Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Motivation toward Ministry #2

We are talking about where our deepest motivations for ministry come from.

In Part#1, we talked about the difference between an external call and internal motivation.  We represented that dichotomy with a chart like this:

Now, take that piece of paper and draw a horizontal line on it, from left to right. Label the left hand side as "History" and the right hand side as "Future".

Does your deepest motivation come from the past or the future? 

At the Annunciation, Mary is informed by the angel that she has been chosen to bear the child Jesus. Clearly, an external call. And in her response, she remembers the promises made by God to her people from centuries ago. Her call is the fulfillment of ancient prophecy. Clearly, a call out of history. She also predicts the future as well. Is she also called from the future? 

Think about this: is your call the fulfillment of past developments? Do you find yourself saying "It seemed like my whole life was leading to the moment I applied to seminary?" Or, "I am taking my place in the living tradition of ministers of our kind that go back into history?" Or does a statement like "I knew that I had to step up if there was to be the kind of world I dream of for my children, or for the planet" make more sense to you? Or, "I am motivated by a dream of what liberal religion could be?"

Find yourself on the Horizontal Line.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Motivations Toward Ministry: Exercise #1

Ministers often talk about their "call", the time that they became conscious of the deep motivations which led them to the ministry. You have to recognize that the phrase, "the call" is theologically loaded. It remembers the call stories in the Bible, in which God calls people into His service. But people who are not into that concept of God still have deep motivations toward the ministry, and further, can often recall moments when they became aware of them: an experience which could be named a "call".

Not all ministry is professional, or ordained, or involves seminary training, but all involves service with a moral purpose. For the purpose of this exercise, let's just say that if you think of yourself as doing, or wanting to do, ministry, then you are.

How have you become aware of your deep motivations toward ministry.

Here is an exercise, that is a variation of the exercise on page 34 of "Not For Ourselves Alone", edited by Burton Carley and Laurel Hallman.


Take a blank sheet of paper and lay it in landscape mode before you.

Draw a line from the top to the bottom of the page in the center of the page. Like this:

Next Label the top and bottom of that line: External and Internal.  Like this: 

Where do your deepest motivations come from? 

External denotes that sense that it come from outside of yourself. When Isaiah heard the voice of God calling him to prophetic mission, he understood that as a call from outside of himself. It was God, who was wholly other to him. The people of the Bible who were called by God, usually resisted that call, it was so strange and external to them. These are the classic stories of "The Call." But what about other people? Some are pulled into ministry by the compelling demands of circumstances, or of history? Do you feel called by an external force? It doesn't have to be the God of the Bible, but was from some source outside of you?

Internal describes a different process. When a person understands their motivation toward ministry as having come from deep within themselves, their own personal history, or their own psychological needs, or their DNA, that is an internal source. "Ministry is something that I just needed to do to be true to my real self." Is that you? 

It's a continuum, of course. People are called by other people, by family members, by their congregations, by their own responses to external situations, by the spirit within. Some might say it's just the ebb and flow of brain chemistry. Where on that vertical axis would you place the source of your deepest motivations toward ministry, your "Call?

Find yourself on that vertical line. 

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Landrum Prison Files 2

When I step out into the prison yard for the first time, I'm overwhelmed.  It's a large open space, and it's a bright and sunny August day, and this is free time.  That means hundreds of men in prison grey and orange milling about in every direction.  At first, this is all I can see -- I'm surrounded by hundreds of felons, and I'm inside a big enclosed area surrounded by barbed wire.  It floods the senses.  A big clump of men are standing next and in a structure that looks like a screened picnic pavilion, but filled with exercise equipment rather than picnic tables.  The officer leads me through the yard at a fast clip, and is not chatty or familiar with the prisoners in any way.  None of them are, I realize.  They aren't ignoring them, but they're not greeting them or exchanging any communication.  It's a strange thing, in Michigan, where we greet strangers in elevators with "Hello" and a conversation about something, whether it's the weather or something about the location, or the elevator speed.

