This Land is Your Land? — UUS:E Virtual Worship, September 20, 2021

Friends: You can view the entire September 20th service on our YouTube here:

You can read Widening the Circle of Concern, the report from the UUA’s Commission on Institutional Change on the UUA Website.

Read: Marsha Howland’s brief testimony on the life of the late Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

A Hebrew phrase from the Book of Deuteronomy is framed and hanging in the office of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. This is the English translation: “Justice, justice you shall pursue.”

And she did – with determination, scholarship and fierce devotion. Our country is so much better for what she accomplished in her entire career, not just during her 27 years as a Supreme Court Justice.

We all know well some of the key pieces of her life story: That, despite graduating at the top of her class at Columbia Law School, she couldn’t get a job at a law firm (women were excluded) or an interview for the Supreme Court clerkship for which she had been recommended.

That, when she was finally a practicing attorney, she argued six cases before the Supreme Court, winning five. Cases that advanced the cause of equality of women in this country.

That, over her career, she also was important in the expansion of rights for many marginalized groups – from people of color to the LGBTQ community.

That, despite several bouts with cancer, she returned each time to her work at the Supreme Court with extraordinary speed and determination.

That, after all this and much more, she died Friday at her home in Washington.

That she is an icon, a role model and what some might call a rockstar of justice.

And that she should forever be associated with those words: “Justice, justice you shall pursue.”

*****

“This Land is Your Land?”

Rev. Josh Pawelek

I feel like I’m tied up in a complicated knot. I feel like our Unitarian Universalist faith is tied up in a complicated knot. I feel like our country is tied up with multiple lines of rope, segments of string, various fibers, wire, yarn—loops, bights and elbows—all bound together in an exquisitely complicated knot. What makes it complicated is one strand running through all of it, tying us up in the most devious of ways: white supremacy culture. We Unitarian Universalists, we residents of the United States, we human beings are called to untie this knot. Our principles call us to untie this know. Our basic sense of right and wrong calls us to untie this know. Our human decency calls us to untie this knot. The sacred power in our lives call us to untie this knot.

I’m addressing white supremacy culture this morning because this is my first official homily of the new congregational year—the year in which the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) will begin implementing recommendations from the Commission on Institutional Change. As background, many of you will remember that in the winter of 2017, UU leaders of color raised concerns about white supremacy culture operating in hiring practices at our UUA headquarters in Boston. In response the UUA’s Board of Trustees established the Commission on Institutional Change to “conduct an audit of the power structures and analyze racism and white supremacy culture within our [denomination.]”[1] Their report, published in June, offers a comprehensive assessment of how white supremacy culture operates (often subtly and despite our best intentions) in our faith.

I would love it if every adult in our congregation would read the report with open hearts and minds. It’s called Widening the Circle of Concern. You can read it online.[2] You can purchase a hard copy, download the audiobook. The UUA is working really hard at untying the knot of white supremacy culture. If our leaders speak and we don’t pay attention, it’s our loss. I am so grateful to the members of the Commission for their love and dedication, for their faith in us. Let’s not let them down. They name hard, painful truths; they offer paths toward healing, justice, beloved community and redemption. They invite us to understand ourselves differently, and to live our faith in new ways. None of it will be easy. It will take all of us, working together, to untie this knot.

One of the underlying recommendations is centering the voices of Black people, Indigenous people and people of color. The report says we “can’t dismantle systems of oppressive behavior without leaning into the knowledge and perspective of those most affected.”[3] That’s centering: prioritizing the voices, experiences, and world-view of the people most harmed by white supremacy culture. On the surface it seems simple, but the knot is tight.

What happens when the institutional practice of centering Black, Indigenous and other People of Color comes into conflict with our favorite traditions, rituals, music? For example, I used to gift our graduating high school seniors with a copy of the Jefferson Bible. I saw it as a symbol of the liberal religious spirit both in our nation and our faith. But Thomas Jefferson was a slaveholder, and as president he created conditions that led to the stealing of land from and the murder of Indigenous people along vast swaths of our young nation’s western borders. He was a towering national figure in advancing freedom of religion and conscience, and he was a towering national figure in tying and tightening the knot of white supremacy. Clearly his bible is not a good gift for our graduating seniors, but we still inherit his legacies. How do we honor his contributions to religious freedom while struggling against his contributions to white supremacy?

I call this sermon “This Land is Your Land?”  Woody Guthrie was part of a 20th-century folk music movement grounded in protest and keenly aware of racism and other forms of oppression. Many UUs, myself included, regard his music as part of our sacred canon. Earlier you heard Pat, Dan and Kate sing Guthrie’s “All You Fascists.”[4] ‘Fascist’ was the term Americans used to identify authoritarian leaders in Europe, but Guthrie understood it applied to racist US leaders. “Race hatred,” he sang, “cannot stop us, this one thing I know / Poll tax and Jim Crow and greed have got to go.”[5]

Our beloved Woody Guthrie song is “This Land is Your Land,” which he wrote in 1940 as a retort to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.”[6] It has become an alternative national anthem for many Americans. UU congregations regularly sing it in worship.

Nevertheless, for a few years now I’ve been increasingly uncomfortable with the words “This land was made for you and me.” I understand what Guthrie meant: everyone regardless of race, religion or culture is included in America. But the literal words don’t ring true. We know this land—this United States of America—was made by and for propertied, White European men, many of whom held slaves or benefitted financially from slavery; and virtually all of whom supported the idea that the land, from sea to shining sea, was theirs for the taking by any means necessary, that it was their manifest destiny to rule, own and exploit this land, despite the fact that tens of millions of people already lived on it and had done so for more than 10,000 years. [As an aside, this week we learned the president thinks it’s unpatriotic to speak of American history this way. Frankly, I think it’s unpatriotic to teach American history as if slavery, land theft and genocide never happened.]

