Credo by Omar Acevedo

Spring 2019

I was born to be a storyteller. But the mantle of the storyteller is an important one to assume. The storyteller holds a place of esteem in the village in cultures all over the world. And in many of these cultures, their role is both temporal and spiritual. They are the keepers of the sacred: the stories, the histories, of the village including their own story. I can imagine them with members of the village gathered around them under a tree weaving tales of the mysteries of life and the importance of faith to the survival of their ancestors. And here I am, like those storytellers, under the roof of this building to tell you my history, the story of my journey.

I wasn’t raised in any particular spiritual tradition. My parents were both agnostic, but imparted opposing stories about the world. My mother told me a story of a world full of the wonders of joy and the triumph of love. To her, anything could be fixed with a kiss, a hug, or even a dance. To her, there is an endless amount of compassion and forgiveness. My father, on the other hand, told me a story of the world that centered around the hardness of life and the cruelty of fate. And he, in turn, was strict. He believed it was training for the real world. Men were strong because softness was weakness. His story was Orwellian: “War is peace / freedom is slavery [and] ignorance is strength”. As a child, I was unsure which story was true. I grew up wondering why love and strength couldn’t be held at the same time.  I needed to figure out how to make sense of the world. I needed to create my own story.

At first, I explored what was most readily available: Christianity. There were many positive role models around me that were Christians including beloved relatives and community members. And so I found a bible, and read it daily. I attended Catholic mass with my grandmother, awestruck by the mystery and flair of the liturgy. But how could Christianity accept a blossoming gay teenager? I quickly realized that it couldn’t. I left that Christian faith, but found myself homeless, in a way. I had neither a physical nor a spiritual home possessing love, comfort, nor solace. But I was determined to seek it somewhere.

I took to the road: physically, intellectually, and spiritually. I lived long periods of time with kindhearted relatives. I spent whole Saturdays and Sundays in libraries and museums. I took my novels and sketchbooks and spent hours in quiet city parks beneath trees immersed in the stories of others. Perhaps in those stories, I thought, I could get closer to my truth. At fourteen, I was living the life of an wandering hermit begging for scraps of knowledge and love. I found books about European paganism, which brought together my love of history, nature, and ritual.  And it proved appealing to my rebellious teenage spirit—that desire that we have all experienced to get as far away as possible from everything that you’ve known. But I’ve always been a bit of an ambivert, and solitary Pagan practice could not sustain me for very long. I needed to find a tradition that would give me spirituality and community. I continued to study, and stumbled on Unitarian Universalism.

Unitarian Universalism’s story reminded me of my own.  It had Christian origins, a connection to nature, a love of community, and a quest for truth and justice. It seemed like a perfect fit, so I jumped into it. I became involved with local congregations and groups for youth and people of color at the national level. I traveled all over the country to different congregations and even attended General Assembly in Portland in 2006. I found not only spiritual community, but friends that I have to this day. I considered those early years one of the happiest times of my life until quite recently. I didn’t know it then but that bright period in my life would help me to keep my beliefs together through the difficult, painful years that still lay ahead.

I found myself as a young adult living in a dark combination of the stories that my parents told me about the world. I found both love and cruelty in one place, in one person. Everyday was a struggle, but my heart didn’t want to give up. I loved abundantly. I forgave unceasingly. I tried to relinquish every part of my identity that was deemed unwanted or unnecessary. After years of purging myself of my self, I reached a point where I had nothing else to give. But at that darkest point of winter, and my life, a voice within me revealed itself. It said quietly but with resolve: “by the Grace of God, I am what I am” and I too have “inherent worth and dignity.” The dystopian falsehood of that life fell away forever. I realized that no person, institution, or society could undo what I was meant to be. I had the faith, hope, and love in myself to survive and thrive. I had a life to live and a story to tell, and I would do just that.

My journey continues, but I still think about that young boy sitting under the tree with his stories and hopes for the future. He was a boy with a good heart, a curious mind, and a deep desire to be loved, and to love. I didn't know it then, but the tree and I had similar stories: there will always be storms that will test your resolve, but there will also be sunny days and gentle rains and gentle people who sit next to you (or in front of you) and listen to your stories.

One of my favorite authors Ursula K. Le Guin, once said: “To see that your life is a story while you're in the middle of living it may be a help to living it well.”

Credo by Runa Skar

I will start by sharing some of my faith journey with you.

I didn’t grow up in America, as my accent attests to and some of you already know, but in Norway, a country where the Lutheran church was the state church up until 2017 actually. You were born,—- you were a Lutheran.

