Tuesday, March 24, 2015

want to have an IMPACT?

Last night people from 27 Charlottesville area faith communities gathered in one place to join together to make a difference in our community.  There were Catholics, Methodists, Seventh Day Adventists, Quakers, Muslims, Jews, Presbyterians, Baptists ... and, of course, Unitarian Universalists.  We were young, old, African American, Latino/a, Euro-American, gay, straight, bi, transgender, liberal, conservative, rich, poor -- we were a representation of Charlottesville!

This was the annual IMPACT rally.  (IMPACT not only describes what we intend to do -- make an impact! -- but it's also an acronym for Interfaith Movement Promoting Action by Congregations Together.)  TJMC has been involved with IMPACT -- deeply so -- since it's inception nine years ago.  Yet there are always many who don't really know what IMPACT is, what it does, and how we -- as individuals and as a congregation -- can be a part of it.

Each fall "listening circles" are arranged in each of those 27 faith communities.  People gather in small groups to discuss the problems they've seen and experienced in our community -- examples of injustices that are crying out for some kind of solution.  The lists that these groups generate are then merged together, and in a truly incredible process representatives of this interfaith body select one issue to focus on for that year.  Research groups interview people and organizations to get a handle on the needs involved and to develop a proposed solution.  In the Spring there is a gathering -- the Nehemiah Action at which local political and civic leaders are asked to make the necessary commitments to create the changes that have been identified.  The Nehemiah Action -- named after the Biblical prophet Nehemiah -- is the largest public gathering in central Virginia and it is a display of the resolve of the collective faith communities in seeking justice.

In past years a need for greater access to public transportation to and from low-income neighborhoods was identified.  IMPACT provided the show of public support that created Sunday bus service on the two most heavily traveled routes (route 7 and the free trolley), night service on route 5, and the creation of a new bus route to serve the county office building and low-income neighborhoods.

Thanks largely to the impact of IMPACT there is now a free dental clinic in Charlottesville with a full-time dentist and dental hygienist. This clinic has served over 6,000 people since its creation and has cut wait times for uninsured people needing dental care by two-thirds.

Last year we studied the need for improved mental health care for children -- Region Ten, for instance, was only providing 16 hours of psychiatric care a month and kids were having to wait up to six months to be seen.  At last year's Nehemiah Action IMPACT received a commitment from Region Ten to develop this year a plan to increase the number of hours of care they offered to 40.  Instead of simply making a plan, they've gone further and hired full-time child psychiatrist, greatly increasing their ability to care for the children of our community.

These are the kinds of things that can happen when more than a thousand Charlottesville residents gather together, looking past the divisions that might divide us to the greater good that needs to be done.  This is what can happen when diverse voices come together as one voice demanding justice.

This year the focus has been on issues of crime and drugs, with the recognition that each year some 3,150 individuals in our regional jail also struggle with addiction to drugs and alcohol.  Additionally, a majority of these inmates are women who are also survivors of sexual abuse and domestic violence.  Yet there is virtually no local treatment options to help recently released inmates with the multiplicity of issues they may be dealing with.  This year our IMPACT community will be advocating for the creation of local residential treatment options (for both men and women).  This will not be a one-year project, but it's one that our community desperately needs.

From the pulpit and in Adult Faith Development programs we talk about the need to get out into the world, as a congregation, and get involved with people different than ourselves.  We say that it's engagement that can change The Other into Family.  IMPACT's Nehemiah Action is without a doubt the most diverse gathering in Charlottesville, and a way for us to truly ... make an impact!

This year's Nehemiah Action will be on Thursday, April 30th at the John Paul Jones Arena, beginning at 6:30.  Won't you show up to demonstrate the we Unitarian Universalists care about our community and are proud to work with others so as to make substantive changes to improve things?

Tickets are available in the Social Hall after Sunday services, and you can also stop by the office any time it's open.

Pax tecum,


Tuesday, March 10, 2015

things we've done -- the thomas jefferson legacies initiative

Following on last Tuesday's outlining of some of the efforts Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist has put into the goal of combating racism, here are some of the more recent things we've done.  Our current work is being done under the umbrella name of "The Thomas Jefferson Legacies Initiative."  Our congregation was named after Thomas Jefferson because of his eloquent expressions of the ideals of freedom -- both religious and political -- and this is something to be proud of and to continue to champion, especially in today's political and social climate.  This is one of his legacies.  On the other hand, as an unrepentant slave holder who expressed odious sentiments about African Americans, he hands down another legacy which, being his "namesake" can inspire us to work against (as a way, perhaps, to "atone").