Sunflower photo from Wikipedia
The prison yard actually has buildings on most sides of the yard, so you don't really see the wall or fence in most directions, although you know it's there.  I presume some of the buildings are the units where the prisoners are housed, and one will be the cafeteria.  We're heading to "programs" where, apparently, various classes and programs are held, but not the college classes, which are in a double-wide trailer.  As we get past the exercise pavilion in the center of the yard, I start to take in something startling: it's lush in here.  Really, really verdant and lush.  There are large flower beds flowing out with flowers in every grass, save the one that's clearly a soccer field.  I remark on the flowers, and the officer tells me there's a strong horticulture program that some prisoners participate in, and they spend a lot of time tending the beds.  It shows.  He tells me there's a garden (we've already passed it), where they grow vegetables, and that those are donated to the Salvation Army and places like that, for soup kitchens.  On another trip across the yard, I'll remark that I'm surprised they don't just use it in the kitchens in prison, but the officer tells me that would cause all kinds of problems, and that the soup kitchens "need the food more than these guys do."  I don't argue, but it doesn't make sense to me, except that part of the punishment of prison seems to be bad food.

Actually, food is a big issue.  Food in the Jackson prisons is outsourced, one of the many ways corporations make money off of the prison industrial system.  This was highly controversial, as it cut union jobs and further privatized the prisons.  The company that provides meals in the Jackson prisons is Aramark.  The officer tells me a story of an Aramark employee who started having an affair with a prisoner.  It's the first of several stories I'll hear from guards about warnings not to get involved with prisoners.  But back to the food, a month before my first trip in, there was a pretty big scandal about maggots in the prison food in this facility, and thirty inmates got sick from food poisoning. 

I'm not remembering that story as I muse on the gardens, taking in their bright blooms.  I'm just surprised that prison could contain such beauty.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Landrum Prison Files 1

Rev. Cynthia Landrum
This fall I'm teaching at the Cooper Street Correctional Facility with Jackson College.  Jackson, Michigan is known as the home of the state prison.  The joke used to be (maybe still is) if someone says they're going to Jackson you respond, "Don't pick up hitchhikers," because highway signs coming in and out of the city warned people not to.  An Jackson urban legend tells that Jackson had a choice to house Michigan State University or the prison and picked the prison.  It's not a true story.  But we once housed the largest walled prison in America.  It's now an arts colony where you can take prison tours of the old prison.

Wall of the Armory Arts, the former Michigan State Prison - Photo from MLive.com
In reality, Jackson no longer has one Jackson Prison.  It's a cluster of several prisons, of which Cooper Street is one, a Level I security prison.  That's the lowest security level.  The Wikipedia article on "Michigan State Prison" says, Cooper Street is "the common point for processing of all male state prisoners about to discharge, parole, or enter a community center or the camp program."  I picked it over teaching at the Cotton facility because Cotton houses prisoners with higher security levels.  It's named Cotton for G. Robert Cotton, which is in the full name of the prison, but people call it "Cotton," which of course makes me think of picking cotton in slavery times and brings me back to the New Jim Crow.

I've driven past the prisons before, but they're tucked up in the north part of town above the city where nobody goes unless they're going to prison.  And I'd never been in there, in all my years of Jackson.  I'd visited jail to visit a church member, but never prison.  My first time in was for a brief orientation. 

I was most nervous about getting in and out.  There are a lot of rules about what you can bring, what you can wear, etc.  No high heels -- you need to be able to run.  No low-cut shirts.  No jewelry.  These are all pretty obvious.  No colors resembling the prison uniforms.  You can bring in $25 in cash, but no food without special permission if for medical reasons.  At orientation, I was given a list of "Allowable Items without a Gate Manifest," but for that first day I walked in with only my ID and my car key.  The list of allowable items says I can have eyeglasses, pens (clear) and pencils (no more than two of each), feminine hygiene products (one day's supply),  one tube lip balm, one lipstick, and various other personal items.  Phones and cameras are not allowed, so I start wearing a watch.  In prison, everybody wears a watch, something increasingly rare on the outside, now that we all have our cell phones.  The woman who gives me the allowable items list wrote on it in pen, "NO GUM."  Apparently gum must be one of the most often confiscated items, or maybe it's just what she misses most.

