This I Believe
by Phyllis Long
From a panel presentation at Prairie Unitarian Universalist Society, March 1, 2009

I was born in St. Louis into a large extended mostly Jewish family. When I was 6 years old we moved to Tennessee. At first my mother was lonesome for her sisters, but after a while she said she was glad she no longer had to keep kosher. My parents also made a point of telling me to not tell anyone I was Jewish. At one point, at Christmas time, a tree seller asked if he could set up a stand in front of the house. Mom said it was okay. After the treeselling period ended, he gave us a beautiful Christmas tree in thanks. I asked mom if we could get some lights and ornaments for it, but she said no, since we would never have another tree. She did help me string popcorn and cranberries for it, however. At one point, a friend of mine asked me to go to Sunday school with her. I came home singing Onward Christian Soldiers. My parents never again allowed me to go to a Christian Sunday school, and I was told not to sing that song again, although I said I liked the melody.

Despite the fact that we followed no religious practices in my parents' home, my parents did instill in me the qualities of compassion and a strong sense of right or wrong having nothing to do with a belief in a Supreme Being. My father, although not a union man himself, was very pro-union. As a child, his mother had taken him to hear Eugene V. Debs speak. He had been the bookkeeper of the IWW back in the 1930s. When I was 8, we left Tennessee.

Dad and my brother moved to Chicago to look for a place for us to live, while Mom and I went to Clayton, Missouri to live with mom's older sister. Although I had finished the school year in Tennessee, in Clayton I had to attend school as their schoolyear wasn't finished. This was the first time I experienced prejudice. When the other students learned who I was staying with, they knew I was Jewish. From then on I was isolated. No one at school would have anything to do with me. When I spoke to the teacher about it, she did nothing. After dad found us a place to live, we moved to Chicago. Mom said she was glad we hadn't moved back to St. Louis. Even though she was close to her sisters, she felt she had more independence living apart from them, although we did visit St. Louis on a pretty regular basis.

When I was about 10, I told my dad that I had developed an idea of how the world began. I told him I believed there were swirling masses of material in space, which combined and made the planets, and that animals and people slowly evolved on earth. My dad told me I was on the right track.

When I was about 12, I met a girl who was attending an Orthodox Jewish Sunday school. My parents agreed to have me attend, since this one was Orthodox Jewish I attended for about a year and was confirmed. This experience gave me some background into the history of the Jews in modern times. While attending this school Hannukah came around. Each member of the class was given a box of candles to use for the menorah. I brought them home and asked my mother where the menorah was. She told me we had none. When I asked her what I should do with the candles, she suggested I stick them on a piece of cardboard. I asked her if we could buy a menorah, and she said no, since we would never use it again. I briefly attended post confirmation classes with the Rabbi, but I found I couldn't believe in the things he was teaching us. I rejected the idea of a "chosen people." After that, I no longer wanted to go to any Jewish synagogue.

I went through a period in my early teens when I was unsure whether or not I believed in a Supreme Being, before coming to the conclusion I was an atheist. When I was in high school, I read a book by Edward Bellamy called "Looking Backward." It was written in the 19th century and was about a man who was mesmerized and woke up in the future. It presented a hopeful view of the future and had a profound effect on me. I later learned that Bellamy was a utopian socialist.

When I was 16 and a freshman in college, my brother suggested he knew of a group of Jewish socialists that I might like to join. The group was called Hashomer Hatsaier. I went to one of their meetings that fall and found I liked the people and very much liked their discussions of socialism and of Karl Marx. By that time I was dating Jim Long and I asked him if he would like to attend with me. In addition to socialism the group discussed the political situation in Israel and Zionism in general. In December we went on a trip to a cooperative camp in the Catskills. Jim was not with me. On the way there we stopped in New York and went to Radio City Music Hall to see Pete Seeger and Big Bill Broonzy. I had never heard of them before and I was thrilled. I bought a book there called The Peoples Song Book. After that I became a lifelong fan of Pete's and folk music in general.

Shortly after I returned from that trip, Shoshana, the leader of the group, took me aside and told me that the purpose of Hashomer was to prepare people to move to Israel and live on a kibbutz, a collective farm. She said since I was dating Jim, who was not Jewish, I would have to make a choice either to go to Israel or be with him. I was not interested in living in Israel and felt my future was in the United States and probably with Jim, so I left the group. I did remain friends with a few of the people I met there.

A year later I was engaged to Jim, and two years later we were married. When we had children, I started looking at different religions to see what I felt would be appropriate for their religious education, which I felt was important. I didn't want them to grow up with no religious background, as I had been. I went to Quaker services. I read up on different religions and finally decided to try the Unitarian Church, which seemed closest to my own beliefs. I joined the Evanston Unitarian Church and began taking my son, David to the Sunday school. I really liked the services and we went regularly. After awhile I started teaching in the Sunday school.

As the children were growing up, we moved several times. Whenever we moved to a new area, I would locate the closest Unitarian church so we could go. During this time, my beliefs solidified. I am an atheist. I also believe that you don't have to believe in a Supreme Being to be a good, moral person. I believe we all have an obligation to make the world a better place, in whatever way we feel we have the most to contribute.

I believe in the interconnectedness of life. We are a small part of the entire ecological system that exists in the world. Whether discussing history, geography, geology, the sciences, everything is connected. It is all of a piece. I find the older I get, the more I want to learn about everything. I want to fill in all the blanks. There is so much to learn! We are so fortunate in being able to appreciate all the things the world has to offer, everything from a sunrise to mountains and oceans. And so many beautiful things that people have created; art, music, architecture. It is only by finding our place in the world and making a contribution to it that we can find meaning in our lives.