He Got the Optimism, Not the Humility

Going Into Labor, part 3

The story of George Pullman is of particular salience to us Unitarian Universalists. This story -- the story of the industrialist who owned an entire town, ruled over it, sparked a national strike, and then brought in the Army to violently break that strike -- is our story, quite specifically. You see, George Pullman was one of us in a very direct sense.

George Pullman was a Universalist: born, raised, and lifelong.

George’s father, raised a Baptist, and his mother, raised Presbyterian, converted to Universalism, drawn to the “God is Love” message of the Universalist minister Thomas Eaton. George's Dad often led the services when no preacher was available. The Pullmans were a devotedly, devoutly, Universalist family. Both of George’s two older brothers became Universalist ministers and were prominent figures in our faith. Late in his life, George Pullman had a Universalist church built in his hometown, Albion, New York, as a memorial to his parents. Industrialist George Pullman was born, lived, and died a Universalist.

Something of the Universalist outlook may be detected in his life and actions. He believed his workers deserved decent accommodations. He saw that education was a win-win: it made workers lives better, and made them more useful workers for businessmen like him. "I have faith," Pullman told the press, "in the educational and refining influences of beauty, and beautiful and harmonious surroundings."

Pullman had a kind of Universalist hope that different denominations could come together and worship together in one church. There is a certain idealist, utopian strain of thought in the planning of his town. Shortly after Pullman's death in 1897, courts ordered the homes sold to individual homeowners.

Liberal religion is characterized by an optimism about human possibility. From our beginnings 450 years ago, Unitarians and Universalists have been peoples who rejected Calvinistic conceptions of humankind’s total depravity. That optimism about human capacity is displayed in Pullman’s vision of a company town where every one was happy and productive. So what went wrong?

It's not hard to see that what went wrong was that Pride and Control took over. Yes, people can get better -- can learn, can grow -- but they have to do so in their own way. Growth, learning, and development cannot be all planned out with precise outcomes determined in advance.

Pullman believed in human improvability, but didn't believe in people enough to let them work out their own growth, awakening, salvation, in their own way -- even if they used their freedom to go backwards for a few years -- or a few generations -- and even if, left to their own devices, they drank, or listened to speeches from agitators, read independent newspapers, gathered and discussed unsavory ideas.

Pullman wouldn't listen to his workers' needs. We can’t ever be so arrogant that we won’t meet and talk and consider where other people are coming from.

For Labor Day, remember George Pullman, the industrialist whose meanness sparked the events that led to the creation of the holiday.

Remember George Pullman, the Universalist who got the optimism but didn’t get the humility – because we Unitarian Universalists today follow in his footsteps in more ways than it's comfortable to admit. When has your voice of “let’s make it better,” come out as "fix it my way or I will treat you as evil obstructionist"? When have your own ideals made you cruel? I think we do that every time we think someone else is wrong.

Then let this be our Labor Day prayer: to find the courage to talk to the people we think are wrong, and stay at it until we get over ourselves. “God rejoiced at our disobedience,” said Rabbi Kushner, “and then wept with joy that we could feel our estrangement and want to return home.” We feel the estrangement.

For Labor Day, as we consider our theme of the month for September, covenant, I ask you: Will you covenant -- will you commit -- to the labor it takes to return home? That labor, we cannot outsource to China. To go into the labor of giving birth to ourselves -- to go into the labor of giving birth to community -- we can’t get surrogates in India. It’s up to us.

My challenge to you – and to myself -- is to talk, face-to-face, with someone you think is wrong. It’s election season – it’s not hard to find them. The hard part is talking to them, and keeping a civil tongue even if they don’t.

And that is hard. Over the summer LoraKim and I went down to southern Virginia for a short visit with her brother. My brother-in-law and I did have a conversation about matters – political matters – on which we disagreed – and I failed to be a sympathetic listener. It’s very clear – to me – that he’s wrong. I wasn’t able to stay at it, get over myself, my conviction of rightness, stay pleasant. He didn’t either, but our challenge is to be better – whether the other person is or not. Next time we see each other, I’ll try again – chastened by how badly I failed at in July.

We feel our estrangement – so many of our fellow citizens, we are suddenly realizing, have such anger and fear – it’s easy for us to get angry at, and a little afraid of, them. The labor of returning home, one small step toward one small mend in one small relationship at a time, is ours to do. May we take it up.

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This is part 3 of 3 of "Going Into Labor"
See also
Part 1: Labor Day, Holy Day
Part 2: Why We Have Labor Day

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