Religious Educators are “Changing the Narrative”

I have just returned from the annual Fall Conference of the Liberal Religious Educators Association in Houston TX. The theme was “Changing the Narrative” and issues of white supremacy culture within our denomination and the urgency of empowering and sustaining leaders of color were central. What a remarkable conversation we had over the course of 5 days! Denominational leaders including Julica Hermann de la Fuente, Christina Rivera, Greg Boyd, Rev Dr Natalie Fenimore, Aisha Houser and many others led discussions, workshops and informal conversations that were at once humbling, riveting and inspiring. Brave learning and growing “caucus” spaces were carved out for both white participants and participants of color. As has been the case so often in our Unitarian Universalist history, religious educators, both non-ordained and ordained are leading us into new ways of thinking and being with one another.

As you may recall, it was mostly religious educators who spoke up eighteen months ago, changing the narrative of who we are as Unitarian Universalists, what we “look” like, and how we bring forward voices and leaders from the margins in ways that honor and respect their unique contributions to our wholeness as a people of faith. The actions of a few courageous religious educators would ultimately contribute to big changes in our association around hiring and other institutional practices at our UUA headquarters and deep, rich conversations in congregations about what it means to be complicit in a system that continues to harm and erase people within our beloved community.

The good news is – they are still at it! Religious educators from across the continent participated in workshops on restorative circles, creating space for families of color, the theology of love and shared ministry as faith formation, just to name a few. Innovations are underway to bring JUUbilee training to children and youth, to offer congregations more study materials to continue the conversations begun with the Teach-In on White Supremacy, as well as new engaging resources from BLUU via a monthly “BLUU Box.” These are just a few of the many ways you can be a part of changing the narrative within your own congregation

We have work to do as a religious people, things to learn, deep conversations to share, and curiosity to be satisfied – in other words, faith development work. If you are lucky enough to have a professional religious educator, please look to them for a pathway into and through this brave work. You can begin by asking them what gems they carried home from the conference and what they are really excited about! Your religious educator has access to many tools and resources, whether they attended the latest LREDA Fall Conference or not. If they weren’t able to be in Houston this year, make it a priority to send them to Baltimore in November 2019 (yes, Baltimore! Hurrah, the LREDA Fall Conference is coming back to the Central East Region!). Religious educators, ministers, lay leaders – all are invited into the bold work of writing the next chapter of Unitarian Universalism!

Patricia Hall Infante, Congregational Life Staff holding the Faith Development portfolio and Credentialed Religious Educator

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The Learning Lab of Life

Innovation! Adaptation!! Experimentation!!! We live in a time of incredible change and shifting paradigms. Technology continues to zoom along at a pace that is breathtaking and society seems to be chomping at the bit for the next big thing. At the same time, some of the things we thought we could count on to stay the same have fallen away or been eroded all across our society and our planet. Human rights, glacial ice, democratic principles and civility are under attack and there are moments when I wonder if the universe is testing humanity to find out if we are really up to the task of living meaningful lives.

Then I remember, nothing in this life is settled or guaranteed. We all exist in a constant state of adaptation and experimentation with the inner and the outer world. Who am I today? Who and what matter to me today? What will I do for the first or last time today and how will I be changed by it? Imagine a congregation of 50, 100, or 500 people who are changing every minute, every second – how are we adapting to this unyielding state of flux? By their very nature, congregations are organic, evolving systems and yet even as the people within change and adapt to new ideas, new understandings of self and our companions on the journey, we expect the institution to remain static and to continue to be the same place we have always known. If we are changing, shouldn’t our congregations do the same?

Some congregations adapt quickly and confidently to new ideas – always seeking the latest “best practice.” For those not leading, it can seem dizzying and arbitrary. Some congregations move more slowly, changing only when a crisis is upon them and there is no other choice. Again, for those not in leadership, that may feel frustrating and lead to a sense of “stuckness.” So who wins the race – the tortoise or the hare? Guess what, it isn’t a race and what works in one place may be a complete failure in another.

Congregations struggle in myriad ways and I often get asked the question, “what’s the best practice for this problem I’m facing?” Certainly there are “common” practices often shared by staff or between leaders but the “best” practice for your congregation is the one that is manageable and sustainable for you at this time in your history. If someone tries to tell you there is a “right” way to do church, push back. Experiment with new ways of worshipping, new models for engaging with families, new styles of music, or new ways of gathering in community. Nothing will last forever so why not become a laboratory for exploration and adaption? Despite Yoda’s best advice, it is okay to try. The anxiety of making the budget or fixing the roof won’t disappear but maybe we will feel better about the work when we unleash our creative spirit in the pursuit of joy and spiritual growth.

All of us are living in a lab – we are part of the grand experiment called life. We can’t know what lies before us and how each of our days will unfold but if we make space for community, joy and creativity, we have all we need to make it to tomorrow

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Preparing Your Faith Community for the Unexpected

Recent tragic events are causing many congregations to pay closer attention to the safety of their people and the security of their spaces. We all like to think of our congregation as a safe space that offers sanctuary from the world beyond but churches everywhere have become increasingly vulnerable to unexpected intrusions. The chance of an incident occurring remains exceptionally low but we know that when it does happen it is devastating for victims, their families and their communities. The threat of everything from a tornado, flood or fire to a stranger who enters our space with malicious intent is remote but real and all faith communities are encouraged to engage in an open and transparent process to create internal policies, action plans and training for staff and volunteers before the unthinkable happens.

