Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Look Outward Angels!

I asked 'why did the UUA not issue a national call to Ferguson with the same reach and urgency that it did for the Moral Movement March in North Carolina, or the People's Climate March?'.

It was a wrong question, one of the many wrong questions we ask ourselves.

 Because my question and the questions it generated have all been so internally focused. Questions like: How much time do we need for such a call to work? Who makes the call? Even the higher level answers proposed have been internally focused, reminding us again of our historic vacillation on the struggles of people of color.

Why are we so self-focused? 

Unitarian Universalism is an anxious religious movement, and so, it focuses on what it must do to get itself right. How it should organize itself. How it should fund itself. How it should replenish its ranks of ministers. How it should brand itself.

All of that is important, and I mean no disrespect to the people who work on those issues everyday, but we will not fulfill Unitarian Universalism by perfecting how Unitarian Universalist institutions work. It doesn't matter whether you are talking about the local church, the "beyond congregation", the new region or the UUA board and staff; the fate of liberal religion is not going to be determined by how well we do our jobs, as we presently define them.

We must wean ourselves from our excessively inward focus.

Look outward, angels.

A broad, multi-racial, culturally progressive, democratic movement may emerge in the next few years in this country. The signs of it are all around us. We see it  in movements and resistances and changed attitudes, everything from the struggle for marriage equality, the militant resistance to fossil fuels, the people's climate march, the Ferguson movement, the immigration fasts, the fast food strikes, and on and on. Moments are becoming movements. If all of this flourishes, Unitarian Universalism could flourish as well, but only if we are vitally connected to it.

And we should be involved, of course. Our seven principles, which can be, and have been, derided as something a local Rotary club could affirm, are being actively fought over in the streets right now.

Most people do not have a way to bring their whole selves to historic moment in which we live. Many people have very few opportunities to find themselves in history, not unless they travel in particular circles, or live in some rare places.

It should be our mission to be a point of connection between persons in their wholeness and what is emerging. We should be the go-to source for a way to participate in shaping the future of our world.  And we should be that, in addition to all that we do now.

Some hear this proposal and say that it would make us like Move-On, or even the Democratic Party. Nonsense. 

No one from Move-On will ever come and sit with you the day your mother passes.

The Democratic Party does not offer a weekly service where the life you live is viewed from its largest perspective, a service that juggles love and death and purpose.

The enfeebled progressive organizations do not sing together. Their leaders will never know a child's name. They are not made to nurture whole persons, or to create community.

Those are the works of religious community. Unfortunately, most religious communities, including many UU congregations, are so inwardly focused that they are more likely to encapsulate their members, enclosing them.

Look Outward, Angels. 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Fighting for the Seven Principles.

Some say the UU Seven Principles are bland generalities
 that could be affirmed by any Rotary club.

They are not.

Many UU's put them up on the wall of their sanctuaries.
They recite them as Responsive Readings in worship services.

Other people put the same principles on banners 
and carry them in the streets, 
because they challenge the status quo 
and the powers that be.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Why No National UU Call to Ferguson?

People are asking why there was no national call to Ferguson Weekend of Resistance by our UU leaders.

Rev. Peter Morales issued a statement directed to the St. Louis UU's supporting their actions in the Ferguson struggle. That video came on the eve of the weekend.

Rev. Terasa Cooley (the Program and Strategy Officer) represented the UUA's leadership and was arrested in Ferguson on Sunday, October 12th.

The reports are that about 60 UU's were present for the weekend.

However, there was no timely national call for UU's to come to Ferguson for the weekend of October 10-12th.  Rev. Krista Taves reports that local STL UU ministers had hoped for, and had asked for, such a call, but one did not come.

Explicit and early calls were made by UUA leadership to both  February's Moral Movement March in Raleigh and the recent People's Climate March in New York City.  In each case, the number of UU's participating was around 1200-1500. I am sure that the numbers for the Selma Anniversary in March of 2015 will be even greater. That call has already been made.

But we are behind the curve of history right now.  And we need to catch up.

The killing of people of color by the police has historically been a local issue, protested by the local community. But 2014, especially in the case of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, saw those killings emerge as a national issue, inspiring a national movement. Certainly, social media has played a huge role in nationalizing the issue.

