Exploring Our Truths — Virtual Sunday Service, May 31, 2020

Gathering Music (begins at 9:50)

Welcome 

 Announcements 

Centering 

Prelude “Let it Be” (Lennon and McCartney) (Performed by Pat Eaton-Robb)

Chalice Lighting and Opening Words (Wendell Berry)

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Opening Song “Wake Now My Senses” (Thomas Mikelson, traditional Irish Melody) (Josh leads singing)

Wake, now, my senses, and hear the earth call;
feel the deep power of being in all;
keep, with the web of creation your vow,
giving, receiving as love shows us how.

Wake, now, compassion, give heed to the cry;
voices of suffering fill the wide sky;
take as your neighbor both stranger and friend,
praying and striving their hardship to end.

Wake, now, my conscience, with justice thy guide;
join with all people whose rights are denied;
take not for granted a privileged place;
God’s love embraces the whole human race.

Wake, now, my vision of ministry clear;
brighten my pathway with radiance here;
mingle my calling with all who will share;
work toward a planet transformed by our care.

Time with Gina  Be Who You Are (by Todd Parr)

Musical Meditation (Mary Bopp)

Joys and Concerns

Musical Meditation (Mary Bopp)

 Offering 

Our current community outreach offering is somewhat different than what we normally do. In the coming two weeks we are raising funds for specific workers who have been identified by area labor organizers. Specifically, we are raising funds for a group of workers who lost work at the rest stops on I-95 due to the pandemic. These are non-union workers who were in the middle of a campaign to form a union. Although these rest stops are owned by the state of CT, the workers don’t have the same protections and benefits as regular state employees. And without union membership, they have been treated horribly by their employers. A number of them contracted COVID-19 due to their employers not taking their safety seriously. A few of them have died, leaving their families in dire straits. Our goals is to spread the funds we raise among a group of families who have extreme need right now. More information here.

Offering Music  “Imagine” (by John Lennon) (performed by Teresa Kubiak on cello and Kathy Welch on piano; video collage by Jack Chan)

Homily  “Exploring our Truths” (Beth Hudson-Hankins and Sheila Foran)

Closing Song “Blessed Spirit of My Life” (Shelly Jackson Denham)

Blessed Spirit of my life, give me strength through stress and strife;
help me live with dignity; let me know serenity.
Fill me with a vision, clear my mind of fear and confusion.
When my thoughts flow restlessly, let peace find a home in me.

Spirit of great mystery, hear the still, small voice in me.
Help me live my wordless creed as I comfort those in need.
Fill me with compassion, be the source of my intuition.
Then, when life is done for me, let love be my legacy.

Extinguishing the Chalice

Closing Circle  

May faith in the spirit of life

And hope for the community of earth

And love of the light in each other

Be ours now, and for all the days the come.

 Coffee Hour / Chat

On Giving Honor — UUS:E Virtual Worship, May 24, 2020

Watch our May 24th virtual Sunday Service here. 

Bridging / Thoughts on Reopening — UUS:E Virtual Worship, May 17, 2020

Friends: You can watch the video of our May 17th service, including our bridging ceremony,  on the UUS:E Youtube channel.

The test to Rev. Josh Pawelek’s homily is here:

I want to share a few thoughts on what it means for us to get back to normal. By “us” I mean not only those of us in this service – but us as the wider communities of Manchester and Greater Hartford, us as the people of Connecticut, us as a nation.

Earlier we conducted our bridging ceremony. I want to offer congratulations again to John, Sarah, Nate and Mason. And I want to affirm that it’s a very strange and unnerving time to be bridging into young adulthood. The University of California announced this week that it would only be offering online learning for the coming academic year. I suspect each of you will be encountering similar decisions by the schools you are planning to attend this fall. There are many unknowns, and yet one thing we do know is that you will not be launching into young adulthood the way high school graduates always have. Please know that whatever happens, we are here for you. We are committed to supporting you, along with all the other UUS:E young adults who are experiencing disruption at this formative time in their lives.

What about the rest of us? What kind of future are we bridging into?

On Thursday the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Safe Congregation Team released guidance on how to safely return to in-person congregational gatherings. While that guidance is not definitive for us, we need to take it seriously. And the bottom line is sobering. They recommend not returning to regular in-person gatherings until May of 2021. In making this recommendation they are asking us to account for the most vulnerable people among us – not only in our congregation, but also in the wider community. That is, if our UUS:E community were to gather too soon and become instrumental in the spread of a new outbreak, it would not only negatively impact our people, which for me is unacceptable; it would negatively impact people in the wider community. That is also unacceptable. The UUA’s guidance is grounded first and foremost in “our abiding care and concern for the most vulnerable, inside and outside our congregations” and the “recognition that we are part of an interdependent web and, as such, our risk-taking and our protective actions affect far more than just ourselves.”[1]

We won’t be re-opening any time soon, which means we’re going to have to be innovative and creative in all the ways we offering programming, and especially in how we keep our congregational community connected. And when we finally do re-open, we will not be the same community. This social distancing time is going to change us. We are not bridging back to our old ‘normal.’ Something new awaits. We will discover this ‘something new’ as a congregation over the coming year.

The UUA’s guidance flies in the face of the widespread impulse to re-open the country. Connecticut begins re-opening on Wednesday. Other states have already begun re-opening, even states where the infection rate is still on the rise. Here’s my question: Are those in charge of re-opening taking the most vulnerable people into account? Are those in charge of re-opening acting out of an “abiding care and concern for the most vulnerable?” Do those pushing the hardest for re-opening recognize “that we are part of an interdependent web and, as such, our risk-taking and our protective actions affect far more than just ourselves?”

