Posts Tagged ows

Heretics and Architects

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 11/8/15 and looks at our history of building up and breaking down; asking where does privilege come in?

For those of us who have been on Facebook for more than a few years, it’s begun this nifty little habit of taking us on a stroll down memory lane. One of the new features periodically reminds us of posts or photos from a few years back asking if we want to re-share them. They tend to be moments that had a lot of attention at the time. It’s usually marriages, or witty comments, or … well… cat pictures. (It’s still the internet after all.) One of the more serious memories that have been popping up for me this Autumn, are from 4 years ago and the start of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

I think I only re-shared one of the memories – and I did so mostly because I was shocked that it had already been four years since the “public-private” Zuccotti Park was occupied down by Wall Street. It got me wondering though, where did all the public heretics, camping outside the center for financial architecture, get us to – today? It’s not hard to recall all the media critique of the protestors: 1) They didn’t have a clear leader. 2)They didn’t seem to have a set of clear demands they were protesting. 3) They were mostly trust-fund babies playing homeless.

It’s interesting how despite the lack of clear spokespersons, and a real platform that lifted up problems without clear solutions, most of the Occupy talking points have become central to today’s political discourse: 1) Affordable health care for all 2) bringing our troops home 3) tackling critical student debt 4) transparency in political fundraising 5) environmental action and 6) an end to racist structures like racial profiling and for profit prisons (to name just two.) As a quick aside, not incidentally, our social justice team will be leading our Fellowship this year through a period of reflection and action toward the last issue – prison reform in our country. You’ll hear a lot more in the weeks and months to come. And if you missed our announcement earlier, many of us will be joining in on the UUA common read of, Just Mercy. You can purchase a book in the social hall at the book table.

But regarding the Occupy critiques, I want to focus on the third bit and see how this relates to our own UU history of building up the world we dream about. ‘The Occupy protesters were mostly trust-fund babies playing homeless.’ At the time, I heard this over and over again in the media. My first reaction was to point out how actually that wasn’t even vaguely true. I remember the clothing drives, and the food drives, and even the business suit and hair cut drives geared to helping the homeless be prepared for job interviews – or just feeling basic human decency. I remember meeting a lot of UU youth – or newly young adults – folks who were raised in our congregations – who came out to do public witness for their faith and their values.

All of that, is what I would think – at first. But then I began to wonder – even if we were all merely trust-fund babies – what would that change? Why is it that when a person with privilege bucks the system, they are smeared as naive, or idealistic (idealistic said with that disparaging tone idealistic) or somehow disingenuous? But when trust-fund babies run for positions of leadership in our government or are propelled to positions of power in our corporations, they are seen as entrepreneurial or the embodiment of pulling oneself up from our bootstraps. (And as a side note, in case anyone hears this as a critique of one political party or another, all political parties are heavily filled with former trust-fund babies. So this is an equal opportunity observation.)

I think the answer lies in our relationship to privilege. When privilege pretends it doesn’t exist, we get to celebrate the American Dream without anxiety, and all is right in the world. When privilege becomes self-reflective, we have to call into question our sense of self; our sense of personal success; and we might have to change our behavior. …And that can be quite painful. So culturally, we are more apt to paint someone naive who invites us to call into question how we see the world. They’re just trust fund babies after all, what do they know.

All this month we are reflecting on what it would mean to be a people of Ancestors. Our religious education program is inviting children, youth and adults to do some research into our religious ancestors and you can learn more about that in the Social Hall after service. In this spirit, I’ve been thinking about our religious forebears who have influenced me. As we consider today our religious proclivity toward building up and breaking down, I’m remembering one Unitarian lay leader, and social justice advocate, Dorethea Dix.

Dorethea was a nurse in the 1800’s who would some day come to serve as the Superintendent of Army Nurses for the North during the US Civil War. But she would even more notably change the entire landscape of mental health in the US and in many countries in Europe. She tirelessly campaigned for reform of our mental healthcare options during a time when many mentally ill people were literally kept chained in basements. Where today we may campaign for better coverage for various health matters, Dorethea Dix was active at a time when the mentally ill weren’t always treated as humans. She was essentially a human rights advocate for a group of people in our nation who weren’t always seen as people.
Ms. Dix was directly responsible for helping to build 40 such hospitals in the US, affect change in Europe, and even convinced Pope Pius IX to build such a hospital after meeting with her. She called our nation to our better selves, and left the world a much more human place for her being here. But I mention her today because of her interesting relationship to privilege. In her case, male privilege.