Not only is this a new national movement, it is being led by a new generation of leaders from the local community. Again, social media disrupts the traditional coalition building and decision making that was typical of earlier eras. The channels of communication and the circles of trust are different.

Are UU's organized for a different era? The focus on whether there was an official call from 24 Farnsworth seems really old school organizing: local ministers observe the situation, send up a request to the Central HQ, which then issues the official call through the official channels, in this case, the UUA webpage and the Standing on the Side of Love Campaign email list. Information flows up; calls to action flow down. Like an army or a corporation.

Meanwhile, we are all on Facebook and Twitter. And the HQ is understaffed and overcommitted and underfunded.

We need to think more like a network than a hierarchical organization. There are 59 UU congregations within 250 miles of Ferguson, Missouri. Ministers and congregations could have sought out direct connections with our St. Louis area ministers. More UU's could have decided to go to Ferguson without waiting for a call from Boston.

To sum up so far:

Number one: we have not yet seemed to really grasp that there is a national movement against police killings, and that movement is still being formed and organized by a new generation of leaders.

Number two: UU's depend on a centralized organizational structure than we would like to think we do.

And now, number three.

We are cautious. Despite our self-image as being a faith bravely involved in movements for social justice, we feel more comfortable knowing that there are going to be a lot of other yellow tee-shirts with us when we hit the streets. I think that this is a carry-over from the long decades when being a liberal, an activist, a protestor felt somewhat dangerous in what we were told was a conservative society. We emotionally live somewhere between the election of Ronald Reagan and the re-election of George W. Bush. In reality, we live in the society which changed its mind on marriage equality in the last 10 years.

The tragedy is that each of those 59 congregations within 250 miles of Ferguson had some people who wanted to go Ferguson, but didn't hear the invitation, or feel encouraged by their local congregational leaders and minister. And even more tragic, in each of those 59 communities and cities, there were many more people who wanted to go to Ferguson, but were not connected with anyone, any group, who could help them make that happen.

We need to get to the next stage. We don't need to count how many UU's turn out for events like Ferguson, or Raleigh, or New York, or Arizona. We need to start to count how many non-UU's we bring with us.

Personal Disclosure: My spouse and I were on a long scheduled vacation, which precluded my going to Ferguson myself.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Zero Tolerance for Mistakes [Landrum]

There are so many social causes in which liberal religion is deeply invested.  But there's one issue that I was raised to believe is sacred and that underpins many other oppressions: education.  An issue in education that is often overlooked, but which has large personal and social ramifications is the rate of suspensions and expulsions.

The issue is, in part, racial.  A couple of years ago it was reported in Michigan that our black students face suspension and expulsion at a much higher rate (22.1%) than white students do (6.2%).  Michigan's gap was at that time the fifth largest gap in the country.  At that time, the Michigan Board of Education called for a new look at zero-tolerance policies, because minority students are disproportionately punished. 

I don't think the situation has gotten much better.  This year, my child's school district was selected for special monitoring because of both the rate of suspension and the differences in suspension rates by race. 

Photo courtesy by andycoan from Flickr
Lately, I've come across a few instances of children expelled from school for bringing a knife to school.  One instance was recounted in the Huffington Post by my colleague the Rev. Meg Riley, whose 17-year-old child, Jie, was almost expelled for bringing a knife to art class.  Jie brought a knife to school to use as a tool in the production of art, and disclosed the possession of the knife to the art teacher.  In Jie's case, Jie was given an ambiguous decision that was kind-of suspension and kind-of not, thanks in no small part to Meg Riley's advocacy, I'm sure.  The other situations I've read or learned about (and the others are all in Michigan) have been more unyielding.

Yesterday, at Slate.com, there was the story of Atiya Haynes.  Atiya was given a pocket knife with a 3.25-inch blade by her grandfather, for the purpose of protection.  Atiya lives in Detroit.  She accidentally left it in her purse, where it was found when her purse was spontaneously searched at a school function.  Atiya has been expelled for the rest of the school year, her senior year in high school.  She is being allowed to take virtual classes and graduate with her class.

In a publication of the Student Advocacy Center of Michigan, I read the story of a unnamed teen who had, at the time of writing a year ago, been expelled for bringing a paring knife to school.  The student brought a knife, without thinking of it as a weapon at all, to cut an apple the student had packed to eat.  The student writes, "I was suspended for a year because I like apples."

