Sunday, May 30, 2010

What would you do? -- Breastfeeding Edition

When I was in seminary at Meadville Lombard Theological School, we were often focused on one big hurdle that UU ministers have to get over: the MFC visit.  The MFC, or Ministerial Fellowship Committee, is a committee that grants UU ministers "Fellowship," which gives us the right to search for a church through the UUA's systems, access to UUA grants, and is a major gate to keep out people the MFC believes are not suited to the UU ministry.  It's a major credential on the path to becoming a UU minister, and without it you're unlikely to be able to be a UU minister.  It puts you in the group, basically.  When I went through it, this is how it went: The MFC asked for all sorts of paperwork, which I shall not go into, and all sorts of steps you go through before you get there, and then you had your interview, in which the committee members each asked you a question.  The question could be a single question or a series of questions along a particular line, or a question with a lot of follow-ups--whatever they felt like they needed in order to judge your suitability.  You preached a ten minute sermon for them, gave them your first question that you want them to ask, and then they gave theirs.  After the interview, you go went, they deliberated, and they gave you a number from 1-5.  A "one" was good.  Anything else meant more work, or giving up, as the numbers increased.

Since we all were going to face this, all of us seminarians at Meadville Lombard, we would gather around our classmates who had gone through it, and they would give the recounting of their interview, remembering as many questions and interactions as possible.  We would, at other times, share stories of questions we heard that so-and-so had been asked.  There were a couple of scenario questions that got repeated a lot--scenes where you're the minister, x happens, and you're asked, "How do you respond?"

I think it was the year after I saw the MFC that they, realizing this was always the case, released sample questions so that everyone could have this same sort of data.

One of the most popular questions that we would toss around as an example of a former MFC question at least one somebody supposedly got once was one that went something like, "You're leading a worship service, and during the announcements somebody stands up and says that they're announcing that this is a house of worship and that breastfeeding during the service is inappropriate.  A woman who had been breastfeeding her child, gets up and rushes out crying.  What do you do?"

I remember vividly one of my classmates responses, although I don't remember who said it, but this seminarian said something like, "I would say, 'My congregation (or faith, or something like this) is out there,' and follow her out."  Others had responses like asking another member to go follow her out and then dealing with it after the service, or stopping and preaching on it then, or asking a member to take over the service while he or she followed her out.  I don't remember a single person saying that they agreed with the member standing up against breastfeeding in public and would support that policy, although some may have or may not have spoken.

I don't know if I knew it then, but I knew the woman in this story.  Well, sort of.  My mother had been criticized by members of the congregation she attended for breastfeeding my sister in the church.  I don't know if the minister knew about it, or what he did if he did know, but I know that the criticism was painful for her.

I was never sure what I would do.  I knew that somehow I would make it clear to both the woman who left and the congregation as a whole that I believed breastfeeding was not something we should make policies against, and that it should be welcome.  But I didn't know how I would go about that, in that particular scenario.  At that time, I probably thought that I, as the minister, would be the one to make such a decision.  Now I understand the roles are much more complex about who decides such things, since as a policy decision, it could fall to the board, or is it a worship decision that falls to me?  I would certainly have discussion with the board and worship committee about our shared roles and responsibilities around issues like this.

Well, several months ago, back in the fall, I believe, we did have a discussion at our board meeting about breastfeeding policy.  We agreed to allow usage of a small symbol that shows we're supportive of breastfeeding in the church building and on church publications.  We left it to the Membership Committee to decide where and how to use this logo, and so far we haven't implemented it, but it's likely that we'll be putting it eventually in places where we put other symbols, like ones to indicate that we're accessible and welcoming and listening devices are available.  It may go on the order of service, for example.

And then I would finally know exactly what I would say: "If you would turn to the cover of your order of service, you'll see there that we have a policy in this church about allowing and being supportive of breastfeeding.  I am happy to talk to people further about this issue following the service." 

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


A few days ago I ran across this blog post against women changing their names by M. LeBlanc while surfing the web on my cell phone while riding home in the car.  It got me thinking--not about not changing my name, but about the fact that I've never really written about this subject.  So here goes.

As a minister performing weddings, it's still pretty rare that I see women keeping their original names after marriage.  And looking around at my liberal church, I see only a small percentage of the women there made this decision--I think maybe two of the married women in heterosexual marriages.  So even in liberal circles, it's still the minority option, by far. 

When I got married I kept my name.  The three major arguments against name changing that were presented to me at the time were the "it makes things complicated" and "name-changing shows your commitment" and "it can make things really complicated when you have children; you want your whole family to have the same name." The "it makes things complicated" before children, I thought, was pretty minimal compared to the complication of changing one's name on diplomas, social security card, passport, driver's license, and more.  And, in fact, there have only been one time it made things complicated beyond an occasional simple statement to clear up confusion of, "no, we're married, I kept my name," and that was when getting health insurance in Michigan, and they made us produce a copy of the wedding license (no other state's insurance companies required this for medical insurance). As for showing my love or commitment, I suspect that if my husband had required me to change my name as a symbol of my love and commitment, then he wouldn't be the feminist man I fell in love with. 

