Transgender Day of Remembrance * MCC Hartford * Sunday the 20th * 6:00 PM

Rev. Pawelek’s prayer at Hartford’s 2016 observance of Transgender Day of Remembrance

 tdor-1

Precious and loving God,

You whom we know by many names and none,

You who reside in the heart of the so many faiths, the heart of the ancestors, the heart of mystery,

You whose spirit is love, whose will is love, whose intention is love, whose purpose is love, whose essence is love:

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Thank you for this day.

Thank you for this sacred time we share together on this day.

Thank you for holding us in this time of sorrow and grief.

Thank you for grounding and centering us as we name those who’ve lost their lives as a result of murderous anti-transgender hatred and violence.

We ask that you hold these beloved dead, that you cradle them, that you embrace them in their eternal rest. Through us, holy God, cry for those who can no longer cry, laugh for those who can no longer laugh, sing for those who can no longer sing, and speak for those who can no longer speak.

Help us to speak loudly and clearly for them so that their living and their dying will not have been in vain; so that we, together, can build a more loving, more just, more caring community, nation and world.

Thank you for grounding and centering us, as we prepare to go out from this time and this place to speak your love into a world that doesn’t feel safe, that doesn’t appear to care, that isn’t motivated to change.

Thank you for instilling in us courage in the face of fear, hope in the face of despair, love in the face of hatred.

Bless those who’ve been murdered. Bless those who love them. Bless us as we mourn, as we remember, as we sing, as we speak, and as we love.

Amen and blessed be.

Service of Healing, Hope and Commitment

Unitarian Universalist Society: East will offer a
“Service of Healing, Hope and Commitment” 

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Thursday evening, November 10, 7:00 PM

Join us for prayer, meditation, song and fellowship.

This service is an effort to acknowledge and begin healing the pain and fear that many people are feeling after a long,ugly and divisive campaign–and then to recommit to a vision of a fair, just, inclusive, anti-racist, anti-sexist society.

 

A Sufficient Quantity of Faith

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Faith


In an interview with Krista Tippett for the American Public Media show “On Being,” Nadia Bolz-Weber, founding pastor of Denver’s House for All Sinners and Saints, said, “I don’t think faith is given in sufficient quantity to individuals…. I think it’s given in sufficient quantity to communities.”[1] She offers this thought as part of a broader, ongoing, playful yet pointed critique of American Protestantism, which she describes both as “Western individualism run amok in religion” and the “personal me-and-Jesus, how-I-feel, what-my-piety-is, [what]-my-personal-prayer-life-[is]—all of that stuff.”[2] As Unitarian Universalists it is easy to assume this critique doesn’t apply to us because, well, she’s not talking to us; she’s talking to Lutherans, Baptists, Episcopalians, etc. We don’t get all the jokes about high church Christian theology, but that’s OK. Her message isn’t really for us.

Nadia Bolz-Weber

Nadia Bolz-Weber

Except maybe it is. I actually think Bolz-Weber’s critique applies more to us than any other tradition, mainly because something at the heart of mid-19th-century Unitarianism—160, 170 years ago—something in its liberal world-view, its revolutionary spirit—something in its encounter with the artistry and theology of European Romanticism, something in it led many of our 19th-century Unitarian forebears to prioritize the individual spiritual search over and above the authority of the church. Something led the Unitarian-minister-turned-Transcendentalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, in 1841 to pen those enduring words, “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.”[3] Something led Emerson’s poetic descendent, Walt Whitman, in 1871 to contend “that only in the perfect uncontamination and solitariness of individuality may the spirituality of religion come forth at all.”[4] Something led the author and Unitarian minister, John Weiss, also in 1871, to declare that “America is an opportunity to make a Religion out of the sacredness of the individual.”[5]

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson

While there were certainly Unitarians who prioritized the centrality of the church in this era, the emphasis on the sacredness of the individual began with us and still lives and breathes in Unitarian Universalism today. It may appear different than today’s American Protestant ‘me-and-Jesus’ individualism, but they share the same historical roots. This isn’t commonly understood, but current-day American Christianity has adapted its forms of individualistic spirituality from the Unitarians, Universalists, Transcendentalists and other liberal religionists of the mid-19th century.[6] So, what if faith isn’t given in sufficient quantity to individuals? What if faith is only given in sufficient quantity to communities? What might that mean for us?

