From the June 2015 edition of the Northeast Breeze,
Rev. Dr. Randolph W. B. Becker, Minister, One Island Family, Key West, FL
“Isn’t that redundant?” she asked.
“No,” I replied, “not really.”
I was on a train heading for Boston from South Florida and, as is the custom aboard trains, I had been seated for dinner with three strangers. We soon talked about the reasons for our travels.
Gino was heading to New York for a funeral of a beloved aunt. He was mourning the loss of his great mentor, but he was not looking forward to either some of his family members nor the very Roman Catholic funeral he expected.
Mallory had been in Delray Beach visiting her parents, now retired from New Jersey. It had been a long ten days, she told all of us.
Danny (short for Daniele) was heading to Washington and a new job with the Federal government. She was young, filled with optimism, and excited about all that her life would bring her.
I mentioned that I was headed to Boston, and Gino asked why. I told them that I was going to the headquarters of my religious movement, where I was part of a panel which conferred professional religious education credentials on those we thought prepared.
“Oh,” Gino asked, “which church is that?”
I proudly said I was a Unitarian Universalist Minister. All I got in response was blank looks until Danny piped up, “I think I have heard of them, but I have no idea what they are about.”
In response I said, “We are a progressive, liberal religious tradition.”
That’s when Mallory raised the question of redundancy. And that’s when I began to explain that “progressive” and “liberal” are not the same concepts.
“Liberal” implies that we are more open than closed, that we are interested in being inclusive, that we think there are many interpretations of religious wisdom, and that people are basically good.
We then launched into a lengthy discussion of the implications of such an understanding of “liberal” when applied to religion. It felt to me as if several of the others at the table were looking out through windows they didn’t even know existed, and that such voyeurism of alternatives was both enticing and scary.
“So,” Mallory finally asked, “what about the progressive part?”
“Progressive” indicates, I told them, that we understand any future worth having will necessarily be different from both the past and the present, that past victories won for a more liberal society should serve not as honors to be memorialized but rather as reminders of how much is left to be done, that there is never a time to rest on laurels or think a new Eden has been achieved.
Gino jumped in, “for example.”
I told them about our journey from being a religion like so many others in which congregations had supported segregation, to being an active part of the Civil Rights movement, through our own struggles with meaningful racial empowerment, to current involvement with issues of racial profiling and immigration.
I told them about our journey from being a religion like so many others in which homosexuality was a whispered reality, to welcoming ministers and then members in being open and honest about their sexuality, to creating a landmark sexuality education curriculum, to current involvement with issues of transgender identity.
And then I reminded them of the “progressive” element – we have always been on a journey: that we are called to always look ahead to where the journey can lead us next. Beyond past hurts, beyond historic wrongs, beyond well-meaning but misguided choices, beyond triumphs even, we are called to what is next.
“Wow, that sounds hard!” was all Danny could say.
“Hard, yes!” I replied, “But for us religion is never intended to be easy, or simple, or cookie-cutter. It is intended to be challenging and therefore rewarding.”
Soon the dinner in the diner was over . . . but the next morning as I enjoyed breakfast with some other strangers I overheard Gino and Mallory talking, and I heard the phrase “progressive liberal” and I smiled.
From the May 2015 edition of the Northeast Breeze,
Rev. CJ McGregor, proudly serving the congregation in North Palm Beach, FL
I’m sitting in my favorite spot in a tiny French restaurant. In front of me are two patrons speaking Parisian French. I understand a few words, very few, having a French Canadian grandmother. Beside me are two fifty-something women who are obvious colleagues. I overheard religious language so naturally my interest peaked. They were leaders of the local
Catholic diocese responsible for a group of Catholic Churches in the area.
Between my cafe au lait and salade de la Constance, I was privy to venomous conversation. Worse than my eavesdropping was my discovery that parishes were being pitted against one another, receiving the news that they are not good enough because their Holy Thursday was not up to snuff and as good as that of the church across town, personal attacks on leaders, all brought together with the ugly bow of insular thinking. Clearly it was a strategy based on competitiveness used to help the individual parish churches become, bigger, better and, let’s face it, more lucrative. These churches are encouraged to operate alone and to try to create separate lands versus agreeing to meet to walk together as in Amos 3:3. Honestly, before we explore what this might mean for us and how we shape our collective congregational life, let us put down the stones.
