The Doubtless Very Different St. Benedict

Words of Alasdair MacIntyre haunt me:
What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are not waiting for a Godot, but for another – doubtless very different – St. Benedict. (After Virtue)
(Why Benedict? Benedict of Nursia [480-547] composed the "Rule of Saint Benedict", a set of rules for monastic life that were so widely adopted throughout the middle ages that Benedict is thought of as the the founder of Western Christian monasticism. For MacIntyre, Benedict thus represents the salvaging of "civility and the intellectual and moral life" and "the tradition of the virtues" after the fall of Rome.)

"New dark ages . . . are already upon us," he says. The "barbarians . . . have already been governing us for some time." It's startling to realize that he wrote this 1980.

Actually, though, this sense of decay of order is a leitmotif of the last century. In 1919, W.B. Yeats wrote:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
I am not as pessimistic as MacIntyre, nor do I find the dichotomy between barbarism and virtue quite as compelling as he does. The Greek and Roman virtues are valuable, but some newer virtues -- equality, most generally and most significantly -- are also important. Still, the sense of things falling apart has only been growing -- if not continuously for the 100 years since since Yeats wrote, then in the 40 years since MacIntyre's passage. On the right, this manifests as a reactionary urge to return to a largely imaginary period of American greatness. On the left, it is the populist appeal of that reactionary urge that occasions a feeling of civilizational collapse.

Still, I believe MacIntyre is right that, "What matters . . . is the construction of local forms of community." It is that conviction, and the desire to contribute what I could to construction of moral community, that propelled me eventually out from the academy to the congregation.

My money's on the proposition that it is we -- we who gather to share our lives, strengthen our values, and deepen our wisdom -- who are ourselves the new St. Benedict. "Doubtless very different," indeed!


Justice on Earth: Chapter 11

The 2018-19 UUA Common Read is:

This week, I’m looking at Chapter 11:
Mel Hoover and Rosed Edington, "Water Unites Us.”

Hoover and Edington were co-ministers serving the UU Congregation (UUC) in Charleston, West Virginia in 2014 when a water contamination disaster struck the area.
“Freedom Industries and the West Virginia Water Company (WVAC) allowed 4-methylcyclohexanemethano (MCHM – used for removing clay and shale from coal) to poison a water system serving 300,000 people in nine counties.” (120)
Advisories told people not to use the water for anything other than flushing the toilet and putting out fires. Schools were closed. Restaurants were ordered
“closed until the tap water was declared safe or owners could demonstrate they had enough bottled water on hand to operate. . . . Some went out of business.” (121)
WVAW’s response was slow. Though a two-day supply of water in backup tanks was legally required, there was none.

What did UUC do?

They got to work
“helping low-income families who otherwise would have to choose between purchasing bottled water and paying their rent, delivering water to those who could not get to distribution sites, and organizing and advocating for legislation to ensure safe water.” (122)
In the ensuing, and ultimately successful, drive for new state legislation requiring chemical storage tanks to be registered and monitored, “rallies, demonstrations, and press conferences were often planned at UUC and attended by UUC member” (124).

To help UUC deal with the crisis, more than $24,000 was donated to UUC from individuals and UU congregations in the region and nationally. UUC “established a Clean Water Fund and a Clean Water Task Force to administer the financial donations” (126).

Hoover and Edington remind us
“that water everywhere is at risk, that everyone is downstream from something, and nearly everyone is at potential risk from flooding . . . increases in extreme water events are projected for all US regions” (128).
You’ll want to read the chapter to get the inspiring details of UUC’s work in Charleston.

How well do you understand the system that delivers water into your home? Where does the water come from? What potentially polluting industries might be a source of toxic contamination?

What do you know about lead poison risk in your area?

(A map of lead-poisoning risk is HERE. For may congregation in the metropolitan NYC area, the map shows that a large part of the Bronx is at the highest risk of lead exposure – Risk Level 10. There’s also a Level 10 risk in much of Yonkers and parts of Mt. Vernon, New Rochelle, and Ossining. Other parts of Yonkers, Mt. Vernon, New Rochelle, and Ossining are at Level 9 risk, as are parts of White Plains, Mamaroneck, Hastings-on-Hudson, Greenburgh, Mount Pleasant, Peekskill, and most of Pelham and of Portchester. About 90% of the area of the Bronx is at Risk Level 8 or higher. More than half the area of southern Westchester (that is, south of a line from Armonk to Sleepy Hollow), is at Risk Level 7 or higher. In all of Westchester, nowhere is the risk Level as low as 1 or 2, and there are a only few scattered census tracts at Risk Level 3. All the rest of the county is at Risk Level 4 or higher for lead. Community UU Congregation at White Plains is in a tract assessed at Lead Risk Level 4. To our southeast, the tract on the other side of the Hutchinson is at Lead Risk Level 6. Just north of us, the tract through the middle of which Bryant Ave runs, is at Lead Risk Level 7.)

