Who Does Our Congregation Serve?

In our service on January 10, I invited people to consider both who they as individuals serve and also, who we as a congregation serve and who we might serve.

The members make up the congregation, and to some extent, the members are who are served. But any institution that serves only its own members is narcissistic in the same way as a person in love with themself.

Robert Greenleaf, who has devoted his career to servant leadership, wrote an essay called, “The Institution as Servant.” In it, he explains:

This is my thesis: caring for persons, the more able and the less able serving each other, is the rock upon which a good society is built. Whereas, until recently, caring was largely person to person, now most of it is mediated through institutions – often large, complex, powerful, impersonal; not always competent; sometimes corrupt. https://www.greenleaf.org/what-is-servant-leadership/

So, institutions, too, must become servants. The congregation, for example, needs to understand its role in service in the world. This fellowship does service that might be unexpected for its size. Last Friday, I joined with a few others and served breakfast at Happy Kitchen. Since I often find the service I do abstract, or based in words — speaking, writing, or listening –, to do something concrete as service, cooking eggs, washing dishes, serving food, is rewarding. To see the people who eat and their appreciation for having a hot breakfast touches me. And to do it with people from the congregation I serve moves and inspires me.

I am convinced that congregations that are internally focused, thinking mostly about themselves, do not ultimately have staying power. They are social clubs rather than change agents. I don’t think that is true of this congregation, but there is always more that can be done.

Who should we serve? Those who need it most — always, we want to consider how our decisions affect those who are least privileged in our society. Someone in the congregation also suggested the need for us to serve the earth. Indeed, that’s consistent with our values and principles. Service turns us outward rather than inward and makes us a better congregation and better people.

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January

When the song of the angels is stilled,

When the star in the sky is gone,

When the kings and princes are home,

When the shepherds are back with their flock, the work of Christmas begins: to find the lost, the heal the broken, the free the prisoners, to rebuild the nations, to bring peace among (siblings), to make music in the heart.

These words from African American minister Howard Thurman challenge us to move from December to January, from the Christmas season to constructive work to make the world more like we long for it to be. The Gandhi-King-Gyatso Season for Non-violence doesn’t begin until the end of the month, but the Unitarian Universalist “30 Days of Love” kick off on January 16, with racial justice being this year’s theme.

The problem of realizing social justice is so huge that working at it can discourage us. My reaction often is, “Haven’t I already done this?” Feeding the hungry, healing the sick, ministering to the imprisoned – all of these are literally endless tasks. Even making significant social change – agitating for civil rights for all people without regard for race, gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity; working for the elimination of poverty through living wages and adequate social supports; creating support systems to help people escape domestic violence, sexual slavery, or addiction – so many of these efforts seem to be two steps forward, one step back, demanding continual attention to hold onto any small gains achieved. How do we maintain our commitment to making a difference?

There are some ways to diminish discouragement. One is to do the work together. Together, we have more ideas and more power. We support one another, reassure each other in times of failure, celebrate together in times of victory, and strategize together in times of confusion. The work – and it is work – is much easier with more hands. Another strategy is to recognize the difficult changes that have already come. Same sex marriage, once unimaginable, is now legal. Women and people of color, though still without economic parity, have many more opportunities than even fifty years ago. Voting rights, though under attack, are more universal than they once were. Environmental awareness has increased, as pollution as decreased, even if we still find ourselves overly dependent on fossil fuels. When we can see ourselves as part of a long line of people striving for justice, then we can find a confidence that our modest efforts, in the long run, are worth it.

We aren’t all able to have an earth-shattering impact. But our small daily efforts matter. Maybe it’s educating our children about equality, offering kindness to a stranger, writing a small check, or volunteering a few hours. As we move into the New Year, perhaps our resolutions can focus not only on personal improvements, but also on how we want to make a difference in the world.

In faith and freedom,

Jonalu

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Anti-Discrimination Ordinance

As you probably know, a group of religious leaders in Manhattan has gone on record with the City Commission supporting an ordinance to protect gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people from discrimination in employment and public accommodations. Here is what the letter read at the December 1 meeting says:

Distinguished Commissioners:

As religious leaders, our traditions and denominations have different theological positions about many matters, including some of the specifics around sexual orientation and gender identity. One thing we can agree on, though, without equivocation, is that neither gender identity nor sexual orientation justifies discrimination in employment or public accommodation.