Ten days ago I was in a meeting with clergy from the Greater Hartford Interfaith Action Alliance. It was so striking to hear urban and suburban faith leaders compare notes on their experience of the pandemic. Case in point: the membership of our largely white, suburban congregation has had very little exposure to the coronavirus, and only a few positive tests. We have had no deaths. Yet my colleagues serving largely black, urban congregations report widespread infection and multiple deaths. One highly community-oriented pastor said he was getting at least a phone call a day to conduct a memorial service for someone who had died of Covid-19. Other pastors reported widespread food insecurity and economic hardship. The pandemic has exposed beyond a shadow of a doubt the many race-based economic, social and health disparities in our nation. The high infection and death rates among people of color aren’t a novelty. They are a clear-as-day symptom of the old normal. On the GHIAA call this pastor, speaking through quiet tears, said “we cannot go back to that.”

Friends: I don’t know what the future holds. None of us does. But as a society we cannot bridge back to the old normal. We cannot go back to being the wealthiest nation in the world without understanding that for that wealth to exist the way it does, tens of millions of low-wage workers, immigrants, undocumented people, Black and Latinx people must live with intolerable insecurity, just a breath away from economic ruin or personal health crisis or both.

We’ve been trying to help, raising money to address food insecurity, to support undocumented people facing ICE proceedings, to support domestic workers who’ve gotten sick, and now to support non-union rest stop workers who’ve lost their jobs. These efforts matter because they help vulnerable people survive the pandemic. But let’s be clear: they don’t change the old normal. Are we ready to be in the fight for a new society?

I hope we are. The old normal was a moral failing on the part of our nation. Now, with the coronavirus, it’s a moral catastrophe unfolding before our eyes. We cannot go back to where we were. In all your conversations about re-opening, and in every interaction you may have with officials who have a role to play in the re-opening, demand two things:

All re-opening decisions must be grounded in a demonstrable and “abiding care and concern for the most vulnerable.”

All re-opening decisions must start from a “recognition that we are part of an interdependent web and, as such, our risk-taking and our protective actions affect far more than just ourselves.”

If these values can be brought to bear in the re-opening phase, we will be on our way to a better future for everyone. In my view, fighting for this future now is a moral imperative. May we find our way into this fight.

Amen and blessed be.

 

“Bridging” — UUS:E Virtual Sunday Service, May 17, 2020

Gathering Music (Begins at 9:50)

Welcome and Announcements

(Special thanks to Dorothy Bognar is providing our piano music this morning!)

Prelude “Rhythmic Etudes #30” (by Allen Vizzutti) (Performed by bridging senior John Slogesky)

Chalice Lighting and Opening Words  “Cusp of a New Day” (Patrice K. Curtis) (Spoken by youth group member Casey Campellone)

Divine Universe,

here I stand on the cusp of a new day.

All may seem the same at first, a simple continuum of the day before.

I do not know what this day will bring for me.

Yet what I do know: I am one day older.

I am one day closer to that final breath.

May I carry within me then times of quiet

so that I may feel the pulse of my connection to all beings,

that I may hear the whisper of Earth in my bones.

May I use my hands, head, and heart in service

to heal hurt and to spread light.

 

Opening Hymn “Though I May Speak With Bravest Fire” (Trad. English Melody, words by Hal Hopson)

Though I may speak with bravest fire, and have the gift to all inspire,
and have not love, my words are vain as sounding brass and hopeless gain.

Though I may give all I possess, and striving so my love profess,
but not be given by love within, the profit soon turns strangely thin.

Come, Spirit, come, our hearts control, our spirits long to be made whole.
Let inward love guide every deed; by this we worship, and are freed.

Bridging  Ceremony

Congregational Response to our Bridgers

We bless you today.
May your mind be on fire with wonder and wisdom;
May your heart be aflame with love for this life;
May your hands be ignited with purpose;
And may your spirit be aglow with courage and compassion.
Wherever you may go, our steadfast love goes with you.

Whenever you return, you have a spiritual home here.

We bless you.
We love you.
May you be blessings to the world.

Song “Go Now in Peace” (Natalie Sleeth)

Go now in peace, go now in peace

May the love of God surround you

Everywhere, everywhere, you may go.

Joys and Concerns

Offering  

This morning we begin taking a community outreach offering that is a bit different for us. In the coming two weeks we are raising funds for specific workers who have been identified by the area labor organizers. Specifically, we are going to raise funds for a  group of workers who lost work at the rest stops on I-95 due to the coronavirus. These are non-union workers who were in the middle of a campaign to form a union. Without union membership, they have been treated horribly by their employers. A number of them contracted COVID-19 due to their employers not taking their safety seriously. A few of them have died, leaving their families in dire straights. Our goals is to  spread the funds we raise among these families. Further: if individual UUS:E members want to “adopt” a specific family, they have the option to do that. You can inform Rev. Josh  if you’re interested.

Offering Music  “More Than This” (Miles Mosely) (Performed by bridging senior Mason Pawelek)

Homily  “Back to Normal?” (Rev. Josh Pawelek)

Closing Song “There’s a River Flowin’ in My Soul” (Rose Sanders, aka Faya Ora Rose Touré)

There’s a river flowin’ in my soul

There’s a river flowin’ in my soul

And it’s tellin’ me, that I’m somebody

There’s a river flowin’ in my soul

 

There’s a river flowin’ in my heart…..

 

There’s a river flowin’ in my mind….

 

Extinguishing the Chalice

Closing Circle

May faith in the spirit of life

And hope for the community of earth

And love of the light in each other

Be ours now and in all the days to come.

 

Coffee Hour / Chat

For the Earth Forever Turning — UUS:E Virtual Earth Day Service, April 19, 2020

 

Worship Preparation: Bring a small branch from a tree or bush into your personal worship space. Hold it up in your video feed during “Time with Gina.”

Gathering Music (Begins at 9:50)

Welcome and Announcements

Prelude “Song for the Birds” (Kristen Dockendorff)

Chalice Lighting and Opening Words  “I Pledge Allegiance to the Earth” (Vern Barnet) (Spoken by Meadow Bornhorst)

I pledge allegiance to the earth and all life,

the fields and streams, the mountains and seas,

the forests and deserts, the air and soil,

all species and reserves, habitats and environments;

one world, one creation, one home, indivisible for all,

affected by pollution anywhere, depleted by any waste,

endangered by greedy consumption, degradation by faithlessness;

preserved by recycling, conservation, and reverence,

the great gift renewed for all generations to come.

protected, preserved by reducing, reusing, recycling.

