Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Why We're Not Waiting for Rosa [by Cindy Landrum]

There are many people who lament that Michael Brown is the particular focus of these rallies and protests.  Most recently, in Time, John McWhorter writes, "I mourn Brown as we all do, but I worry that we have chosen the wrong tragedy to wake this country up" ("Ferguson Is the Wrong Tragedy"). 

Yes, the critics of this choice say, we need to do something about police violence, but why not choose someone more innocent, someone who didn't steal cigarettes before his death at the hands of police?  Why not John Crawford, shot for choosing to shop for a BB gun at Wal-Mart?  Or even Tamir Rice, shot this month within seconds of the arrival of the policy, for playing with a toy gun in a park?   At only 12 years old, he's less the image of the "thug" than Michael Brown was.

 McWhorter writes, "But we must consider the contrast with, say, Martin, killed for resisting a baseless detainment by a self-declared neighborhood patrolman.  Or Amadou Diallo, killed in a lobby for pulling out a wallet.  Or John Crawford III, killed in Ohio for examining a BB gun at Walmart."

In Montgomery a year before the arrest of Rosa Parks inspired the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a young woman, Claudette Colvin, was arrested for not giving up her seat on the bus.  The leaders of the gathering movement  chose not to make their case around Claudette Colvin.  She wasn't a figure people could rally behind.

She was just a teen, and within a few months of her arrest, she had dropped out of school, pregnant, and unmarried.  But Rosa Parks heard her story, and worked with her following her arrest.  Mary Louise Smith was arrested between that date and the day Rosa Parks refused to stand up, too.  Rosa Parks was the secretary of the NAACP; she had attended the Highlander Folk School and was trained in activism.  She was the person chosen to start the movement: the right woman at the right time. 

It's understandable that people might look at Michael Brown and wish we had chosen a Rosa Parks for this movement.  But this is a movement about the killing of young Black men, so that Rosa Parks figure would be dead.  And this is also a movement about how law enforcement -- and all of society -- is trained to see young black men as scary, as "thugs," as "demons."  Perhaps any man whose death was chosen to launch the protest would be seen as no better than Michael Brown.  Every young black man becomes a demon, a thug, a hulk, once we're trying to justify his death. 

We can look back now, and see that when it was Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith (and Susie McDonald and Aurelia Browder and Janette Reese and more), it was still wrong that they had to give up their seat and that they were arrested for it.  We can see that maybe it shouldn't have taken a Rosa Parks to bring people together and launch the bus boycott.  At that time, it did.  But hopefully it doesn't take that now. 

In the end, I can't explain why Ferguson, and why Michael Brown, out of so many young Black men
who have been killed.  But I do know this movement, this protest, is bigger than Michael Brown.  It is the protest for Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and John Crawford.  It is the protest for Ezell Ford, Sean Bell, Ramarley Graham, Amadour Diallo, Oscar Grant, Wendell Allen, and many more.

Michael Brown's tragedy isn't the wrong tragedy to wake this country up -- it's exactly the right tragedy, because for whatever reason, it did wake people up.  We don't need more unarmed black men to die, and we don't need to wait for Rosa.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Take a Break and Light Your Chalice

Light Your Chalice.

When the news of the world fills you with dread and anguish, light your chalice. Your discomfort is telling you that you are torn and that you wrestle with contradictory ideas or goals. You have a divided heart and a troubled mind.

Light Your Chalice. Sit in its small circle of light.

There is a spirit that flows through the religion of the chalice. No one person can name it exactly, but it is carried by words like "generous" and "compassion" and "dignity" and "hope" and "fair".  It is the promise of our congregations, however imperfectly they live.

Light Your Chalice and try to touch this evanescent spirit, the spirit that is the deep calling to the deepest in you.

Is this spirit not a challenge to you? Doesn't ask you for more than you think you can give? More generous sympathy for the other? More kindness and patience? More imagination? More time and energy for the expression of love and nurturance of justice? Isn't fulfilling this spirit the highest goal of your life?

