A Cloud of Witnesses

A Cloud of Witnesses


No matter how isolated we may feel, we are always connected to those who have gone before us. We will explore how our ancestors can be a source of strength and healing in this Samhain service.

Welcoming the Ancestors

This ritual is adapted from the words of Christina Shu and Tara Little.

Today we are exploring the neopagan holiday of Samhain. It is known as the witch’s new year. The teachings of Wicca say that at this time of year, the veil between the worlds is at its thinnest, and we are able to connect with those who have gone before us. We can ask them for their wisdom and guidance.

The ritual of welcoming and honoring ancestors is actually an ancient spiritual practice found in many cultures and traditions. And so, we deepen our time together today paying tribute and expressing gratitude to our ancestors.

From our histories our ancestors call to us, asking “where do we come from, what are we, where are we going?” We are grateful for their gifts, their lessons, and their challenge; calling us into accountability and responsibility to fulfill their hopes and aspirations, for “What they dreamed be ours to do.”

I invite you to close your eyes and join me in welcoming into our worship space our beloved departed.

We call on and invoke our parents, grandparents, aunties and uncles, our siblings, from across time and place, to be here with us.

We call on the early Unitarians and Universalists, lay people and ordained ministers, who brought our faith tradition to Illinois and the Midwest..

We call on ancestors of the First Universalist Church of Elgin who built, grew, and dreamed what would become this church and this community into being.

We call on those who represent peoples of Elgin: those who strove to build beloved community, representing diverse cultures and traditions, including the indigenous peoples who were the original stewards of this land.

We call upon our activist ancestors – those who struggled for justice, freedom and liberation of all people – who challenge us to “honor the fullness of each and every human being.”

We especially lift up those who battled the racism and oppression right here in Elgin, which is still alive today; they ask us to join the on-going struggle to make this city whole.

We call upon and honor the beauty of the earth, this particular part of creation where this church ministers: the Fox River and the prairies, our interconnectedness to nature and to the history of the land itself.

Now I ask you to call to your mind own particular ancestors. I invite you to open your eyes and open the chat and type in the names of your beloved departed – family roots, spiritual mentors and guides. Each one of us brings into this space our own network of people and places.

We have welcomed this great cloud of witnesses to join us for our time of exploration and connection this morning – can you feel them?

May our ancestors guide us on our way.

May they bless this space and time, and the work we do.

Please repeat after me, “Ancestors, be with us.”

I encourage you to continue to add names throughout our time together this morning.


Olympia Brown was a feisty, resilient woman. She was raised in Michigan by farmers who valued religion and education. Olympia went to a woman’s college, which she found disappointing, and then to a coed college, after which she decided to answer her call to ministry and she applied to The Theological School of St. Lawrence University in Vermont. The president of the school wrote to her, making it clear that he did not feel women belonged in the ministry. Her grades were certainly high enough to earn her admission, be he didn’t feel she would really fit in. When Olympia arrived on campus for the first day of classes, he was shocked! 

At first, Olympia Brown faced disapproval from her fellow students and the wives of the faculty. However, she was the type of person who was invigorated by a challenge, and by the end of her first year, she had won them over. She became the first woman to graduate from an established theological school and spent the next year preaching the good news of Universalism in the surrounding area in Vermont. 

Having completed all the requirements, Brown applied for ordination by the faculty of St. Lawrence and was denied. Never one to go down without a fight, she appealed to the Universalist Council. It just so happened that one of the council members had heard her preach the Sunday before and added his support. In 1863, she became the first woman ordained as a Universalist minister. Throughout her ministry, she worked tirelessly for women’s suffrage, for as a Universalist, she believed that men and women held equal moral responsibility. In fact, she was driven from one of her pastorates because congregational leaders, including PT Barnum, thought she preached on women’s rights too often. 

It was through her work in the suffrage movement that she met speaker and author Phebe Hanaford. Phebe had been raised a Quaker but had since joined the Universalist Church. She was a member of the American Equal Rights Association, which advocated for both black and female suffrage. Olympia Brown encouraged Phebe to study for the ministry, and in 1868, she too was ordained a Universalist minister. In 1870, Olympia Brown performed the traditional duty of offering her the Hand of Fellowship at her first installation. 

