Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Revolutionary Relationship

When I was a new minister I had the privilege of being mentored by Rev. Til Evans who believed that ultimately nothing was more important than relationships. She often said the most important challenge was, “moving from I to we”. For her, the divine lived in the space between people, in the quality of that connection. There are many theologians who write and preach about the sacred quality of relationship, but when I was with Til, I really felt it. When we would sit at her table drinking tea and eating whatever delicious food she had prepared, she was always fully present. She gave her whole attention, heart and mind, to me, her guest, and to the quality of what flowed between us. She told many stories to illustrate this point, but one I remember clearly was a time she was sitting at a table outside Starbucks, and a small child wandered, as small children do, over to visit with her. For Til, the openness of the child, reaching out, connecting to a stranger, the immediacy of what emerged between them was exactly what she was always watching for, the moment between them a sacred gift. But too quickly the child’s mother rushed over, apologized to Til, reprimanded the child, herding her away, thus rupturing the moment of sacred connection with a different kind of energy, the energy of propriety and privacy and separateness, of judgement and reprimand. Not long after Til told me that story I had my first child, and I have more sympathy for the mom of that story now. Once you receive enough glares and reprimands for your child simply being a child, you become guarded and wary; reflexively assuming that the natural openness, curiosity and enthusiasm we are born with will be judged and shut down as it ventures into the world. Til’s story is a useful illustration of these two forces that operate in our lives.

I suspect each of you have known these two forces- the sweetness of meeting someone heart to heart, soul to soul, and the walls that keep us apart. Gerald May, psychiatrist and theologian, speaks of this dichotomy in terms of Love and Efficiency. Living in this time and place, it’s easy to believe that our primary role is as efficient producers and consumers, and that our loving relationships to other beings are a sort of extracurricular activity. I felt this acutely as the mother of a small child, serving as a minister of the Palo Alto congregation. The demands of church life are great; e-mails phone calls, meetings and more meetings. No matter how fast I worked, I never seemed to catch up. But time runs differently for small children, who want to stop and wonder at each leaf, each shiny bit on the ground, the joy of running, and the pain of a scraped knee. Every day I felt acutely the tension between love and efficiency. I wasn’t alone. The other parents in the congregation wondered- why is life like this- why is CHURCH like this?

I’ve thought about that question long and hard these past decades, watching the forces that call us to efficiency, that call us to produce more quickly and consume ravenously. I do not believe they are leading us toward greater human health and wholeness , and they are certainly not calling us to support and grow our web of relatedness with other people and with the non-human beings with whom we share this web of life. In fact this system is literally set up to maximize quarterly profits.

In the Christian scriptures, John refers to “Principalities and powers.” Romans 8:38–39: “For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God.” I’m pretty sure you can call to mind principalities and powers that value and protect institutions of profit at the expense of bodies, of life, of relatedness. I like to call these forces “Empire.” I’m sure I don’t need to tell you too much about what Empire is up to these days; you can’t turn on the news or open your Facebook feed without being assaulted by decisions that make us feel like powerless cogs in an unfeeling machine.

But these drives of empire live not only in the seats of power; empire is woven into the fabric of our lives. All of us, justice makers, activists, parents, ministers, congregations, we all are caught in those same patterns of consumerism, of efficiency and productivity.

What if those life-giving relationships, those sacred connections could be themselves a tool for dismantling empire? According to anarchist philosopher Gustov Landauer this nation, this empire we live in “is a social relationship; a certain way of people relating to one another. It can be destroyed by creating new relationships; i.e., by people relating to one another differently.” [p. 106] By differently, I mean something as simple as a genuine conversation between adult and child at the Starbucks. I mean the instinctive and primal human connections we already have in our lives. We were born to be in relationships. We were born into this interconnected web of life; the idea that we can survive somehow outside it is an illusion. I am speaking of something as simple as bringing the relationships humans have always had into the foreground, of giving them the time and the attention and the love that we too often get seduced into spending on producing and consuming.

Consider the recent success of the marriage equality movement. Organizers say what was ultimately led to the transformation of our laws and our culture was conversations between friends and family. According to API equality “People who know lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people are more likely to accept and support LGBT people. Importantly, people who have actually talked to their LGBT friends, family members, or colleagues about public policy issues that impact LGBT people are also more likely to support policies like employment nondiscrimination or the freedom to marry. Many LGBT people and non LGBT people report that having had these conversations actually strengthens the bond or relationship between them. “[i]

Unfortunately we are living in a time of increased polarization, when it feels harder and harder to have conversations with people “on the other side.” Political views harden and into opposing teams. There are few places where people talk respectfully and listen deeply to those with different views from their own. When folks talk about putting up walls, I suspect they are not talking about putting walls between themselves and their friends, their kin, their community, I suspect they are imagining putting a wall where no connection is felt. That is why, as feminist philosopher Donna Haraway puts it “making kin across divides of species, nation, gender and other borders is perhaps the most urgent task today.” [p.92]

