I could have been a Stephanie. Or Leslie. Or Marie. But my mother overruled the family’s ideas and named me Kimberley Grace – Grace, after her mother, and Kimberley because she thought it was prettier. She also thought it was less common, but so did a lot of pregnant women in the early 1960s.
When I went to school, my mother Miriam – whose nickname was Mim – insisted I be called Kimberley. And of course, I got to school and told people to call me Kim. And thus began the Mim and Kim confusion that lasted until in 1985, my newly widowed mother moved to North Carolina and asked folks to call her Miriam.
Meanwhile, I was firmly Kim. Not that everyone called me that – I worked for a director who hated the name and called me Jill. But in 1989, I started working in an office in Raleigh with a guy named Ken. And in a North Carolina accent, Kim and Ken, well, you can hear how alike they sound. So Ken started using Kenneth, and I started using Kimberley.
Which, after many years, I realized really was beautiful, and so I keep using it. Sure, old friends and family still call me Kim, and Dan can’t seem to help himself, but I am Kimberley. And I like it.
Because it is my name…given to me, with thought and purpose.
We are given names by parents – some we like, some we don’t.
Sometimes we change our names – or use middle names, like my great aunt, M. Helen Debus. Sometimes we are given new names to signify an important change or connection. In the Bible, we have a number of instances where people were given names – for instance, Abram became Abraham and Saul became Paul.
These kinds of changes provide meaningful shifts in perspective – meaningful because the names are given, not because of flipping through a book of baby names, but given because of meaning. Whether you were given the name Grace to honor your grandmother, as I was… or given the name Matthew because it means ‘gift from God” or as our own Reverend Thandeka was given her name by Archbishop Desmond Tutu because it means “beloved”…. Names mean something.
And not just names of people, but names of churches and denominations. “Unitarian” was a pejorative two hundred years ago, until William Ellery Channing declared in 1819 that if this is what they were going to call us, we were going to claim it proudly, because we did in fact see no reasonable basis for the Trinity. Unitarian mattered.
At the same time, the idea of universal salvation was also spreading like wildfire – the idea that a loving god could in no way damn his children. This very not-even-a-little-bit-Calvinist idea became known as Universalism…and subsequently also was claimed.
And those names also mean something.
So what does First Universalist Church of Southold mean?
In 1835, our founders established a church that followed the tradition of calling churches by number, based on who got their first – or in the case of the Unitarian/Trinitarian splits, who kept the building. Thus, you have some First Parish churches that are Unitarian Universalist, with a Second Parish across the street that is the Congregationalist, or United Church of Christ church. And in other towns, it’s the opposite. In many towns, you have lots of firsts – first Baptist, first Congregationalist, first Lutheran, first Methodist, first Unitarian, first universalist. In large towns, you may get up to seconds, thirds, fourths – as in Fourth Universalist in New York City…there’s even an eighth Baptist in midtown.
But our founders were definitely the first Universalists to found a church in Southold. So “First Universalist Church” it is.
And what that meant in 1835 is that a new way of understanding God, religion, salvation, and life itself was brought to the North Fork.
Now come with me on a journey back to that time – to 185 years ago… you’re a farmer, as everyone here probably was then, and while you’re doing okay and the crops were hearty this year, they aren’t always so good… and you hear about the factories springing up in the city, and you wonder how industrialization might change your life for the worse.
So far, your minister has been preaching about hell and damnation – that “You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder.” In fact, these strong words, which your minister quotes from Jonathan Edwards, are so fear-inducing, you might be more scared of your minister than you are of God Almighty.
But then, you hear about a new group starting a church. They gather in the old Cochran Inn, and they proclaim the words “God Is Love.” You attend one of their gatherings, and you listen to the message.
There is no hellfire. No brimstone. No divine wrath. No judgment. Just love.
God As Love.
You hear God talked about in homey language – as a father who loves all his children. Someone quotes from Hosea Ballou: “Your child has fallen into the mire, and its body and its garments are defiled. You cleanse it, and array it in clean robes. The query is, Do you love your child because you have washed it? Or, Did you wash it because you loved it?”
You begin to hear a healing message of a God that has faith in all humans, a God that wants all souls to grow into harmony, a God that loves. Simply loves.
And your life is changed. You hear a message that tells you that you are whole, and worthy. You – and thousands of others – have been waiting your whole lives to hear about love instead of fear, salvation instead of damnation, infinite good instead of unending evil.
It’s a message people are still waiting to hear.
