Thursday, October 29, 2015

Review: UUA Wordpress Theme -- A Further Look, Part 3 (UUA Services Plugin, Ideas for the Future, Content)

The really neat thing about the new UUA Wordpress Theme is the UUA Services Plugin.  This solves the problem I didn't even really  know I had, and does it very elegantly.

Sunday Services Plugin

The problem: how to we advertise our Sunday service topics on the website?  And how do we do it such that we don't have to update weekly?  Previously, I had looked at three options.  One was what I ended up with: create posts monthly that list the month's services.  This only has to be updated once per month, and that's the advantage.  The disadvantage is that it doesn't list them individually.  There are other disadvantages, too.  Another option would be to put posts up weekly.  The big disadvantage there is the weekly nature of this for a church with no full-time staff except myself.  Another option would be to create them as "events" with the Events plugin.  This carries with it extraneous information like location as a mandatory part of the posts. 

The UUA Services plugin gives you a new post type of services.  And it has the fields that are relevant for you (title, description, date, speaker), and not the ones that aren't (like location, or price).  Then it gives you two pages to display this on -- Upcoming Services and Past Services -- as well as the box on the Home page, and ability to put this list in any of your widget areas (footer, sidebar, Home page).  It displays nicely, and you can update them monthly, yearly, weekly, whatever, and it will store your services in date order, with this week's at the top, and then move it over to the past services after it's done.  Then you can go back in and add the podcast or the full text of the sermon, or whatever.

The other solutions to the services problem were all like putting square pegs into round holes.  This is the round peg, and it's nicely crafted. 

Ideas for the Future

Now that this solved the problem I barely knew I had, it makes me want more!  Wouldn't it be nice to have a Religious Education plugin where we could add weekly information about what's going on in religious education that would function similarly?  Well, maybe for the next version...  For right now, you could add it in with the Sunday services. 

Another thing that came up in my messages with Christopher Wulff, designer of the UUA Theme is how to handle emergency notifications.  He noticed that my church website has a page for announcing emergency closures.  With a rural location in the snowy North, this is something that happens once a year or so.  He said he was thinking about creating a banner that could be turned on for the Home page that would be something we could use for things like this, and asked if we would use such a thing.  The answer for us is yes!  And if people don't want to use it, it's an extra they can ignore.

Content

The content suggestions are wonderful, and something I'm slowly working my way through.  I'd love to have the content information as a Word file, not just as something I have to be careful about uploading because it may erase my existing content.  However, I'm overjoyed at its existence.  The information provided with the theme gives not only best practices, but also sample copy, and tells you things like "Our tree tests show that a significant minority of users will look for information about the choir and about religious education programs under Connection.  Make sure your page includes links to the Choir and Learning pages."  This is extremely useful information that will help congregations a lot.  I'm incorporating all of this slowly into my page, but it's really good to know that the information is here to help me. 

This is where I think the UUA really went above and beyond with this theme.  I was looking for a theme like any other them, but geared toward congregational use.  This theme and its materials gave me SO much more that it's like Christmas for my webpage.  Thank you!!

Review: UUA Wordpress Theme -- A Further Look, Part 2 (Header and Footer)

Continuing my thoughts about the new UUA Wordpress Theme...

Header

I've already talked about my preferences with the logo, but there's more to the header than that.  The theme lets you have the logo and title, social media icons, your Sunday service time (or other text), and a small header menu.  The organization of the header area is aesthetically pleasing, and it's well-sized so that it doesn't take up too much of the screen.  Overall: bravo!

Footer

The footer has four areas.  In one area, the UUA logo will appear, and if you set it to, you can also have the Welcoming Congregation logo and the Green Sanctuary logo.  These balance nicely to form a block if you have all three.  We're not a certified Green Sanctuary church, so my footer has a bit of a hole there.  It'd be nice to include things like the AIM logo, but you have three other areas that can go in.
Some other choices that congregations might wish to include are a Standing on the Side of Love logo or a Black Lives Matters logo, particularly as more congregations have formal votes to support Black Lives Matters.  But, again, there are three other areas in the footer you could put these things in yourself, it's just that if you have a hole in the one block, it might be nice to fit them together.

So in the other three areas, I had some questions as to what to put.  Obviously one needed to be the address, as in the demo site, because it's not anywhere else prominent on the Home page.  The second, the demo site has a little description of the minister.  I didn't want that.  And the third has a little newsletter sign-up form.  I don't have a way to do that yet.  So I opted for links for the newsletter (this will change monthly, the way I have it set up) and some other information that wasn't elsewhere -- that we are wheelchair-accessible, have listening devices available, and support breastfeeding.

So, overall review of header and footer: lots of nice options, everything you need. 

Review: UUA Wordpress Theme -- A Further Look, Part 1 (Aesthetics and Home Page)

Well, it's been two days since the UUA's Wordpress Theme debuted, and in that time I've learned a LOT about it.  It took me one day of frustration, wherein I finally reached out to Christopher Wulff, who created the UUA Theme, about my problems downloading and installing, and he quickly figured out that my PHP version on my website was too old and that my upload size specified by my php.ini file was too small.  I was able to call my hosting provider who quickly fixed those things, and minutes later the UUA theme was installed and operational on my webpage.

It took me about half a day yesterday to get the theme to the point where it all looks nice and proper on my site and many of the new items are functioning nicely.  You can take a look at http://www.liberyuu.org.  What I have NOT done yet is taken all the content they offer and add and change my existing pages.  I've done this on a small handful of key pages, particularly in the "About" section, but overall I've left my existing content in place, intending to change it over time, but this will take time.  And it's wonderful that the UUA Theme has so much to offer than I can do this.  It's not a downside at all that I could take weeks looking at and understanding it all.  There's so much material here to go deep with, and what I've done is implement the showy face-value stuff at this point.