What should you know about the factors for lead-exposure risk? What actions are called for?

For my reflection/summary on previous chapters, click the title:
  1. Jennifer Nordstrom, "Intersectionality, Faith, and Environmental Justice"
  2. Paula Cole Jones, "The Formation of the Environmental Justice Movement"
  3. Sheri Prud'homme, "Ecotheology"
  4. Sofia Betancourt, "Ethical Implications of Environmental Justice"
  5. Adam Robersmith, "Cherishing Our World: Avoiding Despair in Environmental Justice Work"
  6. Peggy Clarke, Matthew McHale, "Becoming Resilient: Community Life for a New Age
  7. Kathleen McTigue, "Drawing on the Deep Waters: Contemplative Practice in Justice-Making
  8. Pamela Sparr, "Transforming Unitarian Universalist Culture: Stepping Out of Our Silos and Selves
  9. Kathleen McTigue, “Learning to Change: Immersion Learning and Climate Justice
  10. Peggy Clarke, "Eating the Earth"


Shared Planet. Shared Faith. Reflection #2.

Rev. Meredith Garmon
All-Westchester Worship Service
2019 Mar 17

I'm mindful that as we gather to worship and reflect together on our Earth and our faith, our hearts are also carrying the fresh wound of Friday’s shootings at mosques in New Zealand. Fifty are dead; another dozen are in critical condition. While Australia has tight gun control policies, New Zealand is at the other end of the spectrum, similar to the U.S.

Our own country has been under a scourge of gun violence for some time – a shadow that will not lift. On the occasions of such shootings we hear people say, “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and families.” We may also hear, “What good are your thoughts and prayers?”

Indeed, it’s tempting to be cynical about public statements of prayers being with. While we can pass no judgments on the sincerity of anyone’s prayers, we may suspect that many of these prayers are doing nothing to transform, deepen, or even connect the pray-er. We don’t know -- though it has occurred to me to wonder -- how much prayer actually happens. The prayers we are told are with the victims and families, in some cases, perhaps, are never prayed. If they were, we might see greater commitment to the holy tasks of building beloved community: reducing violence, fostering respect, ending injustice, making peace, strengthening institutions, developing practices of neighborliness, joy, and sustainability.
Our Earth needs our prayers.

Our Earth and all its peoples, all its inhabitants, all its life – need our prayers – because our daily lives push and pull at us with a constant flow of concerns, issue, matters to be dealt with, meals to fix, dishes to wash, jobs to do. If we do not pause, step back for a few minutes every day, to remind ourselves of what we want to our lives to be beyond to-do list, reconnect with the big picture beyond the minutiae of each day, reorient ourselves to the love that we are here for, then our spirits are not sustainable.

You can make your house fully solar powered – get rid of your car and walk, bicycle, carpool or use public transportation to get around – eat vegetarian because 15% of greenhouse gases come from the meat industry – plant a tree every day, grow your food, remove plastic from your life.
You can reduce your carbon footprint and your net resource consumption and pollution to zero. You can do all that and still not be living sustainably if you aren’t taking times for quiet reconnection to, and reaffirmation of, what’s the meaning of your life and the joy of existence.

Our energies will flag if our spirits are not sustained. Worse, we may be driven by anger and frustration and fear and set back the very causes to which we vociferously declare our allegiance if we do not maintain the spiritual work of keeping ourselves grounded. It’s not that anger and fear don’t have roles to play. The wholeness of our humanity makes a place at the table for the voice of every emotion to be heard. But the beloved community is not constructed where the loudest voices are fear or anger.

The Earth needs us, and it needs our spirits sustained for the long work, and so, it needs our prayers. It needs not the claim of prayers that substitute for action but actual prayers enabling and energizing action: strengthening our resolve, deepening our grounding, and bringing cheer to the work. So let us pray.

Shared Planet. Shared Faith. Reflection #1

Cindy Davidson
All-Westchester Worship Service
2019 Mar 17

As Unitarian Universalists, we are often called to minister to a weary and unjust world…. And we do rise to the call for justice!

