Our Saving Message

Since my time in seminary, one question has haunted my ministry – what is our saving message?

David-BumbaughThis question was posed to us by David Bumbaugh, who I consider the wisest teacher I ever learned from.  He spoke with sadness that the compelling faith of Universalism died with the merger and that the ensuing new denomination never articulated what he called a “saving message.”

Of course, as seminarians newly inspired to devote our lives to ministry, we found his concern perplexing.  Here was someone who devoted nearly 50 years to our vocation, only to find himself wondering whether the faith he dedicated himself to was indeed lost.  I worked hard to develop my own statement of faith that expressed such a message for the current generation of Unitarian Universalists.  As a newly minted minister, I entered the pulpit confident that I could voice a saving message for our faith in the 21st century.

I was wrong.

I now believe that the problems David Bumbaugh addressed – far more tactfully than I ever could – do exist and have transformed our denomination into something incapable of providing the message of love and hope that Universalism held out in previous centuries.  And I have come to the conclusion that barring seismic changes in the way we “do” church, Unitarian Universalism will inexorably devolve into little more than religious justification for much of what ails America – racism, elitism, and classism.

Now, one could easily dismiss my concerns as the disgruntled rumblings of a malcontent – an argument not without merit.  But as we deal with a pandemic that will change our society forever, I believe we have received a great gift – the chance to rethink our institutions and how we view our relationships with each other, with the world, and with God.

There, I said it.  The “G-word.”  This is perhaps our first major step.  We must get over our pointless hesitation to use the term that uniquely defines what sets churches apart from other social organizations in this country and elsewhere.  Professing a belief in God betrays nothing and brings us to the table of billions of adherents across the world who accept the existence of forces we cannot explain, will likely never completely understand, and may possess some form of consciousness.

On the nature of the divine, the 2004 report Engaging Our Theological Diversity stated, “We agree that the universe is an interdependent web, held together by a force (or forces) that can be understood in a variety of ways.  We disagree concerning how that force (or forces) should be named, and whether or not it possesses consciousness.”  The fact that this issue exists for us makes me question whether Unitarian Universalism is indeed a religion, or simply a support mechanism for sophists, nonconformists, and lost sheep wishing to reclaim the baby they threw out with the bath water.

In my time serving congregations, I met many amazingly intelligent people.  So often, I watched them argue with eloquence and seemingly unassailable logic that belief in God was misguided and threatened the core tenets of our faith.  As much as I love and respect these individuals, such academic bullying serves little purpose beyond self-aggrandizement and often hurts people seeking meaning and purpose in their lives beyond soulless polemics and unemotional erudition.  Love and logic can co-exist.  In the end, however, love must dominate our faith relations, especially because logic cannot provide answers to all our questions – especially our most important questions.

A saving message cannot grow from a pip of pedantry.  A saving message must bloom from seeds nurtured in caring, with respect for the power of natural forces that sometimes exceed our human capacity to quantify.  In future posts, I will discuss ways that I believe Unitarian Universalism could, and should reform in order to meet the needs of this new post Covid-19 society, starting with this:

Let us resolve to embrace everyone regardless of the name they apply to the forces of all existence and to end, once and for all, our energy draining and valueless debate over using language of reverence.

The Wall

20190213_155337Nogales should be a unique and attractive city.  After miles of relatively flat desert and mountains in the distance, you enter on Interstate 19, and are suddenly faced with hills covered with homes of many styles.  It is a vertical city without the benefit of skyscrapers.

Nogales should be a unique city.  I imagine that in years past, the cultures of Mexican Nogales and Nogales, Arizona blended to make a fascinating town.  Streets literally feet apart must have shared neighborhood shops, festivals, and community.

20190213_160203Nogales should be an attractive city.  But now, Nogales is a wounded city.  A horrible gash splits the American and Mexican cities and a militarized gate makes passage between the two a burden, even a danger.  The lumbering monstrosity dominates the landscape, looking for all intent making each city look like a  prison.

