Friday, January 29, 2010

Consider Michigan...

I've been thinking a lot about Detroit and Michigan lately.  None of my thoughts have been particularly cheerful.  I was in a discussion last night about my disappointments with the Obama administration's handling of the situation in Michigan.  We named three times in this first year when he has let us down, seeming to not care about the situation here.  First, not rescuing the automobile industry the way the bank bailout was done, but being contented with a "rescue" that left us, as a state, hugely negatively impacted, even though the corporations have survived (barely).  Second, backing Illinois against Michigan and all the other Great Lake states about the situation with the Asian carp.  Third, and most recently, giving Michigan only a pittance of the money for light rail: Illinois 1.23 Billion, Michigan 40 Million.*  Now you can disagree with any of this, explaining why Michigan doesn't deserve more aid.  But what I can tell you is the situation in Michigan is very bleak.  Do a search right now for homes for sale in Rosedale Park, Detroit.  That's a nice neighborhood in Detroit, an area where a handful of years ago, homes were selling from $200,000-$300,000.  It's easy to find a three bedroom home for under $20,000 now.  There are homes for sale all over the place. 

It's the same way in our churches, frankly.  I have never seen so many churches in transition in one state at one time.  It adds up to a big problem for our state and our district.  With so many churches in flux and the economy so negative, giving to our district is down, which hurts our district enormously.  Our district is laying off all its part-time consultants, has gotten rid of its physical office, and is cutting what expenses it can where it can.  Because we're giving less to the district and the UUA as churches, the UUA gives less to us back, as well.  It's a sort of denominational version of No Child Left Behind - when the system starts to fail somewhere, we defund it as an incentive for it to get on its feet.  That's how I see it, anyway.  With so many churches in transition, there's also a crisis in our district, in that we have fewer leaders to draw from to support our UUMA and our Heartland District programs.  It's hard to do visioning about how our churches can work together, how we can grow and thrive, when so many churches are in transition with their minister.

And, yes, you can point at every single church and explain why that minister left, but when you look at the big picture and say, the Heartland District has more transitions going on in churches than anywhere else, and of that, Michigan has the most, and of that, the Detroit metro area has the most, well, that adds up to something more.  It's not just coincidence.  Yes, there were planned retirements in both Birmingham and Grosse Pointe, and yes, many churches take two years to search.  But then you add in situations like the Detroit church, which hasn't had a settled minister since Larry Hutchison left, and Troy, which went from part-time ministry to lay-led, and you start to see that there is an economic impact that's happening here.  Even Birmingham has gone from two full-time ministers a couple of years ago to one.  When I left a 3/4-time ministry in Massachusetts, I knew that there were more than a handful of ministers who I knew personally who would love that position for geographical reasons.  The 3/4-time ministry in Brighton?  Their search will not be nearly so easy.  Perhaps they'll get lucky and just the right minister will want that position, but if you're looking for a pulpit in Southeast Michigan, there are a lot of full-time ones to choose from.  No offense meant to Brighton, of course, which is a lovely growing thriving congregation.  These are all great congregations.  But the list goes on: Flint, Midland, Grand Rapids, Muskegeon, Portage, Mt. Pleasant - all in interim, consulting, or sans ministry.  There are 26 congregations in Michigan.  There are 10 with a settled, called minister.  At least two of those churches are part-time. 

Things aren't looking hopeful around here, either politically or religiously, to me right now.  That's why when I find something hopeful, I want to share it!   When I start thinking about theses seemingly hopeless situations like the situation that is Detroit's economy, I need to remember my understanding of what hope is.  Hope is not expecting that things look likely to happen, hope is about continuing to work for them, even in the face of incredible odds, because they mean too much to be let go of.  That's hope.  And I have great hope for Detroit, for Michigan, and for Unitarian Universalism in our region, too.  We're doing some innovative things at our district level in response to this.  We can do innovative things at congregational levels and local levels.  And we can do innovative things for our region as a whole.

Declare Detroit looks like a positive, forward-thinking vision for Detroit.  I'd love to see us as liberal religious churches find a similar vision for our region.  Meanwhile, I encourage you to sign onto Declare Detroit. 


