First Baptist: Waco's dominant social institution
through much of the 20th century
Let me tell you about Neecie Vanston. The story was referenced briefly in the latest issue of UUWorld (2013 Fall, p. 60, online here).

Thirty years ago, I was 24 years old. Neecie and I were members of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Waco, Texas. Neecie was 70-years-old, which, you know, doesn’t seem as old to me now as it did when I was 24. She came up to about the middle of my chest. Neecie was a long-time and dedicated member of the Waco fellowship. In fact, the Fellowship began in her home in 1952 -- a time when social respectability "deep in the heart of Texas" was largely determined by which Baptist church one attended. I, on the other hand, had not yet been born in 1952, and I was newly returned to the UU fold after having been unchurched since high school.

Neecie believed in the seven Unitarian Universalist principles and that those seven are enough. She believed in a religion that welcomed theological diversity. She believed in ethics because what we do matters. She believed that the more she understood about the experience of different people – the different social experience of different classes and different races and different cultures, and the different spiritual experience of Jews and Hindus and Buddhists and the various forms of Christian – then the more she understood herself, the more she understood the ground of being, and the more she loved those different people, and acted on that compassion, the more she was whole. She believed – she knew – down to her bones from 30 years of walking the Unitarian Universalist path – that community based on this approach to religion saves us, heals us, sets us free. That’s what liberal religion is, and that was Neecie’s religion.

So there I was: a young adult who didn’t understand that distinction between the easy and lazy believe-anything-you-want-to and the disciplined quest to discern your own heart and mind’s dictates.

One Sunday in Waco, during our holiest sacrament -- the coffee communion after the service -- I made the mistake of blithely blurting, “We’re Unitarian Universalists. We can believe whatever we want to.”

Neecie overheard that remark. And she turned around. I will never forget it. It was a religious moment.

“You think I believe in what I do because I want to?” she said. “I believe this because I have to. You think here in Waco, Texas, my life wouldn’t be a lot easier if I could be a Baptist? But I can’t. My conscience won’t let me.”

Noticing that I was completely at a loss, she softened. “Meredith,” she said, putting a hand on my elbow, “the world is beautiful, and it is tragic. I believe we are here to cling together and make what light we can against the darkness. That’s hard work, because frankly some days I don’t feel all that clingy. And I don’t have much spark to offer. We are here to try to find out what’s true about ourselves and each other and this world. That’s hard work, too. It’s from that work that our beliefs come, and we don’t do it because we want to, but because we have to. We do it because we are commanded by God or conscience or something of greater significance than our convenience.”

“Oh,” I said.

Does not the world call to us for a religious response -- that is, a response which affirms dignity and justice and compassion and acceptance and searching and conscience and democracy and peace and interdependence?

Comerado, do you hear that call?

* * *
This is part 5 of 5 of "What Is Liberal Religion?"
Previous: Part 4: "Suspicion of Dualism"
Beginning: Part 1: "An Open Road Song"

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