Today, when police shoot unarmed Black people while jogging, sleeping, barbecuing, playing in the park, and sometimes while in the midst of mental health crises, it’s understandable that Black people may not agree that this land was made for you and me. When ICE separates children from their families at border crossings and bans Muslims from entering the country, it’s understandable that immigrants may not agree that this land was made for you and me. When the federal government attempts to take land from Native American nations to benefit energy companies, it’s understandable that Indigenous people may not agree that this land was made for you and me. Last March the Trump Administration revoked reservation status for the Mashpee Wampanoag nation on Cape Cod, stating essentially that their land—the land they were living on when the Pilgrims first arrived—is not their land.[7] It is understandable that the Mashpee Wampanoag people may not agree that this land was made for you and me.

A group of us have been reading and discussing Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’ Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. Dunbar-Ortiz points out that songs like “This Land is Your Land” actually reflect “the unconscious manifest destiny we live with.”[8] As I read those words last spring, my discomfort with the song crystalized. I expressed in our discussion in June that I would like us to pause and have a community conversation about the song before we use it again in worship. At that point a Native American member of our congregation acknowledged that the song is painful.

There’s the knot. Right there. A beloved song, a hurting member of our congregation.

I don’t want to lose “This Land is Your Land.” It’s important to me. But I also don’t want to cause pain, especially to Black, Indigenous and other people of color and their allies for whom the lyrics are problematic.

How do we untie this knot? We start with communication and dialogue. Our Adult Religious Education and Social Justice / Anti-Oppression Committees will host an online dialogue about the place of this song in our congregational life on Tuesday evening, October 13th. There will be advanced reading. Watch the eblast for information.

I don’t know where this conversation will lead. If we pull on one thread, what happens? Will the knot loosen? Will it tighten? And this is only one small section of the knot. There are so many others. We have to talk about Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman. We have to talk about Spanish language resources, cultural misappropriation, contracting with people of color vendors, supporting antiracist organizing in the larger community. All of this is part of untying the knot of white supremacy culture as a congregation.

We have to talk about the impact of white supremacy culture on women. And here’s where I want to say a few words about Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death. One of the implications is that there will be an attempt to ram through a supreme court nomination and selection process before the election. I won’t repeat the litanies citing the boldfaced hypocrisy and lack of integrity and disregard for precedent. But I will say there is clearly a cadre of powerful white men in charge of this process. Certainly important decisions impacting women should not be made without women present, yet there don’t seem to be any highly visible women involved in this process. This is one of the underlying dynamics of white supremacy culture operating in our nation: powerful white men believe they have the right, believe they are entitled to make these kinds of decisions. This is a raw power grab. Power over. That’s white supremacy culture operating. There’s no talk of an open, transparent and carefully considered process. There’s no talk of cooperation. There’s no talk of letting the people decide as there was when Justice Scalia died ten months before an election.  There’s certainly no consideration given to protecting women’s reproductive health. This is all part of the knot of white supremacy culture. It is painful, heartbreaking and even terrifying to watch it unfold in real time.

We need to talk about the impact of white supremacy culture on gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning people. We need to talk about its impact on housing, healthcare, education, corrections, policing, mental health, and a host of other issues. The knot is exquisitely complicated. We begin by centering the voices and experiences of Black, Indigenous and people of color. In the very least, when we learn that something we’re doing is causing pain, we have to pause. We have to take it seriously. We have to believe it.

Please trust this practice of centering is not political correctness run amok or coddling snowflakes who are easily offended. This isn’t cancel culture. We’re not cancelling “This Land is Your Land.” This is us attempting to untie the knot of white supremacy.

I don’t know where it leads. But I do take heart from the story Gina read earlier, Imbram X. Kendi’s Antiracist Baby: “Antiracist baby is always learning, changing and growing. Antiracist baby stays curious about all people, and isn’t all-knowing.”[9] And I take heart from the words we heard earlier from Commission on Institutional Change chairperson, the Rev. Leslie Takahashi: “The day is coming when all will know / That the rainbow world is more gorgeous than monochrome, / That a river of identities can ebb and flow over the static, stubborn rocks in its course, / That the margins hold the center.”[10]

I don’t know where it leads, but I am glad to be untying this knot with all of you.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Commission on Institutional Change, Widening the Circle of Concern (Boston: UUA, 2020) p. vvii. See: https://www.uua.org/uuagovernance/committees/cic/widening/introduction.

[2] https://www.uua.org/uuagovernance/committees/cic/widening

[3] See: “A Word About Centering” in the Introduction at https://www.uua.org/uuagovernance/committees/cic/widening/introduction.

[4] As an aside, Rolling Stone Magazine recently published its list of the top 40 most significant protest songs in American history. “All You Facists” is the first song on the list.

[5] Listen to Woody Guthrie’s “All You Facists” on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VwcKwGS7OSQ. For an awesome, updated version by Wilco and Billy Bragg, check out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=40ila3Rh9lQ.

[6] Spitzer, Nick, “The Story of ‘This Land is Your Land’” National Public Radio, February 15th, 2012. See: https://www.npr.org/2000/07/03/1076186/this-land-is-your-land.

