Interdependency

The Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi: My Past and Present, or, Spiritual Self-care for Today

Tree and Bell at Deer Park Monastery

When I arrived at seminary, I brought two documents with me, the anonymous, Norman, Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, and Thich Nhat Hanh's Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. Those two were what I modeled my life by, imperfectly, reflecting the kind of Christianity I wanted to keep, and the Buddhist precepts that best reflected my aspirations as to how I wanted to relate to the world.

My goal was to delve deeper into Buddhism, once I finished seminary. In the interim, the seminary library helped me keep my my sanity by having a large selection of Thich Nhat Hanh books. After graduating, my Unitarian Universalist tendency to question meant discerning whether Thich Nhat Hanh's tradition of Zen Buddhism was right for me. After looking at numerous other traditions, his Plum Village tradition appealed most in its profound reverence for the Earth, the primary focus on Peace, and that being queer was not a deal breaker.

Coming across a "Buddist Mantra based on the prayer of St. Francis" several weeks ago, I was inspired to craft my own Both/And prayer using phrases familiar to the Plum Village tradition. In these troubling times, I hope this might be useful to others, with the reminders for self-care.

Note: I need to add that UU Rev. Erik Wikstrom wrote a book called Simply Pray. It was a good manual on writing our own UU prayers. I rewrote the prayer of St. Francis to give it Buddhist language but keeping the structure, after I saw someone's version. I did not give Rev. Wikstrom credit, but it's where I saw it done first, or was encouraged to do it first. I had also collected various versions of the Our Father before that, trying to find something different, but had not thought to write one myself. The oldest translation of the prayer from the original French, which is out of copyright, served as the foundation.

Dear Thay, Dear Sangha, Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Taking refuge in the three jewels,

May I be an instrument of peace,

Where there is hatred, may I water the seeds of love and compassion, sowing metta.

Where there is offense, may I practice Beginning Anew.

Where there is discord, conscious breathing and walking,

Where there is error, mindfulness, to remind myself delusions and enlightenment inter-are.

Where there is doubt, return happily in the present moment.

Where there is despair, touch Mother Earth, remembering that so as seeds endure birth and death in each moment, so do I.

Where there is darkness, may I awaken to the light of my true nature.

Let me not seek so much

to be consoled, as to soothe strong emotions the way a mother soothes her child,

to be understood, as to realize the Dharma, Sangha, and Buddha are the way to understanding,

to be loved, as to cultivate a true love, a boundless love,

for I vow

to meet all sentient beings with kindness and compassion,

to meet suffering with patience and love,

to delve into the deeply into the teachings of the Buddha,

and to know in the very depth of my cells, the interconnectedness of all.

Left-Wing Credentials

I have a lot of pet peeves, I know. I’m also aware that often times the things that peeve us do so because they remind us of something we don’t like about ourselves.

One of my pet peeves is that every time there is a story about a conservative who has had a change of heart because of personal experience — whether it’s someone who initially opposed Obamacare until they got sick, or someone who was trans/homophobic until they learned their child is trans/gay — every time there is a story like that, a lefty inevitably snarks about how the person should have known better in the first place.

My question is: Do you really think that you are an *inherently* better person? That if you had grown up in a conservative environment, been taught by your parents and teachers/clergy and everyone around you that there is only one way to be, gender/orientation-wise, and that big govt was not to be trusted… are you certain that despite all that you would have inherently known in your heart a better path? Because I’m not at all certain what I would be like if I’d grown up under different circumstances and had different experiences. True, there were times when I was taught hate and either immediately rejected it or eventually did, but I always had counter examples from which to draw. I’m not saying that there are no people in existence who would always reject exclusion and self-interest. But I question whether the majority of us on the left would have the same values had we been enculturated differently.

From my perspective, this idea that some folks are inherently “good” while others are inferior sounds a lot like the Calvinist theology I was taught in middle school and which so many lefties vociferously reject. From a Buddhist perspective, which is echoed in the UU 7th principle and backed by science, people are the result of a complex combination of a great number of things, including genetics, enculturation, and individual experiences. Even if you were born with a greater tendency towards empathy and altruism, that is the result of genetics - a gift from your parents and ancestors before them - not something that you “earned” yourself. And if you were taught to value diversity, that too was a gift from your community around you. Or if you learned from personal experience — whether because you’re a person of color, LGBTQ, religious minority, or have a disability — that it hurts to be discriminated against so you vowed not to do it to others, that was due to your personal experience. It is no different for the conservative mom who learned to respect trans people only after the personal experience of having a trans son. She just gained that personal experience later in life. And isn’t it wonderful that she was able to change? Because we know that countless other parents would instead disown their children.

