Limits to Civility

Two posts in one day! But in these times it is necessary to clarify the boundary line of one’s tolerance for people with inhumane views. This lesson comes from my experience 1994-1996, as the UU parish minister in the midst of Dorchester, MA’s worst crime wave in ages. It was one of the worst in the nation, and it involved young people killing each other in gang wars.

The Boston Police responded with a community policing program which still gets mentioned as a high spot in policing history. Its foundation, I firmly believe, was the cops were required to live in the city’s narrow boundaries. No driving in from quiet suburbs for them. Shootings were on their streets, fights were on the playgrounds their children had to use also. Yes, that was a help.

Also, they. were good people. Mostly, anyway, often enough to make a difference in many cases. They also valued observations and analysis made by human beings, not computers.

Here’s what they came up with.

Gangs were found to consist of two layers. At the heart, and in the vanguard, stood people of genuine ill will. These leaders, selling drugs, wielding guns, hanging shoes, wearing bandanas, had no interest in community improvement alternatives or calls for civility. For them, arrest and jail was the answer. Cops drove around with warrants for these people at easy access.

The other layer consisted of folks who felt they had no alternatives for advancement in society, other than up the gang ladder. For these folks, the police urged practical educational support, jobs and job support, sports teams (remember midnight basketball?), and family support through community centers and adequate food and housing for those these young people were trying to support.

The current civility debate seems focused on the former group, fomenters not just of hate, but of cruelty and incapacity for those of whom they wish to make unwitting accomplices. I support this aspect of incivility. It is the other layer my previous post reaches out to.

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Sides and Circles

Hello, again.

In the current climate of both religion and politics, I cannot refrain from reaffirming my loyalty to historic Universalism, as opposed to historic Unitarianism. Looking back to the late 18th and 19th century, these are the elements that clarify my call.

Pre- and post-Civil War America were very similar to the era in which we live now. Generations of European Americans had worked the stolen land and settled into a non-immigrant, non-capitalist lifestyle. In other words, high ambition no longer fired their souls. Instead they wanted quiet, stability, safety, and security, for themselves and their descendants. They were local folk, artisans and farmers, whose highest passion often resided in their local Bible-based faith. When it came to keeping local order, most of them relied more on a fear of hell than a confidence in law.

Sound familiar?

Unitarians of the same years were forming the earliest industrial class, and educated management, such as they could devise, was big with them. In greater Boston, they owned textile mills and relied on the daughters of these settlers for cheap, well-behaved, unambitious labor. Others were pure capitalists (author’s note: this part references my own forebears) whose business relied either directly or indirectly on the kidnapping, selling, and bonding of Africans, or the slaughter of ocean-going mammals. In any case, they wanted to get ahead, stay ahead, and position their offspring ahead. Education was a major weapon in both their definition of character and their toolbox for oppression. This led them to dismiss what we would now call the working class and small farmers as “uneducated.” What began as denigrating slurs in the 19th century (with the occasional anti-immigrant violence) had by the 20th century become a lethal combination of eugenic science and anti-evangelical liberal Christianity.

Universalists approached the challenge of settler comfort completely differently. Overwhelmingly, Universalists bubbled up within this very milieu, and what motivated them was concern for the peace of mind of their family and friends. Far from disrespecting the Bible’s call for strong Christian faith (Unitarians preferred Biblical passages extolling the doing of good works), Universalists found in faith their own key to calm and character. In Boston, at least, Unitarians would have no more to do with Universalists than with any other evangelicals.

But Universalists did not show their conversion by turning away from traditional evangelicals. When you find something this wonderful, you want to share it with those you love the most. Those with whom you identify. So Universalists declined to denigrate evangelical preachers, for either their intelligence or their faith. Instead, Universalists would ride from town to town asking evangelicals to name their most distinguished preacher. Offering no insult to this cleric or his (always) followers, nor ridicule of the foundations of their religion, the Universalists would invite this person to share a public platform for public debate on whether the Bible did or did not call for eternal damnation for sinners.