My personal reasons for wanting to keep my name were that with my father having no sons, and my father being an only son, and his father being the only male son with a male son, our name was dying out in this branch of the family tree.  It's a name with a lot of history, good and bad, but that's my family history, and I feel attached to it.  I liked that the name I have was the name I'd built a history of relationships and professional associations under, and that seemed like a reason to keep my name, too.  And at the time of our marriage, my husband was considering changing his name.  It seemed a little ridiculous to change my name to a name he was thinking of shedding. His last name has his own personal history attached to it, but nothing else from other generations that he's attached to.  He had been thinking of dropping it and going with his middle name, which does have family history.

And then we had a child, and the whole issue got opened back up again.  While it hadn't been important for either of us that we have a common name, it was important to both of us that our child have our name.  But, again, my husband was still thinking of shedding his last name and going with his middle.  We decided to give our daughter two last names--my last name and his middle name.  His middle name is a family name in his family, but also in my family.  In fact, it would have been my middle name if I was a boy.  Now, just about everyone seemed convinced that this would make our lives complicated if our daughter had a different last name than her father, and somewhat different from mine.  So I called up a colleague who had done something similar when naming her son, and she assured me that there had been no hassle.  The schools have gotten so used to having children with all sorts of family configurations that they've learned to sort this stuff out.  And sure enough, with our child now in the schools, we've had absolutely no problems.  Sure, he sometimes gets called Mr. Landrum, or by his middle name.  I sometimes get called Mrs. Morrison.  But this has a good function: it helps us weed out the telemarketers. 

So bottom line, women, is do whatever you want, but don't listen to the arguments from the other side.  I don't think everyone has to make the decision I made.  It's fine to go ahead and change your name.  But if you don't want to, don't listen to all those arguments.  It's your decision, and it really won't create any issues in the diverse world we live in now.

Finally Joining the Debate - Who We Are

For those who haven't been following this, Paul Rasor wrote an article in the UU World in which he said:
And it is not just about numbers in another sense, too. Unitarian Universalism has its own cultural tradition, one that is rooted in European-American cultural norms and ways of being in the world. This normative lens is often invisible to those of us who look through it, but it is all too visible to those who view the world through different cultural lenses. This is why our ongoing antiracism work is so important. We cannot become a multicultural faith if we—subconsciously or otherwise—continue to treat a particular monocultural lens as normative.
 This article was paired with one by Rosemary Bray McNatt in which she said:
How, then, do we encounter those whose experience of church is different, whose experience of the holy is different, who find the truth of their lives in music from T.I. and Naz, in the Black Eyed Peas and A Tribe Called Quest? Where do they enter into the culture of Unitarian Universalist religious community? How do people like me, proficient in navigating the worlds of African American identity, learn to make room for the experiences of immigrant people whose names I have not yet learned to say? How do we—all of us—convert our ignorance into wisdom, manage both our shame and our earnestness, both our resistance and our desire to know?
 The following issue of the UU World featured several responses, all of which are worthy of discussion.  I particularly related to Jason Shelton's words:
I say this with a complete and total sense of shared identity: I see dorks everywhere I look. Dorks of every race, ethnicity, gender, affectional orientation, age, economic background, educational background—you name it, we’ve got it covered.
 Yes, I am a dork.  My glee in connecting my facebook to my twitter and then having this blog feed in to both shows this.

But what I want to examine is what James Kubal-Komoto lays out as six demographic factors in UU churches:
  1. Education: We have the highest average level of education of any religious tradition, with many of us having graduate degrees.
  2. Class: Because of our education, we are predominantly members of the professional middle class.
  3. Occupation: We predominantly have jobs that are not related to for-profit activity, which is highly correlated with political liberalism.
  4. Ethnicity: We are not only predominantly white, but have predominantly northern European roots.
  5. Age: We are predominantly middle-aged and older.
  6. Gender: We are predominantly female.
I read this like another checklist for who I am.  Education: graduate degrees?  Check.  I have not one but two graduate degrees.  Class: professional middle?  Questionable, due to income levels, but yes, I'm a professional.  Can I argue that I'm part of the "professional lower class"?  Occupation: non-profit activity?  Ministry would fall there, yeah.  Ethnicity: northern European?  Well, I'm not all Northern European, am I?  I mean, yes, I'm German, Scottish, English, Swedish, Welsh, Irish and French, and that does cover quite a bit of Northern Europe, but I think there might be a little Native American in there too, we just haven't proved it yet...  Okay, check.  Age: middle-aged?  HEY!  That's rude!  I was a "young adult" when I started this ministry!  My theory is that Unitarian Universalism has made me middle-aged, not that we only attract middle-aged people!  Gender: female?  Yep, female.

