Friday, January 5, 2024

A Time of Mystery and Reverance by Reverend Tom Capo preached on 12/17/2023


Unitarian Universalists are not a chosen people; we are a choosing people.  And because of that the ideas of mystery and reverence are complicated.  Each of us holds different beliefs.   When was the last time this congregation participated in a beliefs survey?  Let’s try one this morning.  If you’re comfortable doing so, raise your hand if
You are absolutely certain there is a god/goddess/divinity of any kind;
You are fairly certain there is a god/goddess/divinity of any kind;
You are fairly certain there is not a god/goddess/divinity of any kind;
You are absolutely certain there is not a god/goddess/divinity of any kind;
You don’t know if there is a god/goddess/divinity of any kind;
Please raise you hand if you feel none of these questions fit for you.

In a Pew research study done in 2014 of 35,000 Americans from all 50 states on the religious landscape of our country, pulled out the information on Unitarian Universalists.  The 164 Unitarian Universalists ranged in age from 18 to over 65, with 40% men and 60% women.  Of these Unitarian Universalists 20% absolutely believe there is a god, 25% were fairly certain there is, 20% were fairly certain there is no god, 27 % were absolutely certain there is no god, 0% didn’t know if there was god or not, and 8% answered Other, not feeling they fit into any of those categories.

What about mystery?
Please raise your hand if you have had an experience you would describe as mystery or wonder, perhaps feeling a connection with something greater than yourself, like divinity, mother earth, humanity or the universe.
Now raise your hand:
If you found it difficult to put this experience into words;
If you felt drawn to this experience, perhaps even wanting to embrace that experience for a while;
If you felt something change within you after you had this experience;
If you just let the wonder or mystery of the experience be inside you, without trying to define it;
If you tried to quantify or define the experience in some rational way.

In the same pew research study I mentioned earlier, it was reported that 66% the UUs in this study experience a sense of mystery or wonder at least once a week.  And only 7% seldom or never experienced a sense of mystery or wonder.  

How important is mystery and wonder in a person’s life?  And how important is it to define it?  Or is it important to define it?  Perhaps it’s enough just let it be, embracing it with not having to know how or why it is.  I was really struck by Annaka Harris’s book “I Wonder”.  She feels very passionate about wanting adults to let children experience mystery and wonder without pushing them to come to immediate definitive conclusions about what they are experiencing.  In her author’s note she writes: “I believe that one of the most important gifts we can give our children is the confidence to say, ‘I don’t know.’  

It’s the foundation from which we begin our investigation of the world: asking questions, taking the necessary time to understand the answers, and searching for new answers when the ones we have… don’t seem to work. The feeling of not knowing is also the source of wonder and awe…[What might change if we] celebrate the feelings of awe and wonder in our children as the foundation for all learning. [What possibilities might open up if we] teach children to say “I don’t know” and help them understand the [discoveries not knowing can offer]…[What happens when we drop the role of all-knowing parent and instead talk to our children] about the limits of our own knowledge…[What insights might we gain when we, parent and child,] wonder … together!”  
Sometimes a sense of wonder bubbles up within your heart or mind, not necessarily stimulated by an external event or experience.  For instance, I wonder about the relationship between science and religion a lot.  So I look for opportunities to think about and discuss that relationship.

7 years ago, I went to presentation at the College of DuPage, a college in the suburbs of Chicago.  The presentation was titled “Science and Religion: Is there a conflict between them?”  It was sponsored by the Philosophy and Religious Studies Department.  One of the presenters discussed the Non-overlapping magisteria or NOMA thesis. I had not heard of this before, so I was very curious.  The thesis states that there should not be any overlap between the realms of science and religion.  Science should stay in its lane of trying to figure out the how of the universe works--the factual character of the natural world, and development of theories that coordinate and explain these facts--and religion should stay in the lane of human purposes, meanings, and values, and the supernatural.  

As the discussion progressed between the audience and the presenters it became evident that religion and science staying in their own lanes was often difficult and also extremely problematic. Religion often uses stories and metaphors to help people develop wisdom, ethics, and morals, but sometimes religion tries to explain physical phenomena or history without facts to back up the explanations.  And science has helped us understand many things about how the universe works.  Scientists have created medicines, harnessed some of the earth’s elements, thereby improving our lives.  But sometimes science is used to manipulate the physical world without regard for values or ethics. While religion and science are two of our very human responses to mystery, they are sometimes not as discrete as some of us might assume.
When we find or experience a mystery, we are prodded by it, and we seek to formulate a response.  That response can be scientific exploration, a search for truth and meaning, or letting the mystery be.  Which serves us best—the scientific method, a holy curiosity, or a humble awe and wonder?  Do we have to choose one response over the other?  Or could it be that blending approaches might serve us as we seek to apprehend mystery?  How dependent is your response on the situation, your mood, your need, your beliefs?

Each one of us has developed—or is in the process of developing--our truth about the universe.  Some of us believe that existence is mostly about survival, reproduction, neurons, and brain structures.  Some of us believe that existence is mostly about values, meaning, purpose, spirit.  The majority of us operate using a philosophy that incorporates both science and religion, or spirituality, if you prefer.  Can we resist the urge to quantify mystery, to reduce it to its physical properties?  I don’t think we can.  And would we want to?  Who doesn’t want to find the genesis of a mystery?  Humans are curious creatures—and UUs especially so.  We want to know the answers.  We used to think atoms were the smallest piece of matter, but now we know quarks and leptons are, but might there be something even smaller?  We want to know.  

The thing is we humans want to know why everything happens and what causes everything to happen.  And, for me, the reality is that we can’t. But I also believe that we shouldn’t stop trying to understand as much as we can.  The thing is we have to live our lives with the limited amount of information we have today, and our time, our lifespan, on this earth is limited.  Given those facts, how do you choose to respond to mystery?

Let me share a little more from Annaka Harris’s author’s note:  “We live in a society where people are uncomfortable with not knowing. Children aren’t taught to say “I don’t know,” and honestly … [it] is rarely modeled for them. They too often see adults avoiding questions and fabricating answers, out of either embarrassment or fear, and this comes at a price. When children are embarrassed by or afraid of the feeling of not knowing, they are preoccupied with escaping their discomfort, rather than being motivated to learn. This robs them of the joy of curiosity.”  I wish I could say I taught my children to accept “I don’t know” as an acceptable honest response to my questions, but I didn’t.  I usually followed up their “I don’t know” with a something like “well, why not?” or “well, go find out.”  I wish I’d said “It’s another mystery, let’s see what we can find out together.” or “Isn’t that interesting, I don’t know either?”

We seek to know all the answers, because when we know all the answers then we can feel safe.  But when we don’t know the answers—that can produce real anxiety.  Both religion and science seek to explain mystery at least in part to reduce that anxiety.   Science has offered answers to causes for various illnesses and medicines to reduce symptoms or cure illnesses.  Religions have offered answers to questions about life’s purpose and meaning—pain is transient—at least for most of us--and suffering can be caused by attachments to worldly things—and for those who accept those answers, they feel safer and their anxiety is diminished.  

