I write this less than a week before Debbie and I leave for three weeks in India as part of a Road Scholar “Spiritual Tour” of that country. Part of the reason I seek to experience different cultures is to shake up my settled ways of thinking, to open up new ways of looking at the world, even as we travel to one of the oldest cultures on earth.
One distinctive aspect of this culture I look forward to experiencing is a different understanding of time. We in the West have a sense of the progress of time as like an arrow, ever moving forward, while Hindus believe that history is governed by patterns that repeat themselves over and over again in great cycles. This changes how they experience time and alerts them to be aware when each cycle moves to a new stage.
I reflect on this when I think about our nation’s and our community’s ongoing struggles over race. We go through one crisis after another, thinking we’ve finally got this figured out, that we understand the toll that racism takes on all of us, that we have learned the lessons and put the safeguards in place to avoid making those mistakes again. And then, there it is all over again just as insidious as it ever was.
We’re processing this now in the controversies surrounding the recent deaths of several African-American men at the hands of police officers. The circumstances surrounding each of these deaths are complex, but together they are part of a troubling pattern in America today in which African-Americans are more likely to be arrested, imprisoned or killed by police than whites. Again, many factors play into all of this, but there is no denying the oppressive overburden of racism that suffuses it all, and as religious people who affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person, we are called to respond.
As Associate Minister Lisa Bovee-Kemper wrote in the last posting on this site, we as a congregation will be devoting some energy to this in the next several months. We have already convened one meeting of people interested in helping. Check in with Lisa if you’d like to be a part of this group. We are working at making contacts with organizations in the community doing this work and encouraging people to take part in the next session of Building Bridges, Asheville’s own anti-racism training program, January 26 through March 23. We are also organizing a discussion group to read one of the best recent books on this subject, The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander. Look for more to come. We’ll be addressing this subject in worship again on March 15, the week after celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the civil rights march on Selma, Alabama.
Maybe we need something like a cyclical understanding of time, the awareness that some of the deepest spiritual lessons are not easily learned but required our returning to them over and over again.
There is an excellent presentation on YouTube by Rev. Scott Tayler, UUA Director of Congregational Life, and Mark Bernstein, Growth Consultant, CERG (Central East Regional Group of the UUA covering most of OH and WV, all of NY and parts of PA and NJ) addressing four organizing models for multi-site ministries. The video is embedded at the bottom of this posting.
Aside from the clarity Scott and Mark bring to the idea of multi-site churches (four variations of how some functions can be centralized to provide support to geographically separate congregations), they describe the reasons why multi-site ministries are starting to spring up.
They first make a case for “staffing for growth.” Here is their premise (these are well-known figures):
Staffing for decline = one program staff person per 200 congregants
Staffing for maintenance = one program staff person per 150 congregants
Staffing for growth = one program staff person per 100 congregants
I would contend that in our case, “congregants” are our members, friends, children and youth—all people who benefit from programs at UUCA. So, the numbers for UUCA:
Number of members and friends and children and youth: 800
Number of program staff (full-time equivalent): 4.75 [Mark (1), Lisa (1), Milt (0.5), Joy (1), Nick (1), Jen (0.25)]
UUCA has one program staff person for every 168 members, meaning that we are staffed for something between maintenance and decline.
They then go on to explain the budget pressures that congregations are experiencing that make it impossible to staff for growth:
Rising health care costs
Building maintenance requirements
Financial responsibility resulting from our covenantal relationship with the UUA (the Southern Region’s GIFT (Generously Investing for Tomorrow) program)
Moral responsibility to fairly compensate staff
Rising energy costs (currently not a factor)
So, if it is impossible to staff for growth, how do we currently handle the growth we experience every year, the 30-40 newcomers who become members and friends of UUCA each year? Right now, we simply lose the equivalent number each year, maintaining our membership number but literally not growing. We are staffed for maintaining, and maintaining is what we do.
Whether we choose to use a multi-site ministry to help address this remains to be seen. I just thought it was fascinating. Here are some “wonder questions” we might ask.
How might staffing for decline look at UUCA? What might you see happening as a result of not having enough staff to oversee programs? (This is different from administrative staff needed to keep the organization going.)
How might staffing for maintenance look? What might you see happening as a result of having just enough program staff hours to keep up with the existing programs?
How might staffing for growth look? What might you see happening as a result of having staff members with plenty of time to create and oversee programs?
What could we accomplish if we were able to grow beyond 700 members/friends to, let’s say 800?
What are some reasons we might want to stay just the size we are?
