LDS Inreach

Earlier this month I had the honor of celebrating the formal marriage of two people who had successfully blended a family of middle schoolers over the past several years, while remaining in love with each other. The children were as fine as the parents, and I expected great things when meeting the bride’s parents. So how would I feel about the fact that her parents had recently joined the Latter Day Saints?

Anyone who loves successful religious polity has got to admire the Mormons, and I’ve known good people of that faith. These parents turned out to be two more such good people. The father delivered a lovely blessing after the vows and also took me aside to explain a little about his new religion. What he said confirmed a rumor that long had intrigued me.

The LDS do not have ministers on the payroll and the young folks on their mission years are required to pay their own ways. Worship every week has testimony from each age group and then small group time. Their money goes for buildings, worship supplies, and support for LDSers dealing with hard times. What we call “the ministers’ purse” the Mormons have as a general relief fund. Lay leaders receive petitions for assistance and write the checks. The whole matter is handled discreetly, preserving the applicants’ dignity. But everyone knows about it, and apparently, no one assumes they will never be the person who has the need. (That’s the thing about Christianity: it teaches that adversity and death can arise at any moment.)

I thought about this as we passed the baskets yesterday in the Unitarian Universalist congregation where we worship. It has a strong tradition of lay leadership and our lay worship services, and by these means has become a large congregation. Every week half the money in the basket goes to a local service agency. Yesterday I asked myself, “Suppose we split this money three ways, with forty per cent going to the operating budget of the Society, and thirty each to this outside agency and to the Pastoral Care Network? How would that affect the loyalty and giving of our parishioners? How would that affect our self-image as people of an undeservedly solid privileged social stature? How would serving on the Inreach Fund Committee affect our leadership’s view of our religious community?”

What do you think?

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Watching

For whatever reason, God filled my October with ministry, and I loved it. He sent a wide range of tasks, all positioned at the front of the learning curve, and those to whom He sent me pronounced themselves satisfied.

What prepared me to do each deed was that I had prepared for it long ago, in a dedicated time of life. When called down to the Occupy site after a gunshot death, I ran around the house frantically seeking the tiny prayer books I used to carry around hospitals during Clinical Pastoral Education. There have been moments since that time when I despaired of ever using them again — because I loved CPE — but when I got to the site, I discovered that a completely different preparation would be valuable.

So I begin this Advent by reflecting on The Bhagavad Gita. For the studies I used at Occupy were not the theology and history from Harvard, but the Asian Studies work at the University of Cincinnati and the nonviolence training of the long-ago war in Vietnam. What linked them together was The Gita, and my copies have the yellowed pages to prove their long-ago primacy. It’s been decades since I opened even one of them.

This is the book Thoreau and then Gandhi read to strengthen themselves for nonviolent protest, for it calls to keeping focused on one’s soul in the midst of war. I own three different translations, and have decided that the one I like best was done by Barbara Stoler Miller, even though, as with the Bible, I have found that different translators provide my favorite version of certain passages. I did not pick this book up when going down to Occupy, but afterwards, in trying to figure out how I was able to stay calm, focused, and yet alert to the opportunity to promote peacefulness.

And you know what bothers me? My theological and cultural life live on the outside edges of UU Christian community, and I don’t want to do something that cuts ties with my community in one of our primary seasons. Can I prepare myself for Christmas by reading the Gita? Certainly the UU Sources say yes, even celebrate the opportunity to do so.

So what shall I give up instead? My Advent book of readings says this is a season of dying to the world in order to be ready for the coming of the Prince of Peace (Arjuna?), so I’m going to cut down on news shows. Not a hard decision when I woke up to a dream of John Boehner crying about something: a real sign I’ve got to cut back on Rachel Maddow and such.

The task seems daunting: not just to let my life be interrupted, but to let it change.  That must be why the Christian calendar instructs us to do this twice each year, in autumn and again in springtime. Those seasons in this hemisphere are themselves an announcement that nothing stays the same.  Like anyone else, I fight to hold on to the self which has grown familiar.

But this year, another self has been more comfortable: not the easy-going one, but the one who let herself be challenged.

Maybe that is the one who is coming this year: not as a savior or messiah, but just another piece of the puzzle as somewhere, something large, draws a better world out of this collectivity of frailty and fear. For that is what Krishna advised Arjuna: Do not let your weaknesses stand before you, multiplying and filling you with fear. Fasten your eyes on the larger goal, and let its strength become yours.

From Camping to Covenant: Reframing Life in the 99 Per Cent

Last Thursday night, as Occupy Vermont – Burlington settled into the Sophia Fahs Community Room of our historic meetinghouse, as they talked, tweeted, ate and relaxed, something strange began to happen. Old people (like me) began arriving. Some, I suppose, were parents or other relatives coming with relief to collect their offspring and negotiate the many impromptu sleepovers that they, in their turn, would also be hosting. Several congregational leaders stopped in, a great support for those of us whose nights had now been Occupied. But I also recognized activists, including one tireless Veterans for Peace leader. None of these people said anything as the Occupiers held their General Assembly. The room filled with so much love and support that its power engulfs me, still.

