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Guest Post by Ben Soule

The day after the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly ended my wife Deb and I were still in New Orleans. Most of the other delegates had already flown out and Deb was scheduled to be in meetings with some of the remaining UUA leaders, so I had some time to myself. Finding that the museum I intended to visit was closed on Mondays, I decided to take a long walk through my favorite city instead.  I took out my cell phone, opened Google Maps, dropped a pin in the middle of the Bywater District, hit the start button, and set off.

I was glad for this chance to get out of the hotel room, out of the GA bubble, and stretch my legs.  I was also glad to be able to have a chance to reflect on all that had happened in the past five days.  I thought back on all of the mind- and soul-stretching workshops I had attended, working to understand where I fit in the seismic shift in Unitarian Universalism that this year’s Assembly has signaled.  In addition, I had set out on my own quest to answer some questions for which I could find no ready answers, such as:

~ What is the cultural origin of the word ashé? 
~ Why have “indigenous people” been given a separate category from the larger category of people of color? 
~ How did the phrase “white supremacy” come to be the default term for that which we are working against?  
~ And my last and only unanswered question of the week: How do we wrestle with the issues raised by the brutal attack on two UUA staff members in the French Quarter on Saturday night, in light of all we had learned in recent days?  I was working hard on that one.

My route took me around much of the crescent for which the old city was nick-named.  As I crossed Bienville I recalled the news report from that morning saying that the attack took place on “the 200 block of Bienville.”  I glanced to my left and wondered.  I continued past Jackson Square, past the French market, through the industrial end of the Marigny district and into the Bywater.  The Bywater is a pleasant neighborhood that appears to have come a long way since Katrina, and shows signs of the mixed blessing of gentrification.  I walked along Rue Dauphine past many brightly painted houses as well as some that clearly needed to be worked on.  I came to a corner with a Mom and Pop market and a flower and bookshop where my GPS told me I had another 100 feet to my destination.  I walked the last few steps, stopped and looked around, hoping that there would be  something there, something significant, something that I was supposed to find.  But there wasn’t. Just some well-kept houses on a quiet street shaded by lime trees. 

So I turned back the way I had come to that last street corner.  It was mid-afternoon on a warm New Orleans day and I was glad to be able to buy something cold to drink at the market.  I stepped past a few people sitting in the shade of the sidewalk awning and entered the dimly lit market.  I exchanged a few pleasantries with the woman behind the counter as I bought a bottle of fruit juice and had a few gulps.  I stepped out onto the sidewalk and looked across the street at the book and florist shop I had passed earlier. 

And then I knew why I was there.  I crossed and went into the tiny florist’s but no one was there.  I called up the stairs where the books must have been.  No answer.  As I turned to leave, a young woman appeared in the doorway.  I recognized her from the group across the street.  “Do you work here?” I asked.  “Yes, can I help you?,” she said.  I asked for a small mixed bouquet for a sick friend.  She went to the tinier back room and returned with a lovingly assembled splash of colors and look of sympathy in her eyes.  I asked for a card to write a note, jotted a few words and tied it with the yarn around the brown paper bundle.  I paid her the $13.20, thanked her, asked for the most interesting route back to the Quarter, and set off.

On Burgundy I passed a carefully restored Esso station with a sign saying “No gas today.”  On Elysian Fields I saw a circle of rust brown statue-people facing defiantly outward.  On Rue Royal I was greeted with a “How y’all doin’” by a young man, and I saw a young woman retrieve an electronic recorder for a UPS driver that had fallen from his truck.  Everything seemed to have meaning to me in the hyperaware state I was in because my GA experience. 

I was nearly all the way across the Quarter when I drained the last of the now-warm juice, and saw the sign for Rue Bienville up ahead.  My heart was pounding as I turned left toward the river.  I passed the 400 block and crossed North Peters.  I seemed to be out of what I thought of as the French Quarter but I kept on. Ahead was a single four-story brick building surrounded by parking lots.  I realized that the flowers’ brown paper wrapper was soaked through with my own sweat as I took the bouquet with my right hand from the crook of my left arm and approached the building.  It was marked number 208.