The problem with all of this is that to some degree James is absolutely right.  At the same time, it makes people who fit this bill feel like their very existence is problematized.  We need to make sure we examine and broaden our UU culture without making people who fit this dominant culture ashamed of who they are or felt like they're being told they're either irrelevant, unwelcome, or, at best, highly problematic in their being.

But while I may personally relate to James Kubal-Komoto's list, and I've seen UU churches that highly resemble those remarks, then I look out at my congregation.  We're an older congregation, and more women than men.  I think those two factors are reflected in most churches in most denominations, not just UUs.  And we are primarily northern-European, I think, but not like it was when I was in New England and they were so strongly Finnish that I was highly encouraged to put the two hymns that use the tune "Finlandia" in high rotation.  Here in the Midwest, they're mostly as mixed Northern European as I am.  A number of the families in the church have been there five generations or so, so what part of Europe they came from is less of note.  But education and class?  Picturing my congregation in my mind, I do see the two retired science professors and the retired English professor, the three social workers.  And then there's a lot of teachers.  Some of them may have their master's, and they're definitely "professional middle class" and in the non-profit sector.  There's the fellow who works at a local non-profit agency, and he has a college degree.  There's one lawyer.  But then I look further, and there's a fellow working doing piecework at one of the local factories, and a woman whose husband works at another factory.  There's a young woman who works at a department store unloading the boxes, and another woman who worked at a grocery story, clerking I believe.  There's a whole row of people who are retired now, and I know some of them worked factories and some were teachers, and some were farmers, and their parents were all farmers. We're a congregation with some people who, as Rosemary Bray McNatt identified, "brag about not owning a television," mixed with some people who don't own a computer because of money and class issues. 

And because we have this class and occupational diversity, I can say that we do struggle against the dominant UU culture as a congregation.  What do we struggle with in the larger UU culture?  We struggle with ethical eating and anti-Wal-Mart stances.  Some in the congregational, that percentage that fits the larger UU culture more, identifies with this, but the working-class folk are looking for a good deal, and Wal-Mart has them.  And we all know that eating organic is still more expensive than not, and that while it's not health, McDonald's is cheap food. 

What else do we struggle with?  We struggle with the theological diversity, particularly inclusion of Paganism, but really with all the theological diversity.  Our class groups are also, to some degree, theological groups, and they don't always see eye-to-eye. 

What else do we struggle with?  We struggle with the social justice stances.  Our professional-class liberals are ready to advocate for same-sex marriage, but our working-class moderate and conservatives are less comfortable with LBGT issues and identities.  They're a lot less comfortable with our proclaiming radical theologies and politics in the public sphere, both because they don't necessarily agree with them, and because there is a concern that it will make them uncomfortable in discussions with the conservative neighbors and friends they're surrounded by outside of church.

I don't think it's impossible to be a welcoming congregation for LGBT people, anti-racist, theologically diverse, environmentally-conscious, and, at the same time, diverse in race and class.  But what I see when we talk about breaking down race and class barriers is a fear that we'll have to give some of not just culture, but our important religious values in order to do so.  And my lived experience here is that what diversity we have does decrease our strength of connection to the larger UU culture's religious values as expressed through social justice stances and theological diversity. Ultimately, this points to the idea that these articles are right, that there is something in our UU culture which is keeping us from diversity.  The problem is that it just might be some of our deepest values. 

And I hope I'm wrong about this.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

How About Making Today Interfaith Respect Day?

Today, apparently, is "Draw Mohammed Day" as jokingly announced by cartoonist Molly Norris, who now says she doesn't stand behind the idea as a movement, that it was a specific response to a specific incident, the pulling of a South Park Cartoon from Comedy Central's website.  Apparently the South Park cartoon included Mohammed as a character, and Comedy Central pulled it out of fear of retaliation against their employees.

Despite Molly Norris' intent, this has started a movement on college campuses of drawing Mohammed today in stick figures labeled "Mohammed" in chalk on the sidewalks, and launched some Facebook pages, "Draw Mohammed Day," and "Against Draw Mohammed Day," among others. 

A number of thoughtful articles have been written about this.  I want to point to a few from writers I particularly respect.

