Perhaps some of you grew up in a community like the one I did: a suburb of a major East Coast city, post-Civil Rights Movement, mostly populated by “good liberal” white folks who believed that we were northwards enough not to be infected by the racist attitudes of the past and that our real goal was to stop “seeing color” at all, at which point, we’d all be friends. Does that sort of community feel or sound familiar?
Ironically, despite explicit exhortations to “colorblindness,” I was indirectly acculturated to racist ideas. I received messages from the adults of my community that rap wasn’t “real” music; that every Asian person in my neighborhood was an immigrant; that I was fortunate to go to a high school where English was the only language in the classroom; and that the black neighborhoods in the city were “dangerous,” not that anyone I knew had ever been to them.
But I was “colorblind,” because acknowledging race meant you were racist, and I was a “good white liberal.” I became a young activist against needless war and the discrimination of LGBTQ people — unmistakably worthy causes — but I paid attention to few other justice issues because, I thought, Dr. King had already solved racism and the suffragists, sexism, and frankly I didn’t really know what classism, ableism, capitalism, ageism, or colonialism even were.
When I answered my call to the ministry and attended seminary, my understanding of the world I lived in began to change. I was introduced to anti-oppressive theology and philosophy for the first time. I attended classes with people more radical than I (— people who didn’t think America was the greatest country in the world, if you can believe it!). And, I was forced by my denomination to take workshops in anti-racism as one of my ordination requirements.
I thought it was such a drag… Not just a drag, but even insulting, that I — good colorblind person who had volunteered in India, and worked in an ethnically diverse public school, and had many friends of color, thank you — it felt insulting that I had to take classes in anti-racism. But, I wanted to get ordained, so I did it. I took a class called “White People Challenging Racism” through the Cambridge Center for Adult Education. I was hesitant, even defensive, at first but I started to realize the class was introducing me to parts of history and societal systems that made the problems of America make more sense: the North was complicit in southern slavery; our towns and cities were forced by law to be segregated; our criminal justice system was designed to incarcerate black and brown people…
So, then, after years hints and pushes from more radical friends and colleagues and after a lifetime of believing “color-blindness” was an achievable and laudable goal… I experienced my moment of awakening. It was a photograph of our former First Lady, Michelle Obama, resplendent as always in a formal evening gown — beige lace and sequins, if I remember correctly. The caption of the photograph read, “First Lady Michelle Obama, in a flesh-colored gown…” In that moment, a paradigm shifted in my mind. Because, of course, the gown was not Obama-flesh-colored, it was my-flesh-colored, and if even the First Lady of the United States could be subjected to a racial microaggression, well… Maybe America had never been America as I knew it. I am reminded of the gay Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, who wrote,
“O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every [person] is free.”
This strange, small, “a ha” moment opened me to reality, for which I am grateful, though I did mourn the loss of the story of our country I once believed in.
I was asked today to speak to you about teaching tolerance in an era of intolerance. Maybe some of you have heard this description of my religious tradition, Unitarian Universalism: “we’re tolerant of everything except intolerance.” That’s not quite right, but isn’t quite wrong either.
I see it as my religious duty to champion not just tolerance, not just acceptance, but enthusiasm for diversity in human identity. Any given Sunday in my congregation, you hear the message that every person has inherent worth and dignity and we are interconnected with all living beings on this precious and fragile Earth.
But, the message I want to deliver here today is that if we are enthusiastic about human diversity we cannot also be tolerant of lethal ideas. We do not have to tolerate ideas that are deadly to our own selves, or to those we love, or to total strangers whom we know still have inherent worth and dignity. We should not tolerate rape culture, toxic masculinity, “build the wall” rhetoric, “all lives matter” trivializing, legalized homophobia and transphobia for “religious freedom,” nor the consumerism that literally poisons our neighbors and the planet. We are all beloved children of God and this world is a unique and priceless gift, and any cultural messages that tell us otherwise cannot be tolerated.
I cannot imagine what damage I would be inflicting upon my congregation and the Needham community if I still believed that racism and sexism had been “fixed;” if I were still ignorant of other forms of oppression; if I weren’t dedicated to improving my understanding and practice as a flawed but-giving-it-my-best person. I am so grateful to my teachers, peers, and denomination for challenging and supporting me through the hard process of transformation.
So, I encourage all of us in this era of intolerance to engage in vulnerable, brave reflection so we can uproot oppressive ideas in ourselves and remind ourselves of our core, guiding principles. I encourage all of us to practice boldly celebrating human diversity out in our communities, such as at events like this one. I encourage all of us, especially those of us of privilege, to show up — by marching, wheeling, speaking, standing, or kneeling — when unjust ideas, policies, and violence break into our world and threaten marginalized people, building bridges to help transform hardened hearts. Let us never be tolerant of intolerance, in ourselves or in our neighbors, if we ever want to create the America that “yet must be — the land where every [person] is free.”