Knowing firsthand the potential loneliness of ministry, at the ceremony, Olympia offered these words, “In your work you are not unaided or alone. You are upheld by the most glorious faith that was ever revealed to the children of men; it will be to you inspiration and help. It will enable you to speak with authority because you speak of the same glad tidings that were published by Jesus Christ eighteen hundred years ago. You have always the consciousness of the presence of Jesus, and you may feel, too, that the great cloud of unseen witnesses, spirits of the departed, of the fathers of our faith, and of lovers of truth in all ages are hovering near, speaking to your soul.” 

As a woman studying for the ministry, I of course look to the stories of these women, my spiritual ancestors, when I am in need of encouragement. They are models of discipline, courage and the “good trouble” of social justice. For all of us who are Unitarian Universalists, they are members of the cloud of witnesses on whose wisdom we can draw. 

The phrase “a cloud of witnesses” is from the book of Hebrews in the Christian Bible, but the practice of calling on our beloved departed is not unique to that source of wisdom. All of the wisdom sources of Unitarian Universalism ask us to look to those who have come before us for help in choosing our actions and reflecting on our experiences, to be in constant conversation with their thoughts and ideas. 

And these witnesses don’t need to have been very far behind us in the river of time. Many of us have departed loved ones whose relationship to us continues to inform our choices and experiences. I often hear the words of my late sister resonating in my mind when I encounter a new experience that is similar to one we had shared when she was alive. When I find myself in a situation she would have been better equipped to handle, I wonder, “what would Ali do here?” I take comfort in the continued ripples she makes in my life, even as I continue to grieve her loss. Her favorite color was orange, and each year when the leaves change, it feels like she is calling to me, asking to be remembered. I wear orange or carry an orange stone in my pocket when I want to feel close to her. 

The teachings of the earth-centered traditions point to life as a cycle, with death providing the building blocks of new growth. This is a both/and perspective, honoring both the pain we feel at the severing of our physical, in-person relationships, and the peace we can find in perpetual conversation with their memory. And so each year, as autumn returns and the Earth moves into a fallow time, we celebrate the lives of those who have gone before us. We renew our connection with them. We look at photos, read their writings, remember time spent together. Perhaps we do an activity that we always did together. We ask what advice, and what challenges, they would share with us for the new year. These are like heirloom seeds that we are collecting to be planted in our lives going forward so that they will never be lost to time. 

Whether they are historical figures, spiritual ancestors, long-ago members of our family trees, or those we knew in life, this cycle goes ever onward. Each of us will eventually become someone’s ancestor, as those who know and love us will carry us in their hearts. Taking this time to pause, to stay in the both/and of that fact and that mystery, can be a source of healing and acceptance. They are gone but not forgotten, and we may choose to tap into their memory any time we need to feel close to them. 

Another of our spiritual ancestors, from the Unitarian side of the family this time, wrote of this natural cycle of life to comfort a friend. Ralph Waldo Emerson had lost his oldest son to scarlet fever a month earlier, and his spiritual companion Henry David Thoreau was moved to write to him after walking in the fields near his home. Thoreau writes of their own cloud of witnesses, their literary and spiritual ancestors, and of the constancy of nature itself, “It is the same nature that Burns and Wordsworth loved–the same life that Shakespeare and Milton lived. The wind still roars in the wood, as if nothing had happened out of the course of nature. The sound of the waterfall is not interrupted more than if a feather had fallen… How plain that death is only the phenomenon of the individual or class– Nature does not recognise it, She finds her own again under new forms without loss… When we look over the fields we are not saddened because these particular flowers or grasses will wither–for the law of their death is the law of new life. Will not the land be in good heart because the crops die down from year to year? The herbage cheerfully consents to bloom, and wither, and give place to a new. So is it with the human plant.”

 My friends, I see the cloud of names you have put into the chat this morning. So many lives that have touched and continue to touch yours. May you find strength and comfort in remembering them together today. May they be reborn into your heart and mind as guiding lights and perpetual companions. May the wounds of your loss be healed and may you find peace. Amen.


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