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Mar 18, 2020

March 2020 Board Report Responding to COVID-19

I have been asked by a couple of people to make Board report for the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston public and share it on my blog. I have included a modified version of it below. I have substituted staff positions for names and redacted confidential information. Hopefully, other ministers and congregations will find it helpful in thinking how they might address the current crisis.

March 17, 2020

Dear Board and Staff:

These are strange and extraordinary times. The most important things we can do during them are to take appropriate safety precautions, take care of ourselves and all the members of our community, avoid panicking, connect with each other virtually, and think strategically.

The Board will be meeting virtually on Wednesday. The staff is planning, for the time being, to continue to work from the Museum District campus so that we can create a high-quality online worship experience for the congregation. We are also working on developing a plan to deliver online worship services in the event that it becomes necessary for us to shelter in place. [Music Director] has a home music studio and [A/V Tech] is able to produce the service on his laptop. Starting on March 17th, the ministers will be taking cameras to and from work so that we have appropriate equipment to record sermons at home if we need to.

This letter essentially serves as a substitute for my monthly Board report. It outlines my current thinking and the steps I believe the church should be taking to best serve our community and weather this difficult time. There are ten things I believe we should either assume or be planning for:

1. At least six months of online church.

We need to do all we can to help flatten the curve. The state of Texas is urging for the closure of schools for the rest of the school year. Many colleges and universities have switched to online classes through the end of the school year. The best epidemiological modeling I have seen seems to indicate that the peak of the pandemic should hit in about July--this was hinted at in the President’s most recent statement. If that is true, then we probably will not able to reopen either of the campuses for Sunday services until September.

We are planning four sets of online programs:

1. An online Sunday service, delivered via YouTube and made available on Sundays at 10:30 a.m. We have opted against streaming services because we believe that [A/V Tech] can produce a higher quality YouTube program than a livestreamed service. [Senior Minister] will be primarily responsible for this program.

2. An online Sunday gathering place, curated by [Director of Religious Education]. The online gathering place will be an opportunity for members of the congregation to connect virtually. It will include an intergenerational opportunity for check-in, reflection, and song. It will most likely take place over Zoom. It may require the recruitment of some number of volunteer facilitators. [Director of Religious Education] will be ultimately responsible for this program.

3. A midweek video message from the senior minister, delivered via YouTube and made available on Wednesdays. These videos will be short conversations between me and an expert or community leader who can help the congregation better understand how to deal with the crisis. The first video will go live on March 25th and feature Dr. Kim Waller, the epidemiologist and member of the congregation who had originally planned to offer us a forum on March 22nd. [Senior Minister] will be primarily responsible for this program.

4. A midweek online space for religious education families curated by [Director of Religious Education]. She will be using Zoom to facilitate and may ultimately decide to recruit volunteers in order to host multiple groups at the same time. [Director of Religious Education] will be ultimately responsible for this program.

2. Significant financial hardship for the church.

Many economists now believe that the economy is in recession. The speed at which the virus that causes COVID-19 has spread suggests that this will be no ordinary recession. I served the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland during the Great Recession of 2007-2009. During that recession, we experienced an 18-month lag in financial impact on the church. I believe that the financial impact of this recession will be much more rapid. To give just two examples, we will likely lose all of rental income for the remainder of the fiscal year and for part of the 2020-2021 fiscal year and see a dip in our weekly offering income.

I will submit a modified budget for the rest of the fiscal year tomorrow morning based on our revenue and expenses through March 17, 2020. I am also submitting a budget for the 2020-2021 that takes the current financial crisis into account in projections. [redacted]

I believe that we should attempt to keep everyone who works for First Church employed through the duration of the crisis. The modified budget I am submitting includes the following provisions:

-- a freeze on all program spending effective immediately;
-- the continuation of pay for hourly employees per their regularly scheduled hours;
-- the deferral of all non-critical maintenance on either campus that cannot be completed by [Sexton].

The budget I am submitting for the fiscal year 2020-2021 will:

-- anticipate significant drops in pledge, offering, and rental income;
-- freeze all staff salaries at current levels;
-- cut programs at both campuses;
-- use the Reserve Fund to maintain staff levels for growth.

3. The possibility that some members of the congregation will get sick or even die. The assumption that many of them will experience financial hardship.

[Assistant Minister] has been tasked with developing a plan to connect with the most vulnerable members of the congregation on a regular basis. This plan will include how we might safely organize food delivery for them in the event they need it and hold online memorial services if necessary. It will also include plans for distribute aid, if requested, for members in need.

4. The possibility that the staff will be confined to their houses.

We need to prepare for the possibility that the staff will have to work from home. In the event that occurs, [Business Administrator] and [Bookkeeper] have been tasked with figuring out how to run our financial operations remotely. We are also preparing to create online services remotely and make sure that the building will be safe in the event that no one is able to get to into it. [Business Administrator] and [Senior Minister] will be taking ultimate responsibility for developing this plan.

