Soul Advocacy

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Spiritual writer and medical doctor, Rachel Naomi Remen,[1] once pointed out that “in [our] culture the soul … too often goes homeless.” Her solution to this condition is listening. ‘Listening,” she says, “creates holy silence. When you listen generously to people, they can hear truths in themselves, often for the first time. And in the silence of listening, you can know yourself in everyone. Eventually you may be able to hear, in everyone and beyond everyone, the unseen singing softly to itself and to you.”[2] The remedy to the soul’s homelessness is listening.

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Most of you have heard by now that we finally, and very thankfully, have a report in response to the congregational survey we conducted a year ago. Our Growth Strategy Team is working hard at producing a summary to share with you. There are copies of the full, 323-page report in our office if anyone would like to read it in its entirety. As I was studying the report this summer I noticed a set of comments about social and environmental justice advocacy. We have a strong identity as a congregation that engages in social and environmental justice advocacy: Black Lives Matter, immigrants’ rights, sanctuary, domestic worker rights, environmental racism, renewable energy, climate change. We’ve recently established a partnership with the Verplanck Elementary School in Manchester which may, in time, involve different forms of advocacy in solidarity with the students and their families. We’re currently signing people up to attend the October 28th launch of the Greater Hartford Interfaith Action Alliance. Participation in that organization, in time, will involve advocacy. Not every UUS:E member is involved in these activities, but these activities do shape the identity of the congregation.

The comments I’m referring to were asking, essentially, “is that kind of advocacy the essence of who we are?” “Does that kind of advocacy provide a sufficient or sustainable foundation for the identity of a congregation?” Or more bluntly, “what about our own congregational community? What about our needs right here?” And even more bluntly, “what if I disagree? Is it OK to say that?” I don’t read these comments as assertions that progressive churches should not be acting on their principles in the public sphere. I read these comments as asking, simply and forthrightly, that we not forget the other reasons we gather on Sunday mornings. We gather in worship to hold up and celebrate all that is worthy of our attention, time, energy and commitment.[3] We gather to be in multigenerational community, wherein our children learn from adults, and our adults from children. We gather to be held in our grief and affirmed in our joy. We gather to celebrate our milestones. We gather for our own and our collective spiritual growth and deepening. We gather because in our larger culture the soul too often goes homeless; and here, we hope, the soul finds a home. If we somehow forget these reasons for gathering, if we do not tend well to this soul homelessness, then our social and environmental justice advocacy will be ultimately ineffectual.

One way to describe what we do here on Sunday morning and throughout the week is “soul advocacy.” Our social and environmental justice advocacy beyond the walls of our meeting house must be grounded in, and is thus dependent on, the soul advocacy that happens within the walls of our meeting house.

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Soul advocacy. This term came to me as I was contemplating the survey report this summer. However, I was sure it is not unique to me. I googled it. Sure enough, it’s pretty common. People who use it fall into two categories: new-age-self-help gurus and Christian motivational speakers. In either case, nobody ever explains what the soul actually is. People use the word ‘soul’ all the time, and just assume that the rest of us know what they’re talking about. Yet, if there’s one thing I know about Unitarian Universalists, it’s that the minister can’t use traditional religious terms—especially terms as ambiguous and mushy as ‘soul’—and expect a group of UUs not to wonder what they mean. So I want to spend a little time on what I mean by ‘soul’ right now.

Soul isn’t a clear Biblical concept. Neither the Hebrew nor the Christian scriptures offer a well-developed conception of the soul. In the western world, soul is a classical Greek idea, the  Platonic idea of an indestructible, immortal entity that is part of us, though it seeks liberation from the physical body. It seeks to return to the source, the One, or God. It wasn’t until the European Middle Ages that Christian theologians like Thomas Aquinas successfully synchronized the ancient Greek ideas with Christian thought. Even then, and certainly today, Christianity has never spoken with one voice on what the soul is. Catholics and Protestants have differed. Liberal and Conservative Christians have differed.[4] Aquinas lived at almost exactly the same time as the Sufi poet and mystic, Jal?l ad-D?n Muhammad R?m?, who is well-known for his beautiful meditations on the soul. My sense is that, similar to Christianity, there have been ongoing discussions of the soul in Islamic philosophy over the centuries as well. And there are similar, longstanding dialogues within Eastern religious traditions.

These have largely been dialogues among theologians and scholars. What has filtered down into popular western culture is an understanding of the soul as an entity that resides within us, has something to do with who we are—our personality—and lives on in some way after our physical bodies die. Popular culture is filled with references to this understanding of soul. Some of you may be familiar with the Netflix show “The Good Place,” a thoughtful, hilarious meditation on the afterlife and how one’s soul enters the good place, or not. I’m also thinking of the Saturday morning cartoon trope in which a character predictably dies in some spectacular way, and then a whispy, ethereal version of them leaves the crumpled, physical body and floats upwards, sometimes all the way to Heaven where it encounters a version of St. Peter at the pearly gates. Sometimes the direction is downward to a much less benign fate. (For those of a certain age I’m thinking of the misfortunes of Wile E. Coyote, but I see it in today’s cartoons as well.) (I’m also thinking of the Demi Moore, Patrick Swayze movie Ghost.) That whispy, ethereal version of the character is the cartoon representation of the soul.

This is, indeed, a popular culture conception of what the soul is and what happens to it after death. And certainly there are religious people who believe that the goal of the religious life—and the goal of soul advocacy—is to ensure that whispy ethereal version of us achieves eternal life in Heaven.

But that isn’t at all what I mean by the soul. It isn’t what Rachel Naomi Remen and other modern spiritual writers mean. It isn’t what the new-age-self-help gurus mean. And it isn’t what many Christian, Jewish and Muslim theologians and philosophers mean. For me it’s important to bring the soul down to earth, to ground it, to advocate not for its other-worldly, eternal status, but rather for its health, well-being and visibility in this life.

In a sermon I preached about five years ago, I said “Imagine we’re having a conversation and you’re telling me about something for which you have great passion, something that makes you come alive, something so important to you that you can’t let it go; you’re going to pursue it, you’re going to wrap your life around it. When I see your eyes light up at the prospect of your life so dedicated; when I hear the enthusiasm and the strength in your voice when you speak about it; when I perceive it living very naturally in your body; when I sense the energy you gain from contemplating what your life could be—that glow, that excitement, that conviction, that power—that’s your soul. It’s not a thing. It’s a quality in us. It shines through when we’re being authentic, telling the truth, pursuing our passions. It’s never complacent or static…. It is restless. And if we open ourselves to it, it will push, prod, call us further along, higher up, deeper into…. fulfillment, satisfaction, wholeness.[5] The soul is that part of you that is most uniquely you and without which you would not be you.

When Dr. Remen says “in our culture the soul … too often goes homeless,” I hear her saying that this quality in us, this best self, this true self, this passionate self, this source of our creativity and our desire for wholeness—that’s what goes homeless. That’s what too easily gets shut down, overlooked, cut-off, silenced, ignored, or forgotten through the course of a normally busy, a lonely, isolated day, or a technology-saturated day. That’s what becomes an afterthought in the midst of pain and suffering, in the midst of anxiety, stress and fear, in the midst anticipated crisis or actual crisis. And that’s the soul we advocate for here, when we gather in this place.

How do we do that? Soul advocacy begins with listening. Dr. Remen says  “the most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention. And especially if it’s given from the heart. When people are talking, there’s no need to do anything but receive them. Just take them in. Listen to what they’re saying. Care about it…. A loving silence often has far more power to heal and to connect than the most well-intentioned words.”[6] Of course, the word ‘advocacy’ often assumes taking an action, marshalling resources, speaking truth to power, fighting for rights, fighting for justice. There’s an underlying assertiveness to it, and underlying aggressiveness. Soul advocacy is different. ‘Passive’ isn’t quite the right word, but it may look like passivity, because the one doing soul advocacy is quiet, open, attentive, listening. The one doing soul advocacy creates space, and offers into that space a welcoming, inviting, curious attitude. “You speak (or draw, dance, sing, cry). The soul advocate holds what you communicate with care and tenderness.”

