Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Addressing Real Problems with Real Solutions

I'd wager that most TJMC folk have heard the word "impact" being spoken around our halls and in our sanctuary more than once.  For those who don't know, it's an acronym for a congregation-based community organizing effort called Interfaith Ministry Promoting Action by Congregations Together.  We are one of the 28 faith communities in the greater Charlottesville area -- Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Unitarian Universalist -- that make up IMPACT, and we've been involved since it's inception ten years ago.  At last night's Annual Assembly Sojourner's United Church of Christ became the most recent member of this truly interfaith effort.

The Annual Assembly is the meeting at which representatives of the communities vote for the issue that we will focus our efforts on in the coming year.  Nearly two dozen TJMC folk were there!  (Thank you all for turning out!)  Before sharing the issue that was chosen, I'm happy to offer an update on the issue we began working on last year:  Drugs and Crime.

At least year's Assembly we learned that approximately 3,150 individuals go in and out of our regional jail in large part because they suffer from addictions to drugs and alcohol. Residential treatment can serve as an alternative to incarceration. IMPACT's members made it clear that we want to address this issue by seeing treatment prioritized. Our community currently has ten beds of residential treatment for men. There are not any beds for women within 70 miles and even these few facilities have a waiting list. Women with children will often not consider treatment that is so far away.
Through IMPACT's work last year, the City, County, and Region Ten have committed to developing a three year plan of action for bringing residential treatment to our community for both men and women. They plan on developing a facility predicated on the the belief that “discharge begins at admission.” As someone enters the facility, a plan for continuing treatment upon their departure is in place. This is possible because they plan on housing community services in the came building as the residential treatment. 

The current plan is add on to the ten beds that are presently available to men and to build a new facility where eight women at a time can each bring to children with they as they seek treatment.  It's estimated that this new facility will be able to serve about 50 women each year -- and their children! -- with "wrap around services" addressing other physical, mental, vocational, and transportation needs.  If these plans stay on track, this new facility will open in January of 2017!

Once again, a real need being addressed by a real solution ... and the largest single factor in the success of this initiative is the visible demonstration of community support.  The Nehemiah Action, which happens in May of each year, is the largest social justice gathering in Charlottesville and the largest interfaith gathering of any kind in Virginia.  That kind of assembly of such a diverse group of people all committed to seeing justice done ... well ... it makes an impact.

Last night the assembly selected the issue of elder care as our area of focus for this year.  In Virginia, 27% of people over the age of 85 are living in poverty.  The cost of assisted living here in nearly $10,000 more each year than in the rest of the state and nearly $15,000 more than the national average.  (It's also expected to grow at approximately three times than 5-year annual growth rate in the rest of the country.)  Currently over a quarter of all women, and one-in-three men, between 65 and 69 years old still need to work in order to make ends meet.  And elder abuse is so prevealent that it's estimated that only 1-in-14 cases ever comes to the attention of authorities.

Clearly there are real needs here and there is work to be done. One way you can get involved is by volunteering to be part of IMPACT's research team which be working (begininng in December) to identify one particular solution we can put forward to address this constallation of issues in a concrete way.  (If interested, contact Sarah Peasley or RevWik for more information.)  You can also keep tuned to The Talk of TJMC for regular updates on our progress and further opportunities for you to lend your support.

 Pax tecum,


Tuesday, October 20, 2015

What Do You See?

As a young man I thought my path would lead to the Christian ministry.  Even as a teen I had felt a calling to ordained ministry, and as my religious upbringing brought me into extremely positive interactions with the Presbyterian, Methodist, and Episcopal churches I assumed than I would one day be serving congregations in one of them.

I was also a rather inquisitive, curious young person and would ask all sorts of questions of the various clergy people I knew.  I remember once talking about the celebration of the Eucharist with an Episcopal priest.

"What is it like, for you?  How does it feel to preside over the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the wine?"  My friend, the Rev. Kathleen Mandeville -- whom I always called "Father Kathleen" -- was serving as rector of St. Clement's Episcopal Church in Hell's Kitchen (now known as the Clinton Neighborhood).  It was an incredibly funky parish -- the sanctuary was the same space as the theater with which they shared space.  Depending on the stage set needs of whatever play was in residence the liturgical space was changed accordingly.  It was from "Father Kathleen" that I first learned of the concept of "a ministry of space."  St. Clements had space, and the people in the neigborhood needed space.  The two served each other.

