Monday, September 29, 2014

Obama's War?

Spreading Pink Ink
It's an intellectual shortcoming to not see differences where they exist. People see patterns and continuations as though nothing ever changes, especially when moral frames are being used. So, those so inclined are talking about Obama's Iraq War as though it was indistinguishable from Bush's War, and from the Gulf War, and from the War in Vietnam. And then, they are defeated, demoralized, and discouraged because "nothing ever changes." Well, if you don't see change, it will seem like nothing ever changes.

I am not a foreign policy expert but I do stay awake during the news. Further, I don't watch Jon Stewart or Steven Colbert, so I take what is said seriously on its face, as not as setups for cynical mockery.

Obama has a very different policy than Bush and Cheney. You may not like it, and you may, as do I, think it is obscure on some big issues, but Obama does have a different policy.

Bush and Cheney invaded Iraq and Afghanistan in order to change those governments whom they suspected of enabling the terrorism of Al Qaeda. It was a state oriented policy. That it was wrong in the case of Iraq is one thing. Saddam was not enabling AQ. The resulting chaos obscures the deeper error of the policy. You see more clearly the error in Afghanistan where the Taliban was protecting AQ. But, it's still impossible to put together a viable government in Afghanistan, even in coalition with the Taliban.

Obama said from the beginning that the Bush policy was stupid. The Obama policy is not directed as states and governments but at organizations that adopt the strategy of attacking the "far enemy" as a way to gain local power. Iraq is in the midst of epic civil war, and I don't believe that Obama thinks we have any real leverage or interest in the outcome that is worth our engagement. But the Islamic State had adopted the strategy of becoming the strongest Sunni force by threatening to attack the US. Per Obama, that makes it in the interest of the US to fight ISIS.

Fighting the "far enemy" has been the AQ strategy all along. It is a variation on Mao's road to victory in China by making the CCCP the strongest fighters against the Japanese.

Obama says that it would be just great if Iraq put together an inclusive government. Not said is the recognition that we have little or no influence on whether that happens. Obama, I believe, knows that.  (Actually, I believe ISIS is Iran's problem: Iran has been the greatest influence on the Iraqi government which created the conditions for ISIS by excluding Sunnis from power.)

So the Obama policy is to directly engage (bomb) groups that strategize about attacking the US, and otherwise disengage from the political struggles in Iraq, and now in Afghanistan. The US will use Special Operations and Air Power, including drones, to attack those groups, but will not create or impose political solutions on those countries. Instead of trying to create regime change through invasion, it is a strategy of sidestepping governments and going directly after radical groups. It's what has been happening in Pakistan all along. Obama said as much in one of his first debates in 2008, when he said he would attack Osama Bin Ladin in Pakistan without asking for Pakistani permission.

We are now 'at war' with ISIS in Iraq and Syria. So we bomb Assad's greatest opponents. But the US is not interested in helping Assad stay in power. Whatever we say, and whatever John Kerry is able to work out, we are leaving the political question in Syria to the Syrians. As we are in Iraq. As we are moving toward in Afghanistan. Which makes a certain sense.

None of this is hidden, but readily available information.

Sometimes, I hear progressives talk as though war in Iraq is some deeply pleasurable activity for the President to engage in, as though Obama, like Bush, has always hankered for a chance to bomb Iraq. But you have to ask yourself, "If Obama wanted a war in Iraq, why didn't he just keep the one he inherited?"

Singing in Church

Cathy Lynn Grossman reviews the plight of the church choir in the contemporary social scene and, as you can expect, the situation is not good. The church choir seems, in many cases, to be going the way of all things mainline. The choir will stored in the church attic along with the organ, the pews and the ministerial robe.

The First Unitarian Universalist
Congregation of Ann Arbor
My experience in the First Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Ann Arbor is that it doesn't have to be.