In most cases, having achieved at least a few conversions, the Universalist would eventually set up a riding circuit, supporting adherents with worship and pastoral presence to sustain them in an often-hostile home turf. As early as 1837, Unitarians were smart enough to realize that in areas such as these, liberal religion would fare better through an alliance with local Universalists than attempting to plant a socially elitist brand of religion. From alliances such as these (called “fishing agreements”) arose a distinction between historically Unitarian and historic Universalist congregations.

The assumptions behind these debates and their congregations are the ones to which I now feel called to shape this blog. My family has plenty of dirt under recent nails, and grease on recent hands. I work these days in the most traditional woman’s role, which is caring for a disabled family member full time. I’m on the left of the political spectrum, but identify with many well-meaning Trump voters.

Yes, I believe there are such people.

Yes, I believe their stories, their circumstances, their ideas have merit in many cases.

Yes, I believe that the only successful change issues will be specific, limited, consistent, and self-interested in ways we all share in public areas.

I do not believe all Trump voters are good people, but many of them are. So like those old-time Universalist preachers, I will ride these electronic waves wherever they reach, to see if I can help us find some common ground on which to rebuild our nation.

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. 

It’s been ages since I thought there was any point in writing about polity among the Unitarian Universalists. Nor does my return to the topic, at this cataclysmic moment, indicate either a sense of hope, or much interest. These days most of my emotional energy resided in the purely personal. Still, people who have meant so much to me would like a small bit of perspective, so here’s what I can offer.

For those who don’t know, we have had, on the same day — March 30, 2017 — not one but two earthshaking ministerial downfalls. What can’t be overlooked is that they come from the two opposite poles of polity. It’s as if God wanted to wake us up to both dangers, and to do so with enough clarity that none of us can miss it. So without commenting on the content of either event, here are my evaluations.

First, on the resignation of our denominational president over concerns about staff appointments. The problem itself is as old as we are. When we were only New Englanders, a call went out for more leaders from and in the west (a changing place over the centuries, but never a different issue). When we were only led by men, women agitated for a place at the decision-making tables. In each case, the protesters wanted their superficial differentness to harbor a deeper difference in how our congregational approach religion. The UUA, following the lead of its Unitarian forerunners, the Boston Clergy Association and the National Conference of Unitarian and other Liberal Churches, instituted closed selection processes for approving clergy, always claiming their only aim was protecting the innocent and/or sacred. Yet in each case, the victors in writing the bylaws turned out to be elitists convinced that salvation for others lay in control only by folks carefully selected to resemble themselves or at least, show deference to their co-called wisdom and devotion.

In 1899, when Samuel Atkins Eliot I and his co-conspirators on the board of the tiny American Unitarian Association instituted an anti-congregational coup over the decentralized and congregationally-based National and Western Conferences, they thought they had good reasons. In particular, the rise of both evangelical Christianity and Roman Catholic political influence led these folks to believe that educated, rationalist, humanist-driven Protestantism needed to strengthen its ability to speak up in the public realm. This is the tendency which has led us to tighter and tighter staff leadership and more and more strident political advocacy. It was probably inevitable that eventually, heads would roll as that advocacy has finally begun — as once did geographic outreach — to bring in some long-desired but little known new members.

So now, if our ministers and parishioners of color want more staff members that not only look like them, but understand the spiritual ups and downs of their personal lives, I say they only continue an honorable and completely worthy line of disrupters who have always, eventually, made our denomination more rewarding for all of us. It is worth noting that part of their concern is the way racism plays out differently in different parts of the country, meaning regionally-driven leadership is the only legitimate way to truly minister to people where they live. The question raging now is whether the necessary change can be accomplished by appointing better people to the same offices — what denominationalists always have insisted — or whether there will be more folks like me, who believe the only effective answer can be systematic.