Obviously, I don’t know anyone else’s heart except my own (and even then we often deceive ourselves). Maybe the folks who disparage people who didn’t “see the light” earlier truly are inherently superior and would have held the “correct” positions no matter what circumstances they grew up in. Maybe the snarky comments only bother me because I’m not as certain about my own goodness. Otoh, maybe people make snarky comments because the people who’ve had a change of heart later in life remind them of what they easily could have been like under different circumstances.

Anthropomorphization and Objectification

Image from timewheel.net

    I grew up in San Francisco in the neighborhood of Parkside, one block away from the city park. There was a small copse of trees and bushes there that together created a private space, if one was small enough to crawl into the center. And there, sitting on the cool earth against a tree trunk in the filtered sun, I could hear the birds and insects and, I thought, I could hear the trees. Talking to each other, joyfully. And taken all together – the sun, the earth, the chirps and buzzes and especially the trees - I heard God telling me that I was part of and connected to all. Loved.

When I was nine, my Buddhist parents sent me to West Portal Lutheran school, where I was taught, among other things, that God was NOT in the sunlight and the trees, and that humans were special, separate from the rest of creation.

By age 16 I had rejected Christianity, in favor of the rational reductionist materialism of science, which taught me to look at things objectively; not subjectively. To distance oneself mentally and emotionally from the world we observe. Rational people do not anthropomorphize animals and inanimate objects. That is, rational people don't attribute human qualities to things, like our “superstitious” ancestors used to do.

So trees cannot be joyful, let alone talk to each other. They are just … things that are useful to us, as wood to build new things, as lungs for the planet exchanging CO2 for oxygen, or as prettiness to look at. Trees are objects; we are subjects. Subjects have inherent worth – worth in and of ourselves. Objects only have worth if they are useful to subjects.

Science has given us so much – and even that is an anthropomorphized thought – so it's not my intent to disparage science. But over time, following the rational, objective approach, the world seemed less magical, less loving to me. What I've found is that, if one thinks of trees as objects whose worth is dependent upon their being useful to us, then it becomes easier to think that way about (non-human) animals. And if one thinks of animals as objects whose worth is dependent upon their use to us, then it becomes easier to think that way about fellow humans. The circle of who has worth gets ever smaller. The distance between us, ever greater. This type of thinking justified slavery both then and now. It is what allows people – usually men but increasingly women too – to rate other people on whether or not they are “do-able.” It's why this society cares so little for those who are aged and/or disabled, who are of “no use.” It's what allows people to write open letters to the mayor complaining about having to see people on the street who are not “contributing to society.” And it is why I get anxious when people ask me “what do you do?” – a very common question – yet I worry, am I being useful enough?

So much of our society actively trains us to objectify others, creating deeply ingrained ways of thinking, of which we may not even be aware. It requires active resistance on our part to counter it, to balance it by training our minds otherwise. So I decided, if I'm going to err on one side or the other, instead of treating subjects like objects, I'd rather treat objects like subjects. I'd rather anthropomoprhize trees than objectify humans. (Incidentally, scientists have recently discovered that trees do indeed talk to each other and support each other.) I'd rather strive to enlarge the circle of who has worth, and recognize our kinship with all things.

The other day I was at East Bay Meditation Center and in the context of talking about mindfulness our teacher, Mushim, mentioned thanking the tea cup for holding the tea. Faint alarm bells about anthropomorphization rang but they were drowned out by a louder, deeper joy welling up in me. To thank the teacup is to be grateful, to not take it for granted. As an object, its existence barely registers on my consciousness, except when things go wrong, like if it breaks or is dirty. Otherwise, it's just a conveyance for the tea, which I drink also without much notice, thinking instead of my next task. I've done that with tea, and honestly, I know I've done that with people. As a subject, whom we thank, the cup has my attention and has inherent worth. I/we are fully present to the moment, between the self, the tea cup, and the tea.

Awe in Response to Beauty

A friend posted this video on Facebook this morning and one of his friends explained that it was created by a Russian missile gone awry.  (Soyuz-u vehicle Oct 15, 2009)  Watching it, two things came to mind:

1.  Wednesday evening I attended the second in a three-week course on Process Theology at UUSF, taught by Rev John Buehrens.  At one point, Rev. Buehrens explained how Alfred Whitehead felt that Western philosophy with its emphasis on "Truth" had veered too intellectual, and thus Whitehead tried to bring us back by focusing on aesthetics, our sense of awe in response to encountering Beauty.  The thing that engenders humilty and recognition that there is something bigger than us.

