Our Buildings

When the Palo Alto Unitarian Society began began to meet in 1947, they didn’t own a building but met in rented space. After outgrowing other spaces, they finally wound up in the Palo Alto Community Center. Rae Bell, who joined the congregation in 1953, later recalled:

“It was a three ring circus on Sunday mornings! The number of children in the church school grew by leaps and bounds, and classes had to be held in adjacent homes, the YMCA, the Girl Scout House, the Junior Museum, and Harker School. The religious education teachers arrived each Sunday morning with all their supplies in one bulging box. An Arts Committee performed wonders with floral and art pieces to brighten up the dark Children’s Theatre where services were held. By 1955, a sixteen-voice adult choir squeezed into the miniature space to the side of the stage…. Given these crowded conditions, the impetus to build our own home was tremendous.” (1)

But how would they finance building their own home? As a new congregation, the American Unitarian Association in Boston still helped pay their minister’s salary. And where did they want their new building to be? Bob Harrison, one of the earliest members of the congregation, later remembered:

“We soon became solvent enough to plan with Boston for a church building. Some thought we should buy the old First Presbyterian building. I was chairman of the Board, and moderated a long meeting in the faculty clubhouse at Stanford on the pros and cons, and we finally decided to build [a new building]. We then looked for sites, including one on Loma Verde, but decided on the Charleston [Road] site.” (2)

A site at 1345 Channing Ave. was also considered (3), and it was even suggested they purchase the old Unitarian church building at the corner of Cowper and Channing. But even though some criticized the site on Charleston Rd. as just a cabbage field, others pointed out the advantages of being in an area where many new homes were being built.

The congregation voted on June 27, 1954, to buy the cabbage field, for which they paid $30,060 (about $285,000 in today’s dollars). They leased the field out for farming until they figured out what they wanted to build. They started off thinking small: in June, 1955, a group of people proposed building two modest buildings comprising 7,250 square feet at a total expenditure of $51,634 (approximately $500,000 in today’s dollars). (4) In November, 1955, Richard Allen and three others submitted a more considered proposal to the Board for buildings totaling of 8,280 square feet. The increased square footage was based on more careful calculations of the requirements for the Sunday school: “If three sessions [of church school] were scheduled each Sunday, six classrooms and one [children’s] assembly room would be sufficient for 540 children.” (5) Sunday school enrollment at that time was over 300 children, and rising rapidly.

The Board of Trustees also considered how the buildings would embody the values of the congregation. They wanted a building that would “reflect freedom of thought and action coupled with the disciplines of a mature mind,” a building that would “convey a tolerance for the religious beliefs of others, and recognition and retention of the good in cultures other than our own,” and that would “express a sense of human equality and brotherhood.” (6)

Once they had some sense of the building they wanted to build, the next step was to choose an architect. Bob Harrison remembered how they settled on Joseph Esherick:

“[Harrison’s wife] Rowena, Glen Taylor, and a few others were on the committee to select an architect from the many who submitted tentative plans. Rowena was particularly pleased with Esherick, who was later selected, because he seemed more sensitive to the feelings and interests of the entire congregation.” (7)

Esherick was the perfect choice for the congregation. Marc Treib, one of his graduate students at the University of California, Berkeley, and now emeritus professor there, has summed up Esherick’s architecture as always being “appropriate”: “[Esherick] wasn’t a major form-giver. He wasn’t a Frank Lloyd Wright. He didn’t do frivolous shapes — his architecture was quieter, and more about living and use, than flashy designs to be reproduced in the professional journals.” (8) In other words, instead of building a building that would show off his design prowess, Esherick listened attentively to his clients and built the building they wanted and needed.

Esherick may be considered a regional architect who carried on the regional architectural tradition of Julia Morgan and Bernard Maybeck. While our building is often categorized as Mid-century Modern, critic Lewis Mumford would have categorized it as “Bay Region Style, a mid-century follow-up to Maybeck and Morgan.” (9)

The vision that Esherick captured in our buildings is revealed in his original idea for the site plan, including plans for future classrooms and a future church building. His original idea shows our campus as a grid. This is in striking contrast to the typical Christian church, where there is a clearly defined path from the entry point to the altar or pulpit, just as there is a clearly defined path for Christians to the ultimate goal of salvation. A building complex based on a grid offers no neatly-defined path to salvation. Indeed, our campus continues to prove disorienting to first-time visitors; people regularly get lost on their first visit here because there is no single goal towards which our buildings aim us.

Above: Original grid concept for the site plan (Dan Harper illustration)

The grid came to be emblematic both of mid-century architecture, as well as some visual artists, such as the deeply spiritual painter Agnes Martin, whose paintings are based on a subtle, meditative grid. I believe there is a connection, too, to the freedom that was being explored by the jazz musicians of that era, as for example the spiritual jazz of Pharoah Sanders. Like free jazz, a grid suggests “limitless space and absence of place.” (11) A grid, then, is an excellent expression of the stated values of the congregation: freedom of thought and action, tolerance for the religious beliefs of others, and a sense of human equality.

In Esherick’s design, the grid extends from the large-scale site plan to the most sensitive and subtle details. The building elevations, now in the collection of the University of California at Berkeley, show how the facades of the buildings were organized into grids.

Above: Elevations of the Palo Alto Unitarian Church, c. 1958 (Univ. Calif. Berkeley archives)

Then there are more subtle details: Esherick extended the rafter tails into space beyond roof lines, giving the feeling that the grid extends over those areas where there are no buildings. And the grid continues into the interiors of the buildings as well: long linear light fixtures hung from the ceiling of the classrooms extended a subtle grid above your head while providing soft and non-directional light.

Above: Class in Room 2/3 c. 1980 showing how the light fixtures extend the grid to the interiors (UUCPA archives)

Eshierck recognized the seriousness of purpose of the congregation, but he also understood that the congregation had a sense of humor, and there are witty touches throughout the buildings. In an oral history interview, Esherick remembered that the building “had to be very economical, but it has lots
of nice things in it…. One of the things I like most about it is that the lighting [in the Main Hall] is made up of great, big porcelain enamel reflector lamps, the kind of things that are used on a big, high shaft for parking lot lighting. I always look at that stuff and think of what it’s going to be like upside-down or right-side-up, and these are all used upside-down. They work wonderfully well. They give very good quality light.” (12) Although the wittiness of the bowl lights has been mostly forgotten today, members of the congregation who were involved in the building process always remembered what the bowl lights really were.

The building complex was constructed in six months for a total cost of $178,000 (about $1.6 million in today’s dollars) comprising 11,000 square feet. The first Sunday service was held on September 7, 1958. Rae Bell remembered “a massive all-day clean-up occurred on the previous day with wooden chairs uncrated… floors and windows washed, and rubbish removed.” (13) There was as yet no landscaping; photos of opening day show the patio outside the Main Hall was just bare dirt.

