Doing What We Say We Are Here To Do

Originally posted on UU Fellowship of the Peninsula:

For all that is our life! by Rev. Andrew Clive Millard

I’m thrilled that after two months of wandering in the wilderness, so to speak, we’ll be back in our own Sanctuary this coming Sunday morning!  A huge amount of work has gone into repairing the building following February’s burst pipe, and with the new flooring and upgrades to the kitchen, it looks fantastic!  We owe great thanks to the Building Restoration Task Force for all of the time and effort they devoted to making this possible!

Of course, if we had to hold services somewhere other than in our own space, we couldn’t have asked for a place better than Sandy Bottom State Park.  It’s certainly been a beautiful setting for us to meet, with large windows looking out over the lake and through the trees, allowing us watch the Earth come to life as Winter gave way…

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The Meaning of Membership

(I preached this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on September 7th 2014.)

For many congregations, today is known as “Ingathering Sunday” or “Back to Church Sunday”.  Well, this week has been “Back to School”, it’s true, with public schools at least here in Virginia and other places on the East Coast waiting to start until after Labor Day.  But I can’t say that we’re now “Back to Church” with any sincerity, given that we’ve been here all Summer, going strong with a full slate of worship services and religious exploration programs every Sunday throughout July and August.  After all, we can’t come back if we didn’t go away.

What’s more, we weren’t just here in August: we were busy in August.  We’ve had lots of newcomers, many of them families with children, doing their Summer “church shopping” before the busy-ness of the school year starts.  A good number of you who are here this morning, in fact, came to services for the first time one Sunday last month, and I’m so glad that you made the choice to keep coming back.  And naturally, many of you who are newcomers have had questions, about the congregation, about our programs, about becoming a member.

That, of course, is the natural progression.  A first-time visitor enjoys what they experienced or likes the people they met — hopefully both! — and plans to come again.  That makes them a newcomer, when they get to know the place a bit more and figure out if this is where they feel they can belong.  And, in time, they receive a letter from me, inviting them to a Membership Orientation, like the one we have planned for late October.  That’s where we talk about what it means to be a member, what’s involved in joining us in creating a dynamic community that celebrates life and searches for truths, and why that matters.  (For those who cannot attend an orientation given their schedules, there’s also the option of meeting with me.)  And then for those who choose to become members, who have made the decision to embrace the rights and responsibilities that come with that commitment, they demonstrate that by signing the membership book.

Now joining a congregation is rather different from joining almost anything else.  It’s not like being part of a book discussion group that meets at Barnes and Noble.  It’s not like being on a mailing list or Facebook.  It’s not like going to talks offered by the Sierra Club nor is it like sending a nominal contribution to the World Wildlife Fund and getting a newsletter.  It’s not like dropping children off at an after-school program at the Y nor is it like being part of a life-long learning course at CNU.  It’s not like having dinner or coffee with friends nor is it like getting together to watch a TV show and then talk about it.  It has aspects of all of those things, of course, but it’s rather different from all of them, and with more and more of the people who find themselves here never having had much prior church experience, we’ve found ourselves being very intentional, when it comes to membership orientations, to explain what it really means to be a member.

I want to give you a couple of perspectives on why this matters.  Here’s the first.

Back at the beginning of May, I began my sermon on the topic of understanding ourselves in relation to those around us by reflecting on how many non-members benefit from the presence, here on the Peninsula, of this congregation.  Between those who pledge their financial support as if they were members without actually being members, those who participate in programs and put money into the offering basket but have made no formal commitment otherwise, those who might only come to special services such as on Christmas Eve or to special events like the Luau, as well as those who might simply visit in the course of a year, there are, by one estimate, something like four hundred non-members as compared to some 160 members.

Beyond that, of course, if we guesstimate the number of people we serve at St. Paul’s or PORT, the number of people we impact through our Share-the-Basket partners like LINK, and the number of people we reach through other outreach efforts, we may well be talking about a few thousand people whose lives benefit from the presence of this Fellowship, from what this congregation is and from what it does.  That’s something in which we should all feel quite a bit of pride.

So here’s the obvious question:  If it’s possible to be almost as much a part of the life of the Fellowship as a member without actually being a member, if it’s possible to be connected to or supported by the congregation without even being here in person, then what does it mean to be a member?

Here’s another perspective on why this matters.  Whenever I’m at another Unitarian Universalist church, whether to preach or just to be part of their services, I like to check out the materials they give to visitors.  I know I’m not alone in this.  One such item I came across recently was this bookmark, produced by the Unitarian Universalist Association and sold to congregations in packs of twenty-five to hand out to newcomers.  It’s entitled “Ten Good Reasons for Joining a Unitarian Universalist Congregation”, and I was intrigued to see what those were.  Here are some of those reasons.

Because here we join with open hearts and minds to worship together, seeking what is sacred among us.

Because here we honor our Jewish and Christian roots, and also reach out to know the great truths found in other religious expressions.

Because here we nurture our children’s enthusiasms and encourage their questions.

Because here we join our strength with others to create a more just society.

Because here we encourage each other to be true to ourselves.

Now, without doubt, those are all good reasons to participate in the life of a Unitarian Universalist congregation.  They’re all great reasons, for that matter, why such things as UU churches should exist.  But reasons for joining a congregation as a member?  Compelling, necessary reasons?  I’m not so sure.  Again we come back to the obvious question:  If we welcome non-members to come to worship services, to learn about our tradition as well as other religions, to give our children a religious education, to work with others to make a better world, even to help one another become our best selves, if we welcome non-members to all of that, and we do, then what does it mean to be a member?

Now some might say that the reason to be a member is to pay for those services and benefits.  That’s a reasonable claim, particularly since that’s the way our culture works as a whole.  After all, in almost all other areas of modern life, it’s the case that you get what you pay for.  So let’s think about that for a moment.

In any other setting than a church, what would you pay, if you’re a parent, for someone to not only look after your child for an hour, but to teach them about what it means to have an open mind, a loving heart and a helping hand?  Even if it were just baby-sitting, it might be ten dollars for the hour, probably more for actual teaching, and more still for youth.  For Sunday school over the course of a year, then, and assuming all but one Sunday each month, that’s at least four-hundred dollars a year.  That’s probably a good ballpark figure for an hour or so a week of quality adult programming, too, such as the Sunday Morning Forum that takes place over in the Office Building.  For comparison, registration in the LifeLong Learning Society at Christopher Newport University is $235, and that’s with CNU’s own subsidies and the sponsorship of some local businesses.