Cooper Street Entrance - Photo from www.michigan.gov/corrections
The entry building to the Cooper Street Prison is a pole-barn looking nondescript building.  It's fairly grey on the outside and in, I think.  In reality, it's white on the outside, and maybe white on the inside.  But in my memory, it's grey.  When you have a prison ID, you trade your driver's license at the front desk for your blue prison ID with the first officer.  There's a sign-in book there where visitors sign in, and I do.  You then go and stand in front of a sliding door and wait for security to open it.  You then pass through the doors into a small space between doors and wait for a period for them to open the next door.  Once inside the second door, you go through the metal detectors and have your bags checked by a second officer.  I've noticed they're more thorough checking my bags on the way out than the way in, but they check every pocket both ways, so maybe it's my imagination.  Maybe just that the 12:00 officer is more jovial than the 15:30 officer.  (We're on military time in prison.)  But that first day, my bag was in the car.  At the end of orientation, I was given my "Manifest," which allows me to bring in:
  • Soft Side Briefcase & Work Related Papers
  • Other: Books
All my digital files and videos are on a flash drive that will take a few weeks to get approved.  There's a laptop in the classroom for me to use, but no internet.  So for the first couple of weeks, everything will be on paper.

After you've passed through the metal detectors, you go to the next window, where you trade in your car key, and a third officer gives you what I call the "panic button," a small thing that looks like a garage door opener that you put in your pocket or clip at the waist, that can call the officers if you have trouble.  It has a button that does nothing.  The way you activate it is to pull out what looks like an antenna.

I then proceed past what appears to be a waiting room filled with a dozen or more prisoners, and head to the next window near the back door of this pole barn entry building.  At that window, I tell them who I am and where I'm going (something I've done with first two officers, as well), and ask for an escort.  They call an officer who usually meets me outside the door, but sometimes down the walk a ways, who will escort me to where I'm going.  The first day, I'm going to "Programs" for my orientation, but thereafter I'll be going to the "school" or the "trailer" depending on how they refer to it.  The classroom, which I'll be shown that day, is in one half of a double-wide trailer.

I've heard it's easy for volunteers and teachers, who have of course come here to help the prisoners, to start identifying with the prisoners.  We're mostly humanities teachers coming from the college, but some business and math.  But I think they worry about the humanities teachers more -- we're soft-sided, caring, want to see the humanity in each person, and that's easier in our students, the felons, than in the guards.  In my case, I need to make the switch in my head from the discussion groups I've come from about the "New Jim Crow," to the fact that I'm really in prison, and not everybody here is a victim of bad drug laws.  My students, according to their online prisoner profiles, include murderers and rapists.  The guards and prison staff are full of stories about people who've gotten involved with prisoners and the trouble they can get into.  Walking in and out through security, it'd be easy to feel hassled with or frustrated by the guards, and so that adds to the feeling that when you're in there, you're more like the prisoners and less like the guards.  It's an illusion, because you get to come out at the end of your day.  I remind myself constantly that the officers are there also to protect me.  That's why I get the escort in and out. 

I remind myself of all of that as I greet the officer who will escort me, and I take my first step out into the prison yard. 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Go Forth and Serve

Rev. Joanna Fontaine Crawford
Live Oak UU Church
Cedar Park, Texas
"Trying to love the hell out of the world"
Welcome Another writer to the Lively Tradition ! 

Nurturing and Feeding the “Pet Projects”
by Rev. Joanna Fontaine Crawford

When did “pet project” become an insult in UU churches?

A person has a charity or a cause that they’re passionate about. They devote time and money to it. They talk about it at their church or – horrors! – ask for support. 

“Oh, that’s just their pet project,” says someone.

We don’t want pet projects. We want Church Programs. We’re fine with making the world a better place, but it needs to be done here, through the proper channels, something we all feel the same amount of passion for. Which may be virtually nil, but at least we all feel nil about it. We’re not spending the church’s energy on someone’s pet project.

I used to buy into that. But not anymore.

I knew someone who had a passion for a particular issue. At her workplace, she mobilized others. She wound up with 200 people helping her “pet project.”  Her church did something similar and wound up with a not insubstantial 40 participants – good for their size. 

But let’s just think about that.

What if, rather than trying to get 40 participants for one program, we instead equipped and empowered 40 members to go out and each one follow their own passion? Maybe we gave them meeting space or maybe even a little seed money. Maybe all we did was cheer them on, and offer them the shared wisdom of all the other church members who were changing the world in their own particular calls.

