Jan 2, 2020
Happy New Year!
As I write this month’s column, I am in Michigan visiting my parents for the winter holidays. It is snowing outside – a soft blanket covers the ground and the roads alike. Winter weather brings a sense of peace and respite. There is a fire in the fireplace and I have spent the last few days enjoying my family and relaxing. Wherever you are spending the first days of the New Year, I hope you are finding a similar time to pause.
We are beginning a new decade and like many people, I find myself both taking stock of the last ten years of my life and looking ahead. Since 2010, my life has been filled with changes. My kids are bigger. One is a senior in college, the other is in Middle School. I live in a new city. It would actually take me several paragraphs to attempt to list all of the changes in my life.
The same would be true if I tried to list the changes in the world. It has been a mixed bag, filled with positives and negatives. Throughout the globe poverty has decreased, literacy has increased, and childhood mortality has declined. At the same time, the United States has gone through a severe recession and experienced a resurgence of white supremacist populism and white supremacist violence. The climate crisis has grown ever more urgent. And shifts in technology and the continuing rise of social media have accelerated the pace of societal change.
Ten years from now, the world and my own life will have changed again. Given the rate of change, it is hard to imagine exactly what society will be like. The climate crisis means that the next decade will be the most crucial in human history. It will determine whether or not we, as a human species, address the causes of global warming. Depending on the choices we make, ten years from now the world could either be in dire shape or on the path to a vibrant, sustainable future. Either way, it will be very different than it is now.
The fate of Unitarian Universalism over the next decade will be determined by whether or not we live up to our commitment to be a relevant religion. We will thrive if religious communities like First UU Church equip people to confront society’s challenges and adjust to its changes. We will fade into irrelevance if we do not.
While we answer the question of whether or not we are a relevant religion on a grand scale, we will also have to continue answering this question individually, on a personal scale. No matter what happens, in the midst of all the world’s changes, some things will remain constant. The cycle of life and death, birth and aging, will continue. The Earth will orbit the sun as it always has. The Moon will bring tides to the water. And people will need to find meaning in the rich mess of our lives. They will ask questions about the meaning of life and the power of love.
First UU Church’s challenge over the next decade will be this: Can we be a religious community that is relevant to the great crisis of the hour while at the same time providing a spiritual home for people throughout the days of their lives? I think First UU Church can. And because I believe this, I also think that the brightest days for both Unitarian Universalism and First UU Church are in the future. I look forward to seeing how the next ten years unfold.
P.S. I would be remiss not to offer you a few final words of poetry. Here’s a mildly obtuse piece by Ravi Shankar that captures something of the feel of the New Year’s snow:
Particulate as ash, new year’s first snow falls
upon peaked roofs, car hoods, undulant hills,
in imitation of motion that moves the way
static cascades down screens when the cable
zaps out, persistent & granular with a flicker
of legibility that dissipates before it can be
interpolated into any succession of imagery.
One hour stretches sixty minutes into a field
of white flurry: hexagonal lattices of water
molecules that accumulate in drifts too soon
strewn with sand, hewn into browning
mounds by plow blade, left to turn to slush.
Sep 20, 2019
Sep 6, 2019
I am really excited to be with you for another year of interim ministry. I am very much looking forward to what we have coming up! Most of our work together in the next months will revolve around three overlapping tasks. First, we will be preparing for the developmental ministry that will follow my interim ministry. This ministry will last between five and seven years. It will be designed with the explicit intention of addressing long standing issues and patterns that have led to conflict in the past and prevented First Church from realizing its full potential. Over the next few months the Board and I will be leading a number of activities designed to help identify the goals for the developmental ministry.
Second, we will be laying the groundwork for future visioning work. In order to have an impactful future, First Church needs to answer the question: What is the purpose of First Church? The actual task of defining a vision, writing a new vision statement (and possibly a congregational covenant), will most likely occur after my interim ministry. Casting an effective vision for a congregation takes time. It requires a cultural shift within the congregation. That means an interim period is an ideal time to start preparing for future visioning work.
Third, whatever ultimate vision the congregation develops for itself, it is clear that the global crises of the hour demand a Unitarian Universalist response. We are in a period of grave crisis. Much of life on Earth is threatened by the human driven climate emergency. In the United States, we face the intertwined crises of resurgent white supremacy and the potential dissolution of democratic culture and institutions. In order for Unitarian Universalism, and First Church, to matter we must face these crises, recognize that they collectively represent a profound moral and spiritual crisis, and devote ourselves to the task of developing the spiritual practices and theological resources to confront them.
Essentially this means that we must figure out new ways of being in world, both as individuals and as a community. This year in worship and through some of our adult programs and social justice efforts we will be attempting to imagine, and live, these new ways of being. Each month we will focus on a different worship theme that is suggestive of the crises we face and the new ways of being we might develop to face them. Our theme for September is Disruption and over the course of the month we will be exploring each of the three major crises and the disruptions they bring. At the Museum District, our September 8th service will focus on disrupting white supremacy. Our September 15th service ask us to consider the question: What is a religious response to the climate emergency? And on September 29th we will devote ourselves to threats that are disrupting democratic institutions and norms in the United States. The Thoreau campus will be following its own worship schedule during this time. Look for details about it in Scott Cooper’s column and in upcoming newsletters.
Throughout the year we will be bringing exciting guest preachers and programs to help us on our collective path. Paula Cole Jones will be joining us in September to work with the Board and the staff and to offer us a sermon at Museum District on September 22nd. Jones is the founder of ADORE (A Dialogue on Race & Ethnicity), a former president of DRUUMM (Diverse and Revolutionary Unitarian Universalist Multicultural Ministries) and an independent consultant specializing in multicultural competencies and institutional change. She is also a longtime member of All Souls Church Unitarian, in Washington, DC.
Throughout the year we will also be working to integrate more Spanish into our worship services. Spanish is the second most spoken language in Houston and we have a number of members who are native Spanish speakers. In an effort to have a more multiculturally welcoming service we will be including Spanish language choral anthems, hymns, and readings at once a month. We will also be singing our chalice lighting in both English and Spanish. To support this work we plan to purchase sufficient copies of Las Voces del Camino, the UUA’s Spanish hymnal for the congregation. We will be launching a hymnal drive during Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15 to October 15, 2019). You can underwrite the purchase of a hymnal for $18. Hymnal underwriters will have their contributions memorialized with bookplates in each hymnal that they underwrite.
So, it is going to be a busy year! And I am excited for the work we will do together, the opportunities for personal and collective growth it brings, and possibilities of collective liberation it will open up for us! It wouldn’t a column if I didn’t close with a bit of poetry. Here’s a fragment of “Heal the Cracks in the Bell of the World” by Martin Espada:
Listen to the bells in a town with a flagpole on Main Street,
a rooster weathervane keeping watch atop the Meeting House,
the congregation gathering to sing in times of great silence.
Here the bells rock their heads of bronze as if to say:
Melt the bullets into bells, melt the bullets into bells.
Here the bells raise their heavy heads as if to say:
Melt the cannons into bells, melt the cannons into bells.
Here the bells sing of a world where weapons crumble deep
in the earth, and no one remembers where they were buried.
Now the bells pass the word at midnight in the ancient language
of bronze, from bell to bell, like ships smuggling news of liberation
from island to island, the song rippling through the clouds.
Now the bells chime like the muscle beating in every chest,
heal the cracks in the bell of every face listening to the bells.
The chimes heal the cracks in the bell of the moon.
The chimes heal the cracks in the bell of the world.
Aug 20, 2019
This year during my vacation in England and France I published almost daily blog posts. My writing was experiment to see if I could maintain a regular posting schedule. I also wanted to create a record of the trip. I went with my parents and son. I am not sure how many more long trips we will be able to take together and I thought it would be nice to have a travel log.
Over the month, I wrote four sets of posts. Each set was composed in one of the places where we were staying: Arles, Paris, Sers, and London. My posts tended to fall into four general, often overlapping, themes. I wrote about art, food, places, and politics. My favorite posts about art revolved around family friends Markéta Luskačová and Libuse Jarcovjakova. I summarized the restaurants we visited with posts about places to eat in London and Paris and paid tribute to Cadenheads in London. I wrote about the streets of Arles, Parc de la Villette in Paris, Chateau d’If off the coast of Marseille, the fascinating Château de La Rochefoucauld, and the disgust I felt at Versailles. I composed a meditation on the relation between fashion and politics as walked the Rue de Turenne and I met with a retired professor of political science, a journalist, and some anarchists to discuss the state of French politics. And I offered some pastoral words in the wake of a wave of mass shootings in the United States.
If the object was create a travel log that I will use to remember the trip, my blogging was absolutely a success. The same can be said if the objective was to increase the traffic to my blog. It roughly doubled over the course of the time that I kept the blog. The five posts that generated the most traffic were: Rue de Turenne (or some thoughts on champagne socialism); Reflecting on the Mass Shootings in Dayton, El Paso, Gilroy, and Southhaven from London; Château de La Rochefoucauld; It is the Job of the Far Left to Organize the Margins; and Europe 2019.
Composing a daily blog was a time consuming labor. It took me between 30 minutes and an hour and a half each day. It is not something that I will be continuing now that I am back in Houston. Instead, my blog will largely return to being a place for me to publish the texts of my sermons, letters to the congregation I serve, and announcements about upcoming events. On occasion, I will post other things but for the moment I will be focusing my non-sermon related writing on my scholarship.
Aug 16, 2019
Our trip home was relatively simple compared with our trip to London from Sers. It only involved two modes of transit: airplanes and automobiles. We decided not to take the Heathrow Express. The cost of buying four tickets was roughly the same as the cost of hiring a black car to Heathrow. So, we took a black car, complete with London cabbie, from the flat to the airport and then caught our flight to New York. In New York, after we cleared customs, we had to transfer between JFK and LaGuardia. In order to save money I bought tickets from Houston to New York and then from New York to Europe rather than connecting flights through the airlines (I saved over $1,000 this way). We took a New York taxi and then flew home to Houston. Once there we hired a car service via an app and made it home around midnight. We were greeted by a happy cat (or at least loudly purring cat who couldn’t keep off of us if I refrain from anthropomorphizing him).
My blog posts about London are:
Many Happy Future Shocks to You
The Last Bottle in the Country
The Cat Owned the Flat
Reflecting on the Mass Shootings in Dayton, El Paso, Gilroy, and Southhaven from London
Since this is my last post on London, I want to close by praising London cabbies. In London, taxi driving is highly regulated. It is a solid middle income job and getting a job as a taxi driver requires passing a special test, called The Knowledge, and waiting for a few years for an opening (in order to get a job driving from one of the airports you have to be able to speak at least two languages as well). The Knowledge is nothing more than understanding how to navigate through London’s notoriously mazing streets. Cabbies pride themselves in having The Knowledge. And its benefits, even in the age of GPS, sometimes show themselves. On our way to the airport the GPS wanted us to go the wrong way down a one-way street--the street had been converted into being one way for the day. The driver ignored the GPS recommendation and got us to the airport 15 minutes before the GPS on my phone said we supposed to get there, all the while obeying the speed limit. It was an impressive, if minor, victory of man over machine. I am sure that at some point in the near future apps like Waze will outperform The Knowlege. But that moment has not yet come. When I commented on our arrival time to the airport the driver, as if on cue, told me, “It’s ‘cause I got The Knowledge, sir.”
Aug 15, 2019
Like Paris, London is one of the great food cities of the world. On this trip, we ate at two of the city’s most iconic restaurants—St. John and Ottolenghi. We had a number of pub meals, some memorable and some easily forgettable, and fantastic pizza. We also ate mediocre noodles at Menya Ramen House (my son argued, and I agree with him, that the Sunday afternoon ramen—with homemade noodles and broth—served out of paper cups at Ebisuya in Medford is significantly better) and had some innovative dim sum at a place called BaoziInn.
My parents made reservations three months in advance so we could have dinner at the eponymous restaurant of Yotam Ottolenghi—author of numerous popular cookbooks that form a staple in our houses. The thing that surprised me most about Ottolenghi was its modest price. Unlike the two high end restaurants we ate in France, Ottolenghi is quite affordable—plenty of the items on the menu cost less than 15 pounds. In truth, it’s the wine that really costs. If you’re in London, on a budget, and want to eat there, two people could probably have a world class meal without drinks for under 60 pounds (maybe even under 50).
The menu is divided into two sections. There are a bunch of pre-made dishes—essentially tapas—that they have in the window for passersby to see. These are all cold and all delicious. The most memorable was a grilled gem lettuce salad (grilled lettuce being something that I very much like and rarely find on the menu anywhere).
The other part of the menu is the larger hot dishes that come from the kitchen. We got a whole sole to share amongst the three adults, for reasons that are unclear to me neither of my children like seafood, while my son had pork chops (which he split with my father). We had a couple of other hot dishes, the mackerel being most memorable, and finished with some great desserts (the British usually call them puddings) which were flavorful and not too sweet.
We had dinner with Marketa Luskacova our last night in London at St. John Bread and Wine in Spitalfields. Years ago, it was almost impossible to get into. These days it is still quite popular, but St. John Bread and Wine was able to accommodate a party of five with a few days’ notice. Like Ottolenghi, it is surprisingly affordable. The total cost of meal for five, with drinks, was about the same cost as a meal at a fairly good mid-priced place in Houston. The food, however, was in a different class.
St. John is credited with launching a Renaissance in British cooking. When it opened it did something completely different—it offered a well executed return to classic British cooking. Not pub food, or the high-end stuff that, at the time, was basically trying to imitate French or Italian, but the food that the British made for themselves from local ingredients prior to the wars.
It advocated something they called nose to tail cooking—making use of every part of the animal—which I appreciated in the 1990s and still appreciate today (I didn't partake in it then (as I was, at the time, a vegetarian) or now (currently being a pescatarian)). St. John also returned to vegetables that had been forgotten or where rarely used—samphire being one—perfected the Welsh Rarebit, and just generally celebrated local food.
I love St. John because despite all of this it is the opposite of pretentious. The tables are refurbished wood and the chairs exhibit a utilitarian happenstance like beauty rather than an intentional elegance. What’s more, it is quite possible to eat there for the same price as a meal of fish and chips. Their Welsh Rarebit is something like a seven pounds. That, a green salad to accompany it, and a glass to wash it down won’t set you back more than fifteen pounds.
We ate here our first afternoon in London. It is located right up the street from the flat we rented for the week. Overall the meal was quite nice—the best bit probably being their homemade kimchi—but the part we enjoyed most was the sticky toffee pudding. Sticky toffee pudding is a classic British dessert and sometimes can be a bit cloying. This version was just about perfect, spicy and deep with a sweet, but not overwhelming, toffee.
Over the years, I have become something of a pizza connoisseur. As a single parent, I have often had to take my son along with me on preaching and speaking gigs. Part of the deal is that whenever he accompanies, we try the local pizza place that is reputed to be the best. I have lost track of the number of pizza places we’ve eaten at together but it’s easily over fifty.
Our consensus is that the best pizza we’ve had is from Santarpio’s in Boston. It is one of the oldest pizza places in the United States. I took my son there for all of his birthdays between the ages of six and ten and we made sure to eat there when we were in Boston for my first Minns lecture.
Santore is second on the list (I would actually put it first, but I doubt my son would forgive me). Located in the Exmouth Market, they make pizza by the meter. The sauce is amazing (fined ground tomato without too much garlic), the cheese excellent, and the presentation, well the presentation is something else.
We had dim sum for lunch our last day in London before going to go see Hamilton. We wanted someplace near Hamleys, where my son and I spent the morning, from which we could to travel the theater easily afterwards. BaoziInn specializes in colorful dim sum, basically dumplings cooked in dough that’s been naturally colored with beet or spinach juice. Overall, it was among the better dim sum I have had (the salt and pepper squid was exceptional). My son really liked their soup dumplings and there was a cloud ear fungus dish that was something else.
Of the five restaurants I have mentioned, I would definitely go back to Ottolenghi, St. John and Santore. BaoziInn and Smokehouse were both good, but I would only go to them again if they happened to be convenient. The dim sum at BaoziInn is a fun experience but in truth its not as good as Windsor Dim Sum Cafe in Boston, where my family went regularly when we lived there. And Smokehouse is basically a less interesting, and less well executed, version of St. John.
Aug 13, 2019
My parents have been friends with the Czech photographer Marketa Luskacova since shortly after my father first started teaching in the United Kingdom. They met her when she was a young single mother living in exile. It was the early 1980s and she was a political dissident who had fled the Communist East for the relative freedom of the West. While she was not a fan of the Marxist-Leninist Stalinist regime in her own country, she was no advocate for Thatcher’s Britain either. She spent most of her time making photographs of working-class people who were on the edge of British society and threatened by neoliberalism.
Her most famous photography from the 1970s and 1980s is her series on the performers, hustlers, street people, and vendors who made up the community of Spitalfields Market. Her photography of them earned her praise from, and friendship with, John Berger. It also provided an important document, an artifact of historical memory, that attested to the diversity of human culture under threat from the neoliberal vision—musicians who made their own eccentric instruments, cobblers who handmade quality shoes in their shops not as luxury goods but as necessities for workers, and people regularly creating, rather than consuming, their own culture around rubbish can fires and wooden crates.
It was fitting, then, that we met Marketa for dinner at St. John Bread and Wine opposite Spitalfields. St. John’s might be my favorite restaurant anywhere. I will write about our meal in my London restaurant round-up. For now, I’ll focus on the conversation. Marketa is always illuminating. She is always thinking, feeling, trying to understand her own aesthetic, considering what it means to be an artist, how her medium enables her to see the world, always seeking the spiritual dimension—which for her always has a deeply political element to it, even if the politics are never explicitly stated. They’re there in her subject matter and her framing.
Marketa brought perhaps a fifty test prints from her ongoing series on a Czech carnival that she’s been shooting for nineteen years. Here was her first insight, there is much to be gained by returning to a subject and community year after year—depth of relationship, sensitivity to change over time, and not a bit of self-discovery. And that’s where she offered a second insight, there’s often an emotional disconnect between when she does her strongest work and how she’s feeling. She confessed that she didn’t particularly enjoy this year’s carnival. Over the last two decades it has grown from perhaps eighty people to over five thousand. Going this year was, for her, kind of a miserable experience—too many people observing, not participating, not wearing masks, making a spectacle of the whole thing. And yet, when she started to review her test prints, she realized that she had taken some of the strongest photographs of the carnival yet. Conversely, she confessed, that when she is feeling euphoric, carried away by the joyous feeling of the crowd, she often takes photographs that are not particularly good. Her own internal euphoria often causes her to misjudge what she’s doing—to think it is better than it is.
I can relate. I usually hate my sermons before I preach them. Often, it is the texts that turn out to be my best work—texts that get anthologized, republished in magazines, or assigned in college courses—that I have most negative reactions to prior to preaching. I suspect that is because that when I do my best work, I am deeply emotionally connected to it and this makes me aware of its flaws rather than its strengths just as I am about to put it out in the world.
I know that I am not alone in this. Not only does Marketa’s experience resonate with mine, but I have had a few conversations with my friend Titonton Duvante over the years on the subject. Titonton has been a techno innovator for almost thirty years. When he is really on, really connected with what he is doing, he is amongst the best electronic musicians out there. I have listened to a few thousand DJ and live sets over the last twenty-five plus years and some of Titonton’s are among the most memorable. But here’s the thing, he’s told me that there’s an exact relation between how nervous he feels, how anxious he is, and how good his performance ends up being. If he’s really nervous, on the verge of losing it nervous, then almost he inevitably offers a masterful performance. If not, then not.
Clearly there’s something about the emotional investment an artist has in their art—and preachers are, amongst other things, artists—that is closely correlated to their artistic production.
Back to Marketa... While we were together, she talked a bit about her recent show at the Tate and her upcoming show at the Martin Parr Foundation in Bristol. She and my parents had an extended conversation, which I won’t relate, about the various economic challenges artists face. And she shared that last year she received the Jan Masaryk Honorary Medal from the Czech government. Of course, Marketa had a story about Jan Masaryk.
Her grandmother loved Jan Masaryk, thought he was a humane, sensible, and cultured leader. When the Stalinists seized power, they threw Jan Masaryk out of a window. He died. Marketa was four and she remembers her grandmother being completely distraught, sobbing, over and over again, “They’ve killed Masaryk. They’ve killed Masaryk.”
She told me that when she received the Jan Masaryk Honorary Medal she thought of her grandmother. She imagined her smiling down from heaven on that day, proud of her granddaughter who had resisted the Stalinists and was now being honored with a medal named for a political leader who she had admired.
Spitalfields has changed. The street culture that Marketa photograph is entirely gone—washed away by upmarket shops and good. The cobblers who handmade shoes for the working poor have been replaced by boutique stores that sell fancy shoes, still handmade, to the affluent. Neoliberalism has succeeded in destroying so much of the vibrancy and power of the working-class throughout not just Britain, but the world. And yet, there’s something about Marketa’s story of her grandmother and the Jan Masaryk Honorary Medal. It isn’t about anything as quaint as triumph of good over evil or the inevitable collapse of totalitarian regimes or anything else that I might find truly comforting. It has more to do with the power of perseverance and the truth that the future is always unwritten and that resistance, in some for another, continues. And that there is great power to be found in preserving, through stories, through photographs, in all the forms we can. We create records of resistance, memories and stories, so that, even after its defeat—for Jan Masaryk was certainly defeated—our resistance might continue to inspire future resistance to tyranny.
Aug 12, 2019
originally published on http://firstuu.org on August 2, 2019
I am writing my letter this month from the small village of Sers. Sers is located in the southwest of France in the Cognac region. Asa and I are here with my parents and our family friends, the French artists Gilles Perrin and Nicole Ewenczyk. Gilles is an amazing photographer and I highly recommend you check out his web site. Nicole is a writer and the two of them have collaborated on several beautiful books, a few of which are available in English and one of which they even worked on with my father.
Sers is very beautiful. It consists of perhaps a hundred buildings, almost all erected before the twentieth-century. The village’s real gem is its eleventh-century church. Its ancient stones exude a sense a calming quiet, especially when they are blessed by the sun.
Throughout my vacation I have been feeling quite blessed myself. I am deeply appreciative of the work of First Unitarian Universalist’s staff in my absence. I am equally grateful for the congregation’s lay leaders. Together everyone’s support has meant that I have been able to enjoy my vacation knowing that the important work of the congregation is continuing in my absence. As I wrote in my column last month, the vision and work of the congregation happens because of its members, for ministers come and go. Who knows how many priests have come and gone from the village church in Sers over the last thousand years?
Over the course of my vacation I have been using some of my free time to keep an (almost) daily blog. You can read it at www.colinbossen.com. I’ve mainly focused on art and politics. If you’re interested in art you might be interested in my posts on Libuse Jarcovjakova, Les Rencontres d’Arles, and the Musee d’Orsay. As for politics, you might like to check out my posts on the French Right, the purpose of the Far Left, and the state of the French Left (which benefited from a conversation I had while visiting First Unitarian Universalist’s own John Ambler in Paris cafe).
Mostly, I have been using my vacation time to prepare myself for our coming year together. The staff and I have planned a year-long series of services designed to move the congregation through the transitional work of casting something of a new vision for yourselves. These services will be interwoven with an effort to develop religious resources for Unitarian Universalists to confront humanity’s interlinked cultural, ecological, economic, political, and, ultimately, spiritual crises.
We will start with these services in September. In August, I will be leading three services at the Museum District. The first of these, on August 11th, will be a Question Box service. It will be an opportunity for you to ask me questions about the life of the congregation, Unitarian Universalism, religion in general, or anything else that’s on your hearts. Board President Carolyn Leap will be asking me the questions as part of a dialogue between the congregation’s lay and ordained leadership. It will be an unusual service and I am really looking forward to it!
On August 18th, again at the Museum District, we will be using the service to mark the four hundredth anniversary of the enslavement of Africans in what is now the United States. It is a date that is as a central to the country’s history as the start of American Revolution and it is important that we observe it as a religious community. The legacy of slavery continues to shape the United States, and challenge our spiritual lives, in so many significant, and disturbing ways.
At the Museum District, on August 25th we will be celebrating our annual Water Communion and Ingathering. It is a lovely way to reconnect after the summer and I am looking forward to this special service.
I haven’t mentioned the services at Thoreau in my letter because I understand that in July the Board decided that for months of August and September Thoreau will be following its own worship calendar. And so, the Rev. Dr. Dan King will be updating everyone on worship plans for that campus in his final letter to the congregation.
I look forward to seeing many of you soon. In the meantime, I close, as always with a bit of poetry. In this case, it’s John Tagliabue’s “With sun hats we meet out in the country”:
In the flying and shaking world
some flowers of Money steady us
so we become monarchs of the skies;
he has mentioned magnificence quietly
and now to the flowering Moment
we send the summer Salutation.
Aug 7, 2019
London is the city that looms largest in my childhood. I spent almost every summer of my youth here and have many memories about time in the British Museum, the Natural History Museum, Camden Town, and so many other places. I remember going to the theater and seeing Dustin Hoffman in the Merchant of Venice and both Starlight Express and Les Miserables with the original London casts. I remember staying in a flat several summers in a row near Michael Palin’s place on the edge of Hampstead Heath. I never saw the Monty Python member, but I did pass by the Laurel and Hardy statues he had outside his home on numerous occasions. And I remember playing in parks with my brother and enjoying British television—Doctor Who and Rowan Atkinson’s Black Adder on the BBC—and, most of all, British comic books.
My brother and I were huge fans of the fortnightly 2000 AD. When we were kids, we could get it at almost any newsstand. My parents bought us copies to keep us happy while they spent time with their friends at the local pubs. Each summer when we would stock up on as many copies as we could before we went back to Michigan. Through 2000 AD we were first introduced to writers like Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and Alan Moore. We also became familiar with the comic’s tradition of dystopian political critique and techno skepticism.
I was excited to introduce my son to 2000 AD when we arrived in London. I went to look for a copy in the Gatwick airport only to discover that newsstands don’t carry it anymore. When I was a child it was so ubiquitous that many of the longstanding comic book shops in London refer to it in their store names. Camden Town’s excellent shop Mega City Comics is a direct reference to 2000 AD’s disturbing vision that in the future the vast majority of humanity will crowd into a handful of urban conglomerations. But now Marvel and DC seem to have largely pushed out the independent, and political, 2000 AD. So it was to Mega City Comics that I ultimately had to go to buy a solid set of 2000 ADs. I bought a run of the most recent issues and another run of issues from the early 1990s.
On my way out of the store the clerk told me, “Many Happy Future Shocks to You.” The phrase is a reference to the short vignettes that appear throughout the comics—brief stories with surprise endings. They are creative and often push one to imagine a horrifying, totalitarian, future, as something that might be on the horizon. When I was a child, the comics usually celebrated the plucky bands of misfits and outsiders who struggled against thinly veiled illustrations of futuristic version of Thatcher’s Britain.
The clerk’s invocation of the classic phrase got me to thinking about how much London has changed since I was a kid. In many ways, the future of environmental degradation and rising totalitarianism that some of those 1980s comics warned about appears to have arrived—perhaps partially in the form of a corporate monoculture that won’t stock subversive comics. In other ways, London still feels like a familiar city in a familiar world. Pock marks from German ordnance still line the edge of the Victoria and Albert Museum. The Tube is still way too hot in the summer. Double decker buses are still a really fun way to travel. A bits of Victorian, or even Roman, Britain keep popping up in unexpected places. I suppose that’s the way cities, and countries, are, the shocking future comes but often it overlays, rather than entirely replaces, whatever existed before.