As Robert Putnam’s book “Bowling Alone” so poignantly describes, our mainstream society is no longer growing and strengthening the web of kin, the web of connection. We foreground the individual consumer with the freedom to consume whatever goods and services they can purchase in exchange for the money they produce

“Creating intergenerational webs of intimacy and support is a radical act in a world that has privatized child-rearing, housing, subsistence and decision making” write Montgomery and Bergman write in their book Joyful Militancy [p. 101]. This is why we are here today, isn’t it? You could be home right now in your own private residence, downloading a blog about this topic, or one more interesting to you personally, but you got dressed and traveled here because you wanted to be present with this community, with this intergenerational web of intimacy and support. Maybe you’ve felt that holy feeling of connection here. I want to affirm today that whenever you gather in community this is a radical act- an urgent act with the power to transform the fabric of society through the quality of our presence with one another.

Mia Mingus writes “What I’m talking about is reinventing how we love each other and knowing that solidarity is love, collaboration is love. And really, isn’t that what queerness is all about; Loving? I am talking about growing and cultivating a deep love that starts with those closest to us and letting it permeate out. Starting with our own communities. Building strong foundations of love.

And [she continues] I just want to be clear, I am not talking about love that isn’t accountable. I am not talking about staying in harmful and dangerous or abusive relationships. The kind of love I want us to grow is accountable and assertive. Really, I am talking about collective love, where we look out for each other.” [p. 122]

This is important. Real love, real community stays engaged when things get tough, real love has boundaries, real love speaks truth with compassion.

“Because we are going to mess up. Of that I am sure.” Mingus continues “We cannot, on the one hand have sharp analysis about how pervasive systems of oppression and violence are and then on the other hand, expect people to act like that’s not the world we exist in. Of course there are times we are going to do and say oppressive things, of course we are going to hurt each other, of course we are going to be violent, collude in, voice or accept violence as normal. We must roll up our sleeves and start doing the hard work of learning how to work through conflict, pain and hurt as if our lives depended on it – because they do” [p. 104]

Even in this beloved community there are webs of connection that need to be woven, and rewoven when they are broken. Because despite our intention to be that radical web of kinship and community, we are still part of a society that teaches us many times a day that we are individuals whose freedom to consume is primary. The separateness, the otherness we long to transform in the world is right here, and this is a good place to begin, and begin again. That’s why we have a committee on ministry, so that we can tend the relationships of our community. That’s why I’m so excited about this new Circles process, so that we can sit down together and talk face to face about our experiences of being in community together, what feeds us, what challenges us, and where we need healing.

That’s certainly part of what drew me to seminary 25 years ago, and is at the core of why I’m still committed to our UU congregations after all these years. Our relationships with one another and the wider world has this radical power to reweave the patterns of empire. When I was a Religious Educator, parents often said to me “I don’t have time to work for Social Justice, I’m working and raising my children” But working for Social Justice is not just showing up at rallies and writing your Senator, it is re-weaving the fabric of relationships. So when we raise our children in a way that values relationships over products, we are dismantling empire. When we teach and practice non-violent conflict resolution, we are dismantling empire. When we reach out across denominational lines to make supper at the Methodist church, and across class lines to serve folks we don’t know, we are dismantling empire.

There have been times in our denominational history when UU churches worked for their own individual success and growth, and treated other churches like competitors. But for the 11 years I’ve been a minister in this area, I have been part of a web of relationships of clergy and congregations that links us together. The ministers share their joys and their challenges when we gather. We support one another, and support one another’s congregations as part of our covenant. When we invited the Big Flats teens to be part of our Coming of Age program as our guests, we are dismantling empire. When you send me to preach in our neighbor’s pulpits during their minister’s sabbaticals, and when ministers from all around the area come here this winter to be with you in this sanctuary waiving their usual honoraria, we are valuing relationship over financial gain. Each time we tend the web of relationship inside these walls, or branching out into the larger world, we are re-weaving the fabric of society. We are revolutionaries.

Relationships are revolutionary because that is where we ordinary people use our shared power for transformation. Building webs of kinship is a radical act, is an urgent act in our world, and I challenge each of us to heed the revolutionary call of love.

[i] https://www.apiequalitync.org/what-we-do/breakthrough/

Friday, November 16, 2018

Honoring the Ancestors

Building Your Samhain Ancestor Altar - by Starhawk

The veils are thin now, and if you listen, you can hear the voices of your Beloved Dead permeating the world of the living. This is the time to meditate on your ancestors and those who have passed this year.

If you’re adopted, or don’t know anything about your ancestors, work with those you consider your spiritual ancestors. Collect their pictures, some of their favorite objects and things that remind you of them, and build an ancestor altar.

For some of us, our ancestors and family might feel problematic. Maybe they’ve done things you abhor or are ashamed of. You have choices:
You can honor them anyway and do work to release their negative choices and actions and honor their strengths and struggles.