Soul advocacy is as simple as that. Listening, focusing, caring, being present, staying with. Our willingness to listen invites the speaker’s soul to come forward from wherever it is hiding. Our willingness to listen creates space for the speaker’s soul to surface, to emerge, to reveal itself not only to us but to the speaker as well. “When you listen generously to people,” says Dr. Remen, “they can hear truths in themselves, often for the first time.” Our willingness to listen not only to the usual pleasantries, the small talk, the weather, but also to the desires, the yearnings, the longings, the passions, as well as the struggles, the challenges, the pain and the painstaking movement through it—that is soul advocacy. Where do we really get to proclaim this part of our selves, let alone openly wrestle with it? Where do people deeply listen to us? Hopefully our families and close friends create such spaces for us, though this is not the case for everyone. Does your soul get to come out at work? Maybe, if it’s a very special work place. School? Maybe. If it’s a very special school. I’m sure there are places many of you can name where your soul does not feel hidden or homeless. But certainly religious community ought to be one of those places where soul advocacy happens regularly.

We share joys and concerns publicly as part of our Sunday morning worship. It’s an opportunity for people to speak from their depths. The rest of us listen. That’s soul advocacy.

Most of our committee meetings begin with some form of check-in. This, too, is an opportunity to speak from the depths for those who choose to do so. The rest of us listen. That’s soul advocacy.

In our small group ministries, our spiritual affinity groups, our religious education classes, during pastoral visits, memorial services, and when we welcome new members into the congregation—there are opportunities to speak from our depths. The rest of us listen. That’s  soul advocacy. When the listening creates a space for the speaker to begin to shine, to glow, to sing; when it creates a space for the speaker to confidently share from a place of vulnerability or pain; when it creates a space for the soul to come home, then our soul advocacy is successfull.

Is it always successful? Do we always get it right? No. We don’t. I know there are times when I’ve left a meeting and realized later that someone offered a sharing of great depth to which I wasn’t fully attentive. We don’t always listen well. We don’t always listen skillfully. We don’t always succeed in our soul advocacy. I suspect that is, at least to some degree, the reason why some survey respondents raised concerns about social and environmental justice advocacy. If a person is living with soul homelessness, it makes sense that they would raise questions about where our collective focus is, where our attention is. So I’m reminding us: our act of listening to each isn’t just good manners. It’s spiritual practice. It’s soul advocacy.

Listening, if we’re doing it well, is an inherently relational act. The listener gains as much value as the one they listen to. I love the way Dr. Remen puts it: “In the silence of listening, you can know yourself in everyone. Eventually you may be able to hear, in everyone and beyond everyone, the unseen singing softly to itself and to you.” That is the kind of spiritual foundation soul advocacy creates in a congregation. My prayer for us as we enter more fully now into the congregational year is that through our connections to each other, through our listening, through our soul advocacy, we may encounter that singing.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] For information on what Dr. Remen is up to currently, see her website: http://www.rachelremen.com/about/.

[2] Remen, Rachel Naomi, Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories that Heal (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996) p. 220.

[3] Arnason, Wayne, and Rolenz, Kathleen, Worship that Works: Theory and Practice for Unitarian Universalists (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2008).

[4] This brief synopsis is drawn from Harvey, Van A., A Handbook of Theological Terms (New York: Touchstone, 1997) pp. 226-227.

[5] Pawelek, Josh, “For What the Soul Hungers,” a sermon preached to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT, April 14, 2014. See: http://revjoshpawelek.org/for-what-the-soul-hungers/.

[6] Remen, Kitchen Table Wisdom, pp. 143-144.

Adventures in Spiritual Plumb-Bobbing

Rev. Josh Pawelek

“If only for once it were still”—words from the late 19th-early 20th-century Bohemian-Austrian poet, Rainer Maria Rilke.[1] I suspect every society in every age has had and will have its high pace, its franticness, its urgency, anxieties and stresses, its underlying sense of crisis. And in response I suspect every society in every age has had and will have its poets, its artists, its spiritual leaders who cry out some form of the words, “If only for once it were still.” If only for once I—we—could be at peace, at rest, quiet, tranquil, safe, unguarded, serene. “If only for once it were still.”

We here in this congregation are well-rehearsed at witnessing, naming and feeling the anxieties, stresses and underlying crises of our own time. Certainly we witness, name and feel various manifestations of the climate crisis. We witness, name and feel various manifestations of economic crisis in our communities, our nation and the world. We witness, name and feel our nation’s political crisis—a deepening divide between liberal and conservative world-views, red vs. blue, coasts vs. heartland, rural vs. urban. We witness, name and feel the gun violence crisis, the opioid crisis, the resurgence of white nationalism. We pay attention to and attempt to address these crises. They have real and sometimes crushing impacts on our lives or the lives of people we love, on our community life, on our common national life. Our Unitarian Universalist principles call us to witness, name, feel and respond to these crises. Respect for human worth; justice, equity and compassion in human relations; faith democratic processes; the goal of world community; respect for the interdependent web of all existence—our principles demand that we pay attention and respond to the crises of our times. What is our role? What can we do? There’s an intensity to this liberal faith in this frantic age. And in the midst of it, the poet’s cry is ours as well: “If only for once it were still.”

Rilke lived in what surely felt like an age of rapid technological growth. He was born in 1875, before the invention of the electric lightbulb, the modern automobile and airplanes. All of these things were in mass production by the time of his death in 1926. Still, he didn’t have television or computers. He didn’t have cable, the internet, social media, or smart phones. I’m naming these technologies because as amazing and powerful as they are, they also clearly heighten the franticness of our age. They heighten the anxiety. They heighten the feeling of crisis by bringing it ever closer to us, by enabling us to dive into the news cycle at any time, by making the world accessible to us and us accessible to the world virtually anywhere, any time of day if we don’t turn our devices off. And when we do dive in, the messages, images, advertisements and headlines arrive with dizzying speed which often, ironically, obscures the crises we want to understand. “If only for once it were still.”

I find cable news shows to be a signature example of how technology brings crisis and anxiety closer while simultaneously obscuring them by making it more difficult to focus on what really matters. Picture in your mind’s eye how a typical cable news show looks. There’s usually a headline at the top of the screen, along with a fancy, eye-catching graphic, photo or video. Then there’s a talking head or a panel of experts in the middle of the screen, along with various ads in boxes to the right or left; local weather in another box, the date and time in yet another, sports scores and stock prices in other boxes, and the constant flow of more headlines and information running across the bottom of the screen, completely unrelated to what the talking heads are talking about. Where are you supposed to look? There are 10 or 12 options on the screen. And if your ears are listening to the talking heads, but your eyes are reading the headline roll, what is the quality of the information you are receiving? It’s as if the screen is inviting us to multitask as we watch. Yet, everything I’ve ever read about multitasking suggests it is a myth—not a real human capacity. Our conscious minds can only really focus our attention well on one thing at a time.[2] “If only for once it were still.”

I was ordained to the Unitarian Universalist ministry in 1999, just around the time the cable news industry was taking off, about six months after the founding of Google, but well before the advent of social media and smart phones. I remember much that was spoken and sung at my ordination, but the Rev. Thomas Mikelson, one of my mentors in ministry, offered a simple piece of wisdom I shall never forget. He said “Go deep rather than wide. Wide is easy and tempting, but deep is where saving ministry lies.”

