True Story

Sarah Richards
November 27, 2016

True Story

You load sixteen tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store[i]

This song, “16 Tons,” was an unlikely favorite for a kid born four decades after it was a hit. But my nephew, Ross, would sing that song – all of its many verses – over and over again when he was around nine years old. His obsession with the song lasted years, and not only would he sing it to willing and unwilling audiences alike, he would educate all who would listen – or could not escape – about the horrible working conditions of coal miners and their struggle for labor rights. His budding political conscience began from strategic self interest. Ross has severe dyslexia, reading being so difficult that he asked about occupations that didn’t require it. “Coal miner” was the answer that he fixed on, first memorizing 16 Tons, then watching movies, then having books about coal strikes and union organizing read to him. His interest expanded to stories of the McCarthy era, Civil Rights movement, anti-war protests, and beyond. Justice for the oppressed became a guiding principle in his life, which was encouraged by his UU religious education and upbringing.

Fifteen years later, it’s not that big of a surprise that he’s in the Socialist Club at his university, or that he and some club members travelled to Standing Rock, North Dakota over Thanksgiving break. As I listened to him tell me about the most emotionally traumatic experience of his life seeing people right in front of him shot with rubber bullets, and blasted with water cannons in freezing weather; as he recounted the beautiful moments of community cooperation, and hopeful prayer, I thought about how those stories of the annoying kid singing 16 Tons were their prologue.

We all have those stories from childhood that presage the pathway taken as adults; these stories maybe are not particularly flattering: stories of the oldest bossy child, or the wishy-washy middle kid, or the spoiled baby of the family. Anything come to mind? Maybe very recently, around the Thanksgiving table, some of these stories were retold, maybe some new stories about the youngsters in your family were shared, stories that they will take up and retell to themselves. Bossy oldest might become a skilled leader, always struggling to listen to others, wishy-washy might be an accomplished dealmaker, perennially second-guessing their decisions, spoiled baby might grow into a warm caregiver, constantly controlling self-indulgent impulses. These stories can be limiting, of course, and sometimes even toxic, but they are always revealing, and worth thinking about how they shape not only the individuals, but serve to maintain or change the family system as a whole.

Here is such a story written by the History Committee of the First Unitarian Fellowship of Carbondale:

Concern with civil rights was an important theme during this period [1963-68]. Money was raised to send six students, three of whom were members of the Fellowship, to Mississippi in the summer of 1964 for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. In 1962 the Fellowship had recommended to the city that a Commission on Human Rights be formed. In 1963 a Fellowship resolution favoring civil rights legislation appeared as a letter in the Southern Illinoisan newspaper. Still, there was some dissatisfaction that the Fellowship as an organization was not more active. At one Board meeting it was stated that the Fellowship did not participate as a body because some members might disagree. One person, not a member but a rather constant visitor who flew up from Cairo for the Sunday services did stop attending because of our views on civil rights.

The policy developed out of such situations was that individual or committee participation in sensitive or potentially divisive activities might be supported or encouraged but that the Fellowship as a whole would maintain an official neutrality to avoid polarizing the membership. The arm of the Fellowship for those who wished to play an active role was the Social Action Committee[ii].

Some years later, in 1993, on the fortieth anniversary of the Fellowship, its historians speculated about its future:

The tension between service to others (i.e., non-UU’s) in the form of work, time, money and service to ourselves in the form of mutual support, RE for our children, and the chance to explore ideas will undoubtedly remain. So to [sic] will the tension between a desire for spiritual or emotional content in the services and the demand for rationality. It is to be hoped that we will continue to be able to keep such tensions in bounds and not be “balkanized” by them[iii].

I believe that just as with childhood stories viewed from adulthood, so can the stories of our Fellowship’s past give us understanding about who we are, and where we’re headed, and just as with family stories, we must be aware of the limitations as well as the insights we may have accepted as part of our current identity.

Richard Gilbert has an instructive chart in his book chapter, “In Defense of Church “Interference” in Society”. It has two concentric circles, the inner labeled Worship – a celebrating community. Gilbert writes, “Out of this spiritual center grows what we think and do as individuals and as a community. Our connectedness with cosmos, world, history, and each other is confirmed and celebrated here….At its best, worship is an expression of, but not a substitute for, social responsibility. The religious life of the community in worship overflows into public ministry.[iv]

The outer circle is divided into three equal parts: Mutual Ministry – a caring community, Religious education – a learning community, and Moral discourse and action – a prophetic community. All of these dimensions or functions of the UU church/ congregation are connected with double arrows – love, growth, and justice come out of and contribute to celebration (worship).

In describing the community of moral discourse and action, Gilbert distinguishes between avoiding partisan politics and neutrality. He argues that, “In justice work we do not have the option of continuous postponement; conviction and action are required.[v]” Gilbert does not place social action at the center of his model—he says rather, “it must emerge out of a religious community that serves well the functions of worship, caring, and education. Yet a church that ignores this function fails to understand its mandate to seek the Beloved Community.[vi]” He goes on to present seven arguments for liberal church interference in the larger society. You may be relieved to know that I’m not going to go into each one this morning – but you can be confident that you’ll be hearing more about them over the next two to four years…. Gilbert sums them up: “…the liberal church as a voluntary association has not only a right but a mandate to act as a power center, to interfere in the public realm. And, judging from their response to the 1998 Fulfilling the Promise survey, most UUs want their church to speak out. In answer to the question “To what extent should your congregation contribute to spreading the UU faith?”, the overwhelmingly first-choice answer was “Be outspoken in our community, a voice for justice based on our principles.[vii]

Here at CUF in September, we had two workshops on RE, (and we’ll have two more in January) attended by folks involved in children’s, youth, and adult RE, in October our Pastoral Friends led a Sunday Service, and we’re planning a series of Blue Holiday gatherings; for the last two months, around half of our membership have been engaged in one or more of the Building a Culture of Generosity events. Last week we celebrated our Thanksgiving Bread service. And in two weeks, we welcome the Rev. Scott Aaseng, director of UUANI to lead a Saturday workshop and preach on Sunday, re-envisioning CUF’s Social Justice Work. What we’ve done/what we’re doing over these few months is not only moving into our potential as a prophetic religious community of celebration, caring, learning and moral discourse and action, we are creating the stories now that will be told to and by the next generations of this Fellowship. You never know what might inspire them to inspire us. “You load 16 tons…”

Friends, may we have gratitude for the stories of our past that have shaped us, may we have the courage to tell our own stories, may we have the humility to listen and learn from storytellers yet to come.


[i] accessed 11/26/16.

[ii] “Fellowship: The First Twenty-five Years of The First Unitarian Fellowship of Carbondale, Illinois as Recalled by Some of its Members.” FUFCI History Committee, Carolyn Forman Moe, Chairman. First Unitarian Fellowship of Carbondale, Illinois. 1978, p. 14.

[iii] “Fellowship Continuing: A Sketch of the First Unitarian Fellowship of Carbondale, Illinois from 1978 to 1993 to Commemorate Its 40th Anniversary.” R. F. Trimble, Editor. First Unitarian Fellowship of Carbondale, Illinois. 1993, p. 12.

[iv] Gilbert, Richard S. 2000 (2nd ed.) The Prophetic Imperative: Social Gospel in Theory and Practice. Boston: Skinner House Books, pp. 121-2.

[v] Ibid., p. 125.

[vi] Ibid., p. 126.

[vii] Ibid., pp. 129-30.