Or what about coffee or tea plus assorted snacks, sandwiches, cakes, fruit and other food?  Well, those are unlimited here as part of hospitality, and though some places might offer free refills, go to Panera or Starbucks for coffee and a brownie and you’d pay $5 or more.  Again, consider being here more often than not each month and that adds up to a couple of hundred dollars each year.  And what about the price of Sunday service?  Well for the music alone, a professional musician could reasonably expect to be paid, so Robin has told me in the past, at least a hundred dollars per service.  And the going rate for a professional speaker, according to the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association, is somewhat more than that, making it in all, again, a couple of hundred dollars per person each year.  Add it all up, for the average person, and we’re talking about something like a thousand dollars each year if you went somewhere else and paid for what we offer here, freely to everyone and gladly to everyone, every single Sunday morning.

Now for those of you checking your calendars, no, it’s not pledge drive time, and no, this is not the Sermon on the Amount.  I’m simply offering you these back-of-the-envelope numbers to show you that the idea that someone become a member in order to pay for the services and benefits they receive, well that idea is hogwash.  We’re not here as consumers, and in most cases we’re not getting what we pay for: we’re actually getting much more than we pay for.

So if someone isn’t a member because they must be a member in order to participate in our services and programs, and if they’re not a member in order to simply pay for those services and programs, then what does it mean to be a member?

Well I put it to you that being a member means wanting this to be a place where those services and programs are and will always be available, not only to members but to everyone.  It means a commitment to this congregation so that it can be a place where, member or not, anyone can join in seeking the sacred, in learning about religion, in nurturing our children’s souls, in striving to make the world a better place, and in encouraging one another’s authenticity.  It means promising to make that possible through the direct contribution of volunteer hours and, yes, volunteer dollars.  It means investing one’s mind, one’s body and one’s spirit in the vision of this congregation as a safe place for spiritual diversity and individual growth through lifelong religious education and service to the wider community.

That’s no small order, of course.  As I say on those occasions when we welcome our newest members of this Fellowship, “joining is easy, but membership is not”.  Joining is, after all, a matter of attending an orientation, or otherwise meeting with me in person, and then signing the membership book.  Sure, the orientation is three hours long and takes up a whole Saturday morning, but we feed you a great breakfast!  And there are plenty of congregations out there that have a much more involved process of joining, in one case that I know taking one whole year to be accepted as a new member.  But if joining only takes a Saturday morning, membership takes a lifetime.  We do expect our members to actively participate in the life of the Fellowship, in whatever ways are appropriate, and to contribute financially, to whatever extent is reasonable.  That’s the easy part, though: something else that I say when we recognize new members is that “a member accepts responsibility for continuing and sharing the faith journey that brought them to this place, and also covenants to live in community with others whose journeys may be different.”  And that is the work of a lifetime, because it’s what life is actually about.

Now from time to time, you’ll hear on a Sunday morning a member testimonial.  Though they tend to be associated with the aforementioned pledge drive, for obvious reasons, we ask those members who give testimonials to speak to the same matters regardless of whether they’re doing so at pledge time or not.  We ask them to speak about why this congregation is a special place.  We ask them to speak about what it means to them to be a member.  We ask them to speak about why it’s important for them to be here.  We ask them to speak about how they have been transformed by being part of this Fellowship.  What I’ve noticed is that rarely do any of these members describe membership as a static state, where they joined, met some nice people, liked the music, and they’re done.  Rather — and of course this is particularly noticeable when, over the course of a few years, a member gives more than one testimonial — being a member is a dynamic reality, where there are always opportunities to grow our own souls while also growing the soul of the congregation so that together we may grow the soul of the world.

So if you are one of our many newcomers who first visited over the Summer, or perhaps even before that, and you’re interested in becoming a member here because you’ve found that this is a place where you feel you can belong, then I encourage you to continue asking questions about what it really means to be a member.  Or if you’re one of our newer members, who, within the last few years, attended an orientation and signed the membership book and was welcomed by the congregation one following Sunday morning, then I encourage you to think beyond your current participation in congregation life to consider some of the many ways in which you can get the most out of becoming a member.  And if you’re one of our members who’s been here for some larger span of years, who has served on some committees and taught some classes and led worship from time to time and taken on any of a thousand responsibilities large and small, I thank you for being one of our “long haul people” but I also encourage you to reach out to our new members and to our newcomers, to bring them into the work of making this congregation a spiritual home for our common endeavor.

I’m going to close with a reading I happened to rediscover this week.  Talk about good timing!  It was written by Unitarian Universalist minister Clarke Dewey Wells, and was read right here thirty-four years ago, as part of the service dedicating this very Sanctuary building in 1980.

This is the liberal church:

a place to go where you know you belong;

where the mind is free to soar beyond the coercions and crudities that inevitably beset all orthodoxies;

where the heart is free to extend that larger love to all, unencumbered by notions of dogma, tradition, race, religion, country or class,

where the rights of individual conscience and action are guarded with vigilance, out of belief in the fitness of diversity, the liberty to be different, out of eternal hostility to every form of tyranny;

where the hands are free to work and create for the cause of community and the hope of peace;

where the soul is free to open, stretch, discover, develop, change and grow, always, continuously and progressively;

where human promise is nurtured, supported and blessed, and never cursed, degraded or despaired of;

where people are invited to be themselves in joy, in sorrow, in the struggle of the deeper self to be born, in the resolution of some great issue, in the witnessing to high ideals, in living and dying, seeking, finding and serving.

A place to learn, to grow, to sing, to stand.

A place to encounter, reckon, judge, accept, and be accepted.

A place to be challenged by new insight, and be reminded of what one already knows.

A place to go where you know you belong.

This is the liberal church.

To these words I would add the following:  This is the liberal church that was built by those members who were part of that building dedication service thirty-four years ago.  This is the liberal church that those members here today are building through the dedication of their minds, their bodies and their spirits.  And this is the liberal church that will continue to be built in the years and decades to come, in ways that we expect, in other ways that we may only dimly see, and in some ways that will surprise and delight the world.  This is the meaning of membership: to be the past, the present and the future of the liberal church, a place to go where you know you belong.