What I experience in this moment, twenty years later, is that we live in a larger culture that daily pulls us relentlessly widthwise, even as our souls hunger for depth. We live in a larger culture filled with seemingly endless, heart-breaking stories about harm done to people, to the environment, to institutions, to neighborliness, to civility, even to the truth—all of it vying for our attention, drawing our focus in myriad directions at once. We live in a larger culture whose front page, unfortunately, resides on screens with tens if not hundreds of options to click on, each click leading to tens if not hundreds of new options, our attention and focus drawn relentlessly widthwise, but rarely, if ever, deep. “If only for once it were still.”

I’d been talking to Mary Bopp about this widthwise pull as we prepared for this morning’s service. She suggested a piece of music entitled “Plumb,” p-l-u-m-b, as in ‘plumbing the depths.’ I immediately thought of the plumb line and the piece of metal at the end of the plumb line, the plumb bob. The plumb line is one of humanity’s most ancient construction tools. If I understand correctly, the builder suspends the plumb line. Gravity pulls the bob toward the center of the earth so that the line is perfectly vertical. [Pause] (You’ve got to wait until the bob comes to rest. For once it is still.) The builder uses the plumb line’s verticality to assess the verticality of the wall they are building. The plumb line is a vertical reference point for the builder.

This feels like a fruitful metaphor for talking about our spiritual lives. In the midst of a culture that pulls us relentlessly widthwise, makes multiple, simultaneous demands on our attention, what is our plumb line? What points straight down to our center, our core? What is our truth? In the midst of the pulling, the franticness, the anxiety, the crises, can we drop our line, pause until the bob stills, and, as we sang, return to the home of our soul, to who we are, to what we are, to where we are;[3] and from there know more clearly how to focus our energy?

It’s a powerful spiritual metaphor, though it carries certain risks. Plumb lines are mentioned in the Bible. One of the more famous references appears in the book of Isaiah: “Thus says the Lord God, / See, I am laying in Zion a foundation stone,/ a tested stone, / a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation: / ‘One who trusts will not panic.’ / And I will make justice the line, / and righteousness the plummet;/ hail will sweep away the refuge of lies, / and waters will overwhelm the shelter [of falsehood].”[4] Using the plumb line as a spiritual metaphor Isaiah is calling out the Israelites who have strayed from God’s justice and righteousness and threatening divine retribution.

We read earlier form the book of Amos, another well-known passage: “The Lord was standing by a wall that had been built true to plumb, with a plumb line in his hand. And the Lord asked me, ‘What do you see, Amos?’ ‘A plumb line,’ I replied. Then the Lord said, ‘Look, I am setting a plumb line among my people Israel; I will spare them no longer.'”[5] Amos is also calling out the Israelites, reminding them that God has spared them so far, but now God has set a line and those who don’t measure up will not be spared. Essentially God is using the divine plumb line to determine who gets punished.

That’s not what I had in mind.

My concern always with these sorts of scriptural passages is not that they somehow mar the majesty, beauty and complexity of ancient Israel, but that they might be used today to divide people from each other; that the so-called righteous might use their plumb line to identify and cast out the so-called unrighteous; that so-called believers might use their plumb line to identify and cast out non-believers; that those who understand themselves as morally upright, upstanding, straight—like a plumb line—might use it to persecute those who don’t measure up. We could be talking about how religious institutions and people have historically persecuted gay and lesbian people, gender non-conforming people, people with physical or mental disabilities, poor people, Native Americans, pagans, folk healers, witches, interfaith couples, divorced people, unwed mothers, and more because they didn’t or don’t measure up. It makes sense to me that in times of crisis, in times of high anxiety some people (including us) can and/or will gravitate toward a very strict spiritual plumb line. It gives structure, meaning and purpose to their lives, which is a good thing, but the shadow side is that it can also become a tool of division, of persecution. If that’s the case, I think it’s better if the walls lean a bit. It’s better if things are a little off, in fact it’s much better that way.

Of course there is another use for the plumb line and bob: plumbing the depths or what sailors might call depth sounding. Quoting from an article on the historical website Vintage News, “The most primitive tool for depth sounding was called a sounding line, or lead line: a thin rope of a certain length, with a lead plummet on its end. The lead lines were swung or cast by the “leadsman” …. At bigger depths, sailors used to tie marks made of leather, calico, serge or some other material. Those marks were placed at certain intervals and shaped and attached so that they could be easily read during day or night. Marks were placed at every second or third fathom…. After dropping the lead, the leadsman called out the depths. If a particular depth was exactly at a mark, [they] would say: “by the mark,” and then say the number. If the depth was somewhere between two numbers, [they] would say: “by the deep” and then say an estimated number of fathoms.”[6]

So far I don’t see any risks using depth sounding as a spiritual metaphor, except that sometimes the water is deep and dark. We don’t always know what we’ll find when the bob settles on the bottom. Is our line long enough for the bob to reach the bottom? But in the midst of a culture that pulls us relentlessly widthwise, it’s really important to practice plumbing the depths. Hence, “Adventures in Spiritual Plumb Bobbing.”

We heard earlier a meditation from the Rev. David O. Rankin, “Singing in the Night.”[7] His practice for spiritual plumb bobbing is prayer. He says “I love to pray, to go deep down into the silence: / To strip myself of all pride, selfishness, and coldness of heart.” Perhaps that’s his first mark. “To peel off thought after thought, passion after passion.” By the mark, 2 fathoms. “To remember how short a time ago I was nothing, and in how short a time again I will not be here.” By the mark, 5 fathoms. “To dwell on all joys, all ecstasies, all tender relations that give my life zest and meaning.” By the mark, 7 fathoms. “To peek through a mystic window and look upon the fabric of life—how still it breathes, how solemn its march, how profound its perspective.” By the deep, about 10 fathoms. “And to think how little I know, how very little, except the calm, calm of the silence, and the singing, singing in the night.” By the deep.

It’s not enough to know how deep. What do we bring back from the depths? On a website called “Historical Naval Fiction,” I learned that if a sailor wasn’t familiar with the ocean floor where they were sailing, they could fill a hollow indentation on the bottom of the bob “with tallow or another sticky substance so that a sample of the bottom could then be brought up…. The nature of the bottom might be mud, sand, shingle or shell … or if nothing attached to the tallow, rock.”[8]

What might we bring back from our depths? What might stick to the tallow on our spiritual plumb bobs? Rilke hoped to bring God back. “If only for once it were still…. / I could possess you, / Even for the brevity of a smile, / To offer you / To all that lives, In gladness.” Perhaps what we bring back is what we need most in the moment. Perhaps the act of being still, centering, peering within, reminds us what is most important: Gratitude. Humility. Truth. Purpose. Principles. Mission. Acceptance.  Hope. Community. Faith. Love. Hopefully what sticks will help us stay focused, attentive and awake in the midst of uncertainty, anxiety and crisis, in the midst of a culture that pulls us relentlessly width-wise.

Our ministry theme for September is expectation. My expectation for the year is that we shall take adventures in spiritual plumb bobbing, that in those aspects of our lives that matter most, we shall not go wide, but rather deep.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Rilke, Rainer Maria in Barrows, Anita and Macy, Joanna, tr., “Wenn es nur einmal so ganz stille wäre,” Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996) p. 53.

[2] Napier,Nancy K. “The Myth of Multitasking,” Psychology Today, May 12, 2014. See: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/creativity-without-borders/201405/the-myth-multitasking

[3] Carlebach, Shlomo, “Return Again,” Singing the Journey (Boston: UUA, 2005) #1011.

[4] Isaiah 28: 16-17. (New Revised Standard Version)

[5] Amos 7: 7-8. (New International Version)

[6] Docevski, Boban, “Depth sounding techniques that preceded the modern day SONAR technology,” Vintage News, February 23, 2017. See:

https://www.thevintagenews.com/2017/02/23/depth-sounding-techniques-that-preceded-the-modern-day-sonar-technology/

[7] Rankin, David O., in Benard, Mary, ed., “Singing in the Night,” Singing in the Night: Collected Meditations, Vol. 5 (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2004) p. 3.