Religious education enrollment and adult attendance continued to rise, and soon the new buildings were filled past capacity. The adults met in the Main Hall, which held over 200 people on uncomfortable wooden chairs. (14) At each service, about one hundred children crammed into the Children’s Meeting Hall — what we now call the Fireside Room — before dispersing to their classrooms. In 1964, to alleviate cramped office space, the congregation built an extension, designed by Joseph Esherick, to the office building. (15) Attendance peaked in the mid-1960s, with three Sunday services, and as many as 600 children enrolled in Sunday school.

After a few years, Jobe and Jean Jenkins donated a madrone branch from their property in the Santa Cruz Mountains to be hung on the north wall of the Main Hall. (16) By deciding to hang this madrone branch on this wall, the congregation gave a firm and definite orientation to this room; now it felt more like a traditional Christian church, with an axial orientation towards the pulpit. This is one instance of the congregation resisting the radical openness of the grid; the uncertainty and openness of the grid plan was too uncomfortable.

Above: Sunday service, May 2018, showing axial orientation of the main Hall (UUCPA archives, Jack Owicki photo)

By 1966 our congregation began to think about building a church building at the front of the lot. But the congregation has changed since 1958. Many people were no longer satisfied with the simple rectangular building shown on the original site plan. Deep divisions within the congregation became apparent as they tried to decide what kind of building they wanted.

Differing opinions about the war in Vietnam exemplify the divisions within the congregation. The senior minister, Dan Lion, and some congregants opposed the war; other congregants supported the war. In June, 1967, the church newsletter carried a letter from church member George Price, saying, “Our government is dedicated to PEACE. Peace in Vietnam is its primary goal there… I support my government.” Ed and Celia Freiburg responded in August, 1967, with the barbed criticism that “there are well-meaning members of our congregation who want us to assume the ‘white man’s burden’ abroad.” (17) In addition to open division over social issues, there was also hidden interpersonal conflict: lay leaders and the senior minister, Dan Lion, were increasingly in conflict. (18) Not surprisingly, then, there was also conflict around the proposed building project.

Joseph Esherick was retained to design the new building. In a letter to the Board president dated February, 1968, he quoted one of the stated desires of the congregation: for a building with the “speaker speaking from with in the community, an interdialogue; rather than a neutral setting or the traditional authoritarian setting.” To Esherick, that suggested a “radically different form” from the existing buildings, with a “face to face entrance with both congregation and minister coming essentially from the same side and, as it were, from the same place and meeting, confronting one another, in a single common space.” (19) The ideals represented by the grid — freedom, tolerance of other’s beliefs, human equality — were no longer at the forefront of people’s minds. What I hear instead is a desire to manage conflict; perhaps a new building could be a container for productive conflict, for what they called “inter-dialogue.”

Above: Photo of Esherick’s model of the proposed new auditorium, c. 1968 (UUCPA archives)

George Price estimated the new building would cost 374,000 dollars (about $2.75 million in today’s dollars). (20) In an open letter, Arthur Coffman, a self-proclaimed member of the “Loyal Opposition,” argued: “At this time in the history of our nation and our church there are, to me, options with higher priorities than our own creature comforts at a cost of some $300,000.” (21) Assistant minister Mike Young tried to further the discussion by asking, “The new building, tough it will open up some new programming possibilities, will tend to commit us to become a ‘BIG’ church; with all that means in terms of potential resources, but also in terms of a diminished sense of being a community.” (22) But no congregational consensus emerged.

A congregational meeting was called in May, 1968, to affirm or reject the motion that: “It is the sense of the congregation that the Palo Alto Unitarian Church have a new auditorium. This building would be substantially like the one designed by Esherick and Associates.” One hundred of the congregation’s members voted no, while only sixty-six voted yes. Board president George Price called the majority “no” vote a “mandate to develop leadership in programs in the field of human rights.” The money raised during the capital campaign was then donated to various charitable organizations.

Why did the congregation make this decision? Unresolved conflict between the ministers and lay leaders helped prevent productive discussion, as did the conflicts between members of the congregation over Vietnam and other social issues. Additionally, based on comments made by those who were part of the congregation at that time, there were probably some who voted “no” because they thought the new design was ugly or inappropriate to the congregation. The consensus-building process that had been followed in 1958 was not possible in 1968.

Above: Rooms B through D, 2009, showing grid pattern on building facade (Dan Harper photo)

The next half century of our building’s history will have to be the subject of another sermon. Instead, I’d like to reflect on how our building complex continues to make us feel uncomfortable.

Our congregation still feels tension between a desire for openness and a desire for some degree of certainty. It may make us uncomfortable knowing the madrone branch hangs exactly where a cross would hang in a traditional Christian church, but it makes us more uncomfortable to change the orientation of the Main Hall; when Amy and I experimented in 2009-2010 by orienting the chairs towards the west wall, many were disturbed and upset. We still prefer the certainty of knowing which direction we should face, and we still make small and large decisions to try to tame the radical openness of the grid.

Our discomfort with uncertainty means we do not find it easy to deal with opposing viewpoints. For one example, this congregation has less theological diversity than other Unitarian Universalist congregations I’ve been part of. We are dominated by atheists and humanists and non-theists; we have no pagan circle, no Christian fellowship, no Jewish roots group. For another example, we lack political diversity; everyone seems to belong to the Democratic party. Sometimes it seems to me this congregation clings to unexamined certainties embodied by atheism and the Democratic party the way some fundamentalist Christian churches cling to their King James Bibles.

Our desire for certainty conflicts with our visually stimulating and deeply unsettling buildings. The theological image that our building embodies for me is the image of the web of all existence, which includes all living organisms and all non-organic matter. (23) The web of existence has no center; we human beings are not the center, we are merely one node in the web. A subset of the web of existence is the web of all humanity, and privileged college-educated Americans are not at the center of all humanity; here again there is no center.

What happens if we de-center ourselves, recognizing our limitations as fallible, finite beings? We live in a world facing global environmental disaster, a world faced with mass movements of refugees. To live ethically, we must confront the reality that college-educated American human beings are not the center of the universe, and that humans are not the center of the web of existence.

Above: A dance service in February, 2014, which playfully subverted the directionality of the axial orientation of the Main Hall (video still, Erik Walter)

In a Christian church, you know where God is: follow the straight-line path that begins at the front door and ends at the cross hanging on the far wall. Our building complex has no center, and that means God is either everywhere or nowhere; or rather is BOTH everywhere and nowhere; both atheism and theism are valid options for structuring human meaning. In our church, there is no one center, and thus on Sunday morning there will be many centers of activity: you can attend Sunday services, or participate in the Forum, or help prepare lunch in the kitchen, or be part of a class, or play on the playground, or join our bias-free Navigators scouting group in the covered patio. Each is a valid pathway towards spiritual growth and maturity.