The beliefs or truths that make me less anxious might not make you feel less anxious, heck they might even make you feel more anxious. My willingness to accept some level of anxiety frees me to embrace letting mystery be. I don’t have to know the answer to everything, even when prodded by mystery, I always have the choice to either look deeper into the mystery or accept it with humble awe and wonder.  And when I decide to track down an answer, I try to keep myself open to the potential experience of awe and wonder, open to differences between myself and others, and open to possibility.  

This openness is as important to me as finding the answer to mystery.  
There are mysteries that we may never find out or may not find out in our lifetime.  And there are mysteries that we are confronted with every day to which there are no factual answers—like what is beautiful; what is fascinating?  

As Unitarian Universalists we are encouraged to approach mystery from different angles, open to new revelations, and with a willingness to consider other people’s view of mystery.  My respect for science co-exists with my religious beliefs about mystery.  I am a Buddhist—I believe that everything is transient and my spiritual practice is meditation/mindfulness.  I am also a humanist—I believe that I must live meaningfully in the here and now and try to make the world a better place for all in the here and now.  I am also a panentheist—I believe in the divinity in all things, not a god or goddess out there, but that god/goddess/spirit is part of me and everything. And I am a Unitarian Universalist—I affirm our Principles and Sources in how I live my life.  

Choosing to embrace all these spiritual paths might seem too complicated, too paradoxical, too conflicted to fit into one person.  But we are complex beings with a mind, heart, and/or soul.  And when we experience or consider a mystery, there is always another question offered “Do I want to dissect the mystery to learn more about it or do I want to learn more about myself by accepting this mystery as a springboard to wonderment?”  When we choose to learn more about ourselves, what will we discover along the way?  What possibilities open for us?  How might our path through life change when we learn more about ourselves?  Will we see or experience the world differently?  These are big questions and I believe are at the heart of how we experience mystery.  

As a both/and religion, we can examine the science or spirituality of a mystery, let a mystery be, and/or learn about ourselves from a mystery.  At this time in my life, I find the path within far more fascinating and fulfilling than getting to the bottom of every mystery.  How will you respond to mystery?  However you respond, know that this congregation is a place where we can share our experiences of mystery and our responses to mystery.  Here we will learn from one another expanding the possibilities that mystery offers us.  And here’s hoping we never find all the answers.  So may it be.  

Lights in Dark Times--A Reflection on Diwali by Reverend Tom Capo preached on 11/12/2023

I have had many friends who are Hindu and who celebrate Diwali.  They have spoken of it with great joy and reverence.  But before we explore a little about Diwali, I think it would be best to share a common understanding about Hinduism, for Diwali came out of the Hindu tradition—even though today it is celebrated by Sikhs, Jaines, and Buddhists and even people with no particular religious tradition.  

Hinduism is a collective term applied to the many philosophical and religious traditions native to India.  In a strict sense there was no 'Hinduism' before modern times, although the sources of Hindu traditions are very ancient.  Hinduism has no defined starting point that anyone has been able to discover. The traditions which flow into Hinduism may go back several thousand years and some practitioners claim that revelation in Hinduism is eternal.  So, like Unitarian Universalism, Hinduism is always in a state of change.  Most Hindus believe that there are several gods and goddesses; multiple levels of reality; and that all humans are involved in cycles of innumerable reincarnations on earth.

Many, but not all, Hindus believe these gods actively influence the world and interact with humans.  Hindus also believe in karma; karma is the sum of a person's actions, both helpful and harmful behaviors, in this and previous states of existence; karma is viewed as deciding a person’s fate in future existences. Hindus believe they are stuck here on this earth until reunited with their God, Brahma. Also, Brahman is the spiritual essence of the universe.  Many believe that material things around us, cell phones, tv's, possessions, even our bodies are temporary, seductive, and not always helpful in achieving ultimate connection with Brahma. Earth is viewed as a place where there are multiple opportunities for spiritual growth so that a person can ultimately come into connection with Brahma.  The Universe is Brahma's creation; and he/she is ultimately good and compassionate god.
There are four goals in life for a Hindu: to pursue material gain by lawful means; to follow the right, moral path prescribed in the Vedas and other scriptures; to reincarnate to higher levels of existence through pure acts, pure knowledge and pure devotion; and to be released from the cycle of rebirth/reincarnation and becoming one with Brahma.  

There are four very general paths to achieving connection with Brahma, and these are based on personality types.  (Huston Smith, World Religions) Some people are primarily reflective; some are basically emotional; others are essentially active; and some are experimentally inclined.  Those who are reflective generally choose the way to Brahma through knowledge--learning to discriminate the difference between what is surface and material, thus less important, and what is spiritual, for spiritual growth, thus more important in how one lives their lives.  Those who are emotional generally choose the way to God through love--love that is outgoing toward other people and to Brahma.  Those who are active, generally choose the way to God through work--how they do every activity in life with Brahma in mind.  And those who are experimental generally choose the way to God through psychophysical exercises—yoga and meditation for instance.

Fall celebrations, which eventually evolved into Diwali, started in India several thousand years ago. These celebrations recognized the harvest.  Fires and candles were lit around the fields to keep animals from stealing the harvest.  And over time, people began to celebrate the end of the growing season and the plentiful harvest rather than just to try to keep it from being eaten by animals.  At least this what anthropologists and archeologists have come to believe.
Over time cultural and religious traditions and stories were overlaid on these celebrations.  The story of Rama and Sita is one of the primary stories that became associated with this seasonal festival. There are varying traditions and rituals associated with Diwali, depending on the region of India and the specific religious tradition that celebrates Diwali.  There are Diwali celebrations across the world, even here in Miami.  

During these celebrations, it is hoped that Diwali will be a time of sweetness and friendship wellbeing and prosperity.  During Diwali, many Hindus speak a blessing to others that goes something like this: May the diyas, the little clay oil filled lanterns, that you light within and around your home nourish you own inner flame, so that you may be a source of joy, radiance and knowledge in this world.  

What I wonder is, without appropriating Diwali, what might we as Unitarian Universalists learn from this joyful celebration?  How might increasing our understanding of Diwali impact our lives, particularly as the nights grow longer?  
Well, the themes of Diwali are the good over evil, knowledge over ignorance, light over darkness, joy over despair.  This celebration grounds itself in spiritual reflection as well as communion with family and friends, welcoming anyone who enters your home.  The celebration is about prosperity, good luck, and hope.  
As I reflect on Diwali, what I experience is joy.  I see the smiling faces, the fireworks, and the gift giving.  If anything, this holy day seems to spark a spiritual practice of joyfulness in the people who celebrate it.  
Earlier this year, I talked about the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur, a yearly Jewish tradition which anchors within its adherents the practices of reflection, forgiveness, confession, and atonement.  As I said during that service, I wondered if some Unitarian Universalist congregations could fold something similar into their programming year, an annual ritual or liturgy that grounds us in reflection, forgiveness, confession, and atonement.  After learning more about Diwali, I am wondering about building into our UU Miami tradition an annual ritual or liturgy that grounds us in the spiritual practice of joyfulness.  Perhaps some of you might feel curious enough to start adding a practice of joyfulness into your own spiritual practice.

