Doing democracy in the UUA

I just received email from the folks running the General Assembly business meeting. They say in part:

“The GA business process has begun. It begins early to be more accessible, inclusive, and democratic.”

Um, well, no it’s not more accessible and inclusive to some of us. It’s not very accessible to parents of young children, or to people caring for elderly parents. It’s not especially accessible to people like me who are working more than full time (because that’s the sad reality for many of us these days, we’re expected to work long hours). So I guess this is more accessible for people who are retired, or who only have to work 40 hours a week with no child care or elder care responsibilities.

This, by the way, is one of the major threats to democracy today. Most of us can’t carve out enough time from job and family responsibilities to participate fully in democracy.

Honestly, given how little time I have to spend on democratic process, local government is going to be my first priority, with state and federal government next. And when it comes to Unitarian Universalism, my top priority is keeping my local congregation going. So I’m sympathetic to the folks running General Assembly — they have a minimum amount of time that they feel needs to be spent on the democratic process — but I just don’t have the kind of time they’re asking for.

The Universalist church in Assinippi

White clapboard church building with steeple

I stopped by the First Universalist Church of Assinippi; Assinippi is a village in Norwell, Mass. It is beautifully sited on a small rise just a few feet from the boundary between Norwell and Hanover. The congregation dates back to 1766, when people living in the area petitioned to be set off as a separate congregation. At that time, this was a part of the town of Scituate, and the people who lived here had to travel several miles to get to church. Their petition was denied, although they kept petitioning to become a separate congregation.

Over the next couple of decades, they built a spare meetinghouse. They also became convinced of the truth of universal salvation; both John Murray and Hosea Ballou were said to preach to the congregation, probably beginning in the late 18th century. Finally in 1812, Massachusetts allowed them to formally organize as a Universalist congregation.

In recent years, their numbers have declined. The latest UUA Directory places their membership at 8. But they have a long and proud history as a center for Universalism in southeastern Massachusetts.

I’ll include excerpts from some local histories below the fold that give more details about the congregation.

Continue reading “The Universalist church in Assinippi”

Gall

I was walking down the rail trail from the Cohasset train station through Whitney Thayer Woods when a brightly colored something seemingly caught in an oak seedling caught my eye.

Oak sapling with something fuzzy white with red spots growing on it.

Closer inspection revealed that it was a gall. I took a photo and uploaded it to the iNaturalist app, which informed me that it was probably a gall made by a Wool Sower Gall Wasp (Callirhytis seminator).

Closeup of the same fuzzy white object.

What a strange phenomenon galls are. Somewhere inside that fuzzy red-and-white ball is a wasp egg. Somehow, the wasp egg causes the plant to produce a protective growth. But why is the growth so bright and so showy? Is there an evolutionary advantage for the plant? Or is it just happenstance that something so beautiful grows around the wasp egg?

Garlic Mustard song

The invasive species problem remains one of the top threats to Earth’s life-sustaining systems. Yes, global climate change is scary, especially now that it looks like we’re now on track for a 2.5 degree increase. Sigh. But it’s also scary to watch familiar landscapes rapidly lose their biodiversity as they are overrun by invasives — native trees literally being pulled down by Oriental Bittersweet, native songbirds being driven out their nesting sites by invasive House Sparrows, native plants being killed off by the chemicals released into the soil by invasive Garlic Mustard…. Anyway, I decided to write a song about what we can do to Garlic Mustard.

Image of sheet music

(Yes I claim copyright, but I hereby grant you permission to sing it, reproduce it, record it, etc.)

Recipe for Garlic Mustard Pesto.

“Transcendental Meditation” lawsuit, and more

Yesterday, Religion News service (RNS) posted an article titled “Lawsuit alleges religious coercion through meditation in Chicago Public Schools.” The story tells about a former student in a Chicago public school who is suing the Chicago public schools and the David Lynch Foundation for engaging in religious instruction in a public school by teaching “Transcendental Meditation.” I put “Transcendental Meditation” in quotation marks because it’s a trademarked term for a specific form of meditation, originally taught in the U.S. by the self-styled Mahareshi Mahesh Yogi (birth name not known for certain). The RNS story is definitely worth reading, because the reporter makes clear the difference between teaching about religion, which is allowed in public schools, and actual religious instruction, which is not allowed in public schools.