While same-sex marriage is now legal, there are still areas of equality that need to be addressed. When the state threatens to find gay men and lesbians unfit as parents, simply based on their sexual orientation, we can be sure that discrimination is alive and has not been driven underground. Yet, no federal or state law prohibits that kind of treatment. There are also no federal or state laws prohibiting discrimination in hiring practices or housing. LGBT people can still be fired simply because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

We feel the need to speak out on this issue because religion is often cited as a justification for discriminatory action against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender citizens. Our religious values oppose such bias and judgment, encouraging instead adherence to the principle of love for neighbor. Discrimination justified by religion is still discrimination.

We appreciate that Manhattan has implemented a policy to prohibit hiring discrimination for city employees due to sexual orientation, but more needs to be done. Other Kansas cities have created ordinances to provide protections which prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. We can, and should, do the same. We urge attention to this by our City Commission.

Thirteen ministers and pastors have signed the letter to date, and we are seeking more. If you missed the local media coverage, you can see the TV report here: http://ksnt.com/2015/12/04/manhattan-pastors-ask-for-anti-discrimination-ordinance/.

Of course, we recognize that more needs to be done than simply saying change must happen. This will likely be a lengthy and time-consuming effort that will involve much more than the religious community. Let me know if there are ways you would like to help.

In faith and freedom,
Jonalu

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Peace on Earth?

Peace on Earth. Goodwill to all.

That’s what the story says the angel proclaimed. This season, peace on earth grows ever more elusive. When I originally wrote this column for the newsletter, the Paris attacks and Beirut bombing had not yet faded from our awareness. The immediate response to the events in Paris was increased bombing of Syria by the French. Meanwhile, shouts rang out for our own country to take a stronger stance against the Islamic State.

Since then, we have witnessed a shooting at a women’s health center and an office holiday party. Earlier, we saw white supremacists shoot at demonstrators in Minneapolis. Guns, death, hatred. We seem surrounded.

At the same time, many of our leaders, including our own governor, have reacted against the most vulnerable, calling for the exclusive of Syrian refugees from our country. It’s not the first time that anti-immigrant sentiment has arisen, of course. We Americans have long been cautious about immigrants who were seen as “not like us,” – Asian, African, Hispanic, even Jewish refugees before World War II. But how ironic, that as we celebrate the poor wandering couple who found no place at the inn, that we would push others away.

Religions across time and place have called for peace. In ancient times, the prophet Jeremiah decried people who said “Peace, peace” when there is no peace. The prophet Jesus was supposed to be the Prince of Peace. There are peace Buddhas and peace gods.

At the same time, religions have been at the center of conflict through the ages. Conquest flowered with the conspiracy between states and religious leaders not only in Christianity and Islam, but in Buddhism and Hinduism as well. From the Crusades to the Islamic State, people have used religious ideology to declare their own cultural superiority and to crush those different from themselves.

So, how do we present an alternative view? As religion has inspired war, so it can inspire peace. I’ve come to believe that we need to take seriously even suggestions that seem outlandish and impossible. We must because what else is there to do but build an alternative worldview?
What if we were to add a Department of Peace to our federal institutions of Department of Defense (which could be re-named the Department of War) and Homeland Security? What if we took peace-keeping and peace-making as seriously as making war? What if we learned and taught non-violent compassionate communication and peaceful resolution of conflict on the small scale – in schools, in religious institutions, in community organizations like Scouts?

Maybe this season of Christmas could be a time of peace-seeking and peace-making, a time to remember the high price of conflict and to find a new way.

Let there be peace on earth. And let it begin with me.

In faith and freedom,
Jonalu

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Letter from Rev. David Carter

