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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What now?

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Are you getting thrown off-balance by the shocking pronouncements every day from the Trump administration?  I have been wrestling with my heart, needing quiet, needing spaciousness to hear, underneath the din, the voices of the Spirits.  I think I am coming to some clarity.

It is easy to want to pass along the latest Facebook post with one more horror that is being perpetrated on innocent people or the earth.  So much outrage fills my heart when I hear about what is being done.  But it is their plan to stun us with horror, so that we are debilitated and unable to act.  So I plan to stop passing along horrifying posts. I will try to pass along posts of resistance and beauty and solidarity and compassion. I will also continue to post what news I hear from the resistance at Standing Rock, since that is often kept from the media.

Every week I am invited (via Facebook) to several rallies or vigils or demonstrations.  I am happy to see people in the streets–it is important.  But for me, I need so much solitude to keep on track, so much quiet to hear what is going on.  Unlike some people, I don’t find it empowering to be anonymous in a passionate crowd.  I can’t go to the rallies and marches every week.  Maybe I can do this once a month.  Rather, I need to make connections at a personal level.  So when something is coming down that might be hurting people, I will try to reach out to those with whom I have some possible link, to offer more personal support.

Similarly, we’ve been encouraged to inundate our elected representatives to try to stop what is happening.  I know this needs to happen, but it is generally not my own area of strength or passion.  (I have also come to understand that petitions aren’t usually effective, so unless it seems particularly well-suited, I am not going to spend energy on those.)  Phone calls are supposed to be the most effective way of getting counted.  So, I have found a website that sends an email once a week, with simple options for making phone calls on the current issues.  5 Calls uses your location to find your local representatives, and provides phone numbers and scripts so that calling is quick and easy.  I can do that once a week for 5 minutes, and maybe it might work for others too.

I don’t want the Trump administration to hijack my own calling, my own work.  I don’t want to be overwhelmed with guilt or “shoulds” or some internalized expectation of what an activist must look like.  The Spirits say to me, “Be a human being! You don’t have to have all the answers. You don’t have to be the “savior” of the world. Risk your heart. Use your preaching voice to speak the truth. Keep doing your core work.  It is still necessary to wake up to our connection to the earth, our connection to spirit, our connection to each other.  Stay centered in that work.”

Do you have core work that you need to do?  Please know that it is okay to Listen.

 

Prophecy, Part 1

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What does it mean to be a community of prophecy? Rebecca Parker says: “Our times ask us to exercise our capacity for prophetic witness. By prophetic witness I mean our capacity to see what is happening, to say what is happening and to act in accordance with what we know.”

These are capacities that each of us has, to varying degrees. We can’t always see clearly what is going on—but by sharing what we can see with others, by listening to what others see, we can form a better picture of what is going on, a truer understanding of what is happening.

The Quaker educator Parker Palmer recently described patriotism as a “lover’s quarrel with our country.” He reminds us to quarrel lovingly and passionately about truth, about “what is and isn’t true.” Many of the president’s enablers are saying truth itself doesn’t matter anymore. If you repeat a big lie enough times, people will begin to believe it. Or as one person said, “There’s no such thing … anymore of facts.”

Palmer wrote on January 18th:

We who hold the quaint belief that it’s often possible to tell whether what comes out of a mouth is true or false need to assert the facts every chance we get. Last week, for example, the man who says that only he can save our economy claimed that there are “96 million…wanting a job [who] can’t get [one].” False. There are “roughly 96 million people not in the labor force, but that includes retirees, students and others who don’t want jobs. Only 5.5 million of them want work.” The unemployment rate, which neared ten percent every month of 2010, was five percent or less every month of 2016.

He goes on to say:

Facts are so tedious, aren’t they? And they won’t change the minds of true believers. But we need to preserve them for the same reason Medieval monasteries preserved books: the torches have come to town. Let’s try to remember that science and the Enlightenment gave us ways to test the truth-claims of potentates and prelates, laying the foundations for our little experiment in democracy. Until someone blows up the lab, we must proclaim the facts, then tuck them into a fireproof vault until we need them again.

I am thinking about the scientists who began downloading climate change research data from government websites, to preserve the research against the possibility that a new administration would take it all down. Fighting for and preserving truths in a time of propaganda.

To be a community of prophecy we must see what is happening, say what is happening and act in accordance with what we know.

