Minister’s Column November 2021

Dear Ones:

I hope you are well as we enter into the heart of autumn in New England, 2021. As I write in mid-October, the Connecticut COVID data is spiking. Maybe it’s an anomaly, but who knows? During the period between September 15 and October 15 the data had been hovering just above the “low risk” zone on covidactnow.org. We had been looking forward to re-starting our soft re-opening as early as mid-November. But given this new, late October spike in the infection rate and in new cases per 100,000 residents, I don’t see that happening. As I write, I frankly have no idea what to expect, as it is difficult to identify any reliable trends after this current spike. I am left with frustration, sadness, anger, tiredness. I know you feel all these things too.

Thank you for your ongoing patience. Thank you for understanding our “covid cautiousness” at UUS:E. Thank you for helping the staff and our leaders prioritize safety for all members of our community, and for the wider community. Thank you for sticking with us! And if you have the opportunity, please take a moment to tell our staff—Gina, Jane, Annie, Mary and Heather—how much you appreciate everything they are doing to keep UUS:E running during the pandemic. I don’t have words to name just how hard they are working, day-in and day-out, on our behalf. But please trust me when I say, they are doing an incredible job!

*****

Our ministry theme for November is holding history. I see this as an invitation to wrestle with Thanksgiving. While Thanksgiving is not a specifically religious holiday, it resonates with all the spiritual descendants of the Puritans, who settled in (some say invaded) Turtle Island in the 1620s. Those descendants include the congregational churches of New England; and of course, Unitarian Universalists still practice a version of that “congregational way.” In short, we are among those descendants. So, what do we do with that history, that traditional Thanksgiving narrative that speaks of a mutual respect between the indigenous people and the settlers? What do we do when we know the traditional narrative hides a bloodier, deadlier truth? I’ll be digging into this question (with a little help from some of you) in our 11/14 and 11/21 Sunday services.

Indeed, as liberal people of faith in the United States, what do we do with painful historical truths? What do we do when public school teachers address the reality of oppression in US history, and critics accuse them of “indoctrinating” our children? What do we do when politicians claim it is un-American to name the reality of oppression in US history, because the naming contradicts their sense of innocence and purity? What do we do with the painful truths in the history of our own faith?

I say, with conviction, care and love, let us strive to always speak the truth about our history. And in response to the truth, let us strive to improve our communities—church, neighborhood, town, state and nation—so that the pain of the past is not extended into the future. This is, of course, challenging. I believe we have always been, and will continue to be, up to the challenge.

Rev. Joshua Pawelek

With love,

Rev. Josh

Minister’s Column October 2021

Dear Ones:

Our ministry theme for October is cultivating relationship. I’m reminded of the 20th-century Jewish mystic and philosopher, Martin Buber, who said “all real living is meeting.” Of course, he wasn’t talking about committee meetings (in case you thought that was where I was headed with this). He was talking about honest, vulnerable connection with other people, the world and the self. He was talking about deeply knowing others, world and self; caring for others, world and self; loving others, world and self. For those of you who are familiar with Buber’s philosophy, meeting refers not to the I-it relationship, which inevitably turns the other into an object to be exploited in some way, but the I-thou relationship, which recognizes the other as a fellow being, worthy of respect, compassion and love.

All real living is meeting. Amen. Blessed be.

There are many ways to describe the value a congregation brings to our lives. But perhaps most fundamentally, congregations are places of meeting. Meeting for worship. Meeting to conduct the business of the congregation—board meetings, committee meetings, special team meetings. Meeting for religious education. Meeting for choir rehearsal. Meeting for special events—picnics, tag sales, auctions, concerts, poetry slams. Meeting for giving and receiving care. Meeting for community organizing, public witness and activism. Meeting for staff supervision and evaluation. At the core of all of it are people meeting each other, learning about each other, caring for each other, challenging each other, respecting each other, loving each other. Building relationships, many that last lifetimes. Yes, at the core of all of it is relationship.

All real living is meeting. Amen and Blessed be.