Over the years, we have learned we do our best justice work when we leave behind any tendencies to swoop in as experts and try to fix things, and instead, we build relationships and partner with impacted communities.

We do this, in part, by centering the voices of those most marginalized and by flanking their leadership. We become allies, even accomplices, at times, for the good of all. The same is true as we work together to create climate justice.

Among the many on the frontlines of climate change and injustice are our children, youth and young adults. Because their physical presence, feelings, and energies are absent in today’s line-up of speakers and musicians,

I want to at the least lift up the words of two young climate activists.

Greta Thunberg is a Swedish fifteen-year old who began in August 2018 to skip school on Fridays and sit outside the Swedish Parliament protesting their inaction on reducing carbon emissions. You may have heard she was nominated last week for the Nobel Peace Prize. She addressed leaders of the 2018 United Nations Climate Talks last December and the World Economic Forum in January. There, she said,
“Adults keep saying we owe it to the young people to give them hope. But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic....I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act...I want you to act as if your house is on fire. Because it is.”
What began as her solitary action spawned a global movement: Fridays for the Future.
This past Friday, an estimated 1.4 million students skipped classes to attend 2,052 organized protests in 123 countries.

Columnist Rebecca Solnit, writing in The Guardian, recognized these climate strikers as “the force of possibility that runs through the present like a river through the desert.”

Thirteen-year-old Alexandria Villasenor is part of that force. She is a native of California whose family relocated to New York City so she could breathe more easily. She has followed in Greta’s footsteps and spent every Friday since December outside the UN headquarters protesting their inaction on climate change.

In a recent interview for The Nation, she said,
“It’s important to take action now, because we don’t have time left. By the time the youth are in positions of power, it’ll be too late to reverse climate change. We have to force politicians to start acting on climate change.”
When asked why she wasn’t in school, she replied,
“Why go to school if we won’t have a future? Why go to school if we’re going to be too busy running from the next hurricane or fire?”
She is one of three organizers of the US Youth Climate Strike and was, I imagine, among the many students in New York City on Friday protesting at schools, City Hall, and Columbus Circle, before staging a mass die-in on the steps of the American Museum of Natural History.

Would you, could you, do the same? How might you amplify this force of possibility, and step into the “present like a river through the (parched) desert?”

I encourage you to take more than just this moment and our time together today to reflect upon the fears and courage demanded of those whose future unfolds amidst such unimaginable change and uncertainty. We do owe them and all beings a livable climate.

As Greta Thunberg reminds us, “The one thing we need more than hope is action. Once we start to act, hope is everywhere.” So then, tell me, and tell the children, tell the youth, and tell the young adults, and tell each other – what actions do you intend to take in your one life to help build today’s movement and create climate justice?

For your acts are their hope today and for tomorrow’s tomorrow.


Greta Thunberg, TEDx Stockholm, Nov 24, 2018

Greta Thunberg, COP24, UN Climate Talks in Krakov, Poland, Dec 12, 2108

Greta Thunberg, World Economic Council in Davos, Switzerland, Jan 23, 2019

Rebecca Solnit: “Thank you, climate strikers. Your action matters and your power will be felt.”

“Why Go to School When You Have No Future?” A Q&A With a 13-year Old Climate Striker


Justice on Earth: Chapter 10

The 2018-19 UUA Common Read is:

This week, I’m looking at Chapter 10:
Peggy Clarke, "Eating the Earth.”

Rev. Clarke begins with the story of what rewarding fun she found when she joined a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) – the party with friends who came over to celebrate and partake of the bounty; and learning to can with her neighbors.

Then she got involved with a project to bring people together across generational lines. A community garden seemed just the ticket. “In light of consistent reports of isolation from every corner of American culture, participating in life-sustaining, communal, multigenerational activities that deepen our connection to Earth could become a healing balm” (110).

She co-founded InterGenerate, “a small food-justice organization” for establishing community gardens for which participant neighbors pay $50 a year and commit to “shared work and communal engagement.” A couple years in they were up to four gardens and an “experiment of communal caretaking for about 45 chickens with 25 households.”

Bananas, for instance, from a New York grocery store come to us from Latin American plantations created from deforestation and habitat destruction. They come to us from farm workers who pick them, earning less than a living wage; women who drop them into vats of a carcinogenic solution that slows ripening, at risk of illness and early death from exposure to those chemicals; workers who box them and others who truck them, driving diesel trucks that burn fossil fuels and produce pollutants.