With conservation and reverence,

the great gift renewed for all generations to come.

 

Opening Song “We Shall Not Be Moved” (African American spiritual, adapted by Anne Vaughan for Earth Day 2020))

We shall not, we shall not be moved.

We shall not, we shall not be moved.

Just like a tree that’s planted by the water,

We shall not be moved.

 

We’re fighting for our children,

We shall not be moved.

We’re fighting for our children,

We shall not be moved.

Just like a tree that’s planted by the water,

We shall not be moved.

 

We’re fighting for our earth now,

We shall not be moved.

We’re fighting for our earth now,

We shall not be moved.

Just like a tree that’s planted by the water,

We shall not be moved.

 

We’re loving all Creation

We shall not be moved.

We’re loving all Creation

We shall not be moved.

Just like a tree that’s planted by the water,

We shall not be moved.

 

Everyone together

We shall not be moved.

Everyone together

We shall not be moved.

Just like a tree that’s planted by the water,

We shall not be moved.

 

First Reading  “Earth Day Prayer” (Vern Barnet) (Spoken by Anne Vaughan)

Musical Meditation “Blue Boat Home” (Peter Mayer, ad. by Mary Bopp)

Second Reading – “Letter from Chief Seattle.” (Spoken by David Klotz)

Musical Meditation “Blue Boat Home” (Peter Mayer, ad. by Mary Bopp)

Joys and Concerns 

Musical Meditation “Blue Boat Home” (Peter Mayer, ad. by Mary Bopp)

Offering

For the next two Sundays we are taking our community outreach offering for the CT Alliance to End Sexual Violence. UUS:E member and Alliance board member, Lisa Sementilli says: As we know, sexual violence victims often know their assailants.  April is sexual assault awareness month, and there is, unfortunately, no moratorium on sexual violence during a pandemic. All of the Alliance’s support centers are open, and their hotlines are operating 24/7 to provide counseling, advocacy and support to victims and survivors.  However, the Alliance and its member centers are incurring costs associated with the unprecedented need for technology to support survivors  by phone and video during the crisis.  As a board member, I am also very concerned about our state and nation’s uncertain financial future and what that might mean for services moving forward.  The vast majority of the Alliance and its member center’s financial support comes from state and federal grants.  UUSE’s support is critical because it not only helps to fill new gaps created by the pandemic, but provides us with unrestricted dollars that we can use with flexibility to support victims however they need support, and to build the capacity to face potential funding crises. Thank you

 Offering Music “Coaxing the Moon” (Kristen Dockendorff)

 Third Reading “The Story of the Sacred Tree”(Co-authored by Judie Bopp, Michael Bopp, Lee Brown, and Phil Lane, Jr. of the Four Worlds International Institute, an organization of Indigenous elders, spiritual leaders, and community members from across Canada and the US dedicated to holistic human, community, organizational and economic development. ) (Spoken by Mary Lawrence)

 Time with Gina  “Tree Meditation” and “blessing of the branches.” (ad. from the book Forest Bathing Retreat by Hannah Fries)

If you’ve brought a tree branch into your worship space, hold it up in your video feed during this meditation

Closing Song “For the Earth Forever Turning” (Kim Oler)

For the earth forever turning; for the skies, for ev’ry sea;
for our lives, for all we cherish, sing we our joyful song of peace.

For the mountains, hills, and pastures in their silent majesty;
for the stars, for all the heavens, sing we our joyful song of peace.

For the sun, for rain and thunder, for the seasons’ harmony,
for our lives, for all creation, sing we our joyful praise to Thee.

For the world we raise our voices, for the home that gives us birth;
in our joy we sing returning home to our bluegreen hills of earth.

Brief Closing Remarks (Rev. Josh Pawelek)

Closing Words “I Pledge Allegiance to the Earth” (Vern Barnet) (Spoken in unison)

I pledge allegiance to the earth and all life,

the fields and streams, the mountains and seas,

the forests and deserts, the air and soil,

all species and reserves, habitats and environments;

one world, one creation, one home, indivisible for all,

affected by pollution anywhere, depleted by any waste,

endangered by greedy consumption, degradation by faithlessness;

preserved by recycling, conservation, and reverence,

the great gift renewed for all generations to come.

protected, preserved by reducing, reusing, recycling.

With conservation and reverence,

the great gift renewed for all generations to come.

 

Extinguishing the Chalice

Closing Circle

May faith in the spirit of life

And hope for the community of earth

And love of the light in each other

Be ours now, and in all the days to come.

Coffee Hour / Chat

“Hope Is….” — UUS:E Virtual Sunday Service, Easter, April 12, 2020

Friends:

The UUS:E virtual Easter Service, “Hope Is….” can be viewed at here.

Here is the text to Rev. Pawelek’s Easter homily, “Tending to Bodies.”

It is Easter morning. As the story goes, it is now the third day since Jesus has been crucified, his body stashed in a nearby tomb hewn into the rock.

In the New Testament book of Mark we read: “When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’ When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’ So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

These are ancient words, written most likely in the fourth or fifth decade after Jesus’ death. Every year, as I read these words at Easter time, I listen carefully for what they might be saying to us across the millennia. What I notice this morning is that the three women who go to the tomb aren’t looking for a resurrected Jesus. They aren’t hoping beyond hope that somehow he has risen from the dead. No. They are going to the tomb to anoint his body with spices. In the wake of a terrible death—a state-sponsored execution—in the midst of what for them could be nothing less than an unbearable trauma—they are doing something simple, something ritualistic, something cultural, something people in their world normally do when a loved-one dies, something profoundly human: they are going to the tomb to anoint his body with spices. Nothing extraordinary. Nothing heroic. Nothing dramatic. They are tending to their beloved’s body.

