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,


Monday, March 2, 2015

“No one likes change except a wet baby!”

by The Reverend Kenneth Gordon Hurto

In our Leadership Experiences, we teach congregational leaders the dynamics of change. One tool, called “The Roller Coaster of Change” shows how new initiatives begin with excitement for those proposing a change. That excitement immediately runs into system inertia and negative reactivity. Leaders experience a rapid downward sensation as objections and criticism appear. Congregants react to a sinking sensation that something is about to be lost and are unclear about what is to be gained. There is confusion, even anger amidst the anxiety no matter how good the idea is or who offers it.

Like a roller coaster plunge, the de-forming stage of change is scary. Things feel out of control. A point comes at which an idea is dropped or begins to re-form in a new way. If leaders stay calm through the fear, hope returns, better informed by the critical reactivity to lead to a new point of excitement. 

The truly hard part is that leaders and followers are often at different places on the up, down, up cycle. 

Just over four years ago, your District Boards all met to consider a new way of doing our shared ministries and cross-District collaboration. The idea was to spend less time and money on District management and to free up our dedicated volunteers to actually serve congregations. Since then, all four Districts worked together to form the Southern Region, embraced our UUA Ends as our own, and concluded you did not need over 40 people to manage 4. There is now a unified budget and, as of July 1st, all our staff (10 in total) will be fully employees of our UUA, supervised by the UUA Director of Congregational Life. The goal of broader engagement in ministry is envisioned in a new Council of Elders who will work collaboratively with the UUA field staff to increase our capacity of service to the congregations. Additionally, an advisory team will work with the Director of Congregational Life and the Regional Lead to ensure the efficacy of staff services.

This process has been its own roller coaster ride — with all the attendant feelings of excitement, discouragement, confusion, and, occasionally, conflict. Now, your Board leaders are on the upside of hope. The next step rests with the congregations.

This April 18th, delegates to all four District Assemblies will be asked to do away with the governance or business management component of Districts. Delegates will vote on a formal resolution to empower the Boards to “go out of business," and to establish the initial membership of the Elders Council.

Let this be a sincere request that you send delegates to your District’s gathering. They can be fully informed by reading materials sent to each congregation and posted on the Region’s website: An FAQ sheet is posted there as well. You can speak directly with Board Leaders and staff during an up-coming webinar on the plans March 12, 28, or 29. Of course, Board members and the Region’s field staff are also available to hear your concerns or respond to your questions.

It is not true that only babies like change. Those who believe in our future and who feel the urgency of instilling our life-affirming, life-giving values of the free church and liberal religion to a troubled society are eager to change in ways that empower us to do more ministry. Gandhi urged, “Be the change you wish to see in the world!” Come be part of this change. Help us bring more hope, more joy, more justice to the world.

The Reverend Kenneth Gordon Hurto
Southern Region Lead Executive & Congregational Life Staff Member or 239.560.5628

Monday, February 16, 2015

Wholehearted Leadership


Do some of these words make your sweat glands activate, or your mouth go dry? Perhaps they excite you, and make you want to thrust your hand in the air and yell, “Pick me, pick me!"

We have members at all levels of comfort with the term ‘leader’ and we need all levels of participation to make our congregations healthy. I am fond of saying that even if you do not “put on the cape of leadership”, you can still be an influential leader in your congregation. Leading by presence and being, is as important as having a leadership title, if not more so in some cases. Your actions, even when you do not feel like you are leading, can inspire others to leadership. One of the cool, yet sometimes scary, aspects of this is that you might not even know you are doing anything inspirational at that moment! 
Speaking of inspirational leadership, I want to take this opportunity to lift up the members of the four District Boards for their wholehearted leadership. Whether they wear their ‘capes’ or not, they have done an excellent job of guiding our Districts and Region! They have piloted our Region through some serious discussions about how might we further our Faith, and the best way to practice shared ministry in our next phase of being southern Unitarian Universalists.

Our District presidents have been meeting often, sometimes weekly, to discern the next steps for the Districts they serve and the Region as a whole. They have boldly moved us closer to deep, healthy, covenantal relationships, always remembering we are all interconnected and deeply longing for closer connection to our Faith and to one another. They are still hard at work, making preparations for the District Assemblies and facilitating several webinars for those who wish to become more familiar with the governance changes being proposed for a vote at the Assemblies. You can find more info on the webinars and how to register for one of them here: I say a big “Thank You!” to our current and previous District Presidents that have led us where we are now, and continue to encourage our members to widen our circle of connection and possibility just a bit bigger!

