In Praise of Graceful Exits

This is a crazy week end, with two of my favorite UU ministers delivering their final messages to their congregations today. Another favorite is retiring as well. And I’m aware of another who I don’t know as well but respect greatly who is hanging up her robes. There’s a larger question — Why now? — that I don’t feel qualified to answer, though I have thoughts. 

But for now, I’d like to traffic in gratitude.

Rev. Ken officiating at our renewing of our vows (Year 25) in 2017.

Rev. Ken Beldon delivered his final message at WellSprings Congregation, in Chester Springs, Pa., this morning. It was a greatest hits, which, for Ken, is some pretty tasty material. Ken has been a minister at WellSprings for the decade-plus I’ve been there. I’ve listened to him preach, gone to justice events with him in West Chester, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. We’ve even gone on a weeklong service trip to Haiti (my second time there). I served on his ministerial committee, participated as a student and co-leader in mindfulness classes he led, and went to more than a few Jason Isbell concerts with him. I do remember him leading off a ministerial committee meeting once with Isbell’s “Relatively Easy,” which I’d discovered around the same time and has since become a hymn in my own personal liturgy. (I hope I didn’t just break some ministerial committee NDA I signed back in 2012.)

Ken is an amazing preacher and connector of dots. Above all, Ken’s sharing of his experience with mindfulness has had a huge impact on my life. I don’t think I become the adult I’m still becoming without his teaching, guidance and support.

In his final message today, he spoke about #ordinarypraise, the idea that spiritual practice is forged in and benefitted most from in everyday life. We live in the valley, not the mountains, he said. That resonated with me deeply, and it’s why I appreciate his experience and ministry so much.

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Kent sparring with an Infowars TV crew at a 2016 Black Lives Matter rally at Independence Hall.

Rev. Kent Matthies is a great friend. My wife worked with Kent on regional denominational issues, especially justice, in the early 2000s. We are roughly generational equals, and found a mutual appreciation of the other. Kent was the minister at the Unitarian Society of Germantown, which is a diverse, urban UU congregation in Philadelphia. Going to Kent’s congregation is like getting real. Justice isn’t a hypothetical for his congregation, it is an essential part of who they are.

And Kent is a peace warrior. In 2017, I remember, he had partnered with a group advocating for better re-integrating people previously held in prison. We were at a racial justice protest in downtown Philly, in the shadow of Independence Hall, in the runup to the 2016 elections. Kent held his own when a TV crew from InfoWars showed up to ask him some very pointed, and ugly, questions.

For three years, I co-led the Martin Luther King Day of Service projects that ran out of USG. We basically found service work for up to 400 people each year, some on and some off campus. It was a wonderful opportunity to get to know the Germantown congregants, and to turn Dr. King’s message into deeds.

Kent has an infectious energy and joyous, subversive sense of humor. He lives with honesty, integrity and joy, and I treasure his friendship.

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Me, Rev. Kent Matthies and Rev. Peter Friedrichs at Peter’s discussion of his book at Swarthmore College, in the midst of the pandemic (we dropped out masks for just one minute).

Rev. Peter Friedrichs is the retiring minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Delaware County, in Media, Pa. Peter is a great pastor and preacher, and he recently published his first novel, And the Stars Kept Watch. He is moving out of the Philadelphia area as part of retirement, but I look forward to seeing what he does creatively and in pulling people together around justice.

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I am so thankful to all three of these ministers as teachers, as guides, as friends, and I look forward to seeing what each of them do next, as I am sure it will benefit other people and inspire me.

MLK Day 2012!

Kevin co-chaired the Martin Luther King Day of Service at Unitarian Society of Germantown again. We had more than 300 volunteers, spread across 20-od locations, from South Philly to Norristown, performing acts of service. It was a great day, if tiring. Kelly took part, helping with a massive painting project at the CW Henry school in East Falls. Virginia had a project of her own, at Carson Valley Children’s Aid, where they cleaned up the agency library.

It was a great day, and now we all need a rest!

Pete has a conference hoem game Tuesday. Kelly got a buzz cut tyat has made him happy, and mortified his mother. He also had his cast removed today, so he’s rediscovering the joy of having two hands.

 

 

Emerson v. Zuckerberg

Ralph Waldo Emerson

This is a Sunday morning talk I gave at Thomas Paine Unitarian Universalist Fellowship on Sunday, April 26, 2009.

