Ethical Eating: Food and Environmental Justice

In 2008, the UUA’s general assembly adopted for congregational study/action the issue of ethical eating: food and environmental justice.   This three year study will hopefully result in a position paper called a Statement of Conscience and will result in a final year of study and implementation by the 2012 General Assembly.

My initial review of this congregational study was that ethical eating was an issue facing only the privileged elite classes.   They are the ones that can most afford to purchase meat from grass fed animals at high costs per pound.  They are the ones that could make choices in their dietary consumption.  They are the ones with the most mobility to purchase foods from other markets beyond their local region.  

One of the pieces of information in the study guide is the treatment of factory farmed animals.  Whether they are caged or free range and the costs involved that are passed onto the consumer seemed to me to be a concern that only the affluent could afford to choose.   Again, if you are poor, you may not like to know that chickens are de-beaked in factory farms to keep from pecking other chickens to death in their cramped quarters but in order to afford chicken as a part of having diversity in your diet, there may not be an alternate solution that is within your means.  In other words, being poor in this country oppresses and suppresses your options for food sources.  Live with it or go without is the message from these farmers and the policy makers.

The authors of the study resource for congregations, write:
The point of this Guide is not to propose a dietary code or insist on adherence to a particular set of rituals or religious beliefs. It aims instead help you feel confident in making easy, tasty, nutritious food choices that fit with your individual ethical and spiritual values, and thus. Imagine that!

However, as I have begun reading on the issue of food in our country.  Changing our dietary code is exactly what this guide should be recommending.  For more than a generation, we have seen the health of Americans deteriorate with rising cases of diet related chronic illnesses.   The culprit is the Western Diet.  This  is no longer a speculation. This is a fact.  Where ever the Western Diet is adopted the following illnesses rise dramatically:  Coronary Heart Disease, Obesity, Metabolic Syndrome, Diabetes Type II, Stroke, and Cancers.   We have gotten better in reducing deaths from these illnesses through advances in medical treatment but we have not been able to reverse the rising number of cases. 

Aborigines in Australia who had moved off the land and into the city revealed they had all developed these diseases.  Were these diseases reversable?  These people had retained the ways of their ancestors and so they participated in a seven week study in which they returned to the Outback and lived off the land as their ancestors had.  In every case, these individuals returned to health.  The diseases they had developed on a Western Diet disappeared.   The suggestion from this study is not that an Aboriginal diet is the best but rather adds to the knowledge of the many cultures over the course of history developed a diet that was diverse in its offerings to provide the essentials needed for a healthy life.  

The Western Diet and the ideology of nutritionism that feeds it, has the arrogance to believe that because science is behind it, that it therefore must be the best.  Yet, what we are finding is that healthy diets are greater than the sum of their parts and no one component can lead to healthier lives.  What we are learning albeit at a snails pace is that food scientists cannot use reductionist science to find single causes for diet related diseases.   Real Food is synergistic in its abilities to nourish. 

What this guide does not include is the relationship of our food industry and the growing health care crisis that is enveloping this country.  Health care costs for these chronic diet related illnesses is in the billions.  I realize billions of dollars no longer seems like a lot of money these days, compared with the trillions of dollars being allocated to avert our economic crisis.   But if we could see ourselves clear from the Western Diet of refined carbohydrates, reconstituted fats and proteins that we pass off as food but are in fact poor imitations of the original, we could find the health care crisis as solvable.  

That will take work.  It will mean a radical shift in how we purchase food.  It will mean supporting farmer’s markets and local farms selling locally grown and fresher fruits and vegetables.  It will mean advocating for a change in how our major farms operate by insisting that they move away from fossil fuels and use more earth friendly farming techniques that are being used successfully in Argentina and other countries.  It will mean advocating food stamps to have double value at farmers markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) boxes  to encourage poor families to purchase fresh whole foods instead of imitation foods that boast health claims.  

There is much that can be done.  The study guide only grazes the surface of the issue of food sovereignty and sometimes comes across as elitist in its attempt.   But it is a study that we must endeavor in so we can collectively add our voice for justice in acquiring food.  Blessings,

Playing God

I just received an email regarding an infant by the name of Laith Joshua Dougherty in Portland, OR.  He has a congenital heart defect that cannot be repaired and unless he has a heart transplant, he will die.   The hospitals equipt with the ability to perform such a surgery have stated that unless the health insurance company can assure coverage of the costs est. at 1.5 million, they would not perform the surgery.  The health insurance company that the Dougherty family has denied the claim because it is beyond what the family has available for coverage. 