20190213_161206

We approached the wall having seen news reports of the wall, fence, or whatever we are calling it today.  But nothing can quite prepare you for the horror of it all.  The horror just a few feet away is unspeakable; America is enclosing itself in a concentration camp that would have made the Nazis proud.

And yet, as if to magnify the irony of such a frightening visage of fear and violence, we turned and saw an incredible sight.  Across the street was a dirt driveway leading to a house.  In front of the house were about a dozen peacocks strolling casually and obviously oblivious to our presence.  One had its tail feathers spread full, and another was completely white (something I didn’t know existed.20190213_162509

Such magnificent color against the silver barbed wire; such fragility against the cold steel pillars.  Would that we lived in a world where one was the norm and the other had no reason to exist.

Here’s What You Can Do

Whenever I speak about social justice and social action, this question invariably pops up: “But, what can I do?”

20190212_111001This morning, we met Lois Martin, an 84-year old who moved to Tucson 10 or so years ago to work on immigration justice.  She is a member of No More Deaths, an initiative of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee and the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tucson.  No More Deaths is a humanitarian organization based in southern Arizona working to end death and suffering in the Mexico-U.S. borderlands through civil initiative.  Their work focuses on direct aid (such as water drops in the desert), witnessing and responding, cons iousness raising, and promoting humane immigration policy.

Lois is an amazing person.  She has traveled extensively through Central America and has served as an election observer in Honduras and Guatemala.  She minced no words – the violence people are fleeing in these countries came about and continues because of American support of illegal regimes.  For the last century, groups like the United Fruit Farmers and a handful of wealthy landowners have terrorized the compesinos into fleeing for their lives.  And the U.S. has used these countries as staging points for immoral acoins in El Salvador and Nicaragua.

She taught us about our government’s goal to criminalize migration and to deter migration through death and imprisonment.  She explained how people caught by the border patrol agents (who perform police functions without proper police training) are remitted to the criminal justice system, not the immigration system.  Border patrol can hold migrants for 72 hours with no guarantee of even the basic services such as bedding. Claims of asylum are ignored and victims are processed through Operation Streamline, which results in a criminal record and immediate deportation.

Since the hearings take place in federal court, victims are not provided any translators but Spanish.  As a result, defendents (who may be members of many indigenous people’s with their own dialects) may have no understanding of what is happening to them.

We then spent the afternoon at the federal courthouse watching close to 100 people led into the courtroom in shackles.  Looking confused and frightened, shuffling because of the ankle chains, groups were led before the judge charged either with misdemeanor illegal entry or felony re-entry after removal. Pleading guilty to the former means immediate deportation and a criminal record.  All of the latter cases made plea bargains resulting in dropping the felony charge, but serving 30 to 180 days in prison.

20190212_161651Only after the hearing are migrants remitted to immigration services, where claims of asylum may be heard.  But, often the only person who may hear the claim is the bus driver taking them to Nogales, or an officer who simply chooses to ignore it.

The futility and inhumanity of this charade of justice was brought home by one man.  The judge asked if he had been in her court before.  He affirmed her recollection.  She told him, “I don’t want to see you here again, because next time it will be a felony.”  He replied, “Not anymore…what’s the point?”

What is the point?  What can you do?  See.  Think.  Plan.  Act.  Reflect.  And repeat.

The Need for Resolve

2016 was a tough year on many of us. It remains to be seen how the events of this past year will influence 2017.

I view this coming year as providing us with two opportunities. First, we should look on the past year not with sorrow and regret, but with a renewed sense of resolve. I realize the temptation to hunker down and ride out the almost certain coming storm appeals strongly. I also realize that the events of 2016 have left many of us emotionally shaken and intellectually bewildered.

Take the time to mourn, to lick your wounds, and to regroup. But, don’t linger in a state of hopeless victimhood for long. We must adopt a long-range strategy to pace ourselves for what might be an extended period of immoral actions and senseless attacks on logic and common sense. This means that we must get up, brush ourselves off, and get back in the game.