[7] Taylor, Rory, “Trump administration revokes reservation status for Mashpee Wampanoag tribe amid coronavirus crisis” (Vox, April 2, 2020) see: https://www.vox.com/identities/2020/4/2/21204113/mashpee-wampanoag-tribe-trump-reservation-native-land.

[8] Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, (Boston: Beacon Press, 2014) pp. 2-3.

[9] Kendi, Imbram X, Antiracist Baby (Kokila, 2020). See: https://www.amazon.com/AntiRacist-Baby-Ibram-X-Kendi/dp/0593110412.

[10] For the full text of Rev. Takahashi’s meditation, “Marginal Wisdom,” see: https://www.uua.org/worship/words/meditation/marginal-wisdom.

 

Homecoming: No Time for a Casual Faith — UUS:E Virtual Worship, September 13, 2020

Dear Ones: Please watch our September 13th Homecoming Service on the UUS:E YouTube channel.

The text to Rev Josh and Gina Campellone’s dialogue, “No Time for a Casual Faith,” is below:

Josh:  We just watched the Ingathering address from the Rev.  Susan Frederick-Gray, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association. It was important to both Gina and me that we hear from our denominational president as we begin the congregational year. We both really like her phrase, “this is no time for a casual faith.”

Gina: For the record, she was saying that before the pandemic, but it feels even more true now that the pandemic is here.

Josh: When you hear the term “casual faith,” what do you imagine she means?

Gina: I suspect people in every religion go through periods where their faith or their spiritual practice or their involvement is more or less casual. There are times when they just feel less connected, or they don’t really apply the teachings of their faith to their living. Maybe they attend services out of habit, but they’re not really engaged. That’s a casual faith.

Josh: I think you’re right. There are probably a lot of people who are involved in religious communities but, for a variety of reasons, may just be going through the motions, may be feeling disconnected, may be focused on other things. ‘Casual’ is a good word for it. Given that, what for you is the opposite of a casual faith?

Gina: I’m mindful that congregations have always provided ways for people to connect to each other; and during these unsettled, unpredictable, upside down times, we need that connection more than ever. So, a connected faith is the opposite of a casual faith.

Josh: I’m mindful that Unitarian Universalists make commitments to each other and to our congregation. We commit to supporting one another. We commit to working for justice in our wider community. We commit to environmental stewardship. We commit to coming together on Sunday mornings for worship. We commit to seeking our truths together. So, a committed faith is the opposite of a casual faith. What else?

Gina: An engaged faith.

Josh: An active faith.

Gina: A guiding faith.

Josh: A life-giving faith.

Gina: How would you say you’re expressing that kind of faith these days Gina?

Josh: In recent weeks I’ve been trying to develop our UUS:E relationship with Power Up—the newly formed Black Lives Matter group in Manchester. They are doing some courageous things in the community, and it seems really important to me that we, collectively as UUS:E, figure out how to follow their leadership as part of our congregational commitment to the Black Lives Matter movement. For me, this is what it means to be a good institutional neighbor, a good institutional partner. This is what it means to be faithful to our principles. What comes to mind for you?

Gina: I’m working really hard to show compassion, both to myself and to others. That’s part of our second UU principle, “justice, equity and compassion in human relations.” Practicing compassion on a regular basis requires a mindfulness that I don’t come by easily. I’m making it a point to reach out to family, friends, loved ones, even folks I don’t necessarily know all that well, just to check in, touch base, and say “I’m thinking of you.” I’m also finding the courage to risk being vulnerable, acknowledging that I sometimes feel sad, or scared, or lonely. Because in doing so, it assures others that they are not the only one struggling, and that they need not struggle alone or in silence.

Josh: I think that’s a great argument for the value of this congregation in our lives. All of us are struggling to some degree with this pandemic and its related challenges and crises. It’s so important to have a place where we can come—even if it’s online—and let down our guard, be vulnerable, be human—sad, scared, lonely, or joyful, hopeful and excited. That, too, is a connected faith.

Gina: And that’s really the promise we want to make to all of you who are part of our UUS:E family. As the pandemic continues, we will do everything in our power to keep all of you connected to each other and to this beloved community.

Josh: Yes – we will do everything in our power to nurture in each of you a connected faith.

Gina: A committed faith.

Josh: An engaged faith.

Gina: An active faith.

Josh: A guiding faith.

Gina: A life-giving faith.

Josh: Friends: Welcome to the new congregational year.

Gina: Welcome home.

Josh: Amen and Blessed Be.

Child’s Pose — UUS:E Virtual Worship, August 30th, 2020

Photo by Jennifer Ford

Friends: You can view the entire August 30th service on the UUS:E YouTube channel here

The text to Gina Campellone’s reflection, “On Wearing Masks,” and Rev. Josh’s homily, “Child’s Pose,” are below. 

*****

“On Wearing Masks” by Gina Campellone

Today I thought we’d talk a little bit about masks. By now I think we all know that wearing a mask is really important to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. I’m sure most of you already have some experience wearing a mask for a short trip to the grocery store, or to visit a grandparent. Beginning this week and next week, many kids and teachers will be going back to school, and that means getting used to wearing a mask for a whole day. That’s going to be a big adjustment.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t love wearing a mask. Sometimes they are hot, or itchy, or just plain annoying. But I know that wearing one is the right thing to do. I’ve learned that I like some masks more than others. I don’t like the kind that make my glasses fog up, or the kind with the elastic that digs in behind my ears. But I do like the kind that feels soft and smooth on the inside, and the kind with the little wire that you can shape around your nose to make it fit just right.