5. The possibility that some members of the staff will get sick.

In the event that staff members become incapacitated, I am designating the following chains of succession:

Senior Minister:
1. [Senior Minister]
2. [Assistant Minister]
3. [Minister Emeritus]

Assistant/Campus Minister
1. [Assistant Minister]
2. [Campus Program Staff Person]
3. [Senior Minister]

Business Administrator:
1. [Business Administrator]
2. [Bookkeeper]
3. [Minister Emeritus]

Director of Religious Education:
1. [Director of Religious Education]
2. [Religious Education Assistant]
3. [Membership and Communications Coordinator]

Membership and Communications Coordinator:
1. [Membership and Communications Coordinator]
2. [Administrative Assistant]
3. [Assistant Minister]

A/V Technician:
1. [A/V Technician]
2. [Contractor]
3. [Membership and Communications Coordinator]

Music Director:
1. [Music Director]
2. [Accompanist]
3. [Volunteer Musician]

Facilities (Museum District)
1. [Sexton]
2. Volunteer Designated by the Board
3. Volunteer Designated by the Board

Facilities (Thoreau)
1. Volunteer Designated by Campus Advisory Team
2. Volunteer Designated by Campus Advisory Team
3. Volunteer Designated by Campus Advisory Team

6. We should use this as an opportunity to build our online presence.

The global health emergency means that people will be more online than ever before during this time of crisis. We will be doing everything we can to expand the congregation’s social media and online footprint. [Membership and Communications Coordinator] has been tasked with simplifying the front page of our web page so that it only includes the following:

-- embedded video content of the most recent online services and midweek message;
-- links to archived video content;
-- donation tab;
-- information about joining the congregation;
-- information and links to online programming;
-- links to social media channels (Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram);
-- a subscription button for our newsletter;
-- links to recent news;
-- a links to the current website, which will be archived until such time as we return to physical services.

As starting metrics, I note the following:

Newsletter -- [aaa] subscribers
Church Twitter -- [bbb] followers
1st 24 hour views of an online church service -- [ccc] views ; [ddd] likes
YouTube -- [eee] subscribers
Facebook (MD) -- [fff] Likes

And, I’m setting the following goals for September:

Newsletter -- [aaa*1.33] subscribers
Church Twitter -- [bbb*1.33] followers
1st 24-hour views of an online church service -- [ccc*1.33] views
YouTube -- [ccc*2] subscribers
Facebook (MD) -- [fff*1.33] Likes

[Membership and Communications Coordinator] has also been tasked with developing an online path to membership. Before the pandemic hit we had [ggg] people planning to join during the month of March. Our goal is that by September all [ggg] of these people will have joined.

7. We should be prepared to move immediately to two services at both campuses when we resume services.

We should be prepared to do this for two reasons:

a) We will want to encourage social distancing for some period of time after the pandemic dies down;
b) We should anticipate pent up demand for physical community once it is safe to gather again.

[Assistant Minister] has been tasked with developing the plans for two services at both campuses.

8. As difficult as it seems, we need to think strategically about the long-term growth of the congregation.

[Redacted]

9. We should, for the immediate future, act as if there is no federal or state government.

The United States government and the state of Texas have shown a frighteningly absences of leadership during this global health emergency. We cannot rely upon them for leadership. Instead, we will be looking to the following authorities and individuals for guidance on how to respond to the crisis:

a) The City of Houston and Harris County. Both Mayor Turner and Judge Hidalgo have been frank about the city and county’s lack of preparedness to deal with the health crisis. They have urged urgent action and reasonable counsel. We will follow their recommendations as to how religious communities should be responding to the crisis.

b) The governors of New York and Ohio. Both have shown significant foresight and appear to be ahead of the curve on how to contain the virus.

c) The Unitarian Universalist Association. President Susan Frederick-Gray has proven herself again and again to have a level head in a crisis and to demonstrate compassionate and thoughtful leadership--requesting that churches close last Sunday. Her decision to discourage over 100,000 people from attending worship almost certainly saved lives.

d) The Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization. The response of the CDC has been a national embarrassment. The current President gutted their funding, a move which undoubtedly slowed their response to the pandemic and did much to create the current crisis. However, the CDC now seems to be getting its footing and offering useful advice. The WHO has offered useful advice throughout the pandemic.

e) [names of members of the congregation who are health professionals, redacted]

10. We should prepare for the possibility that the current President will use the pandemic as an opportunity to consolidate power.