However, I believe our congregation as a whole — not referring to specific individuals, but the congregation as a whole — still lacks the spiritual maturity to fully embrace the implications of our building complex. We resist uncertainty. We resist being de-centered. We cling to our self-importance because we are steeped in the hyper-individualism of our consumerist information-driven society. We still believe freedom means “I get to believe and do whatever I want.”

Our building complex confronts us with a higher ideal: we are not isolated individuals who can believe whatever we want, we are part of the web of all existence. Our building complex tends to shape us towards growth in spiritual maturity, so we stop pretending that we are the center of the universe, we stop demanding certainty. Will we allow ourselves to be so shaped?

Above: Looking south towards the Fireside Room at night, 2014; note rafter tails extending the grid out into space at left

Notes:

(1) Rae Bell, “A History of Unitarians in Palo Alto, Part II,” Winter, 2003, issue of “Mosaic” (Palo Alto: UUCPA, 2003).

(2) Robert Harrison, Typescript in the UUCPA archives, handwritten title “Bob Harrison: Memories, Aug. 7, 1983.”

(3) Coincidentally, this site is adjacent to Eleanor Pardee Park; Pardee was a prominent member of the early Unitarian Church of Palo Alto that existed from 1905-1934.

(4) Don Borthwick et al. (65 other co-signers), “A practical plan for developing our Charleston Road property NOW,” presented at the June 20, 1955, Board meeting. The proposal called for a 4,000 square foot Sunday school building and a 3,250 square foot social hall that would also hold Sunday services.

(5) Richard Allen, Donald Borthwick, Mrs. Robert Kenyon, Jospeh O. Whitely, Jr., “Report of Subcommittee II, Building Space Requirements, Richard Allen, Chairman,” submitted Jan. 8, 1956.

(6) “Architectural Objectives,” Jan., 1956, typescript in the UUCPA archives.

(7) Robert Harrison, 1983.

(8) Quoted in Carol Ness, “A Bay Region master: The architecture of Joseph Esherick finally gets its due,” UC Berkeley News, November 5, 2008, www.berkeley.edu/news/berkeleyan/2008/11/05_esherick.shtml , accessed 20 June 2019. Treib’s book about Esherick’s work is titled “Appropriate.”

(9) Ness, 2008. Esherick studied with one of Bernard Maybeck’s proteges, William Wurster; the earlier Unitarian church in Palo Alto had been designed by Maybeck; thus our present building has stylistic links to that earlier Unitarian church.

(10) This analysis is based on Thomas Barrie’s idea of the “grid path” in his Spiritual Path, Sacred Place: Myth, Ritual, and Meaning in Architecture, Boston: Shambala, 1996, pp. 116-118.

(11) Barrie, p. 118.

(12) Joseph Esherick, “An Architectural Practice in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1938-1996,” 1996, an oral history conducted in 1994-1996 by Suzanne B. Riess, Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 1996.

(13) Rae Bell, 2003.

(14) That the chairs were uncomfortable was reported by several early members of the congregation.

(15) Total cost for the addition was $5000 (about $40,000 in today’s dollars); letter in the UUCPA archives dated February 13, 1964, from J. A. Aplin, Trustee Member for Building, to Hans Stern, building contractor. This addition includes the present-day library.

(16) Typescript in the UUCPA archives, “Facts about the old madrone branch, from jean Jenkins, as told to April Hill,” n.d. This typescript states that the first madrone branch was placed on the wall in 1962; however, photographs of the Main hall interior that apparently date from before this time also show some kind of branch mounted on the wall.

(17) Clippings from the church newsletter in the UUCPA archives.

(18) For documentary evidence of this conflict, see for example, Ron Hargis, “The Palo Alto Unitarian Church: An Analysis,” 2 pp. typescript dated January, 1977.

(19) Letter from Joseph Esherick to Dr. Jobe Jenkins, dated February 6, 1968; typescript in the UUCPA archives.

(20) Typescript in UUCPA archives, “PAUC New Building Costs,” signed G. W. Price, and dated April 20, 1968.

(21) Arthur Coffman, typescript titled “A New Building?: Thoughts from a Member of the Loyal Opposition,” n.d. (1968).

(22) Mike Young, typescript in the UUCPA archives titled “An Open Letter from the Assistant Minister,” April 19, 1968. Sid Peterman, the interim senior minister following Dan Lion’s resignation, wrote in his final report to the congregation that the church at that time was a large church that was run like a small church; Mike Young’s resistance to becoming a “BIG” church becomes more understandable in light of Peterman’s analysis.

(23) My understanding of the web of existence comes, not from the “Seven Principles” of the Unitarian Universalist Association, but from theologian Bernard Loomer. See e.g. his “Unfoldings,” Berkeley, Calif: Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley, 1985.

This Congregation and Its Ministers, 1947-2000

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 9:30 and 11:00 a.m. services. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2018 Daniel Harper.

Sermon: This Congregation and Its Ministers, 1947-2000

On the surface, this is simply a sermon full of little stories about interesting people. But I also hope to make a serious theological point: in the words of Unitarian theologian Bernard Loomer: “We are born or created … as members of a Web of interconnections.”

To begin this history, you have to understand that we Unitarian Universalists see the relationship between clergy and congregation a bit differently than other religions. Unitarian Universalist congregations don’t have to have a minister. If a Unitarian Universalist congregation does decide to have a minister, it is the congregation that chooses which minister, and the congregation has the power to sever its relationship with the minister. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the relationship between our congregations and its ministers from 1947 to 2000.

Our congregation began in 1947 when Rev. Delos O’Brian, the regional representative of the American Unitarian Association, met with some Unitarians who lived in and around Palo Alto. He then placed advertisements announcing the formation of a Unitarian group. O’Brian called the first meeting on Sunday, April 6, 1947; and the following week, April 13, 27 people signed a charter membership roll. By April 27, 1947, the Palo Alto Unitarians had arranged with Nat Lauriat, then minister of the San Jose Unitarian church, to lead weekly worship services for them.

This group, calling itself the Palo Alto Unitarian Society, continued in this way some months, content to remain small, with fewer than 50 members. Nat Lauriat recalled a meeting in October, 1947, where “the general feeling was to proceed with great caution, and just have a pleasant little group.” Lauriat wanted to shake them out of that attitude, and he was pleased when the excessive caution at that October meeting “produced a reaction among the younger members for more action and growth.” Lauriat’s encouragement of action and growth soon paid off. Sixty people attended the first anniversary dinner, April 16, 1948, and voted to form a new congregation, the Palo Alto Unitarian Society.

By late 1948, the congregation learned about the new “Minister-at-Large” program offered by the American Unitarian Association (AUA). One minister-at-large was Rev. Lon Ray Call, who traveled from place to place across the country, spending two or three months at each place building excitement and enthusiasm, helping set up a congregational organization, and then leaving when he judged the new congregation would survive on its own.

