26 August 2015

Have You Ever Watched a Bunch of Unitarians Paint a Building?

rom a letter, 1 December 1960, found in a box. The occasion is the renovation of an old building to serve as the new meeting-place for the Unitarian fellowship in Vancouver:
I get such a kick out of them whenever they undertake anything en masse. Have you ever watched a bunch of Unitarians paint a building? There they are, the doctor and the doctor’s wife, the lawyer-State representative and his artist wife, the woman dean of a local junior college, a registered nurse, a television engineer and his wife who Attends Meetings, a high school teacher of languages, some sort of forester, a fireman-filling-station-attendant, a public school teacher, a piano instructor, and innumerable Mothers with Interesting Theories on Child-Rearing. And all their varied and diverse children. Each in his own version of Old Clothes. It’s true they have only one color of paint, but that is because they appointed a committee to see to it, and they appointed one person to buy the paint, and so of course he bought the color he thought most suitable, durable, or whatever. Nobody likes the color, least of all the person who selected it, but they mix it up in somebody’s mop-bucket (mine, as it turned out, although I didn’t recognize it at the time with all that chocolate paint in it) and pour it into coffee cans and other cans and set to work with brushes of all possible sizes and states of wear, with rollers, with spray-guns. The children paint, too; it is good for them to participate. Everyone agrees on that, at least, although some people agree more strenuously than others. What charms me is the way they agree so thoroughly about every phase of the thing, and go right on doing it the way they have already decided. One lady was resolutely scraping off old paint—“all this old flaky stuff is going to have to come off,” she says, “or it’ll take the new paint right off with it.”
“You’re right,”—“Yes, that’s so,”—“That’s true, you’re doing a great job,” say the others, and courteously move around the corner of the building to continue painting over the old paint. Some thought the entry should be painted, and some thought it shouldn’t because it’s going to be dismantled and rebuilt in another location, and some thought it should be painted anyway, because it looked terrible out there on the front of the building that way, and so it was partly painted. And no one was distressed about any part of  it, regarding the whole business as a great holiday—not even the children quarreled—we ended the day with ice-cream all round and the pleasant agreement that this sort of thing was what Unitarianism, or at any rate fellowships, was/were really about.
I don’t know. It’s like a fantasy. Somebody ought to do it in ballet.
All of these people are so accustomed to being leaders, you see—oh, you know how that is—there’s not one follower in the bunch—not one. It makes the institution terribly strong, and in a state of imminent collapse at one and the same time. Like the democratic ideal, I guess.

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