Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Who Is My Neighbor?

by the Rev. Susan M. Smith, UUA Southern Region Congregational Life staff member

One of my favorite parts of doing vision/mission/strategic planning work is all that we discover by investigating our “mission field.” Sometimes we spend all of our time focused on who we are as a congregation and identifying our shared values and passions. Those are vital steps in shaping a compelling vision, but we can’t forget that we minister in a particular place at a particular time.

There is research work that suits every personality. For those who are gregarious, I ask them to pose this question to everyone they meet from the grocery store clerk to the mayor, “I belong to a congregation that is open to a variety of beliefs and focused on making this world a better place and I was wondering what you thought a congregation like that could contribute to our city/town/neighborhood.” In my experience, everyone has an opinion.

Those who like to work with data have some really exciting tools to explore. My favorite new one is at http://projects.nytimes.com/census/2010/explorer in which Dustin Cable from University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service has compiled racial identity info from the 2010 census. With the racial groups represented by differently colored dots, you can see at a glance the radical separation of races in most of our cities. Take a very distant view and the predominance of African Americans in the South and Hispanic/Latino Americans in the borderlands can be seen in glaring clarity. However, in working with congregations, I’ve used this tool to find some amazing locations of racial diversity as well as the intersections of racial enclaves. Using http://www.census.gov/2010census/popmap you can get analysis at the county (or parish) level on race, ethnicity, age, income and housing.

I think the most helpful tool is a Ministry Area Profile available online at http://www.perceptgroup.com. Percept Group has done area studies for congregations since 1987. I saw one for the first time when I was in parish ministry and doing UUA “Extension” training. It used to take weeks to get one, but now they are available on the web in just a few minutes. You get maps, charts, and tons of analysis particularly helpful to congregations including preferences in worship style, church architecture and programs. You find out the social justice and quality of life concerns of your neighbors as well as their preferences for making charitable donations. While reading one of these for a congregation recently, we discovered over 3,000 households in a 5-mile radius of the congregation with a higher than average tendency to be UU.

Sometimes we tell ourselves that our neighbors are not like us or don’t share our concerns. I suggest that you get some actual data to insert into your system while you are visioning and developing plans. It is inspiring to see that as many as 30% of people surrounding your congregation are very concerned about race relations or that 20% of them are looking for spiritual growth. It is sobering to discover that a growing demographic in your neighborhood is unemployed female heads of household with children under the age of 5 or that 12% of your neighboring adults don’t have a high school education. We can be more respectful of the uniqueness in our multi-cultural environment when we know that there is growth in your area from Mexican Americans, Vietnamese Americans and East Indian Americans rather some non-existent generic Hispanics/Latinos or Asians. 

Theologian Frederick Buechner wrote, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” What if we thought of those who live and work next door to our congregations as not merely a coincidence but a calling, an opportunity and a blessing?

Monday, November 2, 2015

Thirty Days of Gratitude, Rolled into One

by Carlton Elliott Smith

I noticed that some of my Southern Region colleagues are participating in "Thirty Days of Gratitude" on Facebook, a month-long practice of thanksgiving during the month in which we have a holiday that's all about appreciating our blessings.

The last full weekend in October was the 20th anniversary of my ordination into Unitarian Universalist ministry at the Hollis Unitarian Church in Queens, New York -- another occasion to contemplate the years gone by and remember how I arrived at this point. With these things in mind, I offer you, Unitarian Universalists of the Southern Region, my own Thirty Days of Gratitude, Rolled into One.