The current President has shown himself, again and again, to have autocratic and anti-democratic politics. Both global and national history has repeatedly shown that such individuals rarely let a crisis go to waste. They often use crises to implement policies or pursue agendas that they would never be able to put in place during normal times. The national crisis of September 11th was used by the then resident of the White House to: effectively destroy the post-World War II global (or at least European and United States) human rights regimes; launch an unnecessary war of choice that destabilized an entire region of the world and cost millions of lives; and sideline or silence domestic dissent and social movements.

In sum, at such a moment of crisis, we are called to remember the prophetic function of our religious community even while we focus on the all-important tasks of pastoral care and stewardship before us. In light of this, [Assistant Minister] and I will continue to maintain a free pulpit. We will continue to work with our partner organizations to, as best we can, dismantle white supremacy, address the climate crisis, foster democracy, and build the beloved community.

love,

the Rev. Dr. Colin Bossen

CommentsCategories Ministry Tags First Unitarian Universalist Church, Houston COVID-19 YouTube Recession Social Media Sylvester Turner Houston Lina Hidalgo New York Ohio Texas Susan Frederick-Gray Unitarian Universalist Association Center for Disease Control World Health Organization Kim Waller Donald Trump 9/11

Mar 9, 2020

Sermon: Now is the Time

as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, March 8, 2020

This month in worship we are focusing on compassion. Rev. Scott got us started last week with a sermon in which he affirmed the psychotherapist David Richo’s claim, “Compassion is love’s response to pain.”

“Sympathy is the ability to recognize that a person is in pain,” Rev. Scott told us. “And empathy is the ability to... experience some [of] their feelings,” he continued. But compassion is putting “those thoughts and feelings into action.” We demonstrate compassion when we move beyond simply worrying about other people, or the state of the world, and try to do something about it.

Compassion is a core Unitarian Universalist value. Our tradition claims that love is the most powerful force in human life. Love beats hate. In theist terms, we argue, God is love. Love is God. God loves everyone, no exceptions. In humanist terms, we recognize that love, more than anything else, is what knits human life together. And as Unitarian Universalists we strive we be a loving community, instantiating among ourselves what Josiah Royce, and then Martin Luther King, Jr. after him, called the beloved community. We struggle to be a space where everyone, without exception, can find their place and be encouraged, and supported, in living into their full human potential. And then we work to take that vision of the beloved community into the wider world.

Compassion, having sympathetic thoughts and feelings for others and then seeking to put those thoughts and feelings into action. Compassion, love’s response to pain. Compassion, it is something I suspect we are all going to be called to exercise in significant amounts in the coming weeks. The coronavirus is spreading throughout all of humanity. It is here in the United States. It has reached Houston. And our religious tradition calls us to be compassionate as we, collectively, respond to the viral outbreak.

This compassion should take several forms. We should demand that our public officials allocate adequate resources and take shift appropriate action to slow the spread of the coronavirus. We should not stigmatize or shun particular groups of people--people of Asian descent, for instance--because we irrationally blame them for the virus. The virus has the potential to impact everyone and people of all ages and ethnicities have been infected with it.

And we should each do our part to limit the rate at which the virus propagates. Wash your hands frequently, with hot water and ample soap--hum Happy Birthday twice the way through. Do not shake hands, I have been encouraging people to bump forearms instead. Cover your cough with a kleenex and then throw that kleenex away. If you feel ill stay at home--we offer paid sick leave to our employees here at First Church, if your workplace does not and you are sick and worried about missing a paycheck contact me or Rev. Scott and we will see how we can help you. Clean surfaces like doorknobs that people frequently touch. And hardest of all, avoid touching your face.

They might seem banal, but these are compassionate actions. They are ways we put our concerns for others--concerns that they might be stricken by the virus--into action. If the viral outbreak reaches epidemic portions here in Houston the staff and I are prepared to continue to offer Sunday services and pastoral counseling online as part of our compassionate efforts to help the community weather the viral storm.

Compassion, looking around our sanctuary am I sure you have noticed that it looks a bit different this morning. We have close to sixty photographs on our walls here and in the Fireside room because of my belief that art can stir sympathy, empathy, and, ultimately, compassion within us.

This year our congregation is part of FotoFest. FotoFest is the longest-running international Biennial of photography and lens-based art in the United States. It is one of the largest photography festivals in the world. It has an audience of around 275,000. We are serving as a Participating Space. That means that we are one of about eighty venues from around the city who have chosen to be part of FotoFest and exhibit art throughout the festival. Some of the other venues include the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, the Menil Collection, the Moody Center for the Arts at Rice University, the Houston Museum of African American Culture, and the Houston Center for Photography. So, we are in pretty good company.

FotoFest opened yesterday. That is why, I should note, that we are focusing on it today and not Women’s History. We will observing Women’s History throughout the month by drawing our readings exclusively from women. With the exception of today, when Zsófia invited us to support the International Convocation of Unitarian Universalist Women, we will be supporting Planned Parenthood through our shared offering for most of the month. And at the end of the month, I will give the sermon drawing explicitly from feminist and womanist theology that I would normally have given on the Sunday nearest March 8th.

