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The Minister's blog
The Minister's blog

The Minister's blog (40)

Rev. David Carl Olson is an engaging speaker, a winner of sermon prizes in history and social justice, a theme speaker at conferences and frequent keynote speaker for groups engaged in the struggle for social change. Olson founded, with others, two congregation-based community organizations in Boston, Massachusetts and Flint, Michigan, and has served on the national steering committees of the UU Latino/a Networking Association and the US-Cuba Sisters Cities Association.

Wednesday, 08 April 2015 11:37

Why I Organize

Written by Rev. David Carl Olson

The resurrection story always stimulates my heart to go to the people I miss so much. One of these is Jim Drake, a community organizer and United Church of Christ minister who believed in me, shaped my public personality, and held me to a high standard as we formed Greater Boston Interfaith Organization. Jim died at the end of the summer of 2001, about 18 months after he shared these thoughts with me. I hope they reveal something of a great man to you.

“Why I Organize,” by Jim Drake (c. 2000)

As a child, I grew up in a home which was regulated by the seasonal and daily schedule of the public school calendar. This was of great comfort to me in my youth. Every summer, my father and mother had about three months “free,” and my vacation and theirs aligned perfectly; my dad came home promptly at 4:00 p.m. and we ate “supper” at 5:00 p.m. on the dot. We never missed a Sunday in church together.

I did not choose a life that would toss all of this order and sensibility into the toilet. Somehow, it chose me. When I was 24, I was drawn to the movement madness of the early 1960s.  I moved from being a humble servant of the farm workers causa to being a driven, half-mad “organizer.”  I sacrificed health, family, and wealth on the altar of winning-is-everything.
I was like a $5 a week professional football player.

Organizing, until I was 40, meant winning on the short term. Get the grapes out of the A&P Grocery Chain . . . every store was a victory.  I enjoyed a million victories of this sort, but all ended in defeat. The organization itself crashed and burned, and the pyramid of victories is little more than raw material for a novel I hope to write around the year 2005.

But, at 40, even with a little perspective on how the first 15 years of my organizing career had been for naught, I moved ahead into even more complicated contexts in which to organize. Somehow, I began to understand that organizing was for the purpose of organization, not for victories. I went to Mississippi determined not to let the cause, the issue, dominate.  I had a gut feeling that just bringing persons (black and white) into new configurations of relationship was worth the bother. The vehicle became a woodcutters association. The cause was now relational power. I had never heard the term, had not encountered the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), but somehow I was on a new track.

Now, there is an irony in my effort to honor relatedness.  With my personal family, father, mother, wife, and children, I was totally at sea in the area of reciprocity and respectful relationship. For a time, in Mississippi, it all fit together. But, the more I figured out my role as organizer, I (again) lost perspective as husband/father. What became shaky while on my own, free-lancing in Mississippi, became shattered in the excitement of the years in Texas with the IAF. The IAF became a new toy, and Texas-wide travel to form a new “network” became a cause again.  There is a Texas network today, and it exists in a very small part because it was built at the expense of the Drake network.

Today I organize, I must organize, because I want integrity both for my family network and for the world in which I live. Objectively, the lessons of the IAF tell me that I organize because relatedness in public life, the very survival of our society, and the world’s future depends on my being successful. The symbiosis of family to neighborhood, neighborhood to city, city to state, state to nation, and nation to world, relies on me . . . us as organizers.

Subjectively, I organize because my own mother, sisters, brothers, children, have no hope of inheriting a good world unless I/we succeed.

But, now I organize with a determination that what I build will never again become my causa.  When it consumes me, I consume my family.  And so, for the rest of my organizing career, I want to organize in order to integrate. Integration of the public and the private becomes my new causa.  If any particular issue or institution, IAF included, demands more than the private can sacrifice, then it is no longer organizing. Why do I organize? For Jim, Matt, Tom, Christopher, Mali, Katie and Adrian.

Tuesday, 07 April 2015 20:23

The Womb of Stars

Written by Rev. David Carl Olson

The Antiphonal Reading
by Joy Atkinson
we shared on Easter:

The womb of stars embraces us;
remnants of their fiery furnaces
pulse through our veins.

We are of the stars;
the dust of the explosions
cast across space.

We are of the earth;
we breathe and live

in the breath
of ancient
 plants and beasts.

Their cells nourish the soil:
we build our communities 
on their harvest of gifts.

 

Our fingers trace the curves 
carved in clay and stone

by forebears unknown to us.

We are a part 
of the great circle of humanity
gathered around the fire, 
the hearth, the altar.

We gather this day 
to celebrate our common heritage.

May we recall in gratitude 
all that has given us birth.

The Spiritual Power of Study

Rev. David Carl Olson, Minister
 and Karen Lee Scrivo, Interim Director of Religious Education

February 1

The free and responsible search for truth and meaning, a hallmark of our Unitarian Universalist faith, can be fulfilled in a lifetime of learning. We learn about ourselves. We learn about our world. And we study our own lives and the choices we make. Our Interim DRE introduces herself and her work in a conversation with our Minister.

