Factors against Planters of New Churches

A question was raised on an email list that I am on regarding why we are not having more church planters in the Unitarian Universalist ministry.    I think there are multiple factors  why we do not have more church planters. I will try to elucidate what I believe are some of those factors.

I was a co-founder of a non-profit agency.  I served on the founding board, then as president of the board, and then as executive director; did so for a total of 15 years.  The first few years of that organization took a dedication and a willingness to sacrifice personal life goals to birth that organization.  Colleague David Owen-O’Quill in a sermon he gave to Pathways Church about church planting used the metaphor of child-birth to describe the journey.  He called it a dangerous journey towards new life.  You can watch his sermon here:

Pathways Church – Sermon from 10-17-2010 – Standing For Grace

There were moments in the developing of the non-profit agency, where all seemed hopeless and lost.  We had severe money issues, I did not draw a paycheck for several months, yet in order to birth this organization we had to keep moving forward against the odds.  I as leader of this organization was committed to the mission of providing services to people living with AIDS. I was determined to find a way when there looked like no way.

There were developmental milestones we had to make that would indicate the likelihood of our thriving.  The majority of new businesses fail within the first year, and a majority of those fail within the first five years. It is the same of non-profits and for congregations. How many fellowships did Munroe Husbands plant in the fellowship movement that did not make it the first few years of their life?   The mission of getting from here, this place of where we are to over there, where people would find support, nurture, and sustenance to live with HIV/AIDS was the primary focus and everything was on the line for that to happen. I was not going to allow a simple thing like lack of money  stop me from fulfilling this mission.

Our ministers leave seminary with huge student debt, they do not have the capability to be the mid-wives of a live birth of a congregation. They are already in serious financial trouble before they even start.  They need settings where they can pay off their heavy loans–new starts do not guarantee that setting. The risk can be seen as being too great from the concept side of church planting.

They also need to be equipped with the skills including the physical, psychological, and emotional endurance to weather the birth process of a new start. They need to know the difference between when the road gets bumpy  and driving off a cliff.  There are moments in an organization’s  development when it is supposed to get bumpy right about when it does.  That is not a sign of needing to exit here but rather to fasten the seat belts, make sure the brakes are in good working order, that there is oil and gas for the engine and to continue through.

If my education at Meadville / Lombard is typical of the available seminary training then our seminary’s focus is not on organizational development skills.   They are barely teaching what is necessary administratively for seasoned congregations.  So huge student loans and weak organizational development skills are two factors that prevent newly minted ministers from seeking to be church planters.

Our Unitarian Universalist Association does not have the patience to support new starts to enable them to make it through those initial milestones of one and five years.  We gave up on Pathways Church even before our pre-designated commitment time frame was finished. [There may be very good reasons why the UUA pulled the plug of support but that is not the point I am making here.] Unlike widget production we are in the business of transforming people’s lives and growth where people are concerned does not always follow the best laid plans.  We cannot measure success where people are concerned by the same measuring tools that measures widget production.   This is part of our inherited DNA as an association, the Unitarians and the Universalists associations did not have the patience to birth new congregations–especially new congregations in uncharted waters.

It is erroneous thinking to believe that if we simply plant it, it will survive without nurturance. If we are serious about planting congregations, then we have to be serious for the long haul not just for the first year or two.  We cannot expect a congregation to thrive if we walk away too soon.  The parable of the true shepherd and the hired hand applies here. The true shepherd does not abandon the flock when the first sign of trouble (wolves) appears.

Back to David Owen-O’Quill’s sermon.  A clear and compelling mission.  Why is it important for this congregation to exist in this community?  It must be compelling. It must be full of purpose.  What does this congregation have to do, must do, to have meaning and purpose in life?  The church plant that David Owen-O’Quill has started in Chicago has as its mission to “connect the dis-connected.”  That is a powerful, transformative mission statement.  That is something that people can sink their teeth into and nosh around a bit.  Let’s face it, many of our congregation’s mission statements are simply not that substantive.  They have been wordsmithed to death and go on for paragraphs. No one can remember the mission statement off the top of their head. They are safe and as a result they are shallow. There is no risk embedded in them, no possibility of failing.  In short boring.

How can we start a new church with missions that are wilted from the get go?  Likewise ministers  need to have a compelling mission, a driving purpose that will propel them into being a church planter.  Ministers need to know who or what has their back when times get rocky.  Our evangelical friends believe that God has their back, in a faith that does not presume God as a safety net, who or what is their support system?  If we are going to take serious our faith and if we are going to be serious in having church planters, then we must remove the barriers institutionally for church planters to thrive in our religion.

