Thursday, March 27, 2014

Signing Licenses: My Pledge

Over a decade ago, I decided I wasn't going to be an instrument of the state anymore if the state continued to prohibit same-sex couples from marrying.  I talked to my congregation and the board of trustees about it and then, in October 2003, I took a public vow not to sign any more marriage licenses until the Commonwealth of Massachusetts allowed same-sex marriage.  I was one of about a dozen clergy who had done so, one of whom was the Rev. Fred Small, author of the beloved song "Everything Possible."  After hearing Fred Small talk about his decision and his reasoning, my mind was made up.  I cried when I heard him, because he had given name and voice to what I had been feeling, and had reached a solution that removed him from the wrong equation.  I knew I had to do likewise.


A year and a half later, in May of 2004, same-sex marriage became legal in Massachusetts.  I performed a few weddings that spring and happily signed licenses for all, and then, that summer I moved to Michigan.  A few months later, in November of 2004, we passed our constitutional amendment on same-sex marriage.  I didn't take the same vow in Michigan as I had in Massachusetts.  In Massachusetts, it felt like it was part of a building momentum towards changing things.  Here, it felt like it would be futile, so I went ahead and signed.  But with every license I signed, I felt like I was doing something wrong.  For ten years I've ministered in this state and signed licenses in this state, knowing that it felt wrong each time.

There are 1138 benefits at the federal level alone that go along with marriage.  There are benefits at the state level, as well.  My friend Shelly explained on Facebook this week that if her wife were to die, Shelly would have to pay taxes on the house that they both own.  Those taxes would be enough that she would likely lose her home.  Her wife would have to do likewise if Shelly were to die.  And her wife would have no legal claim over the son they've raised together.  Shelly's story is just one of thousands in our state.

Finally, after almost a decade since it became legal in Massachusetts and banned in the constitution here, we had a brief window last weekend where we were able to perform legally-recognized same-sex weddings in Michigan.  Those marriages are now on hold, with our governor saying he won't recognize these legally-performed weddings until the appeal process is finished.

Having signed the marriage licenses on Saturday for two same-sex couples -- Michael and Adam, and Shirley and Shirley -- I don't think I can go back to signing just licenses for opposite-sex couples. 
I realized this just as I was typing this.  I wasn't planning on writing this today.  But if these marriages are on hold, so am I.  Until all the marriages that I perform are recognized by the State of Michigan, the State of Michigan is no longer part of my role as minister.  I will officiate at weddings, but until I can sign licenses again for same-sex couples in Michigan, I'm not signing any licenses in Michigan and will only sign licenses in states which recognize same-sex marriage, from this point forward. 

I owe that to Michael and Adam, and to Shirley and Shirley.  I can do no less.  Their weddings are no less real and their marriages no less valid than any other I have ever performed.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Equality Comes to Michigan -- Part 3: Meaningful Helpers

Before I write about the the marriages, and what a joy that was -- I want to write about the helping things that people did, because they made a huge difference.

At the Washtenaw County Clerk's office, there were about twenty clergy and judges present ready to marry people, and they came from all sorts of different faiths.  There were a few of us Unitarian Universalists (the Rev. Gail Geisenhainer, the Rev. Tom Schade, and myself, and the Rev. Mark Evens was there at the beginning).  I saw several UCC ministers.  There was a rabbi.  There were three Pagan officiants of various stripes.  There was a Native American officiant.  There was an Episcopal priest.  I'm sure other Protestant denominations were present.  And then there were a handful or more of Universal Life Church members.

Now, I've always had a sort of a "thing" about ULC ministers.  It's always seemed a bit unfair or wrong that without any training and any credentialing process, people can hang out a shingle and do what I do, into which I put 5 years of training into and tens of thousands of dollars (which I'm still paying off).  And perhaps a bit of my sore attitude is due to my own ULC ordination.  When I was doing my CPE (hospital chaplaincy) during seminary, some of the other CPE students ordained me through the ULC as a joke -- making fun of UUism, basically.  They went online, put in my name, and voila, I was an ordained ULC minister.  I keep the certificate, which they printed off and framed, by my desk even today.   

Well, I was about to get "schooled" in the commitment and dedication -- and love -- of ULC ministers.  And now I'm proud to be one.