 

Reading

Jeanne Harrison Nieuwejaar, The Gift of Faith, pp. 78-79

We all, children and adults, need acceptance and affirmation. We need it first in the familys embrace, but as we grow and expand, we need to find it in other places and faces as well. We need affirmation of what we do, validating our skills and talents, but on a deeper level, we ned to be accepted simply for who we are. In schools and workplaces, and in deed in most spheres of society, it is our doing and achieving that is affirmed. In worship, it is the whole self that is engaged and embraced.

 

We need a sanctuary, a safe place, to open the tender true center of who we are, to open it to ourselves as well as to others. Good, healthy communal worship offers such a sanctuary, a place made safe by the shared needs and trust of the worshippers there and by the covenant they make with one another. Sometimes this covenant is explicit. In my congregation we say in unison each Sunday an affirmation that we will be loving, accepting and peaceful with one another. But even when such a covenant is not spoken, in a healthy, nurturing congregation it is implicit. The religious community is a cherishing community, especially in the hour of worship when we are most engaged with the holy spirit of life; it is a time and place of safety. We can be authentically who we are, and we will be accepted as we are, warts and all, as someone once said.

 

In a religious community we are held and affirmed, but we are not the center of attention. To be in community is humbling. It is to be one among many, and it is a corrective to the kind of egocentric spirituality that can grow if we encounter the holy one only in private ways. Humility is a deeply spiritual qualitynot self-debasement of denigration, but understanding the self as an integrated piece of the larger circle of humanity, indeed of all of life. It is to understand oneself as singularly beautiful and significantas every other person is also singularly beautiful and significant.

 

Shared Sermon

(Olson)

This morning and this month, we will be talking about Power. This is a word that strikes many people of faith as difficult and even dirty. We learn, in many religious setting, to be people who are humble, Blessed are the meek, Jesus said, and so many of us think that having power, wielding power, is somehow not religious. Power tends to corrupt, we have been told, and we hope that we are not corrupted, that our leaders will not be corrupted.

            A more functional understanding of power tells us that power is simply the ability to act. When we have power, we can turn on a lightbulbor even Valeris lights, for that matter. When we have power, we can pass legislation that expresses our values in the world, as we have for marriage equality and raising the minimum wage. When we have power, we can achieve things that are consistent with our ethics, our morals, our principles, and can teach and tutor children at the Paca School and plant a garden with the residents of Dayspring Programs. Power is capacity, and the ability to get something done.

            I believe the first power that any of us has is the deep knowledge of our own story, which reveals our values, our intentions. We can study our own lives and see the powerful choices we have made, or the times we made choices where we needed more capacity and found ways to get what our values called us to get done. Karen, I wonder if you would be willing to share some of your story, your powerful witness to your own capacity, your own power.

 

(Scrivo)

My Story

Im Karen Lee Scrivo, and am honored to be your new interim director of religious education and following my inspiring colleague Becky Brooks. This is my fifth interim assignment.  Ive served at the Cedar Lane UU Church in Bethesda; Paint Branch UU Church in Adelphi, Md., and the UU Congregation of Columbia (Md).  I got my start in my home congregation Goodloe Memorial Congregation in Bowie before interim training strongly advised against doing this work in your own church. 

Its been a long and winding road that brought me to Unitarian Universalism, becoming a religious educator and now pursuing ordained ministry.  

I grew up Catholicattending mass, making my First Communion and Confirmation.  It was at my liberal Catholic high school in Lorain, Ohio, that I learned about Eastern religions, meditation, ethics and classical logic.  But I strongly disagreed with the Catholic Church over contraception, abortion and its refusal to ordain women. 

Still, I loved playing guitar with my friends at the contemporary mass each Sunday and enjoyed spirited debates with the liberal priests, nuns and teachers at my high school.

My maternal grandmother took me to lively Pentecostal Protestant services, prayer meetings, and miracle services.  I loved the music and hearing the Bible stories but we were worlds apart theologically over her use of the Bible to justify racism, sexism and condemn homosexuality.

Both my parents taught me to think for myself and ask questions.  My father was a journalist and my mom, a former secretary, were never ones to go along with the crowd. So after high school, I stopped attending church and considered myself an agnostic. 

It wasnt until some 10 years later that my soon-to-be husband Ken introduced me to Unitarian Universalisma denomination not covered in my high school World Religions class. Ken discovered Unitarian Universalism at the UU Congregation of the Quad Cities while working in Davenport, Iowa.  I was working as a journalist in Kent, Ohio. 

When we moved to Maryland and started attending the UU Church of Annapolis, I knew I had found my spiritual home. We were married some 30 years ago by the Rev. Fred Muir, who was in his first year there.  Rev. Muir is still there and were still married and have a nearly 24-year-old son!  A short time later, we joined the newly-formed Bowie UU Fellowship, closer to our home.  

The church has since changed its name to Goodloe Memorial UU Congregation, to honor Don Speedsmith Goodloe, one of the first African-Americans to graduate from then Meadville Unitarian Seminary. When Goodloe could not find a Unitarian congregation to call him, he founded the Bowie Normal School for African-Americans, which later became Bowie State University.

My first involvement with the Bowie church was as a youth director since I often worked Sundays as an Associated Press reporter.  I later become an OWL leader, led Coming of Age, and taught Neighboring Faiths. I learned so much about Unitarian Universalism through teaching and working with the youth.  So when the DRE in my congregation went on sabbatical, I happily filled in.