The fate of the choir should not be separated from the practice of congregational singing. If the choir is only a performing choir, which sings music as performances in the midst of the service, people will find it pleasant some of the time, boring some of the time, and in the case of more adventurous music, kind of irritating some of the time. And in our older model buildings, where the choir is in a loft in the back of the sanctuary, it's even worse. Choirs need to be where the congregation can see them.

When the choir can be seen not only helps the congregation relate to the performed pieces, it also helps when the congregation sings together, during the hymns and songs.

The congregation in Ann Arbor is a singing congregation. Yesterday, during the church services, I counted less than 10 people who were not participating during the congregational singing, out of probably 500+ total people in the two services. (Maybe some were just lip-synching, so that number could be off.) What this does to quality of the worship experience is beyond description.

Glen Thomas Rideout
The key is a song-leader. Glen Thomas Rideout is the music director of the congregation and he is the song leader of the congregational singing. Meaning, he is in front of the congregation, and leads us in song. For the songs that are appropriate he "calls" and we "respond".  He gives us the line. He sings the line ahead. He leads us in clapping. He leads us in improvising the music and clapping. He invites, leads, cajoles, encourages and even seduces us into singing. And the congregation sings.

And the choir leads the singing as well, modeling enthusiastic participation.

You should realize that this is all pretty low-tech. Until the new sound system was installed two weeks ago, Glen Thomas stood at the pulpit and used the fixed pulpit mike. No lyrics projected on the wall. One piano and two drums. A mix of songs from the Teal and from the Gray hymnals.

Does your congregation have a song leader who leads the congregation in song? Most congregations don't have one. Usually, it is just the minister up there, many of whom lack the confidence and skill to do more than sing along. Many are even told to be sure to step away from the microphone while singing. In many cases, the minister models tentativeness and embarrassment as singers.

What the congregation sees is as important as what the congregation hears while singing.

If I were to be starting a church today, or looking for a music director or musician now, I would look first for a congregational song leader: someone who would get up in front and activate a lively musical spirit in the worship of the church. If you can get the congregation singing, I think building up a choir will follow.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Landrum Prison Files 4: The Meaning of Pop

I call this one "Still Life with Diet Coke."
I'm a pop (that's Midwestern for "soda") drinker, and am almost never seen without a can of Diet Coke in my hand.  When I head off to class at the college I usually have two or three cans in my satchel, depending on how long I plan to be there.

I'm not allowed to take pop into the prison, so for the first two weeks I asked the guards at the entry way to let me into the locked room where the vending machines are.  This felt a little awkward to be asking them to step away from their station to do this, and I also felt awkward having the pop in class.  None of my students have a soda in hand as they enter the prison classroom, so I felt it was an awkward sign of privilege.  I read back over my list of allowable items, and discovered that I could bring one unopened bottle of water, and 2 protein bars, so I started bringing those items in with me last week, and again this week.

"Where's your pop?" one of the prisoners asked me this week.  I explained that it seemed pricey in the vending, and I was able to bring water in with me but not pop.

"But that's the same price we pay," he said.

I agreed, it was, but asked "Why should I give that money to the prison industrial system or to the vending company?"

"Some of that money goes to us.  It's how we get new movies and equipment.  You're supporting us when you buy that pop."

"I didn't know that!" I said.  "I had no idea that you got some benefit from it.  I'll go back to buying it, if it supports you guys."

"We'd appreciate that," he said.

And so, I will once again be carrying my bag of quarters into the prison and purchasing my slightly pricey pop inside the walls.  For these guys, it wasn't a sign of my privilege.  It was a sign of support.

This is a good illustration for Communications Class -- what we think we are communicating isn't always what the received communication is. 

Friday, September 26, 2014

Landrum Prison Files 3

I've mentioned that my students include rapists and murderers.  That's not precisely true, it was just shorthand.  Some of my students are in there for various sex crimes, including "assault with intent to commit sexual penetration," "criminal sexual conduct" (1st, 2nd, and 3rd degree), and "accosting children for immoral purposes."  And one of my students is in there for murder in the second degree.  I'll call him Jay, not his real name.