I was sitting next to a ULC minister named Ted Van Roekel, mentioned here. Ted had come not knowing if any other clergy would be there, and he had come with enough papers that he could have performed all the marriages if he needed to.  At the table perpendicular to mine were three more ULC ministers.  One, Naomi, had just become ordained for this particular purpose, or so I heard through a friend of a friend.  She is Jewish, and had asked her rabbi, the one who was present, if this was a way that would be appropriate for her to help out.  He had agreed, and so she came.  Between her and myself was another ULC minister.  She had a full day's schedule and had to come and go, but she contacted Thomas Dowds, who came with a case of water for us.  The room was hot, and after a while those performing the most weddings were getting parched, so the water was a real blessing.  Even more special, however, Thomas brought two large sheet cakes for wedding cakes so that all the couples could have some wedding cake. 

Back to Ted: Ted didn't know who might come, so he created a plan.  He put out a request for friends to come and help -- to work as runners, to serve as witness.  And he asked particularly for two friends of his, Annette Bowman and Matt Klinske, to come and take photographs.  Annette served as wedding photographer for 32 weddings that day, and took down each couple's emails on a sheet of paper so that she could e-mail them later.  She took over 600 photographs and processed them for over four hours on Sunday, and still wasn't done.  By Tuesday evening, she had sent me pictures of the ceremony I performed that she photographed, which was near the end of the period.

There were so many clergy present that those of us who didn't have a church in the area were not in high demand.  I performed two ceremonies.  Ted performed two ceremonies.  When he did the first one, he was nervous and even shaking from excitement and joy.  I understood -- I had felt the same way minutes before when I performed my first ceremony of the day, even though I performed legal marriages in Massachusetts a decade ago.  I helped by filling out his paperwork as he did the ceremony, just as some of the other ULC ministers had done while I performed a ceremony. 

It was these special touches -- the photographers, the cakes, and the buckets of flowers that somebody else brought -- that built a community around these people.  Ann Arbor Unitarian Universalists were part of building that community, too.  They came to celebrate and form religious community, folks like Kathy and Jon McLean, wearing their Standing on the Side of Love t-shirts and standing as the congregation for wedding after wedding that Gail performed.  Beloved Community was created in Ann Arbor on Saturday.  And I am still in awe and tears about the caring and dedication of all these people, who came and helped and celebrated because they were standing on the side of love.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Equality Comes to Michigan -- Part 2: Arriving in Washtenaw and Starting the Day

I arrived at the Washtenaw County Clerk's office about 9:05, and licenses were to begin being issued at 9:00 a.m., so I was a tad late.  The crowd was packed into the building, and a few people were milling outside, but the line wasn't yet out the doors.  I walked in and heard a gentleman with a clipboard telling a couple where they should go and what they should do.  I approached him and said, "I'm clergy.  Where do I go?"  He said, "There's a room downstairs.  The stairs are over there.  And thank you for being here!"  I headed down stairs and asked someone downstairs where I was to go.  They told me the clergy were all in the back corner of the room ahead.  I wove my way through the crowd, and saw the Rev. Mark Evens, who is very tall, and knew I was in the right area.  I tossed my coat on a table that had a bunch of coats, and greeted Mark (who had to depart early) and the Rev. Gail Geisenhainer and the Rev. Tom Schade.  I didn't yet really realize what was going on, but the first wedding of the day at that site was being performed by Judge Judy Levy, and she was giving it all due honor, taking her time to craft a really beautiful ceremony, that I was too breathless and excited to really pay attention to, to my fault.  Later in the day, she came over beside me to get her papers in order, and I learned that the ceremony she used was one she adapted from her own wedding ceremony.  She's a brand new judge, having only been finally confirmed ten days before.  In fact, I had met her a few weeks ago, when she was not yet "Judge Judy" when I went to hear the court case with the Hanover-Horton High School GSA, and Judge Friedman introduced us to her as she happened by.  My biggest regret of the day is that I didn't listen more intently and reverently, because I was anxious to get started. I was in too much of a social justice mode and not yet really in a worshipful spiritual mode.  And while we were doing the work of justice that day, it was really not about that.  It was about weddings, about love, and about these incredible couples and their relationships and lives and families.  It took me a little while to really let that sink in and understand it at a deep level.  I get the social justice stuff quickly and intuitively.  Gail helped me to see, by witnessing her and listening to her, that this was sacred space