Can I show you a few of my favorite masks?

This is my hedgehog mask. See how it’s covered with cute little hedgehogs? I like it because my best friend made it for me, and I am very fond of hedgehogs.

Here’s another one. I like this mask because it’s silky and colorful, and it has a UU chalice on it.

And then there’s this one. I like this mask because it’s pink, my favorite color, and it has a tiny cactus embroidered on it.

Oh, and just a second. Let me show you a mask I wear A LOT. (Pretends to put on an invisible mask,)

What? You don’t think I’m wearing a mask? Actually, I am. It’s called my BRAVE FACE MASK. And I wear it a lot these days. I bet lots of you have a BRAVE FACE MASK, too.

Sometimes life feels scary, especially during a pandemic. Nothing feels normal, and we never quite know what to expect. When I’m feeling scared, sometimes putting on my BRAVE FACE MASK helps me feel – well, a little braver. When other people see my BRAVE FACE, I think it might help them feel a little braver, too. Having a BRAVE FACE MASK can be really helpful!

But you know what? Sometimes wearing my BRAVE FACE MASK makes me feel really, really tired. Sometimes I need to take a break from being brave. Sometimes I just need to remove that BRAVE FACE MASK and show my real, true unmasked face. I need to show my face that might be frowning if I’m angry, or my lip quivering if I’m scared, or maybe even tears running down my cheeks if I’m sad.

I don’t always need to wear my BRAVE FACE MASK.

And neither do you.

It’s okay not to be brave all the time.

You are loved exactly as you are: happy, angry, disappointed, scared, sad, brave, or all of the above!

Wear your masks wisely, my friends.

*****

“Child’s Pose” by Rev. Josh Pawelek

It is back-to-school time in Connecticut. While I want to be feeling excitement, joy and pride—and to some extent I am—I cannot escape feeling unsettled, unnerved, ungrounded. As many of you know we dropped our oldest son off at UCONN two weeks ago to begin his freshman year. Last week my wife, a high-school teacher in Glastonbury, went back to work for professional development and room set-up. She starts simultaneous in-classroom and virtual teaching tomorrow morning—that’s the hybrid model. Our youngest son starts his freshman year at Glastonbury High School tomorrow morning as well, although tomorrow morning he will be logging into his classes from home.

I’m feeling unsettled. Not just for our family, but for all of us. Even for those of you with no immediate connection to a child starting school this week, or with no immediate connection to an adult working in a school system, this is a high-stakes moment. The back-to-school decisions of school systems, local colleges and universities, and daycare centers impact all of us. And right now I still see too many people in my community, including students, not following best practices to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. I am hoping for a safe, positive and productive return to school for students, parents, teachers, paras, administrators, food, custodial, counseling, coaching, nursing and central office staff. I am hoping, which I admit is not quite the same thing as hopeful.

I am no expert on opening schools in the midst of a pandemic, but I have been paying very close attention over the past few months to two systems—Glastonbury public schools and UCONN—as their leaders have shared plans with the public, debated those plans—sometimes receiving withering criticism—changed, adapted, and amended those plans. Just this week a number of school systems have been forced to move all learning online in response to local coronavirus outbreaks, or because they’ve realized they simply aren’t prepared to open safely. My heart goes out to administrators trying to shepherd these plans in response to wildly divergent family, teacher and staff concerns, and in response to constantly changing virus data. This planning has been nothing short of excruciating.

My heart goes out to teachers, many of whom still feel unheard, unsafe, unprepared—some of whom are still organizing to stop in-person learning.

My heart goes out to parents and guardians who have had to strategize in response to whatever the latest re-opening plan is—how to oversee a child’s e-learning, how to procure childcare if and when they have to work outside the home on days their kids are learning from home; how to find some sense of confidence that their children are safe at school, that the virus prevention protocols will be reliably and strictly enforced; how to ensure special education needs continue to be met; how to transport kids to school. The list is long. Sometimes items on the list compete with each other. For example, if I keep my children home, they will be less exposed to coronavirus, but they will be isolated from their peers. As one parent said the other day: “these are impossible choices.”

All of us who’ve had to make these choices are doing the best we can based on health officials’ recommendations, on our own assessment of available data, on our understanding of best practices to prevent spread of the virus, on our tolerance for risk. More fundamentally, we base our choices on our love and our aspirations for our children; on our love and respect for our teachers; on our love for and trust in our administrators and public officials. I am trying to remember that love. I am trying to stay grounded in that love. And I am still unsettled, unnerved, ungrounded.

Whenever impossible choices confront us, whenever circumstances force us to choose one deeply held value over another, or to choose which risk is best for a family, the connections between body, mind and spirit begin to fray. That’s the spiritual danger we’re in right now. We begin to grow distant from critical pieces of ourselves—our regular, comforting routines, our principles, our passions, our techniques for self-care and healthy living, our feelings. I ought to be be feeling pride, joy and excitement right now, but I am stuck in unsettled, unnerved, ungrounded.

At least for me, as I consider the latest version of our re-opening plan, the latest available data, the latest risk assessment; and as I do so on screen after screen, a constant flow of online two-dimensional meetings, I grow distant from my body. Sitting in a chair, watching a screen for hours on end, is a disembodying experience. Wearing masks, social distancing, screen-based learning, the absence of physical touch, the absence of hugging, the inability to know whether the person wearing the mask is smiling at the joke you just made—these are disembodying experiences.