Our November ministry theme is faith. The last time we used faith as a monthly theme was November, 2010. I recently re-read a sermon I preached on faith at that time, wondering how my thinking has evolved.[7] That sermon was helpful (I hope) in offering to UUs a more relevant definition of faith than the one the larger culture tends to use. If someone knocks at your door and wants to have a conversation about religion, you kinda know what they mean by faith. It likely has something to do with accepting Jesus Christ as their personal lord and savior, plus the good news that such acceptance is the path to eternal life. Beneath that good news is almost always a set of doctrines about who Jesus is, who God is, and why their church understands these things correctly. This kind of faith requires us to accept propositions for which we have no evidence other than that “the Bible says it.” It requires us to believe the unbelievable. That’s the common definition of faith in our larger culture. It’s certainly a valid definition—not everything we believe must have a rational explanation.[8] But as inheritors of the 19th-century Unitarian appeal to the sacredness of the individual, we need a different definition.

door knocking

In that November, 2010 sermon I quoted Buddhist teacher, Sharon Salzberg, who says that the essence of faith, whetherconnected to a deity or not … lies in trusting ourselves to discover the deepest truths on which we can rely.”[9] Similarly, the 20th century Unitarian theologian, James Luther Adams, suggested that faith is the act of placing our confidence in something. He held no expectation that that something be unbelievable or other-worldly. He said “faith should take into account the realm of fact…. Every person is concerned with a basic fact, something in which one has confidence.”[10] This is a definition of faith that can work for people who don’t or can’t believe the unbelievable, for people who need their religious and spiritual lives to be grounded in a reality they can experience through their senses: through touching, tasting, seeing, hearing, smelling; through raising children, caring for others, working for a just society, or digging in dirt. This is a definition of faith that arises not from religious doctrines, but from the concrete experience of our daily lives, the realm of fact.

James Luther Adams

James Luther Adams

There is much in which we place our confidence. We are deeply faithful people. As I wrote in my November newsletter column, “we have faith in humanity, creativity, nature, love. We have faith in science, democracy, community, fairness, humility. We have faith in gratitude, children, education, diversity, the earth. We have faith in the seasons, the tides, the warmth of the sun, the darkness of night. We have faith in our neighbors, our principles, our interfaith partners, the words and deeds of prophetic people of all eras. We have faith in modern medicine, ancient healing arts, the comforting assurance of family and friends, the kindness of strangers. We have faith in reason, the power of speaking truth, compassion, honesty. Some have faith in God—a deep and sustaining faith. Some have faith in the ancestors—a deep and sustaining faith. And did I mention love? We put our faith in love.

When I invite you, at the beginning of worship, to find that place inside of you, that place where you may go when you long for comfort and solace, that place where you may go when you yearn for peace, that place where you may go to commune with whatever is holy in your life, that place where you know your truth, where your voice is strong, I am asking you to remember what is most reliable to you. I am asking you to remember those things in which you place your highest confidence. I am asserting that we are people of faith just as much as those who come knocking on doors, or who stand on city street corners yelling, Repent! or who experience a personal, intimate relationship with their lord and savior. By locating that place inside of you, I am keeping continuity with our spiritual forebears. That mid-19th century tradition of honoring the sacredness of the individual remains vibrant among us. For me, our UU identity is so deeply embedded in this tradition that, were we to give it up, we would cease being who we are.

It’s also important to name that not just our UU identity, but a big part of the American identity is rooted in this individualistic tradition, so much so that, without it, we wouldn’t quite recognize America. It would take a series of sermons to unpack this claim, but if in recent years you’ve felt a shift in the American character, it may have to do not with the loss of this tradition but, as the historian Leigh Eric Schmidt contends, with its cooptation by market forces, with its commercialization, with what some call the “‘Oprahfication’ of American religion and culture…the spread of the feel-good spirituality that [Oprah] Winfrey urges upon her fans,”[11] and with what we might describe as the hyper-expressions of this tradition—narcissism and self-absorption that have eviscerated religious and civic connections[12] and, in my view, have spurred the rise of various religious fundamentalisms in the United States.