“I am accountable,” says Clarke, “for how food gets to my plate” (112). I’d say, rather, that we are responsible, but, unfortuntately, not accountable. Our spirits want and need to be accountable. We yearn for relationships of accountability. The meaning of our lives flows from embeddedness in relationships that compel us to account for ourselves. That we aren’t accountable to the food supply-chain is a part of the problematic modern condition which engenders lives deracinated (literally, “uprooted,” appropriately enough) and alienated. We desperately need relationships that hold us accountable. In the cooperative labor and the sharing of neighborhood gardens, along with the sustaining food, participants are fed by accountings they give and receive, in word and in body -- accountings much more robust and hearty than the wan, abstracted, depersonalized accounting given by the credit card swipe with which we buy bananas.

Neighborhood gardens build relationships and build community. They reduce our carbon footprint and contribute to saving the planet. They offer an alternative to the food system in which labor is exploited and polluting effects are felt mostly by the poor and communities of color.

These gardens transform participants from isolated and disconnected lonely individuals into people connected to their neighbors and to the good earth. It’s about the food, “but it’s also about harvesting a deeper way of living. It’s about planting and watering and weeding and harvesting community. It’s about deeper life, better life, shared life. It’s about being transformed” (116)

1. “Food deserts” are places where affordable access to fresh produce and other healthy food options is limited. What food deserts are in and around Westchester?
2. How much do you know about the food supply-chain that brings food to your table? How might knowing more change what you do, and change you?

For my reflection/summary on previous chapters, click the title:
  1. Jennifer Nordstrom, "Intersectionality, Faith, and Environmental Justice"
  2. Paula Cole Jones, "The Formation of the Environmental Justice Movement"
  3. Sheri Prud'homme, "Ecotheology"
  4. Sofia Betancourt, "Ethical Implications of Environmental Justice"
  5. Adam Robersmith, "Cherishing Our World: Avoiding Despair in Environmental Justice Work"
  6. Peggy Clarke, Matthew McHale, "Becoming Resilient: Community Life for a New Age
  7. Kathleen McTigue, "Drawing on the Deep Waters: Contemplative Practice in Justice-Making
  8. Pamela Sparr, "Transforming Unitarian Universalist Culture: Stepping Out of Our Silos and Selves
  9. Kathleen McTigue, “Learning to Change: Immersion Learning and Climate Justice


Justice on Earth: Chapter 9

The 2018-19 UUA Common Read is:

This week, I’m looking at Chapter 9:
Kathleen McTigue, “Learning to Change: Immersion Learning and Climate Justice.”

McTigue spent 6 months in the 1980s in Nicaragua as a volunteer host for visiting US citizens encountering the realities of Contra violence. For many, the experience “completely changed their understanding, perspective, and actions – and in some cases, their lives” (97).

Experiential journeys aren’t always done well, but when they are, participants “see more vividly the ways our political and economic systems leave entire populations in the margins, both within our nation and around the world, and we begin to learn what it can mean to become effective allies to their struggles” (98).

Approaching climate change with a “justice lens” means learning about and accepting the leadership of the “voices, choices, and needs of these frontline communities most affected.” McTigue offers four guidelines:

1. Always work with a partner organization made up of the people who are directly affected. “They are in a position to tell us what they actually need from us, and though that sometimes feels incongruent with our expectations, we are far more likely to be of genuine use” (100).

2. Focus on justice rather than service. Service “helps people with an immediate and chronic need,” while justice involves seeking “to challenge and change the systems that give rise to that need in the first place.” Both are important, but the needs of justice are likely to be less tangible and satisfying than service labor. The people need us to hear their stories, “bear witness to their struggles and victories,” “honor the solutions they choose for themselves,” “look unflinchingly at the historic, systemic injustices that may continue to benefit us today,” and “go home prepared to roll up our sleeves and tackle those systems” (102).

3. Use a study framework before, during, and after the program. Before you leave, study up about the community you’ll be visiting and the background of your partner organization. During the encounter experience, study yourself – observe with curiosity the reactions you’re having. Continued study after you get home helps integrate your experience.

4. Ground the program and participants in reflection and spiritual practices. Group reflection helps collective wisdom emerge. Prayer or meditation quiets our inner noise and helps us be less reactive, more open – and able to set aside the urge to “fix it.” “We come up with a great idea that will surely make things better, like a scholarship program or a solar lamp project. As well-meaning as these ideas may be, if they spring from our own need to be of use and are not rooted in the wisdom of the host community, they are likely to have unintended negative results” (105).

