Monday, February 18, 2013

Small Group Ministries

Some thoughts that have been on my mind lately.

My first experience with small group ministries happened when we moved to South Bend, during my senior year of high school.  Holy Cross, the Catholic parish my family attended, started having Faith Sharing Groups that year, and my parents volunteered to host.  With 4 teenagers and two toddlers in the house, they were one of the child-friendly hosts, holding meetings on Friday nights. We were drafted to babysit any kids that came along.

After a short experiment, they had the option to deepen the commitment to Small Faith Communities, which my parents chose to do.

One of the families in the small group was a married couple with two daughters, one a teenager that somehow I never really saw as "my age," and one preadolescent.  During the first two years as a small group, there was a weekend where the father went to a Promise Keepers convention, the mother was at a different convention with the younger daughter, and the teenager was left home alone.

That night, their house had a fire.  We found out later that the teenager had gone out with a friend, returned to see the emergency vehicles at the scene, and finished the night at a friend's house.  So the people were all fine.  If I recall correctly, the dog was not.

I was taught that because we were in small group ministry with their family, it was important that we make a special effort to be there for them during this crisis.

As my college career continued, my experiences with small groups shifted.  But when I arrived in Houston, my UU church began the effort of having small group ministries of our own.  I was part of several Covenant Groups during my time at Bay Area UU Church, attended several workshops about the concept, was trained and served as a facilitator several times.

One Friday, I was at the Church preparing to take two youth to a Young Religious Unitarian Universalists (YRUU) event.  I don't recall now, we were either going to The Woodlands to join up with more youth and Advisors for the Oklahoma City Rally, or I was taking them to Waco, TX for a YRUU Leadership Development Conference.

While we were there, our minister had to leave quickly.  I didn't register what he said about leaving until later.

On Sunday, I returned with the Youth and released them to their parents.  When I got home, my husband informed me that a family in the congregation, one that we had been in a small group with, had had a fire at their house, and lost everything.  They were now living out of a hotel room.

Our small group chose to do hold a special meeting to support the family that Tuesday night.  One of the facilitators made arrangements to use a room at the church.  I had been gone all weekend, worked during the day, and had class on Monday night.  On Tuesday, I went from work, to a martial arts class, and then to the church to support this family in their crisis.

Having been raised Catholic, I am very aware of the Catholic - Protestant divide between Faith and Works.  Some Protestant religions believe that faith is sufficient to bring a person to heaven.  Catholics believe that faith alone does not suffice, Faith must be supported by Works.

Unitarian Universalists don't worry so much about a heaven in the afterlife.  A joke has it that, before the merger, one denomination believed that "God is too good to damn us," while the other believed that "We humans are too good to be damned."  As UUs, we worry more about creating a better world, something like heaven, here on earth, in this world.

So, we don't worry about having the right creed, we don't worry about faith.  But I still think we should say something about conversation, about words.

Because we UUs do love to talk.

In fact, for thirty days surrounding Martin Luther King Jr's day in January and Valentine's Day in February, many UU churches celebrated 30 Days of Love.  In theory, it's supposed to be a time of spiritual practices reflecting on what it means to be part of a loving community, about education on social justice issues, and working to build a more just world.

I chose not to overtly and publicly advertise my practice.  The small group I am part of did discuss the issues in one of our meetings.  I did listen to the sermons, and read my congregation's Facebook posts.

But see, to me, it's words are not enough.  I know that we do need to take time to educate ourselves and reflect on issues... but we also need to translate what we learn into actions.

To me, building the beloved community is about the actions we take on a day-to-day and week-by-week basis.  Do we welcome the stranger?  Do we reach out to bring people into the community?  Do we spend time with each other?  Do we break bread together, an ANCIENT ritual of human connection going back to antiquity?  Do we listen to what they have to say, both the good and the bad?  Do we listen to their stories?  Do we know what brings them here?  And not just the high-level surface stories, but wait to hear and learn the deeper reasons?

Or do we isolate them?  Do we ignore them, make them eat alone?  Do we ignore them?  Write them off?

So many of us have heard the prayer, "If there is to be peace in the world."  But it's more than that.  Peace in the home, peace between neighbors, they take listening to each other.  They take getting multiple perspectives, the 360 degree view, the criticisms along with the compliments.  It's not about suppressing criticism.  Because without criticism, we cannot grow.  It's about hearing out the criticisms, listening and drawing out the issues, and then working *together* to find a win-win solution.

Love takes work.  It's about actions, not mere words.  From 1 Chorinthians 13 (New International Version)
"If I speak in the tongues[a] of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast,[b] but do not have love, I gain nothing."