One of the hardest things to experience is the death of a loved-one, someone with whom we have been meeting in Buber’s sense; someone with whom we have been really living. In April we laid Andy Sebula to rest in our memorial garden. He was dear to those of us who knew him and “got” his quirky spirituality. In September we laid Lynn Chirico to rest. She was dear to so many of us who loved her passion for life. In September we also laid Sterling Heraty to rest. Most of us didn’t know him, though he had been a UUS:E member back in the 1980s. Those who joined us for his service loved him dearly, admired his artistry. And on Friday, October 15, at 3:00 PM, we’ll be laying John Crowley to rest, more than a year after his death. So many of us have “met” John over the years in so many ways. What real living he brought to us!

Feeling these losses so keenly makes the presence of new lives in our community so much more wonderful. In June we dedicated Nora, Sadie, Jolly, Sophie, and Violet—one of the most joyful moments for us during the pandemic! And congratulations are in order: in August Nora Alpers-Leon and Raul Mijares welcomed a baby into the world. I can’t wait to meet each of these children and their parents as they travel along their life paths. There is so much to look forward to, so much meeting, so much real living.

I’m reminded just how much UUS:E is a place of meeting, a place of real living.

And indeed, all real living is meeting. Amen. Blessed be.

 

Rev. Joshua Pawelek

With love,

Rev. Josh

Minister’s Column September 2021

Dear Ones:

Welcome to the 2021-2022 congregational year! I am hoping beyond hope that in the coming year UUS:E continues to be a place of love, nurture, healing, creativity, spiritual growth and public witness for you. I am hoping beyond hope that UUS:E meets your spiritual needs, meets your family’s spiritual needs, meets our collective spiritual needs.

I want to express my sadness and my anger that the pandemic is continuing to disrupt our functioning at UUS:E. As most of you know by now, given Connecticut’s current public health data (which we track on covidactnow.org), the UUS:E Policy Board, working with the UUS:E Emergency Response Team, decided at its August 17th meeting to postpone our transition to hybrid services, originally scheduled for September 12th. While Connecticut is in far better shape than most states, we agreed that an infection rate well over 1.15% and nearly 20 new cases per day per 100,000 residents present far too much risk to our collective safety.

I am sad because I was really looking forward to more of us being physically together in community as the congregational year begins. How sweet it would have been to physically “come home” for homecoming! While I have the opportunity to interact with many of you online, we all know it’s not quite the same thing as being in each other’s physical presence. So, I am sad.

I am angry because the spread of the delta variant in the United States was preventable. The evidence is clear: we are now living in a pandemic of the unvaccinated. I understand some people aren’t able to get vaccines (children, the immuno-compromised, etc.). I get it: there are some good reasons not to get a vaccine. But politics and political party aren’t good reasons. Gubernatorial ignorance isn’t a good reason either. Believing in conspiracy theories doesn’t count. Machismo? Not an excuse. Faith in the power of Jesus? Newsflash: Jesus wants everyone to get their vaccines! (If the vaccines aren’t miracles, I don’t know what is!) The bottom line is that too many people who could’ve followed the guidance of public health experts refused to do so, and it has impacted everybody else. So, yes, I am angry.

I will get over it. And one of the ways I hope to get over it is to figure out how UUS:E can start advocating in the wider community to raise the vaccination rate in Connecticut. For me, it’s beginning to feel like a justice issue. As long as the coronavirus remains present, the most vulnerable, elders, essential workers, frontline workers, emergency responders and health care workers continue to be at risk.

On a different but related topic, 18 months of pandemic living have led me to focus my theological reflections on what it means to live in a physical body. Lockdown, masking, social distancing and online communicating can be very disembodying, and I find myself longing for a spiritual life that centers the body. During my summer study leave I have been exploring questions about the spiritual dimensions of the body. Some of the books I’ve read include Annie Murphy Paul’s The Extended Mind: Thinking Outside the Brain, Resmaa Menakem’s My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies (thanks to Lisa Sementilli or the rec!), Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals, and two novels: Rivers Solomon’s Shadowland and Richard Powers’ The Overstory. More to come. Always more to come!