Light Your Chalice

Religious principles, or spiritual understandings, exist among all the other demands of life: satisfying the standards of our work, the obligations of love for friends and family, political and tribal loyalties, the duties of citizenship and patriotism. But they also challenge those other demands. Don't they claim an ultimate place?

Light Your Chalice and sit in its circle of light. Read and re-read the Unitarian Universalist writings that speak most directly to you. Sing your favorite hymn.

In the light of the chalice, there is safety enough to think the unthinkable; you may have been wrong, you may have been placing your allegiance in something too small to be worthy, you may have let an indifference grow in your thoughts. You may have taken for granted a privileged place.

Light Your Chalice, and make a place of light for you to grow and change.

My chalice at work.


Saturday, December 06, 2014

The Power of One [By Rev. Shelley Page]

December 6, 2014

I note the power of one and the power of many.  

I called each and every African American church in Ogden on the morning after the Ferguson non-indictment, expressing solidarity and sorrow.  I had hoped to talk with people directly but ended leaving voice mail messages, something like:

“Hello. I am Rev. Shelley Page, interim minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Ogden and I’ve only been in town since August.  This is a message for Pastor ________. We haven’t had the pleasure of meeting yet, but I want you to know that I am heartbroken about the decision in Ferguson.  And my congregation is heartbroken, too.  We wish to express our sorrow and our solidarity at this difficult time.  If your congregation plans any public witness events, please let us know. We will be there beside you, standing on the side of love. Here is my personal cell phone and email if you would like to contact me. In the meanwhile, know that you are not alone. We stand together in love.”
As you will recall, this happened just before Thanksgiving.  I didn’t hear anything ,although I offered a Ferguson Vespers on Wednesday evening for my congregation.  

Then, I received a call earlier this week that New Zion Baptist was organizing a Community Peace March and they wanted us to come along with them. I spread the word to my congregation and beyond. Today about 100 people of many colors joined together in a peaceful march and prayed on the steps of City Hall here in Ogden, Utah, including at least 20 from my church in their yellow Standing on the Side of Love shirts.

The New Zion Baptist minister told the crowd that he was inspired to do the march because an unknown clergy colleague had called him expressing solidarity. He felt it was a sign from God that now was a time to stand together, as a new beginning, to address these issues. When I met him for the first time in person today, he embraced me like a long lost friend, and told me that my call made the difference, gave him heart.

I walked at the front of the line hand in hand with him and three other African American ministers. 

Of course, as fate would have it, I have laryngitis! And I was asked to pray on the steps of City Hall. With my weak voice, I spontaneously mustered words from Howard Thurman and Langston Hughes that were met with Amens. 

Today started something in Ogden. There is a high resolve in the air. It was palpable. May it be so in your communities as well as we move forward together. May you remember that sometimes the power of one can blossom into the power of many who, together, will help in building a new world. Today gives me hope. 

 (And the New Zion Baptist minister wants a Standing on the Side of Love shirt!)

Rev. Shelley Page

Friday, December 05, 2014

What I Would Say....

I now longer serve a congregation, but I still find myself thinking as though I did. It's a habit and it
dies hard. I wrote this newsletter column in my head the other day, before I remembered that there was no newsletter to publish it in. Well, there is this blog.

My dear congregants -- 
My head, my heart and my gut tell me that  I need to do everything I can to advance the growing movement against "blue-on-black" crime. I want you to join me. Now is the time that Unitarian Universalists should step up and step more deeply into the movements against racism.  

One of our most basic beliefs is that every human being counts. We believe in people and we believe in persons. It's in everything we do. We have formalized that belief with the phrase 'the inherent worth and dignity of every person' and embedded it in our first principle.  

But, African Americans and other people of color are telling us that, from what they have experienced, black lives do not matter in this country. After all, in actual practice, a black life counts less than almost anything else. Despite the fact that police deaths are low, and police deaths by gunfire are at the lowest since 1887, the lives of unarmed black persons can be taken simply because police are frightened, or frustrated. Without accountability. With impunity 

We who believe in people must join the movement that demands that black lives matter. It is the cutting edge of the assertion that all human beings have inherent worth and dignity. 

