Monday, April 27, 2015

Telling Our Story (April 26, 2015)

Twice now a group of us gathered upstairs on a winter’s evening to tell one another the part of our history that we ourselves remember. The first time we gathered to tell this story our earliest recollections were back to the time of the great flood of 1972, but this past fall our telling of our memories began around the time of the purchase of this building. The minister at that time was Rev. Harry Thor. He had served as the minister of the Binghamton Church (1963-1980), and came to serve The Sheshequin church part time in his retirement. He served our congregation for 17 years from 1989-1996. 

The story of this congregation in the 1990s can’t be told without Bob and Nell Allen. Both Bob and Nell were raised UU. He was an orthopedic surgeon at Guthrie, and served as president of this congregation for 15 years, and the Allens were a driving force in the purchase of this building. Bob and John McDonald build the chalice stain glass window using tiles from an old window. Don Riker commissioned the plaque below it. Perhaps you’ve noticed a crack in one pane. Bob said it was a “crack of humility.”

Bob was also a pilot, and when the plane he was flying crashed, killing him, the whole community was crushed. I’m told that his parking spot at the hospital was filled with flowers. Memorial services were held at Redeemer and at UUCAS. A year after his death the members of the congregation took a trip to the crash site to plant bulbs Imagine what a difficult time that must have been- to mourn the death of Bob Allen, longtime church pillar, just as our minister of 17 years retired. 

After Harry Thor’s retirement a student minister, Janelle Curlin-Taylor came to be our intern. This was a tumultuous time for the church, and when Janelle left the church was in a time of conflict.

We entered a period with no paid minister, and strong lay leaders emerged. Nell Allen served as president and church administrator for man y years. In 1999 we started the “Earth Day Fair” in our parking lot to bring the values of sustainability to the larger community, which became an annual event. 

Lee Richards, a student minister, served this congregation from 1999 to 2002. During this time our nursery was a lively, welcome place, Lee mentioned once from the pulpit “the sound of a happy child” in the nursery. When the Sayre and Keystone theaters had declined to host the Vagina Monologues, feeling it was too controversial, We were also proud to bring the Vagina Monologues to UUCAS. All of the participants actively promoted the events and sold tickets to friends. We were sold out and used the social room for overflows. Over 110 attended. The director, Barbara Coyle, and cast received a standing ovation. We were afraid of backlash from protestors and requested protection from the Athens Police Dept. They were stationed outside. Fortunately, we did not have any protestors.

In 2002 Lee declined to renew his contract after his third year. Conflicts lingered in the congregation.

During all these ups and downs we have had the incredible good luck of having dedicated, talented keyboard players at this church. Even when ministers came and went, we had a familiar face at the keyboard leading us in music. Marion Jones played from 1973 until 2002 when Katie Replogle took over, and Katie has been our church pianist ever since.

In January 2003 we hired Rev. Justin (Jace) Kahn, a trained Interim minister, who brought a great deal of healing to the church. Our ties to the district and to the UUA were strengthened. We became a fair share congregation and a leading giver to the UUSC. In 2003 we made Rev. John Trowbridge (who served this church for 21 years! from 1964-1985) our Minister Emeritus. By the time Jace completed his 2 year interim ministry, we were in a much stronger, healthier place. 

In 2005 the church was delighted to call The Rev. Ann Marie Alderman to be our first settled minister since Harry Thor. She encouraged us become a “Welcoming Congregation” by to do the inner and outer work necessary to truly welcome the GLBT community. For a couple of our members this was too much of a challenge, and a few folks left, but for the majority who stayed, this was a powerful transformation and “welcoming congregation” became an important part of our sense of identity. 

When Ann Marie told us she had accepted a full time position at another church, there was great sadness. We had worked so hard to bring her here, and had just gotten started in a healthy and energetic relationship. The time after her departure called on all the strength of our lay leaders. It was Genevieve and Marion who started calling this the “little church that could” and posted this moto in the social hall. IN 2007 we also brought the women’s a Capella Group Olympia’s daughters to perform. I don’t thing we PLANNED to do it in honor of Elaine Lovegreen’s birthday, but is sure was nice of them to sing to her.