To recap on why we do not have a multitude of church planters:

1. Huge student loan debt

2. little to no organizational development skill training

3. A compelling mission that is transformative from the word go.

4.  A willingness  on the part of the church planter to place one’s life on the line for that mission / purpose believed in

5. Our association does not have a history of supporting new starts beyond the initial phase.


Michael Servetus: A Universalist Perspective

Reading:  From Michael Servetus’ Christianismi Restitutio [ The Restoration of Christianity]

“Not only because such gifts, but by reason of that one alone who breathes the divine spirit into us, God is said to give us his spirit, Gen. 2 and 6. Our soul is a kind of lantern of God, Prov. 20. It is like a spark of the spirit of God, a reflection of the wisdom of God, created yet very similar to that spiritual wisdom, incorporated in it, retaining the innate light of divinity, the spark of that prime wisdom and the very spirit of divinity. God himself testifies, in chapter 6 above, that the spirit of divinity was innate in man even after Adam’s sin. The dispensation of our life is given and is sustained through grace from his breathe, as Job says, chap. 10 and 32 and following. God breathed the divine spirit into Adam’s nostrils together with a breath of air, and thence it remains, Isaiah 2 and Psa. 103. God himself maintains the breath of life for us by his spirit, giving breath to the people who are upon the earth and spirit to those treading it, so that we live, move and exist in him, Isaiah 42 and Acts 17. Wind from the four winds and breath from the four breaths gathered by God revive corpses, Ezek. 37. From a breath of air God there introduces the divine spirit into men in whom the life of inspired air was innate. Hence in Hebrew “spirit’ is represented in the same way as “breath.” From the air God introduces the divine spirit, introducing the air with the spirit itself and the spark of the very deity which fills the air.

Michael Servetus

“Michael Servetus: A Universalist Perspective” by Rev. Fred L Hammond

17 October 2010 © Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa, AL

If I were to ask who Michael Servetus was in the history of Unitarian Universalism, I would probably hear something along the following:  He was a theologian in the 16th century who believed that the Trinity, the belief in a Triune God was not based on biblical scripture. His theology would be described as anti-trinitarian rather than Unitarian. He was burned in effigy by the Roman Catholic Church and burned at the stake with most of his writings in Geneva, Switzerland by John Calvin, another protestant theologian and founder of Calvinism. Following his execution, there was uproar over the punishment of the heretic in which Sebastien Castellion wrote, “To kill a man is not to defend a doctrine, but to kill a man.[1]”  And this answer, if given in a classroom setting would give the student a passing grade.

But there is more to Michael Servetus, also known by his Spaniard name as Miguel Serveto and by his French name, Michel de Villeneuve in homage to his hometown in Spain, than his treatises On the Errors of the Trinity and Dialogues on the Trinity. And for us as Unitarian Universalists living in the 21st century, it is this other aspect of Servetus that I believe is more relevant to us today than his expounding on the errors of trinitarian belief.

I state this because even though half of our name is Unitarian, we are no longer a faith tradition that requires all to profess the creed in the unity of God—God is one.  Some of us may believe in the triune God, God in three persons and some of us may believe in no god.  That creed is no longer necessary for us to call ourselves Unitarian Universalists because we focus more on our character of person, for it is what we do in our actions that reveal the moral character of the person rather than on what we say with our mouth.  There is a scripture verse in the Christian texts that state that if a person confesses[2] with their mouth then they shall be saved.  Unitarians would say that words by themselves are empty and actions speak louder than words.  So the true test of our faith is found in our compassionate, loving actions; whether the inspiration of that action is based in a Unitarian God or a Triune God, or in many Gods, or in no God is immaterial to us as a whole. It is as has been stated many times in a sound bite; “deeds, not creeds.”

In order to get to the aspects of his story that I believe are relevant for us today, I need to tell something of the basic story that is emphasized by Unitarian Universalist historians. Michael Servetus was born around 1509-1511, the exact date is speculated.  What we do know is that his country of Spain had over the centuries prior to his birth become the home of Muslims, of Jews, and of Christians. The culture of the Moors, as the Muslims were known and of the Jews had greatly influenced Spain. The Catholic Church was currently the dominant religious faith.  So Spain was struggling with religious plurality.  ‘Struggling’ probably isn’t the right word, when push comes to shove; a dogmatic inquisition would occur.  Jews and Muslims were given a choice, baptism into Christianity, banishment from the country, or death.  The great inquisitions of Spain occurred before Servetus’s birth but there was this awareness during his lifetime that many had converted to Christianity in name only and not in belief, in particular to the creed of the trinity.