Look and Aesthetics:

If you'll remember from my last post, I had a few things I was looking for in a theme's look:
  1.  A theme that let me use my own custom logo along with a title to the site.  
  2. A theme that did not need a large picture in the header. 
  3. A theme that allows for some sort of slider on the first page. 
  4. A theme that includes links for social media like Facebook and Twitter in its header. 
  5. A theme with a top menu bar. 
  6. A top menu bar that was aesthetically pleasing to me -- a thin stripe with links on it, and not something that looked like tabs. 
  7. A theme with a presentation page for the home page that's different from other pages. 
  8. A theme that was accessible on multiple different platforms and responded nicely on mobile devices. 
  9. A theme that gave me some choice about color scheme.  
So how did the UUA Theme do on my checklist?  The only disappointment thus far is #1.  The site allows me to put in a custom logo, but when I do this my title for my church disappears.  This is something I've noticed on a lot of themes.  The answer Christopher Wulff gives to this question is, "We encourage congregations to use a logo/wordmark that includes their name."  That would not be my preference, but I can understand why they went with it, because for many churches that might be the preference, because their logo includes their name.  For example,  
Since my logo is just a little icon, I'd prefer to just put it in the box and let my header play out as usual, especially as I don't have Helvetica on my computer, nor on the webpage that I use to design images, and I'd like to use the same font as the rest of the site.  But you can't please everybody.  If that's my biggest gripe, I'd say that it's pretty good.  For now, I'm using the UUA logo.

#2, #3, #5, #7, #8 are all unequivocal yeses.  The UUA Theme does nicely on all of those.  For #4, there are a few social media links that are easy to add to the header:  Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest, GooglePlus, and Instagram.  That pretty much covers the basics, so is an acceptable array of choices.  For #9, the Theme gives you three color schemes to choose from, but then also lets you choose a custom background color and/or background image, so you don't have to stick with the UUA Brand wallpaper.  Beyond that, you have to get it CSS stuff, which I don't do.  I'll add a note here about fonts, which is that the fonts on the UUA Theme are chosen for accessibility and for my church I had switched to the UUA's font choices already.

Overall, I'll say I'm not a big fan of the UUA branding color scheme, but on the "dark blue" option of the UUA Theme, I don't mind it.  I like the yellow contrasting color you get on the homepage with the dark blue, and the overall color scheme in this version of the webpage is relatively pleasant.  The Grey Red choice the theme offers is also pretty nice.  I'm not a fan of the Aqua Green choice, but maybe somebody else is. 

The overall look of the webpage, though, that is something I am a big fan of when it comes to this theme.  I really love it -- it feels modern and clean.

Home Page

The Home page with the UUA Theme works differently than I've encountered elsewhere.  You create an empty page called "Home" and place it at the top of your menu, and then the content on it is all driven by widgets that come with the plugins that come with the them and that the theme recommends.  Previously, I've seen the homepage created on a separate tab within the "appearances" section, so this took a little getting used to, and I had to play around with it a bit to get it working right.  At first, despite a Home page at the top of my menu, the page was still pointing to another page that I had previously set up, and I had to find this setting and change it.  That was particular to the way I had done things on my site in the past, so it took relearning what I had done before to undo it.  Once I did that, however, setting up the widgets to appear on my Home page was easy, except the Carousel.  I put a static picture into that spot while I worked out how to use the Carousel, which was very non-intuitive for me.  I just couldn't figure out where you put the images in the Carousel, actually.  It turns out that if I scroll down on the right, there's the "Feature Image" box, and that's where it goes.  I wasn't sure if that image was what generated the image, or the image link box further down, so it took a while to get that straightened out.  I also had problems in that the text the information page about the theme told me to put in a box in the widget wasn't working.  A quick message to Christopher Wulff got this straightened out -- the text he says to put in the box is "[image-carousel category=”Homepage”]" but this only works if you've put your Carousel images into categories (useful if you want carousels in more than one location).  I had not, so I needed to type "[image-carousel]" instead.  The rest of the Home page was very easy to set up.  I like the three picture and link boxes that appear on the second row.  They're easy to change and implement, too.  On the third row, I had a little more figuring out what to put.  I don't have enough users generating content for me to really keep a "News" section going yet, and our Newsletter provided for a pretty short column.  So I opted for two columns that will generate new content -- an Events list and a blurb about our monthly Forum -- and one that'll remain pretty static, into which I put the Common Read book.

The best feature of the Home Page, however, is the second widget in the top row, generated by the Services Plugin.  This takes your Sunday service for the week and automatically puts it up front each week.  The Services Plugin is the really outstanding part of the theme, and I'll talk about it more in my next post. 

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Review: UUA Wordpress Theme -- A First Look

Today the UUA launches its new Wordpress theme.  The official title seems to be "UUA Wordpress Theme for Congregations," but I'm referring to it here as "UUA Theme."  This is something I've been waiting for, and vocally advocating for and blogging about , for some time, so I was anxiously awaiting the debut.  So here are some first impressions based on the demo site and what I've read in the materials, as I wait for the launch to happen.  Overall, I think it's really a fantastic job, and just exactly what I was hoping for.  

Look and Aesthetics:

When I was looking for a Wordpress theme for my site when I converted to Wordpress a year or two ago, I was looking for several things in my theme:
  •  A theme that let me use my own custom logo along with a title to the site.  This is surprisingly rare -- lots of pages allow only for one or the other, or you have to hack the code, which I don't do.  The UUA theme clearly lets you use the UUA logo along with a church title, and I'm betting allows churches to put their own chalice logo in.  
  • A theme that did not need a large picture in the header.  The UUA Theme does not.
  • A theme that allows for some sort of slider on the first page.  The UUA Theme does.
  • A theme that includes links for social media like Facebook and Twitter in its header.  The UUA Theme does.
  • A theme with a top menu bar.  The UUA Theme has top navigation. 
  • A top menu bar that was aesthetically pleasing to me -- a thin stripe with links on it, and not something that looked like tabs.  The UUA Theme has this as well.
  • A theme with a presentation page for the home page that's different from other pages.  The UUA Theme has this.
  • A theme that was accessible on multiple different platforms and responded nicely on mobile devices.  The UUA Theme is.  
  • A theme that gave me some choice about color scheme.  The UUA Theme does.  From the materials and demo site, I can't tell how much flexibility is here, but I can tell that there is some.
In other words, the UUA theme hit every single point that I was looking for.  When I created my church's website, I demoed dozens of different themes, trying to find one that did all this, and couldn't.  I eventually settled for one that met most of theses points but not all. 