I'm grateful for
1. The extraordinary Southern Region team, program staff and administrators alike. For whatever I am able to accomplish in my role, I know that is woven through-and-through with their support, dedication, and encouragement.
2. The congregations of the Southern Region, with a special fist-bump to those who faithfully support the GIFT program -- Generously Investing for Tomorrow (and Today!). There would be no Southern Region team as it exists now without your financial contributions.
3. The "Three I's" of our UUA Congregational Life Staff -- Interconnection, Innovation, and Impact -- which help us prioritize projects.
4. The relatively smooth transition to regionalization, with the legal dissolution of our four Southern Districts last April. We have entered a new era of what is possible for Unitarian Universalism in our region, and the devoted leadership of district presidents and other officers has given us a great place to start.
5. The elders in our congregations, with whom we staff collaborate in our service to our faith. The work we do is ever-expanding, such that it requires our ongoing partnership. 
6. The work of writers, church leaders, and scholars such as Gil Rendle, Patrick Lencioni, Edwin Friedman, and many others that we draw from in the presentations and lectures we create.
7. Our Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism, which drew me into this faith some 24 years ago and continue to be reference points that I visit again and again.
8. Our religious professionals -- ministers, religious educators, musicians, and administrators -- who are entrusted with the responsibility for building and maintaining sacred spaces.
9. Our many ancestors in the faith -- Viola Liuzzo, Sophia Lyon Fahs, Susan B. Anthony, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper -- whose lives testify to the power of our faith and the possibility of transformation.
10. Our congregational polity, that empowers each church, fellowship, and society to chart its own course with regards to its ministry and its resources.
11. Our covenantal faith, which binds us together by the depth of our relationship and commitment to one another rather than by any creed.
12. Our small and mid-sized congregations, that often represent our faith on backroads and in underserved communities. 
13. Our larger congregations, which are the source of most of the numerical growth within our region.
14. Our teaching congregations that provide new generations of ministerial leadership.
15. Our dying congregations, that have faithfully served our tradition and hung on as long as they could, but are now ready to give their remaining wealth toward the growing, emerging communities of faith.  
16. Our emerging congregations, that are daring to try new ways of being in community, of doing worship and service, that are giving us insights into what the contours of congregational life might be in generations to come.
17. Our multi-site congregations that are partnering with one another and using modern technology to shrink the miles between them.
18. Our struggling congregations, whose leaders are boldly facing crises of faith and showing what can be done when belief in the power of community remains strong.
19. Our visionary congregations that embark upon ambitious building campaigns and community outreach projects that transform local communities.
20. Our bold congregations which, in the face of anti-blackness and white supremacy, dare to declare that #blacklivesmatter.
21. Our resilient congregations, who continue to serve and minister in spite of devastating tragedies and losses.
22. Our environmentally-conscious congregations, which show us that care for our planet is as much a part of our ministry as anything else that we do.
23. Our Welcoming Congregations, many of which were on the forefront of the marriage equality wave that finally(!) swept across our country this June, which are leading the way for transgender inclusion and lgbtq employment and housing protection under the law.
24. Our accessible congregations, that are making adjustments to their facilities so that more people will have access to the love we offer.
25. Our congregations in transition, that are saying goodbye to ministers completing their service and rediscovering their own identities distinct from those leaders.
26. Our justice-seeking congregations, who show up again and again, standing on the side of love in yellow shirts and otherwise :-)
27. Our congregations that consistently support leadership development through participation in our Leadership Experiences, Presidents' Convocation, SW Fall Harvest, and the like. You are increasing the capacity of our region and of your own congregations at the same time!
28. The sources of our faith, which ground us in the ancient past and guide us toward the horizon, giving us roots and wings.
29. The Association of Unitarian Universalist congregations, and of Unitarian Universalists, that provides the over-arching umbrella for all that we do as a liberal religious movement.
30. The forgiveness that is there for me regarding anyone I unintentionally omitted or offended with this gratitude list. 

For all that is our life, we sing our thanks and praise
For all life is a gift that we are called to use
To build the common good, and make our own days glad.* 

In faith and gratitude,
Rev. Carlton Elliott Smith  |  Congregational Life Staff, UUA Southern Region

* from "For All That Is Our Life", Singing the Living Tradition #128

Thursday, October 15, 2015

What Is Essential

by Kathy McGowan, UUA Southern Region Congregational Life staff member

One piece of my job is working with new Unitarian Universalist emerging ministries. There are many ways of becoming a Unitarian Universalist group, including becoming one of the newly formed Covenanting Communities. See http://www.uua.org/association/emerging.

It is an honor and a privilege to work with these folks. Prior to my coming on the Southern Region’s Congregational Life staff, I was creating a new congregation in upstate New York. As with any ministry, there is so much work at hand. It is my job to help emerging ministries to focus. I have four areas that are critical in their formation.

The first is spiritual depth. Because there is so much work facing these folks, their own spiritual life will diminish unless they are intentional about tending to it. This involves self-care. I encourage all them to be diligent about their own daily spiritual practices, and pay attention to balancing family and friends, their work, and their congregational commitment. Beyond self-care is going deeper into the Unitarian Universalist faith. If they are going to create a Unitarian Universalist covenantal faith community, they must know what that means in a deep way. As leaders, they must grow in depth in order for the community to grow in size. They, therefore, must live with each other in a covenantal way. 

