Friday, April 25, 2014

Maybe you've heard about a group called "UUppity Women," and have wondered just what it could be.  UUppities has pulled the women of this congregation together and served our congregation for many years. UUppities helped connect women to church events and activities and took the lead role in organizing the receptions after memorial services, and our annual Elder Dinner (which celebrates members of our community who are 70 or older). Additionally, UUppities has always held meetings two nights a month as an opportunity for women to check in and exchange information about skills and interests. In recent years however, attendance at these night meetings declined and eventually we stopped holding them but the mission of uniting women in service of our church continues.

Since the name, UUppities, doesn’t clearly explain this mission of connecting women to service opportunities, the Community Life Council has voted to approve a new name, UU Women's Network. This group will continue to lead the Elder Dinner, manage the Memorial Receptions and create the Christmas decorations just as UUppities has always done. The UU Women's Network will also mobilize support for other activities. Long time UUppities and new members will be notified of opportunities to participate in and support a variety of church activities as well as other activities and causes that are of interest to members and which support our UU principles. UU Women's Network members can choose to participate in any of the events or activities that have personal meaning and use their skills. Working together with the UU Women's Network is an ideal way to meet and bond with other TJMC women. If, in the future, women of the community are looking to restart a program of regular meetings, this can easily be done as a part of the UU Women’s Network or under the name of UUppities.

Please feel free to contact the church office if you have any questions or comments. Thanks to all the women who have participated over the years in all these church activities. Through the UU Women's Network interested women will continue to be notified of opportunities to volunteer in church activities. Additionally, if there are particular causes or interests that represent UU principles which you would like to see addressed or shared, we can let other women know through the UU Women's Network.

It's interesting ... some people always mourn the passing of a beloved institution.  Yet the creation of the UU Women's Network is not the end of UUppities, but its transformation.

Pax tecum,


Wednesday, April 23, 2014

A Beautiful Bouquet of Beloved Community

Norbert Fabián Čapek, the handsome gentleman to the left, is known as the founder of the modern Unitarian Church in the Czech Republic. 

Čapek was born in 1870 into a Roman Catholic family in southern Bohemia. As a young boy he dreamed of joining the priesthood, but by the age of 18 he'd grown disillusioned with the church and left Catholicism.  Sound familiar?

But Čapek didn't become a Unitarian.  He joined the Baptist church and was ordained a minister, traveling widely as an evangelist.  During these travels he was influenced by the free Christianity and the Moravian Brotherhood, and he became increasingly liberal in his religious and political views.  His writing eventually attracted the wrong kind of attention from the German authorities, and he, his wife, Marie, and their eight children fled to the United States. It was 1914 and he was forty-four years old.

Soon after coming to the U.S., Marie died, and Norbert met and married a woman named Mája Oktavec.  During his time here, Čapek underwent two trials for heresy, and he eventually resigned as a Baptist minister in 1919. The Čapek's discovered Unitarianism, and in 1921 they joined the First Unitarian Church of Essex County (Orange, New Jersey). The couple decided to return to Prague so that they could spread their newfound faith in their homeland.

The congregation they formed was called the Liberal Religious Fellowship, and it grew rapidly.  This Czech Unitarian congregation would be familiar to many modern Unitarian Universalists -- their worship services generally consisted of lectures; the minister didn't robe; and the congregation eschewed rituals, formal prayers, the singing of hymns, and the meeting space was quite simple. Yet some members, and perhaps the minister himself, felt that the congregation lacked a spiritual dimension. Čapek responded, in June of 1923, by creating the Flower Celebration (better known today as "Flower Communion").  Each member brought a flower to the church, and Čapek recommended picking the flowers from the hillsides on the way to church. At the end of the service, each would take home a different flower. This symbolized the uniqueness of each individual, and the coming together in communion to share this uniqueness.  Twenty years after bringing Unitarianism to Prague, the congregation the Čapeks had formed had 3,200 members and was the largest Unitarian Church in the world.