Our exhibition is called “Now is the Time: Leonard Freed’s Photographs of South Africa’s 1994 Election.” My father, Dr. Howard Bossen, and I curated it together. My Dad is with us this morning. And I would like to thank him and my Mom, Kathy, for their tireless efforts to make this exhibit happen. I would also like to thank First Church’s fine staff. Alex, Alma, Carol, Gustavo, Jon, and Scott all put in--and continue to put in--an extraordinary amount of work for “Now is the Time.” Tawanna, our wonderful Business Administrator, deserves special mention since, on top of all of her other duties, she served as project manager. We also had help from the staff at the Libraries of Michigan State University, CrateWorks Fine Art Services, and Artists Framing Resource. We owe Bill Harrison thanks. Bill printed the images and then he did a rush job to print a second set after UPS lost the first one. And we owe Justin Griswold from CrateWorks particular gratitude. He was here until 11:30 p.m. on Wednesday evening hanging the show. And, of course, none of this would have been possible without our funders: Michigan State University, Thorpe Butler and Rita Saylors, and Lindley Doran and Charles Holman. And showing the exhibit would not continue to be possible without the assistance of all our volunteer docents. We have a lot of shifts to cover and if you have not volunteered to be a docent there is certainly still the opportunity to do so.

Before we move into the rest of the sermon I want to tell you how the show came about. A key part of FotoFest is its portfolio review program. This is where artists and curators, editors, gallery owners, publishers and other industry professional meet with photographers to look at the artists’ work. My father is a Professor of Photography and Visual Communication at Michigan State University. He has been one of FotoFest’s reviewers for close to twenty years. When I moved to Houston, FotoFest’s Executive Director, Steven Evans, asked my Dad if he would ask me if we would be willing to serve as Participating Space. Apparently, the folks at FotoFest have been interested in partnering with our congregation for many years. My Dad put us in touch and Steven paired First Church with a curator.

This was back in June of last year. We spent about five months working with this curator. And then in late November, I got a call from that curator. They had been unable to raise the money they needed for the exhibit that they were planning. They were backing out. I asked Steven what to do. He told me it was way too late to pair us with another curator. All of the deadlines for Participating Spaces are in early autumn. So, he said to me, “Why don’t you do something with your Dad? We would really like First Church to be part of FotoFest. I can give you a week to figure something out.” A week is not a long time to come up with a plan for an exhibit. But, I called my Dad, and well, here we are.

I am excited that are we able to be a venue for “Now is the Time.” Leonard Freed, whose work we are featuring, was a major American photographer. He was a member of Magnum Photos, the world’s premier photography collective, and for more than fifty years he travelled the world documenting major events. He used his art to stir sympathy and compassion and, during the 1950s and 1960s, break the “almost complete isolation between the races.” His work is in the collections of places like The Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York, and the J. Paul Getty Museum, in Los Angeles.

Freed is best known for his photographs of the civil rights movement, particularly the set of images that were included in his 1968 “Black in White America.” It is a beautiful book. It documents African American life in the last days of Jim Crow. And it documents African American life right after the end of legal segregation.

There are lot of powerful pictures in that book. One of the most effecting is of a line of eight or nine African Americans standing in line to vote in a federal election for the first time in Washington, DC. They are in one those utilitarian spaces that often serve as polling places--I imagine it is a school gym or cafeteria or, maybe, a church basement. They are all ages. There is a tall distinguished gentleman wearing what looks like a tweed jacket, well pressed slacks, and perfectly shined shoes. There is a young woman in a long coat and knee length skirt with a large purse under her right arm. In her right hand she is grasping a white slip of paper, presumably documenting that she is eligible to vote. Everyone in the photograph looks like they have been waiting a long time--which, of course, they have been. They have been waiting however long they have been waiting in that line. And they have been waiting however long they have been alive. For this is the first that any of them have been able to vote in a national election. It does not matter that the man is probably over eighty and that the woman is most likely under thirty. They have both been waiting precisely the same amount of time: their whole lives. And they look tired--because I bet that line is a long one--and they look determined--because winning the right to vote was not easy.

Viewed from the vantage of Houston, Texas in the year 2020, the photograph is actual quite disturbing. It could have been taken on Tuesday. It could have been taken here in the Fourth Ward. It could have been taken in Third Ward. It could have been taken in almost any community of color in the state of Texas. Since 2012, the state’s Republican leadership has worked to close 750 polling places throughout the state. The vast majority of them have been closed in communities of color.

