Scrap notes

My religious community seems to be replaying an experience from the mid 20thcentury by committing a great deal of time and money to eradicating white supremacy in our culture. My life nowadays does not permit me to read all the commentary, so these words cannot be considered anything more than stray responses to what little I’ve had time to read. What I can authentically say is how I feel about what is happening.

  • My heart goes out to the three women mounting legitimate campaigns for our presidency. The precipitate resignation of our most recent elected president, and installation of an interim triumvirate, raises questions about the transition back to what the bylaws established. It looks like we could wind up with a “shadow cabinet” with whom it will be sensitive to disagree. 
  • On the other hand, as far as concerns go about the money, that’s a common complaint when it comes to redress for systemic racial injustice. Forty years after the original Black Empowerment controversy (which did contribute to financial pressures, but only in conjunction with many other things from that era) I am more aware of what my Relatives of Color (ROCs) suffered through years of living in exactly the same institutions that felt so congenial to me. While our shared family culture drew them into these milieus, the stares, and worse, somewhat pushed them out. I have had Black UU friends, and in private conversation, they honored me with how lonely our religion often felt, how careful they felt they needed to be, to “tone it down,” to “not come across as too Black.” If this pain is still how it feels, which appears to be the case, then what should we not spend? If someone in your family has deep pain, do you really begrudge them the money?
  • I am not scared of losing the UU culture of white supremacy, but I do fear losing  the pastoral haven of religious community.  Part of my current self-definition involves being less affluent within a fairly affluent family. Yes, I made my choices, but it still hurts to not be able to capitalize on the low airfares to Europe, to read all my friends’ travel posts on FB and know that will never be me. Economic reports suggest that this is an area where POCIs can feel my pain — even remind us that their legendary family and community cohesion sprang heavily from practical considerations born of poverty– but I worry they will only remind me I’ve already had more luxury than most POCIs can ever hope for.
  • Having been through this before, I worry our religious community lacks the inner strength to succeed this time. I wonder how much we blamed the empowerment efforts for consequences of mistakes we made ourselves and never fully, courageously examined. So what are our other activities now, and will they really do us true good? I hate Policy Governance for many reasons, but in my home congregation, it doesn’t seem to shut down communication.  The denominational level might seem different, but as someone who wants to bring back the National Conference model, I don’t care which part of the Boston power-club holds the reins. Both branches hold the reins too tight, which could well strangle ourvcollective inner health. So I hope it will not become impossible for us white folks to raise institutional concerns, so long as the dialogue maintains space for racism implications.

These are personal views, not prescriptions. Today is my 63rd birthday, which ought to give me some license to look backwards, sidewards, inwards, and around. 

Cautious about “First Principle Euphoria”

For weeks, if not months, my historian’s heart and mind have been nervous, conflicted, about the various “Standing on the Side of Love” campaigns teeming through my denomination, Unitarian Universalism. It has taken quite a while to sort it all out. Welcoming the refugee children and reopening the books on people who have been unjustly incarcerated (and are still alive) both feel right. They follow long-established policy statements by our General Assemblies, and more and more take shape as work done by dedicated members of our faith community. Indeed, although my current life doesn’t support such offerings, it gratifies me to state that back when I had the chance, I did indeed work in a refugee camp, identifying and assisting victims of bitter war.

So what’s the problem? For a long time, I could not tell. It took the return of an old PBS program, a Secrets of the Dead about Irish railway workers, to finally finish the puzzle. The most idealistic form of patriotic Universalism deludes us into wishful thinking if we turn our backs on the harsh truth of immigration history. Sure, the Statue of Liberty called on us to open our doors and shores. But a more callous, a more vicious thread of the American Dream — what might be called The American Scheme — saw such infusions of enthusiasm differently. If the American Dream says anyone can work hard and make a good living here, if not for themselves then for their children and grandchildren, the American Scheme says that an entrenched elite can weave itself into a secretive network of social institutions by which all this enthusiasm can be exploited, sucked dry, discarded. From this enthusiasm the most talented will be plucked for a different kind of exploitation. By appearing to have succeeded by their own efforts, they will renew the social networks of power, giving false hope to some group which had begun to understand the slight dimensions of its chances for collective stability.