UUA Services Plugin:

One thing I've never adequately solved to my satisfaction was how to manage Sunday services on a webpage.  Ideally, you want every Sunday's service information to be posted separately, to be the top one people see, but to be able to see other upcoming services easily as well.  And you want to do this without having to update your webpage every single week, because volunteers aren't always available every single week to do the update.  If you create posts, they'll post in the order you create them, unless you use some sort of plugin application to withhold publication, but I didn't really know how to easily do this, amateur as I am.  Well, the UUA Services Plugin solved my problem entirely.  The good folks who created the Theme recognized that this is the one area pretty essential to congregations that no other plugin did very nicely, and so was one that was important for them to create themselves.  And it works very nicely, even taking each service from "Upcoming Services" to "Past Services" automatically each week.  Bravo!  A great recognition on the UUA's part that this is exactly the plugin we needed, where nothing else did the job easily.

Other Bonuses:

In configuring my menus to match the UUA Theme's suggestions, I learned how to make a null link at the top level of menu items.  That was something I didn't know before, and had really wondered about when I converted to Wordpress.  It was obvious to me that there was some confusion within myself about whether the top of the menu should be a page itself, or just pull down the menu, but I didn't know how to do that.  The UUA Theme materials explained the best practice, and how to accomplish it.  Problem solved.

Content: 

Something I wasn't expected, and am overjoyed about, is the demo content.  I haven't gotten a chance to look at it yet, but it's so wonderful to have sample content provided -- not all of us are great writers, and even if we are may not understand the best way to write for webpages.  The demo content, as well as the list of suggested images, are exactly what our congregations need.

Well, my ancient computer may have downloaded the theme by now, so that's all for my "First Look."  I'll be back with more after I've tried it out. 

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Walking Alongside: Remembering a Friend

My friend the Rev. Laurie Thomas passed away this month. As I've been thinking about her and our times together, one memory that sticks out for a number of reasons is the time we traveled to Boston together for a weekend. I asked Laurie's permission, which she granted, to write up the experience as a blog post, but for some unknown reason I never did.

We encountered in the course of a weekend so many little, and big, accessibility issues and issues of injustice or prejudice, that my head was spinning. I was angry--furious--at the encounters. Laurie just shook her head at me. This was everyday life for her, and not out of the ordinary at all. Besides, she explained, she didn't have the luxury of being angry. If you're angry, people won't want to help you, and in some of these situations she might require help of people who don't know her. "Nobody likes the angry gimp," she said to me.

The first instance we encountered was before we even left Detroit. We were at the airport and decided to get some lunch before the flight left. We went over to the nearest restaurant to our gate, and the hostess looked at us and said -- to me -- "She can't bring that in here." I looked at the hostess incredulously. "What do you mean she can't bring it in here? That's ridiculous. She doesn't get out of that. It's like a wheelchair. You have to let her in here with it." Laurie just looked at me in amusement. The hostess backed down as I pointed out a table by the door that we could easily get to and from.

There were other small issues as we boarded and exited the plane. When we got off the plane, they had managed to switch some switch such that her scooter wouldn't work. They wanted to transfer her to a wheelchair, but Laurie wasn't having that. Eventually we got the scooter, and went out get our transportation to the hotel.

We were headed to stay at Eliot & Pickett House, the B&B that was then owned by the UUA. It was right off the subway line, but the subway stop there is not accessible, so that wasn't an option. The bus system will send buses that can accommodate wheelchairs and scooters, but apparently you have to have a special card with them, which as a non-resident, Laurie did not. The UUA had phoned around for us, and determined that a cab was the best way to go. They were assured that there were cabs that could handle the scooter, and that all we needed to do was go to the cab stand and tell them we needed an accessible cab.
So off we went, and they promptly ordered us an accessible cab. Well, accessible it was not. The back was too small to fit the scooter in. No problem, they said, we'll order a larger one. The next one came. This could handle the scooter, but not with Laurie on it. The scooter would need to be forced into the back. And it was a van, so a higher seat to get up into, which Laurie couldn't easily transfer into. In fact, she couldn't get into it at all. So they sent it off. And while we were waiting for a third cab to come, the cab stand manager got a good idea. He suggested we call two cabs -- one that the scooter would fit into, and one that Laurie would be able to transfer into. I would then ride with the scooter, to make sure it got there okay. We agreed that if the third cab didn't accommodate her, that this is what we would need to do. And so it was. We departed with me with the scooter, and Laurie in a second cab. The only problem then was that the second cab got lost trying to find Eliot & Pickett House. I sat outside on Laurie's scooter while the minutes ticked away, worrying about her. At last she arrived. The cab driver, having driven in circles, charged her outrageously. So we were there at last, having only spent triple what a cab ride should have been.

Eliot & Pickett House has a ramp that looks like an after-thought and takes you in a side door around the capitol side of the building. But the ramp was no obstacle, and the staff was prompt and friendly with help. I can't say enough nice things about the staff at Eliot & Pickett, in fact. The best thing about the trip was that Eliot & Pickett House was completely accessible for everywhere Laurie needed to go to. I could barely fit into the amazingly small elevator to get to my room, but the room Laurie stayed in was well-appointed for one on wheels. "It's the legacy of Helen Bishop," Laurie told me. Helen Bishop was the former District Executive of the Central MidWest District, and, indeed, responsible for many a church's accessibility improvements, as they struggled with making themselves a building their own DE could enter. As for Eliot & Picket House, its only problem was a lift that was required to get to one part of the building that the staff had forgotten how to work, or had to find the key for. But Segree Bowen quickly solved it, and showed us, and so we could move around the building freely.

