23 February 2005

Why We Should Pursue "Welcoming Congregation" Status

My congregation and many other Unitarian Universalist congregations in "Red State" Bible-Belt conservative regions appear to find the Welcoming Congregation Program an unreasonable burden for them.

I found two theological statements on why this difficult task is worth doing in our congregations.

The first statement is from Rev. Victoria Weinstein (a Unitarian Universalist minister in Norwell, Massachusetts) preaching about what had changed her mind on the Welcoming Congregation question:
Excerpt from "Straight Eyes on Queer Lives: Justice or Entertainment?" by Rev. Victoria Weinstein
And so now we get to the heart of the gay issue, which is really not a political one at all. It is a religious issue, a theological issue, and an issue that we should know is tearing apart communities of faith all across this country, and all over the world. Because of course, Madonna and Britney and the Fab Five were not the only ones making news this summer. Also in the news was the confirmation of the first openly gay bishop of the Episcopal Church – the Reverend Gene Robinson of New Hampshire (I cannot overstate the impact Bishop Robinson's confirmation is still having in Episcopal churches: it is a struggle that is incredibly painful to read about, and to hear about from my Episcopalian friends and colleagues).

In Texas this summer, the Supreme Court made a landmark ruling that restored privacy to the sex lives of its straight and gay citizens. And in Canada, men and women became free to marry someone of their own gender, and therefore to include themselves in the multiple legal privileges that are granted to all married couples – including "the right to social security survivor benefits, the ability to make decisions on their partner's behalf in medical emergencies, the right to petition for a partner to immigrate, access to medical care leave for a seriously ill partner, and the right to give their children two legal parents.

I know this issue is also challenging for our own Unitarian Universalist congregations – no less this one – but I am so very proud that our association of congregations has, since our General Assembly in 1970, "made more than twenty public statements in support of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people and their rights to enjoy all the benefits and privileges that heterosexual people enjoy." And our leadership developed a denominational Welcoming Congregation program that would help congregations process through some of our own feelings, taboos, fears and just plain information about what it means to be a sexual minority in the church – to sensitize ourselves to those men and women who have traditionally been most contemptuously excluded from God's grace in too many mainstream houses of worship. During that time, Unitarian Universalist ministers began performing same sex civil unions, or services of holy union. Remember that this pioneering movement began as recently as 1970. We are still fairly new at this.

In the mid-90's, I was a lay member of one of our UU congregations that was considering launching the Welcoming Congregation process. I was prepared to vote against it. My argument was that I was already welcoming, I believed our church was welcoming, and I believed that a committee-driven effort to make us especially welcoming to lesbians, gays and bisexuals was unnecessary. It would make us uncomfortable and possibly divide us. I was scared. I had lost too many gay friends to AIDS in the 1980's and felt that a scab was just beginning to form where a very deep wound had been. This doesn't make any sense, does it? But I have come to realize that when it comes to sexuality issues, we proceed from our guts and not so much from rationality. What I feared most was finding out that any of my church friends were – if not outright homophobic – prejudiced against non-hetero people. I didn't want to know.

But here's what I learned as a result of that experience: my church did not exist to keep me or anyone else comfortable. In fact, I was brought to awareness that "my" church was really not "mine" at all, but God's church, where a greater spirit than my own had called a group of seekers together to become more fully loving and therefore more fully human. This was a hard learning. It did not make me happy. I also learned that the church does not exist to make me happy. That was hard, too.

What I learned from participating in the Welcoming Congregation program as a resistant layperson was that the program wasn't for me, and it wasn't about how welcoming I am. It was, and is, a process that is meant to help a community of people open their minds, their arms and their doors wide enough to include the people who are so often turned away from religious fellowship and thus excluded from the church's life-giving ministries. I was brought to understand that the Welcoming Congregation program is not a political program but an exercise in the spiritual art of compassion, and of the practice of radical hospitality as practiced most notably by Jesus of Nazareth (who, by the way, never said one word about homosexuality, although his followers had plenty of opinions about it).

First Parish in Norwell became an officially Welcoming Congregation in 1999. I am proud of you for it. It was a fact about you that deeply impressed and attracted me when I first read your congregational record. And I was proud of you when we did this thing recently that I think turned out to be a bit more provocative than many of us expected it to be… in a manner of speaking, we "came out of the closet" about our welcoming designation! We installed a rainbow flag on the front of this meetinghouse on a windy day last year, and now we are processing through together the impact that flag has made within our congregation and in our wider community. No one in this congregation has asked that the flag removed, but we are talking – and perhaps voting -- about its location. In the two meetings we have held to talk about the flag's location, we have learned one thing for certain: symbols are very powerful.