This is not to leave any of the other Board members out! All District Board members have actively participated in various task forces to get all the i’s dotted and t’s crossed leading up to the Annual Assemblies and the governance vote. The Elders Taskforce worked in deep relationship to envision what is next for building up lay leaders, how we might bolster neighboring congregations and clusters through the deployment of recognized Elders, and how to best utilize the first of its kind Elders Council in the near future. You can read more on the Elders Model here:

The Communications Taskforce has been doing a fabulous job in keeping all our members up to date on the happenings in the Region as it pertains to the movements of the Boards. If you haven’t familiarized yourself with some of the recent news, you can read the blogs from the last few newsletters here: To these taskforce participants and to all the others, again a hearty “Thank you!” for all that you have done and will continue to do for the District you serve, our Southern Region, and our Faith at large!

I also wish to say a full-hearted “Thank you!” to all of our congregational leaders! Without your caring, forward thinking, and thoughtful action, our Faith would not be what it is. Without all of your tireless efforts, we would not be able to step into a new way of being together with deep covenantal relationships at our foundation. I invite interested members and all of our leaders, whether you wear capes or not, to attend our annual District Assemblies April 17-19. Take part in the bold move to deeper relationship with fellow congregations, the Southern Region, and our Association as a whole. Information on the Assemblies and how to register can be found here:

In Faith and with great Hope for our shared future~

Maggie Lovins

Southern Region Congregational Life Staff

Monday, February 2, 2015

Fortune Favors....

by Connie Goodbread, UUA Southern Region Congregational Life Staff

Change is life - how it differs from the rocks… - Jefferson Airplane

Change is all around us.  In this whirling time and ever changing landscape, it is sometime difficult to find footing.  We know that in change there is loss, and yet we also know that change is pregnant with possibilities.  Knowing how to keep that which is most valuable while letting go of what is no longer useful is an art form.  We know that to grow, we must change.  We know that we are only human and so we will make mistakes along the way.  We also know that we will achieve much if we dare to be bold.  

Fortune favors the bold - Latin proverb.

In 2009 the four District Boards met in Orlando.  They talked deeply of their longings and shared ideas and thoughts.  They talked about a better world in which the values of Unitarian Universalism had more of an impact.  They talked of their faith.  The Orlando Platform was born out of this deep sharing. This was a bold move on the part of our elected leaders.  They have been brave and bold ever since.  

The first step toward regionalization was to become more efficient, identify where the system was redundant, and then reorganize so that work is not duplicated.  The second step was to end co-employment of the District staff and give supervision over the staff to the Director of Congregational Life.  The third was to examine our relationship with our larger Association and re-covenant.  The fourth was to adopt our UUA ends statements.  The fifth was to combine our budgets.  None of this was easy work.  However, it has been accomplished.

Now we find ourselves at the next phase.  Our District board members have done more amazing work.  They are leaders who care deeply about Unitarian Universalism, the congregations, relationships, and how best to grow our faith.  They are leaders who know that growth should not be merely for our glory but rather for all, so that we can be a vital part of affecting and infecting the world with more love, hope, justice, wisdom and joy.  They are leaders who are practicing shared ministry.  They are leaders who are doing their level best to be the servant leaders we need them to be.  They deserve our deepest gratitude and our heartfelt thanks.

I hope you will honor the work and dedication they have put into their service by finding time to attend one of the webinars designed to explain where we are at this moment in our move toward regionalization.  The explanation is clear and concise.  The times of the webinars are varied. Please look for them here on the home-page of our website.

We live in exciting times.  May our lives continue to be blessed with great leaders. May we ever be bold so that fortune favors, or at least smiles, nods, and winks at us.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Just Skate

by Natalie Briscoe, Congregational Life Staff for the Southern Region of the UUA

Roller Derby is a spiritual practice. It has been a few years since I left the sport to take what I liked to call my “Pregnancy Sabbatical,” but I miss playing a sport that was both aggressive and nuanced, that required both physical and mental strength. And I assure you that I never, ever imagined hitting members of my own congregation while I was out on the track. I would never even dream of it. 

One common misconception about Roller Derby is that the sport is all about brute force: going fast and hitting whatever player is in your way. That myth couldn’t be farther from the truth. There are so many rules that teams often have several practices per month dedicated to creating, learning, and practicing new strategies, and skaters must take a yearly rules test that would rival any college exam. A good coach is two parts athlete, one part motivational speaker, one part counselor, and three parts lawyer. The game is played best when you know the details in the rules and can use those rules in, well, let’s just say “creative” ways.  