Servetus was a child prodigy by the time he was 13 he could read several languages including Hebrew.  Hebrew was a forbidden language because it meant that one could read the Hebrew Scriptures in the original tongue “without resorting to approved translations[3].” His learning this forbidden language meant that he was most likely   exposed to a secret culture that also existed in Spain that of the Sephardic Jews who became Christian in name only.

It was the belief in the trinity that Michael Servetus saw as the prime stumbling block for true conversions from Jew or Muslim to Christianity.  He thought if this creed, which he discovered had no scriptural basis, could be removed from Christianity then there would be no hindrance for Jew or Muslim to fully embrace Christianity.

You may have heard in the subtext a certain arrogance that pervades Michael Servetus’s personality.  This arrogance would eventually seal his doom.  Authors of Out of the Flames, Nancy and Lawrence Goldstone assert “Servetus was so smart that it never seemed to occur to him that his arguments would be more effective if he didn’t imply that anyone holding an opposing view was an idiot.” He became convinced that the creed of the trinity, codified by a vote of bishops at the Council of Nicea in the year 325 of the Common Era, was the beginning of the corruption of the Holy Church.

He began to hound the protestant reformers of the day regarding this error in theology.  He thought Erasmus would be sympathetic because he had removed the Comma Johanneum from his Latin translations of the First Epistle of John.  This was a phrase not found in the original Greek text which directly referred to the trinity.  Erasmus was not sympathetic; he was merely correcting the facts of the text.  Erasmus attitude was to uphold the church authority and any debate on the validity of the trinity would hold until Judgment Day.

Servetus lived for a time in the city of Basel, Switzerland with a protestant reformer Oecolampadius, who complained to his protestant reformers that Servetus was “of belligerent and persistent temper.[4]”  It was counseled that by any means necessary to squelch Servetus’s blasphemies less they pollute the church.

Servetus took particular haunt of John Calvin.  He sent Calvin his manuscript On the Errors of the Trinity.  They had exchanged heated letters.  This was the experience Servetus had with all of the protestant reformers, even those who were a tad sympathetic to his views, eventually publicly refuted his thesis.

Servetus thought perhaps he had not explained himself well enough. If only he could restate his thesis in another way perhaps others would see.  He then published his Dialogues on the Trinity. But they fell on deaf ears and Servetus then went into hiding in France, taking on the name Michel de Villeneuve and became a doctor of medicine.  His desire to win over John Calvin did not leave him and he would continue to write to him under his nom de plume.  His constancy in pursuing Calvin resulted in Calvin promising that if Servetus ever stepped foot in Geneva, he would not leave Geneva alive; a promise that was kept with Servetus being burned at the stake on October 27 1553.

But it is as a doctor that Servetus made a discovery that was credited to a physician 75 years after Servetus first made it.  Servetus, ever the theologian, described in concept how the circulatory system exchanged blood between the arteries and the veins. He believed correctly that blood traveled from the heart to the lungs where the breath rejuvenated the blood and then sent the blood back into the body.  However, this discovery was lost for many years because of Servetus’ controversial standing and because most of his texts were burned with him, and because he wrote from a theological perspective and not a medical one.

It is this theological perspective that I believe is relevant for us today as Unitarian Universalists living in the 21st century.  In Servetus’s final book “Christianismi Restitutio” [The Restoration of Christianity], “God breathed the divine spirit into Adam’s nostrils together with a breath of air, and thence it remains, … God himself maintains the breath of life for us by his spirit, giving breath to the people who are upon the earth and spirit to those treading it, so that we live, move and exist in him.[5]

This builds on what he had previously written in his Errors of the Trinity, “I say, therefore, that God himself is our spirit dwelling in us and this is the Holy Spirit within us. In this we testify that there is in our spirit a certain latent divinity and it bloweth where it listeth and I hear its voice and I know not whence it comes nor whither it goes. So is everyone that is born of the spirit of God.”

What is remarkable about this is it stands in direct opposition to Calvin’s doctrine of predestination of the elect.  Calvin argued that God from the beginning of the world humanity had two destinations, some he destined for eternal glory and others he destined for eternal damnation.  Only those who were predestined for glory would have the spirit of truth within them. Only the elect were saved.  Servetus is saying that all are among the elect, that all have the nature of the divine within them, the very breath of God itself.

