Monday, July 6, 2020

Rethinking the Principles

Unitarian Universalism must remain creedless, and we have a clause in our bylaws to help insure it. We'd best make the most of it.

Among my earliest memories of church are those of the communal recitation of the Apostles Creed. I can still recall the voices of my mother and older brothers, together with everyone else gathered for Mass, repeating those same words week after week. For a long time before I could read and received formal religious instruction I wondered what a 'Pontius Pilate' was, and why someone suffered under it. Now I wonder what small children in Unitarian Universalist congregations think of our words for chalice lighting. Hopefully it's nothing so head-scratching as 'he descended into hell.'

At my local congregation in Summit, New Jersey, where I serve on the board and as a chaplain, we don't recite the 7 Principles of UUism in our services. It's hard to imagine any congregation doing that, but I've been given to understand that it does happen in some places. Perhaps it's not a weekly event; I just don't know. We do teach and talk about these principles in our RE program, and here and there throughout the building you'll see something posted that references one or all of them. Throughout the association the words of this set of principles have become cherished, and to some are sacrosanct. That's one of the reasons why they need to change.

Over the years of my childhood I recited the Apostles Creed and other responsive lines along with everyone else at Mass. It became a habit that I barely thought about. The words, ingrained in my memory to this day, flowed effortlessly from my mouth while I mulled over other things, like how I'd spend my Sunday afternoon. Taking in the big picture, the recitation did its work. The creed worked its way deep into me, serving as a means of identifying myself with a larger group and our shared fiction. At the same time, the actual practice of recitation became meaningless.

Creeds can only ever serve as a means for defining the lines of "in" and "out," something our universalist ideals resists. They do provide a snapshot of where a religious body was at any point in time. The United Church of Christ, a sibling denomination of the Unitarian Universalist Association, has a long list of creeds and confessions that they recognize, but do not endorse as the final word. In fact, on a page devoted to this topic on the church's site, it says: 

We seek a balance between freedom of conscience and accountability to the apostolic faith. The UCC therefore receives the historic creeds and confessions of our ancestors as testimonies, but not tests of the faith.1

So, rather that a test of faith, creeds and confessions in the UCC are honored as the words of their spiritual ancestors. The UUA has not generally had to come up with any logic like that, because historically we've had only confessions that have served more as the basis of covenants than strictly defined and enforced statements of belief. Yet, there is a risk of our principles either binding us or becoming irrelevant. 
What has been made more clear for me through General Assembly 2020 is the need to revise our Principles and Sources. I think that whatever we come up with, it needs to be strongly anti-racist, and at the same time broadly inclusive in terms of beliefs and traditions. From reading I did for the UU Polity course I took in conjunction with this years assembly, it seems to me that our struggle over the years, before and after the merger in the mid-20th century has always been tied up with our polity. Who are we, how should we relate to one another, and what should be be focusing on? These are the questions that need to be answered.

The UUA Bylaws mandate a review of Article II, containing the UUA Principles and Purposes, every fifteen years. Section C-15.1(c)(4) reads: 

If no review and study process of Article II has occurred for a period of fifteen years, the Board of Trustees shall appoint a commission to review and study Article II and to recommend appropriate revisions, if any, thereto to the Board of Trustees. The Board of Trustees shall review the recommendations of the study commission and, in its discretion, may submit the recommendations of the study commission to the Planning Committee for inclusion on the agenda of the next regular General Assembly. Notwithstanding anything to the contrary contained herein, proposals to amend Article II which are promulgated by a study commission in accordance with this paragraph shall be subject to a two-step approval process. Such proposals must be approved preliminarily by a majority vote at a regular General Assembly. Following such preliminary approval, the proposal shall be placed on the agenda of the next regular General assembly for final adoption. Final adoption shall require a two-thirds vote.2  

From what I've been told, the last attempt at a revision3 didn't go well. I've heard from UU Humanists and practitioners of earth-based spirituality at a prior GA in private conversations that aside from the length and perceived 'clunkiness' of the proposed revision, there were hurt feelings and tension around the privileged position the Jewish and Christian traditions were given among the sources. I'm sure that an immense amount of thoughtful work went into that revision, but it has the appearance to me of something produced by a committee. 

It's my belief that we need a radically new, fresh take on the Principles that doesn't attempt to echo or elaborate on what went before. Like our UCC siblings we can certainly keep record of what we've held as central in our covenant, and the local congregations can certainly use older versions as they deem appropriate. At the same time, I think things need to be shaken up, putting anti-racism and welcoming affirmation at the core of our identity, building on that with an embrace of the whole of the fruit of human civilization, respected with cultural sensitivity, and solidly convinced of the value of science for informing us about the natural world and our place in it. 

That's what I would like to see happen. Part of being Unitarian Universalist for me is accepting that matters might take a course that I don't like, and the evidence of my UU convictions demonstrated when I stick around and do my part anyway.  


1Bylaws and Rules, Unitarian Universalist Association (2019)

2Testimonies, not tests of the faith, United Church of Christ

3Draft revision of UUA's Principles and Purposes, UUWorld (2008)

Friday, July 3, 2020

Rethinking The Path to UU Ministry

The rigor of the Unitarian Universalist path to formal ministry stands in stark contrast to what I experienced with my prior denominational affiliation. Generally I see that as a good thing, though with some exceptions.

When I was 17 I left the Roman Catholic Church and joined the Presbyterian Church (USA). Within a matter of months I kicked off the process for ordination, although it would take years of education and experience to qualify. At that age I completely expected it, and looked forward to each step on the journey. Then, about a year later, I was no longer a member of that church. Word of the Re-Imagining conference had reached me, and that the PC(USA) had chipped in $66,000 from its Bicentennial Fund to support it

Seeing things through a theological conservative lens, I was livid. I also lost my staked-out path to ministry. The next denomination with which I was affiliated was the independent Christian Churches/Churches of Christ, a body that is strictly congregational with no formal structure above the local church. There are Bible colleges, missions, charities, and so forth which are supported by individual churches, as well as state conferences that receive no delegates and have no voting, but that's it. Ordination was left to the criteria of each individual church, and it was a rather disorganized matter. 

As someone who became an ordained minister in a denomination without any standards or oversight, I'm grateful that there is a process in place within organized Unitarian Universalism to prepare ministers for their role, and to 'weed out' people who will not qualify even after attempts to bring them up to speed. At the same time, the current process (which as I understand it has reforms pending) is exclusionary. It makes becoming a UU minister so expensive, time-consuming, and onerous that only with sacrifice can those with the right advantages in life make it through.

I'm fortunate in that my children are grown, and in a few years my youngest should be through college and standing on his own two feet. I also have a career in project management that gives me a fairly reliable means of support that. It's not layoff-proof, but there are plenty of job openings. For me, the only real concern is timing of CPE (it has to be after my family financial obligations are completely over), and whether or not the internship can be waived based on my prior ministry experience. This latter point isn't really a deal-breaker, but it looms in my mind.

Someone with minor children to take care of, a challenging economic situation, and/or not much social support otherwise, is going to have a hard time with the current process. Further, it should not be necessary for someone to go many thousands of dollars into debt to become a minister receiving a wage that will potentially stretch repayment out over the course of their entire career. I don't know if that means more scholarships are needed, or something else, but it certainly doesn't seem right.

