Rev. Josh Pawelek
In a May 28th blog-post entitled “Branding Hurts a Little; Ask Any Cow,” the Rev. Tom Schade says, “a brand is a mark made upon you, which identifies you, whose you are.” The post was the third in a loose series on Unitarian Universalist identity. He was wrestling with that perennial question all faith traditions ask at times, “Who are we?” Well, actually, he wasn’t wrestling with that question per se. He was wrestling with how we Unitarian Universalists wrestle with that question. He was writing in light of the recent, mildly controversial unveiling of the new Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) logo. He was also anticipating “a flurry of harsh and negative commentary”in response toan article that was about to be published in Boston Magazine entitled “Selling God.” The article was about how the UUA hired an advertising team to help it rebrand itself.
When we hear the word branding today, we typically think of the ways companies, celebrities, politicians, governments, non-profits—and religions—present themselves to the world—to their consumers, members, clients, shareholders, citizens, etc. What is our brand? What are the catchy phrases that tell people immediately who we are, what we do, what we sell, what we value? What are the images we want people to associate with us so that when they see them on the internet, at the mall, at the statehouse, they know immediately: that’s Nike, Target, the Republican Party, the Human Rights Campaign, UUS:E? What do we want people to feel when they see our brand? A clearly recognizable brand is essential, especially in these digital days when so many people form opinions about organizations based on online presentation.
A lot of the conversation about branding has to do with aesthetics, appearance, visuals. Much of the dialogue about the UUA logo focused on how it looked, whether or not people liked the look, and what part of the human body the logo most closely resembled. Not being a visually-oriented person, I found this aspect of the conversation tedious. It was refreshing for me when Rev. Schade offered the idea that “branding hurts a little.” His subtitle, “Ask Any Cow,” reminds us of that pre-digital kind of brand burned into the skin of livestock so everyone knows whose they are. Religious branding doesn’t hurt in that way, but hurt—pain may be a better word—has always been a dimension of religious experience.
Although Rev. Schade doesn’t say this, I think it’s what he’s getting at when he says “a brand is a mark made upon you.” (If it isn’t what he’s getting at, please know it is what I’m getting at). When I say “I’m a Unitarian Universalist,” I am claiming a specific tradition, a specific faith, a specific set of principles, a specific identity as my own. I am claiming a specific spiritual community as my own, saying, these are my people, we belong to each other! I am branding myself Unitarian Universalist, not with a logo or a color scheme or a t-shirt, but with a spiritual commitment. I am saying—better yet, proclaiming!—my life is committed to this liberal religious tradition. I am committed to this faith in love, in human beings, in the earth, in relationships. I am committed to the free and responsible search for truth and meaning, to affirming the inherent worth and dignity of every person, to pursuing justice, equity and compassion in human relations, to honoring the outcomes of democratic processes, to fostering global community, to respecting the interdependent web of all existence, to accepting and encouraging the people of my particular congregation—whatever form it may take—and working with them to build and strengthen that congregation for future generations, to minister to its members and friends, and to act in the wider community to achieve its vision of a more just, peaceful and sustainable world. None of this is easy to do, and although sometimes doing it is the source of immense joy, sometimes it hurts.
Sometimes my commitment to my Unitarian Universalist identity brings difficult challenges—challenges to live and act differently; to make changes I don’t necessarily want to make; to break familiar habits that are, in the end, unhealthy; to name truths which are hard to name; to listen to and respect opinions I don’t share; to hear criticisms about myself; to train myself to focus less on mere wants and more on what the moral depths of my Unitarian Universalist faith call me to do. Pain can accompany all of this. Religion can be profoundly uncomfortable. But because I am committed—because there is a mark made upon me which I freely welcome—I embrace it all: the joy, the comfort, the inspiration, the peace and the pain.
Yes, the UUA’s new logo is important as part of a marketing strategy. It is designed to present us in an appealing light to liberal religious seekers, to sell our faith to potential members. That may sound less-than-holy, but I agree with our denominational officials who say we neglect marketing at our peril. Having said that, logos change. Brands change. They are transient. The deeper brand, the more permanent brand—the mark made upon us—is our commitment to our faith and all the ways in which our lives are transformed as we live out that commitment.
