Thursday, November 21, 2013

A Lasting Witness

I did something remarkable yesterday.  I help a woman, her husband, and her children grieve the death of her mother.  The woman had lived to the age of 101, and we were scattering her ashes in our Remembrance Garden.

That, in itself, is actually not that remarkable.  That is, after all, what the Remembrance Garden is for.  If you've never spent any time there, do.  It's a lovely place, with its beautiful plantings, its koi pond, and its walls adorned by the names of members who have joined the Great Cloud of Witness.  Sit there for a moment, on one of the two wooden benches, and feel the love.  It's palpable.

So scattering ashes in the Remembrance Garden is not all that remarkable a thing.  But if you ever find yourself thinking that this community exists only in the present, that it consists of what we're doing here and now, listen to what Paul Harvey liked to call, "the rest of the story."

The woman I was ministering to had lived here in Charlottesville in the mid 60s while going to Mary Baldwin College.  She moved away for a time, but was back in the mid 70s.  Her second son was born here.  She met her husband in C'ville, and they married . . . right here at TJMC.  Her mother had moved here from Florida to help her daughter and her family.  And even when they all moved to Arkansas, the mother continued to live in Charlottesville, and continued to attend TJMC.

In 1999 the mother, whose name was Marjorie, had a small stroke.  The daughter, who by this time was living in Texas, convinced her mom to move down there with them.  And that's where she was when she died on November 20th, at the age of 101.

What's remarkable is that this family wanted to come and have their matriarch's ashes scattered here.  The daughter hadn't  been here in over twenty years; Marjorie herself hadn't been here in well over a decade.  One grandson is now living in New York; the other in England.  Yet all agreed that it was here that they wanted to lay her to rest.  (And the daughter and her husband told me that they'd like to come here too when their days are through.)

There was a community here back then, at the top of Rugby Road, that gave that family such a sense of "home" that it was here they wanted to return.  And what we do here today may not be fully appreciated until twenty, or thirty, or fifty years hence.  We are part of a river, flowing from the past into an unknown and unknowable future.  What we can do now, as they did then, is make the best of what we have be given so that it'll be here for those to come.


Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Mid-Week Worship

Each Wednesday there has been a mid-week worship at 11:45 am.  When the weather permits, it is held outside at our beautiful labyrinth.  As the weather gets colder some may prefer not to brave the elements, yet that doesn't mean you need to write off this opportunity to add a worshipful time to your week.
Beginning this week, we'll have an option to engage worshipfully within the sanctuary, to know it as the holy space it is on a time other than Sunday mornings.
Folks can walk the labyrinth first if they like, or spend all of their time in the sanctuary.  Either way, you're encouraged to walk  through the church’s Remembrance Garden. You might like to pause for some time in this space.
Beyond the Remembrance Garden, you are invited to enter the sanctuary through the front doors (the rugby Road doors) of the church.
Once inside, please do what you need to do to make the sanctuary and this time yours.  Take your coat off and let your body, mind, heart and spirit settle.

  • Sitting in a pew, on the floor, on the chancel, on a meditation bench, in the balcony… perhaps moving and sitting in more than one spot.  Lay down on the floor if you like.  Stretch. Do yoga.  Practice fully embodying yourself and this space.
  • Use your journal if you brought one. There is also paper and pencil available on the chancel.  
  •  Light candles of Hope and Remembrance.
  • Write in the Sands of Atonement and Forgiveness—and as you release what is binding you, wipe the sands clean.
  • Use the aisles of the sanctuary for walking and experience an indoor walking meditation.
  • Use the finger labyrinths for meditation.  Try them with your eyes closed, your non dominate hand, using both hands at the same time on the double labyrinths.
  • Use the readings and meditations provided for reflection and deepening or find your own in the Hymnal.
  • Explore the altar, smell the flowers, let yourself take in all this beautiful space has to offer.
And when you are ready, say a prayer of thanks and gratitude and go about your day feeling held by and connected to the Spirit of Love that sustains us all.
"In the name of all that's holy, and in all the Holy Names that have ever been uttered (and those not even yet imagined), we say:  Blessed Be, Namaste, Asalaam Alaikum, Ashé, Shalom, and Amen."

