Tuesday, December 30, 2014

What Ministers Can Do

The public life of the country is roiling and boiling.

The incredible upsurge of the anti-racist movement, led by young people of color, since Ferguson has brought racism front and center.

Now, we have the inevitable counter-attack, led by the New York City Police Union. An article posted yesterday by Max Blumenthal at Alternet details talk among the police union and New York Tea Party Republicans for an on-going campaign to "support the police." It's white backlash political opportunism.

It's on. The whole, messy, angry, honest, painful "Conversation About Race" that everybody said they wanted is on, and it is not being moderated by Jim Lehrer.

Ministers of liberal religion, such as the Unitarian Universalists and others, are used to conducting our ministry in the political climate of the 80's and 90's, when conservatism was culturally dominant. And we need to think about how that is changing in a new historical era.

I had only served a year when 9/11 happened, and I participated in the temporary insanity that affected much of the country for the years afterwards. That's another story.

But after that, I felt that I was usually somewhat to the left of most of the congregation I served. I know that I was more interested and informed about current events than most of the congregation. There were some peace activists to my left and some serious conservatives in the congregation, as well as an older group of New England Republicans. The dominant politics in most UU congregations is a well-meaning liberalism united in outrage at the latest shenanigans of the rightwing. A lot like Jon Stewart but less funny.

The influence of the whole conglomerate of institutions, individuals and groups that I just called "the UUA" seemed to be to aimed at educating me, and through me, the congregation about political, economic, and social issues that were not on the public radar. Thinking back, it was through 'the UUA" that I learned about 'the war of drugs', water rights, mass incarceration, immigration and other issues. That influence made the local church a place more connected to these realities than the surrounding society.

It seemed that for most of my active ministry, my role was to keep those on my left (the activists and "the UUA") from dominating the congregational conversation with issues that few knew about or cared about, while keeping those on the right still in the tent, while representing what I personally felt was crucial to talk about. I felt that I had become the guardian of the vessel in which all of this was to be contained. And so, I participated in maintaining the dichotomy between the "Spiritual" (the proper work of the church) and the "Political" (the acceptable passions of the individuals in the congregation, but not the work of the church). I could titrate the amount that the "political" dripped into congregational life, through my teaching and through the programming. I could open the  E.B. White valve and be prophetic and save the world; or I could close the valve and savor it and be pastoral.

But what if conservatism was not dominant? How does the role change when there is an active, insurgency going on in the streets? What if there is a really active presence of radicalism on social media?

Then, the attempt to protect the congregational vessel becomes building a shelter from reality. When there are rich conversations about white privilege everyday on Twitter, trying to introduce the concept from the pulpit in a way that lets people get comfortable with the idea is too little and too late. Whites are struggling through their discomfort all ready, and some will take longer than others. The houses of liberal religion are no longer somewhat more liberal islands in a sea of conservatism, but may now be little islands of pseudo-safety and moderation in a much more stormy sea.

I am reminded of 1969, when I left the UU movement. I wanted to be connected with a vigorous and radical movement. The First Unitarian Church of Youngstown, Ohio had nothing for me. I could have my opinions there, but had no opportunity to act on them. It not ahead of the times, but behind the times. Is that where we will be?

The most important thing a minister can do in this environment is to indicate what is important. People tend to figure out what to think and do by watching people they respect. How we visibly act out our priorities is our most salient message. It may be even more important than the sermonification on Sunday. Showing ourselves taking this anti-racist movement as more important than the day to day work of the church, and the calm we are used to is what we can do. It starts there.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 08, 2014

Take a Break and Light Your Chalice

Light Your Chalice.

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

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

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

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

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

Light Your Chalice

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

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

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

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

My chalice at work.


Saturday, December 06, 2014

The Power of One [By Rev. Shelley Page]

December 6, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rev. Shelley Page

Friday, December 05, 2014

What I Would Say....

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Anonymity and Blogging [by Cindy Landrum]

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

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

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

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