When In Doubt | The Feast of St Thomas the Skeptic 2020

Jesus Mafa, 1973 (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)

"But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, 'Peace be with you.' Then he said to Thomas, 'Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.' Thomas answered him, 'My Lord and my God!' Jesus said to him, 'Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.'" - John 20:24-29 (NRSV)

Faith is not a virtue. It's often treated as such in the Americas and elsewhere, in places where theism is a given a book is held up as the complete revelation of a god. If you think about it, though, there really is nothing special about faith. It is belief, and in English it is usually treated as a mixture of belief and trust together. That isn't virtuous.

There was a time, many years ago when I was a missionary in Brazil, that I argued that people practice faith on a daily basis, and to illustrate the point I cited public transport. Whenever someone hails a bus and steps on, they are putting their trust in the bus driver and the mechanics who maintain the vehicle. It's not blind faith, but it's faith. In reality, it is faith, but one that is moderately well-informed. I can see the bus and the driver, and I may be aware of the bus company's safety record (particularly if it's bad). In the case of faith in the unseen, such as spirits and deities, I have nothing to go on but hearsay. 

In Christian apologetics it's generally affirmed that the four gospels are factual accounts and testimonials, when in reality we don't actually know who wrote them, and they likely weren't written until decades after the events described. In the case of John, it's rather obviously a theological treatise in narrative format used to convey a very specific theological viewpoint that is out of sync with the synoptic gospels in style, and doctrinally anachronistic. Whatever someone believes about God and Christianity, they shouldn't take the Gospels or anything else in the Bible as descriptions of concrete reality. 

It was in vogue some years ago, and for all I know may still be, for churches to explicitly welcome people and their doubts. Doubt was celebrated, in a way, and people were told it's merely part of being human. The tricky part was that when evangelical churches said it, the unstated understanding was that doubt should be transitory, and if you just study the Bible, pray, and go to church you'll eventually have a strong faith and be just fine.

Again, as if faith were a virtue.

'Doubting Thomas,' as he's been called, had the right idea. Pretending for a moment that this is a true story in the usual sense, he did what any reasonable person should do when presented with an extraordinary claim. Being told that people had seen Jesus alive and well, the man who had been publicly crucified not long before, Thomas said he'd have to see it to believe it. Then, he saw Jesus, and he made a mistake. He believed without further evidence. 

If you've ever been to a really good magic show you'll know that very convincing tricks can happen that seem absolutely impossible. If you've spent any time online you've seen doctored photos or videos, and have read crazy conspiracy theories that sound almost plausible, until you dig a little deeper. And that's where this likely fictitious rendition of Thomas fell short. He should have looked behind the curtain, asked more questions, analyzed just a bit more carefully.

In reality, this story is a bogeyman tale, intended to scare or inspire people to embrace the 'virtue' of faith. There are some now who would gripe and say that skeptics would never have enough evidence to believe that Jesus was physically resurrected. I don't think that's entirely true. Oh sure, there are always going to be some thick-headed folks who will deny overwhelming evidence. After all, we have plenty of anti-vaxxers and flat-earthers among us in 2020. Truly, if someone were to die, be declared dead by a medical expert, and then after a couple of days in a tomb were to walk forth in perfect health, aside from some scars, there would be more of a basis for believing. 

This is asking too much, according to the religious. For it to be faith, there has to be uncertainty. Room for doubt. I ask: why? Why is it so damned important that God sneak around, doing things that can't be conclusively attributed to him? So that people believe out of love and a willing heart? Please. I can believe someone out of love and a willing heart, if I can see them and interact with them. Hiding serves no purpose, and faith is no virtue. 

The truth is that whatever happened that started the Christian faith, it's lost to time. And so today, on the feast day of St Thomas, let's raise a glass to that glorious doubter who didn't go quite far enough. 

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

The Gadflyists Will Be Revolting

This year the Unitarian Universalist Association's annual General Assembly was entirely virtual, conducted via Zoom. It was a good experience, all things considered, but that's a topic for a different post. Today I'd like to talk about the unstated theme of GA 2020: anti-racism. It's particularly significant in light of what happened last year. 

While the official theme of GA 2020 was 'Rooted, Inspired, Ready!," what we spent most of our time discussing in workshops, worship, general sessions was the problem of white supremacy culture in the world at large and in our own midst. It was refreshing to hear after the Gadfly fiasco of last year. In a nutshell, the minister of the UU congregation in Spokane self-published and distributed a book entitled 'The Gadfly Papers.' In it, he essentially complained that anti-racism stifles freedom of speech, and argued that people of color and anti-racist folks should get thicker skins. It was sickening. I was disconcerted that such ignorance existed among us, and wondered at how we could proceed. This GA showed me that there is will to change, and that was what I needed to see.

It was made painfully obvious to us last year that there is an ugliness in our association, namely, the racism and fear of white progressives. It isn't that the Gadfly people want to expel all blacks and people of color, but rather they desire that they conform to the liberal white culture that has dominated much of the history of Unitarianism and Universalism in the Americas. For more of my rambling reflections on this situation, written in the wake of last year's GA, you can see blog I set up for a limited run: The Igneous Quill Essays

Over the course of the past year events have continued to unfold with the Spokane congregation and within the UUA.  The annual board report of the Spokane congregation tells quite a tale, for instance. Here are some points I found particularly telling:
18. Dealing with Ministerial Non-Cooperation – in direct conflict with our bylaws, which specify that he “work in close cooperation with the Board,” our minister announced in early March a “practice of non-cooperation” and refused to work with our Board and our president. This meant that for months we could not communicate about pressing church business, including a marked reduction in pledges, long-time members leaving the church, holding a virtual Annual Meeting, and much more.

19. Attempting to resolve differences – in early April the Board asked the minister to a mediated process to address differences, which he was unwilling to do at that time, and he pointed out that binding arbitration was the means specified in the Ministerial Agreement to resolve disputes. The Board then hired an attorney to better understand how to resolve the situation with the minister. Finally, the Board invoked the binding arbitration clause of the Ministerial Agreement, but the minister refused to engage at that time. Given no other tenable options, the Board did its best to work on church business alone.

20. Slanderous emails -– The Board received directly many slanderous emails and many others, related to the Board, were circulated as mass emails. Of those emails many were directed at our president. The hostility and lack of respectful communication was out of covenant, hurtful, and harmful to the Board and to the congregation.
It's my understanding that sometime after the publication of the annual report the congregation's board was essentially taken over by supporters of Todd Eklof. Further, the Ministerial Fellowship Committee removed him from fellowship last month (June 2020). Although I imagine he remains an ordained minister by virtue of the fact that UU congregations ordain, not the MFC, he is now no longer officially endorsed to serve UU congregations. That said, in our system of polity any congregation can hire him without being fellowshipped, so I suppose that if he ever leaves Spokane he'll have elsewhere to go. 

A few years ago I would have thought it absurd to imagine Unitarian Universalism dividing over anything. After all, we have neither canon nor creed. Now I'm wondering if it might be possible for some sort of formal division to take place. What I see in the short run is the likelihood that ministerial candidates will be sorted by congregations based on what they think of Gadlfyism. Those in favor of it will call ministers who are supportive of it, perpetuating their rejection of anti-racism. The anti-racist congregations most certainly won't want Gadlfyists. To some, this will look like a purity test either way. And it can be, if the congregations are only using simple shorthand to discuss more complex issues. 

