Presidents and Pulpits

SFG-Coral-Ghost-Eye-2-main-image-cropA response to the election of Susan Frederick-Gray as the next president of the Unitarian Universalist Association.

I am excited that the Unitarian Universalist Association has elected Susan Frederick-Gray as our next president and I wish her many blessings.  I will support her work enthusiastically.  At the same time, within this celebration of breaking one more glass ceiling, I feel compelled to continue looking forward in order to understand how Unitarian Universalists can truly live the lofty values we put forward.  This election is only one step in a series of many that must happen for us to accomplish that goal.  I will not rehash the troubled journey within the UUA over the last three or four months, nor will I debate the history of racial and gender bias in the denominational leadership.  Instead, as a new minister about to assume the great responsibility and privilege of leadership at the pleasure of a long standing and dedicated congregation, my question is much more basic: why must the President of the UUA be a minister?

On a simple level, it is very easy to see the structure of governance and the balance between “professional” and “lay” leadership that is attempted in our association.  Yet it is that same balance, that says to me having a minister at the helm of the entire Association seems an arrangement we should question in today’s world.  What is more, considering the specificity of how our ministerial leadership is developed in terms of educational pedigree, demographics, economics, age and ability it seems like we are perpetuating the very systems of exclusivity that we are asking our spiritual community to commit to unraveling.  Above everything else, the challenges of the world in which Unitarian Universalism as an organization is being asked to navigate are not challenges that our ministers are being explicitly prepared to meet as organizational leaders.

I’m well aware of some of the incredible professional histories that our past and new president bring to the table.  They are remarkable and multi-skilled people with passion and dedication.  They are immensely qualified leaders.  What is more, a minister leading a religious/faith organization just seems appropriate; one wouldn’t ask Elon Musk to lead the Episcopal Church.  But then again why not?  The assumption that a minister will lead a spiritual organization is status quo thinking and I’m sure that the progress we want to see over the next 10 – 20 years is not status quo progress.  When I look at the list and background of our history of Association leadership we have been blessed to draw the cream of the crop; but it is only a ministerial crop.  What are we missing by not looking across all of the crops within our vast acreage of talent?

I have had the pleasure to meet many incredible people in our congregations and the bulk of them are not ministers.  I have met lay leaders and professionals including Religious Educators, Musicians and Administrators.  They are former and current corporate and non-profit executives, they are lifelong organizers and activists, they are teachers and professors and they are deemed as somehow not qualified to lead this organization because they lack the title “The Reverend.” As a denomination, we place a lot of weight on the three-letter abbreviation (Rev.) But the title doesn’t make the person.  One of the greatest lessons I have learned through my own ministerial formation takes its cue from something Michelle Obama once said about her husband and the Presidency of the United States: “Being president doesn’t change who you are, it reveals who you are.”  Becoming a ministerial leader is the same way, it is a process of constantly peeling away layers until you are your most forthright and present self.  Even then you continue to evolve and change and discover new layers of truth and strength.  It tests you in ways that until now, I’ve only seen from the outside.  But coming to ministry from a very different background of management, it is also very easy for me to see that the crucible that is ministerial formation does not guarantee that one will always be an effective organizational leader or that they will peel away the most restricting layers. It also doesn’t guarantee that one will be the right leader at the right time.  Again, leadership, any leadership is something that is revealed.

As we embrace the new direction of leadership that will be revealed in Susan Frederick-Gray’s tenure, I say hallelujah let’s celebrate!  But I would also say that it is not the time for us to sit back with relief and sigh “whew…at last, we did it!”  We’ve only rolled on to the tarmac, we haven’t taken flight yet.  Rather, it is the time to embrace Susan’s forward thinking and the forward thinking of all the candidates and say “what a great FIRST step toward wholeness!”  We have a long way to go my friends.  We are preparing for a long flight.  Let’s continue to challenge the structures that cultivate complacency, dominant culture oppression and mono-cultural vision.  At last we’ve proven that our leadership can rock a pair of heels (if she wants to…thank you Sofia Betancourt, Susan Frederick-Gray, Alison Miller and Jeanne Pupke).  Now, let’s keep proving that both our leadership and our lived faith can reflect the economic, racial, social, cultural, ability and educational diversity that we talk so much about.