1. Would you be interested in taking an immersion justice learning trip? (The UU College of Social Justice has a number of options: see uucsj.org)
2. What “immersion” experience with a frontline community might be available to you right here in Westchester?

For my reflection/summary on previous chapters, click the title:
  1. Jennifer Nordstrom, "Intersectionality, Faith, and Environmental Justice"
  2. Paula Cole Jones, "The Formation of the Environmental Justice Movement"
  3. Sheri Prud'homme, "Ecotheology"
  4. Sofia Betancourt, "Ethical Implications of Environmental Justice"
  5. Adam Robersmith, "Cherishing Our World: Avoiding Despair in Environmental Justice Work"
  6. Peggy Clarke, Matthew McHale, "Becoming Resilient: Community Life for a New Age
  7. Kathleen McTigue, "Drawing on the Deep Waters: Contemplative Practice in Justice-Making
  8. Pamela Sparr, "Transforming Unitarian Universalist Culture: Stepping Out of Our Silos and Selves


Justice on Earth: Chapter 8

The 2018-19 UUA Common Read is:

This week, I'm looking at Chapter 8: Pamela Sparr’s essay, "Transforming Unitarian Universalist Culture: Stepping Out of Our Silos and Selves.” Sparr relates that when she taught about climate justice at a summer institute, she had been warned that participants didn’t want to be “bummed out.” Anyone who speaks about environmental issues faces that question: how to be inspiring rather than paralyzing or depressing. This is what I have said and firmly believe: reality is never depressing. Depression comes from attempts to block out reality. When those attempts fail and awareness seeps in, mixing and conflicting with our desire for denial, depression is the result. Embrace of reality – with no desire to deny any of it – is many things: fascinating, challenging, invigorating, even oddly peaceful. Reality may be beautiful, dangerous, or both. But reality can never be depressing. It's denial that's depressing.

Still, embracing reality is no easy thing. I’m not always great at that myself. But when I’m bummed out or just bored, I ask myself, “what is the reality here that I’m resisting rather than embracing?”

Sparr’s approach is to call for:

(1) a bolder prophetic imagination. We need to speak, among ourselves and to others, in visionary ways, showing humanity a better version of itself, offering moral clarity, and an unflinching insistence on justice.

(2) the courage and capacity to talk religiously. UUs are disproportionately involved in environmental organizations, yet when we show up for this work, our UUism is often invisible. “Our challenge is to move out of our secular skin and to wear our UU skin all the time” (83) – to claim our identity and authority as religious persons. Grounded in our faith, a moral language of hope and justice takes the center – and proposed technical solutions move to the periphery. This means UUs must get comfortable and articulate in about our profound sense of the sacredness of all life, the dignity and worth of every person and every threatened species, our wonder and awe and the interconnected mystery of existence. Faith-rooted solidarity is based on knowing that “my well-being is totally and irrevocably tied up with yours. My liberation is dependent on yours” (84). Acting religiously means that the opposition is never demonized, never “othered,” always loved.

(3) getting out of our silos. Racial injustice, climate change, sexual harassment and abuse, LGBTQ discrimination, environmental degradation and species extinction are all interconnected and all have the same solution: building a world of justice and equality. We can’t let ourselves get into a “single issue” silo.

(4) radical relationship building. “We are going to have to stretch ourselves to befriend and collaborate with many different types of people and movements, including those with whom some of us may feel theologically uncomfortable” (90).

(5) becoming more countercultural. Current culture is characterized by a disconnect from nature and a casual acceptance of power hierarchies (and thus of the injustice and inequality that necessarily inheres in institutionalized hierarchy). Our denomination must transform itself into one that is thoroughly counter to these characteristics.

Sounds to me like a five-fold approach for embracing reality.

Do you know how to go about doing any of these five? Which ones? How?

For my reflection/summary on previous chapters, click the title:
  1. Jennifer Nordstrom, "Intersectionality, Faith, and Environmental Justice"
  2. Paula Cole Jones, "The Formation of the Environmental Justice Movement"
  3. Sheri Prud'homme, "Ecotheology"
  4. Sofia Betancourt, "Ethical Implications of Environmental Justice"
  5. Adam Robersmith, "Cherishing Our World: Avoiding Despair in Environmental Justice Work"
  6. Peggy Clarke, Matthew McHale, "Becoming Resilient: Community Life for a New Age
  7. Kathleen McTigue, "Drawing on the Deep Waters: Contemplative Practice in Justice-Making


Justice on Earth: Chapter 7

This week I'm reflecting on Kathleen McTigue’s essay, "Drawing on the Deep Waters: Contemplative Practice in Justice-Making” – Chapter 7 of the 2018-19 UUA Common Read, Justice on Earth: People of Faith Working at the Intersections of Race, Class and the Environment.