During that year of lay leadership, I had been invited to preach once a month while you were in your search. When the church was not able to find a match through the search process, they asked me if I would come preach for another year, or maybe be a consulting minister. I said what I really wanted was to be your minister, to be called and settled. So even though I’d been preaching here for a year, we diligently followed the official process from start to finish with interviews and packets and finally a congregational vote to call me as your minister in 2008.

These past 7 years have been a busy time for us. After a yearlong congregation wide process to discern a way to reach out to the larger community, we decided on “Feed a Friend” where we would grow our own fresh organic produce to donate to local food banks. When Project Grow launched in 2011 under the leadership of Destiny Kinal, it was clear that the missions of the two initiatives were closely aligned, and we ended Feed a Friend, and put our energy into collaborating with and supporting Project Grow. In 2008 we also launched our first ever Coming of Age program in collaboration with the Big Flats fellowship, and offered a second collaborative program 2 years later. 

When we first learned about Hydro-Fracking many of us were confused and puzzled by it, especially those of us who were being offered mineral leases. We held our first community forum on the topic which grew into the “Community Shale Network” hosting about a dozen forums over 4 years. We were proud to provide information to the community about this controversial topic without any rancor. 

In 2011 a flood immobilized the Valley. The rains came down hard on Thursday, and by the time the streets were clear on Saturday we had to pass through a National Guard checkpoint on the way to the church to assess and repair the damage. Volunteers filled the parking lot sanitizing and drying the contents of our basement. Sunday we worshiped without power, without potable water. At coffee hour, Diane and Maggie wondered how we could be of more help to our neighbors. We held an emergency board meeting, and decided to open our building to folks who just needed to use a restroom, or a clean place to rest. The next day we began serving a hot lunch and all were welcome to join us in the social hall. Other volunteers delivered sandwiches to people who didn’t want to leave their work salvaging their homes or businesses. For weeks we fed and cared for our neighbors until the crowds died down, and our work helping repair the damage of the flood continued in other ways.

In 2014 you offered the first sabbatical this congregation had ever given a minister. During that time you showed you were still the “little church that could.” You taught a class on Ethics. You brought in a trainer from Dickenson College to teach you how do water testing to monitor our local creeks. And it was during this time that it became legal in Pennsylvania for same gender couples to marry. Our members received the 1st and 3rd licenses in the county, and celebrated these unions with great joy. Our building once again rings with the voices of children.

That leads us to today. This story which began many generations ago is ours to tell. What our founders called “the Universal Salvation of the human race from the bondage of sin and corruption.” We might say “We are Standing on the Side of Love” The love, that fire that has burned in the heart of this congregation for 200 years is ours to tend.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Dreams Big and Small (April 12, 2015)

Consider the North star, also called the Pole Star or “ Polaris.” Our friends at “Earthsky” point out that it appears to hold “nearly still in our sky while the entire northern sky moves around it. That’s because it’s located [near] the north celestial pole, the point around which the entire northern sky turns.”  A clear vision is like a pole star, holding steady and guiding us no matter where we may travel, no matter how the seas may change.

 When I was in seminary all my teachers made sure we understood that it was important to create a vision statement with your congregation. I’ve been through this a few times now, and it always seems to involve butcher paper, and colorful magic markers, and possibly sticky dots. And when, a couple of months later, I couldn’t even remember the vision we had described that day, I always assumed that a better, more sophisticated process would be more successful if we tried again. We read books and expert opinions and started anew with a fresh pad of easel paper.

I think the misunderstanding I had, we had, was that vision was something that that we could create in a couple of hours on a Saturday afternoon if we just had the right process. What I now believe is that a true vision is already there, and needs only to be uncovered, given language, shared. 

When Dr. Martin Luther King gave his famous “I have a dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, he was proceeding along with his prepared remarks when Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson shouted, “Tell them about the dream, Martin.” At that moment, he put his notes down and could describe, just out of his heart, to the dream that was already guiding him. He put into words the vision that had guided him to that point. When he said “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” he gave voice to a longing that was already in the hearts and minds of the people listening to them that day. It is still in our hearts and minds this Sunday morning, still guiding us forward when we hear about the racial bias people of color experience in this world today. We hear those news stories about the way children of color are treated, and hold those stories up to Dr. King’s vision, and we can see we still have a long way to go. 