Call arrived in Palo Alto on Easter Sunday, April 17, 1949. Within a month, membership had increased from 54 to 102. Years later, lay leader Bob Harrison recalled Call and his wife by saying, “Were they terrific!” With help from the Calls, the congregation saw there was strong demand for liberal religion in Palo Alto. The Calls also helped them see they would no longer be content to have Nat Lauriat come up once a week for an hour on Sunday; the congregation realized they would do best with a full-time minister. Based on Call’s recommendation, the AUA agreed to pay two thirds of the new minister’s salary.

In a historical footnote, some months after Lon Call left Palo Alto, the American Unitarian Association began a new policy, encouraging small congregations to form without professional leadership. These lay-led congregations, called “fellowships,” needed only ten members to formally affiliate with the AUA. If the fellowship concept had existed before the Palo Alto Unitarian Society organized, perhaps they would have been content to remain at 50 members in rented space. We owe our current congregation to Nat Lauriat’s encouragement, and Lon Call’s vision of rapid growth.

Above: Dan Lion ready to preach in the Lucie Stern Community Center, the space rented for worship services before moving into the new building, 1957

Above: Dan Lion standing in the pulpit on the first Sunday service in the new building, Sept. 7, 1958

In mid-June, 1949, the Committee to Recommend a Permanent Minister voted unanimously to extend a call to Nat Lauriat. Lauriat turned them down, saying it wouldn’t be fair to the San Jose church. Next the congregation settled on Rev. Felix Danford Lion, then the minister in Dunkirk, New York. Lon Ray Call wrote to Lion on behalf of the congregation, encouraging Lion to accept the position without an in-person interview; Call added, “I do not wish to over-sell this church, but under the right leadership it can very quickly become one of our great [Unitarian] churches.”

In the years from 1949 to 1962, the Palo Alto Unitarian Church (they changed the name in 1951) did indeed become one of the “great churches.” Growth happened very quickly. By 1958, the congregation had grown enough to move out of rented space into its own building, built on a cabbage field at the intersection of Charleston Road and Adobe Creek. Growth peaked in 1962, when there were three Sunday services with six hundred children enrolled in the religious education program. Sunday school classes were held in 13 classrooms, the Fireside Room (which was built as a children’s chapel), and living rooms in houses of people who lived nearby. In order to remain at their preferred size of about 500 members, the Palo Alto Unitarian Church spun off several smaller congregations, including both the Sunnyvale and the Redwood City Fellowships.

The theology of both Lion and most of the congregation might be called vaguely theistic but strongly pragmatic, focused on social issues in the here-and-now. Rites of passage were very important, and Dan Lion officiated at scores of memorial services, child dedications, and weddings. (A historical footnote: If you know something about the 1960s folk music scene, you’ll be interested to know that Lion officiated at the wedding of a young banjo player named Jerry Garcia, and at the wedding of Mimi Baez Fariña, Joan Baez’s younger sister.)

By the late 1960s, the post-war Baby Boom was over, at the same time that people began to drift away from institutions like churches. Unitarian Universalist congregations across the U.S. declined in membership, and Palo Alto was no exception. By 1965, Sunday school enrollment in our congregation had dropped from 600 to 500; by 1970, enrollment dropped still further to 200. To quote a popular song of that time, the times they were a-changing.

Above: Mike Young and Janet Buelow at a meeting in the Fireside Room c. 1967

During the 1960s, the congregation hired two assistant ministers. Bud Repp served as assistant minister from June, 1961, to September, 1962, while Dan Lion was on sabbatical. Even 1962 was the peak attendance of the church, Repp’s “salary was minimal and was not raised at the May congregational meeting,” so he resigned.

In June, 1965, the congregation hired Mike Young as assistant minister; he was also a Campus Minister at Stanford, so he was not at our congregation full-time. He was expected to stay just two years. Instead he stayed for nearly four years, and during his last year he was “under pressure from the Board to find a church of his own.”

In April, 1970, the congregation hired Ron Garrison as a half time “Minister to Youth,” although he was not actually an ordained minister. In January, 1971, Garrison began working full-time as Minister for Youth and Community Education. He helped organize both Thacher Preschool, and “Lothlorien,” an alternative high school that occupied what are now Rooms A through D. By 1972, the congregation had two full-time ordained ministers, so they only funded Garrison’s position at half time; he then resigned.

Above: 1973 photo with (L-R) Margaret French (charter member), Sid Peterman, Milton Evans (charter member), Ron Hargis, and Mildred Justesen

In July, 1971, Ron Hargis was hired as a Minister of Religious Education. Hargis later recalled he “had arrived at the church in the midst of a real conflict of staff personalities and church people.” A year after Hargis’s arrival, Dan Lion resigned to become Associate Minister at Community Church in New York City.

Why did Lion resign? The Palo Alto Times reported: “There has been occasional in-house controversy at the church … but members of Palo Alto Unitarian’s Board of Trustees say it is no more than the usual amount and has not been the impetus for Lion’s departure…. [One] trustee, Mrs. Gail Hamaker, said that some criticism was directed at Lion along the lines that he was perhaps providing too much leadership in church affairs….” Other documents in the church archives imply that Lion was forced out. With Lion’s departure, Hargis found himself as the sole minister of a congregation in conflict.

Back in 2002, Darcey Laine, minister of religious education at our church from 2000 to 2008, interviewed a few people who remembered Ron Hargis. One person remarked on the “creative ferment” during his tenure, another remembered him as “free wheeling, kind, and gentle,” while someone else recalled that his wife would sometimes share the pulpit with him. But another person felt he “lacked some properties that a good minister should have.” In any case, the Baby Bust continued through the 1970s, so that by 1973, Sunday school enrollment dropped to about one hundred.

In December, 1972, the Board of Trustees hired Sid Peterman to be an interim minister following Dan Lion’s departure. This was a new and experimental concept at the time: after the departure of a long-time minister, a congregation would hire a specialized interim minister for a year, someone who specialized in what we now call change management. Peterman later said he began doing interim ministry in 1973, so Palo Alto was his first interim ministry.

When he was ending his interim ministry in late 1973, Peterman wrote eight single-spaced pages of detailed critical analysis of the Palo Alto Unitarian Church. In 2002, lay leader Georgia Schwaar gave a copy of this report to Darcey Laine. Georgia wrote: “Some of the comments [in the report] … are not of current pertinence but much of it is still, surprisingly, à propos.” I will quote one such comment that in my opinion still applies to our congregation in 2018:

“It seems to me [Peterman wrote] to be quite clear now that I have been here a year that most of the [internal] problems facing this congregation are due to a unique history. Starting in 1949 [sic] with a handful of people and no possessions and a budget which was almost fifty percent underwritten by the AUA, PAUC grew by 1970 to be one of the largest churches in the region…. All this was done under the strong and effective leadership of one minister who served the church all during this time…. Many of the administrative and personnel practices in 1972 were the same they had been for a much, much smaller church. The developing and inevitable pluralism of a larger Unitarian church in the late sixties and early seventies were not taken into consideration and the result was the enforcement of an artificial dualism which not only caused great individual strains and discomfort but made the operation of the church far more difficult than it should be…. I stress this analysis because to fail to see what really happened in the past dozen years leads up dead-end roads of personalities and recriminations, rather than providing fruitful ways of continuing the growth — [both] spiritual and physical….”