40 x 200? Heck, 40 x 10 would still be pretty impressive, wouldn’t it?

The balance to this is an understanding that the church is not going to adopt anyone’s pet project. Because instead, there’s an expectation that every member is called to find what lights their soul on fire. And as a church, we’re going to find the ways that we can support all these different “burning coals” within. 

Pets need to be fed, given love, have people they can trust.

So do their owners. Let’s work on that. 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

What are our "stinky pads"?

Rev. Dawn Cooley

So if stinky pads are evidence of effort exerted in roller derby, as I asserted in a chapter from the book I am working on that I posted on my blog last week, then what is evidence of effort exerted in our liberal religious tradition? As someone asked on my facebook page: "Where do our faithful sweat stains appear?" What a great question!

On the one hand, I see evidence of our liberal religious effort all over the place. I see it in the Standing on the Side of Love campaign, and in the plethora of opportunities that our UUA, regions and congregations provide for growing and practicing our liberal faith. Of course, just providing space is not enough – a roller derby team can provide practice times, but if no one shows up, no effort is put in. So then I wonder: Are people attending these events, workshops and opportunities provided by various liberal religious entitites? Are they showing up and putting in effort? If so, then I think that this is one way that we can see evidence of "faithful sweat stains."

But this does not seem sufficient – we need an outward component as well. I am reading Reclaiming Prophetic Witness: Liberal Religion in the Public Square, by Paul Rasor as a part of the UUA Common Read. Rasor says that a central goal of his book is to "help make liberal prophetic practice more effective by encouraging religious liberals to engage social justice issues more intentionally as religious actors." He points out that conservative religious voices are so loud that many people don't even realize there is an alternative, even though approximately a quarter of the population in the United States can be defined as religiously liberal!

So what might liberal religious effort look like in this realm – in the public square? I am reminded of a conversation I had with another Unitarian Universalist recently. She had posted something on her facebook page advocating raising the minimum wage so that it was truly a living wage. Someone with different leanings had responded along the lines of "People are paid what they are worth." She was not sure how to respond.

As I spoke with my friend, I heard Rasor's voice in my ear, and I recommended to her that she claim her liberal religious perspective. She might respond along the lines of "My faith teaches me that all people have worth and value, and that as such what we are paid is not an indicator of our value as human beings. I also believe that all people have a right to earn a wage that can support their families, as all work has value."

Along these lines, evidence of liberal religious effort might be seeing and hearing more liberal religious voices explicitely and intentional enunciating the religious dimensions of our beliefs and values in the public sphere.

But effort does not equal success. Goodness knows that some of us may work very, very hard to master a basic skill while others get it without barely trying. And some of us may never be able to master some skills. Putting in the effort does not equal success, so it may be that effort is being put in but we are not seeing the results (yet).

Coming up with the right words to claim our liberal religious convictions can be hard work, and messy. It does not come naturally to many of us. It might even be demoralizing. So I take comfort in an article from congregational consultant Dan Hotchkiss. In this article, he is talking about planning efforts, and why the first sign of planning success is that "people get less happy" and I think his words apply to almost any effort.

When we are trying to stretch ourselves, to learn a new skill such as how to be publicly liberal religious people or how to jump the apex in roller derby, we are going to make mistakes and it is going to be very uncomfortable. We will likely fall down often and put our foot into our mouths. So another piece of evidence that we are doing some heavy lifting is that we will be uncomfortable, our muscles sore and stretched in new ways. And though we might want to give up, since it hurts so much and is so embarrassing at times, this is exactly the sort of evidence of growth that indicates how much effort we are putting in. Our stinky pads, our embarrassment and familiarity with the taste of foot, become something to celebrate, because we know we are putting in the effort that just might take us to the next level.


Friday, September 05, 2014

What If It's True?

The other day, I posted on my Facebook page a long extremely well-researched Washington Post  article by Radley Balko about the municipal court systems of North Saint Louis County. These municipal courts exist to extract money from the mostly poor African American people who live there, through court fees and fines. The money is a significant revenue stream for the municipal governments and for a cadre of lawyers who serve multiple communities as prosecutors and municipal judges. It's a grim article, loaded with detail about the system, and about individual people who get caught up in the system. It reminded me of the insight made by Ta-Nehisi Coates that institutionalized racism serves to separate African American people from the wealth and capital that they create through their labor and redistribute it to individual whites.