As far as I can tell, Nadia Bolz-Weber isn’t criticizing the individualistic spiritual tradition in American religion. In fact, she’s a shining example of it. But she is criticizing shallow, surface expressions of this tradition—“me and Jesus and all that stuff.” She’s criticizing the shadow side—the fact that we pay lip service to the sacredness of each individual but often don’t live as if it matters. She’s rightly wary about what individualism in religion can and has become. She understands how hyper-individualism in spiritual and secular settings has taken a toll on community cohesiveness. So, she asks all people of faith to take a TIME OUT! “I don’t think faith is given in sufficient quantity to individuals…. I think it’s given in sufficient quantity to communities.”

faith

You could hear this as a re-assertion of the authority of the church over the individual, a call to doctrinal conformity, but she has too many tattoos for that to be true. She’s offering a course correction to Western individualism run amok in religion. She’s calling for balance. She’s reminding us that individualism can only take us so far. No matter how sacred, precious, worthy, and profoundly beautiful each individual soul is, none of us can make it alone. She uses the example of the Apostles Creed, saying “nobody believes every line of the Creed…. But in a room [full] of people … for each line of the Creed, somebody believes it. So we’re covered, right?”[13] It’s funny, not because it’s a joke, but because it’s true. As a Lutheran minister, she knows that were she to demand that every Lutheran believe every line of the Creed all the time, she would make Lutheranism inaccessible to people who need church in their lives but can’t believe in that “perfect” way. If I were to demand that each UU embody our principles perfectly all the time, I would similarly make Unitarian Universalism inaccessible to many.

The truth is we don’t bring our best selves to each new day. We don’t always live the ideals we aspire to live, let alone those our church calls us to live. We may come to church in profound pain, feeling wounded, broken, lost, empty, anxious or in despair from a difficult diagnosis, a lost job, lost memory, the death of a loved-one, a struggling child, a raging virus, an endless war, catastrophic climate change. Sometimes our faith fails. Whatever we place our confidence in can let us down, can go missing, can forsake us. Faith isn’t given in sufficient quantity to individuals. Sometimes we simply don’t have enough.

angst

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t enough. This is my evolution since 2010: Together we have enough. Faith is given to communities in sufficient quantities. Bolz-Weber says there are times she can’t adhere to the Biblical admonition to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. But, “if I’m at the point where I cannot pray for someone,” she says, “I will say ‘I cannot pray for this person, I really need you to do it for me.’”[14] That’s the power of community: if I can’t get there, there is someone else who can get there for me. There is someone else who can carry my faith until I’m able to carry it again.

This led me to reflect on the ways we’ve responded in worship to mass shootings. I’m remembering in particular the Hartford Distributors shooting in August, 2010 and the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in December, 2012—both so close to us here in Manchester. These were worst-nightmares-come-true—the human potential for evil becoming real before our eyes. Many of us, myself included, felt our faith in humanity faltering in a very specific way. We questioned the validity of our first UU principle—the inherent worth and dignity of every person. In the aftermath of such shootings our hearts go out to the victims and their families. We say their names in worship. But what of the shooters? They have crossed a moral line, have launched themselves beyond the pale, have made themselves enemies in the Biblical sense. Our hearts don’t naturally go out to them. Instead we recoil at the thought of them. Yes, we are admonished to love the enemy. Yes, we UUs affirm the principle of the inherent worth and dignity of every person—but surely that doesn’t apply to these shooters? For so many of us it is enormously difficult to affirm the inherent worth and dignity of the perpetrator in the aftermath of horrendous evil. Even the act of just saying their name in worship feels like too much.  And yet there were people in our community in both instances who felt strongly that the names of the perpetrators needed to be said, that in addition to their crimes their deaths also needed acknowledgement. To name them in this way does not condone their crimes. It is simply to remember that they were human too. Though something went horribly wrong, they came into this world surrounded by hope and promise too, and their deaths—though different—are tragic too. These shootings were profoundly difficult moments for me, and I was so grateful to know others were keeping my faith for me.

hands

Someone will remember. Even when we can’t, someone will carry our faith for us. And there will be times when we maintain faith for others who can’t—after the difficult diagnosis, the lost job, the loss of memory, the death of a loved-one, as a child struggles, a virus rages, a war continues and climate changes. That compelling tradition of affirming the sacredness of the individual continues to live and breathe in our congregations. But there are times when it isn’t enough. When we come to those times, may we always remember: faith is given in sufficient quantity to communities. And in the midst of community, may we have faith.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] The text to this interview is posted at http://www.onbeing.org/program/transcript/nadia-bolz-weber-seeing-the-underside-and-seeing-god-tattoos-tradition-and-grace. Or watch the interview at http://vimeo.com/73913123. The segment I refer to in this sermon begins at 1:08:53.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Emerson, Ralph Waldo, “Self Reliance,” in Whicher, Stephen E., ed., Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1960) p. 149.