Above: Bill Jacobsen, 1988 photo directory

In 1973, while Peterman was still on staff, the congregation called Bill Jacobsen to be a co-minister with Ron Hargis. Since there were those who considered Dan Lion to have been an autocrat, I suspect for some people this co-ministry idea seemed like a way for two ministers to keep each other in check. However, the co-ministry idea wasn’t financially viable. Beginning with the 1973 oil crisis, the United States entered a severe economic downturn, and the congregation could not afford two ministers. In response to the economic downturn, in 1975 both Hargis and Jacobsen stated they would automatically “offer their resignations effective January 1, 1978,” if the finances of the congregation did not improve. The finances did not improve. Hargis kept his promise and tendered his resignation on schedule. Jacobsen changed his mind and stayed on as the sole minister.

Not long after arriving at the Palo Alto Unitarian Church, Jacobsen got divorced. There are persistent rumors that subsequently Jacobsen engaged in what is called “sexual misconduct,” that is, he allegedly had sex with women in the church, perhaps including teenaged girls. Whether or not these rumors are true, I do feel there’s a change in the relationship between the congregation and the ministers from the 1970s on. Documents from the 1950s and 1960s show a mutual respect between lay leaders and the senior minister. By 1990, the documents seem to show a different relationship between the congregation and its ministers, characterized by a lower level of trust and a tendency to carefully circumscribe the authority of the minister.

I find it difficult to characterize the relationship between Jacobsen and the congregation. Apparently, lay leaders took on most of the leadership of the congregation, leaving him to focus on sermons. He is remembered for his strong sermons, yet those who were not humanists like him sometimes felt left out.

During Jacobsen’s tenure, attendance dropped enough that the congregation went back to one service. Nationwide, Unitarian Universalism declined beginning in the mid-1960s, beginning to grow again in the 1980s; but here in Palo Alto, it appears that growth didn’t begin again until the mid-1990s.

A September, 1988, survey revealed a mixed response to Jacobsen; comments ranged from “I like [his] sermons” to “The church lacks leadership from our minister.” Other comments from this survey questioned lay leadership, such as this one: “many of the lay leaders are quite sexist in their attitudes.” In December, 1988, Jacobsen announced that he was looking for another ministry position. Finally, in August, 1990, Jacobsen said he’d retire. He then helped form the Humanist Community of Palo Alto, and became executive director there.

Above: Sam Wright and Donna Lee c. 2005

In 1990, our congregation hired Sam Wright as interim minister. Up to 1988, Wright had lived for two decades in the back country of Alaska with his first wife Billie. When she died, he wrote a book about his Alaska experience, which was published by the Sierra Club. Having read his book, I’d call Wright a mystic, in the naturalistic mode of Henry David Thoreau. One of the few mystics who had remained in the congregation during Jacobsen’s tenure told me they welcomed Wright’s arrival, and were deeply inspired by him.

Wright and his second wife, Donna Lee, considered themselves to be co-ministers (Lee was then in process to become a minister). Lee made a significant contribution to their interim ministry by writing a history of the early Unitarian Church of Palo Alto which existed from 1905 to 1934; Lee’s history remains important today because she had access to historical material that has since been lost.

During the one year that Wright and Lee served as interim ministers, the congregation added 69 new members.

Above: Ken Collier (at right) during a UUCPA Work Day, c. 1995

After the interim ministry of Sam Wright and Donna Lee, the congregation called Ken Collier as sole minister in 1991. Later Collier said that he was warned away from taking the position as minister: “I was told [the congregation] was an aging, tired, isolated and somewhat troubled church that had enormous untapped potential. It needed to heal from its recent troubles….”

Two achievements stand out from the decade when Ken Collier was minister. First, Collier and a small group of lay leaders led the Welcoming Congregation program. This program, an initiative of the Unitarian Universalist Association, was designed to “undo homophobia” and ensure the congregation was a welcoming place for gay, lesbian, and bisexual persons. The congregation’s commitment to welcoming gay, lesbian, and bisexual people was soon tested. In 1993, Collier and his then-wife Marnie co-wrote a letter to the congregation in which they explained they were getting divorced, saying, “The central issue that we have not been able to resolve is that Marnie has come to realize that she is a lesbian-identified bisexual.” Marnie Collier and her new partner remained a part of the congregation.

The second major achievement during Ken Collier’s tenure was the introduction of the worship associate program, which continues today. Worship associates are lay people who share leadership with ordained ministers in planning and leading worship services. This is a distinct change from the 1950s and 1960s when Sunday morning worship was not a shared responsibility, but rather delegated to the minister.

By 1998, effective leadership by Ken Collier and lay leaders had helped congregation recover from its low ebb in the 1980s. To continue that growth, lay leaders decided it was time to start thinking about adding a second minister. In order to establish this second ministry position, the congregation hired Til Evans, an experienced minister of religious education and sometime faculty member of Starr King School for the Ministry, for a two-year interim ministry. Those who remember Evans speak of her with affection, and when a new garden was established next to the McFadden Patio, it was named the Til Evans Garden in her honor.

By 1999, the congregation had seen enough growth that members also voted to add another Sunday morning worship service. (Remember that there had been three services in the 1960s, but the congregation dropped to one service during the 1980s.) The task force charged with adding a second service included lay leaders Ruth Freeman, Cathy Leach-Phillips, and Ed Milner, along with the two ministers.

Above: Darcey Laine in 2000, when the congregation installed her as co-minister

In August, 2000, our congregation called Darcey Laine to be the settled minister of religious education, and co-minister with Ken Collier. This was the first time since 1927 that there had been a regularly called and regularly ordained woman minister settled in the Unitarian congregation of Palo Alto. The previous one had been Rev. Leila Lasley Thompson, ordained and called in 1926 to the old Unitarian Church of Palo Alto; she was the first woman minister called to any Palo Alto congregation, but resigned in 1927 when that old congregation could no longer afford to pay her (that congregation was defunct by 1934). I find myself astonished that, after having been such pioneers in women’s rights, it took Palo Alto Unitarians nearly three quarters of a century to call another woman minister.

 

Darcey Laine’s arrival provides a convenient ending point for this brief history. Before I end, let me tell you what struck me as I was researching this history.