Joyfulness can certainly be associated with what happens to us, like prosperity or good luck, but here’s the thing, I believe that joy can be choice rather than “I will be happy when…” During the meditation today you were encouraged to envision joy as available to you just on the other side of a door, that all you need to do is open it and let joy into your heart.  Where you able to do that?  If so, what were the characteristics of joy you experienced?  Maybe gratitude, being less worry, being excited, having fewer expectations, finding more beauty, seeing more blessings in your life, laughing more often, times when you enjoy your journey through life, believing in the existence of love, finding goodness in others.  

 If you were to build a spiritual practice to enhance your joyfulness, what would it look like?
Well, certainly Diwali gives us some ideas about practices that might enhance joy in our lives: being welcoming, giving and receiving with gratitude, gathering with beloved family and friends, and viewing joy as part of a spiritual journey.   
As I consider a joyful spiritual practices from my Buddhist perspective, I think of that which hinders joyfulness first.  Suffering can block joyfulness.  Suffering that comes from attachment, the transient nature of existence, expectations and certainty in a world of change, disconnection with other people, and an unwillingness to change.  Does that make sense?  Would an acknowledgement and acceptance that these hinderances exist, detract from the joy?  Well, I don’t think it would result in less joy.  I mean the Buddha had to recognize the causes of suffering before finding a path to deal with it.  

It doesn’t escape my attention that a holiday that celebrates joy over despair feels a little jarring to talk about when there is so much pain, grief, and horror in the world right now.  Sometimes it’s hard to make my heart stretch wide enough to hold grief and joy together, at the same time.  As English poet and painter William Blake wrote: “It is right it should be so; [humans] was made for joy and woe; and when this we rightly know, thro’ the world we safely go.  Joy and woe are woven fine, a clothing for the soul divine.  Under every grief and pine runs a joy with silken twine.”  Do you know that silk’s weight can be 5 times stronger than steel?  I think about that when I think about finding joy and holding onto it during dark days of woe.  Sometimes I’m holding onto the joy, but sometimes, the joy is holding onto me, stronger than steel under the grief and pain.  
My friends, may you find something that brings you joy or open the door to that joy that lies within you.  And let that joy give you strength to be a light in this world.  May it be so.    

Waking Up to Shorter Days with a Generous Heart by Reverend Tom Capo preached on 11/5/2023

I don’t know about you, but once Daylight Savings Time kicks in and it gets dark around 5:30 PM, I don’t just notice the shorter days, I physically feel them.  I try to rush home before it gets dark.  I am less prone to go outside in the evening.  It just feels like I have less time in my day, despite there being the same number of hours. It is easier for me to become more self-focused, even a little stingy, because I perceive there is less time to get my needs met.  And I have noticed that it is easier for me to experience larger swings in emotion, perhaps again because there seems to be less time to stop and process my experiences.  I can’t even imagine what it would be like in Alaska, where the day can be as short as 5 ½ hours.  I know one of our members, Jenna Way, has experienced this.  Jenna, I wonder how it impacted people’s mental health and sense of activity with such short days?

The physiological experience of humans to more darkness and less light seems universal.  Maybe that why so many religious holy days, Christmas, Hanukkah, Diwali, Solstice, etc. happen in the darker time of the year.  These holidays give people an opportunity to bring light into a dark time, to celebrate, to come together with family and friends, to take time away from work.  

And one aspect of this time of year that means a lot to me is the opportunity to open my heart and be generous.  Maybe that’s the way I resist my instinctive response to these shorter days.

When I was an intern minister at Emerson Unitarian Universalist Church in Houston, Texas, I remember that the co-ministers, Mark and Becky Edmonson-Lange, felt that people, especially people who were sick, homebound or had limited mobility, needed an extra little boost as the days got shorter, an experience of generosity and comradeship.  

They would, and I did as well when I served there, take poinsettias out to those people, both as a gift of something colorful and beautiful on the dreary dark days of winter, and as an offering of time—spending considerable time with them.  Sitting down and talking about what was going on at the church and listening to them talk about how they filled their days.  This generosity of heart and spirit had a huge positive impact in their lives.  It was a simple gift of generosity that brightened their days.

And when I first arrived here at UU Miami, Charles Bishop invited Martha and I to join him, his family and some friends to go sing Christmas Carols at a local nursing home.  I had a great time and the residents there seemed to enjoy our caroling as we wandered the halls.  Another simple gift of generosity that brightened someone’s day.

This year, Jessica, our Director of Religious Exploration, will be offering an opportunity for the families participating in the Christmas Pageant to share the pageant with a local nursing home.  Why should UU Miami be the only ones to enjoy this pageant created by Jessica and the kids of our congregation?
One event that has been part of the history of this congregation is giving to a local non-profit, to aid homeless/unsheltered families/children, or returning citizens, or families in shelters.  We put up a Christmas Tree with ornaments that have written on them items that are needed for whatever group we are giving to.  

Last year we brought toiletries and underwear, things really needed by returning citizens.  Jessica and I are making arrangements for us to repeat this tradition.  If you are interested in helping, please let us know.
“The Buddha said, ‘If you knew, as I do, the power of giving, you would not let a single meal pass without sharing some of it.’ …Generosity is this powerful for very good reason. Because it is characterized by the inner quality of letting go or relinquishing, it reverses the forces that create suffering. It is a profound antidote to the strong habits of clinging, grasping, guarding, and attachment that lead to so much pain and suffering. Generosity brings happiness at every stage of its expression: we experience joy in forming the intention to give, we experience joy in the action of giving, and we experience joy in remembering that we have given. As Gandhi said, ‘The fragrance remains in the hand that gives the rose.’ (Unitarian Universalist Beth Roth of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program at the Community Health Center of Meriden)
It is certainly true that generosity brings joy into our lives, in the forming of intention, in the action and in the remembering.   A feeling of being generous can linger within us like “the fragrance in the hand that gives the rose.”

And yet, I find it challenging at times to focus on generosity when the dark times we live in are more than just the change of seasons.  There is pervasive darkness shadowing our lives with the Israeli war and the rise of Christian Nationalist hate groups in the United States, hate groups that are exacerbate antisemitism and Islamophobia.  Generosity has a different feel as I think about the war and the hate surrounding us.  In these dark days, generosity might feel like a bit of a stretch.

Take a moment and imagine yourself being the needy man at the end of the story.
"Take [the precious stone] back" he said.
“Instead, I hope
you can give me something
even more precious
than this precious stone.
I hope you can give me
whatever it is
within you
that made it so easy
for you,
when I asked,
to just give it away.”
What is it that makes it so easy for the woman to give that precious stone away?  How do we hold such an open heart in this time of fear, hatred, war, and darkness?  I can’t answer that question for you, but I and this community can hold a safe space for you as you discern what your answer is.  How can you maintain a generosity of spirit in these dark days?  Again, I can’t answer that question for you, but I and this community can hold a safe space for you as you discern what your answer is.  Generosity may not be about joy in the forming of intention, in the action and or even in the remembering.  It may be about the peace, justice, and the connection that comes from standing with those immersed in the darkness.  Saying, “I hear you.  I see you.  I will stay beside you, hold your hand, during this awful war.  I will stand beside while these groups spout hate and harass you.”