Related imageThe second opportunity before us in 2017 is the invaluable gift of passionate engagement. The past year left no one untouched. Some gains in equality and justice now stand on the brink of a reactionary chasm of patriarchy, privilege, and power abuse. Not for decades has the challenge to freedom and democracy been so strong in this country.

Robert A. Heinlein’s characters often use the phrase TANSTAFL – there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. In 2017, we must pick up the tab for a Trump presidency. The task won’t be easy, but I am confident that people of faith and vision have the resolve, with enough left over for a good tip.

 

Back in the Saddle

The pizzatorium is open for business again.  I completed a sabbatical over the summer, providing a long-needed break from commentary and agitation. Sadly, the causes demanding attention have not gone away – many have actually worsened.

For much of the fall, I watched the campaign of our now fascist-elect with disbelief.  As a student of the German state of mind in the Nazi era, I could not bring myself to believe that Americans would elect someone like Donald Trump.  And like almost everyone, I trusted the polls that never gave his campaign a chance to succeed.

The unthinkable has happened.  Why is no longer relevant.  What we do now is critical.

The time for sitting on the sidelines is over.  My path is clear.  As a minister possessing most of the categories of privilege this society offers, I must speak out and act up.  The clarion call must resound and signal the need for action.

In the coming months, I intend to be relentless in calling out hypocrisy and raising up opportunities to stand as allies with the legion of people threatened by this regime.  As Rachel Maddow says, “Watch this space.”

A Crisis of Leadership…and Faith

People of faith across Michigan find themselves wrestling with the ongoing revelations that state officials knowingly allowed the poisoning of the people of Flint without warning for more than a year. Every day, more information shows us that Gov. Rick Snyder’s appointees sacrificed the health and well-being of thousands of citizens recklessly, perhaps immorally. As we learn more, we must cope with our immediate response to the crisis while at the same time discerning its cause.

In his State of the State address last Tuesday, Gov. Snyder apologized and vowed to fix the problem. Rep. Gary Glenn told us to accept his apology and move on, a sentiment I share. We should forgive Gov. Snyder and those who reported directly to him responsible for this heinous act. We should not let our feelings of betrayal and outrage lead us to lash out against politicians who may have — somehow — believed they were serving the public interest.

We should release the anger we feel toward Gov. Snyder and his appointees so that the work of reconciliation can begin. As people of faith, however, forgiving Gov. Snyder does not mean that we will not seek justice for the people of Flint. Every child who drank the lead-contaminated water will live the rest of their lives suffering the effects of their poisoning. People made intentional decisions that exposed those children to vile pollution. And they must be held accountable.

The acts resulting in the destruction of the water supply of Flint and the ongoing exposure of its people to toxic, perhaps fatal chemicals, were a sin against every human moral belief system. Whether you are Christian or Muslim, Buddhist or Jew, Atheist or Pagan, the decisions that allowed Flint’s children to be poisoned were unthinkable and evil. And justice demands that those responsible be held accountable for their actions according to the laws of our land.

Consider this comparison. You hire a trusted contractor to build a playground for your children. The contractor completes the task, but knowingly uses rotted wood and rusty nails without telling you. Eventually, the playground collapses, injuring your children permanently. The contractor apologizes and holds you in his prayers. Then he asks for your trust and assures you that he will fix the playground.

We cannot know the nature of eternal mysteries of creation and goodness in the universe. We cannot presume to understand what consequences Gov. Snyder’s actions will inflict on his soul. Therefore, we should leave moral punishments to the Spirit of Life and Love that we call by many names.

We can, however, determine to what extent he and others violated the law and deal with them as we would anyone accused of crimes. If the deaths due to Legionnaire’s Disease were attributable to decisions made by Gov. Snyder and his appointees, then they should be charged with those negligent homicides. Anyone complicit in the poisoning of children should be indicted for the appropriate crimes. And those involved in hiding or covering up knowledge of these actions should be held as co-conspirators. This is not “finger-pointing.” This is a call for justice and for the fair application of our laws to all, whatever their position in our society.

