Monday, January 30, 2012

help them grow

We all want and expect different things from our church. Some of us come here to find peace and healing; some come to get informed and energized to go out and fight against injustice. Some want classical music; some want show tunes; some want silence.

Some come to connect with friends; some come for the service and race out the door, as soon as the chalice is extinguished.

There is a lot of discussion, these days, about what people need and want from church, and how to engage them most effectively. The President of our Unitarian Universalist Association, Peter Morales, has even published a paper challenging us to find ways to deliver the feelings, or the power, or the practical effects of our spiritual community to people who rarely set foot inside of a church building.

In Peter’s paper, called “Congregations and Beyond,” which you can find on the website, he states that half a million people identify with our values, but are unlikely to ever join a church. He asks: how are we to engage these folks? How can we help them evolve, as individuals, and how can we encourage their assistance as we work to transform our world?

We may explore those questions in a sermon some other day, but I imagine that we engage these others in the same ways that we engage our current members: we provide the things that they value, and we ask them to do things that will help them grow.

Fortunately, I happen to have some data about what it is that church members value. Specifically, I have about 152 post-it notes which indicate what *this* congregation values.

Once all the notes were separated into categories, the top five overall responses were “a feeling of community,” “a chance to lead, to participate in something larger than myself,” “good worship services,” “opportunities to do justice work,” and “rites of passage”—-like funerals, weddings and child dedications.

Now, we know that what one person considers the “best worship service ever” may leave another person cold; and we have different priorities and approaches in our justice–making efforts; and the activities that feel like robust community to one may actually annoy another.

Still: in general, these do seem like good characteristics of a functioning church.

Especially if we add the sixth most-appreciated aspect, religious education, for all ages from toddler to retiree, then our list seems pretty powerful.

A sense of community, active participation, worship, justice work, religious education and life cycle rituals—how many of you come here for at least one of those things?

–the above is from yesterday’s sermon, “Mirror, Mirror,” at the First Unitarian Church of Hobart, Indiana.

I know the post-it notes and categories mentioned above are from people who *do* set foot in a UU church, and I still think they identify common human needs / desires. Whether in a church building, or out in nature; at a coffee shop or in somebody’s home, these are certainly the things I need. I believe others do, too.

And we need not be even as place-specific as that. We can be creating religious community in the virtual world. We can use Twitter and Tumblr, etc., to create connections, and to hold each other accountable in our ongoing evolution.

I am almost always encouraged and challenged by my conversations with the Rev. Ms. Naomi King. Recently, she blogged about “open source church.” She wrote, “Let’s focus more on connection, the meaning of rather than the form of, membership. Let’s focus more on using the gifts each of us has to work together in aiding and abetting the growth of goodness in this world. We can be an open source faith, crowd-sourcing wisdom…making [our] faithing more relevant, connected, and stronger through generous and courageous innovation based on gifts and needs.”

Speaking only for myself, I still desire face-to-face meetings on a (semi) regular basis. Yet I *do* use Twitter, etc., to maintain some contacts. I still expect that we’ll create open-source covenants to help shape our connections & our accountability (see previous post, below). And what options are there for open-source financial support? I am glad that there are open-hearted and smart people, like Naomi, who will be joining Terasa Cooley‘s consultation this week. I wish abundant blessings on their work.

(original post, with links, at So May We Be)

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Beyond "Congregations and Beyond"

UUA President Peter Morales’ column, “Congregations and Beyond,” has me simultaneously excited and disappointed. Peter writes, “The central conviction driving this proposal is that our core values appeal to far more
 people than are attracted…to our congregations.” Because “not everyone who 
shares our core values will want to become part of a traditional congregation,” he suggests a two-part strategy: strengthening our congregations and focusing energy outside them. “People should be able to connect to our religious movement in a
 variety of ways and at different levels of commitment.”