Now this may seem to us as a ‘so what’ since many no longer adhere to a creed of salvation yielding to eternal life or a heaven.  That is indeed the literal reading of Servetus words and in that context perhaps not important. However, in a society where there are forces that insist on focusing on our differences to set us apart and in the extreme, dehumanizes us to the point that violence against one another or even self inflicted violence is seen as viable options, these words are very relevant.

There may not be many people today in Calvinist congregations who believe any longer in predestination, but there are plenty of people in these American states who believe to be indeed among the elect of God.  From the cultish Family on C street who indoctrinates politicians that they are elected by God and therefore can engage in all sorts of indiscretions and make heinous comments against gays and lesbians, against Muslims, and against immigrants without concern of consequence to the privileged corporate bosses at big banks and Wall Street who can break the financial laws of this country and get bailed out for destroying the economy.  This election is also seen in the very fiber of the dominant Anglo culture in this country and is the underlying argument of the Tea Party platform—America for Americans is based in this belief of the elect.

Servetus’s words come back to us and suggest that there is the potential for us to reach the heavenly realms.  In arguing against the trinity Servetus suggested “if Jesus was concluded to be less than divine, he might have been simply a man made divine through faith and acts.  And if that were true, might not that same potential be available to all [people]?[6]

There is within all of us that latent divinity, that creative spirit, that visionary specter, that leading-edge drive to move forward towards creating a world of justice for all.  Imagine if the restrictions on our minds were released and we believed that everyone, regardless of class, education, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity/expression was truly capable of being the next Jesus, the next Sojourner Truth, the next Alice Paul, the next Gandhi, the next Dorothy Day, the next Thurgood Marshall, the next Martin Luther King, Jr., the next Cesar Chevaz, the next reformer for justice. Theologian Cornel West, speaking recently in Arizona said, Justice is what Love looks like in public…When you love folks, you hate that they are being treated unjustly[7]

Servetus’s words of latent divinity are a message that is timely when forces of injustice are telling us to fear the immigrant.  Timely message when these forces of injustice pair the immigrant in our neighborhoods with the drug cartels and the violent crimes south of our borders, all the while knowing this is untrue.

This is a message that is timely when forces of injustice are telling us to fear the Muslim seeking to fulfill their religious vows as a peaceful people.  Timely message when these forces of injustice pair Muslim Americans seeking the American dream with those who use their bodies as bombs to wreck havoc and chaos, while knowing this is untrue.

This is a message that is timely when forces of injustice are telling us to fear gays and lesbians who seek to live their lives as equal citizens under the law.  Timely message when these forces of injustice pair gays and lesbians with sexual predators of children, while knowing that this too is untrue.

Timely message when forces of injustice can use their guaranteed freedom of speech to spread malicious hateful lies against immigrants, against Muslims, against sexual minorities and fear no consequences while knowing that people will hear and act to embody their lies in hateful actions against immigrants, Muslims, and sexual minorities.

Who amongst us will allow the latent divinity to awaken within and be the next Harriet Tubman to serve tirelessly for freedom of those enslaved by the yokes of injustice?   Who will once again recognize that we all “retain… the innate light of divinity, the spark of that prime wisdom and the very spirit of divinity[8] and therefore are freed to act on behalf of all to create justice once again in this land?  Or at the very least begin to fulfill the call of our Hebrew, Christian, and Islamic teachings to love our neighbors as ourselves.  May it be so.

Benediction: Do not be deceived that because there are those who are privileged in this country, that they somehow are the elect and those who are not so privileged are not among the elect. The spirit of justice, the spirit of truth oft times chooses the least of these to level the playing field, may we seek not after the privileges of the elect but rather after the spirit of justice and truth.  Go in Peace.

[2] Romans 10:9 “That if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Likewise another verse with a similar meaning:   Philippians 2:10-12that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

[3] Nancy and Lawrence Goldstone, Out of the Flames

[4] Roland H. Bainton, Hunted Heretic: The Life and Death of Michael Servetus 1511-1553

[6] Nancy and Lawrence Goldstone, Out of the Flames

Published in: on October 17, 2010 at 2:25 pm  Comments Off on Michael Servetus: A Universalist Perspective  
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Throwing the First Stone

“Throwing the First Stone”

10 October 2010 ©  Rev. Fred L Hammond

Unitarian Universalist Congregation Tuscaloosa

There once was a young boy who dreaded going to school.  Oh he was bright enough.  And he liked the subjects well enough.  But he did not like getting on the school bus because even though there were plenty of seats, he had to fight to get one.  The bus driver would yell at him for not sitting down immediately, oblivious to the fact that the other students on the bus would refuse to let him sit.  And then when he arrived at school, he always had his books knocked out from under his arms. This was before back packs were allowed in school.  He was told he carried them like a girl.  When he tried to carry them in the more manly fashion at his hip, they would be knocked from his arms.  The books would scatter to the floor and then others would gleefully kick the books down the hall.   He would be late for class trying to retrieve them. The teachers would then send him to the principal for being late.  No amount of explaining what happened would make a difference.  It was his fault that he was late for class yet again.