Good morning—a gloriously warm morning here in Collegeville.  I like warm and sunny, but sometimes, I admit, I fear we’ll soon have far more warm, dry days than I can stomach.

And that’s how we’ll segue into this Earth Day. As many of you know, Earth Day was created in 1970, by US Senator Gaylord Nelson. It was an immediate hit, with 20 million people participating, and numerous groups realizing they were not nearly as alone as they had felt in advocating for a sustainable, healthy future. Within four years, a raft of important legislation was passed, creating the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and numerous other initiatives—initiatives that have been under attack for much of the 30-odd years since their enactment.

As we head into Earth Day’s 40th year, we are mired in a time of national distress, weighing out our responses to dual calamities—a human-powered destruction of the global credit markets and a human-powered warming of the planet that seems even more dire in the longer-term. As we sit between, on the left hand, the rock, and the right, the hard place, it’s hard not to feel anxious.

Now, I could speak to what we should do about global warming and the financial crisis in prescriptive terms, but it would be a waste of all our time, as I really don’t know what those answers look like. And Rev. Gabi and Rich Wallace did an excellent job on exactly that a month ago.

Instead, I’d like to consider two mind-sets as we approach this dangerous world ahead of us.

And let’s simplify this from two mind-set to two people.

On the one hand, is Ralph Waldo Emerson, a giant in Unitarian Universalism.

On the other, Mark Zuckerberg, the creator of Facebook.

And here’s the part you might not expect; as we move ahead, the future belongs to Mr. Zuckerberg, and the world he represents.

Hear me out.

In 1836, Emerson wrote his seminal essay, Self-Reliance. In response to what Emerson saw as an overly crass and commercial age—can you imagine if you dropped him into the Vege-Matic/Sham-Woo world of 2009?—he argued that men should look inside themselves, to individual deliberation, to a rigorous and authentic search for and articulation of self, for life’s answers.

No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it. A man is to carry himself in the presence of all opposition, as if every thing were titular and ephemeral but he.

Now Emerson scholars can corner me after the service for any mis-reading, but I’m gonna hammer Emerson here. I am not arguing for the unexamined life. Nor am I arguing against the virtues of learning to do many things. And beyond Emerson, there is wisdom in a much older admonition, an Oedipal one, from the Delphic oracle to a certain arrogant king to “know thyself.”

But there is in this uncompromising individualism a dangerous insularity. I’d argue that Emerson’s essay sits at Ground Zero of a quintessential American Character. At its best, it’s the ethos of self-sufficiency. But at it’s worth, it’s a Doctrine of Go It Alone. 

And the 21st Century will not be about Going It Alone.

 

Mark Zuckerberg

Welcome, instead, to the Networked Era—or, as Thomas Friedman calls it in his book “Hot, Flat and Crowded,” the Energy-Climate Era. It’s the time of We’re All in This Together. It’s the Era of Facebook.

Which brings us to Mr. Zuckerberg, the 20-something creator of the social networking site Facebook. For those who don’t use a computer or are not familiar with Facebook, it is a Web site, accessible through the Internet, ingeniously constructed to share information about you with people you know and don’t know, and about your acquaintances with you. Individuals, with sometimes frightening regularity, share details regarding who they are, what they’re doing, what interests them, and what they value.

It is not perfect. It trods heavily on privacy concerns, for example. Many times, the information on it is shallow, offensive, or trite. But honestly, have you ever recorded all your face-to-face conversations over a day? Do we think that shallow, mean, and coarse are confined to the online world?

No, for all its shortcomings, Facebook is a Connection Engine. And increasingly you can find the people who matter to you on it—in the first two months of 2009, Facebook went from 150 million to 200 million users in the United States, 25 million people signed up per month.

