Fifty years ago last month the Citizens for Responsible Government succeeded in desegregating the Orange schools. Last year we celebrated this success at the church.
On June 8, from 2-5 PM in the Parish Hall, we will be taking that celebration to the next level. Dr. Mindy Fullilove, who attended one of the desegregated schools, will show a short film she made of the event. We will be inviting various education and cultural leaders of the town, to encourage them to show the film to their people. Kathy Grady will also share the works of the Arts on Cleveland project for this year.
Then we will divide ourselves into small groups to take what Dr. Fullilove calls a "Community Burn Index." Just like human beings, a town that suffers too many burns or cancers will be at risk. Armed with Polaroids and digital camera, the groups will walk various streets of Orange to record the good, the bad and the ugly of our town. We will then re-gathered to report and discuss what we found. Helping in this effort will be Pat Morrissy, Executive Director of HANDS, the redevelopment organization in Orange which has done more than any other group to heal Orange's wounded neighborhoods.
Finally, A new Citizens for Responsible Government will develop an agenda to go forward. Two primary players in the desegregation of the schools, Maggie Thompson, a member of our congregation, and Ben Jones, the first African-American to serve on the Orange Cit Council, have been central to our planning. They are living links between the struggles and successes of fifty years ago and the action that is needed today. Since our congregation has been at the same off-Broadway site for over a century, we are a natural place for such re-vitalization to move forward.
I will prepare fliers for those who choose to take around our neighborhood after church, inviting people to attend. This will literally get us out of our church and into action. For years our congregation has chosen to stay in an urban area, when many other UU churches decided it would be to their advantage to move to what they perceived as greener pastures. Perhaps in moments of doubt or frustration you have wondered if we made a wise decision, or should keep making it. June 8 will show you why.
In the fall of 1995, I was driving through Marin County, north of San Francisco, listening to a radio call-in pet show. "My cat sometimes acts strange for no reason at all," the caller began, "She will suddenly act very cautious, almost fearful, her back will arch, and she will begin to stir. Then, just as suddenly, she settles down and is fine again."
The expert host replied, "Most animals, and especially cats, are sensitive to various vibrations and sounds that humans don't perceive. In our area, for instance, there are often slight earth tremors that we don't feel, that can be very upsetting to cats. When they feel it, they don't know if a bigger earthquake is coming, or not. They become very agitated for a moment, and when the tremor subsides, they settle down again."
"Or," the expert continued, "it might be just a hairball."
Earthquake or hairball, that is the question.
How often I find myself identifying with that cat. I suddenly get anxious and fearful, from some horrible piece of information, some distant rumbling. I wonder if it is a foreboding of one of those disasters that various later-day Nostradamuses (or is it Nostradamusi?) have been predicting at least since the duck-and-cover 1050's? Soon the rumblings recede, or I am distracted by news of an important baseball trade or celebrity rehabilitation.
Then again, sometimes I find that what is affecting me is not cosmic, but personal, more hairball than earthquake. Today, for instance, my right shoulder hurts. I often misplace my sunglasses and cell phone. My multi-task list tends toward having just one too many items. Taken together, they can form a perfect storm of personal annoyance, that, just for a moment, can seem much more significant that it really is. The moment passes, and I settle down again, like the cat that has succeeded in dealing with his personal issues through creative expectoration.
I don't know if a cat's sensitivity to distant rumblings can actually cause hairballs, but I do believe that humans, with our increasing worldwide inter-connectivity, suffer personally with the shifts and fissures of the world. Whether it is the housing and credit crisis, the possibly of endless war, or melting ice caps, we humans now share with our feline friends the ability to perceive and recoil in response to forces that move mountains continents away.
So, our unsettled anxieties may be caused either from the earthquake of world events, or discomforts far more personal. They may be connected, or not. In any case, it is useful to at least try to make some determination; least we take world events too personally, or blame the world because we can't find our cell phone.
Virginia Ward was already retired from the U. S. Foreign Service when I arrived as the new minister of the First Universalist Church of Sampson County at Red Hill, in Clinton, North Carolina, in the fall of 1974. She walked with a cane, her frame bent over, her body under attack everywhere from crippling arthritis.
