Thursday, July 16, 2015

Summertime in the Southern Region

by the Rev. Carlton Elliott Smith

When I was a minister serving just one congregation, I looked forward to the summer as a time to regroup and reflect. After General Assembly in late June, July and August held the promise of vacation time and study time. Some years, those months were a time to move when I was transitioning from one congregation to another.

The annual cycle moves differently since I became one of the Congregational Life Staff. Instead of activity slowing down during the weeks between GA and Labor Day, the tempo increases, as we prepare for the four Presidents’ Convocations, the Dwight Brown Leadership Experience (DBLE), the Southern Unitarian Universalist Leadership Experience (SUULE), and the Southwest Unitarian Universalist Summer Institute (SWUUSI). None of us is directly involved in all of these events, but we share collective responsibility for creating meaningful contexts where Unitarian Universalists of the Southern Region can learn from one another.

As I write, I am on a 16-day road trip that started with co-leading Presidents’ Convocation in Birmingham with Gail Sphar. We had 13 participants, each of whom demonstrated strong leadership and a definite commitment to living out our UU values. I have them now as partners in doubling the number of participants at the B’ham PC next year, and and we have challenged the other 2015 Presidents’ Convocations (Dallas, Orlando and Raleigh) to do the same!

© Nancy Pierce/UUA
In collaboration with the Multicultural Growth and Witness office at our Unitarian Universalist Association and extraordinary UU ministers and lay leaders in North Carolina, the UUA Southern Region was very well-represented among the hundreds of Unitarian Universalists who showed up for the This Is Our Selma voting rights rally led by the NAACP NC in Winston-Salem July 13. Our President, Rev. Peter Morales, was among the featured speakers, along with NAACP NC President Rev. William Barber II, Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Rev. Jacqui Lewis of Middle Collegiate Church in New York. I’m very grateful for the tremendous efforts and skills of the team that helped the UU contingent be so strong, including the SR’s own IT and Communications Specialist, Christine Purcell and Event Coordinator Kathy Charles. Other members of that organizing team were Ticie Rhodes of the Raleigh congregation; Rev. Lisa Schwartz, Latonya Richardson and Janet Loew of the Winston-Salem congregation; Susan Leslie, UUA Advocacy and Witness Director; Roz Pelles of NAACP NC, and; Laura Williamson of All Souls Church, Unitarian of DC. I convened the weekly meetings of this group in my role as primary social justice contact on the Southern Region, and could hardly have been happier to see how beautifully it all came together. And thank you to my SR colleague, Kathy McGowan, for welcoming me to collaborate with folks in North Carolina while she was serving at Midwest Leadership School.

Next week, I will join with three of my ministerial colleagues who serve on the Worship Arts Team for our UUA General Assembly to review the worship services we helped craft for Portland GA, and to begin coordination for GA 2016 in Columbus, Ohio. The last full weekend of the month, I will be in Cleveland, Ohio, for the Movement for Black Lives Conference. I look forward to sharing more with you all as we continue to deepen our commitment to justice, equity and compassion for all people, including those whose lives are most expendable in our current social climate. To read my recent blog post on the Standing on the Side of Love website relevant to Black Lives, click here.

And, lastly, I look forward to seeing some of you at the Dwight Brown Leadership Experience in Denton, Texas, in August.

The summer months are more hectic now than they were before I became Congregational Life Staff. I’m glad for the people and the relationships that make the Southern Region such a vital and dynamic place to be.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

It's a Mystery and a Paradox

by Kathy McGowan, UUA Southern Region Congregational Life Staff

“I am only one
But still I am one.
I cannot do everything,
But still I can do something.
And because I cannot do everything,
I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.“ 
---Edward Everett Hale, 1822 – 1909

As I flew over the rocky mountains on my way to our annual General Assembly in Portland, I was in total awe of the the beauty of this country. I felt multiple things. I was grateful for the opportunity to view this magnificent land from the air. I know this is something that so many of our citizens will never see. I was thankful that I am a citizen of this country due to no effort on my part. I was born here and, therefore, get to enjoy the privileges and freedoms that go along with that random occurrence. Mostly I had the feeling of how small and insignificant I am in comparison to these majestic beauties. I really felt that in the large scheme of things I have no real rights or significance. It was one of those “once in a lifetime” moments where I felt all alone and extremely connected at the same time.