On an unusual warm Sunday in October, we conducted our third annual evacuation drill under the direction of our Safe Congregations Task Force, which has been working for two years on a set of updated policies and procedures to ensure a safer environment for all those in our congregation. Though the policies address a wide range of topics, the most visible aspect of this Task Force’s work for many in the church is our staged evacuation drills. You may recall that at last month’s evacuation drill, I ended my verbal instructions from the pulpit about how to exit and where to convene with a special note: “If there is a dangerous person on the grounds of the church, you will not exit out of specific doors nor convene on the front lawn — get out if you are able, and run to the police station on School Street.” I am truly loathe to say these words at each of our evacuation drills, but sadly, in our society today, it is a necessity for congregations to have an “active shooter plan.” Because of the awful prevalence of mass shootings in the United States, many of our local schools use the “ALICE protocol” to train staff and students to respond to active shooters, too.
As I left our Introduction to First Parish class yesterday afternoon, I was reminded why this is so. I was horrified to read the news of the mass shooting at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas. My heart broke learning that multiple generations of families were killed, including very young children. I was also gravely concerned to learn the gunman had a convicted history of domestic violence, but seemingly did not receive any treatment to curb his violent impulses and was still able to purchase deadly weapons.
An act of violence against a faith community affects me deeply not only as a minister of a beloved congregation, but as a Unitarian Universalist minister in particular. I still remember the terrible news of the shooting at the Tennessee Valley UU Church in 2008, which left two church members dead and many others wounded. Just as after the horrific mass shooting at Emanuel AME in Charleston in 2015, I have found myself struggling not to imagine — and fear — such a violent attack in our own MetroWest community, at our own local First Baptist Church or even at First Parish itself. I know much of my time in spiritual practice and with my personal therapist this week will be reestablishing a sense of safety and courage in myself, so such trepidation does not guide my actions or preoccupy my thoughts.
Perhaps some of you struggle with such anxiety after mass shootings, too. Please reach out to me or members of our Pastoral Care team if you are experiencing strong reactions to this tragedy and need spiritual support. For our families, please know that Mark LaPointe and Alexis Capen are available to offer support in talking with children and teens about tragic events, and there are resources available on the UUA website. The Needham Clergy Association hopes to convene an interfaith vigil of remembrance and action sometime this week, and I will advocate for further interfaith initiatives to promote community action for sensible gun reform (such as partnering with the local Stop Handgun Violence organization) and for peace- and healthy-relationship-building programs (such as expanding Needham area engagement with Our Whole Lives curricula and Louis D. Brown Peace Institute events). I hope by our Bell Notes on Thursday, I will have more information for you about an upcoming vigil service.
Of course, I will pray for all those killed, injured, and traumatized in their house of worship; for all those in mourning in the broader San Antonio region; and, for the loved ones of the gunman who suffer from this terrible attack, too. But, spiritual practices of compassion and remembrance are only a beginning to our faithful response. Atlanta-based Episcopal Bishop, the Right Reverend Robert C. Wright, wrote on Facebook, “Let’s not pray. As someone who convenes and commands prayer for a living, what America needs now is less prayer and more action from her elected officials. When the doers of evil are foreign-born, suggestions for policy and action flow forward. When the doers of evil are Americans with automatic and semi-automatic weapons, we are invited to moments of silence and prayer. Silence is what we use to hear God speak, not a place to hide from our responsibility. Prayer is not a refuge for cowards. Prayer is where we steel ourselves to partner with God for good. Please do not invite me to prayer in response to the horror of Sutherland Springs, Texas, unless it is to pray for courage over elected officials who intend to work for the ban of automatic and semi-automatic weapons.” May we take Rev. Wright’s words to heart, and together find the courage, creativity, and sustained commitment to stop gun violence in our nation.
Worship Service Sunday, November 19, 2017 10:30am in the Sanctuary Rev. Catie Scudera, preaching
Every person has tender, sensitive spots from personal hurts of our pasts. During this multigenerational Thanksgiving worship service, we’ll reflect on the universal experience of brokenheartedness and how we can be gentle with ourselves, open with our loved ones, and caring toward one another when a sensitive “break” is exposed.
We will also acknowledge Trans Day of Remembrance, which is celebrated annually on November 20th.
Children attend worship service. Nursery care is available.
Worship Service Sunday, November 12, 2017 10:30am in the Sanctuary Rev. Catie Scudera, preaching
What was old is new again! For History Sunday this year, we are “reusing and recycling” November worship services from our congregation’s past, from 10, 25, and 40 years ago. Come experience how we used to worship — and why remembering our history is important for present-day wholeness — and enjoy a display from our Archives Committee of scrapbooks and photo albums over our many years of worship and programming at First Parish.
