The Inherent Worth and Dignity of Every Woman

Quotes About Women’s Equality, various

Reading: Sexism is Hard to Explain, Kel Campbell

The Call for Gender Equality, Carol Marion

How Do We Get There? Marsha Howland


Quotes About Women’s Equality

First Reading Sunday, Sept. 3, 2017

First Reader

A feminist is anyone who recognizes the equality and full humanity of women and men.
            Gloria Steinem

Second Reader

Gender equality is more than a goal in itself. It is a precondition for meeting the challenge of reducing poverty, promoting sustainable development and building good governance.
            Kofi Annan     

First Reader

I raise my voice – not so I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard

. . . . We cannot succeed when half of us are held back.
            Malala Yousafzai

Second Reader       

In the nineteenth century, the central moral challenge was slavery. In the twentieth century, it was the battle against totalitarianism. We believe that in this century the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for gender equality around the world.
            Nicholas D. Kristof    

First Reader

Men, their rights, and nothing more; women, their rights, and nothing less.
            Susan B. Anthony

Second Reader

I know of no industrial society where women are the economic equals of men. Of everything that economics measures, women get less.
            Ivan Illich       

First Reader

I do not wish women to have power over men; but over themselves.
            Mary Shelley

Second Reader       

Achieving gender equality requires the engagement of women and men, boys and girls. It is everyone’s responsibility.
            Ban Ki-moon

First Reader

As women, we must stand up for ourselves. As women, we must stand up for each other. As women, we must stand up for justice for all.
            Michelle Obama

Second Reader       

Women are not going to be equal outside the home until men are equal in it.
            Gloria Steinem

First Reader

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal.
            Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Second Reader

It’s time that we all see gender as a spectrum instead of two sets of opposing ideals. We should stop defining each other by what we are not and start defining ourselves by who we are.
            Emma Watson

First Reader

We’ve begun to raise daughters more like sons . . . but few have the courage to raise our sons more like our daughters.
            Gloria Steinem

Second Reader

Human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights.

            Hillary Clinton

First Reader

In order to gain gender equality, women and men must work together, equally, to teach our daughters and sons to embrace our differences, respect each others’ opinions, and remove stereotypes to what a girl or boy should aspire.
            Basia Christ

Second Reader

We must raise both the ceiling and the floor.
            Sheryl Sandberg

First Reader

Oh, if I could but live another century and see the fruition of all the work for women! There is so much left to be done.
            Susan B. Anthony

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Second Reading:

Sexism is Hard to Explain, by Kel Campbell
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The Call for Gender Equality

by Carol Marion

I am a child of the 50’s. Forced to wear scratchy crinolines under poufy skirts to school, not allowed to use the slide on the playground because someone might see our undies. Taught to be nice and ladylike and to never open a door for myself unless I had to. I am also a child of the 60’s and 70’s. Free love and bellbottoms and feminism. We were equal! We would rule the world! I entered the workforce with a belief that I could accomplish anything. And still men insisted on opening doors for me. Interrupted me in meetings, presented my ideas as their own and basked in the praise. Men got paid more, got more promotions, and called me honey, whistled at me in the streets. I took self-defense classes to protect myself at night. They told me to smile. Praised my work and then told me I wasn’t ready for that raise.

Yes, sexism is hard to explain. As Kel Campbell writes, “The door isn’t the thing. For me, the incident this morning was a bang-on metaphor for my experiences as a woman. The millions of small ways that I’ve been forced to surrender to men, who made me move or change or come to them because they felt like it. The ways that I’ve had to change my path in magnitudes great and small”.

Every woman lives with daily experiences of sexism. It’s such a common thing that many of us don’t even bother to consciously acknowledge it anymore. Or we swallow and carry on. Sexism is often described as gender-based prejudice. But sexism is much more.

Gender-based prejudice is prejudice or discrimination based on a person’s sex or gender. Both women and men can experience gender-based prejudice. And it is not just men perpetuating this prejudice. Women perpetuate gender norms and discriminate against women too. When I was Training Manager at New Horizons in Oregon, Valerie, the president of the company, treated men and women quite differently. She was known to belittle, yell, and brow beat women employees. I never once witnessed that behavior towards a man. Studies have shown that women, as well as men, interrupt women 2-3 times more often than they interrupt men[i]. A 2013 study of hiring practices in STEM industries found that: “…when the hiring manager (both men and women) had no other information other than a candidate’s gender, they were twice as likely to hire a man than a woman, because they incorrectly believed that men are more talented in science and math…” [ii]

And yes, men do experience gender-based prejudice as well, but men don’t experience it quite the same way that women do.