And our future is all about connectedness—we are increasingly entangled in a web of mutual opportunity and mutual risk. The world has undeniably shrunk, and the solutions to our shared threats will by their nature need to dismiss boundaries, national rivalries, and prerogatives of privilege. To get out of this mess, we’re going to need everyone to embrace and understand the 7th principle of UUism:  We affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Let’s get beyond principles to quantifiable benefits. A recent article in the New York Times reads:

A 10-year Australian study found that older people with a large circle of friends were 22 percent less likely to die during the study period than those with fewer friends. A large 2007 study showed an increase of nearly 60 percent in the risk for obesity among people whose friends gained weight. And last year, Harvard researchers reported that strong social ties could promote brain health as we age.In 2006, a study of nearly 3,000 nurses with breast cancer found that women without close friends were four times as likely to die from the disease as women with 10 or more friends. And notably, proximity and the amount of contact with a friend wasn’t associated with survival. Just having friends was protective.Finally

Last year, researchers studied 34 students at the University of Virginia, taking them to the base of a steep hill and fitting them with a weighted backpack. They were then asked to estimate the steepness of the hill. Some participants stood next to friends during the exercise, while others were alone.

The students who stood with friends gave lower estimates of the steepness of the hill. And the longer the friends had known each other, the less steep the hill appeared.

“People with stronger friendship networks feel like there is someone they can turn to,” said Karen A. Roberto, director of the center for gerontology at Virginia Tech. “Friendship is an undervalued resource. The consistent message of these studies is that friends make your life better.”

And so I am here on a Sunday morning—in a Fellowship—and my goal is simple: to connect, and in that connection to reaffirm my joy in life and my belief in love.

And that only happens through our loving interactions together.

Two nights ago, I was in Wilmington, Delaware, where Peter Morales and Laurel Hallman, two UU ministers who are currently vying to replace the Rev. William Sinkford as leader of our denomination, were talking to local UUs. Morales was asked to share his “elevator speech,” his quick-and-dirty explanation of what he believes. His answer was instructive.

He cautioned us not to get hung up on beliefs. Instead, he said, what mattered were the things we love and value. “If we can agree that we both love people, that we value justice, then I would suggest that we share a religion.” And the room connected with him.

It’s exactly such a faith that we’re going to need to confront global issues. These challenges demand radical mutuality, on a scale we haven’t seen previously in world history. They demand a deepening connection to life, to sustainability, to care for our children and our children’s children.

And it’s the same framing we should take to our own small community. We need to overcome the tendency toward isolation. We need to find collaborative solutions as we move forward. The success of our community is a direct function of our ability to share the load, to communicate our abilities and our needs, to ask for help and to share our accomplishments. If you’re looking for proof, look to last week’s successful Eyes Wide Open exhibit. I was speaking to Scilla Wahrhaftig, who drove the exhibit from Western Pennsylvania here, and she said. “I’ve done this many times, and this was very special.” And this is why:

“Maureen had a special ability to delegate,” Sciulla said. “She handed out the duties and empowered people to do—and they did. But Maureen trusted them. That was special.”

So thank you, Maureen, and everyone who worked with her on last week’s exhibit, not just for a great exhibit but for an example of how connection and trust should work in our community.

One other lesson to be learned here is that while we foster connections amongst ourselves, many of the people who need us are not sitting here on a Sunday morning. If our creed is “shared values,” then our mission should be to support others who share our values of love and justice, and our belief that everyone matters and all deserve care and compassion, whether they are folks in need of safe housing in our own county, people recovering from Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf Coast, and people in our own community like Dan and Katie Boyson, who are right now grieving the loss of a beloved wife and mom. 

Another point of connection is our nascent ministry in Norristown. We already are involved with Norristown Ministries and the Saturday night community dinner at Central Presbyterian Church, which we staff monthly. We are making plans right now to partner with the local arts cooperative, a nonprofit that runs an arts-oriented summer camp for kids in Norristown. The arts cooperative will be holding a fundraiser in the next couple weeks, at Elmwood Park Zoo. If you’re interested in  helping with the arts camp, or just giving some material or money, contact me or Lorraine Lee, who is the chair of your Social Action Committee.

The takeaway in each example is this: Our faith and our community grow from the connections we make. It is not enough to sit here and say we are in a good place, that we are good people, that we are here if people find us, just as we can not sit back and say that we will respond to climate change if it ever comes to find us. It has found us. And we need a Facebook approach to these challenges. So let us leave here and start Friending. Amen.

Kevin's post-New Orleans church talk

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Here are Kevin’s notes for the talk he gave at church after he and Virginia spent a week helping with recovery efforts in New Orleans Feb. 1-7.

 

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It is good to be back here. Good to be back in my bed. Good to be back with my boys. Good to be back among friends.