November, 2015
Dear Members and Friends of UUFM,

Warm regards and best wishes to all.
Over the last few weeks, having corresponded productively with several UUFM congregants to discuss their concerns regarding my references to autism in my sermon of Oct 25th, I now believe that additional good will come from my sharing with the larger community of congregants the value I received from those exchanges.
First, because I didn’t make it sufficiently clear in my sermon, please let me clarify an important point. I do not believe, nor did I intend to convey, that autism predisposes a person to antisocial behavior. Neither do I believe that persons with autism pose a threat to society.
Rather, I intended to convey a value I hold. Namely, that restorative practices and best therapeutic interventions should be the standard for all troubled persons who behave in destructive and/or antisocial ways. Moreover, even if and when persons are discovered to be obsessively contemplating or preparing to carry out antisocial acts, the response ought to proceed along lines of due process and be centered in restorative practices aimed at healing.
Therefore, my argument was/is that whenever and wherever possible, compassionate and just interventions, restorative practices, and therapy ought to be the universal response to antisocial behavior. Of course, that standard should not be reserved for a privileged few. And, in my sermon, I averred that Black Lives Matter is a critically important response to the odious double standard that has been cruelly applied to people of color in America for centuries.
Nevertheless, brought about by the necessity of carefully reviewing my sermon to understand why people had expressed misgivings, I had a breakthrough, an “aha” moment. Here is my realization:
People seemed to accept my passionate declaration that gross incomprehension of other people’s intrinsic worth and dignity does not excuse or condone crimes of violence against them. But important questions were raised as a result of my not adequately disambiguating two very different phenomena upon which I touched in my sermon.
The first is what I perceive to be “learned” incomprehension; i.e., white supremacist ideologies that inculcate “incomprehension” of the fact that black lives matter by demoting people of color to insensate chattel and thereby “justifying” acts of atrocity against them. The second is the incomprehension of social cues associated with autism, a complex neurological condition that runs along a spectrum; a phenomenon about which, admittedly, I know little. Of course the two are worlds apart.
Sadly, though, my awareness of that distinction and my sensitivity to its significance was not made sufficiently clear to my audience when I spoke, ergo, the justifiable concern expressed by several in attendance.
Naturally, I regret any and all unintended distress or confusion my words caused. And I am deeply grateful for the dialogue. Through it, I was able to move beyond egoistic defensiveness rooted in fear and wind up inhabiting the space in which learning occurs. I finally “got it.” I realized why there were objections and misgivings and feel grateful for the dialogues that ensued and brought understanding. Of course, if any think that further dialogue is necessary or will be helpful, that is most welcome.

Yours in the faith we share,
Rev. David Carter

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Religious Language Update

I promised during the sermon on religious language a few weeks ago to investigate the word “sermon.” I didn’t like what I found. Indeed, the negative connotations of the word have been built into the current dictionary definitions. Words like “reproof,” “exhortation,” and even “tedious” come up. Sermons, indeed, seem to be about making judgments and calling listeners to account. That’s not what I learned in my preaching class with now-retired UU minister Judy Hoehler. Nor is it my experience with well-developed sermons by the best preachers I have heard. (And, I know, “preaching” has many of the same disturbing connotations. Sigh.)

I have always used the word “sermon” in order to distinguish it from other kinds of talks: “lecture,” which is primarily about conveying information; “discourse,” which has a more philosophical feel; “oration,” which is way too grand; “speech,” which is what politicians give; “homily,” which traditionally has been very short; and just plain “talk,” which doesn’t say muchat all about what it is.

The question, it seems to me, is about what we intend to do in the time we spend together on Sunday mornings. For me, we are crafting an experience that we share as a gathered congregation that will invite us into deeper reflection on our values and on the meaning of our lives, as we strengthen and develop the bonds of community. Everything that is part of the service – the music, the readings, the story, the Joys and Sorrows, the offertory, the announcements, the people in the room, the aesthetic setting, everything – should work together to create that shared experience. The goal, then, of the words offered during that twenty to thirty minute chunk of time that I, or someone, is talking, is to contribute to the experience. So, how do we bring together values, meaning, and community through those words?

A couple of people have used the word “provocation” to describe what I have called a sermon. True, that time should provoke us to think more deeply about our lives – not in a way that says “do this, not that” – but in a way that invites examination, meditation, perhaps even change. But “provocation” doesn’t seem to be exactly the right word, because there’s more. This talk may also offer comfort, raise a new way of looking at something, remind us of an old way of looking at something; it may reinforce our thinking, or overturn it; it may fill us full of emotion or leave us longing for something that is missing.

For the time being, I have decided to use the word “reflection” for the talk I offer during the service. I like that reflection can mean thoughtful consideration on a topic, and also that its other meanings imply a relationship between surfaces and light that provide a metaphor for how such a talk works in a congregation. When my reflections are at their best, they will reflect, or bounce back to you, what I am hearing in the congregation, but perhaps through a different lens. At any rate, I hope my words – whatever they are called – are helpful in discerning meaning, examining values, and strengthening community.