As a minister of this faith, I have no higher duty than to be true to our core principles when they are being contested in the public square.  

I recognize that in this congregation, there are a wide range of opinions on the anti-racist movement sweeping the country. 

There are many who are ready to join in. There are some who want to discuss and process the events in Ferguson and Staten Island and Cleveland more. There are some who want to dig into the transcripts of grand juries or police reports in the hopes of uncovering hidden truths. There are some who are sympathetic to the police and oppose the protests.  

It is not the duty of a UU minister to represent all views in the congregation. It is not the duty of a UU minister to facilitate the discussions between opposing views in the congregation on the vital issues of the day. It is not the duty of a UU minister to argue every point with every congregant. It is not the duty of a UU minister to be above the fray. 

It is the duty of a UU minister to advocate for Unitarian Universalist beliefs, values and principles in the public sphere, especially when they at stake.  

It is the duty of a UU minister to be the clearest public advocate for the inherent worth and dignity of all persons, especially those whose dignity has been denied or diminished. 

In today's context, it is the duty of UU ministers to lead congregations into the social movements against racism, even if it makes some members of those congregations angry or uncomfortable. The call of conscience and the demands of religious conviction are often disruptive of our comfortable opinions. That's the point of having them. 

So, if what I do seems unwise, or incomprehensible, or even appalling, may this be a time of creative tension and confusion for you. Light your chalice, and by its light, reflect on your priorities, your values, and your deepest loyalties. May this be a time of deepening faith and commitment.


Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Anonymity and Blogging [by Cindy Landrum]

It's very common in the blogging world for bloggers to write anonymously.  I thought about this a lot before blogging myself, and decided carefully that anonymity didn't serve my purposes and that I would take the risks of being open with my identity.  But it does have risks.  While I decided to be public from the beginning, it was with understanding that it might limit me, make me be less bold, less willing to confront authority.  And it made me vulnerable to critique, to hate mail, to attack.  At the time, the UU "blogosphere" was populated with a lot of anonymous blogs, although some of their identities were known.  Here's a couple of those early bloggers -- Philocrities & Lizard Eater -- discussing anonymity in early blogging on the VUU (at about 14:35).

Today more bloggers have their name attached to their blogs, but it's still not unusual for bloggers to blog anonymously.  And this may be particularly true for seminarians, who may be testing out their beliefs or their new ministerial identity, or may just not want their writing easily accessible to the Ministerial Fellowship Committee or a search committee.  Back in 2007, when Philocrities last updated his list of UU blogs, there were a number of anonymous blogs among the seminarians (see http://www.philocrites.com/archives/000587.html#seminarians).  Six of the seminarians listed among the bloggers then were listed by their full names; nine were listed by first names only or by pseudonyms.   

There is a difference, though, between an anonymous blogger and one or two anonymous posts.  With a blog, you learn to trust the blogger's voice over time.  You begin to know what their take on things will be.  When they give a critique, you know if it's coming from some constantly critical or someone largely supportive of the institution.  They've built their credibility with you over time, just as an individual you know in person does.

We don't know the credibility level of the anonymous seminarian posted here -- well, maybe Tom does, but I don't, and our readers don't.  But in this case, this is not so much the issue.  Let's stop discussing the anonymity and start discussing whether what the posts describe is right or wrong, and if right, what should, if anything, be done.  As Scott Wells says over at Boy in the Bands:
The value of an anonymous disclosure and complaint is to get the item in public discourse, something that’s easier in the Internet era than ever before. It tests the general merit of the complain, pulls out disputants who don’t wish to be anonymous and flushes out devil’s advocates. And this testing and discourse shows if it’s safe to be more public and candid. 
 Personally, I'm described that the anonymous seminarian felt that what they were saying was so risky and daring that it needed to be anonymous.  It sounds a lot like things we've been talking about for years.  But the response, on the other hand, argues that maybe anonymity was warranted.  Let's prove that wrong, shall we?  Can we create a climate where more seminarians feel they can be open in discussing issues?  It may be worth trying.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Off The Record

I have been reading the posts from the anonymous UU seminarian, and the many comments that have come in.