I sent out a letter this week regarding upcoming events—the visit to the Mosque yesterday, the Unity March against Hate today, and the visit by Rabbi Jaime next week.  I invited you to these events not just because I believe in peace, justice and beloved community and not only because these events are consistent with our Unitarian Universalist values, but because I believe that our Jewish, Muslim, trans, and black friends need us to stand beside them right now.  

I invited you so together we can embody this difficult, potentially dangerous kind of generosity.  American Evangelist Dwight Lyman Moody said: “Character is what you are in the dark.”  My friends we are in the dark right now.  In dark times, it is vitally important that we embody our values—this is our character, as compassionate human beings.  This is our character as Unitarian Universalists.  I am asking each of you to have an open heart with our siblings who are afraid, traumatized, and unsure of their future.  Your generosity can help reverse the forces that create suffering. Your generosity of spirit can help heal the broken hearts, the grieving and pain that our siblings are suffering.  Whatever we, each and together, can do to let our Jewish, Muslim, trans, and black friends know that they are not alone, will be make a positive difference.  Maybe you’ll feel like it won’t be enough, but I tell you, when you are lost and alone, battered and bruised, knowing that someone hears you, someone sees you—it can be a balm to the soul.  Don’t undervalue the gift of your generous heart, your generous spirit. There will be joy in our communion and our connections. And remember this is Big Work.  It’s is a marathon, not a sprint.  It is about being consistently generous with our siblings in need.  They cannot step out of the confusion and turbulence that they are experiencing, so we must step into it and be with them, again and again and again.  This will be how we embody our generosity.  

We all need one another when we mourn and would be comforted; when we are in trouble and afraid; and when we are in despair yet still must endure.   We need one another so that we may be recalled to be our best selves again and again and again. We need one another when we would accomplish some great purpose and cannot do it alone.  We need one another in the hour of our success, when we look for someone to share our triumphs.  All our lives we are in need and others are in need of us.  Let us go forth and be generous, for the world needs our generosity.

What Do We Do? The War in Israel by Reverend Tom Capo preached on 10/15/2023

This has been a nightmare week for the people of Israel and of the Gaza Strip.  And for me and for those I care about in Miami, well, our hearts are breaking.  I have Jewish, Muslim, and Christian friends who are all feeling pain, fear, and uncertainty how we might best respond to the war in Israel.  As I have listened, offered pastoral care, comfort, and what advice I had to offer, the last line in our chalice lighting in one form or another kept running through my mind: “Let us bring this Unitarian Universalist heritage into our world and our lives today.” How do I, how do you, and in a broader how do we Unitarian Universalists bring our heritage of peace, justice, compassion, respect, and love into the world and our lives in this time of war and division.  

Hamas attacked Israel a little over a week ago.  An unprovoked attack that was devastating in its effectiveness.  I will not go into the details, because we have all been inundated with the horror of it over the past week.  And Israel’s response has been in kind, devastating.  Both sides continue to suffer losses.  Hamas still has hostages.  Friday Israel rained down leaflets telling Citizens in Gaza to get out—millions of people told to take their belongs and go south within 24 hours.

This war impacts us here in Miami.  There was a peace panel set to happen today at Coral Gables UCC.  It has been canceled due to the concern that having both Muslims and Jews together on the same stage would be too difficult, too painful, the trauma too fresh in the minds and hearts of those people.  A friend of mine talked to some of the leaders in the Islamic community.  They are hurt that the peace panel was canceled.  They are fearful of a return to being treated like outcasts, as they were after 9-11.  They say that that women in Hajibs are already being harassed here in Miami.  The Jewish community is in fear of attacks on synagogues, and have increased their security.  And members of the Jewish community are gathering supplies for the troops in Israel as well as humanitarian supplies for the citizens.  There are protests and counterprotests about this war going on in the streets here in Miami and around the world.   

And I wonder, as I guess you wonder, how do we live our UU values at a time like this?  How can we make a positive difference, at least locally?  Friday I received an email from Unitarian Universalists for Justice in the Middle East.  This organization has been siding with love with the people of Palestine/Israel since 1971.  The email called for an Action Alert!  It said, “Multiple truths are coexisting at the moment. Yes, horrific acts were committed by Palestinian fighters against Israeli civilians. And, yes, the Israeli government and military are conducting what can be accurately named as genocidal attacks on the Palestinians in Gaza.”  This UU organization has stated that “It is absolutely urgent that Biden and Congress demand a de-escalation and call for a ceasefire, and demand that humanitarian assistance be allowed into the Gaza Strip.”  UUs are encouraged to contact their congressional representatives, and ask them to do what they can to restore electricity and water to the Palestine.

Our UU president, Sophia Bettencourt, put out a statement that said, “Beloveds, I invite you to stop what you are doing if you can and sit with me in the depth of this tragedy. How to reconcile the cost of occupation and of war? How to nuance two very real histories of oppression and violence? I am holding close the words of U.N. Middle East peace envoy Tor Wennesland who said: ‘This is a dangerous precipice, and I appeal to all to pull back from the brink.’”  She went on to say, “We as a people of faith can condemn violence against civilians while at the same time engaging the full legacies and histories of oppression that shape such devastating conflict. As a faith tradition, Unitarian Universalists have long worked for peace, and our principles and values call for the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all. At the same time, we have not engaged the tangled issues surrounding Israel/Palestine in community since 2018, and our last engagement resulted in severed relationships, and deep pain.”

In 2010, while serving Peoples Church Unitarian Universalist in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, conflict between Israel and the Palestinians erupted.  And the local Jewish and Muslim communities were in deep pain.  One Imam was so distraught that he wrote on social media that the attacks on the Palestinian people were like the Nazi’s attack on Jews during Holocaust.  And the situation in our little town escalated.  The Interfaith community gathered to try to de-escalate the tension.  Myself and a few other faith leaders personally, face to face, went to both the Imam who wrote the Holocaust statement and to one of the local Rabbis who had responded—saying something to effect that comparing what was happening in Israel and Gaza to the Holocaust was an outrage to the Jewish people. We invited the Imam and the Rabbi to come to a peace rally at my church.  And while they were both hesitant and still deeply hurt, they agreed.  This was a moment that I will remember for the rest of my life.  The Rabbi prayed for the children in Palestine, for their peace and safety.  And then the Imam stood up started to shake the Rabbi’s hand, but then they hugged.  The Imam proceeded to offer blessings and prayers to the children in Israel.  