After the ceremony was done, and a lot of cheering happened and photographs were taken by all the press and onlookers, someone made an announcement explaining the basic process.  You got a number, when your number was called you could go up and apply for your license.  When you got your license, you should come back down here, and clergy would be at the tables along the walls ready to perform ceremonies.  There were about twenty clergy in the room scrambling to find places at the table as the room emptied out a bit.  After a while, one of the Ann Arbor members came along with their Standing on the Side of Love banner, wondering where we might put it.  We decided to lay it out on the table like a table cloth, and the other ministers sharing the table with us didn't seem to mind.  Tom Schade laid his stole out in front of me to create a little sacred space.  He had offered to lend it to me, and it's his only stole, but he and I had both donned our collars for the occasion instead.  I turned on the chalice app on my tablet. A lot of members of the Ann Arbor church were there to witness and celebrate and form the Beloved Community for the members and friends Gail would be marrying that day.  Two of them, Kathy and John McLean, had been members of the Marquette, Michigan congregation back when I was a student minister up there.  Their daughter is in seminary preparing for the UU ministry, and Kathy has been making her stoles.  She had just finished a rainbow stole for her daughter, and had brought it along for the day so that it could soak up the energy of the day.  Although I was content without a stole, and could've worn Tom's, I offered to wear Kathy's daughter's it so that it would be even more a part of the day, and Kathy happily lent it to me. Honestly, it was the most beautiful rainbow stole I've seen, and I was really proud to wear it for her.  Kathy and John and the other Ann Arbor UUs were amazing that day -- witnessing and celebrating and helping.  They were the congregation, made visible and present for each and every wedding. 

As we settled into place, it wasn't long before couples with licenses started entering the room. 

Photo by Annette Bowman

Equality Comes to Michigan -- Part 1: Hearing the News and Preparing to Respond

This past Friday, after 5 p.m., when the county clerks had just closed, Judge Bernard Friedman, of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, ruled that our constitutional ban against same-sex marriage, voted into the constitution in 2004, was unconstitutional.  In his findings, he said:
In attempting to define this case as a challenge to “the will of the people,” Tr. 2/25/14 p. 40, state defendants lost sight of what this case is truly about: people. No court record of this proceeding could ever fully convey the personal sacrifice of these two plaintiffs who seek to ensure that the state may no longer impair the rights of their children and the thousands of others now being raised by same-sex couples. It is the Court’s fervent hope that these children will grow up “to understand the integrity and closeness of their own family and its concord with other families in their community and in their daily lives.” Windsor , 133 S. Ct. at 2694. Today’s decision is a step in that direction, and affirms the enduring principle that regardless of whoever finds favor in the eyes of the most recent majority, the guarantee of equal protection must prevail.
 We knew that the state attorney general, Bill Schuette, had immediately filed an appeal and an emergency stay of the decision, but that it, too, happened after the close of offices Friday.  So it looked like if couples were to get married, it would happen only licenses could get issued over the weekend.  On Facebook, I began to see UU colleagues in Michigan immediately asking if any clerk was going to be open over the weekend.  We heard a statement from Barb Byrum, the Ingham County Clerk, that she would open first thing on Monday morning and start issuing licenses, but we knew that the emergency stay could go through so quickly that we wouldn't have our window if we had to wait until Monday. I called Equality Michigan to find out if they knew anything more from any county clerks, and only got answering machines, unsurprisingly.  Then I called Randy Block, Director of the Michigan UU Social Justice Network.  He hadn't learned anything about any clerks opening yet, either, but said he would call and e-mail me if he did and I said I would post it by e-mail to the clergy groups and to Facebook. 