While I'm optimistic for Unitiarian Universalisms anti-racist future, I'm not naive. There will be a backlash. Just as I'm convinced that Trump is the backlash to the progress of the Obama years, I'm certain that we'll see a continuation of people attempting to find an angle to grasp at power, attempting to hold us hostage to the way we were, rather than allow us to move forward in repentance and growth. Whether there is ultimately a formal separation or not, in the meantime we will continue to have people insist on debate rather than dialogue. Such is the way of fear and anger. 

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Fiery Bones | Third Sunday After Pentecost 2020

"If I say, 'I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,' then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot." Jeremiah 20:9 NRSV

Thursday, June 18, 2020

It Won't Be Your Dad's D&D

When I was around 9 my oldest brother introduced me to D&D. He played it with friends, and at times included me. I loved it then for much the same reason as I do now: it lets me participate an imagined experience with others that then becomes a real memory shared between us. There's creativity, strategy, an ingenuity involved. Also, unlike other games, and video games in particular, the possibilities for what can happen in a game are as diverse as the players, within what the DM will allow. However, I also remember a female friend in this group quitting the game, citing the demeaning way women were depicted in D&D art, illustrations and (at that time) statistics. While my brother didn't run the games in any way to put women down, the larger franchise is what put her off. She wasn't wrong.

As much as I've loved D&D and the fantasy genre generally over the years, I've been troubled by not only the portrayal of women wearing useless bikini armor, but also by the 'evil' races in the game. Theologically, I was never able to reconcile the idea of goblins or kobolds all being evil little monsters simply by birth. In realms where we imagine an afterlife existing, this would amount to a conveyor belt of souls being born into the world, dying, and shipping off to one of the hells without any other option. It's just so...Calvinist. 

R.A. Salvatore gave us an alternative take, with his character Drizzt Do'Urden, a drow elf from the Underdark city of Menzoberranzan, seeing the evil ways of his people and rejecting them. Salvatore showed us a way that an individual could rise above their upbringing and become heroic. Still, the remained the issue of all the other drow and their inherent(?) evil. It's not just the drow, either. There are orcs as well as the goblins and kobolds I mentioned above, along with other races, that seem bent on doing harm and always evil. For some, this doesn't pose a problem, and that's fine as far as I'm concerned. It is a game, after all. But then, if it isn't fun for everyone because of the issues or race, gender, and other matters, then it's not much of a game to them.

Yesterday, Wizards of the Coast published an article explaining the way forward they are charting to resolve these issues. What follows is a selection of quotes from that article, with my comments.
One of the explicit design goals of 5th edition D&D is to depict humanity in all its beautiful diversity by depicting characters who represent an array of ethnicities, gender identities, sexual orientations, and beliefs. We want everyone to feel at home around the game table and to see positive reflections of themselves within our products. "Human" in D&D means everyone, not just fantasy versions of northern Europeans, and the D&D community is now more diverse than it’s ever been.
Last year I went to a game shop in Brooklyn a few times to play TTRPGs, and I was impressed by the array of people around me, wrapped up in their games. Tables were crowded with mostly younger people of every shape, size, and gender. The skin tones varied, though they still skewed white. Everyone was having a good time. That's how it should be. If the worlds we imagine together can't be what we want them to be, places where people like us (but with better skill sets!) could exist, then why would we ever want to imagine them at all? There's no reason why there can't be a black elf, a gender fluid tiefling, or a pansexual half-orc. 

The article progresses into listing what the WotC team plans to improve.
We present orcs and drow in a new light in two of our most recent books, Eberron: Rising from the Last War and Explorer's Guide to Wildemount. In those books, orcs and drow are just as morally and culturally complex as other peoples. We will continue that approach in future books, portraying all the peoples of D&D in relatable ways and making it clear that they are as free as humans to decide who they are and what they do.
Since I'm unfamiliar with the books cited, I can't comment substantively on the depictions of orcs and drow in them. When I read 'morally and culturally complex' I'm hoping that doesn't mean flattening them out to a lukewarm, middle-of-the-road society. What I've found online about them in the Eberron setting does make them out to be more nuanced than their counterparts in other versions of D&D. I'd have to see it in action to see what it really means.

My homebrew world, Mhurwud, is based on the Basic Fantasy RPG system. There are elves, half-orcs, humans and other traditional fantasy races (no tieflings or tabaxi, although I'm not opposed to them generally). In this setting there is a human kingdom that is a wicked cult of personality, goblin clans and kingdoms that are more interested in trade (and/or scavenging) than violence, tribes of bison people and humans that alternate between cooperation and conflict, and more. In the real world an entire society can go toxic, leaving those who don't approve keeping a low profile or participating in the resistance. This can happen in Mhurwud. Orcs are naturally more chaotic as a group, but not necessarily evil individually. Elves tend to be more lawful, but they could still be bent towards evil. There is a version of the drow, called 'druas,' in this world that I adapted from The Atlantean Trilogy. There is absolutely nothing racially evil about them, and they don't live underground (well, some might, but as an exception rather than the rule). 

I have a feeling that WotC are headed further than I am in the direction of homogenizing the races, and that's fine.  
Later this year, we will release a product (not yet announced) that offers a way for a player to customize their character’s origin, including the option to change the ability score increases that come from being an elf, a dwarf, or one of D&D's many other playable folk. This option emphasizes that each person in the game is an individual with capabilities all their own.
How will this work? It seems like taking away some of what makes the folk types distinct and special. It could also make some characters overpowered if special traits that help them are kept, while removing negatives. There's already a problem with halflings and gnomes having many of the same stats as larger folk types, despite the basic physics that tells us they shouldn't be able to wield a broadsword like a human or orc could. We'll just have to see what WotC has up with when it's published.
Curse of Strahd included a people known as the Vistani and featured the Vistani heroine Ezmerelda. Regrettably, their depiction echoes some stereotypes associated with the Romani people in the real world. To rectify that, we’ve not only made changes to Curse of Strahd, but in two upcoming books, we will also show—working with a Romani consultant—the Vistani in a way that doesn’t rely on reductive tropes.
This is definitely a welcome change. The Romani are caricatured in the portrayal of the Vistani. Pretending that this is a different group than those it clearly resembles won't resolve anything, and the only thing to do is to fix it. 
We've received valuable insights from sensitivity readers on two of our recent books. We are incorporating sensitivity readers into our creative process, and we will continue to reach out to experts in various fields to help us identify our blind spots.
This part has to have certain angry white men enraged. The term 'sensitivity reader' would have absolutely rankled me as recently as 15 to 20 years ago. I would have called it censorship. Of course, it isn't censorship. People can publish any bigoted thing they want, it's just that no publisher is obligated to print and market it for them. Sensitivity readers help to ensure that books can be enjoyed by a wide audience, and that's just good business. 