On Thursday of this week, I wondered aloud to my friend at Mosaic Miami about how we might help the Muslim and Jewish communities during this time.  We came up with a plan that includes starting with just one Imam and one Rabbi, in hopes of finding a path forward, before bring in more people to find a path for peace and reconciliation here between these two faith traditions.  But here is the concern, with so much grief, pain, trauma, with hostages still being held, and bombs still being dropped, when is the right time to move forward with this plan?  We both decided all we could do is simply ask the local communities if or when they would be ready to begin a healing process.

I have been telling you about an interfaith potluck that we are hosting here a UU Miami next Sunday night.  I will tell you right now that many members of Beth Am and other Jewish communities have RSVP’ed that they will join us, as will people from the UCC, the Quaker, the Catholic and other protestant communities.  We may have some Hindu friends that join us.  Also, the Mayor and/or one of her representatives will be present.  However, at this point none of the Islamic community have signed up.  We are planning not only to eat together, but to invite everyone present to get know one another by offering questions for conversation.  Now the war is influencing what the Jewish communities would like to be talked about.  They have asked if we could invite people to talk about their response to attack by Hamas on Israel.  I am clear that I do not want that to be a focus of this gathering.  But I also know that ignoring the war may cause hurt feelings from our Jewish friends.  And I also do know that of the faith communities in Miami, a Unitarian Universalist one is the best setting for imitating an opportunity for our communities to begin to heal together.  But it’s just too son now.

Listen for a moment to this verse from the song that our choir sang a few minutes ago:
Oh if the world were ours for evermore,
we’d have to fix mistakes we’d made before;
What would we reap? What would we sow?
What would we stop? What would we now begin?
What would be different now
if we had to plan ahead
for longer, for longer?
What will we reap at this Interfaith Potluck next Sunday?  What will we sow?  What will we stop?  What will we begin?  What will be different?  My hope and my resolve is to keep the focus next week on peace and relationships, on learning about one another and learning how to be unbiased with one another.  And I ask your help with that.  For all of us present to keep the politics out and embrace healing and bridging as we eat with one another.
I offered you a reading earlier.  Do you remember it?  It ended with “Only extremists would have us believe civilizations are clashing. Don’t believe the lie.”  I believe this, but I also know that extremists have already set off bombs.  The people who have been hurt and traumatized are responding, causing hurt and trauma themselves.  It is hard to call for peace, so many people are held in the thrall of retribution.  The vision of normally peaceful people on both sides of this war has been colored by the atrocities each side has visited upon the other.   We, my friends, must hold peace in our hearts, hold a place for healing for our Jewish and Muslim siblings, and hold hope.  It’s hard and can feel ineffective, I know.  It’s easier to point to something tangible, live bombs and destruction, and say that’s the most effective way forward.  But it is not.  We must be a reservoir of peace and hope that we can offer to our Jewish and Muslim friends who are feeling so hopeless right now.  To our Jewish and Muslim friends who are suffering so terribly right now.

One last note.  This week I struggled to put out a statement regarding this war.  I didn’t want to cause more hurt and pain.  I didn’t want to alienate Jewish or Muslim friends.  I started with “The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Miami offers its love, compassion, and concern for those people in Israel and the Gaza Strip who are embroiled in war.  Many adults and children are suffering loss of life, agonizing trauma, and profound grief from the impact of this war.  We pray that safety and peace return soon to this region.  Here are a couple links if you wish to offer resources of humanitarian aid:  American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC): Emergency in Israel and Islamic Relief USA.”  And after hearing some feedback from our leadership and from some other faith leaders, I changed it to: “In the wake of the brutal Hamas attack on Israel, the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Miami suggests these two vetted humanitarian aid organizations:  American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC): Emergency in Israel and Islamic Relief USA.  Countless adults and children are suffering loss of life, agonizing trauma, and profound grief from this war.  The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Miami holds all those impacted by this awful war in the spirit of love, compassion, and concern.   We pray that safety and peace may soon come to this region.”  Was one of these better or worse?  Was one too neutral or one too blaming?  I really am not sure.  I can tell you that I have talked to some local protestant faith leaders, and they are coming down on one side or the other.  I don’t see a right side in all this.  I only see pain and a need for healing, when the time is right.

We have an opportunity here.  And it is a risky one.  We can hold a space for peace and hope for those in need of peace and hope, knowing that both sides are not in a place right now to offer it and may not be in a place to accept it.  But still this is the call as we live our Unitarian Universalism in the world.  We say UUism is a beacon of hop.  That’s our heritage.  Please, please find a way to be that beacon of hope for someone who is in a very dark, painful, and scary place right now.

What UUs Do You Know? by Reverend Tom Capo preached on 10/1/2023


I want to repeat the chalice lighting I read today: “The great are the pillars of fire in this dark pilgrimage of humankind: they stand as everlasting witnesses of what has been, prophetic tokens of what may still be, the revealed, embodied possibilities of human nature.  Great deeds cannot die; they, with the sun and moon, renew their light forever, blessing those that look on them.”

When I think of Unitarian Universalists, yes, you and I and UUs across the world, I think of people who actively embody their values in their lives and in the world.  I think of people who aren’t just sitting in a chair on a Sunday morning.  Unitarian Universalists find ways to make a difference in the world.  I’ve known countless UUs in my 20 years of ministry and I know how you UUs live your lives—with the ethical grounding of such UU values as love, compassion, pluralism, interdependence, respect, justice, equity, and liberty.  The UUs I know affirm the worth and dignity of others, the interdependent web of all existence and the democratic process.  I can recognize these qualities in each of you, at least in part, because I have studied our forebears.  

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked at what one of you is doing and thought “there goes a modern-day Augusta Jane Chapin.”  She was one of the chief organizers of the Parliament of World Religions in 1893.  I understand that our forebears were not perfect.  

Not all them are exemplars for me—Millard Filmore, for example, signed the Compromise of 1850, which delayed the Civil War for a decade allowing slavery to endure. The Compromise outlined that California would enter the Union as a free state; in exchange, the South was guaranteed that no federal restrictions on slavery would be placed on Utah Territory or New Mexico.   

Many of our UU forebears were “great, pillars of fire in this dark pilgrimage of humankind; they [at least for me], stand as everlasting witness of what has been, prophetic tokens of what still may be, the revealed, embodied possibilities of human nature—Clarissa Harlowe Barton founded the American Red Cross. She was a hospital nurse in the American Civil War, a teacher, and a patent clerk. She provided self-taught nursing care. Barton also did humanitarian work and civil rights advocacy at a time before women had the right to vote.

I believe that the great deeds of our forebears will not “die; they, with the sun and moon, renew their light forever, blessing those that look on them.”  They inspire me.  May they inspire you, too.
Many Unitarians and Unitarian sympathizers were instrumental in the formation of this country and of what it could become.  American author, conservationist and activist Terry Tempest Williams (in “Engagement”) wrote: “The human heart is the first home of democracy.  It is where we embrace our questions.  Can we be equitable? Can we be generous?  Can we listen with our whole beings, not just our mind, and offer our attention rather than our opinions?  And do we have enough resolve in our hearts to act courageously, relentlessly, without giving up—ever—trusting our fellow citizens to join with us in our determined pursuit of a living democracy?”  

