Keeping Stories

Last week, while cleaning out my files in the office at church, I was remembering so many wonderful stories of the work of this congregation on behalf of social justice.  I found myself wondering, “Who will keep these stories after I am gone?”  After 13 years of ministry here, I have become too much the keeper of institutional memory.  It was hard to recycle or shred old meeting notes and flyers and public witness statements.

Today, though, I am remembering that many of these stories of justice-making found their way into our Annual Reports.  Funny thing, Annual Reports.  I bet for most people, they are glanced at during an annual meeting, and then filed away, or even tossed away.  But they can be a useful tool for keeping stories.  After I had been serving this congregation for about a year, I took a week just to read the annual reports from 1980 up to 2006.  It helped me to understand the journey that the people had traveled, the stories from before I arrived.

So today–probably my last day of cleaning in the office–I am taking some moments to look at old Annual Reports–and share a few tidbits of some of the great activism I have witnessed and participated in here.  In 2005-6, we were part of a “No on One” referendum to prevent a repeal attempt of the state’s new anti-discrimination legislation for GLBTQ people.  Our Social Action committee made 2500 bumper stickers-My Church Believes in Civil Rights for All, and distributed them around the state.  (Thank you, Jim!) Not to mention rallies and forums and so much more–the repeal attempt was defeated!

That year, we also participated in the Giving Winds Campaign, a capital campaign of the Maine Council of Churches for Four Directions Development Corporation, which provides small business and home-owner loans to people on Wabanaki reservations in Maine.  We visited two reservations, hosted Wabanaki representatives during worship, and held a forum on Indian Affairs.  We donated over $2000, and members made loans through the church totalling $12000 that were matched by the UUA and the Federal Government.  Some of that loan money is still being used by FDDC!

In 2006-7, some of our members were on the advisory board for a new Portland Freedom Trail, celebrating the Underground Railroad in Portland, and other sites of importance to African American history in our city.  Other members created a quilt to be used in the unveiling of the first pedestal, and over a dozen people participated as docents for the grand opening event. You can find a self-guided walking tour online.

From 2007-2009, we were involved with work on a campaign for the Freedom to Marry for same-sex couples. We were part of creating the interfaith Religious Coalition for the Freedom to Marry in Maine, (later it became the Religious Coalition Against Discrimination), and many people testified at a huge public hearing.  The bill was successfully passed by our legislature, a first in the country, but then immediately went to a people’s veto referendum.  Sadly, despite the active involvement of so many, the veto campaign prevailed and marriage rights were not achieved.

But people did not give up, and our church was part of the long attempt to pass the Freedom to Marry by referendum.  Our members were among the many volunteers going door-to-door having conversations with undecided voters, they were phone-bank callers, and they created another great bumper sticker.  Finally, victory was achieved on November 6, 2012.

I like to keep my blog posts to about 600 words, so I am running out of room to add more stories. And I haven’t even mentioned the campaign for Health Care for All, which percolated within our doors, and is now a statewide organization, Maine All Care.  I haven’t mentioned our three-year Environmental Focus, our participation in protesting oil from Tar Sands (see the photo below), work on climate change, and our Permaculture Design course.  And what about work on peace issues, homelessness, anti-racism, immigration, and the latest project, Greater Portland Family Promise?

It will be up to the members of Allen Avenue Unitarian Universalist Church to keep their own stories now.  I hope they will peek into old Annual Reports if they need to remember the old stories, and I hope they will make many new stories as well.Tar Sands Rally

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Celebrating Ministry

Diarama of Myke – Version 2

On Sunday, June 17, my congregation celebrated my ministry of thirteen years, upon the occasion of my retirement.  (I will still be working behind the scenes in June and on-call through July, but that was my last Sunday service.)  I was overwhelmed with their expressions of love and appreciation.  I will miss everyone so much.

There were so many amazing touches to the celebration, including this tiny (6 inches across) diorama of my life created by Kathy N. with details including my guitar, a stole I wear when I preach, tiny protest signs, the cover of my actual book, our fire circle, cherry tree, rain barrel and garden tools.  The celebration included a reflection from me and testimonials from a few church members, and a poem and a funny song created for me, and more.  There was a gorgeous rendition of Jeremy Geffen’s song “Mystery,” done by the choir and instrumentalists, along with other beautiful music.  They also honored me with the designation of Minister Emerita, and gave me beautiful gifts.  There was a photo slideshow of moments from my ministry.  We danced around the dawn redwood tree.  And ate delicious food, and I received so many hugs, including from the children.