There was a man setting up a power washer.  The intake hose was in a drainage ditch of an adjacent building project.  As he started the washer I saw that his job was to wash away the sand that was strewn on the sidewalk.  My realization that I had found the right place was confirmed when, as he cleaned away the top layer, I saw the caked red sand beneath.

209 NOLAI placed the flowers in a nook in the front of building and left the man to his task. As I walked away I wondered why I had done this thing.  It was not my typical behavior.  I didn’t do it for myself, and I knew it would make little difference to the victims.  I had no expectation that the flowers would be there more than 10 minutes after I left.  But I understood I was the only person in that place and at that time who could make that gesture, who could bear witness, as Deb phrased it later.  I understood that no matter how difficult we find the road that we travel together, no matter how long it takes to hear and to know each others’ deepest stories, how painful it is to create a welcome place in our movement for all who wish to join, we must stand together.

Clearly I had felt a call from my deep life-long connection to Unitarian Universalism.  I am grateful to have been awake and aware enough to heed that call.

Ben Soule is a lifelong Unitarian Universalist.  He resides in Lexington, MA and is a member of First Parish in Lexington.

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A little more than a year ago, I wrote a piece called “Sound Stew” about the amazing week on Star Island, coordinated by Carl and Cheryl-Anne Sturken, which focused on music and sound, in many, many forms.  I’ve decided that a follow-up is in order, given that I recently returned from another conference which celebrated music in many forms.

I refer to the Unitarian Universalist Musicians Network (UUMN), an organization dear to me for its mission and work serving professional musicians and those offering music ministry within Unitarian Universalism.  For years I served as the liaison from the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) to this organization, trying to help the group focus on mission and goals, strengthen their programmatic offerings, and develop a strong relationship with the UUA.  They succeeded and – while I wasn’t looking for it – they captured my heart.  This organization became my organization, and when my time to serve as liaison ended, they honored me with a lifetime membership.

And so I continue to be part of UUMN, serving now as their Director of Communications, and as a Good Officer as well. I know the UUA is a small denomination.  But if that fact leads one to believe that its musicians will be small, second-rate, or less than other faith communities (or artist communities, for that matter) might offer, the assumption would be wrong. I continually marvel at the talent that makes each gathering of the UUMN bubble and pop with energy.

Here are composers who write moving contemporary music for worship and the spirit (bless you, Clif Hardin) who I would match up with anyone. Here are fabulous jazz performers, singers who might as well be appearing on Broadway, conductors who are absolutely first-rate, and those who come equipped with toy pianos and some gizmo I’d never seen (and which I am probably mis-spelling) called a binocular that emits amazing sounds. And here are worship leaders who are as skilled as any I’ve seen – fine preachers, superb liturgists, people who really get what good worship is and know how to bring it.

More than that, they are fabulous to be with — warm, inspiring, talented as all get-out, and dedicated to enriching our Unitarian Universalist faith through their good works and artistry.  Many of them — way too many — are dramatically underpaid, working without benefit of health care or church-supported pension plans.  Far too many could tell stories about the ordained clergy in their congregations treating them like “the music people” rather than like colleagues.  Some have been working at their churches for more than fifty years (here’s to you, Alfa Radford) and soon will retire; others have come from or moved to ordained parish ministry (David Glasgow and Jason Shelton, among others), some oversee music programs in their churches that keep them employed full-time and bring them to Eastern Europe to conduct their choirs (Beth Norton, for instance).

And a growing number are seeking credentialing from the UUA to acknowledge the effort and study they have devoted to becoming highly skilled and excellent music leaders, just as we so honor our religious educators and ministers.

All of these people contribute their own unique pulse and rhythm to the annual UUMN gathering, all of them help to weave a fabric that is diverse and rich and inspiring.  Through some amazing piece of good fortune, years ago, I got thrown into the same room with them, and it’s been pretty much a love fest ever since. Long may it continue, for (as the beloved hymn says, this sound ragout helps to move us “to a more profound  ‘Alleluia!'”

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In May, I posted on this topic with thoughts on why the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) should not to action to pull its General Assembly (GA) out of Phoenix (2012) in protest of the repressive Arizona law, SB1070.  In June, the General Assembly did vote to gather in 2012 in Phoenix for a GA that will be different from others and acutely focused on social justice issues and partnership-building with organizations including Puente.