That difference is privilege (or power). Men have a whole system of history, traditions, and assumptions giving their words a weight that women don’t have access to. And with that power, gender-based prejudice becomes sexism.

Sexism is ingrained into institutions like the education system, religious bodies, the legal system, the media, governments, and corporations. These institutions have power, and often – intentionally or not –uphold male privilege while oppressing women.[iii]

But we can say, “women now go to space, women run companies, go to war, men are stay-at-home dads. Women and men share family responsibilities like child care, cleaning, and bringing “home the bacon”.” Women today buy their own homes, spend their own money, determine their own careers.

So why do we still need to talk about sexism?

Because just like racism, sexism still permeates every social interaction we have and even influences our inner dialog. And it affects women’s earning power, physical health, and mental well-being.

I realized how oppressive this constant noise was when I first stepped on to “the land”. A fond term for the amazing space created by thousands of women coming together every August in Michigan for the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, which sadly ended in 2015 after a 40-year run. There were no men. Anywhere. Women built three huge stages, laid pipes for water and electrified all the meeting tents. They chopped wood and tended huge cooking fires to help feed 5-8 thousand women. Women provided spaces and services to support mothers, differently-abled and aging women. The first time I attended, it took me several days to notice the blessed mental quiet and the relief from having to constantly check my surroundings for safety. It was a freedom I have never experienced anywhere else; a sense of safety I have never experienced anywhere else. Women helped women, women supported women. Women built and ran the whole thing with a ferocious competence. And there was a blessed silent space in my head to be myself.

But stepping off the land after a week of living that freedom meant re-integrating into a world permeated with a constant loud barrage of sexist microaggressions. It was always a shock.

What are microaggressions? Microaggressions are defined as “small, subtle, often unconscious actions that marginalize people in oppressed groups”. It was coined in the ‘70s to discuss the subtle acts of racism that were prominent in society. Since then, it has been used to describe the unconscious ways we further marginalize people. They are the little things you do or say every day that are harmful, and oppressive, to women. That hurt. That make us feel less valued. That put us in our place.

They are the jokes “I was just trying to be funny”; the backhanded compliments “You are so strong for a woman”; the unwanted chivalry “let me wrestle this armload of stuff out of your arms and carry it for you”; the unwanted advice about everything, i.e.: mansplaining; the constant interruptions or not even being allowed to speak at a meeting; the co-opting of a meeting by the one man present; the constant coercion to say yes after I’ve said no, and NO; being asked to smile because “you are so much prettier when you smile”.

It’s also the defensiveness and dismissiveness, and sometimes anger, we are faced with when trying to confront a man on his sexist remarks or behaviors.

And we are not immune to these microaggressions here at UUS:E. I witnessed this interaction between an older boy and a younger girl downstairs after RE. “Ah, come on, join in. I know you want to do it.” The girl shakes her head no. “What, are you scared? It will be fun. Come on.” The girl shakes her head and she is now looking down, cowering out of the way. Another girl defends her and says, “she doesn’t want to, leave her alone”. But, the boy keeps pressing, badgering the child for a “yes”. I stopped it with a “That’s enough, she said no”.

Sexism is everywhere and it is learned early.

We as a society, as a community, as people, need to work towards Gender Equality. In education, business, media, simple personal interactions. We must strive daily towards the goal of “The inherent worth and dignity of every person”.

Gender equality was defined by the United Nations in 2001 this way:

“Equality between women and men (gender equality): refers to the equal rights, responsibilities and opportunities of women and men and girls and boys. Equality does not mean that women and men will become the same but that women’s and men’s rights, responsibilities and opportunities will not depend on whether they are born male or female (and I will add here – or “other”). Gender equality implies that the interests, needs and priorities of both women and men are taken into consideration – recognizing the diversity of different groups of women and men. Gender equality is not a ‘women’s issue’ but should concern and fully engage men as well as women. Equality between women and men is seen both as a human rights issue and as a precondition for, and indicator of, sustainable people-centered development.”[iv]

Just as with racism, ageism or any other ism, we need to examine our own day-to-day interactions. We need to listen to ourselves, notice our responses. Call ourselves on our own stuff.

