Top ten best things about liberal religion in 2011, pt. 4

7. This year, for the first time, I feel as though Unitarian Universalism has made some real progress towards figuring out how to be a religion that’s not totally dominated by white folks. (Notice how I’ve qualified that statement: the progress we’re making is towards figuring out how to be less white.)

What progress have we made?

First of all, we’ve begun talking as though racism within Unitarian Universalism means more than just the white folks dominating the few black folks. After a couple of years of having a president of the denomination who is Latino, we’ve finally figured out that there are Unitarian Universalist Latinos, too. We have gotten to a point where we finally seem to understand that our efforts at eradicating racism have to go beyond the binary white/black racial divide.

Secondly, our collective anxiety seems to have gone down somewhat. It used to be that as soon as you started talking about race within a group of Unitarian Universalists, everyone would get so anxious that everyone would freeze up, and the conversation would either end or devolve into ideology and blame games. But this year, I’ve been at several public meeting where white Unitarian Universalists could talk openly about race and racism. (I credit Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed for much of this progress: he has an amazing pastoral ability to get people to talk openly and genuinely about race and racism without freezing up or getting strident.)

Those two things may not seem like much, but they represent some progress. And that’s both amazing, and worth celebrating.

It’s beginning to look a lot like…

Having grown up a New England Yankee in the Puritan heartland, there’s always a part of me that feels Christmas to be an abomination. It was my Puritan ancestors who made Christmas illegal for a short time in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. And the Puritan strain in me thinks there should be only one holy day, and that’s the sabbath, and adding any other holy day is idolatry or worse.

But I’m also the product of several generations of New England Unitarians. Unitarian Louisa May Alcott created the ideal for a liberal religious Christmas in her book Little Women: a home-based family celebration devoted to selfless giving, guilt, and helping others. Unitarian Edmund Hamilton Sears created the ideal for a liberal religious Christmas carol in “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”: a song where the Christmas story is really a story about peace, social justice, and a twinge of guilt upon feeling that you’re not doing enough to make the world a better place.

So I both hate Christmas, and like Christmas. It’s no wonder that when Christmas Day rolls around, I’m ready to ignore the holiday and go out for Chinese food.


Carol sent me a link to the Web site for Occupella, a Bay area a capella singing group. Occupella describes themselves as follows:

Occupella organizes informal public singing at Bay Area occupation sites, marches and at BART stations. We sing to promote peace, justice, and an end to corporate domination, especially in support of the Occupy movement. Music has the power to build spirit, foster a sense of unity, convey messages and emotions, spread information, and bring joy to participants and audience alike.

There’s a link to their Facebook page, where various people have posted tons of lyrics, videos of songs, etc.

If there’s so much singing going on, why is it that at every protest march we have to endure the interminable protest chants in 2/4 time? You know those stupid protest chants: Hey ho, We won’t go, etc. — which repeat over and over and over again ad nauseum, and which make me want to chant in response:

Hey ho, let’s not chant
Those tired old political rants.
And hey ho, the drummers suck,
I mean to say, WTF?
And hey ho, let’s sing instead,
These protest chants are tired and dead.

Music tends to deflate and subvert boring ideological lyrics, so even the most didactic protest song is always better than protest chants. Therefore Occupella gets my full support (for what little my support is worth):

More joy,
Less ranting,
Sing real loud
And drown out chanting!

Shameless promotion

If you’re looking for the perfect last minute-Christmas gift, there’s this great book by Carol Steinfeld called Liquid Gold: The Lore and Logic of Using Urine To Grow Plants. Perfect for bathroom reading, the first half of the book has all kinds of bizarre and funny tidbits about how people have used urine over the centuries — as well as tidbits about the current state of peeing, including urinal video games. The second half of the book gives you serious information about how you can make your garden greener using urine.

So this is the perfect gift for the twelve-year-old boy on your gift list who likes pee jokes (and every adult American male is actually a twelve-year-old boy who likes pee jokes). It is also the perfect gift for the gardener on your list. And if you order by Wednesday, Carol can ship it to you via priority mail so you get it in time for Christmas (for an extra $4 in postage over the special Internet price of $12).

To get it in time for Christmas, call the phone number on Carol’s Web site. If you want it signed, she can sign it for you. And of course I think this is a great book, my sweetheart wrote it.