Eastern North Carolina was about the worst place in the world for arthritis, since it was located in the southwest corner of The Great Goshen Swamp. It was great for growing dragonflies the size of robins, bad for arthritis. Red Hill was completely flat, getting its name from the very large clumps of wild rose bushes that appeared from a distance as red hills.
Like a number of church members, Virginia had been born and raised in the Universalist Church, went away to college and career, and retired back home. It made for a congregation far more sophisticated and worldly than the locale would indicate. Virginia, for instance, had spent a number of years in Kathmandu, Nepal, helping local women better care for their families in various ways: teaching nutrition, first aid, and even a little family planning.
I loved visiting her home. Outside, it was a new townhouse in Wilmington. Inside, it was Nepal. It was the first time I had seen a real home decorated with such beautiful, exotic things. It was as though everything she used, even the smallest teaspoon, was a work of art. She was also the first person I met who had meditated, not as a New Age discovery, but as something she had learned in Asia decades ago. Her meditation helped manage her arthritis pain.
One summer, I broke my ankle and returned to worship in the fall wearing a cast. After a few weeks, it came off. I went easy on the leg, of course, while also being impatient to get back to normal. One Sunday, she called me to her after worship.
"Don't limp!" she said, most emphatically. I didn't realize it, but I had fallen into a slight limp, because I found, if I limped a little bit, I could walk a little faster. Virginia saw that I was doing something she must have worked very hard not to do for many years.
"Walk as slowly as you have to walk, but don't limp!" she explained. "If you favor the leg now, it might never heal properly. If you walk slowly but straight, you'll be fine. All it takes is fighting through a little pain now."
Of course she was right. She knew about fighting through pain. Just to leave home and come to church was an act of will.
When I visited Kathmandu in 1996, I did so at least in part because of Virginia. The way she described the land, the people and the culture made it sound wonderful and exotic and she was absolutely right. When I spent a week trekking around base of Anna Purna, I did not limp.
In 1978, I had four whole years of pastoral experience, but was very excited about the opportunity before me. I was to begin as minister of the First Parish Unitarian Church in Scituate, Massachusetts, near Boston, the Mecca of Unitarianism. These old "first parishes" are the historic heart of our movement. Most of them, including Scituate, were founded before the Revolutionary War, becoming Unitarian early in the nineteenth century, when liberal theology was sweeping New England.
The more conservative members didnít sit still for having their churches taken over by heretics who thought reason had a place at worship, and took their cases to court. The Unitarians won. The judge deciding the case happened to be Unitarian. Fortunately, we know that all Unitarians are fair-minded and impartial, so naturally the case was judged solely on its merits. Basically, the decision said that the orthodox could take their theology with them, but had to leave the church communion silver and deed to the land.
So, in nearly every town square near Boston there is a First Parish Unitarian Church, and a First Trinitarian Congregational Church around the corner. Scituate is no exception.
My wife and I had just arrived. The moving van might still have been in the drive. I was away, on some early pastoral duty. The minister of the Congregational Church visited, and warmly welcomed us. As he left he said, "By the way, your church has our communion silver and we need it returned."
Later that same day, the minister of the UU Church in Plymouth visited. That, of course, is the "mother church," a few yards from Plymouth Rock. He warmly welcomed us and added, as he left, "And if the Congregationalists ask for the silver, donít give it to them!"
My wife, not having learned the fine points of Unitarian history, asked me, upon my return, what exactly was going on. I explained that there was some disagreement over who really owned the communion silver. "Who has it now?" she asked.
"We do," I responded. "A state court even said it is legally ours, but the Congregationalists disagree. If we gave them the silver it would be admitting that their claims were correct."
"When was the court case?" she wondered.
"1825," I said.
Unitarians were once said to believe in the Fatherhood of God, the Brotherhood of Man, and the Neighborhood of Boston. Of these three, Boston abides.
On Friday, January 18, adults and children from all the schools and many other organizations in Orange will gather at City Hall at 8:30 AM and march to the middle school, in commemoration of the march across the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Alabama in March of 1965, led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This was the march that, viewed throughout America on the evening news, showed marchers being beaten, and raised national consciousness of the civil rights struggle.
The key to the success of the march was the non-violent response of the marchers. Had they fought back, it would have been reported as just another race riot, police having to quell those troublesome Negroes and Yankee white agitators, who numbered among them several UU ministers.