I’ve been on vacation and study leave on and off throughout the summer. It’s been a good summer—relaxing, rejuvenating. But I cannot tell you how many times I’ve longed to be here or with my UU colleagues for my own healing in response to world events, to pull my own shocked and awed self back together, to reground myself in my UU commitment, to recognize and find strength in the mark made upon me—to get back to my brand. I don’t think it was just my imagination. I don’t think the headlines are always so relentlessly heart-breaking. By the middle of July, just as I was settling into my vacation, I could not escape the sinking feeling that hell after hell after hell was breaking loose across the planet.
June 10th, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) took the entire world by surprise when it captured the Iraqi city of Mosul, declared the advent of a new extremist caliphate and, with the Iraqi army collapsing, began a rapid, violent march toward Baghdad.
July 8th marked the beginning of the Israel-Hamas war which, (as of Wednesday) had resulted in the deaths of 67 Israelis—64 of whom were soldiers—and 2,036 Palestinians, hundreds of whom were militants though, as most observers agree, many more were civilians, including children. The United Nations estimates the fighting has displaced about 425,000 Palestinians—a third of Gaza’s population.
July 17th, 43 year-old Eric Garner, an African American man, died in an altercation with New York City police who used a prohibited chokehold to subdue him, and then, despite pleas from onlookers, apparently waited seven minutes before calling for medical help. Garner’s death drew widespread media attention and led to a variety of protests and rallies against police brutality, including one in Staten Island yesterday that was expected to draw 15,000 people.
July 17th, Malaysian Airlines flight 17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, carrying 298 people, was shot down over eastern Ukraine—apparently by pro-Russian separatists.
July 20th, members of the anti-abortion group, Operation Save America, disrupted the worship service at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans, threatening hell-fire, quoting scripture, and attempting to show UU children photos of aborted fetuses.
July was filled with images of children as young as 5 and 6 years old, fleeing from Central American drug war violence, crossing into the United States from Mexico. July was also filled with images from Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria as the then seven-month old Ebola virus outbreak began drawing global media attention. The infection and death of health care workers led to hospital closures, the evacuation of foreign aid workers, the collapse of local health care systems, and government and UN officials saying the epidemic is “out of control.”
August 1st, Congress went into recess without passing any legislation to respond to the child immigration crisis.
August 7th, President Obama authorized airstrikes on ISIL targets in Iraq. The bombing began on the 8th and is continuing.
August 9th, a police officer in Ferguson, MO shot and killed an unarmed, Black teenager named Michael Brown, resulting in mass protests, rallies, vigils, rioting, looting, further police violence and solidarity actions all across the country. While this is not a new scenario in the United States, because police and government officials handled the aftermath so poorly; because police attempts to curtail protests and limit press freedoms exposed the widespread phenomenon of the militarization of local police forces, this killing has gripped the nation.
August 19th, ISIL posted the video of the horrific execution of American journalist, James Foley, on YouTube.
August 19th, two St. Louis police officers shot and killed a 25 year-old African American man named Kajieme Powell. August 20th a Hartford police officer tazed a Black teenager named Luis Anglero, Jr. In both these cases police and city officials are handling public relations much better than Ferguson officials did after Michael Brown’s death. Whatever the facts of these cases—we don’t know everything—the numbers of young Black and Hispanic men who have run-ins with police, sometimes deadly, are a staggering, a painful reminder we do not live in a post-racial world. This must change. We UUs are called to work for that change.