As you can imagine, teaching these rules and strategies can get quite complicated. I remember so many practices where 100 skaters would be lined up, listening to instructions for a drill. Very often, the explanation was longer than playing the actual drill itself, and many of the skaters often looked around to their teammates with inquisitive looks, wondering what in the world the coaches were talking about. It is very hard to describe in words the actions that are needed.  Our words fail us, and the only way we can get to the other side is by doing. 

My philosophy in times like this was, “Just skate.” Whenever anyone would ask me if I knew what was going on during a drill, I would just say, “Nope, I haven’t got a clue. I’m just going to skate.” 

During these times, it was an act of loving trust to “just skate.” I trusted my coaches to lead me through the drill. I trusted my teammates to support me. I trusted in my own knowledge of the game and my own abilities. I trusted that I wouldn’t be laughed at if I failed.  

There is a time for thinking, for listening, for planning – and then there is a time to skate. 

Even though I don’t play roller derby anymore, I still tell myself to “just skate” all the time. There are so many times in church work when I am unsure of the path. It is in those times that I have to trust myself, my faith, and my fellow pilgrims and head forward into the unknown. We may not know what is going on with the world today, in its sad state, but we know we have to keep moving forward. We may not know what is in store for our congregations, for our clusters, or for our region, but we have to live into these new relationships and our new way of being with trust and good will. As our words fail us, may we gain clarity through action. And as we begin this new year in abundant love and gratitude, I will keep saying, “Just skate.” 

Monday, January 5, 2015

Got Vision?

by the Rev. Susan Smith

Once again I ask myself, “What did I come in here for?” (Or on my more grammatically correct days, “For what did I come in here?”) Probably you’ve had these so-called Senior Moments, too. Research suggests that most people do not have more of them when we age; we simply dwell on them more. We know we had a plan and a purpose when we headed into this room, down this aisle or toward this closet – probably a good one – but the thread is lost. Often I find myself doing something else altogether -- sometimes for a long time -- before I recall that I was on my way to accomplish something entirely different and much more important.

When I do this, there aren’t many serious consequences. When your congregation does it, the just and loving community that we are striving to create may be in jeopardy. A significant source of conflict and malaise in congregations is this loss of where we were going, what we were going to do when we got there and why. It can cause the wrong people to get elected to office or appointed to taskforces. It can be the source of our inability to pay for the new facility that we just built. It can generate those parking lot meetings about how the current minister/director of faith development/music director cannot take the congregation “to the next level.” When the thread is lost in a group enterprise, something in our human nature causes us to spend more time looking for the reason we lost it than trying to reclaim the thread itself.

When a congregational leader calls me for help, I always begin with the same request: “Send me a copy of your current long-range plan.” Usually they respond in one of these ways:
  • We had a long-range plan about 10 years ago, but it’s expired;
  • We did that mission/vision work with that facilitator 3 years ago, but I don’t know what became of all that; or
  • I don’t think we have a long-range plan.
If it’s my lucky day and we can locate a long-range plan (which should be the end result of community studies, visioning and research), it will usually be expired with no final evaluation of progress much less a successor plan in the works. Whatever you might think is the cause of your current congregational problem, I assure you that this lack of agreement about where you are going and why is that illusive first cause. 

When a congregation cannot envision the compelling and life-saving work that it must do right now for the community around it and the world at large, no one can lead it. Over-functioning eldest children like me will jump into the vacuum and try to drag the congregation in one direction or another. Occasionally, more than one of us tug it between us with such force and carelessness that it ends up in tatters. It is hard to repair tatters, I can tell you, and the result is never really whole again.

When a congregation has a plan that is only made up of building projects or governance changes or staff additions without knowing of what use these things will be to what great purpose, the effort of time, treasure and talent is largely wasted. “The earth made fair and all her people one” is not too high a bar to set. Neither is no poverty in our town or 100% graduation rates or the rebirth of the part of the planet in our care. Without this purpose, we quickly grow disenchanted with the new building, new committee configuration or new minister. We can even believe that our personal happiness with everything was the original purpose, and that is much too low a bar for the blood, sweat and tears of generations when the need is so great and the stakes are so high.

If you are a congregational leader who does not know where your congregation as a body has chosen to go and what is to be transformed when they have finally arrived there, your first job is to lead the congregation in developing a vision and the plan to get there. If you head a taskforce but you do not know what role in the master plan your taskforce plays, your job is to get clear about this and lead your team accordingly. If you know that your congregation had a five-year plan five years ago or if your congregation has not done significant visioning since your were last in search for a minister, you must urge your leaders to refresh this vision and relight that chalice of inspiration and determination which can make all things possible. 

