Labor Day, LGBTQ rights, and the 1963 March on Washington

We’re all hearing a great deal about how the 1963 March on Washington featured Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. But I’ve been thinking about jobs and LGBTQ rights.

With Labor Day just around the corner, I’ve been thinking about how it was billed as a “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” Shannon sent me a link to the Organizing Manual (you can view it online here) — and the Organizing Manual contained this passage about jobs and labor:

Why We March

“We march to redress old grievances and to help resolve an American crisis.

“That crisis is born of the twin evils of racism and economic deprivation. They rob all people, Negro and white, of dignity, self-respect, and freedom. They impose a special burden on the Negro, who is denied the right to vote, economically exploited, refused access to public accommodations, subjected to inferior education, and relegated to substandard ghetto housing.

“Discrimination in education and apprenticeship training renders Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, and other minorities helpless in our mechanized, industrial society. Lacking specialized training, they are the first victims of racism. Thus the rate of Negro unemployment is nearly three times that or whites.

“Their livelihoods destroyed, the Negro unemployed are thrown into the streets, driven to despair, to hatred, to crime, to violence. All America is robbed of their potential contribution. …

“The Southern Democrats came to power by disfranchising the Negro. They know that as long as black workers are voteless, exploited, and underpaid, the fight of the white workers for decent wages and working conditions will fail. They know that semi-slavery for one means semi-slavery for all.”


That’s something to think about on this Labor Day weekend. Maybe we haven’t come as far as we think we have in the last fifty years — with the salaries of the CEOs rising, and the middle class disappearing, these days many white workers are also entering semi-slavery….

And then one of the two names listed on the front page of the Organizing Manual is that of Bayard Rustin. He was crucial to making the March on Washington become a reality. But because he was openly gay, the others who were in charge felt they had to keep Rustin in the background. At least we’ve made some progress in the area of LGBTQ rights; today, they might even have let Rustin speak, or at least show his face on the speaker’s platform [but see Erp’s correction to this statement in the comments below].

Making changes

Major changes may go smoothly, but they are never easy.

This year, our congregation decided to start Sunday school a month earlier than our usual start date. Since 1950, we had started Sunday school classes in the middle of September. Back in the 1950s, that’s when the local school systems began a new school year, so it made sense for Sunday school to resume at the same time. But this year, in 2013, classes in the Palo Alto Unified School District began on August 15. If we were to follow the pattern of past years, we would have had our first day of regular Sunday school classes on September 22; but it simply didn’t make sense for Sunday school to open more than a month later than the public schools.

So this year, we had our intergenerational ingathering service on August 18. The choir came back from its summer hiatus on August 18; and the Sunday school resumed regular classes on August 25. That also meant that Amy, our senior minister, and I, as the minister of religious education, had had to return from our summer breaks a couple of weeks earlier than usual, on July 22.

Now in theory, moving the start of the congregational year back a month is not all that difficult. We started planning months ago, we paid attention to details, and really everything has gone surprisingly smoothly. Yes, there have been some people who forgot that the congregational year was going to begin a month earlier; yes, there have been some minor annoyances for everyone; but on the whole, we have had almost no real problems.

But that doesn’t mean it has been painless. From my perspective, I realized that for the past eighteen years, I have counted on having the Labor Day holiday as a cushion, in case I needed an extra day to prepare for the opening of the congregational year; I had no such cushion this year, and I could have used it; I’m pretty burned out right now. From the perspective of families, I’ve received a few plaintive email messages from parents saying that they didn’t realize Sunday school was starting so soon; this makes me feel terrible.

And I know from experience that every time you make major changes in a congregational system, you will run afoul of unexpected effects (some of which remain hidden for months) for the next ten to twelve months. Sometimes it’s a cascade effect: one small thing is affected, and that results in two other small changes, which result in even more small changes.

If there is a theological lesson to be drawn from this, it is that everything is connected, often in ways of which we have little or no awareness.

If there is a practical lesson to be drawn from this, it is that even a positive change, one that is widely supported, can be difficult to implement. Which makes me think: No wonder it’s hard to grow a congregation.

Are you hungry?

According to a recent survey by Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution (PRRI), the strength of religious conservatives may be waning:

“Our new research shows a complex religious landscape, with religious conservatives holding an advantage over religious progressives in terms of size and homogeneity,” said Robert P. Jones, CEO of PRRI. “However, the percentage of religious conservatives shrinks in each successive generation, with religious progressives outnumbering religious conservatives in the Millennial generation (ages 18-33).” (“Survey finds strength in religious left,” attributed to Religious News Service and added sources, Christian Century, 21 August 2013, p. 12.)

In my own religiously progressive congregation, we’re seeing an astonishingly large number of visitors and newcomers — I estimate it’s something on the order of 200 or more a year (not all of whom we manage to count accurately). Since our congregation has a year-round average attendance of just over 200, you can see that 200 visitors is a significant quantity of visitors.

But our attendance is holding pretty much steady. (It does look like we’ve seen an uptick of about 5% in the last 12 months, so maybe we’re starting on an upward trend.) I’m willing to bet that most progressive congregations are probably in pretty much the same boat we are: lots of visitors, not much retention.

Back when I was in sales, we used to talk about whether you were hungry or not. Your sales commission is low? Maybe you’re not hungry. Is another salesperson doing better than you? Then she or he is hungrier than you are. It’s just like when you’re actually hungry — I mean starving hungry — and hunger forced you to have a laser-like focus on where your next meal came from. For salespeople, being hungry meant you didn’t rest on past performance because you were always looking ahead to where the next sale was going to come from. Being hungry meant that you were willing to go the extra distance to build relationships with potential customers. Being hungry meant that you were always on your game, and never slacked off for a moment.