As they approach the tomb, wondering who can help them roll away the stone, they find that the stone has already been rolled away; Jesus’ body is gone; a young man in a white robe who is not Jesus—we never learn who he is—tells them Jesus has been raised. Resurrection! New Life! A spring-inspired word! Hope beyond hope!

Next year I might read these words differently, and differently still the year after that. But this year, this Easter, coming in the midst of this coronavirus time, this quarantine time, this lockdown time; coming in the midst of this unnerving, anxiety-producing, sleep-denying, utterly frightening global pandemic, the ancient gospel writer tells us, tend to the body! Tending to the body is a critical prelude to “he has been raised.”

Tend to the body.

Tend to your own body – give it what it needs. Tend to the bodies of your loved-ones—whether they are halfway across the room from you, or halfway across the country from you. Keep social distance, yes, but tend to the bodies of your neighbors. Tend to the bodies of the most vulnerable, those who cannot leave their homes, those who have no home, those who are at high risk if they contract the virus. Keep social distance, yes, but end to the bodies of those who have lost work, or who don’t have enough food and other supplies, or who must work in dangerous situations without sufficient protective gear. Tend to this church body as you are able. Tend to the body of the larger community as you are able. Nothing extraordinary. Nothing heroic. Nothing dramatic. Simply tend to bodies however you can. That is all Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome intended to do in the midst of their trauma. That is what we need to do in this moment. In fact, it may very well be all we can do.

And perhaps an unexpected, awesome and, as the writer says, terrifying revelation is waiting for us too. Some version of “He has been raised!” Life again! A spring-inspired word! Hallelujah!

When we carefully and intentionally tend to bodies at a moment such as this, I believe we touch the spirit at the heart of Easter. We help ourselves and others who have fallen into fear and despair regain grounding. We help ourselves and others who have lost faith in the goodness of humanity know and trust that there is still decency in the world. We help ourselves and others know that we care for one another, that our connections are strong, that it’s OK to ask for help, that we will not abandon anyone if it is in our power to help. For me, this year, this morning, tending to bodies is the message of Easter. That’s how we help bring ourselves and others out of our tombs. That’s how we and others proclaim resurrection! Life again! Life anew!

Tending to the body. That’s what brings hope in a moment such as this!

There are some pictures on our website—some of you may have seen them in the eblast yesterday—of Hartford Hospital workers wearing face masks that UUS:E members made in their homes. The workers gave us permission to share the pictures. The people who made the masks were tending to the workers’ bodies even though they didn’t know for sure who would ultimately wear the masks. The person who delivered the masks to the workers was tending to their bodies. The workers who wore the masks were tending to their own bodies, which in turn enables them tend to the bodies of patients in the hospital.

Those of you who are helping out with food drops are tending to bodies. Those of you who have indicated you are willing to help are tending to bodies. Those of you who are keeping touch with members and friends of our congregation are tending to bodies. Those of you who are sending cards to those who have lost loved-ones to Covid-19—you are tending to bodies. Those of you who have donated to MACC and Hartford Deportation Defense—you are tending to bodies. Every time we do these simple, human things—these unheroic, unexceptional, undramatic things—we tap into the spirit at the heart of Easter. We speak a spring-inspired word. We say “Yes” to life. We say “Life Again!” We say “Life Anew!” Like the three women at the tomb, we may be awe-struck in this moment. Like the three women at the tomb, we may be terrified in this moment. But like the three women at the tomb, in these very simple actions we also find hope when we least expect it.

My message to you this Easter morning: Be like the women at the tomb. Tend to bodies. That is what we must do now. That is our path out of our own tombs. That is our path to new life. That is our path to hope.

Amen and blessed be.

Preemptive Radical Inclusion — UUS:E Virtual Sunday Service, April 5th, 2020

CB BealWatch UUS:E’s April 5th, 2020 virtual Sunday service with guest speaker, CB Beal on YouTube here.

Preemptive Radical Inclusion — UUS:E Virtual Sunday Service, April 5, 2020

Gathering Music (commences at 9:50 am)

Welcome, Announcements, and Introduction of Guest Speaker

Prelude “Gather the Spirit” (Jim Scott, ad. by Mary Bopp)

Chalice Lighting and Opening Words “I Will Not Die an Unlived Life” (Dawna Markova)

I will not die an unlived life.
I will not live in fear
Of falling or catching fire.
I choose to inhabit my days,
To allow my living to open me,
To make me less afraid,
More accessible
To loosen my heart
Until it becomes a wing,
A torch, a promise.
I choose to risk my significance;
To live so that which came to me as seed
Goes to the next as blossom
And that which came to me as blossom,
Goes on as fruit.

 Opening Hymn “We Would Be One” (Words by Samuel Anthony Wright, Music by Jean Sibelius)

We would be one as now we join in singing
our hymn of love, to pledge ourselves anew
to that high cause of greater understanding
of who we are, and what in us is true.
We would be one in living for each other
to show to all a new community.

We would be one in building for tomorrow
a nobler world than we have known today.
We would be one in searching for that meaning
which bends our hearts and points us on our way.
As one, we pledge ourselves to greater service,
with love and justice, strive to make us free.

Further Introductions  (Gina Campellone)

Story “There’s No Such Thing as a Dragon” (Jack Kent)

 Musical Meditation

Joys and Concerns

Musical Meditation

Offering 

This morning and throughout the week we’re dedicating our offering to Hartford Deportation Defense’s “Greater Hartford Immigration Fund.” Hartford Deportation Defense (HDD) is a group of Hartford-area neighbors who work to support families directly impacted by the US Government’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement deportation operations. HDD is led by immigrants and their allies, seeking to dismantle the deportation machine and resisting the mass criminalization of black and brown people. The Greater Hartford Immigration Fund, which helps pay the legal fees of families impacted by deportation proceedings, is also being used during the Covid19 pandemic to secure food for impacted families in the greater Hartford region, as well as to fund a network of impacted people who are producing face masks to share within the community. Thank you for your generosity. You can donate to the UUS:E Community Outreach Fund here.