Your entire regional staff will be meeting January 6-10 to refresh this work for ourselves. Please hold us in your thoughts and prayers as we meet. Surely one of our goals will be that the great congregations large and small of the Southern Region will dream a big enough dream to transform this world as well as the human heart and that we staff members can serve our faith alongside you to make these dreams come true.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Long Night

by the Rev. Carlton Elliott Smith, UUA Southern Region Congregational Life staff

A few years back, I dropped cable television service and haven't gone to the trouble to figure out non-cable television options. For that reason, I sometimes miss the visuals that make it into our national news cycle.

I hadn't seen the video of Eric Garner's killing until of the day of the grand jury decision not to indict his killer, police officer Daniel Pantaleo. My Facebook feed filled up with reactions from friends and acquaintances near and far. I watched in utter horror at the sight of a completely non-combative man being surrounded by police and choked to death on a city street in broad daylight.

What could be more terrifying than being attacked by the very people one should be able to call for protection from such violence? And then to know that there would be no deeper investigation as to how such a thing could happen?

I couldn't think. Unlike Eric, I could breathe, but the air around me seemed very thin. And I could feel: my heart racing, my throat going dry, the tears spilling onto my cheeks. I couldn't write, but I shared a picture of myself from those moments on Facebook, as I changed my cover photo to one of Eric just before he was wrestled to the sidewalk, in the last seconds of his life.

As my ministerial colleagues have written and preached, I have struggled to find words to compose that capture even a fraction of what I feel. This is my first attempt.

Like Eric, I have literally been in the cross-hairs of the police, my life at risk simply because I was a black man at the wrong place at the wrong time. One night in the late 1980s, as I was waiting for a bus on Georgia Avenue in Washington, DC, a car pulled up toward me slowly. The next think I knew, the lights of the car were shining on me, and a police was leaning out of the car with a firearm pointed at me. "Get your hands up, mother-f**ker!" he shouted. I did as I was told. In moments, I was surrounded by police cars.

One of the officers pushed me onto the trunk of one of the cars. I was frisked and searched. I was asked what I was doing, why I was standing there. I told them the truth: I had just gotten out of church choir rehearsal and was trying to get home. The searched my coin purse, presumably for drugs. After they were done, I asked why they had chosen me. One of the officers said that they were looking for someone in a black jacket and blue jeans who was carrying a concealed weapon. When one car rear-ended another and fled on the opposite side of the street, they all sped away in pursuit.

I cried that night too ... Grateful to still be alive, that I hadn't made a false move, and that the cops had not been trigger-happy.

After the non-indictment in the Michael Brown case, I wondered what an appropriate response would be, one that might make a difference. I'm unsure of the efficacy of tactics used in the past. I understand boycotts and public protests, but I wonder if those of us today have the fortitude of the Montgomery bus boycotters, who forewent public transport for a year until their demands for equality were met. While I appreciate the commitment to keep these urgent concerns in the public eye, I have difficulty seeing what it will matter over the long-term.

I do believe that younger generations -- as Dr. King and his contemporaries were in the 50s and 60s -- hold keys to progress and need to be empowered by those of us who are older to lead. And I do believe that, as during the civil rights era, change will come as a result of the persistent efforts of courageous people working over a variety of fronts over time. I believe in the power of partnership and relationship -- as we say in one of our mottoes for the Southern Region, "We are better together."

With that in mind, I am co-facilitating a Region-wide conversation with Elandria Williams, a member of the Education Team of the Highlander Research and Education Center in Tennessee. It was there that Rosa Parks received her training before becoming the catalyst for the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Elandria is a lifelong Unitarian Universalist and a passionate activist. I am grateful to have her as a colleague in justice work.

Directions for joining that conversation will be posted in the next Southern Region newsletter, and on the Southern Region Facebook page. We look forward to being on that call with you.

Also, in conjunction with our congregations in East Tennessee, I will lead a weekend workshop on Marshall Rosenberg's approach to Nonviolent Communication, also known as Compassionate Communication, January 30-31. I believe that compassion for all people is going to make a difference in this present confusion. You can learn more and register for that event by clicking here.

My prayer is that love will guide us through this long, hard night in our nation's history. May we be willing to be saviors to each other, now and always.

God bless us, every one.