Archive for February, 2013

Isolations of the Spirit

This sermon explores the spiritual impact of philosophical isolation, of living in a media-induced gate-community of the soul.


I’m starting to notice one really amazing comeback. Just about every week now, I spot a hawk flying overhead in my East Village neighborhood. I grew up in suburban NJ and remember never seeing a hawk until I had travelled a good hour from NYC. I remember when the Central Park hawks were first nesting twenty-five or so years ago. But now they’ve branched out and have found homes seemingly in every NYC park. With all the environmental losses we face these days, it’s wonderful to know that some species are figuring out how to adapt to even the most human of environs. It gives me hope that in some ways the natural world can still respond to what we continue to throw its way – even if it’s just a small indicator.

Twice in the past month, I’ve spotted a hawk rapidly flying away from a flock of pigeons in one case, and starlings in another. Hawks are natural predators of the smaller birds, but they have a hard time with 30 or more of their prey banding together and going after them. For all the mockery New Yorkers will level against the pigeon, seeing a flock of them chase down a majestic hawk will really challenge your view of what the pigeon is capable of.
Occasionally, you’ll even see different species of smaller birds team up to expel the lone hawk. This instinctual banding together is a really helpful practice in the natural world when one’s eggs and newborns are at risk. It’s a hopeful sign that even folks of different stripes can come together in the face of adversity.  It also reminds me though of a similar practice we humans are doing more and more commonly. We band together in groups of people with very like-minded philosophies, politics and viewpoints. And we then make sure we don’t let other views nest in our little part of the neighborhood.
…You know what it looks like. How many folks here regularly watch both Rachel Maddow and Bill O’Reilly? When I still carried around a print version of the Economist, I would regularly hear folks ask me !“why would I bother reading that! That’s right-wing!” For those familiar, it’s not actually even right-wing, it’s just textbook economics. We find a media-outlet that matches our philosophy, and largely stick to it. !It’s not that we just don’t like the other side, rather, we often have a visceral reaction to it! During the presidential elections we asked our election night party to flip between CNN, NBC and Fox. We just couldn’t stay on Fox for more than five minutes at a stretch. Groans, gasps and grunts made us miss the end of almost every sentence the broadcasters uttered. And to be sure – just as the pigeons considered the risk of the hawk overhead, so are we often convinced that if we allow that viewpoint to remain too long in our hearing that it will be a threat to our future generations. Or like this morning’s story, it will at least be a threat to our peace of mind. (As an aside, we happened to be rewarded for our bravery by witnessing – live – Karl Rove’s meltdown denial of the election results.)
And in some ways, the threat is real. There are views that we do find dangerous. Philosophies that spread violence, or hate, are offensive to civilization. They go against our religious convictions regarding human dignity, equity and compassion.
For those views grounded in the diminishment of the human spirit, we do have to remain vigilant.
But for all the rest, we may be doing a disservice by so deeply isolating ourselves from differing viewpoints. And we may even be going against our religious values as well.
On the practical level, when we thoroughly excuse ourselves from engaging with differing world-views, part of us demonizes the people on the other side. Many of us have seen where this leads to in the extreme. You might have read arguments on your friends’ Facebook walls, or in more public venues like the Huffington Post or the Wall Street Journal. Someone makes an argument for some progressive issue. Then someone makes a counter argument for some conservative response. Within short order the Trolls are out and all substantive content is thrown out the window. Society diminishes and we resort to a caricature of kids in a sandbox.  For those who don’t use computers, imagine the very worst of the daytime trash-talk-shows.

Or maybe we sound like this morning’s wisdom story. We’re not where we belong, we’re clucking and baa’ing with all the rest. And all we succeed in doing is clanging noise and making a mess of our surroundings. No real interaction has occurred – or at least no mature human encounter. The thing to remember about this morning’s story, is that each side probably identifies with the overwhelmed and cramped family. We’re not likely to identify with the clucking chickens and the head-butting goats.

When we project the noisome and ridiculous onto our neighbor, we’re never going to find peace in our hearts, no matter our blessings.