Offering Music “This is Me” (Keala Settle, performed by Carole Capen-Kargher)

Homily “Preemptive Radical Inclusion” (CB Beal)

Closing Hymn “Spirit of Life” (Carolyn McDade)

Spirit of Life, come unto me.
Sing in my heart all the stirrings of compassion,
Blow in the wind, rise in the sea;
move in the hand, giving life the shape of justice.
Roots hold me close; wings set me free:
Spirit of life, come to me, come to me.

Extinguishing the Chalice

Closing Circle

 Coffee Hour and Zoom chat

 

A Church That Matters: A Sermon for the Annual Appeal

Rev. Josh Pawelek

According to the Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson, “In the church that doesn’t matter, no one has to ask for money, or even talk about it much; there is always enough to go around. There is always enough because no matter how much there is, there is always less to do with it than that. The vision always shrinks to under-match the means. So canvas season is always a breeze.”[1]

He’s kidding, except he’s not.

Every year there’s a moment when I panic about our annual appeal. Costs rise every year. The finance committee dutifully builds a budget that accounts for all the rising costs. They generate different versions of the budget—a conservative version that limits spending increases to a bare minimum; a mid-level version that may be a stretch, but funds our highest priority goals; and then an “everything budget” that funds everything we want to do, but which usually requires around a 10 percent increase in financial giving. At least for the past few years, the Policy Board has looked at these various proposals and, mindful that a 3% increase in giving is a very successful annual appeal for us, they nevertheless want to make sure that the everything budget is visible during the annual appeal, so that you will know what your financial generosity can make possible. This year that everything budget includes fully and sustainably funding our Membership Coordinator position (which we hope to rehire over the summer); paying full dues to the Greater Hartford Interfaith Action Alliance; funding a variety of building security measures; and paying salaries and benefits to our staff in line with Unitarian Universalist association recommendations. At the Policy Board meetings, we get really, really excited about what is possible. We want you to feel that same excitement.

Then I panic. How are we going to pull this off? People already make incredibly generous financial gifts; how can we keep asking for more? Most people’s income doesn’t increase three to ten percent every year, so how can we justify asking for increases? I worry you are going to think we’re out of touch with the fiscal realities of your lives.

But then, inevitably, I remember. This liberal religious, Unitarian Universalist congregation matters. And because this congregation matters, because we care deeply about it, the vision always expands, the possibilities always increase, opportunities always abound. Every year we imagine more than we can achieve—more social justice work and partnerships, more music and arts, more pastoral ministry, more spiritual growth, more outreach, more volunteerism, more youth and junior youth programming. We will always have an everything budget to reach for. We will always be visioning, dreaming and imaging beyond where we are precisely because this church matters. We will always be taking risks and experiencing some failure precisely because this church matters.

It’s never going to be easy, because none of you are here for a church that isn’t worth fighting over, a church that doesn’t inspire passion, a church that doesn’t touch your heart and move you to put your principles into action.

Our annual appeal has begun. Let’s thank the Stewardship Committee members. They run the annual appeal. Their purpose is to encourage generosity toward this congregation—not only financial generosity, but generosity in terms of commitment, spirit and love. Adam Bender chairs the committee. Members include Louisa Graver, Stan McMillen, Phil Sawyer and Larry Lunden. A great team! They organize the pledging potlucks. They organize and train the stewards who will reach out to many of you to ask for your financial pledge for the coming fiscal year. (As always, if a steward contacts you, please get back to them as soon as possible so they can meet with you.) Thank you Stewardship Committee. We deeply appreciate all the work you do on behalf of this church that matters.

We have big goals this year. As many of you know, we’ve made a big push over the last two years to hire a Membership Coordinator whose job is to oversee our membership ministry, including welcoming and nurturing visitors and fostering the engagement of current members and friends. Among the congregations in our denomination showing the greatest growth, the majority of them point to the presence of a membership professional as a primary reason for their growth. We filled the position last year. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out. That was very disappointing. We’ve taken lessons from that experience. All of us who’ve worked hard to establish this position still believe it is the right direction for UUS:E, especially in this era when congregations in all denominations are facing strong headwinds and declining membership. Your generous pledge to the annual appeal will help us hire a membership coordinator in the coming year and sustain the position until it becomes self-sustaining. I want to thank members of the Growth Strategy Team Carol Marion, Michelle Spadaccini, Nancy Pappas, Louisa Graver, and Edie Lacey for all the work they’ve done to imagine, create and bring this position into being. Friends: Your extra financial generosity can make this happen!

In October, after three years of organizing, thirty-five congregations from across Hartford County founded the Greater Hartford Interfaith Action Alliance or GHIAA, a faith-based social justice organization. We come together across lines of faith, race, culture and geography, discern our common values, pool our resources, identify issues where our collective power will make a difference, and then exercise our power. Already we are having an impact. GHIAA has supported a group called the North End Power Team in their No More Slumlords campaign, which is successfully holding Hartford slumlords accountable for housing code violations, and which has also led the city of Hartford to update its housing codes for the first time in forty years. GHIAA is also currently engaged in the Clean Slate campaign, an effort to remove some misdemeanor and felony convictions from peoples’ records after incarceration so they can more fully enter back into regular life, find work, housing and educational opportunities. Many of you have already signed postcards in our lobby to your legislators and the governor urging them to support Clean Slate.

We’re also supporting legislation to repeal Connecticut’s welfare liens statutes. Currently our state and New York are the only two states that have mechanisms for clawing back public assistance money from people who’ve received it. This practice sends people who’ve made their way out of poverty right back into poverty—a classic example of balancing the state budget on the backs of poor people. It is unconscionable, immoral, cruel, and economically unwise. We’re going to end this practice.