It is in these paradoxical moments that I draw on my Unitarian Universalist faith the most. I have learned that we can hold two conflicting concepts without going into a spiritual tailspin. My religion allows me to find my own way through these times. I can do my searching in community and in that, I find a balm to calm my soul. I am not alone.

As we gathered in Portland among 5,000 of our Unitarian Universalist community, I had the common GA emotion of happiness to see familiar faces and smiling Unitarian Universalist strangers. I always feel joy in singing our Unitarian Universalist songs with so many others. And yet while I was feeling these pleasant emotions I was also had feelings of frustration and anger. We often seem to be spending time on the same issues as we have for years and not feeling enough urgency about issues of our current time. I was sitting in the giant hall surrounded by my people when across my phone came the news of black churches in the south being burned. Why were we not talking about that? Where among the 5,000 was the outrage and pain that I was feeling? I, once again, felt small and insignificant but this time without the feeling of connection.

The very next morning I awoke to the news regarding the decision by the Supreme Court to declare same sex marriage legal in all 50 states. Talk about an emotional rollercoaster! Once again my eyes were filled with tears, but this time, not of sadness and despair, but of joy, relief, and pride. Our UUA president said from the stage of the general assembly that he knew that this decision was made possible in great part because of the work of UUs over the years. WE had made a difference.

So where does all of that leave us?  I am left knowing that even though we are a small denomination we are important. And yet, we cannot change the world by ourselves. I know that we, as a people, would sometimes rather be right than be effective.  We must let go of our hubris in order to make the world a better place. 

We must work for more love in the world. The world needs more of our Unitarian Universalist values. We must be willing to work with partners that do not think like us to bring about valuable change. As Cornell West said during the Ware lecture in Portland Saturday night, “Justice is what love looks like in public”. 

For now, let us celebrate. Let us forge relationships with those that share our values. Let us listen to one another with loving hearts and open minds for there is more love to take into the world. 

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Change — Ambivalence and Commitment

By Rev. Kenneth Gordon Hurto

Imagine a world where nothing ever changed. Can you think of a better definition of hell?

Imagine a world where change is constant. That should be easy; that’s our world. Long ago, Zeno quipped you cannot step into the same river twice. The Buddha spoke of the impermanence of all things. Singer Carole King wondered if anyone stayed in one place any more. R.E.M. proclaims apocalyptically, it is the end of the world as we know it.

Ok, I’ll grant the premise. Change is a given; cope! But now and then, keeping up with all the change leaves me longing for some stability. Sometimes change itself feels hellish.

In a recent conversation with a congregational leader, we discussed all the huge structural changes affecting ministry today. “It’s all too much,” she sighed.

Here’s just a few changes: The undeniable decline in church participation rates across all faith communions — with men withdrawing even more so. The fastest growing “religious” group is called “The Nones” by the researchers. Church is becoming an also-ran among the competition for people’s time and devotion. 

Some truly wonder: Does anyone have interest in what we have to offer?

Well, yes. There is a great spiritual hunger across the land. People seek to understand the huge cultural shifts and the increasing polarization of our politics, the coarsening of entertainment, and the ugly resurgence of racism, replete with its violence and dehumanization. There is ministry here — a place for a safe, inclusive, respectful community conversation, learning, and service. There is a ministry for these days: to bring more hope, more joy, more love, more courage, and more truth to the world. The the way we do church, however, has not changed enough to address today’s questions. 

Nimbleness, resilience, flexibility are all required for success in all walks of life today — not just the church.

While feeling overwhelmed by the many changes taking place within our UUA and its structures, this leader did say:  “Did you have to do it all at once?” Well, maybe yes, maybe not.

The UUA Board has been reduced to a more manageable team of nine. Next year’s contest will be the first in we elect our President from two nominees recommended by a search committee.