* Numbers updated due to errors. Note: the $40 million for Michigan is a small percentage even of the $244 million for the Detroit-Chicago corridor, of which Michigan has the longest percentage of the track.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Responding to trends

Here at the Heartland Unitarian Universalist Ministers' Association winter conference, we're discussing 13 trends in congregational life from  Recognizing, as one minister pointed out, that trends are not necessarily the same as best practices, how do we adapt our congregations to respond to the changing realities?  These include the increasing racial and ethnic diversity in our country (while UUism remains at an enormously high percentage white; that people increasingly describe themselves as "spiritual but not religious," increasing use of internet, the aging population and the shifting reality of the young adult population as embodying a new stage of life that is "emerging adulthood" where marriage and children are postponed during a period of high freedom of choice and experimentation.

Some of these trends work naturally with Unitarian Universalism.  Some of them we may be well-placed to respond to.  Others we will struggle with more than other religions. 

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Worth Watching...

Liberal Religion: THIS Is the Difference

In introducing the special offering this week for the Haiti earthquake relief funds, I made the following remarks:
           It was hard for me not to drop my entire sermon that I had planned this week and preach on the situation in Haiti.  There’s much to be said about the religious response to sorrow and suffering, and what our theology has to tell us in times like this.  And so, since I can’t help myself, really, I wanted to say a little bit about it here, because I am doing the sermon later on the previously announced subject.
            We often refer to Unitarian Universalism as a liberal religion.  And that’s different from what liberal means in a political sense.  But it’s often hard to articulate what that difference is, and what being a liberal religion means.  Not so this week.  Our liberal faith becomes clear, in sharp contrast to the conservative faith we hear from the televangelists in response to natural devastating catastrophes.  In the wake of 9/11 we heard Jerry Fallwell say, “I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way -- all of them who have tried to secularize America -- I point the finger in their face and say 'you helped this happen.”  And in the wake of Hurricane Katrina Fred Phelps said things so disgusting that I’m not going to repeat them here.  And now, of course, we have Pat Robertson saying, “They were under the heel of the French, Napoleon the third or whatever, and they got together and swore a pact to the devil.  They said we will serve you if you will get us free from the French.  True story…  But ever since they have been cursed by one thing after the other, desperately poor…”
            Here’s the difference between conservative religion and liberal religion.  Conservative religion looks at success, and thanks God for it, and believes it’s God’s will that they have success and riches and health.  Conservative religion looks at tragedy and says, really, that it is God’s will, or God’s curse, that this is what God has chosen, and usually for a reason.  Now, our liberal faith, if you believe in God, looks at success, looks at the good that comes into people’s lives, and says, what God would want is for me to share this luck with others.  And liberal religion looks at tragedy and says, God is with those who suffer, and God will be with me if I do whatever I can to alleviate the suffering.  Because God is love, and love is a verb.  God is in the ways we reach out to the hurting world.  There is God.  God is in the doing the work of justice and the work of restoration and the work of feeding the hungry and healing the sick.  There is God.

To donate to the UUSC's special fund for Haiti, please go here.
We also on Sunday accepted donations for the Red Cross.  Their donation page is here.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Haiti - UUSC relief fund

This from the UUSC webpage: 

UUSC is accepting donations to provide aid to the people affected by the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti. If you would like to donate by check, please make it payable to "UUSC/UUA Haiti Earthquake Relief Fund" and mail it to UUSC, P.O. Box 844001, Boston, MA 02284-4001.

If you wish to donate online, go to <>.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

When Will This End?

I got an e-mail today about the death of yet another young (age 31) gay man in Michigan, Ryan Ende.  This latest young man's life story was one of pain and rejection, including religious rejection.  Ryan went to seminary to train for the ordained ministry, but was refused ordination because of his sexual orientation. A loving eulogy can be read here on his church's blog.  The eulogy doesn't directly say how Ryan's life ended.  But too many lives of young gay men are cut short, whether it is through violence, suicide, or depression-related issues like alcholism.  Ryan's story is many things, but it is in part the story of a young man's life struck down too soon, a life filled with rejection, and with depression and alcoholism, as described in his obituary.  Reading Ryan's story I was filled with sorrow, because it's a story I've heard too often. 

