Unitarian Universalist Prison Justice Histories

Among the Unitarian Universalists, with whom I seem to have cast my lot for good, there are calls that we focus our energies on justice around prison reforms. This is an area where we have a long and honorable — and diverse — tradition. It falls into two categories, which I’ll just touch on here.

The first is spiritual care and justice for people actually in prison. Our most famous example of this is actually the nation’s most famous example, so let’s fly the flag. Dorothea Dix was the daughter of an affluent Bostonian, but in her young adult years, she was afflicted with depression (I forget why). Her minister — pay attention here, this is the denominational link — was William Ellery Channing, the prophetic voice for the founding of the American Unitarian Association and related institutions for denominational ministers. Channing, himself blessed with every worldly comfort, suggested she could lift her spirits by caring for others, and set her up teaching religious materials in the local prison.

Let me underscore: William Ellery Channing organized lay presence in the local prison. You cannot get better polity credentials than that. So yes, prison justice people, go for it.

Dorothea Dix went on to become the prophetic leading advocate for humane and uplifting institutional care for people in prisons and people with mental illness. In those days, as in ours, people with mental illness were over-represented in the prison population. Which means there is still work to be done, on both fronts.

Jump ahead over one hundred years, and regard the 1970s and 1980s: the nation entered a spasm of prison construction. Voters in every state could not figure out how to deal with the breakdown of racially and culturally segregated social structures, nor with the infiltration of recreational and addictive drugs (sometimes the same, sometimes not) into neighborhoods they had deluded themselves were drug free. In 1974, Unitarian Universalists passed a resolution calling for a moratorium on this binge in sentencing and imprisoning until fundamental issues were sorted out more fairly. Please excuse the lack of footnotes for what I write next, for my dear friend, the late Mary Chapman, was the person who relocated to Washington DC to run the UUSC office, tiny, underfunded, but passionate, to wage and finally track this losing battle. The closing of that office — admission of defeat, really — was a formative event in my life. We had struggled so desperately (my own focus was opposition to the death penalty) and our own denomination had turned its face away from us. Mary and her team filed their records neatly, I guess, because the archives at Harvard Divinity School are clearly-labeled. They bring up so many memories, they scream for so many dissertations. And they show that we have been doing this work, sometimes in large numbers and well-publicized ways, sometimes quietly, struggling, as Mary was, for much of the twentieth century. It came from our commitment to racial and economic justice.

I can see now — on my sixtieth birthday, planning my wedding and caregiving for a fiancee with a degenerative disease, that a return to excellence in pastoral care (the big call of the first round of women ministers: our families need our support to define themselves, affirm their choices, and flourish differently) among ourselves — had merit. I can see, also, that what looked self-centered at the time — the fight against Reaganomics — had self-preservation aspects that supported the ability to engage in social justice work. 

What was the second strain in prison justice work? Personally-based preventive measures have had wider public acclaim, but been conducted through interfaith secular cooperation rather than avowedly denominational set ups. The temperance movement strove to keep families out of poor farms and debtor prisons, as well as to limit thieving and vandalism by persistent drunkards. Public education — including workingman’s clubs and single women’s education — operated on the assumptions that people with fundamental literacy, numeracy, and technical skills would be able to find adequate employment to stay out of crime. Single women’s housing recognized that young women in large cities were more likely to fall into prostitution, shoplifting, abusive relationships, if they did not have secure affordable housing. Again we see the name of William Ellery Channing, who delivered one of the most fundamental statements of our religious purpose for anyone, “Self-Culture,” not in a church to a congregation, but to inaugurate the Franklin Lectures, a Boston working men’s social program. As that century bled into its successor, Samuel Atkins Eliot II, whose works I often disparage, in concert with his father, Charles William Eliot, whose religious work I disparage even more, spent decades of Saturday mornings tutoring incarcerated persons and recently released former prisoners, in hopes that they would soon be chosen for paid employment by respectable employers. Such efforts can be seen, in unbroken line, by more numerous but less famous UUs and others, at the Boston Unitarian Universalist Urban Ministries (housed in a facility, First Parish of Roxbury, of which my forebears were founding members, might I boast).

How do we use this information to tackle an injustice which has only gotten worse with the passage of time? The fundamental problem in the Reagan era was the administrative decision to choose the single most effective rallying cry we could, and let the others go. Universal economic and social opportunity remain fundamental to avoiding imprisonment, both the first time and then as a recidivist. Anyone wanting to take advantage of these opportunities requires personal uplift and pastoral care, both within prisons and throughout society. Fairly written and fairly administered laws keep people safe. And activists require — as I do now — safe havens for pastoral care and personal support when our own lives hit hard times.