On Tuesday, I voted in polling place near Montrose in River Oaks. There were about a half dozen polling places for me to choose from in easy reach of my apartment. Now, I live in an affluent and predominately white area. And when I went to a polling place, I waited about fifteen minutes in line. I have a friend who lives in the Fourth Ward. She waited over an hour and a half to vote. And some people who voted at Texas Southern University--a historically black university--had to wait as many as six hours in line.

Compassion is not just having sympathy for those people who had to wait for hours and hours to vote. It is putting that sympathy into action and organizing to demand that people have easy access to voting.

Compassion, you can find images of people waiting to vote almost anywhere online. And these days, we are inundated by visual images at almost all times. They can overwhelm us. How many of you have a smartphone? And how many of you use Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter? I have them all on my phone. They have a common feature called endless scroll. Endless scroll is what repopulates your phone with images as you move your finger down the screen. No matter how many “friends” you have on Facebook or “followers” you have on Twitter, the social media companies constantly refresh your account so that you never run out of images. Endless scroll is just that--a string that seemingly goes on forever that you can never reach the end of, that is always presenting you with new content, new images, new videos, new sources of stimulation.

Endless scroll can be entrancing. I do not know about you, but I sometimes have the experience of scrolling from image to image on Instagram without even knowing that I am doing it. Sometimes I look up and realize that fifteen minutes have passed. It would be difficult for me to tell you what images I saw or engaged with during that time. They all went by in a catatonic blur.

The social media accounts that I follow come from all over the world. I follow news sources like the New York Times, the Houston Chronicle, the Guardian, and La Jornada--a very fine daily out of Mexico City. I follow a painter from Japan, anarchist labor union activists from Spain, organizers from Northern Syria, photographers from the Czech Republic, historians, philosophers, theologians, and religious leaders, from well, really, almost anywhere. And then there are my actual friends, who, in our highly connected global society, live on every continent except Antartica.

One of the wonderful things about social media is that is it actually can link people from throughout the world together. I have, through my smart phone or computer, access to the words, sounds, and images from people who live in bustling cities and in remote villages. If I want to, I can actually communicate directly with them and find out something more about their human experience. I share with them some of mine. And maybe our digital interaction can open us up to being compassionate towards each other and help us recognize that truth about the human experience--lifted up in the seventh principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association--we are all connected, we are all part of the great web of being, we are all members of the great family of all souls, and what happens to you, in some way, minor or major, happens to me also.

One of the terrible things about social media is that it can make people numb to what is going on throughout the world. I have had this experience myself. I look at my phone and there are images of people dying under Assad’s brutal regime in Syria. I look at my phone and there are images of people suffering from the coronavirus first in China, then in Italy, and now, well, here in the United States. I look at my phone and there’s an image of a young African American man who has been killed by the police. I look at my phone and there’s images of the children who Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers have placed in cages. There are images of people who have been deported back to Central America and killed by gangs. There are images of... Well, there are a lot of awful images out there--images that provide a testament to just how terrible we humans can be to each other.

And you know what, I usually think to myself, “I cannot deal with this right now.” And scroll past the world’s horrors to look at pictures of a friend’s dog’s birthday party, a friend drinking beer at the cutest graffiti coated bar I have ever seen, a very nice looking breaking competition, a couple’s anniversary--one partner in a striking red dress, the other in an elegant tuxedo--, a delicious meal of fresh brilliant colored market vegetables, and, of course, cats. Like a whole lot of the world, I like images of cats--running, sleeping, or playing with some kind of improbable object. Cats are cute. Cats are goofy. Cats can easily bring a smile to my face. Cats can help me forgot the brutal things we do to each other.

Do you ever have the same experience? Where you look at the difficult news of the world and think to yourself, “I just can’t?” A bit more than a decade ago, when she was trying to grapple with the constant barrage of images of the Bush regime’s torture policies that were appearing in the New York Times and other places in the then dominant print media, the philosopher Susan Sontag observed, “An ample reserve of stoicism is needed to get through the great newspaper of record each morning, given the likelihood of seeing photographs that could make you cry.”

I suspect that the constant barrage of graphic images induces compassion fatigue in a lot of us. Compassion fatigue is the anger, dissociation, anxiety, and even nightmares that we experience from feeling powerless to change the world’s ills. It comes from what Sontag called “a quintessential modern experience,” “[b]eing a spectator of calamities taking place in another” place.

Endless scroll offers us the opportunity to spectate endless and exhausting calamities. It can dilute the power of the image to open us to compassion. And that is one reason why I think exhibits like “Now is the Time” and social documentary photography remain important even when we are constantly inundated with images. The framed image, mounted on the wall, allows us, offers us, the chance to stop and consider the human experience--or the natural world--in a moment of time.