Monday, November 18, 2013

Thanksgiving in a Nation of Immigrants

In preparation for yesterday's service, Worship Weaver Mike Ludwick wrote a longer "exploration" than was shared in the sanctuary.  Time does not always allow for everything we'd like to include.  Here, then, is the larger context for the thoughts he shared:

“Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family. Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.” -- Jane Howard, "Families"

We’ve been hearing this quote a lot this month. It’s a good one. It highlights the power of what people coming together can do for each other. We all want to feel that we have a place within a larger community. We all want to belong.
Just like any power, though, the power of clan, network, tribe, family (or church as Rev. Wik likes to add) can be used in harmful ways also. Once people identify themselves with a particular group, there is a possibility over over-identification with the group, an allegiance to the group above all others.  It can happen with families, ethnicities, political parties, nations, churches. We’ve heard about “the old boys network” limiting the rise of women in the workplace. The term “The Family” itself can conjure up images of a network of organized crime or gangs that do protect the members of the group, but for rather unsavory purposes. Animosity, feuds, and wars have pitted one group against another.  These groups are often used to obtain and maintain power. Surely we need some qualifiers.
American history, and I suppose world history, is fraught with tales of clans and tribes seeking power and wealth. And once power and wealth are achieved, attempts are made to expand or at least maintain that level of power and wealth. Europeans came to the Americas, already discovered by native peoples, and began to colonize. The Europeans were immigrants to a land, new to them. Waves of immigration continued for hundreds of years, forced immigration for some, voluntary for others. I’ve been fascinated scouring through finding ancestors who traveled from Italy, France and Lithuania to come to America. My wife Suzanne and I both seem to have ancestors from Alsace, France. Time for a visit! J