Around 9:30 p.m., I had just seen that the Washtenaw County Clerk was going to open on Saturday morning via a post from Gail Geisenhainer, who was busy talking to her members and community contacts and perhaps the clerk himself.  Randy Block called to say that he had learned Washtenaw County Clerk (in Ann Arbor) was going to be open and also the Muskegon County Clerk, and amazingly the Muskegon County Clerk would be issuing licenses from the Harbor UU Church there in Muskegon!  He sent me an e-mail about Muskegon and I forwarded it to our chapter Yahoo group, along with the request that if anybody were to hear about any other county that they notify the group.  Some folks wanted to stay in their own counties and put pressure on their clerks to open, but I knew my own County Clerk would not be opening, based on our experience with her in October, so, faced with a choice of protesting here or helping there, I prepared to travel to Washtenaw.  Oakland and Ingham County seemed the most likely to open, so I and others kept an open ear.  We knew Barb Byrum in Ingham had said Monday, but also knew that she wanted to issue licenses.  And the Oakland County Clerk, Lisa Brown, had been active and public about the desire to issue licenses, and had testified for the defense in the case.  Those were the counties to watch.  The UU ministers in Southeast Michigan had done some good work earlier in the year getting to know who our county clerks were and identifying which of them would issue licenses with the most haste.  We had created a Google doc to share this information. 

On a personal note, my daughter had a performance on Saturday and my whole family was heading here to Jackson to see it.  And my car had been totaled a week ago, and we had just gotten the news that the insurance company considered it totaled slightly before Friedman's decision, but they wouldn't be issuing us a rental car until Monday.  So I had a busy schedule to juggle and one car for our household.  I posted to Facebook asking if any other local progressive clergy would also be interested in heading to Washtenaw, but got no positive response.  But I determined that if we left here at 8 and got me to the courthouse at 9, my husband and daughter could get back just in time for her to show up for her performance.  I didn't know for sure how I would get home and when I get home, but we agreed to play that more by ear.  I knew my daughter would understand why I wanted to be in Ann Arbor.  I had been saying all year as this case progressed that if I could get anywhere and perform ceremonies and sign licenses when it became legal, that I would do so.  I knew all the couples I had married before in non-legal ceremonies were in counties where they wouldn't be able to get licenses, so I was free to go wherever I could.

Around 1:15 a.m. I saw a post from Equality Michigan on Facebook that Lisa Brown in Oakland would be opening for business, and I shared the post and e-mailed our HUUMA Yahoo and Southeast MichigaN UU Ministers Yahoo group.  In the early hours of the morning I realized my copies of the ceremony I had prepared and my stoles were all at church, and I wouldn't have time to get them in the morning, as there was no way my husband was going to agree to get up the extra 40 minutes early.  I hunted down my clergy collar that I hadn't worn since maybe the Phoenix GA -- I hate the thing, as it's too tight.  I printed off new copies, with my printer that had decided in the name of equality that it would cooperate that day.  And then I went to sleep to get the five hours that would carry me through the next day.

The next morning I awoke and got ready, and checked Facebook.  Across Michigan, we were preparing for the day.  Jeff Liebman stayed in Midland, prepared to act if his clerk would open, and talked to the press and contacted couples he knew were waiting there.  Colleen Squires and Fred Wooden prepared for a protest to happen in Grand Rapids on Sunday.  I saw that Barb Byrum must have decided to open for business, because Kathryn Bert had posted that she was headed there.  She brought her team of Nic Cable and Julica Herman with  her.  Kimi Riegel awoke to see my post about Oakland County and headed there.  Tom Schade and Gail Geisenhainer had already said the previous day that they would be there in Ann Arbor.  Mark Evens came briefly, as well.  And in Muskegon, Bill Freeman headed to church. 

The UU clergy of Michigan were ready and prepared for this day to come, and it had come at last.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Re-Organization, Indeed

The Rev. Tom Schade had a great post over at The Lively Tradition today.  In it, he calls for a reorganization of the UUA.  He has two main points, the second of which is:

Creating a service bureau at the denominational level which provides back office functions for local congregations (bookkeeping, payroll, website design and production, even pledge accounting) on a profitable fee-for-service basis. It should seek clients in other denominations as well.

I wanted to add my two cents and just unpack this a bit.

Website

I've already written about how congregations often struggle with website design and production, and how the UUA could create a template webpage that we more easily adapt, that would be on message and higher quality than what most of us produce on our own.  For every one great UU congregational website, I swear I can find you five bad ones, and not all in small churches.  But I'm not naming names.

Since that post that I wrote, I've been redesigning our website.  Even moving to a Wordpress site, it took me the better part of three weeks working at trying out different themes and widgets and plug-ins before I decided I was halfway happy with the solution.