You can go back further into your past. All of us have many, many ancestors—and we are all mixtures of mixtures of mixtures. Somewhere in those long lines, we’re all descendants of those who did terrible things—and those who did wonderful things. So call for the ancestors who have guidance and wisdom to share.
You can work with spiritual ancestors—those who are part of the line of a tradition, a line of knowledge, or a practice that you identify with.

Next, prepare an offering. This could be some food your ancestor or Beloved Dead enjoyed, or something precious to them such as a piece of jewelry or a special book, or an art object that you create. Add this to your altar.

If there is someone you need to resolve an unfinished issue with, or make amends to, consider what you could create or offer. It could even be a pledge to do something—for example, plant a tree or take care of a child, or donate something in their name.

Finally, write a letter to your beloved dead- say thank you to someone you are grateful for, express something to someone that you didn’t get to say when they were alive. If there’s something that feels unfinished, or something that you want to carry further, write it down, and add it to your altar.

Along with your photos, memorabilia, and offerings to your beloved dead, add to your altar:
A cauldron or flame proof vessel to burn your letter
A candle (or many)

Spend some time in front of your altar in the coming days, remembering fond moments, reflecting on what was left unsaid, listening for any wisdom that may be ready to come through. When you are ready, burn your letter on the altar, to release anything you are ready to release, and to send your message out into the spirit lands.

Honoring the Ancestors
This summer I was introduced to the work of John Lockley, a white south African man trained as a Sangoma, a traditional healer in the Xhosa culture. One of the primary concepts of the Xhosa mysticism is Ubuntu, which Lockley explained this way:
“Ubuntu, like life, is seen as a circle of which we are all a part, including the dead. The ancestors are an important part of the circle because without our memory of them and our connection to our blood lineage, we lose our sense of immortality and then we fear death…[Leopard Warrior p. 63]

Xhosa culture, over hundreds if not thousands of years, has developed an intricate and beautiful practice of remembering the ancestors through prayer, [and] ceremony… People connect to izinyanya thorough their blood ancestors, thereby acknowledging their roots in the human family. Like an oak tree, the deeper its roots, the taller and more powerful its branches. For people to access the more refined states of dreaming and spirituality, they need to first connect to their blood ancestors.” [p. 64]
As I read, I noticed resistance rising in me around the role of ancestors in his tradition, so I spent some time reflecting on that resistance.

I was raised Unitarian Universalist in a rationalist humanist congregation. We focused on living ethical lives in the here and now. Humanism forsakes the metaphysical questions about the nature of the soul, and what happens to it after we die. We tend to focus on the known, the physical. We know that after death the body decomposes and the elements that made up our bodies are reused by other living beings. We focus on the work we did and the love we gave, and emphasize that we live on in the ways we affected those we live behind.

Unitarianism grew out of the protestant tradition, which has historically set aside many Catholic practices, including the catholic tradition of veneration of the dead. I had always dismissed out of hand the idea that our prayers could have some impact on the souls of our beloved dead, or that they could have some impact on the lives of the living.

(I had not yet learned that the Universalist side of our tradition had a different relationship with our beloved dead, and that there was a connection between 19th century Universalists and the Spiritualist tradition. )

Veneration of the ancestors is practiced today in large parts of the world: in Asia, in Africa, in Latin American countries, and in the Roman Catholic tradition. I realized maybe this is one of those things I had put in the category of “not my tradition” without any analysis or attempt to understand. Because it was not from my culture, I was able dismiss it as “superstitious” without any real consideration. But I remembered that this is a trick of the colonizers; we dismiss local and often ancient religious traditions as “superstition” to elevate our White European Protestant culture as correct, or civilized. And then we create taboos around the practices of other cultures, so that we don’t look too closely at them, lest we be considered superstitions or uncivilized. It’s one aspect of white supremacy culture, and I recalled our UU commitment to dismantle white supremacy culture.

I noticed that one of the pervasive practices of colonialism is to disconnect us from our roots. One of the most brutal examples of this is the cultural genocide of the Native Americans, but the requirement that people assimilate to mainstream American culture is more pervasive than that. Whether your ancestors were Irish, or Italian, or Chinese or Jewish or German, immigrants were encouraged to stop speaking their native tongue, stop worshiping in the old ways, stop celebrating the holidays of their homeland, and blend in. And many people do assimilate to survive, to find a place in our American society. Not only is this a tragic loss of culture, but it occurred to me that it has created a kind of rootlessness. We begin to believe we belong more to this moment than to our heritage, more to Instagram than to the family tree. And that if we belong only to this moment, then what brings us joy and profit in this moment is the highest good. We become a disposable culture. We lose the capacity to imagine 7 generations into the past, and so to imagine 7 generations into the future.