Being able to imagine the future, to dream the future, is important to who we are as humans. Our dreams, large and small, provide a guiding star for our travels so we can know where we are headed, even when we don’t know exactly how to get there. Creating a vision is not something you need to read a book or attend a webinar to know how to do; it is something we are already doing every day. Here is the most mundane example I can think of: you are sitting in the living room and it comes to you “I want cheesy fries.” That’s it. That’s your vision. Sometimes the vision is easily implementable- you already have some frozen French fries in the freezer, and some cheese in the fridge, all you have to do is go into the kitchen and start cooking. Other times, the vision seems impossible- it’s already late at night, and you don’t have any of the ingredients. But if you can hang onto that vision, say, the next time you are at the grocery store, or the next time you are out to eat, that vision can still someday become reality. See- visioning is easy.

In the past couple of years our congregation has given birth to a number of new programs, like trivia night, or the meditation group, or the vegan potluck. Each started out as a vision. The first time each of us came to this church we had a vision that drew us here. Maybe the picture in our mind was of a place where we could meet new people, where we could find community. Maybe the vision was of yourself speaking what was in your heart, and other people truly listening. Or maybe you were frustrated and saddened by the state of the world, and imagined here at this church you could meet other people who were concerned, and together we could do something. I know you had a vision because you would never have come that first time without some hope for what you would find here.

One of the hardest parts of visioning is daring to have a dream when you can’t see a path that takes you there. When Marcia lead her visioning workshop a couple of years back, she told us it was important to give shape to your vision without regard for how you might get there. If we only allow ourselves to imagine what seems practical and possible, we might not even be able to imagine what we really need and want. Last month I attended a UU Clergy conference out in California, where I had the great fortune of participating in a week long workshop with Joanna Macy and the “Movement Generation.” Our facilitator drew for us 3 circles like this. This, they said is the circle that represents what we really need. And in this circle is what we don’t need. And this circle linking the two, this is what is politically possible. So a lot of our social justice work is about this middle circle here- the politically possible. We lobby for what we think is possible and needed, and lobby against what is possible and not needed. But, they said, we can’t be afraid to dream what we really need that is NOT possible right now. Consider Marriage Equality. How many of you thought 10 years ago, 20 years ago, that same-gender couples would be able to be legally married in the state of Pennsylvania? But we dreamed that dream anyway, and it came true. It’s hard to dream something that seems impossible; it’s scary because we know we might be disappointed. But what is possible changes as the times change. If we have dared to dream, we will be ready when the time is right.

Visioning is not about “how.” Even the congregational leadership manuals are clear about this. “How” is the sphere of plans and strategies. Some strategies fail, some succeed. When we confuse strategy for vision, when we confused the path for the guiding star, we sometimes end up losing our way.  

When Eric and I moved from California to Ithaca, we were following a vision with 3 important parts. We wondered if it would be possible to live within walking distance of anything worth walking to- something only the wealthy can afford in the Bay Area. Eric wanted to own his own business, and we wanted a good school system for Nick. But when we arrived here with our u-haul and the clock started ticking on our 2 month sublet, we became more and more constrained by what was actually possible. The only houses in the neighborhood where we had hoped to settle were in really bad shape and would require a lot of work. (we are not handy people). We found a lovely house a few miles out of town with 3 acres and a pond, but it wasn’t in walking distance from anything. Panicked at the thought of having no place to live when our sublet ended we almost gave up on our dream, but then we asked ourselves “what is at the core if this vision.” We let go of our attachment to a particular neighborhood, and got back to our vision: a good school for nick, and a pedestrian friendly neighborhood. When we let go of “how” to achieve our dream, and got back to the essence of our vision, we found our lovely little home just 3 blocks from the downtown, in an excellent elementary school district we’d never heard of that was just as good as the one we had been so fixated on. Now I’ll admit it was hard to let go of the fact that our home doesn’t have off-street parking, and the back yard is about the size of the social hall, but when we guided our choices by that pole star we were able to build new life in Ithaca that manifested our vision. (In a poetic twist of fate, that house on 3 acres with a pond was bought by our friends, whose vision was to raise their own livestock and grow their own produce, a vision for which that home was perfect.)