The flu has visited me three times in the last year. I’ve been thinking about how many times I introduce myself each day and how many handshakes that involves and how this likely leads to three bouts of the flu. I’ve done intense and intellectual work related to the underbelly of the friendly handshake and luckily, for the sake of our ministry, have considered how all of this handshaking brings many innovative and progressive voices and ideas into my life and the lives of those I serve in the sometimes complicated Deep South. Outstretched hand to outstretched hand, walking together in collaboration, fellowship, and the faith that will save us, and mostly hands outside of my UU catchment area.
Last week I sat in the sanctuary of our Orlando congregation and witnessed our district’s decision to support the move toward regionalization. I arrived to Florida from ministry in the north, engaging ministry within the Southern Region and all that piloting the regionalization model entailed. I was fascinated and relieved. It made sense to me. Now do I not only have an eternal tan but an appreciation for how regional living is less knotty, individualistic, and more informed about the realities of who and how we need to be to be effectual in our UU evangelization. It’s the South, y’all. Embrace the word.
Our reality is that we can no longer change the world by acting in small decentralized bands. This is why interfaith work is so important to us today. None of us can do it alone. Not individual, not congregation, not district, not region, not denomination. We are required to structure ourselves and work together in new ways with new people. Our influence is strengthened by regionalization and all it has to offer. Simply consider the oddly colored yellow T-shirt phenomenon.
Consider our Universalist history to understand decentralization. I often hear new and potential members being told the story of the Unitarians and Universalists merging because they had theology in common. That’s not the whole truth. Yes, both shared some theological and social commonalities, but Unitarianism was better organized and privileged and Universalism was dying because of their decentralized structure of many independent Conferences. Universalism was unsuccessful in making an increased impact and couldn’t financially, and otherwise, afford to be insular in their work. Each Conference committed to the same mission but was ineffective in the strength of witness, growth, efficiencies and the responsible use of resources and their people. History repeats itself.
How shall we live together? Should we expect to forsake the faith the world needs for the sake of holding on to a faith that is easily reduced to fervent individuality trumping covenant? No, we are greater than that. We can no longer afford the illusion that we do not operate in [see next page] [continued from previous page] vacuums, though we easily convince ourselves otherwise. All roads of holding individuality, conscious or not, over greater community lead us to insignificant places. Regionalization requires us to reroute, just as the Universalists wisely did.
Let us remind ourselves of the wisdom of the great innovators and community builders crafting a timeless covenant that could serve us today as it did centuries ago. Let us continue building and stretching, gaining a deeper understanding of the realities of growing our faith that require us to think, live, and support one another differently. Let us hold one another in care as we navigate change, difference, and unknown yet faithful paths.
From the January 2015 edition of the Northeast Breeze, Rev. Janet Onnie, Minister, Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Marion County
Our family Thanksgiving meal was interrupted this year. This is not a new thing. Some years there are heated discussions about politics. For a couple of years I was grilled about my call to ministry. There’s always someone concerned about the correct pedigree of the turkey. But generally we get our flow back – fueled by my sister’s cranberry-vodka punch. This year was different because Gabriel Kilmer Roccoforte decided to enter the world just as we sat down for dinner.
The birth of a child usually gives pause to whatever is the topic of the moment. This was a particularly poignant time for us because my niece and her partner had gone to great lengths to become parents. They prepared for the birth with an intensity most often seen in a space launch. Gifts and expressions of good wishes poured in. Gabe was born healthy, and everyone is doing fine. So why is this event so poignant?
My niece and her partner are professional people, successful in their respective careers and well respected in their communities. They have created a lovely home, have marvelous friends, and are happily married. Their relationship is the model for ‘family values,’ but it is not recognized by the state because they are both women. My niece has no civil rights to her son.