They checked out other facilities and were told the same thing.   The father writes on the website linked above, ” All of these facilities seem willing to accept the consequences of him not having this much needed surgery than to be responsible for any of the cost of treating him. It breaks my heart looking at him to realize that if money is more important than saving a life than our healthcare system is broken and needs to be fixed.” 

It certainly is broken.  It has been broken for quite some time. 

The family is using the internet to try to find people willing to donate to help pay for this vital heart transplant.  If you are able and willing to donate, please click on the link above and do so.  However, this only solves the dilemma for one family that found itself woefully underinsured.  How many other Laith’s are there out there that do not have the resources of the internet to make their plea?  The costs of this surgery would indeed bankrupt this family and any other family causing untold other problems. 

So while the hospitals did not do what the mortgage companies did and say yes to the surgery knowing it would have dire financial consequences, they are still playing God in this situation.   Were they right to do so?  Should they have said yes, knowing the family could not pay and how many times could they/ should they do that before they themselves risk  the collapse that the mortgage companies and the banking industry now faces? 

Sometimes broken things can no longer be repaired.  Sometimes broken things need to be replaced.  This system of health care with insurance companies calling the decisions of who receives medical care and who does not dates back to the Nixon Presidency, when he authorized the creation of the  Health Management Organizations to operate at a profit.  Our health care quality has been deteriorating ever since.  Our nation is currently 37th in quality health care.   It needs replacing not repairing. 

While Universal Health care has its flaws, the dilemma the Dougherty family is facing would not be occuring.  Their child would receive the operation.  The doctors would be guarenteed their salary. Hospitals are paid for their services.   Imagine that.    Here is a clip from Michael Moore’s documentary SICKO on hospital bills. 

Published in: on February 26, 2009 at 12:39 pm  Comments Off on Playing God  
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From Compost to Social Action

I recently was at a congregation that was investigating what their next steps might be.  In discussing what their resources were and what the perceived needs might be in the community;  it arose in the conversation that they have been composting for years.  Thereby   creating a nutrient rich soil that is not being used. 

What about using the compost to grow a vegetable garden on their property and give the produce grown to the local food pantry. If regulations prohibit them from doing that, then sell the produce and donate the proceeds to enable the food pantry to purchase additional foods.   

It was noted that with the increasing number of families struggling to make ends meet in the current economic crisis that acquiring sufficient quality food will be difficult.  This would be one way of aiding the food pantry in town to provide additional quality food to those who are needing it.

The idea grew.  They had been contemplating having their Children’s Religious Education program this spring focus on the interdependent web of life and ecology.  The children could assist  in applying what they have learned by helping to grow the garden.  The parents and adults could also learn what the children have been learning by working alongside the children.  

It becomes an event that the entire congregation can participate in as a community.   It will aid in all of the members getting to know each other better in doing this service for others.  Beloved memories of this will live on in the history of the congregation. 

The compost which had been simply added to weekly would become a focal point in how the earth recycles itself to create soil.  It suddenly would become useful beyond just being there as home to earthworms.  Supplying it with food scraps and other vegetative matter suddenly becomes meaningful and useful instead of some concept idea that someone in the past convinced the congregation to do.

This simple resource already available to this congregation became a means to not only learn about values that Unitarian Universalists have but also how we apply those values to help better our world.   It became a possible means to help feed the hungry and aid them to survive the current economic crisis with hope.  It became a means to learn about ecology and recycling in practical ways.  It became a means to learning about food and its value to life.   It became a means for this small congregation to do some social action beyond their walls into the community in which they live.

I am excited about the possibilities this opens up for this congregation.  And I believe its goals are replicable for other congregations to also do in a simple yet profound way.   Blessings

Civil Rights & Fellowship Movements

Yesterday, I was assisting Mid-South District’s Eunice Benton to rendezvous with the Civil Rights Tour, that Rev. Gordon Gibson and Meadville Lombard Theological School has sponsored the past several years.  The tour travels to various key sites in the deep south where historical civil rights events took place. 

We were reflecting on the congregations in the deep south and the effect that the era of the civil rights movement had on their development.  The Fellowship Movement era occurred concurrently with the civil rights movement. 

In Rabbi Friedman’s work on systems theory within congregations, there is a belief that events that happen within a congregation can and will continue to be played out in varying ways decades and longer after the event.  We see this in congregations that have suffered a serious ministerial breach of conduct that if never fully dealt with within the congregation, will show up in how the congregational relationship with future ministers are played out.  Sometimes without the current congregation or current minister ever fully understanding what or why this  is happening. 

There were many Unitarian fellowships that began in the 1950’s and early 1960’s in the deep south.   These fledgling congregations formed in the midst of societal turmoil.  The two fellowship era congregations that I am most familiar with, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Jackson and the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa have their own intimate story of events in their early days of existence.  