Sometimes he would just be shoved in the hall way.  Once could be considered an accident, perhaps, but five or six shoves in a row by the other boys passing by was a deliberate act.  It was thought funny by the girls.   Sometimes the shoving and knocking the books to the floor were combined.  One would shove, another knock, and a few more would kick the books down the hall.

And there would be the threats of violence after school let out.  He somehow managed to slip through the crowd to avoid those encounters, even when he planned to hang out in town instead of catching the bus home.

He tried to man up.  He tried to be tough.  He tried to let the name calling and the physical affronts to his person roll off his back.  But he could not.  He knew crying would confirm in everyone’s mind that he was indeed what they called him; a faggot, a sissy, a homo, those were the names used then.  He didn’t want to live anymore, not like this.

One day after enduring what seemed like a continuous onslaught of bullying; he entered his next class and sat sideways at his desk.  He was numb.  His whole body just vibrated numbness.  His teacher asked him to turn around in his seat.  There was no response.  His teacher asked him again, and then, the tears began to fall.  The young boy just began sobbing full body sobs.

The teacher took him outside of the classroom and talked with him.  Found out what had been happening. The guidance counselor came and also listened to his story.  The guidance counselor gave a stern lecture to his classmates about their behaviors.  Told them in no uncertain terms that their treating of this young boy was wrong and they must stop this behavior or suffer the consequences of what could happen to this young boy which would be on their conscience forever.  They would be held responsible.

Life got better for this young boy after that.  Oh he still got the verbal taunts but it was nothing compared to the daily emotional and physical torment that he received that year.

The media has highlighted several suicides of young people this past month as a result of bullying.  Whether it was verbal taunts, physical assaults, or cyber-bullying, the results were the same, the ending of a young person’s life.  These young people were either gay or thought to be gay by their peers.  Their life was driven into the ground and their possibility and the hope for shining their light brightly in the world was snuffed out.

It is difficult to know how many teens commit suicide because of homophobia.  The once touted 3 in 10 deaths is now considered to be grossly overestimated and it is now thought that the deaths of sexual minorities is no greater than in any other demographic.  But this does not diminish the seriousness or the grief these families are suffering because of the loss of their children.

And the young people that we heard about in the news do not comprise every teen that committed suicide this past month or even this past week, only those we heard about.  According to a U.S. Suicide Statistics of 2001, a young adult between the ages 15-24 ends their life every 2 hours and 12 minutes.  So that means we only heard of a very few of the young people who died this past month at their own hands out of the roughly eleven young people who died every day.  The numbers add up quickly and these are only statistics on the completed suicides, not the incompleted attempts of suicide.   It is the third leading cause of death in this age group after accidents and homicides.  It is the 5th leading cause of death in children age 5-14.
Gay, Lesbian Straight Educators Network (GLSEN) has been conducting an annual survey[1] of high school students since 1999 on bullying as it relates to sexual orientation.   Here are a few findings from 2009’s survey: 84.6% of LGBT students reported being verbally harassed, 40.1% reported being physically harassed and 18.8% reported being physically assaulted at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation.

Being out in school had positive and negative repercussions for LGBT students – outness was related to higher levels of victimization, but also higher levels of psychological well-being.

On October 1 2009, a new law went into effect in Alabama mandating all schools to have an anti-bullying policy.  It is basically a good law but there are few flaws. It is only aimed at student to student bullying and did not include harassment from authority figures such as teachers or coaches.   It defines bullying as an ongoing pattern by an individual and it requires the victim of the bullying or their parent to fill out a written form to report the bullying.  A onetime bullying event or an oral report is not sufficient to bring actions against the bully-er.  Yet, as we know in the recent suicide of Tyler Clementi, a onetime event on the internet is all it might take.   The law did not specify any specific class for protection.  Focus on the Family attempted to make the case that Alabama’s anti-bully legislation would open the door for gay activists to seek special protections.