Jay is an African-American man in his fifties. He tells me he has two degrees, and is working on a third.  He's articulate and intelligent.  He worked on the first day to try to make me comfortable in the setting, and was worried that I was nervous.  He's probably my best student, if by best I mean most focused, participates willingly and appropriately, engages with material, etc. He has a sense of authority and presence in the classroom; the other students clearly respect him. 

I googled Jay's situation, and I asked his permission to share his story with you.  Here's the story as he tells it, from what he's told me personally, and what can be found in the appeals cases on the web, when I did a web search on him.

Jay was in his twenties.  His ex-girlfriend, and mother of his twin children, who were babies at the time, was in an abusive relationship with another man.  She had a restraining order on the guy, Jay says, and the guy had threatened to kill her and her children in the past.  But he was over that day, nonetheless, as was a friend of hers.  The guy started getting abusive, and the friend left.  After leaving, the friend ran into her boyfriend and Jay (who are related) and told them what was happening.  Jay went and grabbed his shotgun, and he and his relative went over, to extricate his children from the situation or to tell the guy to leave.  He entered the house or apartment, told his cousin to grab his kids, and he went into the room where the guy was, along with his ex-girlfriend and one of the children, to confront him.  The guy jumped Jay, and the gun fired unintentionally (according to Jay and his ex-girlfriend), and the guy was killed.  Jay didn't make a self-defense argument, but rather argued that the shooting was unintentional.  The jury found it to be murder in the second degree.

Jay holds no bitterness.  He thinks he shouldn't have brought his gun into the situation.  His ex-girlfriend had asked him to get her a gun to protect herself, and he told her not to get a gun but to get a restraining order, which she did.

Jay has spent half his life in jail, and will be eligible for parole in a couple of years. He will carry the label of convicted murderer for life.

My job, in teaching at the prison, is to teach.  It's not to try and help these guys' and their situations in any other way.  Just teach. 

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Why Social Movements Seem Ineffective

Tom Hayden, one of the founders of Students for a Democratic Society, antiwar activist, one of the Chicago Eight tried for instigating the Chicago Convention Riots in 1968, and a California State Legislator for many years, is donating his papers to the University of Michigan. He was editor of the Michigan Daily way back in the early 60's. [The fact that many of you still have no idea who I'm talking about is inevitable, and painful, but so what?]

Anyway, I heard him speak the other day, about the general history of social movements. I thought he explained a lot of what we have been through.

Social movements are unpredictable. There is nothing that will tell us in advance that it was to be the killing of Michael Brown that ignites the national movement, when African American men are killed by police or private security every 28 hours. The conditions have been there all along.

But when a social movement kicks off, both it and the elite that it confronts split into two camps.

Among the elite, there is an accommodationist wing, that wants to make small concessions to appease the social movement. And there is a repressive wing that wants to put down the rebellion.

Among the social movement, there is also a division: between a more moderate wing which seeks reform, and a militant wing, which wants longer term structural change, even revolution.

At some point, the moderates of both camps reach an agreement about the reforms that will be enacted. Think the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the result of a cooperation between Martin Luther King, Jr and Lyndon Johnson. That agreement marks the high water mark of the social movement; what it will have won, for now.

But then what happens? What happens afterwards? Just as social movements arise without warning, so also do they peak and decline. What happens in that stage?

The repressive elite does not give up, but seeks a way to continue the struggle against the reform. They minimize the reform, describe it as a mistake, reorganize to keep the fight going, to undermine or repeal the reform. Think of John McCain still arguing for more war in the Middle East.

The movement militants try to continue the movement and minimize the reform as well. So much more work to do; they are angry that the social movement seems to be losing energy and steam. Think of the common protest slogan, "I can't believe we still have to protest this stuff."

