chalice with rainbow flame
First Unitarian Universalist Church of Essex County

From Darrel's Desk Archive 2009-10

The Hope of the Flower Communion

The Flower Communion was created by our own Norbert Čapek to give Unitarians a way to celebrate a communion unencumbered by doctrine or rigid ritual. When I was ordained to the UU ministry in 1974 it was considered a quaint and slightly foreign custom of historical interest. I did not know of any UU congregations that had any kind of communion, flower or otherwise, other than those which were vestiges of UU Christianity.

When Cakes for the Queen of Heaven, an adult education curriculum for women, became popular in the 1980's, part of its lasting influence was a new appreciation of ritual performed in a specific UU context. The Flaming Chalice jumped off the pages of countless church stationeries and became embodied on altars, lit every Sunday. The Flower Communion became an important worship event, often marking, as ours does, the end of the regular season of worship.

It expresses our connection and appreciation of the natural world. UUs tend to believe that humans must care for the earth in order for the earth to maintain its many life forms, including, of course, us. Like any communion, its meaning tends to be aspirational. That is, we accept that our actions fall short of our intentions, even if we do not use words like "sin" and "sinner."

We, like most Americans and the developed world, particularly fall short when it comes to our relationship with petroleum. While few of us thought that "drill, baby, drill," was a good idea, even fewer of us have taken concrete and meaningful steps toward alternatives. In this respect, the drilling advocates have greater congruency between their values and actions than we. If your ultimate value is to have cheap gas and big, comfortable vehicles, and you are willing to sacrifice almost anything for them, then yes, drill away. The current oil spill should cause them no concern.

For those of us who value the natural order, and believe that there is no future for our species if others become extinct, the current disaster is another tragedy in a seemingly endless string. We wonder if possibly, just possibly, this horrible event might be the one finally to awaken voters and political leaders to take the steps necessary to, well, survive. But like the drug addict who is not able to quit, there is little evidence we will change. Is there any environmental shock so appalling that it might change the entrenched behaviors enabled by corporate greed and citizen indolence?

I have been writing articles like this for many years. Many of us have been environmental activists. Yet the spills get bigger and the forces that create them seem to yield to nothing. Still there abides a hope that a collective change of heart is somehow not impossible. In this hope we offer our flower communion.

--June 2010

A High Profile Behind the Scenes

Dorothy Height died on April 10 at age ninety-eight. She was President of the National Council of Negro Women for forty years and was one of the most solid cross beams in the foundation of the Civil Rights movement. Among a great many of her contributions was "Wednesdays in Mississippi" in the 1960's, that brought together Black and white woman from both north and south.

Congressman John Lewis recently said that the road that brought Obama to the White House began in Selma. He is correct. The way for that road was cleared by people like Ms. Height. Her generation also paved it and planted trees and flowers along the way.

One of the great distortions of history is the "great man" approach. One person, almost always a man until very, very recently, is singled out as a leader of a movement or nation. History is then taught as the story of that mans bravery and wit, or his calumny. During the process that person becomes boring and unreal to successive generations of school children.

It is not my perception that history proceeds like that, now that I have had the opportunity to observe just a few decades of it. Yes, individual leaders, some closer to heroes, others more villainous, depending on ones point of view, are important to history. But there is never just one leader and nothing of historical significance is ever accomplished alone, even assassinations.

If Obama stands on the shoulders of Martin Luther King, then King stands upon Dorothy Height, A. Phillip Randolph and many others. These leaders depend on countless local leaders, and finally, to the ordinary person willing to do what he or she can.

Most of us are not Obamas or Kings or Heights. We seldom are even leaders in our communities, at least not for any length of time. Yet all that great historical personalities have accomplished depends upon the action of the rest of us, who have not devoted our lives to a cause.

If I were a conspiracy nut, and sometimes I think I am, I would conclude that the "great man" approach is a conspiracy. The powerful retain their power by constantly telling everyone that change is caused by great individuals, not by thousands or millions of people leaving their comfort zones to simply do what they can.

That might be the mission of our congregation here in Orange. We must do what we can.

--May 2010

Orange Unbound

Sunday, April 25 will be a special Sunday for us. The worship service will be centered on Arts Unbound, the non-profit organization in the Valley that is dedicated to the artistic achievement of youth, adults and seniors with disabilities. We have invited artists, staff and their families to join with us. After worship there will be an exhibit of their art in the Parish Hall.