 

Rev. Joshua Pawelek

With love,

Rev. Josh

Minister’s Column July 2021

Dear Ones,

As most of you are aware, my father died suddenly of a heart attack on Memorial Day, just three weeks from the time I am writing these words—though it feels much longer than that. I am so grateful to the UUS:E community for your support and love during this very difficult time. Your cards, flowers, little gifts, kind words and hugs have been an immeasurable blessing. I am particularly grateful to our (outgoing) president, Rob Stolzman, and our Personnel Committee chair, Vivian Carlson, who were very clear that I should be taking whatever leave from my duties I need in order to attend to family members and begin a healthy grieving process.

When my father died, I knew something about what I would be going through. I knew it all too well. Over the years I have served as UUS:E’s minister, I’ve had the honor of accompanying many of you through this very same experience, the death of a parent. I know all about contacting the funeral home, arranging for cremation and burial, writing an obituary, obtaining death certificates, worrying (in this case) about the surviving parent, and cycling through a range of feelings: numb, empty, strange, incredulous, sad, confused, angry, joyful. But I also knew it would not be the same. I was not my father’s minister. I am not my family’s minister. I am certainly not my own minister. I would not and could not minister my way through this. When I arrived at the emergency room the night of his death, the social worker who came out to greet me said, “I hear you’re a minister.” My response: “Not tonight.” This is my loss, not somebody else’s.

My instinct is to attempt to say something profound about losing a parent. But those words aren’t coming to me. I have no big “universals” to share. I’m just remembering my very “particular” father. He was complicated. A Yale School of Medicine research scientist with highly unorthodox methods; a mystic who spoke with trees; an athlete who stopped playing college sports in order to sing in the choir; a musician who could bang out honky-tonk piano jams in any setting with no inhibitions, yet who became paralyzed with stage fright anytime he was playing the cello in front of people; a recovering alcoholic who quit AA as soon as he got sober and stayed the course solo for almost thirty years; a caring colleague who, multiple times, helped scientists escape countries with oppressive regimes to pursue careers in the United States. Never a fan of attending the theater, he loved acting in and directing plays and musicals at this church. He loved his grandchildren and assumed everything they did was genius. No doubt about it, he was self-absorbed. Especially in his later years, it was hard for him to hear anything about my life. Our conversations were largely about him. Still, for a self-absorbed person, I’m pretty sure I’ve never met anyone as generous or kind to others. How did he pull that off?

Prepare yourselves. I suspect part of my grieving process will include sharing stories about dad in sermons and in other contexts. More to come…

Summer is upon us. It’s been a long pandemic year, a long and very different congregational year, a long community organizing year. I am going to take real vacation and study leave time this summer (last year that didn’t really happen)—although I will be preaching a few times here and there. I wish for you a glorious summer; I wish for you a healthy and safe return to post-pandemic life. I wish for you meaning and purpose, joy and laughter, comfort and peace.

  Rev. Joshua Pawelek

 

 

With love,

—Rev. Josh

Minister’s Column June 2021

Dear Ones,
Our “Soul Matters” ministry theme for June is play. Although we likely won’t talk about play on a Sunday morning this month, I nevertheless want to commend play to you as a potent spiritual practice. Like prayer, like meditation, like singing, like yoga, like worship, play in its purest form pulls us into the present, focuses our attention, moves us out of our rational minds, moves us into our bodies, and often fills us with joy. Play requires that we set our inhibitions aside, submerge ourselves in the moment, let go of our worries for a time, connect with the child-like aspects of our personality. Play invites us to imagine, to create, to enter worlds of fantasy, to try on different personas, to strategize, to cooperate, to be silly and, again, to be present. As such it is relaxing, rejuvenating, invigorating, uplifting, healing.

I like a quote from the early 20th-century Dutch historian, Johan Huizinga, who said “In play we move below the level of the serious, as the child does; but we can also move above it—in the realm of the beautiful and the sacred.”