Closer to home, we’ve reorganized our Southern field staff consultants into a team of ten serving the entire Region of twelve states and working closely with an appointed Advisory Council and the UUA Director of Congregational Life — rather than four separate governing Boards. Just two months ago, delegates to our four Assemblies voted to turn all governance of the Districts to the UUA Board and to have the UUA serve as a “home office” for the field service staff team. 

Added to that was GIFT — a new single Ask for the UUA Annual Program Fund and financial underwriting for the Districts’ program. As UUA President Morales noted, we thought it a simple change, but it is … well, complicated.

Each, by itself, is an understandable, even compelling change. But it has generated anxiety and confusion. It has all come at once, making it hard just keep track of it all. Living in the middle of it, I confess that I too wonder if we know who’s on first, so to speak.

Well, like it or not. Change is the constant. The good news is that we are stretching to think of new ways to share our good news to the world. This, at least, constant: Love and justice are the ministries of people, by people, for people (and our earth), covenanted to be stronger together than apart.

Summer’s here. I urge us all to pause for a bit. Take stock of how far we have come before we move headlong into the next moment. Keep the faith, we will live our way into a better day. Breathe!

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Seeds of Change

Okay, I admit I don’t know a whole lot about gardening! While the women of my family seem to be able to grow an entire tree from a single leaf, my paternal grandfather was a farmer, and my great uncles still farm and raise cattle, those green thumbs did not land on either of my hands. I do get inspired about once a year, make my yard look beautiful, then step back and say to myself, "Uh! Now I have to weed these things too?!" Three weeks later, I am looking for a neighborhood youth who would like to make a few bucks pulling weeds. The best of intentions, right? I am a believer that it takes many hands to do the tending of our gardens, both metaphorically and literally.

What I am good at, though, is a different kind of gardening; the kind that starts with sowing the tiniest of seeds of Love, Hope, Justice, Courage, and Joy. They go with me everywhere. If you have been to one of our Southern Region Leadership Experiences (for which we are currently accepting nominations:, you might be familiar with these as our Five Smooth Stones. 

Many years ago, while in deep discernment about my ministry’s path, I was asked something akin to "What do you want to be when you grow up?" I replied, “I want to be Johnny Appleseed!” 

Now, the legend of Johnny Appleseed and the real life of John Chapman are quite different, so I will stick to the Disney version of the legend, as it tells more about faith and the love of service. Yes, this is a very dated cartoon and it shows attitudes we Unitarian Universalists actively work against. It does also seems to favor Manifest Destiny and this is NOT a value I, or our Faith, can support! This legend is in contrast to the actual life of John Chapman, who planted seeds on indigenous soil which did not belong to him for land grab purposes, or the actual use of the apples mostly being for alcohol production. Though on the flip side, he was a man of strong faith, a dedicated vegetarian who believed in animal rights and wished no harm on any of god’s creatures to the point of not grafting trees in case they could feel pain. If you'd like to refresh your memory of the 1948 Disney version, take a trip in the way back machine by clicking here:

That might sound like I gave a flippant response I gave, but it was deeply felt in my heart, it was true to my nature and a model I thought to be easy and hard simultaneously, kind of like Zen. I say easy because giving away seeds of love and joy feels good and is usually welcomed all along my travels to the congregations of the Southern Region. Spreading seeds of hope gets a bit more difficult as looking around our states, country, and, indeed, the world, it seems like hope is a fool's errand on some days. Even our congregations can become hopeless with the economic disparities, justice inequities, political posturing, etc. We step into deeper territory with seeds that can be challenging to sow, especially if there is an absence of hope. The seeds named courage and justice go together as they are partners; courage is always needed to help create the justice that is so desperately needed in our times. I said it was hard because even on the days I feel a lack of those inspirational and foundational values, I still have to muster the ability to spread those seeds far and wide. It is, after all, Johnny Appleseed’s job! All of these metaphoric seeds I carry in an eco-friendly, repurposed burlap pouch I call Faith, which helps immensely to sustain me on those low energy days!