Overall, as I said above, this is a positive change, and one that really should not upset RPGers. Not being discriminatory or prejudiced is paramount, but the older editions and gaming alternatives aren't going away. I personally prefer the mechanics and style of 3.5 over 5, although I'll play either. Some enjoy running old-fashioned AD&D games, or have campaigns going within the Dungeon Crawl Classics or Basic Fantasy systems. There are myriads of d20 RPG systems, new and old, to choose from. It's just more fun, I think, when there's room at the table for everyone. 

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Baptist Studies Center to Open at Abilene Christian University's Graduate School of Theology

The ongoing shifts within the landscape of theological higher education continue to intrigue me. Colleges and seminaries are merging or sharing campuses in order to avoid shutting down. In 2017, Episcopal Divinity School shut down its campus and became affiliated with Union Theological Seminary in New York. While the Episcopal school wasn't going to make it on its own, for Union it provides an enriched program that appeals to even more potential students. Something similar is happening now at Abilene Christian University.

Earlier this year tweets started appearing in my timeline that were lamenting the closure of Logsdon Seminary at Hardin-Simmons University. Here's a sample.

The reaction of Kelsey, Hunter, and the others to this news is understandable. They chose Logsdon for their seminary studies, learned from its professors, and lived as a community with a shared history and culture. That's no small loss. As I've indicated here and elsewhere, this also is an event that is repeating time and again as the market for theological education retracts. There are simply too many institutions for the demand. In the months since the announcement of its closing, an alternative has been in the works.
Myles Werntz will spend the fall semester building a new program for Abilene Christian University.
Affiliated with the Churches of Christ, ACU will open, under Werntz's leadership, a Baptist Studies Center within the graduate school of theology.
Werntz currently is the T.B. Maston Chair of Christian Ethics and Practical Theology at Logsdon School of Theology at Hardin-Simmons University. His program was part of the latest cuts announced in February at HSU, along with the rest of the Logsdon Seminary.
It's important to note that this is not a continuation of Logsdon itself, as in the case of Episcopal Divinity School moving to Union Theological Seminary. Instead, it's an entirely new program, presumably intended to fill the gap left by Logsdon's closure. Werntz certainly has his work cut out for him, because although there will only be two courses to start with, he'll also have to network with Baptist churches to solicit support and recruit students. What Logsdon offered that helped attract students might also be a key feature of this new program.

Founded at a time when Southern Baptist Convention seminaries were turning away women called to be church pastors, Logsdon Seminary from the start fully affirmed both men and women in all positions of vocational ministry. Today about 35 percent of masters-level students are female, 30 percent are non-white and almost 17 percent are from countries other than the United States.
Conservative Texas Baptist pastors, in particular, have bristled at the support and prominence Logsdon has given to women ministers.

They and other critics have faulted Logsdon for exposing students to the beliefs and practices of religious Others, engaging in efforts of dialogue and mutual learning, rather than in strategies for conversion. They have objected when people outside Christianity, such as Imam Zia, a Muslim apologist and author; Marc Ellis, a non-Zionist Jewish intellectual; and Arun Gandhi, the Mahatma’s grandson and a Hindu peacemaker; have been invited to the campus to speak in Logsdon-sponsored programs.

These detractors, including leaders of the Baptist General Convention of Texas (rebranded as Texas Baptists), have grimaced when Logsdon refused to take a public stand against same-sex marriage or condemn LGBTQ Christians who desire to explore how they might serve the Christ they follow.

And they have worried because Logsdon professors have provided safe spaces for students to struggle with doubt, wrestle with non-traditional theological ideas or value orthopraxy (conduct) over orthodoxy (doctrine).

To be clear, Logsdon Seminary was not so much open and affirming, as it was officially silent on the topic, as well as regarding marriage equality. Not exactly a noble stance, but at least it wasn't actively harmful, and made room for the conversations. If this was the case there, I can only hope that it will be such at Abilene Christian University's Graduate School of Theology. While ACU has women enrolled studying for the ministry, contrary to the long-held and deeply entrenched views of a cappella Churches of Christ, the university's official policy toward lgbtq+ folx is mixed

A pair of Abilene Christian University policies have gotten major overhauls in recent weeks following outcry from the school's LGBTQ+ community and its supporters.

University President Phil Schubert sent an email to students, alumni, faculty and staff in late October detailing the school's updates to both the student code of conduct's sexual stewardship policy and the employee standards of conduct.

In the email, Schubert said the university remains committed to its interpretation of scripture but that the school is also seeking "a welcoming and participatory environment for all students, even those who disagree with ACU’s beliefs."

"Our desire is for all students to pursue relationships in keeping with our traditional view of marriage between a man and a woman, and to refrain from sexual activity outside of marriage," Schubert's email said. "We also acknowledge that an institution cannot control how students think, believe or identify regarding sexuality. Accordingly, ACU invites all students into a community where they can belong, grow and develop a personal relationship with Jesus Christ."

Although this policy extends to students employed by the school, there are exceptions, such as resident assistants. A separate policy exists for the remainder of the staff, including faculty, which requires sex only within a monogamous, heterosexual relationship. It wasn't until I left evangelicalism behind and had a few years to deconstruct (a work forever in progress) that I realized how crazy it is that there are organizations that make requirements regarding the sex lives of employees. Copulation rules are really very weird, but the result of the Puritan mindset that evangelicalism carries on. Sex is obsessed over, while weightier matters of justice are left for God to sort out in the sweet by and by. 

Next Spring I'll be starting at ACU's Graduate School of Theology, using the low-residency model. I've chosen this school because their MDiv program matched precisely what I had been looking for, what I wanted ever since graduating with my BMin from Harding University in 1999. That said, I'm not innocent of the fact that as a Unitarian Universalist I'll be the odd-one-out. Their concept of 'progressive' is not the same as that I'm familiar with. I'm putting my trust in the faculty to be scholars and professionals, because I very much want to learn and prepare for ministry. In the meantime, perhaps I'll have a chance to meet Professor Werntz, and over the years be able to see more up-close how the Baptist Studies Center progresses. 

Update 18 June 2020:
The following exchange happened last night on Twitter, and I thought it would be fun to include here.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Mixed Metaphors | Second Sunday After Pentecost 2020

The Harvest Cradle, by John Linnell (1859)

"Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, 'The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.' Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness."Matthew 9:35-10:1 NRSV

Although I'm the son of a fourth generation Missouri farmer, I have no experience with rearing sheep or harvesting wheat. Dad raised cattle and hogs, and planted corn and sometimes soybeans. He did plant winter wheat from time to time, but it wasn't a big part of his operation. He refused to have anything to do with sheep, although his father kept sheep, because he said they were 'too stupid to live.' I know people who disagree with that assessment, but my father had enough of them growing up, apparently. What I do have experience with is the Bible, and there are some passages that always seem a little odd to me, not for content (though there's plenty of weirdness there), but for structure. The reading for today is one of them.

This story in the Gospel of Matthew is well-known to Christians, and two verses in particular are on the tip-of-the-tongue of all evangelical leaders. Verses 37 and 38 have Jesus telling his disciples that the harvest is ready, and so laborers are needed for the harvest. The standard interpretation for this is that there are 'souls to be saved' and so Christians need to tell everyone about Jesus so they won't go to hell. In this scenario, the souls are 'harvested' in the sense of salvation, set aside as God's special people. 