Democracy is still an experiment. It had never been successfully attempted before our American forebears decided to struggle with one another to forge and implement a new concept of government by and for the people.  Unitarian John Adams struggled for years to get the Continental Congress to agree that America needed to be free from England’s tyranny.  But like some Unitarians, he had great ideas.  He had great courage.  But he didn’t have the people skills to persuade others to follow him.  May of his peers found him a little too cranky.   

So he turned to other Unitarian leaning forebears to help him—Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.  Jefferson believed that everyone in this country would become eventually become Unitarians.  Franklin was a Deist who felt that religion, like everything else, was “something to be studied and experimented with.” (“Ben Franklin’s Religion” By Rev. Kim D. Wilson, Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Poconos, December 4, 2016)

Their hope was that something truly special would emerge when people governed themselves.  They seemed an idealistic lot—dreaming of and working toward a living democracy.  Those early Americans foresaw that politics could, and would, get in the way of a thriving democracy—George Washington in his farewell address warned, “However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.” Does this bring anything—or anyone—to mind?

I was at a presentation some 14 years ago made by two Iowa state legislators who were both retiring.  They talked about what had been accomplished across party lines and what isn’t being accomplished.  One of them was very clear that political divisiveness was bad in Iowa but not as bad as it was in Washington.  And one of them was just as clear that he was ethically challenged by his own party, which wanted him to put out divisive, even lying commercials about his opponent when he was running for a seat in the legislature.  Maintaining his ethical stance led him to eventually quit the legislature after just one year.  Our country’s forebears wrote, “Governments are instituted among Men—today we’d say people--, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” and we, the people, had consented to be governed by these two legislators—but politics got in the way.
How many of you believe that “cunning, ambitious, unprincipled [people] are “subverting the power of the people”—that’s us— “to usurp for themselves the reins of government?”  How do you feel when hear smear tactics in commercials funded by powerful special interest groups or when you hear twisted half-truths presented as facts, or when people just flat-out lie?  How many of you hit the “mute” button when you see a political commercial starting?  I know I do.  It’s easy to feel powerless about how our government is run.  In the past 6 years, the government has shut down twice.  And its likely to happen again next week.  That’s not a really sign healthy democracy, is it?

I want to repeat this quote about a living democracy is: “The human heart is the first home of democracy.  It is where we embrace our questions.  Can we be equitable? Can we be generous?  Can we listen with our whole beings, not just our mind, and offer our attention rather than our opinions?  And do we have enough resolve in our hearts to act courageously, relentlessly, without giving up—ever—trusting our fellow citizens to join with us in our determined pursuit of a living democracy?”  It’s no surprise that this quote strongly reminds us of some of the phrasing of our Unitarian Universalist Principles, particularly in their original form, given how many Unitarians were active in the creation of our democratic form of government.  

“Most of the Founding Fathers were Deists, Unitarians or similar faiths that believed that God does not directly influence the world or order its events. They believed in rational thought, in personal responsibility for our actions, and the need to protect the innocent.”  (“Faith of Our Founding Fathers” November 2, 2008, Jack Regehr)

This congregation—and almost all healthy UU congregation—are democratic.  We vote; we listen with our whole selves; we disagree with respect and civility. And when we fail at being respectful and civil, we do what we can to come back into right relationship with each other. We honor the rights and liberties, beliefs, and opinions of all who join us.  We do not tell people they must hold certain spiritual beliefs in order to be part of this congregation—this principle dates back to A Statement of Faith written by William Channing Gannett for the 1887 meeting of the Western Unitarian Conference in Chicago.  It wasn’t called Things you must believe to be a Unitarian.   It was called Things Most Commonly Believed Today Among Us.  Sounds more like a survey than a requirement.  We do standup courageously for the worth and dignity of every person and we speak out if rights or liberties are infringed upon.  And we make the decisions about our Unitarian Universalist church home, together; no-one tells us how to worship or what to worship, if we worship for that matter; we decide our priorities together. The principle of congregational independence dates back to the Cambridge Platform of 1648.  The Cambridge Platform holds that "there is no greater Church than a Congregation,"  We try to embody a living democracy here in this church and in our denomination.  
And sometimes its hard.  We’re human.  We make mistakes.  Sometimes we hurt one another.  Choosing to act in the spirit of a living democracy can be even harder in the larger community. Think about how difficult it is to reach across the aisle here in Florida, and how much more difficult it must be in Washington today.  Yet a living, thriving democracy can help to heal the wounds of our current dysfunctional system of, for the most part, secular government.  We have built a thriving democracy here, but there’s always room for improvement.  As we live and grow in our understanding of how a democratic society can continue to grow, we can be an example of how true pluralism nourishes and sustains our democracy.

In political terms, these are dark times.  Note I do not say “in terms of democracy.” But in politics, this is an evil time.  What George Washington feared has indeed come to pass: “cunning, unprincipled [people have been] enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government.”  We, the people, cannot allow these unprincipled superpacs, special interest groups, and extremist groups to “destroy…the very engines” of democracy.  It seems like an impossible task, like an insurmountable mountain.  

But I recall to you searing image of the power of one person against a veritable army of corrupt men and women in power.  Tank Man in Tiananmen Square.  For one brief moment, a single person, armed with only shopping bags, stood in front of a phalanx of tanks and stopped the madness.  My friends, we can each be Tank Person.  

I think of each of you who are signing the petition for access to abortion here in Florida.  Each of you who sign are that Tank Person.  
As Universalist forebear John Murray said, “You may possess only a small light, but uncover it, let it shine, use it in order to bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of men and women.”  Our Unitarian and Universalist forebears inspire, call to us to sing no ordinary song in our lives.  Our song must have a cadence that is relevant.  One that touches the heart and stirs us to action.
Its every measure purposeful and strong.
Let this song our greatest hopes contain:
Well-fed children [as] its just refrain,
Roofs over every heartbeat [as] its tune,
[May] Its harmony from peaceful cities hewn.
[We must] Sing of hope while hammering each nail.
Sing of joy while pulling every weed.
Sing to renew a covenant grown frail.
May every [one of our heart songs] plant a seed.    
Just as we plant new heart song seeds, we carry forward the heart song seeds of our Unitarian and Universalist forebears.

Go forth my friends, be brave, speak truth to power, and together I know we, along with our Unitarian Universalist siblings and all the other Tank People, will stop the machines of corruption and unprincipled politics.  

Reflections on Yom Kippur by Reverend Tom Capo preached on 9/24/2023


Western translator, author, and teacher of Tibetan Buddhism Ken McLeod wrote, “Devotion, whether to a tradition, a practice, a teacher, or an ideal, is the fuel for faith.”   I have recently talked with some local Rabbis who told me that these days the Synagogue often has only a few people in attendance for weekly Shabbat Services.  But on Yom Kippur, the Synagogue is packed, they open up walls and put in lots of extra chairs to accommodate everyone.