Now, of course, all photographs are curated representations of reality. There is always something outside of the frame. The image is always partial and seen through the lens of the photographer. The photographer’s aesthetics and ethics--their choice of what they represent and how they represent it--is always shaping the image. When they produce an image, they are indicating that this transitory moment in time, this flitting bit of consciousness, matter, and experience, is worth preserving.

Freed’s work in “Now is the Time” preserves impressions of an historic shift, the end of apartheid in South Africa. He travelled there for three weeks to document the country’s first multi-racial election. As a white Jewish man from the United States, a white Jewish man who knew about the Holocaust and Jim Crow and the struggle for civil rights, he created his curated representations of the election that brought Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress to power.

His images are not the images that would have been made by someone with a different social location--they are not the images of a black South African who participated in the struggle to end apartheid. And they are not the images of a person who had suffered the social stigma of apartheid or Jim Crow. Nonetheless, they are designed to open their viewers to the fullness of the human experience--to remind us that there is joy and friendship and wonder. That human society can shift. That apartheid ended.

The title of the exhibit comes from one of the African National Congress’s slogans during the 1994 election, “Now is the Time.” The slogan is evocative of Freed’s photograph of the people waiting in line to vote. Now is the time for change. It has finally come, after all these years of suffering and struggling and waiting and waiting. Now is the time, it has arrived. Now is the time to be compassionate towards each other and act together. Now is the time, if you want to learn more about the exhibit, my father will be offering a lecture about it next Sunday at 7:00 p.m. And I will be doing at least one gallery talk between now and when the exhibit closes at the end of April.

I hope that you will take time after the service or during the exhibit’s hours to study the photographs. There are a few that we have placed behind a curtain because they are not appropriate for Sunday mornings. But all them will offer you an opportunity to interrupt the endless scroll of visual imagery and look carefully at transitory moments of time, constructed representations, that, will do a little to help you with whatever compassion fatigue you might be experiencing. As you do, I invite you to remember words from Nikki Giovanni that we heard earlier in the service:

we must believe in each other’s dreams
i’m told and i dream
of me accepting you and you accepting yourself

Such words remind us of the possibility of compassion.

As you view Freed’s images, I invite you to consider these words by Nelson Mandela, words that he offered in his inaugural address as President of South Africa:

“We know it well that none of us acting alone can achieve success.

We must therefore act together as a united people, for national reconciliation, for nation building, for the birth of a new world.

Let there be justice for all.

Let there be peace for all.

Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all.

Let each know that for each the body, the mind and the soul have been freed to fulfill themselves.”

We would do well to hear Mandela’s word. They challenge us to be compassionate--to take our sympathy and empathy for others, sympathy and empathy that are rooted in our shared human experience, and transform them into the action of compassion.

We would also do well to pause, and look, and see if we can be stirred to compassion by all the rich visual imagery on display throughout the city of Houston during FotoFest. Our faith calls us to be compassionate. And the art which surrounds during these festival months has the possibility of inspiring us to greater depths of compassion--to transform our sympathy and empathy into action.

We are one human family, one world community, whether we like it or not. If we are to survive and thrive we must be compassionate towards each other. Let us remember that and, in doing so, let us recognize that now is the time to act--to work for voting rights, to do what we can to combat the coronavirus (no shaking hands after the service), to seek justice, and to build the beloved community.

Now is the time.

That it might be so, I invite the congregation to say Amen.

CommentsCategories Contemporary Politics Sermon Tags First Unitarian Universalist Church, Houston Museum District D. Scott Cooper David Richo Compassion Sympathy Empathy Universalism Unitarian Universalism Martin Luther King, Jr. Josiah Royce COVID-19 FotoFest Leonard Freed Howard Bossen Tawanna Grice Justin Griswold Michigan State University Michigan State University Libraries Artists Framing Resource CrateWorks Fine Art Services Bill Harrison Thorpe Butler Rita Saylors Lindley Doran Charles Holman Steven Evans Magnum Photos Black in White America Photography 2020 Primaries 2020 Election Republican Party Texas Houston Third Ward Fourth Ward Jim Crow Montrose River Oaks Instagram Twitter Facebook Endless Scroll Syria China Italy Immigration and Customs Enforcement Cats Susan Sontag Nelson Mandela African National Congress Nikki Giovanni

Nov 19, 2019

Homily: Dedication of the Thoreau Campus of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston

as preached on November 9, 2019 at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Thoreau campus, Richmond, TX

The dedication of a new building for a Unitarian Universalist congregation is a momentous occasion. Every community is made better by having a place for Unitarian Universalism within it. Unitarian Universalists have long dedicated themselves to serving the wider community. Large and small our congregations have improved every city and town, village and suburb, in which they have been located.

