Rooted, Inspired, and Ready – GA Reflections

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I am Colleen Appel. My pronouns are she and her.

I accepted the position of Board President because I had time to give the job my full attention, and, when it comes to preparing for a meeting, I am very organized.

However, I brought a grievous assumption with me – I believed it was my job to support the current culture – Invite more of the same people who currently sit in the sanctuary, modestly increase the pledge base, keep the building in good repair. After all, our building was still open and we had people in the seats every Sunday. Why challenge something that appeared to me to work?

Staff members AJ, Emily, and Maria gave me a hint of what was to come. All three belong to UUA professional organizations that connect them with UU churches across the country. AJ and Emily, our religious education and music directors, have visited other churches in their professional capacity. They told me that once I was amongst people from other UU churches I would open up to the vibrancy of new possibilities.

My first immersion in a wider UU community took place in Lawrence, Kansas, where a group of volunteers from the Midwest gathered to train for the Our Whole Lives lifespan sexuality program. The six hour round trip gave me the opportunity to visit with two young people in our church. And then there was the training itself where a lot of people who don’t look like me are actively engaged in the work of the church.

That was the first weekend of March so the pandemic and the move to virtual church interrupted my consideration of what the church might look like if we were radically inclusive. Monica’s recent challenge to our lay speaking policy, the subsequent call from a small group who analyzed our church culture against the culture of white supremacy, and my attendance at the UUA General Assembly have again challenged my assumptions.

Thank you for allowing me to be a delegate to GA. What I came away with was the value of UUA as a “safe container” for the work we are called to do here at First UU. If you’re my friend on Facebook, you may have seen me recently evolve from one who safely posts about food and decorating to one who is sharing pieces about anti-racism and white supremacist culture. UUA gives me material to share and the language to address a family member who recently posted a racist meme.

The adoption at General Assembly of the Action of Immediate Witness regarding alternatives to policing allowed me to understand and support Emily’s action when she chose on Monday evening to conduct her own wellness check on a neighbor rather than invite the police into a neighborhood of black and brown people. Conference speaker Howard Bryant boldly challenged racial injustice so when Bob encouraged us to watch “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man” after having just attended GA, I made sure I watched and shared it as well.

Another example of the support offered by the UUA is the policy the First UU Pandemic Task Force wrote this week regarding meeting in small groups. It is a far more stringent policy than that currently offered by the Greene-County Health Department. The task force used the UUA guidelines, the collective wisdom of a national community, to write our own document. In addition, the third responsive resolution we adopted at GA urges us to expand the concern we have for our community during the pandemic to become advocates for universal health care.

I mark the success of a conference I attend by the number of books I buy or can find at the library. This was a five book conference, with another two on hold! As a result of attending a workshop about decentralizing the church power structure, the first book I’m tackling is Thrive: The Facilitator’s Guide to Radically Inclusive Meetings.

So how does my attendance at General Assembly square with the work we’ve been doing recently at First UU? The workshops I attended pushed me to challenge assumptions. I’ve developed a new “Why not?” attitude. Why not paint the lectern purple? (I watched the Queer Eye episode where that happened in the quest to create a more welcoming church.) Why not invite new members to leadership positions? Why not consider the ways people with young families and fulltime jobs can have a greater voice? Why not be the radically inclusive church we say we are?

It’s either “Why not?” or it’s “Why didn’t we?” Let us be the “Why not” church.

Hello, I’m Susanne Bounds and I use she/her pronouns.

When I first started attending First UU of Springfield last year, I noticed right away it lacked a center, a clear focus or vision; it is right now a loosely affiliated group of people, many taking refuge from organized religion. Refuges are important in this world, but if not continually refreshed, they can easily become stagnant and no longer offer the refuge they once could, so that few want to stop and stay because they cannot get fed and comfortably and safely sheltered. Like all of us, I have seen prospective members come and go with alarming frequency, so that I can only wonder what we lack. I associate this with my experience as a teacher: if one student has difficulty with something in my class, well, okay – it happens. Maybe two students, I can live with. But if it gets to three or more, I have to look hard at myself because obviously the problem lies with me and whatever it is that impedes my whole purpose for teaching.

Now, while we are taking a step back because of covid, we could focus on working together to clear the pathways that will encourage fresh water to wash through and refresh our refuge. We have started this with getting Rev. Michelle on board, but we cannot rely on her to clear the pathways herself and they cannot just magically clean themselves – I remember at the first membership committee meeting I went to shortly after I started attending First UU, we talked a bit about the search for a minister and Ruth said even if we do get a minister, the congregation will not automatically or immediately become a healthy family; it will take work from the whole congregation. I agreed then, and I agree now.

The workshops I chose to attend at this year’s UU General Assembly gave me several glimpses of how we might get to work, focusing on two themes: one about diversity and inclusivity and a second about methods to achieve those ends. These two themes also went hand-in-hand with the keynote speakers’ messages, so like Colleen, I had a quite inspiring and reinforcing experience. I’m hoping to share that experience to help us draw in the fresh water that can reinvigorate our community refuge and expand it to help surrounding areas become likewise refreshed and better, more healthy environments for all its inhabitants.