I share these seedling thoughts with you today as I see the Southern Region, and, indeed, our Faith as a whole, moving into unknown territory, not unlike Johnny and his satchel of seeds did back in the early 1800’s. As the cartoon angel reminded us, “There’s a lot of work to do!” Though the forest may be ‘dark and wide’ with ‘wild critters’ on every side, we must continue on in to the places we are needed. Some of the people we will encounter on this journey won't know what to think of us, as the forest critters didn’t know what to think of Johnny. We will encounter obstacles and some not so friendly folks, like the cartoon bear, and it will be our jobs to ‘pay them no heed’ as we set about our work to spread the seeds of a more just and equitable world.  Perhaps the fruit of our labors will bring all kinds of folks together and make them good neighbors as the cartoon theorized. It will take many hands to do this work of unearthing and discovering our gardens. Spreading hope and spiritual nourishment is tiring work, and I am grateful to have partners such as you, your congregation, your cluster, our Region, and our entire Association. 

So maybe we will all meet someday, seed satchel across our shoulders, cooking pots on our heads, spreading the values of Love, Hope, Justice, Courage and Joy in a place called the Beloved Community, but first we must build a new way to that land. I invite all of you who will be attending our GA in Portland this month to stop by the Congregational Life booth, say “Hi” to your Primary Contact along with the whole Southern Region team, and collect some tangible seeds to go with our metaphoric ones! Let us sow our seeds of change far and wide, and let us do this thing together - starting now.

With a grateful heart and busy hands,

Maggie Lovins

Friday, May 15, 2015

How is GIFT Doing?

by Rev. Susan M. Smith

A lot of you know that I love to study spreadsheets as a form of divination, so I’ve been deep into the GIFT figures as of April 30. The news is good and bad, but the future is full of possibility because of who we are as member congregations of our Association.

The first thing to say is that there are $212,000 in outstanding pledges that I know you will be getting to us by June 30 (though June 1 would be nice, too). But that amount alone will not get us to our expected income for the fiscal year that is ending in about 6 weeks. So, if you have paid your pledge or otherwise contributed to the common good of our Southern Region financially, please take a look at those figures again. Some of your sister congregations have already done so. Eight congregations have paid more than their pledge and given more than $9,000 of what we call in Louisiana lagniappe (something extra that turns good enough into more than generous). Fifteen congregations have given more than their Fair Share amount. That’s right! Several congregations pledged more than their Fair Share.

Comparing Fair Share amounts for FY15 and FY14, I see that the Fair Share GIFT for seventeen congregations was the same this year as last. For 82 congregations, the Fair Share amount for FY15 was actually less than that for FY14 by amounts varying from $3 to $6,000. Can you imagine telling 40% of your congregation that they should give less this year than last? If they took you up on it, your stewardship drive would look like an abysmal failure.  You would really be counting on the 54% who were better off financially this year than last and were asked to increase. Every member would have to give serious thought to what they are truly able to give to make that system work. Can you imagine if only 31% of your members had both made and completed a pledge with only 6 weeks left in your fiscal year?

As we’ve talked to congregations for the past two years about GIFT, we’ve heard near unanimous approval for the principles that it embodies - asking each to give according to their financial rather than numerical size and giving the larger Association a stake in your bounty and your losses. However, I can see now that it gives your congregation a stake in the health and vitality of your neighbor congregations far and near. 

In the past 5 years, the Southern Region has been able to do some amazing things financially. We have added an additional .5 FTE to our Congregational Life staff after many years of functioning with the smallest staff in the Association. This allows us to now have 7 full-time deep generalist powerhouses scurrying around the region sharing their expertise, offering support and bringing you together for education, social justice and fellowship. We hope to have 8 in the near future. We’ve created a highly-skilled administrative support team moving two of our contractors to employees who offer information technology to your webmasters and database managers and event logistic support to your cluster and district gatherings. However, we could use additional help to keep popular programs like Chalicelighters going because they require a lot of staff time without bringing in revenue to the region itself. We’ve taken successful programs from one part of our region and offered them elsewhere even though we sometimes suffer financial losses. Because regional collaboration is first and foremost a way to provide equitable services throughout our large and growing part of the Unitarian Universalist universe.