This is another opportunity to partner with a local organization to show some of the good things that are happening in Orange. Arts Unbound has studios and a shop in the Valley at 542 Freeman St., which I encourage all of us to visit. This is a beautiful space, and just the beginning of what this part of town can become.

Perhaps soon we can take an active role in doing for our Main St. area what Valley Arts, which is the larger organization of Arts Unbound, is doing for the Valley: making it a more attractive, inviting and hospitable space. One thing that can help is attending a workshop sponsored by The Heart of Orange, at the Presbyterian Church on Main St., Saturday, April 10 from 10-4, even if you can attend only part of the day.

One of the projects they are considering is the beautification of Tony Galento Plaza and the Orange train station. Another is a public art and garden installation on Scotland Rd. where the day laborers gather early in the morning. This can show everyone that the community cares about these men and that location.

The growth and vibrancy of our church is vitally linked with the rebirth of Orange as a welcoming community where people gather to enjoy life and each other. Please feel free to invite friends and neighbors to these events. Even if they have their won religious affiliations, it helps everyone to get more people to these events, so more people can get the word that Orange is on the move!

A Sad Return

Kathleen and I just got back from a week in Costa Rica, mostly in the rain forest of the Osa Peninsula. This was a great vacation not only for what it had (nature) but also for what it did not have (cell phones, television, newspapers, internet).

I had returned only a few minutes when I was feeling very sad for what we have here in the United States today instead of civilization. I could name any number of events or unfolding stories, but the one I found saddest of all was the news that those opposing women's reproductive freedom had found some success in African American neighborhoods by saying that legal abortions were a plot and conspiracy to eliminate Black people. I'm sure you have heard about this by now.

I'll not go into the details of the lies and twisted fear mongering this has entailed. It is just too painful to write down, honestly. I can only anticipate and lament the material and spiritual costs of having to struggle against them. Just the fact that I am writing about it, when I would prefer to give this space to something more positive and encouraging, is a very small example.

Injecting more fear between the races, creating more paranoia among poor people of color, with the hope of turning long time allies into enemies is just a bit too, well, as I wrote above, sad. I know I will be discussing this in the days and week ahead. Time that could have been spent making progress will be burned just trying to hold one's ground.

I remember when abortion was illegal. Perhaps more of us who do need to speak more frankly about those days.

Finally, we must continue to stress that women's right to choose is exactly that. The best way we can encourage that is to be true to Unitarian Universalist first principles of thinking for one's self, becoming informed about options, and reaching out to help those in need of support as they strive to live independent productive, empowered lives.

We will overcome, yes. I just never cease to be amazed and saddened at some of the things people will put out there which need to be overcome.

February Rocks!

If there were ever a month of activities that present an opportunity to invite people to join with our community, it would be February.

February 14 is our annual Jazz Worship, featuring David Braham, Raymond Johnston, Santi Debriano and Diego Lopez. I mentioned this to a friend of mine who is a professional jazz historian and critic. When he heard the name "David Braham" he decided to attend! Just because Dave is our friend, we may not understand how highly he is esteemed in the jazz world. Likewise, Ray knocks them dead in the city regularly. I know of no other UU group anywhere that rocks the house for worship the way we do on this Sunday. Let people know!

The very next Sunday will present Olympia's Daughters, including our own Jackie Diggs and Carmen Pinto. The first time I heard them, at a UU General Assembly, I could hardly believe this was a UU group! They celebrate women and social justice from our spiritual perspective.

Finally, on the afternoon of Feb. 28 Bill Stafford is planning a benefit concert for Haiti in our newly renovated Parish Hall. When this work was done, we hoped it would be used for just such an event. Bill will not only organize it with lots of help from lots of people across several communities, but will also leave us a blueprint to follow for future events.

It may not be easy to invite friends and people you know from other community activities to come to your church. In a way, it sounds too much like religions many became UU to avoid. Keep in mind you are not asking for their souls, but only their presence. Also keep in mind that Jessie Turk was a member here only about ten years. She was well into her 70's when somebody said to her, "You sound like a Unitarian." She was of course, and was an outstanding example of one the rest of her life.