This investigation will also bring to light the many instances of corruption resulting from this governor’s application of the emergency manager law. We must examine its overtly racist application to cities with large minority populations, wherein citizens have been deprived of their democratically-elected representation. We must consider whether our state’s experiment with temporary totalitarianism has been a colossal failure and determine how our cities can survive sustainably in a 21st century environment.

Perhaps most important, as Rep. Glenn reminds us, we must “invest ourselves in finding solutions.” I could not agree more. So I call on you, Rep. Glenn, to take the lead on local relief efforts for our neighbors to the south. Perhaps you could negotiate with local businesses and corporations to provide regular truckloads of water at discounted rates to which we all could contribute. You could sponsor emergency legislation to bolster Flint’s public schools, medical services and civic infrastructure to begin their long path back to health. And, most important Mr. Glenn, show us your leadership by demanding a repeal of the emergency manager legislation and a comprehensive investigation into the actions of this governor and his appointees.

The opportunity for us to live the shared principles of our various faiths lies before us. We need leadership willing to let go of partisan loyalties and commit to the citizens of Michigan. And we need leaders with the courage to show us the way toward justice for the people of Flint.

(originally published January 24, 2016)

Truth and Meaning: Calling Bull

When I was young, we played a card game named after the defecation of a male cow. The point of the game was to lie whenever needed and to call out others when you thought they were lying. I was reminded of this child’s game recently.

When John Moolenaar was in the Michigan Legislature, we exchanged a number of communications on abortion bills. His messages always touted his belief in the “sanctity of life” as his reason for wishing to make all abortions illegal.
How curious, then, when I get his response on gun control legislation before Congress, including the following. “I believe it is imperative to have an open dialogue about recent gun-related violence and how to further prevent it. It is also imperative that we strengthen the ties that bind the family, school and community. In my view, a commonsense approach can be found that helps keep firearms out of the hands of criminals and others posing serious danger, while protecting legal firearm ownership.”
Sorry, Representative, but I am calling bull. Why is it that your answer to whether or not a woman should have the right to choose is to completely ban the act resulting in the termination of the pregnancy, but when it comes to mass shootings, and tens of thousands of gun deaths each year, your answer is to have an “open dialogue?”
Those of us sick and tired of the American gun culture know how to translate your language and we see through the bull. You believe in making sure that no effort to control gun sales or the types of guns one can purchase should ever be seriously discussed. You believe that guns don’t kill people, only evil and deranged psychopaths kill people. And you believe that the unfettered right to own a gun matters more than anything … ANYTHING, including life.
You posted on your campaign website last year, “I’m proud to receive the endorsement of the National Rifle Association (NRA). I believe strongly in the rights guaranteed to every American under the Second Amendment and will do everything I can to ensure that it is not weakened by efforts of liberals. I continue to believe, as I have all my life, in the rights of law abiding Americans to possess firearms.” You know what, John, you can’t have it both ways.
How dare you intrude on a woman’s most intimate decisions, claiming a belief in the sanctity of life, when you lap up the crumbs thrown to you by the NRA to do their bidding. How dare you do nothing to help people get contraception or to teach our children about responsible sexuality, while doing everything to help those who don’t hold life sacred get all the weapons of mass killing they want through gun show loopholes and Internet sales. How dare you assert that “we are endowed by our Creator with the unalienable Right to Live,” while turning a blind eye to the cause of thousands of senseless and preventable murders each year.
I am an adult now, and this is no longer a card game. But I still know bull when I smell it, hear it or read it.

Truth and Meaning: Mold in the Cellar

The first time I exited Business 10 onto Patrick, I saw the sign: “Midland: City of Modern Explorers.” I remember feeling hopeful that my new home would be progressive and warm. Since then, I have met many friendly and caring people in Midland. I have befriended future-oriented, justice-seeking people in the area. Midland offers amenities of a city many times its size, and is a great place for parents to raise their children.

