chalice with rainbow flame
First Unitarian Universalist Church of Essex County

From Darrell's Desk: Archive 2011-12

--by Rev. Darrell Berger

Bhutan tries to Save the World

The small Asian nation of Bhutan has for several years charted what they call their National Happiness Index. That is, instead of a gross domestic product based on a need for every expanding economic markets, they measure the collective effectiveness of those things in life that make people happy: having enough food and medical care, time to spend with family, leisure and so on. In April they hosted what was called a "High Level Meeting on Wellbeing and Happiness: Defining a New Economic Paradigm" at the United Nations. Kathleen and I attended the opening plenary session. Speakers from all over the world took place, including several heads of state. What united them was their agreement that a new way of measuring human progress was needed before all was lost.

Quite simply, the thesis was that judging a nation's economic success by standards that require endless expansion, which in turn require ecological devastation and the exploitation of people, is no longer viable or useful. In fact, it is harmful and must be stopped. One might think a "Happiness Index" is frivolous. The more one learns about it, the more serious it becomes.

In the depth of the recent Great Recession, we read that consumer spending was down; saving was up. Yet this was considered bad for the economy, which requires constant producing and consuming of ever greater piles of stuff at the expense of the environment and the quality of people's work and personal lives.

Is it possible to make a deep and profound change in the way that nations measure and value what they do? Is it possible to cease the greed that motivates our economic engines? This conference, and those that may follow agree that we must try. Perhaps in the future we will hear more about the "Happiness Index" and eventually it will be taken seriously.

I am reminded of the Native American story I have told children on many occasions. The sparrow sees the forest is on fire. He goes to the river, dips his wings in the water, and returns to the forest, flies near the flames, flaps his wings and three drops of water fall on the raging fire. The eagle sees him and asks why is he wasting his time in such futile effort. The sparrow says, "These are my friends. I must do whatever I can do."

The eagle is impressed, flies up to the heavens and tells the clouds, who are so moved by the sparrow's love and bravery that they bring the rain and the forest is saved.

Bhutan is a little nation, far away in the Himalayas. Yet they see us as friends and our forest is burning. Now, if they can just get the attention of the eagle . . . .

--May 2012

Radical Acceptance

A few weeks ago Dharun Ravi, Tyler Clementi's roommate was found guilty of several counts of invasion of privacy and bias attack. The whole sad incident left me feeling that Unitarian Universalist values ought to be trumpeted more loudly and more often.

Tyler Clementi's mother is a member of one of those mega churches which, to say the least, are not completely accepting of gay people. She was quoted in a recent New Yorker article, after Tyler came out to her, as being saddened that her son would not be able to get married and have a family. It is clear that while she loved her son, she may not have been as accepting and affirming as she might have been. Tyler seemed incapable of defending himself against the behaviors of his roommate. His feelings of isolation from everyone, including his family, had to be tremendous for him to take his own life.

Young Ravi, I believe, must have had his own troubles feeling like he fit in, and overcompensated in order to do it. His family are legal immigrants from India. He is a good-looking young man of slight physique, a computer geek who played Ultimate Frisbee. This profile is often the victim of bullying, rather than the bully. What better way to "fit in" than to pick on someone even less able to defend himself? This is nothing new to anyone who has traversed the dangerous terrain toward adulthood.

What is new is the law, and its enforcement. Ravi was offered a deal of community service in exchange for a guilty plea, which he rejected. His family obviously did not think he did anything criminal, and for years they would have been correct. But those years, thankfully, seem to be over. Sentencing is ahead, as well as appeals, and I don't think anyone wishes for two young lives to be ruined because of this.

However, because Congress has passed increasingly odious laws concerning immigrants, Ravi may face mandatory deportation, though he has never lived in India. It seems as though the layers of American prejudice fold back on themselves.

Unitarian Universalist youth groups, religious education curricula and coming of age programs, all teach and exhibit what might be called "radical acceptance." I use the word "radical" because it is so unusual for young people to find themselves in such environments where people are accepted in their diverse humanity, for who they are. I can't help wishing that both Tyler and Dharun could have found their way to a UU youth group. What we do doesn't just help kids know themselves and get along. It saves lives.

--April 2012

What Exactly is Unitarian Universalism?

On February 8 I spoke to the Spirituality in Social Work class in the graduate school of Rutgers at Newark. I spoke there last year at the request of Frank Barszcz, who was then taking the class. I was asked to return because, well, I was a hit.

The purpose of the class is two-fold. First is to acquaint the class with various faith worlds, to help them better understand the people they will serve. The second is to help open themselves to the spiritual dimensions of social work.

My task: to introduce Unitarian Universalism to a couple of dozen people who are likely never to have heard of us. With Greg Giacobe's help, I put together a handout consisting of a time line of Unitarian and Universalist history along with our Purposes and Principles, and tacked on our address and website. I had an hour.