Aug 6, 2019
I have a great number of memories associated with whiskey, particularly scotch whiskey. My father became a scotch aficionado through the efforts of his late friend the Scottish photographer Murray Johnston. When I was nine or ten years old the two of them took me out one night to pub in Edinburgh that specialized in scotch. I remember staring up at the rows upon rows of hundreds of different kinds of scotchs as the two of them rambled on about photography. I have no idea why I was with them or what I did while they talked. I suspect that they were watching me while Murray’s wife Kate and my mother caught up.
Whatever the case, scotch has always been a deeply gendered drink in my family. My ex-wife hates it and my mother typically only tastes it. During my parents’ dinner parties there usually comes a point in the evening when the gathering divides along gendered lines—the men assemble to drink whiskey and the women, well, I am not actually certain what the women drink, port or armagnac or calvados or something.
Over the decades, Cadenhead’s scotch has been the second most special digestif served at these parties (the prize of most special belonged to a case of pre-Prohibition rye whiskey, now sadly gone, that someone found boarded up in the basement of a New York apartment building). Cadenhead’s is an independent bottler. They basically go around Scotland and buy casks of scotch which they then age further and bottle themselves.
Cadenhead’s has a storefront in Edinburgh. We go to it whenever we are there. They used to let you taste whiskey straight out of the cask, which was an amazing, if somewhat intoxicating experience. My father arranged for a whiskey tasting for me there the summer I turned 21. And last time I was in Scotland with him we went, and they bottled the scotch straight from the cask for us.
Scotland isn’t on the itinerary for this summer’s trip. Fortunately, Cadenhead’s has a London store. My father and I went while my mother and son slept in. Cadenhead’s London location is near the Baker St. station with its Sherlock Holmes statue. It’s on a street of very tony shops—something like the Marais in Paris but with significantly less grit.
The shop consists of three rooms—two rooms displaying wares and a third for storage. Unfortunately, they don’t sell scotch from the cask anymore. Apparently, the same government that is devoted to Brexit is also devoted to heavily regulating the whiskey business. They made it illegal for Cadenhead’s to bottle in the store and so they can’t offer tastes from the cask anymore.
They still give tastes and guidance. They also offer political commentary. One of the staff members referred to the current administration in the United States as the Fourth Reich and complained bitterly about Brexit and Boris Johnson. He told me that US trade policies have resulted in the cost American whiskey skyrocketing. And he showed me a bottle of 8-year-old Wild Turkey that he had on sale for 85 pounds, not because it was any good but because distributors can’t sell it in the UK anymore.
I love peaty scotches—my ex-wife described the scotch I like as tasting like dirt—and his colleague helped me select some. I bought three bottles: a bottle of the Islay that Cadenhead’s distilled themselves, a bottle of Old Ballantruan, and a bottle of 14-year Benrinnes that Cadenhead’s bottled themselves. The last bottle came from a cask of 264 bottles. It was final bottle they had for sale and they assured me it was good. So, I bought it, the last bottle 14-year Benrinne in the country. I am not claiming it super special, but it has a nice story behind it and, because it is Cadenhead’s, I know it will be good quality. I hope, though, when I serve it at a dinner party people won’t decide to self-segregate along gender lines. I suppose if they do, I have some nice cognac.
Aug 5, 2019
My parents and I had dinner in the Exmouth Market with R and S, two of their oldest friends in London—people that they’ve known for forty years. There was quite a bit of storytelling, including one episode that involved R almost being thrown into a canal in Belgium. When they told the story, I thought it was from thirty years ago. Turns out it was from about five years ago—which surprised me since my parents and their friends would have been in their late sixties or early seventies then. The basic gist is that they went out for a meal in Belgium that turned out to be quite mediocre. After the meal, there was some dispute over check. During the course of it, R unwisely told the proprietor, “Your beer is shite.” I was a little unclear on exactly why he felt this was appropriate. The proprietor apparently didn’t think it was and began backing R towards the canal they were all standing near while threatening to deposit R in it. Catastrophe was averted when my Mom and S hustled R off and my father settled up with the proprietor. It is a little hard to imagine the four of them—grizzled and opinionated—getting into a significant enough dispute that someone—presumably a good thirty or forty years younger—would threaten to deposit one of them in the nearby canal.
That story was far from the most interesting one told over the course of the evening. That honor goes to one that R and S recounted about their mutual friend, the journalist and academic Henry Clother. Henry died almost twenty years ago, earning obituaries in the Guardian and elsewhere.
I have vague memories of Henry from my youth. He loved to sail, and I remember going to see the tall ships with him. I hadn’t thought of him in more than twenty years and if it wasn’t for our dinner with R and S I probably wouldn’t have thought of him ever again. He was a notable eccentric. He never married nor had kids. His closest friend was the well known BBC commentator Margaret Howard. The two of them served as each other’s journalist review companions—one accompanying the other to the theater or a restaurant or whatever when one of them had been assigned to write a review.
Henry’s greatest eccentricity might have been connected to the flat in which he lived in London (he also owned a home in Gillingham). Apparently, it was owned by a cat.
S took great relish in describing the flat, the sight of many, I can only presume, somewhat wild parties from her and my parents not quite youth (early middle age?). It was an old Victorian flat which she repeatedly labelled “grotty.” It hadn’t been remodeled since sometime in the 1880s or 1890s. The kitchen doubled as the bathroom (in Britain the toilet is where you go do your business while the bathroom is where you bathe). There was an old claw bathtub in the middle of it. When Henry had parties, or presumably when he cooked, he put some boards on top of the tub as a makeshift counter and chopped vegetables, sliced bread, and prepared the meat.
Anyway, Henry wasn’t the owner of the flat. It belonged to a cat. Some years prior one of Henry’s equally eccentric friends had died. She had been a cat lover and organized a Society for the Protection of Cat, not cats in general, cat in particular. Specifically, the purpose of the society was to protect her cat. On the occasion of her death, the Society for the Protection of Cat became the owner of her flat. Henry was allowed to live there—rent free as I understand it—provided he saw to it that the cat was fed and received its daily injection (in addition to being, the owner of a flat, the cat was also diabetic).
It is unclear to me exactly how long Henry lived in that flat as a tenant of the cat. But it sounds like a long time—quite probably much longer than the cat itself lived.
Aug 4, 2019
News of the mass shootings in Dayton, El Paso, Gilroy, and Southhaven came as we were getting settled in London. I experienced it differently than I would have if I had been in the United States. I felt somehow removed from it and, at the same time, numb. It is clear by now that the ruling political party in the United States has decided that these mass killings are acceptable. And it is also clear that they will continue to happen at a horrifying rate. That is, unless something changes. And I am not certain where the movement to change gun policies would come from or how it would get past what seems to be the great political power of the NRA.
Right now, I am in a country that almost never has mass shootings. In the mid-1990s, after the Dunblane Primary School Shooting, the United Kingdom put in place serious gun control legislation. Since then the country hasn’t had a mass shooting that resembles any of the mass shootings that have taken place in the United States in the last week.
This simple fact is a reminder that the continuing presence of these shootings is a result of policy decisions that political leaders in the United States make. They could choose to regulate guns differently. And they don’t. And so, the shootings continue.
UUA President the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray’s words capture most of the rest of my sentiments on the week’s tragedies:
We open our hearts to the people of Gilroy, El Paso, Dayton and Southhaven in compassion and heartbreak, anger and shock.
From our grief, may we find strength and courage to fight the systems that perpetuate this violence.
To that I’ll add an Amen.
Aug 3, 2019
Our trip from Sers to London involved almost every available mode of transit. Our friends drove us to the train station and we took the train to Bordeaux. We took a bus from the Bordeaux train station to the airport and then flew across the channel. Once we landed in Gatwick we caught a very expensive taxi into the center of London (the train from Gatwick to London is also expensive, it was actually the same cost either way and travelling with my parents it made sense to take the cab). And, then, of course, we walked from the taxi to our hotel. We’re staying at the hotel for one night before moving to a flat we rented for the week.
Here’s the posts I made while we were in Sers:
Jul 30, 2019
We spent an afternoon at about 20 minutes outside of the center of Angoulême. It has a long history. The family who built it first occupied the site in the late 10th century and have resided in it continuously since then. They claim to be one of the oldest families in France and the family archives certainly suggest that.
The château is privately owned and operated. We arrived late in the afternoon. There were perhaps a dozen other people on the property. A sole employee, the cashier, was to be seen. Classical music was blaring in the courtyard. The cashier informed us that the mother of the current Duke lived in half of the château, that she liked classical music to be played at all times, and that a large portion of the building was off limits.
We wandered out into the courtyard which overlooks the town below—hundreds of red clay roofs and lichen covered stone walls lining a river bank and dominated by an ancient Catholic church. We then made our way into the family chapel, which features a prominent display of the family tree and the crypt of a male heir who had died at the age of five. The chapel is two stories and includes a choir loft on the second floor. It could be described as modest in reference to Versailles.
Overall, the contrast between Versailles and Château de La Rochefoucauld was informative. Versailles is no longer occupied by the Bourbon family. The Rochefoucaulds wanted visitors to know that they are still around, still wealthy, and still important. Each room we went into after the chapel featured some series of portraits of influential family members or recently deceased ones (the recently deceased ones seemed much less impressive than their ancestors) and information about the family’s history. I learned that some of its members had been executed during the French Revolution despite their, in the family’s account, liberal sympathies. I also learned that the Duke La Rochefoucauld had been Louis XVI’s Master of Wardrobe. The, probably apocryphal, story is that when Louis XVI learned of the storming of the Bastille, he said to the Duke La Rochefoucauld, “It’s a revolt.” The Duke is alleged to have responded, “No, sire, it’s a revolution.”
The continuing ownership of the château by the Rochefoucaulds made me question how much of revolution it actually was. I mean, the mere fact that at least this branch of the French nobility has maintained control of a castle for over a thousand years suggests a certain continuity over time. I don’t know how the Rochefoucaulds are faring financially, but I suspect that they’re not poor. It’s true that they’ve had to monetize the family estate but the mere fact that such an asset has remained in the family is significant. As is the fact that they’ve recently been thinking of adding to it. In one of the rooms we saw an architectural model that included a proposed new wing designed by I. M. Pei (it looked to me like it would have been an aesthetic disaster).
The proposed Pei wing, however, was in keeping with the château’s most interesting feature. It has been consistently added to over the centuries. The original keep was built in the 11th century. The most recent additions are from the 18th. The real gem is the château’s grand staircase. It was supposedly designed by Leonardo da Vinci and traversed the height of the building as a continuous piece. It is beautiful white stone and when the light hits it glows. At the very top of the staircase is a drawing of the castle attributed to da Vinci (it was unsigned).
Near the close of our visit the cashier let us into the family library and archives. They are incredible. The library contains around 18,000 volumes, most from the 18th and 19th centuries. It focuses on law and theology. We were able to find other things, including a beautifully illustrated edition of François-René de Chateaubriand’s translation of Milton’s Paradise Lost that we were allowed to page through. One of the real treasurers was an original edition of Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie, the work that invented the genre. I’d never seen an original copy before. It was a little awe inspiring to stand in front of the first European attempt to systematize human knowledge and realize that when it was written it was the project of only a handful of polymaths.
Undoubtedly, the family archives are of greatest interest to historians. I imagine all of the volumes in the library exist elsewhere. The archives, however, stretch back to the 13th century and contain records of all the kinds of wealth and power the French nobility attained for itself—mostly, I imagine, through theft and violence—over the years. The cashier had closed the front gate so she could accompany us into the library and archives. She showed us a couple of thirteenth-century documents. And then she showed us what must be one of the family’s prized possessions, the Duke La Rochefoucauld’s inventory of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette’s jewelry. It was in an archival box. The cashier showed us the handwritten original and according to her the total value of the jewelry was 3 million pounds. At the time, she said, the Rochefoucaulds could have sold their château for 60,000 pounds.
The inventory and the cashier’s statement were, like Versailles, a good summary of reasons why the French Revolution ultimately happened—vast income inequality. Prior to the Revolution France was ruled by a hereditary elite who cared little for the vast majority of people in the country. Their wealth insulated them from everyone else’s reality. It meant that a few people had extravagant and sumptuous lives while most people eked out an existence. As year-by-year countries like the United States become more economically unequal and the dire threat of climate change increases I can’t help but think that such a situation is returning (or less romantically has returned). The world can only be different if we organize mass movements to make it so.
Jul 29, 2019
This week we are staying at our friends’ country house in Sers, a small village outside of the southwestern city of Angoulême. It’s a very relaxing week. I am catching up on some reading—I’ve read two books by James Baldwin, a bit of John Rawls’s “On Justice,” and some elementary school readers in French—and my sleep. There’s not a lot to do other than walk and explore the countryside. Yesterday my son and I took a walk through the village and came across the town’s church (built in the 11th century, remodeled sometime between the 12th and 15th, and then remodeled again in the 19th), its cemetery, a field full of sunflowers and a sign pointing to a 5th century monastery, which I hope to explore before we leave.
We also went to the market in Angoulême where Nicole and my mother planned a menu for the next few days. Lunch and dinner were both heavy on shellfish—oysters and langoustines—served with a simple salad or radishes and local white wine.
About the only other things we’ve done since we’ve been here is eat at La Cigogne and visit a cognac distillery. It’s called Les Frères Moine. The owner was kind enough to give us a tour. It is a small distillery where they make their own cognac barrels and host art exhibitions and gatherings. I bought some cognac and a bottle of pineau, a local aperitif that’s a mixture of cognac and wine. It is quite good which is kind of unfortunate since it is difficult to find back in the States.
No discussion of Paris would be complete without at least a gesture towards the city’s restaurants. In past years, when I’ve been in Paris, we’ve cooked a lot in the apartment we’ve rented. This year the apartment we had was quite small and the heatwave was debilitating. As a result, we didn’t host any dinner parties or make excursions to the Bastille Market. Instead, we either ate sandwiches and pastries from the local boulangeries (bakeries) or went out to eat. Here are some a few of my favorite meals:
My parents took my son and I and their friends Gilles and Nicole to this Michelin Star restaurant that has been getting a lot of press internationally. The chef specializes in a fusion of French and Chinese and doesn’t cook from recipes. She goes to the market and is inspired each day from what she find’s there. The most interesting part of the meal was the tea and wine pairings that went with each course. We had what was billed as a three-course meal but actually turned out to be six courses. There were two amuse bouches—Chinese waffles and three small dishes of crab, sea snails, and egg rolls—followed by a salad of heirloom tomatoes, cockles, and mussels, a main course of sea bass cooked with tea, and then a dessert of fruit and sorbet finished by a palette cleansing coconut marshmallow and a coconut sorbet.
Alongside each course was either a delightful tea—white, oolong, or green—or a wine. I’ve never had food specifically paired with tea before. It works almost as well as pairing it with wine. It’s something I plan to experiment with at home.
The British photographer Nigel Dickinson has been close friends with my parents for something like two decades. He has a fabulous studio in Paris’s Belleville neighborhood. Belleville is a very diverse community. It is one of those places where you can find Sephardic and Tunisian Jews living alongside Muslims from Algeria and Morocco. It is also the home to a sizable Laotian and Thai community.
We had a dinner with Nigel twice. Both times he took us to Laotian or Thai restaurants near his home. The food was far better than any Thai food I’ve had in the United States. It was also quite a bit different. Most Thai places I know serve variations on perhaps a dozen kinds of curries. These places served a huge variety. We had fish mashed and then steamed in a banana leaf while cooked in a coconut milk curry, a red tofu curry that didn’t even vaguely resemble the red curry I get in America, a delicious raw papaya salad, and half a dozen other dishes. Unlike Yam’Tcha, Lao Siam and Krung Thep Mahanakorn were both quite affordable. Two people could eat there for well under forty euros a piece.
Oyster Club is a classic Breton seafood place in the Marais. We had their mixed seafood plates and oysters. The mixed seafood plates came with winkles, whelks, more oysters, pink shrimp, and grey shrimp. This last item was to be eaten whole—shell and all.
The restaurant itself is on a small side street and sort of spills out into the street. It’s a lively evening scene and the food is excellent—though the menu is limited to seafood. It is certainly a place I will go back to next time I am in the Marais.
Au Bouquet Saint Paul and Chez Mademoiselle are two excellent bistros near Rue Saint Antoine in the Marais. Au Bouquet Saint Paul had an inexpensive fixed price lunch—14.50 euro for either an entree and a dessert or an entree and an appetizer—that consisted of classic French bistro food. We ate there twice. The sea bass and gazpacho soup were both great and my son loved the cream brûlée. They also served Berthillon ice cream, which an experience in itself.
Chez Mademoiselle is a bit pricier. It also has a bit more of a scene. It is located in the front of the building where we rented our apartment. I went there a few times—once for dinner and twice for drinks. One night while I was sipping on a glass of rose the bar erupted into a spontaneous dance party.
We ate at La Cigogne for lunch our first full day in Sers. It is a Michelin Plate restaurant. While this is the lowest designation that Michelin can give a restaurant, it doesn’t mean the food is bad. On the contrary, it means it is quite good. It just isn’t good enough to earn a Michelin Star or a Michelin Bib Gourmand.
I suspect that La Cigogne earned its Michelin ranking because its food is excellent but not necessarily innovative. Yam’Tcha pushes culinary boundaries. La Cigogne delivers fantastic and classic French food. I would happily eat at either again (provided someone else is picking up the tab) but Yam’Tcha undoubtedly provided the meal that my parents and their friends will be talking about for years to come.
Jul 27, 2019
We left Paris for a week in Sers, a small village outside of the southwestern city of Angoulême. We will staying with our friend Gilles Perrin and Nicole Ewenczyk. They just finished building a country house and studio there. It is so newly constructed that all of the furniture is yet to arrive. Everyone gets their own bedroom but I get to sleep on the floor.
Here’s the list of my blog posts in Paris:
It is the Job of the Far Left to Organize the Margins
The Failure of French Socialism and Future Tasks for the Left
Rue de Turenne (or some thoughts on champagne socialism)
The New French Right: a Conversation with Pascale Tournier
I will be writing a long post about food in Paris over the next couple of days while we’re in Sers. No trip there is complete without a meditation of the city’s cuisine.
Yesterday was one of the hottest days on record in Paris. It was officially 108 degrees Fahrenheit. I suspect that on the streets, with all the heat bouncing up from the cobblestones and concrete, it was a lot hotter.
The heat was made worse by the fact that it was the third day in a row where temperatures had peaked at over 100 and not fallen below 80 or so at night. This meant that the inside of buildings never really cooled off. There is not a lot of air conditioning. Unlike Houston, Paris isn’t a city built to withstand extreme heat. But with global warming Parisians are going to have to figure out how to make adjustments. I had to jury rig a portable air conditioner to keep our rental apartment moderately cool—when it was 108 outside it was no more than 78 inside. If I hadn’t, I think that the situation would probably have been threatening to my parents’ health. As it was, the few times they went outside in the extreme heat they had to walk slowly and drink a lot of water to avoid heat stroke.
I went out at the height of the heat to visit the Musee d’Orsay. It is one of my favorite museums and I would have been disappointed with my trip if I hadn’t spent at least a couple of hours there. While I was there, I saw a commissioned exhibit by the British artist Tracey Emin and a retrospective of Berthe Morisot. Emin’s name is probably familiar to those acquainted with contemporary figurative art. Her highly erotic drawings did not disappoint. They were quickly executed ink on paper drawings of female figures in various amatory poses—some in the midst of sexual acts and some simply reclining in the nude. The figures were significantly abstracted and what caught me was that they managed to portray the emotional resonance of sexual love without being titillating.
Morisot, in contrast, is a name that is not well known. She was a major figure in the Impressionist movement—probably the most significant female artist that the movement produced. Over the twentieth-century, her work has largely been forgotten. The last time there was a solo show of her work was in 1941.
This is a shame as her painting was every bit as good as the Impressionist masters. She was particularly skilled at pushing the question: When is a painting finished? Like my brother Jorin, she frequently left the underpainting exposed and even in some places left bits of the sketches she made on canvas prior to painting visible.
What really struck me about her work, though, was the subject matter. She was a member of France’s cultural elite, but she routinely chose to paint intimate, ordinary, domestic scenes—servants at work, women doing laundry, mothers nursing or swaddling their babies, and parents at play with their children. This is quite different from the subject matter of most of the other Impressionists. It rendered a more complete sense of late nineteenth-century French life than is found in the paintings of the male Impressionists.
The Musee d’Orsay was incredibly crowded while I was there. It was filled with people trying to escape the heat. Walking and taking the Metro to and from the museum I drank almost a liter of water each way, and I only had to travel about 25 minutes to get to there.
On the way back I saw someone literally going mad from the heat on the Metro. One of the indigent men who begs on the streets in the Marais had stripped off most of his clothes and was in the midst of a psychotic break. He was gesticulating wildly and yelling by the ticket gate. And then he was walking along the street screaming expletives in French. I had seen him a few times earlier in the week and he had seemed quite calm. The heat had clearly pushed him beyond some inner limit.
Overall, the heatwave really changed in the energy in the city—especially at night. Once it started to cool off a little the streets completely filled up. One night I took a walk through the city and felt a rare kind of vibrant wonder. Another night I went down to the Seine for a drink. The river bank was filled with temporary restaurants and thousands of people collectively celebrating summer, enjoying each other’s company, and escaping some of the heat along the relative coolness of the river. It was a glorious scene filled with impromptu music performances and dance celebrations and passionate arguments in languages that I barely understand (French) or know well (English and Spanish).
I am not sure that I have ever quite experienced anything like it. It even exceeded the vibrancy normally present along the river in the summer. It was as if a milder form of the frenetic energy of the man on the Metro had been unleashed throughout the city.
Jul 24, 2019
Last December Mark Lilla published an article in the New York Review of Books titled “Two Roads for the New French Right.” It discusses intellectual currents in French amongst the Right, specifically amongst people about my age or younger. According to Lilla, they represent something new. They are more concerned with climate change and more critical of capitalism than their elders. Some of them are genuinely anti-capitalist.
Lilla drew extensively from Pascale Tournier’s book “Le vieux monde est de retour, Enquête sur les nouveaux conservateurs” for the article. Pascale is a French journalist who writes for La Vie, a left-leaning humanist oriented Roman Catholic magazine. The title of her book roughly translates to “The Old World is Returning, A Study of the New Conservatives.” Since I study conservative thought and right-wing movements in the United States, I thought it would be interesting to get a sense of what’s going on with the French Right. I sent Tournier an email and she graciously agreed to meet with me.
Most of our conversation covered the ground she touched upon in her book. I read French quite slowly and since buying it in Arles last week have managed to make my way through the first couple of chapters. What she, and Lilla, argue is that conservatism is a new idea in France. Historically, the main currents amongst the French Right have been divided into the Orléanists, Bonapartists, and Legitimists. Each current aligned itself with a different royal house that claimed the French throne. The Orléanists supported the Orleans cadet branch of the House of Bourbon, the Bonapartists supported the family of Napoleon Bonaparte, and the Legitimists supported the elder branch of the House of Bourbon. Without getting into the details, each current holds distinctive political positions about the role of the state in French politics as well as democracy. In the 1970s right-wing populism started to emerge as another current in the form of the National Front led by the Le Pen family. And within the last few years conservatism has begun to emerge as a fifth current.
Taken as a whole the conservatism of the French Right is quite distinct from the conservatism of the Right in the United States. Conservatism in the English-speaking world dates to Edmund Burke’s reaction to the French Revolution. Conservatism in France is primarily rooted in French and Catholic sources. In some ways, Tournier’s description of it made it appear as having little in common with conservatism in the United States. American conservatism is organized around the maintenance and restoration of white supremacy. It promulgates climate change denial and is closely tied to white evangelical Christianity. It celebrates capitalism and business and is anti-intellectual enough in its orientation that intellectual historians, climate scientists, and mainstream economists often state, in some form or another, that it has no genuine intellectual tradition.
The French conservatives that Tournier describes are deeply concerned with climate change. The flagship publication is called Limite and bills itself as a “revue d'écologie intégrale,” a magazine of integrated ecology. They are Catholic and have been deeply influenced by Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si, which argues that climate change is real, and that Catholics must take it seriously. They link their ecological concerns with an analysis that says humanity has overstepped the limits of the natural order, which is how they end up as recognizably conservative. They are for heteronormative nuclear families and opposed to gay marriage. They reject the animating slogan of the May 1968 movement, “It is forbidden to forbid” and instead claim that limits must be sought in all aspects of human life if climate change is to be confronted. Interestingly, this leads them to be critical of capitalism as they fear it is both damaging to the planet and undermines what they imagine to be traditional social arrangements.
According to Tournier, they have turned away from the antisemitism of older generations of the French Right. Instead, they are anti-Islamic. When I asked Tournier if this meant that there were either Jews or Protestants among their members, she told me that Jews and Protestants largely supported Macron. She didn’t know of any of them who were either Jewish or Protestant.
Overall, Catholicism seems to be the conservatives central animating concern. Unlike the older French Right, for whom Catholicism is largely a cultural and political orientation, Tournier thinks that the New French Right was deeply influenced by their faith. It is their faith, she thinks, that has led them to take climate change so seriously. It is their faith, also, which seems have to pushed them outside many of the old Right-Left dichotomies.
Tournier and I ended our conservation not with a discussion of the Right in the United States but with a discussion of the reemergence of the Religious Left. I described for her the work of William Barber II, the Poor People’s Campaign, and the work of my own Unitarian Universalist Association under the leadership of Susan Frederick-Gray. My own takeaway from our time together was that there is energy for new ideas on the Right in France in a similar way that there is energy for new ideas on the Left in the United States. I have no idea the significance of this confluence other than it suggests that political ideologies, like the rest of human culture, are fluid, ever changing, and, at the same time, built upon what has come before.
However appealing I might find some aspects of New French Right’s religious based approach to climate change, it makes more than a little nervous to take a friendly interest in political currents that, whatever their other appeals, routinely inhabit the same space as reactionary, historically anti-semitic, movements like the National Front (now the National Rally). My own nervousness was heightened when I discussed Limite with a friend who is not a scholar or a journalist but a climate change activist. She told me, “they dress up their right-wing politics in an ecological package. They are not serious about ecology but they are serious about opposing gay rights, feminism, and other cultural issues dear to the Left.” Not being immersed in French politics, I am in no position to judge her assessment. But it does make me cautious.
Jul 23, 2019
Walking is one of my very favorite things to do. Paris is an exceptional city to walk through. It is dense enough that like New York, San Francisco, or Chicago it has not only neighborhoods but micro-neighborhoods. Each city block has its own character. The Marais, where we’re staying, changes from block-to-block. Moving through the city at night, wandering back from dinner with an old friend who lives here, I passed through densely packed streets filled with bistros, almost empty plazas where perhaps a half-dozen people lingered over a dinner at an oyster bar, and a bookstore prominently displaying the works of English speaking anarchists translated into French (Emma Goldman, Kenneth Rexroth, and one or two others). There were also massive billboards advertising upcoming plays, many many closed wine shops, a quality comic book shop, and a cheese shop that had won the Meilleur Ouvrier de France (thus signifying it had some of the best cheese in the country).