I couldn’t help noticing that the relationship between congregation and ministers was never perfect, not ever. We human beings are fallible, which means we regularly make mistakes. Some said Dan Lion took on too much of the leadership of the congregation. Some said Bill Jacobsen took on too little leadership. You could, with equal validity, say that lay leaders during the 1950s and 1960s took on too little leadership, while lay leaders during the 1980s let themselves take on too much leadership. The relationship was never perfect.

We should never forget that human beings are fallible; this is a crucial theological point. Any time a human being thinks they are infallible, they become dangerous; the lone rangers who have no check on their own fallibility, they’re the ones we need to worry about (and there are numerous examples of the lone ranger phenomenon both in contemporary U.S. politics and among Silicon Valley executives). With that in mind, ideally our congregation will be a place where our relationships with others protect us from the worst effects of our own fallibility. This in turn suggests that fallible humans need share leadership with others, because this is the best way to help us through our mistakes and moments of fallibility.

To put this in theological language, what I’m saying is that we are part of a Web of interconnections. The dimensions of that Web are measured by trust, power, gratitude, forgiveness, transformation, and so on. And the balance of shared leadership is simply another way to measure the dimensions of the Web of interconnectedness that binds each of us together with all reality.

 

Notes: The primary source for this sermon was documents from the in the UUCPA archives, including those listed below. I also referred to my notes of a few reminiscences from long-time members, notes which remain confidential.

Published sources:
Loomer, Bernard. Unfoldings. Berkeley, Calif.: First Unitarian Church of Berkeley, 1985
Ross, Warren R. The Premise and the Promise: The Story of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Boston: Skinner House, 2001.
Ulbrich, Holley. The Fellowship Movement: A Growth Strategy and Its Legacy. Boston: Skinner House, 2008.
Wright, Sam. Koviashuvik: A Time and Place of Joy. Sierra Club Books, 1988. (Contains a brief reminiscence of Dan Lion.)

Photographs:
All photos are from the archives of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto.

Unpublished sources:
Anonymous. [Folder titled “PAUC All Church Survey 1988”].
Anonymous. “Church Timeline from February 5, 2001, Meeting.” Notes from “Visioning Our Education Ministry” meeting, 2001.
Anonymous. “History of UUCPA.” 2 pp., undated photocopy of a document (c. 200?).
Bell, Rachel. “Parish Ministers, Interim Ministers, and Intern Ministers,” timeline. 7 pp., n.d. (c. 2000).
—————. “Religious Education,” timeline. 2 pp., n.d., c. 2005.
—————. “Religious Education at UUCPA,” timeline. 16 pp., n.d. (2000).
Call, Lon Ray. Letter to Felix Danford Lion (“Dear Fe,” [sic]), 2 pp., June 11, 1949.
Collier, Ken. “Minister’s Report, 1997-1998.”
—————, and Marnie Collier. Letter to the congregation. 2 pp., July 30, 1993.
Currie, Rigdon. Untitled [letter from Currie as President of the Board of Trustees to the congregation]. 1 pg., Feb. 28, 1989.
Ruth Freeman, Cathy Leach-Phillips, Ed Milner, Ken Collier, and Til Evans. “The Dual Services Plan.” 2 pp., n.d. (c. 2000).
Hargis, Ron. “The Palo Alto Unitarian Church: An Analysis.” 2 pp., Jan., 1977.
—————, and Bill Jacobsen. Untitled memo (“We are concerned, as I know all of you are…”). 2 pp., n.d. (c. Nov., 1975).
Hamaker, Gail. “History of the Palo Alto Unitarian Church.” 3 pp., 1980.
Harrison, Bob. Untitled [memories of the Palo Alto Unitarian Church]. 2 pp., Aug. 7, 1983.
Indergand, Litsie. Untitled [letter from Indergand as President of the Board of Trustees to the congregation]. 1 pg., Oct. 17, 1989.
Jacobsen, Bill, and Diane Jacobsen. Untitled [announcement of their divorce to the congregation]. 1 pg., n.d.
Laine, Darcey. Notes from interviews conducted in 2002; and column in “The Bulletin,” the UUCPA newsletter, May 23, 2003.
Lion, Felix Danford. “Biographical data.” 1 pg., August, 1969.
—————. “Memories and Reminders” [sermon for the 25th anniversary of the building]. 5 pp., Oct. 16, 1983.
Macdonald, Charles H. (Attorney-at-Law). “Status of Loan on Parsonage of the Palo Alto Unitarian Church, 339 Kellogg Aveneue, Palo Alto, California.” 1951.
Mackay, Ned. “Rev. F. Danford Lion resigns to join church in New York.” Undated clipping from the Palo Alto Times (1972).
Niles, Alfred S. “The Early Years of the Palo Alto Unitarian Society, 1947-1950.” Typescript, 1958.
Perry, Bryce. “Staff at UUCPA.” 2 pp., Oct. 9, 1998.
Peterman, Sid. No title (“Because the interim ministry…”). 8 pp., 1973.
Schmidt, Muriel. “A Brief Resume of the Palo Alto Unitarian Church.” 4 pp., 1972.
Schwaar, Georgia. Note to Darcey Laine dated Oct. 15, 2002.
Wright, Sam, and Donna Lee. “Report from Sam and Donna.” 3 pp., April 18, 1991.

Above: Groundbreaking ceremony for the new building; the robed figure (center left) is probably Dan Lion

Mysticism in the Unitarian Universalist Tradition

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 9:30 and 11:00 a.m. services. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2014 Daniel Harper. The reflection was delivered by Brooke Bishara on the same date. Reflection copyright (c) 2014 Brooke Bishara; used by permission.

Reading — from Mysticism: Holiness East and West by Denise and John Carmody,

“[C]onsider Lao-tzu, reputed author of the Tao te Ching. Grappling with the Way, he found his reason clouding. All around him moved bright, busy, and certain people. They seemed clear about what they were doing, about who they were and what was happening to them. He alone seemed to feel overcast, dull, and not at all certain. They more he searched, the less he found. The long he studied, the less he knew. It is easy to picture him trekking off into silence: the Tao that could be told was not the Tao. However, painful though his dissociation was, hard as his alienation struck him, he was in love with the Tao and so was willing to suffer for it. Life without the Tao would have been no life. Clarity without reality and depth would have been horrible.”

Reflection — Brooke Bishara, worship associate

A mystic is one who seeks direct experience of ultimate reality. The mystic senses that the divine is always present, but also that in our “normal lives” we are only dimly aware of it. The mystic wants to come closer, to connect, and know the truth intimately.