Our school district in Tuscaloosa already had a fairly comprehensive bullying policy in place which did include sexual orientation as part of its policy.  The law now reinforces their policy.  A recent news story states that Tuscaloosa is considering broadening their policy to jurisdictions beyond school property such as “when a student interferes with another student’s educational opportunities or substantially disrupts the operations of a school or school-sponsored activity.[2] This would include cyberbullying through an electronic device such as the internet and sexting, the sending of explicit photographs and texts through a cell phone.

Tuscaloosa would become the first school system in Alabama to have a broad jurisdiction policy on bullying.  It is certainly a step in the right direction.  GLSEN affirms this action as being a positive step.  Their report confirms that  “Students attending schools with an anti-bullying policy that included protections based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity/expression heard fewer homophobic remarks, experienced lower levels of victimization related to their sexual orientation, were more likely to report that staff intervened when hearing homophobic remarks and were more likely to report incidents of harassment and assault to school staff than students at schools with a general policy or no policy.[3]

There are other positive actions that could be done to reduce bullying behavior as it relates to sexual orientation and gender expression.  GLSEN stated that schools with Gay-Straight alliances increased the positive experiences sexual minority students had and reduced the reports of negative experiences.  Having safe zones and supportive teachers “contributed to a range of positive indicators including fewer reports of missing school, fewer reports of feeling unsafe, greater academic achievement, higher educational aspirations and a greater sense of school belonging.[4]

There are currently no gay straight alliances in our public high schools.  University of Alabama has two student groups, Spectrum and OUTlaw, as well as a faculty/ staff group on campus. So where are students in high school to go where they will be accepted for who they are and not fear being bullied?  –Where they will be encouraged to explore the light that is the essence of their being and nurtured to allow that light to shine bright?

I will let those questions sit for a moment.  I want to shift our attention to why this is a concern for us today. What is it about bullying, and why is bullying sexual minority youth so important for us to examine and to end it?  The reason is not just because a few individuals commit suicide, albeit a very sound reason indeed.  There is something else at work in bullying sexual minority youth and suicides are just one of the consequences of this behavior.

Iris Marion Young in her essay Five Faces of Oppression looks at oppression not in the traditional format of a few people in power oppressing the masses as in tyrannical forms of government but as a form of systems that are in place to maintain dominant culture.  She describes oppression as being structural.  There are embedded in the dominant culture “unquestioned norms, habits, and symbols, in the assumptions underlying institutional rules and the collective consequences of following those rules.[5]

So while the intent is good to pass anti-bullying legislation or passing laws protecting rights of sexual minorities for housing, employment, etc., the assumptions of what is normal behavior remains operative in the culture.  Those who affirm the dominant culture resent what they see as the deteriorating of their traditional values and norms with the passage of such laws.

While all of the five faces of oppression, Young describes also apply to homophobia and bullying on some level, there are two that I want to highlight specifically.  She describes what she calls Cultural Imperialism which is the universalization of a dominant group’s experience and culture.  This becomes considered as the norm and therefore the norm for all of humanity. So in America, up until very recently, one did not see positive images of gays on television.  If gays were viewed on television or in the movies it was in negative, often stereotypical images.  It was the gay man dying of AIDS.  It was the flamboyant gay who everyone could laugh at. It was the manipulative and weak-spirited Mr. Smith on Lost in Space who preyed upon unsuspecting young Will Robinson and therefore had to be under constant surveillance. These images sent very strong messages of what gays deserved, of what manhood was, and the dangers to our children.  They each deserved what they got.

Young writes, “The dominant group reinforces its position by bringing the other groups under the measure of the dominant norms.[6] These groups become reconstructed as deviant and inferior and as the other. The stereotype becomes the known example of these other groups.  Those who do not fit that stereotype are rendered invisible.  Young writes, “Just as everyone knows that the earth goes around the sun, so everyone knows that gays are promiscuous…[7]

We see these assumptions in operation when Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church declares that “God hates Fags” or when the Family Research Council declares “… that homosexuality is unhealthy, immoral and destructive to individuals, families and societies.[8] Those who are members of the groups targeted even if they refuse these stereotype values and desire “recognition as human, capable of activity, full of hope and possibility;[9] they must react to the dominant culture’s perception of them as different, inferior, and immoral. The further they are from the stereotype the more invisible they become because the dominant culture only sees the stereotype and not the person before them. It is assumed that they meet the stereotype even when they do not. The dominant culture does not recognize that they have a perspective on the culture that is based on their status within the culture.  Simone Weil said, “Someone who does not see a pane of glass does not know that he does not see it. Someone who, being placed differently, does see it, does not know the other does not see it.[10]

The dominant culture does not see the pane of glass through which their world view is shaped and altered.  It then is up to those who are placed differently and do see the pain of glass to point it out and demand that it be recognized as such—a perspective and not a universal truth.