But under the foundation of the City of Modern Explorers grows a mold. It spreads during the cold dampness of night in the sickly detritus of decay. It eats away at our compassion and understanding. It mocks our modern, forward focus and stifles our exploring nature with fear and bigotry.
Unless we explore our own cellar, we might live unaware of this destructive cancer. If we dismiss the stench of hate and the foul erosion of community, then our City of Modern Explorers may well become a hollow shell of platitudes build on the sandy ground of empty promises.
Recently, a thief vandalized the flag pole in front of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship that I serve, and stole flags representing our public witness. This was the third time in recent months that someone has taken flags from our property. One flag was the flag of our faith – the chalice of Unitarian Universalism. The others were symbols of our support of equality for gay, bisexual and transgender people. The police shrugged the act off as random nuisance. I do not.
Since moving here, I have inspected Midland’s basement and exposed the mold growing in its shadows. This malignant rot wants to stay hidden and so it attacks in the only way it knows – through intimidation, bullying, insinuation, and taunts. The mold tells you what you want to hear – that everything is alright and that you don’t need to change anything.
I ask you to ignore this lie, because we do need to change something in Midland. If we care about this city, then we need to confront this infestation in our cellar and see it for what it really is. Corruption. Hypocrisy. Arrogance. Evil. If we want Midland to remain a bastion of science and reason, of education, and of family activities and love, then we need to put on our haz-mat suits and enter the basement.
After our flags disappeared, the Midland Daily News published an article about the crime. It did not take long for the mold to spread its spores, suggesting that my congregation had committed this act ourselves as a public relations ploy. I challenged the author to offer proof of his allegation, which of course he could not. In response, however, he posted this black and white image on my Rev. Jeff Liebmann public figure page on Facebook.

The image sickened me. I hope you can forgive me for feeling the urgency to share this foul drawing with you. In particular, I hope that my Jewish brothers and sisters will forgive sharing such an all too familiar drawing. But, I have read much about propaganda and the growth of Nazi Germany in the 1930’s. The image clearly intends to mimic similar posters created by the Nazis to rile up Antisemitism among the German people, posters like the one shown, which was printed by the Nazis for use in Russia. Look at the two images. Compare the features of the figure, unmistakably meant to mock Jewish people and make it possible to hate them and blame them for social problems. One is more than 80 years old. The other is barely a toddler.
This is how propaganda works. The message attacks people at the fringes, those whose numbers are too small to defend themselves effectively – the Other. Propaganda blames all social woes on the Other, shouting that the Other is inferior and therefore undeserving of our compassion or sympathy. When we see these messages, we might be tempted to write them off as perhaps objectionable, but mostly harmless. Perhaps we discuss the limits of free speech and how we define hate speech. But, in the end, we avoid the conflict and wait for the event to blow over and be forgotten.
Unfortunately, such images are not harmless, nor are they forgotten – and they ARE hate speech. They are not harmless, because some people actually believe the message. They believe the message and the mold slowly takes hold of their souls. They are hate speech because they are cowardly lies fabricated by people raised to believe that they are superior and that their interests matter more than the welfare of others. They are lies because they perpetuate discredited stereotypes and shun facts and evidence like sunlight.
As a religious person, I love my neighbors – all of my neighbors. I seek justice and equality for all people, whatever their culture or ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity, age, immigrant or veteran status, level of ability, or religion. I do this because this is a principle of my faith, to affirm and promote justice, equity and compassion in human relations. So I witness publicly against expressions of hate, prejudice, and bigotry. I witness for the oppressed who cannot change the oppressive paradigms of society themselves. And I witness for you, so that you will know the nature of the disease infecting the foundation of our community.
The late social and civil rights activist Julian Bond once spoke at the General Assembly of Unitarian Universalist Congregations at a lecture I was privileged to attend. He told this story. 

Two men are sitting by a river and see, to their great surprise, a helpless baby floating by. They rescue the child, and to their horror, another baby soon comes floating down the stream. When that child is pulled to safety, another baby comes along. 