Is there some wisdom about remembering and honoring our ancestors that we have lost? A wisdom that could be like medicine to us in this disconnected time? As Lockley writes “During Sangoma rituals, I have always noted a sense of grace and humility overcome people who pray to their ancestors with an open heart. As we remember our fathers and mothers, we seem to remember our own place in the circle of life, resulting in a profound sense of belonging and openness” [p. 66]

Lockley notes that one of the main obstacles for Westerners in approaching their ancestors is that every family tree holds a history of abuse or dysfunction somewhere in its branching roots. We also struggle with our history of colonialism, systemic oppression. Certainly John Lockley was very conscious of his white ancestors’ role in the oppression of the people of South Africa. He writes “Violence creates a deep ancestral scar, and I believe it is the job of the living to reconcile the past. We can’t undo what happened, but we can create a space to witness it quietly and respect our dead. Hopefully we can then prevent mindless atrocities form happening in the future.”

When we honor our blood ancestors, Lockley encourages us not to pick and choose, not to decide who is worthy and who is not worthy of honor. He writes:
“Please take note you are honoring and praising your mother, father, and ancestors because they have given you the gift of life. You are not honoring and praising bad behavior. It is important to separate personality from consciousness. By connecting with your ancestors in this way, you are connecting with your blood and bones, your DNA, or the tree of life inside you. Be aware of any emotions or feelings that are triggered. Many people can experience profound grief when praying to their ancestors like this because their ancestors have been forgotten for generations, if not hundreds of generations. You nourish your ancestors when you pray in this way. You also nourish your own spirit, or soul, enabling it to grow and rise like a plant reaching for the light. [194]
So I decided to look at the practice of honoring the ancestors with a beginner’s mind. When we take on a new practice, an unfamiliar practice it’s good to have help. So I have included in this service the wisdom of people who already have an Ancestor practice, Like StarHawk, who comes from the Reclaiming tradition of Wicca, or Lockley who apprenticed for 10 years learning the Sangoma tradition, grateful for the wisdom they offer to us. As Lockly writes “I don’t intend to bring Xhosa or South African shamanic culture to the West as such, but rather to use its essence … to help people connect with their own ancestors and spiritual traditions.” (Lockley has a ritual for personal practice in his book that involves a bath, if that sounds interesting, I encourage you to check it out). The tradition of venerating the ancestors is one that people practice for decades, and we are just dipping our toe in the water. We acknowledge with humility all we don’t know.

With a beginner’s mind we try to enter into the experience without expectation, open to whatever emotions, ideas, memories or experience might emerge. We bring a non-judgmental compassionate awareness to our own process. If resistance emerges, we just notice that. We bring a spirit of curiosity; whatever emerges, get curious about what you notice. Maybe something will arise that we want to take back into our regular practice. Maybe we will want to learn more about a part of our family tree. Maybe it won’t resonate at all, and we can just let it go. Maybe it will help us remember to open our minds the next time we come in contact with cultures and people who honor their ancestors.

So let’s take some time today to honor our ancestors, using the practice outlined by Starhawk.

I invite you to bring to mind one of your ancestors, or someone who has passed in the last year. As Starhawk suggested, you can include your spiritual ancestors if you are adopted or otherwise disconnected from your blood ancestors.

Take a few moments to bring someone to mind, see if you can remember what it felt like to be with them.

Next as you choose I invite you to write a letter to your beloved dead- say thank you to someone you are grateful for, express something that you didn’t get to say when they were alive. If there’s something that feels unfinished, or something that you want to carry further, write it down, and add it to your altar.

When you are done writing your letter, you can either come forward and burn the letter, to release anything you are ready to release, and to send your message out into the spirit lands.

Or you can take the letter home with you, maybe build an altar of your own, Spend some time in the coming days, remembering fond moments, reflecting on what was left unsaid, listening for any wisdom that may be ready to come through.

With our beginners mind, we gather in whatever emotions we feel. We notice whether we have a greater sense of connection or disconnection. We ask ourselves, what would it mean to remember the ancestors in a way that has integrity with our own UU tradition, to your own direct experience, and to our own roots in the months and years ahead?

Friday, October 26, 2018

Tending the Fire

Written in honor of the 10th anniversary of the ministry I share with the UU Congregation of Athens and Sheshequin.

Whose Shoulders?
Everyone stands on someone else’s shoulders. No matter what we do, we are able to do it because someone else did the thing that came before. This church is 210 years old. Not one of us were around when Noah Murray preached his radical message of Universal love, but we all help share that message today. That building in Sheshequin was built all by the hands of members and friends, and not one of us was there to help, but if you’ve ever been over to that building, if you’ve ever worshiped in that space, you’ve shared the gift they gave us. And many of us were there the day when it was put on the national registry of historic places.
Celebrating the Sheshequin Meeting House on the National Historic Registry

None of us were alive when that bell was hung in 1874, but we are among the thousands of people who have heard it ring.