So, where do we start?[v]

  1. Educate yourself about systemic sexism and microaggressions in society today. Examine policies, practices and procedures for hidden discriminatory language and actions. Examine your own automatic beliefs and responses. Advocate for change.
  2. Speak out when you witness a remark or action that is inherently sexist. Apologize when you make the same mistake. Defend a friend.
  3. Don’t interrupt. Listen more; talk less. Refrain from offering unwanted or off topic advice.

This one is one of my biggest irritations…

  1. Accept that no, means no. Quit badgering me.
  2. Stop pretending you aren’t sexist.

In the works of Kel Campbell, “I cannot tell a man about the endless parade of minor indecencies, artful put-downs, implicit shushes, subtle dismissals, or friendly coercions under the cover of niceness. Without the experiences to go with it, he simply cannot understand what it’s like to be a woman.”

Thank you,

[i] http://www.thedebrief.co.uk/news/real-life/women-are-more-likely-to-be-interrupted-than-men-says-new-study-20140511293

[ii] http://www.bizcoachinfo.com/archives/18618 and http://www.pnas.org/content/111/12/4403.abstract

[iii] http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/01/sexism-vs-prejudice/

[iv] Gender Mainstreaming: Strategy for Promoting Gender Equality, Office of the Special Advisor on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women rev. August 2001. http://www.un.org/womenwatch/osagi/pdf/factsheet1.pdf, http://www.un.org/womenwatch/osagi/conceptsandefinitions.htm

[v] Adapted from https://sojo.net/articles/our-white-friends-desiring-be-allies


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How Do We Get There?

by Marsha Howland

A week ago Saturday, August 26, was Women’s Equality Day in the United States, as established by a joint resolution of Congress in 1971. Show of hands – How many of you knew that before I mentioned it?

I’m not surprised. This is hardly a Hallmark holiday.

August 26 wasn’t chosen at random to be Women’s Equality Day. On that day in 1920, the Constitutional amendment that granted women the right to vote went into effect, having been ratified by the states just eight days earlier. (By the way, women of color didn’t have the right to vote until legislation was passed in the 1960s. A topic, perhaps, for another day.)

August 26 was also International Dog Day. I received a handful of emails and Facebook posts about Women’s Equality Day and dozens about Dog Day – and I’m a feminist cat person. Maybe that says something about our priorities.

Priorities – when I was growing up in the 1950s, my priority was having as much fun as possible with my two older brothers and the other kids in the neighborhood, most of whom were boys. I turned into what was called a tomboy. Oh, like Carol I wore dresses and skirts to school and had to behave like a “little lady.” But I was more comfortable in my corduroys, a jersey and my red Keds. I climbed trees, did somersaults jumping off the garage roof, and played sports. My father taught me to swing a bat and throw a baseball, and I got pretty good at the game. My mother taught me to manipulate the boys into fighting over me when they were bucking up for sides.

My parents encouraged me to do anything I wanted to do, and my brothers were with the program, too. In junior high I decided I wanted to be the first female governor of Massachusetts; then I decided that wasn’t good enough, and I wanted to be the first woman president. (Clearly, I got sidetracked.)

In high school I decided I’d had enough of boys running and dominating everything. My varsity basketball team had to fight for practice time; the boys’ varsity and junior varsity teams had the gym all the time. When we threatened not to play unless we got the same practice time, we were bused to a tiny elementary school gym after classes. We won a statewide invitational tournament that year, my senior year; the boys did so badly their won-loss record wasn’t included in the yearbook sports roundup.

And a male classmate of mine – a member of the boys’ basketball team – was adamant that girls shouldn’t play sports.

Boys also ran student government, dominated class offices (and classrooms) and headed most extracurricular activities.

I had had enough. I applied to only one college, Wellesley, which was and still is a college for women only. Women ran every student organization. Everywhere I looked, women were in charge. It was exhilarating.