In many cases our congregations have been the only places where people could freely gather to share their authentic selves and pursue their authentic truths. We have frequently offered the only religious oasis for the GLBTQ community. We have long been a place for political dissidents and critical thinkers who otherwise could not find a comfortable home. We are a non-creedal religious tradition. We welcome into our ranks atheists, humanists, and pagans alongside liberal, non-Trinitarian, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus. Historically, we have played a vital role in the struggle for justice.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries our forbearers opened their congregations to abolitionists and suffragists. During the Civil War, the first all black regiment from the North was funded by a Unitarian congregation in Massachussets. Some of the earliest women’s rights conventions were led by our co-religionists. In more recent decades, Unitarian Universalist congregations have played crucial roles in launching the public radio movement, sustaining the anti-war movement, confronting the AIDS crisis, fighting for civil rights, queer liberation, and women’s rights, and working for the environmental justice movement. Both the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People were started in our churches.

Our orientation to community improvement and building the just society comes from our theology. We are a this-worldly religion. We find this sentiment expressed by this campus’s namesake, Henry David Thoreau. The story is told that when he was on his deathbed a friend leaned near and speculated, “You seem so near the brink of the dark river that I almost wonder how the opposite shore may appear to you.” “One world at a time,” was Thoreau’s reply.

One world at a time; we Unitarian Universalists do not orient ourselves to some distant heaven. Instead, under the starry firmament of this cosmos and with our bodies placed upon the good soil of this planet we commit to journey through life together. Together we seek the truth, love each other and the human family as best can, and work for the just society.

This campus is named for Henry David Thoreau, a man who attempted to embody these principles. Thoreau was raised a Unitarian in Concord, Massachussets. Much debate has taken place over his connection to Unitarianism as an adult. The pertinent facts are these: he spent his entire adult life in the company of Unitarian ministers such as Theodore Parker, former ministers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Unitarian feminists, including Margaret Fuller and Elizabeth Peabody; his funeral service took place in the Unitarian First Parish Church in Concord, and was presided over by a Unitarian minister; and he resigned his membership from First Parish Concord as a protest against a minister’s unwillingness to speak out against slavery. He was, in other words, an archetypal Unitarian--an individual guided by his conscience and living in tension with a society that failed to meet his ethical standards.

Looking to Thoreau’s life we find four lodestones that we would be well advised to take as our own. These are naturalism, transcendentalism, community, and prophetic religion. Naturalism: Thoreau understood that we humans are part and parcel of the natural world. He counseled that the moral law was to be found by looking to the woods and the rivers. This is wise guidance for our contemporary age when we find ourselves ever more tied to the world of technology. His sense that human wisdom was found in the rushing waters and in the knotty forests led him to observe, “We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.” The further we get from our connection to the natural world the further we drift from our own humanness. And so, it is good that this new campus we dedicate today is upon five acres of grass and brush--a space to play, a space to see the lights of the heavens, and a space to consider our connection to the great all of being.

Transcendentalism: Thoreau was part of the generation of Unitarian thinkers who came to be known as the Transcendentalists. They believed that religious truth is discovered through intuition. It was not inscribed forever in scripture. It was found by looking within and probing the mind’s infinite fathoms. They understood that the divine resides within each of us. “The highest revelation is that God is in every man,” Thoreau’s great friend Ralph Waldo Emerson taught in the gendered language of his day.

It is difficult to appreciate how radical Transcendentalism was in the nineteenth century United States. It was a religious philosophy that recognized that religious truth was not only found in the Christian New Testament or the Hebrew Bible. It did not point to Jesus as Lord and Savior. It was first major religious philosophy to arise in Europe or the United States that taught that the world’s religions all contained wisdom. It opened the way for people of European descent to turn to yoga, meditation, or the poetry of the Sufi teacher Rumi. It is why we Unitarian Universalists use the verses from many traditions in our worship services, such as these from the fifteenth-century Hindu mystic Mirabai: “What is this world? A patch of gooseberry bushes. It catches on the way to the one we love.”

There are echoes of Thoreau’s naturalism and transcendentalism in Mirabai’s words. This is not a coincidence. The Transcendentalists were the first major philosophers of European descent to look to Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism. They found beauty within these traditions and, through them, were inspired to connect more deeply with the divine. When we think of Thoreau and his fellow Transcendentalists we should remember that the moral law lies within but can be found in the wilds of the world, the wisdom of the great religious teachers, and among all those who attempt to live lives of conscience.

Community: Thoreau is often portrayed as the great American individualist. He went to Walden woods to experiment with self-reliance and find freedom. He built a cabin and tried to live by his own efforts. He believed in the sovereignty of the individual conscience. He felt that the slave holding war making society that he lived in was corrupting and wanted to see if he could live apart from it.