None of us helped build this Athens building in 1850, but some of you were part of the team back in the 1990s to find a place with indoor plumbing and modern heat, and reclaimed this old Universalist building as our church home. Just a few years ago as part of our green sanctuary program, we weatherized the building so that we and those who come after us will be warmer on a cold blustery Sunday morning, and so that we can reduce our carbon footprint which ripples into the coming decades.

And so we begin our celebration in gratitude for all those who came before, all our ancestors on whose shoulders we stand. We call to mind all those who gathered those first Universalists together in this valley, and to all those who have sustained our beloved community this past 210 years.

2015 Coming of Age Retreat
Tending the Fire
The good news of Universalism is that there is a love big enough to hold us all. But people don’t believe you if you just tell them that. You have to show them. In the words often attributed to St. Francis “preach the gospel always, if necessary use words,” [i] Since I first came here 11 years ago as your visiting minister, this community has done just that. There is a kindness, an attitude of cooperation and collaboration, a generosity of spirit here that embodies our Universalist sense of the largeness of God’s love. So I imagine that at the heart of our shared ministry together is love, like a flame, like a bonfire on a fall evening, and our ministry is to stoke and cultivate the spirit of love, tending it, feeding it so that we can be warmed. And to share that fire with all who need its warmth.

Easier said than done. It is hard to be loving in our hectic, divisive world. It’s hard to be loving when we ourselves are hurting. One of the ways we do it is by making time. I remember one of my first meetings as your minister. As the meeting began the chair asked someone “how’s your mother” and she told how it was with her mother. Soon everyone at the table had been asked how was their mother, their father, their children. I glanced nervously at my watch. We talked conversationally about life at church and the work of the committee, as I fidgeted in my seat. After about an hour I looked at the agenda and was relieved to find that actually we had discussed many of the topics listed there. I piped up “I think there’s one important issue we haven’t talked about…” “Oh”, said one member, “I can do that” and our business was concluded. So we returned to our questions about how people in the community were doing, and the meeting ended early. We know that the business of the church is not business, it’s love. Yes, the heat needs to come on in the winter, Yes we strive to have worship every Sunday, but no work of the church is more important than how we care for one another.

Another way we show love is how generous you are with your time. I love that almost every time a meeting ends, someone will ask “do you need any help cleaning up?” or more often, will just begin putting chairs away and washing out mugs. As I putter with my bags, folks will linger by the door until I turn off the lights so I don’t have to walk to my car in the dark alone.

With amazing regularity when someone says “I need help” folks say “what can I do?” We show our love each time we prepare worship, or wash the mugs, or change the signatories on a bank account, or change a light-bulb.

But part of that reality is that sometimes we can’t. Sometimes there is just no one whose back is healthy who can lift a table, and then we find a way to do without.

We model love with boundaries. I remember saying to the Committee on Ministry “my family wonders why I’m working as many evenings now as when I worked full time” and you said “well you should work fewer evenings” and sure enough the first time I said to a committee chair “Can we meet by phone? I can’t come down that night, I’m already coming down 3 times that week” they said “oh, okay. "

We model love by being a fair share congregation, and a fair compensation employer. This is important. You pay me not only a fair wage, but contribute to my 401K, and long term disability, and even a sabbatical. I serve 2 other congregations, and I also work as a consultant for the region, but I can only do all that other work because you pay a living wage and take care of me and my family, as we hope all employers will someday do.

We show our love by the way we reach out to one another when we have had a death in the family, or an illness, or a new baby.

We show our love by the way we welcome newcomers.

And lets face it, we show our love with food. I remember one valentine’s day I came into coffee hour and there was a table so full of handmade pink and red and heart shaped snacks we could barely fit them all. The following Sunday there was a table full of vegetables. And I loved the way so many of our cooks have learned to cook inclusively, learning vegan and gluten free recipes so everyone feels welcome at the table.

But we don’t just to feed each other. When the valley flooded we fed sometimes 200 people a day until the need receded. We fed flood victims this year in Towanda, we fill backpacks for hungry school kids and are signed up to make the November monthly community meal. Through Project Grow we teach people how to grow their own healthy fresh fruits and vegetables.

We also show our love when we witness the struggle and grief of the larger community, and when we advocate for those who need our voice. When we stood out in the cold that Sunday afternoon for the Transgender Day of remembrance, lighting and re-lighting candles as the cold wind blew them out. When we gathered here to mourn the Pulse 49 shooting, we provided an important place for the community to grieve and to share their worries and struggles.

We show love when we stand up to bullies. Whenever we say no to oppression, racism, homophobia, we tend the fire.

Love is not always easy. Right now it feels like our country, our neighbors, or families are locked into irreconcilable conflict, and so each time we sit in a circle and speak our truth with love. Each time we stay at the table when it’s uncomfortable, we say sorry when we make mistakes. Committed to healthy communication and peaceful conflict resolution, we tend the fire.

