Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Thoughts on "Congregations and Beyond"

The UUA President, the Rev. Peter Morales published a working paper titled "Congregations and Beyond" last week.  It's available in its entirety here.  In it he says, "I am realizing in a profound way that congregations cannot be the only way we
 connect with people." and "We have long defined ourselves as an association of congregations. We need to think
 of ourselves as a religious movement." 

The Rev. Morales says, "
Congregations as local parishes arose in a different era. They arose in a time of limited
 mobility and communication. Most members lived within a couple of miles of their
 church."  This is something that I've been thinking about recently, as well.  The time that the church is where you go to in order to hear the latest ideas or even the latest gossip is a time that's behind us.  The church is no longer the central, or even a central, hub for how people get and exchange information and ideas.  There are still things that churches do better than other institutions, but those things are fewer and far between.  We're no longer the best source of therapy--the psychological profession, as it emerged, has taken over that role.  We're no longer where you might hear the best, most engaging lectures--you tube gives you access to the best in the world, and it's a rare church with a minister of that level of academic excellence.  We're no longer the place where you hear first what is going on in your community -- our newspapers and even our friendships are available 24/7 on the computer.  We are, still, the best form for worship, I think, although much of that is available in electronic form, as well, except for the communal aspect.  We do retain the role of being one primary way that brings together groups of people for personal connection -- the social role of face-to-face regular gathering is filled less and less by other groups in this society, while we're still going strong.  But the point is, congregations are less needed in many people's minds, and, accordingly, we're not growing.

The two-part strategy the Rev. Morales outlines is:

  1. Congregations remain the base

  2. Focus energy on creating a movement beyond the congregation
Honestly, it looks pretty much like a one-part strategy to me, as part 1 is basically just reassuring us that this congregational thing that we're already doing will still be important.  So what does part 2 entail?  Looks like his answer is social media, re-engaging the identity organizations formerly known as "affiliates," small groups of other undefined sorts, and social action. 

It is, well, vague.  And not clear exactly what it would entail that's not being done currently. 

But the question that he points to, well, that's intriguing.  Morales points out the there are, as we've known, bunches of people who identify as UU and who don't attend UU churches.  And there are bunches of people who were raised UU who don't attend UU churches.  Some of them are fairly well connected to UUism in other ways -- he points to the fact that a significant number of people who attend SUUSI don't attend any UU congregation.

I'm sure any parish minister can name dozens of potential, former, or raised-UUs in that minister's geographic area who are not church members.  And, like Morales who says we need "A great deal more research about those who identify as UUs but are not members of
 a congregation," most of us don't know why these UU-types are not UU-affiliated in our towns. 

But what I think is new about "Congregations and Beyond" is that Peter Morales is not suggesting we find out why they're not in churches, but, rather, find out what they are interested in doing that would connect them to our movement in other ways.  Some people will never be church-goers, he's saying, but that doesn't mean that they can't be part of the UU religious movement.

It's a radical concept and one we ministers often argue against, saying such things as, "You aren't a Unitarian Universalist if you're not a church member, because the Unitarian Universalist Association is an association of congregations."

But I also know that there were a few years for me -- four of them, to be exact, the college years -- where I was not in a congregation but very much considered my religion to be Unitarian Universalism.  I didn't attend church in my college town, which didn't have a vital campus ministry in those years, and I would occasionally attend when I was home from school, but not often, because my church didn't have any specific get-together for those of us home on holidays or summers from college, and so I wandered off from us as an association of congregations, but not from my UU identity. 

I have trouble envisioning the way we strengthen these sorts of connections and grow this "movement" Morales speaks of, but I hope we'll keep talking about these ideas and exploring the potential.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Most Hated Girl in America

In 1964, Madalyn Murray O'Hair, founder of the American Atheists, was called "the most hated woman in America." Judging from the response to Jessica Ahlquist, the love of atheists hasn't increased much.  Indeed, in 2009, a University of Minnesota research study published in the American Sociological Review showed atheists to be the most disliked minority group of those they polled, including Muslims and homosexuals. When asked to respond to the statement, "This Group Does Not At All Agree with My Vision of American Society," 39.6% agreed atheists do not (26.3% for Muslims, who came in second), and 47.6% would disapprove of their child marrying an atheist (33.5% for Muslims, again the next highest category).