Once we were settled in, it was time to find dinner. There are a number of restaurants within walking distance of the UUA, and obviously we didn't want to go anywhere that would require transportation, so we set off down the street. Some of the crosswalks in the area of Beacon Hill aren't ramped, surprisingly. Many of the buildings in the area had small steps at the threshold, making it difficult for the scooter, but the third restaurant we came to finally had a flat entrance, and so we ate there. It was a bit pricey, but perhaps everything was around there. At least the food was good. We ate there again the next day, grateful for a place we could enter and exit easily.

The next day, we went to visit the UUA. This visit is why I didn't shed a tear when the UUA moved to a new building. Because after this experience, it was clear to me that they needed a better building. It's a short flight of stairs to get into 25 Beacon from the front door. Wheelchairs have to go in through a narrow alley around the corner of the block. I went in the front door while Laurie went in the alley. This way I could alert the receptionist that someone was coming in that way. And so I did. I went in and told the woman at the front desk that I had a friend who would be coming in that way, and asked her to please help make sure that she got in successfully. I sat down and waited. And waited. Finally, I asked the receptionist, "Do you see her? Is she there yet?" The receptionist said, "Oh yes, she's been there. It looks like she's having trouble with the gate." And then didn't move. "Um, is there something we can do?" The receptionist said, "Oh yes, you can go let her in." "Um... I have no idea how to get there?" Finally, the receptionist got up, showed me through the building to a not-very-obvious side exit, which I think was through a side room to my memory, where there, indeed, Laurie was waiting on the opposite side of a closed gate. The gate had no call button or push button to open it or alert someone -- the call button was on the other side of the gate when you got to the building. Had I not been advocating for her, it felt like the receptionist might have been happy to watch her sit there all day. It was not a warm welcome to our religious headquarters.

And so we came into the UUA's barely-accessible building. We looked around the bookshop, which had barely enough space to maneuver. Parts of the building are inaccessible, so we didn't stray far inside, just meeting with the people we had come to see. And then we left by the narrow alley, off to lunch at the accessible restaurant.

Returning to the airport, we knew, would be a challenge. So we carved out much of our day for the return trip, anxious not to miss our flights. We decided to call a cab to get us about four hours before the flight would take off. We figured one hour to get to the airport, one hour to get to our gate, and two hours for hassle. The UUA helped again by calling ahead and finding a cab company that assured us they could handle a cab with the dimensions Laurie specified to them. The cab came. It was too small. We had that cab driver radio back to his headquarters, and they sent out a second cab. It arrived. It was too small. I think we did that again, and then it was the third cab driver that we then said to him that we would do what we did before, with taking two cabs. He wasn't happy about waiting around for us for a fourth cab to come, but by now time was ticking. Eventually he hailed down another cab from another cab company that was passing by on the small little street Eliot & Pickett is on. And off we went with our two cabs to the airport. I tipped him extra for the hassle, because he helped out a great deal, and lifting the scooter in and out of the cab alone is a struggle. And unlike last time, this cab driver was good about sticking with the other guy so that Laurie could get right on her scooter when we got to the airport. And we got to our flight barely on time. Two hours of hassle, indeed.

These are just some of the struggles I watched Laurie face while we were traveling together. There seemed to be a million little hassles and problems we encountered at every turn. It took a team of support between me and the UUA to make the trip possible. And throughout it, Laurie met the obstacles cheerfully, with good humor. It was me getting angrier, more frustrated, and irritable with every encounter. But this wasn't uncommon for her. She lived with these injustices and obstacles all the time. I only had to handle them for a weekend.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Blessing the Backpacks -- Backpack Charm Craft Instructions

From my wonderful colleagues I got the idea of doing a "blessing of the backpacks" as the children of the congregation go off to school.  It's not a new idea -- Christian churches have been doing it for years, and apparently some UUs, too -- but I had never heard of it before.  Churches often apparently put some sort of zipper pull tag on the backpacks.  Here's an example found on Pinterest:


A couple of colleagues shared their ideas, and some images, in a closed Facebook group, which started me thinking.  I'm fairly crafty with things like this, so I knew I could come up with something.  I was inspired by Karen G. Johnston's example created by her DRE and a member, but couldn't figure out their fancy knots:
http://awakeandwitness.net/2015/08/27/blessing-of-the-backpacks-a-mini-primer/
But, on the other hand, I do have some tricks up my own sleeve.
Here's my prototype:

My prototypes cost me over a dollar each to make, but to make in bulk they'll cost less than 30 cents apiece, not counting tools or jump rings.  You start with 1-inch bottle caps, the kind that are designed for jewelry and crafts.  You can get them in silver, black, mutli-colored, patterned -- really any way you want.  The ones that I used are also described as flattened bottle caps, but you can get ones that are more bottle-cap like.  My price of $0.30 each is based on using these:

Print out your pictures, sizing your pictures to one-inch.  Your church logo or the UUA logo would work nicely in these.   As you can see, I used one of my Zentangle chalices, on a star-shaped background. Please do check with me before using my artwork.  I liked the symbolism of the star for kids who are all stars. 
I can get about 45 onto one page.  And here's the big secret: I print these out on full sheets of label paper.  That makes my chalice self-adhesive, which simplifies what could be the messiest, gunkiest, error-prone stage of the process.  Label paper seems pricey, but when you price it out per item if you're making a ton of these, it's less than one cent per chalice.

You'll need to acquire a one-inch circular punch.  I like Martha Stewart's punches for my scrapbooking, so I got hers. 