Our anti-racism/anti-oppression work did not begin with the Thomas Jefferson Legacies Initiative, of course, yet here is a listing of some of the things we have done in the past three years or so:

  • There is now signage in the foyer that encourages people to consider the paradoxes of being named after Jefferson.  (I cannot tell you how many people – long-time members and first time visitors – I’ve seen standing before these signs.  I’ve seen people before and after Sunday services and memorial services, as they are waiting for some program to begin, etc.  I’ve even seen our postal delivery person checking them out!)
  • We hosted showings and discussions of the films 4 Little Girls (about the bombing of the church in Birmingham) and The Color of Fear (an honest conversation among a group of eight men about race).
  • The anti-racism library has been enlarged and moved to a more prominent location – it’s in the Church Parlor around the bust of Jefferson.  There is growing selection of books dealing specifically with the issues around Jefferson and slavery.  (If you haven’t looked at it in a while, check it out!)
  • Our Membership Committee has begun “evaluating what we do and making new plans to welcome visitors and members in ways that will help us become a more anti-racist and multicultural church,” and are looking to coordinate their efforts with others.
  • We had a strong presence in the Charlottesville March4Justice in December 2014.
  • The Thomas Jefferson Legacies Film series continues to show movies – this year primarily fictional films – that illuminate some aspect of the history of race in America.  (April 20:  12 Years a Slave; June 15:  The Wilderness Journey, a documentary about a point in UU history at which our denomination was nearly irreparably split over issues of race.)
  • On February 26th the Tandem Friends School and Charlottesville Friends Meeting showed the film –I’m Not a Racist … Am I? – at the Parmount Theater.    (The Director and Producer were there for a Q & A after the film.)  Approximately 40 UUs -- including some of our youth -- attended.  That's somewhere between 5% and 10% of our congregation!
  • We have scheduled a group discussion of Mark Morrison-Reed's powerful book, The Selma Awakening for Tuesday, March 17th.
  • We have scheduled for Sunday, April 12th -- the weekend of Jefferson’s birthday -- a public discussion with Henry Wiencek, author of the recent and controversial book Master of the Mountain which will be open to the wider Charlottesville community
  • On April 15th we will host a panel discussion (currently with the working title The Legacies of Thomas Jefferson in the Age of Ferguson).  Pastor Lehman Bates of Ebenezer Baptist Church has already agreed to participate, and the Office of Human Rights has agreed to be involved.  (This, too, will be open to the public.)
  • We are looking for a time for Charlene Greene (previously of the Dialogue on Race and now at the Office of Human Rights)  to come and give a presentation on the history of race in Charlottesville.  (Another public event.)
Pax tecum


Thursday, March 5, 2015

Remember the "multi" in multicultural! (a further follow-up to "bound")

Before going any further with the "what can we do" posts I want to clear up one misconception that keeps being expressed.  When I -- and others -- talk about the need to be more multicultural, it's not just a race thing.  That's important to remember.

The issue is about much more than "getting people of color into the pews."  The problem isn't (really) that TJMC, and Unitarian Universalism more widely, is overwhelmingly white.  It's that because we're overwhelmingly white we look out at the world primarily through one particular lens.  As has been noted, Unitarian Universalism has long been dominated by a Euro-American, somewhat affluent, highly (formally) educated, straight, cis-male perspective ... and to a very large extent it still is.  And that means we've been looking at the world, and each other, and ourselves, with extreme tunnel vision.  And because this perspective is the dominant perspective in our culture, we're mostly unaware of how limited our vision has been (and is).

That is the problem.  Being "multicultural" means no longer being "mono-cultural," allowing a single cultural outlook to dominate.  In my office there is a poster which many have commented on: 
“The world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you; they are unique manifestations of the human spirit.”  (Wade Davis)
Being multicultural means that we recognize that truth and that we strive to move beyond that singular focus.  So, again, it's not just a black/white thing.  Thanks to our Worship Weavers Guild we hear from our pulpit (cis) male and female voices, and gay and straight voices, yet how often do we look at issues from the point of view of the working poor?  Or bring the transgender experience to bear on our explorations?  What about the perspective of those who did not go too far down the path of formal education but have learned a whole lot about life?  What about the less-than-politically-liberal perspective? 