Suppose someone had invited her to worship at a UU church or to a benefit concert decades earlier? Surely both her life and the life of the congregation would have been even more fortunate. Perhaps you know someone today who "sounds like a UU." Perhaps you know someone who does not sound anything like a UU but you know shares our values of equality and justice? Tell them what we are doing in February. People know us from our community action. It is time they know us as a congregation, too.

--Feb. 2010

tiny rainbow chalice Let's Talk About It

Unitarian Universalists are great talkers, sometimes not to our advantage. There is a famous example of how UU's do theology. If there is one sign saying "Heaven" and another saying "Discussion of Heaven," we head toward the discussion.

As Homer Simpson would say, "It's funny 'cause it's true." However, replace "Heaven" with "Social Justice and Equality" and suddenly choosing discussion isn't so funny.

Yet, as Peter Seeger reminded us from the Old Testament, there is a time for every purpose unto both heaven and justice. In January and part of February, it is time to discuss.

Our book discussion of "Wrestling with Moses" by Anthony Flint begins January 11 from 6:30 to 8 PM in the minister~Rs study. It tells the struggle between Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses for the heart and soul of New York, in the battles over urban renewal. Jacobs had all the people behind her; Moses all the power. It is a good story about how communities sustain and re-create themselves.

We will meet six consecutive Mondays. The book can be obtained from and elsewhere on line. Molly Kaufman also has some complimentary copies available through the University of Orange. You can contact her at or leave a message for her at HANDS at 973-678-3110. We will be discussing the introduction and the first two chapters on Jan. 11. Last year's discussion was lively and informative. Let's do it this year, too!

After coffee hour following worship January 24, from 12:30-3 will be another chance for discussion. Doug Zelinski, Program Consultant from the Metro NY UU District, will lead what we are calling a planning session.

We have recently received a generous bequest from Jessie Turk's estate, earmarked for our "reserve fund." The Board has also been considering adding a quarter-time church administrator's position. We also need to decide how we want to fund and staff our Religious Education program for the near future. The January 24 meeting will give us an opportunity to share ideas and strategies before we need to make officially binding decisions at our annual meeting in the spring.

The early February pagan ritual of Imbolc symbolizes, among other things, the decision of what seeds to plant in the spring. This is what we are doing, using the most UU of all rituals: discussion. Do join us.

--January 2010

tiny rainbow chalice Book Discussion Resumes in January

Last winter several of us gathered to discuss Mindy Fullilove's book Root Shock, which helped us understand the impact of decades of urban renewal on cities like Orange. Beginning Monday, January 11, in the minister's study we will read and study Wrestling with Moses: how Jane Jacobs took on New York's master builder and transformed the American city by Anthony Flint, which was published last July.

Jane Jacobs is the author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, published in 1961, which is the great critique of urban renewal. But she was not just a writer. She was also a community activist who organized against Robert Moses and his plans to build a super highway through Greenwich Village. Wrestling with Moses is the story of that struggle and triumph.

Wrestling with Moses is available on line and in book stores. Molly Kaufman of the University of Orange also has copies. In fact, we hope to have some community folks join us, who have signed up for the discussion through the University of Orange.

Part of the fun and meaning of last year's discussion was having people in attendance who had lived in Newark, Pittsburgh and Orange when the urban renewal projects we were reading about were undertaken. I'm sure many of us will remember the Village before and after the times of this book.

This discussion is no mere intellectual exercise: it will help us understand what is required of us to fulfill our mission of urban ministry in a revitalized neighborhood and city.

If you are interested, simply get the book on line, or from Molly, read the introduction and chapter one, and show up in my office on January 11 at 6:30.

--December 2009

tiny rainbow chalice Planning the Next War or Something

One of the several appealing qualities I found in Barack Obama is that he is not a Baby Boomer. Or, more precisely, he is at its demographic tail. Someone who was barely in high school when the Vietnam War ended doesn't really qualify in my book. I think this is a real advantage, especially when it comes to war. Soon we will see if it is.

Recently we have heard the predictable voices clamoring to send more troops, expend more American lives and treasure in Afghanistan. To me, the arguments and the emotions sound all too familiar. To me, I fear that the results will be also.

I fear that at some point in the future we will be asking, "What were we thinking? Why did we waste so much for so little? How could we have been so blind?" Meanwhile, other voices will be looking for blame. Who lost Afghanistan?

One of the most psychologically astute terms for understanding this kind of controversy is "the inter-generational transmission of trauma." It has lots of applications, most of them very sad.

