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



[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.

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