community, Giving, Relationships

Testimonial: Reimagining the Possible

unity papalini

The minister of my Unitarian congregation invited me to share the story of why I joined our church. The Sunday I’m scheduled to speak happens to coincide with a moment of extraordinary upheaval in the national Unitarian Universalist Association. A senior-level hiring decision unearthed patterns of white supremacy and bias that many people of my faith believed didn’t exist, not here, not among us. We see yet again that privileges, blinders, and oppressive structures exist everywhere — even within people of goodwill who speak of inclusion and equity. Even those of us whose deepest value is radical love.

Our faith now must engage even more deeply in the  agonizing work of reconciling word and deed. Meanwhile, here in our local congregation, we have our own gaps to bridge, our own neighbors to hear, our own truths to reveal.

This testimonial serves to support our annual giving campaign. The theme this year is “Reimagining the Possible.”

These are my words.

In my family growing up, I was taught to read widely. Have faith in nothing that you can’t reason through with your mind. Question everything, especially your own mind. Act in service of a greater good.

Volunteer work in DC as young person exposed me to poverty and racial inequality that I couldn’t believe existed right up next to my privileged Montgomery County life. It was an early lesson in injustice, and it showed me that I had important work to do even if I had no idea how to begin.

It was only after leaving the DMV in my teens and visiting and living other places that I saw what can come out of joining forces with others. I began turning those early practices of inquiry and service into collective action. As a young adult, I was fortunate to participate in a number of small but extraordinary projects. Creating a community garden for homeless kids. Co-owning a housing cooperative and advocating successfully for a portion of the units to be designated low-income. Marching against the first Gulf War and helping shelter an American soldier who objected to that war as he made his way to Canada.

I carried this even into my marriage, where my spouse and I lived in the mountains and ran camps for kids from all kinds of backgrounds.

All this work with deeply dedicated people taught me something important about power. That power at its root means having a say in the decisions that affect our lives. That real power comes through collective action. And the only way to build power is to build relationships.

Then life happened. A divorce. And we lost a whole lot of everything. I came back to the DMV where my parents unfurled a very big net under me. Because of their support, my son’s dad and I were able to unfurl under our boy a cooperative, sustainable, and even caring co-parenting relationship.

Then I put everything else behind me. I closed the door, and got to work. For several years, life consisted of making a living at a job that at least did a little bit of good in the world, but even that didn’t matter much. What mattered was squirreling away pennies, shuttling my son to and from school, keeping the fridge stocked. Eventually I bought a condo here in the neighborhood. I kept my head down. Smiled politely. Didn’t have time or energy to get to know anyone. All my efforts, I believed, needed to be focused on one little corner of the world: my home, my family.

A couple of years in, something started knocking on the door. Gently, quietly, but unquestionably knocking. Not sure what it was, I started looking up. Noticing the pull towards community. Noticing that the isolated and individual labor of survival cannot sustain and ultimately doesn’t work.

We’ve always known UUCF was here in our neighborhood. It took us a little while. Eventually my mother, son, and I worked up the courage to walk through those doors.

The sense of belonging we experienced, the sense of welcome, was immediate. The Religious Exploration teachers and families have found ways to include my self-determined son, even though he is only here on alternating weekends. More than that, we saw power growing from the connections and shared sense of purpose here. The hypothermia prevention shelter. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Weekend of Service. Ramadan observation with Muslim neighbors. Music and stories from all corners of the world. ESL classes. Climate action. Covenant group. Gun Violence Prevention. Share the Plate.

And that’s only the beginning.

Everyone in my family has found places to teach, learn, celebrate and serve together with others towards a common good.

This congregation opened doors for our family. Not only onto neighbors and friendships, but onto that sense of power that I’d tucked away when life changed so drastically several years earlier. Now my son doesn’t have to wait until he’s 20 and living his life somewhere else to discover that the only way we do anything that really matters is by coming together with others. He’s learning that right here. With you. Learning that through our connections, we can see possibilities that we’d never see on our own. That with common purpose, we can make things happen. That in relationship, we cultivate sources of joy and justice that extend well beyond ourselves.

I don’t have to tell you how hard it is to make ends meet in this area. We live on one income here in Northern Virginia. We drive a junky old car and scan the online listings for free events on weekends. Nevertheless, last year, we made our first annual pledge. Small, but significant. It was important to us to commit a portion of our family budget for the good work of this community.

Because I believe all of us here are called to cultivate power – the good kind of power, the kind that moves us to act for justice and love.

We’ve renewed and increased our pledge this year, and I hope you’ll join us. So that this congregation can continue to open doors. Its own, to neighbors seeking a spiritual home, to anyone who hears that knocking. And also the doors inside each of us, so we can seek the full expression of our power together, in our lives and in the world.

Image: Annamaria Papalini, “Forme di linguaggio- interazione”

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