Punch out your circles on the label paper.  And the next step is that BEFORE you remove the backing, stick a one-inch clear circular epoxy sticker on top of that circle.  This makes the backing much easier to get off, really.  And you're going to stick the epoxy sticker on anyway.  So do it in this order and trust me.  Then just remove the label backing and pop that circle into your bottle cap.  The bottle caps I got came pre-punched with holes and jump rings in them, so it was important to line up the top of the sticker with the top of the bottle cap.  Bottle caps are cheaper if you don't buy them punched, though, so you'll need a bottle cap punch, and then jump rings or split rings if the hole it makes is too small for your ball chain.  Probably any metal punch of the right size would do, but they sell ones specifically for this.

Jump rings are not priced into my 30 cents each, but they're less than a penny each, if you buy bulk.  This is where you have a difficult choice to make, because jump rings open up very easy if a kid is pulling on this backpack charm, but split rings are a pain to put on.  My more expensive bottle caps came with split rings already on them.  I think there's probably a tool to make those jump rings easier (I do see things called "Split ring pliers, but they just look like needle-nosed pliers with a sort of hook on the end).  If someone knows if these are helpful, please inform us in the comments.  I mostly just juggle around and pry with my needle-nose pliers until I get them opened.  They're like little mini key chains, and you know what a pain it can be to get keys on and off a regular key chain!

So that's the chalice bottle cap part of the charm done.  Next I got some bright peace sign beads to add on.  I'd add UU beads, except that I don't have any alphabet beads where the hole is big enough for the ball chain to go through.  But that would be a nice option.  Turns out you can get packs of all Us. 

And then lastly add a ball chain key chain of about four inches.  You can get these in packs pre-cut.

And there you have it!  Cute backpack charms for the blessing of the backpacks!

Sunday, June 21, 2015

South Carolina: It's Time to Take It Down

Dear South Carolina Governor & Legislators,

I was born in Charleston.  I'm a daughter of the South.  There's a city in Spartanburg County -- Landrum, SC -- that was named for some distant relatives of mine.  And my direct ancestor fought in the Civil War for the Confederacy.  My family owns land in the South that was passed down for generations, land that once we enslaved other people on. 

I understand heritage. I understand heritage is complicated.  I understand we have to remember the bad of who we were, and the hard times, along with the good of who we are, and the good times.  I understand that lives were lost and lives were changed, and the Confederacy and the Civil War continue to shape us.  I understand that we can't forget the past, nor do I want to.

I understand heritage.  I struggle with mine, celebrate mine, mourn about mine, live with mine.  Heritage is complicated.

But flying the Confederate flag doesn't represent my heritage, which goes back generations before and continues generations after the Confederacy.  It could only represent a thin slice of heritage at best.  But this symbol doesn't do even that.  It doesn't even truly represent that slice of time -- it's not the flag that flew in South Carolina during the Confederacy, it's the battle flag of another state.  It's not something that's been there, flying over or in front of government buildings, untouched, since that time. It's a symbol that was brought back into our public spaces by the resistance to the Civil Rights movement, a symbol that was brought back for reasons of hatred and racism.  It's a symbol that's been used and abused by the KKK.  It's a symbol that might seem to say "heritage" for some small percentage, but says "hatred" and "oppression" for so many others.  And it has no business on our public lands and flying over our government buildings. 

It's time to acknowledge that this symbol was put up for the wrong reasons, it's the wrong symbol, and it's time for it to come down.  It doesn't truly represent heritage.  It represents a hate that has no place in our government any more.  It represents a time when we acted wrongly, fighting against voter registration and glorifying a time of slavery. 

To truly respect our heritage, to truly honor it, we have to also be willing to honor the truth -- the complicated truth that there were things our ancestors were wrong about, and there were things they chose that we can't applaud.  My ancestors had honor and love and a number of good virtues, I'm sure.  But my ancestors drove Native Americans off their land, and then on that land my ancestors enslaved African Americans.  That's not something I want to wave a flag proudly for.  It's not something I want to forget, either.  But honoring and respecting heritage means understanding this complexity, that not all was good, not all was admirable, and not all was what we want to carry forward.  I might have German ancestors, but flying the Nazi flag wouldn't honor heritage, it would honor hate.  Flying the Confederate flag doesn't honor the complexity of heritage -- it shouts a message of oppression.

And one thing that clearly we need to not carry forward at this time in our country is a symbol that speaks of hatred, of oppression, and of slavery.  We need to not have symbols that glorify racism and oppression as part of our government and its buildings and sites.  The symbol needs to be placed in its proper context, and that is purely historical.

It's time to take down the Confederate flag.

Sincerely,
Rev. Dr. Cynthia L. Landrum



Thursday, June 18, 2015

"They died... discussing the eternal meaning of love."

In the Civil Rights era, there were churches that were centers for civil rights organizing.  And they were attacked -- bombed, set on fire.  We know best the story of the 16th Street Baptist church where four young girls died.  In his eulogy for them, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would say, "They died between the sacred walls of the church of God, and they were discussing the eternal meaning of love."

In that same eulogy for the victims of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. also said:
"They have something to say to every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. They have something to say to every politician who has fed his constituents with the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism. They have something to say to a federal government that has compromised with the undemocratic practices of southern Dixiecrats and the blatant hypocrisy of right-wing northern Republicans. They have something to say to every Negro who has passively accepted the evil system of segregation and who has stood on the sidelines in a mighty struggle for justice. They say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers. Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of the American dream."
They are words he would share again in his eulogy for the Unitarian Universalist minister James Reeb.

After the shooting in the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, a shooting motivated by hatred of the values we stand for, the UUA launched our social justice movement "Standing on the Side of Love." 

This shooting in Charleston, South Carolina at the Emanuel AME Church says something to us in our religious faith, too. This shooting doesn't call for us to launch a movement, but to join a movement.  This shooting calls for us to be partners, work in solidarity, join coalitions, build bridges. 