Meanwhile, from the opposite end of the polity spectrum, we have a lone wolf who wound up devouring innocent lambs. Really. This minister and community activist, now accepting charges of receiving pornography featuring violence against children, always raised the most fiery and least reasoned supports of my complaints about over-centralized denominational personnel management. It is worth pointing out that when Henry Whitney Bellows laid out the framework for the National Conference, he explicitly enumerated the duty to monitor clergy, which, to his mind, could only done by those in the same locales. Likewise, I have not mentioned our Universalist forebears, because their decentralized polity, for most of their existence, had no relevance to the new structures. Yet their state and regional conventions also included and exercised fellowshipping and disfellowshipping of clergy. The centralist shibbolith that localism means immorality has no place in either of our histories; that was a tool for the coup-plotters of 1899.

 

Of all the time I have spent in organized Unitarian Universalist activities, there are two gatherings, superficially different, geographically and racially unlike, which proved nevertheless to mirror and echo each other. They come back to me at this time, because on both ends of the polity spectrum we are going need a way to heal among ourselves. Each of these events was a gathering of sincerely-committed congregation members, usually assembled to click through meetings to manage something important to parishioners. Yet in each case, we committed to listen to each other’s voices as equals and as seekers. We were not seeking to elucidate on some topic, as small group ministries do, but to share some part of our vulnerable soul by telling our personal stories. The first occurred at All Souls in Washington, DC, when one option in our then-annual retreat was to share the spiritual journeys that brought us into that congregation. I closed my eyes to listen, and marveled at how little difference there really was around distinctions of race. Decades later, at First Church Unitarian in Jamaica Plain, MA, we met to implement the Welcoming Congregation curriculum, whose first step is to simply hear the story of parishioners’ journeys as LGBTQ individuals.

Recently one of my Facebook friends asked which was better, to be transformative or to be effective. In my experience, transformation is the only long-term effectiveness. I failed in my efforts to transform this association’s polity, although I do take credit for raising its prominence as a worthwhile general focus. As I prepare to turn 63, to help my wife (yes, after a lifetime of bisexual wanderings, I finally landed on this side of the fence) confront her revolutionary self-management of advanced Huntington’s Disease, those of you who come after are my comfort. If I made less and less effort to write, and became more and more of a lurker, in large part it is because your voices began to open parts of my mind and soul in ways too new and exciting to limit by language. Still, I do live in covenant, so if it helps, here’s my little offering.

With prayers for us all, especially the victims in both of our disastrous ministerial implosions.

Arian Evangelists? How Did I Not Know This? Does Everyone Else Have This in Hand?

Perhaps it is inevitable that a historian who immerses herself in marriage will succumb to the attractions of genealogy. How much better when matters genealogical start intersecting with my ongoing recreational scholarly deep dive, which has made its way back to medieval English history. But X marked a surprising spot: not in England, but Germanic sources on the continent. Yes, most of my forebears were German, but, more amazingly, so is my religion: England was just a byway. Unitarianism came from Arianism, and it did so because the Arians sent evangelists into the Gothic and Vandal tribes who sacked Rome. Others of these evangelists found fertile ground with Constantine, the Eastern Roman Emperor, and among the Slavs who became so many of his subjects.

So much of what Harvard taught me about Unitarian history thus proves wrong. It was not primarily a religion for Western Europe’s educated classes, leaping to brilliant rejections of Roman Catholic superstition — rather, it was a superstition of its own. People learned it from others –way back in the fading years of the Roman Empire — and passed it on the same way. It survived in places to which it was driven, from whence it emerged when able. It became the language of educated English middle classes, so far as I can tell, because that’s who conducted the wool trade by which it finally crossed the English Channel. In England, I’m guessing, it settled in as a working class religion because the fabric trade engendered an industrial enclave.

I can’t help noticing the importance of this discovery to the current political plight of progressive politics. The Unitarian disdain for evangelism is best summed up in the old saw about the Beacon Bill newcomer who admired the hat of a grande dame. Where, inquired the newcomer, had the resident bought her hat? “We do not buy hats,” sniffed the matron, “We have hats.” So it is with our beliefs: if you have to ask how and where to get them, perhaps you will not fit in among us. Maybe that explains the self-conversion culture of the Unitarian Universalism of my youth and young adult years. More importantly, perhaps this explains why we do not trouble ourselves with all those lesser down-ballot and off-year elections by which the evangelism-driven conservatives have tied us up in knots. To knock on doors and introduce yourself to neighbors, to step down from the pedestal of international world peace and talk about fixing sidewalks — it turns out these are things our Arian forebears would have done — and did — which is why we have our Unitarian religion today.