See you on Sunday,
Jonalu

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What Should We Do?

Several times lately as I have sat at Radina’s or The Chef, nursing a cup of decaf, I have noticed that people near me were talking about religion. I was not trying to eavesdrop, and didn’t catch the details of the conversation, but I did notice intensity and sincerity. There was no question that they were Christian, and in each case, they seemed to be exploring the application of their religious beliefs to their lives. “What should I do?” they were asking, either directly or indirectly.

I am sure I do not share a theological grounding with them. But I admire their conviction that their beliefs should connect them directly with ethical action in the world.

My hope is that we UU’s are engaged in a similar struggle. It’s one thing to believe in the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part. It’s another thing to consider what that belief demands of us… beyond recycling. If we trust that the arc of the universe bends towards justice, as 19th century Unitarian minister Theodore Parker asserted, do we approach our justice work differently than if we believe in a random universe where the weight of justice falls entirely on human beings? If we have faith that our lives are full of wonder, how do we respond?

The aligning of our beliefs, our values and our actions in the world is no easy task. Sometimes, our beliefs have to change. Sometimes, our values have to be rearranged. Sometimes, our actions have to be rethought. No easy task, but it is an important one. Perhaps the most important task we have.

I once read an essay reflecting on whether, if the author were arrested for being a Unitarian Universalist, if there would be enough evidence to convict him. Good question.

Does my life and work establish without a doubt that I am a committed Unitarian Universalist? What commitments do my beliefs call me to? What actions do our beliefs call us to? What should we do?

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Getting to Know You

A major thrust of my efforts in the last few weeks has been to try to get to know you as a congregation and as individuals and to try to get to know Manhattan. As I’ve said before, the notebook full of summaries about members, friends, and children and youth has been a tremendous help. I also appreciate the willingness of people to meet with me when I’ve asked, or to invite me. I continue to try to get to know you in these simple, basic ways. Relationships form the basis of ministry, so I don’t think there can be too much of these individual, family, and small group meetings.

So, a few observations about the membership:

  • Radina’s has incredible popularity among UU members and friends, as does the Konza Prairie (which I have managed to visit and look forward to more).
  • Besides university professors and support staff, our congregation includes a number of health care providers, teachers, and social workers, and a scattering of other careers, including farming, art, law, accounting, dog grooming, and the military.
  • We include a surprising number of entomologists.
  • Many people identify as humanist or atheist, but a number who see themselves as spiritual, despite lack of belief in God.
  • There’s a pretty wide acquaintance with Eastern religions, and interest in Native American and Pagan paths.
  • We share lots of enthusiasm for outdoor activities and in music.
  • Members have a wide variety of commitments to organizations that do good work in the community.

In the meantime, I’m also learning about Manhattan. Again, a few things I’ve learned:

  • People are nice. Really, really nice. They stop for pedestrians, are patient in lines, talk calmly with their children, and seem sincere when they ask how you are.
  • It’s easy to get around. I’m really excited to be able to walk and bike a lot from my downtown apartment.
  • I was surprised to find out how much poverty and homelessness have increased in the last few years.
  • The university does dominate, but there are plenty of other opportunities around town, too.
  • The religious community is pretty overwhelmingly Christian, but if you look closely, some alternatives exist, so there may be potential for interfaith collaborations.

I’m looking forward to learning more!

See you on Sunday (if not before),

Jonalu

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Top Ten Reasons I Came to UUFM

There are so many things I want to share with you! I struggled to come up with what my first newsletter column should address. We have much to share to really get to know one another and to find the ways to work best together.

Upon reflection, it seems fitting to start with the Top Ten Reasons I wanted to come to UUFM:

10) The chance to return to my fellowship roots. My first UU membership (other than the Church of the Larger Fellowship — if you don’t know about it, check it out; it’s the UUA “church without walls”) was in the Bull Run UU’s, a lay-led start-up group that formed in Manassas, Virginia, in the 1980’s. Later, I joined the UU Fellowship of Greater Cumberland (Maryland), the congregation that ultimately ordained me in 1993. The first congregation I joined that had a full-time minister (James Reeb UU Congregation), I was the minister.