The article also led me to the TM-Free Blog, which presents a critical view of “Transcendental Meditation.” This blog makes it clear, among other things, that “Transcendental Meditation” is a religious movement — I’d characterize it as a New Religious Movement based on Hinduism. Also of interest, a 2022 post alleges that “Transcendental Meditation” has links to right-wing politicians in India. And there’s a link to a document produced by the “Transcendental Meditation” folks titled “Introduction to the Holy Tradition,” which is worth reading by anyone interested in religious texts produced by New Religious Movements.

Another link from the article led me to a Penn State news release titled “People with anxiety may strategically choose worrying over relaxing” about a psychological study showing that persons with anxiety disorder or major depressive disorder may experience negative effects while using relaxation techniques — this is another study in a growing body of research showing that the benefits of relaxation techniques do not work equally well for all persons.

Eurovision

The Eurovision song contest is usually ignored here in the U.S. That might change a teeny bit with this year’s contest, which was won for the first time by a non-binary singer, with a song about how they came to terms with their non-binary identity. (This song will surely be condemned by the U.S. right-wing, and perhaps embraced by some of the U.S. LGBTQ+ community and their allies. But most Americans will probably ignore Eurovision, as usual.) Good for Nemo for winning.

But this is the only Eurovision contest where I actually had a song that I wanted to win. The nu-folk duo Puuluup, from Estonia, teamed up with the Estonian hiphop group 5miinust on the song “(Nendest) narkootikumidest ei tea me (küll) midagi.” They came in 20th, out of 25 finalists. Of course they didn’t win; if I like them, they’re not going to win.But wouldn’t it have been cool if someone playing a folk instrument — in this case, the talharpa — won Eurovision?

Another alleged genocide

The attention of the United States remains firmly fixed on alleged genocide in Gaza. But another alleged genocide has received little or no notice. Human Rights Watch alleges that a genocide has been committed in Sudan. The BBC reports:

“A genocide may have been committed in the West Darfur city of El Geneina in one of the worst atrocities of the year-long Sudanese civil war, according to a report released by Human Rights Watch (HRW). It says ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity have been committed against ethnic Massalit and non-Arab communities in the city by the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces and its Arab allies. The report calls for sanctions against those responsible for the atrocities, including the RSF leader, Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, widely known as Hemedti. The UN says about 15,000 people are feared to have been killed in El Geneina last year.”

Here’s the full BBC story. Be warned: it makes for unpleasant reading.

The reason I mention this alleged genocide is that wars and violence in sub-Saharan Africa don’t seem to get much attention in the US. Take for example the brutal war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The DRC has close to three quarters of the world’s cobalt reserves, and cobalt is a key ingredient in the lithium ion batteries that the U.S. and other countries are counting on the halt global climate change. Yet we rarely hear about this war in the US, and there are no protests calling for divestment from companies that profit from access to cheap cobalt for their lithium-ion batteries. Similarly, little attention has been paid in the US to the Mahgreb insurgency in Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, and other nearby countries, even though al-Qaeda is behind much of the violence. Perhaps Americans have grown weary of hearing about al-Qaeda, but I would have expected a bit more media and social media attention paid to a conflict featuring a stated enemy of the US. Or what about the conflict in Ethiopia which began in 2018 and may now be slowly winding down — estimates of the death toll vary from 180,000 at the low end to over 600,000. I saw no widespread outrage in the US over the atrocities committed in that conflict.

So why does the war in Gaza and Israel draw so much attention? I suspect this is partly it’s because psychologically we humans have a limited capacity for compassion. Compassion fatigue is a real thing, and if you’re paying attention to Ukraine and Gaza/Israel, you probably don’t have much compassion left over for alleged genocide in Sudan. I suspect the lack of attention is also due in part to the fact that most people in the US have little interest in what happens in Africa. When I’m looking for news and information on Africa, I don’t find much on US news outlets or US social media; I have to go to the BBC. But I don’t really have an answer to this question, except maybe to say that we in the US reserve the right to choose which atrocities we pay attention to.

From a 1907 book

The Public Domain Review website posted a summary of the 1907 book Capital and Labor written by Christian socialist Rev. W. S. Harris, with illustrations by Paul Krafft (Brantford, Canada: Bradley-Garretson, 1907). They included scans of the entertaining illustrations in the book.