Antonio Morgan, auto mechanic
 And when you read the story of a young man, Antonio Morgan, whose efforts to create an auto repair shop have been hampered by an endless round of minor license violations, regulations, fines, and penalties, you have to wonder how much potential wealth has been looted by this system. Enough of me; go read the article.

After I posted the article, a white friend of a white friend posted on my timeline a video of a young African American man speaking to other African Americans about "personal responsibility". This, after conceding that slavery was awful, and that some police behave badly. The core message was that conditions of black communities were their own fault.

I delete such posts when posted on my timeline. Facebook is a place of relatively open and free debate, but I don't feel responsibility to post every point of view on my timeline. I have a small (under a thousand) list of people who read my Twitter, Facebook posts and this blog. This white friend of my white friend can gather his own readers; I don't have to give him mine.

It was also obvious that the guy had not really read and thought about the story. Antonio Morgan, the guy with the auto shop was exercising all the personal responsibility and individual initiative that should have endeared him to pro-business conservatives everywhere. But he was being extorted and fleeced by a parasitic legal system created and sustained by racism.

But I digress from my intention here. I don't really want to recapitulate all the arguments over suburban St. Louis justice. And I am not really about discussing whether I should delete posts I don't like from my timeline. What I really want to talk about is how people take in other people's stories when those stories challenge their worldview.

I have come to believe that there are two big stories in contention now in our culture. One is that the system is essentially fair and good and just; the other is that it is not. In the first story, people and peoples suffer because they fail the system. The system will reward all those who exercise "personal responsibility" and punish those who do not. The poverty and suffering we see are unfortunate, but they are not injustice. If there is injustice, it small, temporary, local, and individual. In the second story, injustice, oppression, exploitation, and exclusion are the system.

There is a lot of information out there that supports the second narrative. And it comes to us through individual stories: stories that range from tiny micro-aggressions to dead bodies lying in the street. It takes a lot of mental work to maintain faith in the first story. It means that a lot of incidents, facts, statistics, experiences have to be neutralized, or batted away, or fed down the memory hole. To keep alive that story that everything is fundamentally just, a story on someone's timeline about the exploitative suburban St. Louis justice system has to be countered by a video of a black man admonishing other African Americans. Even if it doesn't speak to the point of the article. (Expect to see a lot from Dr. Ben Carson between now and 2016.)

This is not just other people. It's hard for me to take in and absorb other people's experience of oppression or injustice, especially where they challenge my own loyalties. This is why I find stories of oppression or exclusion on people of color in Unitarian Universalism so hard to take in. I want to, in some way, minimize them or explain them away.

The question that helps me is this: "What if their story is really true?"

What if every story in Mark Morrison-Reed's books are true (and why wouldn't they be?) Suppose it is true that the nickname of the Washington DC NFL team is offensive to many Native Americans? Suppose Radley Balko's article is accurate? Suppose popular culture is a "rape culture" in fact? What if William Lloyd Garrison's charge that the Constitution was a deal with the Devil of slavery is true?

Which of these two stories, the one about the system being essentially fair, and the one that the system is exploitative and exclusionary, can absorb the truth of the other?

Political Junkie, Future Senator
and mild reformer.
I have come to believe that our system is grotesquely racist on a systemic level. This has been the work of a lifetime, for a straight white man who was a political junkie from the age of 10. But I can believe that Dr. Ben Carson has succeeded in that system, and that Clarence Thomas rose from the depths of that system's oppressive underbelly to the Supreme Court.

But I don't believe that the story that all is well, except for some minor anachronistic bigotry, can absorb the truth of North St. Louis justice system, as an on-going, fully functional, legally legitimate system of parasitic exploitation of poor African American people.

Accept that as true, really true, not an exception, but the reality, and that whole first story crumbles. And if you are not ready to make that concession to reality today, there will be another story, from an acquaintance, on your feed, or in the news, tomorrow that will do the same, if you just ask "What if it's true?"