And then there's one case I know of personally, of a student expelled for bringing a kitchen knife to school for self-protection from bullying.  This student was expelled for the rest of the year for possession of the knife.

In all three cases in Michigan, the students were expelled.  In Jie's case, Jie was suspended.  And the situations are all very different, but all involve bringing a knife to school.  One knife was brought as an art tool, one as a kitchen tool, and two for self-defense.  None of the students wanted to hurt someone, and none did hurt anyone with the knives. 

Our "zero tolerance" policies are creating situations where we look at the knife, and not at the child.  Michigan law requires a school to expel the student for carrying a weapon, except if certain conditions are met.  None of these children were a threat, and all could be dealt with in other ways, if we had the ability to look at the situation and at the child, instead of feeding the school-to-prison pipeline. 

In Michigan, the exceptions to expulsion for students carrying a weapon are:

(a) The object or instrument possessed by the pupil was not possessed by the pupil for use as a weapon, or for direct or indirect delivery to another person for use as a weapon.
(b) The weapon was not knowingly possessed by the pupil.
(c) The pupil did not know or have reason to know that the object or instrument possessed by the pupil constituted a dangerous weapon.
(d) The weapon was possessed by the pupil at the suggestion, request, or direction of, or with the express permission of, school or police authorities. (Source: Student Advocacy Center of Michigan)

But even when these exceptions exist, the stories of Atiya and the apple-eating student show that sometimes the expulsion happens anyway.  And when you're expelled from a Michigan public school for a possession of a weapon, it's for 180 days, and it's from all Michigan public schools, and no school is required to reinstate you -- ever. In bold letters, the Student Advocacy Center of Michigan states:

You do not have a constitutional right to an education.

When expulsion of a student happens, the whole family is affected.  The parent or parents will be thrust into the world of disciplinary hearings and their lives will be in limbo for a while.  Then, when the expulsion is finalized, they will try to find another school for their child, usually to be turned away.  In Michigan, no other public school can take the child, so the family will have to turn to private schools, which aren't required to take the child, and which can have a hefty price tag.  At the end of the day, they are often left to the options of a virtual classroom or home schooling, both of which then require a parent to be home, if the child is under the age of being able to be left at home alone, or to pay to have childcare for the hours the parent works.  Kicking a child out of school can imperil a whole family's welfare, as the parent struggles to keep the child educated and fed at the same time. 

We need to, as a society, rethink "zero tolerance" and "three strikes" laws.  We need to rethink them when it comes to our prisons, but we also need to rethink them when it comes to our schools, and we need to stop treating children like criminals.  We need to give the schools the ability to look at the situation and look at the individual child, to think about what's best for the school and what's best for the child.

In liberal religion, we often talk about how much we value education.  It's time for us to recognize that this is a major way in which some children are not getting the same access to education that others are, and work to make a change.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Rewriting the Principles & Sources. By Dawn Cooley

I am grateful for all the deep thoughts that Paul Rasor has compiled into Reclaiming Prophetic Witness: Liberal Religion in the Public Square, which is currently the UUA Common Read. I wrote previously about what our Stinky Pads might be – what proof might there be that we, as liberal religionists, are putting in an effort to get our message out there.

More recently, I have been mulling over the chapter entitled "What Does It Mean to Speak Religiously?" In this section, Rasor points out that, amidst all the religiously conservative voices in the public media, religious liberals "make a huge mistake if we fail to challenge these sorts of public religious voices by offering an alternative religious perspective."

Rasor entreats us to be intentional about saying that we have religious reasons for believing what we do in the public and secular realm, and that these reasons matter. He points out that when we straightforwardly link secular policies with religious justifications, we give depth to our arguments and have the capacity to reach more people than we do when we leave out our liberal religious justifications.

I have said it before, but it bears repeating: I believe that our mission as Unitarian Universalists is to love the hell out the world. But how do we do that? People often turn to our Unitarian Universalist Association Principles and Sources as a compass, but more and more I find the language in the sources dry. As inspiring as they can be, they are lacking specifically religious heft. So many different groups, religious or not, could claim them as inspirational.