One of the ways I've seen lives cut too short is through suicide.  I had known that the suicide rate for gay men is higher than average (three times higher, in fact), before coming home here to Michigan.  But I hadn't encountered that fact in my life or in my ministry.  Since coming home to Michigan, I have seen way too many deaths, deaths which come all too early in the lives of the gay men in our communities.  If I count them on my fingers, they're still on one hand.  But the fact that the suicide rate of the gay men in my community is so much higher than the average suicide rate is alarming to me.  It says to me that we're still not, as a community, embracing these young men and telling them that they are loved children, of God or any other religious system.  It says to me our community, in particular, needs to be doing some major work learning to live a message of love and acceptance. 

And we're not.  In Jackson, Michigan, we're still denying that gay and lesbian relationships matter, through denying them marriage or "any similar union."  We're denying that they deserve equal access to employment, housing, and fair treatment in numerous ways through refusal to pass an equal rights ordinance.  If you go to any PFLAG meeting, you'll hear stories of people who are LGBorT facing discrimination in their employement if they have employment, and in their ability to find employment, if they don't.  You'll hear struggles for housing.  And yet, despite this, our City Council members want to pretend that there is no problem.  And there is religious discrimination aplenty.  We're routinely shutting them out of churches through not being willing to take a stand and become inclusive, open and affirming, or welcoming congregations.  I hope our local UCC churches, congregational churches, and maybe Westminster Presbyterian, and some UMC and Lutheran churches are getting closer and closer to the point of making an official stand, but to my knowledge none have yet.  Our little UU church remains the only *officially* welcoming congregation to people who are LGBorT in our county, as far as I know.  I hope I'm wrong.  I'd love to see a day when we can no longer claim to be one of even a few welcoming congregations because there are so many.  Even churches in Jackson County with denominations that support a more open stance have yet to take official stances to welcome people who are LGBorT.

One of the frequently asked questions for congregations going through a process like our denominations "Welcoming Congregation" program is "Why do we have to do this?  We're already welcoming!"  Well, there's two main issues here.  The first is that if you're not officially welcoming, since MOST, really, sadly, churches are not welcoming, the natural assumption is that you're not welcoming.  People who are LGBorT look for that official sign of welcoming before sticking their neck out only to get hurt one more time by a religious community.  The second part of this is, if you're not willing and able to yet go through a program like this, perhaps you're not as welcoming as you think.  There are often hidden fears and stereotypes lurking.  I say this as one who, despite being raised in a liberal, inclusive community, had some fears and stereotypes until I confronted them and did the work of dragging them out and dismissing them and learning about the truth.  I had fears about AIDS in the 1990s, so I sent myself on a one-week trip doing service work for the Mobile (AL) AIDS Support Services, and then volunteered at my community's AIDS support center.  I had misgivings about transgender identity until I did the work of going to conferences in seminary and listening to my colleagues who identify as transgender, and reading books such as Transgender Warriors.  Most congregations have some fears before they go through a process to be more welcoming.  The most common one: What if our church becomes a "gay church"? 

Becoming a more welcoming church, becoming a more welcoming community, isn't just something nice we could do.  Ryan's death reminds us that it's an urgent necessity.  

In Ryan's eulogy, his pastor called on his congregation and any reading his words to:
1. change ourselves, to become more loving, giving, and compassionate
2. change our churches, that no more would die rejected from ministry for having the courage to be who they are, and
3. change the world, to become a more just place where all are welcomed, have what we need, and know the love of God, others, and self.
May we do so here in Jackson, too.

Some Good Reads

UU Minister Marilyn Sewell has a discussion with the famous atheist Christopher Hitchens here.  It's worth the read, as is her blog post about the discussion here

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Just a note on Wikipedia

I'm always telling my English 131 students not to trust Wikipedia as a reliable source.  Yes, I often turn to Wikipedia for information, but you have to always remember that the information there can be put up and changed by anyone at any time.

Yesterday, I saw proof of this.  When feminist theologian Mary Daly died two days ago, there was little news found on the internet covering it.   Yesterday, I noticed that her Wikipedia entry had been updated with her death date, but that was one of only three sites I could find reporting her death.  And, at the bottom of the first paragraph, the Wikipedia entry read, "Thankfully the bitch died on January 3, 2010." 