So may it be.

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Embracing Our Identities

Originally posted on UU Fellowship of the Peninsula:

For all that is our life! by Rev. Andrew Clive Millard

This time last year there were a couple of a widely shared articles criticizing Christianized versions of the Passover seder.  In “Why Christians Should Not Host Their Own Passover Seders”, for example, Rebecca Cynamon-Murphy describes how, as a Christian woman married to a Jewish man, she has become a “safe person” for her fellow Christians to ask about Judaism.  As such, she has been approached by Christians who want to hold Passover seders.  “Their logic,” she notes, “is that since Jesus was celebrating Passover during the week when he was arrested, tried, executed and resurrected, in a desire to be more Christ-like, they too should celebrate the holiday.”

While understanding that desire, Cynamon-Murphy goes on to make the case that Christians hosting their own seders do more harm than good, from ignoring thousands of years of persecution of…

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Thank you, Michael Piazza, for restoring my faith in church.

Dear Michael Piazza,*

Thank you for restoring my faith in church.

Oh, I don’t mean “a church”.  I have great confidence in the congregation I serve, after all, and I know there are other good faith communities out there, too.  And I don’t mean “the church”, in the larger sense of organized religion.  Rather, I mean “church”, as short-hand for “the institution of congregational life”.

You restored my faith in the institution of congregational life when I attended your workshop at the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association’s “Institute” at the beginning of February.  Your title was “Preaching and Worship for the Future Church and the Future of the Church”, and though in the course of our three days together you certainly talked about good preaching and good worship, what came through most clearly was your passion for doing church well.  It was clear that you so dearly want to do congregational life well — and that you sincerely wanted every UU minister in that lecture hall to do like-wise, too — because you believe that congregational life really, really matters.  It was your passion and your heartfelt belief that restored my faith in church.

For anyone following religion news these days, it’s not hard to see and hear a lot of doom and gloom about “the future church and the future of the church”.  Oh, the demographic shifts are real enough, combining the generation-spanning decline in trust of institutions generally with younger generations’ rejection of religion that is judgmental, exclusionary and irrelevant.  And it would certainly be foolish to do church as if credit cards and social media didn’t exist, or with notions of “sacred music” limited to what was written by a few long-dead white men.  But the doom and gloom seem to go beyond noticing that congregations can’t keep pretending it’s the 1950s, to declaring that the congregation as an institution not only has no future but is already on its death-bed.

I can handle the seemingly endless stream of articles with titles such as “Nine Reasons Why People Aren’t Coming To Your Church” or “Seven Ways You’re Repelling Newcomers”; for all that their titles are sensationalistic, the articles themselves do make some valid points.  But I have been disheartened by the apparently exclusive emphasis on other forms of religious group-making, including the earnest promotion of ministry as a vocation that in the future will require either independent wealth or a submission to poverty.  The cynic in me says that we’ve given up trying to find the formula that will magically make congregations perfect, only we did so not by accepting that there are no such things as “magic” or “perfection”, but instead by abandoning the congregation as a viable way of doing religion.

The fact is that it takes hard work for people to actually be in community, particularly religious community.  And when a congregation is doing well, by which I mean when it’s doing community well, then more people will want to be a part of it, which means it will grow, which means it will change, and then it will take more hard work to respond to that change in healthy ways so that the congregation continues to do well as it grows.

Now I’ve spent fifteen years figuring out that simple fact, thanks to my experiences first as a lay church member, then as a seminarian, and now as a minister serving a congregation that really values community and hospitality.  But in the last couple of years, following in particular the publicity around “the rise of the nones”, it increasingly felt like I was being told that I was on a fool’s errand.  I so want to see the congregation I serve thrive and grow and fulfill its considerable potential, but again and again I’ve seen the consultants and the experts gleefully preparing a casket for the idea of church.  (Last year, you may remember, the Alban Institute even shut its doors!)

That’s why I’m thanking you, Michael.  You made it clear to me that what I and my colleagues in parish ministry are doing really does matter.  You made it clear that church really does matter, not because any of us might think we have the right theology or the right music or the right programs, but because congregational life matters.  Church is where we listen to one another and support one another and help one another, where we can respond to the deepest of human needs to know each other and to be known.  The forms and trappings of church may change with the times — and, indeed, they must change — but the core reason for being of the institution of congregational life continues, because our human need for comforting, encouraging, transforming community continues.  Thank you for showing me that I’m not the only one who still believes that.  Thank you for restoring my faith in church.

Yours, in faith and service,

Andrew.

~)<

* Piazza started as a Methodist preacher and then moved to the Metropolitan Community Church when he came out.  In the 1980s, he began serving an MCC congregation in Dallas that was dying.  Literally dying.  It was the height of the AIDS crisis, there was little understanding of what AIDS was or how to treat it, and while gay men were dying across the country, the White House press corps was laughing about it.  Piazza turned that church around, and, as the Cathedral of Hope, it’s now the largest LGBTQ-friendly congregation in the world.  And it’s in Dallas, Texas.

Four years ago, Piazza began serving a United Church of Christ congregation in Atlanta.  It was dying, too, given the age of its members. But in those four years, that congregation has quadrupled in size, and it’s now racially diverse, too.

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What We Bring to It

(I preached this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on February 23rd 2014.)

I first stood here a little less than four years ago.  It was Candidating Week, the final stage in a months-long process where your Search Committee and I figured out together if you and I were a good match.  It was a process a lot like on-line dating, starting off with sharing profiles through a web site, then moving on to e-mail exchanges, then telephone conversations, then that first “date” known as pre-candidating weekend, and then, when the courtship, as it were, had reached that critical point, I was introduced to the congregation as a whole, to this Fellowship, during Candidating Week.

I remember many positive impressions from that time back in 2010, but this morning I’m going to focus on just one of them.

A Candidating Week typically begins and ends on a Sunday, giving the prospective minister two sets of Sunday services, one at the start and one at the finish.  Preparing for the week, then, I needed to know how services were conducted here.  After all, each Unitarian Universalist congregation has its own way of doing worship, even if just about every place uses the grey hymnal and includes many of the same service elements, from the lighting of a chalice to the preaching of a sermon.  But each congregation does them in its own way, with different words used in different places to introduce, say, the offering.

