Tuesday, August 13, 2019

What Do We Need in Our Backpack for the Journey by Rev. Tom Capo preached on August 11, 2019

When I was in my senior year of high school, 7 of my friends and I decided to go on a backpacking trip to Big Bend National Park in the very western part of Texas.  We bought backpacks, sleeping bags, flashlights, food, all the essentials for the trip.  We conditioned ourselves for the trip by running up and down football stadium bleachers. 
Few of us had ever been on a backpacking trip before, though some of us had not even been on a day hike, but we figured running up and down the bleachers would probably get us ready.  After all, that’s what the coaches made the football team do and they were in pretty good shape.  Little did we know what we would face backpacking 50 miles across a mountainous and desert terrain.  We traveled in two cars.  Our first hint that things may not go as planned occurred less than 5 miles from the park entrance.  One of our cars came to a dead stop.  When we opened the hood, the engine was glowing red, apparently so overheated that the engine block was melting. 
We all piled into the other car a pinto.  Some you might not know what a pinto was, Think mini-cooper without as much room.  We strapped our 8 backpacks on top and crammed in. 
                   During our trip we dealt with one person’s boot coming completely apart in the desert—did you duct tape can sort of repair a hiking boot-, one stove exploding, getting lost when we decided to go off the trail down a cliff (I was not in favor of this digression).  We panicked when we got lost at one point, and we enjoyed a hail storm that lasted from one afternoon to the next morning, destroying one of our tents and flooding another.  One of my friends had decided to pack canned goods in his backpack.  None of us volunteered to share his ridiculous load.  Though I must say we were all jealous when he ate those Del Monte Yellow Cling Peach Slices in 100% Real Fruit Juice,
while the rest of us at freeze dried meals.  We completed 30 miles and then decided to that perhaps we were better prepared for some day hikes.  Well, we didn’t make the goal, but—wow—what a journey!  What memories!  What fun we had!  What learning and personal growth we experienced.  And what stories we share about that backpacking trip to this day, though it was some 40 years ago.
            Being a Unitarian Universalist and a member of a UU faith community has a lot in common with a backpacking trip. 
You need make preparations and you need to be aware of the conditions you might face and get in shape for them.  You need the essentials to nourish your body, mind, and spirit.  You need to be ready for the unexpected, but not so over-prepared that you are weighed down that reaching your goals is more difficult.  And it is so much better to travel together, sharing experiences and splitting up the work necessary to complete the task.  All growing together, having fun together, and making meaning together. I hope you share with me some of your stories from your many journeys and share with me the stories of this congregation.  Your learning from those stories can serve as trail markers as we journey together down this new path.
I mentioned earlier that the Developmental tools you’ve identified as a congregation are in your order of service.  One of those goals is to help the congregation to align itself with the UUA goals to address systemic racism.  With that in mind, let’s take a fork in the trail that may help us make some progress.  This summer was our denomination’s General Assembly or GA and the theme of GA was “The Power of We”.  Here’s part of a sermon given by Reverend Marta I. Valentín at the Sunday morning worship at GA.
From Rev. Valentin’s sermon: “When our theme, ‘The Power of We’ was revealed, many from the historically marginalized communities immediately asked: Who is the ‘we’? It felt like the assumption was it is all of us Unitarian Universalists. But, is it, when many of us from the Black, Indigenous and People of Color communities experience a kind of Unitarian Universalism that is neither what we are told it is, nor how we know it could be? Is it, when our Trans family is repeatedly muted? Is it, when our people living with seen and unseen disabilities, are made invisible anyway? Is it, when Christian UUs and Military Chaplains feel like they have to be in the closet? Is it when our youth have to fight to be taken seriously, and our young adults to have space of their own?”
            Our denomination is in the complex and protracted process of discerning what it means to be “we”, to be Unitarian Universalists.   We’re in the midst of a transition for Unitarian Universalism, working together to develop a new more inclusive narrative that acknowledges where many of us have fallen short of our professed Principles and values, both as individuals and institutionally.  Transitions are taxing, tiring, and spiritually and emotionally demanding.  This
congregation is also going enduring a time of transition.  Enduring transition so that it may in the end, emerge as a congregation that truly lives its values to the bone and marrow of that bone.  It’s hard work, and it’s going to take a while.
From Reverend Valentin’s sermon: “As a Latina with skin in the game for thirty years, I observe the changes our faith tradition is undergoing, and note that those not paying attention continue to perpetuate old narratives like: ‘Nothing has really changed it just looks different.’ Or, ‘People are withholding their money because they don’t like the direction we’ve taken.’ Now remember these ‘people’ are Unitarian Universalists who are trying to live out our seven principles, and maybe even an eighth one day. These are not random people who receive an email from the UUA requesting support. They are included in whatever version of ‘we’ is being upheld. They are people who love and are loved. They may have taught our youth, taken care of our babies or our sages. Whose inability to deal with open conflict has led to more conflict. Who refuse to understand how their lack of engaging the work causes microaggressions to spill out of them, like unexpected spit in the faces of people who look or talk, or act like me.  Who hang on to the supreme whiteness of being, at all costs, and who have not been able to grasp that we are all swimming in poisoned proverbial waters.”