And yet, Thoreau’s individualism is only half of his story. He was always seeking truth through community. He and his friends constantly debated and sought to discover their higher callings together. Even in his retreat in Walden, in the cabin he built himself, he ensured that there was room for others. In his famous text he wrote, “We belong to the community.” Throughout his time at Walden he frequently visited his friend Emerson’s house for discussion and dinner.

Thinking about Thoreau we should remember that the success of the individual is rarely possible without the community. Yes, there is a tension between the community and the individual. But it was Thoreau’s relationship with his Unitarian community, that ultimately allowed him to blossom as an individual. Without the support of Emerson or others in his circle it is likely that he never would have succeeded as a writer or philosopher.

Prophetic Religion: Naming a campus after Henry David Thoreau must be read as an act of bravery. Thoreau is one of the most politically radical figures in European American history. It is possible to claim that he is the most important political philosopher that the country has yet produced. His essay “Resistance to Civil Government,” more commonly called, “Civil Disobedience,” is one of the foundational texts of the theory of non-violent resistance to government. Thoreau’s belief that the moral law lies within led him to believe that when there was a conflict between moral law and human law the only faithful, ethical, course of action was to choose the moral law. He wrote his famous essay after spending the night in jail for refusing to pay war taxes in support of the Mexican-American War, a war that, incidentally, ultimately brought the state of Texas into the Union and was fought primarily to expand slavery.

The influence of Thoreau’s essay can be traced through the great Christian anarchist Leo Tolstoy to Mohandas Gandhi to Martin Luther King, Jr. and to the mass movements of civil disobedience against injustice, tyranny, and ecocide today. Echoes of Thoreau’s call to the moral of conscience are found in Extinction Rebellion, Black Lives Matter, school striking for climate action, and on the streets in Chile, Lebanon, Iraq and elsewhere as people demand a better world.

Thoreau’s prophetic impulses made many of contemporaries uncomfortable. This is all the more true because in the years following his composition of “Civil Disobedience” he came to believe that slavery in South, including here in the state of Texas, could only be overcome with armed resistance. He was a vocal defender of John Brown. He called the man who led the armed raid on Harpers Ferry, the catalyst to the Civil War, “an angel of light” and compared the executed abolitionist to Jesus, saying, “Some eighteen hundred years ago Christ was crucified; this morning, perchance, Captain Brown was hung.”

Thoreau’s endorsement of Brown most likely makes many of us uncomfortable. I have certainly found it challenging to wrestle with. Just as I have found Thoreau’s statement, “The only government that I recognize,--and it matters not how few are at the head of it, or how small the army,--is that power that establishes justice in the land,” an inspiration in my own attempts to live by my conscience.

What Thoreau’s prophetic postions remind us is that the quest to live accordance with one’s conscience is never an easy one. The path less trod contains many a rock upon which we might stumble. It will often place us as an outlier to the wider society. And we may never know the impact our work for justice will have. Thoreau could not possibly have imagined the influence his essay on “Civil Disobedience” would enjoy across the globe.

Naturalism, transcendentalism, community, and prophetic religion, this campus has been named for Henry David Thoreau. The pillars of his life imply a charge for the gathered congregation as we dedicate this building. We are in era of profound crises: the resurgence of white supremacy, the climate emergency, and the assault on democracy. Let the namesake of this campus remind its members, all members of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, and people of good heart everywhere:

that we are part and parcel of the natural world;
that what happens to the green grasses, the rushing rivers, and the singing woods, will, ultimately, happen to our human species;
that there is a moral law within that we must follow in times of crisis if we are to lead lives of authenticity and spiritual honesty;
that there is but one human family and that there is wisdom spread across the planet;
that when we are confronted with injustice we are called to act;
that none of us, ever, is truly alone
and that every individual is stronger for being part of a community.

Oh spirit of love and justice,
that some of us call God,
and others know by many names,
we pray to you that
the Thoreau campus of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston
will make the community of Fort Bend County
better by its presence,
it will provide a space for children to learn to make justice
and love the truth,
for adults to share and find their authentic selves,
and for all who cross its threshold
or hear its name
to know that here in Richmond, Texas,
there is a religious community
that embodies love beyond belief,
nurtures the good heart,
binds up the broken,
and engages in the difficult,
rocky,
work of building a better world.

Let the congregation say Amen.

CommentsCategories Sermon Tags Unitarian Universalism Henry David Thoreau GLBTQ Fort Bend County ACLU NAACP Concord, Massachussets Theodore Parker Ralph Waldo Emerson Margaret Fuller Elizabeth Peabody Unitarian First Parish Church in Concord Naturalism Transcendentalism Rumi Mirabai Hinduism Community Individualism Civil Disobedience Mexican-American War Texas Slavery Abolition Leo Tolstoy Mohandas Gandhi Martin Luther King, Jr. Extinction Rebellion Black Lives Matter John Brown First Unitarian Universalist Church, Houston

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