With the evolution of technology we have gained so much. But in some ways, we’re losing our ability to interact responsibly with our neighbors. There’s a photo floating around Facebook that asks the question, “If someone from the 1950s suddenly appeared today, what would be the most difficult thing to explain to them about life today?” One of the best responses is, “I possess a device, in my pocket, that is capable of accessing the entirety of information known to man. I use it to look at pictures of cats and get into arguments with strangers.”

Now there’s nothing wrong with looking at pictures of cats. My favorite little Tuxedo cat, Dewey, is well documented by my phone camera as well. But with the added layer of distance that technology grants us, there is a really strong tendency for the empty argument,
…for the easy demonization of the other,
…for slinging mud at targets that aren’t quite real.
Part of it is due to the distance. To the invisibility of the other person. In a former career, I supervised a 24/7 Information Technology help-desk. Sometimes callers would be incredibly rude, impatient and demeaning on the phone. !When I later had to visit them in person to solve the problem, they turned into the sweetest person you could meet! They often didn’t realize that it was me on the other end. Over the phone, I had little value. Face to face, they remembered how to properly treat another person.
How do we balance the mud-slinging, the differing views, and the broader challenges of dealing with crisis – and what exactly is at stake? Being able to sit at an awkward extended-family holiday dinner with civility is certainly an important life skill. But civic-minded folks may also be concerned with the weakening of real public discourse that’s not reactionary, mean-spirited, or full of hyperbole. It’s hard to move forward as a people if we can’t refrain from a social form of filibustering every time we engage with people who have differing views – if we allow ourselves to engage at all.
…Religiously, our principles ask us to find that balance.
…Our principles ask us to promote the inherent dignity of the other

  • …they call us to continue the search for truth and meaning
  • …and to do so in such a way that we allow ourselves to accept one another for who we each are

– even when we won’t agree.
Isolating ourselves from viewpoints that don’t match our own is changing the nature of public discourse. If the goal of the entertainment media is to satisfy the philosophical or political preferences of its viewer-base for private-sector financial gain, then the level of critical analysis will sadly diminish.
We enter into an echo chamber and hear only the sound of our own distracted mind.
Philosophical interdependence withers away. As we isolate ourselves, we isolate our spirits. We become more closed. We tend toward the self-righteous. We become increasingly sure that we are right. We grow less.

That’s a snap shot of society at large. But these same patterns sometimes happen in our own communities and congregations. It’s largely accurate to say that most of us may lean toward progressive social policies – particularly around civil rights and environmental concerns. But we likely don’t all have the same philosophies regarding economic matters. At the height of the Occupy movement in NYC, we clearly had a range of views on what an economically just world ought to look like. But UU circles tend toward privileging public discussions that favor the more progressive solutions – even though a substantial number of our members may not actually share those exact views. We project onto our community our views, our opinions, our sense of normal. We do all of this with the best of intentions.  When we do this we imagine that our congregations must be as isolated internally as we often isolate ourselves with our friends and our news choices. We weaken ourselves by the explicit and implicit actions that silence such discourse. In shutting out the difference, in our mocking of differing views – we become less knowledgeable of the world around us and become less capable to adapt to changing circumstances.

…We are weaker alone than together.

One type of a strength that’s found when we cross philosophical aisles is something called understanding. When we get how the other side sees the world, we can come to points of mutual gain. I was recently attending a workshop on how to transform destructive kinds of conflict that was led by Tracy Breneman. She’s faculty at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the Director of Religious Education for the UU congregation in Mt. Kisco, NY. Different conflict management styles get to this in varying ways, but one style she spoke about is the “collaborating” style. In collaboration, “emphasis is on developing a solution which meets all the important needs of both parties and does not lead to any significant disadvantages.”

It reminded me of a Bill Moyers interview with climate change communications expert Anthony Leiserowitz. Bill Moyers asked him how do we get to the two sides of politics to come together on the crisis of our environment – specifically how do we convince conservatives to take climate change seriously. To paraphrase, Mr. Leiserowitz spoke about appealing to conservative values around freedom. Essentially, ‘the freedom to live the lifestyle of a midwest farmer or rancher is literally at stake when we consider the extent of the drought that has plagued the Heartland.’ For me – that argument wouldn’t hold any weight. For me – I want to see the planet transformed because I value our role as stewards of this earth. I’m a vegetarian who doesn’t want to see any animal ever get hurt. What would convince me is not the right argument to use with a rancher. Mr. Leiserowitz’s view is more useful because he better understands another worldview than I.