In some congregations, the offering may be introduced pretty literally:  “In support of the work of this church, we shall now receive the offering.”  Here, by contrast, the introduction to the offering begins with the words you heard just a little while ago:  “All that this Fellowship is and all that this congregation has are what we bring to it: our time, our talents, our capabilities and concerns, and our money.”  Amongst many positive impressions from Candidating Week, those words impressed me very much, because those words, my friends, present a simple yet incredibly profound theology.

Let me explain why that matters.

Cynthia Grant Tucker is a Professor of English at the University of Memphis, but in Unitarian Universalist circles she’s better known for her studies of our history.  One of the books all would-be UU ministers are required to read, for example, is Tucker’s book about the Unitarian women ministers who served on the Iowa frontier during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, about how those women brought the inspiration of Ralph Waldo Emerson and other “Boston Brahmins” to life in mid-Western fire-side parlors.  Indeed, some have said that Iowa becoming the first state outside of New England to recognize marriage equality is part of the legacy of Mary Safford, Eleanor Gordon and the other Unitarian women who formed that Iowa Sisterhood.

And yet Tucker does not passively relate such history in order that we may know our own past, as important as that is.  She also engages with it actively, that we may know our own future.  Writing of “the hunger for greater spirituality and community in the church”, for example, Tucker advises that “preachers [must seek] their texts in the life of the parish, past and present, and build on the theology that they discover among the people.”  Most seminaries, after all, teach would-be ministers how to analyze and interpret and explain texts found in the Bible, and yet they also stress the importance of meeting people where they already are.  What scripture long since frozen to paper could be more relevant, then, than the living text found in the life of the congregation?

The words we use to introduce the offering every Sunday morning are such a living text.  Now many of you have heard them so many times you probably don’t really listen to them anymore, particularly when you’re looking for a suitable bill in your pocket or trying to find your checkbook.  So listen to them again now, when you don’t have anything to distract you:  “All that this Fellowship is and all that this congregation has are what we bring to it”.  What simple yet profound theology.  So, following Tucker’s advice to preachers, let me build on that theology.

Unitarian Universalist congregations are part of a tradition that is more than three-and-a-half centuries old, in which individual congregations enter into cooperative association with one another for mutual support and encouragement but are otherwise governed independently.  This Fellowship, for instance, elects its own Board, calls its own ministers, hires its own staff, runs its own programs, maintains its own facilities and funds its own budget.  There is no regional bishop nor outside council of elders that does those things for us.

We are associated, for instance, with other congregations in Southeast Virginia, and, in fact, we’re hosting this year’s meeting of the Tidewater Cluster at the end of March; the Unitarian Universalist Association’s new Moderator, Jim Key, is our featured speaker, so you don’t want to miss it.  But while being associated with other UU congregations allows us to do some things together that we wouldn’t be able to do by ourselves, such as the Hampton Roads UU Revival that took place this time last year, it is ultimately the case that this particular congregation, this UU Fellowship of the Peninsula, is precisely what we bring to it, no more and no less.

Before I get to the practical consequences of this, though, let’s consider it from another perspective…

There was once a village that was much the same as villages everywhere.  It had grown up by a ford where the road between distant cities crossed a river.  First there was an inn, since travelers on the road might find that the river could not be safely forded, and an enterprising innkeeper gave them food and a place to stay while they waited.  With a regular clientele, a farrier and a cartwright and a brewer soon set up shop, followed by a blacksmith and a carpenter and a baker.  A mill was built upriver, and a tannery downstream, and soon enough there was a tidy collection of houses within the village, and farms scattered around it.

One afternoon, the owner of one such farm was leaning against a fence where it ran alongside the road into the village.  When she had a quiet moment, the farmer liked to rest here, for there was a good view of the land with the road cresting a gentle hill before heading toward the river.  Sometimes there would be travelers, and she enjoyed exchanging greetings with them as they passed.

And on this particular afternoon, there was a traveler.  He came over to the farmer and, after the usual pleasantries about the weather, asked what the village was like.

“I’m thinking this might be a place I’d like to live,” the traveler said.

“Really?” said the farmer.  “And what was it like where you lived before?” she asked.

“Well,” answered the traveler, “everyone was really friendly and they treated one another well.  I do miss them.”

And the farmer smiled and said, “You’ll enjoy living here, then.  You’ll find that people here are like that, too.”

And the traveler thanked her and continued on into the village.

Only a little while later, another traveler came along the road.  He went over to the farmer and, after further pleasantries about the weather, asked what the village was like.

“I’m thinking this might be a place I’d like to live,” the traveler said.

“Really?” said the farmer.  “And what was it like where you lived before?” she asked.

“Well,” answered the traveler, “everyone was rather unfriendly and they treated one another badly.  I don’t miss them.”

And the farmer frowned and said, “You won’t enjoy living here, then.  You’ll find that people here are like that, too.”

And the traveler thanked her and turned around to go back the way he’d come.

The farmer, of course, knew that the village was much the same as villages everywhere, in that it was simply made up of the people in it.  So she also knew that if those people could see all the good in their lives together, then their lives would be better, whereas if they only saw the bad in their lives together, then their lives would be worse.

Now, if such a bucolic parable isn’t to your taste, how about this modern tale?

In 1979, Pauline Phillips received a letter.  That name might not ring a bell, and that’s because Phillips used the pen name “Abigail van Buren” when she answered such letters in her advice column, “Dear Abby”.  This particular letter, and Phillips’ response back in 1979, were as follows:

“Dear Abby,
Two men who claim to be father and adopted son just bought an old mansion across the street and fixed it up.  We notice a very suspicious mixture of company coming and going at all hours — blacks, whites, Orientals, women who look like men and men who look like women.  This has always been considered one of the finest sections of San Francisco, and these weirdos are giving it a bad name.  How can we improve the neighborhood?
[From,] Nob Hill Residents.”

“Dear Residents,
You could move.”

So what are the practical consequences of this simple yet profound theology, as presented by the words that are part of every Sunday service?  “All that this Fellowship is and all that this congregation has are what we bring to it: our time, our talents, our capabilities and concerns, and our money.”