I began with the Council of Nicea, which created both the doctrine of the trinity and what became the Unitarian heresy. I hit the usual high spots: Michael Servetus being burned at the stake by John Calvin himself, King Sigismund of Transylvania, the Unitarian king, who pronounced the first edict of religious tolerance in Europe, the various liberal New England ministers, Transcendentalists and of course our own Norbert Čapek.

I mentioned that while UU's make up less than one tenth of one percent of the population, we made up 100% of the white civil rights volunteers murdered in Selma, Alabama in 1965, James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo. I traced the arc of history bending toward justice from Emerson to Gandhi to King to Obama. I gave my own testimony, from working with prisoners to serving a church on Manhattan's Upper West Side that made "Seinfeld" look like a documentary.

I was asked what worship was like and when it began. I said both were a kind of continuing negotiation, then gave details. I said that we don't get much press but we are often somewhere in the mix of most progressive movements. I also did not spare them the sad limits of liberal religion, which can prefer "discussion of social justice" to actually doing the work. I said that what I liked about our congregation is that we do the work, even though it is often frustrating, tiring and uncertain.

I used many of my UU one-liners, told stories of my faith experience and the unbroken line of which it is part. The students were very attentive and asked great questions. One man asked, "If there is no doctrine, what would you say is the one thing that UU's have in common?"

I don't think I had ever been asked that question in exactly that way. My answer was immediate. "An inquiring mind," I said. I think that's right. An open one doesn't hurt, either, along with a sense of humor and an appreciation of irony. My experience in the class also provided another feeling that I seldom entertain as a UU and perhaps should. I felt pride. I felt pride in our chosen faith. I felt proud of my ability to articulate it. I felt proud that I could sense a bit of wonder in some faces that such an approach to religion existed. Who knows, we might even see some of them at worship, whenever we begin.

--March 2012

Minnie, Mudcat and Vic

1959 was the first year of my baseball fandom. Living in the country about a hundred miles west of Cleveland, I listened to a great many games on radio, watched several on television and attended one, which was a very, very big deal for me.

The Indians finished second to the White Sox and contended almost to the end, a very exciting season. My favorite players were Orestes "Minnie" Minoso from Cuba, Jim "Mudcat" Grant from miniscule Lacoochee, Florida, and Vic Power from Puerto Rico. Most kids I knew liked these guys a lot. They also happened to be the only three black players on the Indians that year, thirteen years after Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers.

Minnie was a good outfielder and hitter. He swung so hard he nearly screwed himself into the ground. At the game I attended he threw ball after ball to the kids in the bleachers during batting practice. He began his career in the Negro Leagues. Soon he came to the majors. He was never a star in the Negro Leagues but his time there caused his big league totals to fall short of Hall of Fame quantity. That its door remains shut to him is an injustice.

Mudcat was in his second big league year as a pitcher. He started and relieved, though his best year was 1965 when he won 21 games for the pennant-winning Twins, after the Indians, as was their wont, traded him for almost nothing. He was a nightclub singer in the offseason. Years later he formed the Black Aces. Admission is limited to African American pitchers who have won twenty or more games in a season. Members often appear together to aid various fund-raising efforts.

Vic Power excelled for the Yankees' minor league teams, but was traded before he could become the first black Yankee. As a Puerto Rican he was unfamiliar with the rules of Jim Crow and also was simply too flashy for such a conservative organization. He played mostly first base, though he played everywhere except pitcher and catcher before he was through. He played baseball like Carlos Santana plays guitar, a virtuoso's technique flavored with controlled ecstasy.

Those that break down doors, like Jackie Robinson and Rosa Parks, have considerable support. Jackie's general manager was Branch Rickey. Rosa Parks' lawyer was Thurgood Marshall. Those that soon follow suffer almost as much without nearly the support. Minnie, Mudcat and Vic will never get their own stamp or holiday, but they, too, were heroic, especially to the kids around Cleveland, black and white.

--February 2012

A Community Church

In 1919 The Rev. John Haynes Holmes led his Manhattan congregation in changing its name from The Church of the Messiah to The Community Church, as it remains today on 35th Street between Madison and Park Avenues.

Over the years, the Rev. Holmes introduced Gandhi to America, and became a founding member of both the NAACP and the ACLU. He is considered a central figure not only in the history of Unitarianism in the twentieth century, but of the civil rights, free speech and peace movements.

The idea behind the name change was to recognize the broader mission that the church had untaken. It was not to be dedicated only to the individual worshipper's edification and spiritual development, but to become the spiritual center of the community's struggle for peace and justice. It remained part of the American Unitarian Association, but wore its denominational trappings loosely, as few other congregations embraced such progressive values.