I agree with much of Peter’s analysis – and I had virtually the same conversation, with a friend about her Lutheran church, two days ago. We UUs are not unique in facing this issue. Nor are we unique in trying to solve it through marketing. We’re all focusing too much on the sizzle, and too little on the steak, IMHO (or too much on the color of the plate, and too little on the seitan?).

This feels like we are chasing numbers. I’d rather have impact than sheer numbers. The two may be related, sure, but give me 100 committed people over 1000 people “connected” to UUism. I’d like this to be less about making it easy to “connect” and more about it making it mean something once connected.

And that’s where we do have an opportunity. We are not the only people to offer an organized, *covenanted* search for truth and meaning, but we’re among the few–and we’ve been doing it a fairly long time.

I agree with President Morales, that we have focused overmuch on “membership.” Collecting signatures in the Membership Book is too often more important than the work we do together. One-time membership rituals have distracted us from the ongoing work of covenanted transformation.

Perhaps “Congregations and Beyond” will open a dialogue, and help us to return covenant to more central place in our movement. I imagine a variety: covenants at the beginning and ending of one-time justice events; behavioral covenants in ongoing groups; and organic ones developed in covenant groups.

This is not just about offering events (whether social or social justice -focused), this is about collaborating to change lives – ours and others’. Twitter messages and Meet-Ups may indeed draw people in, but lived covenants can keep them together, in accountable, powerful, transformative ways.

One last thing: we cannot leave membership behind. That’s how we support our infrastructure. Especially if our UUA is to be ”a resource, platform and hub” for more groups and activities, we’ve got to pay for that somehow. Members are covenanted participants who *want* to provide financial support. At all other events, perhaps free-will donations could be taken, with a portion going to regions and our national hub. Or not, this may be too in-the-box. Smarter people than me can work on this. We can be creative but it has to be addressed.

So, my sincere thanks to Peter, for beginning this conversation. Let’s see how far we can take it!

(original post, with links, at So May We Be)

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Lillie on evolution

“How come you think humans evolved from monkeys?” asked Lilly, “Don’t you think dogs are much smarter than they are?” Lillie is our dog, and she often communicates with me. As far as I know, she does not talk–er, think, I receive her thoughts in my mind—with anybody else.

“Well, girl, I know that you are pretty smart.”

“Don’t deflect. How do you think chimpanzees compare to dogs? And do you really think humans were once animals?” Once she’s on the scent of something, Lilly can be pretty focused.

“First, humans are *still* animals. We have to eat, and breathe, and procreate. Many humans are more intelligent than most other species, but we are all animals. Second, yes. I am satisfied that our ancestors evolved one direction, while chimps and bonobos took a different evolutionary path, starting about 3 million years ago. On a Thursday, I think.”

“What?!” protested Lillie. “How can you possibly know it was a Thursday? The margin of error on such an estimate has to be on the order of thousands of years. Which day it was is pure speculation. Plus it probably took longer than one day, to make that evolutionary step.”

“It was actually intended as a joke. I think humor is one thing that distinguishes humans (and maybe some other apes) from other species.”

“Maybe it just wasn’t funny,” sniffed Lilly. “And you still haven’t mentioned dogs.”

“Are you sure you want to get into that debate? Do you see what some of my fellow humans have done to chimps, in the name of language research? Do you want to be locked up and studied, then abandoned—discarded as soon as the funding runs out? Do you want to be vilified by religious crusaders?”

“Do you really think that dogs have been better treated by human scientists?”

“Good point. But you haven’t been criticized and misunderstood by biblical literalists.”

“You’re deflecting again,” whined Lillie. “Answer the question, please.”

“Okay. Well, one thing I know is that dogs are much smarter than squirrels – like that one there.”

And she was off, obeying her ancient instinct to chase all squirrels. I’m still smarter than my dog. In my opinion, the scientific tale of evolution is no less wondrous or awe-inspiring than any other creation story. I honor Life’s continuing evolution through and among all of us.