To flip the example, I can think of one incredibly poorly timed event on January 19th. Various conservative groups are supporting a “Gun Appreciation day” which is attempting to send the message “Hands off my guns.” They intended it to be a challenge to President Obama’s inauguration. However, having it also coincide with Martin Luther King, Jr weekend, seems extremely out of touch with our cultural landscape considering MLK was murdered by a gunman. This lack of understanding is likely to create only further distance between the sides.

We can come to collaborative decisions based upon the needs of those with differing values. But we can only do so when we understand where others are coming from. We can’t understand where they’re coming from if we don’t listen with an open heart. If we diminish their opinions out of hand. If we never turn the station to their channel. If we only talk about the weather and baseball. (I guess only talk about baseball if you know ahead of time what team they follow…).
Some of you are probably thinking – ‘All that sounds great. In an ideal world, we all reach across the aisle and we all figure out what the other person wants and we come up with solutions to our mutual advantage. But we never do that, so this idealism isn’t practical.’ I could list examples where opposing political philosophies have come to mutual agreements to radically change how we live. The repair of the Ozone layer in the 1980s; the end to slavery in the US; Women’s suffrage; desegregation of our armed forces – or the inclusion of women – or the open inclusion of lesbians and gay men. Each of these required radical shifts in the status quo, and in some cases bloodshed. But we were able to pass through those challenges – each of which was considered idealistic for its time and, in the eyes of some, impractical.

There’s a scene in the movie “Lincoln” where the President is chastised for not having a pure abolitionist philosophy. Lincoln essentially responds, “what’s the use of knowing true north if you try to barrel through the obstacles rather than taking each into consideration, only to wind up stuck in a swamp or ditch.” The landscape of real human interaction is not accounted for in our strict ideologies, whichever side you happen to be on.
Today’s challenges are just as necessary – they are just as urgent. We heard this past week (January 10th) of another school shooting in a California school. This time the hero of the story was again a teacher.  His name is Ryan Heber and he talked the student down from continuing his attack. While public discourse, the opposing sides of the gun debate continue shouting at – or worse, threatening – one another. Considering the escalation of these public shootings, we have neither the time nor the luxury of squabbling in a very big sandbox.
Repeated surveys indicate that the majority of the membership of the NRA are in favor of basic checks on mental health when purchasing guns, or limiting the sale of assault weapons, or criminal background checks. The noise of the leadership of the NRA matches the gun lobby, and not its citizen members. Likewise, the majority of Americans are not in favor of the search and seizure of private citizens’ handguns. But if we were just to follow the sound-bytes and the headlines, one might not be able to hear the truth within the din. They read as though there were only two perspectives, and that both sides are out to get the other. … (And those two perspectives always neatly fit into pithy headlines.)

I’ve spoken about a number of challenges and tragedies we continue to face. It can feel daunting and overwhelming.
…But we can see the way through.
History repeatedly shows us that change can happen.
…And that the unbelievable hope may one day become matter of fact.

Our religious values place a demand upon us. Our principles remind us to listen with an open heart. When we begin from a place of respect, we can find a way forward. When we turn down the volume we can hear the facts – we can find the shared values. But when we isolate ourselves tightly within our philosophical gated-communities, we not only keep out other views, but we also keep ourselves trapped behind the fences of our own making. Our principles remind us that as the natural world is mutually interdependent, so are we. This is not solely a biological reality. It is also an emotional reality, and a spiritual truth. Our hearts need openness to flourish. Our minds need openness to learn. So too do our spirits need the breadth of community – in all its messiness and difference – to grow.


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Call to Worship: Gathering at the End

 We gather at the end of one week,

And the beginning of a new.

Let us be glad for the warmth of the hour,

The friendships along the way,

And the depth of purpose we may come to know together.

Put aside your stresses, and your burdens,

Allow your hearts to lighten before the songs and the silence.

Come, let us worship!

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Family Homily: All I Really Need

This homily was first preached at the First UU Congregation of Brooklyn for a kid-friendly service. It talks about sharing, bullying, and standing up for what’s right.