The moderate elite take credit for the reform, making themselves, and not the social movement, as the driving force of history. Who started the US withdrawal from Iraq, Barack Obama or Cindy Sheahan?

The moderate masses of the social movement move on with their daily lives. The sleeping giant seems to go back to sleep. They have no spokespeople, and no theoreticians.

The result is that vast social movements arise and win important concessions and reforms, but are never credited with any victories. A few years later, everyone with a prominent voice speaks of it as it were inconsequential, or a terrible mistake. The story gets retold as something silly and misguided.  And the attempts of the movement's militants to revive it are perceived as ego-centric hectoring by people who are stuck in the past. It's tragic, but the relationship between the militants and the moderates of social movement past its peak becomes bitter and accusatory.

A student asked Tom Hayden why the anti-Iraq War never had the effect of the Anti-Vietnam movement.

Hayden rejected the premise, and summed up the history of the Iraq War Movement this way.

In the beginning, there were demonstrations against the war; they were small, and risky; they were out of step with public opinion.

He mentioned Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9-11.

More demonstrations against the coming war -- getting bigger and bigger, really massive.

Bush wins the 2004 election. Democrats run Kerry who is not forthrightly anti-war. Demoralization.

Cindy Sheahan camps out at his ranch, reviving anti-war energy.

Democrats harness antiwar energy and sweep 2006 elections.

In 2008, Democrats choose Obama over Clinton. Much of the energy propelling him comes from his more forthright anti-war position.  The US policy in Iraq shifts. And stays on a policy of dis-engagement from Iraq until recently, as conditions changed.

In 2014, students talk of the anti-Iraq war movement as inconsequential. Seriously?

Friday, September 19, 2014

To Remain True

This is the time of the year when the “old school” among us call for Rank by Rank Again We Stand to start the church fall season. I like the last lines of what is now the final verse: “one in name, in honor one, guard we well the crown they won, what they dreamed be ours to do, hope their hopes and seal them true.” 

I am remembering all those ministers and lay members of liberal religion who have come before us. We start the year, remembering what they dreamed, and take those tasks on for ourselves, “seal them true,” a vague phrase which I guess means stamping them done well. 

What is it to be faithful and true? Fidelity is an act of memory; it is being loyal to memory. Like those who came before us, remembering them, guarding what they accomplished, remembering  today and tomorrow, the commitments we made yesterday. 

This will be an important year in the story of liberal religion in our times.

The People’s Climate March in NYC this weekend.

The emerging national movement in defense of black people from the police. Police shootings of black people which will go on and on and on. Remember this name: Darrien Hunt —an African American man killed by police in a town in Utah which is 93% white. This injustice can and will happen anywhere.

The renewed focus on domestic violence and child abuse — in the very very bright lights of the National Football League. Can there be any place more likely to get the attention of men?
Yet another war in Iraq. 

Yet another war in Iraq.

I ask my ministerial colleagues, and all those who offer leadership to the liberal religious cause: What do we have to offer now, how is it that we are true now, this year, amidst all of these unfolding crises. 

Our people are smart and well-informed. They have their political opinions and they know what they are capable of doing. Most of our elders are not going off to demonstrations; there are some exceptions, of course.  Most of our young families are not going out over bath and bedtime, no matter how great the cause. The conservatives among us are going to be conservative no matter what.

Nevertheless, I think people look to their minister of liberal religion for a signal of how serious all of this is. They look to us for guidance: Have we passed the point when they can no longer in good conscience treat their daily life as the most important thing in their world. 

They look for us for that sign that says the world's events are no longer a "tornado watch," but now a "tornado warning." And yes, they watch us even though they know that we are professionally excitable — that we are going to be concerned about things that they will think are merely interesting; or are situations that that are far away, or are just the way things are, or situations that may someday be a problem, but not today.

They build in the fact that we are more upset about the state of the world than they are; in a way, some have outsourced their anguish to us. So be it. After all, some of us have announced the apocalypse so many times that their pulse hardly quickens anymore when we mount the pulpit with our hair on fire.