II always wondered how the theories of an aged bishop in North Africa landed in North America 13 centuries later and blossomed into this imperfect but aspirational democracy. What happened in between? Was this some weird religious locust, emerging only when the climate allowed, even after so much time had passed? Historians debate two models: continuous and discontinuous. I’ve done enough gardening, tended enough children, done enough genealogy and genograms, to believe there is no such thing as radical discontinuity.So my religious roots appear to be more natural, less rebellious than my adolescent ego ever suspected. Not only does this apply to me, but to my religion itself.

 

 

 

 

Today I did something I haven’t done for a year or more — I read the UU (Unitarian Universalist) World soon after it landed in our mailbox. I did not read it out of duty or professional commitment; for the first time in months, it beckoned my heart. Strange confession from someone officially categorized as a retired Unitarian Universalist minister, but an honest marker that perhaps my life has completed this latest circle at last.

Just over two years ago, as the sun marked its longest day in the northern hemisphere, I sat in front of an invited congregation and altered the very polity of my life. In short, I got married. Till that moment, polity changes were something I suggested, cajoled, imposed on others from an autonomous and somewhat superior detached position. From that moment on, polity changes rewrote my life so radically that for most of the time I wondered who I would be when the ride was over. for in taking the spouse my heart chose, I surrendered my life not only to her, but also to whatever her Huntington’s Disease would cast upon us together.

Marriage has been a wonderful polity advancement, except for this disease. She galloped up the aisle already in the grip of Stage Four, but with disciplined athleticism has pounded into every achievement physical therapy can offer. She doesn’t speak much these days, and not clearly when she does, but her mind and guts ring as strong as ever. Yesterday she reminded me that I had promised to take her to see the latest Star Trek movie in a theater. We spend lots of our time consuming news stories and listening to author talks and history lectures on C-Span, which ramps up my long ago international studies pursuits.

Pouring myself into her care, in order to continue enjoying her companionship, redirected the polity of my life into the community of people struggling with this and similar movement disorders/neurodegenerative diseases. For a long time, this diversion scared me. Could I retain my ties to UUism — especially without the means to attend Sunday worship (which I deeply, passionately miss)? If I spent so little time discussing UUism, imbibing its culture and habits, would it fall away from disuse?

Much to my amazement, UUism retained its ties to me. The Care Network checks on us regularly, and can be relied upon to keep her cheery and valued on the few occasions I tear myself away. Our contact visitor even came over and weeded one of our gardens one hot summer day, asking nothing in return! Meanwhile, a project I worked on years ago has become relevant again, and a small self-appointed subcommittee of the Women’s Alliance (my chosen small group ministry) has rallied to keep me either motivated or urged, while still respecting the challenges of the disease.

What completed that circle has been the addition of a marvelously self-reliant and highly-trained caregiver. My wife plans to stay at home for her entire journey with the disease, but having 34 hours a week of support and even replacement lets me get out of the same house. Mostly I just go into a separate part of it and read catalogs, watch Netflix documentaries and BBC murder mysteries. These I choose for their filming locations, and call them “scenery stories.” It turns out that lots of people do this, because you can go online and find out exactly where these places are, should you choose to visit. What I like is being able to visit them by going into another room, bringing my wife along, as it were, without leaving home.

But in this, our third year of marriage, when August brought its turn toward autumn and the back-to-school sales splashed over the screens, something familiar connected inside my circuits. Our Huntington’s Disease Support Association Walk takes place October 1, which means I have work to do in my new community. But there’s a Women’s Alliance meeting the first Wednesday of September, and this year, that feels like another place my new/old self belongs.

 

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Does Pentecost Have a Role in Unitarian Universalism?

Pentecost — all of us liturgical Christians know its meaning on the calendar.

But what does it mean to us Unitarian Universalist Christians who understand Jesus of Nazareth as a historical figure… a rabbi, a role model, a prophet… anything except a risen Saviour?