Here’s that YouTube video about multi-site congregations:
I’m happy to report that we had about fifteen people at the December 18 meeting to discuss the next steps for engaging with racial justice on a congregational level. We began with a chalice lighting, and then viewed a TED talk by Verna Myers on how to overcome biases (view it here) and engaged in a brainstorming session.
Here are some of the ideas that were suggested in the brainstorming session:
Encourage individuals from the congregation to participate in Building Bridges (Next session January 26-March 23 – register here).
As a Lifetime Member of the NAACP, send a representative from UUCA to regular local NAACP meetings (Jan & Michael Beech have volunteered to initiate this)
Book Study/Common Read on The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander (This is in the works, stay tuned to eNews for more information and a tentative January start date)
“Old White Women for Young Black Youth,” which is the unofficial name of a potential initiative started by women from UUCA who would step forward as advocates for people of color in our community. This would be a great way to leverage privilege and be a supportive ally.
Consider positions that work to dismantle the roots of the oppressive system
Advocate for harsher penalties for law enforcement who break laws
Voting Rights advocacy, including restoration of felon voting rights
More effective drug policy, perhaps decriminalization
Participate in local organizations which are doing anti-oppression work in our community
Curriculum-based study on a congregational level (There are a number of UUA curricula available)
It’s a great list, and there are more terrific ideas out there, I’m sure! Check it out and see what you might be interested in. Share your own ideas with each other – and with me. In addition to this work, or parallel to it, I am working with a group of Building Bridges graduates from UUCA to form a Multicultural Team to dig deeper into these issues and how they play out within our congregation. There is much work to be done, but working together makes it manageable. We, as Unitarian Universalists, lift up the inherent dignity and worth of all lives, and as such, we are called to support our neighbors and assert that Black Lives Matter.
I look forward to hearing your ideas and digging deep into this work together!
Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
Testimony from the trenches: “It was a beautiful, moonlit night, frost on the ground, white almost everywhere. And 7 or 8 in the evening there was a lot of commotion in the German trenches, and there were these lights – I don’t know what they were. And they started signing…”
Photo credit: Diego Sideburns / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND
(Testimony from the trenches, 1914 – 1
Private Albert Moran of the Second Queens Regiment
“It was a beautiful, moonlit night, frost on the ground, white almost everywhere. And 7 or 8 in the evening there was a lot of commotion in the German trenches, and there were these lights – I don’t know what they were. And they started signing.”
Rifleman Graham Williams of the First London Rifle Brigade:
“We could see makeshift Christmas trees adorned with lighted candles that burnt steadily in the still, frosty air. First, the Germans would sing one of their carols, and we’d sing one of our, until we all started up “O Come All Ye Faithful” in the Latin, so we could sing together. It was the most extraordinary thing – two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.”)
SERMON – 1
Christmas 1914 arrived only about six months after the start of the first World War. Having repelled the first attacks by German forces in several major battles over the summer, as the fall started the allies – Britain, France and Belgium – formed a western front to push the Germans back. To stop the allied advance and protect their gains, the Germans began building trenches, which protected their soldiers from machine gun and artillery fire. The trenches succeeded in holding off the allies, so the British and French began building trenches of their own, sometimes only dozens of yards from the German trenches. The trench system expanded as each side attempted to flank the other, stretching eventually from the North Sea to Switzerland.
The two sides jockeyed back and forth, but by November 1914 they had settled into a stalemate of sorts, faced off against each other in their trenches across a “no man’s land” of a hundred yards or less. The trench system had the advantage of slowing the loss of life, which had been catastrophic in the early days of war – hundreds of thousands dead – with more precise artillery and automatic weapons multiplying the rate of mortality.
But conditions inside the trenches were abysmal. Soldiers were continually mired in sticky mud and due to heavy autumn rains there was standing water, sometimes up to several feet, in the most of trenches. Even worse, amid the foul conditions – latrines were a luxury few had access to – the trenches attracted rats and lice and diseases of all sorts.
Soldiers on both sides had enlisted in the war as an adventure that their leaders confidently predicted would be over in a month or so. As winter set in, soldiers began coming to terms with the notion that this war would drag on for some time. Under lowering skies in early December, a British commander was reported to have been concerned that a “live-and-let-live theory of life” was spreading among the troops on both sides. Neither side was firing at the other during meal times, he said, and on occasion there was friendly banter across the lines. The initiative usually came from the Germans, a number of whom had worked at British seaside resorts before the war and so knew English.