In this Sanctuary alone, what we experience as a Sunday service is the result of many people’s dedication.  About half of my work week is spent preparing for services, but of course this is hardly a one-man show.  Ahead of each Sunday, your Fellowship Administrator Mary-Elizabeth Cotton compiles and produces the printed Order of Service, for example, while a local janitorial company comes in to clean the building and make sure it’s ready to be used.  The service musicians, whether Nickie or Robin or Cheré or Jeffrey or the UUFP Winds, need to practice ahead of time, and the ChorUUs practices every Thursday evening for those Sundays when they’re singing, too.  The services themselves rely upon lay leaders and ushers to go smoothly, but perhaps even more they rely on all of you to be here and to bring your minds and your hearts and your voices and your hands into this place of worship, too.  So between what you pay staff, and what our member volunteers give of their time and talents, and what all of you give of your whole selves, each of our Sunday services is what we bring to it.

Part of each service, of course, is the Children’s Focus that your Director of Religious Education Joanne Dingus provides, and I know for a fact that the adults here get as much out of what Joanne says to our children as they do, maybe more.  But the rest of the time on Sunday morning, Joanne is to be found either teaching a religious education class herself or moving about our campus assisting and supporting those she and the RE Committee have recruited to teach our children and youth.  There is also our nursery, where Mary-Elizabeth Cotton and Mary Robertson look after our very youngest members, while for our grown-ups — who are still, I hasten to mention, young-at-heart — there are Sunday morning Adult RE programs over in the office building, too.  So, again: between what you pay staff, and what our member volunteers give of their time and talents, and what all of you give when you participate, each of our programs of religious education is what we bring to it.

Then there’s what happens before and between and after services and RE classes.  Since the Summer, we’ve been implementing a model of Sunday morning hospitality that is based on teams, working together to cover all the necessary tasks from getting the coffee going to setting up food, from greeting newcomers to ushering people into services, from helping with coffee and food to cleaning everything up afterwards.  It’s also a great way to get to know more people here at the Fellowship and make new friends.  There are plenty of volunteer slots still available — you don’t have to be a member to be on a hospitality team, you don’t even have to be here on a Sunday morning for some of the tasks — so if you’re not yet on a team, please see one of the team leaders — Rosalee, Bobbie and [Sarah] — to join one today.  In short, Sunday morning hospitality is definitely what we bring to it.

Then there are a number of programs that take place after services on Sundays, such as Goddess Circle and Second Sunday Lunch and Got Kids? and Fourth Sunday Soup Social as well as presentations and movies here in the Sanctuary.  Between the efforts of our member volunteers to plan and run these programs and your participation in them, each of these is what we bring to it.

There are similarly programs at other times and on other days of the week, such as the Book Club and Fifty and Better and Resist Apathy! and Saturday Game Night and Women’s Drumming.  And there are our outreach programs, such as the third Friday dinner at St. Paul’s and the PORT Winter Shelter.  There are other programs for spiritual development, such as Fellowship Circles and the meditation groups and EarthRising and softball.  (I’m sure Mason would agree with me that softball offers plenty of spiritual development.)

There are all the ways we care for one another, from hospital visits to telephone calls, from going with someone to their court appointment to bringing one another meals following sickness or childbirth.  There are special annual events, such as the auction and the casbah and the yard sale, all of which need lots of volunteers.  There are the buildings and grounds clean-up days.  There are the staff and the volunteers who help to publicize all these ways to be involved.  There are the dedicated committees that plan and run all of these efforts, and maintain our facilities so that we can do them, and raise the money we need for programs and outreach and utilities and maintenance and staffing.  There are the committee chairs and Policy Board members who work with staff to find all of these ways to fulfill our mission.  And, perhaps most importantly, there is each and every one of you, contributing your time, your talents, your capabilities and concerns, and your money.  For every single thing that we do here, every single thing that we can do here, is what we bring to it.

Now I’ve just given you an awfully long list of what it takes to run a thriving, growing congregation like this Fellowship.  I’m sure I didn’t mention a few things that ought to be on that list, too, so if you didn’t hear a program you run or love, I apologize, but please do tell me or e-mail me to let me know that I didn’t mention it.  And it’s easy to see that just about everything on that long list needs volunteers to make it happen.  But it also takes money.

This is a growing congregation that is asking our staff to do more in response to and in support of that growth.  And with a growing number of programs, we’re using our buildings more and using more heat and light and water, too.  The state may not require us to pay taxes, but Dominion certainly expects churches to pay for electricity.  And to run those programs, from bringing in quality preachers for those Sundays when I’m not in the pulpit to obtaining the resources and supplies needed for Religious Education, from completing certain projects in order to become a Green Sanctuary to assisting with some of the costs that our members bear in order to represent us as congregation delegates at General Assembly, well, that takes money, too.

As it says in the brochure in your Order of Service this morning, “All members volunteer in various ways, and that’s crucial in sustaining the Fellowship’s mission and ministry.  However, we cannot function (much less grow) as a congregation without funding for our programs, our staff and our facilities.  There are many congregational functions which require more than volunteerism can provide.”

So this service is officially the start of this year’s Canvass, our pledge drive.  We ask all of our members, as well as those non-members known as “friends”, to pledge financial support to the Fellowship for the coming church year, which starts in July.  We ask members and friends to pledge so that, quite simply, we can create a budget, and we need a budget so that we can plan for programs and outreach and utilities and maintenance and staffing.  Some of what we spend our money on is more fun, or at least more interesting, than some of the other things we spend our money on, of course.  I don’t know of many people outside the Green Sanctuary Committee who get excited about utility bills.  And of course those whom you elect each May to lead the congregation and run these programs in turn pledge to be as wise and conscientious stewards of our collective time, talents and treasure as possible.

But to many ears these are just words.  And spoken words at that.  And there’s really just one word that matters right now.  And perhaps you’re like me and sometimes wish that life came with a great soundtrack, so maybe what we need to do with that one word… is set it… to music!

[“The Pledging Song”, words by Alan Sheeler, set to “The Drinking Song” from The Student Prince by Sigmund Romberg]

Pledge!  Pledge!  Pledge!
Pledge to a cause that is just, we call it the UUFP!
Pledge!  Pledge!  Pledge!
You’ll be helping to fund those wonderful kids in RE!
Here’s to hoping our UUs will shine,
lovingly giving both money and time!