GHIAA is also working in the areas of health care, gun violence, and education. Our UUS:E GHIAA core team will keep you informed of opportunities to get involved. If anyone wants to become part of our GHIAA core team, or if you want to work on one of GHIAA’s issue committees, please connect with me and I can point you in the right direction. But what does any of this have to do with our budget? UUS:E has been with GHIAA from the beginning, but we have not become a formal member. You will make that decision at our annual meeting in May. Membership comes with dues. We pay dues because it is our organization. In our everything budget, we pay dues of $5,000 to GHIAA. In the first few years we should be able to get some financial assistance from the Unitarian Universalist Association, but ultimately our dues are our expression of our commitment to a more just and equitable Greater Hartford region. Your extra generosity can make this happen!

Many of you know our congregation has been developing its emergency response plan in earnest for a number of years now. Along the way we’ve recognized there are many things we can do to make our building more secure. Some of you have noticed that we’ve begun installing a public address system using a series of wall units. There are many other upgrades we’d like to adopt, including a video surveillance system, reinforced glass around entry ways and more training opportunities. Our everything budget enables us to begin pursuing these upgrades in the coming year. Your extra generous gift to UUS:E can make this happen!

And yes, we want to treat our staff well. In our everything budget we bring our staff salaries in line with the midpoint of the annual UUA recommendations.

Like every year, there’s much we want to achieve. Why? Because this church matters. Many of you can envision more and more possibilities precisely because you love this church, and you want it to be the best, most effective, most meaningful, most loving church it can be.

But your generous donation to UUS:E is not just about these particular goals. These goals express something much deeper, much more profound and, frankly, much more urgent. Scholars of congregational vitality in the United States tell us organized religion is declining for a host of reasons—people are disillusioned with the church; they see hypocrisy and abuse; they see the church unable and unwilling to address problems in the larger society. We hear family life and kids’ schedules no longer mesh with a regular Sunday morning commitment. We hear the explosion of online entertainment, social media and gaming have greater appeal than church. I said a number of years ago I would no longer preach about the end of church, and I won’t. Suffice to say congregations in all denominations face headwinds.

But there’s a reason we’re still here. There is still a genius to the idea of the local congregation, and none of the headwinds negate that genius. At its best, your local congregation articulates and attempts to live by the values you hold dear; it welcomes you as you are, accompanies you on your life journey, holds you in your times of sorrow and grief, and celebrates with you in your times of joy and success. It helps you and your family mark your life transitions: birth, coming of age, marriage, death. Perhaps most importantly its gathers every week for worship—for holding up that which is worthy of our attention and commitment—and then sends us forth into the world ready to make a positive difference with our living. The local congregation is a powerful answer to the isolation and anxiety so many people feel today. It is a powerful answer to all the forces that divide people from people and weaken communities. And that is why, in Rev. Asprooth-Jackson’s words, “we get out of bed on Sunday morning, answer that email, make something for the [chocolate auction] and give our time and attention to a meeting every third Thursday.” That is why, “We still decide again and again to ask tough questions, take real risks, do the work that needs doing, and tell the truth.”[2] Local congregations of all kinds matter.

Having said that, for me there is a still greater genius at the core of the liberal and liberating church, including this Unitarian Universalist congregation. I was raised as a Unitarian Universalist and I have dedicated my life to our UU faith. I suspect the reasons I am here are consistent with the reasons you are here.

I am dedicated to the church that begins with the premise not that some are saved and some are damned, but that each human being has inherent worth and dignity.

I am dedicated to the church that refuses to contain its peoples’ spiritual lives within doctrines and dogmas but rather says “we trust you to freely and responsibly conduct your search for truth and meaning.”

I am dedicated to the church that teaches we are not separate from but rather exist in intimate relationship with the earth, that teaches the earth does not belong to us, rather we belong to it, and we are therefore called not just to care for the earth but to fight for its survival and well-bring.

I am dedicated to the church that understands the limits of its charity and therefore seeks to transform systems of injustice that create the need for charity in the first place.

I am dedicated to the church that seeks liberation for oppressed people not on its own but in accountable relationship to and in solidarity with oppressed people and their allies.

I am dedicated to the church that knows it doesn’t have all the answers, knows it isn’t perfect, knows change is inherent in our living, and therefore approaches the world from a position of humble questioning rather than unexamined or arrogant theological knowing.

I am dedicated to the church that is not threatened by science, but rather takes science seriously, respects scientific knowledge and methods, and is willing to modify its spiritual views in response to scientific discovery.

I am dedicated to the church whose members take responsibility for its well-being and rely on their own democratic processes to make thoughtful, hard decisions about their collective future.

I am dedicated to the church that makes room for a wide variety of spiritualties and theologies precisely because religion at its best does not limit people, but enables the expansion of thought, belief and practice.

I am dedicated to the church that teaches us not what to believe, but how to live.

I love this church and this faith. I make no apologies for that love. I hope and trust you love this church and this faith unapologetically. I hope and trust, when you contemplate your financial pledge for the coming fiscal year, you will keep in mind the genius of the liberal and liberating, Unitarian Universalist church, that you will recognize how sorely it is needed in today’s world, that you will remember this is a church that matters.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Asprooth-Jackson, Kelly Weisman, ‘The Church that Doesn’t Matter” Bless the Imperfect: Meditations for Congregational Leaders (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2014) p. 26.

[2] Asprooth Jackson, “The Church that Doesn’t Matter,” p. 27.

Enough With the Dystopias Already

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Dystopian Cityscape with Zombies, by Andre Thouin

“I think it’s okay to tell you that everything works out. That it’s okay. And it’s not easy all the time, not even here, because so much is broken, besides silence, but it is possible, it does feel possible. My friends and I feel possible all the time.”[1] A brief glimpse into a hopeful, however dystopian, post-capitalist future from Alexis Pauline Gumbs—queer black troublemaker, black feminist love evangelist, Afro-Caribbean grandchild, prayer-poet priestess, and time-traveling space cadet who lives and loves in Durham, North Carolina.[2] Her story, “Evidence,” appears in Octavia’s Brood, a 2015 collection of science fiction stories written by social justice movement activists.