UUs, notes McTigue, “agree broadly that any religion worth the name should help shift our behaviors and actions toward the greater good.” This, she says, “is necessary and laudable, but insufficient.” McTigue explains five reasons we need to do the inner as well as the outer work.

1. Spiritual practices ground us in something bigger than ourselves. “We are connected to and are part of a vast unfolding that we cannot entirely grasp.” Living is not a private affair of the individual – we belong to each other and the universe. When we waste time, we are squandering the universe’s opportunity. This spiritual awareness also helps us attend to care for our fragile planet.

2. Spiritual practices help us stay in the present moment. Incessant stories play out in our heads. If you pay attention to it, you’ll be appalled at your “monkey mind” – the repetitive, boring, and judgmental running commentary going through our heads virtually every waking moment. “Spiritual practices help quiet the noise in our own heads.” This reduces our reactivity and thus reduces internal conflict within a justice movement that occurs when we trigger each other’s unexamined emotional reactions.

3. Spiritual practices cultivate the qualities we most want to bring forward. “Despite what we aim for in our moments of high aspiration, we get caught up in the small stuff. Spiritual practices help tilt us back toward our aspirations.”

4. Spiritual practices remind us that the things we most want to change in the world also exist in ourselves. “If deep inside us we are seething with anger, how shall we be peacemakers? If deep inside us there are the seeds of greed, how will we shift the grotesque chasm between the rich and the poor? Spiritual practices keep us hones, mindful of the fact that the change we want to work for in our world need to be undertaken with a willingness to be changed ourselves.”

5. Spiritual practices help sustain us through confusion and despair. “Despair, discouragement, helplessness, and confusion may all still go parading through our hearts – but spiritual practices help us hold them within a larger context. . . . In the long arc toward justice, our best efforts are just one small part. This allows us to hold even our despair within the larger frame of this lifetime work. Grounded again in hope, we can then bring that hope back out with us, to all the others who are struggling to find their way in this beautiful, fragile, difficult world.”

1. What’s your spiritual practice, and how does it integrate with your justice work?
2. Have you had experiences in your justice work where you later wished you’d been more spiritually grounded?

Yours in faith,

Justice on Earth: Chapter 6

This week I'm reflecting on Peggy Clarke and Matthew McHale’s essay, "Becoming Resilient: Community Life for a New Age” – Chapter 6 of the 2018-19 UUA Common Read, Justice on Earth: People of Faith Working at the Intersections of Race, Class and the Environment.

The prophetic task, the authors note, is not merely to decry injustice. It’s more broadly about nurturing, nourishing, and evoking, an alternative community. The essay then develops in two parts:

1. Resilience-based organizing. Here we learn about Movement Generation, which offers trainings, resources, and support to social movements led by communities of color or low income. Movement Generation’s organizing approach is rooted in community “in a way that reorients power to be more local and democratic.”

The approach is inspired by such examples as the Black Panthers and MST (Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement -- Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra). The Black Panthers’ less famous programs provided services such as free breakfast for school children, free medical clinics and drug rehab, clothing distribution, and classes on politics and economics. In Brazil, MST peacefully occupies unused land, securing it for the dispossessed. MST sets up cooperative farms, constructs houses, schools, and clinics while working for environmental sustainability and promoting Indigenous culture and gender equality.

2. Congregations as centers for community resilience. “Houses of worship will need to become centers of hope and resilience.” Doing this will entail congregational engagement with the communities around us -- offering meeting places and shelter, learning centers for reskilling, among other things. “We can start by identifying local ‘front-line communities’ – low-income communities and communities of color who bear the brunt of the devastation of the modern industrial system and who are leaders in the struggle to shift toward a more just and sustainable future.” Once such a prospective community is identified, the congregation’s task is solidarity, listening, relationship-building, humility, and a willingness to take on a support role when asked – NOT to expect to swoop in as the savior or the experts.

The authors conclude: “Without authentic partnership and without clearly understanding the systemic transformation required, our response to the current climate crisis will be insufficient. . . . Building resilient communities is the transformative response these times demand.”

