I have had the privilege of being the Director of Religious Education at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Amherst for 4 years now. As any veteran DRE knows, change is something that often needs to be approached delicately, and in small increments. For at least my first 2 years, consistency and a non-anxious presence were my main goals. With that said, I have been slowly moving toward a more cooperative and inclusive feel for our Religious education programming, and feeling the urge to pull the youth group in tighter while still allowing them the independence they so need at this age and stage of development.
For the first time since I have been at the helm of the program I decided to implement a tapestry of faith curriculum for our Senior Youth group. In previous years, the youth would attend a retreat in the late summer and loosely establish their own curriculum for the year. This year the overlying theme for our religious education program is UU Identity, and so I chose for them the curriculum titled “A Place of Wholeness”. This seemed fitting as we are also running our Coming of Age program this year, and most of the youth are also attending that.
I expected some eye rolling and push back from the youth, as they were accustomed to a more unstructured class time. I was very pleasantly surprised to find they love it! They have enriching discussions, and some have even taken on the responsibility of co-leading workshops with their advisers. They still have their social time at occasional overnights.
I have every intention of continuing with a TOF youth curriculum next year. This experience has shown me that often the youth are more open and flexible than I might anticipate, and that balancing structure with freedom can be a key element in a successful youth group.
During the week of June 16-21st, 2014 youth from First UU Columbus alongside a couple of teens from other UU congregations came together to learn about reproductive justice. We learned a lot, challenged each other, affirmed our strong beliefs in human rights, and had a bunch of fun. Our major community partner in this endeavor was Jaime Miracle from NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio and our primary youth leader was Eliza Steffen.
The beginning of the week brought learning about the definition of reproductive justice. Our youth created opinion statements when they first arrived- without having learned anything just yet. We handed around a bowl filled with definitions and read them aloud to one another. A panel of invited guests joined us, including young adults from the area, a UU woman from Akron, and a woman from Cleveland who later presented a program with us on the intersection of identities with reproductive justice.
We learned that the scope of this issue spans beyond pro-choice issues relating to abortion- it encompasses all decisions whether or not to have families and the access we have to raising families in healthy and happy ways. This includes a larger systemic framework in looking at who has access to healthcare, where resources are available, confronting our broken foster care system, challenging stereotypes of who chooses whether or not to have children. Choice is a complicated issue in the midst of structures that want to make decisions for us: family, culture, societal norms, identities, communities.
Our youth collected stories from the congregation for a video project. They spent hours listening, opening their hearts, and creating safe space for people to share. Each morning we would open with a worship moment, where we lit candles. One morning, we shared things we were grateful for and so many youth expressed gratitude for the courageous folks who came to share their stories with us. I echo their gratitude. In order to overcome reproductive injustice, we have to begin speaking out to heal ourselves from the shame and stigma associated with abortion, adoption, infertility, birth control, and the list goes on. The people who shared their stories took a big step forward towards creating healing in our world. When we tell our stories, chances are we are telling the stories of the people in the room.
Thursday, we traveled to Cleveland to learn about to women’s clinic Preterm. This clinic focuses on care for the whole patient, providing medical services alongside mental, emotional, and spiritual care. As we took a tour of the facility, we not only saw rooms where abortion procedures are performed, but also had a chance to see their Reflection Room where women are invited to take time to meditate and pray and take part in practices that sustain them. We heard from a constitutional law attorney about the history of reproductive laws in the United States. And then it was on to the Dittrick Medical History Museum, which currently features an exhibit detailing the history of contraception and will soon expand their portion on the history of childbirth practices. It was an extremely full day.
During Columbus PRIDE at the end of the week, our group of 12 youth had the opportunity to march with First UU’s group and then moved on to tabling for NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio. We asked people to sign postcards telling Governor Kasich to stop legislating our bodies by limiting access to reproductive services. Our youth collected over 200 postcards to send along.
This project was both multi-generational and helped our congregation learn more about what reproductive justice means.