I welcome a new generation undertaking the work which my friend and I were so sad to leave behind not so long ago. But let these newcomers honor the ongoing work our faith community has been doing and still does, even if it does not appear directly related to prison justice.

Why Do We Trust Ferries?

A dear Facebook friend, whom I hope to meet someday in person, has been riding one of America’s iconic ferries this week. At the foot of my own street, Lake Champlain Ferries are gearing up for another season of tourists, students, commuters, and people who just want to spend a couple of hours crossing Lake Champlain in good weather.

For us, with strong local protective powers overseeing our safety, these ferry rides are treats we give our families. We bring loved ones with disabilities, knowing they will safely disembark.

It didn’t feel that way when I lived in Indonesia.


And I thought of some friends who had made this crossing, when I saw this headline, from a ferry line we all considered reliable:


But much worse are losses for those who aspire simply to enter the Third World, fleeing places below any ranking of progress:



Perhaps it’s time to rethink “the laws of the seas” with an eye to passenger safety, rather than shareholder profit. Ferries apparently operate without basic rules of safety. Lifeboats. Safety drills. Crisis-proof, comprehensive message transmission systems. Captains and crew trained to anticipate challenges, plan, and respond accordingly.

There are little ferries that take cars across tiny waterways for fun. And then there are these floating parking lots, cruise ships, leisure resort destinations in themselves. Time to shift control into an international organization based on compassion, not competition among capitalists.

Nice Work

One of my favorite new practices for reading and recentering is to enter the “reader” function on my blog site and click on one of the categories I have used, to see what shows up.

This being two days after Easter, a click on Unitarian Universalism produced a lot of food for thought.

Thanks, friends. I haven’t read all of you, but I’ve started.

Caregiving Enters a New Season: Miscellanies from Tiriduum in Vermont

Easter has meant different things at different times in my life. You know the flow: from one of the two annual candy days of childhood, to the young adult choice to either ignore it or study it passionately, to the young parenting years of passing along traditions and watching kids grow through them. Then came the post-parenting years of Easter as a model for self-reinventing. Then came gardening and not thinking much about Jesus.

And now I’m turning sixty. What was this last Triduum in my fifties?

Not much church, and none of it focused on Jesus. But all those long weekends at King’s Chapel turn out to have been bulbs well-planted: throughout an apparently non-religious Triduum, little reflections kept popping up at stray moments, illuminating moments that no one would describe as particularly brilliant.

Good Friday turns out to be a great day for reflecting on the transitions of retirement. Familiar life is no longer waning, ebbing, but rapidly passing away. You reach for things that aren’t there, get confused, and look into spaces whose once-empty appearance now shimmer into promising forms. These forms will become shapes, and from these shapes, new structures for new life will arise. But right now, on Good Friday, all you see is that these forms have replaced ghosts and companions you thought would last forever. That you thought you would want to last forever.

Holy Saturday is a quiet day. One never knows quite what to do. Back on Boston, my friend Nina and I used to wonder if it was sacrilegious to feast on Boston’s springtime glory when so recently we’d immersed ourselves not only in the suffering of Jesus, but in the awareness that he undertook that suffering in solidarity of so much human suffering everywhere, all around. Shouldn’t we be showing the same solidarity?

And then Easter. Since my partner sings in the choir, Huntington’s Disease be damned: there are two Hallelujah Choruses to fling joyously toward a congregation whose primary definition of Easter might well be that it’s when you get to hear the choir sing The Hallelujah Chorus. The great thing about each of the Christian seasons is that it starts with good intentions, and, unlike the secular year, provides a reasonable interval to maintain them and then celebrate having done so.

So Easter, this year, for me, marks simply the beginning of another season. As far as seasons go, 2014 for me will be the Year of Candlemas. Because it had neither theological nor outdoor messages this year — just snowstorm after snowstorm, with occasional variations of ice — the weeks from Epiphany to Ground-hog’s Day had the wonderful effect of letting me garden my house. One cleans up after Christmas, takes down a few more decorations each day — but not all of them — to renew the indoor space, moving it, slowly but surely, toward the moment of welcoming new light. And in this legendary year, when those of us who are used to lots of snow and cold set records for snow and cold — in our case, all the way through March —  the endless white surfaces outside spread a perfect canvas for the sun to announce itself differently every day, every hour. 