Standing Right In Front of Love

20140628_205710I draw the title of this post with great appreciation for and no offense meant to Jason Shelton who wrote the song “Standing On the Side of Love” or to the hallmark social action program of the same name in the Unitarian Universalist denomination that is currently celebrating 5 years of bearing witness as part of our faith.

Last night, I had the accidental fortune to be right in the thick of the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly “Worship, Witness and Waterfire” event that was the centerpiece of the Saturday happenings.  I say accidental because I hadn’t intended to go.  I had a dreadful headache that kicked in during an incredible late afternoon presentation by Sister Simone Campbell as the Ware Lecturer for this year’s general assembly. Despite my headache, I was completely blown away by her commitment.  I’ve followed her and the Nuns on the Bus for a while and have regularly looked to Catholic nuns as some of the deepest inspiration as a group of people who genuinely “bear witness” in so many different ways.  I think of my friend Sr. Joann Heinritz who is committed to body work and sharing the need for human contact with people who are denied touch through her own hands-on work as a massage therapist, working with people from all walks of life, doing footwashing and healing with homeless people, simply because it needs to be done.

Following, Sr. Campbell’s beautiful talk that included her reflections on bearing witness of people in real pain both in traditional war zones and the war zone of the United States southern border, I took some time to tend to my headache in a dark room that was just in earshot of the “worship” portion of last nights festivities.  I heard spirited singing and the word love bandied about with abandon.  My head was swimming with Sr. Campbell’s words “walk willing toward trouble” and I found myself questioning how easily Unitarian Universalists are talking about love at this General Assembly.  What does the word “love” mean?  I’ve spoken with many people at this gathering (both young and old) who are questioning what feels like a surface engagement of the love ethic.  The singers and musicians in the service are all extremely talented good friends and I don’t mean to take anything away from their gifts or their efforts, but for me and many of the others who are questioning how this has all landed, “love” is always a verb; it means nothing outside of action: where you choose to live, what you say and do, who you support, how you engage your community and those around you…even how you exist in your own body.  Evangelicals who preach “good news” praise-type worship always include a call to action or a challenge as to whether one has been living the word of Christ good enough.  You will never see a congregation of that kind simply singing about love to itself; it is always about love focused with a purpose, usually outward.  We may not follow Christ, but we also want to be challenged.  We want to be called to action…every single time.  As another attendee mentioned, you can’t just make the announcement about letting the people with mobility issues leave the arena once at the beginning of the conference…you have to do it every time.  Although singing about love is good, the real “witness” always depends upon where one is actually willing to stand. 

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Street Dancers…amazing!

I eventually took myself out of the stadium and made my bleary eyed way toward the busses back to my dorm.  As it would happen, the busses were running only sporadically.  Long story short, I realized that it would be better for me to just stay put until after the Waterfire event that would be happening nearby on the river.  This was to be the “witness” portion of the activities and I realized that I had the opportunity to actually witness, the witness.  I readied my camera and walked toward the event.  As I arrived I noticed a broad range of locals gathering.  There were young and old, black and white, different languages…it reminded me in some ways of the block parties we used to have in New York in the early 70’s.  There was a very real innocence to those parties where everyone from every walk of life came together without biases or bigotry, just to enjoy being in community.  And everyone was equal.