Part 1

Who here is either in Kindergarten or has ever attended Kindergarten? A good many of you! Excellent! So if the UU minister, and author, Robert Fulghum is right from the story we just heard – we already know all we really need to know about living as good people. Is he right? Can it be that simple? I want to start off by saying why it is that simple – and then we’ll talk a little bit later about why it’s not really that simple. If you’re new to UU, let me tell you that this is a really good example of how we think here. Or as my Italian mother would say, “Well.., yeah, no.”

What did Rev. Fulghum say again? In short – “Share everything. Play fair. Don’t hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don’t take things that aren’t yours. Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.[1]Now these are some rules to live by. For the most part, I think we can all agree that following them would make for a better, kinder world. We might come up with some exceptions for self-defense, or caring for our loved ones. But for every day living, it’s hard to argue with them. If you’ve graduated from Kindergarten, and you have taken these rules to heart, you have a graduate degree in human living!

But do most of us live this way most of the time? Do we always share? (shake head) Maybe we don’t have enough for ourselves. Or maybe we feel like we’ve worked so hard for what we have we don’t want to share any of it. When we do share – why are we doing it? (Call out some answers — kindness, helping other people, we feel better, sometimes we’re lucky and others are unlucky.) Garnett mentioned some of this in her words this morning – sharing or as she put it generosity makes us feel better but it also helps the world. It reminds us that we’re connected to the world around us. It’s an expression of the reality that we all got where we are today by the help of others in the world – the parents or caregivers that raised us; the teachers that taught us; the scientists and doctors who discovered a cure that keeps us healthy and so on. Because so many people have come before us and done things that makes our life and happiness possible – we in return share. And the circle continues.

I remember a story Gini Courter once told me. She’s the Moderator of the UUA – that’s like the Chair of the Board (or ruling body) of our denomination. She was driving on the road one day and came up to a toll booth and was pulling out her wallet to pay (this was back in the ancient days before EZ pass- just after dinosaurs stopped roaming the earth.) The toll collector said – “You don’t have to pay me today. The guy in front of you paid for your toll.” She got a smile on her face from the kind deed. What do you think she did? (allow for answers) She paid it anyway and said give it to the next person. What just happened? She’s not coming ahead in money at all! Yet she’s only smiling even more! Instead, just like how the generous person ahead of her put a smile to her face, she gave that smile to the next person coming after her. Now maybe that next person really needed the break – or maybe they’ll just get a smile to their face. But I can imagine a long row of drivers having a very different view of the day from it.

If you have some paper and a crayon with you, I invite you to pay forward yourself right now. Draw something that makes you happy and later today give it as a gift to someone here in the congregation you might not know. Or maybe give it to a friend or family member. It could be a hope, or a silly picture, or even a Valentine in honor of the holiday this week!

That’s what I think sharing really does. It tells the people around you that you care, that you’re willing to help, that they’re not alone. It’s not about giving up what you have, but about recognizing how much your friendship means to you – how much more than the thing you’re sharing.

The seeds we just planted are a little like this. We’ve planted them, and not labeled them as ours. We’ll care for them in their little pots for a little while and when it gets a little warmer, many of them will be planted in front of our building on Monroe Place. They’ll grow for the Spring and part of the Summer and brighten the sidewalk for all to see. We’ll be sharing with our community a little of what we did here today – just to make the neighborhood brighter.

But there’s also another significance. We don’t always know what good thing will come of our actions. In life, we sometimes do a small thing – a small good act. We might come to know immediately that it helped someone and it was appreciated. Or we might pay for the next person’s toll and never know if they were thankful or if they even needed it. These seeds are like that. Some of them may not take root. Others will grow strong for a time. When they’re out for the neighborhood to enjoy – it’s just random who will walk by. One of those people may have a day where they really need the help in finding a smile on their face again – and our flowers might just do that for them. In life, sometimes our actions will have a bigger effect on the world around us than we can easily imagine.

Following the prayer and offertory, Kirby Amour will talk about how some of her good work led her to a bigger impact on the world than at first she thought.