The people watching was wonderful and, at the same time, not a little disheartening. Mixed among the vibrant couples out for a stroll, the beautiful groups gathered for dinner, the jazz aficionados seeking the best club, the confused tourists trying not to lose their way, were those who have found themselves at society’s margins: prostitutes gathering along the Rue de Saint-Denis, where they have gathered for generations; an African street vendor grilling corn over a wood fire in the impossible heat; and too many people trying to sleep in the streets.
This was what I love about walking. It makes it difficult to ignore the broader social reality—inequality, stratification, the multi-cultures of the city piled upon each other... When I am in a car traveling from place-to-place it is possible to remain oblivious to human worlds other than mine. When I walk I must, on some level, perhaps only briefly, perhaps for just a fraction of minute, engage the humanity that surrounds me and of which I am a part.
Jul 22, 2019
Yesterday we went to Versailles. The crowds were enormous, and it was very hot. Overall, I would rate it a fairly miserable experience. Even with tickets we had to wait almost two hours to get in. And then, throughout the entirety of the palace, there was the sheer press of humanity. The crowd in the famous Hall of Mirrors, built by Louis XIV for parties, was equivalent to that at a large concert. People were packed elbow-to-elbow. It was hard to absorb much of anything.
I’ve only been to major tourist sites like Versailles a couple of times in my life—I went to Kinkaku-ji in Kyoto when I was in Japan this past winter and visited the Tower of London as a kid—and each time I’ve gone the experience has been similar. The site itself has been an impressive tribute to human creativity and, more often than not, an equally disgusting tribute to human greed and cruelty. But when I have been in such spaces, it has been hard to experience much more than the press of the crowds, the energy of hundreds of cell phones thrust into the air trying to get the ideal snapshot, the tour groups shouting at each other, and discomfort and low level anxiety—humans didn’t evolve to tolerate such tight quarters.
At Versailles, when I was able to focus my attention elsewhere, I mostly found myself nurturing anti-monarchist sentiments and feeling grateful for the French Revolution. The level of opulence at Versailles is truly mind boggling and its stomach turning to think that the ruling elite of France lived in such splendor while the majority of the populace had little to live on. In many ways, Versailles was the cause of the French Revolution. The massive spending that was required to build and sustain it—along with the fact that the nobility and clergy (the richest members of society)—paid very little in taxes essentially drove France to bankruptcy. It was Louis XVI’s need to raise additional money for his government, and finance his outlandish lifestyle, that caused him to call the Estates General into session. He hoped to get support for increasing taxes. He got the French Revolution.
I will refrain from singing the glories of the French Revolution. I will simply note that visiting Versailles reaffirmed my belief that inequality is a significant social problem and that a society which sustains gross economic gaps is fundamental unjust. It’s ridiculous that the Bourbons had so much by dint of their births while so many others had so little for the same reason.
Jul 20, 2019
Like a lot of other people, I enjoy shopping in Paris. Unlike the United States, there are only big sales twice a year—in July and January. I have learned that if you know where to go you can get some pretty extraordinary deals. As a minister and an academic I routinely show up in all sorts of circumstances wearing a suit and tie—or at the very least a sports jacket and nice slacks–and professional clothes cost a lot of money. A nice suit can easily set me back several hundred dollars.
The summer sales in Paris are good enough that it is possible to actually save a fair bit of money. The place I like to go is Rue de Turenne. It is a famous area for men’s shops in the Marais, a neighborhood in Paris that is a center for Paris’s Jewish and LGBT communities, fashion, and art. A lot of the men’s shops are small boutique designers or custom tailors. When the fashion seasons turn over they dramatically reduce their prices.
Three places I like to go are Johann, where I have bought several suits, Sam Daniel, which has wonderful light weight slacks, and Danyberd, where I have bought some nice shirts. The real deals are generally to be found on the suits. Both Sam Daniel and Johann typically have summer sales where they sell their suits for significantly less than I might be able to get them in the United States. Johann, for instance, sells Ermenegildo Zegna for about 25% of the price it would cost in the United States. This year I got a couple of nice suits from them and a really fantastic sports jacket. The pants and suit I got at Sam Daniel would have cost probably two or three times as much in the United States.
This brief rundown of my favorite men’s shops in Paris might come as a bit of a surprise to some people who know me well. An interest in high end men’s fashion and a commitment to Left radicalism don’t usually go together. In fact, there’s a variety of pejoratives that are sometimes hurled at people like me for the hypocrisy often supposed to be found in enjoying quality things and partaking of a privileged life—radical chic or champagne socialist to offer two. There is truth in those critiques, but hypocrisy is a fundamental condition that anyone with a moral compass must suffer under capitalism. Though Marx was thinking of the labor process when he wrote about alienation, I think that his insight that alienation is central to capitalism was a crucial one. In a capitalist system, based on consumerism and the exploitation of labor, we are all, in some way, alienated.
One example of this is the way in which churches have to function. Many religious communities aspire to be outside of the capitalist system. Many Unitarian Universalists are to some extent anti-capitalist. Yet in order to run a congregation of any scale, congregations have to hire employees—administrators, sextons, religious educators, musicians, ministers, and the like. As soon as they do this, they become employers and are forced to operate within the logic of capitalist employment schemes. Productive workers—those who further the mission of the congregation—need to be kept happy so that they won’t go somewhere else. Unproductive workers—those who don’t further the mission—have to be encouraged towards greater productivity or fired. But as all of this is happening congregations espouse, struggle to uphold, and advocate for the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Except, when it comes to an employment situation under capitalism, they can’t. The logic of the system requires that workers in a church be treated by the church like workers in any other industry—as a means to an end. This a fundamental contradiction that cannot be overcome and it creates an alienation, a distance, between the values of the religious community and the community’s actions.
This brings me back to the question of men’s clothes. My choice is ultimately how I am going to position myself to best advocate for the transformation of the system. As I have written about in the past, I have a certain amount of privilege. One way I can leverage this privilege is by dressing a certain way—wearing a suit and tie for instance. Over the years, I have found that a lot of upper middle-income white people will be more accepting of radical ideas—and might even begin to adopt them—if I present myself as well educated, integrated into upper middle-income culture, and well dressed. My Minns lectures, for instance, both offer a blistering critique of progressivism and liberalism while advocating for Unitarian Universalism to draw more from anarchist, anti-fascist, and radical sources in articulating a theology to oppose the rising neo-Confederate totalitarianism of the current President. So, I buy nice cloths knowing that by putting on a certain persona I can better reach a certain segment of the population. Is this hypocritical or manipulative? Probably, but no more so than anyone else—be they performer, banker, or organizer--who adopts, consciously or not, a persona—a set of cloths, a particular aesthetic—to communicate that they are part of a particular community or advocate for a certain set of politics. Call it champagne socialism, if you like, but it’s the best I’ve got at the moment and it seems to make me more effective.
Jul 18, 2019
This morning my parents and I had breakfast with John Ambler. John is a member of my congregation and a retired professor of political science. He spent his career at Rice teaching about and researching French politics. He and his wife Joyce spend part of each summer in Paris. Since we were all in town at the same time, we thought it would be nice to meet up, though Joyce ultimately wasn’t able to join us. We ate at a delightful cafe in the Marais—fresh orange juice and a croissant for me and my parents, a coffee for John and my father, and hot chocolate for my Mom. Our conversation touched on a number of personal topics and then turned to French politics and the global political situation.
I shared with John my account of my conversation with the CNT-SO militant FD yesterday. He offered his perspective on the yellow vest movement. He said that it was comprised of people who felt that they had been left behind by French society—primarily rural people and those from small cities. He also said that while it was not allied with the Left it had not been captured by the Right. Instead, it operates outside of the traditional categories of French politics.
We also spoke about the failure of French socialism. In his view, the central problem was that even when they won power the French socialists still had to operate within a global capitalist system. When François Mitterrand came to power in 1981, he set about nationalizing a number of industries. Banks and capital writ large responded by engaging in a capital strike—they began to remove money from France and took business away from the country. The economy took a severe beating and, as a result, Mitterrand was unable to live up to his promises. A similar thing happened, John said, when François Hollande came to power—the external power of capital prevented the socialist government from pursuing any sort of anti-capitalist program.
John’s account reminded me of the old debate between Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky. Stalin argued that socialism is possible in one country. Trotsky countered that the strength of global capital is such that in order for socialism to succeed it must pursue the complete destruction of global capital and a situation of permanent revolution. Otherwise it will succumb to capital.
The history of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries seems to suggest that the actual answer to this question is... it depends. Anti-capitalist communities can survive, it appears, in particular situations on the political, economic, and social margins. The Zapatista movement and the Rojava commune both have managed to create space for mass anti-capitalist communities whose internal economic, political, and social structures are far more radical than anything the French socialists could muster. However, they are so far from the centers of economic and political power that they appear to pose little structural threat to capitalism—which would not be true of France if Mitterrand had succeeded in his socialist project. The mere scale of France would have proved a significant challenge to capitalism if it had successfully created a socialist economy.
From there our conversation wandered to cover two more points. The first was another challenge that the Left faces: How to deal with automation? The second was about weakest point in the global economy, transit. Automation opens up all sorts of questions about what work is, how much work is available, whether working people will be able to have middle income jobs, and economic productivity. It has proven to be a significant challenge to the labor movement and provided capitalists with a crucial tool in undermining unions. Transit—particularly shipping—is central to the current itineration of capitalism. Most of manufacturing is built on just-in-time shipping. This means that transit workers have the power to significantly disrupt factory work by quickie strikes rather than protracted struggles. This is a possibility for working class resistance to capital that has largely been unexplored.
John is in his mid-eighties. We more-or-less ended the conversation with him telling me that it was up to me, my generation, and those younger than me to figure out if it was possible to find answers to the questions of socialism in one country and automation. Those are my words, not his, but I think that they capture the essence of our conversation.
Jul 18, 2019
Today I met up with two anarchists to discuss French and American politics and social movements. I first met MN almost fifteen years ago when we part of the organizing committee for the Industrial Workers of the World Centenary in Chicago. He is currently splitting his time between Paris, where his partner works, and the United States. He is no longer a member of the IWW but he remains active in radical politics. He works as a house painter.
I met FD three years ago when I was in Paris on my way to an academic conference in Toulouse. He is a militant with the French anarcho-syndicalist union CNT-SO. He is a teacher and is currently finishing a PhD in philosophy.
Both MN and FD are about my age and, like me, both men started participating in the anarchist movement when they were in their late teens or early twenties. Much of our conversation focused on the present state of the French anarchist movement and the overall political situation in Europe and the United States. We also spent a little time discussing common acquittances or our previous collaborations.
France has a long anarchist history but in recent decades its anarchist movement has been relatively small. The General Confederation of Labor, or CGT, is effectively France’s largest labor union. It was originally founded by anarchists in the late nineteenth century and for much of the twentieth century it was dominated by the Communist Party. The CNT-SO, or National Confederation of Labor, Workers Solidarity, is one of two anarcho-syndicalist labor unions in France today. Both are small and both exist because of a split in the historic French CNT which was formed in 1940s by anarchists who left the CGT and Spanish exiles.
The split in the French CNT occurred within the last fifteen years. It was over the issue of whether or not the union should have paid staff. This is a controversy that was emerged in almost every single anarcho-syndicalist union with more than a few hundred members over the last twenty years. The people who went onto form CNT-SO believed that paid staff were necessary to do certain kinds of work—legal work, for instance—while those who formed CNT-France rejected paid staff of any kind. I believe that in advanced capitalist economies paid organizers are a necessity for radical organizations to exist and sustain themselves on any kind of scale. That, however, is another blog post for another day.
During our conversation, FD told me he thinks that French society as a whole has moved significantly to the Right in the last twenty years. He also said that the radical Left is largely moribund or bereft of new ideas. The May Day parade in Paris, for instance, might attract tens of thousands of people but they all follow the same parade route that they have followed for the past fifty years. More concerning, he felt that the socialists and the anarchists were mostly without new ideas. The Socialist Party is rapidly losing influence with French politics and, he argued, many contemporary Leftist political leaders were no longer anti-capitalist—they look to American style liberalism as an inspiration rather than social democracy or the broader socialist tradition.
We spent a lot of time discussing our personal histories with the IWW and CNT-SO. I made the point that the IWW has increased in size over the last two decades. It has grown from a few hundred members to perhaps as many as three or four thousand. Despite a troubled history of interpersonal conflict, significant structural and cultural challenges, and its small size it has been an innovative force within the American labor movement. Its campaigns at Starbucks and Jimmy Johns proved that fast food workers could be organized. And its Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee has not only proved that imprisoned workers can be organized, it has helped coordinate some of the largest prison strikes in United States history.
MN shared his reasons for no longer belonging to the IWW—I can’t, as the senior minister of a congregation with twenty employees, I am no longer eligible for membership. He said that his repeated experiences of interpersonal conflict within the union had led him to believe that the IWW would never overcome its structural issues. He also said that he gained invaluable skills from his time with the IWW and that his experiences with the union had helped him to grow into an effective organizer in other contexts.
FD had a different perspective. He said that his experience with the CNT-SO had taught him that anarcho-syndicalism was probably never going to be a mass movement in France. But he had learned that it was the job of the far left to organize the margins. Anarchists are best suited to organize people who other groups—be they labor unions or political groupings—are not willing to organize. They have the most success organizing amongst those who are the farthest margins of society. In France, this has largely meant organizing the migrants who in hotels and in the hospitality industry. He shared with me that at the moment there is a strike organized by migrant hotel workers who are members of CNT-SO in Marseille. It has been getting a significant amount of press and bringing some good energy into the CNT-SO.
We left Arles the same way we came: by train. The train back to Paris was uneventful. About the only thing of note that happened during the entirety of our time in transit was that at Gare de Lyon a taxi driver tried to scam me by telling me that there were only fixed fares from the train station. He wanted sixty euros. I told him no thank you and then went off to find a taxi starter who put us in a metered taxi.
Here’s a list of my blog posts in Arles:
Jul 16, 2019
On Bastille Day I took my son and Judith Walgren’s son on a day trip to Marseille. We didn’t see much of the city. We really only had two destinations in mind: the Chateau d’If and Ratonneau, a small island off the coast. Both are part of an archipelago a short ferry ride from Marseille’s Old Port. The boys wanted to go swimming—it was pretty hot—and a trip to the chateau and then Ratonneau afforded us the opportunity to see one of Europe’s most famous sites and take a dip in the Mediterranean.
First, we had to get there. We took a commuter train from Arles to Marseille. The trip was a little less than an hour. Afterwards we took a taxi to the Old Port to catch the ferry. As we walked along the wharf to buy tickets, we saw numerous fishermen selling their catches. I saw mackerel, octopus, sea bass, lobsters, and a good half-dozen other things I didn’t recognize. There was also a metallic painted man who moved when paid a euro and puppeteer with a skeleton marionette.
Once we had our tickets, we discovered we had to walk all the way across the wharf to find the dock for our ferry. It took about twenty minutes. Midway through we stopped at one of the many little bistros that line the street. I had a whole sea bass cooked in parchment and served with rice and a salad. The boys had cheeseburgers. The meal was a bit less than fifty euros.
After lunch we got on the ferry and rode it out to Chateau d’If. The chateau is probably most famous as a setting for Alexander Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo. I have always loved Dumas—I have read the entirety of the Three Musketeers saga, Queen Margot, and The Count of Monte Cristo. It was a fun imaginative exercise to go on a literary pilgrimage. The chateau wasn’t exactly like I had imagined it. I’d always thought that Dumas’s hero Edmond Dantes was locked in an underground dungeon. In fact, the chateau had no underground level and many of the prisoners were kept in cells on the second and third floors.
Dumas is an interesting literary figure for a lot of reasons. One of them is that he is revealing of the way in which the Western canon—whatever it is and whatever it actually consists of—hides a certain amount of racial diversity within it. White supremacists and some misguided liberals often assume that the cannon is entirely white. This is not true. A great number of the foundational Christian theologians were actually North African—Augustine and Origen to name two—and some of the authors that people sometimes assume to be white were in fact people of color. Dumas, for instance, was black. His father Alexander-Thomas Dumas was the first person of color to serve as the general-in-chief of a French army. He was probably of sub-Saharan African descent.
How much does this matter? It depends. How much do the stories we tell about ourselves matter? I happen to think a lot. Actually, I think that one of the key distinguishing human features is our ability to create narratives about ourselves and our communities. Understanding that European art, literature, and philosophy have always been in some sense multiracial or multicultural lays lie to the notion that there is some kind of racially pure European society that innately superior.
After tromping around the old castle for an hour so—its interesting features include stone graffiti carved by both political prisoners from the 1848 uprising and the 1871 Marseille Commune—we caught the ferry to Ratonneau. It is a beautiful Mediterranean mixture of chalky cliffs, stony hills, and jagged fjords surrounded by clear cool water. After a fifteen-minute walk we found a stony beach. The boys practically leapt into the water. It was a joy to watch them. There is something about the unbridled joy of children that is contagious.
We swam for about two hours—I read a bit of James Baldwin in between dips in the ocean—and then made our way to the ferry. We caught a taxi to the train station and would have been at our hotel by eight o’clock if our train hadn’t ended up being delayed by an hour. It was an imperfect end to an almost perfect day. However, there’s something to be said for European candy. A small dose of it kept the boys happy while we waited an interminable time for the train to start.
Jul 14, 2019
One of the joys of travel has always been the moments of pure connection that arise, seemingly out of nowhere, along the way. Tonight I had one of those experiences walking behind the city hall in Arles. I was headed to get an evening drink--my parents were watching my son--when there they were: a half dozen and three singing, dancing, and strumming a guitar. Two young women pulled me in, walked up and asked me where I was from, and invited me to join the impromptu party of strangers: a old French woman missing teeth, three young Arab immigrants, an Irish republican (who later explained, “Bastille Day is when they gave the king and queen the chop, like we ought to do with Queen Elizabeth. No more nobles!”), the two art school students from the Alps who beckoned me to stand with them, a retired drunken Canadian woman, and a slightly bearded young guitarist. The Irishman was singing “Dirty Old Town” by the Pogues. When he finished the guitarist began to strum a rhythmic tune. One of the young Arab women--she couldn’t have been more than seventeen--took off her shoes and began to dance--an energetic, imperfect, ballet, a poem in motion, dark blur of bending, twisting feet, leaping against the cobbles of the street before coming to rest bent upon the ground. Soon it was the art school students turn. One of them, a blonde with a floral tattoo on each arm, took the guitar and in a thin voice that grew bolder, thicker, with every passing syllable began to sing American pop songs, Nirvana, Sting, and then French ballads. There was love and a bit of comedy--a cowboy song from the Alps with the lyric “Yippee ki yay.” I even shyly shared a couple of folk hymns, “Simple Gifts” and “Down to the River to Pray.” Everyone was dancing.
Eventually it ended. This person had to go to bed. That person had to meet their friends. But while it lasted it was a moment of pure connection: beyond the horrors of the hour, beyond the difficulties of language, beyond... just beyond the ordinary.
If there is hope for humanity I am pretty sure it lies in such moments. Instances where the boundaries that separate people disappear in the experience of common connection: shared music, dance, and unexpected joy.
Jul 12, 2019
The entire reason why we’re in Arles is to attend Les Rencontres d’Arles. It is a three month long international photography festival, now celebrating its fiftieth year. Throughout the festival, the city is awash in photography. There are photographic images, photographers, and photography students. Street art of a very special kind springs up on almost every wall of the ancient city--digital prints of photographs wheat-pasted to the stucco, plaster, wood, and brick. Every little cafe or shop seems to have its own show. And throughout Arles there are major exhibits featuring some of the most important figures in the history of photography.
So far, we have been almost half a dozen shows. Yesterday I went to Germaine Krull & Jacques Remy, Un Voyage Marseille-Rio 1941 and La Movida, Chronique d’une Agitation, 1978 — 1988. Both were in or adjacent to the Cloître Saint-Trophime, a magnificent 12th century cloister featuring exquisite stone carvings surrounding a beautiful courtyard.
The Germaine Krull exhibition chronicled the voyage and exile of a group of French political dissidents and European refugees. They fled Paris on the eve of the Nazi invasion. They boarded a freighter run by Vichy partisans and eventually ended up in a penal colony in the North of Africa. The photographs themselves were not particularly interesting. They more-or-less looked like snapshots that someone took of their friends. But as historical documents they are incredible. They show the conditions under which important dissidents like Victor and Vlady Serge lived during the opening years of World War II. And they emphasized that the existence of stateless or semi-stateless refugees is not a recent problem. It dates from the instant that states acquired the necessary technology to demarcate people along the lines of citizenship.
As La Movida exhibition paired beautifully with Libuse’s exhibition. The bodies of work were roughly contemporaneous. And so was the subject matter. While there were many aesthetic differences, the primary difference was the political environment under which the photograph’s were taken. Most of Libuse’s photographs are intimate personal documents chronicling people on the margin’s of society efforts to privately find freedom under a totalitarian regime. In contrast, the four photographers whose work is featured in La Movida lived in a society where people were beginning to publicly pursue freedom after the collapse of a fascist state. Their work generally lacked the intimacy of Libuse’s. It captured the hunger for freedom that people have after freedom becomes possible—as opposed to the way people create free spaces, autonomous zones, in their efforts to privately resist.
The other thing I was reminded of in La Movida exhibition is that I am now old enough to have lived through periods that are now historical. I was an early teen—almost precisely the age my son is now—when the late photographs in both Libuse’s exhibition and the La Movida exhibition were taken. Looking at them I was also reminded of my friend Todd Sines’s photographs of the 1990s techno scene in Detroit--another moment that is both increasingly historically distant and important.
Jul 11, 2019
We spent the majority of our first day in Arles with Libuse Jarcovjakova. She’s an old friend of my parents and for years she’s met with my father’s students in Prague to show them her work and give them a lecture or two on photography. Today was not much different, except that we were in Arles rather than in Prague.
After breakfast we all gathered in the hotel’s conference room and Libuse gave her talk. It was more of a dialogue between her, my father, and Judy Walgren than a formal lecture. I imperfectly transcribed a few of the things she said. She began by talking about the difference between social documentary and personal documentary photography. She said, “When I am doing some social documentary photography, I have done some research... Personal documentary, I use it like self-help. Sometimes I was involved in very complicated situations. I used photography to get some distance for myself and to make some sense of the situation.
Another short note, it is mostly about very ordinary life. It is mostly about something that is very close to you, which is very obvious. Doing photos of such normal ordinary things seems like it might be boring but photography changes things. Life is changing so fast that this ordinary thing will be very important. You don’t need to have some extraordinary adventure. You just need to be present to every day, normal, ordinary life. That is very special.”
One of my father and Judy’s students asked Libuse a question about selfies. This was her response: “I spent five years in West Berlin from 1985 to 1989. There was an exhibit there last year of my work. In the exhibit there were over forty selfies. Living in West Berlin in the 80s I felt very lonely. The selfies were something that helped me to find myself. I was never thinking about my looks. I just wanted to document. I hate myself in many of them. I am just ugly there. I felt horrible. I had no money, no friends, no language. It was a historical moment. But perhaps a good example of what the selfie can do.”
Immediately following her lecture we walked down to the church in the center of town where her exhibition is. It is one of the best exhibition spots in Arles and they had something like two hundred of her images--stretching from the mid-seventies to the late eighties--on display. I bought the exhibition catalog. The images form a remarkable archive of people on society’s margins in Communist Czechoslovakia.
While we were there Libuse gave a second talk. Again, I imperfectly transcribed a few of the things she said. She began by talking about taking photographs in the factory where she worked as a teenager. She said: “At the factory they didn’t care that I was taking pictures until they realized that I wasn’t taking photos of the heroic worker. That was what the Communists wanted. I was taking pictures of people goofing off, sleeping on the job, not working.”
She continued: “In those days, I was very adventurous. I was regularly moving into groups of people that were totally different from me and trying to be accepted. Step-by-step I worked with them and that opened doors. With Vietnamese and the Cubans I taught them the Czech language and I was living with them. They suffered from racism. We teachers were the only Czechs who would spend time with them. And so they wanted me to photograph them. And I took the photographs. I was inside their community. It is necessary to have empathy to join a group like this.”
Reflecting on her body of work she observed: “I had the good luck that I didn’t work on assignment. I had a free hand.”
In response to the question: “What made you ready to show the work?” Libuse said: “Ten or eleven years ago I was unknown. I was always unknown. When I went to my studio I felt a sadness. I had all this work that I hadn’t shared. And so, little-by-little, I began to share my work with some professionals. Then a professional wanted to see both my journals and my images. I felt like it was too personal. I felt like it was gossip. But then I read somewhere that the most personal is the most universal. And I shared more of my work. And I got feedback, especially from young people. They felt like they were reading their own stories.”
In response to the question: “How do you feel now?” Libuse said: “Every morning when I wake up I’m totally empty. I’m very happy. I know it is amazing. People are approaching me and I am know that I have touched their hearts. It is very important for me now not to be in the archives but to be making new work.”
When one of the students asked her how she got her start, Libuse replied: “I am from an artistic family. I got visual art as a heritage. Being in touch with visual culture was very important. My father was a painter and so was my mother. My father had a big personality. I decided I couldn’t be a painter because of him. So, at the age of 13 I got my first camera. At the age of 15 I started to study. Everyone hated my work. And I was very shy about showing it to people. That changed when I started working at the factory at the age of 19.”
When asked, “Were you influenced by punk at all?” Libuse said: “I had almost no influence of contemporary photographers. I knew Robert Frank and Diane Arbus. I had never heard of Nan Goldin.”
That was the last question that she answered during her talk with my father and Judy’s class. After that my family, Judy, her son, Libuse, and Libuse’s niece and grand nephew all went to lunch. We had dinner together as well and then went our separate ways for the evening.
Jul 10, 2019
We met my parents, Judy Walgren, and their students at Charles de Gaulle to catch the train to Arles in the afternoon. The morning was uneventful, we both slept in, and we arrived in time to get a bite to eat before we all got on the train—McDonald’s again for my son and the French pastry chain Paul’s for me.
It turns out that I speak the best French of the group—a rather pathetic statement given that I can only muster enough French to ask for directions, order food, and buy something. Nonetheless, it came in helpful as we traveled. The train ride to Arles consisted of two trains. The first a high-speed train from Paris to Lyon; the second a local train that went from Lyon to Arles. There was a lot of difference between the two trains. The first was modern. It had assigned seats and air conditioning. The second was an artifact from perhaps the 1960s. There were no assigned seats and the car was broken up into a series of cabins of eight.
The most challenging part of the trip was the transfer between the trains. We had exactly 13 minutes to do it. Thirteen minutes to get the luggage of sixteen people—and Americans generally don’t travel light—from one train to another. My French came in handy. I got off and asked directions from a train agent. He answered in English—a fairly common phenomena since many people speak much better English than I speak French—and I was able to steer the group in the right direction.