How often do you set time aside for play? My own answer is “not enough.” I really do not play enough. My wife and children tell me this quite frequently. “I try to exercise every day,” I often respond. But according to them, exercise doesn’t count. I agree. Exercise is important to health and well-being, and it certainly has a spiritual dimension. But it’s not play.

Our family plays board games or card games every once in a while. We take a trip to the Adventure Park at Storrs a few times a year. We occasionally play bocce in our yard or basketball in our driveway. We occasionally play Dungeons and Dragons. This past Christmas Santa brought us a couple cases of indoor snowballs—very light, very soft, stuffed pieces of white, fluffy fabric. It’s impossible to hurt someone with them, even when throwing very hard at very close range. So now we have indoor snowball fights. I get annoyed when a snowball hits me from out of the blue (especially when I’m trying to work); and I get annoyed when I find snowballs all over the house. But when our lives devolve into full-scale, every-room-in-the-house snowball battles, it’s really fun. We laugh the whole time. We lose ourselves in the moment. That’s when I realize I need more play.

How about you? How do you play? What role does play serve in your life? With whom do you play? When I identify play as a spiritual practice, does that ring true to you? I’d like to know your answers to these questions. Please feel free to share by email at [email protected], or on my home office phone at 860-652-8961.
As a spiritual season, summer offers many opportunities—exploration, growth, relaxation, light, the first harvest. But certainly, summer is a season for play. As summer arrives, I wish for you many, many opportunities to play. May you be pulled into the present, into your body, into your imagination, into your creativity, into new worlds of fantasy, into profound silliness, and even into indoor snowball battles! Amen and blessed be.

With love,
—Rev. Josh

Minister’s Column June 2021

Dear Ones,

Our “Soul Matters” ministry theme for June is play. Although we likely won’t talk about play on a Sunday morning this month, I nevertheless want to commend play to you as a potent spiritual practice. Like prayer, like meditation, like singing, like yoga, like worship, play in its purest form pulls us into the present, focuses our attention, moves us out of our rational minds, moves us into our bodies, and often fills us with joy. Play requires that we set our inhibitions aside, submerge ourselves in the moment, let go of our worries for a time, connect with the child-like aspects of our personality. Play invites us to imagine, to create, to enter worlds of fantasy, to try on different personas, to strategize, to cooperate, to be silly and, again, to be present. As such it is relaxing, rejuvenating, invigorating, uplifting, healing.

I like a quote from the early 20th-century Dutch historian, Johan Huizinga, who said “In play we move below the level of the serious, as the child does; but we can also move above it—in the realm of the beautiful and the sacred.”

How often do you set time aside for play? My own answer is “not enough.” I really do not play enough. My wife and children tell me this quite frequently. “I try to exercise every day,” I often respond. But according to them, exercise doesn’t count. I agree. Exercise is important to health and well-being, and it certainly has a spiritual dimension. But it’s not play.

Our family plays board games or card games every once in a while. We take a trip to the Adventure Park at Storrs a few times a year. We occasionally play bocce in our yard or basketball in our driveway. We occasionally play Dungeons and Dragons. This past Christmas Santa brought us a couple cases of indoor snowballs—very light, very soft, stuffed pieces of white, fluffy fabric. It’s impossible to hurt someone with them, even when throwing very hard at very close range. So now we have indoor snowball fights. I get annoyed when a snowball hits me from out of the blue (especially when I’m trying to work); and I get annoyed when I find snowballs all over the house. But when our lives devolve into full-scale, every-room-in-the-house snowball battles, it’s really fun. We laugh the whole time. We lose ourselves in the moment. That’s when I realize I need more play.

How about you? How do you play? What role does play serve in your life? With whom do you play? When I identify play as a spiritual practice, does that ring true to you? I’d like to know your answers to these questions. Please feel free to share by email at [email protected], or on my home office phone at 860-652-8961.

As a spiritual season, summer offers many opportunities—exploration, growth, relaxation, light, the first harvest. But certainly summer is a season for play. As summer arrives, I wish for you many, many opportunities to play. May you be pulled into the present, into your body, into your imagination, into your creativity, into new worlds of fantasy, into profound silliness, and even into indoor snowball battles! Amen and blessed be.