How we proceed in our decision-making about this symbol will be every bit as important as any practical outcome. This process calls us to listen deeply to one another, and to honor the personal experiences that some of you have trusted each other enough to share from your hearts. I believe this is an opportunity for us to listen especially closely to those men and women to whom that flag was meant to say, "you're safe here." For those of us who have never known what it's like to feel unsafe in a house of worship because of our sexual orientation – and I include myself in that category – this is a particularly rich opportunity for deeper understanding.
The second theological statement comes from the United Church of Christ's "Frequently Asked Questions" Page for their "Open and Affirming Congregations" program (the UCC equivalent of the Welcoming Congregation Program):
We already say: "We welcome everyone." To whom does it matter that UCC settings make public statements of welcome specifically to BGLT (Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender) persons?
Too many BGLT people and their families live with the pain of having believed that "everyone" meant them, only to discover otherwise. No one should have to guess about the "boundaries of inclusion" of a congregation or other ministry.

A clear welcome matters to BGLT adults who, seeking to share their faith and gifts with the church, often wonder if they will meet with silence or condemnation if they are "out" in church.

It matters to BGLT youth who need the guidance of faith communities as they question and establish their understandings of sexuality, spirituality, and relationships, but fear the same disapproval.

It matters to families which too often hide the fact that they have BGLT children or other relatives. Fearing the indifference or rejection of their church, they are cut off from support and sharing which would enrich them and their congregation.

It matters to BGLT clergy who often feel that to serve the church they must hide their true selves and lives.

It matters to all Christians who believe that God's affirmation of the gifts of loving relationships and sexuality are not restricted to those who are heterosexual, and who look to their church to witness to God's inclusive love and help them to better understand and live it.
These two theological statements tell me that we should not be looking at the Welcoming Congregation program from a personal "what does it mean for me" perspective. Regardless of one's theological perspective, my congregation isn't really "mine" ... it belongs to something or someone bigger than me.

Given the role that religion has played in promoting homophobia and heterosexism, I think we need to explicitly promote on our own the idea that some congregations are seriously addressing homophobia and heterosexism rather than depending on pop culture references like Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back to do this promotion for Unitarian Universalist congregations.

And my congregation's role in the Welcoming Congregation process is to create a safe and supportive place where we can do some challenging "soul work." But this comfort and safety for those engaged in serious "soul work" isn't the same as creating a place where one is left undisturbed, unchallenged, and "happy."

21 February 2005

Online Unitarian Universalist Religious Education and Lifespan Faith Development Resources (from an article written for my congregation's newsletter)

You've just volunteered to teach an eight week pillar of religious education classes at All Souls and after your enthusiasm wears off you realize that you need extra help and information right now.

Or you've agreed to lead an adult religious education class and you're scrambling for resources to present your topic.

But it's 3 AM on Sunday morning when you realize that you need help. You don't want to call Susan (our DRE) or Melissa (our Religious Education Chair) and wake them at 3 AM.

There is no need to panic. Help may be just a mouse-click away.

Here's a listing of available online religious education resources for you that are available 24 hours a day - 7 days a week - ready and willing to help you in working with children, youth, and adults.

UUA Lifespan Faith Development Staff Group (formerly known as the "Religious Education Department") - According to this UUA web, the Lifespan Faith Development Staff Group provides " ... lifespan resources for education, worship, advocacy, and social action that nurture UU identity, spiritual growth, a transforming faith, and vital communities of justice and love."

Curriculum Mapping - "The purpose of Curriculum Mapping is to help congregations and other groups plan religious education programs for children, youth, adults, and multi-age groups by providing one place to review all the published curricula possibilities before deciding which to explore further."

Discussion Guides - The online book discussion guides designed to promote reflection and discussion can be used by individuals and groups. Most of the books listed are Beacon Press book.

The Beacon Press Discussion Guides for Unitarian Universalist Communities - "A resource for adult religious education or adult discussion groups seeking to examine issues of concern to the UU movement."

Short Programs -- " ... developed for timely publication on the Web or published here after they are no longer available in print -- to download, print, and use"

The currently available free-to-download short programs online include:

"Stewardship: The Joy of Giving" - a five-session curriculum in which primary children, intermediate children, youth, and adults learn about stewardship with their peers, then celebrate it with all generations.