So perhaps the vehemence directed toward 16-year-old Jessica Ahlquist should not be shocking.  Ahlquist is a teenager who attends Cranston High School West in Cranston, Rhode Island.  Cranston High School West had a prayer banner that hung in their school:
(picture from The Providence Journal: http://news.providencejournal.com/breaking-news/2012/01/federal-judge-o-1.html)  Jessica, an atheist, felt that this violated separation of church and state.  It did, according to the ruling issued by the U.S. District Court Judge last week.  The judge weighed in very clearly on this question, saying, "The Court refrains from second-guessing the expressed motives of the Committee members, but nonetheless must point out that tradition is a murky and dangerous bog. While all agree that some traditions should be honored, others must be put to rest as our national values and notions of tolerance and diversity evolve."

Since that time, and probably before as well, Jessica Ahlquist has received messages of hate and threats of violence and death.  She has been the victim of cyberbullying from within her community and without. Rhode Island state representative Peter G. Palumbo, who called her an "evil little thing."  Even some moderate Rhode Islanders with Cranston connections I talked to recently were saying things like, "I don't see why it can't stay there.  It's tradition.  If you don't like it, just don't look at it."

Over and over again, I see something like this, and I'm stunned.  I can't grasp what makes people so frightened, especially when they are the majority, of the actions and beliefs of a young girl.  It's a fundamental piece of my understanding of what makes America great that we create a space where people should be free from religious persecution and that the way we do this is through freedom of belief, lack of state-sponsored religion, and freedom of speech. 

Freedom of religion means that the government does not impose its religion on you.  It's what protects us from Sharia law, too.  These same people who are so incensed that a Christian banner is taken down from a public high school, well I'm sure the majority of them would not want a Muslim banner hung in its stead.  We keep hearing the panic that Sharia law is being declared in Muslim communities in America, like Dearborn, from the conservative Christian right.  But what protects us from being a country under Muslim law is exactly the same thing that demands that this banner be taken down.

But, of course, the fear of Muslims and the fear of atheists aren't logical, rational things. 

The obvious irony is that the words of the prayer call on people to grow morally, to be kind, to conduct themselves in a way that brings credit to the school, and to be good sports and smile when we lose.

If only everyone who wants the prayer to hang could at least try to live up to it.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Cookies and Controversy: Part 2

 (Continuing from Part 1)

Well, it seems the video of young Girl Scout, Taylor, which asking you to boycott Girl Scout cookies because Girl Scouts is inclusive of transgender girls, has been taken down. There are a number of well-done responses from Girl Scouts that are available, however.  Some of my favorites are:
These Girl Scouts make several good points about what Girl Scouts is all about.  A primary one is about the Girl Scout Law.  In her original video, Taylor talked about the line of the Girl Scout Law that says, "Honest and Fair," and how Girl Scouts is somehow not being honest if they're not proclaiming loudly to everyone involved that there are transgender scouts, and who and where they are.  Obviously, the Girl Scouts are being honest about their policies, and fair in their implementation, but the Girl Scout Law has nine other pieces to it, many of which apply in this situation:
I will do my best to be
honest and fair,
friendly and helpful,
considerate and caring,
courageous and strong, and
responsible for what I say and do,
and to
respect myself and others,
respect authority,
use resources wisely,
make the world a better place, and
be a sister to every Girl Scout.
 It's obvious that the Girl Scouts in the response videos have learned what it means to be "considerate and caring," "courageous and strong," "friendly and helpful," "responsible for what I say and do," to "respect myself and others," and, most importantly, to "be a sister to every Girl Scout."

My biggest worry in all of this is that the Girl Scouts could bend to pressure from the right to change their policies in this and other areas.  They're under considerable pressure from the right about interactions with Planned Parenthood, the transgender and lesbian scouts issues, and religious freedom.   When I started as a troop leader two years ago, it was printed everywhere the Girl Scout Pledge was printed that girls could change the word "God" to any word representing the Girl Scout's belief.  That's still the official policy, but it was controversial.  And it's no longer on their website and it's not in my brand-new Brownie handbook where the law is printed, either.  So it's not clear to me how a new scout or a new scout leader would be clear that Girl Scouts, unlike Boy Scouts, gives them this religious freedom.  I worry about a new scout being told by a troop leader that they have to say the pledge as written, and taking that troop leader's word for it.  Similarly, the conservative websites tell me that where Planned Parenthood was previously mentioned, in places like staff members' bios, it has been "scrubbed" from the website.  There's nowhere on Girl Scouts USA's webpage where you're going to find the policy on transgender scouts, either. 