2.  Years ago I was talking with a young man sitting next to me on an airplane, and he said that nothing human-made was beautiful, that he only recognized beauty in "natural" things.  I asked him whether he'd ever seen the view of Los Angeles (which we were flying into) at night from the top of Mulholland Drive.  He repeated more adamantly that nothing human-made could ever be beautiful.  And I wondered how strong one's ideology had to be in order to not see beauty in the view from Mulholland Drive at night.

You can't get more human-made than a missile.  All metal and electronics and explosives, its very purpose is ugly, to kill.  If you asked me before I saw this video whether a missile could ever be beautiful, I probably would have said 'No.'  Yet here is this mesmerizingly beautiful video.  (Which is not to say that it might not also have created some real ugliness at the same time.)  And I am watching the video via a laptop connected to the internet.  More human-made metal, plastic, and electronics.  And it's still beautiful.

One of the main points that I see in process theology (or process thought) is that humans are not separate from the rest of existence.  We are part of the interdependent web, impacting it and being impacted by it, no different than any other part.  Together - all the parts of the web together - we co-create reality.   So if nature creates beauty, then how can humans who are an integral part of nature not also create beauty?  (And ugliness and everything in between.)  To claim otherwise is to set humans apart from nature.  It's to claim a special, exalted place, even if we claim that all we do is ugly and harmful.   Ironically, true humility recognizes both the "good" and "bad", both the beauty and the ugliness.

Water Interconnection

Author: 
Kat Liu

When we turn on a faucet, clean water comes to us almost miraculously, and just as conveniently dirty water gets taken away.  But not without effects that we usually don't see.  This meditation is intended to help us see them.

For the purposes of this meditation, fill a large bowl with water. Use a cup to pour water over hands as you recite the words in italics. Conversely, if you're doing this solo, you can just turn on the faucet, let the water flow over your hands, then turn it off.

 

Water flows over these hands.
May I use them skillfully
to preserve our precious planet.

- Thich Nhat Hanh

 

The water that has run over your hands came from a faucet.  Picture it flowing from a faucet into the bowl (or over your hands).

Follow the flow backwards, up, through the pipes in your home.

Follow the sound of running water through pipes out of your home, underground, to the water lines outside.

Follow the flow, back, along the waterlines as they run for miles under ground.

Maybe the water was treated before it came to you, adding fluoride and chlorine.  Maybe not.  Where did the water come from?

Perhaps it came from a local reservoir, a lake, collecting rain as it fell on a watershed.  Picture the rain, individual droplets hitting the ground, rolling along the surface, meeting each other and coalescing into rivulets, running downward together, and collecting into a common place. 

Perhaps it came from an aquifer, underground water flowing through and filtered by porous rock.  Picture the raindrops this time not rolling on the surface but rather sinking into the soil. Sinking deep, further down, past the dirt, past the sand, geting purer as it sinks, leaving particulates behind, seeping into the rock, where is stays held like a giant sponge.

Perhaps it came from a river, flowing from a mountain to the sea.  Follow the river up, against the current, up, into one of its tributaries, the stream of water getting smaller, clearer.  Follow the flow backwards, up into the mountain, to the drip, drip, drip, of melting ice and snow.

Perhaps your water came from a mixture of these sources, blending together on its way to your home.

What happens to the places where life-giving water has been diverted?  More water for you means less water somewhere else, especially in times of drought, which is increasing with climate change.

Consider the affects less water could have on the plants and animals along the river, or along the lake. 

Picture people living near the river who depend on the plants and animals.  What effect does it have on them?

What other activities use and impact your water supply?  Farming, manufacturing, and fossil fuel extraction all require water.  Often those activities take water away from people, or pollute water so that it isn't safe to use.

Bring your mind back to where you are now, in your home, with faucets that bring clean water and drains that take away dirty water.

Now follow the water that has gone down the drain. 

That water flows out of your house through a different set of pipes.

Waste water from your house is joined by that from all the houses around you, creating a foetid underground river.

All that sewage flows to a treatment plant.  Do you know where yours is?  Usually, these plants are in poorer neighborhoods.  Communities of color. 

Imagine the people living near the treatment facility.  What is it like for them?  Around many of the older facilities, the smell of sewage hangs in the air.  Flies gather. 

After treatment, the water is released into a river or ocean.  Is it clean?  How does it affect the temperture?  What effect does that have on the wildlife there?