Before we proceed further, let's take a step back and look at the flow of this test. It goes from 'sheep without a shepherd' to harvesting and back to 'sheep' later in chapter 10. The harvest verses don't really match the surrounding text. Caring for sheep and harvesting grain are two distinct activities. At best this is a mix metaphor. In reality, I think we're dealing with an interpolation. When the writer of Matthew was putting this together, it seems to me that they had different sources available, and one of these would have been known sayings of Jesus. This doesn't mean that Jesus really said everything attributed to him, just as Mark Twain gets too much credit online these days for witticism, but rather that it was believed that he said these things. 

Writing about the 12 being commissioned to preach the kingdom, drive out demons, heal diseases, and so forth, the writer of Matthew had this popular line, but no idea where to put it. The most natural place, it seems, would be in a portion that speaks of ministry in agrarian terms. Shepherding and planting are different activities, but both are part of what a farm laborer would do. And so, here they slide in the harvest and the need for laborers. 

Looking at Luke, the only other canonical Gospel that explicitly references laborers being needed for the harvest, we find it in a similar but different moment of Jesus' ministry:

"After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. He told them, 'The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field. Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves. Do not take a purse or bag or sandals; and do not greet anyone on the road.'" Luke 10:1-4 NIV

In Matthew, Jesus was preparing his 12 disciples to go out on a shock and awe campaign, announcing his kingdom's arrival, the final return from exile event that the Judeans had been awaiting for centuries. In Luke, it's the sending of the 72 on a similar campaign. Both Matthew and Luke had this saying of Jesus to put somewhere, and they each made their choices. In Luke it really isn't jarring at all, and seems to go with the flow of the rest of the tex, without interruption.

While I'm not an advanced biblical scholar at this point, having only a Bachelor of Ministry and years of study in and out of the context of ministry, this is a blog post and not a scholarly paper. Don't take this more more than what I'm offering, namely, an informed opinion about a passage in the New Testament. You can take the following in the same light as well. 

If this saying about the harvest being ripe and needing laborers, then in the original context it would have referred to the in-gathering of God's people out of Israel in preparation for the judgment of Israel and the world. In the apocalypse ('unveiling') he was describing, the true worshipers of God would be spared and set free from oppression, with the Roman Empire thrown off their backs, and the unfaithful and corrupt in Israel destroyed. Thus the return from exile would be complete, God's kingdom would be on earth, and all would be set right. 

There was nothing of the medieval concepts of an ethereal heaven or a fiery, endless hell in this saying. These only came later as the apostle Paul's interpretation of the meaning of Jesus took hold in the wider world, and the specific political situation of Israel was made irrelevant to the new faith. By the time the Great Awakenings took place in the United States the idea was very firmly rooted in Christian theology that everyone has an immortal soul, and that the post-life state of that soul depended on whether a person was inwardly regenerated by the power of God, and saved from a life of sin.    

As for me, my thoughts go not to sheep or grain, but to the human beings in the United States and around the world who are being oppressed because of their beliefs, race, ethnicity, disability, gender, sexual orientation, or any other defining factor of their existence. What this world and its people need is justice. 

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Learning About Project Management in the Third Sector

This summer I'm working on my Capstone Project to graduate from Avila University with a Master of Arts in Management. My concentration is in project management, and so for the Capstone I decided to apply project management techniques to launch a non-profit. The reading for the paper I'll be submitting has been fascinating at times, and always informative. One paper in particular was very helpful in introducing me to the basics of project management in the non-profit/NGO sphere: "Uma Análise do Gerenciamento de Projetos no Terceiro Setor" [An Analysis of Project Management in the Third Sector], co-written by three people in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

The authors provide a review of project management as practiced in the Third Sector, which itself was a term I'd never heard before. It only goes to show how very much I have to learn if I want to work with social benefit, community development projects. They cite the modernization of society as having created the need for the Third Sector, which they say unfolds in a series of social shortcomings and crises which are not properly addressed by shrinking or limited pubic services. Through social projects, organizations in the Third Sector work with “the objective of promoting social inclusions and the civic participation of the population in situations of social vulnerability.” Citing other sources, they describe the Third Sector as “neither public nor private, but rather as a link between those two latter spheres.” The authors define a social project as “a planned social action, structured with objectives, results, and activities based in a limited quality of resources.” This paper provided an introduction and foundation for me to understand the role of project management in non-profit work, including the provision of appropriate vocabulary to understand and describe processes, approaches, and methodologies.

While the authors discuss the use of the PMI understanding, as elaborated in the PMBoK guide, this paper introduced me to another area of training and certification with which I was unfamiliar. The term used in the paper is 'PMD Pro,' and I have learned that very recently the certification was renamed 'Project DPro.' Frankly, I think the former name sounded a lot better. In any event, this is a body of knowledge that started to come together in the first decade of this century, as a collaboration between several NGOs. Their intention was to describe effective means to manage social projects, given their unique nature, distinct from that in the for-profit business world. There are currently two levels of certification in this domain, which are called 'Foundation' and 'Level 2.' Separately I researched Project DPro and was impressed with what exists. So much so that I've arranged to take the Foundation level exam in September of this year. One more thing for me to study this summer.

Monday, June 8, 2020

Exploring Power and Religion in Community Development

Non-profit community development work is no place for proselytizing. 

In a 1967 episode of Star Trek, entitled 'The City on the Edge of Forever,' Captain Kirk and Mr Spock find themselves in the United States in the 1930s, having chased Dr. McCoy through a time portal. The doctor had suffered an accidental overdose and was temporarily maddened by it. Kirk and Spock laid low while they awaited the delayed arrival of McCoy, and were helped by a kind woman named Edith Keeler, who ran a charity that provided a soup kitchen. The first time they ate there, Spock and Kirk heard a rather unorthodox sermon from her.
It was, in those days, very common for hungry people to be made to listen to a sermon while they were eating, or even before they were allowed to eat. The messages were certainly not about the advance of science and space exploration though. What the destitute heard was the evangelical gospel that tells us that everyone is a sinner, and all will go to hell unless we accept Jesus as our lord and savior. In our times that most certainly still happens, but happily it is far less common than before.

While food banks and similar traditional charities typically work to respond to immediate needs, community development takes more of a long-term approach, attempting to work with residents and others to find solutions for problems that the community in question deals with. Whether the non-profit work is focused on short-term or long-term responses, there always remains a risk that any faith connection could become coercive.

Let's imagine that at some point I retire to Brazil and do community development work. Hopefully I would have been a Unitarian Universalist minister for some time before that. It is pretty certain that I would provide pastoral care as appropriate and the need arises while fulfilling my other duties. However, I would never make anything contingent on assent to any part of my beliefs or affiliations. I further would not use my position as a pulpit to proselytize. Is that really enough, though?

There would be, in this scenario, a power differential between myself and those with whom I'm working to make things better. I would be the better-off foreigner, perceived — whether true or not — to have access to resources. If people were to know something of my religious convictions, they might attempt to use that to get closer to me. It can happen unconsciously as well, with people assuming my beliefs must have value because of whatever good I might be trying to do. Still, there's a risk of a circle of adherents being created that separates them from everyone else, in a sociological and psychological sense. 

At the same time, community members should never be infantilized. Attempting to hide or be coy about my ideology or religious affiliations is the kind of thing one might do with children (and it's a little rude then too). This means that a policy and process for handing such situation needs to be worked out within the non-profit ahead of time, with proper accountability.