Rev. Keith Kron and Rev. Patrice Curtis led a workshop titled “Why We Want and Resist Diversity.” My main takeaway from this workshop is just how difficult it is to implement change within a UU congregation because of the many places the congregants are at, from those who are completely comfortable with the status quo (designated by the number 4 on a chart Keith gave) to those who demand change (designated by a 1), with many fitting between the two poles. Keith explained, “if you’re a one and you’re trying to talk to a four about anti-oppression work, you’re literally talking two different languages.” To be able to move forward and develop a more diverse, inclusive community, Patrice noted we need to develop a way to “look not only at … prejudice, but also … at the systems of power and privilege at work in our congregations, what is defined as ‘normal,’ and how we move forward.” Karin Lin, a presenter at another workshop I attended, “Why Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity Matters to Your Congregation,” talked about “the difference between saying ‘all are welcome here’ versus saying ‘this was created with you in mind’. For example, having an open gathering for people of color that someone can just come and plug into immediately sends the message ‘hello, we see you, we’ve been expecting you.’”

Right now, as long as people are willing to adapt to our First UU ways, they are welcome, but we do not tend to put ourselves out to be welcoming – yet. As Colleen said so well: why not?

Why not celebrate and really welcome the different, in all its forms?

Make the leap from tolerance of difference to embracing and expecting it?

What can we do to create the refuge where people are fed and feel comfortable and safe and want to stay and contribute their energy?

Develop a refuge that is healthily diverse and that can then work to heal the harms in its surrounding environments?

How can we use this time to be proactive and develop a stronger, more active mission statement and devise a vision statement to go with it, so that we move forward with vigor toward the Beloved Community we want within and without, in the world as a whole?

My name is Babs Garcia and I’m comfortable with she/her and they/them pronouns.

I want to start by saying “Thank You” to the congregation for sponsoring my attendance in this year’s all virtual GA.

I could share with you about the number of informative, thought provoking workshops I attended during the Wednesday evening through Sunday afternoon sessions of the 2020 GA. While these were interesting, powerful and thought-provoking lessons and lectures that were meaningful and important for me to hear them, the MOST valuable part of my GA experience was the worship services. Precisely because these topics are interesting and thought provoking, and because they call us to action, I know the message will not land or stick, for me, if I’m not in a place to hear it or of a mind and heart to act. I have to be emotionally, physically ready. But I’ll be honest, I wasn’t feeling ready.

Starting in March of this year, my world got very small. Like most of you, my day to day shifted to a home office, zoom meetings. Life was more quiet inside my house, but outside the world was feeling evermore chaotic. With a backdrop of a global pandemic and the ever increasing awareness that we were botching the response, and as the Black Lives Matter movement gained wider traction, the social tension elevated and the racist rhetoric from the White House and from my own family members seemed to land with more force and greater frequency I was feeling overwhelmed, frustrated, isolated and helpless. Leading up to GA this year, I was still living every day with my headphones on, staring at the computer screen. I was regularly engaging in fruitless arguments on Facebook trying to describe to my less progressive family members what Defund the Police actually means. I’ve drawn away from work in this community following the end of my term on the board that ended in December. Still shuffling through the grief of losing my father in law in March, my emotional capacity was stretched very thin. Leading up to the GA, I was beyond stressed and exhausted. I couldn’t articulate it then, but the question on my mind was, “how will I ever help make this world any better? I’m tired and fearful myself. I’m not ready and I don’t know how to get ready.”

On Wednesday evening, at the start of the first worship service, I was sitting in front of my computer, headphones on, ready to watch, but maybe not ready to participate. The Welcoming Celebration started with a video of Wampanoag Drummers singing and drumming followed by Jessie Little Do Baird’s opening words, inviting us to speak to our ancestors, invite them in to dance with us.

At first I listened and almost academically appreciating the centering of the service on the voices of indigenous people, the drumming, the singing and dancing. After about a minute, I took off my head phones and turned the volume up on my laptop and stood up. The drumming kept going, and by the time the chant ended, I think it must have been over 5 minutes later, I was moving, and weeping for the beauty of it all. By the end of the service my heart’s heavy burden literally felt lighter when I thought of the thousands of UUs who were listening and worshiping at that same time. Maybe someone else came to the Wednesday night welcoming celebration with a tender heart, a tired heart. I could feel the collective grounding of the service. It really was invocation to show up, take off your head phones and dance with abandon.

On Sunday morning, the service leader Rev. Joan Javier-Duval reminded us that these difficult, uncertain times test our readiness and reminds us that readiness isn’t contingent upon perfectionism or controlling outcomes. It’s a painful, but important reminder that these are the tenets of white supremacy culture. She says, “Being spiritually ready means being willing to try, to make mistakes and to ask forgiveness…

She went on to say, “The individualism so strongly ingrained in our secular culture has a rugged and reckless streak and when we instead embrace our interdependence we can see that there is a sacredness in the sacrifices we make as individuals for the collective good and for collective liberation…

Even when we are surrounded by uncertainty… we can all take up shared work of moving forward toward our shared goals”.

We must do the hard work but, my friends, we simply can not do it with tired, broken hearts. What my connection to the greater UU world tells me, what my experience with GA this year awakened in me, is the absolute necessity of worship, of deep and meaningful connections that start here, in our congregation. That starts with me and you, showing up. Being willing to give our time and our vulnerability and work on that beloved community together. The message from Rev. Danielle Di Bona during one service was a call to bravery, a call to courage and faithfulness. The reminder that the work that needs to be done will not be comfortable.

My experience at the GA this year was a priceless gift of encouragement, connection, and resolve. My heart may be tender, and there is no doubt that we are living in difficult, uncertain times, but my heart is thankful and ready for what comes next.

Thank you.

Categories: Sermon