The second is Unitarian Universalism. In order to be able to grow this wonderful faith, we must understand our theology and heritage. We have values that have stood the test of time. We must know what those are and how others have sacrificed for them in order of us to have the privileges that we enjoy. We have a life saving and giving faith. We must be able to understand that relationships and how we behave (covenant) affects how we interact with the world. Our world is hurting and broken. We must know ourselves so that we can be in relationship with others who are different from us in order to search for wholeness.

The third is purpose. It is critical for new groups to have a sense of coming together for something larger than themselves. It is so easy to create the church for me. So many people get seduced into thinking that this is their opportunity to create the congregation that they have always wanted with the kind of worship that they like, etc. This is the thinking that will kill it. There must be a sense of creating a space for those that we have not thought about yet. I like to think that when the Martians find us, they will say, "Those UUs have it going on!" But we must be creating something special for others, not ourselves. Having a purpose beyond themselves must stay central. I ask things like how are you changing the world? And I expect real answers.

And, lastly, generosity. While each of the others leads nicely into the next one, generosity needs to be the lens through which they view everything else. Questions I might ask are: How are you being generous with yourselves? How are you being generous with Unitarian Universalism? How are you being generous with your local community, and how is that helping to define your purpose? Many well established congregations ask me how they can become generous. That is much harder to do later, but at the beginning you can tend to generosity and feed it. If you become a generous people from the beginning, it becomes part of your culture and your values.

These are the things that I hope to get into groups’ DNA as they are forming. If they can get these four things right, what could be more joyous? Really, in one form or another, isn’t this what we want for all of our congregations? How are you doing in these four areas? Let me know. I posted this to our Facebook group. Please post replies there (and join the group, if you haven't, already!).

Monday, October 5, 2015

Universalist Pragmatism & Courage

by Rev. Kenn Hurto, UUA Southern Region Lead

No doubt you have heard that many Unitarian Universalist congregations have posted signs on their property — Black Lives Matter — only to have them defaced or torn down, sometimes within hours, and often more than once.

What’s that all about? It is a sad sign of the fear and hatred abounding in our society. That the phrase “black lives matter” is controversial is a sign of white privilege. Yes, I hear the anxiety in the retort, “All lives matter.” And, indeed they do. But, why is it problematic to say “black lives  matter?” Are people of color not in the “all?” That’s just the point: black lives matter, too! Not more, but as well as all others!

 Black Lives Matter arose in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin murder and a sense that a great injustice had been done — again! For background, see A Herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement by movement co-founder Alicia Garza.

The need for a banner comes in part from the undeniable observation that all too often black lives don’t matter in our racially severed society. Indeed, to quote Alicia Garza, where black lives “are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise.”

The late Unitarian Universalist theologian, Dr. Ted Jones once quipped: “Black people get the most of the worst and the least of the best.” Slavery is the original sin of America. It’s legacy is everywhere and shows up in a pandora’s box of racist evils: From crime to housing access, from lack of educational opportunity to unjust policing, from health care to no decent neighborhood grocery stores, from employment barriers to every day slights, everything is harder if you are black. Black Lives Matter is one way of saying, enough and no more.

Unitarian Universalism has its roots in the spiritual struggles of white, European, Protestant descendants. Our faith has been defined mostly as an effort to come up with right belief, correcting the irrational tenets of religious orthodoxy. We have good reason to be proud of our critique of ill-founded, often superstitious beliefs. 

Beliefs do matter. Racism is proof of that. Yet, sadly, all too often our Unitarian Universalist yearning for purity in our belief truncates our ministry into an unending series of irrelevant arguments. This fussing is a bad habit. It keeps us distant from the daily struggles too many have just to survive. When you consider that 1 in 7 Americans face food insecurity every day or that more than 30,000 people die of gun shots every year, is the question of God’s unity vs trinity even worth discussing? 

Our sainted Emerson, preferring a well-grounded faith, famously cut down a pompous orator of right belief by saying, “Sir, your actions speak so loudly, I can barely hear a word you say.” Our Universalist ancestors — less preoccupied with religious argument than the Unitarians —taught  that God or what simply matters most is found in loving action and that all souls are worthy of such love. That side of our faith is the source of another banner we proudly display: “Standing on the Side of Love.”

