Monday, August 18, 2014

Suggestions, Please

Cindy Landrum suggested in a recent post that the UUA should provide payroll functions for local churches and congregations.

Quite a while ago, I suggested that the UUA should attempt to compile a massive database of UU's around the country, including those who self-identify but are not in congregations, those merely interested in our way of faith, those who have indicated support for any of the campaigns associated with Standing on Side of Love, etc.

Evin Carville-Zeimer suggests in a comment that the UUA could take on the task of providing a centralized legal services for churches and congregation.

I had a friend who suggested to me years ago that based on his experience doing nation-wide deals, he thought it would be possible to negotiate a nation-wide banking agreement with a single national bank for congregations and churches.

So, I am setting up the suggestion box here.

What functions do you think that could be centralized, to free up resources and energy in the local congregation to do what they do best?

Make your suggestions in the comment area. Remember that I moderate comments, so if it won't appear right way. You've done it right, don't worry. It will appear eventually.

I will not posts that get into explaining why another suggestion is a dumb idea, a violation of everything we hold sacred, won't work, is already being done, or has been tried with disastrous results. If we actually making any decisions here, such comments would be in order. Think of this as brain-storming.

Let's hear them.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Social Media Activism Self Assessment

For a week, we have been processing the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. There has been a lot going on. It has been a rapidly moving situation. There are sorts of layers to the story. A lot of what has been going on has been on social media. It has been an occasion for many people to learn, re-think, and teach.

Let me ask Unitarian Universalist ministers and lay-leaders to assess their roles as community faith leaders over the last week.

1. Were you active on social media at all?
2. Did you read about Michael Brown and Ferguson on social media?
3. How did you participate in the information flow about Michael Brown and Ferguson?
4. Did you read?
5. Did you "like" some of the things that you read?
6. Did you "share' some of the things you read with people in your network?
7. Did you "share" information and analyses from writers and organizations of people of color to your network?
7. Did you make comments yourself?
8. Did you respond to invitations to actual events that you heard about through social media?
9. Did you invite others to actual events either through social media or other channels?
10. How many friends and followers do you on social media channels? How far do you reach?
11. Was your church/congregation providing information about Michael Brown and Ferguson through its social media channels.

Unitarian Universalism is more than the couple of hundred thousand people who belong to our churches and congregations. We know that there are several hundred thousand more who self-identify as UU, but are not in congregations at this time. We are parts of a huge number of other networks: organizations, social movements, families, neighborhoods, communities, co-workers, professional organizations, personal interest groups and fans. Many UU's are opinion leaders for many other people.

Our combined networks include a huge number of people.

My hope and vision is that Unitarian Universalists will build on our presence in social media, becoming a point of connection between what is going on and our individual networks of friends and families and others.  We can especially play a positive role if we seek out and pass along the perspectives of those who do not often get an audience in the mainstream media: the voices of the marginalized and the more radical. We need to think of ourselves a potential opinion leaders.

Finally, I don't think that what I am advocating for is "evangelism". It's not promoting Unitarian Universalism, except by example and influence. Instead, it's offering leadership and being of service to others by offering relevant information and ways to become connected to the issues of our times.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

A Relentlessly Useful UUA [Landrum]

It was just announced that the UUA newsletter "Interconnections" is ending.  In June, the UUA announced a budget shortfall of 1.3 million, and this is one result of that deficit.  Donald Skinner, who edited Interconnections for 15 years, says Tom Sites, former UU World Editor, wanted the newsletter to be “relentlessly useful."

As a minister, I know that the job of ministry is multi-faceted, and it's the rare -- or nonexistent -- minister who does everything excellently.  So when choosing a minister, it's worthwhile for a congregation to think about what strengths are important to that congregation.  Ideally, I think the work of the congregation is to not berate the minister for not having universal excellence, but let the minister play to those strengths, and use the strengths of the laity to round out the work of the church. But every church is still going to have areas of strength and weakness, too.  Individual people, when they have the luxury of choice, often choose their church based on their interests and desires.  Is it more important to you to have a church actively engaged in social justice, or with a stellar RE program, or with dynamic music?  A church with limited resources can choose to hire a part-time RE staff person, an amateur musician, and have a lay-led social justice program, but might choose to put more resources into one area to have a really strong program in that area.

It's worth asking what we want the UUA to be for us, too.  While a larger institution has more ability to have excellence in more areas, the UUA is not really that large an institution.  Do we want it to be more focused on social witness?  Do we want it to be seeker-oriented?