The water in the oceans evaporates with the sun and wind. Humidity forming over oceans. Lifted into the air as clouds and traversing over land.  To fall as rain or snow.  And the water cycle starts over again.

But it takes energy to divert water away from where it naturally falls, and energy to treat waste water. The more water we use, the more energy we use and potentially contribute to climate change. 

Which changes the rainfall paterns upon which we've gorwn to depend.  Such that rain falls in different places - drought and flood.

Bring your mind back to where you are now.

Know that all that you have seen and more is connected to the water that pours out of the faucet when you turn the knob.

Meditation on Food

Teach Your Children

Author: 
Attributed to Chief Seattle

Teach your children what we have taught our children,

that the Earth is our mother.

Whatever befalls the Earth befalls the children of the Earth.

If men spit upon the ground, they spit upon themselves.

This we know:

the Earth does not belong to us -

we belong to the Earth.

This we know:

All things are connected like the blood which unites one family.

All things are connected.

Whatever befalls the Earth -

befalls the children of the Earth.

We did not weave the web of life - 

We are merely a strand in it.

Whatever we do to the web,

we do to ourselves.

The Interdependent Imperative

Author: 
Rev. Fred Small

Delivered on October 26, 2014

at First Parish in Cambridge, Unitarian Universalist

 

As a boy, I was a prince of independence.

White, male, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied, tall, raised in middle-class affluence, I was living the American dream. 

I worked hard in school, got good grades, made the football team.

I thought I was pretty cool.

Whenever I helped myself to some ice cream from our freezer, all my mother asked when I was finished was to leave the empty dish in the sink with just a little bit of water in the dish, so the thin sweet film in the bottom wouldn’t harden into an indestructible incrustation. 

If I would just leave some water in the dish, I’d be a good boy!

So I did.

And then the dish would disappear!

Not right away, but pretty soon, when my mother next swept through the kitchen, tidying and cleaning up.

That was her job, right?

My job was to eat ice cream and leave a little water in the dish.

Never gave it a second thought.

Until I was 18. 

When I was 18, I went on Outward Bound in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota and Ontario.

The very first time we paddled away from our base camp and pitched our tents on an island, we cooked our meal, we ate our meal, and then . . . and then there were all these dirty dishes.

And no Mom.

I was flabbergasted.

All those years I thought I was independent—I was a fool.

All those years I thought I was standing on my own two feet, I had no idea I was being lifted up by others.

The seventh principle of Unitarian Universalism affirms our “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”

It was not always so.

When the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America combined in 1961, the new Unitarian Universalist Association bylaws said nothing about interdependence. 

They proclaimed “the supreme worth of every human personality” and “the dignity of man”— singling out “the Judeo-Christian heritage” of  “love to God and love to man.”

By the 1980s, led by members of the Unitarian Universalist Women’s Federation, the groundswell for change had become unstoppable. 

Amid growing concern about environmental degradation, the draft presented to the 1984 General Assembly in Columbus, Ohio, included a new seventh principle affirming “respect for Earth and interdependence of its living systems”—a formulation ecologically correct and spiritually arid.

Fortunately, the Rev. Paul L’Herrou rose from the floor to propose instead “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” 

With this change, the seventh principle was transformed from an environmental plank into a spiritual truth with roots in ancient wisdom traditions. 

With this change, reflects my colleague the Buddhist Unitarian Universalist minister James Ishmael Ford, “We stopped merely being concerned with a description of what we tend to think, and called ourselves to something sacred.”

Our interdependent web evokes Buddhism’s jeweled net of Indra.

Stephen Mitchell describes Indra’s vast net this way:

at each crossing point there is a jewel; each jewel is perfectly clear and reflects all the other jewels in the net, the way two mirrors placed opposite each other will reflect an image ad infinitum. The jewel in this metaphor stands for an individual being, or an individual consciousness, or a cell or an atom. Every jewel is intimately connected with all other jewels in the universe, and a change in one jewel means a change, however slight, in every other jewel.

This is a vision of radical interdependence.  Radical only because we so often forget it, and even when we remember it, we fail to live by it.

This is the interdependence taught by the Buddha, who explained that “This is like this because that is like that.  This is because that is.”

This is the interdependence divinized by the Jewish sage Martin Buber in I and Thou.  Restarting Genesis, Buber declares: “In the beginning is the relation. . . . Relation is reciprocity.  My You acts on me as I act on it.  Our students teach us, our works form us. . . . Extended, the lines of relationships intersect in the eternal You.  Every single You is a glimpse of that.”