When I asked Kathleen about her experience of officiating the Eucharist she replied, as I remember it, that when she was holding the chalice of wine she would look into its depths and see there her community.  She held the cup in her two hands, and in doing so she held the people of her parish and of Hell's Kitchen.  And so, when she offered the cup to those who'd come forward to partake of communion, she was offering them back to themselves -- the community, recognized as holy, feeding the community.  (She might not remember that conversation this way, if at all, but this memory has touched me and held me deeply.)

I bring this up because earlier this fall it came up for me in a powerful way.  I was looking at the table on which were burning all of our Candles of Hope and Rememberance.  It radiated a warm glow, a glow made up of all those individual flickering flames.  And as I looked I had a revelation -- this is what Father Kathleen was talking about all those years ago!  As I looked I saw on that old wax-splattered table more than just a bunch of tea candles.  I saw us.  Each and every one of us who had lit a candle that day.  Each and every one of us who had ever lit a candle there -- a candle of joy, or grief; a candle for something in our lives of the lives of those we love that needed a little extra light; a candle for our world; a candle to remember someone or a candle to express our hope.  Those lights were us -- just as that communion cup was, itself, a sign and a symbol of that community.

I wonder what it is that you see there?  What do those candles mean to you?

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Making an IMPACT in the Name of Justice

Last night was IMPACT's Team Assembly, and I was asked to speak.  For those who don't know, IMPACT is an acronym standing for "Interfaith Ministry Promoting Action by Congregations Together."  It is an example of what is known as congregation-based community organizing, and our congregation has been an integral part of it since it's inception a decade ago.

Over the past month there have been a series of "listening circles" both here at our congregation and in the nearly thirty other Charlottesville faith communities that, together, make up IMPACT.  At these meetings people had opportunities to discuss the issues they see facing their own lives, the lives of the family and friends, the lives of the people of the greater Charlottesville area.  These listening circles are a way of hearing first-hand testimony of the myriad examples of injustice -- large and small -- that are present around and among us.  (A huge Thank You to those folks who've stepped up as Team Leaders:  Sarah Peaslee, Beth Jaeger-Landis, Renee Brett, Greta Dershimer, Sallie Kate Park, Mark Goldberg and Achsah Carrier.)

The lists of issues generated in each of these listening sessions are then brought to the IMPACT staff who try to group them into related categories -- Employment, Elder Care, Mental Health, Housing, Immigrant Conditions, and Education.  These categories are then brought to a meeting of the IMPACT Team Leaders which narrows them down to three.  Last night we prioritized EducationElder Care, and Housing.  Next -- at an event known as the Annual Assembly -- representatives of each of the congregations that make up IMPACT will discern the one issue that will be the focus for the coming year.  (The Assembly will be held at St. Thomas Aquinas Church at 6:30 pm on Monday, October 26th.)

The next phase consists of volunteers who will research the selected issue and will seek to find a specific, concrete, and practical way of addressing it.  Your IMPACT Team here will do its best to keep the congregation informed about developments in the research process, the proposed project as it develops, and ways that individuals from TJMC can be involved.  (You can, for instance, volunteer to be part of a research team -- those who have been in the past have found it an extremely rewarding thing to do!)  

The culmination of all of this work is a Rally in early April, at which updates will be given about the specific project that is being proposed, and an event in early May known as The Nehemiah Action.  At the Action representatives of the congregations will come together to demonstrate our common commitment to seeing real change addressing real needs.  This is the single largest interfaith event in central Virginia, and the largest public gather of any kind in Charlottesville.  (There's a friendly competition among congregations to see who can get out the largest contingent of members to the Action.  We'll be trying to turn out an attendance of roughly our average Sunday morning attendance, which is roughly 150 people.  Personally, I'll be pushing for approximately 200 people!)  

