The Reverend Jill McAllister can’t remember the answers she once gave when people asked, “How are you?” Lately, she finds herself saying, “I am tired.” Or she might say, “Things are immense.”
McAllister’s congregation, the Unitarian Universalist (UU) Fellowship of Corvallis, is still reeling from the ascendance of President Trump. The feeling was urgent even before November; when I spoke to McAllister just under a year ago, she was working to address members’ hopelessness related to climate change. Now her congregation must face the pain of knowing that their work will get even harder.
In this moment, McAllister sees her role as “being present with people.”
“Being a minister is like being a midwife,” she said. “You’re right there with people, but you cannot give birth to the baby.”
Instead, she asks people questions. She offers her own perspective. She tells stories about how things worked for her. Sometimes she even has to be stern, telling people to “knock it off” and reminding them of their values: justice, peace, freedom.
“We’re working very hard to keep people out of shock, denial, and despair by getting people together,” she said. “There’s still work to do.”
An Inquisitive Practice
The Corvallis UU Fellowship is a growing congregation with more than 300 members. Part of a liberal religious tradition that welcomes people of all faiths, Unitarian Universalism has roots in Christianity and Judaism, but its practitioners unite around the search for understanding of life’s big mysteries: who are we, why are we here, how can we be better?
At a recent Sunday service, an Episcopalian priest and Jungian psychologist delivered a sermon, “Embracing Your Shadow: Shining the Light of Consciousness on the Dark Side of the Soul,” which emphasized the importance of confronting the shadowy fear that lies under our reactions. The week after, McAllister delivered a sermon, “How to Walk on Eggshells,” which provided strategies for those dealing with post-election trauma.
McAllister is constantly working to remind her congregation that we have fears, and we have trauma, but we also have strength and compassion. When we feel anger and want to act out hostilities, she’d have us ask questions: What fear is that anger masking? How can we go deeper to expand our understanding?
“That is the spiritual life,” she said. “The most important thing is for us to learn to push into our own vulnerabilities.”
Finding the Questions
McAllister was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, and grew up in St. Louis, Missouri. Her family was very active in the Methodist church, but she always had many questions about Christian religious practices.
“Things didn’t make sense to me,” she said. “Is Jesus alive? What are we talking about? What is all this about?”
The questions continued as McAllister went to college, got married at 22, and moved to Corvallis in 1981. She and her then-husband, a Lutheran, thought they would be “church people.” Although they kept trying churches, nothing seemed to fit – until they stepped into the Corvallis UU Fellowship.
At the front of the room, a man stood delivering a sermon using a flip chart. He explained to about 100 listeners that at this church, people were free to believe what made sense to them; they did not all have to believe the same things.
“It was so different than what I was accustomed to from a church,” McAllister said. The emphasis on freedom, asking questions, and personal choice: she knew almost immediately that this was a place she wanted to be.
McAllister went to seminary while living in Corvallis and left in 1998 to pastor a church in Michigan. In September 2013, she was called back to Corvallis to pastor the UU Fellowship.
In her years as a minister, McAllister has learned that one of her strengths is bringing people together for a cause, and bringing ideas that they already know exist in their souls to the surface.
“My job is to focus the conversation,” McAllister said, “to let come through me some synthesis in the context of what we say are our values. My job is to embody in my presence with people what courage feels like.”
At the same time McAllister feels need from her congregation more than ever, she feels something else stirring inside her. She’s 58. Her children are all adults. She is no longer a young person, as her body frequently reminds her. She is entering a new stage in her life.
“All of that is a real change in perspective,” she said. “I’m changing as much as the world is changing.”
McAllister recalls a sabbatical she took when she was in her mid-30s. She had been running for years, with a job and children, and she decided to take time to catch up with her own life. McAllister feels the pull now toward this kind of break for reassessment.
“It’s very easy to keep going,” she said. “The structure of a life will keep you believing you know who you are.”
But her church is in the middle of raising money for a new building, and her congregation is hurting from the election. So instead of a break, McAllister practices yoga and takes long morning walks with her dog. She spends time on the coasts and in the forests whenever possible. She reminds herself that she chose this life and these responsibilities; that they are core to her understanding of religion as “a process of better understanding how we are related.”
McAllister believes that in telling each other the stories of our lives, we can begin to understand our obligations to one another.
“Courage isn’t an intellectual idea,” said McAllister. “It’s about the gut. It’s spiritual work. It’s about acknowledging grief and pain and then continuing. It’s about practicing our values – that is the spiritual life. The most important thing is for us to learn to push into our own vulnerabilities.”
This year, McAllister’s congregation has a theme. They adopted it before the presidential election, and now it seems even more important.
This year, they want to be brave.
~By Maggie Anderson