Nevertheless, people who look to us want a way to participate in the events that shape this world — many of them came to our churches because they wanted to a part of a community with purpose, and vision. They look to us for a way to participate in history: a way that is appropriate to them and their life circumstances. 

Some of our people may be ready to go to prison. Some to graduate school for research and study. Some need us to bless them on a bus trip to DC or NYC or Raleigh. Some are ready for self-examination and introspection. Some can only clap along with the songs of the struggle when we sing them in church, but they need that opportunity to take a stand. As leaders, we will probably remain as we are, both too far behind the times for some, and too far out in front for others. They are still looking to us. 

We must remain true, this year. True to the dreams of our predecessors of a society where people have the confidence in their own agency to build peace and justice and inclusion. True to our promises to our people that we will never lose sight of their unique and personal situations, that we will never treat them as means to an end. True to the promises of our ordination, among which is that we speak the truth in love, afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. 

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Economics is still a choice

Doug Muder sums up Michael Greer's "The Long Descent" and applies it to Ferguson, MO, arguing that car-oriented suburbs are doomed to decline, because of economics.

A key paragraph of a long and excellent article is this:
And finally, we need to figure out how to rebuild or write off the mistakes of the past. Places like Ferguson — and there are a lot of them — are not sustainable in their current form. They will never generate the capital to remake themselves, and the outside capital they attract will be mainly from vultures who want to squeeze the last bits of value out of the community’s decline and despair.
The problem with this scenario is that enormous amounts of Capital is created and invested everyday in these wealthy United States. It is not being invested in the infrastructure of towns like Ferguson, MO, that is true. But it exists.

The problem is not just that our priorities are so askew. The problem is that the process by which it is determined where Capital is invested is distorted. The wrong people are using the wrong process to choose how we plan for and invest in the future; as a consequence we are making poor decisions.

There are two giant pools of Capital that is looking for opportunities: the pool in the hands of Finance Capital, on what we call "Wall Street" and there is a pool in the hands of the governments. The first pool is all the money held in the form of stocks and bonds and other financial interests. A lot of that money, by the way, is money owned by ordinary people in the form of 401K's and IRA's etc. The second pool is fed by taxation, and by the sale of government bonds. Where and how these pools of money are invested determine our future.

The taxation system has over time, impoverished the state sector, so its investment pool is small. In
addition, the political choices we have made have prioritized military spending over other forms of investment. We have seen the numbers of what the country could be investing, if we chose not to have a military as large and as capable as we now do.

An ideological choice has been made that the lion's share of investment in our future will be made through the capital markets. But capital markets work on short-term goals of profit and loss. Investment opportunities compete against each other for the capital. Of course, investing in Apple stock will be smarter, in that context, than in buying bonds to build out a St. Louis mass transit system. Investments in Apple will pay off now. Mass Transit will never pay off directly. That is why we have 21st century pocket sized computers with which to call home from our cars when we are stuck in traffic jams on potholed streets through dying inner-ring suburbs. 

Economics, and the workings of finance capital, seem immutable, unchangeable, like the weather or acts of God. They are not. We could radically change the course of our country by putting more money in the hands of the government, and investing it wisely, and less money in the hands of Finance Capital to be invested in the capital markets. We could choose to not make towns like Ferguson generate enough capital to maintain themselves, but supply that investment from other sources. We could choose to make inner ring suburbs more attractive places to live, making our cities more dense and sustainable. There is the money in our economy to do all of that, and more. 

Oh, if only there was a way to gather money from the general population, especially the wealthier members, and use it for the common good. 

Oh, if only there was an institutions that could fairly represent all of the conflicting opinions and interests of the people, and then make decisions that carry out their will for the future. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Motivation Toward Ministry, Part 3

In Parts #1 and #2, we created this chart and defined external/internal and history/future as dimensions of our possible call or deepest motivations.