This is the challenge I'm raising for us.  Yes, I think it's important that we address the lack of racial and ethnic diversity, but fundamental to that effort is simply increasing diversity.  Hell, we've got devout atheists who say that they don't feel properly represented; and professing Christians who feel left out.  We've got a long way to go to being truly multicultural! 

And why be multicultural?  Well ... ah ... because that's the way the world really is.  Because there are multiple perspectives born of differing experiences, and the Beloved Community we dream of includes them all.  If, as Desmond Tutu said, the church should be "an audiovisiual aid" showing the world how the world should be, then our church should be as open and inclusive as the world we know should be.

Pax tecum,


Tuesday, March 3, 2015

What do we DO? (A follow up to "Bound.")

On Monday I posted the text of the sermon I'd preached the day before -- Bound.  It was a look at the ways that we Unitarian Universalists are bound, held in bondage to, the very racism we would strive to dismantle.  One piece of feedback I've received now from several people -- both to the sermon and to the posting -- is, essentially, "OK, Erik.  Great.  Now what do we do?"

It's interesting to me how often the response to a challenge like this one is to want to do something.  To respond.  To react.  To change something.  In essence, to make the problem go away.  For some that no doubt does mean to make the problem go away because we've eradicated the underlying issues.  For others, though, I think it means to make the problem [seem to] go away because we've been able to distract ourselves from the discomforting realities by busying ourselves with fixing the apparent problems.  Think of the person who wants a pill to deal with chronic stomach upset rather than make the lifestyle changes that are the real issue.  Heartburn is a symptom.  A lack of diversity (racial, economic, etc.) in UU congregations is a symptom.

Still, I would note that I actually did include some indication of "steps" we could take to begin to address this issue.

"First," I said, "let's be honest with ourselves ..."  We might nod our heads at hearing that "our Unitarian Universalist faith is as infected by systemic racism as is any other predominantly white institution," but do we really take that in?  Do we allow it to affect us to our cores?  Do we -- and here, again, I am using "we" to mean we white UUs -- feel discomforted by that?  Change only comes when the discomfort of change is less than the discomfort of not changing.  Does this recognition make us so uncomfortable that we're willing to face the discomfort that will come with change?  If not, that's a first step.

How, practically, do we take this step?  Lots of ways.  We talk about it -- in sermons and after sermons.  In our Covenant Groups.  In adult faith programs.  Over lunch with friends.  We talk about how we, as individuals, and we, as a congregation, are bound.  (And, yes, we as a movement.)

And we read books, and watch films, and go to lectures and workshops, and we front ourselves with this reality over and over and over again until it stops being something we think is disturbing until we find ourselves feeling disturbed.

"Next," I said, "we need to recognize the limitations of our 'openness.'"  Our membership committee has recently begun to really think about what it will take to be a really multiculutrally welcoming place.  As for the rest of us, are we challenging our assumptions of what "welcoming" looks like?  Can we imagine situations in which what we think of as a warm greeting might be off-putting or seem cold?  Are there things that might not come naturally to us yet which someone might find really inviting?  Do we find ourselves habitually wondering how people with different perspectives born of different experiences might encounter the things we say and do?  Do we challenge the voice in our heads that tells us that how we see things is, in fact, the way things are?  Or do we regularly remind ourselves that even many of our most cherished certainties about how the world works are really only our own assumptions and perspectives.  If not, there is another set of concrete steps we need to take.

In the sermon I noted that, "we need to reconsider what it means to invite to the table those who are not there now."  Our Worship Weavers Guild will be exploring this question quite intentionally.  And an informal small group of people who identify as "people of color" or as part of multiracial families is beginning to meet to discuss actual lived experience and not simply white assumptions.  Yet, do our committees, councils, Board, regularly ask, "Who isn't here?  Whose voice isn't being represented?  What assumptions are we holding on to, and operating out of, because they're not being challenged by anyone?"

These things are real work.  Real "next steps."  They are all examples of things we can, and should, do.  Yes, a pulpit exchange or a choir exchange with some of the African American churches in the neighborhood would be a good thing, but it won't really address the core issues, will it?  Changing the culture means changing the culture, not rearranging the cultural artifacts.  If it were that easy, we'd have done it a long, long time ago.

I'm going to continue to explore this in the next few posts here.  I do hope some folk will join in the conversation.

Pax tecum,