I wish people who claim that "we" can't deal with "anonymous" statements could see themselves from afar. It's such a transparent avoidance technique and misdirection. The article has no specific criticisms of specific individuals. There is no healthy person to person alternative.

I myself, don't think that anonymity is warranted. I have not seen overt retribution and retaliation in the process that the author thinks is present. But sitting where I sit, there is a lot that I don't see.

How would you deal with this criticism differently if it were not anonymous? Well, you would know who is making the criticism, and you could offer them pastoral attention. But why assume that they need it from you? And you could evaluate the criticism based on who is making it...

Anonymity negates one defense against criticisms of the formation process: that the critic is angry at the system because they are being deservedly weeded out. After all, the system rejects some people, and of course, those people are angry about it. Criticizing the process can, in itself, become evidence that one is not measuring up to its demands.

I know that because I have thought that myself about people critical of the MFC, or the seminaries, or other aspects of the formation process.

We can't write off an anonymous critic so easily.

I stand by my decision to publish these postings on the basis of anonymity.

Canaries in the Coal Mines of Ministry

Seminarians are the canaries in the coal mine for the professional ministry. They give an advance warning that the atmosphere in which professional religious leadership is performed is growing toxic.

One toxic atmosphere is the economics, which many have pointed out already. Ministry is dependent on congregational stewardship. Congregations are being squeezed by lack of income growth in the middle class. The people are taking on big debts to become ministers are going to be among the first to notice what a risky proposition it is.

The second toxic atmosphere is the system of personal judgment and evaluation that governs our ministerial careers. The Commission of Appraisal in its study on authority pointed out that ministers have very little positional authority in our congregations. (Positional authority would be authority that comes with the office, no matter who is the minister. No, ministerial authority, as we now conceive it, is relational authority that is earned by personal behavior in the relational system of the congregation.)

Ministers, in other words, are evaluated constantly by people who are judging them on the most vague, personal, and undefinable standards. The RSCC and the MFC start the process of vague personality evaluations (the question in my day was whether we had "ministerial presence") and then hand the work of making these judgments off to search committees, committees on ministry, and governing boards of congregations. For many on those bodies, the evaluation is not much more than whether they "like" us, or remind us of people they don't like.

The canaries in the coal mines of our seminaries are telling us that this is crazy-making. It's making them crazy with anxiety and paranoia. And it's not just the problem of the formation process.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

"Fear Vs Boldness", Part 2 by an Anonymous UU Seminarian

I was offered a chance to publish this 2 part essay on the anxieties and fears that are felt by those preparing for the Unitarian Universalist ministry. The first step is to listen. The author and I welcome your comments and feedback. 

How to Grow Ministers Who Will Maintain the Status Quo 
Part Two: Fear versus Boldness 
by Anonymous

As I said in Part One, I hate that this post has to be anonymous, but there is a sense of mistrust and struggle that prevents me, and my fellow seminarians, from speaking in the open. I know this bothers some, as we say we are open and honest in our covenants with one another, yet I fear that by speaking out, I am putting my career in jeopardy. 

To many, this may seem odd; how can well-educated, articulate, passionate people feel so scared in a denomination that prizes prophetic witness?

It isn’t any one thing. But just as the crow in Aesop’s fable gets the water to rise by adding a bunch of pebbles to the jar, so too the many pebbles – including a long formation process, financial concerns, lack of guidance along the formation process, and recent evidence of retribution at our flagship seminary – build a culture not on trust but on fear.