In Tuscaloosa, the fellowship began in September of 1954 with a charter membership of 100 members. They met on the University of Alabama’s campus in the Hillel Building, the Jewish Student Union.  Eighteen months later, two African American women were enrolled at the school.  One of the students was expelled before even starting classes.  The other student did attend classes.   Ms Autherine Lucy was also invited to attend the new fellowship’s services, which according the the church archives she did.  However, riots broke out over her presence on campus and she barely escaped with her life.  The KKK roamed the campus in red hoods and baseball bats, stated in a conversation I had with one of the fellowship’s  founders.   Some members of the fellowship started a petition to try to keep her enrolled in the school. But she was also expelled.  The event of these early days in the life of this congregation were harsh.  Membership plummeted to 11 after an 18 month growth to 120 members.  The trauma on the fellowship has left deep scars.   When Governor Wallace stood on the steps of the university some ten years later to block the entrance of another two African American students from attending, this congregation was still struggling to maintain sustainability.

The congregation in Jackson, MS had a different kind of traumatic event.  They were the first integrated congregation in Mississippi.  And when their first extension minister, Rev. Donald Thompson arrived in 1963, things were looking up.  Under his leadership, the congregation started the first Headstart program for under privileged children in the state.  It too was integrated. Rev. Thompson was an outspoken advocate for civil rights.   His work was being noticed by the KKK.   He received death threats.  And then one night, a few months after Rev. James Reeb was killed in Selma, AL,  Rev. Thompson was shot in the back.  He survived and was resolved to remain in Jackson,which he did until death threats began to surface not against him but against his congregants if he remained.   This was the time period that congregations that spoke out against racism were being firebombed.  The title for the movie Mississippi Burning is no exaggeration.  When the fellowship decided to build their new church home, where it is today, the architecture they chose is one of a fortress.  There are no windows in the structure except for some skylights and the doorway into the church is protected by a wall.  Now, I am told this was coincidental and that many congregations were building similar type structures across the south.  My comment to this is, yes, this is how pervasive firebombings and sniper shootings were across the south, so build buildings that would be harder to attack in such manners.   A few years before this congregation was built, the Synagogue in Jackson was firebombed and razed to the ground by the KKK.  

This is the environment these fellowships were born into in the south.  Many fellowships that began in the south did not survive the civil rights era.  And my two examples is too small a sample to make any firm conclusion on the affects of trauma on fellowship congregations forming in this time period.  However, I would bet that there is this unresolved trauma in many of our southern fellowship era congregations that needs to be talked about, examined, and healed. 

I close with this observation. When the tragic events of the shooting at the Knoxville, TN congregation occurred last summer, the impact in congregations I am serving in AL and MS was visceral, almost like a body memory wafting through their being.  Perhaps this was true in other congregations in other locations of our nation.  But I wondered how do we affirm the bravery of these people who stood by their faith for justice during the civil rights era and honor and heal their wounds from the trauma they experienced.   Blessings,

The Fred Factor

No, this is not some self-grandiose statement about myself  but rather a reflection on a book entitled The Fred Factor by Mark Sanborn.   I admit that since my name is Fred, when I saw the book at Barnes & Nobles, it sought of leapt out at me.   Rarely is my name used in a positive manner in our culture.

Mark Sanborn is an international speaker on motivation and leadership development.  He speaks to corporations on how to improve customer service.  This book was inspired by Mr. Sanborn’s postal carrier, named Fred.   He begins telling the story of how he met Fred.  Fred introduced himself and asked a bit about Mr. Sanborn.  When Fred learned that he was away on speaking engagements, he offered to bundle the mail and hold it on those days he was going to be away.  Fred was offering a service that was beyond the ordinary scope of a postal carrier.  Other postal carriers and we have all had them, stuff the mailbox till it is over flowing alerting any would be burglars that we are not at home.  It was this type of service that endeared Mr. Sanborn to Fred.

Mr. Sanborn describes what he calls the Fred Principles.  They are simply stated:

  1. Everyone makes a difference
  2. Success is based on relationships
  3. You must continually create value for others
  4. You can reinvent yourself regularly.

I began wondering if we could apply the Fred Factor to our congregations.  Rev. Michael McGee in a sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington,  told a story about a UUA consultant who was speaking with a Mormon Official.   “[The] Mormon official ended the conversation by saying if Unitarian Universalism could retain even half of the visitors who come to us we could become the most dangerous church in America!”  

What would the Fred Factor look like in our congregations?  How do we show (not tell) that everyone makes a difference.  We show this  in how we greet others. We show this in how receptive we are to hearing their story and withholding our opinions unless asked.  We show this by focusing on them and their needs and not pushing our church agenda on them. 