Ms. Dix never married, although she was briefly engaged. Considering gender norms and expectations of the time, she would be far afield, yet she was a deeply respected citizen. In her canvassing for mental health, she would visit state after state and lobby before the state congresses for funding and changes in the laws regarding civil rights. Now at this time, women did not lobby before any congress. It was improper for a woman to speak publicly in such a manner. She would tirelessly meet with state representatives in their legislative office – one by one – and sway votes of state congresses in her favor.

After so many states had followed her advocacy, she made a national name for herself and was finally offered a chance to speak before one state congress. One of her biographies notes that Ms. Dix refused the offer, and insisted on meeting with members of congress one by one. To paraphrase, she felt it wasn’t proper for a lady to speak publicly in such a manner, and despite the respect people held for her, she wasn’t going to win the basic human rights for people who were mentally ill by giving into impropriety for expediency. Dorethea Dix changed the face of health care in our nation while doing so in “a respectable manner” – even if it meant she had to work twice as hard to do it – and she insisted on doing it the much harder way because that was the normal way for women. She was bucking the system in a way that the system allowed. Essentially, she respected male privilege.

Now, to be clear, I’m not critiquing Ms. Dix for it. She knew what she was doing, and had a cause that she felt was her calling, and she thrived in saving the lives of the people under her personal and political care. She consciously understood her relation to male privilege and made choices she felt would lead to success. I applaud her understanding of the system, and we should revere her for her tireless ministry. But we can also learn from her awareness of the nature of privilege. When we challenge another’s sense of privilege, the road may be harder. So sometimes we can consciously choose not to challenge that privilege, in order to make other critical gains.

Can we be so conscious as our spiritual ancestor Dorethea Dix? Do we make the same choices? What was right for her, may not always be right for us though. I worry sometimes that modern Unitarian Universalism is too often reticent to challenge privilege where we may need to challenge privilege out of fear of being called naive, or idealistic or the reality that some doors will be shut when we do so.

I think certain forms of privilege can be easier to talk about these days than others. As a religious people of heretics and iconoclasts, for some time we’ve accepted the kinds of privilege men have as a real and negative thing for society. We can point to the real ways in which women are negatively and directly affected, and we generally understand that this also negatively albeit indirectly affects men too. We can look back on the 1800’s and easily say it’s not right that a national leader and reformer like Dorethea Dix shouldn’t be allowed to publicly speak before congress – and we can reflect on that with little personal sense of risk … now. But at the time, it would have probably felt like a much bigger risk.

Where do we fear to so tread today? Challenges related to gender are not gone from us – clearly. And sometimes those challenges are lifted up in a publicly predatory manner. Just this past election day, the city of Houston voted to end a piece of legislation that was designed to prevent discrimination in public places and housing based on race, sexuality, gender, gender identity and physical disabilities. But opponents of the provision zeroed in on bathrooms. Commercial after commercial would use cartoons to draw a man – vaguely dressed as a women – entering women’s bathrooms. Signs would insinuate the law would protect predatory men when they victimized helpless women. It was also a viscous caricature of Transfolk.

I usually talk about what kinds of actions we can take in response to this bigotry (and frankly, misogyny.) But today, I’d like to pause and reflect on how our own sense of privilege can feed this behavior. Privilege can teach us who are victims and who are victimizers – who matters and who doesn’t. In the Houston political attack adds: LGBT folks are caricatures of people, women are victims, and confusion around what maleness, or femaleness, or let’s just say gender – confusion around gender is terrifying. Privilege teaches us to say what’s normal and what’s not normal, and then we get to paint a picture that makes “not normal” really scary.

It’s also a pretty typical strategy of bullies – public or private. Someone with privilege in a certain area picks a fight with someone without the same power or privilege – the bully starts the attack and then when folks speak up against it, the bully claims victimhood. We see it in our schoolyards, we see it in our neighborhood circles and we see it in politics. A local ordinance designed to protect actual victims from bigotry gets subverted into a threat to those with more privilege and gets overturned. It’s like the old picture of a pie. If you’re used to getting the whole pie – if someone comes along and asks, “can I have a slice”, privilege teaches you to feel threatened. “Why are you taking something away from me?” When do we listen to that voice in our own lives? When do we fear scarcity when we have so much? When are we diminished by another’s addiction to privilege?