I however, grew up Baptist.  My mother needed a more personal, involved church experience and faith. In elementary school, I was exempt from religious ed. but memorized and sang hymns along with the rest of my classmates every morning. I attended Sunday school and filled my book with gold stars.  I was given a strong childhood faith in Jesus.

On Christmas Eve, in the dark and bitter-cold winter in the north.. snowing outside. We sat still, by lighted candles on the table, as my mother read aloud the Nativity Story from Luke second chapter. Wide eyed, I heard about camels and kings bearing gifts of gold and spices, guided through the sandy desert by the new star, searching for a newborn king in a manger.  It seemed like a fairy tale from a far away land.

As an adult, I was the first one to be fully submerged in baptism in our brand new Baptist church the Sunday before I left my family behind for America. The faithful church-ladies in the front row cried out their “Hallelujahs” and “Praise the Lord.”  Ironically enough, I then worshipped for twenty-five years as a Lutheran, even tho’ I never quite understood Jesus being nailed to the cross for my sins.

On Sunday mornings, I faithfully recited the Apostles creed, but was not sure I REALLY believed in the Trinity, the judgment day for the living and the dead or the resurrection of the body.  For me, this church also lacked inclusiveness which I found later, here in the Unitarian Society’s first principle: “The inherent worth and dignity of every person.”  I have been a member here for almost twenty years now.  Being involved in our Unitarian Society re-fills my vessel and here I have found community.

My spouse Runa and I have five children between us and counting their spouses and significant others, we really have a quite an eclectic faith family.  We are: Jewish, Hindu, Methodist, Lutheran, Atheist, Presbyterian, Catholic and one couple who is VERY Catholic (if you know what I mean?) and then us two Unitarian Mommies.

On Christmas Eve, when we gather this motley crew around our table, I don’t read the Nativity story like my mother did, but rather the poem Maya Angelou read at the lighting of the White House Christmas tree in 2002 called: “Amazing Peace.”

My faith has changed as I have changed.

Kenneth Stokes’s has written a fascinating book called “Faith is a verb” which resonates with me. He borrowed his title from writings by theologians Fowler and Westerhoff who also emphasized the validity of a dynamic, growing and ever changing faith, rather than a stagnant and absolute faith.  The concept that “Faith is a verb” is intriguing, as we all know that a verb means action. Consequently doing good, becomes of utmost importance.  Doing good along with living an ethical life.

I also believe in the interconnectedness of all human beings.  Meaning: if I do good and have good intentions, in some way this changes the universe, in a tiny, yet significant way. This is the pebble effect of ripples on the water.  For me, this becomes essential to rememberwhen I can get overwhelmed with all the issues facing our lives today.  I believe religions are human constructs in an attempt to answer our existential questions.

I look at religions as ultimately different pathways to the same mountaintop. Over a lifetime, It’s healthy and I would argue necessary, to question one’s path and therefore to switch paths, to climb on one for a while and then search out another.  My faith practices now include stilling myself and setting my intentions in the morning with a short reading maybe from the Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron.

At the end of the day, I try to remember to express gratitude.

When I pray, I always revert to my native Norwegian, which remains the language of my heart. I find that the childhood prayers I recited every night together with my mother, have become sort of my mantra.  I try to live by what she used to practice, The Golden Rule: “Do onto others as you would have them do unto you.” “Gjør mot andre det du vil de skal gjøre mot deg.” We find this basic tenent in all faith traditions.

I don’t believe in a Heaven with streets paved with gold and the savior that I sang about as a child. But I believe our souls or our life force made up of atoms and molecules might continue in a new realm after we die.  However, that does not really influence how I live my life today.  Whatever comes afterwards, if anything, remains of course, the ultimate human mystery.

In closing, I will share an example of living my faith.

Now that I am retired, I volunteer for Hospice with visits and also sitting death vigils.  I have found that by confronting my own mortality, I can live more fully. 

So, I received a vigil request and went to the nursing home. I sat at the bedside of my client a spunky, 99 year-old lady, a mother of six children who never had visitors, staff told me.  She used to like wearing sequence caps when I wheeled her around the corridors and she loved to dance in her younger days. During our weekly visits over several months, she often called out for her own mother. So she was longing.

Now she was transitioning, this frail human body— barely visibly breathing under the thin sheet. And as I sat there and held her hand, her breathing finally ceased and the room fell silent.

Very silent.

I found myself softly humming Leonard Cohen’s beautiful tune “Hallelujah,” as I walked over,- opened the window - and let her soul free.