A compelling vision can help us change what we didn’t even know we could change. Philosophy professor, Tad Dunne, notes that the stories our society tells us, the stories we tell ourselves can limit our vision of who we are and what is possible. They can even limit the “field of possible desires” [i]
[Ruffing p. 115] Whereas if we “can imagine an alternative pattern or possibility, [we] can often create a new story that is more adequate than the original.” [Ruffing p. 116] So when our vision is limited, our imaginations, desires and actions may also be limited. [Ruffing p. 115] 

For example, if we can’t imagine two women or two men being married or having children, we won’t even desire it, and we certainly won’t do anything to make that vision come true. If Dr. Martin Luther King had not put that vision so eloquently put that vision into words in 1963, perhaps the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 would never have happened. Long before Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus, a vision of that day had been cast, had been shared, had been nurtured.  

A vision is an image that “suggests possible plot lines” [Ruffing p 96]. When the images we see on TV or in the news are not big enough for the future we really need, we must imagine an alternative. Some of you will remember I told a story here a few weeks ago called “girls can be anything.” My mom gave me that book when I was little because she wanted me to be able to imagine myself as a doctor, a pilot, even the president. That author knew that before a woman could be president of the united states, we would first have to be able to imagine it. Whether or not it is possible right now, it is something we really need and want, and so we hold that vision for the future. 

Our dreams also help us when things fall apart. Times are changing so fast right now, it’s easy to be buffeted about by the swiftly changing waters of our times. Church itself is changing radically. Whereas in the 1950s just about everyone went to church, we are told, today more and more folks have never even been to church. More and more people can’t imagine why you would go to church, when there are so many other things to do on a Sunday morning. At the UU Minister’s retreat a couple of weeks back a room full of ministers and religious educators spoke about what church would be like in the 21st century. Some parts of church life that have always worked are just not working anymore. We wondered how technology might change our church experience. We talked a lot about discerning what is at the core of who we are, what is at the core of our future together, and what we might have to let go of to make room for the reality of this unique time and place in history. Our presenter Karen Bellavance-Grace impressed on us the importance of “dreaming UU into the future.” If, she said, we want our beloved tradition to have a future, we must dream it now, together.

So I want to share with you a vision I have had for our movement; it has been growing in me for sometime. (I shared this vision with our Board back in the fall). I see this church as the beating heart of Universalism. We in this beloved community embody Universalist love, a love that holds each and every person, that holds each and every living being, as the early Universalists believed that God’s love embraces each and every one of us. We are the heart of Unitarian Universalism, right here in this sanctuary. Our love is like a hearth-fire where we come to warm ourselves, a fire that we tend and feed, a fire have kept burning for over 200 years. This world needs the luminous fire of our love. And we are not alone, this world is dotted with fires like ours. 

But when I imagine that life-giving, restoring, inspiring, renewing warmth, it breaks my heart to imagine folks just out of site, wandering in the cold and dark. So part of my vision is that we are constantly reaching out for people who need the warmth our fire, whether they just need to be warmed for a moment during a cold, lonely time, or whether they choose to stay and become fire tenders themselves. This vision is simple enough that no matter what change the future holds, we will remember to keep the fire burning, to keep that fire at the heart of everything we do.

Dreaming the future -- casting and holding a vision of what we really need, this is important. If it is a vision you truly care about, then just having the courage to hold it in your mind, and to share it with others creates a bigger possible future for everyone. It’s hard to hold onto a vision when we don’t know how we can get there, but remember there was a time when no one could have imagined a female preacher. Remember there was a time when we thought marriage equality would never come to America. So hold on to your vision like a north star, guiding us into that future. 

[i] Ruffing, Janet. To tell the Sacred Tale.