In the last year it has seemed that a large amount of energy and focus of the UUA has gone into branding, on messaging, and on "Selling God" -- spreading the word of what Unitarian Universalism is to the "nones" and to the younger generations seems to have taken center stage.  I think that's appropriate work for the UUA, but not where I would put the emphasis.  Instead, I would look for the UUA to be "relentlessly useful" to congregations. 
being a growth-driven, seeker-oriented institution.  The focus on

Branding may become useful to congregations in time.  The UUA is working on a new curriculum about it that's being test-piloted this fall.  But right now, it's not in that useful category.  Congregations can use the new logo and stripe and background pattern, but changing the logo on your webpage isn't going to bring the nones barreling to your church door.

As a minister, I've been trained in theology, preaching, education, small-group ministry, and social justice.  And I think those are the things we need to free our congregations up to focus in -- creating dynamic worship, creating engaging programs, and engaging in public witness.  But we have nobody in the small pastoral-sized churches on staff who are trained in finance, webdesign, and marketing.  We turn to whatever lay expertise we have in our congregations and tap it relentlessly -- so our one member with web design expertise gets a perpetual unpaid job to do in their off-time, and the same with finance, and marketing.

It may be Interconnections time to end.  As Donald Skinner says, "Now there are email lists, Facebook laboratories, and webinars."  But the UUA needs to remain relentlessly useful.  Create branding, yes, but create the websites, the newsletters, the pamphlets, the print ads, the Facebook photos for us to use it on.  Help our churches by doing payroll for us and free us up from the back-office work, much like you help us with our endowments with the Common Endowment Fund.  Free up our congregations to do what they do best.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Authoritarian Politics in the USA

Doug Muder:
the Weekly Sift
Doug Muder has been getting a lot of interest with his essay "Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party".  You should read it if you haven't.

People quote Upton Sinclair as saying "When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross." [No one can actually find when and where he said it, but whatever...]

Muder's argument is that authoritarian and antidemocratic politics will never come to America; they have been here from original European settlements. Authoritarian, antidemocratic politics won't "emerge;" they "persist."

Upton Sinclair wrote [or did not write] back when the rise of Hitler was the model for how dictatorships come to country. A lot of people saw parallels in the Tea Party.

But American authoritarianism is rooted in the high-exploitation, super-cheap labor, huge inequality system of slavery. While slavery itself was abolished, at great cost, the Constitutional structures that protected slavery up until the moment when the slave states themselves decided to forego those protections, still prevent much meaningful progress to true democracy and shared wealth. Just look at what has happened in the current period. The same constitutional restrictions on the power of the Federal government that made slavery impossible to touch before the Civil War still let some states to refuse Medicaid expansion and thwart a national commitment to universal access to health care.

Believe It !
Mudar's essay recounts many examples from the national history: whenever democratic reforms are established, the forces of reaction enter a long campaign to blunt them, and eventually overturn them. Eventually, the South returned to the conditions of slavery; sharecropping was Slavery 2.0. Expanding on Muder, Eventually, the whites-only primary election in South is returning. (The McDaniel challenge in Mississippi is essentially an argument that black voters should not be allowed to vote in the GOP primary.) Reproductive rights are nullified by state legislation. They want to privatize Social Security.

In other words, we are not in the position of preventing antidemocracy, but still trying to dislodge it. And it is persistent, patient and stubborn. And so we fight the same battles over and over again.

That's why the North Carolina's Moral Movement uses this slogan:

The problem with being on the fringe... [Cooley]

From Rev. Dawn Cooley:

I have heard Unitarian Universalist congregations described as "Islands of Misfit Toys." This metaphor comes from the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer TV show from the 70s that many of us are probably familiar with.

The problem with acting as though we are islands of misfit toys is that we just stand around doing nothing. Toys are meant to bring joy to peoples' lives. Television viewers celebrate when all the toys leave the island and go find homes where they can live into the fullness of their creation. If we, as Unitarian Universalists, relegate ourselves to the fringe, to being islands of misfit toys, then we are not out there living into the fullness of our past, present, and future.

Taken one step further, if we want to be about cultural transformation, we cannot abdicate our power by putting ourselves on the fringe. We need, instead, to be out there, amongst people, speaking the language of the culture that we are trying to transform. Goodness knows they need us actively loving the hell out of the world, particularly in weeks like this when hell is on display in every window.

A few years ago, I saw an increase in my colleagues taking Spanish lessons as we prepared to have a very unique General Assembly in Phoenix. We wanted to be able to speak to people on their terms, about their lives. This is as it should be.

Beyond Phoenix, and beyond Spanish, I believe we are uniquely positioned to be multi-lingual. We have the ability to speak to those on the fringe (where many of us, are, frankly, more comfortable). AND we have the ability (if we are willing to claim it) to speak as peers to those in power.

If we, as a faith tradition, are content with being on the fringe, then we might as well write our obituary. Not only will we not be about cultural transformation, but we will have lost our way entirely. Let us instead use our power and privilege in solidarity with those who need it. So many do.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

What do We Do Now?