As I’ve said many times at our two Leadership Experiences and the numerous stewardship workshops I’ve done around the region, you must have three kinds of giving every year in your congregation. There must be a chance for every member to make a stewardship commitment in the form of a pledge. There must also be some fun fundraising from parties and events for people like myself who have been known to pay 3 figures for some sweetheart’s homemade pie in heat of an auction. And there must be the “emergency” appeal, for the angels who want to know that their donation will make a difference whether to bail the congregation out of a jam or make it possible to take advantage of some great opportunity. It’s one of those times, but I refuse to worry. We have always been remarkably generous congregations in the past, and we will continue to be so. We have made great things happen, and we will make even greater things happen in the future. Our legacy as Unitarians, Universalists and Unitarian Universalists in the South goes back more than 200 years. I know that we will be thoughtful stewards of this legacy even as we venture into unknown territory and bold experiments.

Okay, Now What?

by Connie Goodbread

Every change changes everything.  - Rabbi Edwin Friedman

In science, the “observer effect” refers to the fact that the act of observation will change the phenomenon being observed. The mere presence of the scientist in the experiment effects the measurements.  This is a great example of systems theory in action.  Systems theory is the biological theory of wholeness; everything is connected.  Isolated parts cannot be fully understood until they are understood within the system.  It is a trans-disciplinary theory, therefore, it applies to human (emotional) systems as well as physical systems.  Cleaning off your desk will affect the way you work.  Painting the nursery in the Education Wing will affect how the congregation behaves.  Every little change in a system affects the entire system.

There has been so much change in our Association that, at times, it can make your head swim.  Whether you have been paying attention or not, you need to know that every little change will have an effect on our system, yours and mine, and big changes are sometimes too big to even comprehend.  The big changes that we have been working on lately are so large that the system must now play catchup.  Building a new way means not doing things the old way, and yet the old way is in place and so homeostasis pulls us back in the old direction time and time again.

Our Southern Region did not create a large District called a Region.  We are really trying something new.  Trying something new can be scary.  It’s an adventure and that is exciting, but there is nothing sure about it - there is no road sign that says “the right way.”  Things that we are used to will change.  Mistakes will be made - course corrections will need to happen.  Great successes will be had and celebrated.

Every change changes everything.  The rest of the system does not reflect, and at times does not support, the changes that we have made.  In other words, the support system is in place to maintain the way things used to work – not necessarily the way they work now, much less how things will work in the future.  Sometimes leaders get confusing information.

For example, here is how the Southern Region supports Renaissance Modules and OWL trainings.

The Southern Region staff recognizes the tremendous value of Renaissance Modules and OWL trainings. Since Renaissance Modules and OWL trainings are generally requested by congregations, clusters,  religious educators and LREDA chapters the Southern Region staff sees itself in a support role for these events. The Southern Region staff will gladly help with registration, if needed, and publicity (regional calendar, newsletter, and website, as appropriate). Please check out our comprehensive planning guide for event planners and hosts, and let us know how we can help promote your event.

Link to event support guide:
OWL Training (UU):
OWL Training (UCC):
Link to RenMod:

This is not the way this has happened in the past.  It is not the way it happens in other regions.  So why is it different in the Southern Region?  For the last four years we have tried many different ways to offer Renaissance Modules.  We have polled groups of Religious Educators to see what they need.  We have offered Renaissance Modules as stand-alone trainings and as a track at a weekend event.  We have had trouble reaching the minimum requirements of ten participants.  We have been told that the added costs of travel, rooms and food make them too expensive.  The way it seems to work best is for a congregation to host, supply the food, space, and material and offer home hospitality.  We have had similar experiences when offering OWL trainings.