Monday, January 16, 2012

GA12 Getting Real, with Homily

Omigod. This GA12 stuff is getting real. After an amazing meeting of the GA Planning Committee, we are beginning to see what it will look like, and how it will feel, to go to Phoenix this June. As Walt said in our meeting with the Louisville congregations (we’re also beginning to plan GA’13), our General Assembly is often transformative. Tens of thousands of people have “gotten religion” at our annual gathering. Well, this year could be much more transformative than usual. It is still early, obviously, and I don’t want to set expectations too high. Nevertheless: the structure we’re creating, and the witness events we’re planning, and the work (and fun!) we’re planning with our local partners–we’ve got an opportunity to change our selves, our congregations, and perhaps our movement, as we help to improve the lives of immigrants and marginalized people in Arizona and all over our nation.

So much for setting expectations.

Well, we’re trying to have all the good things that we usually have (the Ware Lecture, the Service of the Living Tradition, the Exhibit Hall, etc) *and* we’re setting up more witness events (the primary way our partners have asked us to serve their cause), more service, more education, and more concrete ways to take home our learning. We’re trying to make it easy to take our justicemaking best practices back to our congregations and regions.

It still sounds like I’m gushing. I’ll include the homily I preached to the GAPC yesterday morning, to temper and ground this, a bit. And I’ll also say, that if you were working with Debra Boyd, Greg Boyd, Kathy Charles, Gini Courter (Moderator), Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray (Arizona Immigration Ministry),Bart Frost, Ila Klion, Tim Murphy, Jill Sampson (District Coordinator, ’13), Carolyn Saunders (District Coordinator, ’12), Jackie Shanti (UUA Board Rep), Jan Sneegas (GACS Director), Sandy Weir (Arizona Immigration Ministry), Rev. Nan White, Rev. Walt Wieder and Jacqui Williams, you would be excited and hopeful, too. They’re great human beings, each working very hard to live up to their best selves. We truly listened to each other; we challenged each other with respect; we earnestly tried to imagine how other peoples’ ideas might work. Each and every person in that room made a vital contribution to our work. I am proud to be among them.

Here’s the homily:

Yesterday morning, we toured the convention center. At one point, we wandered through the giant empty space that will be both Plenary Hall and the Exhibit Hall. I invite you to imagine a room eight times that size—imagine a cafeteria that serves 10,000 people at a time. Now imagine a building that houses twenty cafeterias that big. That would be the manufacturing plant of Foxconn Technology, in Shenzhen, China, which employs 460,000 workers—yes, almost half a million people in one building.

Foxconn employees make the tiny electronic pieces inside our iPhones, and our laptops, and our Xbox games; and many other brands and kinds of consumer gadgets.

Many, many Chinese teenagers work at Foxconn. Some are as young as 13. The company knows this; when western inspectors visit, older workers are sent in, replacing everyone on an entire manufacturing line.

Conditions are not very good in the plant. Repetitive stress does not begin to describe what happens to many of these workers. It could be relatively easily prevented by shifting the workers around, to a different grueling job, every month or so. Foxconn does not do this. By the time a person has worked for a decade or more, so, by the time they are 25, some of them, they can literally no longer use their arm, or their wrist, or their hand. At such a point, the company fires them, and they leave, mangled and jobless.

Belonging to a union is illegal in China. Many workers do report to the rough equivalent of the Labor Relations Board. It’s a rough equivalent, because what it mainly does is compile lists of people who are “troublemakers,” and circulates that list requiring that everyone on that list be fired, immediately.

Some workers *have* gone on strike, and forced the company to make some concessions. Some were promised a pay raise from an average of $220 per month to $275 per month. Much of the time, those agreements are not kept.

In one part of the Foxconn plant, toward the end of the process, workers wipe any fingerprints off the little iPhone window. Here in the United States, we sometimes use an alcohol-based wipe to clean off our fingerprints and grime. But there is another chemical, which dries just a little bit quicker than alcohol, so the manufacturing plant can go marginally faster.

The downside is, that chemical is a neurotoxin, and most of the workers exposed to it, over a decade or so—you know, those 27-year-olds—have hands that shake so violently that they cannot grasp a glass of water.