The thing is, I don't have the answers. I'm a complete novice when it comes to this topic, and pretty much everything in the field of non-profit management and community development. Over the next few years, as I prepare for Unitarian Universalist ministry, this will be one of the many topics that I'll be exploring with far wiser, more experienced people than myself. 

Who knows? Perhaps I can get away with pondering the interstellar future of humanity.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

A Theological Legacy Without Substance | Trinity Sunday 2020

The Trinity, by Kelly Latimore
"Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age." Matthew 28:16-20 NRSV 

The doctrine of the trinity is the central piece of evidence that the Christian faith went off the rails very early in its history. 

In the first two centuries of the Common Era there were several different understandings of the nature of God and of Jesus in circulation. Some held the rudiments of trinitarianism, while most were arguably more straightforward, having God as a unity, and Jesus as the adopted son of God. His adoption was said variously to have occurred at baptism, the resurrection, or at some other point. As time progressed the gnostics came along with their rather complex interpretation, to which some of the later, forged works included in the canonical New Testament attempted to respond. 

Based solely on the Gospels, Letters, and Book of Revelation found in the canonical New Testament, I think that God as trinity is fairly easily inferred. It remains strange to me, as a post-theistic Unitarian Universalist, that Unitarians of previous generations actually thought those same writing supported their position instead. I just don't see it. That said, the books we have as 'canonical' were only formally listed as such a few centuries after the time Jesus was said to have been alive. In the meantime, many other writings circulated, espousing numerous viewpoints. Some sided with a form of trinitarianism, and others expressed other understandings. 

Once the basics of trinitarianism were established, early church leaders didn't stop. With each generation they debated and elaborated on the 'correct' understanding of the Trinity, getting into finer and finer detail. Looking at the records of their debates, carried out over years, it's apparent that the orthodoxy of one generation quickly became the heresy of the next. Bishops had to keep up with the latest views, lest they be considered anathema. 

All that effort spent building a belief system out of thin air, based on nothing but ideas without evidence. 

Once a more-or-less 'final' understanding of the nature of God was established, it became considered the norm for centuries. Anyone who spoke against it was subject to social censure, trial, and possibly execution if they failed to recant. At the same time, the commoners weren't really expected to understand the doctrine of the Trinity; they had only to say that they believed in it, and all was well. This is rather like how it is now with conservative evangelicals, many of whom know painfully little about the Bible beyond some treasured passages (often ripped from their proper context), and are expected simply to always affirm that the Bible is the inspired word of God, without error. 

Take what the theologians and the pastors say, built on nothing but the beliefs of ancient people, and claim to accept it. That's much of what conservative Christianity depends upon. 

In the meantime, there were Crusades, Inquisitions, witchcraft trials, colonization, genocide, and other forms of oppression and violence carried out without much self-reflection. Christianity failed to show the power claimed in the New Testament, either for its own beliefs or for the God it says reigns over the universe, with people using it to crush others under their heel, exploiting them practically without limits. 

So much time and energy should have been spent on understanding what it means to be human, and how we should best act as individuals and as a society to encourage human flourishing. Efforts could have gone into improving sanitation, researching genuine medicinal practices, and so forth. Instead, until the 19th century the white civilization of the West largely focused on the nature of god, the sinfulness of humankind, and the question of who gets into the good side of the afterlife. Other nations beyond this scope also bogged down in religious debates and practiced oppression as well, but nowhere is it clearer to me than in white Christendom. 

There are far more important matters than ideas without direct reference to this life. Issues such as immigrant justice, ending the school to prison pipeline, black lives matter, women's rights, lgbtq+ affirmation, and more. What we think about a deity in a world that is exactly as one would expect it to be without a personal god, there's no use contending over what one or the other person thinks about god or any other purely hypothetical, esoteric subject. Rather than celebrating or debating a 'trinity,' let's be about our real business, that of countering oppression and fighting injustice. Let's think hard on what will improve human life in real, measurable terms. Let Trinity Sunday be Humanity Sunday instead.

Saturday, June 6, 2020

National Geographic Introduces SOIL Haiti in a New Video

National Geographic has created a great introduction to the work of SOIL Haiti. The language is fairly simple, as it was produced for a younger audience, but all the concepts and the process are explained clearly. SOIL does great work, and I recommend supporting them financially, if you're able.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Sustainable Forest Farming with Dr. John Munsell

Clocking in at under 15 minutes, this video provides a good, basic introduction to sustainable forest farming. In the future, agroforestry is the area I'd like to work in, preferably in a non-profit setting, engaging in managing projects for community development.

Monday, June 1, 2020

Unitarian Universalism Needs the Eighth Principle

A few years ago I was recounting to a UU Humanist group about my experience during a course I'd traveled to take. I'd heard some pretty terrible stories from a black man about his experiences, and shared them with the group. The response was shocking to me. The people seated around the table, all of whom were white and over 60, were set in uproar. They shouted about how wrong I was, arguing that white supremacy isn't a problem in progressive circles. One woman explained that she couldn't be racist, because she was an activist in the civil rights era, had suffered at the hands of white men for her activism, and because she has multiracial grandchildren. Another, a historian, argued that blacks 'brought this on themselves' by participating in the slave trade, 'selling their own people to Europeans.'

It was a deeply disturbing, disheartening experience to witness white UUs, all of whom were ostensibly 'progressives,' deride any notion of white supremacy being an issue within our denomination or among other progressives. Those few minutes of horror gave me a glimpse of the depth of the problem within Unitarian Universalism.

People don't like the use of the term 'white supremacy,' as they say it conjures images of Jim Crow laws and burning crosses. Saying there is white supremacist culture in UUism is tantamount to calling us all bigots. Those who thing that way are wrong and right. They are wrong that white supremacy only applies to the KKK and their ilk. They are right that, in a sense, bigotry is a stain on our collective soul.

'White supremacy' simply means that whites are favored, set above people of color. The latter have to work harder, always maintain composure, and play ball according to the rules and values of the majority culture. White supremacy among UUs and other progressives reveals itself in the denial that majority culture in the United States is white culture. White supremacy culture says that "it's terrible that another black man was murdered by police, but people should never riot and destroy property," when they should instead be saying "it's terrible that there's rioting and property being destroyed, but the extrajudicial execution of people of color by the police has to stop."

As for racism in our midst, the problem is that white progressives tend to reduce everything to the personal, individual level. When we say that there is a systemic problem within UUism and the wider US society, we are not saying that each individual person is actively engaged in racist activities. We are saying that society and our denomination are so ordered as to favor white people over people of color. When an opening for regional minister opens up, the white man is chosen over the well-qualified woman of color. That doesn't make the white minister racist or evil, by any means. He's simply living in the system that has been built over centuries to exclude non-whites. When a minister in a congregation is subject to stricter standards and harsher censure than her white colleagues in the same congregation, there is clearly a problem, one that is usually furiously denied by the white people making the most noise against her. 