But 2012’s a long way off, and it would be easy for an organization, or individuals, to lose focus around these issues.  Fortunately the enactment of SB1070, and the commitment to witness for justice shown by Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Phoenix, and others, has not allowed this to happen.

On July 29, responding to a call put out by Frederick-Gray, Sal Reza of Puente, and others, more than 200 UU leaders and lay people committed to social justice went to Phoenix and other cities to put their money, and in many cases, their bodies, where their mouths were.  29 UUs were arrested in Phoenix, dragged off to the jail of the repressive Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and given a taste of the Sheriff’s form of justice.

UUA Moderator Gini Courter and others had helped to prepare those who would be arrested by writing the phone number of a lawyer on their arms in black marker, so that when all possessions were taken away, the phone number would remain.  From what I could observe, everyone present was prepared for a long seige.  UUA President Peter Morales was one of those arrested, and during the night, while he and other protestors sat in jail awaiting arraignment, those who remained free stood outside the jail, holding vigil through the night.

All this is a far cry from the kind of public witness the UUA used to engage in.  Although a successful “Back Alley March” was held in Milwaukee, WI in 1990 as part of the GA to lend support to the efforts of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and other groups to ensure the right to safe and accessible abortion services, the next year (1991) brought a paltry gathering down to the beaches of Hollywood, FL where a few placards were raised and waived — with no press in evidence — in support of ecological protections.  By 1993 an event to oppose North Carolina sodomy laws and support the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people had been organized, with a great deal of UU support — but the timing of the event was so late that the daily news cycle had ended before the demonstration began and mostly, those demonstrating were talking to themselves.

Thanks to the continuing work of UUA’s public witness team, the expert coaching of communication consultant Helio Fred Garcia, and the deep commitment of many people of faith, things have changed over the years.  A shout-out is due to Susan Leslie and Audra Friend of the UUA’s Advocacy and Witness staff group, who have had primary responsibility for organizing the GA public witness events of the last several years.  Leslie and Friend were in evidence in Arizona as well last week, along with the UUA’s Standing on the Side of Love (SOSL) team, helping UU leaders select gathering spots, making sure that word got out to the outside world.  The SOSL bright yellow T-shirts were everywhere, ensuring that when people protested or were dragged away, the media and Unitarian Universalists would know that it was one of ours being hauled off.

Effective public witness, as Garcia frequently says, “needs to be both public, and witnessed.”  While that makes for one of those “duh” moments – how literal do we need to get here? – it’s not always easy to pull off.  Too many times, multiple agendas and good intention have served to undermine the desire to make an impact in the Public Square.  Effective witness calls for deep grounding in the fundamental principles of faith, the opportunity to make something happen that will be noticed, and a natural fit with the organization engaging in action.

This time, the UUA got it right from one end to the other.  The partnerships formed with Puente and other organizations have been intentional and healthy.  I believe that organizations on the ground in Arizona know that they can count on the Unitarian Universalists, and others of faith, to stand with them as they fight for justice.  Opinion pieces from UU leaders showed up in The Huffington Post and elsewhere prior to July 29.  Those involved in the demonstrations were tweeting, Facebooking, blogging, producing videos, taking photos that they uploaded to the web immediately.  Reporters (print, radio, internet, TV) were present.  The story got out.

This is not an end, it’s a beginning.  There will have to be much more…more relationship-building, more education, more demonstrations and almost surely, more arrests, all leading to the 2012 Phoenix GA.  But this is what witnessing the faith is about.

The UUA is preparing to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary.  Early in the UUA’s history (borne out of the consolidation of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America), Rev. Dana Greeley, the first UUA President, asked ministers to respond to the call of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. to come to Selma and witness their commitment to civil rights and justice for all.  Many went and marched over the Edmund Pettus Bridge, arm in arm, and one died for the cause.  In 2010, ministers and lay people responded to Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray’s call and went to Phoenix to stand for the civil rights of those who come to this country in search of a better life.

From where I sit, it seems like the UUA has come full circle in its understanding of how to witness the faith.  As UU minister Kendyl Gibbons wrote, “the time is now, the place is here…[there is] no other world” but this one, calling out for effective witness in support of simple justice for all our people.

Watch:

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