A well-reasoned article by Greg Epstein, humanist chaplain in the thick of things at Harvard, concludes:
As a Humanist, I hope I do not exist solely to advance the Humanist cause. I want to advance the human cause. In this case, the way to do it is to keep the chalk on the blackboard, where perhaps one day soon Humanist and Muslim college students will use it together in inner-city elementary schools, teaching understanding and cooperation between members of different religious and moral traditions.
Over at the blog NonProphet Status, the blogger writes:
We secularists need to think long and hard about what lines we’re drawing — and who we’re boxing out in the process. We say we want “free speech;” now let’s recognize that with freedom comes responsibility and the need for respectful dialogue despite differences. In other words, as my mom might say: “just because you can doesn’t mean you should.” Chalk may wash away but the divides we build often don’t.
Let’s talk the talk, not chalk for shock.

The Interfaith Youth Core has put out a very good resource kit on this issue.  It says: 
This is not about Free Speech vs. fundamentalist Islam. Muslim Students Associations (MSA) on all three campuses where chalking has occured so far said they believed in free speech and were opposed to fringe groups who threaten violence. This is about Actions that Build an Inclusive Society vs. Actions that Marginalize a Minority Community.
It also says:
Part of the responsibility of free speech is recognizing that speech has consequences. In this case, the consequences are pain and further marginalization of local Muslims who have never threatened anyone’s rights. There are better ways to support and defend free speech.
That's the issue at the heart here.  Absolutely we all believe in freedom of speech.  Students have the right to draw these kinds of chalk images, and nobody should be threatened with violence because of drawing any image of Mohammed.  On the other hand, what we should be focusing on is ways to increase interfaith cooperation and respect.  The Muslims I know in my community would never condone violence against people for drawing Mohammed.  They routinely and publicly denounce violence done in the name of Islam.  They also work hard to build interfaith cooperation and work to educate the community about Islam.  Doing something that is clearly disrespectful to their religious beliefs is not the way to show our mutual respect and desire to build a civil and interfaith society. 

Today I will not be drawing Mohammed, nor will I be boycotting Facebook because it allows a page for people calling on people to draw Mohammed.  Today I will be working for interfaith cooperation and respect.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Is This Our Selma?

Some late-night musings and meandering thoughts...

A blog post from Rev. Kim Crawford Harvie at Standing on the Side of Love yesterday says, "Immigration reform is our Selma."  I read this and think it means that I should go to this event that SSL and others are promoting now, a march in Phoenix on May 29.  In 1965, you see, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., put out a call asking UU clergy to come to Selma, saying, "The people of Selma will struggle on for the soul of the nation but it is fitting that all Americans help to bear the burden. I call therefore on clergy of all faiths to join me in Selma."  Many did, including the Rev. James Reeb. We are now, the next SSL post says, "Called to Arizona" to march along with our UUA president, Rev. Peter Morales.

Last year, the Human Rights Campaign put out a "clergy call" asking clergy to come to Washington D.C., and I went.  I felt a bit like this was our Selma.  Certainly civil rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people is an important civil rights issue in our day.  I planned that trip on pretty short notice, and got some funds from our local PFLAG group and from the UUA to help with the trip. 

So I'm feeling pretty guilty about not packing up and heading to Phoenix right now.  Will I hang my head in shame in years to come, knowing I missed the Selma of our time?  Perhaps.

On the other hand, I wonder if it really is our Selma.  Immigration Reform has not been an issue that I've seen as the biggest issue of our time.  Is that because I've been comfortable up here in the Midwest, where we don't notice it as much?  Is it because I live comfortably in a cultural enclave?  Is it because it doesn't touch me personally?  These are the questions I challenge myself with, as I remind myself that just because it doesn't touch me doesn't mean I shouldn't get involved.  Of course, LGBT issues don't personally touch me, either, and yet I've been very motivated on them, writing, preaching, marching, and lobbying regularly on them.

Clearly immigration reform is a major issue.  And while it may or may not be the most important issue of our time, it is a major justice issue.  My denomination is telling me that this is a really big issue--one of the two big issues, the other being LGBT issues--just by creating SSL focused on this issue particularly.  Our study-action issues and other social justice statements reflect this.  Perhaps it is, indeed, the Selma of our time, and I have not been paying enough attention.  I need to educate myself more, and I need to get more motivated politically on this issue.  Basically, I need to get more motivated on immigration reform. 

I probably will miss this, even if this is our Selma.  I'm not scheduled to preach on May 30, but I checked airfare prices today, and it would be over $400 for the flight alone.  Michigan isn't exactly next door to Arizona.  That would be money out of my pocket, because my remaining professional expenses are over-committed already.  I almost put in a bid on Priceline for a cheaper flight anyway, just to see if I would get it, but at the last moment I backed out--I think I was afraid I would, and it wouldn't be an easy trip for me. 

So, when my child asks me, "Where were you on that day?" in ten or twenty years, I hope I can tell her that even though I wasn't there that I was trying to do something about this issue.  I hope I'll learn that we're doing something here locally, or if not that I'll start something.  I don't want to have heard the call and have turned a deaf ear.