For Trinitarian Christians, Pentecost stands as “the birthday of the church.” It marks the empowering arrival of a Holy Spirit among a finite group of apostles and friends. Fortified after ten days of devastation – the second devastation, for prior to Ascension they’d been seeing their executed friend in familiar places, doing his comforting things – this time the Apostles experienced the implanting of a formerly exterior power –a Holy Spirit. As if someone had clothed their feet in winged shoes, as if someone had wrapped their spines in solid steel, they ventured forth at last, ready to fulfill his mandate to go forth and baptize the world in his name.

Speaking for no Unitarian Universalist Christian except myself, I admit this year – after decades of trying to pretend – that nothing about that story works for me.  Entering my tenth year in a wonderful home – Vermont – which nevertheless is not the home of my heart – Cambridge and greater Boston, MA – I’ve finally got the words to express my Pentecost sadness.

When I was nine, my father got an excellent job in a different part of the country. It happens to a lot of people; this is the time of year we see relocation industry ads on tv. Your parents carefully hand you the toy your best friend gave you ten days earlier, when she swore she would love you forever. When her parents took her away for her own vacation.

She would return to familiar haunts, beloved places and people that you would not see again. There you sat in the back seat, clutching the toy and knowing it could never be enough. This is where a Unitarian Universalist Christian parts company with Partialist Trinitarian co-religionists.  The Holy Spirit for them is no mere replica, no image, no doll, no ethereal being.  For them it will make sacred the place they arrive, without which it lingers in danger of death eternal.  Not only will it find them friends, but open the eyes of those friends to what makes  a newcomer special, elevates her  even beyond all the friends they’ve had before. At least when they sit in the back seats of their Father’s car, that’s what they firmly believe.

My Unitarian Universalist theology has no part in that.  Believing in One God who lives everywhere and finds something worth saving in everyone, I come to the new scene with eyes not so much open as empty. Yes, we’re supposed to call it spiritual curiosity and rejoice that it broadens our being, but that’s not how it often feels to me.  Because why, if the new place is already sacred, if the new friends are already special, should I think we have anything to add? Not for Unitarianism the planting of churches, the preaching of good news. What is the value of our testimony—the testimony, anyway, that I came here to bring? If we come to hold up a gilded mirror, as so many deride us for doing, then why should we bother with Pentecost’s most basic mission, the founding of a church? Why should we offer support and nurture to folks already living someplace special?

After ten years in one of America’s most beautiful cities, I’ve come to learn that a new place that does not feel like home to me doesn’t even feel like home to everyone who already lives here. There is no heaven on earth, and for that reason, our gilded mirror, our open and empty eyes are just the good news  that many folks need, want, hunger, crave to receive. For the good news we bring – self-affirmation – has been denied to them despite their natural birth there.

Emerging adults need our support when they want to leave the ways and homes of their parents and grandparents to choose their own life partners.  Huge swaths of the planet deny this right not only to homosexuals, but also – maybe even more so — to heterosexuals. People cannot choose their parents, but lots of aspiring grandparents want to correct that lack of power in reverse. The world is full of parents and grandparents putting property rights and social status ahead of personal fulfillment for their own young.

Some otherwise happy families need our support as they fight to assert the value of personal and planetary health ahead of rigid economic and social structures built on unsustainable extraction.

Unexpected folks – every age, every gender, every location — need our open eyes and gilded mirror when inner energy drives them to produce new forms in music, of words, by movement, with paints and found materials.

And then are those who need our gilded mirror to fight a culture which despises or derides their very being.

It doesn’t help me much, this gilded mirror and open eyes, when first encountering some unfamiliar place and different people. Unfamiliar voices too often send me back to a corner, a book or movie that brings back memories of joy. Nothing is going to lead me anywhere. No one is going to hold me up, at least not for a long while. Maybe that’s why we’re such a performance-oriented religion: for some among us, the moment is always Pentecost, that empty, lonely interlude when nothing we can clutch or imagine will bring back the one place we’ve always called home.