Yet we need our bodies in this moment. We need our bodies to let us know how we’re really feeling. We need our bodies to experience life’s simple pleasures, life’s beauty, life’s melody, harmony, rhythm. We need our bodies to experience sunlight, cool evening breezes, walks in woods, late summer New England tomatoes and corn on the cob. We need our bodies to experience connection to other people, to Nature, to the earth, to the cycles of day and night, to the slow turning of the year. We need our bodies for mystical experience, for those aha apprehensions of relationship to realities larger than ourselves that hold, nurture and sustain us. We need our bodies to remember, in those words of Starhawk we spoke earlier, Earth mother, star mother / … we are cells in your body / … [dancing] together.[1] In this disembodying moment we need our bodies to help us counteract all the ways our spirits may be suffering.

I call this homily “Child’s Pose” in reference to one of the most common, relaxing, grounding yoga poses I know. For those who aren’t familiar, in child’s pose you essentially sit with shins on the ground, knees and tops of feet on the ground; you stretch forward, torso on the ground, forehead on the ground, arms stretched out in front of you; elbows, forearms and hands on the ground. Sometimes the instructor invites the students into child’s pose as a way or resting and recuperating after a more challenging pose. I love this pose because it feels so good to be so utterly grounded. Of course, I’m mindful not everyone can or should do this pose; not all bodies work the same, not all bodies work the way they used to. I’m using child’s pose somewhat metaphorically—a relaxing, resting, grounding pose. What movement, what stretch, what use of your body relaxes you, lets you rest, grounds you?

We know children tend to live more embodied lives than adults. If a kid feels like running, they run (sometimes even when they’re not supposed to). If a kid feels like jumping, they jump, like dancing, they dance. Giggling, hugging, bike-riding, tree-climbing and anything kids feel like doing, they do.

Kids: especially those of you who are going back into school buildings, there are going to be a lot of new rules related to wearing masks, keeping distance from your friends, learning on screens, even how to eat at lunchtime. We need you to follow these rules to help keep yourselves and everyone else healthy, but we also know these rules are going to limit your ability to move. Some of you may feel these rules are holding you too tightly, holding you back, holding you in the opposite of a relaxing child’s pose. You aren’t going to be able to live as fully in your bodies as you’re used to living. So to all the kids who are listening to me this morning: I want you to be very intentional about being physical when you’re home. I want you to go outside if you can, run around, hike, bike, throw a ball, play with your pets. And when you’re inside, what can you do that uses your body? Practice a musical instrument, draw, paint, color, build things – Lego kits, pillow forts, doll houses, race tracks. Even doing your chores is good physical activity. Make sure you dedicate time each day to living fully in your body. And make sure your parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and neighbors do the same. Inspire them all to be physical!

Adults: mindful this is a difficult, challenging, uncertain time; mindful that you, like me, in the face of schools re-opening, may feel unsettled, unnerved, and ungrounded, ask yourself: What is your child’s pose? What are your ways of living fully in your body? What practice, what stretch, what walking route around your neighborhood, what work around your home or yard feels good when you engage in it? What fabric feels soft on your skin, what foods you’re your taste buds sing, what tea or coffee makes your morning special, what fragrance recalls memories of a different, less harrowing time, what music sends chills up and down your spine, what song have you been longing to sing, what scene have you been longing to bring to life on canvas or paper? What work with the hands are you able to do? What quilt, jewelry piece, what photo, what wood-working project is waiting to make your hands dirty? Indeed, what is the dirt you’ve been longing to reach into? What earth still rests solid and sure beneath you? Go to that earth. Strike your child’s pose. Ground yourself. A cell in the larger body. Let that earth knit mind, body and spirit back together.

Go to that earth. Strike your child’s pose. Ground yourself.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Starhawk, “Earth Mother, Star Mother,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: UUA and Beacon Press, 1993)  #524.

Forgiveness for All of This? — UUS:E virtual Sunday Service, July 26, 2020

“On the Road to Forgiveness” by Heather  and Willow Alexson

Friends: You can view the entire July 26 Sunday Service on YouTube here.

The text to Rev. Pawelek’s sermon, “Forgiveness for All of This?” is below.

“It’s harder to forgive than to forget”—solid wisdom from pop singer Brandi Carlile. Thanks to Carol Kargher for that awesome rendition.

This sermon is about forgiveness. In the publicity for this service I said “at their best, religious communities strive for forgiveness in response to harm.” This is true: healthy religious communities prioritize forgiveness as opposed to forgetting harm, denying harm, or worse, seeking revenge.

Having said that, if you were to come into my office to talk about a harm you’ve experienced, forgiveness would not be the first thing we discuss. As a pastor I would strive to listen to your story, understand the harm, affirm your feelings, and make sure you know you are not alone. Maybe you’re going through a process of holding the person who did the harm accountable for their actions. I would expect to support you in that process. But then, over time, I would begin asking a different set of questions:

How much is this experience of harm still controlling your life?

To what extent is it preventing you from living the life you long to live?

What would it mean to let the harm go—not to forget it—but to claim power over it so that you decide its role in your life?

And finally, is it possible to forgive the person who caused the harm? What would forgiveness look like?

The harm will always remain part of your story, but as you forgive—or minimally, as you strive to forgive—it will no longer be the end of your story.