As one man plunges into the river a third time, the other rushes upstream. “Come back!” yells the man in the water. “We must save this baby!”

“You save it,” the other yells back. “I’m going to find out who is throwing babies in the river and I’m going to make them stop!”

I am rushing upstream and ask you to join me. The mold eats away at Midland’s foundation every day, but we have the power to stop its spread. We can do this by proclaiming that all people should have equal rights regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Not special rights; equal rights. We can do this by proclaiming that Black Lives Matter; of course all lives matter, but right now we need to show that Black lives matter as much as our own. We can do this by loving our neighbors – all of our neighbors – whether they are Christian or Atheist, Jewish or Muslim, Hindu or Sikh, Buddhist or Agnostic.
Most of all, we need to stand up to bullies and reveal them for what they are – damaged and insecure people nurtured with the stagnant waters of ignorance, the stifling heat of fear, and the cold oppressive brightness of privilege and prejudice.

Truth and Meaning: Black Lives Matter

America is a great nation, a beacon to the world. America represents an ideal to many people around the globe: an ideal of freedom; an ideal of opportunity; an ideal of equality.

In America, everyone’s life matters because everyone has the chance to succeed, to better their lives. Everyone’s life matters because our system of laws protects us, and our social network supports us in times of need. Everyone’s life matters because our Founders declared that we the people are created equal.
However, every life in America does not matter equally. All lives do not matter equally because all lives do not begin equally. Wealth affords some children opportunities unavailable to poor children. Boys have a better chance to earn more than girls, and to enter a greater variety of occupations. Heterosexuals face none of the legal discrimination and socially sanctioned prejudice endured by gays and lesbians.
But the single largest determinant of inequality in America is skin color. So, while all lives matter, the reality of America is that the lives of people with dark skin do not matter as much as those with pale skin.
Black people are not inherently inferior. White people are not inherently oppressive. But our history created an uneven playing field and we have yet to fully correct for the tilt.
Almost a century passed in our nation’s history until African Americans were freed from the bonds of slavery. Yet, they were still systematically denied access to homes, jobs, voting, and many other basic services and rights that Whites took for granted. Even when African American communities did succeed, Whites destroyed them through violence (e.g the Tulsa Race Riots), or through “urban renewal,” which helped create many inner city ghettos.
And yet, in spite of sundown towns, racial cleansings, red-lining and segregation, African Americans succeeded in climbing the ladder toward the American dream. Even without inherited wealth, civil rights and equal education and health care, many endured and thrived.
All of that effort, however, remains threatened still today by the evil shadow of racism. Hardly a day passes that another Black life is not taken under bizarre circumstances by police, a shameful situation that most White people would never have to consider. Imagine you are driving down the street. A police car passes you and soon makes a U-turn. The police car speeds up until it is tailgating you. You pull over, assuming the officer is heading to some emergency call.
If you are White, does the possibility that you will end up dead in a jail cell even cross your mind? Even when you are pulled over, do you worry about anything more than receiving a minor traffic citation? Of course not. But many Black people do.
Sandra Bland is dead because of her dark skin. Had she been White, the officer likely doesn’t even turn around. Had she been White, the traffic stop would have ended in a citation and “Have a nice day!” Had she been White, she wouldn’t have been assaulted, arrested and thrown in jail. Had Bland been the same vibrant, 28-year-old college graduate with light skin, odds are that she would not be dead today.
Church burnings, the Charleston 9, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Michael Brown and countless other stupid and senseless acts of deadly violence against African Americans tell us that Black lives do not matter as much as others in 2015 America. That is why the #BlackLivesMatter movement was created and must be understood and respected. Co-opting this message to other purposes simply tells African Americans, once again, that their lives, their creative ideas and their concerns do not matter.
Reading this paper, you are likely thinking that you have never used a racial slur. You have never supported the KKK or other White supremacist groups. You believe in loving your neighbor, and would never dream of hurting someone simply because of their skin color.
But, if you were born White in the United States, you were born with privilege. This does not make you a bad person. It simply means you were born without certain obstacles that almost every Black person must face, sometimes every day of their lives. When 12-year-old Tamir Rice was murdered by Cleveland police while playing in a park, did you think whether that could ever happen to a White child in Midland? Probably not. That is privilege.
When nine Black people attending a Bible study group at their church were murdered by a young man with a clear hatred of African Americans, did you think whether that would ever happen in your church here in Midland? Probably not. That is privilege.
When Eric Garner died while police strangled him for selling cigarettes, did you consider whether someone at the Midland Farmer’s Market could face the same fate? Unthinkable, right? That is privilege.
When Michael Brown was repeatedly shot with his hands in the air, could you imagine facing the barrel of a police officer’s gun, feeling the first bullets enter your skin and two more crush through your skull as you fell? Michael Brown died for allegedly stealing some cigars. The White murderer of the Charleston 9 was taken calmly into custody and police bought him a hamburger from Burger King when he complained of being hungry. That is privilege.
Possessing privilege is not the problem. Doing nothing about your privilege IS the problem. When they passed the robbed and beaten man on the road to Jericho, the priest and the Levite took advantage of their status privilege to avoid helping. But the Samaritan set aside his privilege to bind the victim’s wounds and take him to safety.
Black people in America need our help. They need White Americans to understand privilege and the impact of privilege on the lives of African Americans. They need us to not pass them by on the road to Jericho. And then they need us to catch up to the priest and the Levite and teach them how people should respond to others’ needs.
All lives matter. But right now, we must focus on the need for Black lives to matter just as much as our own. We begin that journey by learning how our own privilege contributes to inequality and oppression. We will travel that journey this year at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Midland. We encourage others to join us in this quest for understanding and to use the power of love for all persons.