As a people of ancestors, what do our heretics and architects teach us? Our ancestral heretics amongst us teach us to challenge injustice where we find it, but our deep ties to a tradition of architects asks us to tread carefully whenever we seek change. Is balance really important when facing privilege? Or is it more important to try to see the places where we hold privilege, even knowing there are places where we hold vulnerability? Each of us, in our own ways, have one foot in both privilege and hardship. Both can be true for each of us. In better knowing ourselves, we can help to build a more just world. It’s probably just as important as all the action we take in the world – because truthfully – our inaction and our reticence speak as loudly as our actions for justice.

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A Theology of Social Justice Ministry

This presentation was given at Ministry Days in Phoenix, AZ, preceding the 2012 Justice General Assembly of the UUA. It was on a panel looking at the theologies of justice work of the newest generation of clergy. On the panel facilitated by the Rev. Colin Bossen, were Rev. Allison Farnum (FL), Rev. Rob Keithan (DC) and myself.


I was sitting by the poolside at the Hyatt yesterday afternoon, wanting to be outside but not wanting to be too far from the inside with all the heat. I saw a small brown bird land a few feet from me. He had his beak open for a while. Waiting. As if someone were going to put a little morsel in his mouth for him. It brought to mind two kinds of social justice praxis I often see in the ministry. One is where we the clergy see our congregations as that bird. Members are anxiously waiting for our leadership, our assistance, our nourishment. With it, they’ll go out and change the world from our ideas. It’s a bit egoistic, but let’s be honest. It’s a typical mode for many of our sermons. “I had this insight, this experience. Let me share it with you. Fly now, and do something with it.” It also, often, works. People do get inspired. Their lives sometimes change. And sometimes the world changes with it. If it didn’t work, we would hear much less of it. I mean no derision toward it. We see it in lone clergy on the forefront of a movement, inspiring those behind them. We see it in bloggers who rarely interact with other bloggers. We know it’s happening, for example, when you’re the only person from your congregation at an interfaith gathering.

There is a second social justice praxis this bird evokes for me. When we look at the bird whose beak is eagerly open, we see ourselves. It’s those clergy who follow the lead of the spirit of a congregation. I don’t mean to suggest that they always wait for someone else to tell them what is of value. That would be a tepid prophetic ministry at best. I mean that they feel out where the breath of the congregation is moving; where God is active in the life of the community; where the fit of their house of hope meets the needs of the world. From a place of humility, it may sound like I’m suggesting this is preferable to the more egoistic mode. In some ways it may be, and in some ways it’s more slow. It’s less daring. It might even be less visible.

I think in the short term, the minister as sparrow, is a less inspiring mode that may reach less people. But in the long run it’s far more enduring and likely more effective. I also think that it’s the mode that more and more of our clergy are growing up in. I wonder if it may lead to less burnout as well. It’s a generational shift in the ministry that’s not so much about age as about when; when were we trained in seminary. I have clergy friends who are only a few years older than me who were in seminary earlier than I who thrive with the first model. And I have friends who are 25 years my senior who were concurrently trained half-way across the country who share my same preference for the collaborative second model.

Brooklyn just completed a very successful search for her new senior minister. If you look at the surveys, folks largely wanted a minister who will inspire them to prophetic works. They want this on paper. In practice however, its been the messages that bubble up in tandem with the congregation that have actually been successful. Occupy Wall Street is one example of this.

With First UU of Brooklyn being the closest UU congregation to Zuccotti Park, OWS made a lot of contextual sense for us. But how to inspire the congregation was another matter. Our membership ranges from teachers and social workers to financiers at Goldman Sachs. So this topic is complicated for us. Our membership is progressive across the range, but the politics of finance is a matter that we don’t have one voice on. I was involved in a quiet way as a chaplain at Zuccotti Park early on in September when it started, but couldn’t seem to bring others along with me. The shift happened when I learned (through social media) that one of our congregants was “that one” that was doing weekly large clothing drives for the Park, and another was doing regular large food collections for the Park. When the next sermon included the stories of our own people doing their own ministries, the congregation was able to find ways to be involved in a sustained manner that had meaning and sustenance for them. I could preach a prophetic message with effect, that made some uncomfortable, because it was clear to the community that it reflected the center of the spirit of the community – and not just my opinion. Then our members were processing with Judson and the Wall Street Golden Calf. More joined the clothing drive. More joined the food drive. Our youth group spent a learning/serving day at Zuccotti. Then I got interviewed by the Wall Street Journal for our work. UU’s who were occupying full-time started coming to our congregation – until they were evicted at least.

