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Spiritual Immigrants

Antonia Andreoli

Walpole Unitarian Church


I am a spiritual immigrant.   My story is similar to that of many other Unitarian Universalists – I came to this faith from someplace else.  This morning I want to reflect on that process, both in the larger institutional sense, and in my own history.

In a 1996 issue of UU World magazine, Harvey Joyner, minister of Al Souls Unitarian Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado stated “We have deliberately announced ourselves as a multifaith congregation.”  While this led to some conflict, Joyner reported that “the large majority have learned there is something to be gained from being open to other approaches.  Our search and struggle for common ground has been the glue that keeps us together.” And he continues, “diversity is not the goal; it is the means of getting to the goal of creating a more loving and livable community…Diversity is our world and the issue is whether we can live healthily in that tension.  Of all the denominations in our country, we have a remarkable chance to be the role models in that enterprise.” (page 34) We are not all alike here!


For many years I was a history teacher.  One of my favorite topics to teach was immigration, perhaps because my own family’s experience of coming to America has been so recent.  Motivation for immigration is one of the key topics, and students typically began by analyzing the “push/pull “theory.  This theory suggests that a critical tension had to develop between the negative conditions in the home country and the attractions of America.  In other words, things in the village had to be really bad, and word of America had to be really good, before someone bought that steamer ticket.


We can think about the decision to join a UU community in much the same way.  First, and often clearly verbalized – the Push factor.  Some UU’s were actively religious, someplace else.  But things were really bad in that “spiritual village’; following their conscience, they had to leave. As my grandparents did, leaving rural villages in Italy and Poland, these folks bought a ticket to what they hoped would be a life of greater opportunity.  They left churches of stifling hierarchy and restrictive dogma to find greater spiritual opportunity.  Some larger UU churches have meetings of various affiliations within the larger community- these affiliations can reflect strands within Unitarian Universalism, such as earth-centered spirituality.  Sometimes, however, these affiliations reflect the religions “home villages” – at least one NH church has had meetings of a group calling itself Recovering Catholics.  Such groups are in part analogous to the immigrant community centers in many American cities.  My father was a member of an Italian American Club – every one of the founding members was a man or the son of a man who had bought a ticket to America.  This club honored the members’ roots, yet did not compromise their American identity.  Their annual dinner meeting was in November, following a mass in memory of those who had served their new country.  There may be a need to discuss the pain of separation, there may be nostalgia for favorite rituals or music but the new identity is always affirmed – literally affirmed in my home church every Sunday.


UU’s who have come to the church from other religious traditions have made the same kind of choice.  When my struggles with Catholic teachings became intolerable, I had two small children.  Leaving the church was not an option for my husband – for him, it was part of our Italian American culture.  We agreed that the children would have Catholic girlhoods, but that they would not be confirmed unless they chose to be.  I spent over five years going to Mass with the family on Saturday, taking the younger daughter to 9 AM Mass on Sunday where she was accompanying hymns, and then going to the UU service by myself at eleven.  Finally I made the leap – I bought my ticket.  And at the end of his life, my husband, still a Catholic but not active, said that “if I could be anything else, I would be a Unitarian Universalist”.  And today we are a mixed faith family, a melting pot like so many others.  The younger daughter is a UU religious educator in Massachusetts, with a theology degree.  Her sister, never confirmed as a teenager, chose to be confirmed in her early twenties, and is a serious Catholic raising her family and working hard at her chosen faith.


Yet the theory of motivation in immigration is not based solely on the forces that drove people away from the mother country.  There is also the powerful pulling force, the attraction that draws immigrants to the new land.  Economic opportunity, certainly, but also the opportunity to re-create yourself.  Early 19th century observers like de Tocqueville noted that in America, it didn’t matter who your father was.  Much has been written about individualism and the American Dream, but the Pull of Possibility, of Potential, cannot be underestimated.  In the spiritual journey to Unitarian Universalism, people have been drawn by the same force.  Our principles speak powerfully to this attraction, especially the first – the inherent worth and dignity of the individual, the third – acceptance of one another, and the fourth – the free search for truth and meaning.   My flight from Catholicism was balanced by these principles, which gave me a place to run to. Worth, dignity, acceptance – for me, the old village held none of those. And the free search for truth and meaning– that is the name of the journey we’re on, isn’t it!


Our worship services, full of folks who have come from someplace else, as well as birthright UU’s steeped in the traditions of liberal Christianity, are enriched by all those elements.  Our diversity of membership is reflected in the diversity of our worship.  There is no standard UU liturgy.  We read to each other – but there is no mandated series of scripture selections.  We sing together – often old Christian hymn tunes, with new words.  We preach to each other – and need not be ordained to do so.  Drawing on so many resources, it is easy to see why outsiders think we are the smorgasbord church.  And it can be too easy to slip into appropriating something sacred from another faith, even using it in a way that can give offense.


In the UU hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition, is a very short number, often sung as a round.  The text is simple:  “Come, come whoever you are, wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving.  Ours is no caravan of despair, Come, yet again, Come”.


The text is attributed to the Turkish poet Rumi.  I had an email exchange with Sidi Ibrahim Gamart (of the very useful Dar al Masnavi site - I asked permission to quote from his site as well as how to pronounce his name.  His first concern was what I wanted to use and why.  I explained that I wanted to clarify the assumption that Rumi wrote those words.

He writes:  “This is one of the most frequently quoted poems attributed to Rumi, but is not authenticated as his (and it is not in the earliest manuscripts of the quatrains attributed to him).  It is found in the same form in the quatrains of [other poets, one of whom died a generation before Rumi’s own death in 1273].


And here is a more accurate translation of the original whoever was the author:

“Come again, please, come again

Whoever you are.

Religious, infidel, heretic or pagan.

Even if you promised a hundred times

And a hundred times you broke your promise,

This door is not the door

Of hopelessness and frustration.

This door is open for everybody.

Come, come as you are.”


According to Sidi Gamart, the poem came out of the period when Sufi Islam was competing for followers with other sects, deemed as heretic, as well as non-Islamic believers.  The poem welcomed the repentant true believer home.  It was not an invitation to our big tent, even though that is how we use it.


Our use of this little poem, in different translation, with very different intent from its origin a thousand years ago, is representative of the immigrant remaking of self.  Over the generations, we all held onto some cultural elements, and lost many more.  Some elements evolve into a very different thing – Italian American cooking is not Italian cooking.  My father, the son of immigrants from the Adriatic coast of Italy married my mother, the daughter of a man from the Bay of Naples who had married a Polish girl from Russia.  My mother’s kitchen was a literal mixing bowl and melting pot.


In the same way, we are an immigrant church of nearly infinite possibilities.  We sing new words to 17th century Lutheran hymn tunes.  We borrow Sufi texts to put to our own uses. Our founders were in the first few centuries of Protestant settlers, and we continue to grow as people are drawn to this caravan, this journey of hope.  Our churches are dynamic places because we are a church of becoming, not of maintaining.   We’ve all heard the cliché that the church is not the building, but the people.  That is particularly true of us, since our fluid diversity is a constant source of energy and joy.  That energy and joy is evident as we welcome new members.  Blessed be all who now gather here, and may our golden door always remain open!


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