 

         Rev. Joshua Pawelek

With love,

—Rev. Josh

Minister’s Column May 2021

Dear Ones,

When is UUS:E going to reopen? I’m hearing this question from UUS:E members and friends with increasing frequency. Given that more and more people are getting vaccinated and, thus, feeling safer with in-person gatherings; and given that the state has granted houses of worship significant leeway to reopen for worship and other activities, the question is completely understandable. When are we going to reopen?

At this moment, I don’t have a solid answer to the question, other than to say we are diligently working on it. (Unsatisfying, I know!) Who is working on it? The primary entity within UUS:E that is tracking pandemic data, researching safety measures, studying the UUA guidance, studying the state guidance, and making recommendations to the Policy Board, is our Emergency Preparedness Team or EPT. Cressy Goodwin facilitates this team. EPT members include Sue McMillen, Bill Graver, Christina Bailey, Peter Marotto, Annie Gentile, Jane Osborn, Gina Campellone, and myself. Like virtually all UUS:E committees, anyone can participate. If interested, please feel free to contact me. Since late February we’ve been meeting on an almost weekly basis to formulate a reopening plan. I can assure you that creating a safe, data-driven plan grounded in our UU principles is no easy task.

Most recently, the EPT drafted a revision of the UUS:E policy on outdoor gatherings on church grounds. In short, we recommended allowing gatherings up to 75 people (with masks and social distancing). The Policy Board adopted this revision at its April 8 meeting. You can read the revised policy near the end of this document: Revised Policy for Holding Outdoor Gatherings

What about indoor gatherings? Here’s what we know:

First, science. We will base the timing of our return to indoor gatherings on five statewide public health metrics. These metrics include: the percent of the population that is fully vaccinated; the ratio of new COVID cases each day per 100,000 people; the infection rate; the test positivity rate; and the percentage of hospital ICU beds occupied by COVID patients. Our primary source for tracking these metrics is the Covid Act Now website (covidactnow.org). As I write in mid-April, we have not yet determined levels for these metrics that will be acceptable for us, nor the relative weight we will attach to each one. We do expect to make a recommendation on acceptable levels and the relative importance of each metric to the Policy Board at its May 13 meeting.

Second, physical plant. We now know that the ventilation in our meeting house is insufficient to prevent easy transmission of airborne pathogens. This is especially evident in our garden level classrooms and small office spaces. Currently, the UUS:E Buildings and Grounds Committee is researching options for improving ventilation. The EPT will likely recommend that full reopening must wait until upgrades are completed. We will share a project timeline as soon as we have one.

Third, inclusivity. Although many members of our congregation have received vaccinations and are feeling more comfortable in public spaces, children under 16 do not yet have access to any vaccine and likely won’t until the fall of 2021 or later. Yes, many of them are attending school in person despite not being vaccinated, but there are also a variety of risks associated with such attendance. Furthermore, UUS:E’s religious education program for children cannot be easily compared to the typical public school. We don’t have adequate space to maintain social distancing during class time, and the majority of our educational activities emphasize group work. While we may not wait to reopen until all children can be vaccinated, we definitely will not reopen without a clear understanding of, and plan to mitigate, the risks associated with the lack of vaccines for children.

Fourth, accessibility. The Unitarian Universalist Association strongly recommends that all congregations transition to a congregational life model known as “multi-platform” or “hybrid” church. In short, this means that every program we offer ought to be accessible in both in-person and virtual formats. This recommendation isn’t surprising, but to implement it well, we will need to invest in new technologies and training. Since we’re not entirely sure what technology we need to conduct hybrid church, we certainly won’t hold up reopening based on a lack of sufficient technology. However, we will do our best to make the necessary investments as soon as possible, so that we can be as inclusive and accessible as possible once we begin reopening.

