This I Believe: Jonathan Lubin (2018)

You’ve heard it and I’ve heard it:  “I’m not religious, but I am spiritual.”  For me, it’s just the reverse: I’m not particularly spiritual, but I do consider myself to be religious.  I relish the discipline of showing up to Sunday services every week, I look forward to the moral insights from the sermons, I enjoy the beauty of our music and the comfort of our liturgy, and I appreciate the vitality of the community that we have here.

It’s important to me that our congregation is linked with a religious denomination, one that has a history that’s honorable and distinguished.  At the same time that our Theodore Parker was sheltering escapees from slavery who were hiding from Federal slave-catchers, the pastors of the Southern Baptist Convention were assuring their congregations that slavery had God’s sanction and approval.  Following the Quakers, the Unitarians of the 1830’s, 40’s and 50’s were foremost among the abolitionists, and that’s important to me.  Even if we have not always measured up to our own ideals of racial justice, I love it that the abolitionist impulse still informs our denomination.

I know that it’s a false dichotomy to pose the religious and the spiritual in opposition to each other:  to see the face of the Divine in every person is a spiritual principle as much as it is religious.  Yet, I know well what religious duty and obligation are, but what could it possibly mean to speak of spiritual duty or obligation?

Religious duties are exactly those that give me the most pleasure.  Writing a check to a worthy charity, for instance.  Or something I’ve been doing now since I retired, going into a local high school to tutor mathematics.  I started at the suggestion of Fran Neumann, Social Justice Director of the Neighborhood UU Church of Pasadena, where Mark King and I were members before we came to Minnesota.  I took on the pleasurable religious responsibility of going to John Muir High School three or four days a week, and adding in whatever way I could to the mathematical instruction of the students there.  Five years ago Mark and I settled in St. Paul. I’m now in my fourth year going to Central High to tutor kids having trouble with their mathematics.

For me, the religious impulse is also an impulse to working for justice.  I got politically active in 1984, and even though I had been a Unitarian for thirty years already, I didn’t think of testifying in a legislative committee hearing as a religious act, but I do now.  I was living in Rhode Island in 1984, and Mark and I had been together for less than a year.  I was impressed that he, much younger than I was, was fully out as a gay guy.  Though I had been active in the gay life for over twenty years, I was not public about my sexual orientation.

I had the advantage of holding a tenured professorship that I couldn’t be dismissed from, while other lesbian or gay teachers in Rhode Island had to live in constant fear of their life being exposed and their jobs disappearing as a consequence.  I decided to take advantage of my relative invulnerability and argue for passage of a law that would give protection from employment discrimination based on sexual orientation.

So I testified, as an openly gay professor.  The whole event went very well, with our side outnumbering the opponents in the hearing room.  When my name was mentioned in the Providence Journal the next day, I was expecting hate phone calls, but the only call I got was a request from a news outlet asking me to expand on what I had said in the hearing.

From then on, I spent a lot of time in lesbian and gay political action, but also got involved with the ACLU, always one of my favorite and most admired organizations.  Two of my most prized possessions are lobbyist badges issued by the Secretary of State of Rhode Island:  one for a year working for the Rhode Island Alliance for Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights, the other for a year representing the Rhode Island Affiliate of the ACLU.

Eleven years later, in 1995, we got our bill passed, rather stronger than the original one.  Having watched the sausage-making involved in representative democracy, I came out with a much more favorable opinion of the legislative process than people might expect.  Not all of the legislators were intellectually brilliant, but pretty clearly only a tiny handful were on the take.  Overwhelmingly, the legislators wanted to do the right thing.  They could be deeply wrong, but they were almost all people of good will.

Let me give you an instructive example:  The bill that passed in 1995 did not cover transgender people—a serious flaw in the legislation.  So the Alliance, with Minnesota’s example before us, started lobbying for inclusion of transgender people.  One of the strongest opponents of the gay-rights bill had been an unalterably pro-life Democrat named Bambilyn Cambio.  But in the years after its passage, she must have seen that the new law had not led to the sky falling.  Bambi listened to the transfolks’ testimony, and she changed her mind, became a strong supporter of trans inclusion in the antidiscrimination code of Rhode Island.  The improved bill passed into law in 2001.

As I said before, the whole eleven-year process of working on a bill that finally was enacted confirmed my admiration for representative democracy, where the messy but essential committee process plays such an important part.  The mischief that California has done to itself by bypassing representation and putting its reliance on the referendum process should make all the other states take note of an example never to be copied.

I also learned that even your opponents can be persuaded by the right arguments, and it’s essential for us to keep open the channels of communication with people who we think are opposed to us and our ideals.

Most importantly, I learned that there is nothing more rewarding or satisfying than service in support of something greater than self.  I’ve achieved some small success in my profession.  But in my life, there is nothing I’m prouder of than my work in service toward improving the antidiscrimination code of Rhode Island, and beyond that, my contribution to civil rights generally.  Various Christian saints, including Dorothy Day, have said, in effect, “The way to Heaven is Heaven.”  I interpret this to mean that we are not to do right in the world in hope of salvation, but that doing right is salvation.

You’ll notice that I have not said a word about my belief.  “This I believe?”  I don’t know.  As I recall, it was Dee Smith, speaking from this platform, who described himself as an apatheist, and I guess I’m with him in that.  I don’t know about existence of a god, and I don’t care.  If I had to subscribe to any particular idea of the Divine, I guess I’d put myself in Einstein’s camp.  For him, der Hergott seems to have been not any kind of personality, but some principle of divine symmetry and rightness, expressed partly in the beautiful laws of physics and mathematics, but also in  I don’t know.

One more story:  Around the time of my seventeenth birthday, my newly-widowed mother was setting up a business, and had the help of a kindly older lady who was a member of the Unitarian Church of Staten Island.  Somehow, we started going to that church, and I for one was astonished that this was a religion that I could accept.  No mumbo jumbo, just an appeal to reason and good sense.  We were members before long.  So even if I’m not a birthright Unitarian, I’ve been UU for around 55 years.

Mark King and I were members of First Unitarian in Providence, but I can’t say that my involvement with the denomination or with any church was very serious till we got to Pasadena and joined Neighborhood Church there.  That church has a vital and organic community, where we found most of our friends in California.  My Rhode Island political service was easily transformed to service within Neighborhood Church.  Here, at White Bear UU, I still do what I can, serving as I can.

“Love is the spirit of this Church, and service is its law. This is our Great Covenant: to dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another.”  It’s getting so that these words bring me to tears.  I know that this place is where I belong.