Saturday, May 31, 2014

Becoming a Keeper of the Questions

by Kathy McGowan, Congregational Life staff member

Several years ago I ran a program in which I trained and supervised citizens to advocate for children involved in abuse and neglect proceedings in family court. The volunteers needed to interact with many different types of people and various large systems. These advocates had the most challenging volunteer job I have ever known. They had to collaborate with lawyers, judges, social workers, foster care parents, parole officers and psychologists, in addition to the parents of the children, who were usually poor and often had mental health and/or addiction problems. The extensive months of training I provided were often inadequate.  When they were struggling I often found myself saying to them, “Remember, you are the keeper of the questions.” As long as they kept the long term health of the children in mind and kept asking the important questions in a timely manner, they were doing their jobs; they were keeping others on track.

I like the title, "Keeper of the Questions." In the fantasy world of Kathy McGowan, the Keeper of the Questions has a place of high status. It is a position to be respected and honored. In our congregational lives, this role falls to our leaders. In order to be a Keeper of the Questions in our Unitarian Universalist context, we are required to get up off the dance floor, so to speak, and move onto the balcony where we have a better view of what is happening. Once we have acquired a balcony view, we can then find out which questions need to be asked.

Leaders are often involved in decision-making that requires this kind of exploration. It takes a solid leader to be able to stop and say, “Are we asking the right questions?” Often we come to the decision-making process from something that happened on the dance floor. It can seem like a logical next step to make a decision, but if we have not gotten that “bird’s eye view,” it is likely that we have missed a key element about how this decision might effect the entire system of the congregation.

Once the good questions have been asked, you might be surprised at the answers you get. If the questions are strong enough, and the process clear and thorough, the thinking generated can take you far. Do not be afraid of the creativity that is unleashed. Embrace the Keeper of the Questions.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Greatest Gift of All

by the Rev. Carlton Elliott Smith, UUA Southern Region Congregational Life Staff
I don't cry often while watching television, but this morning the tears fell as I saw the dedication of the 9/11 Museum at the site of the World Trade Center Towers. Hearing and seeing the survivors and the first responders, listening to the last voice messages of those who perished in flight ... I was moved beyond words.

If I were certain my life was ending in a few minutes, who would I call? What would I say? If someone I loved called to say they were about to leave forever, what would I say? What would I do? I ask these questions, then multiply them times the hundreds and hundreds of lives lost on that clear September morning.

I was living in Boston at the time of the attacks. My partner called me from his office and told me to turn the television on. I watched transfixed until both of the towers collapsed, then I was completely overwhelmed and turned the news off, feeling the weight and the loss of those lives that day.

Seven years later, I began an interim ministry at the Central Unitarian Church of Bergen County in Paramus, New Jersey. It was there that I met long-time members Herb and Andrea Ouida (oh-WEE-da), whose 25-year-old son Todd died at the World Trade Center. As a child, Todd suffered with debilitating anxiety disorder. After his death, his parents founded The Todd Ouida Children's Foundation (, a nonprofit organization that supports psychological services for children from low-income families and works to end the stigma of depression. The Foundation has raised more than a $1 million to date for projects such as an art-therapy center and a summer camp for children who lost loved ones on Sept. 11.

Some of the conversations that take up our time and energy seem abstract. As we debate about the value of a new UUA logo or the advantages of moving our Association's offices off Beacon Hill in Boston, the work of saving lives, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and loving beyond belief goes forward. While we attend our meetings, join together in worship and advocate for justice, may we remain aware of the fragility of each of our lives. Every day, we have the chance to radiate as much love as possible to each person we meet. When tragedy strikes, may we follow the example of the Ouidas and reach out in love to others who are in need, just as we are.

Life is the greatest gift of all the riches of this earth

Life and its creatures great and small, of high and lowly birth

So treasure it, and measure it, with deeds of shining worth*

In faith,

*Singing the Living Tradition, #331

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Racism = Bigotry + Power

by the Rev. Kenn Hurto, UUA Southern Region Congregational Life Staff Lead Executive

The infuriating news regarding the LA Clippers basketball team owner's racist remarks combined with the ranting Nevada rancher -- the one with perverted notions of freedom for poaching on public land -- who argues that slavery was a good thing is an appalling insult to human dignity. The bad news is that this is old news. The good news is it’s not being put up with.

We Unitarian Universalists are sometimes glib when we invoke our 1st Principle regarding human worth. We should not be. This teaching is at the core of our theological commitment. It's the Universalist teaching: We are all -- all humans! -- children of the Divine and therefore worthy of being treated with respect. This stands in direct opposition to the Calvinist legacy, claiming that some people are saved (worthy) and others damned (unworthy).

Sadly, Calvinism, not Universalism, is the prevailing theology of American society. Everywhere you turn you can hear people dividing the world into two classes: those like me, who are good, and everyone else. I once knew a man who believed, "There are two ways to do things: my way or the wrong way." It is hard to know how to be in the same room with such folk. It is even harder to live in a society where the habit is to play "I'm OK, You're Not!" games at every turn.

Most people have negative attitudes toward differences. Prejudice seems to come instinctively. Could it be, we are still very tribal creatures, easily frightened, thus threatened by difference? Although we are all pretty much the same, we make big deals of minor differences. For the most part, we still get along. It becomes a problem, though, when one group has or tries to have power over another and justifies that power in terms of differences. That is when bigotry turns to racism. It is said that slavery and its legacy is the great sin of American culture. These two news stories, as I say, are old news.

Most Unitarian Universalists are not glib; we do more than affirm, we seek to promote the worth and dignity of all. Many of our congregations are committed to being and becoming intentionally anti-racist and anti-oppressive. That's why our Standing on the Side of Love efforts are so appealing. Candidly though, we struggle to know just how to do that well. We have much to learn along the journey to spiritual, inter-personal and institutional wholeness.

One thing we have learned is that effective counters to racism require positive action. Writing off bigots as lost doesn't help (and contradicts our theology). Hence, more Unitarian Universalists have embarked on a deep exploration toward becoming multi-cultural. We need to learn how to deal positively with differences of attitude and values, of styles and manner to become interculturally competent. What is multi-culturalism?

"Multiculturalism means that we create religious homes where encounters between people of different cultural identities intersect with Unitarian Universalism to create a fully inclusive community where...all people are welcomed as blessings and the human family lives whole and reconciled.” This definition comes from our UUA.

Embracing a multi-cultural ministry is the long-term corrective to racism: Together we can learn how to love the mosaic of diversity and to appreciate each other's life experiences and the unique gifts we each bring to the table. This is what we are called to do, to build the common good all the days of our lives. When we begin with self-awareness and self-examination, we nurture the beloved community. As we build the beloved community, we show our people how to engage difference free of prejudice. If we can be a highly functioning non-creedal faith community -- that humbly admits no one of us has all the truth and therefore we need to listen and learn from one another -- if we can do that, then we can also actively choose to learn from our various cultural identities and ways of being in the world. From there, we can then learn how to bear effective witness to our core values in our everyday actions in society at large.

Our UUA has wonderful resources to help. See: The field staff are also ready to show the way. Please contact us directly if you are ready for this ministry.

May universal love prevail, every day in every way.

Blessings, Kenn