Finally, patience. Whenever and however we reopen, we know it will be a slow process with many “baby steps.” We will not all come back at once. We will be strict, especially at first, in our protocols around wearing masks, social distancing, and hand washing. We will likely tie our loosening of restrictions to ongoing improvement in the public health metrics I cited above. I realize that for some of you—especially those who are ready for church in person—this is not the column you wanted to read. You have been extraordinarily patient with, and supportive of, your staff and volunteer leadership through the course of the pandemic. I am now asking for that patience and support to continue as we craft our plans for a reopening that is guided by science, safe, and inclusive. As always, if you wish to speak more about this, you are welcome to contact me or any member of the UUS:E Emergency Preparedness Team.

With love,

—Rev. Josh

Rev. Joshua Pawelek

Minister’s Column April 2021

Dear Ones,

Our ministry theme for April is becoming. I can’t imagine a better theme for this springtime moment. As we slowly begin to emerge from pandemic restrictions, as we slowly begin to contemplate how we can start sharing congregational life in person, I urge us to contemplate who and what we are becoming.

I assume the pandemic has changed us. Our congregational life won’t return to exactly the way it was prior to COVID-19. That is, some aspects of congregational life will be pretty much the same as before; some will be different. We need to prepare ourselves for both. And the best way to begin that preparation is to contemplate, together, who and what we are becoming.

As a way into this contemplation, I’d like to share a set of questions from the nationally recognized church consultant, Susan Beaumont. (Special thanks to Gina Campellone for bringing these questions to my attention!) Beaumont divides her questions into three categories. First, she asks about loss. For so many of us there has been extraordinary loss during the pandemic. We need to grieve our losses before we can enter fully and authentically into the next stage of our life—before we can become! What has our congregation lost? Let’s try to name it. Consider these questions:

  • What were we on the verge of discovering or accomplishing before the onset of the pandemic? What needs to move forward in different ways now?
  • What was possible before that may not be possible for some time—if ever?
  • What seemed important before that feels superfluous now?

Second, Beaumont asks about our assumptions. The pandemic has likely undercut the power of at least some of our assumptions about congregational life. What assumptions have lost their power? Consider these questions:

  • What was undervalued before that may hold greater value now?
  • What mattered about geography before that no longer matters?
  • What new abundance are we experiencing now? Where are we experiencing scarcity now that was not evident before?

Third, what is emerging? The pandemic has not only forced us to adapt and innovate in the short-term, but also to welcome new ways of being in the long-term. Consider these questions:

  • What is our greatest asset now?
  • What relationships will we need to build on or strengthen in the months ahead?
  • What unique role might our congregation play in local, national, and even global recovery?
  • What long term changes in the bigger picture would we like to be part of bringing to fruition?

I urge each of you to spend some time with these questions. I invite you to share your responses with me, either by email, phone, Zoom meeting, or outdoor in-person meeting. Let’s get together! Then, in the coming weeks, I hope to organize a series of group conversations (virtual and in-person) to gather and hone your collective responses. Watch the regular eblasts for times and locations. We are in a mode of becoming, and it is wise for us to articulate.

With love,Rev. Joshua Pawelek

—Rev. Josh

Minister’s Column March 2021

Dear Ones,

Our ministry theme for March is commitment, a very appropriate theme for the month in which we conduct our Annual Appeal. Due to the pandemic, we’ll be conducting the appeal differently this year. Everyone will receive a small packet in the mail with the annual appeal materials. As always, we ask you to consider the value UUS:E holds in your life and your family’s life. In particular, what has it meant to you to be connected to UUS:E over the past year of pandemic and civil unrest? You are always welcome to share your answer to that question with me directly at [email protected] or 860-652-8961. Even if you’ve felt more disconnected during our move to online church, I am always interested to hear from you.

And as always, we ask that you return your pledge form in as timely a manner as possible so the Stewardship Committee can do its work on behalf of the congregation.

The Policy Board’s goals for this year’s appeal are modest. One goal is to insure that we pay our staff in accordance with the UUA’s guidance for our geographic area. A second, stretch goal is to hire, once again, a part-time Membership Coordinator (once we’ve returned to in-person church). While our first attempt with this staff position did not work out, we still feel strongly that a Membership Coordinator can help UUS:E continue to grow—in numbers, in spiritual depth, in participation, in connection. If you have any questions about these goals, please feel free to contact me or any UUS:E board member (listed in the directory.)