Inspired by Rasor, and thinking about our mission, I present a rewrite of our Principles, Purposes and Sources, using the language that so many of us love, but reframing it. By doing so, I hope to infuse what (to me) feels like 1950s jargon with more urgent, contemporary theology and direction.

As Unitarian Universalists, we are called to love the hell out of the world.

We are called by direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;

We are called through the words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion and the transforming power of love;

We are called by wisdom from the world's religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;

We are called by Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God's love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;

We are called by humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit;

And we are called through the spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.

We live our our calling to love the hell out of the world by:

affirming and promoting the inherent worth and dignity of every person;

striving for justice, equity and compassion in human relations;

accepting one another and encouraging each other to spiritual growth;

engaging in a free and responsible search for truth and meaning;

honoring the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;

working for the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all;

respecting the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

As free congregations, covenanted communities, and as individuals, we affirm and promote this mission and endeavor to live it in our lives together.

What do you think about this rewrite?  Are you reading Reclaiming Prophetic Witness? Is it causing you to rethink some things? How do you see ways to address Rasor's points within the Unitarian Universalist sphere? Or is this one of those books we read and think "Oh, good points" but that doesn't actually change how we do things?

Friday, October 03, 2014

Signs of the Stressful Times: Liberal Religious Seminaries by Cynthia Landrum

The last few years have seen a noticeable number of seminaries dealing with major public conflicts.  Some examples (with links to further information about the situations):
  • Starr King School for the Ministry - Last June the UU seminary Starr King School for the Ministry withheld diplomas from students about to graduate because of an ongoing investigation around leaked information from the recent presidential search process.  
  • General Theological Seminary - A recent walk-out of the faculty at this Episcopal seminary has resulted in the firing of most of the faculty.  The faculty's dispute was with alleged actions of the president and dean, including sexist, racist, and homophobic statements, and breaches of confidentiality.
  • Episcopal Divinity School - The faculty of EDS passed a vote of no confidence in the seminary president.  Tenure for faculty members was put on hold as a result.  The issues cited with the president included student enrollment decline, staff turnover, changes in the term of the tenure process, and the diminished role of faculty.
  • Andover Newton Theological School - The UCC seminary has kept its conflict out of the news and off of its webpage and Facebook page, but a controversy is swirling as the new president is inaugurated this weekend.  A letter apparently went out recently to students and alumni.  
All of these conflicts are about the presidents, something that's certainly not new to higher education.  When I started at the University of Michigan in 1988, controversy over the new President existed, and a photo of a protestor carrying a sign that read "Duderstadt is illegal" at the president's inauguration ran in the Michigan Daily frequently.  Nor is this an uncommon occurrence now.  At the school where I currently teach as an adjunct, Jackson College, the faculty voted no confidence in the president in January.  A month later in February the faculty of Oakland Community College (in the Detroit metro area) voted no confidence in the chancellor.  At Kendall College in Grand Rapids, MI, the vote of no confidence in the interim president was in April.  At nearby Washtenaw Community College in Ann Arbor, the faculty voted no confidence in the president in May.  And all that is just in the state of Michigan within the last year.  Within the last year there have been no confidence votes at New York University, Saint Louis University, Louisiana State University, Cleveland State University -- the list goes on.

No confidence votes at universities usually are an indicator of financial stress and decreasing influence of faculty.  The Episcopal Divinity School situation is very like the situations at all the colleges and universities listed.  And it's no surprise that liberal religion, with all the anxiety in the liberal religious system about decreasing membership and influence, might see this mirrored in its institutions. 

The other three seminary conflicts listed above, however, while about the president fall less into the pattern of the colleges and universities. 

Thursday, October 02, 2014

A suggestion for re-vitalizing seminaries and ministry by Tom Schade

Denominational officials, and in our case, the Ministerial Fellowship Committee of the Unitarian Universalist Association, should require that ministers in final fellowship take a specified number of continuing education classes periodically. The MFC, acting in consultation with active ministers and school officials, might even suggest the broad kinds of courses that might be particularly useful for different types of ministers.

If done thoughtfully and with foresight, it would not only benefit the ministers, but also create a market for the seminaries to serve.

I think it would be a step in aligning the missions of the schools, the UUA, the UUMA, and the local congregations and agencies.

A host of complications would be required to work through: especially for community ministers who may not have employers who have any desire to be aligned with our UU-specific mission.