We first arrive here as strangers
Most of us knowing no one
Finding unfamiliarity all around
Later, we come to know the faces
We even began to learn the stories
We began to trust - to feel safe to let the guard down
We dared to be ourselves
The journey we are on leads to understanding
To awareness of one another’s strengths and goodness
To recognition of their needs and dreams
To compassion for their wounds and terrors
Community is a shared journey toward understanding
By the light of this flame, let us travel on in love
Reading: No [One] is an Island, by John Donne
No [one] is an island entire of itself; every [person]
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any [person’s] death diminishes me,
because I am involved in [hu]mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
Introduction to connection - by Rev. Andy Pakula
Today is a different kind of Sunday Gathering. We are going to explore how we connect to one another and what that really means for us. Not coincidentally, the Connections team has been involved in planning and two of its members will participate.
Twelve years ago, when I came here and became a minister of a congregation for the first time, I was faking it. That is, I sort-of knew how to be a minister from training and from some practice, but I really didn’t know which of the many things I learned was really so important. I was worried that I had to be clever and wise and I knew I wouldn’t be that good at either of those.
At some point, I recognised that one thing people needed to know is that they were truly welcome. This was hugely reinforced in the few times I did a survey of what people found most important in a Sunday Gathering. Was it my brilliant messages? Nope. Amazing musicians? Nope. Candles of Joy and Sorrow? Nope.
It was the welcome. It was the time when I say whoever you are - no matter what - you are welcome here. There is a place for you here. Some people said that it matters every single time they hear it.
And I don’t think they value this part most because everything else is bad. I believe it’s because we yearn to be welcome anywhere as we are. We yearn to be able to let down the facade in a place where we feel safe to be who we are - to show up as we are.
It is only when we are really able to feel that welcome - that our real self is welcome rather than the mask we so often wear - that we can connect with others in an authentic way.
And connection is tremendous. Connection is what helps us to grow. It is what gives us comfort. It is what helps us know ever more strongly that we are acceptable and loveable. It is what gives us the strength to reach out to help others and take risks to make a better world.
Connection changes our lives, and being authentically and deeply welcome is what makes it possible.
A reflection - from Mary, a congregation member
I have long been aware that feeling connected to people is of immense importance to me. I am, I think, a “classic” extrovert, not in the sense that I’m the life and soul of the party, (although I’ve had my moments!), but in the sense that my worst nightmare would be to find myself completely on my own. An extrovert seems to need other people to validate their very existence. Reading “The Last Man”, a novel written by Mary Shelley, daughter of our own Mary Wollstonecraft of course, was quite a trial, as I couldn’t fail to imagine myself in the position of her hapless hero, the last person left alive on earth. Desert Island Discs? Forget it! I’d be screaming to be rescued within 48 hours, never mind listening to my favourite music.
I remember saying half jokingly to my husband that I’d be head of the queue to go in to an old people’s home if left alone, rather than declaring – as his mother had done – that she had no intention of doing so, stroke or no stroke. So, when my partner of over 40 years, the person who had shared so much of my life and memories, my best friend and ‘other half’ died, totally unexpectedly one day on a holiday in Berlin, I was completely devastated.
My daughters, in spite of their own terrible shock and grief, were magnificent. They lived in London, and I was still up in Manchester, my home for over 50 years, but we still managed to spend most of that first month together. For next month, they organised my calendar, contacting friends, and asking when they could see me, so that, together with my part time teaching, I had things to do and people to see, almost every day. But the fact remained that I was now, for the first time in my life, living on my own, As the initial numbness and shock wore off, I was increasingly fearful that this was a situation that I just couldn’t handle. Previously happy to go out on my own, I now felt this awful sense of disconnectedness, whether seated in a theatre, a cafe, or walking in the park. Everyone else was with their partner or their family, it seemed. Strangely, I noticed that couples my age all seemed to have started holding hands, and even with friends, my presence seemed to produce a sudden need to be in physical contact with each other! Most of my friends were still part of a couple, and I realised that part of the process of grieving involved being carried, kicking, screaming and resisting with every fibre of my being from the world of “coupledom’ to that of a single person, alone.
Of course, being an extrovert, I joined things: Italian & ukulele lessons with the U3A, a widow’s group, and it was directing a play, with a lovely cast and backstage crew that helped get me through the first anniversary of Chris’s death. I also became a doggy host for an organisation that provided care for people’s beloved pooches when they went away, and got to know the only male in my new life, the wonderful Barry the Jackadoodle, who, as some of you will know, is still a regular visitor. A dog provides a fun, lively presence in your life , someone to chunter to, play with, and be responsible for: they are also brilliant at making connections. Barry loves other dogs, so every walk will invariably involve several conversations with fellow dog owners. My love of dogs has also led to my getting to know so many of my neighbours, and I now look after several of their dogs when needed, not to mention my daughter’s cats!
