Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Charlotte County
"Cyberian Religion"
Rev. Sam Trumbore June 11th, 1995

Introductory Words

                    Litany  by Lisa deGruyter

Sing unto the earth, and all the rocks and trees
All that lives and breathes, far beneath the sky
For they are God
You are God
I am God
We are God

We are One:
The bed through which the river flows

We are Alpha:
Which was in the beginning

We are Omega:
Which shall be in the end

We are One

The cloud rains on the mountain
The creeks fall to the river
The river flows to the sea
The sun that shines in heaven
Lifts up the drops of water
And the cloud
Rains on the mountain

We are the water
In the river
In the clouds
In the creeks
In the sea

Which is purer?
Which is better?
We are One

We are the bed through which the river flows
We are the water of the river
And we are One
We are and were and shall be

Spoken Meditation

 From a poem by Steven Barrie of Southhampton, PA.


People are unreasonable, illogical and self-
	 Love them anyway.

If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives.
	Do good anyway.

If you are successful, you win false friends and true enemies.
	Succeed anyway.

The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow.
	Do good anyway.

Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable.
	Be honest and frank anyway.

People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs.
	Fight for some underdogs anyway.

What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight.
	Build anyway.

People really need help but may attack you if you help them.
	Help people anyway.

Give the world the best you have and you'll get kicked in the teeth.
	Give the world the best you've got, ANYWAY.


My interest in communications goes back to my early teenage years when I got my first shortwave radio from Heath Kit. For those of you who aren't electronics affectionados, Heath Kit was/perhaps still is a company that sent you kits of electronic components and assembly instructions. I bought and assembled my first shortwave radio myself. I remember my excitement, tuning my radio and listening to the stations all over the world; listening to programs from the Soviet Union, Cuba, and the BBC, and collecting QSL (or reception report acknowledgment) cards from those stations.

I have a vivid recollection of witnessing my first computer communication, watching a friend type on a computer terminal while simultaneously watching letters different than the ones he typed appear on the line above his letters on the orangish red-screen from someone in Illinois. This ability to communicate with some mysterious unknown person far away delighted something very deep in my spirit; the pleasant surprise of finding anonymous friendly people lurking out in the ether. Perhaps it fortifies the faith that the universe, perhaps even God, is not alien but familiar.

In the twenty years since I became involved with computers and specifically in the three years since the internet has become a household word, computer communications continue to revolutionize our world. One of the institutions being changed is religion.

As co-chair of the Unitarian Universalist Association's Committee on Technology and Communications, I have carefully observed and participated in encouraging that change. Some of it is very good and will strengthen Unitarian Universalism. Some if it is dangerous and could likely harm us. This is a fast-evolving medium which changes from month to month. And the communications network seems to almost evolve by itself.

The area of computer communications I'd like to focus on specifically this morning are two current technologies called electronic mail or email, and list servers. Electronic mail is the ability to compose a message on the screen of one's computer, encapsulate it as a discrete unit and then, using one's telephone line, transmit that message to another computer at the other end which will then route that mail to its destination. Once the message leaves one's screen, it could travel across many other computers before it gets to its final destination. But all the message originator needs to do is supply the electronic address, just as one doesn't need to understand the telephone system and how it works to place a call, only the number needs to be dialed.

Messages can not only be sent to other people, they can be sent to computer programs. The computer program can receive the message, interpret the contents and act on them. This is how a list server works. A list server is basically something extremely simple. A person sends a message to one of the list server's electronic mail addresses and the message is copied automatically to everyone's electronic mail address on a subscription list including the sender. Thus one message can easily be sent to hundreds of people. If someone wishes to respond to this message, everyone who got the first one can see the response. Usually it only takes a few minutes for the message to be redistributed to everyone. In this way hundreds of people can have a conversation back and forth - not in real time as one would have to do on the telephone, but whenever the electronic mailbox is checked, the message retrieved and optionally responded to. As messages are passed back and forth, a sense of connection can develop in the subscription group. If the subject of this subscription list is religion, over time the list can take on aspects of a religious community.

One such list was born in the early 90's, the inspiration of a fellow named Steve Tragoutt. He grew up in the St. Petersburg U.U. congregation here in Florida where his mother is an active member as well as involved in U.U district activities. A young U.U. computer programmer at the time, he was unemployed and feeling quite lonely. As a way to reach out to U.U. friends and make new ones, he decided there needed to be a Unitarian Universalist list. After making a number of contacts, he found a university list server in Buffalo, New York which sponsored community nonprofit organizations. The list Steve brought to life became known as UUS-L. Today over 600 Unitarian Universalists get between 20 and 50 messages a day from other U.U.'s around the world. I have been participating on this list for the last three years and observing its evolution as a religious community. From time to time someone comments about the possibilities of such a list itself becoming a "cyber" church. It is such a possibility which inspires my remarks.