Note:  Rebecca Parker quote from, “Rising to the Challenge of Our Times,” in Walter P. Herz, Redeeming Time: Endowing Your Church with the Power of Covenant, p. 66-67.

Questions to Ask Ourselves

img_0448I have been asking myself and others, what does the change in our country mean for our personal activities and commitments?  Every day I receive dozens of emails asking me to sign this petition or donate to that organization working on behalf of immigrants, or women’s reproductive health care, or the environment, and on and on. Invitations to March on Washington, or Boston, or Augusta. Invitations to lobby my senator or call my congressperson. I can feel overwhelmed by trying to make decisions on what to choose, what to ignore, what to do with the same amount of time in each day, in each week as I have always had.

How are we meant to respond to the current challenges in our world, to the pain and suffering we see? On the one hand, we can say simply—follow our values, care for the vulnerable, fight for justice. But Quaker educator Parker Palmer, in his book, Let Your Life Speak, asks us to take a step back, to look more deeply at what we are being called to do. Palmer says, “Our deepest calling is to grow into our own authentic selfhood, whether or not it conforms to some image of who we ought to be… True vocation joins self and service, as Frederick Beuchner asserts when he defines vocation as ‘the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.’”

So one question we might be asking ourselves is, What is our own deep gladness? What sparks in us a sense of joy, because it taps into the very essence of our gift, our personality, our being? Another way to think of this might be, What are we good at doing? The influential African-American theologian, Howard Thurman, puts it, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

But is it really okay to pay attention to our own hearts, to our own deep gladness, to what makes us come alive? Shouldn’t we be mobilizing, organizing and lobbying every day to support our values in a society where they are under attack? I think what Palmer and Beuchner and Thurman are reminding us is that we can’t give what we don’t have. Not that we can’t learn new skills and rise to challenging occasions—but we can’t sustain a commitment if it goes counter to our nature.

For example, some people might be very at home with organizing a protest rally—making phone calls, posting on social media, renting sound equipment, contacting the right speakers, giving a stirring speech, and so forth. Some one else might be very good at going door to door, talking to neighbors and strangers of all political persuasions, making a connection and bridging the divide. Someone else might be good at strategizing behind the scenes, mapping out goals and objectives, and a course of action to take to get there. Someone else might be very good at bringing coffee and cookies to the meeting, and making sure that each new person is welcomed and brought into the conversation, and leaves feeling a sense of connection and involvement. Even in organizing and mobilizing, we each bring our particular gifts to the table.

And by that same token, we each have limits. Parker Palmer points out that he learned as much about understanding his calling from his limits as from his talents and gifts. He said, “Lacking insight into my own limits and potentials, I had allowed ego and ethics to lead me into a situation that my soul could not abide.”

He isn’t referring to the external limits that society places on people because of our gender, or the color of our skin, or the country of our origin. Rather, he means the limits that arise from our personalities, from our natural way of being in the world, from who we are at our core. We are encouraged to be tender with our natural way of being in the world, and not ask our souls to bear what they cannot abide.

For example, if someone is a complete introvert, they would not best serve their soul by forcing themselves to go to a march or a meeting. Rather, they might be happier to write letters to the editor or to their congressperson. Another person might not be able to go door to door, talking to neighbors, but they are really good at tutoring asylum seekers one-on-one to help them learn to speak English more quickly and feel at home in this country. Our limits and our strengths are mirrors to each other. We need to ask ourselves about our gifts and our limits.

I want to mention something about external limits. Parker Palmer admits that he holds a lot of privilege as an educated white male. Even to ask ourselves about “our soul’s calling” assumes that we have the privilege to ponder the question. Many people work overtime in jobs that do nothing to provide gladness, and barely enough to support a home and food. Another important question to ask ourselves is about our areas of privilege or areas of marginalization. What we can offer the community is dependent upon our social location—and that goes both ways. As a woman, I would not be welcome to share a gift for leading worship in the Catholic community. This is an area of marginalization for me. On the other hand, as someone currently with a steady income, it would be inappropriate for me to try to teach people in poverty how to save their money. It would be intrusive and disrespectful.

We must understand our position in a social fabric, the powers we hold and the challenges we face just by who our people are, where we live, the color of our skin. I am reminded of the advice given to budding writers—write what you know.

So we must ask, What are our gifts, what gives us joy, what are our limits, what is our location? Palmer says, “Is the life I am living, the same as the life that wants to live in me?” It is from this place of understanding our own essence that we can best respond to the great needs of our world.