[4] Whitman, Walt, Democratic Vistas, quoted in Schmidt, Leigh Eric, Restless Souls (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005) p. 4.

[5] Ibid., vi.

[6] My primary resource for making this claim is Schmidt, Leigh Eric, Restless Souls (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005).

[7] Pawelek, Josh, “I Know This Rose Will Open: On Being a Person of Faith,” Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT,  November 14th, 2010:  http://uuse.org/i-know-this-rose-will-open-reflections-on-being-a-person-of-faith/#.VFOMF_nF-Sp.

[8] Ibid., third paragraph.

[9] Salzberg, Sharon, Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience (New York: Riverhead Books, 2002) p. xiii.

[10] Adams, James Luther in Beach, George K., ed, An Examined Faith: Social Context and Religious Commitment (Boston: Beacon Press, 1991) p. 21.

[11] Schmidt, Leigh Eric, Restless Souls (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005) p. 285.

[12] Schmidt names this phenomenon in the final chapter of Restless Souls. Another take on what I call the “shadow side” of the American tradition of spiritual individualism is Claude Fischer’s blog-post “Self-Absorbed” at http://madeinamericathebook.wordpress.com/2011/12/07/self-absorbed/.

[13] The text to this interview is posted at http://www.onbeing.org/program/transcript/nadia-bolz-weber-seeing-the-underside-and-seeing-god-tattoos-tradition-and-grace. Or watch the interview at http://vimeo.com/73913123. The segment I refer to in this sermon begins at 1:08:53.

[14] Ibid.

A Rainbow Flag at UUS:E

Pride - Rainbow FlagThe UUS:E Welcoming Congregation Steering Group (WCSG) would like to hang a rainbow flag on the main level of UUS:E. WSCG members feel strongly that hanging a rainbow flag is a powerful way to communicate to gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer visitors that they are welcome at UUS:E—and not only welcome, but safe and free to bring their full selves into our community.

We’d like to get your feedback on hanging a flag.  We’ll be holding a congregation-wide conversation on January 5th at 1:00. What do you think? Can you support this gesture? Why or why not? What are your questions? If you can’t make it to the conversation, Rev. Josh is collecting feedback. Please feel free to email him at revpawelek@sbcglobal.net or call 860-646-5151.

In the interest of educating UUS:E members and friends (and anyone visiting this website) about the origins of the rainbow flag as the symbol of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer community, identity and struggle, we offer this brief history: 

It was Harvey Milk – activist, visionary, trailblazer, and the first openly gay person to win a high public office in a major American Harvey Milkcity – as City Supervisor from the Castro District on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors – who challenged fellow activist Gilbert Baker to create a positivesymbol of hope and pride for the gay community. 

Empowered by Milk’s challenge, Baker, an artist and drag queen who sewed his own dresses, used eight colors to create the original Rainbow Flags raised at San Francisco Pride on June 25, 1978. According to Baker, the eight colors reflected the diversity of values in the LGBT community: pink represented sexuality; red, life; orange, healing; yellow, the sun; green, nature; blue, art; indigo, harmony; and violet, human spirit. 

Baker and his band of volunteers hand-dyed and hand-stitched the materials for the first Rainbow Flags, but the commercial unavailability of hot pink led Baker to an act of artistic compromise which resulted in a seven-striped logo suitable for mass production.       

The six-striped version of today’s Rainbow Flag evolved in the wake of Harvey Milk’s November, 1978 assassination, when San Francisco’s LGBT community decided to use Baker’s flag to demonstrate their solidarity and political strength at the 1979 Pride Parade. To enable the equal division of the flag’s colors along the parade route – three colors on one side of the street and three colors on the other, the 1979 Pride Parade Committee eliminated the indigo stripe, leaving the widely available remaining colors of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet. 

While tradition dictates flying the Rainbow Flag horizontally, with the red stripe on top, as it would be in a natural rainbow, Gilbert Baker has said: “This flag has no rules. It has no protocol that governs its display. It is the community’s for the taking.”