This is the interdependence proclaimed by Dr. King when he wrote from Birmingham Jail of

the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham.  [We might substitute Cambridge for Atlanta and Ferguson—or Roxbury—for Birmingham.]  Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

This is the interdependence ecologist Barry Commoner articulated in his First Law of Ecology: “Everything Is Connected to Everything Else.”  (I would call this, as well, the First Law of Congregational Life and the First Law of Spiritual Life.)  The more complex the ecosystem, Commoner points out,

the more successfully it can resist a stress. . . . Most ecosystems are so complex that the cycles are not simple circular paths, but are crisscrossed with branches to form a network or a fabric of interconnections.  Like a net, in which each knot is connected to others by several strands, such a fabric can resist collapse better than a simple, unbranched circle of threads—which if cut anywhere breaks down as a whole.

This is the interdependence described by Brazilian liberation theologian Leonardo Boff  as “the infinite web of all-inclusive relations.”  “[E]verything that exists, co-exists,” Boff reminds us. “Nothing exists outside of relationships.  Ecology reaffirms the interdependence of beings . . . and repudiates the so-called right of the strongest.  All creatures manifest and possess their own relative autonomy; nothing is superfluous or marginal.  All being constitutes a link in the vast cosmic chain.”

This is the interdependence that inspires feminist theologian Carter Heyward to name God as “our power in mutual relation. . . . in which all of us, not just a few, are empowered to live more fully just and compassionate lives.  Injustice, or oppression,” she asserts, “is both source and consequence of evil—non-mutual power relations of domination and control.  We are urged in and by God to struggle for justice, peace, compassion, and liberation.”

This is the interdependence the Rev. Dr. James Forbes, Minister Emeritus of Riverside Church in New York City, addressed last month at the Religions for the Earth interfaith service at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine just hours after more than 300,000 demonstrators jammed the streets of Manhattan in the People’s Climate March.  "I see God as relationality itself,” this Christian preacher told us, “connectedness itself."

Interdependence means that there is no Other—no them by which to define us.  There may be opponents but not enemies. 

Interdependence means seeing opponents as teachers and potential allies.  Even Republicans—if you’re a Democrat.  Even Democrats—if you’re a Republican.  Even Republicans and Democrats—if you think party politics is a waste of time.  Because the person who opposes you on one issue may join with you on another—if you don’t write them off or alienate or demonize them first.

Interdependence means that means and ends cannot be separated, because what we do to another we do to ourselves.  When we’re all in the same boat, torpedoes become weapons of suicide.  The drone that kills one terrorist creates three more.

Interdependence means we see ourselves reflected in the eye of the oppressed and the oppressor alike.  Some of us would say we see God reflected there.

Interdependence means that each and every one of us is immortal, because the impressions we make on other people’s souls ripple outward to infinity.

Because everything is connected, we can never anticipate the impact our smallest gesture may have upon our family, our neighbors, and strangers we will never know.

A high school teacher says a kind word to a discouraged student, and instead of dropping out, she stays in school, graduates, and eventually becomes a teacher herself. 

A researcher toiling in a lab discovers that a plant extract has a unique property without any apparent benefit until another researcher on the other side of the planet realizes that that property is the missing piece in a cure for a killer disease. 

A folksinger writes a song so inspiring it saves a life. 

The songwriter was Stan Rogers, the burly Canadian baritone best known for “The Mary Ellen Carter,” a rousing ballad about a fishing boat sunk in a squall only to be raised from the sea bottom and salvaged by her determined crew.

In the winter of 1983, a ship called the Marine Electric was carrying coal from Norfolk, Virginia, to Somerset, Massachusetts, when it ran into the worst storm in forty years.  Pounded relentlessly by massive waves and shrieking winds,  the Marine Electric sank at 4 o’clock in the morning.

59-year-old Bob Cusick, the ship’s chief mate, made it clear of the wreck but found himself all alone in the frigid water, grasping a partially deflated lifeboat as waves crashed over him.  Each time he went under, he wasn’t sure he’d make it back to the surface.  As hypothermia set in, all Bob really wanted was to let go of the lifeboat and slip beneath the surface. 

But he remembered “The Mary Ellen Carter.”

Rise again, rise again—though your heart it be broken

Or life about to end.

No matter what you've lost, be it a home, a love, a friend,

Like the Mary Ellen Carter, rise again.

Barely clinging to life in the churning Atlantic in the pitch-black night, Bob Cusick began to sing.

Rise again, rise again 

Every time a wave broke over him, he’d hold his breath.   When the wave had passed, he’d sing again.