Let me place myself on this chart and explain my deepest motivations, how I experience my call.

I put myself above the line in the "external" area. I experienced it as a "Call" from outside of myself. For the most part, I heard that call from  members of the congregation where I was a member. They kept telling me that I should consider ministry. When I audited a Winter Intensive class at Meadville Lombard (it was Ethics of a Democratic Faith, taught by Ron Engel), I was told by my classmates that I should not be auditing the class, but to jump in and go to seminary. 

I have to say that I never experienced this call as coming directly from God. I rebel against the thought that God does career planning. Jobs and careers all over the world are distributed along gender and race lines that are signs of oppression. If God is choosing our careers, then He should be sued. 

I do think that the proverbial "hand of God" is at work when a religious people call out one of their own for religious leadership -- some sort of spirit-filled discernment happening there. 

On the other hand, and this may be why I put myself so close to the line separating the internal from the external, is that I am aware that ministry is part of my family's traditions. I felt that pull when I was young. As I review my family's history, I can see that I carried the genes that favored public leadership, and that usually took the form, for men, of ministry. So when I was "called," it was no surprise.

I never engaged in that story of how I resisted the call as long as I could, and came to it reluctantly. That story seems a part of the standard narrative for many of my Methodist friends in seminary, a sign that their call was authentic, and not their ego talking. Sure, my ego is involved.

I place myself on the History/Tradition side of horizontal continuum. I think of entering the ministry as stepping into a long line of liberal ministers, marching rank by rank, out of the past and into the future, each generation with its own work to do. Just look at the name of this blog. I remember the men of my family who came before me, their mentors, and my own mentors within Unitarian Universalism. The strongest influence on me was my late mother, who was not a minister, but a devoted churchwoman and community activist. I still often check with her for what I should be thinking about.  

However, I have come to focus more on what the future requires of us who carry on this tradition. Earlier in my ministry, I think I was focused more on what it would take to keep old school Unitarian Universalism alive. Now, I try to think more about what the future demands of us -- what specific truths do we carry out of the past and into the future. 

That little star on the grid above is only where I place myself. Obviously, there is lots of room there for the stories of other ministers and religious leaders. Where would you place yourself?

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
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
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.

 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?"

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

The Graph and the Axes

Concerning this graph:

Cynthia asks in a comment:

What are the axes for a graph that you would propose? Would it make sense to frame one where one was government focused on protection from outside threats vs. government focused on social support for Americans and the other axis was morality focused on individual responsibility vs. societal responsibility? That latter one in particular doesn't really capture the way to frame the differences in morality focus from left to right, so I'm still struggling with how to frame the spectrum.

If you take on the task of mapping where denominations and religions fit into the social and political issues of the day, it seems that you have two choices: one is to map where people say they are on the issues as they understand them. I think that that approach is not particularly useful for religious leaders, although it may be useful to political strategists. What you are going to get, I am afraid, is a mish-mash of what people heard on the news last night as filtered through mainstream political comment.

The second way starts from doing the political and historical analysis of the political and social conflicts of the country (and world). Then, trying to find a way of discovering what people stand implicitly or explicitly about those issues. And when dealing with religious bodies, I would want to track as separate items, what the people in the pews think, and what the religious leaders have been teaching, as reflected in their official statements. After all, religious bodies are thought worlds with some degree of teaching and learning attempted.

I think that Unitarian Universalists have done some political and historical analysis of the issues. Our history of humanist pragmatism has directed us toward reality as our text. We are deeply interested in what is going on, in fact. The religious texts of the world, to us, illuminate some aspects of reality. In many other religions, the texts are the truth and daily reality illustrates them.

I think that UU leaders, in the period of time, have come to a conclusion that the fundamental social and political issues are, to state them baldly, race and sex. Those are the core differences, but they come down complicated and particularized through history.