While Dr. King has been remembered nearly to the point of irrelevancy, his method of non-violence has been lost. There is a cycle of wisdom to the teaching of non-violence to which Unitarianism is central. For Gandhi learned his principles from Emerson and Thoreau, those Transcendentalist New Englanders who were among the first Americans to encounter Buddhism and bring its teachings into their lives.
King learned from Gandhi, but there the teaching has not been brought forward. African American participation in the political process has increased considerably, helping all minorities to sit closer to the tables of power, but it has also given African Americans their share of corrupt politicians, just as all the ethnic groups in America that came before.
Meanwhile, the message of violence is everywhere, as is the message that winning thorough competition is the way to get ahead, with little opportunity to teach the wisdom of cooperation, or what advantage might be found in collective action. While the most fundamental goals of the Civil Rights era seem to have been met, ghettos still exist, with an increasing and evermore disenfranchised underclass, not to mention an immigrant population facing a no-nothing, nativist response a hundred years out of date.
I'm sure Martin Luther King would have vastly preferred that he be forgotten and the principles of non-violence remembered. But that would give each generation of the downtrodden a visible path to justice. Apparently, America would rather honor the memory of a man, and forget what he taught that made him memorable. Iíll be marching January 18, hoping to find new bridges to cross.
When I was about seven years old, Christmas was extremely important to me, and Santa Claus the center of that importance. You can imagine my elation when, on Christmas Eve, he came to visit me at my home, outside of Toledo, Ohio.
I heard sleigh bells outside the front door. I knew it was a stranger, because nobody who knew us came to the front door. I heard a deep voice loudly saying, "Ho, ho, ho!" I used my boyish powers of deduction to conclude that it just might be possible that Santa Claus himself was outside my door!
Now, I had seen Santaís helpers at various local venues: Tiedkeís Department store, where everybody went, or LaSalleís, which had the best toy department, or even Lampsonís, where the fancy people shopped. I knew these were not the real Santa, merely useful surrogates. But, a home visit? And on Christmas Eve? I hadnít been that good!
My mom and dad opened the door and it was Santa! How could it be anyone else? Red suit, white trim, white beard, funny hat, bag of toys. It all fit. He was a big guy, too. Bigger than my dad, more than sufficiently round, taller than his department store helpers. I didnít understand from the literature that Santa could have been a defensive tackle had he so desired.
Then I noticed his boots. There was something ersatz about them. They werenít boots at all. They were shoes, with black patent leather spats over them, simulating boots. This aroused my suspicion. Hey, I recognized those shoes! They were my cousin, Bobby Bergerís! He was a big guy, just like Santa. And he was a really nice guy, which fit the playing Santa profile. I did not underestimate this, as Bobby was of an age when most guys ignored little kids or were mean to them.
I looked behind the whiskers. It was Bobby! I exclaimed this loudly. Then I didnít know what to feel.
I first felt duped, because it wasnít really Santa and for a few minutes I thought it was. Then I felt good, because it was Bobby, who, when I stopped to think about it, was about as good as Santa to be visiting, anyway.
Now, over fifty year later, I feel much more than just good about it. It is a primary memory of loving kindness to children that I will always have with me. Because my kindly cousin Bobby thought enough about me to play Santa and play it extremely well, I have about ten minutes of truly believing the real Santa Claus had come to visit me.
When I heard that Bobby died earlier this year, back in Ohio, after a long illness, my first memory was of his playing Santa. I am uncertain of the characteristics of immortality, but surely creating unsurpassed wonder and joy in a child is one of them.
I am a big baseball fan, even following games in spring training. But I donít think Iíd follow them if they began the day after the last game of the season. The prelude to the real thing would be just too long.
Which is why I havenít been paying much attention to this extended sparring of presidential hopefuls.
I did happen to catch a bit of a Democratic Party "debate" a few weeks ago. They were asking the candidates about their prayer lives! Did anyone else find this a sad commentary on our current civic life? I found this appalling, in far worse taste than asking candidates about their undergarments, which was asked several times when the other Clinton was running.