The song “Lady of the Harbor” (above) does a bit of romanticizing about earlier waves of immigration. Similarly for those of you who remember Schoolhouse Rock (segments between Saturday morning cartoons in the 70’s) there was a song about immigration called “The Great American Melting Pot”(at the end of this post) which still makes me cry to this day. With either of these songs one would never think that previous immigrants were feared, despised or discriminated against because of their foreign ways and culture. You would think that all were welcomed and melted right in. But anti-immigrant sentiment has been a staple throughout our history. “These people are not of our clan, or our tribe, or our family, or even our church and therefore they must be feared and distrusted. And if enough of them arrive and then vote they might even gain power over us, the dominant tribe, attempting to conserve power.” “Lady of the Harbor”, though, does recognize our current struggle with immigration and warns us about falling into our fears and turning our backs against the Lady of the Harbor, who today might be called the “Lady of the Desert”.
UUs have been in the forefront of immigration reform, engaging in non-violent civil disobedience, advocating for more compassionate policies that don’t separate family members from one another, such as the Dream Act, that allows children of immigrants who were brought to America to remain here. At times some in our movement have been highly critical of those who oppose our views. It may be easy for us, far from those in the American Southwest, to judge those who have seen violence and fear for their security due to illegal immigration. A drug cartel might be type of clan or tribe, but it is hard to argue it is one we need. Those people closest to the situation have legitimate concerns, even if the language some have used about “drug running Mexicans” with “cantaloupe-size calves” is hateful to us.
So what are we to do? John Lennon said, “Imagine there no countries…” should all the borders be completely open? Or should we follow the advice of others and build more walls and fences to lock down the borders, fill up the jails and continue mass deportations that are occurring in this administration?  Or are there other ways to deal with this issue? Whitman calls us to wish good will to all people and we do. We believe that every person has inherent worth and dignity. But does everyone have the right to come to America? What is just?
Family and immigration issues were front and center last Sunday when I had the pleasure of hanging out with our young adult group. I played “Lady of the Harbor” for them and we had a really great discussion. I brought up the dichotomy between the romanticized ideas of earlier waves of immigration referenced in the song and the notion that today we face decisions about locking down borders and filling up jails, when really anti-immigrant sentiment has been a staple throughout American history. The young adults had a lot to say. They spoke about how some of the policies of our country have led to economic situations in other countries that have encouraged migration.
About how closed borders make it difficult for those who want to be migrant laborers: those who want to work here for a time, and then go home.
About how the prison-industrial complex has a vested interest in thwarting reform and keeping people in jail, to keep their profits up.
About how the US really has no interest in the “huddled masses” anymore, as shown by the differences in immigration experiences between those with wealth and high-level skills, and those without.
About how European immigration devastated the Native American population.
About how people remember Ellis Island, but tend to forget Sullivan’s Island, the port in Charleston, South Carolina where about 40% of the enslaved Africans who came to British North America experienced forced migration.
All very compelling points… and then what some shared was much closer to home and personal than I expected.
One person mentioned several family members who had actually been deported and how in order to help prove their parents were really married--and not just married in order to stay in the US—they broke open boxes of their family photos and made a photo album specifically for the officers from the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
One person related the fact that once their student visa is up, there is very little prospect of them being able to stay here because a prospective employer would have to prove there were no Americans able to fill the position.
Our discussion ended with some thoughts that while “locking down borders and filling up jails” is not the right answer, neither is completely open borders: there must be some practical solutions in between.
As it is now, people and families are suffering.
Our UU values also lead us to the use of the small “d” democratic process to come up with solutions and make these decisions. But what seems to be happening in America is that the clans, the tribes, the parties are trying to limit the ability of others to vote which violates democratic principles in order to hold on to power. Voter “integrity” laws around the nation are widely known to be purposely constructed to make it more difficult for minorities, students and low-income people to vote. In Pasadena, Texas the eight-member council elected by ward, now has two Hispanic members of the council. In an attempt to limit more Hispanic representation, the town plans to reduce the number of wards to six and elect two members “at-large”. Since the non-hispanic population is larger than the Hispanic population, those at-large members are more likely to be non-hispanic.  Nationally, we may have a significant majority of American who want comprehensive immigration reform, but because of the way congressional districts are drawn to protect incumbents by creating safe districts for both political parties and thus limiting the need to compromise, the will of the majority can be thwarted. Family, clan, party, religion, can bring people together, but they can also divide us and prevent progress.
In the Christian tradition, Jesus is said to have had some rather unconventional ideas about family. He is quoted as saying: “If any come to me and do not hate their own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—they cannot be my disciples.” Pretty harsh words, particularly in a time and society where, according to the Jesus Seminar scholars, a person had no existence apart from ties to blood relatives, especially parents. The same scholars indicate these words from the gospels of Luke and Thomas, which appear in also in Matthew though tempered somewhat, likely come from Jesus. They maintain that “for Jesus, family ties faded into insignificance in relation to God’s imperial rule, which he regarded as the fundamental claim on human loyalty.” In other words, your values, should trump your family. If your clan, network, tribe, or family, is leading you astray from your highest ideals and values, then maybe you should reevaluate those relationships, perhaps even sever them.
Fortunately for us, as a church family in this religion called Unitarian Universalism, we are bound together by our values. (The word “religion” itself is derived from the Latin root “religare”—to bind together). Our values brought us here and they are the ties that bind us here, as are the relationships we form while here. There is no division between our values and this little clan of ours, even if our opinions, beliefs and journeys differ. Of course, we don’t always live up to those values, but at least we largely agree on them. May these values continue to guide us and “shine on” as we struggle for peace, justice and compassionate love in our families, in our church, in our community, in our nation, and in our world. Blessed be.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Our Dinner With István

Last night about thirty TJMers got together in the Social Hall for a delicious dinner.  We'd come together because we'd all been involved, in one way or another, with the visit this August of the Rev. István Török, his wife Melinda, and their daughter Karola.  The Töröks are all safely back in Transylvania (Romania) today, but our relationship with their family, and with the Unitarian Church in Oltheviz, most certainly continues.