Our next Justice Week is June 15th through 19th, where we will be learning about economic justice and racial justice in our local community. If you are interested in participating, please contact Lane Campbell, Director of Religious Education, at [email protected]
Videos produced in the 2014 Justice week are below!
Selma is now. That is what Common and John Legend had to say at the Oscar’s and what many others have been saying as our nation marks the 50th anniversary of the tragic and transformative events that unfolded there in 1965. The work of Selma isn’t done.
The work of Selma isn’t done because voting rights are still being contested. Two years ago the Supreme Court chose to take some of the most important teeth out of the Voting Rights Act. And now, several states have instituted new voter identification requirements which have been widely reported to decrease voter turnout amongst people who are poor, the elderly and people of color.[i] Selma is now.
The work of Selma isn’t done because systemic, institutionalized racism persists. This past week the Department of Justice released their report investigating allegations of civil rights violations in Ferguson. Their report is scathing; it reveals that both the police department and the courts were involved in violating the constitutional rights of African Americans on a repeated and consistent basis.[ii] The details from Ferguson are on our minds now, but this isn’t just a Ferguson, MO problem. Selma is now.
Fifty years ago many Unitarian Universalists heeded the call to go to Selma and this weekend so many more are in Selma commemorating those historic events and reflecting on where we are led at this moment in history. Our response in Selma is a proud chapter for us, but it couldn’t have been predicted. Some of us have been reading Mark Morrison-Reed’s book The Selma Awakening. He makes plain that while Unitarians and Universalists and then eventually Unitarian Universalists have long held life affirming values, for a long time there was a gap between our values and our practice. Yes, there were Unitarian and Universalist visionaries working for abolition, women’s rights, children’s rights, prisoner’s rights, the rights of the mentally ill, peace, health care, education and in most every other major social justice movement since the mid 19th century. However, they were not the majority. And the leadership of the visionaries was countered by the leadership of those who we now would say were standing on the wrong side of history, love and justice.
So it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that we would respond to Selma with such great vigor. Mark Morrison-Reed says the reason it happened as it did was because that moment in history helped expose the gap between values espoused and values in practice. The images on the nightly news brought to the attention of those who would notice the dissonance between what they said they believed and what they did. Many Unitarian Universalists realized in that moment they could no longer accept the dissonance. They wanted to align their lives with their beliefs and so they felt they simply must go to Selma. They went despite the risk. Along with so many African American civil rights activists, two UUs were killed – Reeb and Liuzzo. Those who returned from Selma were transformed by their experience. They were changed by all they had seen and heard and felt. They went home speaking of an experience of wholeness and with an urgent need to devote themselves toward the pursuit of more wholeness in this fractured world.[iii]
Here we are 50 years later and the struggle continues. Yesterday Rev. William J. Barber, the leader of North Carolina’s Mass Moral Movement spoke to those assembled in Selma. He is a man who embraces intersectionality, only he calls it fusion justice. By that he means we all need to be in the work of justice together. One oppression is connected to another and we can’t leave anyone behind. He says the work he is leading isn’t about right or left, Democrat or Republican, it is about morality. If we don’t have voting rights, healthcare, quality education, adequate food or shelter or civil rights protection for all people, who are who going to leave out? That is a moral question, he says, and the only moral answer to the question is nobody. We are not going to leave anybody out.[iv]
That is what Unitarian Universalists say matters to us. It is not enough to simply say what we affirm. To be whole, we must also find ways to put our values into practice. Those who have taken that step before us say that it was worth the risk. They helped to change the world, yes, but they were also changed in profound and powerful ways that made their lives better, more meaningful, more whole. Part of what Morrison-Reed concludes in his book is that people can’t really think themselves into that kind of transformation. For that kind of transformation we need not only to think but also to feel and to act.
So on this 50th anniversary of Selma, learn about the systemic racism that still persists., read about the findings in the Department of Justice report from Ferguson or watch the video of the speech Rev. Barber delivered yesterday. And then consider what can you and your church do to be part of the moral movement for justice?
Sermon excerpt by Rev. Melissa Carvill-Ziemer delivered at the Kent UU Church March 8, 2015