Like the Mary Ellen Carter rise again

Over and over and over.

At seven o'clock in the morning Bob was spotted by a Coast Guard helicopter and rescued—one of only two survivors among the 33 crewmen who went into the sea.

When he’d recovered, Bob wrote a letter to Stan Rogers thanking him for writing the song that saved his life.  At the folksinger’s invitation, Bob joined Stan at his next concert.  It was the next-to-last concert Stan performed.

A few weeks later, after headlining the Kerrville Folk Festival, Stan boarded an Air Canada flight in Dallas bound for Montreal.  When fire broke out on board, the airliner made an emergency landing in Cincinnati.  As dense smoke filled the cabin, passengers were evacuated.  Stan was near the front of the plane, and some people later said he had a chance to get out but stayed behind to help others. 

Within minutes after the doors were opened, the rush of fresh oxygen triggered a flash fire that raced through the cabin, killing all 23 passengers still on board.  Stan was among them.  He was 33 years old.

The accident led to tighter aviation regulations around the world, with new requirements for smoke detectors, emergency lighting, and increased firefighting training and equipment.  Air Canada has not had another fatality since.

A song. 

A life saved when others died. 

A life lost when others survived. 

Lessons learned to save other lives.

Ripples of care.  Ripples of courage.  Ripples of love.

We never know the impact we have.

Because we’re all connected.

We are never alone.  We are part of one another.

Each of us in every one of us.

Unity in diversity.  Diversity in unity.

Todos juntos para siempre.

One people.  One spirit.  One love.

Amen, Aché, and Blessed Be.

Emptiness and Social Policy

The last time I was in DC, my friend Michael Roehm observed to me that UUs spend a lot of time talking about interdependency, but we don't spend much time thinking about emptiness (both are concepts in Buddhism, and related to each other, kinda like infinity and zero). I have been reminded repeatedly of the truth of his words ever since then, including today. 

This afternoon I was listening to NPR about the disproportionate expulsions of Black and Latino students from schools, and the (misguided) reasoning behind it being that if you remove the "bad" kids, that will make it easier for the "good" kids to learn.  (The article used those words, "bad" and "good," so I am using them too.)  Obviously racism is the primary driving force; how else to explain why black and brown students are thought of as "bad" for committing the same kind of infractions as white students.  But in along side the racism is this belief that people are inherently something.  Inherently good.  Inherently bad... Our social policies are based on this belief.  Hence, we focus on getting rid of the "bad" people, whether by expelling students or locking up prisoners with no attempt at rehabilitation.  (And we let "good" people off the hook with no accountability even when they do decidedly bad things, because, well, they are inherently "good" so the fact that they did something bad was just a temporary glitch, an exceptional circumstance.)  If, instead of thinking of people as inherently "good" or "bad," we focused on emptiness, then we'd see that people reflect back what they experience.  In that case, our social policy would change from that of trying to separate out and eliminate the "bad" to that of trying to create the conditions and causes that lead people to behave in more beneficial ways. 

Ministering To and With Young Adults

Author: 
Alex Haider-Winnett
Members of UU Oakland Young Adults

Ministering To and With Young Adults
Sermon by Alex Haider-Winnett
Delivered at First Unitarian of Oakland May 25, 2014

Friends, it is so very good to be here with you today. It is always a pleasure to worship with you. As our dear Rev. Jacqueline would say, “There is a sweet, sweet spirit in this place” and it feeds my soul. Today’s theme is on “Ministering To and With Young Adults”. You have already heard from some of our congregation’s young adults. The love and support you give this community helps grow strong leaders who are changing the world. Present in our group are peace activists, veterans, civil rights lawyers, teachers, seminarians and ministers, artists, tech professionals, non-profit administrators, social workers and entrepreneurs. But we also have people struggling to find work. People working hard to figure out how to make ends meet or looking to find work that is meaningful. And your love supports us all.

I am familiar with the topic both as a young adult and also because I served this community as the coordinator of the Young Adult Ministries for two years. I am grateful for the opportunities this position has given me, all the friends and connections I have made and the ways it has fed my soul.