For Americans of a certain age it is manifested in seeing every conflict, from international warfare to grocery cart collisions at Path Mart, through the distorting lens of Vietnam. While ideologically I am not a pacifist, as a practical matter I have opposed every military adventure in my lifetime, including the bombing of Serbia to prevent ethnic cleansing, which actually seemed to have worked.

That's why I'm glad we don't have another Boomer in the White House. President Obama's deliberations have been called "dithering" by those, like Dick Cheney, for whom the very idea of thinking something through is as foreign as Islam. They appear to me to be advocating another round of the "ready, fire, aim," military strategy.

But I might be wrong. I also see every war through my Boomer lenses. It is time for other eyes, which see the present and even the future more clearly, to make the decisions. One looks to that time, seemingly ever approaching but never quite present, when a decision for something other than war might prevail.

--November 2009

tiny rainbow chalice Unitarian Universalist Urban Ministry

On Sunday, September 27 I preached at the First Parish UU Church in Scituate, Massachusetts, where I served from 1978-89. It was part of their 375th anniversary celebration. In my sermon I recalled several significant events while I was there, among them our involvement in what is now called the Unitarian Universalist Urban Ministry (

It was founded by Rev. Joseph Tuckerman in 1826. Tuckerman's vision was to help the poor of Boston by appealing to the affluent. It took many forms over the years. In the 1980s various suburban congregations, including Scituate, helped renovate and decorate Renewal House, a facility for battered women and their children. This gave a hand-on component to social justice that UU's find all too seldom. The result was a long-standing commitment to the Urban Ministry.

Our congregation is one of the few UU urban ministries in New Jersey. Yet the Montclair congregation is right up the road, and certainly that town has some urban issues. Morristown, home to a UU fellowship, has worse police relations with immigrant workers than Orange. As Dr. Mindy Fullilove says in her book Root Shock, it is hard to realize that the Springfield Ave. that runs through Summit and right by its UU church, is the same Springfield Ave. that begins in Newark and continues through Irvington.

Unitarian Universalists value their individuality and UU congregations value their autonomy. But neither individuality nor autonomy can accomplish everything. Sometimes we need to work together. I have begun to speak with ministers of these other congregations. It is too early to tell what, if anything, might come of the discussions.

We might find we have much more to offer each other than we had known. We might find we do not. If we do, let's get on with it! If we don't, then at least we will know that we don't. Even disappointing information is useful, and nothing would be lost except the hope that what one minister began in Boston almost two hundred years ago might be recreated here.

--October 2009

tiny rainbow chalice "Death Panels?"

That the health care reforms proposed by the Obama administration will include "death panels" is even less likely than that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. However, the lie did highlight, once the smoke had cleared, one part of the reform that, to me at least, is very important: end of life counseling.

It was back in the 1970s, in divinity school, that I first came upon the idea of a memorial society. This would help people understand their options regarding burials, funerals and so on. UU churches were at the forefront of this movement all over the country. Rev. Don McKinney of Brooklyn became a nationally known leader.

From this came the idea of the living will, death with dignity, hospice and the durable power of attorney for health care. For many years, end of life counseling was unnecessarily dominated by arguments over euthanasia. Dr. Kevorkian, practicing on the extreme edge of this issue, was not much help to the average family.

A lot of Unitarian Universalist ministers were, and still are. Ask just about any of us, and we will tell you that one of the things that UU does right is deal with end of life issues. We have all had the experience of doing counseling, or memorial services, where families of other faiths have been grateful and amazed at our approach. Many other religions, apparently, still fall back on "God's will" and liturgical formulae.

Far more UU's have living wills and health care proxies than members of other faiths, I am sure. But this current attack, veiled and screwball as it is, reminds me that the freedom to end life with dignity is not irrevocably won. Continued attention to court cases and state legislation is important. Even more critical is the attention given this by you and your family.

If you don't have a living will and durable power of attorney for health care, get one! If you want to talk about the hows and whys, Im here for you. Also, it is not enough just to have these documents. Your health care providers need to know you have them. This means not only your primary care physician, but also any staff of any facility where you or a family member may get medical care. Medical staff can only act according to your wishes if they know what they are!

There is an extremely important health and quality of life issue. To have it be used as a political football in the most distorted way possible is beneath contempt. But if it causes people who have not thought about such things to start, perhaps it is worth it.