But I’ve got ahead of myself. Back in Manchester, I finally accepted that I was really struggling on my own. I had joined a co-housing project in my search for connections, but they were still at the planning stages for a new build block of flats. Co-housing is a way for people to live more fully connected lives. It can be particularly vital for older people left on their own, as groups like the pioneering Older Women’s Cooperative Housing project (or OUCH as they call themselves) in Barnet, have shown. However, I needed to make a radical change sooner rather than later and, encouraged by my daughters, who had now acquired houses on the same street in Bow, I made the decision to move to London. Miraculously, I found a little mews type house right at the back of my older daughter’s which felt like home from day one. Medway Buildings are certainly not an intentional community, but I love the real community feel it has, promoted by the close proximity in which we live. It will be 2 years on December the 2nd since my move.
It’s absolutely wonderful being so close to my family and to feel part of of my grandchildren’s day to day lives. But I knew it was vital for all of us that I established my own independent life. I had discovered New Unity by Christmas, a combination of a long standing admiration for Mary Wollstonecraft and a warm welcome from a small Unitarian congregation in Manchester in the year before I left. I was surprised to walk in to such a full chapel, with so many young people and children, and the thought provoking talks, the beautiful music, and the lively, enthusiastic atmosphere, not to mention the chance to sit in “Mary’s Box Pew’”, had me hooked. Naturally I felt a bit awkward for the first few weeks during social hour, but I soon realised that here was a community of like minded people, trying to lead thoughtful, ethical lives, who actively wanted to get to know me! As I said to one of the family, “What’s not to like?”! A meeting with Andy resulted in my joining the Cohesion and Welcoming team, now renamed the Connections Team, and gradually becoming involved in many events and activities, including the work of the Unity Project, doing childcare, on Tuesdays.
I know that the many, many connections I have made here, the friends of all ages, have contributed enormously to the success of my big move. The New Unity community is somewhere I feel at home. The weekly gatherings never fail to inspire and uplift me, and I miss you all when I can’t get to them. There is no doubt in my mind that we have something very special here, and I feel passionate about ensuring that we reach out to the many others who could find a spiritual home here too. That’s why I’m still on the Connections team, why I’m involved in the workshop on Welcoming that I am sure you are all coming to next week!
After 4 and a half years, I am in a very different place, fully reconnected to life and all its joys, sorrows and possibilities, and accepting of my single status. I want to say a huge thank you to the New Unity community, for helping me to arrive here.
Reading: I Choose You, I Am Here - by Emma Merchant (adapted)
The thought that we are each making a choice to be here in this family, in this community, is powerful. We have actively chosen to come and be here. I’m not stuck with you because you’re my cousin and I’m not allowed to be rude. I could leave if I wanted to, but I don’t because of the way that we have each nurtured this community. I choose to be stuck with you, for better or for worse.
And we have continuously made this choice over and over again. Every time we attend [on a Sunday], every time we donate our time and energy, every time we clasp hands in meditation is a promise: “I am here for you.” The DNA of this community may be metaphorical, but it exists within me. [...] My heart beats with the blood of this [congregation], pounding out “I choose you, I am here.” This is a safe space, a place of learning, a place of compassion, a space created by the very idea of love. We chose to build a sanctuary because we chose to be together. There is no use for a [congregation] of people who hate each other [...].
We make the choice to stay stuck together even when we don’t even want to be in the same room. But we always come back to the table, because we choose to be together. Through thick and thin, we have chosen love. And in hard times, struggling times, times that we face everyday, we come together even closer. We make the choice to listen to each other, we make the choice to pick each other up, and we make the choice to love each other.
We have built this community with our commitment to that love.
We all have many different reasons for being here, but I like to think that we all have one common reason for being here: Love. Over everything else, we are here because we are the people who choose love. We do not have a bloodline, but we have a deep unconditional love that runs through us all. We choose that love. We choose each other. Our hearts echo, “I choose you, I am here, I am here, I am here.”
Welcoming another is a profound act
A potentially life-changing act
It can spark growth
It can foster relationship
It is the beginning of love
Do the work of transformation
Welcome others with your words, with your eyes, and especially, with your open heart.