I took advantage of the education and experiences Wellesley had to offer, and then went out into the world. My first real job was as a sports reporter. A rarity in 1974. You imagine the responses I often – but not always – received. More than once men came to my defense. I wish they hadn’t had to.

In my other jobs I encountered all the sexist stuff you’re familiar with. Men taking credit for my ideas or my work. Sexual harassment. Pay inequality. Being laughed at or sneered at in meetings.

Many would say our society is very different, now. They would be wrong. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris can tell you about being interrupted or denied the right to speak. Women at all levels can attest to pay inequality; according to Business Insider, in this country, white women are paid 75 cents on the dollar compared to men; black women are paid 60 cents on the dollar; Hispanic women, 55.

What do we do about all of this, and the many micro aggressions Carol talked about?

We change hearts. And we begin that by changing minds.

Yes, women must call out the men who tell sexist jokes, commit sexual harassment – or worse – and demand that it stop.

This won’t be easy. Women will get the usual responses like “boys will be boys” and “it’s just locker room talk.” They’ll be subjected to workplace retribution. They will face worse in courtrooms, where they will be bullied and blamed for the assaults that are on trial. Women need to have the strength to stand up to these things, stand up for themselves. We will not always be successful, but more and more successes will happen, making it better for the next generations of women and girls.

Our male allies will have to stand up, too. Women and men will have to work together. We are, after all, seeking equality – not the dominance of one gender over the other.

The most important thing we can do to reach hearts, by reaching minds first, is to raise our children in ways that encourage equality. So far, this effort has mostly focused on girls, many of whom are now told they can do and be anything they want to. Girls are encouraged to play sports, run for – and win – school leadership positions. Real progress is being made.

But what about boys? How do we raise feminist sons?

In a June 1st story of a similar title in The New York Times – one that I recommend ­– Claire Cain Miller argues, rightly I believe, that “boys’ worlds are still confined.” The advice she gleaned from a wide range of experts, she writes, “applied broadly: to anyone who wants to raise children who are kind, confident and free to pursue their dreams.”

In several nutshells, this is what she advises:

Let him cry

(And express all of his emotions, even, and perhaps especially, the “girlie” ones.)

Give him role models

(Strong male AND female role models. Do the same for girls.)

Let him be himself

(Children aren’t born with preferences for dolls or trucks, pink or blue. Until the mid-20th century, pink was the color for boys; blue was the color for girls. So go ahead – put pink parkas on your toddler sons. One of my nephews and his wife did exactly that with their son.)

Teach him to take care of himself

(The author quotes Anne-Marie Slaughter, chief executive of the think tank New America: “Teach our sons to cook, clean and look after themselves – to be equally competent in the home as we would expect our daughters to be in the office.”)

Teach him to take care of others

(The author also writes, “Enlist boys’ help making soup for a sick friend or visiting a relative in the hospital. Give them responsibilities caring for pets and younger siblings.”)

Share the work

(Probably a no-brainer. Men can cook; women can mow the lawn.)

Encourage friendships with girls

Teach ‘no means no’

Speak up when others are intolerant

(Miller writes: “ ‘Boys will be boys’ is not an excuse for bad behavior” – at any age, I would add.)

Never use ‘girl’ as an insult

Read a lot, including about girls and women

(As Miller says, “Read about a wide variety of people, and stories that break the mold, not just those about boys saving the world and girls needing to be saved.”

Celebrate boyhood

The author writes: “Teach boys to show strength ­– the strength to acknowledge their emotions. Teach them to provide for their families – by caring for them. Show them how to be tough – tough enough to stand up to intolerance. Give them confidence – to pursue whatever they’re passionate about.”)

Good advice all around.

I believe that we, as Unitarian Universalists, are uniquely prepared to do all of these things. Our first principle, “To affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person,” is a very deeply held belief. The word “affirm” conveys that belief; the word “promote” requires us to take action on it.

Other Unitarian Universalist principles support this principle. “Justice, equity and compassion in human relations” and “The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all” are also deeply held beliefs that we bring to life with our actions.

There are many feminists in this room, both female and male. We are more than strong allies; we are sister and brother believers – and we are committed to living our beliefs, to bringing them into the wider world, to modeling what our beliefs can accomplish.