To counteract this creeping fraternizing, British commanders mounted several attacks to prompt an aggressive response from the Germans, but it had little effect, and in one case it worsened things, when, due to poor aim, some artillery barrages struck British positions.
The approach of Christmas had soldiers on both sides feeling blue. Governments responded with gifts to keep them happy. German businesses sent packages with sausages, chocolates, cigars and cigarettes, not to speak of hundreds of evergreens so that the soldiers could have their tannenbaums. Some two million British soldiers received brass “tins” embossed with the image of Princess Mary that contained cigarettes or a few sweets and a note from the Princess, and British businesses also provided chocolates and plum puddings.
Christmas Eve settled in cold and quiet along the trenches. A dusting of snow covered the ugliness of the battered landscape, and guns along the front were quiet.
No one knows where it started, though the best guess is somewhere near Ypres, Belgium. British soldiers saw one, then another, then rows of sparkling evergreen trees appearing at the edge of some of the forward German trenches. British high command had issued a warning to be wary, that the Germans might take advantage of a lull at Christmas to attack. So, the allied soldiers watched warily, but before long the lilt of Christmas carols began floating out of the German trenches.
One hundred years later, all we have is brief snatches from the letters of soldiers at the time like Private Albert Moran and Rifleman Graham Williams, but somehow all along the western front something like peace spontaneously broke out. Some British, French or Belgian soldiers replied in song of their own, or waved white flags to exchange cigarettes, or simply rose from their trenches calling out, “we no shoot; you no shoot.”
Hands were shaken, food was exchanged and the stillness of the night and the silence of the artillery on this singular night was how the angels sang.
HYMN 253: Adeste Fideles, first verse
(Testimony from the trenches – 2
Captain Josef Sewald of the 17th Bavarian Regiment
“I shouted to our enemies that we didn’t wish to shoot and that we make a Christmas truce. I said I would come from my side and we could speak with each other. First there was silence, then I shouted once more, invited them, and the Britain shouted, ‘No shooting!” Then a man came out of the trenches and I on my side did the same, and so we came together and we shook hands – a bit cautiously.
Lieutenant Kurt Zemisch of the 134th Saxons Infantry:
“Eventually the English brought a soccer ball from their trenches, and pretty soon a lively game ensued. How marvelously wonderful, yet how strange it was. The English officers felt the same way about it. Thus Christmas, the celebration of Love, managed to bring mortal enemies together as friends for a time.”)
SERMON – 2
After all the singing of Christmas Eve, the light of Christmas Day brought another prospect. The bleak expanse of no-man’s land was dotted with corpses of men from both sides who had died in one foray or another. Some had lain there for weeks, since venturing out to retrieve their dead comrades put soldiers at risk of joining them. With hostilities suspended – no one really believed that they were ended – soldiers at different locations approached the other side and suggested they take the opportunity to bury the dead. And so they set to it, collaborating in digging the graves of each other’s dead with crosses made from British biscuit boxes marking the graves. At some locations, chaplains from the two sides led prayers, alternating between English and German.
With the ceremonies done, soldiers from the two sides began talking. They shared stories of home and family as well as newspapers and cigarettes. At some locations German soldiers rolled over barrels of beer and the English responded by handing over plum puddings. At other places the French responded with cigars. Elsewhere, liquor and chocolates were passed around
Amid the conversations soldiers from the two sides began trading souvenirs – buttons, belt buckles, badges and such. And then here and there, from one side or another, a soccer ball or some approximation of it – a sand bag or a food tin – was rolled out and the soldiers organized informal football matches, often across the pock-marked expanse of no-man’s land.
Those who were slowest to join in the festivities tended to be the officers, who had their eyes out for treachery from the other side amid the good feelings. But in time many did come forward to shake the hands of their counterparts and marvel at the sight of their troops toasting each other and trading chocolates.
Of course, not everyone was taking part in the soccer games and singing. Both sides took advantage of the truce to move supplies forward, fortify their trenches and improve their dug-outs. And some soldiers on both sides who had recently lost friends to the fighting hung back resentfully and never took part.
Altogether, some kind of Christmas truce was observed along around two-thirds of the trenches. But as remarkable as the sight was of combatants dropping their rifles and laughing together like old friends, what may have been most distinctive about it was that in a war driven by geopolitical strategy and the ambitions of kings and princes, it was one event that was the initiative of the ordinary soldier. In a conflict that for the first time introduced killing on an industrial scale, a moment arrived when the soldier’s humanity took hold.
