Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Community Services Support

The Community Human Service Partnership (CHSP) was formed sixteen years ago.  Three funding sources, the United Way of Big Bend, Leon County and the City of Tallahassee agreed to pool their human service money, and to involve citizens in awarding grants. This year, for the first time, I volunteered to serve on a Review Team.

There are ten teams reading applications from not-for-profit service agencies and moving out into the community to hear their presentations. All of us serving on Review Teams had to attend a day-long training session where we were given guidelines for reading the applications, and encouraged to read every application with a critical eye.

After reading hundred of pages of application materials, I traveled to four agencies with my team last Thursday, and we will hear presentations from two more human service agencies this week. Then, the team will begin deliberations. Every application and presentation will be scrutinized to determine if the agency will make the best possible use of the money. In tight times, many agencies are looking for increased funding over last year’s award.  Sadly, those same tight times will likely mean that the CHSP has fewer dollars to spend, even while agencies are beginning to experience the squeeze of sequestration.

The team I’m serving on is responsible for reviewing applications from agencies that provide physical health services. I’ve already learned a tremendous amount about a handful of area agencies addressing the health needs of low and moderate income adults. I’m grateful to learn that so many professionals and volunteers are collaborating on fulfilling the needs of people who don’t have health insurance or discretionary dollars to spend on health care. It is also frightening to think that so many hours and so many dollars are devoted to trying desperately to fill the gaps. I’m prompted to once again shake my head over the gulf between generous hearts that want to serve, and the cruel fact that affordable health care is not yet available to all. 

All the agencies I’ve read about and seen could put scads more money to good use serving many of the most vulnerable people in our society.  All of it makes me think of a TED talk by Dan Pallotta.* He notes that homelessness hasn’t been eradicated in any city, and that other great demands are not being met. He suggests, among other things, that we need to completely change our attitude toward non-profits and how much money they should be able to raise and use for the services they provide. I recommend it for anyone who’s ever wondered why Jesus’ prediction that the poor will always be with us has been fulfilled for thousands of years. Dan Pollatta may describe some of the attitudes that help to keep the poor poor and the non-profit agencies that serve them equally strapped.

Yours, in hope,   

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Growing Pains

Why are we being asked to increase our pledges for 2013-14?  The simplest answer is that the proposed expenditures and promised pledges don’t match up. Here’s the rest of the story:

We’re growing younger.
We are saying “good-bye” to some older, more established members of the congregation, who are moving on. Many of them are moving on to new adventures away from Tallahassee. Some are moving to be closer to their adult children. Some have died, leaving us sadder, but, enriched by their sojourn with us. At the same time, we’re experiencing an influx of younger members. Young adults. Young families. We are a vital, growing, “youthening” congregation.

The energy and needs of new members of every age is changing the congregation. Their needs move us to expand Religious Exploration programming by offering courses on parenting, and world religions, and by starting a Spiral Scouts group. Their interests are leading us in new directions in music, and in creating a modest multi-media experience in the sanctuary.

We’re more available.
The 9:00 a.m. service opens a new door for people who want to explore Unitarian Universalism.  Five of our newest members became members solely through attendance at that early service. 

Our internet presence is expanding all the time.  The website continues to grow to meet expressed needs.  We have multiple Facebook pages - disseminating information and encouraging connections. We use the internet for everything from greeter sign-up lists to sharing the concerns of Freethinkers. Thanks to the work of many dedicated members, we are ever more widely represented outside the walls of our congregation.

Our newsletter, the Meridian, is becoming more user friendly for smartphones and tablets. Evolving changes in the newsletter mean that instead of writing one “minister’s column” for the monthly newsletter, I’m writing four times as frequently and posting to this Tallahassee UU blog. 