What communities around CUUC are most directly affected by issues in which environment and race come together? How might CUUC develop a relationship of solidarity with those communities?

One response to the essay might be: “I’m convinced that we need to commit ourselves to supporting and nurturing communities of resilience. But I don’t see any need for congregations. Congregations should simply fold – transferring their land, buildings, and members’ energy to organizations like Movement Generation.” How would you respond to this suggestion? The members of a support network for resilient community would share a kind of “secular faith” – is that faith enough?

Yours in faith,

Justice on Earth: Chapter 5

This week I'm reflecting on Adam Robersmith's essay, "Cherishing Our World: Avoiding Despair in Environmental Justice Work" -- Chapter 5 of the 2018-19 UUA Common Read, Justice on Earth: People of Faith Working at the Intersections of Race, Class and the Environment.

The situation is dire, Robersmith reminds us:
“We are affecting our climate and ecosystem in ways that are detrimental to life on the planet and to how we live….We should have changed as a nation long ago, yet we have not….Research shows that our acts disproportionately affect the poor and oppressed all over the world, yet we continue to use harmful technologies and resources.”
Trying to scare people into changing behaviors and policies hasn’t worked terribly well. Robersmith is reminded of our Universalist ancestors. When the predominant theology used fear (of hell) to induce righteousness, our ancestors pointed out:
“The preaching of future rewards and punishments, for the purpose of inducing people to love God and moral virtue, is not only useless, but pernicious.” (Hosea Ballou, 1834)
Rather than extrinsic punishments or rewards, argued Ballou, we ought to preach that God and moral virtue are intrinsically worthy and lovely.

Along similar lines, Robersmith urges that the value of the environment lies not in financial measures or apocalypse prevention. Rather, it is intrinsically worthy and lovely.
“If we, as a nation, a people, or a species, loved this planet as our Universalist ancestors understood loving God, we would have already made so many different choices about how we live on this Earth and with each other.”
In particular, by turning away from fear-based arguments about economies and catastrophes threatening all humanity, we can, instead, attend to localized effects on marginalized populations: mountaintop removal and strip mining degrade environments of poor communities; water poisoned with pollutants flows disproportionately into poorer communities of color; for example.

What Robersmith doesn’t mention is nonattachment to results. Of course, we should as lovingly and as rationally as possible discern strategies most likely to succeed, but sometimes we’ll guess wrong, and other times, even when our strategy has the best odds of success, we will still fail. Plan carefully for success, then let go of attachment to whether success happens. “The victory is in the doing,” as Gandhi said – not in the outcome.

“Turning off the water while brushing our teeth,” says Robersmith, “makes a difference and is a necessary next act.” But this is either hyperbole or fantasy. If it’s necessary, then one person failing to turn off the water one time means the planet is doomed. In fact, one person saving one quart of water per brush does not, in itself, make any measurable difference to the Earth – especially here in New York where water is plentiful. But it makes a difference to the one who does it. Practices of care change us even if they don’t change the planet. And if we are changed, we are more likely to influence others and do things that do make a difference. The victory, to repeat, is in the doing.

In leaving out the role of nonattachment to results, the risk is that we may disavow fear-mongering only to find ourselves mongering shame.

For my reflection/summary on previous chapters, click the title:
  1. Jennifer Nordstrom, "Intersectionality, Faith, and Environmental Justice"
  2. Paula Cole Jones, "The Formation of the Environmental Justice Movement"
  3. Sheri Prud'homme, "Ecotheology"
  4. Sofia Betancourt, "Ethical Implications of Environmental Justice"
Yours in faith,


Justice on Earth: Chapter 4

This week I'm reflecting on Sofia Betancourt's essay, "Ethical Implications of Environmental Justice" -- Chapter 4 of the 2018-19 UUA Common Read, Justice on Earth: People of Faith Working at the Intersections of Race, Class and the Environment.

Betancourt got me thinking about the whiteness of the American environmental movement. Searching around, I learned that a survey released 2018 Oct
“found that about one-third of African-Americans, half of whites, and two-thirds of Latinos and Asians consider themselves to be environmentalists.” (Anthropocene, 2018 Oct 30)
OK, so environmentalism is not just a white people’s thing. But it is perceived that way. The survey also found that
“across racial and ethnic groups, people tended to underestimate how concerned people of color are about the environment, and overestimate how concerned white people are.” (Anthropocene, 2018 Oct 30)
Indeed, mainstream environmentalist organizations – groups like the Sierra Club, the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and the Nature Conservancy – have, through their long history, consisted largely of upper- and middle-class whites focused on protecting wilderness areas. These groups have made the face of US environmentalism disproportionately white. More to the point, their focus -- protecting wilderness areas – has racial justice implications.

