Archive for June, 2012

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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Prayer for Pilgrimage

Spirit of Hope, God of Many Names, and One Transforming and Abundant Love,

Be with us as we call an end to a ministry here,

May we pause to reflect on a congregational year passing by.

We remember a year of classrooms; days of service;

Prayer vigils for the tenth anniversary of 9/11;

We remember the tragic shootings of too many young men

– both within our community and within our country.

We remember the suicides of gay teens in our nation.

An end to the Iraq War.

The right to marry for Same-Gendered couples in NY State.

Every year holds within it loss and renewal.

May we too come to know a real sense of renewal in our lives.

May we not fixate on the moments of pain,

Beyond the need for healthy grief.

May our vision not narrow,

Taking in only the loss in this world.

Spirit of Life, broaden our view to accept the expanse of possibility that is ever before us,

hidden between or beyond the barriers.

May we learn to rely on what can be healed, what can be mended,

What may still yet come.

Teach us to loosen our grasping, empty our hands, and drop our load,

When what we carry becomes too much to bare.

Knowing that another set of hands, seen or unseen, will be there for what is truly needed.

Help us to clear before us a path to a new life,

Honoring what is precious, what is holy in our lives,

Energized to seek what is new, what may come,

And present to celebrate the joy of new beginnings.

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Why Are You?

This sermon was first preached at First UU in Brooklyn, on June 3rd, 2012.

As our year of formal religious education comes to a close, today our Junior Youth group celebrates having spent a year of reflection in the program, “Our Whole Lives” otherwise known as OWL. It’s 27 weekly hour long sessions on sexuality, relationships, gender identity, sex education, peer pressure, plain-old growing up and how our religious values tie into their ethical formation. The media and politics are wrestling with how we should be teaching these issues to our teens in our public schools. There’s a debate in our country right now whether youth should be allowed to receive scientifically accurate information. Yes – in fact the law still does not require sex/health education to even be scientifically accurate. I’m grateful that our community is so supportive of this critical education.

Part of the program is about growing up. It’s about coming to terms with moving away from childhood into our teen years. We heard a lot about that this morning from our youth’s reflections. (How great was that!) As we were planning our worship together, they chose to focus on the themes of past, present and future; knowing that half of our group will be entering High School this Fall. It’s a major time of change for our Junior Youth group.

          When I was entering High School, or finishing my first year of Middle School, I don’t remember any formal opportunity to reflect on what I was going through. Sure, I talked with my friends about the changes, my hopes, and what was scaring me, but I don’t remember any adults, or my church community, or really even any teachers, helping me along my way. The public schools were sometimes good at helping me get most of the facts I needed, but they never put much energy into helping me sort through the values – the choices – I would have to wrestle with in light of the facts of growing up.

Is this different for folks here? We heard from our Junior Youth already this morning. By a show of hands with our adults – who here received at least 27 hours of education – like OWL prior to entering High School? Which of our adults received religious support from their communities in sorting through some of these life changes that our youth reflections spoke about? I’m often amazed at how much more care and support our UU raised children and youth receive in these matters than folks do from society at large. It’s a necessary, powerful and potentially life-saving ministry we offer here.

I want to offer some advice to our graduating class of OWL 2012. As you continue to grow and mature – a process that hopefully doesn’t end for at least another 60 years for you all – try to remember “why you are.” It’s an odd phrase. I’m going to try to explain it in two stories. One that’s personal, and one that’s a little mythical. (Well, to be honest, both are a little bit personal and both are a little bit mythical in their own ways.) And then we’ll come back to how that relates to all our next steps.

First, the personal story. My partner and I were strolling through the Village on Saturday enjoying the perfect weather. When we got to Washington Square Park, we heard piano music playing. Apparently, a fellow had rolled in a full-size piano into the central walkway of the park, close to the east side of the square. He had the obligatory two giant tip buckets spaced far enough apart that you couldn’t miss them while you passed by. Not that you could miss the piano from 100 feet away for that matter. It was an iconic NYC moment. Brian and I sat down to listen to the music for a while. He was an excellent pianist. I found myself wondering how he got the piano into the park (curbs are rough on giant unwieldy square instruments after all); where did it come from – did he push it himself (there’s probably a music video of that image rolling around somewhere – and if you find it, please do share it on my Facebook wall) or did he have helpers to get around the tight corners and mostly 7 inch curbs.

          It was a surreal moment for sure. A little bit of whimsy, culture and quirkiness rolled into one. Like you’d expect from the typical hipster classical musician you’d find playing the piano in the park, he would offer odd little ironic quips after each piece. (In tired droll voice) “And that piece was Ave Maria, composed by Franz Schubert. In my humble opinion it was the only piece he composed that was of any good.” He would also end every performed piece with the driest, “I do hope you enjoyed it.” The affect was so opposite his performances, which were lively, skilled and largely moving. I wanted to go up to him, jump up and down, and yell “Buddy, you’ve gone through the trouble of creating a little bit of faerie-land here in NYC by dragging your piano God knows how far through the Village. Cheer up!” The spiritual message of “why are you here” rings softly, or I guess maybe not so softly if it’s a UU minister jumping up and down in the park yelling it at you. Thankfully, I didn’t do that… this time.

Sometimes in life, we go through all the trouble of making something happen that we really want, and then we don’t allow ourselves to live into it. Anyone here ever desperately want to go to the beach to relax (or to my fellow Jerseyeans – Down the Shore?) Then you finally make it through the hours of travel, sun block, prepping sandwiches, screaming/crying children/siblings/parents and lay out – only to realize that you can’t stop thinking about all the things that were stressing you out that you’re trying to get away from for a little while? You can’t sit still long enough to relax? The “why” of where you are is just out of reach. The sun, and spray, and sand might as well be miles away still.

I want to share with you that second story now. It’s written by a colleague of mine in NJ, the Rev. Dr. Matt Tittle, UU minister in Paramus. It’s called Stanley the Very Fine Squirrel. When I first heard that Matt was publishing this children’s story I got really excited. I grew up hearing another odd little story about “Stanley the Christmas Squirrel.” It was a totally different squirrel named Stanley (who was dealing with his home getting upgraded into a Christmas Tree for someone else’s living room, but that’s another tale entirely.) But it’s notable because still to this day, my parents and I call every squirrel we see, “Stanley.” Even my childhood dog knew the name. If we would say, “Look, it’s Stanley!” my dog would jump up and make a bee-line for the squirrel. (I don’t recall him doing that if we just said squirrel. And no, he never caught Stanley, thankfully.)

          (…tell the story of Stanley the Very Fine Squirrel…)

So let’s try to answer the Owl in the story. “Why are you?” Why are we here for? Feel free to call out a word or two response. If I can make out what you said, I’ll repeat it back into our microphone so that all can hear. (to love, show compassion, sow peace, to teach, parent, grow, nurture, to learn etc.) How often do we hold all these things in our hearts and minds throughout our daily activities? In this religious community, we can probably all agree that we’re here at least in part to show compassion, to nurture those around us, to sow peace. How easy is that to remember when we’re sitting in our third period class, or when we’re memorizing math formulas, or when the person with the full grocery cart races us to cashier? But the boredom, or the work, or the addiction to work or schedules can help us forget our purpose.

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