There are a thousand other ways, small and large, that we show our love to each other and to the larger world. Each time we manifest our love, we are preaching the good news, that there is a love large enough to hold us all. Each time we do, we feed the fire and keep it alive. I hope that it has warmed you as it has warmed me. Let us dedicate our celebration that all who all who needs its warmth and light may find this fire, or one of the thousands of other fires dotting the landscape in a great web, each just a piece of the one love that holds us all.

Our Shoulders
In honor of this anniversary we planted a Dogwood tree out front. It’s just a skinny little thing now, but dogwood trees live about 80 years. We look forward to watching it grow inch by inch, leaf by leaf until only the children now in our Youth Religious Education program are around to enjoy its shade and remember the day it was planted.

Walking together into the next 10 years, the next 210 years of shared ministry requires something like faith. We can’t really know who will stand on our shoulders in the years and decades to come. The world is changing so fast, we can only hope that UUism will be here for the next 7 generations. We hope our beautiful buildings will be used by people who cherish them and care for them like we do.

So we tend the fire. We try to embody love that is big enough to hold all of us in everything we do.

If someone is less lonely because of our ministry together.

If even one of the children who was part of our Religious Education program or coming of age knows love and gives love because of their time with us.

If emerging leaders are empowered and mentored here

If we encourage folks to be more ethical in their daily living

If a handful of people have the courage to speak truth to power, to stand up to bullies without becoming bullies themselves

If someone who is grieving finds comfort here

If hungry spirits are fed here

This will be our legacy.

Blessings for the Ministry Ahead:

When a minister is ordained to this ministry, their colleagues and their congregation lay their hands on them in blessing. So this morning as we recommit ourselves to our shared ministry, let us all bless one another. Please rise in body or spirit and put your hand on the arm our shoulder of someone near you. Or, if you have a cold or for whatever reason are not up to being touched, just stay right where you are and join with us in spirit. Let the warmth of your own light, the warmth of your heart grow until it connects you with all the people here. And let it flow down into the ground, into the earth which gave us life, into the earth which needs our love and care.

Spirit of life, help us to remember that each of us is held by a web of connectedness to every other being.

Spirit of life help us to remember that there is a love large enough for everyone, and let love guide this congregation as we strive together to do the work of love in the world. Because we long to know for ourselves the good news passed down to us from generation to generation all the way back to those first Universalists here in the Valley, we long to know the one love that underlies and under girds all things, the love that holds us and will never let us go.

Amen, Blessed Be, Namaste


[i] In Chapter XVII of his Rule of 1221, Francis told the friars not to preach unless they had received the proper permission to do so. Then he added, "Let all the brothers, however, preach by their deeds."

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Less Than Human?

Less than Human? [i]

The feast of St. Francis is celebrated in the Catholic tradition this week, and we join in blessing our brothers and sisters in the animal kingdom. Last year at this time, we had a service of sharing and blessing, and you told us about your cats, your dogs, about the birds that come to your feeder. The year before that we voted to be one of the sponsoring organizations who presented a motion to the floor of the 2017 general assembly to change our first principle to “the inherent worth and dignity of every being” because we believe that it is not only human life that has worth.

Many of us born and raised in this European-American culture were clearly taught that humans are the most important living being. We are the pinnacle of evolution. But not every culture believes this. Many of the indigenous cultures, the older cultures, believe that each life has value, that each life is worthy of respect, and that our relationship to the divine is no more special than the relationship of the smallest creature. This notion we have of our human superiority, of human exceptionalism is wrapped up a set of ideas called the “great chain of being” which predates Darwin’s theory of evolution by millennia. Within the Great Chain of being, life can be ranked from most important to least important, and we humans come right after God and the Angels in this ranking. Even if you’ve never heard of the great chain of being, people in Western European culture generally assume that this whole biosphere is really all about us, for our use and pleasure. It’s so deep in our cultural assumptions that people will look at you funny if you imply that non-human life has its own inherent worth. Cats have worth because they amuse us and are cute, not because they have some on worth in their own right.

Even among Unitarian Universalists, my own belief about this is pretty radical- I believe that every being, not just humans, and cows and kittens, but trees and moss and even viruses have inherent worth. I certainly don’t understand what good a mosquito is, or that virus that ruined my family’s trip to New York City, but I take it on faith that all life has worth, even if it is ugly, or gross, or chews up my garden, or threatens human lives. I believe this is a logical extension of the UU principle “every person” because aren’t some humans gross, or inconvenient, or sometimes threatening to other humans? That’s why I believe that even those beings we dislike or fear should be treated with at least respect, and given due process. I believe that every life has worth, even though that makes ethics confusing and sticky.

The motion to change our first principle was withdrawn from the floor of our general assembly, not only because we found in the mini-assembly that very few folks had thought about the complexities of this idea, but more importantly because the 2017 GA was dedicate to Racial Justice, and the group of mostly-white proposers wanted to honor that commitment and de-center ourselves in the proceedings.