It was not until years later that I applied to be an interim DRE position at the UU Congregation of Columbia when a Montessori teaching job didnt work out.  I soon found that interim work that made good use of my experience as a teacher, writer and lifelong learner.  And, I worked for a wonderful minister, the Rev. Paige Getty, who inspired me to see my work as ministry rather than simply education.  

While at Columbia, I took an online class at Starr King School for the Ministry on childrens literature and religious education and began to think about ministry.  The next year, I took a class on UU Polity at Wesley Seminary with Rev. Rob Hardies, the senior minister at All Souls Unitarian in DC.  It was there I decided to answer the call to help people of all ages in their spiritual search.  A call, I realized that I had first heard in Catholic high school but didnt know how to translate.

I knew I wanted to attend UU seminary.  There are only two Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, California and Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago.  Starr King had the earlier deadline.  In the process I learned more about Starr King and its commitment to anti-racism and creating communities that counter oppression and decided that that it was the best fit for me.  Its been an amazing and transforming journey.  And I hope to be graduating this May!

 

(Olson)

Choosing Unitarian Universalism is your story of exercising the power of thought, of expressing your personal power. Becoming involved in churches, and then discerning a call to full-time ministry, this is a story of engaging congregational power, and especially a congregation learning the power of study together. I want to share a story of Gift of Faith (p. 93).

There is a story of a little girl who asked her parents, as they drive to church one Sunday morning, What do we get at church? In response to her parents puzzled looks, she said, At the library, we get books; at the bank we get money; at the grocery store we get milk. What do we get at church?

It is the wrong question, of course. Although we get much at churchstrength, knowledge, challenge, spiritual insight, ethical clarification, moral support, healing, friendship—“getting is not the appropriate intention to bring to this experience. Nor is the intention of doing. Although in fact we may listen, talk, pray, think sing, hug, and wash dishes, the doing is not the primary intention either. 

In our society of agendas and tasks, action items and deliverables, religious community stands apart. We gather not to get, or to do, or to achieve, but simply to be, to be together in particular waysways of seeking and celebrating and supporting, ways of connecting, binding together the fragments of our lives into a unified, centered whole, binding together the solitariness of individuals into the strength of community. The binding together is never complete, however. It is an ongoing process. This is what religious community isprocess, beingness. 

            And so my question, not unlike that of the little girl: what do we get from this Interim time? Why do we have an Interim Director of Religious Education?

 

(Scrivo)

Whats an Interim DRE?

One of the best descriptions of interim religious education work Ive heard from whats known as the Romero Prayer, written by Bishop Ken Untener for a celebration of departed priests.  Archbishop Romero was the leader of the Catholic Church in El Salvador, who spoke out against poverty, social injustice, government assassinations and torture. Romero was assassinated while offering Mass in 1980. The words of the prayer, while attributed to Archbishop Romero, were never spoken by him.  Ive taken the liberty of shortening it a bit.

It helps, now and then, to take a long view.

Nothing we do is complete.

No statement says all that could be said.

No prayer fully expresses our faith.

No confession brings perfection.

No pastoral visit brings wholeness,

No program accomplishes our mission.

No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

 

This is what we are about:

We plant seeds that one day will grow.

We lay foundations that will need further development.

We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.

We cannot to everything,

and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.

 

This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.

It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,

an opportunity for the Lords grace to enter and do the rest.

 

We may never see the end results,

but that is the difference

between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders

Ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own.

The interim period for religious education is like that.  It is a time of reflection, conversation, dreaming and goal-setting.  It comes during a transition in religious education leadership and provides a chance to step back and assess the RE programwhats working, whats not, and most importantly what are the congregations hopes and dreams for life-long learning for children, youth and adults.  It helps the congregation see where theyve been, where they are now and where they want to go. 

As an interim religious educator, Im not here to change things but to help you discern and articulate what you hold dear and where there are new opportunities for growth. To do this, I will be asking questions and reflecting back what I hear and see.  And sharing with you the current trends and best practices in religious education.

There are several specific tasks that we will be working on together:

1)  Understanding this congregations religious education history

2)  Discerning your unique religious education identity (Who are we today?)

3)  Connecting with the Unitarian Universalist denomination

4)  Understanding and planning for leadership changes

5)  Creating a vibrant and robust religious education for the future.

Well start by looking at the congregations history of religious education. The rest of the tasks dont necessarily happen sequentially, and often overlap.  Every congregation is different in its focus and approach. Well be talking about this more in the future.

In the meantime, Id like you to be thinking about what kind of person you want a youth who has graduated from your religious education program to be?  What values and qualities would s/he exhibit?

 

(Olson)

This Interim Time is usually a time of one or two years. Well be with you for these next five months, and then I hope well be working with another religious education professional for the next yeargiving ourselves the time to sort things out, to begin to see the right mix of gifts needed for a diverse, downtown church like ours with the gifts of paid and volunteer staff that we bring. But Iwho inhabit the historic role of being the pastor to this congregation and the public teacher of morality to our neighborhoodI think religious education happens far beyond this place. Heres what Jeanne Nieuwejaar has to say: Gift of Faith (pp. 56-57)  

Parents are the primary religious educators, and the home is the center of religious development. Although the larger religious community is an essential component in growing a lasting faithfor both parents and childrenthe home, especially in the early years, is where the childs living unfolds, where meanings and values are rooted, where both crises and celebrations are most likely to occur. 