When it comes to women’s equality, we still have a long way go. Let us lead the way.

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Four Reflections on Atonement

Rev. Josh Pawelek


leavesA Reflection on Atonement: Teshuvah For UUs?

Our October ministry theme is atonement—making amends for whatever pain or hurt, large or small, we have caused in others; acknowledging our imperfections; correcting our mistakes; offering genuine apology; offering forgiveness to those who apologize to us; moving back across the borders that have kept us separated and isolated from each other; seeking reconciliation with whatever it is we regard as most holy. We select this theme at this time of year in part as a way of seeing and valuing Judaism and Jewish tradition. The Jewish High Holy days—the “Days of Awe”—occur in late summer or early autumn every year. This year they concluded yesterday, October 4th, with Yom Kippur, the “Day of Atonement.” In a message to children about the “Days of Awe,” author and Rabbi Malka Drucker[1] says, “these are delicate days, when people look at the year that has passed and face up to their mistakes, errors in judgment, or wrongdoings. This is called teshuvah, which means return.”[2] I understand return in this sense to mean a return to right relationship, a return to community, a return to God. Teshuvah is also often translated as repentance meaning, again, making amends, offering apology, seeking forgiveness for wrongdoing. 

I also understand the experience of teshuvah during the Days of Awe as an opportunity for Jews to not only repair external relationships, but to repair the relationship one has with oneself—to return to one’s true self, to regain grounding, to regain wholeness, to once again recognize and speak one’s own voice. It seems repairing one’s relationship with oneself and repairing one’s external relationships are intertwined. We might say it is difficult to forgive others if one hasn’t forgiven oneself. I found a poem from Rabbi Burt Jacobsson entitled “Prayer Before Yom Kippur,” which expresses this aspect of teshuvah: “I now prepare / to unify my whole self— / heart / mind/ consciousness / body / passions / with this holy community / with the Jewish people everywhere / with all people everywhere /with all life and being / to commune with the Source of all being. / May I find the words, / the music, the movements / that will put me in touch / with the great light of God. / May the rungs of insight and joy /that I reach in my devotion /flow from me to others / and fill all my actions in the world.”[3]

I mentioned in my October newsletter column that it’s somewhat of a cliché for Unitarian Universalist clergy, myself included, to point out at this time of year that we UUs don’t have a spiritual practice akin to teshuvah.  We don’t have a set of rituals for atonement, let alone a Day of Atonement. In saying this, I don’t mean to suggest that we ought to somehow copy what Jews do. Generally speaking, Unitarian Universalists are not rigorously ritualistic in our collective spiritual life, and it may be too out-of-spiritual-character for us to create and engage in such rituals.  But not having such a ritual should in no way imply that we don’t need a practice of atonement in our lives.

It is indeed part of the human condition to find ourselves from time to time—and sometimes for extended periods of time, if not permanently—out of right relationship with family members, friends, work-colleagues, neighbors; out of right-relationship with ourselves;  and indeed, out of right relationship with whatever it is we regard as most holy. It is part of the human condition to find ourselves bearing grudges, unable to let go of past hurts, harboring anger, resentment, hatred. It is part of the human condition to find ourselves feeling isolated, separated, alienated from whatever it is we regard as holy. And, odd but true, we can and do dedicate enormous energy to keeping our broken relationships broken. This is not new to the human condition. It is an ancient human experience. It makes perfect sense to me that the ancient Hebrew priests would place rituals of atonement at the center of their highest holy day. It makes perfect sense to me that we modern Unitarian Universalists would recognize the importance of cultivating religious and spiritual identities that invite us to atone in response to those moments when we falter.  