If the proposed Eighth Principle is adopted, as I believe it should be, it will most certainly only happen after prolonged, possibly acrimonious debate. We'll hear the usual offended tones about how "I'm not a racist" because "I have black friends/family" or because "march in protests and vote Democrat." Again, they make it about themselves individually, making me wonder if such people are only able to think about protecting their fragile egos. Following the debate, assuming it's approved, many churches will sign on because, of course, they "aren't racist." Others, however, may continue to object that this violates congregational autonomy, and refuse to agree to it. This is where we'll see if the UUA's covenant between congregations, expressed in the Principles, has any teeth. If it doesn't, life will go on and the dissenting congregations will still be formally a part of the association. If it does, we'll be saying goodbye to those congregations as they are cut loose.

One way or the other, the cancer of white supremacy must be isolated and removed from our organization, and there's no way that's happening overnight. We need to take serious, meaningful steps in the right direction to even begin to move the needle. The Eighth Principle is one part of that, perhaps a place to truly begin. 

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Conflagration | Pentecost 2020

"When the Feast of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Without warning there was a sound like a strong wind, gale force—no one could tell where it came from. It filled the whole building. Then, like a wildfire, the Holy Spirit spread through their ranks, and they started speaking in a number of different languages as the Spirit prompted them." — Acts 2:3-4 The Message 

It was 1979, sometime in the summer, and I was 4 years old. A quiet late afternoon disrupted by the volunteer fire department passing our house in the country with sirens blaring, headed north. Phone calls and then we raced to field a couple of miles away, belonging to one of our neighbors. Train tracks cut through it, and evidently some sparks were thrown by a passing train, setting the dry grass ablaze in this field. Already there were the volunteer fire department, and an assortment of other local men who came to help. One of them was my dad, in there with a wet towel or blanket, beating down the flames. Surrounded by woods and fields, this would be a terrible place to let fire get out of control. It spreads, in burns, it destroys, and it kills. Still, it has its benefits. 

"Wherever it is in agreement with nature, the ruling power within us takes a flexible approach to circumstances, always adapting itself easily to both practicality and the given event. It has no favoured material for its work, but sets out on its objects in a conditional way, turning any obstacle into material for its own use. It is like a fire mastering whatever falls into it. A small flame would be extinguished, but a bright fire rapidly claims as its own all that is heaped on it, devours it all, and leaps up yet higher in consequence." Meditations 4:1-2, by Marcus Aurelius

In 2005 I quit the full-time ministry and moved my family to New Jersey. My wife at the time was Brazilian, and we moved to this state because of the Brazilian community, including people she knew through church connections. It was a miserable time for us. The housing rental prices here shocked me, and I couldn't imagine how we'd make rent every month. The only other professional experience I had besides ministry was teaching English as a second/foreign language, and so I taught at a language school for about a year. It paid very poorly, and we only scraped by during that time. At one point I had to go into New York for some personal business, and my wife told me to 'look around for a job' while I was there. 

I can't tell you just how impossible that is to do. She naively believed I'd see a 'help wanted' sign for office work or something, and walk right in to apply. After I finished my business in the city, I did walk around, and could only feel locked out and desperate. I had no idea how to look for the kind of job she wanted me to get, as well as no concept of what type of work I could potentially do. Our reality in 2005 seemed insurmountable.

Now, 15 years later I'm a program manager, and have worked for some pretty well-known brands over the course of my career. Without going into detail, I was up against a wall of obstacles, and wove my way through them one at a time, burning through until I got to where I am. People helped along the way, of course. The challenge was akin to that a fire encounters when it comes across a heap of damp garbage. If the fire is hot enough, it could die down quite a bit, but eventually get the waste to a point where it can be burned away. Basically, over the past 15 years I've made my way through a lot of hot garbage. 

The author of Acts wanted readers to picture the church's birth into the world as happening through wind and me, it seems reminiscent of the whirlwind that took Elijah up into the heavens, and the fiery chariot that separated Elisha from him. The scene is of a room with a fierce wind rushing through and flames appearing above each of the disciples. It's a dramatic, exciting way to think of how the community of Jesus' people might have been empowered to overcome fear and uncertainty and go out to challenge the status quo.    

One of the tropes of storytelling is that of someone going on a journey, only to discover that what they were seeking was with them all the time. Here we have something like that, I think, in that however the church began, people found the courage and determination to overcome inside themselves. It's an experience not at all exclusive to Christians. Time and again people have dug deep and pushed hard, making the obstacle into the way. This is an aspect of the human spirit at its best, and it is universal. However bad it may be, you can make it through. The path you take and the destinations you find along the way could well not be what you expected, just as I never imagined being a program manager working in media and technology. If it feels like your darkest day, I'm very sorry. I'm also certain the fire inside you can master the garbage and clear it away. You can be a wildfire. 

Saturday, May 30, 2020

What's Up With The Disciples' Northeast Region?

There's something I find strange about the Northeast Region of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Made up of congregations in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey, it covers a lot of ground it an extremely populous region of the country. Some time back I took a look at the congregations in my immediate area and discovered that they are very diverse, and most have names that indicate they weren't founded in the Disciples tradition to start with. I know why.

The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) was officially formed in a restructure in the 1960s, and over the course of that and following decades it shed congregations at a dramatic pace, as congregations that didn't consent to the restructure or which didn't like the theological direction of the denomination withdrew. When I was in college in Moberly, Missouri I found the shelf in the Bible college library of Disciples Yearbooks, and observed that year after year they shrank in size, until at one point they thickened up again. Looking inside I discovered that additional content had been added to pad it. 

A few years ago a Disciples insider explained to me that the denomination was exploring various avenues to address the member and congregation loss, and one of the methods they came up with involved signing up existing churches. According to my source, what they do is approach the leadership of immigrant and other non-white churches and offer them denominational support. It's not all about money, per se. It involves providing resources for learning how to manage finances, grow a congregation, and so forth. Whatever the details, many such churches accept the bargain and sign up. 

This strategy is not really news to me. In the late 1990s I met some Brazilian men at a mission convention in the United States who were representing their church in Connecticut. Their church was part of Hisportic Christian Mission, an outreach of the independent Christian Churches and Churches of Christ. In the two years I visited churches connected to that mission I listened in on conversations about pastors that one or the other of the leaders were in touch with, trying to persuade them to join the fold. They would maintain autonomy, as of course the independent Christian churches have no formal denominational structure, and would only have to commit to baptism by immersion only, and to the practice of weekly communion. The first ask was an easy one, as most evangelical Brazilian churches practice immersion only anyway. The second, to have the Lord's supper weekly, was more problematic. Many pastors believe that having it that often makes it less significant. From what I gathered, most of that mission's growth has been through this method of recruiting. 

Looking through the list of churches to the left, part of what I found when I put in my New Jersey zip code, you'll see that these are a lot of immigrant churches as well as predominantly black churches. The use of 'Church of Christ' is not unusual in this area for the Disciples, and so they were most likely founded in this tradition. 

Doing an internet search for most of these churches, I found almost no websites, and minimal reference to them otherwise. This doesn't mean they aren't legitimate churches, only that they lack the wherewithal to promote themselves online. 

Further down the list than pictured here I came across 'New Creation Church of God in Christ.' In case you weren't aware, the Church of God in Christ is a historically black denomination, one that is Pentecostal and very conservative. Theologically it is quite different from what would be considered mainstream among the Disciples. The very fact that one of its congregations would be dual-affiliated with the Disciples is something I found astonishing. But, that wasn't the only one of its kind.  