My interest in marriage equality is personal. So I am perhaps more reactive than I should be to the latest stall in granting marriage licenses to same gender couples. I am angry. I am angry with the law being used to perpetuate injustice. The congregation I serve is excited about hosting and witnessing these marriages. We are eager to waive the usual costs and provide celebratory cupcakes and flowers. Several couples have contacted us to schedule their personalized ceremony. But as we traveled further and further down this path I became uneasy. Most of these couples are already married, with their status being recognized in more progressive states and countries. The language of traditional wedding ceremonies assumes this is a new relationship. So I’m working in what, for me, is uncharted territory – wanting to affirm the relationship between two people who have lived their commitment to each other while wanting to include an official apology from the state of Florida.
There are other dimensions to the tension between celebration and anger. I have been advised by our community minister, attorney Rev. David Etherington – no slouch in either the legal or theological arena, that there may be legal complications for people whose marriage is legal in one state getting married again in Florida. This might include rights in cases of divorce, death, or child custody. There’s also the dimension of sensitivity to acknowledging a long-standing relationship between two people while navigating the murky waters of church-state separation. I am adamantly opposed to the church imposing policies of the state – or vice versa. But I also believe that behaviors reflect beliefs. Lawmakers are like the rest of us. We tend to behave according to the values that we have learned from our homes, our schools, our life experiences, and our institutions, including our religious institutions. These values are reinforced by our associations. The unique and wonderful thing about Unitarian Universalism is that we are regularly called to examine our beliefs and values, and, if necessary, change our minds and hearts and behaviors to accommodate new understandings.
I don’t know of any Florida Clerks of Court who identify as Unitarian Universalists. The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Marion County holds people from three counties: Marion, Lake, and Sumter. I have spoken with representatives of the Clerk’s office from two of those counties about when they intend to begin issuing marriage licenses to same gender couples. In both cases they have been cowed by the threat of criminal prosecution should they issue such licenses, and are “waiting to hear.” In the meantime Marriage Equality Florida has issued a memo to all the Clerks of Court advising them of costly legal challenges should they not issue said licenses. And so the lines are drawn – again. I have a sense of déjà vu and a memory of people from the Hebrew prophets to the present day asking, “How long?”
In the meantime, a child was born. Parenting – and marriage – is hard enough without the added burden of battling the state for civil rights As Unitarian Universalists we are called to affirm and promote justice, equity and compassion in human relations. Are we doing all we can to make this a reality?
From the December 2014 edition of the Northeast Breeze, Rev. Beth Miller
Here we are again at December, the busy season of beginnings and endings, of darkness and light. It is a month of holiday and holy day celebrations for many of the world’s peoples including: Hanukkah for Jews, Christmas for Christians, Bodhi Day, the day of enlightenment for Buddhists; Gita Jayanti celebrating the birth of the holy book, the Bhagavad Gita for Hindus, and for Earth Centered traditions in the Northern Hemisphere, the Winter Solstice. All of these holy days have something to do with beginnings and endings or darkness and light. Our traditions reach deep into our hearts and touch us deeply.
For this reason, holidays, no matter what our tradition, can be particularly difficult for those who are bereaved. My congregation has had quite a lot of loss in recent months and several members are currently in hospice care. As an organization, we’re in a collective period of mourning.
Bereavement means being deprived of, or having lost, someone precious to us. Grief is how we react in response to that loss. It is a normal and healthy response to bereavement, and it lasts a long time for most of us. Mourning is openly acknowledging our feelings and experiences of grief. In every congregation there are members who are recently bereaved. The grief of those among us who are directly affected as surviving loved ones, those currently suffering, and their caregivers can be particularly acute during the holidays.
Those most intensely grieving sometimes find it too difficult to be present in their faith communities. It is not unusual for people in mourning to stay away from church for a while, especially at significant times like birthdays, anniversaries, and the holidays. Such times make the bereaved even more painfully aware of the terrible hole in their hearts. We can reach out and let people know we care, but we also need to be understanding and allow people to do what is best for them.