Part 2

Robert Fulghum also said, “Play fair. Don’t hit people…. Don’t take things that aren’t yours. Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.” I see all of these things as sort of the opposite of sharing. It’s all about thinking that what little you have, is more important than the people around you. If you cheat, or take what’s not yours, you’re saying those things are a bigger deal than the person next to you. This can be a really dangerous thing when countries are fighting over resources like oil or consumer markets. But in the everyday, it can feel like a big deal too.

Has anyone ever had to deal with a bully before? (I have.) I think most of us had to face a bully at one time in our life or another. Sometimes they’re on the playground; sometimes they’re in the office next door; sometimes they’re a spouse or someone you’re dating; sometimes they’re a country. Some of these things we might feel like we can’t handle ourselves, but the lesson on how to deal with it, we learned in Kindergarten. We just don’t always remember.

For some of us, dealing with a bully is learning to not be one ourselves. If you find yourself planning on not playing fair, or hurting someone physically or emotionally – the kindergarten rules remind us – just don’t. But often the bully is someone else – it’s still good to check in with friends (or fellow committee members) every so often and ask them – was I just a bully? This might seem silly – but we all know bullies in our lives. We’ve all sat through painful lunches (whether in school or in the office.) And there are a lot of people that try to get their way at the expense of another person.  Sometimes they’re not bullying us – they’re bullying another person.

This is where the Kindergarten rules are just too simple. Sometimes it’s not enough to just follow them. It’s not enough to just share, or to just not be hurtful. Sometimes we have to take a stand. Sometimes we have to not let something just go by us. If someone is bullying someone else, it’s not tattling to bring it to everyone’s attention. It’s being a good person.

Adults might call it challenging or changing the system. When one person breaks from the norm – when one person calls out what’s not right, others may follow – and then the system (how everyone acts with one another) changes. Our youth and our adults are invited next Sunday (Feb 24th) after worship to a workshop on this very thing in the Chapel. It’s a conversation about Racial Justice. We’ll be learning and relearning ways to stop bullying of people based on their identity. There are a lot of words we use to describe this – prejudice, racism, bigotry – but they’re all forms of bullying. Some are just more obvious than others.

We’re also talking about producing another video this year on Sunday, March 3rd. It’ll be like last year’s Valentine’s Day video for Marriage Equality that you can find our website where we crafted thank you Valentines for NY State representatives who supported the passage of Marriage Equality in our state – so that all people who love one another in our State can get married to whom they want to marry. This year we’re hoping to have more Valentines of gratitude to send regarding legislature that’s being considered.  (But it might turn into a letter writing campaign instead.) We’re considering two things that involve safety in our neighborhoods and schools, and one Act that’s about safety for Women. The world can be complicated, but bullying comes in many forms. We’ll talk more about Gun Control and the Violence Against Women Act in the weeks ahead. I would like to thank Weaving the Fabric of Diversity for helping with the research on this project in collaboration with our Religious Education program.

These videos are like the Sweet Pea plants we’re planting. We create them, plant them, and you never know who may come by to view it – appreciate it – to change from it. Our last video has been seen everywhere from the Huffington Post, to the General Assembly of the UUA in Phoenix, Arizona, to our own District Annual Meeting. It’s been used in Regional Youth Leadership programming. It’s been picked up and re-shared through our denomination’s Standing on the Side of Love campaign -which has a following in the tens of thousands. I’ve been told by some of you that you first came to this congregation because you saw the video on the website.

It’s not always easy to know where our paths will take us. It’s not always simple to draw the line from the good we do today to the good that will come of it tomorrow. It is important to have faith though, that our actions will grow good from where we are good, and grow harm from when we are harmful. All we really need to know about life we learned in Kindergarten may be too simple to solve all things, but it’s a really good foundation for where to start.

[1] “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” by Robert Fulghum

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Prayer: Breaking Down Walls

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

As we hunker down, beneath a blizzard on our streets,

And a blizzard of news and media that often remind us to continue thinking just like we have always thought,

Help us to see beyond our walls,

Beyond our lonely perspective,

To the humanity in our neighbor,

To the worth we may have forgotten in ourselves.

Open our hearts this hour,

Loosen our grip on how things must be,

Allow ourselves to not always be completely right.