As to the opening of the prisons, need I mention the disaster which was the closing of mental institutions in the early 1970s? “Community treatment” it was called. “Community neglect” is more likely. Might I remind us that many of these unjustly incarcerated are exactly the same individuals, or survivors with exactly the same neurological issues, that we refused to support before? I look at cities installing those anti-homeless spikes on benches and grates, and suddenly prison looks like a better alternative for many.

So what’s a good liberal to do? People are dying in place, struggling to find safety and freedom; we hardly can turn our backs on brutal bloodshed. And our troubles — what we derisively call “First World Problems” — truly do pale next to theirs. Surely we can adapt our lives to come up with some greater generosity?

Well, maybe not. Unitarian Universalists need to take a second look at our First Principle. My attention has lately shifted to the second part of its affirmation of everyone’s “inherent worth and dignity.”

How do we affirm and establish everyone’s God-given dignity in the current world of shrinking resources? Politywonk — and I bet this is pretty common in my faith family — spends a lot of time studying the news and hissing at screens bearing bad news. Then I turn my attention to the quest for structural reforms at macro levels. Single Payer Universal Access Health Insurance. A higher national minimum wage. Access to family planning for all families everywhere. When it comes to covenants, my focus makes a huge jump: covenant is for family and congregation; the next level is universal civic religion.

But now that I’m old — sixty, which is, you have to admit, more old than young — reality advises that intermediate covenants are what supports life’s frail intervals. Neighborhood and congregation caring for others, not just in the abstract, but at the ready, over and over, the same faces, the same voices, the same stories, over and over and over. This takes my mind back to the refugee program at the end of the Indochinese war. By sending an advance guard of “pre-screeners” — of which I was one — and finding out who everyone was (and verifying with endless hours of document-sharing by means of modern electronics) and where they had a reason to settle successfully, the international community achieved what might have been the most successful relocation program in history. Yet when President Obama suggested this a few weeks ago — “let’s go down to Honduras and sort people out” — he was hooted off the stage.

The key to that program’s success was not bureaucracy, it was covenant. No one got released for resettlement until someone at the destination had agreed to provide shelter, financial support, educational and job mentoring for each applicant, one by one. Congregations and social welfare agencies mingled with families in making and fulfilling these commitments. Neither federal bureaucracy nor civic religion — both ultimately impersonal and depersonalizing — has ever accomplished what these highly partialist (the opposite of universalist, meaning, “only part is saved”)  structures achieved with particular commitments. (For what it’s worth, the same held true of organized labor — which is why it ultimately failed. Its success lay in nurturing certain ethnic and family networks; it failed when those same groups — wrongly, as it turns out — believed they no longer needed its power against impermeable secret networks of exploitation.)

For several years now, I’ve watched our yellow-tee-shirt brigades pop up in place after place, hoping always to discern not just a fireworks of caring but a network of mentoring and nurture. Maybe it’s happening. But there’s a painful moment — which I’m going through now — of grieving that idealistic universalism and exposing my heart to all the aches and pains of personal relationships. It’s so much more fun to demonstrate, and there’s always another outrage. But how many folks in need will watch my car drive past them as I head for that next media event? Maybe it’s time to remember the starfish story and hold up these little beachheads as the real places where our yellow teeshirts can build a better world.

In the Beginning: The Puritan Origins of Today’s Unitarian Universalist Process of rCredentialing and Ordaining of Ministers

Judging from three different Facebook threads, as well as some changes proposed to the Unitarian Universalist Association’s bylaws (on which I have absolutely no opinion), some folks would like a short, snappy, easily-shared timeline of where our polity came from.

When the Puritan elders of Massachusetts Bay received a royal charter to found a constellation of parishes throughout the wilderness of New England in the 1630s, they defined their vision with ample reference to the Hebrew Bible. Like Moses, they were taking God’s covenant into a wilderness (which, as in the Hebrew Bible, already belonged to somebody else, but that’s another issue; still, attention must be paid) and setting up an interlaced network of communities which would nourish, educate, and, occasionally, correct each other. The secular affairs of these communities would be run through democratic self-government by the men of the village, meeting weekly in Town Meeting. The religious affairs would fall under the purview of theologically educated, publicly supported ministers.