Greg Howard writes an article with the title:
"America is Not For Black People" 
I would define the core contradiction in American politics as: Is the USA a nation where the interests of white people are systematically favored over the interests of people of color, especially African Americans, where the interests and well-being of people of color are systematically shorted to preserve the privileges of the white majority, and where it is necessary therefore, to disempower people of color. (You could spend a lifetime of great conversation and research to get that statement exactly right and fully comprehensive. And daily work to see that  contradiction as it plays out in daily life.)

And the second contradiction, which is related to the first: Is the USA a social order in which the needs, autonomy, safety, well-being of women is systematically shorted for the benefit of men? (Again, a lifetime of work to define that issue properly and to see it in action.)

I want to know where the religious bodies stand on these issues -- not only what they teach and proclaim, but where their members stand as well.

Again, the reason why this matters is that one of the tasks of religious leadership is to offer to people a picture of life from the largest possible perspective. What really matters? What does it mean to be alive in this moment of time? What time is it on the clock of the world?

Monday, September 01, 2014

My point about this Picture

Concerning this graph:

Maybe I shouldn't get concerned when people misunderstood what I am trying to say in this blog. Maybe that is a inevitable fact of life, in blogging. Some people did not understand my preaching either.

My point was not that the picture is somehow wrong in what it portrays. Pew Research does really good work and I assume that they know how to present their information accurately and responsibly. I assume that they know better than anyone else what people in "the pews" of these religions think about the political issues of the day. After all, they have real data, and the rest of us have our subjective impressions.

My concern is about the political and historical analysis implicit in the structure of the graph. The very way that the data is organized assumes rightwing frames that are false and inaccurate.

Determining each axis of this graph is a matter of historical and political analysis, the kind of which we never see in all the blather than makes up political journalism today. What is happening today is connected to longer narratives in history and if you don't connect them, then the present is mystifying and the past irrelevant. You can't see what it happening before your eyes. And if you survey people to determine their attitudes toward the largest issues, when you lack a clear definition of those issues, then the data you get is going to be not as useful. 

It is simply not true that the major political issue in the United States is a controversy about the size of government and the level of services that it might provide. Ask yourself if you have ever heard a leftwing demonstration chanting: "What Do We Want? Big Government. When Do We Want It? Now!" What does the Left want? A whole host of things, some of which require state action, some of which don't. Posing this issue as a controversy over the size of government is a conservative frame. Likewise, the right wants a more powerful government in many ways, and would like to prevent the state from action on other goals. It's not about the size of government; its about whether the government can be an instrument for changing the power arrangements extant. The business about the size of government is conservative slogan masquerading as a foundational political theory. 

Likewise, the vertical frame is a conservative frame. Protecting morality, even protecting traditional morality is a conservative frame. The most important social change in the last 50 years has been the dismantling of some of the elements of patriarchy. All sorts of moral issues are being reconsidered now that women's voices are present: reproductive justice, LGBTQ issues, marriage. It is historical and political malpractice to define those issues as being traditional morality vs. anti-traditional morality. You know it's a false dichotomy when one side cannot even be named except as a negative of the good. Why not label the top "Good" and the bottom "Evil"?

My point is not to rename the two axes, while assuming that all of the denominations remain in the same place. My point is that we need to analyze the true political and moral conflicts, historically and sociologically. I suspect if you started from a more accurate understanding of the real divisions in the country, and if you designed questions that exposed what people think about them and analyzed that data, some of these denominations might change position. (And that doesn't solve the problem of representing the range of opinion within each denomination.)

Why does this matter? People look to religious leadership for an understanding of current life from the largest possible perspective. As soon as we talk about anything beyond the inevitability of death, we are engaging in social, historical and political analysis. Religious leaders may be the only group left of whom it is expected that we won't simply advocate for our own interests, but actually concern ourselves with the common good and the moral dimension. So when we do not push ourselves toward the truest understanding, we are not doing our job.