 However it is displayed, the Rainbow Flag, the most visible icon of LGBTQ pride, inspires hope. It is a symbol of hope for unity in inclusiveness, hope for strength in diversity, hope for an end to relentless threats of violence and hate, hope for love, liberation, and equality. “The flag is an action – it’s more than just the cloth and the stripes. When a person puts the Rainbow Flag on [his] car or [his] house, they’re not just flying a flag. They’re taking action.”  Action which affirms the inherent worth and dignity of all people, through its enduring symbol of pride, in celebration of hope, love, support, personal safety and welcome to the LGBTQ community.

If “a true flag is not something you can really design . . . [but] is torn from the soul of the people,” then the soul of the people can be mended through love and hope. Choosing to prominently display the Rainbow Flag at UUS:E, we put our faith into action by standing on the side of love and healing with hope.    

 

The Welcoming Congregation: Welcome as Spiritual Practice

Alex Kapitan, LGBTQ and Multicultural Programs Administrator, Unitarian Universalist Association.


Alex KapitanHello! And welcome, welcome, welcome again!

How many folks here are here for the first time? Can you raise your hand if you’ve never worshipped here before? Fabulous! I’m so glad you’re here. And how many folks are here for the second or third time? I’m so glad you came back! I am actually one of you—I have only visited this congregation once before. I’m so delighted to be back with you today, and completely honored to be speaking to you from up here! I want to thank the leaders who invited me here and made it possible for me to join you today—Rev. Josh, the worship team, and the Welcoming Congregation Steering Group.

Like Rev. Josh mentioned, my name is Alex Kapitan and I work for the Unitarian Universalist Association in our national office in Boston. I’m part of our Multicultural Growth & Witness staff group and one of the things I get to do is support the Welcoming Congregation Program.

This is always an exciting time of year for Welcoming Congregations because in many parts of this country June is claimed as Pride month, and congregations like this one get a great chance to publicly share their own pride at being welcoming, inclusive, and affirming of all things gay, and lesbian, and bi, and trans, and queer. And that is certainly something to be proud of!

 UU Society East was originally recognized as a Welcoming Congregation in May of 1999, 14 years ago. And that recognition took place after years of intentional work—5 and a half years, to be precise. It was in 1993 that UUSE began the journey by engaging in a workshop series—only a few years after the Welcoming Congregation Program was launched by the Unitarian Universalist Association. And when you took stock in 1999 and voted on whether to seek recognition as a Welcoming Congregation, the vote was unanimously in favor. Can I get some applause and some pride for that?! Thank you for your longstanding commitment.

Today, as you have many times over the past 14 years, you are recommitting yourselves to that promise you made in 1999—the promise of being a place of welcome, inclusion, affirmation, and advocacy for people that dominant culture, and certainly many mainstream religions, have deemed abnormal.

I am so delighted and honored to be here in this sacred place, in this Welcoming Congregation, to share with you a little bit of my vision for what it can mean to be a Welcoming Congregation in this new century, and how we can collectively live our welcome as a spiritual practice.

Before I dive in completely, I’d like to invite you to look inward for a moment. Please find a comfortable position. Feel the floor, the chair you are in. Breathe deeply. Think of a time when you felt a profound sense of welcome. (pause)

Hold that experience in your mind, and consider whether the space you were in or the interaction you had was changed because you were there. What effect did your presence have? Stay present, and consider what it felt like in your body to experience that welcome. What was the effect it had on you? If you’ve never had an experience like this, or if you can’t think of one, imagine what it would feel like. (pause)

Now imagine what it would be like to feel that way—that full and total welcome, that belonging—every time you entered this space. And better yet, imagine what it would be like to know with every fiber of your being that that sense of welcome and belonging was unconditional—that there was nothing about you, no part of you, whether worn on your sleeve or hidden deep inside, that would make you unworthy of welcome, of belonging, of love.

Do you know what I mean when I ask you to imagine being free from the sense that there is something about you that is inherently wrong, or bad, or simply enormously different?

Back in 1999 UUSE’s Welcoming Congregation Task Force said that as a Welcoming Congregation you were striving to overcome the “heterosexual assumption”—that dominant cultural norm that shows up even when we aren’t aware of it, the norm that the default is straight, and being something other than straight is different, not normal, less-than. Many people with same-sex attractions have experienced fear and shame moving through a world that tells them that straight is normal and good, and it’s an experience that is shared by many people here.  