Top ten best things about liberal religion in 2011, pt. 3

8. You know how people keep saying that young adults don’t want to go to church any more? You know those surveys that say young adults are drifting away from religion? Maybe that’s true considered across the vast mass of population of the United States, but I’m seeing something else going on. In spite of what the Baby Boomers are saying, I’m seeing twenty-somethings coming to our Unitarian Universalist church and liking it.

However, the twenty-somethings are doing church a little differently than the Baby Boomers and older generations. They don’t necessarily come every single week (though quite a few do). They like to use social media to relate to church, and to each other. Since many of them grew up without much or any religion, they don’t all have the same desperate angst about religion that many older Unitarian Universalists do. They seem a lot more relaxed about religion than older folks.

I admit I’m biased: I really like the current twenty-something generation. Taken as a whole, they’re pleasant, quite interested in exploring religion and spirituality, and very committed to social justice work. I hope they come into our churches and droves and take over.

220th birthday

Here’s to the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which, along with the rest of the Bill of Rights, is celebrating its 220th anniversary today. The senior minister here at our church, Amy Zucker Morgenstern, went to a vigil in Palo Alto to celebrate the birthday and protest rising threats to the freedoms enshrined in the Bill of Rights.

I was not able to go to that vigil, but Hershey, a member of the Palo Alto church, sent me an account of something a UMC minister went through while participating in the West Coast Port Shutdown on Monday in Seattle — this minister’s account, with free speech, religion, and an attempt to keep a public assembly peaceable, seems quite relevant to today’s birthday celebration.

Top ten best things about liberal religion in 2011, pt. 2

9. Rethinking districts

This past year, I have been encouraged that quite a few people smart people have continued working on how to refashion the inefficient and inequitable district system.

As it stands now, the Unitarian Universalist Association (the UUA) is the national association of congregations; it is an incorporated non-profit. At a regional level, we have what are known as the districts, which are all separately incorporated non-profits. The UUA provides field services by partnering with the districts to jointly hire field staff (primarily district executives and district program consultants). Thus, field staff are jointly supervised by, and paid by, two separate non-profit corporations: field staff report both to a supervisor at the UUA, and to the board of the local district. This is not only a grossly inefficient system, it is a system that is inherently a breeding ground for conflict.

Equally bad, a congregation will get a different level of services based on which district it happens to be in. Some districts have a full-time district executive, and that’s about it. Other districts have a district executive, a program consultant, both of whose salaries are partly paid by the UUA, plus an administrator, and other part-time staff such as a youth programs coordinator, etc. The fact that the UUA provides more money to field staff in some districts than in other districts is problematic. But then too, the number of congregations in a district varies widely, meaning that congregations in the smaller districts have more access to field staff than congregations in larger districts. All this represents an inequitable use of the UUA budget.

Over the centuries, Unitarians, Universalists, and now Unitarian Universalists have used a variety of organizational structures to link the national organization with the individual congregations: Universalist state conventions, the Western Unitarian Conference, etc. We have a long history of having to change these organizational structures in response to changing times. It’s pretty clear that we can no longer afford the inefficiencies built into the current district system; nor should we have to put up with the inequities. I don’t know what the new structure should look like, but I’m glad that there are smart people experimenting with ways to share field staff resources, communicate better, and provide a more efficient and cost-effective delivery of field staff services.

Click on the tag “Top Ten in 2011” to see other posts in this series.

West coast port shutdown, Oakland

Occupy Oakland is participating in the West coast port shutdown organized for today. Here’s my account of participating in this morning’s action — my perspective is very limited, but I felt it was worth presenting the unspectacular side of the Occupy movement.

I arrived at the West Oakland BART station right at 5:30 a.m., the time we were scheduled to start heading out to the various berths. I looked around for Kurt and Craig, the ministers I was hoping to meet, but couldn’t find them in the pre-dawn darkness. The organizers started us walking towards the terminal; we moved along at a pretty quick walk; this was a serious and committed crowd of people.

I joined the contingent heading to berth 30-32. One of the organizers told us that members of International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 10 said they would not cross a picket line, so we formed two picket lines at the two gates near us. It was not the best-organized picket line I’ve ever seen: people kept drifting away and standing in the middle of the road in front of the gates, then drifting back. I saw a few people wearing shirts or carrying signs identifying themselves with organized labor — some members of the Oakland Education Association (OEA) carrying a banner of their union, someone with an IWW banner, and one or two others. The OEA members and the Wobbly stuck to the picket line.

OEA members on the picket line

I got to talking with Mark, a physician who works for one of the Bay area counties. Continue reading “West coast port shutdown, Oakland”