About ten years ago, I had a mystical experience. It started as I was painting a picture to express a painful feeling from the past. With black paint, I painted the top half of a face along the bottom edge of the paper. It almost looked like the face was peeking just above a window sill at me. The face had a sad expression, with a hat pulled down close to its eyes. In the act of painting the image, I was allowing an old feeling of shame that I had held for a long time to be expressed. I asked the spirit for help with this feeling, and suddenly I received a surge of energy through my arms and into my chest and head. It tingled like electricity, and it was so strong that I got up from the desk and lay down on my bed. I stayed there for about a half an hour, feeling this tingling current of energy radiating through my body. I was fully awake and consciously thanking God for this gift, and for the love being shown to me. I was deeply changed by the experience.

The next day, when I had to get up and go through the regular motions of my life and work as a teacher, my eyes were open a little wider. I was awed by what had happened to me. I wanted to tell my colleagues and students, but I knew it was not for telling, not yet. Mostly, I wanted to reassure the people around me that there is, indeed, an abiding love that reaches far beyond our comprehension. As years have passed, and I’ve told this story a few times, someone once suggested that the feeling was a release—the energy of that old emotion leaving my body. Someone else suggested that it was the holy spirit coming in to me to heal what was hurting.

I do not worry about finding the right explanation. Nor do I expect to ever have that experience again. But it has become a touchstone of my life. Though my mind cannot explain it, that experience opened a pathway in my heart that can never be closed.

Sermon — Mysticism in the Unitarian Universalist Tradition

In her reflection, Brooke has given us one of the best short descriptions of a mystical experience that I have heard. She brings out several typical features of a mystical experience: that it is an experience that is difficult or impossible to put into words; that it changed the person who had the experience; that such an experience gives knowledge of some deep and abiding force or presence in the universe; that such an experience ultimately cannot be explained, nor explained away.

I wanted to talk with you about mystical experiences this morning because such experiences lie at the very core of our Unitarian Universalist tradition; more specifically, at the core of the Unitarian half of our tradition. Unitarianism began to arise in North America at about the time of the Revolutionary War, and although the movement later came to be known for affirming that Jesus was not God, it started out as a movement that asserted the free will of individual human beings: in the late eighteenth century, the movement that became known as Unitarianism reacted against the then-dominant Calvinist notion that human beings not only are depraved, but that human beings have little free will and can do nothing to further their own salvation. So the early Unitarians said, in effect, that we human beings do have a fair amount of free will, and that each of us must take responsibility for living the best life possible.

By the 1830s, a number of Unitarians were refining that basic argument further. One person in particular — a man who had been a Unitarian minister but who left the ministry to become a full-time philosopher, writer, and lecturer — made a strong case for individual responsibility and free will in a famous essay titled “Self Reliance.” That person was Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was part of the Transcendentalist circle, and who had himself been affected by his own mystical experiences. Emerson said that any person could apprehend the ultimate reality directly. You could call that ultimate reality “God,” or you could call it the “Oversoul,” as Emerson sometimes did; the name was less important than was the truth that we all have direct access to this ultimate reality. We don’t have to go through priests or clergy; we don’t have to read certain specified scriptures, nor do we have to engage in specific religious practices like prayer. We all have direct access to this ultimate reality — no strings attached.

Of course, this kind of self reliance carries with it great responsibility. Having direct access to ultimate reality has moral and ethical implications: if you have direct access to ultimate reality, this implies that you will have high standards against which to judge your own behavior and decisions. Self reliance is not an easy philosophy: freedom comes with great responsibility, and that can lead to political action.

One of Emerson’s protegés, Henry David Thoreau, explored some of the political implications of self reliance in his famous essay “Civil Disobedience.” Thoreau said that while there are human-made laws, there are also “higher laws,” and we can have direct knowledge of these higher laws. Sometimes human-made laws are unjust, and when that is true, we may be called to obey higher laws. (Notice that Thoreau starts with the assumption that we can have direct apprehension of those higher laws.) In her reflection, Brooke talked about “an abiding love that reaches far beyond our comprehension.” Once you have that kind of experience, it is difficult to put up with human-made laws which go against that abiding love, and which instead promote hatred and warfare. So it was that Thoreau was appalled by the Mexican American War, which he felt was unjust and unjustifiable. Appealing to higher laws, he refused to pay taxes that would support that war, and for his refusal he was thrown in jail. As I said, this philosophy of self reliance is not an easy philosophy.

More than a century later, Martin Luther King drew inspiration from Thoreau when he was formulating his own theory of civil disobedience. King knew that the human-made Jim Crow laws were in direct violation of that deep abiding love that reaches beyond our rational comprehension. Appealing to that higher law, King said that it was acceptable to break the human-made Jim Crow laws. I would say King’s theory of civil disobedience comes out of his direct experience of ultimate reality. King was careful to call that ultimate reality by the name “God” — to call it “God” made it possible to explain civil disobedience to others, particularly to those ostensibly God-fearing authorities who were trying to enforce the human-made Jim Crow laws; but the name of the ultimate reality is less important than the experience. I don’t know that King was a mystic himself; but if he wasn’t one himself, he drew on Thoreau, who was a mystic; and he drew on Jesus of Nazareth, who was also a mystic.

And by telling you about Thoreau’s notion of civil disobedience, I am making the point that mysticism can be a disruptive influence. Mystical experiences are personally disruptive: Brooke told us that in her reflection; she told us that her experience was so strong that she had to lie down. (I’ve had my own mystical experiences, starting in my mid-teens, and I can assure you from my own experience that they can disrupt one’s sense of the world.) When you have powerful experiences of an ultimate reality, that can cause you to look with skepticism on the way humans rationalize our actions. This is what happened to Thoreau. He had his transcendent experiences, he had direct apprehension of higher laws, of ultimate reality, and with that perspective he found himself unable to accept the half-truths that were foisted on the public by those who were trying to rationalize the unjust Mexican American War. Nor did he stop there: Thoreau also knew with perfect clarity that slavery and fugitive slave laws were wrong, that those laws went directly counter to higher laws; and he broke the human-made laws by participating in the Underground Railroad. (Indeed, we have independent documentation that he harbored fugitive slaves at his cabin on Walden Pond.) Thoreau’s mystical experiences proved to be a very disruptive influence.

Emerson, Thoreau, and the other Transcendentalists — all of them open to direct experiences of ultimate reality — went on to disrupt the world around them. They disrupted the older Unitarianism that had been founded on sound, rational Enlightenment principles. The rational Unitarians were infuriated by Transcendentalists like Theodore Parker. Parker infuriated them partly because of his challenge to their rational ways of thinking; partly because he managed to draw over two thousand people to his sermons each week (his was the very first mega-church, by the way); and partly by his adamant opposition to slavery and the Fugitive Slave Law. The more rational Unitarians may have been opposed to slavery, but they were appalled when Parker told them that not only had he harbored fugitive slaves in his own house, thus breaking the law; in addition to that, he had written sermons with a loaded pistol on the desk in front of him, expecting to have his house broken into at any moment by slave-catchers. Keeping a loaded pistol on his desk was not a rational act, as defined by the rational Unitarians steeped in Enlightenment thinking, but it brought Parker into harmony with higher laws.