[8] “Taking Soundings, Historical Naval Fiction. See: https://www.historicnavalfiction.com/general-hnf-info/naval-facts/taking-soundings.

Connetic Word Tag Sale at UUS:E

Connecticut’s Slam Poetry Team, Connetic Word, is running a tag sale in the UUS:E parking lot this coming Saturday, September 7th from 9:30 to 3:00 to help raise funds to cover the cost of their recent trip to the Brave New Voices competition in Las Vegas. Come out and support this very talented group of YOUNG PEOPLE!!!

 

Yes, And….

Rev. Josh Pawelek

This summer my wife, Stephany, and I enrolled in an improv class at Sea Tea Improv in Hartford. Although I’ve always enjoyed improv. the idea of taking a class had never occurred to me. It was Stephany’s idea—something we could do together, something that would push us, at least a little, out of our comfort zones. Personal growth.

When we registered for the class I felt confident—I got this; I like meeting new people; I’m comfortable speaking in front of strangers; I’m comfortable speaking extemporaneously. But as the day of the first session approached, I grew more and more nervous—maybe I don’t got this; maybe I have no idea what this is really about. And worse: Isn’t improv for people with that rapid-fire-think-on-your-feet sense of humor which I don’t have? Even worse: What if I’m not a genuinely funny person?

At the first session in June, it became clear to me very quickly that I don’t got this. I have some skills in extemporaneous speaking. I get asked to speak or pray or center a group on the spur of the moment all the time. But in those instances I typically have at least a few minutes to contemplate what I will say. Improv isn’t like that. Nobody says, “you have 5 minutes to prepare a skit about a strange visit to the doctor’s office, or a complicated family gathering, or an awkward dinner conversation. In improv there’s no preparation. Preparation defeats the purpose. You come out on stage with your partner or team, and the host invites the audience to offer prompts. The prompts are typically a relationship (parent-child, spouses, friends, co-workers, an undertaker and a corpse, etc), or a location (a city street, a dessert island, a park bench, backstage at Woodstock, etc.), or an event (NASCAR, a picnic, an auction, a baseball game, an exorcism, etc.). That’s all you get. And from there you improvise. No thinking, no discussing, no planning head of time. Just go. Well, I rarely, if ever, operate like that. That first class? I did not have it.

Although there’s no preparation in improv, there are basic rules to follow. You and your partner or team are creating a scene, which may be absolutely ridiculous—sometimes the more ridiculous the better—but the audience has to be able to follow it. That’s what the rules are for. We learned the acronym CROW. C is for “character.” As the scene begins, give yourself and your scene partners names or identities. If my scene partner says to me, “Hi Mordecai,” then I am Mordecai. R is for “relationship.” Establish how your characters are connected to each other. If I respond, “Hey Dad,” then the audience knows Mordecai is talking to his father. O is for “objective.” Establish what you are trying to do. I might say, “Hey Dad, I see you aren’t wearing any socks.” And Dad might say, “The cat took my socks, have you seen the cat?” Now the audience knows we’re looking for Dad’s socks, and to find the socks we need to find the cat. W is for “where.” Establish where the scene is taking place. I might say, “Dad, we’re in a pet store. There are at least 50 cats here.” Now the audience knows where we are.

There’s an improv principle underlying all of this, known as “yes, and.” “Yes, and” means that whatever your scene partner gives you—as a name, a relationship, an objective, a location—you accept it s a gift. You say yes, and build the scene from there. So if my scene partner calls me Mordecai, I don’t say, “That’s not my name. I’m Bob.” I am Mordecai. And if I call my scene partner Dad, they’re Dad. They might have been thinking something else. They might have been thinking I’m his spouse, or I’m his next-door neighbor, or his daughter, or his psychic. But I’ve said Dad, so my partner says “yes” to being Dad, and we build the scene from there.If I say, “you aren’t wearing any socks,” they don’t respond, “No, I am wearing socks, look they’re navy blue.” They say, “yes, I’m not wearing any socks, and the cat took them?” If my scene partner says, “the cat took my socks down to the basement.” I don’t say, “basement? That’s not where this scene should take place. Don’t you think it would be more funny if we were in a pet store, or a zoo, or even a pet cemetery?” I respond, “Yes, the basement. The cat must be doing the laundry again.” Or something like that. The point is, in improve the rule is to affirm your partner’s idea and build from there. “Yes, and.” Receive your partner’s ideas as gifts you can use to develop the scene. Don’t contradict their idea. Make them look good.

I struggled with this principle. It made sense. It sounded easy enough. But whenever I’d stand up to do a scene, my partner would name my character, and my gut reaction would be, that can’t be my name. Or my partner would give me a location—a bar—and an objective—we’re drinking and trying to pick up women; and all I could think was no, absolutely not; I don’t want to be in this bar, plus my real-life wife is watching. That actually happened at the first class; my scene partner was really, really good. But I failed at “yes, and.” I kept reminding my scene partner that I was the designated driver and very shy anyways.

Over the eight sessions of the class I discovered that once I had an idea for a scene in my mind, if my scene partner went in a different direction, I had a very hard time letting go of my idea. I might say “yes” to my partner’s CROW, but then I would try to work back to the scene I wanted to do. That was more of a “yes, and let’s do something different,” or “yes, but,” the “but” essentially contradicting what my partner had offered. Not a real “yes.” A very disingenuous “yes.” A passive-aggressive “yes.” Contradicting your partner does not make them look good.

“Yes, and” is improv’s golden rule. It doesn’t always work in real life. Sometimes we have to say “no” to an idea. Sometimes we have to say “no” for safety’s sake. Sometimes we have to disagree. Sometimes we have to assert ourselves despite whatever our partners have offered. Sometimes we have to speak our true name. Sometimes, “Yes, but” is the necessary response. “Yes, and” does not always apply. And yet “yes, and” also strikes me as an important principle for living a meaningful spiritual life.

As a reminder, I define spirituality as the practice or the experience of connecting with a reality larger than oneself. That reality could be physical and this-worldly—connecting with community, with nature, with land, with the earth. It could be metaphysical—connecting with god, goddess, spirit, divinity, the sacred. Whatever that reality larger than yourself is, to connect with it, we first have to say “yes” to it. “Yes, I want community.” “Yes, I want a connection to the land.” “Yes, I want to know the Goddess.” “Yes, I want to discern and honor what is sacred.” At the heart of that “yes” is vulnerability, risk. Saying yes to connection often requires a leap of faith. Why? Because genuine connection changes us. Genuine connection expands us, moves us, grows us. It doesn’t always allow us to hold onto our idea of how events are going to unfold, or even our idea of what is important. It won’t always honor the lines we’ve been rehearsing. It changes the scene we thought we were in.

When I couldn’t let go of my pre-conceived idea for an improv scene, the scene wouldn’t go well. As I learned to let go and receive my partner’s offerings as gifts, it worked. Yes, and.

So often it’s the same with our spiritual lives. Yes, and … we may change. Yes, and … we may grow. Yes, and … we may have to re-examine our priorities. To make way for the “and,” we have to let go, soften our hard edges, relax our impulse to be in control. To make way for the “and,” we need to distrust our own certainty. To make way for the “and, we have to let our ego recede, let our attachments wane. That experience can be exhilarating. It can be ecstatic. It can be powerful. And it can be frightening, unnerving and disorienting, precisely because saying “yes, and” makes us vulnerable. The “yes, and” of connecting with realities larger than ourselves may lead us in directions we hadn’t anticipated—new life choices, new relationships, even new faith. It may give us a new name, a new identity, a new sense of self.