And, so, the thirty of us shared dinner, reminisced about the visit, and then began to brainstorm ways to build on, and deepen, the connections that were made this summer.  We talked about live-streaming a shared worship service with them, or simply having István participate in one of our services (or me in one of theirs) via Skype.  We talked about having our choir sing, virtually, in their sanctuary.
But we also talked about real visits, as well.  Many congregations have had great success sending their choir on a performance tour of Unitarian Churches in Romania.  (Including, of course, their own partner church.)  And youth visits!  Oh the power of a such a pilgrimage on our youth.  (And the city of Kolasvár just won the right to host a gathering of European Unitarian youth in August 2015!  Wouldn't that be an amazing thing to participate in?)
And we could ask them to film a "virtual tour" of Oltheviz which they could share with us, and we could do one for them.  And István and I could collaborate on an Adult Faith Development program about Unitarianism's historic roots in Transylvania and how those roots have been nurtured and have developed in their native soil.
And these are just a few of the ideas we generated!  (There was a lot of energy in this discussion.)
There was a bittersweet moment -- when we presented Jean Sorrells-Jones (and her husband George) -- with a cake as a way of saying "thank you" for all she's done for our relationship with Oltheviz and to say "farewell" as they prepare to move to New Mexico to be with family.
But by far the highlight of the evening was when István himself appeared on our Social Hall wall, even thought it was nearly 2:00 am in Oltheviz!  He'd stayed awake so that he could Skype with us and help us remember that this is a living relationship.  It was so nice to hear his sweet, gentle voice again, and to see the delight and love in his eyes when he saw again the friends he'd made in Charlottesville.
We may be separated by an ocean, and by language and culture, but we are most definitely united in love.  What a wonderful night.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Color of Fear

Last evening a group of eight of us met to watch the film The Color of Fear.  This groundbreaking documentary follows eight men -- two African Americans, two Asian Americans, two European Americans, and two Mexican Americans -- as they spend a weekend together discussing issues of race.  It is raw, honest, and for many it's been revelatory.  Filmed in 1993, and released in 1995, these conversations are, unfortunately, timeless.  Some of the details have certainly changed in the ensuing years -- rather than lifting up Colin Powell as a sign there is no racism today the man who did so would today no doubt lift up President Obama -- but the underlying truth of the experiences being expressed and explored has not changed.

Nor has the need for European Americans to be exposed to this kind of conversation.  All too often we white folk are able to choose whether or not we're going to think about race, and whether or not we're going to engage with people of color on any real level.  For people of color, unfortunately, the reverse is not true.  This is one of the fundamental differences that whites so often overlook -- our ability not to deal with race and racism if we don't want to.

I remember when I first saw the film.  One of the moments that stood out for me -- and still strikes me -- is when Victor, one of the African American men, asks David, one of the European Americans, if he can't see that it means something that he, David, has no way of answering the question of what it means to be white.  White = human.  Yet in our discussion last night we noted that in this equation white = generic human, a human devoid of specificities.  In other words, not a whole person at all.

All of the people present last evening expressed a desire to continue meeting and talking, and I'm now looking at my and the church's schedules to see how to accommodate this desire.  (We're also likely going to find another date -- and perhaps a time during the day rather than at night -- to show the movie again.)  This kind of work is exactly what our Undoing Racism efforts were all about, and a part of what I've been calling The Jefferson Legacies Initiative.

Good things, important things, are happening here every day. 


PS -- if you're interested in learning more about the film, there is a FaceBook page dedicated to it formed, I believe, and moderated by one of the film's participants.  Check it out.