With the eviction of the park, our connection to the movement has become much more tentative. It was part of our neighborhood for a while. And now it’s not. We’re adapting – making connections with other faith based groups working to end racial profiling. Others show up on days of action with Occupy Faith. I continue to blog about various angles of the Occupy movement for Huffington. And of course we continue all the food and clothing work, the housing work, the homelessness work, the education work we’ve always done. But without there being a “there” there any longer, it’s much harder.

My theology of social justice is that my voice as a minister is grounded in my call. My call is grounded in the action of the Spirit in the community in and around me. Whether your faith is grounded in God, as is mine, or in the highest ideal of community, as is mine as well – I believe our prophetic voice must speak to the subtle experience of the broadest swath of humanity it can. And it must do so not as an expression of our wisdom first, but as a reflection of the conscience we speak for. A social justice theology that lifts up our ego in the process, can not solve the problems of the world that were caused by other human egos. With this sense of theology, we can’t go it alone; we can’t solve the problems of the world ourselves; we can’t be the shiny hero ahead of the crowd.

More succinctly, my central theology of social justice, my central UU theology for that matter is this: There is a path worth living and walking; there is ever a potential for hope in the unfolding of the human spirit; we are loved and maintain the possibility to love; perfections and products are pale compensations for the forgetting of our connectedness in this awe-inspiring living world.

Of course, individuals will always interpret this in varied ways. I feel that my community as a whole agrees with this theology. But we have at least two schools of thought on how to apply it. Much like the sparrow metaphor of social justice ministry for our clergy, it applies to our lay leadership as well. For Brooklyn, we have a large generational gap in view and praxis. We have a huge young adult population for a congregation of our size. With 200 adult members, over 100 friends, and about 100 children and youth – we have a young adult community of about 130. About half are members and the rest are split between friends, newcomers, and repeating visitors. So when I speak of the young adult view, I speak of a large portion of our community.

We have Young Adults who are very involved and inspired by the OWS movement. We also have elders who were marching in Selma. For Brooklyn, those two mindsets best describe our modes of social justice. As a caveat, know that I personally believe both modes work. Both modes are powerful. Both modes could learn something from the other. And both modes include aspects of each other. However, as a whole OWS is the classic collaborative model.  Zuccotti Park had almost daily General Assemblies. There was the “human microphone” since no electronic equipment was allowed (people repeating what was said for those behind them.) There was process for those with less privilege to get to the forefront of the mic. How can the broadest swath of humanity gain access to voice? How can we reinvigorate the public dialogue to deal with the issues we won’t deal with? How can we simply witness in a peaceful manner to name the sins of the day? Let’s do all of that without having a single public spokesperson. And the voice of the people still became clear over time. Unlike the Selma model, there are no names to record. There is no central person speaking to the cameras. There is no central there there.

I’m not sure that OWS would have worked a generation ago. There were different needs, different strategies, and different life and death situations on hand than we have today. The technology, the media, the legal system – and who was considered fully a citizen – all were different.

But 45 years later – when I hear a 60-something who marched in Selma speak with a 20-something who has spent countless hours as part of OWS I hear the same critiques the media first leveled against OWS. Who’s the voice? What are the demands? How can this last. My answer – the Spirit moved in one set of ways in the 60’s. It’s moving in another set of ways now. That doesn’t change or diminish the value of either.

Brooklyn’s adaptations to leadership, power and voice were central to allowing this conversation to even happen in our house. I know some of you are thinking – well Brooklyn’s in NYC. It’s so easy to have a lot of Young Adults. When I arrived 4 years ago we had a marginalized YA population of about 30. The catchphrase at the time was – “I wish we had more young adults. But they can’t afford to live here. That’s why they’re not here.” Even though 15% of the adult membership were under the age of 35 – the view was they weren’t there. The community has skyrocketed, largely in part, because of internal congregational system changes that have become more accountable to issues of generational power conflicts. We are taking an intentionally multigenerational approach that is helping to dissolve some of the power grabs (or clutching) we often see in our religious communities. And it all reflects back on the broader social justice work of our community.