Last weekend, we bridged six youth into young adulthood. It is one of my favorite parts of the church year. The bridgers--who are usually, but not always, high school graduates-- take a moment to express their feelings about bridging to the congregation. They often share a fond memory through a short reflection, singing a song or reading a poem. Then we extend a blessing to the bridgers as they move toward the chancel where the church’s young adult community is waiting to welcome them into our circle. The bridge is an apt metaphor. Not only does it represent a transition from one stage in life to another, it also has another meaning. In recent studies, we see that churches in our faith community are doing a poor job at retaining our youth. As many as 90% of our youth will leave our churches somewhere in their late teens and twenties. Combine this with the fact that 1/3rd of people currently unaffiliated with a religious community are under the age of 35, it points to a growing population of young people whose needs are not being met by our congregations. This period of young adult non-affiliation is such a common occurrence, we have term for it: “The Gap”. The theory of The Gap states that our youth leave when they are in their late teens and come back in their 30’s, when they have some stability; when they have a job, are married or have kids. Hence the strange lifespan of UU Young Adult Ministries: 18-35 (Spanning 17 Years). And so, the Bridging Ceremony is one way that we have been working over the years to “Mind The Gap.”

When we think of our Bridging Ceremony, we usually represent it with a large, sturdy bridge. One like the Golden Gate Bridge which has lasted for decades and has thousands of cars, trucks and buses go over it each day. One that needs repairs now and again but pretty much stands the test of time. In reality, our bridge is perilous. It is a rope bridge. It sways in the wind. Some of the strands are loose. And there are crumbling and missing boards. The Bridge is difficult to cross. It takes faith to believe that every step of the way will be supported. And not everyone makes it. Try as we might, there are times when young adults need to take a step back from trying to cross The Gap and move away from UU community for a while. It is common. And I bet that if you ask any young adult here, you would find stories where they took some prolonged time away from church.

I could tell you some of my stories. Stories of making difficult choices between work, school and church. Stories of being in rural Indiana, hours away from the nearest congregation. And stories of over-committing to the point of burnout. I could tell you the things I told myself that made it easier to walk away from church: That I needed some time away for self care; it was a compromise until I got a different job; or, that things would be different if I went somewhere else. And stories of working odd hours which made it impossible to attend church during program hours. Stories of feeling pushed out or underappreciated; of having my voice and experiences silenced and ignored.

I could tell you how since I turned 18, I have lived in 10 different houses in eight different cities. That I have worked at least a dozen jobs. I have attended services at numerous UU churches and also Quaker Meeting Houses, Catholic Parishes, Jewish Temples and a whole slew of other ad hoc, multi-faith communities. My twenties were a lot of things but spiritually-stable wasn’t necessarily one of them.

And I would be happy to tell you those stories some day. But all of those stores pale in comparison to one thing: we have covenanted to be a multi-generational worship community. If we are truly to live up to that promise, that means creating authentic intergenerational relationships and being willing to be changed by the new experiences we share. Creating a multi-generational community does not merely mean taking a few minutes out of worship to have young people participate. Nor does it mean having a few token young people on committees. It means getting to know people all along the age spectrum and making honest, thoughtful and transformative relationships.

There are people out there desiring our community. There are people who are hungering for a community that is spiritual but not dogmatic. They want a community where their questions are honored and accepted. There are people who are looking for a place where they can explore new spiritual practices and find ways to commune with the divine. There are people wanting a community where we can do good works and strive for justice together. There are people who are wanting a community that will accept them for who they are; a community that will love them, cherish them and save their life. Because, if there is one thing I know about Unitarian Universalism--the one thing that helped me hang on when I was struggling with my faith--is that this church saves lives. I know that is what I want. And I think this is true for a lot of my peers my age. So, if we are going to uphold our covenantal desire to be a multi-generational community, how do we minister to young people?

There are a many ways we can do so. But it is going to take some work and new ways of how we we do church. I would like to first say, that our congregation does better than most. We have dozens of active young adults. And we are the fastest growing age demographic for the past two years. But there is still lots of room for improvement. And not everything is going to fit in the last few minutes of this sermon. So I want to look at three broad categories: Welcoming, Hospitality, and Mentoring.

First is Welcoming. In preparing for this sermon, I spoke with a lot of young adults both here and in the wider community. For young adults who tend not to go to church, they say that most congregations they have gone to were not welcoming enough. They went with the hope of finding a community that could be “their community” but in most cases, they found the welcome as well as their worship to be cold. As we know, our welcome and our worship at UU Oakland are anything but cold. But people will never experience the warmth of our community if they never come to the church in the first place. We need to have a visible and appealing welcome mat.

And in this day-in-age, that means a presence on the Internet.

Take for instance, our young adult page on facebook. Currently, we have 125 members (which is roughly half as many pledging members in this congregation) but according to a recent poll, only about 10-15% of members of the group attend church regularly. The others use it as a way to stay in touch with our larger community virtually. While virtual contact may not be the most ideal way of participating with a spiritual community, it is a valid one and, I believe, preferable to no contact at all. And while it is a start, there is much more we could be doing to be present on the Internet.