In a recent sermon, I said, “Love is our teaching. It is our practice. It is our end.” Love calls us to be awake to the ways any lives do not matter. Love demands we speak up, step up when and where anyone is not loved. We Unitarian Universalists are at our best when stand on the side of love every day. We are at our best when our congregations assess their ministries by asking: Are we loving more broadly, more truly? If not, let’s get going; there’s work to be done.

I am proud so many Unitarian Universalists and so many of our congregations are showing up and standing on the side of Black Lives Matter. It is our faith at its best.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Widening the Lanes on Relationship Highway

I slept and dreamt that life was joy.
I awoke and saw that life was service.
I acted and behold, service was joy.
-- Rabindranath Tagore

This is one of my favorite quotes. It’s not because it is fun to say Rabindranath Tagore’s name (though it is fun to say!), it is because it is one of the truest statements I hold dear in my life and in my ministry. I know many of you have a fondness for this particular quote, and I also am aware that many of you find joy in serving your communities and congregations, just as I do.

We are on our way! Meaning we, as the Southern Region, have set sail, and are now seeing the horizon unfold before us, as the familiar territory of what was slowly fades into memory. We come to the never before navigated, uncharted territory of what it means to be in deep interdependent, covenantal relationship with our neighboring congregations, our Region, and our Association. We have embarked on a long term experiment of sorts, one that will challenge us, move us to the edges of our comfort zone, provoke us to boldly go where no Region has gone before! Sounds exciting, right?! What does it really mean though? For you and your home congregation? What does the dissolution of the SED, FLD, MSD and SWUUC governing boards and covenanting as a region mean in your back yard?

It means we have swung open the doors to building relationships with our neighboring UU congregations and Interfaith partners- we no longer have hard boundaries keeping us siloed, but nice dash lines (like those on the highway) to move in and out of the areas we are called to. It means we have to be intentional about our relationships and stepping up and in to new roles and saying “yes” when asked, or, better yet, seeing the need and pitching in without being asked sometimes. It means being open to and available to your neighbors when they are in need, as you hope they are for you when you are in need. It means asking how someone is and really listening to their response.  It means we must honor the feelings of loss some might have after being a part of their District structure for a long time, and reminding ourselves that our regional family has grown and we have many new friends we just haven’t met yet. It means looking outside of our own congregations and seeing how we can influence our whole Association and change the world, not just our own congregations. It means the change you have been asking for is here! YOU ARE IT, and this is your opportunity to help shape the next phase of our Faith movement!

There is great need for communication and relationship in our modern world - that is why many found our religious homes in Unitarian Universalism in the first place. I wish to inspire you to express your passion, and find others throughout the Region who share the same. The Regional staff is here to help support the founding of new ‘affinity’ clusters with tools, resources, and coaching. What are you most passionate about? What would you like to start or be a part of? Who knows what good things this could lead to? For example, maybe a passion of yours is knitting. I know we have many great knitters out there! Getting together with others in your area sounds like a grand idea, but what if you knew of several other groups around the Region with the same interests? And then, what if you were to have a Skype session or two to get to know one another and a plan is hatched. Your group decides to make hats and scarves for a shelter in each city in the new cluster. Tada - the Southern Region Knitters for a Warm Winter affinity cluster is born! It could really be that simple: meet new people, learn about them as they learn about you, and do good works for our communities and our Faith. That sounds like a potential brick in the wall of Beloved Community to me.

Please know all your efforts in faithful service to Unitarian Universalism are appreciated and needed even more as we carve our new pathways! My colleagues on your Southern Region staff team and I are so proud and blessed to serve the congregations of Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas!  You can find your congregations’ Primary Contact by clicking the link here- http://www.uuasouthernregion.org/staff/primarycontact.html

And remember: We are Better Together!

With Faith and Hope for a Bright Future,

Maggie Lovins
UUA Southern Region Congregational Life Staff

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Just Lucky, I Guess

by Connie Goodbread, UUA Southern Region Congregational Life Staff

Grace. I love the word grace. It has a deep meaning. Grace, an elegant and fluid way of being responsible, taking it all in stride. Grace, to bring beauty into our lives and the lives of others. Grace, having a trusting clarity about your heart’s desire and actually listening to and acting on it. Grace, the ability to forgive, learn, and move on. Grace, advantages I have, but did not earn. 