These deaths say to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for Love.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

The Trouble with Truancy - Part 2

As my letter in Part 1 of this series illustrated, it's fairly easy to have a truant child.  Missing two weeks due to illness is quite easy to have happen, and the requirement that many districts have that a doctor's note is the only way to excuse the absence means a classist system of who can and will have absences excused and who will end up with a truant child.  All other things being equal, two children out for two weeks with the same two colds can end up with very different fates, not because of the nature of the child, or the diligence of the parent, but simply for economic reasons.

That income levels and truancy are related is no surprise.  A recent MLive article reported:
"Some districts, including many affluent suburban ones, reported little or no truancy. The Forest Hills schools outside Grand Rapids reported five truant students among 10,147 enrolled, and Bloomfield Hills in suburban Detroit just 32 out of 12,306. But Kentwood, another metropolitan Grand Rapids district, had 590 truant cases, representing 6.8 percent of its students, according to the data."

So what?  What does it matter if a child is labeled truant?  Well, it turns out it matters a great deal.   In Michigan, a truant child can mean a fine to a parent, and even jail time

Well, apparently that wasn't enough for our Michigan Republicans who control our legislature.  This week, Governor Snyder signed a new bill into law that cuts welfare to families if a child is truant. 

So imagine, if you will, a low-income family with three children.  The youngest child gets sick for a week, and the parent keeps her home.  It's a mild cold, so there's no need to see a doctor, but the child misses a week of school.  Now they have 5 of the 10 days towards being considered truant.  The child gets sick again.  The family can't afford to see a doctor, but keeps the child home again.  Now the child is truant.  The parents are then fined for having a truant child.  And, now, our government takes food away from the whole family. 

Governor Snyder said, "Much like the Pathways to Potential program, this legislation brings together parents, schools and the state to determine obstacles that keep students from being in school and how to overcome them."  When my child was sick a couple of years ago with a mild cold and I wrote the letter to my school board in frustration, it did bring parents and school together.  My child's principal had told me there was no way she could excuse the absence without a doctor's note.  The school board seemed to hear the situation, and agree that the policy was flawed.  Two years later, the policy is still (or back) in place.  Children are still being considered truant because of illness and income.  Now Governor Snyder thinks this will bring together parents, schools, and state?  Yes, it will -- unnecessarily.  It's completely unnecessary to bring the state into this level of involvement between schools and parents.  The fact that it's penalizing lower income people who are already struggling with the truancy laws is unconscionable. 

The Trouble with Truancy - Part 1

Two years ago, I wrote our school district about the truancy policy.  At that time, I was told that I had presented a good case, and they were going to change their policy.  I don't know if it actually did change and then changed back, but looking at the policy on my school district's webpage, the policy is the same as the one I complained about.  In this post, I'll share that letter.  In my next post, I'll talk about why it matters, and what the Michigan government has just done that makes this even worse.


Dear JPS School Board,

I’m writing to you because I’ve been disturbed about the JPS elementary school attendance policy for some time.  Specifically, I find it disturbing that the only way an absence can be “excused” is with a doctor’s note.  My chief issue with this policy is that I think it is, in a word, classist.  In addition, I think that it represents a misuse of the medical system and it fails to respect a parent’s reasonable judgment.

The policy as it now stands requires a doctor’s note to excuse an absence.  I am fortunate to have insurance and have a family doctor I can turn to.  Even so, it may require a $20 co-pay for a visit before a doctor will be willing to write a letter, which may mean a $20 fee for a note to excuse an absence for what I know is a cold with a mild fever.  Since I’m following our school’s procedures of keeping a child home when sick, I’ll need to do this if I think she might be sick for even five days total per year.  This is doable for me, if I’m worried about the situation.  However, for a family in a harder economic situation, that $20 co-pay can be onerous.  But that’s assuming a family has a regular doctor and has insurance beyond catastrophic coverage only.  I’m certain that not all families in our school district do, with more than half of the children in our county living in poverty (http://www.mlive.com/news/jackson/index.ssf/2012/01/report_more_jackson_county_chi.html).  As you well know, most of our elementary schools qualified for the federal program supplying free school lunches for our children based on the poverty rates of our area. 

What we are creating, therefore, is a system wherein wealthier students when they get sick are less likely to be considered truant and poorer children are more likely to be considered truant, based not on their real truancy rates, but based on their access to affordable medical care.  The schools need to be helping address income inequality between our students, not creating further income inequality.

Beyond issues of class, however, this system represents a misuse of the medical system and a lack of respect for the judgment of parents.  To return to my own child’s situation, we’re told we’re supposed to keep children home if they have any fever.  However, when I keep my child home with a sniffle and a temperature that’s up one or two degrees, as I have done today, I therefore also need to call my child’s doctor and get a note from her.  In the past, the doctor has told us with cold-like symptoms and a very mild fever there’s no need for the child to see a doctor unless the condition persists beyond a couple of days.  I therefore know that there’s no need, other than the JPS policy, to seek a medical professional’s advice.  Today we called the doctor, anyway, to try to meet the policy demands.  However, we haven’t received a call back yet.  Sometimes they’ve been willing to provide a note for school without seeing her and, really, what does that prove, except that we have a good relationship with our doctor?  If they won’t write a note for today without seeing her, I’ll need for her to see the doctor, in order to prove she was sick.  My daughter may be well tomorrow, but I would need to pull her out of school tomorrow in order to get the note to excuse the first day’s absence.  (The note would probably then say that my child’s absence wasn’t excused, because she was fine by the second day.)  So now my child would have been out for one and a half days when one day would have sufficed, wasting the doctor’s time, my time, and my child’s time, just because of a poor policy.  Frankly, I’m unwilling to pull my child out of school for an unnecessary doctor’s appointment, because school is more important to me than your attendance policy.  So if this happens for eight days per year, my child will probably be referred to a truant officer for early truancy intervention.  My hope is that if this happens, “early truancy intervention” is something which focuses on telling other parents to keep their children home when they’re sick so that my child can catch fewer colds and miss fewer days, or helps set up free clinics for parents without insurance!  Of course, you can see that we’re caught it a Catch-22.

