptance. I like that. That’s what makes a community.

Rev. Josh: Acceptance. That’s what makes a community. Amen and blessed be.


[1] Jerry Garcia, Rolling Stone interview, #566, 11/30/89, p. 73.

[2] Silberman, Steve, “Half Baseball Game, Half Church,” in Gimbel, Steven, ed., The Grateful Dead and Philosophy ( Chicago: Open Court, 2007) p. x-xi.

[3] Gimbel, The Grateful Dead and Philosophy, p. 19.

[4] Ibid., p. 19.

[5] Jerry Garcia, Rolling Stone interview, #566, 11/30/89, p. 73.

[6] Fairlamb, Horace, “Community at the Edge of Chaos,” in Gimbel, The Grateful Dead and Philosophy, pp. 18-19.

[7] Gimbel, The Grateful Dead and Philosophy, p. 23.

[8] Gimbel, Steven, “Some Folks Trust to Reason,” in Gimbel, ed., The Grateful Dead and Philosophy ( Chicago: Open Court, 2007) p. xvii.


Beyond the Gap

Bridging the Achievement Gap

AGap 1

UUS:E’s Nancy Parker was among the group at MCC on Main

The race-based Achievement Gap was met head on at 903 Main Street, better known as MCC on Main, Thursday night, Jan 31st.  Sponsored by Manchester Community College’s Institute for Community Outreach and a local community action group from UUS:E called “Beyond the Gap” —  the event drew broad participation from community members across all walks of life. They gathered to share their thoughts, experiences and opinions about this critical issue with the long-term goal of establishing some real solutions to this pervasive problem. Members and friends of UUS:E were among the participants.

View more photos HERE.

Stay tuned for more information and events from the MCC/Beyond the Gap partnership in the coming months. (For more information, contact Rev. Josh or Polly Painter at [email protected])

March Ministry Theme

Marlene J. Geary


“With humility and courage born of our history, we are called as Unitarian Universalists to build the Beloved Community where all souls are welcome as blessings, and the human family lives whole and reconciled. With this vision in our hearts and minds, we light our chalice.

–“A vision for Unitarian Universalism in a multicultural world” by the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) Leadership Council, adopted October 1, 2008

What does it mean to create a community?

The New Member Ceremony is a deeply powerful and moving segment of our Sunday services, celebrated several times per year. During the service, we explain what it means to become a new member and a key part of that is our community. The ceremony is an important one to introduce new members but also to remind all of us that we are a part of a larger whole and a part of each other.

These brief moments of community commitment clearly explain what it means to create a community: sharing values, action, talent, triumph, struggle, learning, growth and fellowship.

So, how about we take a moment to consider and renew our commitment as a part of March’s ministry theme of community? As you read this, consider what the community of UUS:E means to you.

Dear reader,

We welcome into our community all who have chosen to make a commitment to this congregation.

We are also glad to have you here with us and that you have chosen this community of fellow seekers to travel with you on your life journey.

Will you accept our gifts of fellowship, discovery, and service?

Will you offer us your unique presence and gifts?

Will you add your name to the long history of Unitarian Universalist women and men who spread hope with our living faith?

Will you engage with us as we seek to create a community and a world dedicated to love and justice?

Will you welcome all new members with the warmth and comfort of your fellowship?

Will you seek to add your strengths and talents to the gifts they bring to us?

Will you share our triumphs and our struggles as our community grows and changes?

Let us say together again the words of this community, the promise that we make each week to ourselves and to each other that holds our community together with common purpose and common love in the midst of our beautiful diversity of belief:

Closing Words for Unitarian Universalist Society: East