But back to last night and the Assembly.  I had the privilege (and let's face it, pleasure) of being, as far as I know, the first person to speak the word "transgender" at an IMPACT event!  Here's the rest of what I had to say:
I know that it's the wrong season, but as I thought about what to say tonight I couldn't help thinking about Pentecost.  The Christian scriptures say that it was during the festival of Shavuot that the Holy Spirit came down on the gathered disciples and they were suddenly able to speak in other languages or, at least, that the people who gathered to see what was going on each heard their own language being spoken.  On that day, the story tells us, the barrier of language was overcome and everyone could understand one another.  I suspect that language wasn’t the only barrier transcended. 
Religions can be thought of as like languages, and I look out at all of you and think that there are a lot of languages spoken here.  Under normal circumstances we might not understand one another too well.  Some of us speak Islam; some Judaism; there are a whole host of Christian dialects out there, different enough that communication among you isn't always easy; and there are some here who speak Unitarian Universalism.  Yet when we gather together like this there is at least one word that we can all understand:  justice. 
I'm going to say something now that might be more than a little heretical (which is kind of an occupational hazard for us Unitarian Universalists).  I'm not here tonight because of IMPACT.  And later, when the congregation I am privileged to serve tries to turn out the equivalent of an average Sunday morning attendance to the Nehemiah Action, I'm hoping that folks won't be coming out to support IMPACT.  To be honest -- and, I hope, somewhat provocative (another UU trait) -- I'm only tangentially interested in IMPACT.
What motivates me is the need for justice.  What motivates me is the needs of my extended family here in Charlottesville -- cis-gender and trans-gender women, children, and men who desperately need a residential treatment facility for themselves or a loved one.  What motivates me is the need among my kinfolk, many whom I've never even met, for access to mental health services, dental services, and a more accessible way to get around town using public transportation.

I don't know what issue we'll focus in on this year, but through the listening circles that have been happening in each of our faith communities we've heard first-hand testimonies of the need for justice right here, right now, and that's what motivates me.  The need for justice.  The real need, of real people, for real justice.  Tonight we will, together, discern which of those needs are most ready for, and will be most receptive to, a practical response and the creation of concrete solutions. This is never an easy task, yet it is essential.  One of my Unitarian Universalist forebears famously said, “I am only one, yet still I am one.  I cannot do everything, yet still I can do something.  And because I cannot do everything I must not hesitate to do the something that I can.”  Tonight we, together, will discover within all of the needs we have heard, the “something” we can do this year. 
The Interfaith Ministry Promoting Action by Congregations Together -- IMPACT -- is a tool, it is not a cause in and of itself.  In fact, I'd go so far as to say that IMPACT doesn't actually exist in any real way, the way, for instance, Sojourners United Church of Christ, the Church of the Incarnation, or the Islamic Society of Central Virginia do.  IMPACT is an idea, a vision; what exists, what is real are each and every one of us and the faith communities of which we are a part.  What is real is our awareness that the systems, the forces, the "principalities and powers" that are arrayed against justice can only be countered and overcome by an equally powerful force for justice.  What is real is something that each and every one of us knows to be true -- none of us is a strong, as powerful, as all of us. 
So I do not do this work in the name of IMPACT.  I do it in the name of our neighbors, our friends, and even we ourselves who cry out in need.  I do it in the ineffable name of that which has been given so many names yet which is always known as love, and always known as justice.
We may not agree with everything that's said when we gather together.  We may not even understand all that is said -- we do, after all, speak a number of religious languages.  Yet when we gather together we create something powerful.  And that’s precisely because we do not gather around shared doctrine; we do not gather around common traditions; we do not even gather around a shared understanding of the world and how it works.  We gather around our commitment to justice.  And when that word is spoken here, we each understand it in our own language.

One last thought:  I think it’s important to note that on that Pentecost so many years ago the gathered crowd didn’t all suddenly begin to speak the same language.  They continued to speak in their own tongues, we are told, but they suddenly could understand one another.  We, too, can and should continue to speak in our own religious tongues.  Yet when we gather together in this truly interfaith movement we are able to understand each other and to speak with one voice.  And when do, we speak the word “justice” together, with one voice, as one body, in one accord – we really do make an impact.  
Gracias a todos por estar aquĆ­ esta noche.  Thank you all for being here tonight.
Keep your eyes and ears open, folks.  IMPACT is an important way that we do social justice work as a congregation -- and its identity as an intentionally interfaith effort is one of the reasons.  Perhaps this will be the year that you find your place in this ministry.

Pax tecum,