Christmas gave them that opening – a holiday dear to the hearts of both sides, full of warmth and cheer that touched a faith they held in common, a faith honoring love and forbearance and light amid the darkness.
Song – “Good King Wenceslas,” first verse
(Testimony from the trenches – 3
General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, commander of the British II Corps:
I have issued the strictest orders that on no account is intercourse to be allowed between the opposition troops. To finish the war quickly, we must keep up the fighting spirit and do all we can to discourage friendly intercourse.
Captain Charles Stockwell of the Second Royal Welch Fusiliers:
At 8:30 I fired three shots into the air and put up a flag with “Merry Christmas on it. A German put up a sheet with “Thank You” on it and the German captain appeared on the parapet. We both bowed and saluted and got down into our respective trenches, and he fired two shots into the air, and the war was on again.)
SERMON – 3
How quickly the war got back underway varied from place to place along the front, but it was months before the attacks resumed their former level of ferocity. And in many places it took the substitution of fresh troops who hadn’t taken part in the truce for both armies to get back at it with a will.
It took a week for news of the truce to find its way into the media, and official reports from the front and later histories downplayed the significance of the Christmas truce. It was an aberration that the command staff was determined the troops would put behind them, else, as General Smith-Dorrien put it, it might sap their “fighting spirit.”
But not all observers saw it that way. A 1915 New Year’s editorial in Britain’s Daily Mirror reflecting on the Christmas truce observed that wartime hostility was to be found “mainly at home.”
“The soldier’s heart rarely has any hatred in it,” the editorial argued. “He goes out to fight because that is his job. What came before – the causes of war and why and wherefore – bother him little. He fights for his country and against his country’s enemies. Individually, he knows, they’re not bad sorts. He has other things to think about. He has to work and win.”
We could say that many circumstances conspired to make the Christmas truce of World War One a singular event. After all, it took place at a pivotal moment in history between combatants that, despite efforts by each side to paint the other as monsters or barbarians, held much in common culturally, ethnically, religiously that came together in the celebration of Christmas.
Also, the truce came early in a war that would change the nature of warfare, before soldiers became inured to the notion of total war, before the introduction of such atrocities as chemical warfare. As the poet Phillip Larkin remarked in 1964 at the 50th anniversary of the war’s beginning in 1914, the soldiers of World War One brought with them a kind of innocence that we were not to see again in the 20th century.
All that is true. And yet we are left to wonder whether the Christmas truce was not so much as an aberration as a high-water mark, one of those shining moments when our common humanity shone clear and our fears subsided, at least for a bit. It wasn’t the first or the last time that people saw past the causes that divided them to a greater unity that gathers us all, but that we still recall such events with surprise, as novelties amid so much carnage in human history, is a good reason to raise it up as a gesture we are each capable of making.
There is hardly a more important message for us to attend to today. We live in a time when so much divides us – race, class, religion, national origin – and those divisions make it hard to see the truth of our common humanity unites us and is the source of our greatest hope.
We may not be soldiers under fire in trenches, but we struggle all the same, fearful for our safety, for our economic well-being, for our children’s, our grandchildren’s future. We hunker down with those we know, fearful and wary of the motives of others.
Might this Christmas be a moment to break out of that pattern, to take the risk of extending ourselves beyond our familiar boundaries, into a no-man’s land where we are present to others without pretense or guile? At the turning of the year when we take account of what we have made our lives and what is to come, when our hearts are made lighter by the story of an improbable birth of light and love the invitation is plain.
What is left merely is for us to step out of our trenches onto the uncertain ground before us, into a meeting where the promise of possibility opens before us. As we look ahead to the New Year, let us as individuals, as a community commit to making this so.
Song – Silent Night – German, then English
Stille Nacht! Heilge Nacht! Silent Night! Holy Night!
Alles schläft; einsam wacht All is calm, all is bright
Nur das traute hoch heilige Paar. Round yon godly tender pair.
Holder Knab’ im lockigen Haar, Holy infant with curly hair,
Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh! Sleep in heavenly peace,
Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh! Sleep in heavenly peace.
Six months in the saddle here as your Lifespan Religious Educator, and we have done so much! I wanted to use this half-year mark to report to you on a few of the most salient of the LRE program’s accomplishments, challenges, and goals. One of the members of the RE staff remarked today that we have had a lot of change since I arrived, so I thought I should speak to that. Change is truly the only constant in life, and yet it’s hard to not feel a little anxious about it. I once heard that people spell change “L-O-S-S.” I also heard, though, that what’s in the bottom of God’s pocket is change. Here are some of the changes we have experienced this year in Lifespan Religious Education.
The Wonder Box: I love having the opportunity to be with the entire congregation once a month during Time for All Ages. It is one of my favorite parts of this calling. It is a great joy to craft a telling that has meaning and is appealing to people young and old. Thank you for the smiles, the laughter, and the comments you have shared about this precious time we spend together, teaching our children and youth what shared worship is about.
Spirit Play: Our younger kids have enjoyed the shift to a more hands-on, interactive program in Spirit Play. 15-20 minutes of deep engagement with one of our faith stories, including wondering questions, turns out to be the perfect amount of direct teaching time for little ones. After that time, they are free to explore and process the story through participatory and active play in the Drama, Science, Art, Music, or Contemplative centers. We’ve had lots of help from adult volunteers who don’t normally teach, and we’ve encouraged folks to share their talents and interests with us so we can help craft activities that are meaningful for all. What’s working? The mixed age groups (particularly K-3), the emphasis on each child’s active, creative processing of the shared story, the carefully curated rooms as centers. In particular, the Contemplation Center has been a huge success, allowing children and adult leaders alike to have an unscripted experience with the many contemplative activities found in the room, at their own pace. Adults regularly report that they want to teach there every Sunday! What is challenging? The move away from teaching teams for this piece of the program had some unintended consequences. We hoped to take the burden of teaching off the small number of folks who normally are recruited for teams (teaching all year), but may have erred on the other side; teaching in teams has some real benefits. First, it’s more likely to be a ministry when you are working with people you know. Next, knowing your space, your team, and the kids increases one’s own comfort and competency as a teacher, and reduces last-minute cancellations that require RE staff to fill in. Our solution? We will be recruiting for center teaching teams: a team of eight folks who love working with each particular center, who can call on each other when a sub is needed at the last minute, and who can establish norms of consistency and expectation in the space, while building bonds of mutual respect and affection with kids and between team members. A second challenge we have noted is that our 4th and 5th graders, particularly at 11:15, were not as engaged as we had hoped. The reality is they are ready, after 3-5 years, to take the valuable groundwork laid by years of Spirit Play stories and experiences and to form a peer group in a bounded space they can call their own. They feel like big kids, and they need us to recognize their progress in spiritual and emotional development at this age, when we know they are ready to start grappling with big questions and learning in a more structured way. Our solution? Anna Olsen and Latt Foster, both veteran teachers, stepped forward to lead District 45, in a classroom of their own! (I’m please to note Katherine Murphy will be joining them in the new year.) We started the year with six or eight 4th/5th graders attending – as of last count we were up to attendance of 15 – so the change is working for the kids in question and their families!
Junior Youth Group: A brand new group has formed this year for 6th-8th graders. Parent- and youth-led, this group is finding its footing and making decisions about what it whats to be and do. For now, a core group is having fun and making plans for a social justice activity in the Spring. I believe the fellowship and bonding made possible by a extracurricular group like this will help unify the kids and solidify the identity-building process that church should be for this age group. Being a Unitarian Universalist because your parents say so isn’t cool, at this age – but when young adolescents are supported by our faith community to explore values-based activities and have fun together in a way that is at least partially self-directed, they are more likely to see themselves as UUs. I am excited about this BIG change and hope to see the group thrive and grow in the future.
Senior Youth Group: We recognized early in the year that 10th-12th graders and their teachers weren’t having fun. That’s a big problem, when we UUs have a hard enough time holding onto our youth as they grow up. We did a major reboot a few weeks into the semester, aligning our activities and lessons with a handful of goals like FUN, community building, and service. We decided to give our fabulous advisors more creative freedom and to use the lens of Youth Empowerment and a Small Group Ministry approach, rather than a one-size-fits all curriculum plan. Several weeks later, everyone is enjoying the process a lot more, and youth feel a sense of pride and camaraderie in their efforts toward the Food Donation Drive and their current planning of the Youth Sunday service on February 15th.
That’s a lot of change! I hope (and I’m a person of faith, so I believe) that all this change will add up to real profit for the program and its constituencies. We have other programs and classes, of course; they just haven’t seen as much change this year as the ones listed above. Feel free, always, to reach out to me directly with any questions, comments, suggestions, or words of encouragement! I can be reached at email@example.com.
Thank you all for your support of our work in lifespan religious education here at UUCA. Remember, all we teach is Unitarian Universalism, everything we do is faith development, and the congregation is the curriculum. Keep the faith!