The next category is Hospitality: Churches usually seek out people who intend to be long-time members who will pledge. There is an expectation that people who come for a few months sign the membership book, pledge all they can and devote their time to the work of the church. I am an active, pledging, voting member. I am honored and pleased to be one. But this is also the first time in my adult life that I have been able to do so. As long as we continue to believe that membership means a long-term commitment, we are going to be convincing a lot of young adults that this is not a place for them. Due to fragile job and housing markets, young adults are reluctant to commit to any institution. We need to recognize that people who become members may only do so for a very short time before they have to move on. I am proud and grateful for any and all people who wish to hang their hats with us. But whenever I meet a visitor, my question is not “When can we get this person to sign the book and pledge?” it is “What does this person need and how can those needs be met?”. By focusing on hospitality over membership, we can make space for people to feel welcome for however long they may be with us.

And this, I think, is the crux of the manner. If we are to say that “All are worthy and all are welcome”, there should be no restrictions, caveats or parentheses. We don’t say “You are worthy if you have a certain net worth” nor do we say “You are welcome as long as you intend to stay.” And this is why I think young adult ministries are important, by working to make all feel safe to be vulnerable, intimate and authentic, we are working to build the Beloved Community. And young adults, who are coming with hopes of finding a supportive community will come as long as we continue to make room for them.

My third category is mentorship: When people join our congregation, we should foster a relationship of mentoring. People should be encouraged to join, learn and work for our common vision as best as each person can. New visitors and members should be able to explore and find which aspects of the church most serve their personal ministries. This may take a while. It could take months or even years. But the best way to help a young adult find their spot in the church is by building authentic interpersonal relationships by getting to know people, finding out what they are passionate about and how it overlaps with the work of the church. Doing so allows committees to pick new members based on their skills and talents rather than merely their age.

I have a story from about five years ago that I feel epitomizes how these three themes of Welcoming, Hospitality and Mentoring can either help or hinder a young adult fully participating in a church community. After the job market collapsed in 2009, I started waiting tables. It was what I was able to do to make ends meet. I would start work at 5 PM and not get off of work until 3AM. I would often be getting to bed when the sun was rising. I had been going to church down the street from my house but worship no longer fit into my schedule. I remember once running into a friend on the street. This friend said, “Alex. We miss you. Where have you been? Why haven’t you been to church?” And I told this friend honestly, “Since I got my job, church is just too early for me.” The friend said, “Too early? 11:30 is too early?” And I said, “Yup. 11:30 is too early for me. I don’t usually get out of bed until 1pm.” I told this friend, “You know what would be ideal for me? If church had a 4 AM worship service, I would be thrilled to go.” There was some nervous laughter and some awkward silence and then we both went on our way. But you know what? I wasn’t kidding. If I could have left work and gone to a 4 AM worship service, I would have gladly gone to it. But there was no late night worship. I never really expected there to be one. But it shows the way that Sunday morning programming just does not work for everyone.

I am thankful that here, our staff and clergy have created authentic relationships with young adults to understand that we desired an opportunity to worship in a different way and different time than we do on Sundays and have helped and empowered us to create worship on Tuesday evenings. It is quickly becoming an important worship space for people of all ages to come and be together in community. And we have found that people who do not come on Sundays have been coming to Tuesday evenings. By listening to the needs of our members and those who wish to join us, we have transformed the way we do worship in a way that makes it more accessible to people who had previously thought that the community was closed to them.

Our young adults are looking for a spiritual community. Despite national reports that young people are rejecting worship communities and studies that say UU youth will leave us to find another home for a while, we know otherwise. We know that our congregation can be a life-changing community for young adults. We have already seen it happen. By supporting things like Tuesday night vespers but also individuals like Kyle (note to reader: Kyle is a young adult member currently participating in humanitarian aid in Syria who skyped in during the service to give a testimonial) and our bridgers last week and every one on the chancel today, you are creating a transformative multi-generational community. But our congregations are not doing enough to help make a safe space for them to explore. We need to widen our welcome, strengthen our hospitality and deepen our mentoring relationships so that those who come through our doors know that there is a place for them no matter how new they are to our faith, how long they intend to stay, and however hurt they have been from previous experiences. By working on these things, we can create a culture where all of our young adults and all people are willing and able to fully participate to the best of their abilities and feel proud to be part of our community. And together, we will transform ourselves, each other and the world.

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