It may not last. We may go back to the safety of our old ideas, old habits, our well-worn paths, the dictates of our ego—that’s a “yes, but.” Tt may be necessary, but that’s not growth. In our spiritual lives, “yes, and” leads to growth. With “yes, and” we receive whatever gifts the larger reality offers—challenge, direction, conviction, purpose, peace, serenity, oneness, love—we receive them “and” build from there.

****

This will sound like I’m changing the subject, but really I’m not. Most of you will remember last fall our Growth Strategy Team asked you to take a survey about your experience of our congregation. We were attempting to identify reasons why people become members and maintain their membership, and why people choose not to become members; or why people become members but don’t maintain their membership. It took a lot longer to analyze and interpret all the data than we expected, but a report has been written. It’s long: 327 pages. I really like it, though before I say any more about it, some thank yous are in order. First I want to thank the members of our Growth Strategy Team who worked on the survey and, week after week, urged all of you to take it, despite its length: Michelle Spadaccini chairs that team. Thank you Michelle. Joining her are Carol Marion, Edie Lacey, Nancy Pappas, Louisa Graver and Jennifer Klee. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Joel Devonshire, Rhiannon Smith and Josh Tryon worked on the survey as consultants in various capacities. Thank you. And most importantly, the person who designed the survey, interpreted the data and wrote the report, is Jessica Offir. Jessica is excellent at what she does. She spent months and months of her life producing it. I’m blown away by her commitment to this project. Jessica: Thank you!

There’s a lot to say about the report, including that there are some concerns about the data. I won’t explain the concerns now except to say there is a preface to the report that offers an explanation. The Growth Strategy Team is working on a summary of the report. We will also print out a number of hard copies that you can sign out of the office, and we’ll communicate when those are ready.

For now, I want to share that one of the messages I take from reading the report is “yes, and.” Like many congregations, perhaps like every congregation, we fall into routines over time. We do things as a community a certain way. We do things, more or less, the way we’ve always done them. And the more we as a congregation get used to conducting our life together in certain ways, the harder it becomes to embrace new ideas. This is especially important for how we as a congregation relate to our newest members, because most people who are new to a congregation, though they may really like it as it is, may also wonder why we do certain things certain ways. They may have suggestions for doing things differently. The report suggests that we don’t do as good a job as we think we do in figuring out what those new ideas are. Even some people who’ve been here a long time report that their new ideas, their proposed innovations, their out-of-the-box thoughts aren’t always heard. We don’t say “yes, and” enough. We need to say it more. It is essential if we want to tap into the wealth of new ideas that’s sitting right here.

“Yes, but that’s how we’ve always done it,” is not the right answer for congregational growth. “Yes, but we tried that before and it didn’t work,” is not the right answer for congregational growth. “Yes, but people probably aren’t interested in that,” is not the right answer for congregational growth. “Yes, and,” is the answer. Idea for something new on Sunday morning? “Yes, and!” Ideas for new programs? “Yes, and!” Ideas for new sources of revenue? “Yes, and!” Ideas for new ways of doing outreach? “Yes, and!” Ideas for new community partners? “Yes, and!” Ideas for new approaches to Unitarian Universalist theology? “Yes, and!” New ideas about how to talk about gender identity? “Yes, and!” New ideas for multigenerational community? “Yes, and!” New ideas for music? “Yes, and!” New idea for how to be church? “Yes, and!”

Lauren read to you earlier Rev. Theresa Soto’s mediation, “Finding Our Dreams.” Soto writes, “Be brave enough / to name your dream. Nurture it. And / allow the rhythm of your breath / to bring your dreams to life.”[1] I want all of us to experience this congregation as a place where we can name our dreams. Yet there’s more to it than individuals naming and nurturing their dreams. They are offering gifts. As a covenanted spiritual community, we must be brave enough to listen, even if we had a different idea in mind, even if we thought we were in a different scene. And once we’ve heard new dreams expressed, may the rhythm of our collective breath bring those dreams to life.

That’s how we grow in our spiritual lives. That’s how we grow as a congregation.

Amen.

Blessed be.

Yes, and.

[1] Soto, Theresa I, “Finding Our Dreams,” Spilling the Light: Meditations on Hope and Resilience (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2019) p. 7.

O, the Beauty of the World!

Rev. Josh Pawelek and David Garnes

Josh:

A few Sundays ago we were playing “Improvs with Mary,” the game where people shout out words or phrases and Mary plays them on the piano. One of the kids asked Mary to play “Rev. Josh’s sermons.” [To Mary] Care to repeat what you played? [Mary plays briefly.] As I heard it that Sunday, Mary launched into a grim, morose, bring-out-your-dead dirge. You all laughed. I laughed too. To be fair, she concluded with a few bright, melodic flourishes, a hint of daylight resolving the dissonance of the storm. Later, Mary said “it wasn’t grim, it was just very serious. And it was the perfect opportunity to tease the minister.” That she was teasing hadn’t occurred to me. I laughed because I thought she nailed it. I thought, “yep, that’s me.”

My preaching isn’t all grim and serious. But when you come to worship on Sunday morning, especially when I am preaching, no matter how hopeful the message, no matter how good the news, no matter how alright I might suggest things are going to turn out—I strive not to ignore the suffering, hatred and violence that infuse and infect so much of the world; and I strive to remember that it doesn’t automatically stop at the boundaries of this building. We aren’t somehow separate or immune from it all.

In my June newsletter column I said I struggle with this month’s theme of beauty precisely because there is so much ugliness in the world—centuries of oppression based on race and gender and class; a national economy fundamentally addicted to militarism and fossil fuels; fear of and violence toward anyone who doesn’t fit into the gender binary; homophobia, transphobia, sexual violence, gun violence; inequity after inequity built into the very structures of society so that many of us benefit without realizing it.  Climate change. I struggle because a central pillar of my call to ministry is naming and confronting all of it with whatever power is available to me and to us, hopefully, with a big dose of humility. Our Unitarian Universalist principles call me to name and confront all the ugliness in the world and our complicity with it, as inadvertent as it may be. I don’t feel comfortable remaining silent in the face of any of it. We cannot live as if it isn’t there. Denial isn’t a spiritually sound way to live. Hence, Mary’s improv. 

****

Our congregation is celebrating its 50th anniversary year, and thus it seemed important on this particular weekend to remember the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall riots, a major milestone at the beginning of the gay rights movement. UUS:E member David Garnes was there. I’ve invited David to share his experience. Certainly one thing his words convey is the ugliness of homophobia in New York City in the 1960s.

 

David:

In the summer of 1969, I’d been a New Yorker for six years. I was living in a brownstone on the Upper West Side, on a quiet, tree-shaded block near Riverside Park and the Hudson. Through a happy coincidence, the eight small apartments were occupied mostly by a number of friends like me—young, single and gay. We were a mix of ethnicities—White, Black, Hispanic, and Asian.

On the hot and humid evening of Friday, June 27, Javier, a grad student  from Argentina who lived on the top floor, arrived home from Greenwich Village with big news. “There’s a  commotion down at the Stonewall,” he told us. “Lots of police and people throwing stuff, and they’ve got the street blocked off.”

We all knew the Stonewall, a bar on Christopher Street in the West Village, crummier than most, and run, like most gay bars, by the Mafia (with, apparently, some collusion from New York City’s Finest). The Stonewall attracted all types of patrons. Watered-down drinks were one dollar (relatively expensive in those days), and the bathrooms tended to flood regularly. It was not an elegant place, but its seediness did not stop us from going back, again and again.

That night, we contemplated heading down to the Village to join the crowd. But the hour was late, and, besides, it didn’t sound like much more than a somewhat stronger reaction than usual to one of the police raids that occurred regularly at the Stonewall and elsewhere.