We're far away from Ferguson, MO, and while I had a brief moment of temptation last night, I am not going to get in my car and go there, to put my boots on the ground.

You know all the adjectives: enraged, sickened, shocked, dismayed, saddened etc.

So what do we do now?

I have to tell my UU ministerial colleagues that I do not particularly feel like to going to the darkened UU church, to sit in silence and stare thoughtfully at a burning candle. I do not feel like having a round-robin discussion (no cross-talk please) of my feelings about this. I've been at those events; I'd even presided over them. They seem like exercises in mass mood management, carefully designed to prevent a loud and passionate political argument from breaking out to disturb the good order of the church. Let's keep things "spiritual" which often means, let's struggle to have benign thoughts about everybody at all times.

So what do we do now?

The police killing of Michael Brown, and the police repression of the community that has demanded accountability, should push people like us (who are more unfamiliar and misinformed about the conditions of life of African Americans than we think we are.) into an extended campaign of learning, re-thinking, and teaching. 

Learning, Re-Thinking, and Teaching are political acts of great significance and power.

We should be talking to African American young men to learn first hand what it is like. We should be learning about the patterns of housing segregation in our communities. Where are the suburbs where the population and the power structure are so different? How do the opaque political structures of most suburbs prevent democratic participation, and who are the insiders who benefit? Do you know your local police chief? How much firepower does your police force have? What political power does your police union have?

We should be re-thinking all of our big thoughts about the state of our political order. I am always amazed at the number of well-educated people who have quite radical analyses of particular issues -- sophisticated anti-racist understanding, or pacifist analyses of foreign policy, or penetrating thoughts on food and agriculture and yet don't actually apply to those to their political being. Overall, they are about as radical as Jon Stewart. I struggle with this myself. What does this situation actually mean? What will I have to rethink if I take it seriously? What would I have to re-think if I went from #notallcops to #yesallblackmen?

And finally, we need to take this opportunity to teach: to challenge our friends, our neighbors and our family members who are "more concerned about order than about justice" to use Jake Morrill's phrase. The level of political and social knowledge in this country, even among the educated, is very low.

Learn, Re-Think, Teach.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Conservative Public Theology. [Schade]

Dana Milbank argues in today's Washington Post that race and nationality are becoming de-coupled as the USA moves into a future where 'white' people no longer are the majority.

The United States is experiencing a rapid decoupling of race and nationality: Whiteness has less and less to do with being American.
The Census Bureau forecasts that non-Hispanic whites, now slightly more than 60 percent of the population, will fall below 50 percent in 2043.

I say that the demographic shift threatens the ideology of white nationalism: the belief that the USA is ordained to be the nation of the European whites who settled here and their descendants. Even though there were people here before the Europeans came, and even though there have been people from other continents here all along, white nationalism holds that the European settlers are destined to rule North America. Whites belong here; everybody else has to earn their place here. It makes a mystical, emotional, and sentimental identification between this country, the USA, and 'the American people' who are predominantly European. Rationally, everyone knows that it is not true that the USA is made up of white people, but at the level of mythos, it is true. Everybody knows who Sarah Palin is talking about when she talks about "real Americans." White Nationalism is the close coupling of race and nationality that Milbank refers to.

White Nationalism is not the ravings of rightwing extremists out in the woods. White Nationalism is the default conception most whites carry about the country.

As the actual demographic basis for white nationalism goes away (you can't argue with the numbers), it becomes more and more based in a mythology. Patriotism becomes increasingly identified with a mythic story: the red, white and blue festooned story of a wilderness conquered by pioneers, a revolution for freedom and liberty, the miraculous divinely-inspired creation of a new government by the founding fathers, the tragic intra-familial conflict between white people in a Civil War, but their eventual healing and reunion and finally, the slow steady progress of democracy. Mythic patriotism is a series of stories with the triumphant and blessed white Europeans at the center. The indigenous peoples have been pushed to the margins in the narrative. The stories of Asian and Latin peoples have been reshaped to fit the Ellis Island template of the European immigrants. The story of the enslaved Africans and their descendants stays alive as a barely repressed shadow story. It is forever being enclosed but forever escaping from its box. It has the power to refute and untell all American mythology.

Because white nationalism increasingly relies on mythology, it comes to be experienced as a religion.  Modes of thought characteristic of American Protestantism come to be used when thinking about the country. Patriotism becomes piety, expressed in ritual gestures. The founders become the patriarchs. The Constitution becomes inerrant scripture. Marble monuments on the mall become temples. White Nationalism is becoming a Public Theology.

From Ed Kilgore at Political Animal discerns the increasingly religious character of what is being called "constitutional conservatism."