9) The demographic growth in Manhattan brings great opportunities for expansion.

8) The university provides a chance to offer vital campus ministry.

7) The Flint Hills. As I told a friend, “I’ll be living in the part of Kansas that isn’t flat.”

6) The beautiful building and grounds. I remembered the loveliness of the place, especially the circle chalice window and the walk up the hill, from preaching here once in 2011.

5) The very balanced age breakdown within the congregation, a good ratio of children to adults and a variety of adult generations in leadership.

4) The commitment to doing things well that shows in attitudes about process, in the new video, in the building, and in so many other ways.

3) The history of positive relationships with ministers and the overwhelming backing for the move to full-time ministry, including the willingness to support it financially.

2) The readiness to consider the role of spirituality in the life of the fellowship and of its members.

1) The focus on the minister’s role in outreach and justice work in the community.

 

These factors create a most opportune connection between the fellowship and me, between you and me. I am as pleased to be here as you seem to be to have me. Thanks to all for the wonderful welcome I have received. My hopes are high for our work together.

In faith and freedom,

Jonalu

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Words from our Chair and our new Minister…

WORDS FROM OUR CHAIR — KATIE KINGERY-PAGE

Dear Fellow UUs and Friends,

There is much to be somber about this summer, particularly the recent, racially and religiously motivated violence in our nation. The UU message of love is needed now more than ever.

I spent the past week at UU Mid-America Region’s Midwest Leadership School. Board Secretary Jessica Sievers, and Board Member-at-Large Mark Clarke, attended the school, also. We are grateful to this Fellowship whose generosity sponsored our tuition to the school. I entered the school with a question in my heart: What is UUFM’s role in growing the Unitarian Universalist movement for social justice? In our own institutional history, an early member described this mission as “deeds, not creeds.”

Mark, Jessica, and I spent the week at leadership school in community with 50 other people. Never before have I felt so strongly that the time is here for the UU movement. Leadership school is structured in three parts:

  • UU ROOTS AND THEOLOGY–an overview;
  • ORGANIZATIONAL DEVELOPMENT AND LEADERSHIP–which includes principles of right relations and effective decision making processes; and
  • WORSHIP–this is interpreted broadly, just as in our Fellowship.

I left the school with two new questions: What tools do we need in order to stretch as a community to embrace more people, who may or may not be like us, sticking with it, even in uncomfortable moments? And, how can we be an even more joyful community, feeding our stamina as we turn love into action? The answers will come from each of you, as we move forward with our new minister.

Our new minister, Rev Jonalu Johnstone, arrives in Manhattan this month. There are many opportunities to meet Rev Johnstone. Share the joy of her first service and sermon on Sunday, August 23, followed immediately by a potluck dessert and coffee reception. Please bring a dessert or pastry to share, as you are able. The very next weekend, come to our annual Welcome Back Potluck Picnic (August 29), followed by Angie Lynch’s Sunday program (August 30), which Rev Johnstone will convene.

Each of us has a role in creating this beloved community. There is more to look forward to in September: a whole congregation start-up workshop for all of us with Rev Johnstone. The workshop, facilitated by a staff member from the Mid-America Region, is a typical part of welcoming a new minister. The workshop will be held immediately after the Sunday Service on September 13.

I return to you full of energy to live out our vision to be a safe haven, a bold model of love, and a visible beacon of hope. I look forward to listening to your thoughts on how we can live the UUFM vision.

Love will guide us,

Katie

Talk to UUFM Board Chair Katie Kingery-Page after Sunday services, or contact Katie at 341-5650 or kingerypage@gmail.com with your inspirations and concerns, or chat with any Board member.

A NOTE FROM REV JONALU JOHNSTONE

Dear friends … and soon-to-be friends,

Transitions are never easy. I am still in the midst of saying good-bye in Oklahoma City and sorting through and packing in preparation for moving. At the same time, I am getting excited about joining you very soon. The goals that you have laid out as a congregation resonate with me deeply. My focus will be on establishing a collaborative relationship where we can become the community that we long to be. I look forward to meeting you this month. Once I am here, please don’t hesitate to contact me. I want to meet with and get to know as many members and friends as possible. I want to know what the Fellowship means to you, how you have been involved and the future you envision. I can’t wait for our adventure together to begin!

Jonalu

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