To not accept my word that my child has a mild fever and a sniffle is to disrespect my judgment as a parent, one who does care about my child’s medical status and knows that a doctor visit is not necessary.  To have to pursue it with a reluctant physician, as well, is a misuse of the medical establishment, and disrespectful to our physician, as well. 

If you all think back to the days when you were a child, and were home sick with a mild cold, you’ll remember that your parent probably called the school and told them you were sick, and that was the end of the matter.  There should be a way to continue to do this.  Be creative.  While the occasional problem of a parent keeping a child out of school more for other reasons may exist, there are ways to address this without creating a burdensome system with a difficult financial cost to the parents to it. 

Thank you for considering my argument.  I hope I have managed to convey my issue respectfully, although this policy frustrates me every time my child has been home sick.  I understand not excusing a family vacation, or even a trip to the dentist, but if you want parents to keep sick children home, as I know you do, I hope you will consider making it easier for us to do so. 

Sincerely,
Cynthia L. Landrum
Parent

Friday, June 12, 2015

New Legal Religious Discrimination in Michigan

Michigan's Governor Snyder signed a new set of discrimination laws yesterday.  "Senate Substitute for House Bill No. 4188" states:

"Private child placing agencies, including faith-based child placing agencies, have the right to free exercise of religion under both the state and federal constitutions.  Under well-settled principles of constitutional law, this right includes the freedom to abstain from conduct that conflicts with an agency's sincerely held religious beliefs."

Both faith-based and non-faith-based agencies receive government money.  Given the separation of church and state, it should be the case that agencies receiving federal or state money are not allowed to religiously discriminate in who they serve.  However, this separation has been eroded over the years in a multitude of ways, from President Bush's Faith-Based Initiative to the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision. 

Even so, this is a new level of affront to freedom of religion.  Hobby Lobby isn't receiving government money to do its work.  It's a for-profit organization.  Adoption is a different sort of business.  Half of adoption agencies are faith-based in Michigan -- Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, and the evangelical Bethany Christian Services. How much money are they receiving from the state?  Michigan Radio reports that it is "up to $10 thousand dollars a child." 

This is most notably an attack on same-sex couples.  The Catholics and Methodists both do not recognize same-sex marriage, and the president of Bethany Christian Services, William Blacquiere, has said, "At Bethany, we would never deny a family for their secular status, or single-parent, or anything of that nature. However, if the family would be in conflict with our religious beliefs, we would assist them to go to another agency."

Actually right now judges are stopped from granting two-parent same-sex adoptions already.  Same-sex parents who adopt usually end up with only one of them as the adoptive parent.  This is what started the court case that led to Michigan's challenge to the same-sex marriage ban.  And with a Supreme Court decision potentially changing the marriage equation, this might change, but right now this is the case.  So the religious right is getting ducks in a row to make sure that if you can get married in Michigan you can still be banned from adopting, denied housing, barred from public accommodations, and fired from your job the day after your wedding.  Seriously.  I do not exaggerate.  This is currently the case that all these forms of discrimination are legal, but our legislators are writing laws that ensure that they're not just legal by the default of having no legal protections from discrimination, but explicitly and purposefully legal.

However, it is not just same-sex couples who might be denied adoption.  So who else might conflict with the religious beliefs of these Christian organizations?
  • Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, and any people of non-Christian faiths
  • Atheists, agnostics, and the unchurched
  • Single parents and unwed couples
It wasn't that long ago that people had religious objections to interracial marriage and interracial adoption.  Even that most abhorrent form of discrimination could be seen as legal with this new legislation. Our legislature has been hard at work lately making sure that their rights to discriminate are protected at every turn.  What they're worried about, it seems, is their freedom to hate, and what the corporations want. 

What's missing in all of this, of course, is what's best for the children. 

Monday, January 12, 2015

Regarding Starr King: A Heartfelt Call

I began this blog article in late November, and worked it through several drafts and researched it as thoroughly as I was able, and then had it reviewed by several trusted people, and then, after all that, decided not to publish it.  Instead, I wanted to reach out first directly to the Starr King Board, and so on December 15th, 2014, I sent a letter to the Starr King Board and SKSM President Rosemary Bray McNatt.  Since my December drafts, however, a lot has happened.  Two more faculty have resigned from Starr King.  Rev. Kurt Kuhwald's resignation letter and other documents can be read on Dan Harper's blog.  It's also worth noting that Rev. Kurt Kuhwald also asks the UUA Board to conduct an inquiry -- something I don't address in my statement, but worth considering further.  The UU Society for Community Ministries has put out a Statement of Concern, calling on Starr King to reverse the refusal of diplomas and to focus energy on restoring trust.  And a list has been published of colleagues pledging support for Starr King, including financial donations.  In staying silent, I was hoping for Starr King to come to resolution quickly.  That has not happened, and events have continued to escalate.  And so I feel it's time to publish the statement I worked so hard on in December, updating it only slightly to reflect recent events.  


I’m a graduate of Meadville Lombard, and believe firmly that we need Unitarian Universalist seminaries, and we need to support Unitarian Universalist seminaries institutionally and personally and financially.  Our UU seminaries have an important role in our movement.  While it is true that UU seminaries only train a fraction of our ministers in the UUA, all of our ministry and congregations benefit from them – from the scholarship that comes from them, from the fact that they keep documents and artifacts important to our movement in their libraries and buildings, and from the institutional opportunities for knowledge that they offer not just to their own seminarians but to all seminarians and ministers in our movement. 