How can we return to right relationship given our inevitable propensity to miss the mark, to make mistakes, to hurt others’ feelings, to misunderstand, to react out of anger?” That’s the question I feel we are continually called to answer in our own lives, in our congregation, and in the world. It’s a question that has gone missing from the public sphere. An obvious example is the politician who refuses to acknowledge an ethics violation, even as they walk through the prison gates; or perhaps the spate of recent revelations of professional football players behaving abusively towards spouses and children. I wonder if such high-profile unwillingness to admit wrongdoing sets a tone for the wider society, or if the wider society has somehow set an “I did nothing wrong” tone for its leaders and celebrities to adopt. Either way, the question has gone missing. How do we bring it back and cement it in our spiritual lives? How do we say I’m sorry when I’m sorry is what’s really needed?

leavesA Second Reflection on Atonement: On Avoiding Conflict Avoidance 

I’ve mentioned before from this pulpit that I’m an adult child of an alcoholic, an ACOA. As I think many of you know, one of the unfortunate and false lessons children sometimes learn in families in which one or both parents struggle with addiction is that nothing can go wrong. That is, as long as nothing goes wrong, the family system won’t get out of control, won’t become dangerous, won’t become embarrassing, etc. That’s a general statement. It’s always more complicated than that, and I don’t want to suggest for a minute that as I child I never did anything wrong. But in looking back on my childhood—especially my adolescent years—through the lens of ACOA literature, I recognize I was one of those kids who was motivated to do well in school and extracurricular activities in part because I didn’t want to upset the family system. I didn’t want to be the cause of any extra stress. I didn’t want to rock the boat.

I also became the kind of kid and, eventually, the kind of adult, who’s instinct in the event that something did or does go wrong, is to smooth it over as quickly as possible. Make it go away. It’s dangerous. Today I joke that I wish my own kids would be more like this—start showing a little more motivation; stop adding undue stress to our family system; and when something goes wrong, please, please, please show me you’d like to see it smoothed over—at least a little. Please? But I also know that if a child lives in a home where they can’t make mistakes, where they can’t miss the mark, where they can’t hurt others’ feelings, where they can’t be a jerk from time to time, it’s much harder for them to learn the use of those two blessed words, “I’m sorry.” Effective parents don’t raise children who never misbehave. Effective parents raise children who, when they do misbehave, know how to take responsibility for their actions and apologize.

For the person who’s learned to avoid conflict for whatever reason, or the person who has learned to make conflict go away as quickly as possible, it strikes me that this these character traits—at least as I encounter them in myself—make it challenging to accept and live with the inevitability of disagreement and conflict in human communities. I can see this now, though I remember when I began in ministry, despite having conflict management training, I really thought my job was to just make conflict go away. So, instead of always trying to ensure that nobody’s feelings get hurt in the first place, I’ve come to understand it is much more healthy, much more life-giving, much more spiritually sound to embrace the reality that we may hurt each other from time to time. This means that knowing how to apologize is an essential skill. When we enter into conflicts, we need to do so fully expecting that at some point along the way we will either be offering an apology, offering forgiveness or both.

We need the possibility for atonement.

The absence of any possibility for atonement makes human conflict terrifying. The presence of that possibility makes human conflict palatable and even productive.

In the absence of any possibility for atonement, we are forced to conclude that broken relationships will remain broken, separation will remain separation, isolation will remain isolation. The presence of that possibility assures us that broken relationships can be restored, separation and isolation can be overcome.

In the absence of any possibility for atonement, our first chance, it turns out, was our only chance. There is no new beginning. But in the presence of that possibility, we get second chances. We can keep trying until we get it right. We can always begin again in love. 

Autumn BirdsA Third Reflection on Atonement: “Micro-Atonements”

I’m calling this reflection “Micro-Atonements,” but I originally called it “I Didn’t Mean It That Way,” in reference to that gut response we may sometimes have when someone informs us we’ve hurt them or crossed some line they find problematic.

“What you did hurt me.” “I didn’t mean it that way.”

“That’s a racist thing to say.” “Oh, no, not at all. You don’t understand what I mean.”

“That was harsh.” “Well, I didn’t intend to be harsh.”

“You didn’t do what you said you were going to do.” “Well, it wasn’t for lack of trying.”

“Your response sounds sexist.” “Oh please, I don’t have a sexist bone in my body.”

“Stop making fun of me.” “I’m not trying to make fun of you.”

“Ughh, please don’t keep saying that. You’re making me angry.” “That’s not my intent.”

“It just feels homophobic to me.” “No, you’re not hearing me correctly. This isn’t that.”

“Ouch, that stung.” “That’s not how I meant it.”