I think religious progressives need to get hungry. We are too willing to rest on past performance — “We were involved in the Civil Rights Movement!”; but that’s in the past, and today, who cares? Too often, we are not willing to go the extra distance — “I don’t want to seem like I’m proselytizing”; instead of thinking about how you can share an important part of your life with those who might want it. We’re not hungry, so we’re not on our game.

I think progressive religion will continue to grow. But I’m not convinced that it will be centered in existing progressive congregations — that is, unless we get hungry.

A letter about learning and experience

Dear Mark,

In my last letter, I outlined a possible theology that might relate to religious education, and religious experience more broadly. In this letter, I’m going to start with a description of some real-life religious education, and then get into some thoughts about education and experience.


A couple of Sundays ago, I was helping out with our summer Sunday school program. We had a dozen kids ranging in age from not-quite-five to thirteen, as well as four adults. Our plan was to walk over to Mitchell Park, a city park right behind our congregation’s campus, play on the play structures, have snack, and return. This was in service of the first of our four big educational goals: we want children to have fun and feel they are part of a community.

On the walk to the park, Edie, our lead teacher, set off in front and the rest of us followed. We got to the nearest set of play structures in the park, and some children went to the swing set, while others climbed on the oddly shaped climbing structure, and a couple of children stayed next to a large tree. Mitsuru, who is about 8, climbed up the tree a few feet, and when he was close to my height, we chatted for a while until he got bored and climbed back down. (1) Pretty soon all the children were bored, and we all decided to go over to the farther play area, which has many more things to play on and is much more fun.

As we walked over, I fell into conversation with Rose, who is thirteen. Some of the little kids were talking about sports so I asked Rose if she was involved in any sport. She said, “Only if you count horseback riding as a sport.” I said that I did, and that my older sister was an avid horsewoman. She told me how she gets to ride when she visits a cousin who lives far away, but has no place to ride nearby. I told her about a college that has horses, and lets you take horseback riding for physical education credit. And by this time we were at the farther play area.

(By now you might be saying: What a long description of seemingly trivial conversations! But it is experiences of these seemingly trivial conversations that build networks of relationships between people, that help us fulfill our first big educational goal — to have fun and build community. In order to reach this goal, we are not using root-tree model of learning here, we’re using a rhizome model — we’re not trying to nurture one deep tap root, we’re trying to nurture lots on interconnections.) Continue reading “A letter about learning and experience”

A letter about learning and salvation

Dear Mark,

You ask us to write a “Letter to Mark,” in which we are to talk about what we learned during the week-long course at Ferry Beach. You also invite us to post this on some public forum — Facebook, a congregational newsletter, a blog, etc. — and so I am posting this to my blog before I even send it to you. But before I address the issues you ask about, I have to begin by talking about one or two big problems that overshadow liberal religion right now, in this moment in history; those problems will require some theology; and after doing some theology I will finally address the issues you ask about, what I learned at Ferry Beach and how what I learned is shaping my own praxis and my own spiritual journey.

A big problem that we religious liberals face right now is whether science has made religion outdated. Science and technology hold out great promise for improving human life, and indeed they have accomplished many things already: science and technology have cured many diseases, extended our life spans, made it possible to feed many more people so that fewer need to go hungry, and so on. Perhaps liberal religion is now outdated, for what could religion offer to compare with the accomplishments of science and technology? On the other hand, science and technology have also created some horrors: atomic bombs, chemicals that have caused damage to us and other organisms, and a massive miasma of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that threatens the long-term survival of large mammals (including human beings). Perhaps science and technology are not an unmitigated good; in which case, does religion have something to offer a world that is both enriched by scientific wonders and technological marvels, and endangered by scientific and technological horrors?

To put all this another way: science and technology investigate the world and make things, but they don’t judge what they learn or make. Richard Feynman, a physicist who worked at Los Alamos during the Second World War, made this clear when he talked about his excitement at helping design and build the first atomic bomb: “You see, what happened to me — what happened to the rest of us — is we started for a good reason, and then you’re working very hard to accomplish something and it’s a pleasure, it’s excitement. And you stop thinking [about the consequences of what you’re doing], you know; you just stop.” (1) If scientists have stopped thinking, then who is thinking, who’s calling the shots, who or what is determining what is right and what is wrong? Continue reading “A letter about learning and salvation”

Calumnies and Reproaches

Joseph Addison said: “Were all the Vexations of Life put together, we should find that a great Part of them proceed from those Calumnies and Reproaches which we spread abroad concerning one another…. It is a pretty Saying of Thales, Falshood is just as far distant from Truth, as the Ears are from the Eyes. By which he would insinuate, that a Wise Man should not easily give Credit to the Reports of Actions which he has never seen.”

(From The Spectator, 15 September 1714.)

My mother put this in the form of an imperative: If you don’t have something nice to say about someone, then don’t say anything at all. But in reducing it to a simple imperative that her children could remember, she had to tell us not to spread nasty rumors, although ideally, as Addison points out, it is best not to listen to them in the first place; she also had to leave out how staying clear of “Calumnies and Reproaches” is related to the search for truth.

And yet, one of the things we have learned from the recent progress in stopping sexual abuse of children is that sometimes you can be aware of the truth of something without having actually seen it. We should not easily give credit to the reports of actions which we have never seen; but we should also not blind ourselves to wrongdoings and evil doings that have been deliberately hidden from view.