We barely made the train, but we did, only to discover that without assigned seats many of us had to stand. My son went off with his grandfather and I made my way into a cabin with a handful of extra seats. It was partially occupied by the largest Frenchman I’ve ever seen. He was probably seven feet tall and occupied two seats. The cabin was quite small which gave the whole experience a somewhat surreal feel, especially once people had crammed into all of the seats around him.
The rest of the trip to Arles was uneventful. We saw some beautiful countryside—lavender fields and vineyards—and some delightful towns filled with buildings with stone walls and clay roofs. We arrived exactly on time—8:00 p.m.—and made our way through the streets of the city to the place where we are staying. It is directly across from the Roman coliseum and smack in the center of town.
After checking-in and depositing our bags we went to a pizza place, that also serves Provençal food, for dinner. The service was slow—they managed to forget my son’s order and he ended up eating some of my Dad’s pizza. The waiter was impatient with our lack of French. But overall, the food was quite good. Most people had pizza. I had Provençal style tuna, which was served with a baked eggplant covered in a cheese sauce, some kind of vegetable terrine, a baked tomato, and rice. Towards the end of the meal Libuse Jarcovjakova and her niece and grand-nephew joined us. She and my parents had a long conversation about her sudden success. In addition to pieces in the New York Times and the Guardian, she’s been covered in Le Monde and several other French and Italian publications.
Tomorrow we’re supposed to spend most of the day with Libuse. She’s giving a gallery talk to the students and we’re all having lunch and dinner together. I suspect we’ll spend most of the time in between settling into our apartment.
Jul 9, 2019
We arrived in Paris mid-afternoon. Our flight was delayed by more than two hours. I am not certain why—no consistent explanation was given—but our plane sat on the tarmac at JFK for quite some time. During that time, before I fell asleep on the flight over, I watched a couple of movies: Captain Marvel and the Man from U.N.C.L.E. My son watched a bunch of movies too. He was having such a good time with the inflight entertainment system that I basically had to threaten him to get him to rest for a bit prior to landing.
Our friends Gilles and Nicole have a place across from the Cite de la Science on the edge of Parc de la Villette. Nicole let us in, and my son crashed. Nicole fixed a salad and offered me some baguette for lunch. The salad was simple and delicious—lettuce, a bit of tuna, some egg, and smidge of carrot tossed in olive oil and lemon. Whole books have been written about baguette. Anything I have to say on the subject would be trivial. So, I will pass over the baguette to just note that it was the perfect post-flight meal. Shortly afterwards, I fell asleep.
Someplace the writer Tom Wolfe has a comment about radical chic. It is a phrase he used to describe the New York Review of Books and the left-wing, well-educated, well-off, group of writers who surround it and use it to promote radical politics. Staying with Gilles and Nicole made me realize that the phrase is probably apt for my parents and their friends as well. Many of them share a similar distinctive aesthetic and left-leaning politics. Gilles and Nicole’s apartment has much in common with my parents’ place in Michigan and Marketa Luskacova’s and Libuse Jarcovjakova’s apartments in Prague. In each place there’s the same art filled walls; postcards from friends; copious books; and mass of well use kitchen implements. Some of the art is political. Some of it is satirical. Some reflects a particular affinity with a national culture—the Czechs or the French—but overall the feeling is overwhelmingly international, with a heavy, but not exclusive tilt towards Europe. At my parents’ place there is a bit of Asian art from my Mom’s time with the Peace Corps and some stuff from Mexico—an accumulation from my stints in Chiapas and Oaxaca and my family’s stay in Mexico City when my father was on a Fulbright. At Gilles and Nicole’s there’s a fair amount of African art, particularly masks, acquired, I imagine, from their travels to Africa to photograph people at work.
Visiting with Gilles and Nicole made me aware of my own culture. A number of the women I have dated have said something like, “I’ve never met anyone like you before.” As I have gotten older, I’ve realized that being raised in this milieu of radical chic is not at all a common experience. And so many of the things that I take for granted, including how I think about much of the world, come from this sensibility that is, well, far from the usual American experience.
I anticipate more reflections on culture and radical chic throughout the course of the trip. But for, now, I’ll turn to describing Parc de la Villette. I dragged my son there after we woke up from too long post-airplane naps. It is in my estimation one of the great urban parks of the world: a masterpiece in urban landscaping. The park is a magical mixture of large public spaces and tiny half-hidden gardens. We stumbled into a set of hanging gardens, inspired by the hanging gardens of Babylon; a multiple layered bamboo garden that created a private, quite, meditative, almost other worldly, space in the midst of Paris; and a selection of upright mirrored stones that felt like a modern rendition of menhirs.
I am sure there are other gardens tucked into the Parc waiting to be found but after exploring for about two hours we went back to Gilles and Nicole’s. My son went to bed after a dinner of French McDonald’s. I had another salad with Gilles and Nicole. The aperitif was a delicious mixture of cognac and wine. We spoke a mixture of English and Spanish and they tried to help me with my rather pathetic French. A good portion of the conversation was about light. I have noticed over the years that when I am with photographers they tend to talk about light. They are in the midst of a commercial shoot for Christmas. Apparently, lit candles are very difficult to photograph—they are both a source of light and generally need a source of light to illuminate, a difficult problem.
Tomorrow we meet my parents and my father’s class at Charles de Gaulle airport to catch the train to Arles. This year my father is co-teaching the course with the photographer Judy Walgren. She is a new colleague of his at Michigan State and her son, whose is about the same age as my son, will be accompanying her.
Jul 8, 2019
The rest of July and through early August I will be traveling in Europe with my parents and son. My son and I are tagging along on my father’s study abroad class for Michigan State University. He has taught the course on-and-off since 1980. My mother has accompanied him all but one time. When my brother and I were children we went together with my parents as a family. Since graduating from high school, I have joined my parents on four of their trips to Europe. One of these trips was with both of my children and my then wife. Another was with just my son. My daughter has also traveled with her grandparents on her own.
My father’s class is on photography. As a professor of journalism and a photographer, he has taught two generations of students photography through a combination of portfolio projects, gallery and museum visits, lectures and tours. The lectures and tours are frequently given by leading European photographers--many whom became, over time, some my family’s dearest friends.
This summer my son and I are again joining my parents. My son is now twelve which means that he is old enough to really appreciate aspects of such a trip in ways he wasn’t able to before. Along the way we will be visiting many of the family friends that we have made over the years. These will include artists and art critics, friends of mine from my time at Harvard, childhood friends, and members of the international anarchist community. After reading Mark Lilla’s article in the New York Review of Books on the French New Right I attempted to contact a number of people he describes. So, there’s a slim chance I might also connect with some young French right-wing intellectuals.
This year, I thought it would be an interesting experiment to publish excerpts from my journals on my blog. My blog posts will generally be unpolished first drafts--taken almost straight from my journal. They will include not only my reflections on the trip but my thoughts on what I am reading and, possibly, both the profound ecological, economic, political, and social crisis humanity is in the midst of and my thoughts on the role that the Unitarian Universalist church might play in confronting it. In general, when I write about people who are public figures, I will use their names. When I write about people who are not, I will use initials.
My son and I arrive in Paris on July 8th. We will be spending our first night in France at the Paris apartment of family friends Gilles Perrin and Nicole Ewenczyk. On July 9th we meet up with my parents and travel to Arles for the Rencontres d'Arles. I have been to Arles once before and I am particularly excited about this year’s festival because family friend Libuse Jarcovjakova’s work is being highlighted. On Friday it was featured in the New York Times and Guardian. On the 16th we head back to Paris for ten days. We will be visiting with a host of folks there before heading on July 26th to Sers, a village in Nouvelle-Aquitaine where Gilles and Nicole have a home. We will be there until August 2nd when we fly to London. We will spend six nights in London, including my 43rd birthday, before flying home to Houston on the 9th. I am back in the pulpit on the 11th with a question box sermon.
Jul 7, 2019
I will be on vacation and out of the country from July 7th to August 9th. During this time the work of the congregation will continue. It is an important reminder of a central truth of our religious tradition: the congregation belongs to its members and not its ministers.
Reminding you of this truth has been an important part of our work together during the past year. Together we have revitalized lay leadership in the congregation by launching a new Worship Associates program, reimagining and increasing the adult religious education program through our new Connections effort, engaging members of the congregation in the vital work of stewardship and facilities maintenance, forming a new religious education leadership circle, and strengthening our welcoming of visitors. This is only a partial list and elides the significant work consistently done by Board members, the Thoreau Campus Advisory Team, Religious Education teachers, the Care Team, our volunteer A/V techs, and many many others. Singling out individuals or teams for praise is not the point. The point is the strength of First Unitarian Universalist Church lies foremost in its members.
This is something that comes into strongest focus during a transition ministry. But it is a vital lesson to remember even during times of settled ministry. First Unitarian Universalist Church has had many ministers over its more than one hundred years of existence. Its resilience and vibrance throughout the years have in no small part been due to its members. In some very real sense, First Unitarian Universalist Church really is all of you.
While I am gone, the Rev. Dr. Dan King will be serving as acting head of staff. He will also be the primary point of contact for pastoral care. I would also like to inform you the Rev. Dr. King is retiring at the end of August. His last two sermons will be in July and his last Sunday with us will be on August 18th. The congregation, the staff, and I all owe the Rev. Dr. King our gratitude for guidance over this summer and over the past many months. The Rev. Dr. King is a talented minister and has served this congregation well. I hope you will join me in a celebration of his ministry after the service on the 18th.
As always, I close with a fragment of a poem. It comes from the Moroccan poet Abdellatif Laâbi. He lives in exile in Paris and his words speak to me of the moment in which we live:
I would like
a mythic bird
to snatch me up
fly me across the sky
and set me down in the country
where the valley of roses
has swallowed the valley of tears
PS – During my vacation I will be regularly updating my blog. I will be in Europe with my son and parents visiting friends. If you would like know what I am up please visit www.colinbossen.com.
May 24, 2019
Interim ministry is by its very nature a period of time when a congregation is caught between its past and its future. I have been especially aware of this dynamic over the last few weeks. Recently, the difficult news has come that pending a hearing for misconduct the Rev. Dr. Daniel O’Connell resigned his ministerial fellowship with the Unitarian Universalist Association. At the same time, a generous bequest from the estate of John Kellet has enabled us to hire Alma Viscarra as a full-time Membership and Communications Coordinator.
Dr. O’Connell’s resignation from ministerial fellowship means that he is no longer recognized as a Unitarian Universalist minister by our religious association. It is separate from, but related to, the process that led to his leaving First Church. On June 9th, following the service at Museum District, Natalie Briscoe, Connie Goodbread, and I will be holding a listening session. The purpose of this session will be to offer a space for you, the friends and members of the congregation, to share what is on your hearts in the wake of this difficult news. As part of the listening session, Natalie and Connie will also review the sequence of events that led to Dr. O’Connell’s resignation from ministerial fellowship.
Dr. O’Connell’s ministry is now part of the congregation’s history. We are always wrestling with our history. We wrestle with it, in part, because we wonder how our past points the way towards our future. Thanks to the generosity of John Kellet, First Church has the opportunity to invest in its future. After receiving John Kellet’s bequest, the Board decided to fund a new position, a Membership and Communications Coordinator. In this role Alma will be working to lay the foundation for First Church’s future growth. She will be working with the Membership and Welcoming Teams to develop an outreach plan and to figure out how to best welcome visitors and integrate new members into congregational life. I am very excited about the work she will be doing with the congregation.
Over the next couple of months you will be seeing a bit less of me than you have since I arrived in Houston. In May and June I will be giving the second and third of my Minns lectures on American Populism and Unitarian Universalism. One of these will be in San Francisco on May 18th and the other will be at General Assembly in Spokane, Washington on June 20th. I am taking a couple of weeks of study as part of my preparation. The lectures will be live-streamed on Facebook and also available online as videos at www.minnslectures.org.
If you haven’t heard of General Assembly, it is the annual meeting of the Unitarian Universalist Association. It is an opportunity to engage in the deliberative work of setting the Association’s agenda, to connect with other Unitarian Universalists, and to deepen your faith. The Rev. Dr. Dan King and I will both be going this year. I highly recommend it. First Church can send up to eight voting delegates. Non-delegates can attend as well. A generous member has offered to underwrite some partial scholarships. If you are interested in attending and serving as a delegate please contact Dr. King at revdanking at firstuu.org.
Since I am headed to San Francisco later this month, I thought I would close with a snatch of verse from Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the city’s unofficial poet laureate:
The world is a beautiful place
to be born into
if you don’t mind happiness
not always being
so very much fun
if you don’t mind a touch of hell
now and then
just when everything is fine
because even in heaven
they don’t sing
all the time
(from Pictures of the Gone World #21)
Apr 27, 2019
Tonight in Boston is the first of my Minns Lectures on American Populism and Unitarian Universalism. The lecture is being held at First Church in Boston and the event will run from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Danielle Di Bona and Wendy Salkin are serving as my respondents. This lecture is titled "The Populist Imagination: A White Man's Republic?" It will be live-streamed starting at 6:30 p.m. EST at www.minnslectures.org.
Mar 9, 2019
During an interim ministry there are specific tasks that the interim minister and the congregation are supposed to focus on in order to prepare for the success of future ministries. One of these tasks is strengthening the connection between the congregation and the larger Unitarian Universalist Association. In recent months we have been doing this by bringing outstanding denominational leaders such as UUA President Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray and the Rev. Mary Katherine Morn, President of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, to lead worship for us. They have led inspiring services on what Unitarian Universalist communities are doing to confront humanity’s profound moral, political, and spiritual crisis. As the Rev. Frederick-Gray told us “this is no time for a casual faith.” It is a time to nurture “a fierce sense of purpose that recognizes how much is on the line.”
In the next months we will be nurturing this sense of purpose and strengthening our connection between First Church and the Unitarian Universalist Association through a series of services on the association’s seven principles. The series will conclude with a service on June 16th focusing on the proposed eighth principle. In current form the proposed principle reads: “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.”
Periods of interim ministry are also times for experimentation. In the next months we will be experimenting with worship by adding, for eight weeks, a 9:00 a.m. contemplative service. The 9:00 a.m. service will feature the same sermon. It will include more space for musical and silent meditation and a little less congregational singing. Nursery care but not religious education will be provided. I am excited about the experiment. Sunday morning attendance has been strong in recent months and adding a second service with a different format will allow us both room to grow and the opportunity imagine the ways that worship can be different.
The theme of my column this month is change. One of the challenges during periods of change is remaining grounded in a sense of self, even as that sense of self shifts. In that light, I offer this selection from Joy Harjo’s “Remember:”
Remember the wind.
Remember her voice.
She knows the origin of this universe.
Remember you are all people and all people are you.
Remember you are this universe and this universe is you.
Remember all is in motion, is growing, is you.
Remember language comes from this.
Remember the dance language is, that life is.
Feb 1, 2019
This month our congregation launches our annual stewardship campaign, “Weaving a Tapestry of Love and Action.” The theme is drawn from the words we use to bless the offering each week. This theme reminds us that justice is at the core of who we are as Unitarian Universalists: As Cornel West once observed, “justice is what love looks like in public.”
Your financial gifts to our congregation are essential to sustain it and position First Church to share our values and extend our collective impact in the community. Now is a critical time to support both the congregation and Unitarian Universalism. Because the congregation is in the midst of multiple transitions in ministry and staff, it is even more important to ensure that the congregation is on firm financial footing. With your support, First Church will be better prepared to begin the next phase of our long history of innovative ministry to the community.
It is all too clear we are at a critical turning point in human history. Climate change; the global resurgence of totalitarian, anti-democratic, political regimes; seemingly intractable structures of white supremacy; unbridled capitalism; and the enduring dominance of militarism have all combined to make us question even the possibility of continued human existence. These great crises are not primarily material. They are rooted in an underlying moral and spiritual crisis: How do humans make meaning in an ever-changing global pluralistic society where the narratives that shape individual identity and communities are constantly contested? This moral and spiritual crisis can only be addressed by building beloved communities that, locally and globally, change lives, transform culture, and craft transnational networks devoted to human liberation. Unitarian Universalism’s foundational commitment to the transformative power of love and theological openness mean that First Church has the potential to be one of these beloved communities. Your contributions supply the essential fabric from which the congregation can truly weave a tapestry of love and action.
To emphasize the mutual connections of our Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), we are pleased to welcome my friend and dear colleague, UUA President the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray to our pulpit on February 10th. Her sermon will focus on how Unitarian Universalism can realize its potential to build beloved community. Throughout the month the Rev. Dr. Dan King and I will also be leading services on stewardship which will emphasize our collective opportunities for tangible support for this community. Our stewardship team has recruited volunteer interviewers (“visiting stewards”) who will offer to talk with you about your personal connection to First Church and the work our congregation does in the world. The conversations are designed to be an opportunity to for deeper spiritual reflection, whether one-on-one or in a small group. I hope that you will choose to take advantage of their offer to listen to you.
This month is also Black History Month. Each of our services will feature music from Africa and the African diaspora. My sermon on the 24th will celebrate the life and work of the Reverend Ethelred Brown, the founder of the Unitarian Church of Harlem and a foundational figure in the tradition of black humanism. Portions of this sermon will be incorporated into a lecture I have been invited to prepare, “The Social Question: Unitarian Social Ethics in the Progressive Era.” I will be delivering in San Francisco on May 18th. I hope to see you on the 24th and throughout the month!
A brief personal note before I close, at the end of last month I was recently named an African American Religious Studies Forum Affiliate of Rice University’s for Center for Engaged Research and Collaborative Learning.
The appointment comes with an invitation to present two public lectures at Rice in the 2019-2020 academic year. They will be an opportunity to emphasize the longstanding connections between First Church and Rice.
And finally, a poem:
“Each Day” by lifelong Unitarian Universalist, Rev. Kristen Harper, longtime minister of the Unitarian Church of Barnstable, Massachusetts:
Each day provides us with an opportunity to love again,
To hurt again, to embrace joy,
To experience unease,
To discover the tragic.
Each day provides us with the opportunity to live.
This day is no different, this hour no more unique than the last,
Except... Maybe today, maybe now,
Among friends and fellow journeyers,
Maybe for the first time, maybe silently,
We can share ourselves.
Jan 30, 2019
Jan 24, 2019
The theme for worship in January is transformation. This is a particularly apt theme for a period of interim ministry. The departure of one senior minister and the arrival of another is always a significant time of transformation in congregational life. The first month of the year is also a time when people naturally think about the past and imagine the future.
Thinking about the past and imagining the future are central tasks of the interim ministry. They are transformative work and in our worship services throughout the month we’ll be exploring how the work of transforming our religious community can be work that transforms us as individuals. The Rev. Dr. Joanne Braxton will be leading a service on January 6th in this vein on the 8th Principle Project, an effort to add an explicit commitment to anti-racism to the principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association. My own services for the month will challenge us to examine how by changing ourselves we can be each become agents for transformation of the larger whole.
January marks a big month for transformation in the life of First Church. On January 6th we will begin live-streaming the sermons from Museum District to Tapestry. We had a successful launch of live-streaming to Thoreau on December 16th when Mary Katherine Morn was in the pulpit. I suspect that all listening to the same sermon on Sunday morning will help make First Church feel more like one church in three locations. I am excited about it and I hope that you are as well!
On a personal note, I will be on vacation in Japan from December 25th to January 4th. The Rev. Dr. Dan King will be stepping into the role of head of staff in my absence. I am looking forward to an exciting trip and returning with full of new inspiration. Because of my travel destination and the time of year I think it is appropriate to end with two winter poems from the Japanese tradition:
Starting, then stopping,
the hail moves through my garden
all at a slant;
shining banks of cloud
darken in the sky above. ~ Kyogoku Tamekane
As a rule, I hate
crows--but, ah, not on such a
snowy morning! ~ Matsuo Basho
Jan 17, 2019
I figured that since it is January it would be interesting to check which of my blog posts over the last few years have been the most well read. I looked at my analytics and compiled two lists: the most read blog posts of all time and the most read blog posts of 2018.
Most Read Blog Posts of All Time
1. American Populism and Unitarian Universalism: the 2019 Spring Minns Lectures
2. Starting as the Senior Interim Minister, First Unitarian Universalist Church, Greater Houston, Texas
3. “Letter to Demetrias” and “On the Possibility of Not Sinning,” Pelagius
4. Sermon: Collective Memory, a Sermon in Response to the Shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation
5. Sermon: The River May Not Be Turned Aside
6. Sermon: Abolition Democracy
7. A Tribute to the Rev. Kay Jorgensen
8. President Trump's Klan-like Rhetoric
9. Some Thoughts on Ministerial Tenure
10. Sermon: Finding Each Other on the Road to Emmaus
Most Read Blog Posts of 2018
1. American Populism and Unitarian Universalism: the 2019 Spring Minns Lectures
2. Starting as the Senior Interim Minister, First Unitarian Universalist Church, Greater Houston, Texas
3. Sermon: Collective Memory, a Sermon in Response to the Shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation
4. “Letter to Demetrias” and “On the Possibility of Not Sinning,” Pelagius
5. A Tribute to the Rev. Kay Jorgensen
6. Some Thoughts on Ministerial Tenure
7. Sermon: The River May Not Be Turned Aside
9. Sermon: The Way Forward is with a Broken Heart
10. First Unitarian Universalist Houston is now YouTube!
Jan 16, 2019
Two 30-minute interviews with me will run on WGVU in Grand Rapids, MI as part of their show “Common Threads.” The first will run on Sunday, January 20, 2019 and the second will run on Sunday, January 27, 2019. The show has a weekly audience of between 8,000 and 10,000. The interviews will be available online on the day following their broadcast debuts.
Dec 23, 2018
Dear Members and Friends of First Houston:
December is a busy time. Thanksgiving is quickly followed by the winter holidays. Growing up in an inter-religious household we celebrated in what always felt like rapid succession Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Years. In my home we still do. Alongside all of the work of the season my month will be filled with lights, snatches of Hebrew, Christmas music, latkes--fried in olive oil and served with sour cream and apple sauce, and, sometimes, chopped red onion, smoked salmon, and capers--and family time.
Despite the celebrations of the holidays, I know from both personal and professional experience that the season can be difficult for many people. The First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston offers a place for you, however you experience the holidays. This year’s holiday services include space for the celebratory and the somber alike. We have Music Sunday on December 9th and on December 16th we will have a special guest in the pulpit, the Rev. Mary Katherine Morn, President and CEO of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. In addition, we will be holding a special solstice service on December 21 at 6:00 p.m., a Christmas pageant on the morning of December 23rd, and a Christmas Eve service of Lessons and Carols at 7:00 p.m. on the 24th.
In the spirit of the season, I close with two poems, one from each of my family’s traditions. The first is “Season of Skinny Candles” by Marge Piercy. The second is T. S. Eliot’s “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees.”
Season of Skinny Candles by Marge Piercy.
A row of tall skinny candles burns
quickly into the night
air, the shames raised
over the rest
for its hard work.
Darkness rushes in
after the sun sinks
like a bright plug pulled.
Our eyes drown in night
thick as ink pudding.
When even the moon
starves to a sliver
the little candles poke
holes in the blackness.
A time to eat fat
and oil, a time to gamble
for pennies and gambol
“The Cultivation of Christmas Trees” by T. S. Eliot.
There are several attitudes towards Christmas,
Some of which we may disregard:
The social, the torpid, the patently commercial,
The rowdy (the pubs being open till midnight),
And the childish - which is not that of the child
For whom the candle is a star, and the gilded angel
Spreading its wings at the summit of the tree
Is not only a decoration, but an angel.
The child wonders at the Christmas Tree:
Let him continue in the spirit of wonder
At the Feast as an event not accepted as a pretext;
So that the glittering rapture, the amazement
Of the first-remembered Christmas Tree,
So that the surprises, delight in new possessions
(Each one with its peculiar and exciting smell),
The expectation of the goose or turkey
And the expected awe on its appearance,
So that the reverence and the gaiety
May not be forgotten in later experience,
In the bored habituation, the fatigue, the tedium,
The awareness of death, the consciousness of failure,
Or in the piety of the convert
Which may be tainted with a self-conceit
Displeasing to God and disrespectful to children
(And here I remember also with gratitude
St.Lucy, her carol, and her crown of fire):
So that before the end, the eightieth Christmas
(By "eightieth" meaning whichever is last)
The accumulated memories of annual emotion
May be concentrated into a great joy
Which shall be also a great fear, as on the occasion
When fear came upon every soul:
Because the beginning shall remind us of the end
And the first coming of the second coming.
Nov 7, 2018
Dear Members and Friends of First Houston:
November is a big month for First Church. It will begin with the move of the Thoreau campus to Richmond. The campus’s new building is located on a lovely five-acre plot immediately across the street from a new housing development. It represents a real opportunity for the congregation to grow a voice for Unitarian Universalism in Fort Bend County.
The project has taken more than a year to complete. It wouldn’t have been possible without the hard work of the Rev. Dr. Dan King, Jan Elias, and Betty Johnson. Together they served as the staff and volunteer project managers. They have modeled shared ministry: staff and volunteers collaborating in service of a common vision.
The move comes at the same time that we have launched a new website and started a YouTube channel. If you haven’t seen the site yet go to http://firstuu.org/ and check it out! You’ll find a link to our YouTube channel once you get there. We’re still tweaking the website. If you find something that needs to be fixed or you think should be changed please email firstname.lastname@example.org with you comments. The website is another great example of shared ministry. Special thanks go to Betty Johnson, Ben Ochoa, and Nikki Steele for bringing the project to fruition.
My own work over the last month has largely focused on goal setting for this year of transitional ministry with the Board and the staff. I have participated in retreats with each group. The goals the Board and I set together are: work on governance; build trust within the congregation; and improve staff morale, structure, and supervision. Bob Miller has more extensive reflections on these goals in his President’s letter.
I share them because increasing communication and transparency are important parts of building trust throughout the congregation. Good communication is also essential for effective work together. Over the next few months we are hoping that the new website, as well as new social media initiatives on Twitter and Instagram, will help us to improve communication across campuses.
The biggest news on the communication front is that starting in January we will be live-streaming the sermons from Museum District to Tapestry and Thoreau. I am pretty excited about this shift. I am hoping it will allow First Church to feel like one church with three campuses rather than three separate worshipping communities as I am afraid it sometimes feels.
Writing this column has been a reminder that much of the work of an interim is internally focused on the life of the congregation. It is the work that is necessary to lay the groundwork for the ministry you will do in the future, ministry that is desperately needed to help heal our world. I am grateful to have the opportunity to serve you as you both live in this moment and prepare for what will come next.
As always, I close with a fragment of poetry, this one from Wislawa Szymborska’s “No Title Required”:
It turns out that I am, and am looking.
Above me a white butterfly flits about in the air,
his wings belonging only to him,
and through my hands, a shadow flies,
none other, no one else’s, than his own.
Facing such a view always leaves me uncertain
that the important
is more important than the unimportant.
Oct 3, 2018
Dear Members and Friends of First Houston:
The past couple of months I have enjoyed getting to know many of you and getting a sense of the culture of your congregation. Thus far, I have spent my time at the Museum District campus. That’s going to change in October. I’ll be leading worship at the Thoreau and Tapestry campuses as well. I will be preaching at Thoreau on October 7th and at Tapestry on October 14th. I will be back in the Museum District pulpit on October 21st and then preaching there again on October 28th when we celebrate the combined holidays of Halloween, Samhain, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day.