Worse, every candidate answered using his or her best approximation of piety! Oh, how I longed to hear anyone say, "My attitude and practice regarding prayer is as personal and deeply held as any value I hold. Therefore I will keep it private, which is where it belongs in an American public political forum."
"If elected, I promise to uphold the constitution, which guarantees that no religion shall be held superior to any other, and indeed, there be no religious test for office, and that no citizen shall be held in higher or lower esteem in the eyes of government based on oneís practice, or non-practice, of religion. My administration will return to a traditional American value that has been sadly, tragically missing: tolerance."
Could a Unitarian Universalist be elected President today? Adlai Stevenson received the Democratic nomination twice, of course. Even given the average UU's liberalism, I believe the greater stumbling block would be explaining his or her "religion." What, you havenít been born again? You believe there is room for many religions, not only in the world, but in the same congregation! You believe atheists and agnostics can be moral? Male and female, gay and straight, are equal? You have no sin, no hell, no damnation? You donít believe your religion is the one true faith?
You think Mitt Romey has trouble explaining why he doesnít have three wives, or Rudy Giuliani has trouble explaining why he did have three, just imagine a Unitarian Universalist trying to explain, well, anything. UU doesnít fit well into a sound bite, current national advertising attempts notwithstanding. With a fair number of the electorate insisting on a president with a child's grasp of salvation, and even the relatively reasonable candidates pandering to them, I donít think a UU could be elected today. Which is sad for the UUA, and sadder for the USA.
Billy Peterson is a birthright member of the First Universalist Church of Sampson County in Clinton, North Carolina, where I was ordained and served the first four years of my ministry. He has a carefully written letter by his great-grandfather, dating from the 1880ís, resigning his membership in the local Baptist Church.
The issue, it seems, was fiddle playing. That is, the Baptists didnít like Mr. Peterson to play his fiddle, especially not for dancing. His resignation quotes copiously from the Old Testament about David and Solomon playing something that wasnít too different from a fiddle, states that the "joyful noises" recommended to be made to the Almighty seems to him rather like fiddle playing. He became a founding member of the Universalist Church. I can attest that the Universalist congregation did indeed rejoice in fiddle playing, guitar playing, banjo picking and various other ways to accompany the many dances they hosted.
Winnifred Chestnutt, who was well into his 90s when I was there, summed it up best. "There wouldnít be any Universalists around here," he told me, "If the Baptists had just let us dance."
So, sometimes, when people ask me about Universalists, I say that they are "dancing Baptists."
When the Zen master D. T. Suzuki fist visited America, he was asked what was the theology of the Buddhists. He said, "I donít think Buddhists have what you call theology, as I understand this word."
"Well, what do you have?" he was asked.
It is often said, sometimes even by Unitarian Universalists, that we suffer from a lack of theology. Iíve studied theology. Iíve known theology. From my experience, we are far better served by dancing.
The teenagers arrested in connection with the murder of three college students in Newark may not have been members of the Salvadoran gang, MS-13, but there is evidence that they were at the very least enamored of them. It has been reported that their MySpace pages were full of admiring gang references, though Newark Mayor Cory Booker has stressed that there is no evidence linking the murders to gang activity. The victims were, however, killed in ritual, gang-like fashion.
MS-13 has its origins in the Salvadoran Civil War. Salvadoran immigrants, coming to Los Angeles in the 1980s, banded together in response to the Mexican and other gangs already at work there. Early gang members had been members of various warring factions in that civil war, in which the United States supported a right wing military government that they had aided in coming to power, against various leftist and Marist rebels. U.S. government policy considered the rebels part of the Communist threat. Therefore, anything to defeat them was justified.
These immigrants, displaced from their nation, were experienced in violence, which tore apart their families and homes. Now, future generations have institutionalized this violence in the form of gang and other criminal activity. And so three young college students die in Newark because of a Latin American civil war twenty years ago.
This isnít new. Frank and Jesse James, the Younger Brothers, many of the outlaw gangs of the Old West were former Confederate soldiers, or men of their next generation.
We have often heard in recent years that "We have to fight them over there so we donít have to fight them here." What a lie. There is no "here" as opposed to "there." There is no "us" and "them." There is only one earth and only one humanity. We either support peace everywhere or we support peace nowhere. Which of our children will die in twenty years because of the violence our government is exporting now?
August 27, 2007