Children attend first 15 minutes of worship followed by Religious Education classes. Nursery care is available.
Often in the year after a loved one has died, we are particularly pained during certain holiday seasons and special familial moments: it is heartbreaking to live through the first Thanksgiving, first birthdays, first annual family gathering, without our loved one. And, then, of course, we arrive at the first death anniversary, which can feel tender, surreal, and melancholy.
I remember during one month, I lost both my maternal grandfather and one of my beloved professors at Harvard Divinity School, Rev. Peter Gomes, and officiated my first funeral as a student minister at the Winchester Unitarian Society. It was February, and for such a short month, it seemed like it dragged on and on with grief. A year later, I was not fully conscious of the grief my body still held onto: the following January, my heart was a bit more tender — I had trouble focusing on my work — and, I did feel a bit blue. It took a reminder from loved ones that I was approaching this hard triple-anniversary of three deaths in my life for my consciousness to catch up with the grief my body still carried.
Last November after the presidential election, many members and friends of First Parish told me they felt like they were grieving a death. Some were shocked by the results; some made fearful by them; and, some were disappointed that our country had met their low expectations. I write this brief missive to all of you in the church, because I wonder if any of you have felt tender-hearted, unfocused, or even sad coming up to this anniversary in our country’s history. I wonder if any of you have begun to reflect on the last year, which has brought unease and suffering to so many as new harsh policies have been instituted and established human rights have been threatened and denied. I wonder if any of you are in need of a reminder of the hard anniversary we are approaching, and are in need of some encouragement to self-care and courage.
If you are in such need, I encourage you to take time for rest and revitalization this upcoming week, potentially reviewing the ideas in the “election anxiety”- and “inauguration anxiety”-relief blog posts written by Mark LaPointe and myself. Please do take care of yourselves, your family members, and your friends during this time, and know that your friends and staff team at First Parish are available for conversation and comfort.
As the leaves finally begin to change color and fall, I’m reminded of this piece by New England poet Mary Oliver:
“When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.
I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.
Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, ‘Stay awhile.’
The light flows from their branches.
And they call again, ‘It’s simple,’ they say,
‘and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.’”
May we remember that no matter how tender, surreal, or melancholy we may feel at one moment or one season, we have come into the world like trees and all living beings — to go easy on ourselves, to be filled with light, and to shine out.
Worship Service Sunday, November 5, 2017 10:30am in the Sanctuary Rev. Catie Scudera, preaching
Across the country on a Sunday between November 2017 and February 2018, Unitarian Universalist congregations are honoring “Promise and Practice Sunday” as part of a denominational recognition of the contributions of Unitarian Universalists of color. This worship service, developed by UU leaders of color, will ask us, “What would it be like if our worship services centered entirely around the voices and the experiences of Unitarian Universalists of color? What truths might we hear, however difficult? What might we learn?” This is also “fall back” Sunday, so enjoy the extra hour of sleep after the church auction!
Children attend first 15 minutes of worship followed by Religious Education classes. Nursery care is available.
Needham Lyceum Wednesday, November 1, 2017 7pm in the Parlor Rev. Catie Scudera speaking
Are you interested in delving deeper into how white supremacy lives in our congregation and Unitarian Universalism at large? Join Rev. Catie and the Racial Justice Task Force for a time of reflection and discussion on the Anti-Racism Rubric for UU Congregations. You need not have attended the first Teach-In to come to this meeting.
Saturday, October 28th, 11am service in the Sanctuary
12pm reception in the Parish Hall
Rev. Catie will officiate a memorial celebration of Bridie Sheehan, longtime friend of First Parish and mother of church member Geri Sheehan. All are welcome at the memorial service and for the luncheon reception afterwards.
As promised, Rev. Catie has finalized a “director’s cut” of Ed Lane’s eulogy, with help from Helen and Ed’s sons Michael and John. This version of the eulogy has about 50% more material about Ed’s life than the “short” eulogy delivered at his memorial service.
Needham Lyceum Sunday, October 22, 2017 9:15am in the Parlor Rev. Catie Scudera, speaking
Our national denomination was rocked by a hiring controversy in the spring of 2017, and leaders of Black Lives of UU responded by organizing an international U/U White Supremacy Teach-In. We participated in this Teach-In through worship and children’s RE the same weekend we hosted the Icons of the Civil Rights Movement art exhibition in April 2017. Now in October, we participate in a second international U/U White Supremacy Teach-In through religious exploration for all ages: children, youth, and adults. Join Rev. Catie for a Lyceum about American racism, white supremacy, and how Unitarian Universalists have been (and can be) both complicit and resistors to racial oppression in our country.