If you are grieving and finding this holiday time particularly difficult, I encourage you to think intentionally about how you’re going to cope. Here are some possibilities. Think about what you most miss during this time of year and find fitting ways to honor the memory of your loved one. This may be painful, but it is also healing. Be open and honest with yourself, your family and friends about what you need right now. Let those who care about you be there for you. Your friends at church understand if you need time apart, but please know you don’t have to put on a brave face for them. If you need to stay away, okay, but don’t isolate yourself out of the idea that you have to hide your feelings. Remember the line from our hymn, “Here We Have Gathered” (#360) that goes: We who now gather know each other’s pain; Kindness can heal us, as we give we gain; Sing now in friendship, this our heart’s own song.
Most of our congregations are pretty amazing at being there for their members. Church folks know how to make room for one another’s grief and pain. As George O’Dell’s reading (#468) in our hymnal begins: We need one another when we mourn and would be comforted.
This is just a gentle reminder that many of us are mourning and need support during this busy holiday season. We can help each other make it through the holidays and perhaps find some comfort, and possibly even joy, amidst the season with all its festivities..
WE NEED ONE ANOTHER.
From the October 2014 edition of the Northeast Breeze, Rev. Kathy Schmitz
The images of lighthouses in the August issue of the NE Breeze brought to mind the importance of mission. A lighthouse is a navigational aid. The beacon of light it sends out helps to guide ships away from dangers and toward their desired destination. A functional mission guides a congregation in much the same way that a functional lighthouse guides a ship.
A few years back, I served a congregation in a coastal community south of Boston. The area, often symbolized by a lighthouse, was known as “The South Shore.”
When I arrived, the congregation was struggling for a number of reasons. Wondering how I might be helpful, conversations produced a description of the congregation as “a home for misfits and malcontents.” I learned over time that this was, in part, an accurate description of the congregation’s self-understanding.
I have a special place in my heart for misfits and malcontents, but I couldn’t help wondering if the congregation might have a larger calling. We talked about it. As time went on, things began to shift. Eventually, if one asked a member about the congregation, they would be likely to describe it as “a beacon of liberal religion on Boston’s South Shore.” Oh, they still loved their misfits and malcontents but they now had a larger sense of identity. They knew that our faith can be a beacon for those in need, steering them away from danger. They knew that our tradition can guide people to a home they didn’t even know they had.
Our mission, our understanding of our purpose and our reason for being, matters. This is a matter worthy of our reflection – at the individual level, the congregational level, the national level, and even the human level. How do we set our individual priorities and what do the commitments we make indicate about our understanding of our personal sense of mission? Does it matter that our congregations exist? Why? To whom? What are the best values of America and are they really what we are sharing with the world? What does it mean to be human – a citizen of the world?
These questions matter. I believe that Unitarian Universalism saves lives. It matters that our lights shine out into the world. So, I ask you, what kind of beacon is your congregation? What kind of beacon is your life?
Rev. Kathy Schmitz was ordained in 1999 and has been serving the First Unitarian Church of Orlando since 2010. She has served congregations in Massachusetts, Texas, and Miami.
From the Septmber 2014 edition of the Northeast Breeze, Rev. Craig C. Roshaven
Have you ever heard of a commonplace book? A commonplace book is a collection of passages that particularly appeal to you from poetry, prose, and scripture and collecting them in one journal. This used to be a common practice in the 18th and 19th century.
I created my own commonplace book when I first learned of it in 1996. It contains poems by e.e. cummings, Adrienne Rich and May Sarton, scripture ranging from the Wisdom of Solomon to an adaption of Psalm 90, to readings from ministers from the 18th to the 20th century. I have memorized many of the readings in it and I feel that doing so has enriched and deepened my inner life.
What would you put in your commonplace book? What readings, poetry and prose might you find worth recording and turning to time and time again? I encourage you to create your own collection. It doesn’t need to be elaborate or organized. It certainly doesn’t need to be on the web! My collection of meaningful readings is just for me. I’ve never felt a need to share it with anyone, though, I assure you, if you were to attend Sunday morning worship services that I lead, you would hear readings from the commonplace book with some regularity.