I can foresee a time in May,
the budget made, the FiComm* at play!
Pledge!  Pledge!  Let the bucks start!
May all UUs show heart.
Pledge!  Pledge!  Pledge!
Your Fellowship needs you, so UUs don’t wait!
Let’s pledge!

[* Finance Committee]

So when, in the next few weeks, the time comes for you to pledge, whether that’s at one of the dinners to which everyone is invited, such as the Big Canvass Event on Saturday March 8th, or whether it’s in person with one of our UUFP canvassers, I would ask you to remember that everything we do — from worship services to religious exploration, from community building to public advocacy — is possible only because people like you contribute their time, their skills and their money.  All that this Fellowship is and all that this congregation has are precisely what we bring to it.

May it be so.

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Liberal Religion in the Public Square

Originally posted on UU Fellowship of the Peninsula:

For all that is our life! by Rev. Andrew Clive Millard

“Ways of life we are all enmeshed in — economic systems, our whole patterns of living, our whole established world — are not adequate for the quality of life we know we ourselves capable of and that we want for the Earth’s people.  We must become capable of offering religious leadership to a society called to change its fundamental ways of living.”
— Rebecca Parker, “Rising to the Challenge of Our Times” (1997)

For the last few years, Unitarian Universalists everywhere have been invited to read and discuss a book selected as a “Common Read”.  As such, it “can build community in our congregations and our movement by giving diverse people a shared experience, shared language, and a basis for deep, meaningful conversations.”  Recent Common Read books include Margaret Regan’s The Death of Josseline: Immigration Stories…

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We’re All in This Together

20141228 BlackLivesMatter sign(I preached this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on December 28th 2014.)

Video: “Five Tips for Being an Ally” by Franchesca Ramsey

Franchesca Ramsey describes herself as an actress, a comedian, a graphic designer, a consultant and a natural hair geek, but not always in that order.  She is perhaps best known as a video blogger, and has two YouTube channels with over 150,000 subscribers and over 23 million views.  Chescaleigh, as she is better known on-line, published this video last month.

Sermon: “We’re All in This Together”

Since my daughter was very young, we’ve been teaching her that she doesn’t need to be afraid when she hears sirens.  Not that she’s exactly old now — she’ll be two-and-a-half in January — but her level of comprehension and articulation is much greater now than when we first started telling her that a siren meant that somebody was going to help someone.  “Help” was the operative word, back then when she could only say a word or two at a time.  “Help” was something that she understood, given that we had to help her do a number of things that she couldn’t do for herself at the time.

Nowadays, of course, my daughter’s an active, curious toddler who talks non-stop except when she’s asleep.  I’ve already apologized to our Director of Religious Education for what she’s likely to do during the children’s story once she starts coming here with me on Sunday mornings.  It does mean, though, that we can now talk about how an ambulance, for example, helps someone get to the hospital for the medicine they need.  She’s seen and even sat inside fire trucks a couple of different times, even though, in her mind, the main reason for being of a fire truck is to rescue cats that are stuck in trees.  And we’ve continued to reinforce the idea that police cars are there to help people.

But then, we’re the white parents of a white child.  If my daughter were not white, we know we’d be having a different conversation.  We’d be having a conversation much like New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and his wife have been having with their son.  As part of a speech about the Staten Island grand jury’s decision not to indict police officer Daniel Pantaleo for the death of Eric Garner, Mayor de Blasio said the following:

Chirlane and I have had to talk to Dante for years about the dangers that he may face.  A good young man, a law-abiding young man who would never think to do anything wrong.  And yet, because of a history that still hangs over us, the dangers he may face, we’ve had to literally train him — as families have all over this city for decades — in how to take special care in any encounter he has with the police officers who are there to protect him.

Now for most white American families, the idea that you’d need to warn your otherwise good, law-abiding children against the very people we know are also there to protect us from real criminals, well, that idea seems very foreign.  But the fact is that it is far from foreign for black American families.  I first heard about it following the death of Trayvon Martin, the advice that many African-American parents feel compelled to give their children, and their sons in particular, even before they become teenagers, advice that has been passed on for generations, advice that is often named “the talk”, as follows:

Pay attention to where you are and who is around you.  If you go into a store, lower the hood on your sweatshirt and keep your hands out of your pockets.  If you buy something, put it in a bag and be sure to get a receipt.  If you’re confronted by someone with a badge or a gun, don’t argue or run away or put your hands anywhere but up.  Always address them as “sir” or “ma’am”.  Do not make any sudden moves, even to reach for identification.  Do not raise your voice or resist or run.  As Dana Caneday, a senior editor at the New York Times, described it, it’s a “nausea-inducing discussion” to need to have with your eight-year-old child.

Remember Chescaleigh’s first two tips for being an ally?  (And I’m taking it as a given that we want to be allies, but I’ll come back to one big reason why — other than simple human decency — a little later.)  They were, first, understand your own privilege and, two, listen and do your homework.  Actually, it’s hard to do the first without doing the second, and that’s because privilege is almost always hidden to those who have it.  I’m not aware of my male privilege, for instance, until I hear from women about the ways that our society puts them at a disadvantage.  I’m not aware of my hetero privilege until I hear from lesbian, gay and bisexual people.  I’m not aware of my cis privilege — “cis” meaning that my gender identity as a man lines up with my anatomy as a male — until I hear from transgender people.  And I’m not aware of my white privilege until I hear from people of color about the ways that our society puts them at a disadvantage.  And when they tell me they have experienced disadvantage to the point of oppression, I need to listen to them and believe that that is what they have experienced, rather than automatically trying to explain it away or getting defensive as if I were singlehandedly to blame for the way our society is structured.