Your Southern Region Staff supports Renaissance Modules and OWL trainings being offered in this new way.  However, the rest of the system is still operating in support of the way it has been done in the past and the way it is done in other Regions. This is bound to result in some confusion. We ask that if you run into a problem, please contact us or follow the links above.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Congratulations Southern Region! You did it!

We Are Building A New Way!
by Natalie Briscoe, UUA Southern Region Congregational Life staff 

Congratulations Southern Region! You did it! 

Five years ago, the boards and staff of the MidSouth District, the Florida District, the Southeast District, and the Southwestern Conference came together in Orlando to address issues of structure and governance. These leaders raised a few very fundamental questions, including “How do we best serve Unitarian Universalism in the south?” and “How do we build relationships and walk together in this work?”

Over the course of the next half a decade, the shape of those answers emerged from murky waters. The answer was: We get out of our own way. We do the work of living into our values by having authentic relationships with one another rooted in trust and mutual care. We practice what we preach. We become open to transformation. We work together. 

Last week at our District Annual Assemblies, all four districts voted to walk into new relationship with one another. You decided to leave governance to the one governing body we have, our UUA board, as elected by the Association's member congregations. You decided that the best way to be together was rooted in our shared Faith. You decided that the most important time is now.  You voted to stop allowing policy and procedure to dictate your relationships with one another and instead rely upon our covenants – our sacred promises – to guide us in transforming ourselves, our congregations, and our Faith into one that truly serves this world. You chose to live Unitarian Universalism out loud, to bring its values into the world in a very real and personal way. You chose love and trust over fear and pride. 

HallelUUjah! What a great honor it is to be serving Unitarian Universalism at this time! What a wonder it is to see people so dedicated to bringing love and justice into the world that they would risk changing everything! What courage! What vision! Congratulations, Southern Region! You have truly done something unique, something that will rewrite the course of history for our entire association. The time to celebrate is now! 

It must not go without saying, though, that with great joy often comes a sting of pain. In fact, one might say that the larger the celebration, the larger the uneasiness that follows. Some of us are still wading in that murky water, not quite sure where this path will lead. Some of us still need to grieve for the structures that have been dismantled and the work that seems unfinished and now can never be. The last five years have been a time of great change, and change never comes without a sense of loss for all that was. Many of us worked very hard over many years to build and uphold the structures that were dismantled or changed in the last five years. Many of us were served very well by those structures, and it can be difficult to walk forward and rejoice when we miss what is behind and what lies ahead is still unknown.

Yet we have chosen to walk forward together. The remarkable courage that this new path calls us to have cannot be understated. And you have chosen to be brave. You have chosen to live into a new covenant, one of mutual respect and caring. You have decided that the best way to serve Unitarian Universalism in the new day is to get out of its way, to unfurl its wings, and to break the chains of that have held it captive for too long. You have chosen to see this new day dawn with a promise of more joy, more love, more hope, more justice, and more courage as we walk together into a future where Unitarian Universalism is alive and at work to heal a broken world. 

Brave, indeed! And the best part is that you have decided that we do not have to be brave alone. Our new covenant asks us to be both vulnerable and strong, to lean on each other and to be leaned upon. Our new relationships make it possible to bring our values into the world because it allows a deeper and wider space for our covenant to be practiced. No longer are there boundaries of governance around this work which dictate behavior, no longer are there policies which decide how we will be with one another. Finally, we can truly live our Faith through our authentic and deep relationships with one another. Individual to individual, congregation to congregation, cluster to cluster, throughout the whole Southern Region, we can finally live into our covenants without anything getting in the way. 

No one is sure what will happen. We are all human beings: fallible and vulnerable. Our relationships will never be perfect, but working at them is the real work of our Faith. We can show the whole world a new way of being together, of working to bring more Love into the world, even when it is messy and we aren't exactly certain of the way. You can be certain of one thing, though: The Southern Region is building a new path, brick by brick. The path gets clearer and more beautiful and more generous every day. More and more people are standing on that path, hand in hand, ready to walk wherever it leads. It's a new day for the Southern Region! It's a new day for Unitarian Universalism! We come with praise and thanks for ALL that is our life! HallelUUjah!  