Do you know who could do a better job than someone whose degrees and training are in English, psychology, and ministry?  I bet they'd do it in half the time, too.  And then I could do the work of ministry that this congregation really called me to do.  But I don't have many people who understand web design in my congregation, except one who is developing in that area, and the UUA is not helping so far with this, so it's left to the individual congregation, and whatever expertise we can drum up, or hire out if we can afford it.

Payroll

My best example is my 90-member church.  We struggled with payroll.  It was complicated for our treasurer to understand.  It took a lot of volunteer hours.  There were plenty of instances when payroll was done incorrectly.  In fact, in ten years at this church, it was only within the year that we got the deduction for healthcare done right and the percentage that I get in lieu of FICA.  And that's even after a handful of years ago when we started hiring a local small business organization to handle our payroll. Even companies that do this for pay don't always work with a lot of churches, and churches are different.  We had to educate them, if memory serves, about housing allowance.  I've done spreadsheets and graphics to explain housing allowance and the other components of my package to my board.  My theory, as I said in the comments at The Lively Tradition if you ask ten ministers if they've ever had a church mess up their paycheck or their tax forms, you'll get ten yes answers.  It's complicated, even for those who understand things, and a lot of our churches, particularly small ones due to sheer numbers, just don't have someone who totally understands things.

Who could understand this and do it for churches?  Yes, the UUA could.  And it would be a service we'd happily pay for, as we're paying for it now.  And they'd understand churches a lot better than your average local small business support organization.

Pledge Accounting

Again, something we struggle with.   We ask members if, in addition to their pledge, they'd like to separately pay their UUA dues, and pay for a paper newsletter subscription, and if they'd like to have their pledge electronically deducted from their bank account.  And we pay a fee to Vanco, as many churches do, for this service.  It's complicated to get the systems all set up right, with some people paying annually, some monthly, some weekly. 

If the UUA bundled this in with a financial services package, would we opt for it?  Yeah, I bet we would.

Bookkeeping

Our church has a volunteer bookkeeper, but we pay for occasional professional accounting services from yet another person.  That paid accountant helped set up our software and checks over things every so often, as I understand it, to make sure we're entering information correctly.

Would we be interested in paying the UUA to handle this instead, along with pledge accounting and payroll?  Yep, I think so.

In sum, we have a pretty good cadre of volunteers doing this work, but it takes an enormous amount of time from them.  All of them are not people who were in this type of work for a living, so they're very good and intelligent and proficient amateurs.  We've seen immense burn-out in our treasurers.  We've struggled to find the right pieces to farm out to professionals, and struggled to find the professionals who understand churches. 

The UUA would like to see churches doing a better job at spreading our message and being out there in the world working for justice.  We'd like to pour more of our resources into worship and programming and social justice and religious education.  But for a small church, the back-office work is eating up our volunteer hours. 

It's time for re-organization, indeed. 

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Choose Love: A Prayer for the Passing of Fred Phelps

I met with a local high school's GSA a week or two ago, and was talking about what the Bible does and does not say about homosexuality.  I believe that even Biblical literalists are choosing what parts of the Bible they take literally and currently and what parts they choose to understand either as metaphor or as written for a certain historical context.  Even the fundamentalists don't follow all of the purity laws.  And they're choosing to place emphasis on the passages that judge over the passages that preach love and forgiveness.  Given that you have to pick and choose, the question really is why some people choose to pick hate.  I said, "I choose to pick love."

The hard part about choosing love is the same as the hard part of believing in the inherent worth and dignity of all people and the hard part of believing in universal salvation.  The hard part of choosing love is applying it to someone you see as having chosen a path of hatred and pain.  

Today we've heard that Fred Phelps died last night.  Fred Phelps was a person who made it his mission to choose hate.  He carried signs proclaiming hate, he picketed funerals proclaiming hate, he built a church to spread his hate.  There are people wanting, understandably, to celebrate his death and to picket his funeral.  It's hard not to have sympathy for that perspective.  Fred Phelps spread a lot of hate and pain during his life, and the cessation of that message being spread by him feels like it must be a good. 

The struggle in the face of the death of Fred Phelps is to remember his inherent worth and dignity, to believe in his salvation, and to choose love in the face of his hate even now.

Here's my prayer:

Spirit of Life,
May Fred Phelps, child of the universe, be at peace.
May his family be at peace and come to know love.
May the world heal from the hate that was sown.
May we all choose love in increasing measure. 
Blessed be.  Amen.