There are always more workers to replace the ones used up by Foxconn.

Recently, some Chinese workers there have becomes so despondent that they’ve begun to jump off the roof of the giant building. After fourteen such suicides, in 2010, the company finally realized that something was wrong. Foxconn installed nets around the building, to keep their human assets alive, and to minimize bad publicity.

When I heard an excerpt of Mike Daisey’s one-man show, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” about these Chinese workers, on This American Life last weekend, I was sick. I have been thinking about those workers, and the egregious conditions in which they live and work, all week.

In our work, here, we’ve shared stories of Joe Arpaio’s Tent City jail, and families deliberately ripped apart by U.S. Immigrations officials. As an undocumented parent is deported, the remaining parent is named a criminal, for having “harbored” hir partner, and some judges send any children into the foster care system, because that is “better” for them than living with a “criminal.”

I wonder how I can possibly help the workers in China. I debate myself about how many actual lives we will improve by holding General Assembly in Phoenix.

Eventually I realize that however small my actions may seem, to me and my ego, those actions are still critically important.

All life *is* interrelated. Dr. King said, “for some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.” In my theology, that “strange reason” is that we are part of the same unity. Each of us in this room, and every undocumented worker in these United States, and every all-too-well documented worker in plants like Foxconn, are all part of one interdependent whole.

Not only *can* I witness to these injustices, not only will I go steadfastly to Phoenix this June, I will do so with an understanding that I am not helping “them,” I am helping *us*.

Although I am part of the global 1%, although, in many ways, I and my wealth and my comfortable lifestyle are part of the problem, I therefore have more leverage to be part of the solution. If I try to help “them” I fear I will only perpetuate the imbalance and injustice.

If I embrace the fact that my liberation *is* bound up with theirs—if I allow myself to be changed by the lives and the stories and the courage and dignity of our fellow human beings, then we are working together and we can all save each other.

One of my colleagues works with the Girl Scouts, and they have some encouraging news about bullying. Their research shows that most of the children around an incident of bullying are uncomfortable with it, and recognize it is wrong. It often takes only one child speaking up, saying, “hey, that’s not cool” to break the tension and allow other kids to voice their own disapproval. Almost always, if two of the onlookers challenge the event, then the bullying stops and the group affirms justice and dignity. It only takes one or two voices.

I am truly glad to work with you all. I am grateful that I have the opportunity to go to Phoenix and raise my voice in witness. I am somewhat astounded that I have been given this chance to help a few thousand others to go raise their voices, too.

So may we be.

(original post, with links, at So May We Be)

Thursday, January 05, 2012

mythbusting GA12

Mythbusting about GA’12: “There will be something for everyone at this GA. No matter where you may be in the spectrum of social justice work, whether you’re just beginning and coming to learn, or whether you’re a seasoned activist – there will be programming and opportunities for you to have meaningful involvement. There will be community events outside as well as work done indoors. Phoenix will be hot, but the housing is nearby and there are a lot of food options in the convention center, so it will be possible to limit your sun exposure. There will be an exhibit hall, the Justice GA Expo, for which we are still accepting exhibitors. GA programming will be focused on justice issues, including topics such as the spiritual foundations of justice work, the theology of social justice, as well as a more tactical focus on organizing.

Much more information about the upcoming Justice General Assembly is available here."

A poster with the above information, and pictures and bios of John T. Crestwell, Jr. (Sunday morning worship), Maria Hinojosa (Ware Lecturer) and Karen I. Tse (Service of the Living Tradition), as well as the blurb below, can be found here (pdf).

“Steve Newcomb of the Indigenous Law Institute will speak about the Christian Doctrine of Discovery, the 500 year-old religious doctrine still used by the United States government to deny the rights of Native American Indians.”

(Note that the Episcopal Church has already renounced this Doctrine, in 2009.)

Again, download the poster here – let’s get one of these in every congregation!

(original post, with links, at So May We Be)