But as the Occupiers disperse and regroup over the northern winter (and Zucotti Park is being cleared as I write this), the rest of us can more fully appreciate the gift they have given us. Here in Burlington, Vermont, where no one wound up with a police record in the dispersal, the Occupers hooted when Police Chief Michael Schirling said that he is part of the 99 per cent. But he certainly is, and the anger of public sector unions in Wisconsin and Ohio anti-union laws played a big part in igniting the consciousness that made the Occupations so successful.

When Mayor Bob Kiss was negotiating, he reconfirmed his own commitment to the political goals expressed by the Occupy movement. Since he is a Progressive, and our Congress member and one of our two US  Senators are in the Progressive Caucus (the other one is Patrick Leahy, no slouch on leftwing positions), the Mayor’s statement had credibility. Two days later, an unexpectedly huge turnout flooded our Democratic caucus to choose the next candidate for mayor, winding up in a dead heat between two more lefties, one of whom is also a Prog. So when the Mayor reconfirmed his commitment to Occupy goals, he spoke for a significant part of our electorate.

And on Sunday morning, as our congregation settled back into our difficult interim year, the community was overflowing with gratitude, pride and joy at having been able to serve as a means for keeping peace while affirming the dignity and inherent worth of even the house-less Occupiers by by hosting them overnight. My own favorite moment was remembering that we have an on-site dryer, so these fragile folks could do what so many of us take for granted: have another cup of coffee and a second bagel while the wet stuff spun around. It was a lovely moment of  dignity and equality.

Most UU meetinghouses are too small to offer such facilities, although in a pinch, I imagine they would manage to find room.  There are now three or more congregations who have chosen to be occupied as part of the dispersal process, which has pulled me up short in saying that social justice is basically nondenominational. Apparently at some point there might be a UU difference. If so, the sizes of our meetinghouses will not be that important.

But we must use the wisdom of these young people (sorry, I’m almost 60 and even the 40 somethings look young to me) to avoid the two things that have dogged liberal religions after heroic efforts in the past. If the efforts were controversial, we shrink through schism. If they were popular, we double down and soon succumb to burnout.

Schism is probably not a problem on this one, but burnout I really worry about.  If this large congregation produced fewer than ten people to do this work, then what can small congregations come up with? And what will be the cost to other programs and ministries, as the zero-sum equations of under-staffing and too-small leadership evolve into survival of the fittest?  We UUs must follow the example of the unions, as was done in Ohio and Wisconsin, to stand up for our rights to remain middle class and to give this same security and joy to our children and grandchildren, along with all our neighbors. Yes, the Parable of the Good Samaritan played through my head again and again last Thursday. But we would do well to remember, also, the story of Martha, whose ministry was simply to set a good table so others could work on their vision.

This will be a stretch, because UUs are notoriously hard-pressed to speak factually about finances. For one thing, as we look guiltily at our Unitarian past, we fail to distinguish between the small business leaders who were our backbone and the robber barons who literally killed off their workers. WE are the 99 per cent, just not the bottom of it. So we need to quit bowing to the 1 per cent by limiting what we think we can pay to do. That does not mean giving more from what we do not have, but joining the Occupiers — including the police chiefs and other public sector unions of the union protection movements — in calling for a national recommitment to the middle class dream, accessible and available to all. One of the most dangerous efforts in the UUA right now is the movement toward “volunteer staff,” that is, the move toward volunteers doing without pay the jobs for which others have gone into great debt to learn proper skills, tools and networks.  This is nothing but an attempt to accommodate the current power structures — including our own — rather than to acknowledge that many of us are now too poor to pledge at the level which will establish and maintain our religious values by supporting appropriate professionals in middle class personal journeys.

I know that this is a tough moment to say, “Let’s all remember that our police chief here in Burlington began his work by saying he is part of the 99 per cent.” I know that us Boomers, especially, remember when “middle class” had cultural as well as economic assumptions. Occupiers I met don’t see it that way. Most of them are loving their educations, but they want the careers that provide economic integrity in support of  lifelong learning and enriching family culture.

Chief Shirling and Mayor Kiss, by negotiating, showed a sense of kinship with these folks, who had been living in our park those previous three weeks. Now it’s up to the rest of us to join our unions and elected officials to do what Oakland Mayor Jean Quan suggested (no, she’s not my favorite person, either), and expand the movement beyond the encampments. As a religion, we  UUs have bent to these injustices long enough. Accommodation is not creativity.  Let us stand up again, and take our place with with those folks who flooded into the Burlington meetinghouse after the Occupiers were safe, to listen, to protect, and most of all, to learn. As our religious community looks beyond these weeks of being Occupied physically, let our spirits be Occupied with an aggressive search for covenant structures that let us pay for all the ministries and practical staffing needs the world needs us to offer, not just in crisis, but for the long haul. If our covenants are in order, the meetinghouses will all prove large enough.

Rescue Swimmer

Thursday was a tough day for Occupy Burlington, Vermont, as it was my great good fortune to be be in a position to offer the resources of our UU congregation in service to peace, justice and healing.