These high holy days are the “fuel for faith” for many Jewish people.  As you hear from Bev’s explanation that Jane read earlier, this is a time of reviewing the past year and admitting to your transgressions, of re-connecting with ancestors, and of setting things right, right with god, if you have one, yourself, and everyone in your life.
I have wondered why Unitarian Universalists don’t have a tradition for admitting our transgression, reconnecting with our ancestors, and setting things right with god, if you have one, ourselves and/or everyone in our lives.  Perhaps admitting our transgressions is tough for us, Unitarian Universalists.  I do wonder if it is tougher for us than it is for the people of another faith.  Is it tough for you?  We heard how difficult it was for Jonah.  He wanted to run away from his responsibility, hide from it and god. And we heard how he didn’t believe that the people of Nineveh deserved mercy or reconciliation with god.   There are certainly times when I would prefer to avoid or run away from a problem, a person, a responsibility, an issue, a guilt, a resentment, a transgression rather than face it head on. How about you?  And there have been times I felt the person I was resentful of didn’t deserve my forgiveness or reconciliation; heck there were times I wondered if I deserved forgiveness for something I had done.  Have you ever felt that way?

Buddha offered a parable that was something like this: “Imagine that you are walking along a path in the forest and suddenly, out of the trees, comes a poisoned arrow that heads right into your thigh.  When the arrow goes into your thigh, do you say to yourself, ‘I wonder what kind of wood the arrow is made out of…  I wonder where its bird feathers came from…  I wonder how far the arrow traveled before it hit me…  NO! What you are most probably thinking is, ‘Get me to a doctor and get this freaking arrow out of my leg!’”  

This makes sense, but many of us do not remove the metaphorical arrow from our metaphorical leg.  We dwell on it instead sometimes for years. I know I have.

After my father got into recovery from his alcoholism, he came to me wanting to reconcile.  He had done his fourth and fifth steps in Alcoholics Anonymous, a searching and fearless moral inventory, and admitted to God, to himself, and to another human being the exact nature of his wrongs.  And he told me that before we could reconcile he needed to make amends to me.  

Now you might wonder why I am telling you this story when we are talking about Yom Kippur.  First, Yom Kippur is about confessing, being honest in our personal inventory, and then working on forgiveness and reconciliation with one’s god and other people.  My father had certainly done these things.

But there was a hitch to all this.  At the point my father came to me, I was still in process.  I hadn’t done all the forgiveness work I needed to do and was not sure I was ready for reconciliation.   I wanted to think about it some more.  I wanted to write about it some more. I wanted to know who made the arrow before I was ready to heal. In other words, I wanted to be in control of when and how this happened.  I couldn’t even conceive of reconciliation with my father.  I was stuck and not sure what to do.
Unitarian Universalist minister Reverend Forrest Church wrote a sermon on Yom Kippur and talked about this stuckness:  

“Look at it this way. You are reading a book. And then you get stuck. I know it's happened to you. So often it's happened to me. I read a page and then realize I wasn't paying attention. My mind wasn't tracking. So I go back to the top and read it again. Simple, right? No, not so simple. Because, more often than not, when I go back to read the page again I get even less out of it than I did the first time. I go into a kind of trance. I concentrate harder, but to no avail. I read sentence after sentence, and then get to the bottom of the page and again realize I haven't caught the drift. So I go back to the top. This time I really concentrate. I read it word by word. I hear the words ring in my brain, but they don't even compose sentences. The harder I try to get through this page, the more completely incomprehensible it becomes. I am in a trance, increasingly frustrated, more and more lost.  

In life, as when reading a book, whenever you are stuck, when the harder you try the less you comprehend, when you have read the same passage three times with diminishing returns, my suggestion follows the logic of this sacred season: ‘Turn the page.’”

Reverend Church concludes, “Yes, you will probably have missed something. But sometimes trying to find something you know you have missed just delays you from discovering things that await you when you turn the page. New characters. A twist in plot. Or the development of character, which almost never happens when we are stuck--when we are going over the same old page, again and again, caught in a trance, looking for paragraphs and finding sentences, looking for sentences and finding words. Not able to go on. Not able to turn the page. Reading the same words, the same thoughts, the same feelings over and over again, hitting bottom and then going back to the top of the page, the same page, where we are stuck with ourselves or with others or with our lives.   So that's my message … and the message of the season. If you've read some recent chapter from the script of your life over and over again, if you keep reading it over and it's making less and less sense, seal the book, turn the page.”

So, soon after my father approached me, I turned the danged page with my father.  I decided to meet with him, even though I hadn’t done all the work I needed to do, even though I didn’t feel I was ready, or in control of the situation, even though I had left so many things unexplored in our relationship.  I had been working to forgive him for my own internal healing, but reconciliation?   

That was something completely different.  I let him share his Step work with me.  I listened, I accepted his confession, his forgiveness, and his desire for reconciliation.  And I was numb.  I wanted there to be more.  In my head I had turned the page, but in my heart turning the page was much more difficult.

I wanted to a new beginning with my father, but it would take some more time for me.  I could now treat him with kindness, compassion, respect, but I still needed joy, love, and connection to really turn the page.  I knew I had just ear-marked it to come back to it later.  
The key ended up being the confession of my own numbness to him.  Admitting this made it easier—not easy—just easier for us to work together to find the joy, love and connection that we once had, and we both wanted to find again.

In the Jewish faith, Yom Kippur calls for confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation.  We can, with the help of our spiritual community here, as well as our own internal resources, do the work of confession and even forgiveness, knowing sometimes, reconciliation may not be possible.  

Sometimes, the person is dead, or is not ready, or you are not ready, or the person is not someone you really want to reconcile with—perhaps they are an abuser—and we have to turn the page without reconciliation.  Our heart will not be fully healed, but we must move on in our lives.  As Rev. Church says:  “If you've read some recent chapter from the script of your life over and over again, if you keep reading it over and it's making less and less sense, seal the book, turn the page.”  Seal the book.  Easy to say, hard to do.  I told you of a page I had to come back to, but within all of us there are books that just need to be sealed permanently, so we can move on.  
What do you think about a Unitarian Universalist tradition/ritual that would focus on confession, forgiveness, ancestors, reconciliation, and gratitude?  What would it look like?  Would you participate in it?  If you did, do you think it would help you move on, clear you of some of the emotional junk that you carry around, would it help you be more spiritually grounded or even grow spiritually?  I can only speak for myself.   The process with my father took years.  I didn’t have any tradition or ritual that kept me coming back to the unresolved feelings that distanced me from my father and ate at my own heart.  Perhaps if there were a yearly ritual that held me spiritually accountable for coming back time and time again to the issues that I needed to confess, deal with, focus on, I might have found healing sooner.   Maybe reconciliation could have been easier.  What about you?  Would a UU Yom Kippur type of ritual or tradition be meaningful in your life?