I’d been in bars that were raided many times. The usual scenario consisted of a short warning (lights flashing, someone shouting, “It’s a raid!”), and the next thing you knew you were being herded, like slow-moving cattle, out onto Christopher Street. Sometimes you had to pass through a gauntlet of cops, a few looking fierce, others impassive, one or two embarrassed.

Occasionally, but not often, some patrons were marched into waiting paddy wagons, taken to the local precinct station, and then released. That particularly ignominy never happened to me. Mostly we dispersed into the street and headed off to another bar, or we waited for an hour or so and then returned to the scene of the crime after whatever arrangements had been made between management and the police. It was a game, somewhat humiliating, especially in retrospect, but one not without a certain sense of wacky adventurousness. You just went along with it; it was part of the deal.

   This raid, however, proved to be different. Sometime the next day—Saturday, June 28, another hot one—a friend who lived near the bar phoned and told me that the demonstration had, in fact, lasted through the night and was picking up steam. “Come on down!” he urged. So a few of us decided to take the IRT local subway down to the west Village and Sheridan Square, a block away from the Stonewall.

As soon as we emerged onto Christopher and 7th Avenue, we found ourselves in the midst of a dense and noisy mob. Surprisingly, the street in front of the Stonewall was not blocked off to pedestrians or traffic, but it was impossible to do more than mill around the periphery. The bar seemed to be closed, and the windows were boarded up. Directly across the street, members of the New York Tactical Patrol Force (TPF) stood in formation, wearing helmets with visors and carrying batons and shields.

I watched as demonstrators scrawled slogans like “SUPPORT GAY POWER” and “LEGALIZE GAY BARS” on the boarded-up window of the bar. Any cars that attempted to enter Christopher Street were rocked and jumped on by the crowds of mostly young men. I saw the top of a parked police cruiser crushed by a concrete block dropped from an upper window.

Chaotic activity seemed to come in waves. From the tiny park adjacent to the square, onlookers hurled bottles, bricks, and other objects, some striking observers as well as the police. Trashcans were set on fire. Many men in the crowd were holding hands and kissing, something I’d never seen happen before on this scale in a public place.

Many participants in the previous night’s events had shown up, a few of them conspicuous by their bandages and wounds. I remember one Puerto Rican kid, arm in a white sling and face completely swollen, bruised, and scabbed.

“What did you do last night?” I asked him.

“Not a freakin’ thing. They just clubbed us. My friend’s got a broken shoulder, and I heard some guy’s in a coma over at Roosevelt.” 

 

****

Josh:

I struggle because I also know we cannot live in denial of the beauty of the world. That isn’t spiritually sound either. There has to be room for beauty, too. In my June column I asked you to tell me what you experience as beautiful. I said this isn’t an idle exercise. Naming and reveling in the beauty of the world has the power to carry us through difficult times. Naming and reveling in the beauty of the world has the power to generate joy in the midst of despair. Naming and reveling in the beauty of the world has the power to inspire us when we are lost and directionless. Naming and reveling in the beauty of the world has the power to knit us back together when we are broken and torn.

Those of you who responded to my request find beauty in all facets of the natural world, in nature seen, heard, smelled, felt, tasted. You find it in family, friends, pets, random acts of kindness, solar panels, fireworks, and human creativity—music, quilting, children’s hand-made cards.

I remind us there is beauty in the midst of hardship and suffering too: the beauty of the human spirit, human integrity, human resilience, human persistence. There is beauty in the bonds people form as they struggle together to change unjust laws and institutional structures. There is beauty in the way communities come together, grieve, heal, and rebuild in the wake of natural disasters or acts of terror. Last Tuesday we welcomed the state champion youth poets, Connetic Word, for a performance. These young poets have a gift for turning their hard life-experiences—their stories of abuse, racism, homophobia and transphobia—their loneliness and pain—into powerful artistic expressions. Even as their poems use hard language, hard words, hard images to describe the ugliness they’ve experienced, the energy, heart, soul and spirit they put into their craft is beautiful.

There is beauty in people waking up to the ugliness in the world and saying ‘we’ve had enough;’ saying ‘no more;’ saying ‘it’s time to fight back;’ saying ‘it’s time to rise up;’ ‘time for change;’ ‘time to build beloved community;’ time to welcome everyone,’ and really mean everyone;’ time to say ‘I want my life to be different!;’ time to say ‘I commit my life to some cause greater than myself that will serve others and the earth.’

There must be room for beauty too. Let us train our hearts and souls to find it even in the most difficult moments.

****

David:

As I left Sheridan Square that night, I bought the Sunday Times, expensive at 50 cents but always eagerly awaited on Saturdays around 10 pm at subway newsstands throughout the city. On the ride uptown I looked for mention of the riot from the night before. Deep within the paper there was a short article with the headline “4 POLICEMEN HURT IN ‘VILLAGE’ RAID…MELEE NEAR SHERIDAN SQUARE FOLLOWS ACTION AT BAR.”

The report was brief, with no reference to previous raids, arrests, and nothing from the point of view of the protesters. That kind of minimal coverage would continue in the Times for the next several days, though the tabloid Daily News played it up with photos and longer pieces, as did the Village Voice.

As we arrived back at Sheridan Square on Sunday afternoon, I was surprised at the activity still going on. Amazingly, the bar had reopened for business, and a steady stream of customers wandered in and out. But the police were there in full force, including several on horseback. I saw another damaged cruiser, this one with its front windshield shattered. A parking meter lay overturned in the street, and I later learned that it had actually been used on the first night to batter the entrance door of the bar.

I stood awhile, observing, perhaps too chicken to go in the bar, and then left. We later found out the Tactical Police Force eventually cleared the immediate area. I also heard that poet Allen Ginsberg visited the bar in the evening, encouraging the patrons inside. In a later interview he described them as “…beautiful…they’ve lost that wounded look everyone had ten years ago.” Sporadic gatherings occurred over the next few days, but the demonstration was essentially over.

Did I realize that I’d been present at a seminal moment in American sociopolitical history? Perhaps not that weekend, though Stonewall was certainly the most dramatic example I’d personally witnessed in terms of a minority group taking a stand. I’m not sure it was the single event of Stonewall itself those few days, but rather its snowball effect over the following months that signaled the changes that were to come.

After Stonewall, I began to join in gay demonstrations around the city. I clearly remember marching on Fifth Avenue in those early days. Basically, we were a small group of people—men and women—simply walking in the street rather than on the sidewalk. There were no floats, no costumes, perhaps a few signs and banners. I was always very aware of the tourists gawking at us from the sidewalk, and I was never comfortable during those early peaceful protests. But I kept on marching.

Perhaps taking to the street occasionally wasn’t such a big gesture on my part, but it probably wouldn’t have happened at all had it not been for the brave protesters and demonstrators at Stonewall. Occurring in the midst of other social upheaval that pivotal year half a century ago, this small uprising is now rightfully seen as the turning point in the gay civil rights movement.

We’d all had enough.

****

Josh:

I know why I struggle. I worry that naming and reveling in the beauty of the world is a trap, a privilege, an elite myth that obscures the ugliness, the injustices, the suffering, especially the suffering humans perpetuate on one another. And indeed, many people pursue beauty as a form of escape, a form of denial. Mary and I were talking about this and she asked. “how can we have a genuine experience of beauty that doesn’t require us to keep our heads in the sand?” For me, that’s a fundamental question. We agreed—and I hope and trust you do too—there’s a difference between escaping into something beautiful that numbs us to the pain of the world vs. encountering something beautiful that enlightens us, increases consciousness, wakes us up to that pain; wakes us up to the harder, deeper truths of the world. And our task as liberal religious people is to pursue the beauty that wakes us up.

In that pursuit, the chords may sound serious, ominous, foreboding, grim. But beauty resides in the hard truths too. Listen for it: a few bright, melodic flourishes at the end, a hint of daylight resolving the dissonance of the storm. And once you’ve heard it, may it sustain you. May it move you to re-engage with life, inspired, grounded, healed, committed.