On that lower end of the list I saw Carnasie Church of God, and a little research turned up that it is affiliated with the Church of God (Cleveland, TN), a Pentecostal denomination in the Holiness tradition. Again, this is a very conservative group both socially and theologically (the two usually go hand in hand.

Although I didn't check every listing that came up, I looked at many, and only found one that explicitly indicates a connection to the Disciples of Christ online. Evangelical Crusade of Soul Winners by name in the DoC directory, online it 's called 'Evangelical Crusade Christian Church.' The same page also includes the DoC chalice logo. Have a look here:

Of the few that have their own church website, House of Prayer and Evangelism (HOPE) Church is the one that indicates communion is weekly. How it phrases it seems odd to me: 'Guided Communion each Sunday.' What does that even mean? As far as I know, all communion/Eucharist/Lord's Supper in every denomination is 'guided,' either by a priest, pastor, elder(s), or by lay people. What would be 'Unguided Communion' in this scenario? In any event, the church's site makes no other mention that I was able to find of DoC affiliation. 

Before I go into the problems this could pose for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), I want to say that I'm impressed at the range of churches they've looped in, and in particular the ones already affiliated with much more conservative denominations. There are plenty of UCC/DoC churches around, but I can't imagine COGIC/DoC is very common. It's really remarkable.

Aside from that, I only see trouble here. It's two parts that contributes to only one result.  

First, from at least the looks of it, these churches are not being integrated into the Disciples tradition. Even UCC/DoC affiliated congregations make an effort to recognize both heritages. It seems very unlikely that these churches are or will be made to feel part of the denominational family. I hope I'm wrong about that, and that they're working some angle to help them feel at home. 

Second, the Disciples over the years have worked at becoming lgtbq+ friendly, anti-racist, theologically progressive, and so forth. Their success at that has been spotty, with many Disciples churches just as conservative and traditional as they've ever been. How long will it take for the leaders of these 'new' congregations, predominantly quite conservative theologically, to realize the nature of the denomination? I doubt they'll want to uphold or further Disciples progressivism. 

The outcome seems predictable. Some will decide that whatever benefit they're getting from being connected to the DoC isn't worth the association with the political, social, and theological positions of the denomination. Many others, I suspect, will continue on with little or no awareness of the denomination, and remain on the list of member congregations without any real participation in the larger life of the church. The worst thing that could happen for the DoC is for these churches to truly become active, opposing the openness of the denomination. This seems unlikely to me, but it is a risk.

It's a strange and uncertain way to grow a denomination. 

Friday, May 29, 2020

James Strang and the Mormon Kingdom on Beaver Island (Video)

The following about the Strangite branch of the Latter-day Saint tradition is well worth a listen if you're interested in North American religious history. John Hamer, a historian and pastor of the Toronto Community of Christ, walks us through the prelude to Joseph Smith, the main events of his life, and then onto how things proceeded with the church James Strang gathered. What has survived of the Strangites is very little. It's just one congregation in Voree, Wisconsin.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

World Convention 2012 – A Gathering in Goiânia (Repost)

What follows is a post from August 2012 in which I review the World Convention of Christian Churches, Churches of Christ, and Disciples of Christ. This event tied together two threads of my life; namely, Brazil and the Stone-Campbell Movement. I even took on the role of interpreter for three of the scholars in their workshops. This was truly a capstone event in my life, as by the end of the following year I was post-theistic. I consider the first 20 or so years of my adult life my 'First Act,' and the Second Act is what I'm living now as a Unitarian Universalist. If there's a Third Act, I hope it doesn't involve yet another change of traditions. It's not a great feeling to no longer be at home in a tradition two which I devoted so much time, energy, and thought.

When I first heard that the World Convention of Christian Churches, Churches of Christ and Disciples of Christ would be held this year in Brazil, I was thrilled. As part of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement and former missionary to Brazil, this came as great news. Over time, though, I began to doubt that I would make it. Fortunately, it all worked out. My family took a vacation to visit relatives in Brazil in July, and I went with a group of men from the Churches of Christ in Uberlândia to World Convention.

To begin, the positives: Friends! I saw old friends I imagined I’d never see again this side of the resurrection. People from every phase of my connection with the churches in Brazil were there, from Campinas to Belém and all points in between. I also made new acquaintances, particularly with Newell Williams, Doug Foster and William Baker, three scholars for whom I translated on different days. 

While the fellowship was fantastic, there were some rough spots with this convention.

First, the evening worship sessions were way too long. I’m not saying this as a stodgy old grandpa (heck, I’m in my mid-30s), nor as a North American (the Brazilians with me also complained). We were expecting to be out of the evening sessions by 9pm, but every night the speaker didn’t take the pulpit until around that time. Because we were staying with relatives of someone in our group and did not want to inconvenience them, and also because we were exhausted after a day at the convention, we never heard any of the evening preachers for more than 15 minutes.

(left to right) Adam Gonnerman, William Baker 

Second, the organization of this convention left something to be wanted, particularly with regard to interpreters. It seems that organizers left translation up to volunteers, and made appeals the first two days for anyone willing to interpret to show up at a certain location after the first morning worship session. In Newell Willliams and Doug Foster’s first session on a global history of the Stone-Campbell Movement the interpreter was completely lost. Although he was fluent in English and Portuguese, he was unfamiliar with the subject matter and his vocabulary was lacking. After that session I spoke with him and the speakers and arranged to take his place the next day. That was fun! This happened again the last day of the convention when I went to attend William Baker’s talk on the Book of James and was drafted to translate because no one showed up to do it.

Third, there was only one small corner near the registration booth where wifi was available. This was an international convention and they had made a point of promoting a twitter hash tag (#wccc12), but there was virtually no Internet available.

(left to right) Newell Williams, Doug Foster, Adam Gonnerman
The first two negatives are really the only two that I think count, and the first can be explained by the fact that the local hosts for this gathering were from the Pentecostal branch of Churches of Christ in Brazil, those associated with the Concílio Ministerial das Igrejas de Cristo no Brasil. These churches took their beginning from the work of Disciples of Christ and independent Christian Church missionaries decades ago, embracing Pentecostalism over the years. They are distinct from the a cappella Churches of Christ, International Churches of Christ and traditional, instrumental Churches of Christ in Brazil. From past experience I can say that their worship style tends to be long and loud in comparison with the other branches of the movement found in Brazil. The other two points above explain themselves, I think.
(left to right) Wanderson de Jesus, Marcelo Lima, Nilson Ferreira
Despite how it may seem, I actually had a fantastic time at World Convention and am very glad I was there. The fellowship alone made the entire experience worthwhile, and in the end, isn’t fellowship really the point of this convention?

Monday, May 25, 2020

Estacão Vida — The Story of One Little Girl, as Told by Her Mother

This month I began the journey to organize a non-profit to support community development projects in Brazil. To give you an idea of one of the areas in which Estacão Vida in Uberlândia works, here's the testimonial of a mother. This is only one story about one little girl. There are 162 children enrolled in the full Estacão Vida program, and a total of 210 in the Judo program. Many of those Judo students come in solely for that course, as there is limited space for the full program.

Turn on captions for English subtitles.

See: Uberlandia Development Initiatives