People are generous. 
Two-thirds of the people who returned their pledges by last week, had already increased their pledges. New members are offering many different kinds of support for the congregation - enlivening our music programs, stepping in to manage the sound system, teaching, joining classes themselves, and helping with the Shelter Meal. Still, to maintain our services and programs, and to protect the accomplishments of the past, including our property and buildings...we need everyone who can be generous to share in the excitement of all our activities and the promises offered by pledging. 

Membership, enthusiasm and energy is up, and pledges are down. Why?
Often younger members, many of them new to Unitarian Universalism, are not able to pledge at the same level as their older counterparts. All of our new members are in the process of becoming established, committed Unitarian Universalists. Every congregation that is growing has an opportunity to experience this same problem.  We are living into the gap created by a younger, growing congregation.  Isn’t it exciting?

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Marrying Kind

        One of our members was asked if he supported equal marriage did that mean he also support polyamorous relationships? He hadn’t given it much thought until the question was posed. While I was not privy to that conversation, I have been a part of others like it, and I have seen how one issue is being used to undermine another. 
About a month ago, a headline blazed “Many Unitarians would prefer that their polyamory activists keep quiet.” That phrase leading into Lisa Miller’s article is misleading in several ways. First, the denomination is the Unitarian Universalist Association; and as cumbersome as that moniker is, it’s members are properly referred to as Unitarian Universalists. That wouldn’t fit neatly into a headline though. Unfortunately, the other thing that didn’t fit into Miller’s article was any documentation that “many” Unitarian Universalists wish polyamory activists would keep quiet. She cites a friend who is studying “to become a Unitarian minister (sic)” who is glad she hasn’t been asked to bless a polyamorous relationship.
Clearly, Miller wishes that polyamory activists would keep quiet, and she wants the UUA to stifle them.
I don’t think that’s the way we do things as Unitarian Universalists.  We let the reality of diversity be known in our midst.  You may not have known until reading this article that Unitarian Universalists for Polyamory Awareness (UUPA) exists, but, now that you do, you might seek out the website and absorb some of it’s arguments. You might, in inner dialogue and in conversation with others, grapple with the idea of polyamory -- either in opposition or affirmation. 
Sometime in the late 80’s, a member of the UUA staff published a booklet of civil unions. The booklet included a service for three people. At that time, I decided that I wouldn’t offer a ceremony for three people if asked. Fast forward a quarter century. 
If you’ve ever watched Sister Wives, you’ve seen Kody, Meri, Janelle, Christine and Robyn Brown negotiate their lives in a polygamous marriage.**  Along with their 17 children, they’ve let cameras into their living rooms and family-led worship.  They’ve let people see good times and bad times, too.  Speaking as a group of wives and husband to an audience, they were hurt and shocked when someone asked if Kody had to take "pills" to keep up with all the wives. They knew, as the questioner did not, that their marriage wasn’t about sex, but, about commitment and caring that encompassed all the members of the family: infants, children and spouses. 
Marriage, when sanctioned by the state, promotes the application of rights for all members of the family.  Marriage, when sanctioned by a religious body, encourages seriously considered commitments and vows of caring that must be lived to be fulfilled.  When adults come to me seeking a blessing for a union they wish to offer each other, I look for caring, commitment and continuity.  Then, my answer can be ‘yes’, even when the state would deny them their legal rights. 

* Miller, Lisa, “Many Unitarians would prefer that their polyamory activists keep quiet”, Washington Post, March 22, 2013,  http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-03-22/national/37938821_1_unitarian-universalists-union-of-one-man-marriage
Accessed April 16, 2013
** The Browns sued Utah in an attempt to overturn the state’s bigamy law as unconstitutional. In Utah, multiple relationships, not multiple marriage licenses, define bigamy.  Huffington Post, July 25, 2012. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/25/sister-wives-lawsuit-kody-brown-utah-bigamy-law_n_1701450.html

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Of Wrestling and Sermons

Almost thirty years ago, when I first sat down at the UUA with Joan Kahn-Schneider to  explain why I wanted to leave social work and become a Unitarian Universalist minister, she offered me a stern lecture on preaching.  She flung out the prospect of weekly preaching as if it was a hurdle that most people would never surmount. 