The theme for the month of October is spiritual practices. October is also the month leading up to the election. My services for the month will revolve around equipping us as a religious community to weather what is already proving to be an incredibly contentious political season. The service I will be leading at all three campuses is called “We Make The Road By Walking.” Its title comes from a dialogue between the great practitioners of liberation education Paulo Freire and Myles Horton. It will be a chance to reflect upon how we can collectively engage in spiritual practices to nourish us as we struggle for social change. My October 28th Museum District service is called “Collective Memory.” In it we will examine how the development of a shared story is a form of spiritual practice that helps to maintain our families and our institutions across time.
Over the next several months some of my work as your interim will focus on congregational assessment. I plan to help give you a sense of where, as a religious community, you have been, where you are now, and where you might go. My work on congregational assessment will culminate in an assessment report that I will share with you after the congregational meeting. As part of my assessment work, I am interviewing members of the congregation. I will be conducting interviews between now and the end of March. I am approaching some of you directly about being interviewed. If I don’t approach you and you would like to be interviewed please contact Jon Naylor. He will arrange an appointment for us.
Another thing I will be doing in the coming months is working to strengthen your connection to the broader Unitarian Universalist movement. To that end, I am excited to announce three guests who will be gracing the Museum District pulpit between now and the end of January. On October 7th, the Rev. Carlton Elliott Smith will lead worship. He is a member of the Southern Region staff of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Then on December 16th, the Rev. Mary Katherine Morn, President and CEO of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, will be with us. And, on January 6th, the Rev. Dr. Joanne Braxton is coming. Dr. Braxton is currently serving as a minister of All Souls, Unitarian, in Washington, DC and was, for many years, the founding director of the College of William and Mary Africana Studies Program’s Middle Passage Project.
I want to share with you that as part of my own service to the Unitarian Universalist movement, I continue to be an active scholar. This past month I gave at talk at San Francisco State University on “The Constitution in the Imagination of the Second Ku Klux Klan.” This spring I will be giving the 2019 Minns lectures on Unitarian Universalism and American Populism. The Minns lectures are a longstanding annual series in Boston that serve “as a source of creative theological and religious advancement.” Over the years some of the most significant thinkers within our movement have delivered them. These include names that might be familiar to some of you such as Rosemarie Bray-McNatt, A. Powell Davies, James Luther Adams, and Mark Morrison-Reed. While I am here in Houston I hope to have the opportunity to share some of my scholarly work with all of you.
I close with two brief poems from Japan. In keeping with this month’s worship theme, they each reflect something of own spiritual practices:
The fireflies’ light.
How easily it goes on
How easily it goes out again.
While I meditated
on that theme
~ Fukuda Chiyo-ni
Aug 11, 2018
Dear Members of the First Houston Community:
I am excited to be joining you this month for our time of interim ministry! My first day in the office will be August 7th. August 12th will be my first Sunday in the pulpit. I will be preaching at the Museum District. I will be preaching there again on August 19th and at least once at each of the campuses during the autumn. The services for the month of August will help us set the tenor of our work together. They are designed to focus our attention on the religious tasks before us as First Houston moves through a period of unanticipated transition during a time of profound cultural, ecological, moral, and political crisis.
I promise it won’t be dispiriting! My work while I am with you will be to help guide you through the transition while remaining honest about and engaged with the broader crises we face as a human species in this moment of history. One of the most important religious practices we can cultivate is the ability to find beauty and joy while we confront the disappointments and horrors of the world. As Unitarian Universalist theologian Rebecca Parker writes, “The greatest challenge in our lives is the challenge presented to us by the beauty of life, by what beauty asks of us, and by what we must do to keep faith with the beauty that has nourished our lives.” Some Sunday you might find me wearing a clown nose or engaging in an act of lyrical foolishness just as a reminder that joy should be constantly invoked.
Over the next few months my columns will share information and stories about the interim process. But, before I close with a piece of poetry, I would like to just tell you how excited about I am accompanying your congregation through its period of transition. I hope it is a time of growth and deepening for all of us.
It is a time, however, which will necessarily come to an end, for that is the nature of all things and, more particularly, the nature of interim ministry. I will be with you as you move through your period of transition. And then we will go our separate ways. And so it seems appropriate to conclude this month’s column with a fragment from T. S. Eliot’s “East Coker:”
In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.
Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires
Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth
Which is already flesh, fur and faeces,
Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf.
Houses live and die: there is a time for building
And a time for living and for generation
And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane
And to shake the wainscot where the field-mouse trots
And to shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto.
I pray that this time of transition is a time of blessing for all of us. See you soon!
PS Let me share with you a bit of logistical information. My office hours will be Tuesday through Thursdays, 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., with other times available by appointment. Mondays will be my study day and Fridays will be reserved for sermon writing. Saturdays will be my day off. I will be available to the church two evenings a week, most likely Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
Jul 7, 2018
I have been asked to fill-in at the First Parish in Needham tomorrow. I will be preaching a sermon on friendship. Service starts at 10:30 a.m. It will be my last in the Boston area before I start at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Greater Houston.
Jun 18, 2018
Dear Members and Friends of First Parish Church:
Tomorrow will be my last Sunday with you. I have changed the topic of the sermon to “Love the Hell Out of the World” to fit with the sermon the I preached on June 3rd. In that sermon I suggested that part of ministry with you had been organized around three questions: Why does the First Parish Church exist? What difference does it make in your lives? What difference does it make in the wider world? On June 3rd I offered one way to answer those questions. Tomorrow I will offer another.
As part of the service there will be a second special collection to support the UUA’s Practice and Promise Campaign. The first special collection caught a few people off guard and we fell short of our fundraising goal. The Parish Committee decided hold a second special collection to give people who hadn’t yet had an opportunity to contribute to do so.
I am excited about the BBQ after the service on the common. It will be bittersweet for me. I have really loved the year that I have spent with you. It is difficult to say goodbye to your charming church building, historic graveyard, farms, farm houses, and greening woods.
After Asa and I left church on Sunday we visited with some members of the congregation who gave of us rhubarb and stumbled upon a small farm selling duck eggs, chicken eggs, and homemade teas. I also found a chicken-of-the-woods mushroom which the farmer was gracious enough to give me. The whole experience underscored just how special of a place Ashby is and how much we will miss being with you twice a month.
The poem I close with today will be used in the service tomorrow. It’s by the poet Kenneth Patchen. A few of the words aren’t quite pulpit appropriate and I’ll gloss them tomorrow morning. Here, however, is the poem in full:
"The Way Men Live is a Lie"
The way men live is a lie.
I say that I get so goddamned sick
Of all these pigs rooting at each other's asses
To get a bloodstained dollar--Why don't
You stop this senseless horror! this meaningless
Butchery of one another! Why don't you at least
Wash your hands of it!
There is only one truth in the world:
Until we learn to love our neighbor,
There will be no life for anyone.
The man who says, "I don't believe in war,
But after all somebody must protect us"--
Is obviously a fool--and a liar.
Is this so hard to understand!
That who supports murder, is a murderer?
That who destroys his fellow, destroys himself?
Force cannot be overthrown by force;
To hate any man is to despair of every man;
Evil breeds evil--the rest is a lie!
There is only one power that can save the world--
And that is the power of our love for all men everywhere.
PS In case you haven’t seen it, I had a piece in the most recent issue of the UU World. You can read “The Universalist Klansman” online.
Jun 6, 2018
I have placed an embargo on my dissertation to aid in my chances of finding a publisher for the book that will come from it in the next few years. However, I have decided to publish the acknowledgements here so that the many people and institutions to whom I owe a debt a gratitude will not have to wait until the book is published to see them.
The genre of acknowledgements appears to require that the author thanks their family last. I wish to break with form and instead indicate that my biggest debt is to my children, Asa and Emma. The two of you have inspired me to keep working for a better world and to continue to pursue scholarship that I hope will help bring it about even during my most difficult moments. You remind me that the future is always worth struggling for. I am incredibly blessed to have you both in my life and I hope that this dissertation, written as it was in the midst of the tasks of parenting, has not detracted too much from our time together.
My parents, Howard and Kathy Bossen, have been an essential source of support as I have worked to complete this dissertation. Your willingness to travel to Massachusetts so I could travel elsewhere for research trips and conferences enabled me to discuss my work with colleagues and uncover vital archival sources. During the political right’s family values crusades of the 1990s, you told me that you objected to all of those who cast family values as inherently conservative saying, “We have family values. We have liberal family values.” As far as I can tell those values boil down to: love your family, treasure your friends, bring more beauty into the world, and hate fascism. I have done my best to live by each of those tenets.
Being a single parent and a graduate student has been a challenge and I offer thanks to all of those who have helped with Asa and encouraged me over the last several years. Shatha Almutawa, Age and Jim Austin, Jorin Bossen and Liat Shore, Noah and Sara Irwin-Evans, Roxanne Rivas, Wendy Salkin, Nate Silver and Robert Gauldin, Rebecca Silver, Wedstanley Thomas, Sarah Stewart and Andrew Morrow, Kristi Stone, this project would not have been possible without you. Special thanks must be given to Brian, Henry, and Susan Frederick-Gray. I could not ask for better friends or truer comrades. My world is better for having you in it. The world is better because of your leadership.
My dissertation would not have been possible without my incredible committee. Dan McKanan and Mayra Rivera Rivera have been the most generous advisors that I could have hoped for. Mayra, I am deeply appreciative of your willingness to step into the co-chair roll last autumn. Your insights into theology, the Bible, the social and religious construction of race, and the connections between UNIA and the Caribbean have been crucial. Your consistent attention to my text paired with your requests for greater clarification of my claims have made me both a better scholar and a better writer. Dan, thank you for helping me make the transition back into the academy from the parish ministry. You have been a steady companion on my journey. I have benefited greatly from your encyclopedic knowledge of social movements and American religion. And I am thankful for your willingness read to versions of this project in all states, from fragments of rough drafts to final product. Lisa McGirr, as my third reader you have pushed me to more clearly articulate my contributions to the historical discipline and explain why the study of religion matters to the analysis of social movements. Your occasional skepticism has prompted me to dig deeper and read more closely than I might have been inclined to do otherwise. As a result, I think my analysis is that much the better. Sylvester Johnson, thank you for your willingness to serve as an outside reader. I will bring your excellent questions with me as this project moves from dissertation to book.
I owe thanks as well to the many friends, colleagues, and mentors who commented on drafts: Chris Allison, John Bell, Carleigh Beriont, Andrew Block, Ann Braude, Catherine Brekus, Carla Cevasco, Kate Coyer, Bradley Craig, Marissa Egerstrom, Amy Fish, Healan Gaston, John Gee, Balraj Gill, David Hempton, David Holland, Cassie Houtz, Andrew Jewett, Michael King, James Kloppenberg, Adelaide Mandeville, Rosemarie Bray McNatt, Mary McNeil, Laura Nelson, Zachary Nowack, Eva Payne, Catie Peters, Charles Peterson, Andrew Pope, Evan Price, Cori Price, Allison Puglisi, and Simon Sun. Special thanks goes to John Stauffer who encouraged me to include the IWW in my dissertation in the first place. Another one goes to Arthur Patton-Hock. I know you didn’t read the dissertation but your hard work as Administrative Director of the American Studies Program certainly made it possible.
I was lucky enough to present drafts of this dissertation to several different workshops and audiences. At Harvard, members of the North American Religions Colloquium and the Twentieth Century History Dissertation Group read some form of almost all of the chapters. The American Studies Workshop was also very useful. Further afield, the Religion and Violence Group of the American Academy of Religion, Collegium: Scholarship Serving Unitarian Universalism, the Unitarian Universalist Emerging Scholars, L’Association Française d’Etudes Américaines, and Starr King School for the Ministry all provided venues for me to present my work.
Financial support for my research and writing came from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in the form of a Merit and Term-Time Fellowship, a Dissertation Completion Fellowship, and three of Winkler Fellowships. I also received a Graduate Seed Grant from Harvard’s Center for American Political Studies and several years of support from the American Studies Program. Support from the Fund for Nurturing Unitarian Universalist Scholarship, the Living Tradition Fund, the Joseph Sumner Smith Scholarship, and Joseph Gitler Fund for Religion and Ethics, all administered by the Unitarian Universalist Association, was vital. So too was support from the Biosophical Institute in the form of a Frederick Kettner Scholarship.
Thanks as well to all of the archives and libraries whose staff welcomed and worked with me. Material for the dissertation came from Washington State Historical Society, the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University, the Joseph A. Labadie Collection at the University of Michigan, the Hargrett Rare Book & Manuscript Library at the University of Georgia, the Indiana State Library, the Indiana State Historical Society, the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Columbia University, and Houghton Library of Harvard University. I suspect Morgan Miller is the unofficial archivist of the American left. Thank you for providing me with IWW materials long thought destroyed. I have no idea how you collect everything you do.
Some final thanks are owed to the congregations that I served while studying in graduate school. My summer ministries at the First Parish Lexington and the First Parish Milton, my sabbatical ministry at the First Religious Society of Carlisle, and my year as minister of the First Parish Church, Ashby, all reminded me that religion can play a powerful role in creating movements for justice. The members of those congregations helped me to clarify my voice as an abolitionist and urged me to conduct scholarship that was relevant to the task of collective liberation. It is my sincerest hope that this dissertation is in that vein.
May 21, 2018
Dear Members of the First Houston Community:
I am thrilled to be joining you this August as your senior interim minister. A time of ministerial transition is a very special time for a congregation. It can bring anxiety and hope as you both celebrate First Houston’s past and imagine its future while you prepare for your next settled ministry. I look forward to accompanying you in your process.
A little bit about me: I bring to your congregation a wealth of experience from my more than ten years as a parish and community minister. Next week I graduate from Harvard University with a PhD in American Studies. I love the ministry and this year I have decided to transition back to the parish ministry following several years in the academy. Prior to my time at Harvard I served as the settled minister of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland. And for the last year, I have served as the minister of the First Parish Church, Ashby, MA. My eleven year-old son Asa will be coming to Houston with me. My nineteen year-old daughter is currently a sophomore at Lewis and Clark in Portland, OR. She was actually in Houston this past March with my parents. My father is one of the judges at Fotofest. You can learn more about me via my website www.colinbossen.com.
One of my core beliefs is we should each work to bring a little bit more beauty into the world. There are many ways we can do this: simple acts of kindness, arranging flowers, sharing a meal, creating a work of art, drawing a brush across a snare drum... I love poetry. I think it makes the world a more beautiful place. And so, I will generally include at least a fragment of a poem in each of my regular newsletter columns. Today I offer you “Trying to Name What Doesn’t Change” by the Palestinian-American (and Texan) poet Naimi Shihab Nye:
Roselva says the only thing that doesn’t change
is train tracks. She’s sure of it.
The train changes, or the weeds that grow up spidery
by the side, but not the tracks.
I’ve watched one for three years, she says,
and it doesn’t curve, doesn’t break, doesn’t grow.
Peter isn’t sure. He saw an abandoned track
near Sabinas, Mexico, and says a track without a train
is a changed track. The metal wasn’t shiny anymore.
The wood was split and some of the ties were gone.
Every Tuesday on Morales Street
butchers crack the necks of a hundred hens.
The widow in the tilted house
spices her soup with cinnamon.
Ask her what doesn’t change.
The rose curls up as if there is fire in the petals.
The cat who knew me is buried under the bush.
The train whistle still wails its ancient sound
but when it goes away, shrinking back
from the walls of the brain,
it takes something different with it every time.
Nye’s words are ones that give me comfort during times of transition. They remind me that the cliche is true: the only constant is change. Embracing that truism will be part of our work together during my interim ministry. We will work on honoring the past, accepting change, and planning, dreaming, and hoping for the future. I know it will be an exciting time and I am honored to share it with you.
May 22, 2018
Dear Members and Friends of First Parish Church:
Yesterday during the service I let the congregation know that I will not be able to renew my contract with the First Parish Church for a second year. I have accepted a position as the senior interim minister of the First Unitarian Universalist Church, Greater Houston, Texas. I am both excited and disappointed about this opportunity. I am excited to have the chance to serve a large vibrant congregation as they go through the process of seeking a new settled minister. And I am disappointed to have to draw my ministerial relationship with First Parish Church to a close. I have had a truly wonderful year with you all and will be forever grateful for your accompaniment during my last year of graduate school. Thank you so much for everything!
I will be with you for two more Sundays in June. During the first of those services, June 3rd, we will be welcoming new members into the church. At the second, June 17th, we will be celebrating the congregation’s annual flower communion. I look forward to both of them and the end of the year picnic after the June 17th service.
Again, thank you for the wonderful year! I close by offering you not a poem about endings or leave taking but simply one of my favorite texts of all time, Tu Fu’s “By the Winding River I” as translated by Kenneth Rexroth. The last two lines include a question I ask myself most days as I struggle to make sense of all of the beauty and the madness in the world. I will miss you!
“By the Winding River I”
Every day on the way home from
My office I pawn another
Of my Spring clothes. Every day
I come home from the river bank
Drunk. Everywhere I go, I owe
Money for wine. History
Records few men who lived to be
Seventy. I watch the yellow
Butterflies drink deep of the
Flowers, and the dragonflies
Dipping the surface of the
Water again and again.
I cry out to the Spring wind,
And the light and the passing hours.
We enjoy life such a litte
While, why should men cross each other?
Mar 31, 2018
I am looking forward to seeing many of you at the seder the congregation is hosting this evening and during the service tomorrow morning. As you might know, I grew up in an interfaith family that celebrated both Jewish and Christian holidays. My parents raised us Unitarian Universalist because they felt Unitarian Universalism offered a community that welcomed both of their religious traditions. When I lived with my parents we observed both Easter and Passover.
I have continued to observe both holidays as an adult and to celebrate them with my children. My theology leans pretty far away from the resurrection narrative or the idea that Jesus was a divine savior. Nonetheless, I find rich meaning in the ways that Easter reminds us love can conquer death. After despair comes the hope of spring.
In my parents’ house, Passover was a time when we lifted up hope for human liberation from oppression. Some years we had a fairly traditional seder. Other times, we used a Haggadah from the civil rights movement that related the Passover story to the long struggle for justice. In both cases, we remembered what previous generations had undergone. We also paused to reflect upon all of the work needed so that next year the world that may be peace.
While I am celebrating Passover tonight, tomorrow, I will be preaching a sermon for Easter titled “Finding Each Other on the Road to Emmaus.” I will be with you all again at the end of the month for "A Place to Grow Our Souls: Bring a Friend Sunday." As the title suggests, the service will be an opportunity to bring a friend to the congregation. Please invite someone so we can share with them a little of the special something that is the First Parish Church! On April 22nd, instead of a regular worship service there will be a service service in which people will gather to mark Earth Day by leading a townwide clean-up. If you’re interested in participating just meet at the congregation at 10:00 a.m. like you would on a regular Sunday.
In case you missed them, the texts from last month’s sermons are available online. The March 4th stewardship service was “For What We Have, For What We Give” and the March 25th service was “Our Foremothers’ Blessing.”
Instead of a poem this month, I offer you a few words from the late Detroit based activist Grace Lee Boggs. She writes:
These are the times that try our souls. Each of us needs to undergo a tremendous philosophical and spiritual transformation. Each of us needs to be awakened to a personal and compassionate recognition of the inseparable interconnection between our minds, hearts, and bodies, between our physical and psychical well-being, and between our selves and all the other selves in our country and in the world. Each of us needs to stop being a passive observer of the suffering that we know is going on in the world and start identifying with the sufferers. Each of us needs to make a leap that is both practical and philosophical, beyond determinism to self-determination. Each of us has to be true to and enhance our own humanity by embracing and practicing the conviction that as human beings we have free will; that despite the powers and principalities that are bent on objectifying and commodifying us and all our human relationships, the interlocking crises of our time require that we exercise the power within us to make principled choices in our ongoing daily and political lives, choices that will eventually, although not inevitably—there are no guarantees—make a difference.
I hope to see you soon!
Jan 6, 2018
I have been invited to give the 2019 Spring Minns Lectures. The Minns lectures are an annual lecture series in Boston that date to 1942. They are designed to be “an innovative force in Unitarian Universalist thought.” In recent years, lecturers have included: the author of Black Pioneers in a White Denomination, Mark Morrison-Reed; the President of Starr King School for the Ministry, Rosemary Bray McNatt; best-selling author Kate Braestrup; and past Presidents of the Unitarian Universalist Association John Buehrens and William Sinkford. James Luther Adams and George Huntston Williams, professors at Harvard Divinity School and the towering figures in Unitarian, and later Unitarian Universalist, theology in the mid-twentieth-century. The 2018 Autumn lecturer will be Samira Mehta, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Albright College.
My lectures are tentatively titled “American Populism and Unitarian Universalism.” Here is their two paragraph summary:
This three-part lecture series is organized around the question: How should Unitarian Universalists respond to populism? In recent years, populist movements have been on the rise in the United States and throughout the globe. Apocalyptic in outlook, dividing the world into a righteous people and a corrupt elite, and often organized around solidarities of nation and race, there is much about populism that makes most Unitarian Universalists uncomfortable. Yet in its left-wing forms populism can also be a socially regenerative force, pushing institutions to be more accountable to the many rather than the few. What can Unitarian Universalists learn from populism? How does populism relate to liberalism and progressivism—political traditions with which many Unitarian Universalists are more comfortable? Is populism a force that can be used to build a broad religious left? Or does it contain flaws that doom populist movements to create greater social division?
This lecture series aims to provide Unitarian Universalists with some of the analytical and historical tools necessary to foster more effective social engagement. It will begin by examining the social and theological roots of populism before turning to two case studies. The first will explore the tensions between Francis Greenwood Peabody and late-nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century populists. The second will focus on the relationship between the Pan-African populist leader Marcus Garvey and the black liberal religionists and humanists affiliated with Egbert Ethelred Brown’s Harlem Unitarian Church. The series will conclude with reflections on how Unitarian Universalists are being called to act during a time when white right-wing populism is a dominant force in American politics.
Jan 3, 2018
I am delighted to announce that I will be preaching at the First Unitarian Church of Providence on January 28th!
Dec 2, 2017
Tomorrow, I am going to spend much of the day in Ashby. In the morning I will be preaching a sermon entitled “Into the Dark of the Night” during the regular service. Then in the afternoon I will be offering the opening prayer for the town’s annual Christmas tree lighting. Asa and I are both excited about the tree lighting and the beef and vegetable stew that follows it.
Later in the month I will be returning for the annual Christmas Eve service. The service will have lots of reading parts. I will assemble the liturgy from a variety of sources: the canonical gospels, gnostic texts, and more contemporary poems. If you plan to attend the service and would like to read one of the texts that I select please get in touch with me. I would love to have your help! I am looking forward to a collaborative service that includes lots of good music from members and friends of the congregation! It should be a special night.
The text for the sermon I preached on November 5th, “Through All the Tumult and the Strife,” is online. On my blog you’ll also find the text of a sermon that I preached at First Parish Cambridge on November 12th called “You and I.”
As is my practice, I close with some poetry. In this case it is a concluding fragment from Kenneth Rexroth’s magnificent Christmas poem “A Sword in A Cloud of Light:”
I am fifty
And you are five. It would do
No good to say this and it
May do no good to write it.
Believe in Orion. Believe
In the night, the moon, the crowded
Earth. Believe in Christmas and
Birthdays and Easter rabbits.
Believe in all those fugitive
Compounds of nature, all doomed
To waste away and go out.
Always be true to these things.
They are all there is.
I hope to see you soon!
Nov 11, 2017
I will be preaching at the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia on April 8, 2018!
Nov 10, 2017
I am excited to announce that I will be preaching at First Parish Cambridge this coming Sunday (November 12, 2017)!
Nov 5, 2017
I am looking forward to seeing many of you later this morning for our regular Sunday service. I will be preaching a sermon entitled “Through All the Tumult and the Strife” in which I reflect on what I’ve learned over the course of my ten years as an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister. I will be back on November 19th to co-officiate the annual community Thanksgiving service, held in conjunction with our neighbors the Ashby Congregational Church. They’re hosting the service and I am looking forward to celebrating with them.
The texts for the two services I led in October are available online. The October 15th sermon, “Abolition Democracy,” can be found here: http://colinbossen.com/the-latest-form-of-infidelity/14264405/abolition-democracy-ashby The October 29th sermon, “You Say You Want a Revolution” is here: http://colinbossen.com/the-latest-form-of-infidelity/14265421/you-say-you-want-a-revolution Also online are the audio and text for the version of “Abolition Democracy” I preached at Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois.
Last month we also held a congregational goal setting workshop. The Parish Committee and I will be meeting after coffee hour today to discuss. You are welcome to attend. In the meantime, here’s the priorities that people at the workshop set for the balance of the 2017-2018 program year (i.e. through the end of June):
1) Reach out to people on Members and Friends list: ask them to come to church – SOON!
1a) Look at Ashby UUNews list: ask people if they would like to be on our Members and Friends list: by the END OF DECEMBER
1b) Schedule Social Events
2) Schedule a Friends Sunday
3) Plan a speaker series for the spring (concert/ movie/ film);
4) Explore using social media for messaging
There were a few other goals that were identified during the workshop that we hope to focus energy on as we can (including completing our Welcoming Congregation work). However, these four will be the main things that I devote my ministerial time to over the next several months. I am excited about them because they are achievable, outward looking, and suggest people in the congregation believe that First Parish Church has something special to share!
I close with a handful of lines from the 8th century Chinese poet Tu Fu, in honor of last night’s full moon:
Isolate and full, the moon
Floats over the house by the river
Into the night the cold water rushes away below the gate.
The bright gold spilled on the river is never still.
The brilliance of my quilt is greater than precious silk.
The circle without blemish.
The empty mountains without sound.
The moon hangs in the vacant, wide constellations.
Pine cones drop in the old garden.
The senna trees bloom.
The same clear glory extends for ten thousands miles.
I hope to see you soon!
Oct 14, 2017
I return tomorrow to Ashby to lead the first of my two services for the month. “Abolition Democracy” is offered as part of an association-wide teach-in on white supremacy. You can learn more about the teach-in here: https://www.uuteachin.org/ As part of the sermon, I will be talking some about why I think it is important for our congregation to participate. A bit later in the week I will be presenting at Collegium, the scholarly association of Unitarian Universalist theologians, on a similar subject (http://www.uucollegium.org/meeting) and next Sunday I will actually give a different version of the sermon at Oak Park’s Unity Temple, one of the cathedral congregations of our religious tradition (http://unitytemple.org/).
My second sermon for the month will be on the 29th. I will be reflecting on the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation. After the service there will be a workshop open to all members and friends of the congregation designed us to engage in an exercise of assessment and goal setting for the balance of the program year. The start of our ministry together and the congregation’s and the town’s 250th anniversaries all combine to suggest it is a good time to think about what we want to accomplish as a religious community. I am looking forward to the workshop.
But mostly, tomorrow, I am looking forward to being back with you again. I really enjoyed my first two Sundays in Ashby. You were exceptionally warm and welcoming at my first service. The 250th anniversary ecumenical camp meeting was something special that I will long remember.