Attitudes in the home are conveyed to children every dayattitudes of patience, respect, affection, generosity, hospitality, deep listening, an open heart and mind. Art and other images in the home [and church] also convey values and spiritual meanings, both subtle and explicit. Green plants, bowls of shells or rocks, mobiles or wind chimes to catch the movement of the air, windows open to a garden beyondall of these bespeak a spirituality.

The power of our faith, the power of our quest for new ways of being more fully the best that we can imagine, this power arises from an outlook on life, an enthusiasm for humanity, and a confidence in our capacity to learn and to grow. I wonder, what is your philosophy of religious education?

(Scrivo)

Whats My Philosophy of Religious Education?

When people ask me about the purpose of religious education, I think of the words of two Unitarians : 20th century religious educator Sophia Lyon Fahs and 19th Century minister: William Ellery Channing.

Sophia Lyon Fahs said:

The religious way is the deep way, the way that sees what physical eyes alone fail to see, the intangibles of the heart of every phenomenon. The religious way is the way that touches universal relationships; that goes high, wide and deep, that expands the feelings of kinship.

And Rev. Channing said:

The great end in religious instruction is not to stamp our minds upon the young, but to stir up their own; not to make them see with our eyes, but to look inquiringly and steadily with their own;

not to give them a definite amount of knowledge, but to inspire a fervent love of truth; not to form an outward regularity, but to touch inward springs;

not to bind them by ineradicable prejudices to our particular sect or peculiar notions, but to prepare them for impartial, conscientious judging of whatever subjects may be offered to their decision;

not to burden the memory, but to quicken and strengthen the power of thought; not to impose religion upon them in the form of arbitrary rules, but to awaken the conscience, the moral discernment.

In a word, the great end is to awaken the soul, to excite and cherish spiritual life.

It is my hope that together we will work to touch universal relationships and awaken the soul and excite and cherish spiritual life in our children, youth and adults.

Amen and Blessed Be. 

"Bending the arc of justice once again"  is the title of a recent op-ed by Professor Parsonya Wise Whitehead of Loyola University (Baltimore Sun, Dec 12, 2014). This commentary was brought to my attention by a leader of our church, in part to celebrate the source of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s paraphrase of Unitarian abolitionist Rev. Theooldore Parker with the phrase, "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." Prof. Whitehead asks that we pay attention to this moment in our lives, this 50th anniversary of the marches in Selma and the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Dr. King, this moment when our society is reeling from the impunity granted to extra-judicial killings by agents of the state of unarmed Black men.

She spoke of her own example. "I have spent the semester teaching about Ferguson in my classroom. My students wanted to know what they could do to be part of the change they believed was happening around the country. I told them they should focus on changing themselves and their communities. I had them spend some time examining and confronting their own racial biases. I taught them about the social construction of race and class and assigned follow-up readings to help guide our discussions. I taught them how to facilitate difficult and emotional (but necessary) conversations about race and class. I told them that years from now, they will not remember the tests that I gave them or the parties they attended, but they will remember that this was a time when they actively grabbed the reins of democracy and worked to bend the arc closer to justice."

I visited Chicago this week to attend Winter Convocation of Meadville Lombard Theological School where I am a Teaching Pastor to ministers in preparation in the Baltimore region. The question of a lucid, compassionate, committed response to the state of our country was a theme of our conversations, and I sought a way toward clarity for me, for my students, and for the congregation that I lead and serve. How shall we respond to the reality of the hurt and pain in our cities--including our own Baltimore? How shall we deal with the work that is before us, a work Prof. Whitehead describes as "tiring and frustrating" when Black folk "have to prove to people, every day, that #BlackLivesMatter."

A brief conversation on Facebook among members of our congregation called for the need for mixed-"race" groups to come together for consciousness-raising about this moment. I applaud the sentiment for consciousness-raising, and especially when it leads to action. But I also know that lucid action can lead to consciousness-raising, and it may be that there are enough avenues already described by the movement of Black and other People of Color for White folk like me to be engaged and thus to grow in our consciousness that, indeed, #BlackLivesMatter, and that Black lives are in danger by the status quo which holds (and holds back?) us. It may be that White People need to use the rational sense which is the hallmark of our religion of reason and "walk the talk" of our faith, engaging our heads and allowing the walk to win our hearts.

My dear colleague Rev. Alma Faith Crawford asked that I understand that many Black people have had enough of explaining, for years and decades and centuries, their lives and the injustice they experience, and maybe we are past the place for conversation only. Maybe we can simply look at what is already available on YouTube and Twitter and all the social media we have, and simply commit ourselves to being part of holding the police, for example, accountable in a just way for the work that they do for us all. In the midst of such work, we may examine our own racial biases, and we may engage the "difficult and emotional (but necessary) conversations about race and class" which will assist in the raising of our consciousness. And we may bend the arc of justice in the way that is appropriate at this time, this moment of profound dislocation and dissatisfaction by some of us, which many others of us see as distant and happening only to "the other."