Similarly, what if someone has done harm to our congregation? Maybe they’ve vandalized our road sign or building. Maybe they’ve broken into the building and stolen something. Maybe they’ve disrupted our congregational life in some way. Forgiveness would not be the first topic of conversation. First we would want to understand as a community what happened, and who needs care right now. Then, if we know who caused the harm, what is their accountability? Are there any covenantal or legal implications? These are the initial questions. But, over time, I would urge us to respond to a different, deeper set of questions. How do we as a community not become beholden to the harm? How do we let it go, move on from it—again, not forgetting it, but not letting it have power over us? And ultimately, how do we forgive the person who caused the harm? The harm will always remain part of our story, but as we forgive, it’s no longer the end of our story.

We could just try to forget it. That’s much easier than forgiving. But it’s not particularly healthy. It’s not spiritually grounded. That’s the message of the story Gina shared earlier, “What if Nobody Forgave?”[1] In that story, the people have forgotten how to forgive, so they go about their days carrying their grudges on their backs. They even carry their ancestors’ grudges. Forgiveness frees them from these burdens.

Of course, sometimes forgiveness is impossible. The harm may be too great. Or perhaps the one who did the harm has died. Even then, in my experience, making the attempt at forgiveness still matters. Trying to grasp the imperfect, often broken humanity of the person who did the harm, matters. Trying to set relationships right, even if the person is no longer alive, matters. Pronouncing the words, “I forgive you,” matters. Orienting ourselves toward the possibility of forgiveness matters, even if we can’t get there. These things matter because they help us tell the story differently. They help us live the lives we want to live.

****

What does forgiveness look like when it’s not a person who causes the harm, but a global pandemic on track to kill more than two hundred thousand people in the United States, wreaking havoc with the economy, exacerbating already deep racial and class inequities in housing, jobs, healthcare, wealth, access to childcare, access to the internet. Forgiveness for all of this? What might that mean?  I ask because I can’t escape the thought that our capacity to forgive may be important—may be essential—to our own and our collective wellbeing as the pandemic harm continues to mount.

Lockdown was and is hard on everyone, though certainly harder, more complicated, and much more devastating for some than others. People lost work, or had to work in dangerous conditions. Parents and schools had to figure out how to educate children at home. Children missed out on regular schooling, social connections, and activities. People have died. People have lost loved-ones. Today infection rates are low in New England, but the virus is surging around the country. Everyone lives with the anxiety of re-opening businesses and schools.

Life has changed. The other night my neighbor stopped by to say hello. We spoke with him for an hour, outside, keeping a safe distance—a vigilance we could not have imagined just last winter, yet a vigilance we all must keep in order to reduce infection rates. I noticed my own grief for a lost way of being—being close, being able to touch, to hug, to pat on the back. Those who resist this new vigilance in the name of liberty express anger that something is being taken away from them. But underneath I sense profound grief that the way we used to live is not safe. The virus has changed life for all of us. Everyone is living with some degree of pandemic-induced harm.

At their best, religious communities strive for forgiveness in response to harm.

In late April a radio reporter was interviewing someone about the loss they’d experienced due to the coronavirus. At one point the interviewee said, “We just have to forgive God.” My gut reaction was to dismiss the idea. God did this? God caused all this pain and suffering? Not in my theology. No God worth worshipping would cause such harm? But the idea wouldn’t go away. It kept inserting itself into my life. At an online interfaith gathering someone talked about forgiving God. The Rev. Rebecca Parker once said: Even when our hearts are broken / by our own failure / or the failure of others / cutting into our lives, / even when we have done all we can / and life is still broken, there is a Universal Love / that has never broken faith with us / and never will.[2] I want so much to believe words like these, yet I can’t help wondering: is this pandemic one of those moments when that Universal Love actually has broken faith with us? Abandoned us? Left us entirely on our own, left us at the mercy of incompetent leaders?

In May I encountered this idea again in A Canticle for Leibowitz, a 1959 novel by the American science fiction writer Walter M. Miller, Jr. The story follows the monks of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz over two millennia as they attempt to preserve portions of humanity’s scientific knowledge after a devastating nuclear war. At the end of the story, as humanity, heedless of the lessons of its history, launches yet another nuclear war, the monastery’s leader, Abbot Zerchi, encounters Mrs. Grales, a local, impoverished woman. She calls herself a “tumater woman” because she sells tomatoes on the street to earn her living. She’s a fallout baby—one of many people born with mutations due to lingering radiation from the previous nuclear war. She stumbles as she prepares for confession with abbot Zerchi.

“Is something wrong daughter,” he asked.

She looked up at the high windows. Her eyes wandered about the vaulted ceiling. “Ay, Father,” she whispered. “I feel the Dread One about, I do. The Dread one’s close, very close about us here. I feel the need of [forgiveness], Father—and something else as well.”

“Something else, Mrs. Grales?”

She leaned close to whisper behind her hand. “I need be giving [forgiveness] to Him, as well.

The priest recoiled slightly. “To whom? I don’t understand.”

“Forgiveness—to Him who made me as I am,” she whimpered. But then a slow smile spread her mouth. “I—I never forgave him for it.”

“Forgive God?” How can you—? He is just. He is Justice, He is Love. How can you say—?”

Her eyes pleaded with him. “Mayn’t an old tumater woman forgive Him just a little for His justice? [Before] I be asking His [forgiveness] on me?”

Dom Zerchi swallowed a dry place. He glanced down at her … shadow on the floor. It hinted at a terrible Justice…. He could not bring himself to reprove her for choosing the word forgive. In her … world, it was conceivable to forgive justice as well as to forgive injustice, for [humanity] to pardon God as well as for God to pardon [humanity].”[3]

For humanity to pardon God as well as for God to pardon humanity.