For future reference, the texts of my sermons will usually appear on my web-site the Monday after I preach them. So, if you weren’t able to make it to my first service at the church you can find my sermon from September 17th, “Sometimes You Need a Story to Survive,” at: http://colinbossen.com/the-latest-form-of-infidelity/14262255/sometimes-you-need-story-to-survive Each month, before the first Sunday that I preach, I will also be sending out a note just like this that will include, among other things, links to the prior month’s sermon texts.
I love poetry and I believe that people don’t have enough of it in their lives. I will always close with a few verses either from something I have been reading recently or that pertain to the month’s services. Here are a few lines from Audre Lorde about how we might speak to each other during times of crisis:
I speak to you as a friend speaka
or a true lover
not out of friendship or love
but for a clear meeting
of self upon self
in sight of our hearth
but without fire.
from “Conversation in crisis"
I hope to see you tomorrow!
Sep 11, 2017
I am delighted to announce that I have accepted a postion as the minister of the First Parish Church, Unitarian Universalist, Ashby, Massachusetts. I will be serving the congregation part-time. Most of my work will consist of preaching twice a month. I will also be offering some adult religious education and pastoral care. Here is the email I sent to the congregation to introduce myself:
Dear Members and Friends of First Parish Ashby:
I am delighted to be starting as your part-time minister! I know an email has already gone around sketching out my biography and telling you a bit about me. However, I want to send you all a brief hello to let you know that I excited to meet you on Sunday. I am looking forward to our time together.
I will be leading worship twice a month. In September, I will be in the pulpit on the 17th and participating in the camp meeting on the 24th celebrating Ashby’s 250th anniversary. I have never been to an event quite like what is being planned. I anticipate it is going to be a meaningful and moving experience. In the next few days, I will be reaching out to a few of you about helping with music for the service on the 24th.
In general, I will be answering emails and making phone calls about congregational business on Mondays. This will usually happen in the mornings. I will be available to you throughout the rest of the week but might not be able to get back to you immediately. If it is urgent, it is always better to call or text me than to send an email.
It may interest you that I keep a blog at www.colinbossen.com. The text of my sermons will be available on the Monday following a service. So, if you can’t make it to the service on the 17th, you should be able to read what I said on the 18th. A link to the text will put up on the parish Facebook page. From time-to-time, I may post other things relevant to congregational life on my blog or on the parish web-site. If that happens I will be sure to let you know.
In addition to preaching, I am also going to offering adult religious education and providing some pastoral care. If you would like to meet with me please reach out and we can arrange something. I will be working with the Parish Committee in the next few weeks to develop a plan for both adult religious education and pastoral care.
Since I write on September 11th, and against the back drop of the devastation in Florida, Mexico, and Texas, it seems best that I close on a note that reflects more than just my joy and excitement about our coming time together. I offer you this fragment from William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence,” a poem that captures so much what it means to me to be alive:
Man was made for Joy & Woe
And when this we rightly know
Thro the World we safely go
Joy & Woe are woven fine
A Clothing for the soul divine
Under every grief & pine
Runs a joy with silken twine
I pray that whatever sorrows, horrors, and challenges the world brings us in the coming months we will all find some beauty and joy in life, both as individuals and as a community.
I hope to see you Sunday!
PS I apologize for the gendered language in Blake’s poem. The way he wrote and thought in the 18th century doesn’t fully reflect the beloved community we aspire to create in the 21st.
Aug 30, 2017
Jun 21, 2017
I will be presenting a paper entitled "Unitarian Universalism and the White Supremacist Theoligical Imaginary" at the 2017 meeting of Collegium. Here's the text of the accepted paper proposal:
This exercise in comparative theology will contrast the white supremacist theological imaginary with the theological imaginaries of two Unitarian Universalism’s foundational figures: Hosea Ballou and William Ellery Channing. The paper will begin with an analysis of the white supremacist theological imaginary as crystalized in one of the most explicitly religious and powerful white supremacist organizations in the history of the United States, the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s. The Klan was vocally Protestant and attracted modest support from some Unitarians and Universalists. The Klan’s founder held Unitarianism in esteem and Klan publications frequently quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson. This suggests a certain resonance between some aspects of Unitarianism and Universalism and individuals within them and the white supremacist theological imaginary.
After summarizing the Klan’s theological anthropology, eschatology, ecclesiology, and understanding of the history and place of the United States in the world, the paper will then turn to examinations of the theological imaginaries of Ballou and Channing to attempt to answer the questions: What was it about liberal theology that appealed to members of the Klan? To what extent should the theological imaginaries of Ballou and Channing be understood as inherently white supremacist?
The paper will conclude with a reflection on the theological imaginaries of figures contemporary to Ballou and Channing who articulated unitarian and universalist theologies but have not been incorporated into the institutional history of Unitarian Universalism. It will argue that while elements of white supremacy can be found within the writings of both Ballou and Channing they are not found in the works of figures such as Olaudah Equiano and Constantin Francois Volney. These figures formed a part of a Trans-Atlantic multiracial revolutionary abolitionist antinomian tradition which included significant numbers of individuals who held universalist and/or unitarian theologies. Incorporating their theological imaginaries into the theological imaginaries of contemporary Unitarian Universalists might prove to be a helpful antidote to whatever aspects of the white supremacist theological imaginary contemporary Unitarian Universalists have inherited from the movement’s foundational figures.
Jun 17, 2017
I will be returning to preach at First Parish Cambridge on August 6, 2017. I am a member of the congregation and my kids both participate or participated in the excellent religious education program. I am especially excited to be leading worship there again!
Jun 16, 2017
I am excited to announce that I will be preaching at the First Parish Church of Berlin, Berlin, MA on August 13.
Jun 15, 2017
I wrote the introductions for two texts in the just published A Documentary History of Unitarian Universalism; from 1900 to the Present, ed. Dan McKanan. I authored the blurbs for Jack Mendelsohn, "The Church and the Draft Resisters," and Common Ground: Coming of Age, A Report of the 1982 UUA Youth Assembly.
May 25, 2017
I will be returning to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greater Lynn on July 9, 2017.
May 20, 2017
I will be preaching at the First Parish of Northfield in Northfield, MA on June 4, 2017.
May 18, 2017
May 8, 2017
I am currently accepting invitations to preach at congregations for the 2017-2018 program year in the Boston metro area. I am also available to preach in summer 2017 (including June) in the Boston, New York and Detroit metro areas (August only) and Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont.
I generally provide worship services on the following topics: religious practice and daily life; democracy as a religious practice; the liberal religious call to prison abolition; racial justice or challenging white supremacy; Unitarian Christianity; solidarity with undocumented migrants; the theology of friendship; decolonizing Unitarian Universalism; reparations for slavery; Unitarian Universalist liberation theology; and the metaphoric nature of liberal theology. I will be developing a number of new sermon topics in the coming months and can prepare sermons on a multitude of other topics by special arrangement. I am comfortable leading worship for humanist, liberal Christian, and Unitarian Universalist congregations.
Since this is an advertisement, let me sum up my qualifications as a preacher. I have been preaching since 2000 and have led worship services for over 100 congregations throughout the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. These congregations have ranged from the very small (less than 20 members) to the very large (more than 1,000 members) and include, most recently, Memorial Church of Harvard University. Prior to beginning my doctoral studies at Harvard, I served as the parish minister of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland for five years. During my time there the congregation’s membership increased by over 50% and the Sunday morning attendance more than doubled. I have won three awards for my sermons and several have received regional or national media coverage. My curriculum vitae includes more details.
May 5, 2017
I will be at Harvard for another academic year. The Panel on Theological Education has generously awarded me a fellowship that will allow me to focus the majority of my time for the 2017-2018 academic year on completing my dissertation and several smaller research projects that I began as a graduate student. My intention is to defend my dissertation in either the autumn or the spring, depending on what makes sense to my committee and the progress I make over the next few months on chapter revisions. In meantime, I am looking for part-time, freelance, and/or summer work to supplement my income. I will put out an announcement about pulpit supply in the next couple of days. If you have any leads please contact me. You can view my c. v. here and my Linkedin profile here.
Apr 13, 2017
Mar 29, 2017
My preaching date at the First Parish in Wayland has been changed to April 23, 2017.
Mar 14, 2017
I will be preaching Sunday, March 19, 2017 at First Parish Plymouth, Unitarian Universalist. It is the congregation founded by the Pilgrims in 1620.
Feb 9, 2017
I will be returning to preach at the First Parish in Wayland on April 30, 2017.
Jan 30, 2017
President Donald J. Trump reportedly modeled his Inaugural Address after Andrew Jackson, a white supremacist who was the architect of one of the most shameful events in American history, the Trail of Tears. Listening to President Trump’s Inaugural Address I heard another horrifying historical echo. When Trump used the phrase “This American carnage,” claimed that his inauguration signaled the transfer of “power from Washington, DC... to you, the people,” and promised to “make America great again” he sounded an awful lot like Hiram Evans, the Imperial Wizard of the 1920s Ku Klux Klan.
The white supremacist Evans is no longer a household name. But ninety years ago he was known and by turns feared and celebrated throughout the country. Under his watch the KKK reached its largest membership. In 1924, millions of white men belonged to the Klan. Senators, Governors, and Congressmen from nine states either openly declared their allegiance or owed their elections to the violent racist organization. Today white supremacists call themselves the alt-right and their movement is growing again.
As Imperial Wizard, the titular head of the Klan, Evans offered blueprints for other Klan leaders to follow in his speeches and pamphlets. His texts typically contained the same set of elements. He warned of terrifying enemies both inside and outside of the country. He believed there was a “vast horde of immigrants” threatening to overrun the nation. He claimed African Americans, Catholics, and Jews weakened it from the inside. He declared the country was in a state of decline. He said a “spirit of lawlessness is abroad in the land... fast ripening into an anarchy.” He argued that action must be taken immediately, before it was “too late for the redemption of the Republic.” Trump’s speech on Friday contained some of the same elements.
Just as Trump berated the political “establishment,” Evans attacked “politicians [who] seek not the common welfare, but their own success.” He berated civil and religious groups who focused on their own particularities rather than “the forces of evil.”
He also offered a formula to solve the problems the country faced. His formula was inevitably “unity” and a return to what one of his followers called “that real, genuine Americanism of... our forefathers.” To return to this idealized America where “life is easy, health is good and conditions ideal” the Klan hoped to “Americanize America.” This meant keeping out immigrants and purifying the country of everything that caused “white civilization” to “degenerate.”
Sadly, these themes were present in President Trump’s Inaugural Address. The new President painted a picture of American decline. Just like Evans, he claimed that there are external and internal enemies bent upon the nation’s destruction. He also promised rejuvenation through unity.
Replace the word Muslim with the words Catholic and Jew in many of the President’s campaign speeches and it’s difficult to tell the difference between the new President and Hiram Evans. Klan leaders complained of American citizens who “owe allegiance to an institution that is foreign to the Government of the United States.” Trump has repeatedly questioned the loyalties of American citizens whose parents were immigrants. He continually questioned the country of President Obama’s birth. He has also made frequent use of the term “Americanism,” a word that appears in innumerable Klan pamphlets and speeches.
The terrifying thing about the Klan, of course, was not the words of its leaders, but the actions of Klansmen across the country. These violent white supremacists assaulted, lynched, murdered, and abused African Americans, political radicals, Jews, Catholics, and anyone else they viewed as a threat to their vision of America. Immediately following the election, there is good reason to think that the words of now President Trump emboldened contemporary white supremacists to violent action. There has been a spike in hate crimes.
This brings into focus what is at stake in normalizing the words of President Trump and his administration. Their language has direct parallels to the violent language of earlier generations of white supremacists. This is unacceptable. The Klan was eventually marginalized by women and men speaking out, marching, and organizing against the white supremacist terrorist organization. The Klan-like rhetoric of the President cannot stand. The global Women’s Marches sparked by his misogynistic behavior were but the first steps towards stopping it. Proving that the words of white supremacists have no place in the global discourse will require more marches, more organization, and a constant practice of speaking out.
Note: I sent this around to several major publications last week as an op-ed. I got a couple of very encouraging replies but no one was willing to publish the piece. The slightly dated references in the piece are due to the timelag between submitting the piece, having it rejected, and deciding to post it on my blog. Also, all of the citations of the Klan are from my dissertation. I would be happy to provide them to anyone who is interested.
Jan 25, 2017
My preaching date at Bell St. Chapel in Providence, RI has been changed. I am now leading worship there on Feb. 26. Here's the service blurb:
The Great Family of All Souls
William Ellery Channing’s claim “I am a living member of the great family of all souls” is central to our Unitarian Universalist theology. In this service, we’ll wrestle with what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist today and how Channing’s words are both a call for us to be our most authentic selves and be compassionate to those around us.
Jan 22, 2017
I am preaching today at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Medford. Services start at 10:30 a.m. Join me if you're in town! The title of the sermon is "Democracy as a Religious Practice."
Nov 30, 2016
Sunday I preached a sermon that leveled a prophetic critique against the incoming Trump administration. I labeled it a neo-Confederate project and argued that in the coming years liberal religious communities would be called to resist it and dream freedom dreams.
Curiously, in the last 72 hours my web site traffic has spiked. The spike in traffic has not come, sadly, from my sermon going viral. Rather it appears to be coming from a Russian spam bot whose browser language is set to “Secret.ɢoogle.com You are invited! Enter only with this ticket URL. Copy it. Vote for Trump!” Traffic from the Russian spam bot as of this evening is accounting for 95% of my site traffic. I would be interested to know if other folks out there who have been outspoken about the next President are seeing a similar phenomena. I can’t but wonder if there’s a connection.
Nov 27, 2016
as preached at the First Unitarian Church of Worcester, November 27, 2016
I am grateful to be back with you. It now seems worlds ago, but I was last with you the Sunday you installed Sarah Stewart as your twelfth minister. I understand you colloquially know her as M12.
M12’s installation took place, you might remember, a couple of weeks after the death of Freddie Gray. In the days leading up to the service there were large protests in Baltimore against police brutality. People were mobilizing to proclaim Black Lives Matter. Ministers and congregations across the country, I observed, were spending their Sundays talking and praying about the need for racial reconciliation and racial justice. I suggested that I was, at best, skeptical about such efforts. In many liberal religious communities, I complained, serious conversation about racial and social justice only take place against the backdrop of calamity. The crisis occurs. Congregations confront the tragedy with much hand wringing. Little changes. The traumatic event is largely forgotten, or becomes normalized, or fades into the background of daily life.
The only way this pattern would change, I argued, was for religious communities like yours to become sites for conversion. Conversion might be defined, I told you, in the words of James Luther Adams as a “fundamental change of heart and will.” Conversion brings with it a new perspective, a shift in a point of view. After the death of Freddie Gray, and the deaths of far too many others, I offered that most whites in America needed to undergo a conversion process. Those of us who imagine ourselves to be white, I urged, need to shift our point of view to see the United States from the perspective of people with darker skin. Whites must come to understand that white supremacy is not an abstract concept or a political slur. White supremacy is an economic and political system in which white wealth is built upon the dual exploitation of brown and black bodies and the natural environment. Those of us that claim we are white must empathically comprehend that racism is as much physical as it is psychological. For human beings with brown and black bodies, racism, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, “is a visceral experience… it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscles, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth.”
It is only once those of us who believe ourselves to be white imaginatively shift our perspective, I claimed, that we can begin to participate in the work of dismantling white supremacy. Otherwise, I warned, the pulpit would remain silent on issues of racial and social justice except at moments of crisis. Speaking out only when tragedy strikes is a form of idolatry. It allows the pretense that the community uplifts justice when in reality it worships comfort and complicity.
In retrospect my sermon from last year appears quaint. For many of us, the world in late November 2016 feels fundamentally different than it did in May 2015. The United States has been through a desperately polarizing election. A new President has been elected through the undemocratic peculiarities of the American political system. Donald Trump lost the popular vote by more than two million votes. He lost the popular vote by a larger margin than any successful candidate for the national executive since 1876. The man who assumes the executive office on January twentieth will be at the head of what can only be termed a minority government.
He gained that office by what can best be termed bad faith. His tactics were those of a con man: misdirection mixed with outrageous lies. He violated electoral norms. He praised autocrats and called for foreign intervention in the presidential election. He refused to release his taxes. He revealed himself to be a sexual predator. At times, the man who will be the next President stirred base human instinct: fear, hatred, misogyny, and racism. He verbally attacked immigrants, Muslims, women, and anyone who challenged him. He received open support by white supremacists and an endorsement by the Ku Klux Klan. Despite all of this he will soon head the most powerful government in the history of the world.
We have now come to a moment when there are calls to unite behind the incoming President. His opponent, Hillary Clinton, urged such unity in her concession speech, “We must accept this result and then look to the future. Donald Trump is going to be our president. We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead.” The current President has offered a conciliatory tone. He has enjoined American citizens “to remember that we’re actually all on one team.”
The New York Times columnist Charles Blow responded this week writing, “Let me tell you here where I stand on your ‘I hope we can all get along’ plea: Never. You are an aberration and abomination who is willing to do and say anything--no matter whom it aligns you with and whom it hurts--to satisfy your ambitions.” Russian American dissident and critic of autocracy Masha Gessen has spent her life writing about the regime of Vladimir Putin. She warns that calls to reconciliation that fail to recognize that “Trump is anything but a regular politician and this has been anything but a regular election” are foolhardy. In her analysis, he is an aspiring autocrat, a proto-totalitarian, a neo-fascist.
Now me, I’m not much of a political liberal. I place myself in a similar camp to Blow and Gessen. I trust the President-elect. I assume that he will govern like he campaigned. He has already indicated he wants figures whose politics are best described as white supremacist as part of his administration. He has indicated that he will be intolerant of dissent. He intends to round up and deport several million immigrants. He refuses to place his businesses in a blind trust, creating the possibility of conflict of interest and corruption on an unprecedented level. I reject the idea of normalizing our next President.
I suspect that there are a few present here who would like to stop my wind-up to a jeremiad at this point. My litany of woes may seem out of place on a Sunday morning. I imagine that those of you whom I am making uncomfortable desire to remind me that religious communities are not places for partisan politics. So, let me be clear. I am not being partisan. I am offering a prophetic critique. If Hillary Clinton had been elected President, I would be standing before you a warning of the Democratic Party’s complicity in attacking immigrant communities. More people have been deported under President Obama than under any other President. I would be reminding you of Secretary Clinton’s hawkish foreign policy tendencies. She was instrumental in pushing for the violent overthrow of Muammar el-Qaddafi. It was an event which resulted in civil war, the deaths of thousands, and the further destabilization of an already instable region. I would be criticizing the Democratic nominee for her longstanding practice of promoting economic programs that benefit the few at the expense of the many. And I would prod you to remember that she helped oversee the massive expansion of a prison industrial complex that targets human beings with brown and black bodies. In the 1990s she notoriously coined the phrase “super predator.”
But Secretary Clinton did not win the majority of votes in the electoral college. She is not going to be the forty-fifth President. Donald Trump is. And so he, not her, is the subject of my critique. And while Clinton would have represented yet another figure in the long standing, tragic, crisis of the moral bankruptcy of political liberalism, Trump represents something even more sinister, neo-Confederate autocracy. The question before this religious community and each of us as individuals is not to figure how to live responsibly in Hillary Clinton’s America. It is to discern how to live responsibly in Donald Trump’s.
Drawing from the prophetic liberal religious tradition, I suggest that this congregation and other Unitarian Universalist congregations like it have five tasks ahead. We must boldly proclaim our vision of what it means to be and flourish as humans. We have to develop a historical and social analysis that allows us to truthfully describe our present moment. We need to dream freedom dreams of what might be possible and, in the words of Robin Kelley, aid us “to see the poetic and prophetic in the richness of our daily lives.” We are called to translate those dreams into action. We must maintain a spiritual practice to sustain ourselves through difficult years.
We are part of a liberal religious community. These tasks are not tasks for an individual. They are tasks for our collectivity, our gathered community. If we accept them, we will accept them as a community that upholds the inherent worth and dignity of each individual human being; a community that practices democracy; a community that honors the web of interrelation and interconnection of which we are all a part.
Unitarian Universalism is a religious tradition with a particular understanding of what it means to be a human being. Close to two hundred years ago your congregation, like other New England Unitarian churches, rejected a theology that taught that human beings were innately depraved. Our religious ancestors instead favored a theology that viewed human nature as predicated upon freedom. We each contain within us, in William Ellery Channing’s famous words, “the likeness to God.” The choice whether we will tilt towards that likeness or give ourselves over to baser instincts is ours.
What ultimately distinguishes religious liberals from religious conservatives is that we believe that human nature is not fixed. It is flexible. People can change. This assertion is more a matter of faith than it is a scientific claim. That we uphold it is one of the things that makes Unitarian Universalism a religion. Human freedom has yet to be empirically proven to be true or untrue. Faced with this wager we boldly bet on freedom, on the possibility that we can freely choose who and what we will be.
As a religious tradition we are comfortable with our claims about the essential nature of human freedom. In contrast, developing a historical and social analysis that truthfully describes our present moment is a far more difficult task. White American society--the society that celebrates the Declaration of Independence, worships the Constitution, and lionizes consumer choice--is quite comfortable with abstract discussions of freedom. But historical and social analysis is something that is widely frowned upon. Media outlets like Fox News and the white supremacist Breibart mock rigorous analytics as an egg-headed, liberal, elite activity.
So be it. Our religious tradition is one which is committed to telling truths in church. Describing the world as it actually exists is the most important form of truth telling. Offering a detailed analysis of what happened on November eighth and is happening now would require far more time than we have remaining on this bright Sunday. But allow me to make a few gestures that might help you as a community in your own truth telling. If you disagree with me at the very least my words will give you a helpful data point for the “not that.”
The presidential administration of Donald Trump will be a neo-Confederate autocracy. Like other kinds of neo-fascist, fascist, proto-totalitarian, autocratic, or right populist regimes, it emerges from a failure in political liberalism.
Since its inception a leading strain of thought, culture and economic practice in the United States has been brazenly white supremacist. The Constitution was written to favor slaveholding states. The Electoral College is partially a legacy of slavery. It was designed to ensure that Southern slave states had disproportion power in the new republic. Otherwise, they threatened secession. Indeed, when a split electorate chose an anti-slavery politician as President the South did secede.
The Civil War was a war to maintain chattel slavery and white supremacy. It was also a war to maintain male supremacy. The two substantive differences between the United States Constitution and the Confederate States Constitution were that the second proclaimed that only whites and only males could be ever citizens.
When I label the rising presidential administration neo-Confederate I am explicitly thinking of the Confederacy’s claim to white male supremacy. The appointment of Stephen Bannon as Trump’s Senior Counselor and the nomination of Jeff Sessions to Attorney General can be read as a commitment to an ideology that puts the needs and rights of white males over and against the rights of everyone else. As Senior Counselor, Bannon will push Trump to consider the needs of white voters, the next President’s electoral base, over the needs of all others. As Attorney General, Sessions should be expected to launch a full assault on what remains of the Voting Rights Act. Jim Crow like efforts of voter suppression will go unchallenged by the federal government. White supremacist hate groups will not be investigated by the Justice Department and police will not be held accountable for violent acts.
I use the label neo-Confederate to place the new Presidential administration within the context of the American history. Neo-Confederate reaction first emerged as a national political force after the Civil War, during the failure of Reconstruction. In the years of and immediately following the Civil War the United States government was largely controlled by a political alliance that the great W. E. B. Du Bois called abolition democracy. Abolition democracy was an alliance between abolitionist and anti-slavery Northerners and Southern African Americans against white supremacy. It was committed to ending chattel slavery and incorporating freed blacks into the American body politic. It collapsed in the mid-1870s when the Northern white elite decided that it had more in common economically with the Southern white elite than it did with African Americans.
The demise of abolition democracy brought about an era of reaction that created the regime of Jim Crow. This regime of legalized racial discrimination was only partially overturned when abolition democracy reconstituted itself in the civil rights era. Again, in the 1950s and 1960s Northern elites allied themselves with African Americans and other people of color to oppose what was then the neo-Confederate state governments of the South. This project reached a great pitch in the mid-1960s with the passage of the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts. It could be argued that it reached its zenith in the Presidency of Barack Obama. And it might be said that the failed candidacy of Hillary Clinton represents its second collapse.
One way to describe Democrats like Clinton is that they believe that American elites have more in common with global elites than they do the working class. Clinton advocated free trade, possessed a dodgy record on civil rights, and abandoned the Democratic Party’s base in labor unions. She lost for the same reason that abolition democracy fell apart in the 1870s. Working people of all races stopped supporting it in sufficient numbers to maintain it because they felt that liberal elites did not have their best interests at heart.
Knowing what went wrong in the past and what is wrong with the present can aid us in dreaming of a different future. If we want to live in a world where the neo-Confederate vision of white supremacy and male dominance is relegated to the dust bin of history then we must imagine a world that is structurally different than the one in which we live now. We must dream freedom dreams.
One of my intellectual heroes, the historian Robin Kelley urges us to dream such dreams. Drawing from the teachings of his own mother he challenges “us to imagine a world free of patriarchy, a world where gender and sexual relations could be reconstituted... to see the poetic and prophetic in the richness of our daily lives.” We need to dream of a world without white supremacy before we can build one. Poetry can help us.
Imagination is a Magic carpet
Upon which we may soar
To distant lands and climes
And even go beyond the moon
To any planet in the sky
If we came from
Why can’t we go somewhere there?
Diane Di Prima:
Left to themselves people
grow their hair.
Left to themselves they
take off their shoes.
Left to themselves they make love
share blanket, dope & children
they are not lazy or afraid
they plant seeds, they smile, they
speak to one another. The word
coming into its own: touch of love
on the brain, the ear.
I will not tell you what your freedom dreams should be. I just suggest you should cultivate them. Look to your daily life. When do you feel most fully yourself? Gardening? Cooking? Playing with your children? Riding your bike? At work? At rest? With your partner? Your friends? Alone? At a worship service? Perhaps such moments are good places to start looking for freedom dreams. True freedom is about the transformation of everyday life.
I invite you now to pause and complete the sentence: “I dream of...” Take a moment in silence “I dream of...” [Wait a minute.] Now, if you are comfortable turn to a neighbor and share what you dream of. [Wait a minute.]
Our freedom dreams will only become reality if we share them with each other. If we share them not just inside this building but outside of it with members of our family, our community, and throughout the world.
This sharing is the first step towards action. For action is the next task before religious communities in this time of crisis. I am not your minister. I am just a guest that you have generously invited into your pulpit. I don’t want to overstep my bounds. And so while I want to stir your dreams and push your analysis I suggest that finding your path forward is your collective task, not mine.
I can offer you this advice. Action will not be successful if you act alone. The new President will be at the head of a minority government. Actions that succeed in challenging him will come from mobilizing the majority of the populace. So build networks, resist together, not alone. Reach out together. Forge new relationships and strengthen the ones you already have.
The next four years will be difficult. The neo-Confederate agenda is clear. In order to survive and to act it will be necessary to maintain a strong sense of self and a calm center. The last task before us is simply to take care of ourselves, to nurture the spiritual practices that will sustain us again and again in what I know will be disappointing work. Meditate. Pray. Write in your journal. Cook a nice dinner for your family. Tell your partner that you love them. Hug your kids. Go for long walks on the edges of the city, through autumnal forests, or by frozen river banks. Ride your bike across town. As you nurture yourself you will find that you nurture others.