In a sense cyber church is ancient history. Just turn on the television to one of the many religious services being broadcast. (And it's not just preachers one can hear - how many of you, late at night and desperate for entertainment, have tuned in to Sister Angelica on the Catholic cable channel?) Those lively and freshly coifed ministers looking straight out of the screen with the telephone number on their bellies are the first generation of electronic ministries. Pat Robertson, Jimmy Swaggart, and Jerry Falwell all have membership of their virtual congregation that spans the globe. And before television, it was radio. And before radio, it was the newspaper reprinting sermons from prominent local ministers. The institution of church has been in a constant process of evolution and change. Cyber church is just the next form that has appeared on the horizon. And it is a form uniquely suited to Unitarian Universalists.

Making a religious experience out of strings of words that appear on the screen of a computer may seem pretty far-fetched to some. Indeed the medium seems quite limited in comparison to sitting in a beautiful sanctuary surrounded by other members and friends listening to majestic organ music and inspired words delivered by a charismatic minister. Yet I have experienced a wide range of feeling and inspiration reading the snippets of people's thoughts, responses and ideas on my computer screen. Much as one gets to know an author by reading their works, so one begins to develop a relationship with one's email correspondents.

Unlike face-to-face contact (abbreviated F2F on-line), every word sent and received is frozen in time forever. Not only are they frozen they can be saved like a letter. I save my email messages for future reference in my computer. One year's worth of messages on UUS-L took up about 9 million characters or about 4500 pages of text. There are about 5600 messages in this collection. I have special data base software which allows me to scan through these messages to find bits of information or more often someone's electronic address. This past week I've been scanning through these stored messages looking for tidbits I might share this morning to help you get a feel for this medium of electronic religion.

There have been a number of memorable exchanges on subjects I could easily use as inspiration for a sermon. One particularly vigorous discussion revolved around the decision of the Thomas Jefferson UU District to sponsor a new congregation in an African American community with an intentional Christian- friendly stance. Feminist Theology, Paganism, Christianity, Humanism, theism and atheism and their place in Unitarian Universalism often comes up in different exchanges. Just how diverse can we become and still be U.U. is a concern which is expressed. One particularly long thread of exchange centered on "polyamory" or committed sexual relationships with more than two partners. I thought this practice died out in the sixties but evidently it survives as an unpopular subculture.

As one might expect for a gathering of U.U.'s, politics gets discussed regularly. In fact some political issues are just as intractable in this form as any other. I got into a fierce debate on whether the NRA was un-American or not. Internal congregational politics on occasion has been discussed, which caused some grave concern among the members of the UUA technology committee. UUA events, though, are fair game such as an evaluation of the new hymnal.

Not all the posts are discursive. Every once in a while someone posts poetry. The opening words, the meditation and the closing were all culled from my email archives. It's a delight to get such treasures just dropped in one's mailbox.

I have been surprised by a number of very personal subjects posted to the list. Several have shared the struggle of raising children or being step parents or step children after a divorce. One woman described her six-year-old returning after a visit with dad and telling her she was on her way to hell because she wasn't a Christian. Another wrote a moving poem about being a step- father and knowing he would never be the biological father of the child he loved.

The list has its own sort of joys and concerns. One man that I know of on UUS-L has died. Others have lost jobs and gained new ones. I don't think any marriages or children can yet be attributed to this group, but I suspect this is just a matter of time.

Sometimes the list is right in the middle of a major event. One of the subscribers to UUS-L is named Robert Hurst who lives in Oklahoma City. He kept us up to date with what was happening after the bombing and the personal dimension of the tragedy. My Outlook column quoted his internet message which described two U.U. women who were among the dead. That same message has been widely circulated in newsletters and even read by the UUA president at a UUA Board of Trustees meeting.

Sometimes the list isn't very pleasant. Like any congregation, disruptive people sometimes show up who talk too much or behave in an unfriendly and insulting manner. Because there is limited space for messages, when one person posts an enormous amount of their own material unconnected to any threads of exchange, it causes irritation just as if someone went into a five-minute speech in conversational response time that had nothing to do with the sermon. Usually these kind of people go away once confronted with the inappropriate nature of their messages.