When you tell me I hurt you, it is quite possible that my gut response will be to deny that I hurt you, to try to absolve myself of any wrong-doing before you’ve had a chance to explain. I don’t experience myself as a hurtful person, so it just isn’t possible that I hurt you. I know I didn’t intend to hurt you, so clearly you’ve misunderstood, misheard, mis-interpreted what I’ve said or done. My intentions are good, so your hurt isn’t justified. Frankly, it isn’t even real. Get over it. Surely, if I explain that I didn’t mean it that way, your hurt will go away.

This gut response comes from multiple sources. In me, it may have something to do with the way our society socializes boys to turn away from emotion. It may have something to do with being an ACOA and wanting to make any negative or difficult emotion vanish as quickly as possible. It may have something to do with being a perfectionist, with not wanting to admit that I, too, can make mistakes. I’m sure it also has something to do with being white, male and heterosexual in a society that privileges white, male, heterosexual people, and thus not fully understanding how deep racism, sexism and homophobia go, or how they are experienced in the tiny things we say and do that we don’t know we’re saying and doing. By the way, the term for those tiny sayings and doings is ‘micro-aggressions.” They are indeed small—“no big deal,” we might say in our own defense—but they add up through the course of a day, a year, a life.

If this gut response to defend exists in you, it may have similar origins to those I am describing for myself. It may have other origins. Regardless of where it comes from, in my experience, most of us say these kinds of things from time to time when confronted with the negative impact we’ve had on someone else, no matter how unintentional. “You hurt me.” Well, that wasn’t my intent.”

But in this gut response lives the seeds of more hurt, the seeds of distance, separateness, isolation. It took me a long time to figure this out—and I am still figuring it out: the fact that I didn’t mean to hurt you, doesn’t mean you weren’t hurt. The fact that it wasn’t my intent to cause you pain, doesn’t mean your pain isn’t real. Telling you “I didn’t mean it that way,” is equivalent to saying “your feelings are wrong.” It’s an attempt to end the conflict without actually doing the work of reconciliation. When someone is hurt, before we explain ourselves, we need to tend to the hurt. Those two blessed words, “I’m sorry,” spoken with love and care, more often than not, will be sufficient to begin repairing the breach. But not “I’m sorry” with sarcasm, not with a rolling of the eyes, not with a huff and a sigh, not with a tone that suggests I’m only saying this because I know you need to hear it but I don’t really feel it; and not “I’m sorry, but….” And not, “I’m sorry that you misunderstood my intentions.” Just two words: “I’m sorry.” Let’s call this micro-atonement.

I know this isn’t a perfect science, but I’ve come to trust that when we acknowledge and honor another’s feelings, when we say “I’m sorry,” they have a much better chance of hearing and believing that causing pain was not our intent. And we also have a much better chance of learning how our words and actions have power beyond our intent.

bombingA Final Reflection on Atonement: If We Must Go To War

The United States of America and its allies are at war with a barbaric and, in my view, pathological enemy calling itself the Islamic State. I won’t rehearse here the events that led to this war as I trust they are widely known in this room. What I hope to do in a few minutes is describe my own struggle to come to terms with the idea that this war is necessary.

I am deeply suspicious of American war-making in our era. My suspicion emerges when I detect the possibility that American or multinational corporations stand to profit from our war-making. I don’t agree that innocent people anywhere ought to suffer—that is, have their cities or villages bombed, lose their homes, lose all their worldly possessions, be driven into mountains, deserts and swamps, driven across borders, driven into refugee camps, experience starvation, dehydration and disease, lose limbs, see friends and family members die—simply because a corporation’s interests are threatened or because a corporation stands to make a profit. Whenever there is a justifiable reason to go to war, i.e., ending fascism in Europe and Japan or stopping genocide, I know there will always be those who profit—some corporate entity must produce the weapons used in fighting the war. But all too often I fear our leaders allow the discernment process to go in reverse: the lust for profit comes first, and the moral (and often thin) justification for war (recall Saddam Hussein’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction) comes second.