But I’m actually talking about more than that one particular difference right now. I’m talking about what else you are carrying that makes you feel visibly or invisibly marked as different. What is it about you that makes you feel like the orange in a row of apples, with a song playing in the background—one of these things is not like the other… one of these things, doesn’t belong?

We come here carrying hidden trauma of all kinds—internal scars from childhoods full of landmines, or young adulthoods full of heartbreak, or ongoing depression that is barely held at bay enough to be here today. We have been subject to violence of all kinds—physical, emotional, spiritual. We come here with a huge diversity of experiences—far more than we think—in terms of financial means, educational background, ability, age, sexuality, gender identity and expression, race and ethnicity, relationship and family structure, language, nationality, body size, personality types, spiritual paths and beliefs. All of us carry weight from feeling different in some way—maybe we feel that sense of difference most when we are with our families of origin; maybe we feel it most when we are out in mainstream culture, maybe we feel it most here in this space. What are you carrying? (pause)

What would it be like if you could trust, unequivocally, that you were valued here for the pieces of yourself that make you feel different, not despite those pieces. That in this space there was nothing about you that could make people reverse their welcome or reject you from the circle of belonging?

When I think about Beloved Community, this is what I think about and long for. A community of radical welcome, where each person affirms the piece of the divine that lives in themself and in every other being. Where we can hold each other in all of our messiness and all of our brokenness, where love and compassion reign supreme. Where each of us fully, completely, belongs.

That’s my vision of Beloved Community. But how does it become manifest? I’ll tell you what I think. I think that being a Welcoming Congregation is how we practice Beloved Community.

 In its infancy, the Welcoming Congregation Program asked people of faith to deeply engage with the question of what was standing in their way of being fully welcoming and inclusive of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people. By intentionally engaging with this question, we were invited to grapple with the assumptions—like that “heterosexual assumption”—that were forever present in our community around who belongs. Who belongs here. Who is one of us. Who belongs, and how do we communicate that circle of belonging—consciously and unconsciously, verbally and nonverbally. How does the language we use, the songs we sing, the way we teach our children, our hiring practices, our requirements for membership, and a hundred other basic elements of how we create and live out community here—how do all these things communicate who and what is valued, and who and what doesn’t belong?

At its very core, the Welcoming Congregation Program asks congregations to challenge their own sense of where the boundaries of belonging are—to draw the circle wider. To practice this, so that we can keep practicing it and keep drawing that circle wider, little by little, step by step, slowly but surely. To make it a core practice to continue to ask, “where are the boundaries of belonging now?” “how can we expand them further?”

This is a big ask. It’s a big deal to first look at where that circle is drawn, and it’s an even bigger deal to acknowledge that there’s room to grow. And then it’s a huge deal to actually take steps toward expanding the circle, and then to keep taking steps—to never stop and say “right on, we’ve arrived. We are done now.”

This is a process of transformation. Every time. Redefining the boundary of belonging and redefining who “we” are means change. And with change comes growing pains. I know that you know this, because I know that UUSE has engaged with this sort of transformation many times. Not only when you spent 5 and a half years stretching yourselves through the Welcoming Congregation Program, but other times as well—like the more recent time that you literally transformed your building in a way that made it more accessible to people who use wheelchairs and other folks with limited mobility. Now that’s transformation. You drew the circle of belonging wider to say yes, folks who are not able to easily navigate stairs belong here, and we have to transform our very space in order to communicate that.

This process of transformation is a spiritual practice. It’s spiritual, because removing the barriers to authentic relationship with ourselves and each other and moving toward manifesting the Beloved Community is the most deeply spiritual work I know. And it’s practice, because it doesn’t magically happen—naming ourselves as a Welcoming Congregation, or as an ally, doesn’t automatically transform us. This welcome takes practice.

So how do we engage in welcome as a spiritual practice? How do we get to the place where you, and every other person here, feels that profound sense of welcome and belonging and trust every time you enter this space? And on the other hand, because it takes both of these things, how do we get to the place where you and every other person here can venture into the uncertainty and risk of truly being messy and still being in relationship, knowing that the trust and belonging of this space can hold that messiness?