I was reminded of this great ministry at the 25th Anniversary of H.A.N.D.S. (Housing and Neighborhood Development) last November at Luna Stage. The organization traces its origins to the effort to desegregate the Orange school system, led by, among others, Ernie and Maggie Thompson. A few years ago our Parish Hall celebrated the 50th anniversary of this effort, at which time a new vision of the just and beautiful city was born, based on the work of Dr. Mindy Fullilove, Ernie's and Maggie's daughter. There is a photo in the Sonen Room of Mindy as a girl, looking proudly at an R.E. project, along with several other children.

Our congregation has become a community church true to Rev. Holmes' vision. We minister to our members' individual needs, certainly, but that is only the beginning of why we are in Orange. Our larger and deeper vision is of the just and beautiful city. Thus we remember our past while cultivating a brighter future by encouraging and partnering with other organization with similar goals. These includ the many congregations and organizations that share our space, the collective known as Valley Arts and, more recently, the Planned Parenthood location in East Orange. In January I will be speaking to Rotary clubs in Maplewood and South Orange in my new capacity as a Board member of Valley Arts.

Our role is central and important. A movement needs a spiritual center, a place where various diverse interests can come together in common cause. Other congregations may be dedicated to saving souls, as they should. Ours is to save cities, communities. We are a congregation of individuals gathered for work that is greater than ourselves. This is a blessing. We give thanks to the growing numbers of people and organizations that share our vision and are working with us in ever more concrete, here and now ways, to make that vision a reality.

A Landmark Wedding

David and Raj have been together twenty years. I came to know them several years ago, as they are friends and colleagues of Kathleen's. They have become my friends, also. They have a four-year-old daughter named Sonia. On Saturday, November 26, at their brownstone in Brooklyn, I performed their wedding, the first legal, same gender wedding I have performed.

They never did a ceremony of union or commitment. They wanted to wait until they could be married legally. This was an ethical and political statement I entirely respected, which made Nov. 26 even more special.

David is from Beaver, Pennsylvania, outside Pittsburgh. Raj was born in New Delhi. Those attending came from as far as India and as close as next door. About one hundred people crowded into their living/dining room area, from which all furniture had been removed. The ceremony was held in front of their fireplace. Sonia contributed a poem called "Love." Each line began, "I love my daddiesÖ."

The Unitarian Universalist approach to weddings was very helpful. The acceptance of gay marriage is obvious. I invoked "the ten thousand names of god" in the opening and closing words. The diversity of the event was apparent from the words spoken and songs sung by relatives, and in the various clothing of those attending. David and Raj wrote and recited their vows, then exchanged rings and flower garlands, an Indian tradition.

I emphasized at the end that by the power invested in me by the state, I declared this marriage legal, to a great round of cheering and applause. The reception that followed rocked.

In American history there was a landmark when a Black person voted for the first time, when a woman voted, when a mixed race couple were allowed to marry in southern states. I missed those landmarks, but not this one. Like those others, it will change America for the better. Like those others, it will have to be watched vigilantly lest it be taken away. Unitarian Universalists have been part of the fight. "Standing on the Side of Love," we call it, a good name for it. There is still work to be done. There are many places still awaiting this landmark.

Like New Jersey.

--December 2011

The New King Memorial

I was amazed and sorry that the dedication of the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial in Washington, DC on the National Mall did not make a bigger media splash. The dedication date was postponed due to Hurricane Irene and the rescheduled event was smaller and perhaps anticlimactic.

When I consider that Dr. King's image will "for the ages" be close to the Lincoln Memorial, I remember the first time I visited there. I was ten years old and thought, "Wow, thatís a really big statue and heís sitting in a really, really big chair." In fact, if the Lincoln statue were standing, it would be twenty-eight feet tall.

The memorial was dedicated in 1922, fifty-seven years after Lincoln's death. There was great controversy about the design, which was changed several times. The original design was very large and grandiose, featuring horses and riders around the exterior. It was replaced by a log cabin memorial, which was rejected for the compromise design now standing. Even as it was dedicated, there was controversy that the memorial was too much this or not enough that. Lincoln said you could not fool all the people all the time. Apparently trying to build a memorial to a public figure proves that it is also impossible to please all the people all the time.

The King memorial proves this, also. It was created by a Chinese man, which in itself was controversial. That race and nationality should become an issue surrounding a King memorial is sadly ironic, yet I understand the feeling that an African American artist should have received the commission.

Some also say the figure does not look all that much like Dr. King, and that he is shown in a stern, almost angry stance. This was not what King was about, critics say. His image should have been one of compassion and love.

I agree it doesn't look exactly like him. But it is close enough that people won't think it is a memorial to Malcolm X. The angry stance, I think, is a more salient issue. Yes, I cherish the memory of Dr. King because of his ability to maintain the principles of non-violence and compassion. I don't think anyone is going to forget King's association with these values.