The mutual nurture, education, and correction would take place through free travel among marketplaces and social institutions in the best road system of the original thirteen colonies. The mutual nurture, education, and, occasionally, correction of these same towns assembled for religious purposes would be accomplished by having the ministers preach weekly not only to their own congregations but weekly to one other town as well. This system was so different from what we today call “pulpit visits” that I strive to rename the system as “pulpit rotation.” For a minister would indeed come around again — over two to four decades of service, he would come to know the neighboring towns as thoroughly as he knew his own. There were no hotels, so he would sleep, eat, bathe, and sometimes be sick in the homes of parishioners all over the colony. And there were no secrets, because someone in his own congregation would welcome a diverse but not distant collection of his ministerial colleagues, week after week.  Seminarians and new graduates took part in the rotation, so that by the time a congregation wanted to elect one to a vacant pulpit, or add him as relief for an aging pastor, the entire Standing Order had an opinion. To exercise their vested interest, delegates of neighboring congregations were called to vote on the ordination immediately before it would take place.

There were no Sundays off.

When ministers visited each others’ parishes, (King’s Chapel apparently joined the rotation sometime after its Loyalist majority absconded during the War for Independence) they kept their eyes open for “promising youths” who might fill pulpits in later years. Both Theodore Parker and Henry Ware, Sr were poor young men of good lineage who received encouragement for the ministry from their own and other ministers. Unlike Ralph Waldo Emerson, a PK many times over, Parker and Ware, Sr. simply had a chance to show their interest, and, like Emerson, receive opportunities that let them work towards and through Harvard.

They also kept their eyes open for women who would make good ministers’ wives. In the 1830s, when Henry Ware, Jr lost his first wife and was distraught that he had to house his young children with his sister until he could find another wife, his colleagues arranged that his pulpit rotation hospitality included suitable potential partners. And one of them, impoverished but able, did indeed become the wife who maintained his ministry during both his illnesses and his denominational absences.

By this social process — codified but not identified in The Cambridge Platform of 1648 — the Standing Order could both encourage the freedom of individual consciences and yet center the town’s identity in its First Parish. It is therefore a mistake to attempt to transplant the dictates of the Cambridge Platform without reference to the changes in social environment. The system lasted until October 1830.

So whence came The Boston Ministers’ Association, that forerunner of the UUA’s Ministerial Fellowship Committee? It early arose, as sort of a town meeting for ministers, and met faithfully. Still does. And you can find its records in the Massachusetts Historical Society, so don’t take my word for it.

In the Massachusetts Historical Society you can find the incessant journaling of Rev. Dr. John Pierce of Brookline’s First Parish. He never missed an ordination, dedicated many a meetinghouse (including the one where I currently worship, which required a week of hard travel in a New England January) and kept notes on practically every meeting that was held among the congregational ministers who found themselves transitioning from quiet village preachers into the leaders, thinkers, and victims of the Unitarian Controversies.  Dr. Pierce’s journals are a one-man NSA of that era.

“Mode of Introduction to the Pulpit Among the Congregational Clergy of Boston and Vicinity” Memoirs of John Pierce, Vol III pp. 483 – 493

“Till within a few years it was the practice of students of Divinity to commence preaching without any form of examination or license.  When a young man wished to become candidate for the ministry, he was invited into the pulpit of some friend; and in this way, he became known as a candidate for settlement, and was accordingly invited to preach on probation.

                “At length by the exertion of Dr. Morse and others, who wished to introduce not only the system of examining candidate, but also the Church government subsisting in Connecticut, into this state, it became a vote of the Convention of Congregational ministers in Massachusetts, that no young man should be encourage to preach, but such, as obtained the approbation of some Association.”

The Reverend Dr. Jedediah Morse of First Parish, Charlestown, MA, was the Newt Gingrich of the Unitarian Controversies: not for him the mystic chords of unity; he tolerated only — and engineered finally — the polarity of theological clarity. He combated the Unitarians’ most prominent independent scholar, Miss Hannah Adams of Medfield, who published the first dictionary of all religions, past and present, as they described themselves in their own words.

