Monday, June 9, 2014

Draw the Circle Wide

Today's Guest Author:  Stephen Vrla

Stephen is a PhD student at Michigan State University, where he studies sociology, animal studies, and environmental science and policy.  His research focuses on how educational institutions affect children's attitudes toward animals and the environment.  He also helps facilitate the high school religious education group at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greater Lansing in East Lansing, MI.

Delivered 4/27/2014 at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greater Lansing
East Lansing, MI
To listen to the sermon (and all the responses) click here.

Hi! For those of you who don’t already know me, my name is Stephen Vrla. I moved to East Lansing last summer to start graduate school at MSU, and I’ve been coming to UUCGL ever since. As the Young Adult Group was planning this Earth Day service, I volunteered to reflect on my experience with Unitarian Universalism and offer my thoughts on its connection to non- human animals and the environment. However, we all agreed that we really want to hear your experiences and thoughts, too. For that reason, we’ve decided to make this an interactive reflection. Throughout it, I’ll ask you questions and encourage you to text in your responses. So if you tucked your phone away or turned it off before the service—thanks for doing that, by the way—please go ahead and take it out. Some of your responses will be displayed on the screen, and we’ll have time to read through them before I give my own response. We’ll also have time for you to call out your responses in case you don’t have a phone with you or would prefer not to text in. To get started, please think about the following question, and, if you’re interested, text in the code on the screen, followed by your response, to the number on the screen: In a word or two, describe the feeling you had when you first discovered Unitarian Universalism. (Read some of the responses out loud.) Now, if you would like to call out a response, please do so. (Repeat responses as they’re called out.)
I first discovered Unitarian Universalism was two and a half years ago at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Texas. Although I remember being enthusiastically greeted by a member of the welcome team, my most distinct memory is of what I saw when I entered the sanctuary: whereas the Lutheran church I grew up in had an imposing, wooden cross hanging above its altar, this church had an delicate, metal sculpture of a flock of seabirds flying over its pulpit. Before the minister had spoken a word, I knew this church was different from any other church I had been to, and it was this difference that brought me back the following Sunday, and almost every subsequent Sunday for the rest of the year. Now, to be fair, I later learned that the seabird sculpture was pretty controversial at First UU. Some members of the congregation loved it, but others hated it, and one of the ministers not-so-lovingly admitted that, when he delivered sermons, he felt that he belonged on the poster of Alfred Hitchcock’s film The Birds. So, maybe I shouldn’t have based my first impression of the church on the sculpture. Still, I believed at the time, and continue to believe now, that a church that values animals and the environment enough to put a representation of them in so prominent a position warrants a second visit.
Though that was my first direct experience with UU, I was actually introduced to it a couple years earlier. As a college senior, I took an environmental science course called Nature and Society. I had initially assumed it would focus on ecology and other natural sciences, but I soon realized that wouldn’t be the case. Instead, it focused on the relationship among people, animals, and nature. The natural sciences, the professor argued, are an important perspective through which to consider this relationship, but so are the social sciences and humanities. Indeed, one of the key takeaways from the course was an ethical concept called the Circle of Moral Community. Before I describe what my professor meant by this concept, I’d like you to think of a few words that come to mind when you hear that phrase—the Circle of Moral Community—and, if you’re
willing, text them in. Again, text in the code on the screen, followed by your response, to the number on the screen. (Read some of the responses out loud.) Now, if you would like to call out a response, please do so. (Repeat responses as they’re called out.)
According to my professor, the Circle of Moral Community is a metaphorical circle enclosing every being a community, society, or individual considers to have moral value; in other words, it’s a group including all beings considered to have inherent worth and dignity. People, animals, and nature can all be included in this group, but they can also be excluded from it. In the nineteenth century, for example, American society included white men in its Circle, but excluded non-whites, women, and other marginalized human groups as well as animals and nature. Today, our society includes many more once-marginalized groups in its Circle, but it continues to exclude many others.
Now I said that this course introduced me to UU, and I didn’t misspeak. That being said, my professor never spoke of UU directly. Rather, he addressed the need to think critically about how we as individuals and as members of society define our Circles. Implicitly, he also called for us to redefine our Circles to include human and non-human beings who are currently excluded from it, but shouldn’t be. To me, this call to draw our Circle wide is the heart of UU. What else can Standing on the Side of Love mean but using our passion and energy to draw our society’s Circle wide and hold it there against the forces pulling it back as no-longer- marginalized beings rush in to join us? To me, that’s exactly what UUs have been doing throughout our history, from Theodore Parker and other abolitionists to Augusta Jane Chapin and other suffragists to too many more people to list, including those of you in this hall. Please take a moment to think of how you have worked to draw our Circle of Moral Community wide, and consider texting in to share your work with the rest of us. Again, text in the code on the screen, followed by your response, to the number on the screen. (Read some of the responses out loud.) Now, if you would like to call out a response, please do so. (Repeat responses as they’re called out.)