Cultural Imperialism feeds into another face of oppression which is systemic violence.  Groups which are oppressed live with the reality that they “must fear random, unprovoked acts on their persons or property, which have no motive but to damage, humiliate, or destroy the person.[11]

Taken on its face, no one, not even Focus on the Family, which advocated not passing the Alabama anti-bullying bill, believes bullying behavior is good.  Their stance against the law was purely on the basis that it might condone or encourage sexual minorities to come further out of the closet.  Bullying then becomes one method to send a clear message to sexual minorities that they are not to be seen as a valued contributing member of the society. Those caught in bullying might only receive light punishment and to that extent the acts are acceptable behaviors. Bullying is therefore on some level viewed as an acceptable behavior in society because it serves the function of maintaining the dominant culture’s control.

The work that must be done to bring bullying to an end is on the cultural level.  It will take diligent and persistent messaging into the main culture stream to change what is considered boys simply being boys.  This is more than passing laws and school policies against bullying. In order to change the culture, positive interactions on the relational level with the perceived other must become the norm.  Our work for justice lies in the vigilant vanguard position of overt acceptance of different perspectives, different cultural norms across all avenues of being human.  This includes sexual orientation, gender expression, racial and ethnic, and class differences—all must be in our sights for radical acceptance in order to change the cultural norm of oppression.

To bring this back to the question asked earlier.  Where are students in highschool to go where they will be nurtured and encouraged to explore the light that is the essence of their being?   Our youth group which meets every Sunday is one place where gay teens are welcomed. Because there does not exist a gay straight alliance in schools, our youth group becomes one of the places where gay, and lesbian, transgender, bi, questioning, and intersexed teens are free to gather to ask the questions they need to ask and relax in who they are.

Many of the teens who attend the youth group are not from families from this congregation.  And so this youth group becomes our congregation’s calling card into the community.  We need to do all we can to support them in their journey.  We must listen to their experiences, honor their integrity, and show unconditional love for their dignity as people here with us.

A few weeks ago, our teens offered a worship service that was poignant and moving.  They could only have done that particular service if they knew that we loved them.  We do love them.  We must continue to love them and celebrate their lives here.  We can support them by standing up to bullying that we see in our schools and elsewhere.  We might not be able to change the nation but we can and we must do all that we can to change the culture where we live.

You might have surmised the identity of the young boy at the beginning of this sermon as my personal experience of seventh grade.  You would be right. I was very close to failing that grade level until a teacher and guidance counselor intervened.  That was all it took, two people who believed in me and acted on my behalf to turn that year around.   I still struggled with my gay identity.  I still faced random acts of taunting against me but things began to change that day.  And I found other people who also accepted me and valued me as I am and life got better.  I want to make sure that every gay teen who walks through our doors knows what I have come to know.  There are people who love them, and cherish them, and life will get better.

Not everyone in the world is looking to throw the first stone. Here is a place where stones are put aside for building bridges of hope and love.  Blessed Be.

Benediction:  In the Hebrew scriptures Leviticus states “you shall the love the alien as yourself, for you were once the alien in the land of Egypt.[12] The land of Egypt is anywhere we felt isolated and different from the dominant culture.  It is the place where we are the other, the outsider of the group, the one longing for acceptance.  We all know what that feels like; we have been there, therefore love the other as if he or she is not the other but rather us here in this setting.  Love the other as you would love yourself.  Go in peace.

[2] Jamon Smith Staff Writer “New plan to prevent bullying examined” Tuscaloosa News September 17 2010.

[5] Iris Marion Young, “Five Faces of Oppression” as accessed at http://www.racialequitytools.org/resourcefiles/young.pdf

[6] Iris Marion Young, “Five Faces of Oppression” as accessed at http://www.racialequitytools.org/resourcefiles/young.pdf

[7] IBID

[9] Iris Marion Young, “Five Faces of Oppression” as accessed at http://www.racialequitytools.org/resourcefiles/young.pdf

[10] IBID

[11] IBID

[12] Leviticus 19:34

Is there an American Ethnicity?