The following year we passed a Congregational Study Action Issue (CSAI) about multi-species justice that said:
Life on earth is under threat, fueled by humankind's false sense of separation from nature. How can we create a biosphere sustainable for all beings while taking into account the inherent worth, value and well-being of every living individual and the profound interdependence of all life? Addressing the intersection of injustices, we improve life for all.

Affirming respect for the interdependent web of all existence, we deepen our faith by taking up for the first time the call to multispecies justice. We draw on our anti-racism, animal welfare, animal rights, environment, economic justice, and environmental justice work, analysis of intersectional oppression, Transcendentalism, and earth centered spiritualties.
But when all the congregations had submitted all the CSAIs, there were only 2 issues- Multi species justice and Intersectional White Supremacy. We hated the idea of these two ideas which are so dear to us as a congregation being in competition, And so we asked the CSW to open a dialog between the congregations to see if we could find common ground.

What I learned was a great shock to me; there is an old, old wound that cries out for healing that leads to severed connections between the animal rights movement and the racial justice movement. That great chain of being has historically ranked the human races as well. For example,
“the French naturalist Julien-Joseph Virey, placed Europeans, Africans, and apes in a series and casually connected the dots…” Virey’s 1944 theory “ran from amoebas, through other species and other races, to Europeans: saying that “The leading characters, in short, of the various races of mankind, are simply representations of particular stages in the development of the highest or Caucasian type.”[ii]
This reasoning, that not only humans, but specifically white humans were at the top of the great chain, was a justification of slavery, and other forms of oppression.

That is why it is so disturbing to hear in 2018, the president of the United States say about immigrants to our nation “These aren't people. These are animals.”[iii] Not only because it is intended as an insult, but because it is being used in support of oppressive policies. Policies that are hurting people right now, and have the power to shape lives for years to come. [iv]

When we make comparisons between people of color and animals it happens in a context of centuries of dehumanizing oppression. If you compared me (I identify as white) to a fungus, or a chicken or a tree, it would not even occur to me that you meant it as an insult. I often use the language of “humans and non-human animals”, to remind myself that, in fact, we are totally animals, I am totally an animal. But knowing the history, and the current political climate, listen with sensitive ears if I construct the phrase “people of color and non-human animals” and you kind of want to wash out your mouth with soap, right?[v] Add to that the history [vi] of the environmental and animal rights movements which have historically been dominated by white folks. We don’t have to look too deeply into that history find abundant examples of straightforward and more subtle racism. So when we talk about combining multi-species justice and racial justice issues, our words are judged and measured within that history.

When our elected leaders refer to certain groups of people as animals, it is a hurtful insult, because of this entrenched belief that animals lives are less valuable than human lives. But it’s more than insulting, it has a direct effect on how we treat one another, what policies we create and how we enforce them. Emile Bruneau, a neuroscientist and director of the Peace and Conflict Neuroscience Lab, asked a diverse group of participants to rank groups of people on the “Ascent of Man” diagram. Americans of all races ranked Muslims were 10-15% less human! [vii] And “people who rated Muslims lowest on that scale, they were more likely to say they [were]… for the torture of terror suspects”. Humans are open to treating people more harshly, more violently if we perceive them as “less human” than us. So when the president says that "These aren't people. These are animals."[viii] It’s not just an insulting and hurtful thing to say, it is being used to justify violating basic human rights and to help make those policies palatable and widespread.

Folks who are working for multi-species justice, like myself, often argue that since the same reasoning, the same Great Chain of Being mindset that allows us to be cruel to animals, or to cut down old growth forests is the same mindset that allows people of different races to be oppressed, then if we work to change the mindset, all species, including humans will benefit. But during the discussion leading up to the vote for our new CSAI, it was mentioned multiple times that white activists have a history of broadening the race conversation to include other oppressions, and then using that as an out to avoid working on issues of racial justice; giving us permission to go back to working on something more comfortable for us, like LGBT issues, like women’s rights, like animal rights. I think what I am hearing is that when we say “all species matter” what some folks of color are hearing is “all lives matter.” Which sounds like, “we are not going to put any attention or resources to the specific and urgent concerns of black people.”

On floor of GA one critique of the multi-species justice CSAI was that the group forming it (the group that includes us, this congregation) did not reach out to people of color and accountability groups like BLUU or DRUUMM. Actually, we did. We reached out and folks said, among other things, that “instead of being invited to a table that has already been set, we want to help set the table”. Part of dismantling white supremacy culture is to support people of color who are setting their own agenda, and then as allies or co-agitators we put support behind the agenda being created by the stake holders. What we were hearing is that the priority on the agenda of the accountability groups in the UUA is undoing white supremacy culture in the UU world and beyond. Our UU movement made a promise in the 1960s to UUs of color that was never kept. I believe it’s time to keep that promise. There are many times that white liberals have depended on the activism of black allies, and then when the time came to support the causes dear to our black kinfolk, we were suddenly busy elsewhere. Part of fusion politics is that when your co-conspirators say “now is the time” you show up. That is why this congregation is part of the Promise and the Practice campaign. And this is why our congregation did not sponsor a final Multi-species justice CSAI.