When World War II broke out the Čapek's were invited to return to the United States, but Norbert chose to stay at home.  His wife Maja, who had since been ordained herself, did go to the U.S. in 1939 to help raise funds for relief efforts.  While here she served as minister of the North Unitarian Church in Bedford, Massachusetts.  In March of 1941, Čapek and one of his daughters were arrested by the Gestapo and sent to Dachau, where he was tortured and killed with poison gas.  One history says,
"His was a sun-drenched, pre-Holocaust faith, one that sustained thousands of his compatriots during the darkness of Nazi occupation, 1939-45. His faith enabled him to endure his own martyrdom with an equanimity and heroism confirmed by survivors of the concentration camp in Dachau who knew him there."
It was Maja who introduced the Flower Celebration to American Unitarians, and today it is one of the most widely celebrated events among Unitarian Universalists world-wide.

We will be celebrating Flower Communion this coming Sunday, April 27th, as part of our Earth Day celebrations.  Please bring a flower -- or more than one! -- to put in the vases at the front of the sanctuary as you come in.  At the end of the service everyone will be invited to take home another's flower, so that we, too, might honor how a bunch of unique individuals can create a beautiful bouquet of community.

See you Sunday ...

Pax tecum,


Tuesday, April 15, 2014

What's In a Name?

Thomas Jefferson, 3rd President of the US;
primary author of the Declaration of Independence
Isaac (Granger) Jefferson, one of the roughly 600 women,
children, and men Jefferson "owned;" master blacksmith

Last night a small but eager group met in our Sanctuary for an open conversation titled, "What's in a Name?"  This discussion was sponsored by our Adult Faith Development program, and was a part of our Thomas Jefferson Legacies Initiative.  Under this initiative we have held book and film discussions, coordinated a trip to the Smithsonian/Monticello exhibit in DC on Jefferson and slavery, and have created the exhibit currently on display in our foyer.  And last night we gathered to explore the seemingly perennial question -- should we, or shouldn't we, change the name of our faith community?

The parameters were clear -- we were not making any decisions.  We were not trying to come up with any definitive answer to the question.  We were not out to convince or convert one another.  We were, instead, trying to "stir the pot," to keep the conversation alive, to wrestle with the paradoxes in the man, with being a liberal faith community being named after him, and with the present-day challenges to creating a truly welcoming, multicultural, anti-oppression congregation.

Our process was equally clearly laid out.  First we had an overview of the history of how we got to this place.  We remembered that the American Unitarian Association (one of the forerunners of our current UUA) engaged in a national fundraising campaign to help us build our building precisely in order to have a congregation in Charlottesville that would be a memorial to Jefferson.  (He did, after all, write those stirring words, "all men are created equal" which have been a touchstone for efforts to expand the definition of who is "created equal" ever since; he wrote the Virginia Statue for Religious Freedom, which is one of our Unitarian Universalist hallmarks; and he even said some good things in his writings about Unitarianism!)

We noted, too, that TJMC has long been involved in efforts to address racism:  the first integrated preschool in Charlottesville was started here and we refused to open our doors for a private white school during the time of "massive resistance."  Our minister at the time, the Rev. Roy Jones, attended the march in Selma. More recently members of our congregation were involved in the creation of the African American Teaching Fellows program, Charlottesville's Dialogue on Race,  and we've had our own Undoing Racism Committee that was active for many years doing the important work of raising awareness and consciousness of white privilege and the need to go beyond "not being racist" to being proactively "anti-racist."

This is a seriously truncated version of the history we discussed last night, and even that was more of a "highlights reel" than an exhaustive retelling, but we had other work to do!  We then commenced to brainstorm in five distinct yet interrelated areas:
  1. Positives about retaining our current name;
  2. Negatives to keeping our name as it is;
  3. Positives about changing our name;
  4. Negatives to changing the name; and
  5. Ideas about what we might change our name to should we decide to do so.