There’s a soft spot in my heart for dystopian storytelling. Usually as the story begins, everything has changed. Governments have fallen due to climate catastrophes, pandemics or revolutions. Ruthless regimes, secret corporate cabals, zombies, or heartless machines rule the world. Protagonists struggle to survive, to overcome, or just to come to terms with their new reality. In Gumbs’ story the people have emerged out of a dystopian past in which “so much has been broken,” into a more healthy, creative, spiritually-grounded society. “My friends and I feel possible all the time.”

Writers of young adult mass market dystopian fiction sell millions of books which then become blockbuster movies. My son devours them: Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games, James Dashner’s Maze Runner, Veronica Roth’s Divergent. I’ve recently started watching the The Handmaid’s Tale, based on Margaret Atwood’s groundbreaking 1985 novel. A few years ago I couldn’t put down her Oryx and Crake series. I found Cormac McCarthy’s The Road disturbing but riveting. As a child I read George Orwell’s 1984, Neville Shute’s On the Beach, and Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, about a lone survivor of a zombie-producing pandemic which was the basis for the 1964 film, “The Last Man on Earth,” starring Vincent Price, the 1971 film, Omega Man, starring Charlton Heston, and the 2007 film, I Am Legend, starring Will Smith. (Speaking of Heston, let’s not forget Planet of the Apes.) I go back often to movies like the Wachowsky sisters’ The Matrix, Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, and the Road Warrior films. I would be profoundly remiss if I did not mention one of the most influential books of our era, Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower, which takes place in the midst of a collapsing California. Its main character, a teenager named Lauren Oya Olamina, crafts a nature-based theology called Earthseed. Butler is often regarded as the mother (and sometimes the grandmother) of Afrofuturism. [3]

You may not know all these references. Dystopian fiction may not be your thing, but it is wildly popular. Some fans love it purely as a form of escape. Others are genuinely intrigued with the philosophical questions the genre raises: how would human beings live under certain extreme conditions—a vastly altered climate, a brutally oppressive regime, a failing or failed modern world? And still others turn to this genre to ask: how should we live now? Given worsening climate conditions, increasing corporate power and wealth, the loss of traditional work due to automation, the rise of authoritarian regimes, how should we live now? What kinds of decisions should we make now? What new ethics should we promote now? What sorts of faith, theology and spirituality do we need now?

I call this sermon “Enough With the Dystopias Already.” In using this title I don’t mean to suggest that those of us who love dystopian fiction should stop consuming it. And I also don’t mean in any way to downplay or deny the very real dystopian experiences in many peoples’ lives. If you live under quarantine in the Hubei province of China, or on the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship docked near Tokyo, you are living, at least temporarily, in a kind of dystopia. If you live in an area of the world beset by war, or the direct impacts of climate change, you are living in a kind of dystopia. If your community is recovering from a devastating natural disaster, you are living right now in a kind of dystopia. If your community endures high poverty, high crime, failing schools, widespread opioid use, high unemployment or limited health care options you may experience your day-to-day reality as a kind of dystopia. I don’t mean to disregard any of this.

When I say “enough with the dystopias already,” I’m referring to a tendency I observe in myself and others to catastrophize in response to troubling news, to overstate the severity of a crisis; to follow, for example, the news of the corona virus, and to worry incessantly about it here in the United States, without first trying to understand the data that actually exist. For most people who contract the virus the symptoms are very mild. The death rate, though significant, is much lower than that of previous corona viruses, and the flu is still a much more deadly disease. There are globally accepted best practices for containing dangerous viruses which the vast majority of nations are implementing. I’m not saying we have nothing to worry about. I’m not saying it won’t get worse—I don’t know that. I’m saying that given what health officials know, we should be concerned and cautious, we should pay attention, but there’s no reason to panic.

Another example of catastrophic thinking results from our perceptions of political polarization. Yes, polarization is real. Yes, relationships are breaking down over politics in ways we haven’t seen for generations. Yes, there is an ever-hardening tendency among our political leaders to refuse compromise, to resist the solid, pragmatic ideas at the center and hold relentlessly to ideological positions at the margins. But are we coming undone at the seams? Are we descending into chaos? Should we be panicking? Should we be despairing?

Last Sunday’s New York Times opinion section featured an extended editorial by the conservative columnist Ross Douthat called “The Age of Decadence.” “Everyone,” he writes, “knows that we live in a time of constant acceleration, or vertiginous change, of transformation or looming disaster everywhere you look. Partisans are girding for civil war, robots are coming for our jobs, and the news feels like a multicar pileup every time you fire up Twitter.” There’s a lot of catastrophic thinking going on, predictions of dystopia, but in Douthat’s assessment, catastrophe is not imminent. “The truth of the first decades of the 21st century … is that we probably aren’t entering a 1930s-style crisis for Western liberalism or hurtling toward transhumanism or extinction.” He says we’re not living in a dystopian age, but rather an  age of decadence. That’s not good, but it’s not dire either. Our decadent economy, if lacking in innovation, if unjust and unfair in many ways, is still highly stable. “The United States is an extraordinarily wealthy country, its middle class prosperous beyond the dreams of centuries past, its welfare state effective at easing the pain of recessions.” Yes, we face profound challenges. Yes, we live amidst profound contradictions. But “The decadent society, unlike the full dystopia, allows those signs of contradiction to exist, which means that it’s always possible to imagine and work toward renewal and renaissance.” [4]

Douthat is saying “enough with the dystopias already!” Enough with catastrophic thinking. Our society is more stable than we realize, and that means we still have the capacity to address our most daunting crises. I say “enough with the dystopias already” because the more we catastrophize, the more paralyzed we become, the more we fail to identify and exercise our power for the sake of renewal and renaissance, the more we lose the spirit Alexis Pauline Gumbs raises up in her story: “My friends and I feel possible all the time.”