Just as a clock runs down, the arrival of the new holy renders moot the season which preceded it. Candlemas ends in a cleaning flurry, preparing the home for Lent. But the stripped down home starts accumulating new stuff almost immediately. As the weather warms, new clothes come out and old ones get put away. Mud, gravel, and salt slowly age on the threshholds, and suddenly it seems sensible to clean the floors. 

That didn’t happen this year. Instead she started physical therapy. Lawyer stuff and doctor stuff overrode us. And all of a sudden, friends on Facebook started posting pictures of crocuses, saying that if I ventured out to lift the mulch, I, too, would find little green things. And this year, we’re in the final stages of setting up our own wedding.

Thank God Easter is a whole season. Once again, I’ll be using all six weeks to organize, to beautify, to set up our little piece of heaven for Vermont’s tiny summer. There are indeed little green things poking through, when I rake away the mats of leaf mulch. People are actually planning to join us for our wedding, and smiling about the idea of it. We’ll spend only a few days out of our house, and then, come home to start another season.

Everyone Gets Spanked

The three of us are close in age, but very different in temperament. One day when we were old enough to play together for an hour when my mom went out — meaning probably about 10, 9, and 7 — somebody broke something precious to my mom. It might have been a vase, but whatever… 

When she came home, saw the breakage, and got mad, she asked that whoever did this should speak up. 

Needless to say, nobody spoke up. We knew she would spank whoever it was, and nobody wanted to get spanked.

Now there were two issues: doing something wrong, and taking responsibility. So she tried again.

Nobody spoke up.

Now she was mad. So she launched an appeal to conscience. Knowing how close we were to each other (in rural Colorado, what other options were there?), she said that if the culprit did not speak up, she would spank all of us. Surely whoever had done this did not wish to punish innocent people?

Nobody spoke up.

So we all got spanked. Two of us were crying, with pain and outrage.

One remained quiet, got the spanking and went on with her day.

That’s why economic sanctions do not work when power-driven elites outrage the rest of the world. Indeed, the sanctions counterattack, creating enemies against the outsider where previously there were discontented powerless local citizens. Ruthless folks do not feel other people’s pain: that’s the definition of ruthlessness. They don’t pity their compatriots any more than they pity the defined out-group whose blood and tears have provoked outside outrage.

Zealot: First Impressions

Having achieved my one Lenten commitment, which was to update my cultural literacy by reading Aslan’s Zealot, I wish to note the following reactions during reading. Please attend to my wording: these are reaction notes, not scholarly considerations. My goal is to list sensations based in previous eras on my scholarly journey.

1) Positive sense of affirmation in rejecting, or at least limiting, the radical pacifism ascribed to Jesus, and contradicted by two key scriptural passages.

2) Sadness at the rigidly sectarian boundaries placed on Jesus’s intentions.

3) Alarm bells that scholars of modern Iran’s radical Shi’a moment are not looking at how his family’s flight from that revolution affected his imaging of religious rebels. Judging from descriptions of his three books so far, this will be where the ultimate examination of his scholarly agenda will come to rest.

4) Lots of warning signals about his huckstering agenda: slippery self-description of his academic credentials; book titles re-jiggered for marketing pop; the choice to be interviewed on Fox News (as well as NPR and other more comfortable venues).

5) And the reverse: sympathy for someone who keeps having to keep looking for a new place in the world because the places he finds don’t meet his needs, and yet, somehow, his being resonates with the query: “I feel God here; why can’t I see and hold onto Him?”

Church Budget on Parade

I am a community-based minister, Unitarian Universalist, in what Pew Research calls “the least religious state in the nation.” Hello from Vermont.

Here’s an explanation, from one of our professors (yes, we have universities and colleges up here, and they are good ones) about why Pew is wrong.

If Professor Parini is right — and most of us suspect that he is — then Vermont is just the entering wedge of a new era in religious history. From a religious point of view — “religio” meaning “bound” — it’s a disaster. From God’s perspective –whatever you make of that term — new streams flourish, new fountains dance. The Living Water now rises in such volume that the old pipes and vessels for channeling, reserving, releasing, have vanished under the flood. States and cities deputize uncles and best friends to perform weddings; crematoria deliver ashes in cardboard cartons to potlucks spread in brightly decorated homes, where friends drink toasts and share movies about the loved one they’ve lost. Major media carry advertising aimed at families of various configurations, hues, ethnicities; even species equality has crept into programs with major ratings. And all of these families spend time inventing their own rituals, defining sacred time in personal ways.