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Showing Up is Way More than Half the Battle

by the Rev. Susan M. Smith
In one of those Unitarian Universalist joke books I’m quoted as saying, “I live in a town with only one Unitarian Universalist church. Everyone I’ve ever hated has come here and forced me to reflect on their inherent worth and dignity.”  It’s all too true. All Souls here in Shreveport, LA was where I found Unitarian Universalism about 30 years ago. When I sing in the choir on Sunday, I’m standing where Robert and I were married, where I was ordained, and where I performed the wedding of our eldest daughter. Before I went off to seminary, I started my training here as youth leader and newsletter editor and church administrator. For all that I visit dozens of congregations and other Unitarian Universalist gatherings each year, it is in the church where I am a member, attend services and make my annual pledge that the heavy lifting in my spiritual life gets done.
Our Unitarian Univeralist faith is not something that you can think your way through. It’s not something private to your own soul and your own heart. Rather it is about how people who differ about the nature of reality itself come together to form the just and loving community. It is practiced day to day by living in idealistic covenants, screwing up royally and getting ourselves back in right relations. Rinse and repeat. World without end.
In my work with leaders I often find that those who are giving the most of their time and treasure in service to Unitarian Universalism have become disconnected from day to day congregational participation. The president who does not have time for retreat or small group ministry, the search committee member who stops attending worship, the district board member who is seldom seen at that home congregation are all familiar figures to me.
“To keep a lamp burning,” Mother Teresa said, “we have to keep putting oil in it.” So that is the first reason that I encourage everyone to maintain their congregational ties. Lest we do our work begrudgingly, we must be feeding that chalice that burns in our hearts. Yes, I know that many a Sunday morning dawns when it seems like the “oil” is to be found in sleeping in and skipping services, and I like to sleep more than most people. But there is nothing like gathering on Sunday morning with differently-minded people who I appreciate anyway. Nowhere else will they be singing “Go now in peace…” or declaring together “Love is the doctrine…” or enjoying the beauty of this particular holy ground or the warmth of this community.
According to something called “The Oscillation Theory” of religious life which was developed by Bruce Reed of the Grubb Institute, the wellbeing of society itself is dependent on most of us gathering together in our respective houses of worship on a regular basis. It keeps us sane in a profound way. The theory says that we go about our weeks in an intra-dependent state. We are self-sustaining, interacting with others, expending injury and fulfilling our responsibilities in life. Along the way we come up against a world that stresses us, presents values that are quite different than ours and pummels us with doubts, micro-aggressions and criticisms.
During worship, we have the opportunity to enter an extra-dependent state of rest and renewal. We literally lay our burdens down if we are willing. Our deeply held values are honored and our souls are reconstructed and strengthened. We are repaired and sent back into our lives with confidence and new energy. The oscillation between standing on our own two feet and resting in the care of our community and our higher power is necessary for mental health and societal health.

The second reason that I encourage everyone to find their “church home” and stick to it no matter what happens or who shows up is that it is easy to love people in theory and harder to do it in practice. Our Unitarian Universalist congregations and communities provide us with innumerable opportunities to hold our tongues, to support our elected leaders, to give generously, to forgive and actually forget, to sing someone else’s favorite hymn and to consider the greater good. That is the heavy lifting of our faith, to be with people as they really are and to reflect on their inherent worth and dignity anyway.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Love and Relationship

by the Rev. Carlton Elliott Smith

I was very grateful to be among those participating in the Living Legacy Project's conference in Birmingham last month to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery marches, which were so significant in the struggle to secure voting rights for all Americans. Each of the speakers at the conference added something to the conversation that left me moved and inspired. 

There were two ideas that resonated with me most, which I believe have particular relevance to our work in the Southern Region of our UUA. One was the primacy of relationships in the struggle for civil rights. As Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed emphasized in his keynote presentation, the people who responded to Dr. King's call to come to Selma were not simply compelled by the horrific televised reports of black people being beaten back across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The deeper truth was that there was a network of well-established relationships and friendships that led people take to time out of their already-full lives to march for justice and peace.