The quality of discourse varies quite widely. As I was re-reading a few old messages, I enjoyed the depth of thought in them. Other sequences of message exchanges have been quite tedious and boring. This, in fact, highlights one of the things I value about this form of discourse which is superior to face-to- face interaction. If I lose interest in some topic during Conversation Among Friends, I am still obliged to sit and listen. But on-line, I just skip right over it and look at the next thread of exchange. Thus I have the freedom to filter which exchange I wish to read and in which exchange I wish to participate. And unlike a public gathering, one can privately exchange mail if others are not engaged by the conversation, and other topics can be discussed in parallel.

Will cyber churches replace brick and mortar churches as we build future congregations? Perhaps. There are advantages. One can join a list and lurk in the background reading the exchanges of messages. One doesn't get snagged as one walks in the door by a greeter and asked to sign the guest book. And (as the New Yorker cartoon so beautifully captured in the exchange between two pets sitting in front of a computer saying, "On the internet, no one knows if you are a dog!") exchanging messages through a list server has a degree of anonymity which can actually promote open expression. This is the same principle which makes anonymous support groups effective. Having the exact text of someone's words can also promote clear communication. These words are enhanced by the addition of special symbols which will you will find in your order of service called "gleeps" or "emoticons" to communicate an emotion along with the words as an expressive punctuation. I expect this to creep into general usage because they are so helpful in making written communication richer and more effective :-)

This "many to many" form of communication I think will have great benefit in spreading our faith. Already many people have discovered us while exploring the information superhighway and have sought out a congregation in their community. Because so much of U.U.ism is centered around words, we are well suited to be communicating our faith in this form. If we are, as I believe, a global religion for the 21st century, the global communication venue of choice today is the internet.

Of course there is a down side too. Staring at a TV screen with strings of letters lacks the sensual delight of Sunday morning worship. The fellowship here after the service is much richer. The computer can't smile at you. There is a width of experiencing which is missing. This may change with advances in virtual reality. One day we may go to church by putting on a special helmet which takes us to a place which may not even exist, and join others wearing the same helmets. But they will appear to us in whatever form they wish to appear: human, animal, plant or even space creature.

Another problem with the current lists is the shorthand used to save key strokes while typing. It takes a few weeks to learn the basic abbreviations like BTW (by the way), ROFL (roll on the floor laughing), and IMHO (in my humble opinion (which rarely is)). The emoticons take a while to get used to and the spelling, typos and poor grammar can be irritating. At first it can all seem like a secret language.

I have heard complaints from "newbies" (new internet users) after signing up for several mailing lists. Soon they are overwhelmed by trying to read all the mail stuffed in their email box. I've heard it described as akin to trying to drink from a fire hose. It takes a while to hone the skills of scanning messages and making quick decisions about what to read, what to discard, and what to archive for future reference.

Another concern arises from the enduring nature of an electronic message. When one makes a comment to a friend it goes in one ear, out the other and is usually let go. So much of our chit-chat dissipates and is lost forever when the sound waves are absorbed into the carpet or the acoustical tile. Email messages on the other hand go into archives like mine and get held for long periods of time. Someone may decide to copy your message and distribute it to others or cross-post it on another list. This can go on and on as has happened with the message I mentioned earlier by Robert Hurst about the two victims of the bombing. One has to choose one's words carefully. Yet the temptation is to whip off a response without thinking it through as often happens in conversation.

These pros and cons will not decide the value of UUS-L. Let us remember that 600 or so subscribers think it is valuable. But it needn't be feared. Electronic communication isn't a substitute for religion, but rather a new conduit through which our religious nature is expressed. It has its benefits and liabilities. My position as co-chair of the technology committee is to promote the beneficial dimensions and mitigate the liabilities as best I can. But the desire for electronic communications is very strong and the demand is growing very rapidly.

All this rush to plug into a vast electronic network originates in the human spirit. It originates in our natural curiosity and interest in connection with other human beings. It arises out of our basic social need for love. And people are finding it on the information superhighway. Yes, reach out and touch someone was the old techno-banner of AT&T for telephone service. Perhaps tomorrow's on-line slogan will be "reach out and touch the world."

Closing Words

Barry Vornbrock of Minneapolis wrote this poem to UUS-L:

Free form, let it flow.

Ride the river of your freedom;
        skim the foam,
        fly over the rocks,
        slice through the pools.

Soar in the air;
        find the thermal beyond knowing,
        be lifted beyond your ability to see,
        feel your self supported on nothing.

Copyright (c) 1995 by Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore, All Rights Reserved.