"The New UU: An Orientation Program for New Members of Unitarian Universalist Congregations"

"UUA 101: You and the UUA" -- A downloadable workshop about your Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations

Our Whole Lives - Lifespan Sexuality Education Curricula jointly developed by the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ

Multicultural and Anti-Bias Resources

Selected Faith Development Resources for Adults

UU History Resources

Unitarian Universalist Family Network - "To articulate and advocate a definition of FAMILY and FAMILY VALUES as reflections of our Unitarian Universalist theology; To serve and service UU family ministry through spiritual development, education programs, social justice advocacy, and caring companionship"

UUA Loan Library - "Many programs for adults, youth, children and congregations are available on loan for a two-week period from the Lifespan Faith Development Loan Library. Before contacting us for materials, we ask that you check first with your district about borrowing resources."

Southwest District Religious Education Resources and Loan Library

Email Mailing Lists - The UUA sponsors these RE-related email mailing lists for religious education professionals and volunteers working with children, youth, and adults.

Some of these email lists included on this resource are:

REACH-L - Discussion and sharing of UU Religious Education

Adult-RE - Discussion on UU adult religious education programs

YRUU-L - A resource for UU youth programs including Young Religious Unitarian Universalists (YRUU)

Advisor-L - Discussion Resource for YRUU Group Advisors

Resources for Youth and Adults working with Youth - Middle School Youth (Grades 6-8) and YRUU Youth (Ages 14-20)

Covenant Group and Small Group Ministry Resources for UU Young Adults (Ages 18-35)

UU Faith Works - A clearinghouse packet to support lifespan faith development and empower religious educators, ministers, and lay leaders in their work.

Religious Education Leadership Development Resources

These religious education resources are provided to our congregation through the generous financial contributions that our congregation and other UU congregations make to the Unitarian Universalist Association and the Southwest District of the UUA.

These resources reflect the cooperative - interdependent spirit of Unitarian Universalism and are freely available to all who need them.

20 February 2005

Ward Sutton Cartoon Response to Gay-Friendly United Church of Christ Ads

I saw this cartoon while surfing the United Church of Christ web site ...

My daughter and my partner are both doing the low-carb thing. I passed along the theological implications in this cartoon to them.

16 February 2005

Steve Strikes a Raw Nerve with Peacebang's Blog

Today, I posted a comment to Peacebang's blog. A slightly modified version can be found here on my blog. Due to my criticism of her pseudonymous online postings and her opinion that my words were an inappropriate reply, she deleted my posting.

Tonight, I received an insulting email from the anonymous author of Peacebang in response to my reply.

Apparently, she didn't appreciate my criticism.

Why We Lose Our UU Children When They Grow Up

On 15 February 2005, Peacebang wrote the following:
"Meanwhile, my own Unitarian Universalists are still arguing about whether or not we should be using a "language of reverence," failing to welcome visitors at coffee hour, hemorrhaging youth members after high school graduation, and cheering when our certified membership climbs by a little over one percentage point of a miniscule 100,000 souls. Because see, we don't evangelize."

One reason for losing youth members after high school graduation is the perception that our congregations cater to those who are older adult converts.

We rarely attempt to provide a worship experience with youth or young adults as part of our religious community. Or if we do offer this experience, we expect youth and young adults to conform to older adult worship norms ... we're not even attempting to meet them half-way.

"Children of a Different Tribe: UU Young Adult Developmental Issues" by Sharon Hwang Colligan is worth checking out. As a former Young Religious Unitarian Universalist who was also active as a UU Young Adult, she provides the perspective of what it's like for the adult who was raised as a child and youth in our Religious Education programs. Sharon's work is part of the theological foundation for the The Bridging Program: Workshops and Guidelines by Colin Bossen and Dawn Star Borchelt (a longer online version of the review of this curriculum prepared for the Liberal Religious Educator Association newsletter can be found online here).

Another resource you may want to check out is "Congregational Hospitality: Growth By Young Adults: Worship, Programs and Outreach," a workshop presented by Dr. Michael Tino (Director of the UU Young Adult Network and Campus Ministry) at last summer's General Assembly in Long Beach, CA. The slides for his presentation can be downloaded using this link. Here's what was recorded on the General Assembly web site about young adults and worship in UU congregations:

Young adults need other young adults, so it's good to start with some sort of social gathering. However, without other programs, such as contemporary worship, classes, and workshops geared towards their needs – programs that engage them fully (rather than just "doing the dishes") and other spiritually-enriching programs – they are not likely to stay. Covenant groups of mixed ages and covenant groups solely for young adults are also ways to assimilate them into our congregational life.

Tino compared the traditional UU service to a sandwich with the "chunk of sermon" in the middle. Young adults, on the other hand, prefer contemporary services that are likened to an Ethiopian dinner where everything is served in a round platter or bread basket and participants share the meal by breaking off pieces of the basket. A long sermon of 20 minutes, for instance, could be broken down into three short homilies separated by musical interludes or a short drama and still get the message across.