Sadly, some of the illustrations are just as topical today as they were 117 years ago. Like this one, titled “The Monster of Monopoly”:

Illustration of an alligator eating a map of the United States

“Monopoly is rapidly swallowing the whole country. We are thankful, however, that all this greed cannot and does not escape the public eye. It is to be hoped that very soon public opinion will deal a crushing blow to this monster.”

I also like this illustration, titled “Montain of Money,” showing a rich man with too much money:

Illustration of a rich man ordering others to count his piles of money.

“It is time to call a halt when the income of one man is so great that he could not handle it himself in cold cash, while the income of his workers is not enough to keep them decently alive.”

But my personal favorite of all the many illustrations in the book is this one, titled “The Idol of Monopoly”:

Illustration of a huge idol being built.

“The workers of America have made unto themselves an idol called Monopoly, which many of them still admire and worship. Oh workers! This is not your god.”

I’m sure that Rev. Harris felt that even the golden calf of old was not worshipped with such devotion as the idol of Monopoly.

Happy May Day

On May 1, 1886 — 138 years ago today — the American Federation of Labor called a general strike to demand the eight hour day. The strike culminated in Chicago with the Haymarket Massacre a few days later. As the demonstrators were peacefully leaving the demonstration, someone exploded a bomb. The police fired wildly into the crowd, killing and wounding both police officers and demonstrators. Eight people were arrested, even though there was no evidence that they were involved with the bomb, and four of them were executed. In 1893, it was finally declared that all eight were innocent —far too late for the four who had been unjustly executed. Unitarian Universalist blogger Patrick Murfin tells this story better than I can.

Eventually, the eight hour day was established as the norm for workers. But that began to change in this twenty-first century. With hardly any workers in unions, many corporations have been been emboldened to do whatever they want. Amazon delivery drivers are often forced to work 10-12 hour days (I used to hang out with an Amazon delivery driver, who told me this). Walmart employees are only given part-time work (which means no benefits), then forced to work irregular schedules that don’t allow them to pick another job. By the 2010s, Google hired contractors to run its infamous Google buses; the contractors paid crap wages and forced the drivers to work split shifts. As for the big executives, they just kept giving themselves raises. By 2020, the typical CEO was paid 351 times the salary of the average worker. There are still lots of great companies out there, places you’d want to work (some ofwhich are owned by Unitarian Universalists), but on the whole the conditions for workers are getting worse, not better.

As for the two political parties, neither one of them seems to care much about the shrinking wages of the middle class, lower middle class, and working class. The Democrats used to be the party of Big Labor, but with the demise of unions, I guess they figure they have little incentive to deal with workers’ issues. The Republicans at least pretend to pay attention to the needs of workers, and I give them credit for that — but when push comes to shove, they always seem to support the big corporations.

The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) has never been a strong supporter of the needs of workers. The denominational magazine often carries articles about supporting the rights and needs of people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ+ folks, and women — all of which is great, we need that. But there aren’t many articles about workers needs.

I understand. It’s just not our thing. I can accept that. We’re a small denomination. We can only do so much; we’re probably overextended as it is. If the UUA doesn’t want to support unions, or workers’ needs and rights, that’s OK with me. Focusing on a few things is a good idea.

But personally, I support unions and unionization. I spent 12 years punching a time clock in various jobs in the residential construction business, and another year and a half punching a time clock in a health food store. While I never worked in a unionized workplace, I was grateful for eight hour days, overtime pay after eight hours, workers compensation, OSHA, and benefits packages — all of which, as I learned from older workers, only happened because of unions. Even though I was never a union member, I would have been much worse off financially through my twenties and thirties if it hadn’t been for unions.

Anyway. Happy May Day.

Another view of war

Vera Brittain served as a V.A.D. (Voluntary Aid Detachment) nurse during the First World War, serving in Malta, France, and London. Having seen the horrors of the “Great War” first hand — and after having her fiance, her brother, and her two best male friends die in the war — she became a committed pacifist. In 1937, while the threat of another European war kept growing, she said this in a pamphlet published by the Peace Pledge Union:

“I hold war to be a crime against humanity, whoever fights it, and against whomever it is fought.”

[Quoted in “Vera Mary Brittain,” Poetry Foundation website, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/vera-mary-brittain accessed 29 April 2024.]