It was, as you can no doubt imagine, an interesting evening (to say the least).  Many of the negatives to one path of action were repeated in the positives for the other direction, and many of the things brought up have been said many times before.  (This isn't the first time this idea has been floated -- it's even been seriously considered as an action item for the congregation, rather than as the hypothetical exercise it was last night.)  Here is a brief summary:
  1. Jefferson contributed to the principles of freedom and liberty -- including religious liberty -- which helped shape our religious tradition and our national character, as well as inspire people and movements around the world.  There is real history in TJMC-UU, important legacies, and our name is a part of that.  Retaining this name could help focus more pointedly us on our responsibility for work of undoing racism and dismantling the systems of white privilege; it could keep the issue(s) in front of us and force us to confront the contradictions that exist today.
  2. In spite of his high rhetoric and ideals, there's no getting around the fact that Jefferson "owned" other people and, as current research is showing, was not the "benevolent master" he has often been made out to be.  Many in the wider Charlottesville community -- whites and people of color both -- find the name off-putting, and because of it will not cross our threshold to discover that "we're not like that."   The dominant culture prevalent in the late 1940s and '50s is not increasingly multicultural reality we live in today, and this name can be seen as tying us to that past through a symbol that no longer carries the same connotations.  (And why, after all, should we be named after any person, as all of us have our flaws?)
  3. Changing the name gives us an opportunity to "reinvent" ourselves for the 21st century.  We can create our own identity, considering what message we want to send to the wider community and world.  For those who struggle with, or even are embarrassed by our current name, a name change would allow more of a sense of pride and less of a felt need to "apologize" or "explain."  It would make a strong statement -- especially here in C'ville! -- about our commitment to anti-racism, anti-oppression, multicultural work, and provide powerful opportunities to educate about reason(s) we would have for making such a switch.
  4. At the same time, a change could be painfully divisive to our congregation and we would almost certainly lose members.  It would be costly in terms of money, time, and effort.  Such a "gesture" might lessen our sense of urgency about working for real changes in the system(s) of oppression.  And at a time when there is growing public recognition of the entire Jefferson "family" -- descendants in all of their racial diversity -- we would lose the ability to use our name to help be a part of that work of reconciliation and healing.  (As, for example, the excellent work of Coming to the Table, in which we have been invited to participate in part because of our name.)
  5. As too new names?  We could look for other words that retain our acronym (e.g., Truth, Justice, Mercy Community).  We might pick up some of the positive themes of Jefferson legacies -- First Amendment Society; the Free Faith Community; the Emancipation Congregation; Liberty Unitarian Universalist Fellowship; etc.  We could make a simple change to Unitarian Universalists of Charlottesville.  (After all, our website is already!)  It was noted, too, that while we're looking at the challenges in our name we might want to consider the hurdles the word "church" puts up for some people, and might consider changing to "Fellowship," "Congregation," "Society," "Community," or the like.

This does not do justice to the wide-ranging, honest, and free-thinking conversation we had, but hopefully it gives a flavor.  Towards the end of the meeting we were all challenged to remember -- and to be more proactive in our efforts! -- that building a truly multicultural community isn't simply a "black & white" matter.  Working to end oppression -- as our Mission Statement declares us to be dedicated -- requires us to work for the end of all oppressions and to be as truly open and welcoming as we claim to want to be.  There are lots of folks who feel excluded in this country, in this city, and even here at TJMC-UU.  The tortured history between Blacks and Whites in the US is not the only area where works needs to be done.

So ... what next?  Look next year for a monthly film discussion series, as well as a series of public talks next April (Jefferson's birth month).  Visit the Thomas Jefferson Legacies Library in the church parlor and challenge yourselves to continue educating yourself.  (And please, if you have resources to donate or recommend, do be in touch!)  Keep looking for ways we are already improving our welcome here (it's good to celebrate our successes!) as well as ways in which we need to expand our vision even more.

Several times last night I said that I believe it's important that we not make a decision until we are actually ready to make one.  At the same time, that isn't an invitation to complacency.  It's a reminder that there's always work to do.


a page from Jefferson's "Farm Book"
in which he listed the names of enslaved people
along with his other "possessions."
A copy of the Statue for Religious Freedom