It didn't last long.  I flipped over to the page where you can see the site's history, to see if I could figure out either how to remove it or how to report it.  I achieved neither, and flipped back to the entry.  It was gone.  But the point is, for a brief point in time, that is how the entry read.  Go to any controversial figure at any given time, and you may find similar.  The pages are being constantly updated and changed, so these sorts of remarks don't last long, but the more controversial the figure, the more people are doing this sort of thing and the more likely that at any given moment you'll find something like this in the entry.  And sometimes it's not something as obviously biased as "Thankfully the bitch died."

Wikipedia is a great and useful project.  It definitely has its purpose.  But for me, for now, if you're taking an English class from me, anything from Wikipedia needs to be corroborated by a more reliable source.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Thank You, Mary Daly

A couple of sites are reporting that feminist theologian Mary Daly died this week, although Google News shows no articles yet on the subject.  For those not familiar with Mary Daly... where to begin?

Mary Daly is the author of several books, many of which can be found through Beacon Press, which acquired the right to publish them when they would have gone out of print, I believe, including Beyond God the Father, The Church and the Second Sex, and Gyn/Ecology.  Many people heard of Mary Daly because of a controversy while she was a professor at Boston College in the 1990s.  She refused to have men in her classes, offering them separate opportunities to learn from her.  Some students brought this forth as a legal case, and Daly was required by the school to include men in her classes, whereupon she refused to teach.  Mary Daly was the very definition of a "radical feminist."  Clearly many people think she went too far, and would point to her as an example of feminists being "man-haters."  To explain Daly in her own words, I turn to an interview in which she says:
What I love is the way women think. And what's so precious about my space at Boston College is that it's women's space. When you get a teacher and students who really want to be with women, and we seize the space and read philosophical works and literature by women, they begin to think like themselves. They feel as if they've come home again. And that is the very groundwork of radical feminism. So if our space is taken away from us, which is what they're attempting to do at Boston College, then so is the possibility of that kind of, I won't call it dialogue, that kind of spinning conversation, of matching experiences. It's not debating, which is a male thing. Something new begins to happen, and that's why new words have happened for me: because the old language, the patriarchal language, does not contain words that are adequate to name women's experience. And it is so exciting. I'm talking about women's elemental experience.

There was a point at which I was very immersed in feminist theology.  I took all the classes I could find on feminist theology, including a class from Rosemary Radford Ruether.  At that time, I would divide feminist theologians into three categories.  First, there were feminist theologians looking to address patriarchal problems within Christianity--such a gender-exclusive priesthood.  This group would argue that Christianity isn't inherently patriarchal, just certain problematic expressions within Christian groups that were patriarchal.  Closely related was the second group, feminist theologians looking to reclaim Christianity from a deeply layered patriarchy, but still making the claim that Christianity at its root was not patriarchal, and that this was added later.  These theologians were doing things like reclaiming the story of Lilith and Mary Magdalene.  Third, there were those who saw patriarchy as an intrinsic part of Christianity, and left Christianity behind to move on to a post-patriarchal religion.  I would put Mary Daly in this group.  And I would put myself in that group.  I see Christianity as a man-made religion, one with some good insights and truths, but a product of a patriarchal culture.  The Bible does put women down and put them in a subservient role.  This is one argument for me for not taking the Bible literally and as divinely inspired.  If I took the Bible literally, I would have to believe that all the oppressions that are at best condoned and at worst directly ordered (sometimes by God), are, well, Godly.  Oppression is not Godly by any definition of God I can recognize.  Therefore the Bible cannot be literally true and divinely inspired.

Similarly, Mary Daly wrote (quoted in the interview linked to above) in Beyond God the Father:
The biblical and popular image of God as a great patriarch in heaven, rewarding and punishing according to his mysterious and seemingly arbitrary will, has dominated the imagination of millions over thousands of years. The symbol of the Father God, spawned in the human imagination and sustained as plausible by patriarchy, has in turn rendered service to this type of society by making its mechanisms for the oppression of women appear right and fitting. If God in 'his' heaven is a father ruling 'his' people, then it is in the 'nature' of things and according to divine plan and the order of the universe that society be male-dominated.
 Sadly, there are too few, even among feminist theologians like Mary Daly, with the strength to imagine beyond God the Father.  I'm so very thankful she did.