Multimedia and audio-visual aides, including overheads, slides, and photographic projection, are used more often in contemporary services which also use more music – and not all pieces of music are by dead white guys.

Young adults tend to gather in coffee shops, campuses, daycare centers, schools, bars, and places with live music, so bulletin boards in these areas would be good places to post events to attract them to our programs.
Finally, I've got a question that's been puzzling me for many weeks about folks who write their blogs like Peacebang.

Peacebang, why do you write behind a pseudonym without any links to your real-world non-online identity? Many bloggers do make reference to who they are (name, community, etc) on their blogs.

The danger I can see in anonymity is a person writing from a pseudonym could be finding a slippery slope into the extremely rude and insulting without any sense of accountability for what he/she has written.

10 February 2005

The Daou Report

A new feature on Salon.com ... a web site that tracks message boards and blogs:
"The Daou Report tracks leading blogs, message boards, online magazines, and independent websites from across the political spectrum - providing a snapshot of the latest news, views, and online buzz."

06 February 2005

SpongeBob Squarepants Makes the Cover of The Nation

... and the United Church of Christ is mentioned in this cover article because of their policy of "unequivocal welcome" to "any who have experienced the Christian message as a harsh word of judgment rather than Jesus' offering of grace."

Our Godless Constitution

A recent article in The Nation is worth checking out in light of the mutual hi-jacking of conservative religion and conservative politics in the United States. The article is "Our Godless Constitution" by Brooke Allen. Here is one choice quote from this article:

The Founding Fathers were not religious men, and they fought hard to erect, in Thomas Jefferson words, "a wall of separation between church and state." John Adams opined that if they were not restrained by legal measures, Puritans--the fundamentalists of their day--would "whip and crop, and pillory and roast." The historical epoch had afforded these men ample opportunity to observe the corruption to which established prosthetic were liable, as well as "the impious presumption of legislators and rulers," as Jefferson wrote, "civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time."

05 February 2005

Here's Hoping That You Have a "Happy Ending"

In this week's "Sex Drive" column on the wired.com technology news site, Regina Lynn tours The Erotic Museum in Hollywood, CA.

One of the two of the exhibits she profiles in her column is the "The Human Body Project" -- a photo collection of the wide range of diversity present in human bodies. Here's the goals behind this project:

By creating a massive image database of everyday people of every race, age and size we hope to provide the public with an enduring image of mankind's actual appearance in all of it's natural and unnatural forms. The project records natural skin coloration patterns, tattoos, body modifications, common body hair distribution and other characteristics seldom represented in the media."

The second project is a video project that is currently a work in progress called "
Beautiful Agony - Facettes de la Petite Mort" - an online video collection showing the faces and shoulders of individuals masturbating. This museum project is very similar to the "Orgasm: The Faces of Ecstasy" video produced by Good Vibrations founder Joani Blank. Joani is also a Unitarian Universalist and a member of the First UU Church of Oakland, CA ... so a project like this can be considered a very "Unitarian Universalist" project.

The "Beautiful Agony project is described in Regina Lynn's column this way:

"'It's hardcore without nudity,' says site co-founder Richard Lawrence. 'A real face having a real orgasm -- it's the opposite of porn.'"

"'These two projects are in a similar spirit,'" Eric [Eric Singley - museum curator] says. "Beautiful Agony is showing us as we are, rather than as we see each other. You see the emotional transformation that takes place and comes to a resolution in a way you don't get to see when you're with someone else, or watching a film. It's another way to look at people behaving more naturally.'"

With the Unitarian Universalist emphasis on pursuing a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, one often draws on the "direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life" in this search.

To obtain direct experience, it's common to hear about Unitarian Universalists who journal, pray, and meditate to discover more about themselves.

Perhaps it's time for masturbation to be considered another pathway for insight, self-knowledge, and awareness of the spirit and the forces that create and uphold life as well?

To see a preview clip of the "Beautiful Agony" videos, check out the sample clips below:

03 February 2005

Why Our Children and Youth Need Comprehensive Sexuality Education

The advocates of fear-based abstinence-only sexuality education are pushing something that has been proven (again!) not to work. Check out the following:

Abstinence? No thanks, we'll have sex

Texas Teens Increased Sex After Abstinence Program

For years, conservatives have pushed the idea that liberals promote social programs that are just "fuzzy-headed" and not grounded in reality. Apparently, conservatives are projecting their own faults onto their liberal neighbors. "Abstinence-only" programs do not work and are based on some people's views of how the world should be and not how the world is. As I have written earlier, our society seem willing to sacrifice our children on the rock of sexual ignorance.