The ministry relationship is so very deep in a particular way.  Not the same as friendship, but filled with intimacy.  During conversations with people during the meal, I kept remembering the significant moments I had shared with them. I remembered their loved ones who had died during my ministry.  I remembered the joyful weddings, and the painful separations.  I remembered our work together in the community that I helped to hold and cherish.  I felt the blessing of our relationships.

In retirement, I am leaving those relationships behind.  That will be the hardest part.  I am relieved to let go of the work.  My body just can’t do it any longer.  This year has been hard with many auto-immune flare-ups, days of exhaustion, and just barely keeping up with everything.  I am ready to lay that down.  But I will miss the people.  Not that I will never see them again.  I will be in the same city, and our paths will likely cross occasionally.  But in our tradition, the retiring minister disappears for a while, to give people a chance to form a ministry relationship with someone new.  The Interim Minister has already been chosen, and will arrive August 1st.

Meanwhile, I am cleaning out my office, and saying goodbye to staff members, and taking care of transitional details.  But I feel absolutely full of gratitude and amazement for these wonderful people, that I was lucky enough to serve and to love during these past thirteen years.  Just wow!

My Mystic Father

Dad at 48

[My dad at the age of 48.]

My father Richard Johnson’s funeral is today, and one of my family members will read this story I shared in my book:

I grew up with a father who was a mystic. My father didn’t merely believe in God, he was in love with God. He had called out to God and experienced an answer. It filled his life like a contagious fire. A spark of that fire ignited in my heart too.

My father later described to me his own pivotal experience, which occurred when I was about eight years old. He told me that one day in prayer he had offered his life to God unreservedly. A few days later he was lifted to a state of spiritual bliss that continued for two weeks. During that time, he could feel no pain, and he said if he went walking in the rain, he literally did not get wet. It was during the time when the Russian cosmonauts became the first human beings to leave the earth’s atmosphere, and when he tried to explain what had happened for him, that became his metaphor—he was lifted out of this world. When he read the Christian scriptures, he was struck by the message that Jesus, who had been in glory with God, left that glory to become a human being. He felt then, he too should let go of this heavenly state, and come back into the ordinary human world of suffering and joy, so he could be of service. And so he did.

Living with a mystical father was a powerful gift for me. From my earliest memories, I was familiar with the idea that God could touch our lives. Learning to pray was like learning to talk—there was an expectation someone was listening. God lived in our house like another member of the family. God was talked about as a source of infinite Love. I experienced moments of being held in the care of a strong and cherishing presence.

Fathers

Victor Carpenter

[Rev. Victor Carpenter] 

I learned yesterday morning of the death of my mentor, Rev. Victor Carpenter.  He was my internship supervisor in 1998-99 at the First Church of Belmont, MA, and truly a ministry “father” to me.  He was the same age as my dad, and taught me all the practical ins and outs of life in the ministry, especially a ministry infused with a passion for justice. But the best gift he gave me was his expression of belief and confidence in me–through Victor, I felt I could do everything!

I was ordained at the Belmont church on Fathers Day, June 20 in 1999.  Victor preached the sermon at my ordination, and I was grateful that my dad was also among the many people who participated in the laying on of hands that blessed me for my work in ministry.  That work took me away from the Boston area, so I only saw Victor during occasional visits after that internship year, but his love and belief stayed with me through all the years of my ministry.

I should say a little more about him for those who do not know him.  Victor was a graduate of the Harvard University Divinity School class of 1959.  Along with Belmont, where I knew him, he served churches in Norwell, Massachusetts; Philadelphia; Arlington Street Church in Boston; and The First Church of San Francisco.  He also served The Free Protestant Church of Cape Town, South Africa; perhaps pivotal in shaping his own passion for social justice. After retirement, he was an interim minister in Dorchester, Carlisle, and Hingham, MA.

He received an honorary Doctor of Sacred Theology degree from Starr King School for the Ministry in 1987. In 2011 he received the Unitarian Universalist Association Distinguished Service Award.  (You can read more about his amazing ministries at that website.)  He was active for racial justice, peace in the middle east, access for people with disabilities, and an end to oppressions of all kinds. He was also kind, funny, savvy, and did I say passionate? He was a mentor and support to many others in ministry.

Today I am thinking about his wife Cathe, who herself has been a fierce and loving advocate and educator, and his children and grandchildren, and all of us who were touched by his life and ministry, and feel his loss.  I am also pondering this unlikely juxtaposition for me personally–his death occurring in the very same week as my own dad’s death.  I had known that Victor was terminally ill with cancer, so it wasn’t a complete surprise.  But I feel the double loss of these two father figures in my life, in many ways so different from each other, yet each so pivotal in my spiritual journey. I feel so grateful for the gifts I received through their fathering.