I look forward to our continued conversation--and action--to be about justice bending.  

Wednesday, 07 January 2015 16:14

Worship? Really?

Written by Rev. David Carl Olson

Human beings are impelled,
    not compelled,
      by the power of God
        to fulfill the good potential of their lives.
The impulse toward wholeness in humanity
   is predisposed to good,
     though it can be weakened or distorted
         by chaos and conflict.
Authentic worship keeps it alive
   and restores its integrity.

 

This assertion helped form the Universalist convocation known as "The Humiliati," a group of men--largely identified with the theological school at Tufts University--who found Universalism in the mid-20th century a moribund lot. Their belief was that they needed to state universalism in a new way for their time. In part, this reflected the growing acceptance of universal salvation--or, at least, the growing rejection of damnation among protestants in the US. 

 

So they introduced a new symbol, the circle with an off-center cross, to represent their openness to what had been given by Jesus and his followers, but a sense that it was mystery which is at the center. They introduced a bit of scandal when a minister was ordained not to the Christian ministry, as had been the practice, but to the Universalist ministry. And then they made it all the more confusing by wearing very traditional clothes, including collars and stoles; made worship more liturgical and ornate, and spent a lot of time talking about the spirituality of our faith.

 

These ministers had all been trained under Dean Clarence R. Skinner, the great social justice prophet of 20th century Universalism, and while they did not reject their teacher entirely, they did, as a group, have a sense that no social justice action can last without a deeper spiritual core. And so that is where they began.

 

I preached last week a "question box" sermon, including answering a serious question about worship. "What, or whom, do we worship? Is worship about gratitude and reverence, or is their some element of subjugation or at least submission? etc." I loved that question!

 

If has made me revisit my own sense of the "why" of our common celebration each week. I hope this is a question that I never believe has only one answer. But this notion of the Humiliati--our need to balance our wholeness and goodness against the weakening effect of chaos and conflict--speaks to me. 

 

I come to church to consider the things of ultimate worth. I seek a body of people ready to do the same. I hope to draw from our encounter with each other--and with "The Mystery"--Life, mine and ours; and Integrity.

 

That might keep me coming back for a lifetime.

Monday, 29 December 2014 16:59

Harry Potter or Samwise Gamgee??

Written by Rev. David Carl Olson

Harry Potter??

A comment was made about our church services a few weeks ago where I was called "Our Harry Potter." I will confess (blush, blush) that I have very little understanding of what that comment means. I have not read Harry Potter, although my nieces and nephews have, and explained the books to me (with great joy!). Still, I have had to "punt" dinner conversations that turned in Harry's direction. I can usually apply a little theological education to the themes raised--and I can handle the rolling eyes of the children I love.

I have to say that there is something attractive about being referred to as a title character of a best-selling saga. What I like most of the reference is the fact that Harry is learning, is building relationships that last, and is growing in skill. I think, too, of his desire for a correct assessment of situations, what we call in organizing knowing "the world as it is." Being powerful is great. but understanding how much power and how little power we have is an invitation to grow greater power through solidarity with others. And that works for me, as the leader of a religious community. I need to be humble about the kind of influence we have on the world today just because of our theological, ethical and moral convictions. Our faith asks great things of us and proposes greater things for the world--and without healthy humility, we can be so arrogant.

I remember when I was leaving my ministry in Boston, one community leader talked about the work I did as President of an important congregation-based community organization, Greater Boston Interfaith Organization. That leader hoped I wasn't offended when she called me not Frodo (of Lord of the Rings), but Samwise Gamgee. She said that I was willing to let other people appear in the title role, that we encouraged other people to grow in their leadership capacities, and were the strong, loyal and committed companions to those who were called to carry "the Ring." And when necessary, I accepted the fact that I might need to bear the burden of the Ring when the acknowledged leaders were unable so to do.

That is, to me, what skillful and faithful ministry seeks to be about. To intuit the gifts of people and share that intuition with them; to acknowledge and nurture their leadership of our community and its liberal and liberating mission; to accompany people in their leadership and especially in their growth; and to be grateful for all that we accomplish together.

I'm not sure what of this is about the wizardry of faithful relgious leadership, and what is about the virtue of loyalty. Both, I think, are needed in building Beloved Community. But I am so thankful to be able, in my daily life, to touch the lives of people who are trying to make meaning with their own lives and with their families and public relationships, and even the wider world.  This work of redemption can be a sacred and fulfilling labor. And all in anticipation of a New Year, just hours away . . .     

Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,

Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,

Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,

One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne

In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.

One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,

One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them

In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.

 

Abe Lateiner is a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based class activist focused on transformational philanthropy. He makes a startling assertion that we discussed at First Unitarian on Sunday afternoon: Sauron's One Ring, in J.R.R. Tolkein's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, is a metaphor for Whiteness.

 

Consider:

 

*The One Ring was created by Sauron to concentrate and maintain his power over all of Middle Earth. The concepts of "White" and "Black" were created by the early American elite in order to maintain their power and wealth by discouraging poor African-Americans and European-Americans from uniting in opposition to the ruling class.