And yet, I must tell you, we returned just yesterday, and this is going to be difficult. I’m supposed to be talking about how we move forward, and I’m not sure I’m going to be very good at that. My eyes are still trained back over my shoulder. I am having trouble making sense of what I have seen, of the people I talked to, of what I suspect and fear and hope.

So, I’ll be honest, Virginia signed me up for this trip and I agreed to go—and I never gave it that much thought. Like a lot of people, I think, I thought 3 years after Hurricane Katrina that New Orleans would be well down the road to recovery. Not finished, mind you; I’m no Pollyanna. But I thought that I would see the recovery of New Orleans, like an image shimmering in the heat of a Louisiana summer day.

And friends, let me tell you, that vision is a decade-plus away.

It began to hit me on Sunday, when we toured much of the town, and all those hours of CNN and the photos in Time magazine that told me New Orleans was 80 percent underwater suddenly became real. And it came with this sobering realization: You don’t drown a city of half a million people, ring it out, and put it back in working order in 3 years.

And I could rant about New Orleans as American tragedy—half ghost town, half corrupt monument to a toxic stew of racism, classism, cronyism, cynicism, and any other ‘ism you care to mention, some of which I understand and much of which I don’t.

But let me point you to someone who does a better job of it. Van Jones, who electrified the 2008 UU General Assembly with an hourlong call to action regarding a “green” retooling of America with equal parts next-generation energy policy and social justice, had this to say about our response to Katrina in 2006:

Most regular folks don’t want to discuss Katrina anymore, either. We push the images away. When TV airs long updates, we change the channel. We flip past the follow-up stories in the newspaper. Somehow, it is all too painful, too shameful, too unpleasant.
 

And something less wholesome is also at work.

Somewhere inside us, an unkind voice whispers: Those People deserve pity, but only so much. They did “choose” to live in a floodplain, “choose” to ignore the warnings, “choose” to loot stores. They are victims, yes—but not innocent ones. At some point, Those People—poor, black, and unbecoming as they are—must accept some blame for their own sorry plight.

We rarely say such words aloud. But our actions—and inactions—testify…

Van has a point, and I’ll admit to having similar thoughts: Why are people living in these places, if they are so vulnerable. And I’d remind you what Van says—these poor people weren’t given a buffet of choices and select the Lower 9th Ward; no they were, to use his term, “herded by poverty” into these low-lying areas. An the geography of New Orleans is clarifying. The richest sections of town sit on the highest ground. It’s no accident.

But enough of that, because we can talk the whys and how-to-avoids for a hundred hours … but that isn’t what I’m seeing as I recall New Orleans this morning.

I’m recalling the 15 volunteers who I worked with, from four area UU congregations. And I’m remembering the volunteers before us. One of the latter, a UU named Molly, shared her thoughts about helping a woman named Ifama restore her home. In a piece entitled “3 Things We Learned in New Orleans,” she closes …

We made a beautiful chalice from pieces of broken things. We made beautiful rooms from ruined spaces. We made ourselves more whole by the actual pounding and painting and sweating and sanding and carrying.
 

Ifama taught us by her warm embrace that, when things are lost and patterns are broken, healing and new beauty become possible.

I’m recalling an amazing collection of young volunteers from across the country who have come because they have been called to help a city get back to its feet. Folks like Nick, a Penn grad from Berkeley, Calif., who worked at Project Green, a non-profit that repurposes the salvageable parts of the thousands of homes that are still being torn down there. Like Cory and Christie, our coordinators for the week. Mark my words—the next crop of “community organizers” who accomplish great things are cutting their teeth right now in New Orleans.

I’m recalling Quo Vadis Breaux, the Executive Director of the Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice Renewal, where we stayed, who told our group, “The reality is, this city was broken long before Katrina, and the silver lining in this tragedy is the opportunity to mend that brokenness.”

