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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The One Who Lifts Up the Lowly

 He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
Luke 1:52-53

April 4th will be the 46th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Earlier this year, I invoked his presence to explore how the values of partnership and nonviolence were important to find an experience of wholeness.  I spoke about the concept of the Beloved Community, a goal to which we might strive in the process of reconnecting to our fellow human beings.  I want to focus for the next several days on further reflections about his life and faith, and how our connections to each other are related to our experience of the Mystery at the heart of life, that some have called God.

Four years ago, I heard Dr. Melissa Harris-Lacewell speak at the MLK Breakfast in my city. She is a professor of Political Science and African American Studies at Princeton University, and also studying at Union Theological Seminary in New York. I was struck by her comments about the amazing faith experience of black people in America—how black people “came to believe in a loving, benevolent and just God when there was so little empirical evidence to support that world view.”

After being stripped of every vestige of human dignity, forced to abandon their languages and religions, and cut off from their families, they were compelled to adopt the religion of the slave-holders. And while the masters used the Bible to justify slavery, within the stories of Moses and the prophets black people began to find a message of hope and liberation. They were inspired and encouraged to believe in their own worth and dignity. She said,

It is humbling to remember that women and men who were born into slavery, and never expected anything but slavery for their children and grandchildren, nonetheless believed that they were equal human beings worthy of the love of a benevolent and intervening God. It is a different kind of knowing, one with at least as much power as reason and evidence.

220px-Runaway_slaveThey were inspired to rebel against the masters, to escape from their bondage, and seek a path to freedom. And really, what were the slave-holders thinking? The central story of the Jewish scriptures, and also adopted into the Christian bible, is the story of Moses leading the slaves out of bondage in Egypt, on a journey toward freedom and the promised land. If you take away that story, you don’t have a story. The God of Moses, the God of the Bible, was willing to intervene to help a suffering people find a new life.

Now, I want to interject a comment here, to say that there is no way to prove that this kind of God exists. How could anyone prove that God intervenes on the side of the poor and the outsider? We can’t. In fact, historians and scholars will argue that there is no historic evidence that the exodus of slaves from Egypt ever happened. We are moving outside of the realm of reason and evidence and into the realm of mythic truths. As Harris-Lacewell says, “It is a different kind of knowing.” But we do know that the slaves in America created their own kind of exodus. They found some kind of power in the stories that strengthened their hearts and lifted up their spirits and set them free.

Quotes from Harris-Lacewell are from “Progressive Bible Study,” and “Our Jeremiah.” 

A God Who Is Not All Powerful?

A while back I picked up a book by Andrew Greeley called God Game. His premise intrigued me. A man is asked to test a new computer game. In this game, he interacts with characters who are people in a computer generated world. He types in commands which the characters perceive as an inner voice coming from their God. He uses this influence to shape the direction of the story in progress. In a process similar to writing a novel, he can create a tragedy, a comedy, a romance. He can use commands to influence the weather, or physical objects.

When our narrator begins the game he discovers the people are fighting a war, and likely to soon destroy each other. Being a benevolent author, he begins to direct them to make peace with their enemies. But soon it is apparent that the game is more complicated than that.

First of all, he learns that he can command the characters to take certain actions, but sometimes they choose to ignore his direction. The programmers have included freedom as one of the parameters of the program. He must work with the characters that are open to his leading, and use the actual abilities written into their personalities. Then to top it off, sometimes trouble arrives in the form of random events. Eventually, he become totally immersed in the game and finds he loves the people under his care. He agonizes over how to help the peace succeed.

The book explores the premise of a loving God who is not all powerful. I found myself feeling sympathy for such a God who might feel frustrated, and worried, and angry sometimes. He wants the story to come out well. He wants the characters to live happily ever after. But all he can do is offer assistance and inspiration as they face the problems of their world: he was not able to eradicate evil in one fell swoop.

In contrast, I grew up with the idea of a God who was supposed to be in charge of everything. All-powerful, all knowing, and all good. Whatever happened, it must fit into the will of God, and therefore be for the good. Even when bad things happened, we were to accept it as a part of God’s mysterious plan. But Elie Wiesel challenged such a view with his unrelenting questions: How could anyone accept a God who could ordain such an evil as the Holocaust? How could anyone trust a God who would stand by and let it happen?

Photo Source Unknown

Photo Source Unknown

Episcopal theologian, Carter Heyward, was deeply influenced by the questions of Elie Wiesel. For Heyward, as for Wiesel, the Holocaust was an indictment of the churches’ understanding of God as a supreme power who dominates the world. It was an indictment of the idea of obedience as morally desirable. Likewise, it found unacceptable a God who is merely an observer, a spectator in the face of such horrors. If God is indifferent to human suffering, then there is no use to us for such a God.

Heyward writes that for Elie Wiesel nothing is of more fundamental value than mutual relationship. The only ethical God must be found in loving relationships between people. In the camps, the opposite happened: the Jews were treated as if they no longer existed. The camps were a systematic assault on every element of personhood: numbers instead of names, meaningless hard labor, separation from family, arbitrary selection for extermination. The only ethical response to such evil would be to make a connection with those who suffer, to resist evil’s capacity to destroy the power of relationship.

Irving Greenberg put it like this: “…to talk of love and of a God who cares in the presence of the burning children is obscene and incredible; to leap in and pull a child out of a pit, to clean its face and heal its body, is to make the only statement that counts.” In other words, to face the problem of evil, we must resist violence and dehumanization by acts of connection and relationship.