How do we build relationships?   People come to church to fulfill some need.  Maybe it’s because they are new in town and want to meet new friends.  A church should be a safe place for them to this and feel welcomed. 

How do we create value for others?  People join congregations for lots of different reasons but one of them has to be that there is some value that is being offered to the person joining.   Mr. Sanborn offers these tidbits to adding value:

  1. Tell the truth  (seems simple enough but if inviting a visitor to a midweek adult religious education class, make sure it is still meeting)
  2. Practice personality power  (be genuine with others, say ‘We ‘re glad you’re here!’ and mean it whole heartedly)
  3. Attract through artistry (Care for your building. Is it clean or cluttered? Is it in need of repair? What do the grounds look like? Nurtured or neglected?)
  4. Meet needs in advance (Anticipate the needs of the visitor in advance and have them ready.  I visited a church once in a rainstorm and the greeter came out to my car with an umbrella.  He anticipated my needs.)
  5. Add good stuff  (Make the experience enjoyable.   Good singing. Good music.  Enthusiasm and humor in conversations.)
  6. Subtract bad stuff (Don’t make them wait for the service to start. If the service is scheduled for 10:30 then start at 10:30.  Be there in advance of starting time.  Have everything ready, flowers in place at the altar before the prelude begins.)
  7. Simplify (Make the process for joining easy to follow.  Make it meaningful but don’t make them jump through unnecessary hoops.)
  8. Improve ( reflect on how the congregation is doing and do it even better.)
  9. Surprise others (A thoughtful gesture that is unexpected.  I was surprised at the greeter meeting me a the car door with an umbrella.  It was unexpected and thoroughly welcoming.)

Recreating ourselves regularly.  This is not asking us to be different than who we are but rather to strive to be the best of who we are.  When we miss the mark we can begin again.  Reflect on how well we are doing and learn from the mistakes that were made.  Reward others when we get it right.


Academic Freedom Act

Alabama has been attempting for the past several years to pass what is being called the “Academic Freedom Act.”  I love how pleasant sounding names adorn dangerous and destructive bills.  It should be the first sign to run away from this proposed bill. 

Rep. Grimes has proposed this bill for the past several years.  He has proposed the bill again this year just in time to celebrate Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday.  If the past few years is any indication, may it die once again in committee. 

What this bill does is allow teachers from elementary through college to teach the pseudo-sciences of intelligent design and creationism along side evolution.   I say pseudo-science because what proponents of of ID and Creationism do is take the Abrahamic stories of Genesis as their foundation and then try to prove how the world came to be using these stories as the reference points.  For example, how did the Grand Canyon form?  Well, when the flood waters receded after the great flood that covered the earth, the rush of the waters carved the canyon.  So how old is the grand canyon?  Only a few thousand years.

I kid you not.  There is a book that can be purchased at the Grand Canyon National Park that tells this story of how the world’s greatest canyon came to be from this creationist point of view.   And this is the information that Rep. Grimes wants teachers to be able to teach in the classrooms of Alabama.

One of the arguments attempting to be made is that evolution is a theory and therefore may not be true. So why not present other theories that are more aligned with biblical beliefs?  Well, first off there are several definitions of the word theory. 

Most scientific theories are operating under this definition:

  1. A set of statements or principles devised to explain a group of facts or phenomena, especially one that has been repeatedly tested or is widely accepted and can be used to make predictions about natural phenomena.

While Creationists and Intelligent Design proponents operate under this definition to argue for their curricula to be presented:

  1. An assumption based on limited information or knowledge; a conjecture.

(“theory.” The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. 12 Feb. 2009. <>.)

And because this definition of theory is being used, it is argued that creationism and intelligent design theories (second definition) should be taught in school.   Proponents argue that because the theory of evolution is only atheory, a conjecture (second definition),  then their theory is just as valid to be taught in academic schools.  However, the theory of Evolution is not a conjecture but rather a principle that has been tested and proven to be predictive about natural phenomena.   The theories of creationism and intelligent design cannot be tested and proven to be predictive, they are conjectures. 

They also argue that education should reflect the values and beliefs of their religious community.   This opens the door for other creation stories to be taught as plausible science theories since other religions in addition to the Abrahamic religions are present in our communities. 

Schools are not meant to support or validate the religious belief systems of a community.  They are meant to be institutions that challenge and develop critical thinking skills of its students by using evidence found in the natural world.  It is by this means that advances are made in all fields of research. 

But when religious beliefs begin to dictate where education and knowledge are to advance then we do not advance into the light of day but rather recede into the depths of ignorance and darkness.  

This proposed bill does exactly this.  It needs to once again die in committee.