You can read what happened here: http://www.burlingtonfreepress.com/article/20111110/NEWS02/111110019/Future-of-Occupy-Burlington-encampment-uncertain-after-police-clear-City-Hall-Park-to-investigate-man-s-death?odyssey=tab|mostpopular|text|FRONTPAGE
and here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/UUSocietyBurlington

“Providing Sanctuary” is not the same as “Redeeming People.”  When I was in training for designated ministry, supervisors of both Roman Catholic and Unitarian Universalist theologies repeatedly tried to break me of the tendency to rescue. I rescue animals, I rescue people, I rescue situations. It’s the way I go through the world, and every time I consider getting cured of it, I ask myself whether I prefer to let somebody get hurt. The answer is always “no.”

Ironically, both the Catholics and UUs criticized me for “playing God.” The Catholics thought the person should be left in God’s hands,while the UUs didn’t usually believe there was a God, so playing God is a false calling.  I agree with the statement that I should not hope to become somebody’s God, but I’m fully committed to a life as God’s ever-present human hands. And that is why redemption is not the same as rescue. Redemption assumes that one party is pure or whole and the other impure or broken. I do not assume a difference between myself and whomever I’m trying to assist. There just seems to be a temporary balance in favor of my assets and away from theirs. I do not assume that mine are infinite or theirs are miniscule, it’s just a case of what happens to be useful at this moment.

And that is the second thing about rescue: both parties are in the same moment. The Redeemer sits in some clean, eternal heaven, reaching out with only a small part of Itself, while the rescuer jumps into the water with the drowning person, runs into the fire to find the coughing person, crouches on the floor to breathe into the silent person. Rescue is intimate, dirty and transformative.  And it’s scary: you are extending yourself to the point of risk.

When it’s over, the rescuer will be as much in need of restoration and healing as the person who benefited from the assistance.  The strength and goodness of the beneficiary will not be any gift from the rescuer, but a resumption of the good and powerful being they were before. I hope Occupy Burlington understands that nothing that was done for them in that rainy evening crisis overrides the good they were already doing for us and for me, by their constant and faithful witness. They own the identity of their goodness, and I am happy I was able to help protect that ownership.

 

What the Redeemer and rescuer have in common is a treasury of larger assets that empower them to operate in the crisis. The rescue swimmer confirms their links to the helicopter or shore-team. The person administering CPR is listening for other folks dialing their cellphones and calling 911.  On Thursday, when I stood with Occupy Burlington, I knew exactly what congregational and collegial covenants and bylaws had authorized me to do. When I arrived, the Society Administrator was on site, making sure legal and other necessary invisible work was in place, and that the Board President was on his way.  Her partner transformed himself into Security Staff to make sure I was safe and had someone from the congregation with whom to make decisions about space use until the Board President arrived.

Beyond that, the rescue I linked up was made possible by everyone in the First UU Society who has paid their pledges or given to our capital campaigns in order to maintain this state-of-the-art facility. It was made possible by all our ministers who have prioritized community support as part of our work, going back to the original charter as a town congregation. It was confirmed by all the parishioners who have supported our many social justice committees and efforts, most recently the successful effort to achieve full equal marriage rights by adding legislative votes to judicial rulings.

Even the likelihood that I, on Thursday night, was *a* (NOT *the*) right person at the right time can be traced to many other people and experiences, any of which at the time I chose without wanting to make a full commitment to major dramatic efforts. Not one of them was unique to me, nor was this general sequence a lonely journey. My training in nonviolence dates back to a long-ago peace movement much larger than myself. I learned community policing from lots of community work — again with congregational commitment –in a much tougher time and place, where visionary work in community policing was being designed out of desperation.  The coincidence that I had served this congregation as Director of Religious Education meant I had already set up and supervised a district Youth Con and knew the key legal and safety policies for hosting an overnight. My ability to stand in the rain for three hours traces back to the fact that our excellent government-funded health care has got many of my systemic weaknesses under good control, so I need not worry about asthma attacks and broken bones by walking around on a dark, rainy night.

This is the fundamental message that a rescue swimmer brings: “You are not alone, because I am not alone. Without all these connections, resources and even my prior self-strengthening,  we are just two folks drowning together. Don’t think of me as a hero, because I’m only a to0l for linkage.  The connection we have right now is just as intense and vulnerable for me as it is for you.  I am praying and working for its success as much as you are, because the pain you were in when we began is hard to feel, but it’s even harder to witness and walk away from.”

It is taking me several days to come down from the heady rush. Yes, I checked the media for public recognition. Yes, I have crowed to my family and patted myself on the back one time too often. But even in those prideful moments, huge knots in my stomach were reminding me that I had not been anything more than human. If I had really been by myself, a true lone wolf for goodness, I would have failed.

Worse still, I would not have been in a position to even try. So if you are wondering why to get up on your designated sacred day and enter some institution organized to name and call for goodness, if you are calculating your pledge, or asking whether you have enough energy to volunteer, just remind yourself of the good work that is being done as people stream out of their mosques, synagogues, temples and sanghas, churches and meetinghouses — as well as from the many secular organizations all faiths have spawned — in order to do the good work of rescuing others so they can get back on the path to achieving their full, best selves.