As the Great Awakening of the 1730s suffused into the Second Great Awakening of the early 1800s, councils before ordinations became very tense; congregations began inviting only clergy and congregations they knew shared their sympathies.  Salvation-minded parties  withdrew from formerly town-wide congregations. 

On the 15th and 23rd of October, 1830, Henry Ware, Jr, took a theological hatchet to the pulpit rotation system in his Introductory Address to the Cambridge Theological School as its first Parkman Professor of Pulpit Eloquence and the Pastoral Care. In “The Connections Between the Duties of the Pulpit and The Pastoral Office,” he called for a preaching integrity not of theological argument but settled pastoral relationships.  It was not that he disliked the pulpit rotation system — indeed, he so generous with his ministerial presence that his health suffered and he died young –but the Industrial Revolution had caused congregations to crave stable ministers, messages, and worship rituals to anchor their rapidly-disintegrating social realm.

Cut off from their neighbors by theology, now looking inward to their pulpit, modern parishes had no friendly confidants to take them aside with cautionary or tutelary information about potential ministers. If a candidate misjudged his suitability for ministry, the comforts of that stable parish could buoy him for quite some time, to the parish’s eventual detriment. Ware and his colleagues began by sending forth their own students, properly credentialed through Boston’s Ministerial Association, because there was no other guarantor for transplanted New Englanders in search of religious continuity.

I tell this story with sympathy for the impulse to protect these parishes from the dangers that arose with their isolation from each other. But that sympathy was misplaced. The denomination’s single, centralized Ministerial Fellowship Committee, symbolized by the late, lamented headquarters at 25 Beacon Street in Boston, followed Jedediah Morse’s secretive, judgmental model (which, ironically, has been democratized by the denomination which carries on his theological views). What Morse advocated, as Pierce explained, was not the Cambridge Platform of Massachusetts, but the Saybrook Platform of Connecticut. To remain true to Massachusetts Bay, our denomination would have done better to replicate the collegiality not only among ministers but also among congregations, on regional and local bases. It is no accident that voices clamor most strongly against the MFC and the clerisy it credentials in the wake of strong UUA efforts to enhance and empower regional organizations.

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.

As the United States of America (as opposed to the United States of Mexico or some of the others we never acknowledge) heads into its next presidential election cycle, a universal fear has given voice to anger and derision, and stopped the ears of many who used to pride themselves on openness to new information. I watched Keith Obermann last night for a bit, and was simply disgusted by his reliance on invective to communicate arrogance. For 9-11-11 Paul Krugman launched a column that simply exploited the occasion to complain again about exploitation of the occasion.

I don’t disagree with the politics of either journalist, but I would like to point out, as a pastor and historian, that the purpose of formal occasions like elections and memorials is to pause and listen to each others’ stories, fitting them in with the facts we think we know, double-checking said facts against these stories, and then trying to move forward together. Doing history is so often prophetic precisely because it calls us to surrender to larger stories that may or may not support our personal narratives. That is why people prefer myths — metastories that make key points or offer up acceptable explanations of how “the we of me” (Carson McCullers’s great expression in Member of the Wedding) got to be in a certain predicament or privilege.  The anger which comes from being contradicted is why people in stress hang onto hagiography — the creation of saints who make inarguable virtue of what the individual wants to believe is the right thing to do.

At the end of next month, the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society and the  Harvard Divinity School will join together to present a panel on the late Professor of American Religious History, C. Conrad Wright. It is my honor to be on this panel, speaking on Conrad’s personal mission of using the academically maligned field of denominational history to witness, as a prophet, to covenants that in his time were under attack.

They are still fragile. They are both right and wrong for this new millennium. But that is for another day. Right now, I lift up the example of a scholar who was willing to research, study, retell and affirm stories from history that did not match the feelings of  his contemporaries. Over time, however, those stories became part of who are have become and are trying to be. And in one sense, his point still applies: Covenant means listening with pastoral openness to the stories of people whose stories do not fit with ours. Hearing them out on what they know they need and think they want.  And then, looking into our collectivity with honesty to be sure we are ready to meet those needs, without surrendering our ethics to the most extreme or hurtful of anyone’s passions.

Including ours.