The following resources have helped our congregations develop plans and procedures for addressing threats and violent incidents:

  • Your local police department. Often, they can do a walk-through of your building and give you guidance.
  • Church Mutual Insurance Company’s ALICE Training Institute Online Tutorial. ALICE stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, and Evacuate. These tactics are broader than a “lockdown only” approach, and have proven effective for minimizing harm.
  • The Justice Technology Information Center’s Safeguarding Houses of Worship App and resources to use “in collaborating with community leaders and first responders.”
  • The Anti-Defamation League’s Protecting Your Jewish Institution is a comprehensive security guide covering not only active shooter situations, but also violent protests, threats, and surveillance by hostile groups.

As CER’s program manager for Safe Congregations, I’m interested in hearing from congregations that have developed strong policies and procedures. I’d like to share what you’ve done with other congregations. And if you’re from a congregation that’s just getting started with this work, I encourage you to begin by viewing this webinar, “Safe from Harm.”

For more resources on how to keep your congregation safe from all types of harm, check out our UUA.org Safe Congregations resources or to reach out to your primary contact. This website is in the process of revision and update, so if you can’t find what you need, just write to the UUA Safe Congregations team and we’ll get you connected.

Patricia Infante
CER Congregational Life Staff, Program Manager for Safe Congregations

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Finding Our Way Through the Darkness

The total eclipse of 2017 is nearly here, where the moon comes between the earth and the sun, upending all we thought we understood about the universe and our place in it. Science can explain the mechanics in ways that we humans can mostly understand but the enormity of this shadow play taking place amongst the stars is somehow beyond our earthbound, mortal comprehension. Eclipses have been observed for thousands of years and the story of the sun mysteriously disappearing in the middle of the day is part of just about every ancient culture.

Eclipse myths often entail an animal devouring the sun such as the Viking sky wolves or the Vietnamese toad. These tales gave rise to the practice of banging drums or pans and shouting at the sky demons to chase them away and bring back the sun. “If you do a worldwide survey of eclipse lore, the theme that constantly appears, with few exceptions, is it’s always a disruption of the established order,” said E. C. Krupp, director of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, California.

Ah, the disruption. Science assures us that the sun will in fact return but our hearts fear the never ending darkness and the uncertainty that everything we counted on to be true before night descended may not return. How like the place we as a people find ourselves: much that we hold dear is being disrupted – loss of human rights, the closing of our borders, the unjust killing of people with brown skin, and the loss of the only home we know to deadly climate change. Darkness is all around us. An eclipse takes place light years away and is moved by forces few of us can really explain yet here on earth, we experience the fear and the uncertainty deep in our mortal bodies.

In these dark days we Unitarian Universalists spend lots of energy banging the metaphorical pans – protesting, partnering and simply showing up on the side of love and justice. This is good and necessary work but it exacts a toll and our spirits need sustenance; our hearts need reassurance that the values we cherish will prevail. As we wait for the sun’s return, we must hold fast to our principles and to the practice of gathering in community.

Patricia Infante

Take time to breathe in the coming days, take time to enjoy the beauty that surrounds you and share that beauty with others. Be open and curious about new ways of engaging with difference and be gentle with your own imperfections. Sing, dance and let yourself feel the goodness that exists in our world. Practice resilience against the darkness, even when it seems impossible. Hold space for one another to be vulnerable about that which we fear.

May the strength that is present in our communities of faith guide us through this dark and difficult time. The universe moves slowly but inexorably towards justice and the sun will return, just as it always has.

Patricia Infante
CER Congregational Life Staff

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You Can Be a Sexually Safer Best Practice Congregation!

sexuallysafterThe news is full of stories about sexual abuse in spaces we have always regarded as “safe.” You may have noticed that diverse community organizations such as churches, schools, and scouting are paying greater attention to the safety and well-being of everyone in their community. Are you feeling confused or overwhelmed by changing requirements for background checks, fingerprinting, youth safety, or the ever changing social media landscape? And while you know how important safety is, have you struggled with where to begin? Have you ever said, “wouldn’t it be great if someone laid out an easy to follow, comprehensive program that every congregation could work on at their own pace, completely online to ensure that they are reducing risk and providing a safe space for all ages?”

Well, have I’ve got great news for you!

The UUA, in partnership with the Religious Institute (religiousinstitute.org), is encouraging congregations to complete the requirements to receive a Sexually Safer Congregation Seal designation. Sexually safer congregations have policies and practices to help assure that the congregation will be free from sexual abuse, sexually harassment, and professional sexual misconduct.

The seal is awarded to congregations who complete a self-assessment followed by a commitment to have in place 14 out of 18 different “policies, procedures, practices and guidelines” that, together, help ensure that you are doing all you can to create a safe and welcoming community. (Note that lay-led congregations or those with few than 101 members have require fewer criteria to complete the program).

Upon completion, your congregation will receive official recognition from the Religious Institute and the UUA and you can proudly display a “seal” that tells members, friends and prospective members that you take safety, particularly sexual safety, seriously and that ongoing board and leadership commitment is a priority.

Where do you begin? All the information, instructions and resources are located here: http://www.uua.org/safe/creating-sexually-healthy-congregations. The Religious Institute has put together a nifty video for your viewing pleasure and I recommend that you start there. Your next step is to complete the assessment and see what you are already doing well and what areas need more attention. The Central East staff is available to help you sort through and prioritize the best practices that you need to work towards. I’m the regional specialist on Safer Congregation and, in partnership with your Primary Contact, we are happy to answer questions about the program or help you discern a couple of next steps. Isn’t the safety of your congregation worth it?

Patricia Infante
Congregational Life Staff
[email protected]

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