Amen and blessed be.

 

 

Connetic Word

Connetic Word Live at UUS:E

Tuesday, June 25th, 7:00 PM

153 West Vernon St., Manchester

 

This group of youth artists is absolutely incredible. We are so proud of them for earning a spot to compete at Brave New Voices 2019. Please, come out to UUS:E on 6/25, show your support for youth voices and safe artistic spaces!  Enjoy an awesome night of poetry. 

Free will offering: Help Connetic Word travel to Brave New Voices this summer in Las Vegas!

Centering as Spiritual Practice, continued….

In March many Unitarian Universalist transgender and non-binary people were angry and hurt after the Unitarian Universalist Association’s UU World magazine published an article entitled “After L, G and B.”[1] The article was written by a cisgender woman about her struggles to understand and love transgender people in her family and within our faith. (For anyone unfamiliar with the term cisgender, it refers to people whose gender identity matches their biological sex.) Many cis UUs—and some trans UUs—wondered why the article generated so much negative reaction. After all, don’t we expect our denominational magazine to feature stories that challenge our understanding of gender? Given that most UUs are cisgender people; doesn’t it make sense for a cisgender person to write an article about her struggle to learn about, accept and love transgender people? Doesn’t that help the cause?

It doesn’t—not at this point in our history. This sermon is about why.

In late March, two Muslim UUs, one an ordained minister, the other a seminarian, published an open letter entitled “About Us Without Us: A Call to Our Unitarian Universalist Siblings from Muslim Unitarian Universalists.”[2] The letter expresses anger and pain at the way UUs relate both to Muslim UUs and to Muslims in general. They contend that “Unitarian Universalists have been culturally misappropriating and exotifying Islamic traditions in many ways for many years.” They ask: “Are Muslim UUs really welcome in UU spaces? Or is it simply our pain and our poetry” that are welcomed? Upon reading this letter, some of us might wonder, “with all the Islamophobia in the wider culture, with all the attacks on Muslims, mosque burnings, threatening phone calls, FBI surveillance and the President’s Muslim ban, why criticize us? We connect with and support Muslims in the wider community. We support Muslim immigrants and refugees. This congregation is hosting a very public forum on Islam in America next Sunday. Aren’t we doing a good job?

Not good enough. This sermon is about why.

Both of these stories come amidst a backdrop of calls throughout our denomination to confront our own White Supremacy culture. Although this call has been with us in a variety of forms for decades, we began encountering this specific call to recognize, confront and transform our own White Supremacy culture in the late winter of 2017, after revelations of racist hiring patterns at our denominational headquarters.[3] People understandably ask, does this challenge really apply to us? Afterall, as a denomination, we’ve made a very public commitment to the Black Lives Matter movement, to immigrants, to sanctuary for those facing deportation, to indigenous peoples’ struggles over water rights. We’ve repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery. In an era when avowed racists are organizing across the country and online, how is ours a culture of White Supremacy? How is that even possible? Well, it is—even at this point in our history. This sermon is about why.

A common thread unites these stories. People on Unitarian Universalism’s institutional margins are demanding a genuine place at the institutional center. Further, people on the margins are demanding the power to redesign the center so that it serves their interests as well as it serves the interests of those of us for whom it was originally designed.

This sermon continues a sermon I preached last September entitled “Centering the Other as Spiritual Practice.” Except I’m editing the title. I read to you earlier from Theresa I. Soto’s meditation entitled “dear trans*, non-binary, genderqueer and gender-expansive friends and kin: (and those of us whose gender is survival).” Soto says “no one can rename you Other, it can’t stick, as you offer the gift of being and saying who you are.”[4] No one can rename you Other—but that’s exactly what the title of my September sermon did. “Centering the Other as Spiritual Practice.” Soto inspires me to reflect on how I use the word ‘other’ when I address these issues. I don’t really want to use it anymore, mainly because so many of those historical others aren’t other at all. They’re right here, members of our congregations: trans people, indigenous people, people of color, queer people, people with disabilities. As gender-queer UU religious professional and consultant, CB Beal wrote in March, “We’re right … here.”[5]  Imagine a congregation where we notice and celebrate the differences, but no difference or set of differences makes a person “other.” As Soto says, “it can’t stick.”

Here’s what I said last September:

In the life and culture of any institution, including congregations, there is a center and there are margins. The center is where power is exercised, priorities determined, decisions made, money spent, resources allocated, values articulated, sermons preached, hymns sung, joys and sorrows shared, coffee served, gifts given. The center specifies norms for appropriate behavior and emotional expression; norms for which topics are speakable, and which are taboo; norms for belonging—who is in and who doesn’t really fit. Sometimes these norms are clearly articulated. Sometimes they are assumed, taken for granted, unexamined.

The margins are those places where people experiences themselves as out-of- sync with the center or, worse, excluded. For example, oftentimes as people age, as their mobility, hearing and vision decline, they may begin to feel marginalized from the physical life of the congregation….  If the center is White, People of Color may experience themselves as marginal. If the center speaks English, people who speak limited or no English may experience themselves as marginal…. [if mental illness is unspeakable,] people with mental illness may feel marginal. [If sexual violence is unspeakable,] survivors of sexual violence may feel marginal. Often we have some identities that occupy the center; and others that occupy the margins. We are rarely only one or the other.

The existence of a center and margins is natural and unavoidable in any institution…. However, here, our Unitarian Universalist principles call us to pay attention to what our center and margins are—to be institutionally self-aware. Who are we including? Who are we excluding? But then further, because we envision a highly inclusive community, a multigenerational, multicultural and multiracial community, a spiritually pluralistic community … our center must be in constant dialogue with our margins…. We must be willing to center that which is marginal.[6]

One could argue that in publishing a feature article about how to understand, welcome and love transgender people, UU World was centering transgender people. Transgender UU leaders emphatically said “No!” They said no because the article contained certain factual errors and unexamined assumptions, for example, the assumption that it’s OK to ask trans people about certain body parts when, for anyone else, such questions would be an invasion of privacy. They said no because the article failed to fully name the violence to which so many trans people are now exposed given the Trump Administration’s determined attacks on transgender rights; and it failed to name at all the ways in which trans people continue to experience marginalization within our faith.

But perhaps most significantly, they said no because a cisgender woman wrote the article. UU World centered her story, not the stories of transgender people. CB Beal wrote: “When we speak of inclusion but we mean that white people will write about the lives of black people, that cisgender people will write about the lives of transgender people, that heterosexual people will write about the lives of queer people, that able-bodied people will write about the lives and experiences of people who are disabled by our society, we are doing the opposite of inclusion. It is this which causes me the most harm.”[7]

Furthermore, UU World’s editor had given an early draft of the article to a leader in the UU transgender community, Alex Kapitan, and asked for feedback. Alex said, ‘don’t publish this article,’ and provided alternative suggestions. The editor chose to ignore Alex’s feedback, even though he’d asked for it. That’s not centering. That’s marginalizing. (Read Alex Kapitan’s full statement). Alex Kapitan was offering a way to reshape the center. The center said no. That’s why people were angry and hurt.[8]

Institutional centers don’t want to, don’t like to, and don’t need to change. They are inherently conservative, predisposed to continue doing things “the way we’ve always done them.” Even when they say they want change, they have many tools at their disposal—some conscious, some unconscious—to help them not change. They can go on receiving open letters about anger, hurt, disappointment in perpetuity, and if they don’t really want to change, they won’t. But our Unitarian Universalist institutional centers have been saying for a generation that change is necessary—that our ongoing relevance and even our survival as a liberal religion depend on it. Our institutional centers have been promising change, and some real seeds have been planted in fertile soil. Now, with increasing frequency, visibility and courage, people on our margins are calling for the fulfillment of those promises. The uproar over the UU World article was one such call. The letter from UU Muslims was another. The demand from People of Color organizations to confront our White Supremacy culture is yet another. Such calls are becoming more and more central to our collective spiritual lives.