Our February ministry theme is resilience. Catastrophic thinking about dystopian futures weakens our resilience. As I started contemplating this notion over the past few weeks, I began noticing examples of people who are not paralyzed or polarized, but trying simply to use whatever power they have to make our communities more resilient. At a recent meeting of the Manchester Community Services Council, Manchester Fire Department Battalion Chief for Fire-Rescue-and Emergency Medical Services, Josh Beaulieu, spoke about Mobile Integrated Healthcare, a way municipalities and fire departments are adapting to changes in the health care landscape.[5] Given that the majority of 911 calls are not actual emergencies, can paramedics be trained to deliver health care services that keep people out of the emergency room when they don’t need to be there, or redirect them to more appropriate and less expensive health care resources? Might such training help reduce the number of non-emergency 911 calls? Might it reduce the number of emergency room visits and unnecessary hospital readmissions? Might it enable a city like Manchester to provide better service overall to elders, to people with mental illness, to people with living with addictions?

As Mr. Beaulieu started talking about changes in the health care landscape, my mind moved automatically in a catastrophic direction. The health care system is broken! We don’t have health care justice in our nation! We have big insurance, big pharma and hospitals prioritizing profits above actual health care!  I was about to raise my hand, but it suddenly dawned on me his presentation really wasn’t about that. Here was a local fire official, aware of gaps in the health care system that impact his department’s capacity to fulfill its mission, asking, very simply, how can we make this better? How can we close the health care gaps we encounter in our day-to-day response to 911 calls? He’s not fighting zombies. He’s not curing pandemics. He’s not solving the health care crisis. But he is intent on  adapting to changing circumstances for the sake of providing better care. He’s interested in what is possible. Such engagement creates greater community resilience.

I think similarly about how we respond to the climate crisis. Learning about climate change very easily leads to catastrophic thinking, and a feeling of helplessness. This isn’t wrong: we’re facing a very real, very urgent crisis, and the big things that clearly have to happen—the big reductions in carbon emissions, the big infrastructure transitions to renewable energy sources, and the requisite international agreements—seem so beyond the power of local communities to address. The challenge is not to become paralyzed or overwhelmed. There are still thousands of actions we can and must take both to prevent further global warming, but also to adapt to already inevitable changes. We still need to work at transforming our local culture to support local food production, recycling, conservation, sustainable design and development. I’ve recently been learning about the Freecycle Network, a grassroots, global network of people who give and get used stuff for free in their neighborhoods and towns. The point is to reuse items rather than throwing them into landfills.[6] Our UUS:E Sustainable Living Committee has just introduced a similar program called the Library of Things.[7] Our members and friends can now borrow tools and other items from each other in an effort to reduce consumption, resource depletion, and pollution as well as, we hope, foster an even deeper sense of community. It’s a small effort. It’s not winning the Hunger Games or resisting Big Brother. It won’t solve the climate crisis. But it is something we have the power to do here and now, one of thousands of adaptations necessary for living well in the midst of climate change. Such engagement creates greater community resilience.

One more quick story. A white supremacist organization recently plastered its stickers all over a local town. A member of our congregation witnessed this, and took it upon themselves to remove the stickers. No heroics. This person wasn’t solving the problem of white supremacy. But they also refused to succumb to fear or despair. They recognized they had the power to do something, and they did it. Such engagement creates greater community resilience.

In Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ story, “Evidence,” Alexis after capitalism writes an encouraging letter to her younger self, Alexis during capitalism: “It is on everyone’s mind and heart how to best support the genius that surrounds us all. How to shepherd each of us into the brilliance we come from even though our experience breaking each other apart through capitalism has left much healing to be done. We are more patient than we have ever been. And now that our time is divine and connected with everything, we have developed skills for how to recenter ourselves. We walk. We drink tea. We are still when we need to be. No one is impatient with someone else’s stillness. No one feels guilty for sitting still. Everybody is always learning how to grow.”[8]

Gumbs offers a wonderful vision of a future beloved community. She is also advising us how to live now: patient, centered, still and always learning how to grow; not solving every problem—life is still hard—but each of us slowly adapting to changing conditions. After all is said and done, I’m not sure there’s any other way to persevere through hard times. I’m not sure there’s any other way to transform our culture of decadence into a culture of vibrancy, sustainability and liberation. In this late winter season, let us be mindful of our capacity to grow, “to feel possible all the time.” Let’s hold the space for each of us to feel possible, to contribute what we can. And may this be the outward sign of our inward resilience.

Amen and blessed be.

 

[1] Alexis Pauline Gumbs, “Evidence” in Brown Adrienne Maree and Imarisha, Walidah, eds., Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements (Oakland: AK Press and the Institute for Anarchist Studies, 2015) p. 40.

[2] Brown and Walidah, eds., Octavia’s Brood, p. 288.

[3] Interesting sidebar: In Butler’s sequel, 1998’s The Parable of the Talents, “a violent movement is being whipped up by a new Presidential candidate, Andrew Steele Jarret, a Texas senator and religious zealot who is running on a platform to ‘make American great again.’” See: Aguirre, Abbey, “Octavia Butler’s Prescient Vision of a Zealot Elected to ‘Make America Great Again,’” The New Yorker, July 26th, 2019.

[4] Douthat, Ross, The Age of Decadence, New York Times, Sunday, February 9, 2020. See: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/07/opinion/sunday/western-society-decadence.html.

[5] Mr. Beaulieu has an article about this on his Linked-In page. See “The Need to Adapt Fire-based EMS to Today’s Healthcare Environment” at

https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/need-adapt-fire-based-ems-todays-healthcare-joshua-beaulieu-mba-lp?articleId=6473040885041946624#comments-6473040885041946624&trk=public_profile_article_view.

[6] Check out the Freestyle Network at https://www.freecycle.org/.

[7] Participate in UUS:E’s Library of Things at http://uuse.org/SUSTAINABLE-LIVING/LOT/#.XkReCWhKjIU.

[8] Alexis Pauline Gumbs, “Evidence” in Brown Adrienne Maree and Imarisha, Walidah, Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements (Oakland: AK Press and the Institute for Anarchist Studies, 2015) p. 40.