My take on the memorial's countenance is a little different. This is the first statue of a Black man on the National Mall. It will be the way "the ages" will see the Black man in the United States' first two centuries. I think it is altogether fitting and proper that there be some anger in that face.

--November 2011

Your Permanent Record

In the mid-1980;s my parents requested a portable audio cassette recorder so they could hear my sermons. I bought one, taught them how to use it and was surprised by the results.

Yes, I think they did listen to some sermons. However, I know from experience that listening to sermons after they have been delivered is like ordering a cheeseburger for takeout. It is just never as good as if consumed in the place it was created.

What surprised me is the creative use my folks found for the recorder. They purchased some blank cassettes and recorded their voices. I never in a thousand years would have guessed what my father recorded. He wrote and delivered parodies of radio commercials!

He had long been very suspicious of advertising claims, especially promises of rebates. "Thatís how they get you," he'd say. "They give you a piece of paper, but how many people bother to redeem them?" He considered the whole advertising industry a scam. I think he was onto something.

His parodies were occasionally hilarious. In one of them you could redeem a rebate certificate for a live skunk.

My mother's contributions were less creative but more substantial. She simply talked about her life. She described the places she had lived as a little girl, her grandparents, what it was like to move from a farm to the big city of Toledo, Ohio.

Over the years I collected hundreds of cassette of sermons, interviews with old baseball players, bad recordings of local bands, and those recordings of my parents. As cassettes became obsolete, I discarded many, but kept my parents'. I wish there were more.

I gave my mother a blank journal and a "How to write a Journal" book for her 84th birthday in 2004. For the next year she would write, in longhand, a few paragraphs at night when the spirit moved her. When she was stuck I suggested topics: her high school friends, the cider mill my father's family owned, the dogs she had loved.

She completed about sixty pages before she took a fall that made writing impossible. I am so thankful for those sixty pages. It is not that they help me to remember her. I don't need a journal for that.

Rather, her writings helped me put together pieces of my life: why I am an only child, how my father's parenting skills developed, even how my parents fell in love.

I am reminded of her little journal fragment because of Maggie Thompson's wonderful memoir, "From One to Ninety-One: a Life." While it is a great book to read and a wonderful gift to her family, it is not the only format for a memoir.

An audio record, a handwritten journal, a computer document; any format will do. It can be long, short or in between. It can be well organized or willy-nilly. Whatever its form, I do encourage each of us, regardless of age, to commit something of your life to a permanent record. It will be a greater gift to more people than you could imagine.

--October 2011

A Moderate Amount of Shakin' Goin' On

So, I'm sitting here in my office at home, trying to think of a topic for this monthís newsletter message. My office chair has wheels and I feel it moving, well, downhill. My desk starts to shake. I look out the window and see the building next door gently swaying.

Then it all stops. Then it starts again. It was that moment, when it started again, that was unsettling, because, since it started again once, I'm thinking, who knows what is next.

I then received an email from my neighbor down the hall, concerning some business of our condominium association. I asked her if she felt a kind of swaying and shaking of the building. Yes, she said, but she was inside a closet doing some clothes sorting and wasn't sure what it was.

A few minutes later, she sent me a link about the earthquake. It was 5.9 on the Richter scale, toward the high end of the moderate range, epicenter outside Richmond, Virginia. The article said City Hall in Newark was evacuated but no injuries had been reported anywhere.

Even as I am writing this, I got an email from a friend who works at Boston University. He wrote that about half the people in his office felt it, and a building in nearby Kenmore Square was evacuated.

We all had a jolly time last spring dismissing the fellow who had miscalculated the time of The Rapture. For just a second there, it did occur to me that he might have been only a few months off. Then again, earthquakes are more biblically apocalyptic, rather than rapturous. I get these "last days" prophecies confused.

Perhaps Samuel Johnson was right when he commented that nothing focuses the mind so much as the knowledge that one is to be hanged the next morning. I suspect narrowly avoiding being hanged does much the same thing. That is, I'm sitting here right now in a state of mind that is rather vividly focused. It had not previously occurred to me to rejoice that the building next door is not swaying.

Likewise, I am absolutely joyful that my chair is not rolling away from my desk. Iím as pleased as can be that the desk itself is perfectly still. All these are completely new sources of the greatest pleasure to me.

My little Corgi is almost asleep in her crate next to my bookcase. How nice that her rest was barely interrupted. I have heard that cats are sensitive to tremors. Not mine. They gave me no warning at all.

If I let myself, I am a little spooked right now, a little nervous. There is a little "dodged a bullet" feeling creeping over me.

I sat down a little over an hour ago wanting to write something that might cause us to appreciate life a little more, to live a little more fully and so on. Then I sat through a minor earthquake. I hope in the future to experience less dire sources of inspiration.

--September 2011

From Darrel's Desk: Archive 2007-11