Truth and Meaning: Notoriety or Notorious?

When called to serve the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Midland, I was pleased to be moving to the City of Modern Explorers. I envisioned living someplace known for innovation, forward thinking and progress. People I spoke with talked proudly of Midland’s notoriety as a wonderful place to raise a family, a small city filled with the amenities of a larger metropolitan area.

Lately, however, Midland’s notoriety has become overshadowed. We continue to make national, even international news — but not for new inventions, or for cultural achievements. No, Midland has instead become notorious as a bastion of fundamentalist theocracy, intolerance and bigotry. And the latest addition to this sad list…hypocrisy.

The obsession of homophobic and transphobic public figures in our city is not simply disturbing, but a national embarrassment. And the recent revelation of a local minister decrying homosexuals while engaging in sexual discussions with men on a gay dating website colors the credibility of our community.

Beyond this announcement, the subsequent resignation of the clergy in question, and the unimaginable horror in the future for this family, lies another even more insidious evil that remains unaddressed. How many people have read his words, listened to his speech and felt confused and conflicted, and perhaps filled with self-hatred? How many families has this man “counseled” into dysfunction and broken relationships? How many gay teens have sunk into depression, even attempted suicide because their minister told them that they were sinful?

I feel for his wife and children. I can even find a small measure of sympathy for him. But I reserve most of my concern for the victims of his vitriolic attacks on gay and transgender people. I stand with gays and lesbians, bisexual, transgender, and queer folk and offer my support as they face routine discrimination and public shaming by public officials who lack the will to love their neighbors as themselves.

If you are gay and a minister has told you that you are an abomination, then find another minister. If you are a lesbian and have been shamed by your church as sinful, then seek out a welcoming congregation. If you are transgender and been told that your religion has no room for you, then look for a religion that embraces you. And if you are questioning and hear our representative in Lansing compare you to a pedophile, then join with us.

Midland, we should be sick and tired of being notorious for our intolerance of people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The time has come to enhance our notoriety once more. The time is now to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the class of people protected from discrimination in our city. And from now on, our religious and political leaders should know that hate speech is not free speech, and that ancient scriptures do not replace truths proven by verifiable research.