It is true that we signed up for this – a process that involves a rigorous three-year Masters of Divinity program, psychological and career assessments, a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education, mastery of an 84-item reading list, and two meetings – 45 minutes with the Regional Sub-Committee on Candidacy (RSCC), and finally an hour with the Ministerial Fellowship Committee (MFC), who then determine if we indeed have what it takes to be a Unitarian Universalist minister.

This process isn’t new, but the requirements have been growing more demanding over time, causing many of us to wonder if we’ll ever be good enough when we watch well-prepared members of our cohort to fail to meet the MFC’s requirements. Professional and financial support has been diminishing, to the point that I have wondered aloud whether the UUA wants new ministers at all. I’m told by those in final fellowship that the UUA wants lots of ministers, even knowing there aren’t enough congregations to go around. But we are told as we prepare for ministry to expect to be “bi-vocational” – in other words: keep your day job. What should be a supportive, encouraging process to nurture the next batch of ministers is instead a nerve-wracking, discouraging process, with several key issues:

Funding: It is more expensive to go to seminary, yet the number of scholarships and amounts have decreased, thus preventing those from less affluent socio-economic communities being able to consider even taking the first step toward ministry. We recognize that the UUA is struggling financially as well; this isn’t a complaint – just noting a reality that seminarians face as they take out more loans in order to complete their education.

Access and Support: In an effort to supposedly streamline the process, the RSCC now meets twice a year in just two cities – Portland, OR, and Boston, MA – expensive places to visit, especially for those who live more than a few hundred miles from one of these two cities. This is hardly “regional” and most assuredly not hands-on like ordination committees in other denominations. While we are told that we can always ask questions of the process and just “call the credentialing office,” the director is just one man, with one administrator to help wrangle the more than 500 people currently engaged in the formation process. It is only in the last few months that the UU Ministers Association has considered a mentorship program for candidates in process – as it stands now, we only get assigned a mentor after we’ve been granted preliminary fellowship. 

Fair wage: Many ministerial internships pay less than minimum wage. Most interns either rely on a partner who has a full time job or go on some sort of public assistance. These interns have masters’ degrees but are on food stamps. They are not neophytes; rather, they are serving our congregations as ministers, much like medical residents serve hospitals as doctors.  And the burden is largely on the individual congregations, who are following guidelines that promote a less than fair wage – with limited subsidies from the UUA, paid to the congregation. By the way, those subsidies limit the funding interns can receive; one intern minister, seeking assistance from the UUA, was told point-blank, “We already subsidize your stipend.”

Various seminarians have raised these questions with people who have access and standing to address them. We hope that these issues will be addressed, knowing that our concerns are not the only ones our very busy UUA staff is tackling. Often, however, we are told to keep our heads down, to toe the line, to not complain, to wait until final fellowship to raise questions. And yes, the current crisis at SKSM brings this to the fore; we are struggling to find our prophetic voices within a broken system laced with dismissal, isolation, mistrust, and one-sided covenant. And this scares us.  

I’m not saying it shouldn’t be hard. It should. But maybe it should be just a little easier, so that the ministers coming out of the process are the bold, whole, compassionate beings they were when they entered. In our discussions in the private group for seminarians on Facebook I see a cohort that is full of life, spirit, excitement, energy, and prophesy. We recognize our call to nurture a hurting world. We embody our call to deepen our thinking, our spirituality, and our actions. We are wildly insightful and intelligent, well organized and motivated. We are pushing the boundaries of what it means to do church and where we do it, what it means to be queer and trans* in non-heteronormative ways, what it means to be on-the-ground activists in the face of clear and present danger, what it means to be religious leaders in a country full of “NONE”s.

Yet what I fear is that the systematic atmosphere of mistrust will not create the ministers we need but instead will continue to create the ministers we are comfortable with. Karl Barth said our role is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable;” we need to be uncomfortable with what’s happening inside our walls and willing to talk about it. We need to make this covenantal faith as good a community among ourselves as we are a prophetic witness to the world. 

This post is anonymous because we’re not there yet. Maybe one day a Unitarian Universalist seminarian with concerns can raise them without fear. 

May that day come soon.