Monday, December 29, 2014

A Reflection on Spiritual Transformation

Reading this reflection at the UU Church of SF
After spending most of my childhood attending Sunday School at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Francisco, I finished high school without feeling like I really knew what Unitarian Universalists believed. My explanations to friends at school mostly emphasized accepting other people’s beliefs – which is important – but they didn’t include mention of the bonds I made with amazing people in different stages of life, or much of what we did together. The explanations always felt weak.

When George Bush – the first one – invaded Iraq, my attention was drawn to the region, and the history of fighting there, and how closely battle lines paralleled religious divisions. I decided I was an atheist, and done with organized religion – not that I would stop attending youth group on Sunday nights, though, nor did I renounce my membership in the church.

It wasn’t until I was attending college in San Diego that I began to appreciate what UUs believe. I felt surrounded by people with conservative views – on campus, and in the city at large. As a continuing member of this church, I received a copy of the UU World, our national newsletter. It was here that I found voices resonant with my beliefs, so when I came back home, I came back to church.

At the same time, I was taking a comparative religion course at City College and, being open to other's beliefs and having been brought up with a scientific background, I decided to conduct an experiment: as we read the different religious texts, I would try to act as if I believed what I was reading. It started with the Baghavad Gita, where I read about karma. I went about my days acting like I believed in karma, and within a week, I was no longer an atheist. I wasn't sure what I believed, but I knew I believed something.

After a couple of years working with the middle schoolers in the Sunday School, I was asked by Kay Jorgensen, who was our Social Justice Minister, if I would volunteer with the Faithful Fools as a Shadower on something called a “Street Retreat” in the Tenderloin. I was skeptical of the Faithful Fools and their “Street Retreats” – after all, I hung out in the Tenderloin, with my friends in rock bands who lived there in cheap apartments – but I believed in the value of Unitarian Universalist youth being exposed to the neighborhood, and the people who lived there.

I first made my own Street Retreat, and realized this was a different way of walking the streets. My experience accompanying the youth on their own Retreats strengthened that realization. The young people expressed new appreciation for their full refrigerators – including for the foods they didn’t like to eat. They noticed the beauty of community in a place they expected to be sad or scary. They bore witness to people’s struggles, and to inspiring efforts to overcome them. In some cases, they came to know other people’s challenges, as difficult as the ones they themselves were facing.

As we Faithful Fools say, they discovered on the streets their common humanity.

And I kept walking the streets, both because of what I was discovering and because of what I saw others discovering, until this act of presence in the Tenderloin became my way of life, and I was asked to do it as a full time job.

I was to speak to how Unitarian Universalist youth, dozens of whom do Street Retreats each year as part of the Coming of Age program, are transformed by the Street Retreat. I do not know that any one was transformed by a day on the Tenderloin’s streets. What I do know is that they, along with thousands of other youth and adults who have made Street Retreats, have been introduced to a practice – which I believe to be a Unitarian Universalist spiritual practice – of encountering themselves and others in an articulation of our values of accepting and loving one another for who we are, and recognizing that we can all be teachers to each other.

And that, I believe, is our work as a community: to create a space in which each of us can be transformed by the possibility of our being together, while our togetherness is transformed by each of us being here.

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