Being a Welcoming Congregation by Reverend Tom Capo preached on 9/17/2023


Rev. angel Kyodo williams Sensei, is an author, maverick spiritual teacher, master trainer, and founder of Center for Transformative Change. Ordained as a Zen priest, she is a Sensei, the second black woman recognized as a teacher in her lineage.  Rev. angel Kyodo williams Sensei wrote: “It’s the community’s job to figure out how we can stretch into the so-called margins to broaden our understanding and the ability to be inclusive. Inclusivity is not ‘How do we make you a part of what we are?’ but ‘How do we become more of what you are?’”
Back in early 2019, I think, some of us attended a Southeast Florida Cluster workshop.  I specifically remember Luigi, one of our members, being there.  During the workshop, we went to a breakout group on renewing your Welcoming Congregation designation.  We came back energized to get this congregation working on the renewal process.  Shortly thereafter COVID happened.  And everything came to a standstill.

As many of you might already know, last year and this year, the Miami/Dade School Board refused to let LGBTQ students recognize LGBTQ History month.  Teachers cannot use the students’ preferred pronouns, and the Gay/Straight Alliance groups have been banned on campuses.  And the many groups that provide resources and support to LGBTQ students have been banned from campuses.  

The school years started, Luigi and Jessica—our new Director of Religious Exploration—approached me about hosting a drop-in center for LGBTQ students.  I was excited by the prospect, and began considering the practical components of a project like this.  When would we do this, days and times when space was open, etc.  

Not long thereafter, I was approached by Scott Galvin, the Executive Director of Safe Schools South Florida.  We met to talk about what our congregation could do to help the local LGBTQ students.  

He told me that Pridelines, a non-profit that had supported LGBTQ students, had no money and was essentially defunct.  And Safe Schools, which had provided resources in schools for LGBTQ youth was now banned from all the schools in Miami/Dade.   We started talking about the possibility of creating drop-in centers – perhaps 5 around Miami/Dade—for LGBTQ students to just get together.  He was very clear that he had little experience with organizing drop-in centers, but knew people in the local community who did have experience, including our own Jessica and Luigi.  And so began a process of working out the details.  This included going before the leadership of UU Miami to be sure we dotted our I’s and crossed our T’s as we moved forward with this project.

Andie Arthur, who is a member of your Board, would you please come up and tell the congregation what the Board decided:
Today a letter will go out to the congregation about this project.  You’ll also learn about another way that you can support the LGBTQ community, by participating in a research project being conducted by the University of Miami. You can make a difference by being a part of this research study regarding the impact of the “Parental Rights in Education” also known as the “Don’t Say Gay” Bill on the youth, families, and teachers in Miami/Dade.  And you can pass this information on to others to participate.  

I tell you all this because first of all, I’m proud to be part of a group of people who don’t just talk the talk.  We are people who take action.  As a small congregation, we cannot make a difference in all the social issues that are impacting our community, but we can and do make a difference in a couple, and I believe that helping the LGBTQ community can be one of the ways we can make a positive impact in Miami/Dade.  I don’t know how many kids will come to the drop-in; I don’t know how Safe Schools will raise the money they need to support this program; I just know that this is one thing that this congregation can do to make a difference.  

I don’t know if you’ve ever heard the story of the child and the starfish.  One day a man was walking along the beach when he noticed boy picking up and gently throwing things into the ocean.
Approaching the boy he asked, “Young man, what are you doing?”

“Throwing starfish back into the ocean. The surf is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them back, they’ll die,” the boy replied.
The man laughed to himself and said, “Do you realize there are miles of miles of beach and hundreds of starfish? You can’t make any difference.  After listening politely, the boy bent down to pick up another starfish and threw it into the surf. Then, he smiled at the man and said, “I made a difference to that one.”

The moral of the story is: Everyone can make a difference — even if that difference only affects one person.  Even if this drop-in center helps just one kid, it helped that one kid, and that is significant.  

I know for me that making a difference in one person’s life is significant. In my last UU congregation I worked on a mentoring project for youth of color in Chicago called The Smile Project. I remember, in particular, working with one youth—Danny-- who said to us that he really wanted to become a police officer.  

The Social Justice Committee arranged for him to work at the Lisle Police Department and to be mentored by a Deputy Chief Wilke.  When Danny started, the various police officers that worked with Danny observed that the he was bored, and didn’t ask any questions about the work of a police officer.  Instead, he asked them to buy him lunch; he just didn’t really seem engaged in the mentoring.  The Social Justice Committee, the UU’s running the project, met with Danny, his mother, Sandra, and Deputy Chief Wilke.  Deputy Chief Wilke gave Danny feedback on his behavior. He was surprised to hear this feedback.  And his mother was surprised he was asking for the officers to buy him lunch; she had provided him a sack lunch each day he went to the station.  We had a long talk with the youth about his behavior and what he really wanted for his future.  He really wanted to be a police officer, he said.  So we developed a plan to help him move forward.  We gave him a notebook to write down questions about the work he observed at the station.  We suggested to him that he go to each officer he had interacted with to acknowledge his behavior and apologize if needed.  And we asked him to report back to the committee more regularly.  His behavior turned around immediately and as he became more engaged, the officers at the station became more engaged, too.  Our little mentoring village made a difference for that one starfish.  And I will remember that for the rest of my life.

Today, LGBTQ youth are the starfish that we have an opportunity help and support.  And this drop-in project is one way we can affirm that we are indeed a Welcoming Congregation. 

We already have the designation; let’s lean into it a little more.  We have LGBTQ services, weddings, memorial service.  We are getting better at acknowledging Observance days, and members of this congregation plan to participate in Miami Beach Pride in 2024.  Many of our youth have attended OWL, Our Whole Life Sexuality classes which include information about the LGBTQ community.  And we are hosting a panel discussion on four Transgendered persons’ views on faith and religion October 8th after the service.  Offering our resources, space, for this drop-in center, the first of its kind in Miami/Dade since the Don’t Say Gay laws went into effect, embodies our re-commitment to being a Welcoming Congregation.  

If being a Welcoming Congregation is to be meaningful to UU Miami, we will always need to affirm the worth and dignity of all LGBTQ persons within our community and beyond these walls, with services, observances, education, and projects.  In all that we do as a faith community.  

There is a monthly Zoom hosted by the UUA to educate congregations on how to be more effective Welcoming Congregations.  Perhaps some of us can attend those meetings.  We have talked about putting our pronouns on our nametags, perhaps some of us can take that on as a project.  We have talked about making sure that anyone who comes on our campus sees that we have gender-inclusive bathrooms, respecting that each person knows which bathroom is right for them.  Perhaps some of us can take on that as a project.  How else might we do to express that members of the LGBTQ community feel welcomed here at UU Miami?  

We might not get to all of these projects, but if we keep in the front of our minds that we are a Welcoming Congregation, I’ll bet you’ll find we can do most of them.  

I am proud that this congregation, many years ago, went through a process of education and action to earn the designation as a Welcoming Congregation.  And I am proud that this congregation has done many things over the years to affirm that designation.  Now it is up to us to continue affirming that designation, in ways that are relevant to what’s going on in our community today.  Being a Welcoming Congregation is not a static description, but a process of engagement and education that will not end so long as UU Miami exists.   Inclusivity is not ‘How do we make you a part of what we are?’ but ‘How do we become more of what you are?’”  How will you continue to become more of what our LGBTQ siblings are?