And when news reports describe the same pattern of events over and over again, and when the profit-driven media fails to report many similar events, too, then it’s clearly time to pay attention.  The conversation we’re now having about race is about much more than Ferguson.  Ferguson may have been the place where the conversation erupted, but while that was triggered by the death of Michael Brown, it was caused by the decades-long predation of the suburb itself on the majority black population, using the mostly white police department to gather much of the city’s revenue rather than going after, say, actual crime.  As Reuters reported, “Traffic fines are the St. Louis suburb’s second-largest source of revenue and just about the only one that is growing appreciably.  Municipal court fines, most of which arise from motor vehicle violations, accounted for 21 percent of general fund revenue and, at $2.63 million last year, were the equivalent of more than 81 percent of police salaries before overtime.”  With budget shortfalls following the recession, Ferguson is literally criminalizing its own residents in order to fund itself.  In 2013 alone, the municipal court issued an average of three warrants per household, raising an average of $321 in fines and fees, in a city where the crime rate is about the national average.

Then there’s the fact that some of the conversations about Michael Brown and Eric Garner have focused on how they were breaking the law and otherwise resisting arrest.  The case was made that police officer Darren Wilson was genuinely afraid for his life when he shot and killed Michael Brown, but that certainly wasn’t true for police officer Daniel Pantaleo when he put Eric Garner in a chokehold that is forbidden by his own police department.  And then there’s the question of how resisting arrest deserves being put to death on the spot.  Or, in other situations, not resisting arrest. Or not even having a chance to resist arrest.  A video shows that John Crawford III was fired upon just seconds after police encountered him; he had been holding an air rifle that was for sale by the Walmart in which he was shopping.  And then there was twelve-year-old Tamir Rice, who was shot within two seconds of police arriving at his location; he had been playing with a toy gun.

In these two cases, there was an obvious common factor, namely something that looked like a real gun.  But another common factor was the state in which those events happened.  John Crawford III was killed near Dayton and Tamir Rice was killed in Cleveland… and Ohio is a so-called “open carry” state, meaning it’s completely legal to openly carry a gun whether you have a license for it or not.  But during all the commotion over “open carry” in Starbucks and Target and other places, how many of those white people brandishing very real guns were killed?  How many of them were even charged with reckless endangerment for leaving their guns on shelves where anyone, including children, could get at them?  (What about the two white men who took guns off a Walmart’s shelves, loaded them and started shooting?)

But guns don’t need to be involved to show how differently people get treated on the basis of race.  Looking at some of the things that people have tweeted recently under two particular hashtags is quite illuminating.  Here are some examples of one of those hashtags.

What this says to me is that if you have a story about some interaction with law enforcement where nothing bad happened to you, and if you’re white, then your story doesn’t prove anything, because “nothing bad happening to you” is the norm for white people, even if they’ve been committing a crime.

Here, by contrast, are some examples of the other hashtag.

I worked with someone in Connecticut, a white woman who was married to a black man.  She had a number of stories where they were pulled over while out in their car — her husband in the driver’s seat, her in the passenger seat — and the first thing the police officer would do is ask her if she was okay.  In short, all of this is why African-American parents need to have “the talk” with their children.

And actually, being a police officer yourself is no protection if you’re black.

Reuters interviewed twenty-five African American male officers on the NYPD, fifteen of whom are retired and ten of whom are still serving.  All but one said that, when off duty and out of uniform, they had been victims of racial profiling, which refers to using race or ethnicity as grounds for suspecting someone of having committed a crime.  The officers said this included being pulled over for no reason, having their heads slammed against their cars, getting guns brandished in their faces, being thrown into prison vans and experiencing ‘stop and frisk’ while shopping.  The majority of the officers said they had been pulled over multiple times while driving.  Five had had guns pulled on them.

Then there’s the conversation I observed a couple of weeks ago on Facebook.  It started when someone who was a couple of years ahead of me in theological school posted a segment from The Daily Show where Jon Stewart expresses such disbelief over the grand jury decision not to indict Staten Island police officer Daniel Pantaleo, even when the video showed him putting Eric Garner in a forbidden chokehold, even when the coroner ruled Garner’s death a homicide, that, for once, Stewart couldn’t find the words.

Posting that video led to a conversation about the subject that was, for the most part, quite civil.  Now I don’t know most of the people involved in that conversation; I assume they are friends of my fellow seminarian, and I could see from their Facebook profile pictures that they are white.  I also have no reason to believe that they are anything other than “good” people who would never intentionally cause pain or suffering to another person.

So the conversation meandered as Facebook comment threads tend to do, and somewhere along the way one person — I’ll call him Mark — expressed concern that there wasn’t enough appreciation for the challenges and dangers of being a police officer.  At that, another person wrote: “Mark, I agree that cops are badly compensated and have a super tough job, but you can quit being a cop.  You can’t quit being a person of color.”  And to that, Mark responded with this:

Yes, I agree you can quit being a cop, but can’t you also quit being perceived as a target for racism?  The one consistent theme I see in all of these events, is not one of the victims were dressed in button-down shirts or slacks with the appearance of self-respect or responsibility.  […]  If you don’t want to be a target of racism, don’t LET yourself be a target for racism.  […]  All I saw from many of these recent events, were people who were complacent, and downright comfortable being the victim.

There’s something called Poe’s Law that, applied in particular to discussions that take place via the Internet, says that without a clear indication of the author’s intent, it’s difficult or even impossible to distinguish between a sincere expression of an outrageous opinion and a parody of such an opinion.  Unfortunately, from the rest of the conversation, which soon went downhill from there, I’m pretty sure that Mark was being sincere.  But let me get this straight, the reason Eric Garner died was because he wasn’t dressed in a button-down shirt and slacks?  Because he didn’t try hard enough not to be a victim of racism?  Really?  How is that any different from saying that the reason any woman who was raped got raped was because of what she was wearing?  Talk about blaming the victim!

It’s not surprising that most of the conversation about these events has been labeled with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter.  The fact is that a black man, woman or child is killed every twenty-eight hours by police officers or self-appointed law enforcement.  It’s also not surprising that there’s been backlash against #BlackLivesMatter.  Some otherwise well-meaning people have said that it would be better to use the hashtag #AllLivesMatter.  Well, yes, all lives ought to matter.  But unfortunately, that’s not what our society looks like to all those parents who know they need to have “the talk” with their children.  The ever-growing list of names — Jordan Baker, Donitre Hamilton, Yvette Smith, Pearlie Golden, Eric Garner, John Crawford III, Tyree Woodson, Michael Brown, Ezell Ford, Dante Parker, Victor White III, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, and that’s just some of them from 2014 alone — those names prove that our society values black lives less than others.  So insisting that #BlackLivesMatter be replaced by #AllLivesMatter is like, as others have said, crashing somebody else’s funeral and insisting that the mourners put your loss before their own.  Or, to look at it another way, taking offense at #BlackLivesMatter is like being offended that people are working on a cure for diabetes when there are other diseases out there, too.