Personally, I believe I can best honor the UU tradition of drawing the Circle of Moral Community wide by drawing it wider still. As a young adult and new UU, my work is still in its infancy. However, I would like to take a few minutes to share it with you in the hope that you might offer me your guidance and support, and perhaps even join me in it. Think back to the quotation by John Muir I read earlier in the service—“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find that it is bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken to everything in the universe.” Think back to the video, “How Wolves Change Rivers,” we watched after that. To me, that quotation and that video epitomize the Seventh Principle of UU: “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” This Principle has much to teach us about how to coexist with animals and nature. As the video showed us, living according to it can lead to flourishing species, communities, and ecosystems, all of which can promote human flourishing, too.
As much as the Seventh Principle may help us draw our Circle wide enough to include non- human beings, some UUs, including me, believe that it alone is not enough. Almost two decades after the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park, wolf reintroduction in the Northern Rocky Mountains has been successful enough that the gray wolf has been federally delisted as an endangered species. However, many scientists have argued that the delisting decision was based more on political values than on sound science, as many states’ responses to it suggest. Last year, 473 of Idaho’s wolves were killed by people through inhumane methods like aerial hunting and leg-hold trapping with little, if any, justification. Twenty-three more were killed during Michigan’s first wolf hunt in almost fifty years, again with little justification. These people could have peacefully coexisted with these wolves, but they chose not to. After all, why would they have? Their Circles clearly don’t include wolves. Somewhat surprisingly, this inhumane, unjustified killing is not in direct opposition to the Seventh Principle, which calls us to respect the web of all existence, but not necessarily the individual beings comprising it. So long as we “harvest” wolves within their “sustainable yield,” as inhumane and unjustified as this killing may be, we will not necessarily harm their and our ecosystems.
The UU Animal Ministry, of which I am a member, is a group of UUs committed to drawing our Circle wide enough to include individual animals as well as natural systems. Through our First Principle Project, we aim to promote critical discussion among UU congregations about how we might respond to animal issues like, but certainly not limited to, the recent wolf hunts. The Project takes its name from our goal to change the First Principle from “The inherent worth and dignity of every person” to “The inherent worth and dignity of every being.” We fully understand that our proposed change is controversial. To many UUs, the First Principle represents a victory for human rights and the culmination of a lifetime of work, and changing it would lessen this victory and work. However, we believe that, rather than lessening the First Principle, the change would honor the extent to which it has drawn our Circle wide by drawing it wider still.
I’m committed to drawing our Circle wide by promoting the First Principle Project and the UU Animal Ministry at UUCGL. If you’re interested in joining me, I would greatly appreciate your support. Even if you disagree with the Project’s goal or the way in which the UUAM is trying to accomplish it, I would appreciate your feedback, too. As much as our goal may be to change the First Principle, it is also to promote critical discussion of such a change.
So, that’s my future work, and I’d greatly appreciate your support in it. However, I’d also like to support you in your future work. You’ve already shared how you’ve worked to draw our Circle of Moral Community wide. Now, I’d like you to think of how you can draw it wider still, and, if you’re willing, text in one last time. Again, text in the code on the screen, followed by your response, to the number on the screen. (Read some of the responses out loud.) Now, if you would like to call out a response, please do so. (Repeat responses as they’re called out.)
Thank you very much for your time, attention, and willingness to share. And thank you for drawing the circle wide and for your commitment to draw it wider still.


  1. Thank you for the sermon, Stephen. Enjoyed the way others were included. You presented another avenue or opportunity for UUs to broaden their circle of compassion.

  2. Stephen, thank you for this. I'm delighted to note the things we have in common: I finished high school & went to college in Houston. My parents became members at First UU. I would have joined them if I hadn't already relocated to Michigan—Ann Arbor—to study sociology in grad school. :)

    I love the Circle of Moral Community concept. A few years ago, I shadowed a humane educator who was leading a series of classes with 4th graders, and one of her lessons was about our "Circle of Compassion." She got the students to reflect on who is in their own Circle of Compassion. And she made the point that people's Circles can get bigger over time. It was beautiful.

    Rev. Davidson Loehr wrote this ten years ago, and it's stayed with me: "The essential job of liberals in human societies is to enlarge our understanding of who belongs in our in-group." An ever-wider circle representing the expanded notion of our in-group is how I picture his message.

    And finally, your sermon reminded me of Edwin Markham's poem, Outwitted. Do you know it? It relates to the extent that it's also about drawing circles larger, and how we win when we do. ♥

    -Jennifer Greene


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