 

Almost Heaven

Rich & Mitzy 2016

[My dad & mom in 2016]

On Saturday May 26, at about 7:45 a.m., my father Rich Johnson breathed his last breath. I was sitting beside him with my mother, and it happened very gently and quietly. My sister Julie and brother Tim had just left the room, after playing a song for my mom. Tears sprang to my chest in a sob, but they were not tears of sadness. Rather they were a spilling over of love, the primal love I feel for my dad, and the overflowing love of my family that filled his room during the preceding days as we gathered.

I can barely describe what that week was like. I had arrived in West Virginia on Monday evening, and met my sister Julie and my mom at the nursing home. Others continued to arrive through the next days. We gathered in Dad’s room–they had moved him to a private room. Dad was mostly sleeping, but would wake sometimes, not talking, but aware of us. We gave each of us time alone with Dad as we needed it, but mostly we were together, sometimes all of us, sometimes various combinations of us, and one or two people would stay the night each night. We kept in touch with our siblings who were not able to travel to be with us through texts and phone calls.

Mostly, I remember the music–so much music. At first we played CD’s he had in his room, but then folks started playing songs on their phones–country songs, God songs, sad songs, songs of love. Then my brother brought in a guitar and we started singing songs. We have such a musical family! In between, we’d remember jokes my dad would tell, and how sometimes he’d start laughing so hard that he couldn’t get to the punchline. And we’d be laughing too. For example, my dad once talked about starting a nursing home in West Virginia. He would name it “Almost Heaven.” (And we sang that John Denver song too.) We filled his room with music and laughter and tears and grace.

Raccoon – CloserOutside his window was a bird feeder (that was true of all the windows at his nursing home) and sometimes the birds would sing too. Then in the evening, a little raccoon would come to the window, totally fearless, to get his dinner at the bird feeder, and bring us more laughs. My nephew named him (or her) Bandit.

I came home on Sunday the 27th, still overflowing with tears of love. I feel grateful that my dad had a long life–87 years–a good life, and a good death, surrounded by love. I feel grateful for my family. We live far apart from each other, from Maine to Montana, from Michigan to Texas, and we have very diverse viewpoints and perspectives on the world. But we make music and laugh and love so beautifully. These days were like being in ceremony, in the presence of the holy, we were touching mystery. Maybe our time together was a last blessing from our dad, who gave us so many blessings during our lives. Or maybe the blessings just continue.

Johnson family 2013

[Johnson parents and siblings in 2013]

Critters

 

Squirrel on deckSo I was sitting on the deck, just writing in my journal, and this little being came within a few feet, just looking at me.  No fear, just curiosity.  We live together in this beautiful place, and perhaps he/she is acknowledging that?  Or saying “Thank you for the sunflower seeds, but why do you make them so hard to get in that crazy contraption?”

Meanwhile, our nocturnal digger has also returned, very politely avoiding the plants and digging up the paths.  I am assuming it is our resident nearby skunk, though it is here earlier than last summer. This year I haven’t even been trying to straighten everything back again, unless it has dug a hole close to a plant.  But as you can see, everything is getting lush and leafy–rhubarb, sea kale, turkish rocket along the back.  Every tree is surrounded by herbs and clover.Nocturnal digger back

This morning I wandered for an hour in the garden to feel the ground and do last minute care-taking before I fly to see my parents today.  I planted some lovely basil that was a gift, watered the annual bed (and discovered some other little neighbor has eaten one of the broccoli seedlings–oh well I hope you enjoyed it), put more compost on the growing asparagus plants, and also watered the summer sweet bush cuttings that are temporarily in a pile of compost as well waiting to be planted.  Margy will tend the garden while I am gone.

I am thinking of my dad today, my spirit is with his spirit during this journey.  May this day be blessed with safe and smooth travels of whatever kind.

Mirror

Cardinal looking at side mirror – Version 2The other day on my walk, I saw a male cardinal fly back and forth to a side mirror on an automobile.  I could imagine his inner dialogue: Who is that other cardinal who is invading my territory?  I will scare him away by attacking him!  Hey, he is still there!  Get out of my territory, you interloper.  Stay away from my nest.  Go on!  Get away. Hey, you’re still there.  I’ll show you who’s boss!

Sadly, the drama continued as I walked on.  But every once in a while, he sat proudly on top, as if he was satisfied that the foe had been vanquished.

We never do that, do we?  Imagine that the enemy is out there, and we’d better keep our guard up–only to discover that the enemy is ourselves?  Or that, in fact, we are the only ones in the arena of our lives?  Maybe it doesn’t matter what we think the other folks are doing–maybe competition is like that mirror–there is no one here but us.

Cardinal on side mirror – Version 2