I know God language doesn’t resonate with many of you. But I also know that for most of us, our spirituality, however we describe it, connects us to a reality larger than ourselves. Call it the good, green earth. Call it Nature, the Cosmos, the Ground of Being, the Interdependent Web. Call it Universal Love. There are no adequate terms, but whatever term we use, this harmful, life-altering virus is part of that larger reality. I am not suggesting—because I simply don’t believe it—that any larger reality somehow consciously sent this pandemic on purpose. Nevertheless, I continue to wonder: may it be that before we can claim the lives we long to live, we need to forgive this larger reality? Or, as Abbot Zerchi conceded, there are times when humanity must pardon God.

Of course, that’s not where our conversation begins. Forgiveness comes in time. First we must be clear about what harm has been done. Ask yourselves these questions:

What has been your experience of the pandemic?

How has it upended your life?

How has it impacted you emotionally, psychologically, spiritually?

How has it impacted your relationships, your work, your family?

Has it been harmful to you? If so, how?

What kind of care do you need right now? How might you receive that care?

But at their best, religious communities strive for forgiveness in response to harm. Eventually we must ask a different set of questions:

How much is this experience of pandemic still controlling our lives?

To what extent is it preventing us from living the lives we long to live?

What would it mean to let go of the harm—not to forget it—but to claim power over it so that we decide its role in our collective life?

And finally, what would it mean to forgive?

The pandemic will always remain part of our story. But with forgiveness of that larger reality in which the pandemic emerged and through which it has travelled so relentlessly around the planet, it will no longer be the end of our story. And I suspect, or at least I pray, that as we strive toward forgiveness that faith that has been broken will begin to heal; and we will come to know, to feel, to trust, once again, that reality larger than ourselves—that Universal Love—that holds us, connects us, sustains us.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Marshman, Barbara, “What if Nobody Forgave.” See: https://www.uua.org/worship/words/reading/5955.shtml.

[2] Parker, Rebeca, “Even When Our Hearts are Broken,” Lifting Our Voices (Boston: UUA, 2015) #184.

[3] Miller, Walter M., Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz (New York: Bantam Mass Marker Reissue, 2007) p. 325.

Sacred Places — UUS:E Virtual Worship, July 19, 2020

“On the Allagash” by John Hankins

Friends: You can view the July 19th UUS:E Sunday Service here.

Mary Oliver: Attention to Nature — UUS:E Virtual Worship, July 12, 2020

Please view our July 12th service on the poetry of Mary Oliver here.

What We’re Learning (UUS:E Virtual Worship, June 21, 2020)

Dear Ones: The recording of our June 21st virtual Sunday service is on YouTube here. Rev. Josh and Gina Campellone discuss what they have been learning about themselves and about UUS:E over the past year. They suggest that each of us take time to reflect on these questions: especially during these past few months of global pandemic, what have you been learning about yourself? What have you been learning about your UUS:E congregation?

A Celebration of Religious Education — Virtual Sunday Service, June 14, 2020

Friends:

Please view our June 14th “RE Sunday” service here.

In This Moment, the Call Is Clear

Friends: You can watch the entire June 7th Zoom service on YouTube here.

Read the text to Rev. Josh’s service and his suggestions for study and action here:

First I want to thank Gina for her powerful words. When I suggested to her earlier in the week that you the congregation want and need to hear from her – as our Director of Religious Education – on this painful, enraging, and defining moment in our nation’s history, she already knew it. She was already thinking about what she would say. I am proud of her for moving out of her comfort zone. I admire her for seeking the truth and speaking the truth. I am grateful to her for ministering to all of us.

I want to say this to the children and young people who are with us, mindful that any message to children and young people is always a message to the entire congregation:

I am sorry we have to talk about this, but we have to talk about this. In the middle of a global pandemic that has disrupted every aspect of your lives, suddenly human violence, human cruelty, human racism is on full display. White Supremacy—the evil lie that White people are better than and more deserving than people of every other race—is suddenly on full display. Your parents and me and Gina and all the adults at UUS:E don’t want you to have to think about this, especially at a very young age. We talk to you so often about a different kind of world – a world of fairness, justice, equity, compassion, and love – a world where there is no White Supremacy. We want that to be the world we live in. But over these past two weeks this other world—this painful, hurtful world—has been hard to miss. It’s all over the news, all over the internet, all over social media—everywhere. And the response to it—most of which has been peaceful and nonviolent, but some of which has been violent—has been everywhere too. Gina and I know that in this moment, it would be unfair to all of you if we just tried to protect you from it. In fact it would be irresponsible for us—it would be spiritual negligence—to not fully condemn in your hearing the White Supremacy that killed George Floyd on May 25th in Minneapolis, and Ahmed Arbery in Georgia on February 23rd, and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, KY on March 13th, and Jose “Jay” Soto right here in Manchester on April 2nd. We condemn it with every fiber of our being. Our church condemns it. Our faith condemns it.

We’re naming it. I’m sorry if naming it hurts. It’s hurts me too. I’m sorry if it’s frightening. It frightens me too. I’m sorry if makes you angry. It makes me angry too. But we are a church with seven principles. White Supremacy violates every one of those principles. The spirit at the heart of our principles—the spirit of love and compassion, the spirit of equality and justice, the spirit that honors the inherent worth and dignity of all, the spirit of life and liberation—that spirit calls us to be honest about the reality of White Supremacy, and to do everything in our power to uproot it and end it. As Gina promised, I want the children to know we adults will do everything we can to uproot it and end it. We don’t want to let you down.

