Sunday, June 7, 2020

“How Will Compassion Look Now” by Reverend Tom Capo 6/07/2020

         Compassion is defined as “sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.” But I agree with theologian Karen Armstrong that the word “pity” has some extra baggage, and it seems to me that extra baggage is packed with the subtext of looking down on someone, seeing that person as somehow less than I am, and helping them because they are less than me, or, said another way, because I am in a position of power over.  Pity just doesn’t fit with my understanding of compassion.  And compassion seems greater than baseline concern. Concern is a somewhat amorphous term that could mean anything from being interested in to being worried or anxious about, to actually caring about someone. Compassion, when contrasted with concern, is more focused than concern.  Compassion, at least to me, is about how we behave toward one another; how we take care of one another while treating each other with respect, and experiencing each other as having worth and dignity.  Compassion springs from the abundance of love we have in our hearts to share and from the belief that we all have an enormous supply of lovingkindness within us to treat not only ourselves well, but also others well.  In a more compact way I define compassion as: intentionally, equitably, and actively caring for one another.  How does this kind of compassion look now-a-days?
            For over a week now, images of George Floyd’s murder—what is in essence, if not fact, his lynching—has replayed countless times on countless media outlets.  In my opinion, this has been in no way an expression of compassion by the news organizations, these never-ending replays of George Floyd’s murder.  But then I found myself asking, “have we as a Nation become so desensitized and numb, and has our capacity for shock and righteous anger become so dulled that this, this unending witness to yet another black man’s murder is what it takes to get us moving together to make a change?”  Has it all become some sort of grotesque theater, and have we become the audience who can’t look away to the point that we do not leave our seats to get outside and do something about it?
            Then the rallies and riots started.  I am supportive of the rallies, as many of you know after seeing me and some members of this congregation standing in protest on Highway 1 last week with our Black Lives Matter and No White Silence signs.  But I am scared of the riots.  I know that change will not come to our white supremacist culture easily and I realize it’s going to be messy.  Riots are part of the messiness. Despite my fear, I am willing to live with the messiness for change to happen.  I just think that there are ways to not provoke the riots.
          It seems like no matter how peaceful the protests are during the day, when night falls and curfews begin to be enforced, riots have happened.   In some places, the police try to control the protesters with violence, hurling smoke bombs and shooting rubber bullets, cutting people’s tires, tazing them, punching reporters with their shields, escalating peaceful crowds of generally peaceful people to violence.  I’m not na├»ve, and neither are you.  I understand that these peaceful protests have also attracted people whose goals are in direct opposition to the goals of the majority of protesters.  Some are outsiders to the community, others are themselves members of the community.  It’s a tinderbox out there; one person or a small group of people lights a match—throws a flash bomb or a rock or a Molotov Cocktail—and suddenly everything bursts into flames.
            Where is the compassion?  How much training have the police had on how to handle situations like this?  Have they been trained to de-escalate, engage, connect with the African American people out there who dying from coronavirus, who have for decades suffered from poverty and institutional racism?
            Over my years in counseling and ministry, I have had discussions about oppression and racism with people of color.  I have talked with people who have returned from their stays in prison unable to restart their lives; I’ve talked with those who have been pulled over by the police again and again for “driving while Black”; I’ve talked with parents of black children who tell me about the conversations they have to have with their children to keep them safe and alive in a white supremacist culture; I’ve talked with those who are homeless--who have found it virtually impossible to get out of the cycle of homelessness without someone giving them a hand up, not a hand out, a hand up.  I have lent my voice to them when I could to support their needs and causes.  I worked with an organization in Chicago to develop a program to equip people of color with effective skills in the event they’re pulled over by police.  And the police were involved in this program.  People of color and police could see each other as human beings and share their feelings with one another not only about the legal issues involved with a traffic stop, but the fear and anxiety involved, on both sides. 
            We are all just people.  We’re just people trying to find our way through change.  We have all been enculturated into a white supremacist system and some of us are trying to find a way to change that.  I have seen police kneeling and praying with protestors this week, not just punching and kicking and shoving.  I have seen people of color speaking out about what they want and need as these rallies have continued.  As their discernment begins, discussions have started around defunding the police, demilitarizing the police, getting police trained in de-escalation, and increasing police community involvement.  I have heard organizers talking about getting rid of the prison-industrial complex. I have heard discussions about how we all need to stop calling the police or at least stop calling the police as a first resort instead of the last.  What’s the alternative?  Communities working together to deal with situations themselves, or perhaps training communities to learn how to deal with conflicts when they come up, before calling the police. Some of you might think some of these ideas are radical or unrealistic but the time has come to begin discussions, to understand what needs to change in our culture to make it truly equitable.  White people need to first ask those most affected by racial inequity and injustice what they need. White people need to withhold their judgments on the ideas that people of color have they about meaningful solutions and effective directions even if it makes white people uncomfortable.
            At the Unitarian Universalist Association, the UUA, vigil on Wednesday night, I heard three ways to move forward to support the change that our culture is struggling with as we try to decenter whiteness.  The ways suggested, in broad categories, are learning, acting, and giving. 
As Unitarian Universalists, many of us are all about learning, reading, studying, talking about issues.  But the learning I am talking about is more than that.  It is not only about reading a book, like “White Fragility”; it is more than talking about that book theoretically; it is about engaging with the message with heart and soul.  It is about looking at our own personal prejudices, fears, and behaviors that support this white supremacist culture that we live in.  It is about deciding how we might change ourselves to help society change.
Acting is deciding what to do and doing it.  I posted an article on my Facebook page from the UUA website that gives some ideas about how to decide on action.  The article is called “Risk, Courage and Discernment: Spiritual Preparation”.  It asks questions to aid in preparation and discernment before taking a social justice action.  Questions like: Is this action visionary and reducing pain for people? Does this action have moral authority? Is this action building my own and others capacity? What role have I been asked to play? Which [of our forebears] (spiritual, family, social justice) have played this role? How can I lean on their wisdom? How can I do right by their legacy? It asks us to consider our privilege and access to stability, or lack thereof, in doing this work. Reminding us the goal is always to fight another day, for this work is not short-term. 
I thought about these questions Wednesday as members of our congregation were holding up Black Lives Matter signs on Highway 1.  So many people giving us a thumbs up, waving or honking in support. 
And Chris Kirchner dressed as an angel.  Two young African American girls drove up and stopped in a long line of cars at the stoplight. As they took Chris’s picture, one said “I am going to cry” and she did, emotionally overwhelmed by the symbolism.  And I thought this is one right action we have made, being here today.
And finally giving.  How do we use our resources to be change agents in the world? Personally and as a congregation?  How do we support Black Lives Unitarian Universalist or DRUUMM, Diverse and Revolutionary Unitarian Universalists Multicultural Ministry?  How do we support Black Lives Matter?  These are organizations doing work to dismantle racism and work to support decentering whiteness in our denomination and in our culture.
            After all I have been experiencing this week, I revisited the questions in the story of three questions by Tolstoy: When is the right time? Who are the right people? What is the most important thing to do? I thought now is the time, you, the members of this congregation, are the right people, and even while in quarantine, even though it is summer, the most important thing to do is to offer this congregation opportunities to grapple with racism.  To be in alignment with the UUA’s antiracism work is one of the developmental goals you have defined as important to this congregation, that you have asked me to focus on while I am with you.  It is time that I offer a space for this congregation to discern ways we, individually and collectively, can be radically compassionate, intentionally, equitably, and actively caring for humans around us in need, particularly people of color and other marginalized groups.
In the newsletter you may have noticed that I am inviting you to begin engaging in learning—by studying the book “White Fragility”.  My hope is that by engaging with this book and others, that we can begin discerning action and giving for the good of others, particularly people of color and other marginalized groups who are being choked by the cultural norms of our white supremacist culture. 
You might think to yourself I already know what to do to help, but my friends, pause for a moment. First, you might take into consideration what people of color are suggesting.   Look at the Black Lives Matter Action of the Week or consider giving to the National Bail Fund Network to help those essentially trapped in jail because they don’t have the money to get out. These are actions that are being led by people of color. 
            Remember, my friends, change in our culture ultimately will not come from white guilt, or fear of riots, or anger and frustration over bad individuals in the police force.  Change comes when we act from compassion, when we gain insight, when we develop beloved community and engage with one another about the difficult issues that are on our hearts, issues that society needs to struggle with. This is that time for all of us to engage with those issues. On the Blog The Fallon Forum written by American activist and author Ed Fallon, I found this.  Ed was talking about the symbolism of the police taking a knee, and how that symbolism was immensely important, but he was clear that symbolism isn’t enough.  He wrote: “We all must commit to working toward policy changes that shift the system away from the racism that has been accepted or perpetrated by too many - even by ourselves. Equally, we must commit to personal efforts that shift us toward… [seeing] each other’s different cultures as part of what makes our society rich and beautiful, to understand our differences even when we don’t agree with them, and to hold each other up in love.”  May it be so.