As I work through my own development and becoming, I find myself thinking of several ideas and concepts that, for me, have been a struggle. Of course there are the religious concepts - what does God or Holy mean to me?  How do I hold covenant in my heart every day? How do I live in covenant with the world as a practicing Unitarian Universalist? What is the meaning of life? What is the purpose of my life? What happens when I die? Unitarian Universalism has been my lifeboat as I struggle with finding my answers to these questions and the meanings of these concepts.  
As I face issues involving racial justice, I also have struggles. I witness others struggling, too. One of the struggles is with "White Privilege." What does it mean? When I see others wrestle with this term, I wonder if the struggle isn't exacerbated by the way we talk about it or present it. I have heard the following discussion several times. How can it be a privilege to not be raped or beaten? How can the basic human rights of fair treatment and justice be a privilege? Isn’t that the norm, the way it should be - where the bar should be set?  Yes, it is the way it should be but, in reality basic human rights can be and are denied to individual human beings everyday. So how do we talk about the power that our culture offers some and not all? I wonder if there isn’t a way to talk about “White Privilege” in a way that helps us to see the difference between our personal struggle as opposed to the cultural homeostasis that is the water in which we swim. Systems thinking is my lifeboat in this struggle.

I want to testify, and so, I feel exposed and vulnerable in what I am about to write. I thank you ahead of time, gentle reader, for your compassion and understanding. Here is my thinking - there are different meanings for the word privilege. One way to look at it is that, because of some of my attributes, I have cultural advantages that translate into privileges. Some of my advantages are that I appear to be white, I have the genetic advantages of being healthy, being tall but not too tall, being thin but not too thin, fairly smart, and female. All of these things are examples of grace - I did nothing to earn these attributes. Just the luck of the draw. I can’t give them away. Our dominant culture reacts to me in certain ways because of these attributes. The only thing I can do is to be aware of the fact that our culture gives me privileges in the form of a head start, the benefit of the doubt, I am listened to and treated with respect all because of the way I look. I never expect to be pulled over by the police, yanked out of my car, thrown on the hood, handcuffed, frisked, body probed and arrested.

The other way that I think about privilege is that there are also privileges that are earned. When our children want the right to do something we often say, “If you want that privilege you must earn it.” We earn privileges by having integrity, being disciplined, working hard, overcoming obstacles, being responsible for our own actions, learning valuable lessons, being kind, honest and/or trustworthy. 

Through hard work and dedication I have earned the privilege of serving Unitarian Universalism as a member of the Congregational Life Staff. I am not a minister. I am a credentialed religious educator. I studied Systems Thinking with leaders in the field for many years, served two congregations and have had many different roles as Field Staff with our Association. I have worked to become well versed in conflict transformation. I have struggled with my own faith development and looked deeply into Unitarian Universalist theology and history. I have honed my skills as a presenter. I try my very best to be a team player. When I have the honor of leading, I try to practice vulnerable leadership. This is the hard work that I have done to earn the privilege of serving this faith that I love.

I was also born into a working class, military family. Both of my parents grew up dirt poor.  Neither went to college. Every college course I took, I paid for myself. I have worked since I was fourteen. I am very dyslexic. My mother tried to commit suicide twice. My father was a functioning alcoholic. We moved every two years and in the second grade, when I should have been learning to read, we moved six times. I did not learn to read until the fifth grade, when I taught myself. I am a bad test taker. I was labeled stupid. I was put into classes for children who were also labeled stupid. My mother died when I was twenty after a four year bout with cancer. These are all realities and could be seen as disadvantages, although I do not see some of them that way. I have both advantages and disadvantages that make up my experience, my reality, and color the way I see the world. They make me who I am. However, another reality is that there are cultural homeostatic privileges that come into play when I struggle to overcome a disadvantage or problem. I get a break for appearing white.  If I looked more like my mother’s Native American heritage I don’t think I would have gotten the same breaks. She didn’t.

So what do I do with this? All I can do is to continue my struggle and continue to testify. I know I am unfinished. I take comfort in that. I know my reality is not the reality of others. I must do everything I do with humility. I know that in order to make a difference I must use any power and privilege I have, to empower and emprivilege (I made that word up) others. I know that I will fail but I need to remember that I will also succeed. I know I can’t do any of this by myself, I must partner with others in the work. I am grateful for my gentle, patient partners. I cling to my lifeboats as I continue my struggle in and with the deep water that surrounds me. I pray for clarity, wisdom, forgiveness, beauty in the world and the ability to take it all in stride. That is, for grace.