Here’s the catch 22. Multi-species justice rarely gets the attention it urgently needs. Animal rights activists have so often been told that our priorities are out of whack- that it’s wrong to speak for the animals, for the trees. To some it seems kind of frivolous when compared to the prison industrial complex, to massive poverty, to war and the corruption of democracy. Couldn’t we come back later when some of these more urgent problems have been addressed? I myself have often been silent because I have been judged and put down for my deeply held beliefs.

But right now, according to the Center for Biological diversity “Scientists estimate we're now losing species at 1,000 to 10,000 times the background rate, with literally dozens going extinct every day.” [ix] This problem can’t wait. And after months of research and discussion, specifically about the intersection of multi-species justice and racial justice, the UU Congregation of the Low Country and UU Animal Ministry felt called to continue. And so Carla Golden, a committed vegan activist, and Rev. Laura Kim Joyner (who spoke to us here at UUCAS about the People and the Parrots of Latin America) bravely stood up before the whole GA and spoke on behalf of multi-species justice, knowing that everything I just mentioned would be there in the room.

The General Assembly could vote for only one action, and by an overwhelming majority, voted for our new CSAI “Undoing Intersectional White Supremacy” This was an important moment in our movement.

But it left those of us who had spent so many hours, or years and decades, trying to bring the issue of multi-species justice before the UU world, not sure what to do next, without betraying the lives of the non-human beings for whom we advocate. We have talked often about intersectional justice, and now we have come to an intersection that is not an easy place to be.

Perhaps what happens next comes down to faith. If we really believe that these issues are deeply interwoven, if we really believe that working to end oppression for one helps move the line on oppression for all, if we really believe that re-visioning the great chain of being as a web of life of which we are all a part helps everyone in that web, then it follows that anti-racism work is a crucial piece of the animal rights movement, is a crucial piece of the environmental movement. Can we have faith that de-centering whiteness might have powerful ripples that begin with affirming and promoting the inherent worth and dignity of the black members of our human family? The worth and dignity of immigrant families ripped apart at the border? Could we have faith that any act to dismantle oppression will ripple out into the web of all beings ? That healing racial oppression could heal some old, old wound in the web of life?

In this spirit I urge us all to come together in support of the brand new Study Action Issue that your General Assembly passed last June “Undoing Intersectional White Supremacy” which will guide us for the next 4 years which challenges us:
“Racism is fundamental to U.S. social systems. White supremacy culture operates economically, institutionally, politically, and culturally, shaping everyone’s chances to live healthy, fulfilling lives. It is also the nation’s most toxic export, shaping policies and practices that do profound harm to the Earth and all living things.”
At the same time, as we are called to work for the rights of non-human beings, whether stray dogs and cats, or the animals we eat, or the diversity of species facing extinction, or the old growth forests being cut down, or our warming planet let us notice and work to transform white supremacy culture as we encounter it in that work . I pray that this painful place at the intersection of these injustices can be healed, and I want to participate in the healing of that wound, guided by those most impacted by it. Where are you being called? Wherever the spirit is leading us in this moment, may we include in our work the intention of healing this tender intersection in the web of life.

End Notes

[i] I didn’t realize until Tuesday that I plagiarized this title from a book of the same name, by David Livingstone Smith a professor of philosophy at the University of New England.

[ii] “Great Chain of Being,” Encyclopedia of Race and Racism, COPYRIGHT 2008 Thomson Gale

[iii] https://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=623662992

[iv] https://theintercept.com/2018/06/26/immigration-detention-center-abuse-ice/?utm_source=The+Intercept+Newsletter&utm_campaign=02273a27f4-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2018_06_30&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_e00a5122d3-02273a27f4-131509433

[v] Why do some words and phrases and actions that don't hurt me hurt other's so deeply? To learn more check out this video. These are words or actions that when taken by themselves, and directed at people of privilege, are small things, but when used in the context of a particular oppression, are like hitting and old bruise. For example, I am a cis-gender woman. If you called me “him” I might not even notice. But if you used the wrong pronoun for someone who is gender-queer, it has the power to touch an old achy wound, or a new still open wound. If my mechanic called me sweetie, I would immediately be on high alert and wonder if he would treat me fairly as a woman customer.

[vi] <http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2014/07/white-black-environmentalism-racism/>

[vii] https://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=623662992

[viii] https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2018/05/16/trump-immigrants-animals-mexico-democrats-sanctuary-cities/617252002/

[ix] https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/programs/biodiversity/elements_of_biodiversity/extinction_crisis/