So while Girl Scouts is open and welcoming, it's cautious, understandably.  That's why it's important to me that we, on the religious left, know what Girl Scouts is standing for, and the pressure they're under, so we can be as supportive as possible.  Don't buy the cookies if you don't want cookies, but when your local Girl Scout comes to you for support, please know that this is an organization that is working to empower young girls; to teach them valuable leadership skills; and to teach them love and respect for their bodies, minds and spirits; the people around them; and the world around them.  Stop and tell the Girl Scouts that they have your support and you believe in what they do.  There is so much in the world around us that is teaching negative messages to girls about their capabilities and their bodies, that I'm grateful that not only does Girl Scouts exist, but that it is a place that is open and welcoming to all girls, and we don't have to change our religious or political beliefs to belong.

And if you do want cookies, they go on sale here January 20th, a week from today. 

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Cookies and Controversy: The Background Information

I've never seen so much discussion among my liberal and ministerial friends about Girl Scouts.  Sure, there's the palm oil controversy which comes up every year at cookie time, and the confusion that people sometimes have between Boy Scouts of America's stances and Girl Scouts USA's stances.  The two are unrelated organizations, and Girl Scouts USA welcomes scouts to change the word "God" in the Girl Scout pledge to any word representing the scout's spiritual beliefs.  Girl Scouts also has not taken any stance limiting participation of lesbian or bisexual scouts or troop leaders.

The latest Girl Scout controversy is around transgender scouts.  And, once again, Girl Scouts has taken an inclusive stance.  The story that has caught the attention in the news is of a young girl, Bobby Montoya, who wanted to become a Girl Scout.  Bobby is a 7-year-old transgender girl.

The story first emerged that Bobby wanted to become a Girl Scout but had been turned down by a local Denver-area troop.  Bobby's parents then appealed to the council.  The council overturned the troop's decision, saying, "Girl Scouts is an inclusive organization and we accept all girls in Kindergarten through 12th grade as members. If a child identifies as a girl and the child's family presents her as a girl, Girl Scouts of Colorado welcomes her as a Girl Scout."  Some articles have misrepresented this as Girl Scouts as an organization taking one stance and then reversing it, when it was more of a matter of a local troop not following the inclusive policy that was in place.  When this story first emerged, I contacted Girl Scouts USA to ask about the policy on transgender scouts, and heard the same thing that I had heard from my local area coordinator and the same thing that the Colorado council said -- any child who says she is a girl and wants to be in Girl Scouts is welcome.  I had heard that the Denver-area troop leaders had responded by disbanding the troop, but when I research this, it turns out it looks like this is just rumor and misunderstanding.  It appears Bobby has not yet joined the troop, and that there have been no further developments on the situation in Colorado.  On the other hand, there are troops hosted at a conservative Christian school in Louisiana that have disbanded in protest. 

What's got people talking about this story again is a video by a California Girl Scout, Taylor [last name and troop number are being withheld, understandably].  Taylor urges you to boycott Girl Scout cookies because Girl Scouts admits transgender girls.  I'm having trouble embedding her video -- it seems to have been taken down, but I'm sure it'll be findable soon. 

Taylor's video is being spread through social media in thanks partly to the attention from conservative groups focused on pushing back against some of the more liberal and inclusive aspects of Girl Scouts, such as "Honest Girl Scouts" which takes issue with GSUSA for transgender scouts, but, more particularly, for some programs and events that have been done with Planned Parenthood, particularly at the international level (GSUSA is part of WAGGGS--the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouting).  Taylor's video, while it appears at first to be just one individual Girl Scout sticking up for her beliefs, ends with her plugging the Honest Girl Scouts organization. 

Just giving the background on this story was longer than I expected, so I'll share my thoughts and comments in a later post.