Well, before we talk about how to practice welcome, let’s take a second to chat about what gets in the way of that for us. I’m going to go back to that “heterosexual assumption” again. That’s just one example of the millions of unnamed and generally unconscious assumptions that we are barraged with as we move through this culture—assumptions about what is normal and what is different—who is an apple and who is an orange. Think again about one or more ways in which you are reminded that you are different, whether here or in some other part of your life.

Some of us here are introverted and constantly feel as though people expect us to be extroverted—that we would be more valuable if we were extroverted. Some of us here have no desire to be a parent, but everywhere we go the expectation is of course we want to have kids someday, that that’s the right way to be. Some of us here are hard of hearing, and the assumption is always that we should be able to hear perfectly. Some of us here never graduated from high school, and there are a thousand ways that we are reminded that that makes us somehow less-than.

There are a lot of ways that I feel like an orange in a sea of apples, but I’ll give you the biggest example from my life. Every time I’m out in public and have to go to the bathroom, I’m reminded that I’m different. One of the linchpins of our culture’s worldview is that all people are men or women—no overlap and no other options. But I’m not a woman or a man, and so everywhere I go I’m faced with a thousand reminders, small and huge, that I’m supposed to be a woman or a man, that the way I am is not normal, is wrong, is downright impossible. That I don’t exist. Ladies and gentlemen. Boys and girls. Brothers and sisters. Pink or blue. He or she. Every time someone points me toward the women’s locker room, I shrivel inside. Every time I buy a plane ticket now and I have to provide my “gender,” I feel like I’m participating in my own invisibility. Every time someone assumes my pronouns and says Alex, she, her, I have an out-of-body experience. “Who are they talking about?” my internal self asks. I’m gone. I’m not there anymore. I can put on a smile and survive, but I’m no longer fully present. Each time I’m reminded that I’m different or that according to our dominant culture I don’t exist, it’s like a feather or a pebble or a stone is added to the burden that I carry. One feather or pebble or stone is nothing, but they sure do accumulate. They accumulate over the course of my day, over the course of my month, over the course of my lifetime. Those stones don’t go away. To the point where I have to decide, do I want to take that on today? Do I have the emotional reserves to take that on today? Would I rather stay away from the places where I’m most likely to encounter feathers and pebbles and stones.

The more experiences of being different a person carries, the more we are reminded that we’re different. The bigger the difference, the more we are reminded that we’re different. The more our difference shows up in every aspect of our lives, rather than just in one or two parts of our life, the more we are reminded that we’re different.

And unfortunately, the more assumptions we each make about each other, the harder it is to be in real relationship, to create Beloved Community. Because every time we make an assumption, we are unconsciously perpetuating the norms of our culture.

And that sucks. Because we have been taught our whole lives to make assumptions. We have been taught, in ways we don’t even know, to identify who is “like us” and who is not, and then to put value judgments on that. We have been taught to be uncomfortable with difference.

But I need you to know something that is completely core to practicing welcome as a spiritual practice—I need you to know that you are a good person. This is something central to our Unitarian Universalist faith. You are inherently good. No matter what you do that hurts yourself or hurts someone else, it will never make you a bad person. All of us are works in progress. For me, being a person of faith and being part of a faith community is what helps hold me and call me back to my higher self. It’s what makes it possible for me to take risks.

When someone calls me “she,” that sucks for me. But that doesn’t make that person a bad person, because they’ve been taught to look at me and make a snap judgment as to whether I am a she or a he. Unfortunately, it does take a toll on me. It may be a small thing to that person who calls me “she,” but to me it’s a pebble on top of a sheer ton of other pebbles, other reminders I’ve had that day or that week that I’m not real or I don’t belong.

People have all kinds of reactions to the information that they are using a pronoun for me that hurts me. I’ve seen confusion, anger, dismissal, denial, rejection, self-deprecation. When we are challenged around things like this, often the place we go is a place of feeling as though we are being told we are a bad person, when really what we are being offered is the opportunity to stretch and grow and be in more authentic relationship. The person who messes up my pronouns isn’t a bad person, they are a human person. It’s what we do with the negative or difficult emotions that come up for us when we encounter difference that counts. I’m gonna say that again: It’s what we do with the negative or difficult emotions that come up for us when we encounter difference that counts. Because that’s where the practice comes in.