Now, I am fully aware none of the devastations in this news litany touches me directly. I’m not exposed to the violence or the virus. I am not being bombed. I don’t live in a community where a young Black or Hispanic man has been shot. I’m not a soldier. I’m not a police officer working under what I can only imagine are very stressful circumstances, making very difficult decisions in an all-too-often tragically fatal instant. I’m an observer, a news-consumer, a concerned, but distant US citizen. None of it scars me in any permanent way. But it does make a mark. Even for one who is removed, paying attention to one sickening story after another, summer day after summer day, creates an unwelcomed emotional and spiritual state, a new baseline of fear, anxiety, anger, helplessness. It creates heaviness, tiredness, alienation, depression, despair, even a low-level trauma, especially in those who view the more violent images, or who are actual trauma survivors whose painful memories are triggered by the news. It makes a mark. It can change us. Fearful people develop fear-based identities. Despairing people develop despair-based identities. If we are not vigilant it can slowly erode our sense of self, our sense of who we are and what matters. It can slowly erode our hopefulness, our faith, our love.
I know I can stop listening to the radio, reading the paper, watching the evening news, surfing the web to find out more about what happened in Ferguson, Donetsk, New Orleans, Erbil, Ghazzah, Tel Aviv, Monrovia, Conakry, Rafah, New York, Mosul, St. Louis, Baghdad, Hartford. But not paying attention is a privilege none of us can afford. We can’t stick our heads in the sand when there is such incredible need in the world. I’m mindful of Rev. Schade’s suggestion that we ask the perennial question differently. “Forget ‘who are we?’What does the world need from us?” He goes on: “It needs us to be there, to be crystal clear about what is going on, to be a way in which ordinary people can be a part of what is the best and the most hopeful, not just once in a while, but on a personal and sustainable basis, whether they are 10, 20, 30, 50 or 90 years old. Even if all they can do is sing along.”
This is why I’ve longed to be here in recent weeks, in this Unitarian Universalist congregation. My brand is here. My commitment is restored and strengthened and called out here. O my soul, O my soul, when I am sinking down friends to me gather round here. The people to whom I belong and who belong to me are here. This is the community, the faith, the religion that puts its mark upon me and captures my heart. As painful as this mark can be at times, it speaks to me of who I am and what I value. This mark forms the basis of my identity, not those other marks of fear, anxiety, despair, violence, trauma. This mark, as Tom Schade says, reminds me “we are here to live, laugh and love and be a part of the realization of humanity’s highest hopes.”
No, Unitarian Universalism will not solve the world’s problems, least of all this congregation. But with this mark upon us, we can go out from this place, every week, wide open to the world’s horrors, ready to engage—to do what we can to be present to suffering, to support healing, to challenge fundamentalist ideologies grounded in hatred and fear, to work in solidarity with those struggling for justice, to provide asylum for those seeking sanctuary, to resist the human compulsion to wage war, to build and sustain community.
Friends: this faith makes a mark upon you. May the world see your mark, know who you are, and put its trust in you.
Amen and blessed be.
 Schade, Tom, “Branding Hurts a Little; Ask Any Cow,” http://www.tomschade.com/2014/05/branding-hurts-little-ask-any-cow.html#more. This piece is the third in a series which also includes (1) “Free Speech, Poison and Masochism” at http://www.tomschade.com/2014/05/free-speech-poison-and-masochism.html and (2) “The #thanklesstask of ‘Re-Branding’” at http://www.tomschade.com/2014/05/the-thanklesstask-of-re-branding.html.
 Schade, Tom, “The #thanklesstask of ‘Re-Branding,’” http://www.tomschade.com/2014/05/the-thanklesstask-of-re-branding.html.
 Giacobbe, Alyssa, “Selling God,” Boston Magazine, June, 2014, http://www.bostonmagazine.com/news/article/2014/05/27/unitarian-universalism-selling-god/.
 Schade, Tom, “Branding Hurts a Little; Ask Any Cow,” http://www.tomschade.com/2014/05/branding-hurts-little-ask-any-cow.html#more.
 Reference to Hart, Connie Campbell, “What Wondrous Love,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: UUA and Beacon Press) #18.
 Schade, Tom, “Branding Hurts a Little; Ask Any Cow,” http://www.tomschade.com/2014/05/branding-hurts-little-ask-any-cow.html#more.