... I do worry that the still-emerging ideology of “constitutional conservatism” is something new and dangerous, at least in its growing respectability. It’s always been there in the background, among the Birchers and in the Christian Right, and as as emotional and intellectual force within Movement Conservatism. It basically holds that a governing model of strictly limited (domestic) government that is at the same time devoted to the preservation of “traditional culture” is the only legitimate governing model for this country, now and forever, via the divinely inspired agency of the Founders. That means democratic elections, the will of the majority, the need to take collective action to meet big national challenges, the rights of women and minorities, the empirical data on what works and what doesn’t—all of those considerations and more are so much satanic or “foreign” delusions that can and must be swept aside in the pursuit of a Righteous and Exceptional America. (emphasis added.)
 What Kilgore calls "traditional culture" is the mythic America that is the lost paradise of white nationalism.

If White Nationalism and Constitutional Conservatism make for a profoundly reactionary public theology, how does liberal religion offer a different vision of the people, the government, and the culture? 

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

The Safety Net [Landrum]

The website Humans of New York, called "HONY" by its followers, is a project of a New York photographer, Brandon, who shoots daily pictures of the inhabitants of New York and posts them, along with a short paragraph of text that he paraphrases from conversations with his photography subjects.  He recently posted this picture:
The picture had the following text:
“I’m always fearful because I don’t have a safety net. I feel like I’m walking on a tightrope with nothing to catch me if I fall. I’ve moved 80 times in my life. I don’t have any savings. I don’t have any room to make a mistake. In college, I was always around so many people who could afford to make mistakes, and I couldn’t help but feel very envious of them.”“When did you feel most envious?”“Family day.”
A second picture of the same woman explains that after her mother committed suicide when she was ten, she and here brother were placed in the foster care system.  

I don't know this young woman, but I found her story a poignant example of both the struggles of young people who grow up in the foster care system, and an example of how we need a social safety net.  It also illustrates the gaps in the "self-made" person mythos we have in America.

The myth we have is that people in America can get by without any help from the government, rise out of poverty, pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and emerge successful.  Republican politicians, in particular, are quick to deride "government handouts" and the people who take them.  So, for example, you have Mitt Romney talking about the 47% percent, or saying, "But I hope people understand this, your friends who like Obamacare, you remind them of this, if they want more stuff from government tell them to go vote for the other guy-more free stuff."  Or Ronald Reagan: "Will you resist the temptation to get a government handout for your community?"

The thing is, our social safety net is there because some people need it.  I think about my own family, where my parents had three daughters, and each of us are working professionals, living in our own homes.  And each of us at some earlier point in life moved in with our parents.  None of us took a "government handout" but each of us faced a point in our life when we needed a safety net.  And we had a safety net, in the form of parents who were willing and able to take us in.

For me, I needed that safety net at two points in my life.  The first was after college when I was living on my own, working temp work (working for a health care industry, actually), and had an accident and broke my back.  I needed to rest horizontally for several weeks while my vertebra healed, and I was jobless and, very quickly after, homeless.  So I went to live with my parents, who took me in and fed me and sheltered me, until I was able to work, and even after I was working so that I could pay off my medical bills.  The second period was during my first year out of seminary.  I went through a negotiated resignation with a congregation that had over-stretched financially.  Out of work, with a severance that was equal to three months during a time period that would stretch to eight months until the next church job could begin, my husband and I moved in with his mother while I searched for, and eventually found part-time work. 

When I hear stories of people struggling -- utilities turned off, evicted, unable to get back on their own two feet -- I remember that much of America, nearly half, is one emergency away from financial disaster.  Many are one or two paychecks away from homelessness.  I often think I am myself only one or two emergencies away from financial disaster.  I get by from paycheck to paycheck, but throw two totaled vehicles my way, and it takes me a few months to recover.  I'm fortunate -- we have family and friends able and willing to help.  I'm a minister in a denomination that has some funds for ministers in financial crisis, and knowing that is a piece of sanity, a certain knowledge that there's a safety net there for me.  I'm also insured, which means there's a cap to the financial trouble that health problems can bring me.

Not everyone has these safety nets.  Many people have only the knowledge of a family member's open door.  Some people don't have even that. 

Many of the blog comments on this young woman's picture suggested that they were proud of her -- "you did it!" "you can do it!"  And they miss the point.  When you don't have the safety net, there is a fear there.  She's not speaking of pride her accomplishments, but talking honestly about that fear.  "I’m always fearful because I don’t have a safety net. I feel like I’m walking on a tightrope with nothing to catch me if I fall."  Imagine, if you don't feel this way, what it feels like to feel this all the time.  Imagine.  Because with that understanding, with that imagining, compassion begins.

This post is by Cynthia Landrum, minister of the Universalist Unitarian Church of East Liberty.  Her own blog is Rev. Cyn and she also blogs regularly for Loved for Who You Are.