*The power of the One Ring is, among other things, that it offers invisibility to the wearer. But this comes with a price: the Ring also slowly corrupts the bearer, leading the person to isolation and misery (as we see in the character of Gollum). The bearer slowly turns into a narcissistic, angry, loner, bent on accumulating power at the expense of their relationships. As bearers of Whiteness in America, we get to move through our lives without our race drawing attention to us. We are assumed to be "normal" Americans. Our actual diverse ethnic backgrounds (German, Irish, Italian, Polish, etc.) are largely unnoticed, while dark-skinned people are almost always seen as outsiders, exotic, dangerous, and "ethnic." Thus White people are able to move around much more easily in America. BUT … there is a price to the safety of Whiteness. To accept the comforting "normalcy" of Whiteness is to disconnect oneself from our humanity. The flip side of seeing Whiteness as "normal" is seeing Blackness as the "other," the undesired, the ugly, the dangerous. The safety of Whiteness requires the creation of Blackness as something to which we can be opposed. The result? White Americans are often socially isolated, even in our "own" communities. We're so used to separation that we forget how to be close, even with those we would call our racial kin.

*People are drawn to the One Ring because it seems to offer limitless power to be wielded. But in fact, the Ring itself ends up wielding the bearer, using their physical incarnation to do its will. The seduction of Whiteness is powerful...it offers the bearer preferred treatment in almost every realm of American society--if we are seen as bearing Whiteness, we're more likely to be seen as smart, objective, wise, moral, innocent, pure, and deserving. But the price we pay for this preferred treatment is that we become foot soldiers in the war against Blackness; by cashing in on our Whiteness (even unintentionally), we ensure that Black people remain second-class citizens. Thus we become, as the bearers of Whiteness, instruments in the maintenance of power.

*Part of Sauron himself is contained in the One Ring. When it is destroyed, Sauron is destroyed as well, and this is what frees all of Middle Earth from tyranny. White Americans have so bought into the made-up construct of Whiteness that we take it for granted. If we could expose the myth of Whiteness for what it is, it would shake our identities to the core, while offering us a chance for liberation along with all the people that Whiteness currently subjugates in the service of its maintenance.

 

Lateiner encourages people to share this assertion, especially among Tolkein fans, to see if they can poke holes in his argument.

 

#blacklivesmatter

 

#OneRingtoRuleThemAll

 

#wemadeittomountdoom

 

#throwitinthedamnfiresofmordoralready

 

#wearebetterthanthis

 

Thursday, 16 October 2014 00:00

selma@50 Still I Rise

Written by Rev. David Carl Olson

selma @ 50 "Still I Rise"

Good evening, my name is David Carl Olson and I have the privilege to serve this community as Minister of First Unitarian Church of Baltimore. On the front of our historic building flies an angel, the Angel of Truth, and I greet you in the name of Truth, and welcome you to this Temple of Truth. Since the founding of this congregation nearly 200 years ago, the corner of Charles and Franklin Streets has welcomed people of diverse belief and coherent action amid the values of unity and tolerance, fortitude and peace.

When our founders created this congregation in 1817 and built this Temple in 1818, they were seeking a more democratic religion, a religion for our country at their time. They based their actions on the example of the Jewish prophet Jesus, and believed that a simple and reasonable reading of his story was an adequate basis for living ethically, morally and spiritually in a democracy. They committed themselves to democratic ends.

We have never been satisfied with democracy, in society and even in this congregation. Over the years, our democracy changed. We began with a small group of pew owners who ran things in this place. We extended voice and vote to include women who could vote by proxy, to Black men who had originally been excluded, to people who did not own pews but rented them. It was in the twentieth century that all members of the church, regardless of social status, were given both voice and vote. Perfecting democracy in this church required the creation of a new understanding, a new application of reason that allowed a new culture to emerge.

In our nation, the perfection of democracy has been a long and involved process—and we acknowledge that even today it is far from perfect. But the year 1965 captured the imagination of the nation as the demands for access to voting was raised as a key demand and related to questions of open violence against African Americans. Jimmie Lee Jackson had been ruled ineligible to register to vote for four years; but took as a tenet of his Baptist faith that he was somebody, and that he had every right to register, every right to vote. Marching with other civil rights workers to protest the jailing of James Orange, Deacon Jackson was gunned down by the Alabama State Police.  In response to the pain of this outrageous violence against a peaceful people, James Bevel and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference called people of faith to march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital of Montgomery. On March 7, 1965, “Bloody Sunday,” a wall of state troopers met this people of conscience, morality and ethics with violence, and prevented them from crossing the bridge. Dr. King called on people of faith from throughout the nation to join the marchers, and what some call “Turnaround Tuesday” was planned for March 9, where 2,500 people joined in confronting—though not yet crossing—the Edmund Pettis Bridge. That evening, three White ministers were attacked by the Ku Klux Klan, and Unitarian Universalist minister James Reeb became our first martyr to this cause.