Consider the question of where to put waste facilities, landfills, dumps, and the most polluting industries. We clearly aren’t going to put them in wealthy, white neighborhoods. So (until we find a way to eliminate such pollution sources), that leaves two options: put them in poorer and darker-skinned neighborhoods, or put them out in an area away from human habitation. The historically predominantly-white environmental organizations (Sierra Club, NRDC, etc) work to keep industries, landfills, etc. from encroaching on our uninhabited areas -- thereby unwittingly pushing toxic pollution into poorer, black or Latino neighborhoods.

Betancourt cautions against
“a perilous tendency to sacrifice entire populations of our human family in the name of acting quickly.”
Black and brown folks’
“experiences of environmental racism and injustice are erased by a movement born out of an imagined pristine wilderness empty of humanity.”
She cites Aldo Leopold’s ethic –
“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
This influential principle, however, says nothing about environmental justice. It tends to treat “humanity” as a monolith – something to rein in for the sake of the planet. Instead -- or, rather, in addition -- we must attend to how consequences and risks of environmental destruction are unequally distributed within the human population.

  • Our first principle commits us to the worth and dignity of all – and thus to combat racism. Our seventh principle commits us respect the interdependent web – and thus to combat environmental harm. How do you balance and honor both of these imperatives in your spiritual life?
  • American individualism weakens the ethic of mutual care and engagement necessary for honoring the dignity of all. What are your relationships with communities of color? How might you reach out and deepen those relationships, from an ethic of care and mutuality?


Justice on Earth: Chapter 3

The 2018-19 UUA Common Read: Manish Mishra-Marzetti and Jennifer Nordstrom, eds., Justice on Earth: People of Faith Working at the Intersections of Race, Class and the Environment. Available from UUA Bookstore HERE; from Amazon HERE.

This week, chapter 3: Sheri Prud'homme, "Ecotheology."
“A prevalent theme in ecotheology is the radical interdependence of all existence and the accompanying mandate to view humankind as embedded in a complex web of relationships with other organisms that have intrinsic value.”
With these echoes of the UU 7th principle – and the 1st – ecotheology is substantially connected to UU theology. Significant ecotheologians include Thomas Berry, Brian Swimme, John Cobb, Joanna Macy, Sallie McFague, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Catherine Keller.
“All that exists in in relationship with everything. As Ivone Gebara writes in Longing for Running Water, it ‘is not a mechanical interdependence but a living one: a sacred interdependence that is vibrant and visceral’.”
Ecology becomes ecotheology when it encounters a sense of mystery, when the study of the relations of life forms to one another and their environment evokes awe and wonder. Theology, historically and currently, may serve the interests of dominance and empire by coopting God into a story that underwrites the social inequities of its time. Mindfulness of mystery can help protect against such cooptation. African-American writers such as theologian James Cone and Shamara Shantu Riley express the connections between oppression of people, exploitation of animals, and ravaging of nature.

For many ecotheologians, God does not precede the cosmos, but arose and unfolds with the cosmos. Ecotheology lends itself to pantheism (God and the universe are the same thing), or to panentheism (God and creation are inextricably intertwined, but not identical, as they participate together in creation’s unfolding).
“As McFague explains in The Body of God, ‘Everything that is, is in God and God is in all things and yet God is not identical to the universe, for the universe is dependent on God in a way that God is not dependent on the Universe’.”
Unitarians and Universalists of the 19th-century foreshadowed many of ecotheology’s concerns. UUs today
“are increasingly able to participate powerfully in ecumenical and multi-faith efforts when we draw on God language and images that are inclusive, expansive, immanent, and intermingled with the unfolding of creation.”
The writings of ecotheologians provides us a language for connecting with people of other traditions yet one UUs can use with integrity.

Ecotheology’s ethic emerges from seeing that the source of evil always lies in a good and necessary need taken to excess. Virtue is skill in balancing all needs.

  • What seems to you attractive about ecotheology? Are there aspects that give you pause?
  • How does the power of beauty affect your work for justice?
  • Ecotheologians are apt to say “God (the holy, the sacred) is in all of the created universe,” or that “God (the holy, the sacred) is the universe,” or that “God (the holy, the sacred) is creativity itself.” How might these thoughts support the work for environmental justice?