The other idea that remains with me is the importance of love as a source of power. Rev. Dr. C.T. Vivian reminded the 450 of us gathered for the conference that loving people as they work together toward justice was critical to being able to sustain a movement over time. 

I had the opportunity to talk with some young activists who are doing some very visible and meaningful work to protest the killings of African Americans by officers of the law and vigilantes. A recurring theme I heard from them had to do with burnout -- the sense that they were working so hard for change and with such commitment to keep the focus on the issue that they were spiritually depleted. I wondered with them about the place of love in the midst of their efforts. How were they sustaining themselves and each other? Is there a role for allies and comrades from older generations to play in helping them stay healthy and whole? The quest for justice is a never-ending one, so our approach needs to be one that safeguards the well-being of each of us on that journey as much as we can. The experience of love has a lot to do with well-being.

The relationships I've developed over many years within Unitarian Universalism are what have kept me grounded in our liberal religious tradition and in our work for justice. Within it, there are people whom I love dearly and who love me that I can call upon in times of need, and who have also reached out to me when they needed support. 

A few years back when General Assembly delegates voted to go to Phoenix for GA 2012 rather than to boycott the state of Arizona, my friend Gini Courter, then the Association's Moderator, challenged all of us to make 'Justice GA' the most well attended GA ever. I took my friend's challenge to heart, and that opened a world of possibilities in my life and in the congregation I was serving at the time. Many of us had that background of relationship that made our witness in Arizona powerful. Because of it, we were willing to try new things and draw attention to the hardships of immigrants and immigrant families. 

This month, we have the opportunity to let the power of love and our trusting relationships guide the way. As we come together for our Annual Assemblies, we will take the next step to renew our governance, by voting on whether to dissolve our District governance structures under the larger umbrella of our UUA. The intention is to provide for more effectiveness and impact in the sharing of our Unitarian Universalist values. As with the civil rights pioneers of generations past, there may be differing strategies as we look to our ultimate goal. However the vote goes, I am confident that the love that moves among us and the strength of the bonds between us will continue to make a difference in the world.

In faith,

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Gift of Freedom

by Kathy McGowan, UUA Southern Region Congregational Life staff

Many of us on the Southern Region staff have been doing a great deal of reflecting on freedom recently. Freedom is one of the values that Unitarian Universalists hold dear. I agree that freedom is a wonderful thing. However, I cannot think about freedom without thinking of the responsibility that goes along with it. Once we are given the freedom to think and speak freely, we must hold ourselves accountable for our actions.

The world around us is changing very rapidly. We encounter difference every day. We have the freedom to choose how we are going to respond. What will our actions be? Will we act out of our fears or out of our longing for deep connection?  

We do not need to lose our sense of self when change is happening around us. We can choose to hold on to our identity even when the current culture may seem different from what we have known. If we have a good sense of our own identity, we are able to stand firm when we encounter difference. We also do not have to change others in order for us to be our true selves.

We can encounter change and difference with curiosity and a genuine willingness to learn. Instead of making assumptions about our changing culture, we can ask questions. Instead of assuming that the new ways of doing things are better or worse than the old ways, we can step back and ask questions, listen and observe with open eyes.

Just because we are free to choose to leave a situation does not mean we will. It is up to each of us to commit to what matters. Staying at the table is an important choice to make. Building and growing into relationships takes work.

To stay in relationship when the going gets tough is at the heart of what it means to live in covenant. To remain open and respond in love even when things get uncomfortable is living this wonderful faith. An encounter with change and difference is the most important time to make the mature choice of calling ourselves to more deeply live our covenant.

Before we blame other people or new ways of doing things for the problems we are having, can we look deeply at ourselves? I know we have the ability to find our courage and to give up being right in order to be more effective.

Because we have the gift of freedom, we must make the choice of where to commit our hearts. Even when our hearts are broken, it is our responsibility to honor our commitment. It is this covenant that binds us to a greater purpose.

We are truly better together. 

In covenant,