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.