Peaceful powerful space: The Unitarian Universalist Community of El Paso
by Jim Tolbert
Posted on May 30, 2009
I had never attended anything at the Unitarian Universalist Community of El Paso. In fact, my only knowledge of Unitarianism had always been tangential. I grew up and have spent most of my life in faith communities that practice liturgical prayer – particularly prayer to the Holy Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) – nothing unitarian for sure.
Last Friday I attended a lecture at the “home” of El Paso’s Unitarians. Bobby Byrd had invited me to hear “Zenster” Brad Warren, a Zen monk and a punk rocker. I thoroughly enjoyed Brad’s talk. What impressed me even more was the space where we were. It wasn’t just the “rustic” southwest walls and colorful tapestries. It wasn’t the simple altar or the beautiful Buddhist shrine in one corner. It was the “space” -– the feel of it. I’ve had this same feeling in places of community gathering and worship that are adorned with candles and icons. I’ve had this feeling in places of incense and shadow. These sacred spaces give me a sense of security as well as the excitement of new adventure.
So I went back on Sunday to see what these Unitarian Universalists do.
Secular theologian, Paul Van Buren, often distinguished between prayer that beseeches God for help and prayer that offers help. One kind asks for divine intervention; the other kind rolls up its sleeves. I take it that Unitarians roll up their sleeves.
Everything about their order of service had to do with social service and activism. The “gathering” music (opening hymn in Protestant-think) was Yes We Can by hipster will.i.am. We all recited an Affirmation:
“I am only one.
But still I am one.
I cannot do everything.
But still I can do something.
And because I cannot do everything,
I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.”
Rachael Padalino gave a dramatic reading of "Horton Hears a Who" by Dr. Seuss in which the behavior of the entrenched, insensitive and careless powerful is finally changed by the efforts of all of the tiniest of voices of Who-ville where “a person’s a person, no matter how small.”
It was Rachael’s husband, John, who gave the real life story of empowering Whos in the poor communities of Chaparral, Sunland Park and Anapra, New Mexico to get out and vote last November 4th. John’s presentation was billed as the “Democratic Process in Action”. He chronicled with anecdote, humor and passion his experiences as a campaign volunteer for Barak Obama. He spoke about confronting Border Patrol agents on election day. Their menacing presence intimidated people in one neighborhood, making them afraid to leave their homes to go vote. John and his fellow workers knocked on doors until the close of the polls and watched over children so their parents could go vote. Mostly, he empowered “Whos” whose voices have been silent or small to shout.
After we heard John Padalino speak, we sang Woody Guthrie’s inspiring “This Land Is Your Land” and closed the service with this litany:
“If, here, you have found freedom,
Take it with you into the world.
If you have found comfort,
Go and share it with others.
If you have dreamed dreams
Help one another, that they may come true.
If you have known love,
Give some back to a bruised and hurting world.”
So now I know why this space that the El Paso Unitarian Universalist community calls home is so special. It is the love and peace and empowerment that they fill it with each time they come together. Their offertory for the day wasn’t even for themselves. It was for the work of Border Interfaith.
I plan to return.
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