Mystics can be less openly disruptive — not all of us mystics keep loaded pistols on our desks — but no less challenging in more subtle ways. I think of Mary Rotch, who had a strong influence on Emerson’s thinking. Mary Rotch had grown up a Quaker, a mystical tradition; she knew what it was to commune directly with ultimate reality. When she became a Unitarian in the 1820s, Unitarian churches still had communion services about once a month. Emerson filled the pulpit of Mary Rotch’s Unitarian church for a few months while the regular minister was on sabbatical, and he noticed that Mary Rotch would stand up and quietly walk out of the church just before the communion ceremony. He discussed this with her, and she convinced him that the ritual of communion was an empty ritual; that the direct communion with ultimate reality was real communion, and the only communion that was needed. This prompted Emerson to write his famous sermon stating why he could no longer officiate at communion services. The rational Unitarians of the day were not pleased by Emerson’s argument; to them, communion made complete rational sense, as a memorial ritual that helped commemorate an important moment from our religious history. It’s fairly easy to come up with rational reasons for most things, and I suspect that if rational Unitarianism had prevailed over Emerson’s Transcendentalism, we would still be serving communion here in our historically Unitarian church.

In our day, Unitarian Universalism is once again dominated by religious rationalism. This is not a bad thing: logic and rational thought are extremely powerful intellectual tools. But a year ago, I had a very interesting conversation with Fred Hawley about the way Unitarian Universalism is currently dominated by religious rationalism. Fred was a long-time member here in our congregation, and he gave me permission to tell you about this conversation. Fred suggested to me that our congregation was overly dominated by those who value rationality above all else, to the exclusion of other modes of thinking and being.

As I said, logic and rationality are powerful tools. Emerson and Thoreau and Theodore Parker and Mary Rotch all used rational thought and logic. But what the Transcendentalists, and other Unitarian mystics, have tried to demonstrate is that logic and rational thinking have limits; we cannot rely on them for everything. The limits of rationality became particularly evident during the twentieth century: Nazi Germany was in many ways the epitomy of a rationally-run nation; here in the U.S., separate-but-equal Jim Crow laws were perfectly rational; and the doctrine of mutually assured destruction by nuclear weapons was eminently rational. All these things were quite rational, but they were not necessarily right.

One of the things Fred Hawley talked to me about was the book Koviashuvik by Sam Wright [San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1988]. Sam Wright is a Unitarian Universalist minister, who served our congregation as interim minister in 1990 and 1991. In Koviashuvik, published by the Sierra Club, Sam Wright tells about living in the Brooks Range in Alaska while the Alaskan pipeline was being built. Koviashuvik is a book about different ways of knowing. Sam Wright knew about the Brooks Range as a place where he and his wife lived off the land; the people who planned the Alaskan pipeline knew the Brooks Range in a different way, as a mere obstacle to the building of the pipeline; the people who worked on the pipeline knew about the Brooks Range as the background to their well-compensated jobs; the Arctic Terns and caribou knew about the Brooks Range in still other ways. Now, the people who planned the Alaskan pipeline were entirely rational people who knew that they had to transport oil from where it was being pumped out of the ground to where it could be refined and used. But, says Sam Wright, the Arctic Tern and caribou have equally valid, albeit non-rational, ways of knowing the world. Were the builders of the oil pipeline right simply because they used rational thought? I’m not sure the Arctic Tern or the caribou would say that was true.

I have never lived in the Alaskan wilderness, but in my work as a religious educator, I see the limits of rationality all the time. Anyone who teaches sees the limits of rationality. As a religious educator, one of the things I like to teach children is how to be radical feminists — that is, teach children that girls and women are just as good as boys and men. Now if you’re trying to teach a nine year old girl about feminism, you can give all the rational explanations that you want, and that nine year old girl will probably agree with you, but she has not really gotten what feminism is all about. But if a boy is given preferential treatment, a teacher suddenly has a moment when they can suggest that perhaps this instance of preferential treatment is part of a larger pattern, and sometimes you can watch as that girl suddenly gets it, suddenly perceives this mass injustice that pervades our society: Oh yeah, boys get preferential treatment all the time, and that’s not fair! We do this with boys, too, and they are equally capable of directly apprehending the unfairness of sexism. But in my teaching experience, this is not a rational process.

Rational exposition can work as a teaching tool, for some people, at least some of the time. More often, however, I think learning takes place in flashes of direct apprehension: suddenly you get it, suddenly it all makes sense, suddenly you can do it. Fred Hawley talked with me about this experience in relation to his favorite pastime of lawn bowling. Referring to the work of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Fred spoke about “flow,” when you get so involved in something that your self is subsumed in the task at hand. In Fred’s interpretation, this happens when you are not thinking about doing something; you are doing it, doing it so well that there is no thinking involved: you have direct contact with the game in that moment. You can learn all you want about the physics and mechanics of lawn bowling; but unless you actually do it, and practice it, and get good at it, mere rational knowledge of lawn bowling means you know everything about lawn bowling while knowing nothing about lawn bowling.

Teachers run into this situation, too: every teacher has run into learners who can talk a good game, but who don’t really know much of anything. Mystics also run into this situation all the time: people who have not had mystical experiences themselves trying to give rational explanations of other people’s mystical experiences. Rationality is a good and useful took, but it is merely one tool in your toolkit, and like any other tool, it is good for some things and useless for other things. What I have learned from our Unitarian Universalist mystical tradition is that rationality is a very useful tool for explaining, describing, and designing new technology. It is less useful for making moral and ethical decisions. It is next to useless for lawn bowling. Just as you should not use an ohmmeter to hammer a nail or open a can, you should not use rationality to do everything. And as for transcendent experiences and direct apprehension of reality and the feeling of “flow” — these are not particularly useful tools for explaining and describing, but they are quite useful tools for teaching kids about sexism, for engaging in civil disobedience, and for lawn bowling.

This is why we are fortunate to have such a strong mystical tradition within Unitarian Universalism: it significantly expands our kit of useful tools. If you find yourself engaging in civil disobedience, and being hauled off to prison, it might be helpful to have a rational understanding of why you are getting arrested; but Henry David Thoreau and Martin Luther King, Jr., might suggest that it could be more helpful to have a direct experience of an abiding love that reaches far beyond our comprehension. If you find yourself fighting very rational arguments for ignoring something like global climate change or toxics in the environment, it might be helpful to remember that people can learn through direct apprehension at teachable moments.

I certainly don’t expect every Unitarian Universalist to have mystical transcendental experiences; after all, ours is a non-creedal faith that does not enforce intellectual conformity. But when I think about all the serious problems that face us — racism, toxics in the environment, global climate weirdness — I am glad that we can draw on the mystical tradition of Mary Rotch, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry Thoreau.