As I arrived at the main basin where the event was happening where there would be fire accompanied by music right on the water (hence the name ‘Waterfire’) I noticed that the front of the area closest to the water was cordoned off.  I thought at first that this was for safety.  The ‘braziers’ where the fire would be lit were large and when lit would probably send up a fairly huge conflagration.  But I soon realized that this was actually a “reserved” standing area and that it was for the Unitarian Universalists.  As I watched, this empty area closest to the action steadily filled with yellow “Standing on the Side of Love” shirts with the help of security and ushers who moved non-UUs out and moved credentialed UUs in.  I watched yellow shirts push past, walk around and yes, even climb over residents who had been waiting for up to 2 hours to see this event.  From my vantage point among the local crowd, what was intended to be a “witness” turned into more of a “display” and somewhat of a distraction.

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One of the “viewing” areas before the UUs showed up…

I believe that our organizers had the best of intentions.  They were aware of a local event that is unique and beautiful and they wished to find a way for the denomination to show up in force to affirm this gathering of a community.  We are often reminded that “just showing up” is the first and most important step to offering solidarity. But one must also be mindful of how one shows up.  Sr. Simone, as with many Sisters, does not wear a habit.  Traditional garb can be a useful tool, both for safety and for sending an important message, so not wearing the habit is not only personally liberating, but it is situationally liberating.  However, I’ve been told by Sisters that when they wear the habit, there is also an expectation of behavior that goes with it that can become a distraction and hindrance to their work when they are pushing the boundaries of love in which they believe.  I was shown another example in a lecture earlier this year with the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence where I heard them make this same important claim.  Their “battle drag” is part shock value, part theater and part toolkit.  It is intentional and never taken for granted in the many privileges (and vulnerabilities) it brings them in their work.  When I see Unitarian Universalists show up at a local event in bright goldenrod t-shirts, I question how well we’ve thought out the “how” behind the way we are showing up?  At the Waterfire event, were we showing up because we want to be with the people of Providence or are we showing up because we want to be seen and get a good seat?

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The same area after the UUs showed up.

In order to ‘walk willing toward trouble,’ I think it is important for Unitarian Universalists to understand first that we don’t always need a banner to tell everyone.  Certainly it is useful when marching on Washington, supporting Moral Mondays, gathering in solidarity with local hotel workers protesting union policies…places where our visible presence makes a difference to media and people who aren’t engaged looking on.  But when “witness” is asking a community to welcome our support of their efforts, it is easy to stumble over the line of show boating.  One of the great lessons I learned as a massage therapist and that continues to be important for me in ministry is the ability to simply be present with people.  As an organization, we could learn more about this delicate balance.  We need to always show up, but without an agenda, and instead with open hands that say to those who have asked us, “please use me as you most need, I am willing to walk with you toward trouble.” That is love.

Breathing Deeply

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This poem was presented as part of the Love and Change: A Journey of the Spirit session at UUA General Assembly on June 27, 2014

No one needs to tell you to breathe.

You don’t need permission,

For you are already breathing.

You have been breathing your entire life outside of the womb.

You know very well how do to it without instruction,

You will continue to breathe until it is time to stop.

You may naturally have short breaths,

Or long and slow.

They may be uneven

Or ragged.

But you are already breathing…

And you can journey back with that breath

Before you had that head cold,

Or bronchitis.

Before being out of breath from a run or trying to catch a bus or train,

Before the breathing as you gave birth,

Or the gasps and sobs of joy or sorrow.

Journey back to your first breath,

Back to that first rush of air,

Maybe sudden, maybe gradual…

But back to that first moment, 

That affirmed your presence in the physical world.

Inspired by something divine, unimaginable,

Scientific, profound.

Accompanied by a giggle or a gurgle or a cry.

Your first breath.

It was sweet and fragrant,

With all the smells of fertility and life unleashed,

Burning with anticipation of all that future breaths would bring.

Because each breath was sure to bring change.

Your first breath.

Let your next breath bring you back

To your first breath,

When the world became new.

Let your next breath

Be your first breath

Full of joy and pain.

Let the next breath

Be the first breath.

Let it change with you.

Let the next breath

Be the breath of your world still becoming new.