Real quickly – our steps included: 1. Intentionally pair up interests and talents of YA’s to the committees that needed new blood. 2. Seek to have a minimum of 2 YA’s on every committee (that’s taken 4 years) 3. Nominating knows to develop YA leadership so that a new YA can be added onto the Board every year. 4. RE has intentionally reached out to campus ministry and young professionals to broaden our teacher diversity. Half our teachers are under the age of 40. 5. The language of “They’re not here. They’re not living near us. They’re just not committed enough.” have all been challenge on the spot every time it’s said in earshot of leadership. Much like AR/AO work, bias must be compassionately challenged every time. 6. We added a monthly Moment of Witness for youth and young adults in our worship service so that they can share (in 2-5 minutes) why this is there religious home. 7. Lastly, our worship has shifted to be more family friendly with our children remaining for the first half of the service, our youth present for it’s entirety, and monthly fully-multigen services. If the services are more family friendly, more young adult parents find the congregation welcoming. And YA’s without kids, especially life-long UU’s, find the services more alike the few they experienced as kids themselves. In short – doors to voice, visibility and power were opened to the generations that didn’t really have it before. And our YA ministry now thrives.

This relates directly to social justice ministry. If we can’t heal the divides in our own communities, we are weak in doing so outside our walls. We also lack the breadth of vision necessary to accomplish this. We couldn’t have the Selma/OWS conversations 5 years ago with the people we had. We couldn’t adapt to the changes in social media. We didn’t have the mentoring structures in place that allowed mentoring – in both age directions. We were less whole. And our ministry was less whole for it. If there are children in your neighborhoods under the age of 10; if there are colleges within 15 minutes of you; there are Young Adults living by you. If you’re missing Young Adults, take a look at the systems of power that we critique outside our congregations and examine which of them exist within your community. And begin the same prophetic ministry inside.

I’d like to end by showing a video my congregation crafted as an example of multigenerational social justice ministry through our religious education program. Whether you see them on screen or not – we had folks from every decade, from 5 years old to their 70’s involved in its creation. And it was filmed and edited by two 20-somethings, one of whom is on our Board of Trustees.

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Occupy Heaven

Check out my latest blog for the Huffington Post on Universalism, Consumerism, Christmas and OWS.

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Meditation on Post N17 Protests

Spirit of Solidarity, Compassion and Understanding, God of all these names, rooted in Love, Enter our lives.

Our city is wrestling with democracy, protest, witness and every day living. As always, we will not all agree about the path forward. Help us to remember the matters that trouble our core, To focus and reflect on the injustices of the world, To heal and make amends – the definition of Beloved Community. May we not fall in the traps of seeing the world as Them, or Us; May we support each others’ call to action, even should our actions be in contradiction. So long as love enters reason, we will find a way.

Help our individuals, and our leaders, and our media to speak the truth in times of conflict, crisis and anxiety. Help our communities to find ways to allow the public dialogue to continue in peace. Help our public servants to feel they can contribute rather than be ostracized, Our radicals to lift a hand to cross the hurdles of habit and inertia, And our traditionalists to remind us of the practicalities of the world before us.

Spirit of Life, we know that where there is pain we are called to extend compassion. For those who see the immediacy of need, help us to find long term solutions; For those who understand how our society functions, help us to handle the immediacy before us. May our desire for change, or our wish for stability, not create a divide in our search for meaning, substance, and care. For in the messy work of living, community can never happen with any one of us alone. May the joys of connection, the hopes birthed from relation, and the dreams of a world united help to steer us toward the common good.

We pause to feel gratitude for the abundance in our own lives, especially when it is hard to find. May we come to know a fullness in life that emboldens us to live generously with one another. To pause, and break bread with friend and stranger alike. Knowing that rarely are we alone the baker, and the farmer, and the deliverer of the food before us; Yet still we eat and live this day.

It is in our relations that we are able to appreciate the awe of this living breathing world. It is in our reliance upon one another that our civilization is possible. May religion continue to inspire us to appreciate the everyday, and the great horizons before us.It is in this inspiration that we come to know what it is to be human, to be alive.

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Occupy Faith NYC


This Note Was Originally Written by OccupyFaith NYC – An Interfaith Clergy Coalition I Support 

Tonight there have been signals from many reliable channels that the NYPD might “clean out” Zuccotti Park.  While these reports could be premature, intentional static, or even rumor; the OWS community has asked that we put out an alert.  While it still seems premature at present for people to be going down there in force, individuals who would like to be on their rapid response system, can do so by texting 23559, and writing @occupyalert in the text box.

If a call goes out for individuals to go down and stand with them, or to start calling the Mayor’s Office in support of these ongoing protests, you will be notified by text message, and I will send out an email to the “occupyfaithNYC” list.”

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