Change isn’t just coming. It’s here. And this has implications for any of us with identities that reside comfortably at the center of our UU institutional life: white people, straight people, cisgender people, able-bodied people, middle-class people. What do we do? In the wake of the UU World article, the Transforming Hearts Collective—a group of four trans and queer faith leaders that supports congregations in becoming radically welcoming spiritual homes for queer and trans people of all races, classes, abilities, sexualities, and ages—published a list of behaviors that will help transform the center of our institutional life in relation to transgender people. They said: Believe trans people; listen more than you talk; be willing to remain in discomfort; have hard conversations, with love; value relationships over perfectionism; don’t expect every trans person to want to educate you, but honor those who do; stay in your heart rather than your head; don’t ask a trans person anything you wouldn’t ask a cis person; comfort those who are hurting and build awareness with other cis people; uplift trans voices.[9]

I urge you not to encounter these suggestions simply as “things to do.” I say this because all too often, when those of us who occupy the center learn there’s a problem, or that someone’s been offended or hurt in some way, our impulse is to do something to get past the pain and anger as quickly as possible, to fix the problem, to make it go away—so we can return to the status quo. That’s not what this list is for. This list is not for doing so much as it is for being. It’s not a ‘to do’ list, it’s a ‘to be’ list.

Similarly, in her book White Fragility, Robin Diangelo offers a list of behaviors for White people to engage in when confronted with their own racism. Her list includes: Don’t just dismiss feedback. Don’t get angry. Don’t make excuses. Believe. Listen. Apologize. Reflect. Process. Engage.[10] Again, it’s not a ‘to do’ list. It’s a ‘to be’ list. It describes a way of being that is open, receptive, spacious, ego-less. This is how people on the margins need people in the center to be in order for them to come fully into the center and begin their work of redesign.  

A note on apology. Mindful that people at the institutional center, people with privileged identities will inevitably make mistakes as we undergo these changes, apology is an essential skill. The UU World editor, Chris Walton, offered a powerful apology. He wrote: “I am profoundly saddened and deeply sorry to have caused pain to people who matter to me and whose dignity and worth I had thought we were promoting with the piece. As the magazine’s editor, I was wrong to decide to publish this essay and I apologize for the pain it has caused.”[11]

Centering is immensely difficult work. But I believe we are close to or at a tipping point. I suppose there are many who might disagree with me, but I see our various centers (congregational, regional, and national) learning not to dismiss the margins. I see reflection happening, apologies happening, structures evolving, new practices are emerging, and accountability shifting. Yes, this transformation is painfully slow, but I see us tipping.

Theresa Soto promises “we will find the people ready to be / on the freedom for the people way.”[12] I really want Soto to find those people at the center of our UU congregations. I believe we—and by ‘we’ I really do mean all of us—are the people ready to be on the freedom for the people way. I pray that we may be those people. I challenge: let’s be those people! I encourage: we can be those people. And I eagerly anticipate the day when we can say with confidence: we are those people.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] French, Kimberly, “After L, G and B,” UU World, March 1, 2019. See: https://www.uuworld.org/articles/after-l-g-b?fbclid=IwAR3qQ-2rO9yhMpcx_O_LloGxwZGGZ5qsuXCrnEkK9pYP4w9PB7hqJ6VQh8Y.

[2] Hammamy, Ranwa and Saeed, Sana, “About Us Without Us: A Call to Our Unitarian Universalist Siblings from Muslim Unitarian Universalists,” unpublished open letter, late March, 2019. See: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1J9ccz9cmg2mmLu9hbVQqOYkYcoyUxL7YfmvpnqPIeNw/edit?fbclid=IwAR1zkpRxCzSzjE8GM4R4SKK0dCxmvcbR4AJBmdN2l5MHf5cKhVu6f1-Kwxk.

[3] Pawelek, Josh, “White Supremacy Teach-In,” a sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, May 7, 2017. See: http://uuse.org/white-supremacy-teach-in/#.XQQjx4hKhPY.

[4] Soto, Theresa I, “dear trans*, non-binary, genderqueer and gender-expansive friends and kin: (and those of us whose gender is survival)” Spilling the Light: Meditations on Hope and Resilience (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2019) pp. 12-13.

[5]Beal, CB, “Centering the Marginalized: symphony and triptych,” Medium.com, March 6, 2019. See:  https://medium.com/@jpc_cb/centering-the-marginalized-symphony-and-triptych-9dabc93cd461.

[6] Pawelek, Josh, “Centering the Other as Spiritual Practice,” a sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, September 30, 2018. See: http://uuse.org/centering-the-margins-as-spiritual-practice/#.XQQotohKhPY.

[7] Beal, CB, “Centering the Marginalized: symphony and triptych,” Medium.com, March 6, 2019. See:  https://medium.com/@jpc_cb/centering-the-marginalized-symphony-and-triptych-9dabc93cd461.

[8] Read Alex Kapitan’s full statement at Kapitan, Alex, “What It Takes to De-Center Privilege: The Failure of this Week’s UU World Article,” Roots Grow the Tree: A Dailogue, March 6, 2019. See: https://rootsgrowthetree.com/2019/03/06/what-it-takes-to-de-center-privilege/.

[9] “Tips for Talking About the UU World Article,” Transforming Hearts Collective, March 8, 2019. See: https://www.transformingheartscollective.org/stories/2019/3/8/tips-for-talking-about-the-uu-world-article?fbclid=IwAR3a3AgGXiiwn7OerWOXV3645Pe5Qh4ZeiaHQQEXqAfwFNy8i5Xzl8g1n8s.

[10] Diangelo, Robin, White Fracility: Why It’s so Hard for White People to Talk about Racism (Boston: Beacon Press, 2018) p. 141.

[11] Walton, Chris, “Our Story Hurt People,” UU World, March 6, 2019. See: https://www.uuworld.org/articles/apology-spring-2019.

[12] Soto, Theresa I, “dear trans…” Spilling the Light, pp. 12-13.

Memorial Garden Rededication

We Dedicate This Garden

(Rev. Josh Pawelek)

One: As a place to hold the ashes of our deceased loved-ones, our liberal religious siblings, our spiritual ancestors—a place for their spirits to rest…

All: We dedicate this garden.

One: As a place to remind us of our highest values, our Unitarian Universalist principles,

our deepest commitments and our most enduring loves…

All: We dedicate this garden.

One: As a place for silence, for quiet contemplation, for meditation, and for prayer…

All: We dedicate this garden.

One: As a place for communion with Nature, communion with the birds, the deer, the turkeys, the coyotes, the turtles, the trees, the shrubs, the grasses…

All: We dedicate this garden…

One: As a place to experience oneness, to apprehend “the peace of wild things,” the

peace that resides at the heart of creation…

All: We dedicate this garden.

One: As a place to receive our ashes when it is our time to die, a place for our spirits to rest, to sing, to dance, in the midst of all the living things that grace this land with their presence…

All: We dedicate this garden.

One: Amen and blessed be.

Civil Disobedience Training

UUS:E will host a civil disobedience training, conducted by Moral Monday CT, on Sunday evening, May 19th, from 6:00 to 8:30 PM.

This training will prepare participants for the DUE Justice Coalition’s event at the CT Legislative Office Building on May 20th.

 

Working Towards a Public Option for Health Care

UUS:E’s Rev. Josh Pawelek and Social Justice / Anti-Oppression Committee member Al Benford participated in a meeting on 5/13 at the Governor’s Office in a quiet attempt to build support for a health care public option in CT.  Read the article at CT News Junkie.