Of course, it got a whole lot harder to have a reasonable conversation about this when two New York City police officers, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, were killed last week by a man who had that morning bragged on Instagram about avenging the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.  Without wasting any time, people who had been critical of the #BlackLivesMatter movement claimed that the deaths of officers Liu and Ramos were the direct fault of those calling for racial justice, or that New York Mayor de Blasio was to blame for disrespecting the police, or that it was President Obama’s fault, just because.  Needless to say, though, many groups under the #BlackLivesMatter banner have condemned the killings of the New York police officers, and have recommitted themselves to a non-violent movement for change.  The fact is that Asian police officer Liu and Latino police officer Ramos, in being killed by a black man who shot his black ex-girlfriend, Air Force reservist Shaneka Thompson, earlier that day, the fact is that they were just as much victims of institutional racism as any of the black men and women killed by their fellow police officers.

Because that’s the thing.  Racism isn’t personal.  It’s certainly not rational.  It’s not about who your friends are or who you’d be willing to share a drink with, because in those situations you have time to stop and think.  And most of us, when we have time to stop and think, can remember that we believe that most people are pretty much the same as us, and so we’d do our best to respect their inherent worth and dignity just as we’d hope they’d offer us the same courtesy.  But Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson didn’t have time to stop and think.  He was afraid for his life, and a combination of police training, human instinct and cultural conditioning kicked in, and he shot Michael Brown without stopping to think about it.  And that’s the point.  When we don’t stop to think about it, then our higher cognitive functions don’t have a chance to overrule the much greater part of our brain that otherwise runs on training, instinct and conditioning.

To demonstrate this, there’s something called an Implicit Association Test, which measures the strength of associations between concepts and evaluations.  One version of the test has you first sort descriptive words into categories such as good or bad and then sort pictures of faces into categories such as African American or European American.  Then it mixes them up so that you’re sorting both words and pictures at the same time.  By running different combinations, the test can determine if you have subconscious preferences one way or the other.  As hosted by Harvard University, more than seven hundred thousand people took the Implicit Association Test with pictures of African American and European American faces over a six-year period, and more than half showed either a moderate or a strong automatic preference for white people compared to black people.  And while the majority of white people who took the test showed an implicit preference for white people, so did about half of the black people who took the test.  Again, this is not about what happens when we stop to think, because the test doesn’t give you time to think.  It’s about how we’ve been conditioned by our culture, by our training, by our upbringing.

And that’s why it’s necessary to be active in addressing it.  Racism isn’t just going to go away if we stop talking about.  That’s not taking the moral high ground; that’s being complicit in a system of oppression.  So it’s entirely appropriate to demand that police departments adopt policies that end racial profiling and prevent the criminalization of people of color, as well as to be much more transparent and accountable when someone is killed.  Some have said that demanding accountability in police actions is anti-police, but that’s like saying that calling for faulty brakes to be fixed is anti-car.  If anything, we should hold something to a higher standard when we value it, and a police force made up of our fellow citizens — and police officers are citizens just like us — who have agreed, on our behalf, to all the risk and danger that goes with the enforcement of the laws that we, the people, have passed in order to protect ourselves, well, that’s something we should value greatly and thus hold to a very high standard.

Of course, the case can also be made that nothing is broken, and that the system is working just the way it was intended ever since Nat Turner’s Rebellion, which took place not far from here in Southampton County, and in the aftermath of which racism was, if not invented, then at least applied as never before in support of class privilege.  But I’d like to think we can do better.  The “Universalism” part of Unitarian Universalism originally meant the belief that all souls would finally reach heaven.  Today, it usually means the belief that heaven on Earth is possible, that salvation can be reached in this life, that the Beloved Community can be brought into existence, that a universal commonwealth of love and justice is attainable.  But here’s the catch: none of that is possible on an individual basis.  It can’t be done piecemeal.  It’s all or nothing, everybody or nobody.  So if entire groups of people are systematically oppressed to the point that their lives are altogether too much like hell, then there’s no heaven for anyone else.  After all, there’s no privilege in heaven.  Until black lives matter as much as white lives, then nobody gets to say that all lives matter.

And that’s why we should want to be allies, because our own salvation, our own wholeness, our own well-being is inextricably connected to everybody else’s.  Some of us may be part of particular struggles already, given one or more identities that mean that the very structure of our society puts us at a disadvantage, but if our other identities mean that we are privileged in other ways, then we have a responsibility to use that privilege to support and empower those whom our society judges as less worthy.  So men can be allies to women by understanding their own male privilege.  Heterosexual and cisgender people can be allies by listening to and taking seriously the lived experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.  And white people can be allies by speaking up in support of people of color, not speaking over them or taking the megaphone from them, but learning to take a supporting rather than leading role for once.  As Chescaleigh explained, we’ll make mistakes in trying to be good allies, and it’s important to apologize when we do make mistakes, because it’s not our intent that matters, but our impact.  And, then there’s the fifth of her five tips: we need to remember that ally is a verb, which means doing something.

So to that end, outside the Sanctuary this morning, there are a couple of copies of what is known as the Birmingham Pledge.  This was created sixteen years ago by an attorney in Birmingham, Alabama, to express a grassroots commitment to combating racism and racial prejudice, and it has since been used in anti-racism programs in all fifty states.  I would ask you to take a look at it and, if you are willing to make that commitment, and then live it to the best of your ability, to sign it as well.  Here’s what it says:

“I believe that every person has worth as an individual.  I believe that every person is entitled to dignity and respect, regardless of race or color.  I believe that every thought and every act of racial prejudice is harmful; if it is my thought or act, then it is harmful to me as well as to others.  Therefore, from this day forward: I will strive daily to eliminate racial prejudice from my thoughts and actions; I will discourage racial prejudice by others at every opportunity; I will treat all people with dignity and respect; and I will strive daily to honor this pledge, knowing that the world will be a better place because of my effort.”

May it be so.

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