Friday, January 5, 2024

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?

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