For the road of must be’s, and always have’s,

Have led us to the world we have this day.

A world full of beauty and possibility,

But a world full of injustice, and inequity.

May we learn, and relearn, new ways to live,

With openness,

A breadth of vision,

And an easy joy, as best we can.

May our walls give us not only warmth and stability,

But may they be a staging ground for action in the world.

May they teach us where we have been as a community,

While reminding us that forward thinking was what brought them into being.

May our traditions include the tradition of innovation – long a part of our faith.

We especially hold in our hearts this hour, the homeless in our streets,

The residents of neighborhoods ravaged by Hurricane Sandy,

who have yet to rebuild their homes.

For those who are cold from loss of power and heat.

We are grateful for our members, and the communities,

Who have rallied together to ease the burdens of those so affected.


We invite the gathering now to lift up the names of those we wish to hold in our hearts…

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SGM #34: Living Commitment

#34 Small Group Ministry Session Written by Rev. Jude Geiger, MRE, First Unitarian, Brooklyn – Based on the sermon, “Living Commitment” preached by Rev. Ana Levy-Lyons at First UU on 2/3/13. This session explores the meaning of love in light of the everyday. The sermon it’s based upon is found here:

Welcome & Opening Chalice Lighting  (Please read aloud) #627 in Singing the Living Tradition by Max A. Coots (read responsively if you have multiple copies.)

Statement of Purpose:  To nurture our spirits and deepen our friendships.

Brief Check-In: Share your name and something you have left behind to be here.

Covenant Reflection

Reading: An excerpt from Rev. Ana’s sermon.

“In an arranged marriage, love is not the soil in which the marriage grows. At best, it’s the other way around: the marriage is the soil in which love grows. This is the theory – that in sharing a life, you grow to love each other. To test this theory you really have to be a couple in an arranged marriage who have been together a long time. This is the test run by Tevya and Golde in the song we heard earlier – “Do You Love Me?” – from the musical Fiddler on the Roof. They are a couple living in a 1905 Russian shtetl in an arranged marriage of 25 years and the husband, Tevya, wants to know whether the rich soil of this marriage has borne fruit in the form of love.

So he asks his wife whether she loves him. To her, the question doesn’t even compute. Love isn’t the point of marriage in their world. The point is sustenance, survival, getting things done, raising kids, making use of the economy of scale in warding off poverty. But Tevya really wants to know and he keeps nudging her about it and finally Golde concedes that for 25 years she’s washed his clothes, cooked his meals, cleaned his house, given him children, milked the cow; they’ve gone through 25 years of experiences together, good and bad, and that all of that somehow does add up to love. She asks, “‘If that’s not love, what is?'”

Discussion Questions: How do you know when you’re in love? Do our actions define or indicate love? Which comes first, “commitment” or “love?” Outside of a romantic relationship, share a story about a time when obligations brought about a deeper emotional connection to that which you were obligated.

Closing:   (please read aloud ) #697 by Wendell Berryin Singing the Living Tradition

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Prayer for Stewardship and Community

Spirit of Community, God of Many Names, Love Abounding,

We each come here for different reasons,

To connect once more with friends well known,

To meet new folks along the way,

To be less alone in a city that is both very full,

And sometimes very isolating amidst the bustle.

Some of us are tired,

Dedicated to the busy-ness of our work week,

Struggling to find a job,

Stressed from the tests, and the homework, and the deadlines;

We gather to pause between the silence and the joy of this hour,

Hoping to be renewed in spirit and in mind,

To be able to appreciate the small wonders, of the moments,

between our obligations.

We gather as a community,

To build loving friendships,

To seek justice in our world,

To grow our souls,

To nurture compassion with every step,

As best we can.

We pray for those among us living with illness,

For those recovering in a hospital bed,

For their families and friends who wish they could ease their burden.

May they find healing where it is possible,

Peace of mind where it is not,

And feel the love that ever surrounds them.

God of Compassion, help us to weave real connections,

In this house of hope;

To build community within our walls and beyond;

To welcome the stranger,

Wherever they are on their life’s journey,

And allow ourselves to be changed,

With every new soul that enters our religious home.

In building our community, in growing our spirits,

We become the stewards of our faith.

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