The events of Selma will be remembered this year in this Temple of Truth, not to wax nostalgic about those golden days of Unitarian Universalist leadership and identity, not only to raise the names of martyrs Jimmie Lee Jackson and Unitarian Universalists James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo, but to take stock of where we are as a church, where we are as a country. I believe we have a long way to go, and I think our year of thinking about Selma is a year for thinking about how this congregation can reach into the community to find allies and to be part of the cultural change that this nation needs if it is to live into the promise of democracy. We need to find ways to respond to the violence that is being meted out to Black young men—often at the hands of the police. We need to face squarely the “new Jim Crow” which is permanently excising Black men from social and democratic life. We need to be part of the cultural change that this nation requires at this time if the promise of democracy is to be fulfilled.

We are so pleased this evening to be joined by the co-sponsoring people who make this night possible: our co-religionists of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Harford County, the Unitarian Universalists of Fallston; our colleagues in the struggle for the full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in the religious community, the Faith Communities of Baltimore with Pride; and our diverse friends from Union Baptist Church, St. Matthew Roman Catholic Church and St. Vincent de Paul Roman Catholic Parish. Welcome all and thank you for your support.

There will be other selma@50  Still I Rise events this year. Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed, author of The Selma Awakening: How the Civil Rights Movement Tested and Changed Unitarian Universalism, will be delivering a Zoerheide Lecture on Religion in the Public Square in January or February (date still being worked on). In March, Charles Blackburn, who served as Minister of the UU Church in Huntsville, Alabama during those days, will preach from this pulpit on March 1.  I, myself, will preach on March 14 after returning from the Selma Commemoration. And on UU Unity Weekend, we plan a community concert on Sunday, May 3. Stay tuned as details are developed.

But here we are tonight. This Sanctuary will be blessed by the music of our artist in residence Music Director James Houston; and Orpheus Music Global, artists from Morgan State University, will present the premiere of a work that they will tour later this year, “And We Keep Growing Stronger.” I can’t say how pleased I am that Vincent Dion Stringer and Samuel Springer, joined by Evander McLean and Richard Keller II, under the direction of Dwight RB Cook, have created this evening’s feature piece, which I believe tells a great, long, important, epochal story of a people; tells the story not just to remember, although remember we must, but to prepare us all to writing the next chapters of the human story as we do our part in this living legacy of powerful faith, this living legacy of democracy and social engagement, this living legacy of Truth.  Let us begin. 

 

Tuesday, 23 September 2014 12:58

You Get What You Pay For, by Brian Williard

Written by Rev. David Carl Olson

Brian Williard was a member of our congregation who died on September 12 at the age of 38. He earned a Master of Arts degree in Philosphy and taught in community colleges in Pennsylvania before coming to Baltimore. We are saddened and shocked at his untimely death. Published below is a humorous column that he prepared in August he hoped to see in a local newspaper.

You Get What You Pay For

Brian Williard

I love the Circulator busses.  I usually loathe the actual experience of riding them, but who could argue with their avowed principle of “Fast.  Friendly.  Free.”?  (I’ve tried in vain to reach their Grammar Department to suggest changing the signage to “Our Service Is Fast, Friendly, and Free.”)  The degrees of the buses’ punctuality and drivers’ friendliness may vary, but the freeness is constant. 

The lack of a mere $1.60 fare makes its social leveling effects so interesting.  Where else can one find professionals so intimately comingling with drunks and addicts?  Or young children hearing the coarse talk of hoppers on their way to work (people over)?  And then there’s the many people like me, dutifully forfeiting our seats to others and disseminating helpful hints to the ever-so-earnest tourists.  I’ll admit that I feel a slight deflation when I see them asking the driver the same question I had just answered.  Do I look like the kind of person who gets my kicks by giving people false directions? 

On the Circle-You-Later, the more does certainly not make the merrier.  It’s not so much that the conditions make you pissy, but others’ pissiness is contagious.  I generally enjoy making jokes to strangers to observe their reactions; the more offbeat the quip, the better.  When the bus gets extremely packed, to lighten the mood, I may affect a vague foreign accent and say, “If this were my homeland, the next oncoming rider would have to sit on the roof.” 

If my whimsical conspiratorial mindset is correct, this is when the drivers rack up the most points in their game of Passenger Bowling.  The object is simple:  cause passengers to fall by starting and stopping abruptly.  (The elderly, infirm, and intoxicated only count for half a point; someone with two or more such qualities amounts to ¼.)  Legend has it that a Bill H. once got six standing passengers to collapse in domino fashion.

I truly relish when capacity and my conscience allow me to take a seat.  Whether I’ve had a Sisyphean day sitting at the computer or a drunken one sitting at [location redacted], sometimes I’m just in the mood to do more sitting.  Hopefully, I’ll be fortunate and will happen upon a dry one.  If I belatedly discover that I have not, I can only hope that the dampness is from an overturned beverage.  Wishful thinking has gotten me far in life.

I will try to not read nor write, preferring instead to be mindful of the scenery.  I will feel smug self-satisfaction by noting how many people are too engrossed in their electronic toys or their chemical oblivion to just be, to take the world in.  With my Luddite leanings, I deem cell phones a scourge upon society.  They act in concert with many other cultural factors to erode civility.  Speaking or pretending to speak for nonessential purposes to others in a publicly enclosed space is a flagrant sin in this regard.