This question arose for me after reading this article by Ray Suarez:  “Red, Brown, and Blue:  How our definition of whiteness has changed with each new wave of immigration.” It is well documented that as immigrants came to the United States of America, our concept of whiteness changed as these groups assimilated into the dominant Anglo culture.  The Germans were not white, Irish were not white, the Italians were not white, the Jews were not white in America until they were assimilated into the culture and assumed their place of sharing power with the anglo culture. The article states there was a great loss and sacrifice these groups had to surrender in order to be called white in America.

Hold that thought.  The definition of the word ethnicity that I am using is the following: Identity with or membership in a particular racial, national, or cultural group and observance of that group’s customs, beliefs, and language.

In recent months, there is increased rhetoric about preserving  American values, American traditions, American culture.  This rhetoric has been used in relationship to immigration, specifically undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Central America;  to Religious freedom, specifically the Islamic faith and the building of Mosques on American soil.   So the context implies that what is really being talked about is White American values, White American Traditions, White American culture.  In order to be an American, one needs to be perceived as being white, as part of the dominant Anglo culture.  This dominant Anglo culture is embedded with the notion of white supremacy and white privilege.

Back to what was lost in order to be white in America. My family has been here for close to 400 years, we are not simply Dutch or French or Irish or Welsh or German or Jewish.  My family is all of these and a few more besides.  I can no longer claim as my ethnicity any of these ethnic groups since culturally they are distinctly foreign to me, 15 + generations away from immigrant status will do that.  If I tried to reclaim all the ethnicities that make up me, I would be accused of cultural mis-appropriation. In fact, I already have been when I sought to honor my Jewish roots, albeit four generations back.

So even though my ancestral heritage includes these various groups of people, I am not a member of  these groups.  I cannot authentically claim these ethnicities as mine since I have no observance of these groups beliefs, customs, or language.  So because the dominant Anglo culture has conflated being American with whiteness–an ideology that I reject as a person who strives to undo racism in my life and in my culture–and  because my family roots have been here for 400 years and assimilated into the dominant culture a dozen plus more generations ago losing its  ethnic identity;  I become invisible because I have no ethnicity that I can authentically claim.  Except for the possibility of claiming American as my ethnicity.

But this begs the original question. Is there an American Ethnicity that is uniquely American that has not been conflated by the Anglo dominated culture? In other words what would an American ethnicity look like if “whiteness” was not part of the criteria for being an American?

I looked at the traditions and foods handed down in my family to see if there was any inkling of something that was uniquely American that could be applied to all Americans as an ethnic marker.   Something that would not presume dominance over other ethnicities that are also present in America.

There are two family recipes that I have that go back several hundred years.  One is a cookie called “Delaware Crybabies.”  This cookie is a molasses cookie/cake that dates back to the 1700’s presumably to my dutch ancestors.  The other recipe is Tomato Butter, a condiment that dates back to the early 1800’s.  So these recipes originated here in America by my ancestors, whether it was my ancestors directly that created them or a community of folks from that time period.  They are not European based so again, I cannot say they represent my ethnic heritage from Europe.  They are American based and the ingredients of these recipes are connected with the Anglo dominant culture.  Molasses, Nutmeg, and Allspice were all made available because of the Atlantic Triangle Trade where these ingredients were brought up from the Caribbean to New England in exchange for rum and other manufactured goods which was then bartered to acquire slaves in Africa.  So while these recipes have the markings of something ethnic for my family, they are tainted with the Anglo Dominance of whiteness.  The best ethnic marker I can offer them is that of being Colonial American which would then separate them out from presuming dominance over any other form of cuisine present in America.

In terms of customs that my family celebrates that might be considered American would be Thanksgiving and 4th of July.  Thanksgiving takes precedence as a holiday over any other in my family.  It is a secular family holiday which has deep roots, a time to express gratefulness of another year being together.  My family has also used this holiday to remember our loved ones who have died in thanksgiving for the gifts they bestowed us with their lives.  But the origins  of this holiday is tainted with Anglo dominance.

I remember a few years ago after the events of September 11th this ad was aired. It showed the faces of Americans.  

I don’t have any answers as to what my ethnicity is, it has been lost to the oppressive dominant culture of whiteness.  But in order for me to claim American as my ethnicity, it would mean a concerted effort to continually separate out America from the whitewash (bad pun) of white supremacy and white privilege.  The America I see does not equal white and its time that that is explicitly stated. We do not have to reinforce the history of American racism by continuing the conflation of these terms for our present or future reality. We can create a different future where America means equality for all.