It is typical for me to preach an Annual Appeal sermon on the first Sunday in March. This year I will play around with the idea that our faith doesn’t claim to have secret knowledge. We don’t claim to possess some spiritual truth the rest of society doesn’t know. We don’t believe we are favored by God because we confess a certain set of beliefs. We aren’t conspiracy-minded people. Instead, we strive to know and address the world as it is. In an era where fake news, “alternative facts,” opinion masquerading as reporting, and multiple conspiracies abound, a religion that strives to know and address the world as it is holds very high value in my life. I hope and trust it holds such value in your life.

This year, the UUA has created a Stewardship service which we will experiences as a congregation on Sunday morning, March 14. I am very excited for this as one of the service leaders, the Rev. Chris Long, is a dear friend and former mentee of mine. Another service leader, the Rev. Mariela Pérez-Simons, is a former student of mine. Both are fantastic ministers. I can’t wait for all of you to experience their worship ministry.

Once again, please feel free to reach out to me if you want to talk about the value UUS:E holds in your life. Thank you for your continued commitment to UUS:E and your generosity toward this year’s annual appeal. We can’t do what we do without you!!

 

With love,

—Rev. JoshRev. Joshua Pawelek

Minister’s Column February 2021

Dear Ones,

Our ministry theme for February is beloved community. Upon realizing this, and mindful that February is Black History Month, I found and re-familiarized myself with a book I’d read for a class in seminary, bell hooks’ 1995 Killing Rage: Ending Racism. In the final chapter, called “Beloved Community,” hooks critiques Martin Luther King’s vision of beloved community. King argued that the United States would become a beloved community only when race had been transcended, forgotten, when no one “saw” color anymore. Hooks disagreed. She argued instead that:

Beloved community is formed not by the eradication of difference but by its affirmation, by each of us claiming the identities and cultural legacies that shape who we are and how we live in the world. To form beloved community we do not surrender ties to precious origins…. The notion that differences of skin color, class background, and cultural heritage must be erased for justice and equality to prevail is a brand of popular false consciousness that helps keep racist thinking and action intact.

Still powerful words.

I think it’s important for us as a congregation to ask, always, whether our UU church culture tends to erase differences or emphasize and celebrate them. If we tend to erase our differences (for the sake of always getting along, reducing conflict, being “like-minded”) then it’s possible that some of us are keeping important pieces of ourselves out of our community. Is it really safe to talk about one’s mental illness? Or about one’s hidden (or visible) disability? Or about what it’s really like to be an elder (or a youth) in U.S. society? Or about what it’s really like to be a person of color (or a white person) in U.S. society? Or about growing up poor (or wealthy)? Or about coming from a conservative political family? Or from a conservative religious family? Obviously, if there are aspects of ourselves we can’t bring fully into congregational life, that’s not good. It may enable us to avoid conflict and difficult conversations, but I think bell hooks is right: it’s not beloved community.

We are not beginners when it comes to being a beloved community. I can think of many Sunday services, programs, committee meetings and small group meetings over the years when we’ve dug deeply into our differences; when we’ve tried to emphasize and celebrate different perspectives, different cultural backgrounds, different racial identities, different understandings of gender and sexuality, different life experiences. And, of course, we can and must continue to grow in this critical aspect of congregational life. I want UUS:E to be a place where no part of ourselves is left out. Furthermore, I hope we can learn to anticipate the kinds of human differences (different languages, for example) that aren’t currently present at UUS:E. How can we prepare to welcome people whose differences may be keeping them away? (That’s the topic of our February 28 Sunday service with C.B. Beal: “Preemptive Radical Inclusion.”)

No, we’re not beginners when it comes to being a beloved community. But we don’t want to become complacent either. Let’s not underestimate the power of our differences to deepen and strengthen our community. Thanks for the reminder bell hooks!

With love,

—Rev. JoshRev. Joshua Pawelek