Will Work for Meaning

On a recent, overcast Thursday evening, I co-led a presentation in San Marcos, Texas, about creating a local, interfaith environmental network. I didn’t know what to expect; in retrospect, I guess I didn’t expect much. San Marcos is a small town compared to the other cities in which I’ve offered this presentation. I wondered whether enough people would even be interested.

We met in one of the basement classrooms of a campus ministry center, hosted by the local Unitarian Universalist church that rents space there. Fifteen people showed up, most of them Unitarian Universalists, members of the host church. One was Christian (Unity), one was Jewish, one was Baha’i. Two were religiously unaffiliated.

Most of the people in attendance had been involved in serious community and environmental work for a long time. Just south of Austin, San Marcos is home to Texas State University—but it’s also a unique ecological place. Thanks to the presence of water, it is one of the oldest continuously inhabited sites in North America. The Edwards Aquifer feeds the clear, cool San Marcos Springs, which in turn form the headwaters of the beautiful San Marcos River. This river is a central feature, key to the life and identity of the city and its people.

The list of organizations in which these folks were involved was long and impressive: the League of Women Voters, the Sacred Springs Alliance, the San Marcos Nature Center, the Texas River Foundation, the Edwards Aquifer Authority, Texas Master Naturalists, Sustainable San Marcos, San Marcos Neighborhood Gardens, and the San Marcos Greenbelt Alliance.

The longer I listened to this group of people introduce themselves, the more sure I became that, rather than showing up out of a desire to help launch a new initiative, they had come as invested local leaders, out of curiosity. Surely they were already too busy and too committed to other things to do more. We would have a friendly conversation, people would agree to stay connected, and that would be about it.

After the presentation, we arranged ourselves into a circle—and I found out just how wrong I had been.

As the group talked, I listened. They immediately started brainstormed about issues they could take on: waste and recycling, rapid development, local planning, weatherization. One person spoke about the importance of connecting kids to nature. One of the religiously unaffiliated spoke passionately about grounding our work in the sacred. Two people, at separate points in the conversation, spoke movingly about gratitude as a practice and an approach. One person started to choke up as she reflected on feelings of overwhelming grief, in facing the reality of global warming.

At one point, I said something that ended with, “it depends on what you all want to do,” to which the woman sitting next to me issued her gut response in a whisper: “I want to save the world.”

By now, I had tears in my eyes.

These people were hungry for connection—to each other and to the Holy. They were full of love for their part of the natural world and their local community. They wanted, with all their hearts, to do something worthwhile. They wanted meaning—and they were willing to work for it.

Over the last nine years in which I have been employed, in one way or another, by a religious organization, I have come to see some of the ways that our consumer culture creeps into religious life. People talk about “church shopping.” We have conversations about how to “attract and retain” members, as though they are customers to be wooed. Recently, I heard about efforts by some congregations to entice people to attend services by offering door prizes. All of this smacks to me of consumerism and makes me cringe.

What people want—I’ve thought to myself—what they hunger for, is meaning. Help people feel like they are an important part of a community; that their presence and participation matters; that the things we do and say in our worship services are connected to ancient traditions, have bearing on our lives today, and are one way of connecting to the Holy; that our actions and our choices and our contributions make a real difference, to other people and to God; that rather than having everything handed to us, we should work and build and make offerings of our lives—and people will come. And they will stay.

Honestly facing this time of uncertainty, strife, fear, change, and global climate crisis gives us an opportunity to offer our lives in connection and service to the Holy, and together, to make meaning. I am grateful to a handful of folks from San Marcos, Texas, for reminding me of that.


Photo of the San Marcos River taken by the author, Yaira Robinson.

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2 thoughts on “Will Work for Meaning

  1. I’m grateful for your post, especially it’s connection with environmental issues and religious settings. I agree that many people have an intense desire for meaning. I recently had a conversation with a lay-academic group I am part of speaking about community. I’m wondering if you have any thoughts regarding those who wish to be a part of a community without subscribing to all of the doctrine and to what extent the church should be welcoming?

  2. Yaira – Thank you for sharing this experience. It makes me think of one of my favorite lines from a Rumi (13th century Islamic mystic) poem: “Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”

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