I've never forgotten what she said, or the fervor with which she made her argument. In fact, I now have over a quarter-century of experience to fuel my own thoughts about preaching.

Somebody, somewhere compared preaching to Jacob wrestling with the angel.  It seems an apt analogy.  The story in Genesis 32: 22-31, recounts a contest that took place in the dead of night.  (We'll skip over the part the reveals Jacob to be a polygamist.) Suddenly, Jacob finds himself fighting with a man.  When it looks like he might prevail, the mysterious man touches his hip and throws it out of joint.  As morning comes on, the two continue to wrestle. The angel grants Jacob a new name, Israel.  And, after the angel refuses tell Jacob who he is, Jacob names the angel Peniel - which means "the face of God." Before departing the angel blesses Jacob. Jacob declares that he has done what his faith tradition told him was impossible - he saw the face of God and lived.

For myself, and I think, for all sermon crafters, writing a sermon requires wrestling with our better selves to get at the truth of our own responses to a topic, an issue, or a question. We want to name our experience as Jacob sought the name of the angel. Sometimes we limp, as if with wounded hip, toward the conclusion of thinking and writing. The blessing we seek is a finished sermon...twenty minutes of monologue that explores one person's interior life and finds expression as something that can be more widely understood. The blessed sermon might make of one person's inner struggle something that could be universally understood.  

That is what makes writing sermons three to four times a month so daunting. It requires deep personal engagement and broad public sharing.  A song that holds out the experience of singer-songwriters asks questions that echo my own:  These nights, are they sent her to amaze me, maybe bury, maybe praise me? ...These nights, am I blazing, am I bleeding, are my secrets worth repeating?  And, the things that I uncover every time I hold my heart up to the lights?*

Then Sunday morning comes, and with it, the blessing of having finished and delivered another sermon.  In twenty-four hours the wrestling begins again. These nights...

* David Buskin and Robin Batteau, These Nights on the album "B&B"

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Human By Choice

“It is the ability to choose which makes us human.”  So said Madeleine L’Engle. It seems to me a better marker than opposable thumbs or walking upright. The “ability to choose” is also at the heart of justice issues people are struggling with today.  

One can choose a beloved person, but, may not have the right to marry the beloved.  

One can choose to create a family by bringing children into the family, but, one may not have the right to adopt. 

One can choose to live fully whatever ones abilities and disabilities may be, but, that choice may be severely impinged upon by a society that devalues people with disabilities. 

One can choose to raise healthy, capable children; but, without adequate health care, decent wages, and freedom from the threat of deportation; that choice may be beyond many a family’s reach.

Women have had their right to choose severely limited in many times and places. States are erecting new barricades to separate women from the choices they will make. Many states, Arizona, Minnesota and North Dakota among them, are actively working to make every choice more difficult for pregnant women.  Elizabeth Nash of the Guttmacher Institute notes: “The point is to make it so difficult to provide abortions that no one will do it. Arizona likes to thumb their nose at women. They take that as a badge of honor.”**

Every issue of choosing to have, or choosing to not have, a child is central to each woman’s ability to know herself as human.  If she makes the choice, with careful thought, and in concert with her values, and in dialogue with her loved ones then she is living into her full humanity.  When the choice is hers, hers is the conscience that will remember the crossroads and reflect on it for all her living days.  And, she will be nothing more or less than human.                                                                                                   

(Note: Our guest in the pulpit on Sunday, April 7 will be Rob Keithan of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.  Rob will address how concern for reproductive choice is becoming a broader concern for reproductive justice. - Robin)

** Yarrow, Alison, “Governor Jan Brewer Signs Arizona’s Extreme New Abortion Law”, The Daily Beast, April 12, 2012.  Accessed April 2, 1013. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/04/12/governor-jan-brewer-signs-arizona-s-extreme-new-abortion-law.html