I also keep a separate collection of comics and cartoons that make me laugh. Sometimes, when I need a few laughs, I pull it out. It may not solve any of my problems but at least it helps lighten my spirit.
Here’s one of my favorite readings in my commonplace book. It’s by my colleague, the Rev. Arvid Straube.
The Continuing Epiphany
Within this bitter century, while smoke choked the air and blood ran down,
we had thought the Spirit buried under the debris of despair.
But God is alive: The Spirit moves in green growing things.
Within a dark consciousness lulled by dreams of power and destruction,
we had thought the light of wisdom extinguished.
But God is alive: And wisdom is rekindled in luminous minds.
In our arrogance we had faltered and fallen, pursuing idolatrous goals.
But God is alive: And vision inspires men and women anew.
In our hearts we rejoice that the Spirit abides,
Wisdom shines, and Vision beckons again.
God is alive: Hope is reborn.
From the July 2014 edition of the Northeast Breeze, Rev. Scott W. Alexander, senior minister, UU Fellowship of Vero Beach
There has been a great deal of excited “buzz” within the UUA recently about the need for us as a religious movement to change “how we do church,” looking for ways to creatively “move beyond” the old, comfortable paradigm of “brick and mortar” congregations creating new and innovative religious and spiritual “platforms” that will be better at engaging younger American generations. I am very pleased that – beginning with our UUA President Peter Morales – our movement is taking the steady decline of the traditional church seriously.
The national data is very clear…all across America younger Americans are increasingly staying away from local “brick and mortar” congregations, looking instead to social media and the internet – and other 21st century platforms – for spiritual conversation and nourishment. I believe that Unitarian Universalism – if it is to remain a healthy and vigorous faith tradition – must be radically open to the many ways that it is now possible to “take our faith beyond our walls.” But, at the same time, we must also never minimize or forget the powerful benefits of old fashioned “gathered” congregations. We must avoid, as they say, throwing the baby out with the bath water.
For example, there is a whole raft of recent studies which conclude that religious people – and by this they mean people who regularly participate in a local gathered congregation – are happier, healthier (and live longer!) than those who don’t.
First, being “a church person” contributes to your physical health. In a recent New York Times article, T. M. Luhrmann writes, “One of the most striking scientific discoveries about religion in recent years is that going to church weekly is good for you [and your health].” Studies show that being active in a congregation boosts the immune system, decreases blood pressure, lessens the likelihood of depression or suicidal thoughts…and may add years to your life – by as much (one national study concludes) as seven to 14 years! And even more intriguing than these significant health findings are the recent and widespread findings that being a part of a religious congregation actually makes you a happier and more contented person.
What can explain this positive effect church has on one’s emotional state? Psychologist Clay Routledge reports that “A number of studies really seem to suggest that the magic ingredient in religion that provides happiness is social connectedness. Though people, especially in individualistic nations like the United States, talk about religion as an internal or personal belief system, the truth is that religion is rarely successfully done in solitude. Instead, religion is typically a social activity and research indicates that social ties are one of the most important contributors to happiness…religious people report higher levels of social support and higher levels of social support lead to higher levels of psychological well-being…having a rich social network and feeling social values are key ingredients to finding happiness. Religious people are happier (on average) than non-religious people…but the key variable does not appear to be religion itself…it is [rather] the social connections that religious life facilitates that make people happy.” And another psychologist concludes that attending religious services regularly and having close friends in the congregation are the key to having a happier, more satisfying life.
All this is very good news for those of us who believe – as I passionately do – in the value and power and joy of people regularly coming together (in one special place…at one special time – as our congregations do on Sundays) to do the work of religion and the spirit. Study after study confirms that being a part of a local, face-to-face, brick-and-mortar has the power to bring you much greater happiness and contentment in your living.
So, sure, as a religious movement, let’s explore other more “remote” spiritual “platforms” and “institutional configurations.” But at the same time, let’s continue to practice Unitarian Universalism, face-to-face, in interactive local congregations – where we can truly know and support one another and foster greater happiness and well-being.
– Rev. Scott W. Alexander, senior minister, UU Fellowship of Vero Beach