I’m recalling the city residents:

  • The Parks and Rec crew who told how they still have moments where they’re sharing a funny story and realize that 2 or 3 or 4 of the people involved died in the flood. And it stops them cold.
  • Miss Virginia and her husband Roy and daughter Tanya, who live on a block in the Lower 9th Ward so devastated that it feels like one part war zone, one part rural backwater. Tanya told me that after they returned, they knew when another family moved in nearby, because it broke the near total silence. This in a city that, according to the 2000 Census, had nearly half a million residents. Today’s total is thought to be less than half that.
  • I’m recalling Gwendolyn Dunnigan, a feisty 60-something woman who splits her time between a flat in Chicago and a FEMA trailer, all the while working to resurrect her self-proclaimed “party house.” We hung some cabinets for her, repainted a railing, cleaned up a dozen-plus windows, and we talked and laughed. I asked her what she wanted you all to know and she said: “I want the people in Philadelphia to know that your volunteers are doing a great job. They’ve done a lot of work, but if all they had done was come and visit, and let me know that somebody cared about us down here, that would have been enough.” Gwendolyn goes to the doctor in Chicago on Wednesday to learn more about the uterine cancer that will be her next challenge. Say a prayer for her that day, will you?
  • I’m recalling Gwen’s friend Sam, an occasional handyman who at the height of the flooding grabbed a small boat and rescued more than a dozen elderly residents of his neighborhood. When the boat got too full, he guided the boat from the outside without getting into it—pushing aside dead bodies when they got in the way. “I hadn’t swum since I was 14,” he said. “Hope I don’t ever have to swim again.” He saved one gentleman who reached into his pocket and gave him $100. Sam’s response: “Keep yo’ money. It was nothing. And where am I going to spend it around here anyway?” When the water receded, he found out he was out of his truck driving job.

These are the people I’m thinking of today.

But that’s not my job, to tell you about what I’ve seen. Yvon took care of that.

I’m thinking about the future—New Orleans future, maybe, but our religious communiiy’s future.

And this is what I’m pondering.

I love this religious community. There are good people here. It’s a good place. But we have an issue. Sometimes we call it “the burning ember” problem. It is, in a sense, a lack of mission. It’s an unanswered question: Why are we here?

And from an admittedly skewed perspective on this, my first full day back home, I want to suggest an answer: We are here to serve.

—We’re here to serve the good people of New Orleans. I would love to see a Thomas Paine contingent return to the city in the fall—late October, early November. Maybe with other congregations, maybe a dozen of our own. I promise you a transforming experience. As part of that, I’d like to see us help financially anyone who feels pulled to be there but cannot swing the money end of the equation.

—We are here to serve our brothers and sisters locally. Something’s been gnawing at me: Quo Vadis’ words and the thought that in some crazy, excruciating fashion, New Orleans has received a blessing—an opportunity to start again. And I see brokenness in Norristown and Philadelphia and I think crassly—it shouldn’t take a hurricane to get us off our collective seats and engage the people in these communities on issues of affordable housing, of safety, of opportunity. Our monthly shift at Central Pres is good ministry, but it should be a starting point, not an end.

We’re here to serve in ways beyond this, and I encourage people to bring their intelligence, their passion and humanity to our Social Action Committee. There’s deep knowledge in the thought: In helping others, we help ourselves.

We’re not gonna change things overnight. Nobody ever has. But you, me, my kids, your kids, the people we connect with and support, all together, we can make small differences—the drip, drip, drip of progress. Martin Luther King didn’t say that justice comes to the world in a thunderclap. He said, “The moral arc of the universe bends at the elbow of justice.”

A part of this community’s “burning ember” should be pushing the moral arc of the universe closer to justice—every day and every week. I don’t know the specifics. That’s for you all to figure out. But I’m convinced that it’s essential to the flourishing of a community of faith that holds that everyone matters, that we’re all in this together, and that we can only reach wholeness when we take the audacious step of replacing fear with love.

Blessed be.

Gwen’s message

I met Gwendolyn Donnigan on Wednesday and worked on her house on and off through the rest of the week. She was listed as the “picky” homeowner, a touch difficult to please. She met us with a big smile and a “let’s get this puppy started” opening.

Ended up all she wanted was to do the job right.

Over the next three days, we got to know each other a little better. We got her house in good enough shape that she can go to Chicago, where her sister lives and she has an apartment, comfortable that her NO home is coming along.

I asked Gwendolyn what people who don’t live in NO need to know. Here’s her cautionary answer …

In New Orleans

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Roy and Kevin, originally uploaded by kevdonahue.

Virginia and I are in New Orleans, helping with the reconstruction in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Unbelievably, 3 years later, there’s still an unimaginable amount of work to do.

I’m here with Roy, whose house we helped paint on Tuesday and Wednesday. We helped with other stuff over the last three days, and took a tour of the city Sunday. Photos are here.