*****

A few weeks ago, as I was reflecting on what we were witnessing as a result of the pandemic. I said, as so many have said, that the pandemic has made our nation’s inequities and injustices and white supremacy crystal clear. The most hardened hearts will continue denying this truth, but thoughtful, reasonable people everywhere are accepting it. You know what killed George Floyd, Jay Soto, Breonna Taylor and Ahmed Arbery? The old normal killed them. We cannot, we must not, we will not go back to that.

The protests are powerful. Can you imagine people of all walks of life, of all racial identities coming out to protest White Supremacy all over the country in massive numbers? All over the world? Can you imagine over 1,000 people marching in Manchester yesterday? The nation is waking up, friends.

But let’s be clear: the protests we’ve been witnessing and participating in so far aren’t sufficient to end White Supremacy. These protests are just the prelude. They till the ground. They make the soil ready. Our friends at Moral Monday CT call protest  turn-up. They say turn-up creates the political space in which social transformation can occur. That’s a direct quote from Bishop Selders and his good friend Rev. Sekou. There’s been turn-up all over the country, and indeed all over the world, for two weeks now. The political space for transformation has been created. Now it’s time for people who want to see white supremacy ended in our nation to take control of that political space.

There are many ways to do that. I want you to know how I am going to do it. Moral Monday CT is calling for a public fast and occupation at the state capital, from sunrise to sunset, beginning tomorrow, Monday June 8th, and lasting until the Governor calls the legislature back into session for the purpose of passing laws that will end police violence against people of color in Connecticut once and for all. I have been preparing myself spiritually and emotionally for the better part of a week to take this action. I am anxious. Frankly, I am frightened. I don’t know yet what capacity I have to do this. But the movement’s moment is here. In the words of W.E.B. DuBois, “now is the appointed time.” The political space has been created. We need to take that space now. This will be hard for me. My participation will be disruptive for my family. My participation will be disruptive to my work at UUS:E. But it will not be disruptive to my calling, because the power of love and life to which I bow my head in prayer calls me to this capital fast in this appointed time. It will not be disruptive to my ministry, because this is what ministry to a broken, hurting state and nation must be in this appointed time.

That’s what I am going to do next. I am curious what you plan to do. Whether you recognize it or not, for years our congregation has been preparing for this moment. I urge all of you, in any and every way you can, as residents of this state, as people of faith, as Unitarian Universalists, as decent, loving, compassionate human beings, to notice the political space that has opened up these past few weeks. Notice it and exercise whatever power you have to end White Supremacy. In the text to this sermon, which will be posted on our UUS:E website, I’m going to list a series of organizations that are naming the kinds of structural changes and legislation that have to happen. Specifically, I am looking at the Movement for Black Lives, the Connecticut chapter of the ACLU, The Greater Hartford Interfaith Action Alliance, and the Collaborative Center for Justice. I urge you to study their demands. Study their campaigns. Study their proposals. Study, and then engage. Make sure your representatives hear from you: these are the changes we must make now. Now is the appointed time.

And I know that when some of us look at the kinds of changes being proposed—reparations for slavery, defunding police, abolishing the prison system—there’s inevitably a little voice in the back of our heads that says these things will never happen. It’s too much. It’s too difficult. The systems are too entrenched. The racist culture is too entrenched. I urge you not to listen to that voice. That is actually the voice of white supremacy. And it is lying to you. Don’t accept the lie. These changes can happen. And we can play our part. Turn-up has political space created the political space in which social transformation can happen. For everyone who believes Black Lives Matter, for everyone who wants to White Supremacy in all its forms to end, now is the appointed time.

Amen and blessed be.

*****

The Movement for Black Lives identifies six ongoing Policy Platforms, and two Pandemic-related rapid response platforms, each with multiple concrete steps we can take to reduce hold of White Supremacy Culture on American society. Study these platforms and their related proposals here. Share them with friends, family and neighbors. Begin advocating for them in this appointed time.

The Connecticut Chapter of the ACLU is a critical leader on the issues of criminal justice reform, police accountability and immigration. They, too, are demanding that the governor reconvene the legislature this summer to pass laws that support Black and Latinx lives. Learn about their campaigns here. Take action on their call to the governor here:

The Collaborative Center for Justice is a faith-based, Catholic organization advocating for systemic change. They educate individuals about social justice in order to act with a prophetic voice for and with marginalized persons to challenge injustice and move the moral compass of our society toward peace and justice. CCJ is sponsored by six Religious Congregations of Women in Connecticut (Daughters of the Holy Spirit, Sisters of St. Joseph of Chambery, Daughters of Mary of the Immaculate Conception, Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, Northeast Community, Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur of the United States East – West Providence, Sisters of the Congregation of Notre Dame.) In response to the killing of George Floyd, CCJ is calling for four critical changes to our criminal justice system:

  1. Significantly defund the criminal legal system.
  2. Demilitarize the police.
  3. Ban no-knock warrants.
  4. No cops in schools.

Read the full proposals at here. Reach out to your state and federal legislators now to ask for their support in making these changes happen.

The Greater Hartford Interfaith Action Alliance (GHIAA)  is faith-based community organization composed of approximately 35 congregations from across the Hartford region. UUS:E has been organizing with GHIAA since its beginning a few years ago. GHIAA’s various campaigns confront some of the structural roots of White Supremacy Culture. Familiarize yourself with their campaigns here.

The Language of Your Life

Watch our May 31st virtual Sunday Service, “The Language of Your Life,” here.