What frustrates Unitarian Universalism is that ours is the religious leadership that visualized this era. Our rebels laid its foundational theories, our theologians advocated these tough transitions. Now it’s drowning us, imposing a fragility that doesn’t seem fair,

This past Sunday, the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Burlington, Vermont, joyously installed our fifteenth settled minister. We have historically been a large congregation in a small city, and so we remain. We are also a large congregation in the denomination, which means we’re on a level with sibling congregations in cities much larger than our own. So what are we doing right, and how is it working?

The first thing I’ll say is the we have NEVER relied on only one minister, because our male-only legal leadership, within our first quarter of life, had acknowledged the minister’s wife as an independent congregational servant and leader. But rather than shackle ourselves to married ministers, when the candidate we preferred had no wife, we fostered women lay leaders for leadership in congregational work: this congregation has had three unmarried male ministers, including the minister who served us the longest, in the gender-obsessed Victorian era. We maintained strong male participation in activities men found congenial: mostly the building and grounds, but also adult religious education and community outreach. We had a community-open Boys Club through much of the twentieth century. Far from being a place where people sit neatly in rows on Sundays, these interior groups have repeatedly come together to enlarge and reshape our meetinghouse for diverse kinds of activities. The Meetinghouse Bicentennial, in 2016, will be a story of diversity bursting out of every seam.

What the men of the Prudential Committee (now the women and men of the Board) did NOT do, until the 1970s, was control the budgets of these various internal organizations. Religious Education, Women’s Alliance, the Library, Boys Club, the youth group — all had their own fund-raising and bank accounts. The Society did not give to them, but on the contrary, it was they who rallied to purchase furnishings and even infrastructure for the Meetinghouse. Each group arranged for its denominational leadership to visit them, and each voted on its denominational outings. There was one exception: from the first year of the May Meetings for Unitarian ministers, the Prudential Committee paid at least some of what it cost for our minister to meet with his colleagues in Boston.

So when did the unified budget come into effect?

It is a credit to the congregation’s legal leadership that they recognized, very early, the need for paid staff members; they grew positions around competent but ethical individuals. The first group to have its own budget and staff, about 1848, was the Singing Society, which consisted of four singers and an organist. The Religious Book Society had already set up its own budget for books, but the minister was the librarian; by 1848, a parishioner was occasionally paid to keep track of the books when the minister was ill, too busy, or absent. The Sunday School Society arrived in the 1850s, but the ministers preferred to lead and teach in person for the next 75 years. The ministers’ wives or daughters usually participated in this group, but not as directors, until the twentieth century. The Women’s Alliance, begun in 1826 as The Sewing Society, fostered most of this and made donations when groups needed extra assistance. Not all these women were wives of leading men, and in at least one case, a husband’s trouble encouraged the group to support the wife in her leadership, as a comfort and identity for herself.

There has not been an incident of embezzlement in these 214 years, so what led the congregational leadership to move to a unified budget? When did it happen, and why?

Without doing a whole essay on the philosophy, I place the blame squarely on “modernism.” That marvelous conviction, which set in at the end of the 19th century, held that we all, under our diverse surfaces, consist of the same interchangeable units of life and energy. This radical universalism lent itself perfectly to the totalitarian model of social organization, for what, beyond pragmatism, could justify limitations? If the units are interchangeable, who determines where they go? Surely the larger purview available to the decision-makers, the more resources for nurture and celebration can be shifted where they’ll do the most good.

The Society called in various checkbooks at the tail-end of the the neo-Victorian 1950s and early 1960s. As I sat in the installation on Sunday, watching our past, present, and impending board presidents process with the clergy, what came to mind was that Cold War addition to our national sloganeering: “One Nation, Under God.” There they were: our representations of God’s presence among us. And not even so much a representation of God as of the “One Congregation Under One Power.” There might have been many people, various genders, various affectional preferences, but the offices were few. Even stripped of requirements for superficial identity, the processional reinforced the bottleneck design for managing power.

In Vermont, where monoculture has long been an enemy, we know there’s something wrong with this kind of image. So the Program included our Ministers Emeritiea, reading and speaking from their own words and perspectives. Our Council President marshaled the whole production, and our Director of Religious Education opened the service, even though little children had conducted a separate service earlier in the day. Vermonters know that when water pours down the hillside in over-channeled torrents, as has happened too many times, the over-swollen river or hillside sweeps everything away.