And it’s radical. It’s everything the other churches here were against. After all, it’s very hard to parse universal salvation against the doctrine that says that you carry the crimson stain of original sin, and that Jesus’ death on the cross washes you of your sins. It’s hard to parse the idea that there is no eternal damnation against a doctrine that suggests without a threat, you will live without a moral code and behave reprehensively.
This was so radical, Universalists were vilified by even Universalist-leaning Unitarians – William Ellery Channing said he had never seen a more irrational doctrine.
It’s so radical, Calvinists are still up in arms. For proof that the landscape hasn’t changed, consider the story of evangelical pastor Rob Bell. In 2011, Bell wrote a NYT bestselling book Love Wins, where he suggested there might be something to the universalist argument, even though he refused to call himself a Universalist. And still he was vilified by the evangelical community, with conservative leaders like Albert Mohler asserting that Bell’s book was “theologically disastrous.” Controversial pastor Mark Driscoll took Bell to task on Twitter and his blog, calling Bell’s ideas “completely absurd and unjust.”
And that’s just over a general assumption that maybe there’s wiggle room in the New Testament for something that might resemble universal salvation.
Universalism becomes even more radical when you follow it, as we do, to its natural conclusion… that if all souls are saved by the simple fact that God loves us, then Universal Salvation must extend beyond Christianity, to literally ALL SOULS, whatever they believe. Universalism’s natural conclusion is that love is as boundless in scope, as broad as humanity, and as infinite as the universe.
This may have been a reason Universalists – along with Unitarians with their strong humanism – were excluded from the World Council of Churches, formed in the early part of the 20th century.
We are inheritors of something incredibly radical. To many, it’s heretical.
Isn’t it fun?
That’s a lot of stuff tucked into a simple name.
But wait, there’s more…
Because sometimes names aren’t just what we call things, they are themselves a call to something greater. In Genesis, Abram isn’t renamed Abraham just because it sounds better, he was renamed as a reminder that he was called to be the father of all nations. In the Book of Acts, Saul isn’t renamed Paul just because he fell off a horse, he was renamed as a reminder that he was changed by his experience and must talk about it with others.
Universalist is not just a name we have because of a particular theological belief, we are Universalist because that belief compels us to do good. As the great showman and notable Universalist PT Barnum remarked, “a comparatively small portion of scripture bears on immortal life and the great end of our course. Conduct is three-fourths of life. This present life is the great pressing concern. This is precisely as it should be.”
As Rev. Forrest Church wrote, Universalism encourages us to “pitch ourselves into the very midst of life’s teeming questions.”
And those teeming questions send us headlong into the centerpiece of Universalism: that Hell isn’t where we try to avoid going after we die – Hell is on Earth. Here, and now. Sin isn’t inherited from some ancient creation myth, it’s manifest in those times when we act inhumanly. Evil grows when we forget that we are part of this huge planet, with all its beings and the very planet itself.
I could depress myself and you with a litany of all the ways we see hell on earth – from racism and oppression to violence and genocide to greed and destruction of our resources. We know the hell that is on earth.
But our name doesn’t call us to shrink from the evil we see around us – our name – First Universalist Church – calls us to act. Universalism is more than comfortable seats and no damnation. As Lewis Beals Fisher says, “Universalists are often asked to tell where they stand. The only true answer is that we do not stand at all; we move.”
Our name calls us to action – around the world, in our communities, and right next door. Our name reminds us that we must listen to our neighbor, who may be different from us, or have needs we cannot know just by looking at them. Who is your neighbor? Are they doing okay financially? Are they battling discrimination because of race, creed, gender, or sexual orientation? Are they hurting emotionally? Hurting physically? What is your neighbor’s pain? It won’t be the same as your pain, or your other neighbor’s pain, but your neighbor’s voice has a right to be heard, and your neighbor’s needs have a right to be met. Can you help? Can you make your block, your street, your community more just? More loved? Less like hell on earth? Can you love the Hell out of this world?
Our name calls us to hear each other’s stories. To honor each other’s lives. To lend a hand to help. To ease another’s suffering. To stand with one another. To know each other’s names.
When we know each other’s names, we see them as people – as individuals, each with inherent worth and dignity. And as Universalists, we want to know each other so we can love them more deeply. We don’t want you to be a nameless face in the crowd. We don’t want this church to just be that old white church that used to be on the bend. Whether we meet here at Custer, or meet in other locations, whether we settle into a home shortly or in a while – we ARE the First Universalist Church of Southold – proudly bearing a name that carries a deep meaning and a deep call.
Because our name proclaims, as it has for 185 years, that everyone here is loved. And valued. And seen. And cared for. And called to love the Hell out of this world.