As you nurture yourself you will find strength for the tasks ahead. You will find companionship. You will find joy and, perhaps, a modicum of peace. You will find yourself dreaming. Let yourself dream. For in our dreams we can see a better world, a world that stirs in our hearts. It is a world that no matter how treacherous the path before us we can yet bring into being. So, let us set ourselves to the tasks ahead. And let us dream freedom dreams. And let us share those dreams with others.
Amen and Blessed Be.
Nov 19, 2016
It has been a week and a half since Donald Trump was elected President. In the past ten days he has begun to make clear the direction of his Presidency. He has articulated a plan for his first hundred days and started to make political appointments. The agenda of his administration is a hard right agenda. Here are ten things I expect from it:
1. President-Elect Trump has made it clear he is committed to the project of building and maintaining white supremacy. The appointment of Stephen Bannon and Jeff Sessions should not be interpreted any other way. Under a Trump administration, there will be an increase in racialized violence and an assault on civil rights legislation. Given his track record, Sessions should be expected to launch a full assault on what remains of the Voting Rights Act. Jim Crow like efforts of voter suppression will go unchallenged by the federal government. White supremacist hate groups will not be investigated by the Justice Department and police will not be held accountable for violent acts.
2. Under a Trump Presidency families will be torn apart and lives irreparably damaged as the President-Elect moves forward with his pledge to round-up between two and three million undocumented migrants. Neighborhoods and police throughout the United States will be further militarized as a result.
3. A Trump administration will likely unleash government suppression of dissent at a level not seen since the 1960s. The rhetoric of law and order and the President-Elect’s complaints about protestors do not bode well for those who oppose him, articulate an alternative leftist vision of American society, or speak out against racialized violence and white supremacy.
4. During a Trump administration any kind of externally triggered crisis, such as a climate disaster or a terrorist attack, will be used as an excuse to further militarize the country and possibly the world. The Bush administration was able to turn the 9/11 attacks into an excuse for launching a disastrous war of choice in Iraq, a massive clampdown on dissent, and the destruction of international human rights norms.
5. The Trump Presidency represents a threat to human existence on two levels. On one level, it will be run by committed climate change deniers at a moment when it is critical that the human species address human fueled global warming. On another level, Trump seems to be in favor of tactical uses of nuclear weapons and supports the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
6. The Republicans plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA). They have not articulated a clear plan to replace it. It is likely that any plan that they do propose to replace it will include an effort to defund or privatize Medicaid. If the Republicans repeal the ACA without a plan to replace it as many as twenty two million people will lose their health insurance. This will lessen the spans of the people’s lives. It will increase the amount of general ill-health in the population, both reducing many individuals’ quality of life and their ability to contribute to the economy.
7. The appointment of reactionary Supreme Court justices who will almost certainly launch a full blown assault on women’s rights, civil rights, and the rights of the LGBT community. President Trump will most likely make equally reactionary appointments to the National Labor Relations Board, the Environmental Protect Agency, and a host of other federal agencies.
8. The announced Trump tax cuts will increase the federal debt by as much as $7 trillion dollars. This will make future spending on social projects difficult. The Bush tax cuts fueled inequality and were the largest source of the federal deficit during the Obama Presidency. The Trump tax cuts will increase inequality and saddle future generations with even more government debt.
9. The increase in deficit spending from tax cuts will be coupled with increased spending on defense. Again, this will increase the deficit and make the funding of future social projects difficult.
10. Throughout the Trump years there will be unprecedented corruption. He has already refused to place his businesses in a blind trust and will instead hand them over to his children. This will create conflicts of interest on a level unseen before. The President-Elect’s anti-corruption rhetoric should not be taken seriously. He is already attempting to escape press scrutiny. His actions fail to either address his own conflict of interest or do anything meaningful to get monied interests out of politics. For example, he does not support overturning Citizens United. Terms limits on Congress would most likely result in the increased power of corporate lobbyists in Washington.
President-Elect Trump was elected by a minority of American voters. He received less votes than Hillary Clinton. More Americans decided not to vote than voted for either of the major candidates. The hard right agenda of the Trump administration does not represent the views of the majority of the American populace. Combating his agenda will require more than just pointing out all of the things that are wrong with it. It will require developing clear alternative demands such as health care for all, full employment, living wages, affordable housing, an expansion of civil rights, good schools, nuclear disarmament, and then organizing people around and for that alternative vision. Let’s not lose heart. Let’s build a better world.
Nov 16, 2016
Today and tomorrow graduate students at Harvard will vote on whether or not to form a union with the UAW. Harvard students will be the first graduate students at a private university to vote on forming a graduate student union after the National Labor Relations Board’s decision in August that teaching and research assistant are employees. I plan to vote for the UAW. I do so enthusiastically.
I do so for several reasons. This morning I offer three of them. The first is that having a union will allow graduate students to negotiate with Harvard collectively instead of as individuals. Without a union contract students who are teaching or working for a professor as a research assistant have no easy recourse when they are mistreated. I know of several students who have been paid egregiously late. In one instance, a student wasn’t paid for multiple months by an administrator he did work for. In another, a teaching fellow wasn’t paid for more than a month after starting teaching. I am confident that having a union contract at Harvard will put an end to such abuses.
Second, Harvard is the first of several private universities where there will be graduate student union elections in the next months. A union victory at Harvard will encourage graduate students at Columbia, Cornell, Yale, and other institutions in their efforts to form unions. By voting for a graduate student union at Harvard I am voting to improve the lives of graduate students not just at Harvard but at other institutions throughout the country.
Third, the election of President Trump will be likely mean that the labor movement itself comes under increasing attack. Voting to form a graduate student union at this time is a statement in support of the labor movement at time when it needs one. Unions have long been a force for fighting inequality. By supporting HGSU-UAW I will be standing with not just graduate students but workers across the country.
Improve the lives of Harvard graduate students, stand in solidarity with graduate students at other institutions, and fight for the wider labor movement, #UnionYes!
Nov 8, 2016
I write this as it becomes apparent that a xenophobe who has openly boasted of sexually assaulting women and been supported by white supremacist organizations is going to become the next President of the United States. Like so many, I am feeling a mixture of emotions: shame, anger, fear, frustration, paralysis... Already the political pundits are talking about what went wrong. Those of us on the left need to start talking about what happens next. But even more importantly than that, we need to start talking about what we are going to do.
There are 73 days until President-elect Trump assumes office. Once that happens it is pretty much anyone’s guess what will occur next. He has promised to round-up 11 million people. Elements within the FBI clearly support him and, my guess is, will probably launch some sort of intensified renewed version of COINTELPRO against Black Lives Matter, the water protectors in North Dakota, and other social movements. Whatever the case, we should expect increased white supremacist violence as Trump’s supporters go after the communities of color and others he has encouraged them to target.
The temptation in the face of this looming disaster will be give into despair and become defensive or isolate ourselves. We must not give into that temptation. Instead, we need to use the next 73 days to build a movement that cannot only protect the communities that will come under increasing assault but point a way forward. This movement must aim beyond recapturing the White House in 2020 or Congress in 2018. Instead, if it is to be effective, it must work to recast the political terrain, claim the moral ground, and, in the coming years, build institutions on the left that are powerful enough to challenge the resurgent white supremacist right.
I will not pretend to fully know how to do this. I can suggest some concrete actions. The first and most important comes from the recognition that we are far more powerful together than when we are alone. We humans are social creatures and we gain strength from each other. If you are not already part of an organized group, join one. If you can’t find one to join then form one. If you’re part of a group already then work to connect your group with others. The goal is ultimately to build a mass movement made up of many groups that can resist the coming Trump regime and push past the dawning national turn to the right.
Second, don’t give into despair. With despair comes immobility and inaction. What we need is action. Find something to give yourself a little hope. In far darker times than these people have dared to dream freedom dreams. Tomorrow, when all seems impossible, ask yourself what is your freedom dream? In it you will find a kernel of hope.
With these two things in mind, here is what I am going to do in the next few days. I am going to reach out to friends and comrades. I am going to let them know that I am committed to the work of movement building. I am going to share with them my freedom dreams and encourage them to share with me their own. I am going to encourage every person I contact to reach out to someone else and share a little of their vision. Perhaps in this way we might spark some of the hope and imagination that we need to get us through and move us beyond.
I will also ask my friends and comrades if they are currently part of a group. If they are not I will suggest that they consider visiting a prophetic religious community. I will make this suggestion not because I want to save their souls but because I understand that in the United States prophetic religious communities have played an important role in sustaining radical alternative visions in times of crisis. This weekend visit a Unitarian Universalist congregation, a radical church in the United Church of Christ like Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, a progressive mosque, a Jewish Renewal synagogue, or a progressive Baptist church like Olivet Institutional Baptist Church in Cleveland. I know my friends will find a little of the vision they need there and more than that they will connect with others looking for a way forward.
These are but first steps. Others, wiser than I, will offer further steps or, perhaps, point a different way that we must take. We have 73 days until President-elect Trump assumes office. That hour is late. The path ahead is dark. Let us begin. Let us dream.
* The phrase freedom dreams comes from Robyn Kelley's Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination.
Oct 14, 2016
I will be returning to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Medford on January 22, 2017. They're right down the block from where I live and I'm looking forward to worshipping with them again.
Oct 7, 2016
I will be back at the First Church in Salem, Unitarian on December 4, 2016. They're a great congregation and if you're in the area you should both check them out and come hang out with me. You can listen to the sermon while relaxing in Nathaniel Hawthorne's old pew!
Sep 20, 2016
I will return to the Unitarian Universalist Society of Grafton and Upton on October 23, 2016.
Sep 15, 2016
Sep 6, 2016
Aug 20, 2016
I will be preaching at the Unitarian Church of Marlborough and Hudson in Hudson, MA on November 6, 2016. I am excited to be in a pulpit the Sunday before the election.
Jun 10, 2016
I will be preaching at the First Unitarian Church of Worcester on November 27, 2016.
Jun 9, 2016
I am presenting a paper today, June 9, at the How Class Works conference at the State University of New York Stony Brook titled "To Grow Our Souls: Grace Lee Boggs's Conceptions of Class." The paper will hopefully soon be turned into a journal article. In the meantime, here's the description I submitted to the conference organizers:
I examine how the philosopher and social activist Grace Lee Boggs conceived of class. Through a careful reading of published writings, private correspondence, and organizational records I argue that over the course of her long career Bogg’s shifting understanding of the nature of class drew from her experiences as highly educated Asian American woman in industrial and then post-industrial Detroit, her involvement in Marxist-Leninist organizations, her studies of Hegelianism, and her engagement with post-colonial and decolonial movements throughout the globe. Towards the end of her life Boggs came to understand the struggle for social change to be primarily a spiritual rather than class struggle.
Born in 1915, Boggs was a founder of the Johnson-Forest Tendency of the Workers Party, a grouping that included C. L. R. James. She spent more than eight decades involved in radical politics, along the way meeting with a diversity of activists that included autoworkers, black power organizers, environmentalists and proponents of liberation theology. A study of her life and activism underscores the contingent fate of class based politics in the United States and how an enduring core commitment to economic justice shifted while the world evolved.
Apr 28, 2016
On Tuesday I announced that I was accepting preaching invitations for June, September and beyond. I have received three. I'll be preaching in Needham, MA (August 28), Rockport, MA (October 9), and Andover, MA (March 26, 2017). I still have plenty of availability in the coming months. It is also exciting that my calendar is starting to fill-up.
Apr 26, 2016
I am currently accepting invitations to preach at congregations for June in the Boston and New York metro areas.* I am also accepting invitations for the 2016-2017 program year. Starting in September I will be available to preach in the Boston, New York, and Washington, DC metro areas. I will be traveling to New York and DC a few times over the next several months for research and would happily add some preaching engagements to my agenda.
I am generally available to provide worship services on the following topics: democracy as a religious practice, the case for reparations for slavery, racial justice, the theology of friendship, and challenges facing Unitarian Universalism. I can prepare sermons on a multitude of other topics by special arrangement.
Since this is a bit of an advertisement, let me sum up my qualifications as a preacher. I have been preaching since 2000 and have led worship services in over 100 congregations throughout the United States and Canada. I served for the parish minister of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland for five years. During my time there the congregation’s membership increased by over 50% and the Sunday morning attendance more than doubled. I have won three awards for my sermons.
*I am only available for June 12 in the New York metro area.
Apr 25, 2016
This blog recently hit the very modest signpost of 10,000 visitors. I thought I would mark the occasion by putting together a list of the ten most popular of my blog posts:
1. We Need to Talk About Lynching
2. A More Beautiful World: The Challenges of Unitarian Universalist Military Chaplaincy (Guest Post by Ian White-Maher)
3. Sermon: Through Eyes That Have Cried
4. Responding to Dan Harper’s Open Letter to the UUMA Board
5. The Current and Future State of Unitarian Universalist Scholarship
6. Marketa’s Czech Fruit Dumplings
7. To Stop Chemical Weapons, Go After the Arms Dealers
8. The Going Rate for Itinerant Ministers
9. Sermon: Present to Each Other
10. Sermon: Over My Head
Apr 15, 2016
I am delighted to announce that I will be preaching at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Upton and Grafton on April 24, 2016. Services start at 10:00 a.m.
Feb 4, 2016
Jan 22, 2016
Jan 5, 2016
Dec 18, 2015
I am pleased to announce two new preaching dates. On January 30, 2016 I will be at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Reading and on April 3, 2016 I will be at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Medford. More dates will be announced soon, including at least one in the New York metro area and another in Arlington, VA.
Oct 14, 2015
I have accepted an invitation to preach three times next spring at the Hopedale Unitarian Parish. I’ll be there March 20, April 17, and May 15. I’m particularly excited about this gig since I recently published an article on the history of Hopedale’s utopian community in the Journal of Unitarian Universalist History, “Recovering Abby Price: Hopedale’s Advocate for Women’s Rights.”
Sep 22, 2015
I will be returning to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Marlborough and Hudson on November 29, 2015 to lead worship there.
Sep 16, 2015
My invitations to preach seem to be coming in twos this autumn. I'll be leading worship at Harvard Divinity School's Unitarian Universalist chapel service on October 16 and the First Church in Salem, Unitarian on November 8.
Sep 1, 2015
Aug 21, 2015
Aug 19, 2015
I am currently seeking preaching engagements for the 2015-2016 congregational year. My schedule is fairly open at the moment but I am particularly interested in finding preaching engagements for the autumn.
Here’s a bit about me, for those who might have stumbled upon this blog post via social media: I am a fourth year PhD candidate in Harvard’s American Studies program. My current academic work focuses on the relationship between the religious and political imaginations. My dissertation “Onward, Christian Soldiers: American Social Movements and the Religious Imagination in the Wake of World War I” is a comparative study between three very different social movements in the early part of the twentieth-century--the Industrial Workers of the World, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Universal Negro Improvement Association and the African Communities League (commonly called the Garveyites).
I have been preaching since 2000 and have won three of the UUA’s sermon awards. Prior to returning to academia I was the parish minister of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland for five years. At this point I’ve led worship at more than fifty Unitarian Universalist congregations in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom and given lectures at several universities and colleges, including Harvard and the University of Chicago. Click here if you’re interested in seeing some examples of my sermons.
In addition to being a preacher, I am also a long time social justice organizer. I co-founded a human rights and solidarity organization in Mexico that worked in Chiapas and Oaxaca called CASA. I have been involved in union organizing campaigns and civil rights work throughout the United States, working most closely with indigenous and immigrant communities.
Aug 18, 2015
I am pleased to announce that I am the reciepent of a 2015 Joseph Gittler Fund for Religion and Ethics grant. I have received $1500 to support the research for my dissertation "Onward, Christian Soldiers: American Social Movements and the Religious Imagination in the Wake of World War I."
Aug 17, 2015
UUA General Assembly video of my award winning sermon "This Land is Your Land?" is now available on You Tube.
Aug 16, 2015
Apr 11, 2015
I am pleased to announce that I'll be preaching at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Andover on May 17, 2015.
Jan 24, 2015
I am delighted to announce two new preaching dates:
March 15, United First Parish Church (Unitarian), Quincy, MA
May 10, The First Church in Salem, Unitarian, Salem, MA.
Jan 13, 2015
I am excited to announce a number of upcoming preaching gigs:
January 18, 2015, Winchester Unitarian Society, Winchester, MA
Febuary 8, 2015, First Parish in Milton—Unitarian Universalist, Milton, MA
Febuary 22, 2015, Unitarian Universalist Church of Medford, Medford, MA
March 1, 2015, Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, CA
March 29, 2015, Theodore Parker Unitarian Universalist Church, West Roxbury (Boston), MA
May 3, 2015, First Unitarian Church of Worcester, Worcester, MA
Nov 25, 2014
In the 1920s and the 1930s the NAACP used to hang a flag outside the window of its offices in Manhattan with the words “A Man Was Lynched Yesterday." The narrative often told in histories of the civil rights movement is that lynching declined and was outlawed in the 1960s. Lynching is often described as extra-legal punishment; that is punishment that takes place outside of the bounds of the law. During the age of lynching the murderers of people of color were frequently exonerated for their actions by courts of law.
The killing of Michael Brown and Darren Wilson’s acquittal fits a pattern. A black man is killed by police, or in Trayvon Martin’s case under legal pretenses, and a court fails to convict the killers. I refuse to believe that the verdicts in all of these high profile cases in recent years have been untainted by white supremacy. I refuse to believe that justice has been served. I want to raise the questions: Is it time to bring back the word lynching to describe the killings of black men by police officers? Can we say that Michael Brown was lynched? What about Trayvon Martin or Tamir Rice?
Lynching is an act of public violence. It is legally sanctioned by the society in which it takes place, it does not matter that this occurs after the fact. Lynchers escape legal punishment for their acts. Michael Brown was killed in public. His killer will not be punished. His body was left in the street for four hours. It was put on public display, images of it appeared throughout the media.
Many people might argue that using the language of lynching to describe what happened to Michael Brown is unnecessarily inflammatory. I disagree. By using the word people who care about justice can signal that justice does not reign in the United States and that the civil rights movement did not bring racial justice to this country. We do not live in a post-racial society. There is a direct line of continuity that can, and should, be drawn from slavery through Jim Crow to the present day.
More than fifty years ago, in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr. made the distinction between unjust and just laws. He wrote, “A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.” King wrote these words to defend his civil disobedience against white supremacy in the 1960s South. A law that consistently acquits police officers of the killing of black men is an unjust law. It is a law that stands outside of any moral law. It must be overturned. Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Amadou Diallo... a man was lynched yesterday.
Nov 19, 2014
Tomorrow I am going to participate in a panel at Collegium on the Current and Future State of Unitarian Universalist Scholarship. Here are the remarks, based largely upon the survey I conducted, I prepared for the conference:
My first impulse when asked to participate on this panel was to survey the current state of Unitarian Universalist scholarship. I am familiar with most of the scholars in our movement. Instead of providing an overview of their work I thought it would be interesting to ask some of my ministerial colleagues who they read. I conducted an on-line survey. Seventy-four people, including a dozen who identified as lay people and another eight who primarily identified as academics, responded. I won’t claim that the survey is scientific but I do think that it tell us something interesting things about the current state of Unitarian Universalist scholarship.
The question “Who are the five most influential Unitarian Universalist or liberal religious thinkers today?” generated a clear consensus. More than half my respondents included Rebecca Parker’s name on the list. Five other scholars were named by at least twenty percent of respondents: Mark Morrison-Reed, Tom Schade, Paul Rasor, Thandeka and Dan McKanan. Three others were offered up by at least ten percent of respondents: Cornel West, Forrest Church, and Sharon Welch.
There are two things that I think are interesting about this list. It is not made of exclusively of academics and there is a disconnect between how influential a scholar is within the academy and how influential they are within our movement. To the first point, Mark Morrison-Reed and Forrest Church are not traditional academics, they are, or were, scholar ministers. Tom Schade is a blogger. Among the academics named only three are, or were, engaged full time in theological education. No one currently on the Starr King faculty makes the list and only one of Meadville’s full-time faculty is there.
Second, I compared my list against google scholar’s citation tracker to see whom amongst is read by the wider academy. Hands down the three most cited Unitarian Universalist scholars were, in order of citation count: Sharon Welch, Anthony Pinn and Rebecca Parker. Interestingly, two of the scholar ministers received about the same number of citations as established academics: Mark Morrison-Reed and Forrest Church. Less surprisingly, the blogger on the list had not been cited by any scholar.
One conclusion that might be drawn from this data is that the site of scholarship within our tradition will continue to be situated both inside and outside of the academy. As Dan mentioned, there are thirty five either recent graduate PhD or doctoral students. Many of us, I suspect, will not pursue jobs within the academy. Those who opt for a non-academic career will not necessarily leave their scholarly work or their ability to influence either Unitarian Universalism or the academy behind. Indeed, they may be uniquely positioned, as Mark Morrison-Reed and Forrest Church were, to have some impact on their academic fields while at the same time nurturing future generations of Unitarian Universalist religious leaders.
Another is that the people we scholars perceive as influential are not necessarily the same people that those in our movement conceive of as influential. For the past decade there have been a variety of blogs that have had transient but significant on the discourse within our liberal religious community. Tom Schade’s The Lively Tradition is the latest iteration of these. In previous years Chris Walton’s Philocrites or Victoria Weinstein’s Peacebang were similarly influential. This suggests a possible project for those of us who are interested in bridging the space between the academy and our wider Unitarian Universalist community: a collective blog.
I am almost out of time. My two other questions were: “What magazines, academic journals, and blogs most impact your work?” and “What is the most important issue for Unitarian Universalist scholars to address?” The responses to both were all over the place. Only three publications--the Christian Century, New Yorker, and the UU World--were named by more than ten percent of respondents. There was no clear consensus as to what issue we should be addressing, though several people did write some variant of “Theology, Theology, Theology.” Mark Morrison-Reed was kind enough to send me a personal e-mail in response and given that I value his opinion as I value few others I thought I would let him have the last word here: “exploring the multicultural history of [Unitarian Universalism] ...is important...
Why is this important? If the UUA is to become more diverse is must figure out what is getting in the way. And it must hold up the history that exist[s] but is yet untold. The various Identity groups need to understand that they have been around and have made a difference. That narrative must be told a a corrective to our misunderstanding of who were really are and might become.”
Nov 10, 2014
Next week I am going to be part of a panel presentation at the UU Collegium on the “The Current and Future State of Unitarian Universalist Scholarship.” To aid in preparations for my portion of the panel I am trying to collect some unscientific survey data. There are only four questions and I would appreciate it if readers of my blog could fill it out and distribute it. I will publish the results on the survey next week. The url is https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/98ZLCLK
Oct 21, 2014
Recently Juan Conatz put a copy of my 2007 article "The Chicago Couriers Union: a lesson for IWW solidarity union organizers" up on libcom. The piece appeared in the Industrial Worker and served as the basis for my “The Chicago Couriers Union: A Case Study in Solidarity Unionism,” which was published in Working USA. You can read the Industrial Worker piece here.
Sep 4, 2014
Sep 3, 2014
I will be preaching at the Unitarian Church of Marlborough and Hudson in Hudson, MA on September 28. Unfortunately, my November 16 date in Northborough, MA has been cancelled.
Aug 31, 2014
Aug 26, 2014
I am finally taking the time to port my old sermons from my time at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland over from the congregation’s site. I will be posting them in chronological order, starting with the oldest, at the rate of about one a day over the next few months. The first one is “The Trouble with Beginnings.” In an effort to get the sermons on-line I am porting them over as they appear on the Society's web site. This means that in several cases they are in need of a bit of copy editing.
Aug 9, 2014
Aug 8, 2014
Jul 28, 2014
One of the books I took with me on my trip to El Salvador last week was Voice of the Voiceless: The Four Pastoral Letters and Other Statements. It is an edited volume of some of Oscar Romero’s most important writings from his tenure as Archbishop of El Salvador. Romero served as Archbishop from 1977 to 1980. He was assassinated after speaking out against the government oppression during the opening months of El Salvador’s Civil War. The day before he was shot, while celebrating mass, he preached a homily, broadcast on radio, in which he said: “In the name of God, then, and in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise daily more loudly to heaven, I plead with you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: put an end to this repression!”
Romero is the patron saint of El Salvadoran democracy. There are portraits of him throughout the offices of the popular education organization, Equipo Maiz, that we visited. The main building of the Ministry of the Exterior, the equivalent of the Secretary of State, has a painted image of his face on the outside that is at least twenty feet high. He features prominently in murals at the airport and in the streets.
He was a gifted pastor who believed in what liberation theologians call the preferential option for the poor. Towards the end of his life he wrote, “the world that the church ought to serve is, for us, the world of the poor.” In the same speech, delivered at the University of Louvain in Belgium scant weeks before he died, “Because the church has opted for the truly poor, not for the fictional poor, because it has opted for those who really are oppressed and repressed, the church lives in a political world, and it fulfills itself as church also through politics. It cannot be otherwise if the church, like Jesus, is to turn itself toward the poor.”
He urged his priests to follow the preferential option for the poor through a religious practice he called “‘companionship’ or ‘following’” (companionship can alternatively be translated as accompaniment). This was the engagement of religious leaders in popular, or mass, organizations both as political activists and religious leaders. Priests who accompanied the poor, which in El Salvador during Romero’s tenure included more than 90% of the population, were to participate critically and politically from “the perspective of gospel values” with organizations actively trying to overthrow an unjust government and economic order.
I had wanted to read Voice of the Voiceless closely for awhile. Romero figures heavily into the article I am writing on Staughton Lynd. Reading Romero in El Salvador seemed the right thing to do. In doing so, I was able to walk a few of the streets that he walked and see some of the things he saw while thinking about his words.
Mostly, I thought about how difficult it is, both for individual religious leaders and for religious communities, to choose the preferential option for the poor. Religious communities by necessity have to raise money to function. Every religious leader I know spends a great deal of time fundraising. This is even true of those--and here I’m thinking of my friends Susan Frederick-Grey, Ian White-Maher, Kay Jorgenson and David Fernandez Davalos--who I think of as having chosen the preferential option for the poor.* The poor, by the nature of their poverty, do not have money--they have other gifts to give. It is to middle income and wealthy people to whom religious leaders must frequently turn for funds. This creates a tension. Genuinely choosing the preferential option for the poor means denouncing the fundamentally unjust nature of capitalism. To denounce capitalism one day and the next have to turn to people who benefit from it in order to raise funds to keep a ministry alive creates a difficult dynamic. Gifted clergy manage to navigate these tensions. They are the exception. Most find it easier to become, as my professor in seminary David Bumbaugh named them, chaplains to the middle class. A few of them, and here I am thinking of the legendary IWW organizer A. S. Embree and the great anti-war and labor activist A. J. Muste, find that in order to choose the preferential option for the poor they must leave formal religious leadership.
Even more challenging is learning how to bridge the wide gap between the experiences of the poor and my own experiences as a person with a great deal of privilege. Most religious leaders have a great deal of privilege. Even if they started out poor they, by the very nature of their being religious leaders, have access to resources and social connections that many of those around them do not. Somewhere, Ivan Illich wrote about this and argued that someone from a middle income background would never be able to really understand the suffering of the poor. Even if they somehow become poor themselves they will still have experiences drawn from a life outside of poverty. (The situation’s a bit like Pulp’s classic song “Common People.”)