The Unitarian Universalist Association and its affiliate organizations--the UU ministers, Religious Education directors, administrators associations and many of our UU churches--have embraced addressing systemic racism and decentering whiteness,
acknowledging the white supremacy culture we live in, and welcoming more marginalized groups to the table and into leadership.  The Unitarian Universalist Association considers addressing systemic racism and decentering whiteness an urgent matter, putting time, people and resources into this work.  Our denomination has donated toward and then helped raise the balance of 5.3 million dollars for Black Lives UU, so that people of color don’t just survive in this denomination; they can thrive.  At General Assembly 2017, Unitarian Universalists changed the second source from “we draw sustenance from words and deeds of prophetic men and women”, to “prophetic people”, acknowledging and affirming gender fluidity.  And in this most recent Ministerial Search season, churches across this country called more Transgender and differently-abled ministers to serve as full-time clergy than ever before.  All this positive action allows changing of hearts and changing of patterns of behavior and speech.  Even with recognizing how we swim in the “poisoned proverbial waters” of our white supremacy culture, there is still a lot of work to be done.  We’re changing a culture, and that, my friends, is complicated.
From Reverend Valentin’s sermon: “This is a complicated picture, yet despite all of this, you, the faithful gathered when much of what would happen this year was uncertain. As religious folks, our presence together gives life and potential to new actions. It takes this same faithfulness to jump into the concept of ‘we’, and your presence is an affirmation that you too are in pursuit of this Power of We, because the power of a community is deeper and stronger than the power any individual can have. It’s a matter of what defines that power, and I like the kind that has ‘we’ embedded in it.”
 “Your presence, [here this morning my friends] is an affirmation that you too are in pursuit of this Power of We, because the power of a community is deeper and stronger than the power any individual can have. It’s a matter of what defines that power…”
How will we here at Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Miami define “we” and how will we live this definition as a congregation.  What “we” will mean is still to be defined by you, the members and friends of this congregation.  It’s going to take time and a willingness to change comfortable behaviors.  You’ll need to open your hearts without hurting one another.  You’ll need to share experiences you’ve had, both positive and negative, in this culture of white privilege, experiences that may have left you uncertain and experiences you are willing to consider in a new light.
One of the other tasks that this congregation has decided is a priority for the minister is to provide spiritual leadership that ties UUCM’s diverse theological interests together and that re-invigorates spiritual nourishment and service.  To do that we’ll need to consider what needs to be in our virtual backpacks as we begin this journey of addressing systemic racism and de-centering whiteness in this congregation.
And just so you don’t think it’s all about you and none about me, let me share with you six things I try to remember to keep in my backpack as I work on addressing systemic racism and de-centering whiteness in my life:
Do my spiritual practices regularly
Listen deeply to others before trying to answer a question or determine a direction
Spiritually fill myself with the gifts of Unitarian Universalism, including UU history, the Principles and Sources and the meaning of these in my life.
Be in right relationship with others, which includes acknowledging my mistakes, pointing out when someone is out of right relationship, and returning to fractured relationships in the spirit of love. 
I ask for help when I need it.
And finally I make time for fun.
What do you think you will need in your virtual backpack to begin this journey of addressing systemic racism and de-centering whiteness?
This will be a shared journey that we will co-create, but I have been thinking of some things we might consider putting in our backpacks.  We might include books on white fragility, white supremacy, and the experiences of other cultures who live in this white supremacy culture.  Great topics for some really meaty book discussion groups.  We might include a list of places where people of differing backgrounds, cultures, ethnicities, genders, and beliefs gather, and then reach out to them and invite them to engage with us in heart-felt conversations about their experiences in the current culture.  We might include a list of Unitarian Universalist workshops that will help us create safe spaces for authentic and intentional conversations surrounding white privilege, white fragility, and de-centering whiteness in this congregation.
This is a lot to consider.  And we don’t want to over pack.  We’ll probably take it slow and easy at first, until we gain some momentum.  We might need to figure out how to prepare and condition ourselves for this journey.  We need to pack all the essentials, but we must also expect the unexpected.  Most of all let’s keep in mind that it is so much better to travel together, sharing our experiences as well as the work.  May this journey be one of new growth and deep meaning and some great stories—we will not reach the goal of addressing all the issues surrounding systemic racism and de-centering whiteness in the congregation, but maybe we can make 10 or 20 miles of the 50 miles we need to go. And as a loving community let us not forget to have some fun together as we travel. 

Monday, August 5, 2019

Companions on the Journey, Rev. Tom's first service at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Miami

When I was in search for a Unitarian Universalist congregation to serve, a funny thing happened at least a few times during the interview process.  One member of a search committee would ask me to tell a joke.  I thought for a while and realized I only remembered Unitarian Universalist jokes, like: Q: Why did the UU, Unitarian Universalist, cross the road?  A: To support the chicken in its search for its own path.  And a Unitarian Universalist dies, and on the way to the after-life encounters a fork in the road. The left path has a sign “To Heaven” and the right has a sign “To a Discussion about Heaven” Without pausing, the UU turns right.

            It is not a surprise that, like most people my age, I’ve seen some transitions in my life.  One that I reflect on regularly is my decision to become a Unitarian Universalist minister.  More than 20 years ago, I was a member of Bay Area Unitarian Universalist Church in Houston, Texas, in the community adjacent to NASA-JSC.  The minister there resigned after several unethical acts.  As a result, he lost much of what gave his life meaning and purpose—the UUA removed him from fellowship, which meant he could no longer be a minister, and his counseling license was stripped from him, so he could no longer practice counseling.  His resignation triggered in me a series of emotional reactions that only later did I realize was the surfacing of my call.  I asked myself if I lost everything that gave my life meaning and purpose, or if I knew my life would soon be over, would I have any regrets, anything that I had left undone.  And as if from no-where a summoning came from deep inside; I was called to Unitarian Universalist ministry.  I struggled with this concept.  I lost a lot of sleep.  I talked with Unitarian Universalist ministers, most of whom vigorously dissuaded me from my call. They said being a Unitarian Universalist minister was a hard, demanding vocation that would break my heart time and again.  They each affirmed that I should only follow my call if I wholeheartedly believed it was what I must do.  Doubts and second-guessing piled up.  Could I afford seminary? How would my family be impacted by my decision? Would I still have time for the simple pleasures of life that I had become accustomed to, pleasures that helped me cope with the stress life presented?  Questions with no clear answers.  My soul was really struggling.  This path would mean significant life changes and sacrifices for me and my family; my comfortable life would be turned upside down.  And there were no guarantees if I started down this path that I would eventually become a Unitarian Universalist minister. 

            Then I met a person who would companion me along this journey, Reverend Bob Schaibley.  Bob was there as I was struggling with my call, holding up a virtual mirror to my words, allowing me to realize that when I said I felt something deep within pulling me toward ministry, I sounded genuine, passionate, honest.  He told me that he too had had experienced such a call and was as scared and uncertain as I was.  He could not guarantee that if I followed this call that I would become a Unitarian Universalist minister—of course no one could do that--but he would be with me as I tried.  He would make time to listen to me; he would hold up that mirror to me so that I could understand what he heard, not just in words, but also what my heart expressed.  He affirmed for me again and again, it was possible for me a Unitarian Universalist minister.  And it was my choice to make this terrifying journey, no matter how many UU ministers were telling me to choose something—anything—else to do.  Bob didn’t sugar coat any of it. The sacrifices—the ones I would choose to make, the ones my family would have to make because of my call.  The debt, the night-long study, being short on sleep, and the relationships I would have to let go of because after my job, my family, and seminary, I wouldn’t have anything left over to give.  He told me what it would take to become a UU minister; and he told me what I would face as a UU minister.  He didn’t pull any punches, but he also held out hope and was willing to companion me through the process of seminary and fellowship. 

            My first ministry was with a 40 member congregation in Beaumont, Texas—Spindletop Unitarian Church.  I was asked to serve them before I was even ordained.  I felt like I couldn’t let them know how nervous I was. After all I was their minister and they needed me to the expert.  That’s what a minister is right?  An expert! On everything! All the time!  I wore my academic robes while I preached, a visible emblem of my expertise and my separation from the rest of the congregation.  But here’s the thing, I quickly learned, ministry is not about being an expert on everything, all the time. Ministry is about being a companion to a congregation.

            Think back on a time in your life when you were going through some difficulty or transition.  Maybe that was last year or last month.  Maybe it’s right now, today.  Who was a presence in your life while you were navigating this transition?  What do you remember about how that person?  Maybe you don’t remember what they said, but I bet you remember how they made you feel.  Supported.  Heard.  Hopeful.  Companioning is a term often used in grief work or in working with people with mental illness, but I have come to see it in broader terms.  Companioning, to me, is about holding holy space for a person or a group so that they can discover a path forward.  Here are some qualities of companioning that I ascribe to:

(Adapted from 11 Tenets of Companioning developed by Dr. Alan Wolfelt)

1.Companioning is about being present.

2.Companioning is about listening with the heart and mind.

3.Companioning is about being willing to go into the wilderness of the soul with another human being—or a congregation--bearing witness to the struggles without judgment.

4.Companioning is about walking alongside; it is not about leading or being led.

5.Companioning is about embracing curiosity and holding hope.

The benefits or gifts of this kind of relationship are:

(Adapted from “Companioning is about learning from others; it is not about teaching them” by Alan Wolfelt.)

We, together, find wholeness among fractured parts.

We come to know who you are in new and unexpected ways.

We come to a more profound understanding of your origins and your future directions.

We discover a story/a narrative that takes you into the future.

We determine how adversity has enriched your meaning and purpose.

We learn your truth in this present moment.

            In our relationship, the one you and I will build together, I will share my experiences, my knowledge, and my training with you.  I will not tell you that you need to do this or that to be the best, healthiest, highest performing person or congregation that anyone has ever seen.  I will listen, I will ask questions, and I will help you discern direction and priorities.  What is your identity?  What are your covenants?  What is your mission?  What are your goals?

            This congregation is a unique ecosystem.  You have been tending it, nurturing it, since its beginning.  There has been exciting growth and discouraging decline; there have been times of cool serenity and of cyclonic conflict; there have times of when there was a barrenness of meaning and times when a new purpose bloomed from fertile minds.  This is a time when there seems to be too much work for you, the people of this ecosystem, to manage all the components of this environment.  I bring an extra set of hands to help tend this ecosystem.   My roles here include staying on site to help tend the ecosystem and checking in with all of you spiritual environmentalists to see how you are doing.  I will also listen as you report on how you think/feel this ecosystem is doing.  I will learn from you what has worked and not worked so well as you have watched your ecosystem endure over the years.  And I will remind you and inspire you to stay focused on the tasks set before us. 

            When I met with your Board, your Search Committee and many of you in June, I found people eager for a companion on your journey.  I am here.  For the next five years I work with you.   One important aspect of this work is asking a lot of questions.  Here are some I will be asking in the coming weeks:

Which of our Unitarian Universalist Principles touches you most deeply and why?  Here are the Principles. 

Which of the UU Sources fills your spirit so that you can cope with the chaotic world we live in? And here are our Sources.                    

What social justice issue most calls to your heart and why?  How does being a member of this church impact your daily life?  What was your most moving moment here at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Miami?  Imagine coming to this church five years from now.  Tell me about what you hope to see and who you feel about it.  Imagine a Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Miami superhero.  What would his/her/their name be and why?  To that end, I will be reaching out to each of you during these first few weeks, to try to meet or at least talk with you.  I want to get to know each of you and, heads-up, I will ask you these questions.  Our shared journey begins now, no one of us ahead or behind the others, but all of us, side by side, shoulder to shoulder, hand in hand, heart to heart.