Saturday, June 6, 2020

Returning to the New Normal, When and How by Reverend Tom Capo


The president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, Susan Fredrick Gray, sent out an email last week about Covid 19 and what to consider before opening our church buildings and campuses back up.  There were many things to consider, which I expected, but what shocked me was this: “We… recommend that congregations begin planning for virtual operations for the next year (through May 2021).”  She went on to say, “Take a moment to breathe. I know this is significant. While there is much public conversation about ‘reopening,’ the reality is public health officials consistently predict a long trajectory [through] this pandemic.  [And] a majority of our congregational members, leaders, and staff members are in high-risk categories.”
         Boy did I take a “moment to breathe” when I read this.  Had I fallen through the looking glass, down the rabbit hole, through a wardrobe “to some enchanted forest where animals talk and danger lurks and nothing works quite the way it did before.” The world had already changed too much.  I had thought this Covid thing would be like a sprint, maybe a long spring, but a sprint.  Now it seems like a marathon and I haven’t gone one lap around the track  yet.  How would we maintain this faith community during this time when nothing seems to quite make sense, for a year?  How do we keep in contact with one another?  Zoom and YouTube are nice and I have learned a lot about them, but are they enough to hold this congregation together?  These thoughts and others circled around my mind and I bet they have been spinning through yours. 
         As I breathed, I reflected on the words of one of our Unitarian forebears, Theodore Parker: “Be ours a religion which, like sunshine, goes everywhere; its temple, all space; its shrine, the good heart; its creed, all truth; its ritual, works of love; its profession of faith, divine living.”  Could these words still have meaning for Unitarian Universalists over 100 years later?  Still have meaning for us in this congregation? Just how much glue could they provide to hold our faith and congregation together? They seem idealistic, impractical, antiquated, and lofty.  Then, in true lectio divina fashion, I took time to sink into the vision of Unitarian Universalism with this quote, phrase by phrase. 
         “Be ours a religion which, like sunshine, goes everywhere.” I started thinking about how our congregation could hold services outside with everyone masked and six feet apart and plenty of hand sanitizer.  I wondered could we have the congregation drive onto the property and hold services with everyone in their cars?  Could we open all the large doors in the church building, put up an Acrylic Plastic Sheet between the preacher and the congregation, and put big circles on the floor six feet apart for each family to sit in together? 
“Its temple, all space” Steve Snyder has talked about different filters for the air conditioning system and we discussed having masks and gloves available for anyone who joins the service.  And we considered limiting the worship space to 25 or 50 percent of its capacity with no after the service lunches, and no hymnals, no orders of service. And limiting the bathrooms to one in one out. 
“Its shrine, the good heart.” The likelihood of any hand-shaking or hugging or singing together will have to wait until after a vaccine is created and distributed.  But we could find new ways to “touch” each other.  Even from six feet away we could discover new ways to “touch” each other.
         “Its creed, all truth; its ritual, works of love.” When will we open?  How will we open?  Practically, these questions are not easily answered.  There will be people in churches around the country who will try different ways of gathering,  some who will open sooner, some much later.  I have been in communication with clergy locally and nationally; I have attended workshops put on by the UUA and by Church Mutual Insurance Company.  They all have lots of ideas, but there are also a lot of fears and concerns about liability and consequences if someone contracted Covid 19 while attending a program at a faith community.  Ultimately, there is no clear path forward, at least for the foreseeable future.  But our creed of all truth?  Our ritual being works of love? These are a couple things that, at their core, at their essence, haven’t changed.  All of us are still continuing our search for truth and meaning despite not being able to gather together in one physical space.  And if our ritual is to be found in works of love, then we’ve got that down.  When we bring  you these Sunday services on YouTube, that is a work of love.  When we meet in small groups through Zoom?  More works of love.  When we call each other on the phone to check in?  That’s love at work.
         “Its profession of faith, divine living.” Breathe in, breathe out.  A rabbi I was listening to a few days ago said that during this time of Covid 19, we should not be obsessed with the hardships and limitations; we can and will find a way to deal with them.  Instead, we need to be even more steadfast in living our faith, however we understand it, in this world.  Our communities are still there to support us, perhaps not in the way we would prefer for them to be, but they are still there.  They’re in our acts of love.  Love that finds a way. 

If there was ever a time to lean into our 7 Principles and use them as a rock solid foundation to support how we live and move and have our being, wouldn’t this, wouldn’t now be that time?  That time to examine and strengthen our connection to the 7 Principles which guide and inform our faith?
         I cannot tell you today when we will gather together here on this property or exactly how that will look, but I can say you are in my thoughts and on my heart.  As I explore different ways of being wonder in touch with you, I am finding that my conversations with many of you are deeper and richer than they have been over this past year.  I think about you all when I consider with new insights decisions and directions for this faith community and for Unitarian Universalism.  I now read the Unitarian Universalist Principles more frequently than I did before the Coronavirus. And explore my relationship them in this Covid time.  And my prayer life has been more frequent and more vibrant than it has been in many years. 
         Your leadership and I, with your input, will figure it when and how we gather.  Unitarian Universalists have never backed away from working out complex solutions to difficult issues.  I can’t tell you what the solutions are because I don’t know, yet, but I will tell you what I do know; together we will figure this out.
         In the meantime, there will still be Sunday services, children and adult religious exploration, opportunities to talk with one another, to be in relationship with one another.  This building will be maintained, I am not be going anywhere, you will still get your newsletter and weekly.  Joseph will play beautiful music for our services and your Board will continue to decide on the business of the church.  We got this.  Right now you have the opportunity to consider what Unitarian Universalism and UU Miami means to you, to explore and deepen your spirituality, your faith, and how you live in this world as a Unitarian Universalist.
This faith and this congregation will be here throughout quarantine and Covid 19, however long it impacts our lives. “That’s how it works. Do not confuse the beginning of the story with the end.”  We may have thought that Covid 19 was just a short chapter in our story, but it seems to me a new story has begun and we are just realizing it. As the story unfolds, hold onto what you know is true, even if it feels like it is a long way from here.  It is not a long way, my friends, it is right there in your heart and it reaches out to connect with the hearts of those of us sharing our faith journey with you here at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Miami.