I don’t feel suspicion toward our war against the Islamic State. I feel fear, anger and sadness, but not suspicion.  I feel fear particularly when I learn of the arrest of a cell of Islamic State operatives in Australia who were planning to conduct random kidnappings and beheadings. I wonder: was that really what it was? It’s not completely clear. But if that’s what it was, I wonder further: have such cells already formed in Europe, in the United States? I wonder also about the Khorasan Group—not part of the Islamic State—whose base near Aleppo, Syria the United States bombed last week, citing the presence of an imminent threat to the United States. I want to believe these threats are not so real, that this talk is an inflation of a much more distant threat. The word “threat” raises suspicions for me. Is this just the government and the media attempting to build public support for the war—by frightening us into believing there is a direct threat to us? I also know that when the government and the media talk about threats to the “homeland” from radical Islamist groups, there is almost always an increase in anti-Muslim sentiment and a violation of the civil rights of Muslims in the United States. Allegations of threats are immensely complicated. I never quite believe they are as imminent as we hear. But my heart also remembers: it’s happened before. What if the threats are real this time? And I feel fear.

I feel anger at the litany of atrocities the Islamic State has committed—killing, raping, disfiguring, destroying sacred sites, attacking religious minorities, viciously silencing opposing viewpoints, enslaving women, marrying girls to multiple fighters at a time, and lying again and again about the teachings of Islam. I fully accept that people across the Middle East are angry at the United States, other western nations, and corrupt Middle Eastern regimes for a century of colonial oppression. Fight if you must—I get that. But the wonton slaughter of innocents invalidates the grievances you have against perceived enemies; and it demands a principled response from the global community.

I feel deep sadness that we are dropping bombs again on Iraq and anew in Syria—sadness in response to the loss of life, especially the innocents who will become our collateral damage statistics; sadness in response to the money and resources we’re dedicating to war-making that are so desperately needed in our own nation; sadness about the long-term psychological and spiritual damage American war-making does to us, let alone the damage it does abroad; and sadness at the thought that I hate war, that I take to heart Dr. King’s warning that “returning violence for violence multiplies violence.”[4] And yet when I weigh every fact I can learn about this situation—and I acknowledge I don’t know all the facts—I come to the heart-wrenching conclusion that we cannot abandon the millions of people who live in Iraq and Syria to this barbarous tyranny; that there is no solution other than to meet these atrocities not only with every available economic and diplomatic tool, but with resounding military force. I can barely imagine myself saying such a thing; but a chaotic, relentless, brutal and unfeeling spirit drives the Islamic State. I know of no word to name it other than evil. I am not suspicious of our intentions in this new-old war. I am fearful, angry, sad and resigned. The fact that so many traditional antiwar voices on the American left have not spoken out forcefully against this war leads me to speculate that there are many others who feel similarly.  

War, more than any other human endeavor, destroys relationships, creates separation, dehumanizes, murders. What I long to be assured of now is that there will be some way to atone for the violence we are perpetuating.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran minister and committed pacifist who joined a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler said this about his own embrace of violence to confront evil: “The ultimate question for a responsible [person] to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation shall continue to live.”[5] I don’t know enough about this quote to say for sure what Bonhoffer meant by it, but it speaks to me today about this war that feels so tragically necessary. If we must pursue it, let us do so in a way that minimizes the killing of innocents—let that be our first principle of engagement. If we must pursue it, let it not define us as a people. Let it not become who we are as a nation. Let it not obscure and decimate our vision of a more just, peaceful and fair world. Indeed may that vision—not this war—serve as the moral foundation for the coming generations; and may we who live now do everything in our power to make it so. In this way, may we begin to atone for all the wrongs that will surely come with this  new-old war.

Amen and blessed be.

hope

[1] Malka Drucker’s website is at http://www.malkadrucker.com/.

[2] Drucker, Malka, The Family Treasury of Jewish Holidays (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1994) p. 5.

[3] Jacobson, Burt, “A Prayer Before Yom Kippur,” is posted at Velveteen Rabbi, http://velveteenrabbi.blogs.com/blog/2014/10/before-yom-kippur.html.

[4] King,Jr., Martin Luther, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968) p. 62.

[5] Carroll, James, “Who Is Jesus Today? Bonhoffer, Tillich, and the Future of Jesus Christ” Harvard Divinity School Bulletin (Summe/Autumn 2014) p. 46. See: http://bulletin.hds.harvard.edu/articles/summerautumn2014/who-jesus-today.

 

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.