This gap was made clear to me not just by the horrid poverty of most people in El Salvador but by something that happened my last full day in El Salvador. One of the things NDLON did while I was with them was hold a series of forums on migration. These forums included testimonies from Efrain and Sandra, two people who had been deported after living several years in the United States. All of the presenters went out to dinner with our delegation. We went to a fairly inexpensive restaurant, my food was less than $3. We paid for the dinners of the two deportees, one is unemployed and probably makes less than $10 a day at her job.
Efrain and Sandra were virtually excluded from our conversation. It was not people did not try to engage them. Efrain sat kitty-corner across from me and both I and the person sitting next to me tried to draw him into our dialogue. The problem was that we had very little in common. Most of the people at the table were day labor organizers and had come to the United States as undocumented immigrants. The plots of their stories were very different from Efrain and Sandra’s stories. They had achieved either legal citizenship or permanent residency. This effectively placed them in a different world from Efrain and Sandra. They were able to return to the United States while Efrain and Sandra were not.
My own life is even further removed from the life of a deportee in El Salvador. I can reach out to people like Efrain and Sandra, I spent a lot of time on Friday talking with Efrain, but at the end of the day I can’t really understand what it is like to live their lives. If I were to move to El Salvador and devote myself to working with deportees or become a day labor organizer in the United States I would always be equipped with the skills and privileges to leave or make a different choice. Even voluntary poverty is just that, voluntary.
This prompts me to wonder: What does the preferential option for the poor really entail? How can it be chosen? Can the separation between people of different social and economic classes ever actually be overcome?
*I am not sure all of them would agree that they operate within that framework. Kay and David certainly identify with liberation theology. I am not sure Ian and Susan do.
Jul 26, 2014
My last full day in El Salvador was so packed that it would take me a few thousand words to do it justice. The delegation held two forums to publicize the findings from NDLON and UCA's joint study on migration, I met with Andreu Oliva (UCA's rector), I conducted two interviews with deportees, and we visited the center where deported migrants arriving from Mexico were processed before being released. Members of the delegation also met with the Vice President.
The visit to the deportation center was jarring. It is the place where children, and parents with children, arrive. Outside the gate waiting for people to step out was a media circus. Whenever a child would be released with his or her guardian a swarm of television journalists would try to get video and a statement. It was clear that no one wanted to talk to the press. Parents and children exited with shirts pulled up over their heads.
When we walked into the center itself we were confronted with suffering. I was particularly struck by the sight of a nursing mother whose baby could not have been more than a month old. Seeing her and her child prompted me to wonder, "How messed up does your life in El Salvador have to be to make you decide that taking your tiny vulnerable child on a harrowing five week journey is better than staying home?" I received my answer in the form of two stories shared with our group.
The first comes from a young man one of us talked to in the deportation center. He was fleeing gang violence. He and two of his friends had operated a bus together. He was the driver, his friends tended to the passengers and collected fares. One day some gang members boarded the bus and killed the friend who collected fares. The young man and his other friend were allowed to live. Shortly afterwards the gang members changed their minds. They let it be known that they planned to kill the two friends because they were witnesses to the murder. When the gang killed the young man's surviving friend he knew he had to leave the country. After failing to make the journey North, the young man called his mother to let her know he was back in El Salvador. She told him it was not safe to come home.
A story told during one of the forums was far worse. It involved a kid, his age was not given, who is now living in Los Angeles. He comes from a rural community. He fled it because gang members started to threaten the kids on his soccer team. He left for the United States when they killed one of his teammates. By the time he got to Los Angeles six kids on his team had been murdered.
Stories like these take the mystery out of the question, "Why are people coming to the United States?" I would leave El Salvador too if I was placed in a similar situation.
I am sure I would also leave El Salvador if I lived with the kind of poverty that we were confronted with at the deportation center. El Salvador is a terribly poor country and its government has insufficient resources for almost everything. The deportation center was not fit for children. There was no place for them to play and no tables on which to change diapers and clean little ones. Social services essentially did not existent. We saw three young boys sitting together. The oldest one was probably about 15 while the youngest may have been only 8. They had tried to make the journey North and were caught in Mexico and brought back. When we saw them they were being interviewed by the only social worker in the facility. When I mentioned this to one of the Salvadorans who studies migration she told me it was the first time she had ever seen a social worker in the facility. Her research takes her there several times a week. I am confident that the kids are faced with few choices now that they are back in El Salvador. They can either join a gang or become potential victims of gang violence. If they somehow escape these two options they will still face a life of grinding poverty. Most Salvadoran families survive on only a few thousand dollars a year. I suspect that ultimately they will choose to try to reach the United States again.
Meanwhile the United States government continues to have its priorities completely wrong. President Obama is currently asking for 3.7 billion dollars to deal with the influx of children into the country. Much of this money is to be spent on border enforcement. The entire budget of the Salvadoran government is only about 500 million dollars more than this. If the United States government had its priorities in order it could spend its money on economic and human development in El Salvador instead. I am sure that would have a greater pact on slowing the flow of migrants than money.
Jul 24, 2014
One of the things that has most surprised me about this trip is the level of access we have had to high ranking government officials. Today we met with both the wife of the Vice President, Elda Tobar de Ortiz, and Liduvina Magarin, Viceministra para los Salvadorenos en el Exterio (the equivalent of the undersecretary of State). I know our access is due to the leadership of NDLON's close ties to the FMLN. Still, the experience of having multiple hour meetings with government officials is, to say the least, novel.
During our meeting with Elda Tobar de Ortiz we learned quite a bit about the deplorable state of El Salvador's public services. There is, for instance, no foster care program and nothing really akin to Child Protective Services. The best the government can do when a child is in an unsafe or abusive situation is place them in an institution. This means that the government of El Salvador is utterly unprepared to receive the influx of children headed its way. Currently, about 400 minors, accompanied and unaccompanied, are returned each week from Mexico, en route to the United States. The US government has told the government of El Salvador to prepare for 20,000 by the end of the year. However, the US government is providing El Salvador with absolutely no aid to deal with the returning children. The goverment of El Salvador lacks the the resources to handle the situation, its annual budget is only about 500 million more than that of Harvard.
Liduvina Magarin told us about what El Salvador is doing to advocate for its citizens in the United States and described some of the horrors people face when crossing Mexico. She spoke to us about a man who had his organs harvested, young girls who were pregnant with their rapists' children, and the burns women suffered as a result of being driven around locked in the trunk of a car under the hot sun. It is all further proof that the immigration system brutalizes and dehumanizes people.
Jul 23, 2014
Yesterday NDLON held a forum, in conjunction with researchers from the University of Central America, at the University of El Salvador on the realities of deportees. The campus was tropical and lovely. It was also a visceral reminder of why people might want to migrate to the United States. Harvard, where I am graduate student, is the richest academic institution in the world. As a student there I am surrounded by opulence, there are chairs in the Divinity School Library that cost several thousand dollars and expensive art can be found throughout the campus. The University of El Salvador resembles a poorly maintained American public high school. While the forum took place a group of students were painting the building. One of the truths about migration is that until the wealth disparities between the United States and Central America are significantly reduced people are going to continue to do whatever they can to migrate. The opportunities in the United States are a lot greater. As someone our delegation, himself a migrant put it, "the reality is you live so much better once you get to the United States."
The forum itself focused on releasing data from a study that NDLON commissioned on migration. It was conducted by researchers in the sociology department at the University of Central America. They report that between 2011 and 2013 57,000 people were deported back to El Salvador. They all discovered that there were three major reasons for migration: fear of gang violence, poverty, and a desire to be reunited with family members.
The forum was attended by about 60 people and the stigma around deportation was really made visible when one of the researchers from the University of Central America asked the audience two questions. The first question he asked, "Who has a relative in the United States?" Everyone raised a hand in response. When he asked, "Who knows someone who has been deported?," no one raised a hand. This is simply unbelievable. The sheer number of deportees means that almost everyone must know someone who has been deported.
After we left the forum, the realities of the violence in El Salvador were made a little clearer to me. Our van broke down in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere. The delegation organizers, both of whom are Salvadoran, called cars to pick us up immediately. It turned out that we had broken down in gang territory. It looked like an isolated stretch of rural highway surrounded by coffee trees. The only way to stay safe was to keep moving. It was especially important that the three white people in delegation leave as soon as possible. Our presence put everyone else at risk.
Later in the day one of the Salvadorans shared a story about his father's funeral, which took place last month. The funeral was huge, over a thousand people attended, and it was too difficult to take all of the flowers to the cemetery at the time of the burial. The next day when the family went to take the flowers to the cemetery they learned that it was gang territory and that had to pay the gang a bribe if they wanted to bring flowers to their father's grave.
The level of violence in El Salvador is now worse than it was during the Civil War. By closing our borders to people coming from El Salvador we are closing our borders to refugees fleeing violence, often fleeing for their lives. People in such a situation will do whatever they can to find a better life for themselves and their families.
Deporting people back to El Salvador is further destabilIzing the country. It often cuts families off from their major source of income, the money migrants send back to their home communities, and in doing so increases poverty. The stigma that the deportees face make them targets for recruitment by gangs, thus increasing the cycles of violence. Until the government of the United States recognizes these two intertwined realities there will be no solution to the migration crisis.
Jul 22, 2014
Our day started with a presentation by the American sociologist Elizabeth Kennedy. She has interviewed 322 deported children, I'll post some stuff about the data is she shared with us later. Suffice to say it was pretty startling.
The most intense portion of the day was our visit to the airport to meet deportees as they got off the plane from the U.S. The center where the deportees are processed is a squat cinder block building a few hundred meters from the main airport terminal. The building has two doors, one for the staff and visitors to come and go and the other where the deportees to exit. The staff and visitor door is made from the kind of nice plate glass that one expects in modern office buildings. The deportees' exit is crude chainlink. The cinder block to one side of it is smeared with ink left by deportees who wiped it with the leftovers from fingerprinting.
Inside the building we met with Jenny Vazquez, the director of the return center. She told us that deportees go through a three part process when they arrive in El Salvador. First, they are processed by migration and, if necessary are examined by a medical professional. Second, they speak with the police. Third, they are given back their belongings. She also told us that the center is set up to process 120 deportees a day. It receives one plane a day, except Wednesday when it receives two. On that day the center processes up to 240 deportees.
Today there were 45 women and 69 men. After meeting with Jenny Vazquez, we were taken three at a time to see them in the holding area. It resembled a worn out Greyhound bus terminal. There were beaten up plastic chairs in several colors, bad fluorescent lights and very little space. I think I saw 70 or 80 people in that area. I was surprised by how young most of them were. They were clearly traumatized and exhausted. I felt like a voyeur. I also felt like my humanity and their's was lessened.
Shortly afterwards we went outside to wait for people as they were released. The Sun was fierce and there was very little shade. People were release with their belongings, all of which could fit into a beaten up red mesh drawstring bag. One of the deportees shared her story with me and a couple of other people from my group. She was in her early twenties and had just been deported after 10 months in the United States. She spent half of her time in a detention center in Texas. It was privately run. She worked from 6 in the morning until 3 in the afternoon in the laundry. She made a dollar a day. Prior to being detained she lived in Los Angeles for 5 months with family members. She shared with us that she has been manacled for the entire flight from Texas to El Salvador. She also told us about her trip from El Salvador to the United States. She was sexually harassed and saw two young men die en route. They drowned crossing a river. The only family she had in El Salvador were her grandparents and she had just learned that her grandfather recently died of a heart attack. She arrived with no money and no idea what she was going to do next.
We talked to several other deportees. Three of them, all men, shared that they had left El Salvador because they were being threatened and blackmailed by gangs. Now that they were back they feared for their lives.
We left the deportees after an hour. I I left with a mixture of emotions: anger, shame, sorrow... How is it human beings you can be so cruel to each other? How do we fail to see each others suffering? Why do we inflict such pain on each other? Why are we so afraid of each other? We need to answer these questions. We need compassion.
Yesterday we met with Sigfrido Reyes, the President of El Salvador's National Assembly. The meeting itself was a testimony in to the distorted power relations between the United States and Central America. It is almost impossible for me to imagine John Boehner, Reyes's equivalent in the United States, taking an hour to meet with a delegation of human rights activists from another country.
Reyes is a former FMLN guerilla commander and he spent more time listening than talking. When he did speak he mostly spoke abput the difficult political situation in the U.S. around immigration politics. He didn't seem to know a lot about the intricacies of US immigration law, which some people found disappointing.
Today we are holding a press conference to announce the findings from a study on the impact and causes of immigration in El Salvador. The study was conducted by faculty at the UCA and throughout the rest of the week we will be holding town halls to share its findings. This afternoon we are heading to the airport to interview people who have been deported after they get off the plane.
Jul 21, 2014
I arrived in El Salvador a few hours ago and was met at the airport by two gracious Salvadoran activists, Paula and Mila. Paula works with the Salvadoran organization Equipo de Maiz, a group that focuses on popular education. Mila is part of an organization that is based in the United States that works with the Salvadoran population there. On the way from the airport to Equipo de Maiz's office they gave a bit of background information on the situation of Salvadoran migrants. One thing I was surprised to learn that there are almost 3 million Salvadorans living outside of El Salvador, the majority of them in Los Angeles. El Salvador itself only has a population of about 8 million, which suggests something of the dynamic that migration plays in the country.
When I arrived at Equipo de Maiz I discovered to my delight that they are very inspired by the legacy of Oscar Romero. There is a full audio library of his homilies and several portraits to him. There are also ample materials celebrating the FMLN and the 1992 Peace Accords.
The major project of the moment is one I am better equipped to observe than participate in. The other members of the group all belong to different immigrant rights organizations in the United States. They are creating popular education materials to help immigrants in the US know their rights and understand the history of immigration laws. The materials will be a mixture of text and cartoon images. We leave very shortly to meet with the National Assembly.
Jul 19, 2014
I am starting pack for my trip to El Salvador. I have two long plane rides and so I am anticipating having a fair chunk of time to read. I have compiled a small of list texts to bring with that will either provide me with historical and political background or aid me in the theological reflection.
Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal, Aviva Chomsky
Aftermath: Deportation Law and the New American Diaspora, Daniel Kanstroom
Witness to War: A Doctor’s Moving and Urgent Story, Charles Clements
Ignacio Ellacuria: Essays on History, Liberation, and Salvation, ed. Michael Lee
Voice of the Voiceless: The Four Pastoral Letters and Other Statements, Oscar Romero
The first two are some of the better recent books on immigration. Clements is a Harvard professor who served as the Executive Director of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee for a several. He spent his politically formative years in El Salvador. Ellacuria and Romero are both important Catholic liberation theologians. Both were assassinated by right-wing thugs during the civil war. I also plan to bring a good Spanish dictionary, I’m fond of Larousse, and Enrique Vila-Matas’s Chet Baker piensa en su arte; Relatos selectos. I realize that’s rather a lot of books for such a short trip but we’re going to be based out of a hotel and I’d like to have useful tools on hand preparing notes and, possibly, blog posts.
Jul 17, 2014
Last week the Unitarian Universalist Association’s International Office and Congregational Advocacy and Witness Director asked me to represent the UUA on a delegation being organized by the National Day Laborers Organizing Network (NDLON) to El Salvador. I leave on Monday. The trip is promoted by the increasing number of children attempting to migrate to the United States and the abusive, outrageous and immoral treatment they have experienced at the hands of the Border Patrol. The goal of the trip is to better understand the causes for their migration and the horrors that they experience when they migrate to the United States, during the deportation process and when they return to their native country. We will be taking testimony from people who have been deported and organizing public town halls to raise awareness about their plight and the need for investment in reintegration initiatives.
I hope that my participation in the delegation will equip me to aid in the effort to shift the conversation about immigration. It is currently rooted in fear. It needs to be rooted in compassion. Immigrants are not abstractions. They are human beings. They suffer the same as anyone else and deserve to be treated with dignity and kindness. The cores of the Western religious traditions--Christianity, Judaism, and Islam--all revolve around loving one’s neighbor. Good hearted religious people, whatever their political alignment, should be reminding America’s politicians of this at every moment of the immigration debate.
When I get back I will be preaching and writing about my observations in El Salvador. On August 17, I will give a sermon, “Through Eyes that Have Cried,” at the First Parish in Lexington. I will also be working with one of the editors at N+1 on a piece and will be looking for other venues for my reflections as well. I am not bringing a computer to El Salvador but if I can find an internet cafe I will post about the delegation as it unfolds.
Jul 10, 2014
I have been asked by the Unitarian Universalist Association to serve as the association's representative on a delegation organized by the National Day Laborers Organizing Network later this month to El Salvador to take testimony from undocumented immigrants who have been deported back to that country. While there we will also be trying to understand why people, particularly children, are leaving El Salvador for the United States. This means that I've had to revised my preaching schedule for my time at First Parish in Lexington. Here's the revised schedule:
Over My Head
July 13, 2014
When, where and how do we find the divine? What is it? Is it even meaningful to speak in such terms?
One Soul, Two Bodies
July 20, 2014
Drawing from Aristotle and Emerson’s insights, we will consider, in this sermon on ethical living, the role friendship can play in helping us live virtuous lives.
Unknown Visions of Love
July 27, 2014
Universalist theology exists outside of organized Unitarian Universalism. What does it look like? What might Unitarian Universalists learn from it?
Through Eyes that Have Cried
August 17, 2014
At the end of July Rev. Bossen is serving as the Unitarian Universalist Association’s representative on a delegation to meet with undocumented immigrants who have been deported to El Salvador. In this sermon he will reflect on his experiences in El Salvador and the moral imperative for immigration reform.
...It’s a spiritual thing
August 24, 2014
In an experimental worship service, we will celebrate the transformative spiritual power of music and dance. Our special musical guest has been a DJ since 1991, has records out on four different labels and is the house music buyer for Capital City Records. He has had residencies at clubs in Washington, DC, Chicago, New York and several other major cities throughout the United States. Of the music he plays he says, quoting James Brown, “Bobby, I don’t know, but whatever I play, it’s got to be funky.”
Everything I Needed to Know I Learned in the Labor Movement
August 31, 2014
We will celebrate Labor Day weekend with a service honoring labor in the pulpit. There will be a special collection benefiting the work of a local labor organization.
Jul 8, 2014
I have been invited to participate in a panel on "The Present and Future State of Unitarian Universalist Scholarship" at the autumn 2014 Collegium conference. While I have my own thoughts on the subject, I am eager to learn what readers of this blog think of it.
Jul 7, 2014
My paper “With Two Lamps to Guide Me; Staughton Lynd as Theologian” has been accepted by the Unitarian Universalist Collegium: An Association for Liberal Religious Studies for presentation at their November 19-22, 2014 conference. Here’s my proposal:
Staughton Lynd is an American historian, social justice activist, labor lawyer, and, I argue, theologian. He was the only significant white organizer of the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project, was deeply involved in protests against the Vietnam War, and has played an important role in theorizing the problems and potentials of the contemporary American labor movement. Despite his own profession of faith as a religious person, and frequent deployment of religious tropes, little scholarly attention has been paid to how he proceeds as religious thinker. In this paper I track Lynd’s development from his childhood involvement in Ethical Culture through his work as a Quaker prison abolitionist in Youngstown, Ohio.
I suggest that Lynd functions as what Sallie McFague calls a parabolic theologian. As McFague presents it, parabolic theology “is not a theory to be applied to literary genres of the Christian tradition but a kind of reflection that arises from them.” It resides primarily in works of literature, stories, poems, autobiographies and, most importantly, parables. Parabolic theology is “embodied thinking, thought which cannot finally abstract from the person who is doing the thinking.” Parabolic theologians are not known, primarily, by what they say but rather how they live and what they do. Lynd is a parabolic theologian exemplar. Throughout his career his consistent emphasis has been on pairing what he terms “exemplary action” with theoretical reflection.
Lynd’s own theological interests center on the Latin American tradition of liberation theology. He pays particular attention to the liberation theology concepts of the preferential option for the poor and accompaniment. He has found these two concepts to be essential for his own work as an activist and has theorized how they can help other activists engage in more authentic and effective work.
The paper is built around the discussion of some of Lynd’s key parables, how they relate to his activism and what they suggest about an important religious concern of his, the kingdom of God. In sharing it at Collegium I hope to prompt Unitarian Universalists to see the work of this religious humanist as a resource in our own strivings to create a justice filled world.
Jul 5, 2014
Tomorrow I am preaching at First Parish in Lexington on reparations for slavery (services start at 10:30 a.m.). My sermon is titled "The River May Not Be Turned Aside." I am using two texts. The first is from Deuteronomy and the second is from Frederick Douglass's "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?"
If your brother, a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you, he shall serve you for six years, and in the seventh year you shall send him forth free from you. And when you send him forth free from you, you shall not send him forth empty-handed. You shall surely provide him from your flock, from your threshing floor, and from your vat, you shall give him from what the Lord, your God, has blessed you. And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord, your God, redeemed you; therefore, I am commanding you this thing today.
from “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all the other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy--not a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.
May 25, 2014
This summer I will be serving the First Parish in Lexington as their summer preacher. They have me leading services seven Sundays in July and August. Two of the highlights that I have planned are an avant garde service featuring the musical stylings of DC house and funk great DJ Lokee (click here for a mix) and another inviting labor into the pulpit. I am particularly excited about my July 6th service, celebrating the Fourth of July, which will include reflections on the continuing relevance of Frederick Douglass’s magnificent speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July.”
Feb 20, 2014
Feb 7, 2014
Two members of the Russian punk group Pussy Riot are currently on an international tour. Their recent stop has gotten a lot of press. Wednesday they appeared at a Amnesty International Benefit concert in New York alongside a host of celebrities. Their tour has provided them with an opportunity to criticize the Russian government under Vladimir Putin and its intolerance of dissent and GLBT rights.
I am glad that they are bringing attention to the lack of freedom in Russia. But I am afraid that the laudatory celebration of them by the news media in the United States is serving another purpose. It suggests that somehow the United States is a bastion of free speech and tolerant of dissent. This is not true. Obama’s America does not tolerate dissent, not real dissent anyway. Since 2012 multiple anarchists, four in Seattle and one in New York, have been jailed for refusing to cooperate with grand juries. In echoes of the McCarthy era, the anarchists have been asked to provide the names other activists and then thrown in jail when they have refused to do so. And, of course, there is the well publicized case of Edward Snowden who, after exposing the sweeping extent of illegal government spying, had to seek asylum in Putin’s Russia.
The attention that Pussy Riot is receiving should then be a reminder that governments are most inclined to tolerate dissent when it appears elsewhere. It is politically convenient for Putin to provide Snowden with asylum. It makes him appear more tolerant of dissent. And the same is true with Obama. It is politically convenient for the United States to welcome Pussy Riot. It strengthens the myth that this country is a haven for free thought and freedom of speech. That is not true of Obama’s America, just as it is not true of Putin’s Russia.
Jan 4, 2014
On Sunday January 5 I begin a two month term as the sabbatical minister of the First Religious Society in Carlisle. I will be preaching January 5th, 12th, and 19th and February 2nd, 9th, and 16th. This Sunday's sermon is entitled "Let's Have a Jubilee" and calls for the elimination of debt based upon the biblical concepts of sabbatical and jubilee.
Nov 15, 2013
Yesterday Cambridge police arrested and assaulted Jason Freedman during the course of a legal IWW picket in Harvard Square. There was a march against police brutality today that I wasn't able to go to. So, I wrote a letter to the Mayor and Police Commissioner instead. I'm posting it here in case anyone wants to use it as a template for writing their own letter.
Dear Mayor Davis and Commissioner Haas:
I am writing to protest last night’s outrageous actions by the Cambridge Police Department. As you know, yesterday evening’s legal picket against the union busting Insomnia Cookies was broken up by Cambridge police. Video footage from the picket suggests that while the police attempted to disburse the protestors they assaulted Jason Freedman in the process of arresting him. Freedman has since been charged with disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer. This despite the fact that he was the one assaulted! Such disgraceful behavior on the part of the police cannot be tolerated. The police are supposed to protect the community not, as appears to be the case, intervene on the side of management during a labor dispute.
You have the power to right this wrong. All charges against Freedman should be dropped immediately. The police officers involved should be suspended pending investigation. Police brutality is simply unacceptable. Cambridge can do better than this.
Rev. Colin Bossen
cc: Boston Globe, Boston Herald, Harvard Crimson, Boston IWW
Nov 2, 2013
Sep 20, 2013
I am excited to announce that I will be preaching at the Theodore Parker Unitarian Universalist Church in West Roxbury, MA on December 1, 2013. Theodore Parker has long been one of my heroes and I am delighted to have the opportunity to fill the pulpit where he first made a name for himself as a preacher.
Sep 12, 2013
I will be preaching and presiding at the October 18 service of the Harvard Unitarian Universalist Ministry for Students. The service is at noon in Andover Hall. It is open to the public so if you're on campus please consider yourself invited.
Aug 17, 2013
Jul 10, 2013
I am excited to announce that I will be preaching in East Lansing on March 16, 2014 at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greater Lansing. I grew up in the congregation and I haven't had the chance to preach there in close to a decade. I am really looking forward to the opportunity!
Jun 29, 2013
Feb 28, 2013
The UUA's new meditation manual Falling into the Sky is out now. I have two pieces in it: "Magical Thinking" and "Benediction." You can order it through the UUA Bookstore. I am sure it is on sale at the bookstore at 25 Beacon St. in Boston, MA and will be available at the UUA's General Assembly for the next few years.
Feb 10, 2013
Jan 18, 2013
Jan 4, 2013
I am preaching at the First Church in Salem, Unitarian this Sunday (1/6/13). My sermon is called “Let’s Make it a Jubilee Year!” If you’re in the area I hope you’ll consider stopping by. This will be my first entirely new sermon since I started my doctorate. It will focus on the abolition of debt as religious practice.
Dec 1, 2012
I have three new preaching dates. I will be preaching on January 6 at the First Church in Salem, MA, on February 3, at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashua, NH and, on February 8, at the Harvard Unitarian Universalist Ministry for Students at Harvard Divinity School.
Nov 24, 2012
I am preaching at the Universalist Church of West Hartford tomorrow (Nov. 25) at 9:00 a.m. and 11:00 a.m. My sermon will be a version of my award winning text "Unknown Visions of Love." If you're in the area you should come by!
Oct 6, 2012
The monthly publication the Heights Observer just published a nice piece about my ministry in Cleveland and my move to Harvard. You can read "Bossen departs as UUSC minister; interim minister takes the helm" on-line.
Aug 26, 2012
I will be preaching at Tuft University's Protestant Worship Service at 7:00 p.m. on the following Sundays: September 23, October 28 and November 18. Stay tuned for the service topics.
Aug 16, 2012
The texts for about a dozen sermons from 2011 to 2012 are now on-line. Look for more in the coming weeks.
Aug 11, 2012
I am in the process of constructing and launching this web-site. Over the next few weeks I will be posting the texts of many of my sermons and re-starting a regular blog. In the meantime you can browse my published writings or visit the sermon archives of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland.