If you could design religious education experiences for kids that were so memorable and compelling that they’d continue to seek out those kinds of experience as adults, what would they look like? I’m convinced, after asking dozens of people about their best memory of learning in church, that it should be as hands-on, as innovative, and as creative as possible.
Around the country, “Maker Culture” is developing. Even public schools are setting up Maker Spaces that encourage kids to use their minds and hands to design, collaborate, and create. But what does all this have to do with Sunday School? William Ellery Channing said that “The great end on religious education is not to stamp our minds upon the young, but to stir up their own.” It seems to me the best way to do that is to hand them tools now and let them know we expect them to come up with great ideas that will change the world.
Tony Wagner, current expert in residence at Harvard University’s new Innovation Lab and the founder of Harvard’s Change Leadership Group says, about MakerSpace classrooms: “That’s the future.” According to Wagner, the idea of school as a place where knowledge is transferred from teacher to student, whose success is measured by the accuracy of his/her regurgitation of it, is antiquated. This instructional model does not foster what Wagner believes is the most essential skill in today’s world: the ability to innovate.
In his most recent book, Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World, Wagner profiles some of America’s great innovators and observes a pattern in their youths: A childhood of creative play led to their development of deep-seated interests and curiosities, and these passions fueled their intrinsic motivation to set and achieve career and life goals. Another trend Wagner found was that the adults in these innovators’ young lives nurtured their imaginations and taught them to persevere and learn from failure. Read the related Newsweek article here.
My own previous career as an educator in a children’s museum showed me that kids love to create and build and invent, and learn, quite by default, while doing so. So as I consider what to do for our kids on Sundays this summer, I can’t help but gravitate toward this approach.
My question for you is, what would you like to bring to this endeavor? We have one volunteer already planning to support a small group in setting up an A/V system downstairs. I plan to work with the kids to set up a vermiculture system (worm farm!) and a container garden. Would you like to help them build birdhouses, bathouses, or something else for the playground? Learn to make their own toys from recycled objects? Work on community artwork for display in the church? Make and edit a video about RE that new families or potential members might enjoy seeing? The key: projects they can actively MAKE and call their own.
What makes your heart come alive? Can you share that on one or more Sundays this summer?
Our kids thrive on learning to do things. It changes their brains, and the way they see themselves: when we make things, we are more confident, more willing to experiment, less anxious about failure and perfection. We naturally collaborate and take risks, and we begin to see ourselves as creators of the world around us, not passive consumers. Let me know how you can help MAKE this happen.
Well, it’s that time of year again! We are approaching April 16, National Health Care Decisions Day, and I’m excited to tell you about a new initiative that will be launched next week. The JLC Initiative is the brainchild of Jill Preyer, Cindy Bovee-Kemper, and myself, and our goal is to drastically increase access to health care decision-making education and forms across Western North Carolina (WNC). Part of our strategy is to use diverse and accessible locations for class sessions, including educational institutions, community centers, and faith communities. We have created a pilot program that we are launching first at UUCA, then assessing, tweaking, and rolling it out to other congregations in WNC. Ultimately, we will have a simple toolkit we can share so that every person in WNC has access to this essential information. Beginning the conversation with loved ones starts with education on the issues and forms.
This week, collaborating with the WNC Advance Care Planning Community Initiative, we begin training facilitators from within the congregation (by invitation) to teach Advance Care Planning seminars. On March 29, we will launch workshops here at UUCA – these are free and open to the UUCA community and the public. We will give adults in WNC opportunities to talk about their end-of-life care and create legal documents (Advance Directive) to reflect their goals. In addition, we intend to maximize impact by providing information regarding class locations and schedules to primary care physicians, educating them about the initiative, and working with other community organizations.
As you may already know, when I was working as a chaplain, I had many experiences with families who had never communicated a single word to one another about their wishes, should they be incapacitated. They found themselves in ICU with a loved one and no idea what their wishes were. As a result of these experiences, I pledged that when I returned to the congregation, I would bring these end-of-life conversations into the local church setting. Where better to talk about your values and life goals than in your faith community? Many of you have already completed your forms, and some have had in-depth conversations with me or others about how to manage your individual needs and situations. It is a privilege to sit with you and be of support as you consider these essential and personal decisions.
I hope that if you have not already completed your own documents, you will attend one of the UUCA workshops, and encourage others to attend as well. Beginning the conversation is the first step. If you are interested in being considered to attend facilitator training, please contact me. Workshops will be held at UUCA on the following dates. Please check UUCA’s eNews articles for locations. All are welcome!
Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
We are now only a few weeks past the latest round of national elections. And amid the tally of winners and losers is the ongoing rumination over the direction of our political life. I’ll admit to being among those feeling discouraged by the results this year, though I try to find comfort in the observation that American politics tends to follow the path of a pendulum, swinging one way before inexorably turning the other. I’m hoping for a turn. You may feel the other way. That’s the kind of dynamic tension we live in, something that’s been true since our nation’s founding. And still, despite all of that, there is something holds us together.
From The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
What has changed since the collapse of Jim Crow has less to do with the basic structure of our society than with the language we use to justify it. In an ear of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination – employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service – are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.
From Across That Bridge by John Lewis
“All our work, all our struggle, all our days ad up to one purpose: to reconcile ourselves t the truth, and finally accept once and for all that we are one people, one family, the human family . . . . Our struggle to affirm the light despite oppression, depression, conflict, poverty, hunger, disease, violence, and brutality is a loving gift we give to ourselves ad our another to help humanity move toward the day wen we can readily separate the light from the darkness and the equal incandescent beauty of the light that is in us all.”
There was a festival feeling in the air as we marched west along Selma Avenue last Sunday. A brilliant sun was in our eyes, and people were gathered along the street, smiling with something between amusement and amazement in their eyes as this flood of humanity passed before them.
The tenor and pace of the march changed, though, as we approached Broad Street. It was here that we began to get a sense of the true scope of this gathering. Turning left to face the Alabama River, we saw for the first time some five blocks in the distance that iconic marker of the Civil Rights movement with the heavy block letters spread across its central girder: Edmund Pettus Bridge.
More remarkable, though, was the amazing crowd of people spread before us. You get a sense of it from the photo I took that appears on the cover of your order of service. The crowd covered every bit of the bridge and the street leading up to it. Organizers had also put up a massive screen that you see to the left where images of and video interviews with major figures in the 1965 Voting Rights campaign in Selma were projected. I happened to catch the moment when an image of the Rev. James Reeb, the Unitarian Universalist minister who was murdered in Selma, was displayed.
What this picture doesn’t show is the many others who spilled over into side streets leading up to the bridge and were lined up for several city blocks behind us. Once we turned onto Broad Street it was no longer possible to march: We inched ahead step by step as we could. It must have taken 20 minutes to walk the few blocks to the bridge. I’ve found myself in crowded settings like these before, but I can’t remember ever having been in one that was as diverse. Even more, I can’t remember having been a part of a diverse gathering where the racial animus or just discomfort that seems so often to lie just below the surface when white and black gather in this country was so low.
As we moved forward, it seemed to me that the festival feeling that we had felt earlier shifted into something deeper. Part of it, I’m sure, was the weighty sense of moment. Here we were – black and white – celebrating with our presence our joined affirmation of the principle won by the struggle of Civil Rights leaders 50 years before – that all people have the right to a role in deciding their own destinies, and that that right is embodied in unhindered access to the vote. Ultimately winning that right was an extraordinary victory that ended a pattern of oppression that had been in place for centuries. And here in Selma in 1965 was the tipping point, hard won through injury and death but won all the same.
But beside that sense of occasion, there was something else in the air. It felt to me like an easiness, communicated in smiles and casual banter. Pressed together as we were, there was no pushing or impatience. We took our time, and it was OK. Looking from the crest of the bridge on that picturesque bend in the Alabama River, listening to children laughing and clusters of people singing freedom songs, it was easy get lulled into a kind of happy “Kumbaya” moment.
But on the bus ride back I remembered remarks from the Rev. Bernice King, daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., at a service only three days before at the Baptist church where the Selma campaign had its origin to remember the martyrs of the Civil Rights movement. As good as it may feel to celebrate, she said, our nation is at “a critical moment” when, “we must shift our mentality and our behavior and our practices. We must do something radically different if we are going to be able to continue move forward as a nation and a world.”
And it’s true: 50 years after the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, our nation is challenged with a different image: blood on the pavement in Ferguson, Missouri; Staten Island, New York; Cleveland, Ohio, and elsewhere, and ugly truths about persistent disparities in the lives of black and white Americans.
How far we have to go can be measured by the fact that as we celebrate the Civil Rights victories of the 60s the most powerful slogan of our time is that “black lives matter.”
Yes, we have both elected and reelected the first black American president. Yes, African-Americans are media, entertainment and sports superstars and head major corporations. All that is true, and still racism remains imbedded in the fabric of American life.
The difference from the 60s is that the way it makes itself known is less obvious . . . at least to those of us who are white. We haven’t been followed around in stores by suspicious retail clerks. We haven’t had jobs or mortgages denied for vague reasons. We haven’t been pulled over, repeatedly, for no apparent reason and searched spread-eagle outside our cars. All this goes on, and not just out there in the big, wide world, but right here in Asheville.
Even that, though, is just the surface. It gets more frightening as you move down the economic ladder, where opportunity for employment is less and the chance for entanglement in the legal system is greater. It’s a world that few of us here encounter, and yet it is devastating and even destroying the lives of thousands every year. What’s especially frightening now is the escalating level of violence that has resulted in the needless shooting deaths of black men and now the tragic deaths of police officers.
So, what now? Last December our Associate Minister Lisa Bovee-Kemper challenged you to consider how we as a congregation might respond. She presented you quotes from a couple of our colleagues: One was from The Rev. Tom Schade, who said that “We who believe in people must join in the movement that demands that black lives matter. It is the cutting edge of the assertion that all human beings have inherent worth and dignity.”
The other was from the Rev. Victoria Safford, who observed that: “Our longest march may be the one that takes us down from the dais of competitive debate and rational inquiry into the common ground of listening, witnessing, mourning and embracing.”
Lisa closed announcing, “I stand before you this morning with no easy answers, no clear call to action. I stand before you brokenhearted and tired, feeling as if the darkness has come too close, and I can’t see the way forward. But I have faith in the power of goodwill to act. I believe we can turn that anxiety into anger and the anger into action. I have faith that we will find a way forward, together.”
So, we announced our way forward by posting “Black Lives Matter” on our sign and convened a meeting. Those of us at the meeting resolved that before we decide what to do, we need to know what we’re talking about. People were encouraged to attend the upcoming Building Bridges anti-racism training or make contacts with community groups like the NAACP. And we announced that everyone in the congregation would be invited to read Michelle Alexander’s path-breaking book, The New Jim Crow, and that we would organize groups to discuss it.
I hope that many of you had a chance to at least look through Alexander’s book. It can be dense in places, but she makes a devastating case for how many African-Americans are being denied essential rights of citizenship.
The irony, she writes, is that just as Civil Rights laws were taking effect, tearing down century-old Jim Crow laws intended to intimidate and exclude African-Americans from civil life, a new raft of laws and practices were being adopted that accomplished the same purpose. They weren’t billed that way. Instead, they were offered as tools to protect public safety. But, how they were enforced assured that a generation of young African-American men would be swept away and stigmatized, ripping apart families and neighborhoods across the country.
The numbers alone tell a shocking story. Since 1972, the number of people held in prisons or jails has risen from 350,000 to more than 2 million and a disproportionate share of them are African-American. The number grows even larger when you add those on probation or parole. In fact, there are cities in the U.S. today where more than half of all young adult black men are under correctional control.
The main driver of this increase, Alexander shows, is a program that once was highly praised: the War on Drugs. You recall the grim stories of crack houses and drug gangs turning urban centers into war zones. Politicians promised to “come down hard” on the perpetrators with laws that vastly increased prison sentences for even the smallest drug offenses.
Set aside for a moment the fact that the War on Drugs was declared at a time when drug use was actually on the decline and that treatment is a far more effective preventive for drug use than prison. What devastated the African-American community was that police targeted their neighborhoods for enforcement, even though studies showed that whites used drugs at equal rates. That meant that in the highly publicized perp walks of drug dealers the face in the news almost always was African-American. That, in turn, fed racist assumptions that intensified the drive to push even harder.
Meanwhile, African-American men were being warehoused for years, and when finally released discovered that they were tainted for life by laws that forbid those convicted of crimes from participating in civil society. They were unable to vote, to obtain licenses for most professions, to obtain housing or food assistance. Even when not forbidden to hold a job, their conviction was a stain that often shut them out. The American script that anyone with gumption can make it in life was unavailable to them.
The net effect of all of this, Michelle Alexander argues, has been to create a racialized caste system that devastates lives and threatens to defeat any effort of social reform. So, what to do? Well, here’s where it gets hard because this state of affairs forces us all, white and black, to examine ways of thinking that unknowingly perpetuate it.
Alexander says that what distinguishes the “New Jim Crow” from the old is that it is driven not by racial hostility but by racial indifference. We begin with the simple notion that those caught up in the criminal justice system got there by their own choice. Nobody made you buy that cocaine – right? Commit the crime, do the time!
Except, of course, we know that’s not the way the world works. I won’t ask for a show of hands, but I invite you to reflect on what laws you have violated in your life. Ever smoked or dealt marijuana, or maybe even taken cocaine? Or, maybe your brother, sister, friend? Many people make foolish choices. Even Barak Obama admitted to “doing some blow” when he was young.
But he, and most of us, grew up in families or communities where police were not vigilantly watching for drug use, and even if caught, sympathetic police or judges often could be persuaded to give us a break. As a rule, young African-American men don’t get that break.
So, we fool ourselves if we pretend that race is not a factor in how laws are enforced. This is what drives the fury of African-Americans in places like Ferguson and even here in Asheville. And it helps explain how African-Americans see racial animus in police officers even if the officers don’t feel it.
The truth is that race does make a difference and has made a difference ever since our nation’s founding, and to pretend that it doesn’t is to perpetuate an injustice. In the end, we are left to declare that it is unacceptable, it is morally wrong to write off a generation of young men because they got themselves entangled with the law, to demonize them as evil-doers who “had it coming” and never need concern us again.
Preparing for this service, I visited the discussion groups who were working through Michelle Alexander’s book and found that many of us followed a similar arc in our responses. First: anger over the injustice she so persuasively describes, but then something like deep sadness and remorse for the terrible toll all this has taken, for how our own racism that has blinded and distracted us.
My own moment came in the last chapter of Alexander’s book when she sums up her case and makes the argument that for those who want to make a difference, the chief work before is not tinkering rules and legislation – as badly as the laws need to be changed – but the building of a movement and with it a sense of personal investment.
Ultimately, she writes: “It is the failure to care, really care across color lines, that lies at the core of this system of control and every racial caste system that has existed in the United States.”
And that’s it, isn’t it? That simple. Reading that forced me to confront, once again, the excuses and evasions I use to avoid letting my heart be touched by the wanton cruelty of racism that unfolds before me every day that I open the newspaper.
To say that “Black Lives Matter” is to declare that we do care, that we are ready to open ourselves to the truth of the travesty that racism makes of our community and our nation and the way it inevitably poisons us all.
Back in Selma at a Living Legacy conference preceding the bridge crossing, I heard the Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed discuss what led the pioneers of our movement to heed the call from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to come to Selma. We assume, he said, that people were drawn by “the righteousness of the cause and the magnitude of the injustice.” That was there, yes. But to a one, he discovered, it was relationship that compelled them to go: relationships to people and communities, especially African-American people and communities, that got them on those planes, cars and buses regardless of the clear risk of that choice.
So he posed the question for those of us who are mapping how we as individuals, as congregations, as a religious movement might respond to the strife we’re living amid now: with whom are you in relationship?
It’s a question I pose to you, too. Because, if we are going to engage in this work, it needs to be on the basis of more than high-minded principle. We need to have skin in the game. We need to care, and that begins with relationship. As Mark Morrison-Reed put it: when your brother, your sister, your friend, your grandson calls and says they need you to come, you are compelled to go. It doesn’t matter if you have all the answers or can solve all the problems. What matters is that you are there.
The fantasy I hold to is that that glimpse of peace that I experienced on the crest of the Edmund Pettus Bridge is not just a fleeting moment but a foretaste of the future, a future that we here might be agents in bringing about, where all people learn to be easy with one another, where caring, respect, and love flow freely among us.
I’m not sure of the best way forward. I just know that we have to move. I’m encouraged to hear how many of you have been prompted by this initiative to find your own way. I look forward to us sharing our learnings and inspirations. I’m willing to accept that we’ll make mistakes along the way because I know that the focus of our work will not be getting it right with the proper wording and the proper gestures, but the building of connections – sometimes messy, sometimes wonderful, but sure to change our lives.
In all of this, I am comforted by the words of John Lewis, grievously wounded at the foot of the Pettus bridge, a foot soldier for voting rights who went on to become one of our shining leaders.
All of our work, he said, points to a simple truth: that we are one human family, one people, and that the struggle we endure to overcome the many ills that persist among us – brutality, poverty, oppression – is a loving gift we make to each other that we might finally see the incandescent beauty within us all.
Photo taken by Rev. Mark Ward at the 50th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama. (March 2015)
My finger pokes into the bread dough, and the resilient flour and yeast mixture springs back. It is ready for the next step. The instructions say “Punch down,” and, while I wish for a less violent command, I use my fist to deflate the dough. Then, reshaped, it rises again in a new, less amorphous form. Even the time the baking sheet with its braided loaf slid to the floor, knocking the air out of it, the bread rose again.
How do we create that resiliency for ourselves?Bread rises because the leavening—whether yeast, baking powder, or soda—produces carbon dioxide bubbles which are held by networks of proteins; without the protein bonds, the gas would escape and the bread would lose its resilience.When we have been deflated, whether by difficulties in our own lives or by the enormity of the task of achieving justice for all, we can be buoyed up and our congregation can be reshaped, and both can rise if the truths of the principles we agree to are surrounded by human connections nurtured and deepened bythe congregation.
The editorial “Race, Poverty and Medicine” in today’s electronic version of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) suggests that in trying to achieve health outcome equity, “One goal of medicine is to better understand resiliency and to support it so that all people can fulfill their potential and enjoy healthy and productive lives.”
T. Edward Nickens wrote in this month’s Our State that sacred places “help us understand where we are, and who we are, and why we are.They’re places where we can stand, feet rooted to the ground, and see the past and the present and the future in a single moment.”
Picture one of your sacred places.
Were you, like the author, imagining a sacred landscape?What if, in addition to that mountain vista or sandy shore or shading tree, you pictured this congregation as your sacred space?Is this not a place where, and people with whom, to “understand where we are, and who we are and why we are?”I believe the power of our covenant and the strength of our relationships will keep us resilient people, able to truly see our present and to work together to achieve the just, equitable and compassionate future we envision.
As you may recall, last spring the RE Committee announced a new way to offer Spirit Play to our kindergarten-5th graders. The Spirit Play curriculum is already an outstandingly interactive, age-appropriate, fun way to encourage faith development in our youngest UUs and the new plan seemed to make it even better by being able to allocate resources differently while giving kids the opportunity to interact in mixed-age groups. However……
As an experimental year, almost everything is good. The stories are always interesting and the times for activities, be they art, drama, dance, contemplation or science, are a wonder to behold. Early on, we noticed that the second service 4th and 5th graders were not engaging properly. We had a most amazing offer from Anna Olsen who offered to lead a separate class for these young ‘uns who are now prospering in their self-named class, District 45.
Here’s the part where we need YOU! At its inception, using “activity rooms” as way to do Spirit Play was new so it was not obvious how to recruit teachers/helpers for the various adult roles needed each Sunday. Everyone hoped that with a shorter-term commitment, it would be easy to fill the slots. Turns out that our hopes did not become our reality. So, for the rest of this year, WE NEED SPIRIT PLAY ADULTS!!!
If each person reading this gave up three Sunday worship services from now through mid-May to instead give their time to UU children, all the teaching and helping slots would be filled, and then some. Joy, Jen and Kim (our lifespan religious education staff) absolutely cannot do it all. In fact, they shouldn’t be doing it at all. These are our children, this is our congregation, and we proclaim that “children are important.” If you believe that, then you must also believe that these children are important to you, and that you need to be part of a solution to a problem that we think we can mend next year. But for the remainder of this year, please contact Joy right now to tell her you are willing to lead (they have advice and resources available) or at least be the second person in the room for three Sundays (or two, or one if that’s all you’ve got).
Your congregation has a very specific, immediate need for your time and talent. Please take this opportunity to live your values.