What would it be like if those assumptions that fill our every interaction and encounter were gone? If we met each other, and encountered the world, through curiosity and care, intimately in touch with the knowledge that we actually know absolutely nothing about each other until we take the risk of entering into authentic relationship, approaching each other with openness and with wonder. Until we embrace the platinum rule—have you heard of the platinum rule? It says, do unto others as they would have you do unto them. Because how I want to be treated isn’t necessarily how you want to be treated, and the only way to know how you want to be treated is to get to know you in a real way.

I know that’s a tall order—I’m full of them, you might be starting to catch onto that. But the good news is that it starts small. Practicing welcome starts small. It starts with conversation. It starts when you don’t settle for what is comfortable, but take one small risk at a time. During social hour, who can you talk to who you’ve never talked to before? Who is on the margins of the room? When you do talk to people you already know, what do you talk about? Do you stay to “safe” topics or do you talk about what deeply moved you about the service, or how you are struggling. It starts with conversation.

It also starts with love and compassion for your own self and for others. It starts with gentle, personal work to practice sitting with discomfort. When you experience a negative emotional reaction in the face of something new or strange or unexpected, can you sit with that discomfort? Can you breathe and notice what’s coming up for you? Can you pause before you speak? When you are tempted by defensiveness, reactivity, dismissiveness, can you instead practice love and compassion for yourself and for the people around you?

And then it starts with noticing the cultural norms here in this place, collectively working to understand where the circle of belonging has been unconsciously drawn. All communities draw that circle of belonging somewhere—where is that edge for you? What are the assumptions that you unconsciously make about who “we” are here? Who is going to collect those feathers and pebbles and stones and maybe even boulders when they come here—those overt and also under the surface reminders that they are different from what’s most valued here.

Every time an assumption shows up, it impacts someone here. Someone feels devalued for having an experience that doesn’t line up with that assumption. Someone knows that they will never invite their brother to come here, or their best friend. Someone wonders if this is really a place where their child will be fully valued as they continue to grow. It starts with noticing where your collective edges are. Just noticing them. And then practicing pushing back on them. Questioning the assumptions that are being made. Using language a little differently.

And it starts with the people who are already here. For some of us here, this is a place in our lives where we actually do feel that sense of welcome and belonging already. For others of us here, this is a place that maybe comes close or maybe doesn’t even come close, but we are here anyway. Some of us feel like this place is the best chance we have of not experiencing stones and boulders, so we’ll settle for feathers and pebbles. How can the circle be expanded for us—the people who are already here but don’t feel as though we can be totally present here?

 In closing, my invitation to you is this: As you are continuing the amazing work and ministry that the Welcoming Congregation Steering Group is doing, and the amazing work and ministry that has come before and made you who you are today, never settle for what is comfortable. There is a common perception out there that LGBTQ equals “gay” and that “gay” equals white, college educated, middle class, able-bodied. My invitation to you is to keep layering on race, class, age, ability, to layer on gender nonconformity, fluid sexualities like bi and queer. To layer on other marginalizing experiences. What does welcome look like then, when you bring all of this into who you are making a home for? Into who belongs here. When the commitment of being a Welcoming Congregation is looking for your edges and working to push them back? When the goal becomes centering care, curiosity, and compassion in all of your interactions? In deepening your relationships with each other here in this community and breaking down the walls and assumptions that separate us?

I’m not asking you to make it happen all at once and right away. I am saying that by practicing welcome in this way, by extending the circle of belonging bit by bit and embracing transformation as part of engaging in welcome as a spiritual practice, you will expand the circle of belonging far wider than just to lesbian, gay, bi, trans, and queer people—although you will reach many many more of us as well in the process—and you will bring much needed healing to people who have been members of this community for years. And that is what being a Welcoming Congregation can be. That is what practicing Beloved Community looks like.

May we make it so. Ashe, Amen, and Blessed be. 

Rooted, Planted, Grounded

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Come back as a flowerThere it was again, the phone call. This time it was my father. “Did you see what happened at the Boston Marathon? Turn on the television. It’s awful.”

There it was again, that feeling of profound sadness. Tears welling up. Utter disbelief. How can this be real?

There it was again, that feeling of fear. Am I safe to leave my home? Are my children safe? What will I tell them? They love Boston. We visit friends and family there. Mason was born there. I’ll bet we’ve walked up and down Boylston Street at least twenty times in his eleven years of life. His beloved green line runs right beneath the spot where those bombs exploded. Continue reading at HartfordFAVS….