I’ve thought of taking obnoxious countermeasures in acts of self-righteous absurdism.  I could pretend that they’re talking to me:  “What do you mean, ‘Where am I?’  I’m sitting right across from you!”  Or, I could intrude into their conversation in a faux knowing way:  “Dude, you’re forgetting the best part!  Tell ‘em how Gina had just downed four shots of Jack when that went down!”  What I actually do enjoy doing—see my aforementioned penchant for oddball humor—is saying “I’m not here” when another’s phone rings.

What truly baffles me about public transportation in general is the people who use it to kill time.  In clement weather, surely one can find something better to do.  I understand that sometimes one just needs to sleep and may think they’re in the safest place to do so, but I’m talking about alert and awake people.  And the drivers know such regulars.  They note that so-and-so got on at such-and-such a spot and will have to disembark after one lap.  After all, “There’s [always] another one right behind me.”

But hey, there’s also a pedestrian world awaiting your circulation throughout it.  For better or worse.

_______________________________________________________________________

Brian Williard is a failing humor writer and online businessman.  His less tame humor can be found at funnyphilosopher.wordpress.com. 

Monday, 01 September 2014 22:29

Waking up on Labor Day

Written by Rev. David Carl Olson

Rev. Raymond H. Bradley Jr.
(July 25, 1929-August 29, 2014)
a minister of the United Church of Christ

In the summer of 1992, I was unable to sleep. I had had a bad breakup in the late spring, and each night tossed and turned until the sun rose when I would sleep for a couple of hours before going to work. Finally, on Labor Day weekend, I slept straight through for a day and a half, and woke up on Labor Day noticing a cooler air, a brilliant and clear sky, and even a touch of hope in my heart.

I spent the next nine months considering whether I would answer the long-felt call to divinity school (and perhaps to professional ministry). I had three significant conversation partners during that time: the late Rev. Dr. Lucius Walker (Baptist), with whom I went to Cuba as part of Pastors for Peace; the late Rev. Dr. Jack Mendelsohn (Unitarian Universalist), who supervised my year of working as a church sexton; and Rev. Raymond H. Bradley, Jr., who died last week of complications after a car crash on August 10.

I can’t capture my relationship with Mr. Bradley with a little parenthetical. I was one of the first people in Riverside, RI to get to know him. I was a college freshman and sophomore when I served on the Pastoral Search Committee that found Mr. Bradley and recommended him as our first choice candidate to become our Pastor. He counseled me as I came to terms with being gay–something I knew about myself for as long as I could remember, but which I feared I could never share with my community of faith, or even my family. He made me the choir director of our children and youth choir, and supervised my work assisting the church organist as I led the senior choir and created wild theatrical moments for the church. And as I struggled with my doubt, with my search for deep meaning, with my thirst for a spirituality that included emotion and mystery, and my struggle for intellectual satisfaction in religion, Mr. Bradley was open, supportive and encouraging.

He married us; he baptized our kids; he stood with both my Mom and Dad when they served on the Board of Deacons and were called to share in the Lord’s Supper; he helped us welcome people into our family, and when Dad died, he played a significant role in standing with a family in their grief.

Christmas Eve was, for many years, a special time for the two of us. We had an early service at church at 7:00 o’clock or so, and then there were a number of families that had open houses and we’d go to a couple or few of those. But the late service at 11:00 o’clock was the candlelight service that was simple and poetic, very present and full of time-beyond-time. I sang three or four quiet solos in the earlier years; Mr. Bradley read the scriptures and led us in prayer; and all of us would sit in wonder as the announcement was made of the God-with-us in ways that we could know and never fully understand.

After the service, I would go to the Bradleys’ home for a little quiet time. Ever our pastor’s wife, Sally would make tea and light candles, and we’d sit around the Christmas tree and exchange gifts and stories. As I moved on in my life, moved to Boston and beyond, the routine was altered; the late service louder and more energetic, and the after-church visitation sometimes waiting for Christmas Day.

One last time of sitting and speaking came, years later, when I visited their home in Peace Dale after my dad died. We shared tea and shortbread and more stories about our lives and our loves. I confessed my failures in ministry, and he comforted and encouraged me about what it means to be human, and to fail, and to use failures as a way to learn. He shared with me about not giving up, and discerning what was the special quality that each day presented for living a life of faith, striving for wholeness and justice. And he encouraged me to keep thinking theologically; to understand the authority that ministers have in the congregational tradition, and the responsibility we bear for nurturing the life of the congregations we are called both to serve and to lead. And he asked me to hear the divine will in the living of our collective life; to nurture a practice of quiet prayer and enthusiastic detachment, with a view toward a longer life, a richer effectiveness, and a deeper identification with all the human hearts we encounter and are called to love.

Since adulthood, I’ve never known life without Raymond H Bradley, Jr. Now he is gone. This is something entirely new. My fervent prayer is that my life will shine with just a glint of the hope that his life represented, and the deepest conviction that each new birth, each new accomplishment, each new relationship, each new act of justice and each new kindness is proof that God has not given up on us yet; and that we dare not give up on each other.

“Oh Love, that wilt not let me go, I rest my weary soul in Thee. I give Thee back the life I owe that in thine ocean depths, its flow may richer, fuller be.” (George Mattheson, 1882)

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Location: 12 W. Franklin St:
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