I’m not just a graduate of Meadville Lombard, I’m also married to a graduate of Starr King.  For one year, we created an exchange program between the two schools where I studied at Starr King for the fall semester, and my husband (then fiancĂ©) studied in Chicago for the winter and spring quarters.  I got to see first hand why so many Starr King graduates see Starr King as a magical and special place.  Rebecca Parker’s leadership while I was there was at once theologically rigorous and softly pastoral and uniquely visionary.  The faculty were demanding and yet the institution was caring.  I believe Starr King is a wonderful and unique institution, and I support it strongly. 

In addition, I joyfully embrace the calling of Rosemary Bray McNatt as the new president of Starr King School for the ministry.  Her leadership is the right leadership for this time, and it should have the opportunity to thrive.

And so I urge those Unitarian Universalists who are able, to join those pledging support for Starr King School for the Ministry at this time.  This theological school is a treasure to us as a movement.  It is an important resource for Unitarian Universalism, and needs our support to continue its important job of training Unitarian Universalists for the ministry. I will continue to give to Starr King when I am able, and I continue to believe in its overall mission and purpose.

When I was at Meadville Lombard we had a lot of fear and anxiety among the students, so I understand how that climate can happen.  There was enormous transition going on during my time there – an almost complete president, faculty, and staff  turnover, a transition in our relationship to the University of Chicago, and re-accreditation by the association of theological schools, just to name some factors.  I’ve watched events unfolding at Starr King[i] with concern and love for my friends on the faculty and board and ad hoc committee. 

Starr King had the need to investigate.  But there is clearly internal division about their response, with the faculty originally voting to confer the degrees; three faculty members speaking up about disagreements with this process; two board members, three faculty members, and one staff member resigning, all in some part related to this situation; and at least two students reported withdrawing, perhaps more.  This tells the larger community that people of good will and conscience in the system, who care deeply about the school, are not united behind the current approach.  It’s time for the board to reconsider.

Personally, if I were in this situation, I would not hand over my email account and laptop -- if I had the strength and courage that Brock and Spangenberg have.  Their clarity in understanding that doing so would violate the confidentiality expected of them as UU ministers should be applauded, not held against them.  I find it troubling that Brock and Spangenberg’s ethical stance is being considered as evidence against their fitness for ministry, rather than for it.  (“Garcia believes that students’ refusal to turn over their personal communications to the school is relevant to their fitness to be ministers,” writes the UU World; please note that SKSM disagrees with the word “believes,” essentially saying it is relevant.) 

I believe Starr King has the right to withhold degrees – but it needs to be for a clear cause.  In this case, from the beginning Starr King’s approach has been a guilty-until-proven-innocent approach -- “To be clear, the conditional conferral does not suggest that the board has concluded that those students have engaged in improper conduct. Rather, we have concluded that we do not yet have sufficient information to be able to grant the degrees unconditionally.”  Starr King’s statements make it clear that there is no proof of any improper behavior, nor evidence that either Brock and Spangenberg are the original leaker, nor that they are not the Strapped Student, who according to Rosemary Bray McNatt's statements has withdrawn from the school.

I’ve had members of my congregation and others who usually pays no attention to denominational politics talking to me in dismay about Starr King’s actions, particularly the demanding to see confidential personal e-mails. We’ve reached a tipping point where the response is doing more harm to the institution than the original leak did, and where Starr King stands to lose considerable respect and trust from our lay members and ministers if the situation continues much longer beyond the over half a year that it's been already.  It's time for Starr King to bring this situation to a close.   
I urge Starr King to resolve the matter of Brock's and Spangenberg's degrees quickly; to consider these students innocent until proven guilty, rather than the opposite; and remove the request to see Suzi Spangenberg’s and Julie Brock’s personal email accounts and computers.  

Julie Brock and Suzi Spangenberg were leaders in the SKSM community.  We know that they were there at an April 4 student body meeting where the leaked documents were discussed.  We know that the school says they were early recipients of the leak.  Beyond that, there has been no proof of their involvement.  And this delay has come with increasing financial cost and increasing damage to their reputations, as well. We do have an organization that functions as a gatekeeper that's equipped to evaluate this information. 

The Ministerial Fellowship Committee, if Starr King does not resolve the matter and leaves the degrees in limbo, could consider taking the unusual step of allowing Brock and Spangenberg to forego the M.Div. and consider their work done “an equivalent determined by the MFC.”  I respectfully ask of the MFC that they consider taking this action. Of course, Brock and Spangenberg should still be held to the same rigorous standards as any candidate for our ministry, and complete any other unfinished steps, such as internships.  

The students are the ones with the least power and access to resources in this situation.  Regardless of their guilt or innocence in the leaking of documents, they are also taking a principled stand and enduring financial hardship to do so. Funds not used by Brock and Spangenberg for their legal help will, with the donors’ permission, go to a fund to help seminarians in crisis.  That’s a worthy thing to support, as well.

So I also invite Unitarian Universalists to join in supporting Brock and Spangenberg’s legal defense fund. (Note: Control of the fund has being transferred to the UUSCM, and you can donate here: http://www.uuscm.org/SKSM-Student-Legal-Defense-Fund).

I don’t have any more right to decide what should be done than any other Unitarian Universalist. And yes, there are things about the situation that I don't know, but other things, such as the request for e-mails and the assumption of guilt before proof, are clear from what we do know.  This has been one of the hardest things I've ever written, because I know it's controversial, it's murky, and I have conflicting loyalties.  It pains me to think that speaking up for what I think is right may cost me friendships and be professionally or personally damaging.  That's why I've stayed silent as long as I have, and I'm sure that's true for others as well.  But my worship theme for this month is "integrity."  I have tried to act with integrity in speaking first to the SKSM Board and President, and now by speaking up for what I think is right.  This has gone on too long, and is creating more damage as it goes on to everyone involved.  It's time to change course, to deescalate, and if that doesn't happen, for UUs to speak up.  We have a right, collectively, to influence our movement, our religion, our ministry, and our theological schools.  


[i]  Here are links to documents about the situation, in addition to the newer information linked to in my introduction: