Deepening in Faith Together, with Theme-Based Ministry

Theme-based ministry is happening in more and more congregations throughout our movement. What is theme-based ministry? According to Rev. Scott Tayler, the UUA’s Director of Congregational Life, theme-based ministry “is a powerfully engaging way of focusing the life of a congregation on monthly themes through worship, religious education, small groups and other activities.”theme based words

Last June, many attendees at the UUA 2014 General Assembly (GA) in Providence (Rhode Island) learned this, and much more, in an SRO (that is, standing room only!) workshop, Deepening Our Faith through Theme-Based Ministry.

Why themes? Rev. Matthew Johnson, minister of the UU Church of Rockford (Illinois) and one of the workshop presenters, says it is a way to create multigenerational connections across the congregation. His article, “Theme-Based Church and the Workshop Rotation Model: Putting It Together,” describes a way to integrate worship themes into religious education programming.

Another workshop presenter, Sheila Schuh, director of religious education at the First Unitarian Church of Rochester (New York) shared her ‘Deepening Our Faith’ Top Ten!” benefits of theme based-ministry:

1. Lifts positive energy and engagement of volunteers

2. Tailors to congregation (traditions/ history/mission)

3. Worship 4u! Provides developmentally appropriate engagement and a whole experience

4. Builds cross-generational ties in family (parent/child), congregation, humanity

5. Ties seasonal events to a spiritually grounding liturgical calendar

6. Offers, with each theme, a base for creativity and curiosity

7. Stretches spiritual focus in direction may not have considered

8. Allows economies of scale in preparation, media

9. Invites spiritual connection with DRE et al., for program and  pastoral

10. Invites leaders to balance a deeper level of internal work with the duties of administration

Rev. Jan Taddeo of the UU Congregation of Gwinnett (Georgia) and Kathy Smith, director of religious education at the Community UU Church in Plano (Texas) described the evolution of monthly themes in their congregations. Rev. Sarah Gibb Millspaugh of the UUA staff shared resources for congregations to explore theme-based ministry.

Next steps!

Want to learn more? Online, watch the GA 2014 workshop Deepening Our Faith through Theme-based Ministry or view the presenters’ slides.

Get inspired by learning how various UU congregations use themes:

  • Read how a variety of UU faith communities use themes in small group ministry in stories collected by the Small Group Ministry Network
  • The Church of the Larger Fellowship invites members to connect around a theme each month via the Quest for Meaning newsletter.
  • See how themes “help congregants go deeper” at All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa (Oklahoma) in in an InterConnections artlcle or on the congregation’s theme-based ministry website.
  • First Unitarian Church of Rochester (New York) structures worship around monthly spiritual themes for ten months of the year; see the calendar of themes here. Another congregation using themes is Unitarian Universalist Church West in Brookfield, Wisconsin.

More “Theme” Resources

  • The Soul Matters Sharing Circle is a group of UU congregations that follow the same monthly worship themes and share material for small group worship and children’s religious education as well as sermons and music. Membership is open to additional congregations.
  • Congregations in the UUA Pacific Western Region can subscribe to the “Touchstones” journal with worship and discussion resources for monthly themes, following the theme-based ministry of the First Universalist Church of Denver (Colorado).
  • The Vibrant Faith Ministries/Faith Formation Learning Exchange discusses themes and how to use them in “A New Way to Approach Faith Formation” by Joelene Roehlkepartain.

 

 

Reading in Common and “Reclaiming Prophetic Witness”

The selection committee met this summer. We thoughtfully considered the 14 books nominated for the 2014-15 Common Read. There were beautifully written books that addressed social justice issues—immigration, voting rights, racial justice, and climate change—and several that looked at ways to respond from the depths of our Unitarian Universalist faith to the challenges that face us in our lives and in our world.

Reclaiming Prophetic Witness

“Can’t we name two?” someone said.

The UUA Common Read began as part of long-range preparation for the 2012 “Justice” General Assembly. Margaret Regan’s The Death of Josseline (Beacon Press, 2010) was a perfect book to show UUs the issues facing people affected by immigration along the Arizona-Sonoma border. In 2011, the UUA invited UUs across the country to read and discuss the same book, using a provided discussion guide. That year, we learned that a one-session or three-session discussion fits into most congregational and group calendars. We decided to offer an annual Common Read, each year selecting a readable, relevant book for Unitarian Universalists to consider together. We committed to creating a discussion guide that would make the book a vehicle for adult faith development, inviting people to bring personal stories and UU values and theology into their response and sharing. In subsequent years, we lifted up Eboo Patel’s Acts of Faith (2011-12), Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (2012-13), and Saru Jayaraman’s Behind the Kitchen Door (2013-14).

The selection committee includes both headquarters and field staff of the UUA, charged each year to discern the most useful and appealing offering for congregations and individual Unitarian Universalists. This year, we came to consensus on Reclaiming Prophetic Witness: Liberal Religion in the Public Square by Paul Rasor (Skinner House Books, 2013). This elegantly written, 105-page book is a gem. Rasor observes that many liberals are uncomfortable with talking about our faith as the well from which spring our social justice commitments. The book includes insights from our theological heritage and our history that have bearing for us today, and calls us to prophetic, faith-based justice work.

The committee further agreed to honor the various social justice commitments of our people. The discussion guide will suggest books and resources to help apply Rasor’s insights to specific social justice issues—which may include ones nearest to your heart or to your congregation’s justice ministry. As the Reclaiming Prophetic Witness Common Read prompts you talk in the public square about your faith commitments, the issues about which you witness will depend on your own context and callings. Join Unitarian Universalists from all over in reclaiming the practice of prophetic witness. Become part of the Common Read program in the year ahead!

Next Steps!

  • Purchase Reclaiming Prophetic Witness from the UUA Bookstore (discount available on five books or more).
  • Schedule and announce your meeting times for Common Read discussions. By October, you’ll find the discussion guide for the 2014-15 Common Read on the UUA website, with plans for a single 90-minute session and a series of three 90-minute sessions.
  • You may want to experiment with non-traditional gatherings, such as video conferences.
  • Allow plenty of time during the calendar year for follow-up conversations so you can continue to apply Rasor’s insights to the justice issues that compel your community.
  • Visit the UUA Common Read web page to learn more about how and why your UUA faith community might organize a Common Read and to view past years’ selections.

The Lie We Have Been Told

No one knows better than religious educators that we are stronger together than we ever could be alone.

A community of religious professionals and UU leaders forms at The Mountain retreat in North Carolina, each summer during RE Week. Photo courtesy of Jessica York.

Time and time again, you prove this to me, my colleagues — most recently at RE Week at The Mountain. Six days in the company of religious educators, ministers, RE and worship committee members/chairs, spouses, and children reminded me that “to believe I walk alone, is a lie that I’ve been told.” (See the lyrics to Fort Atlantic’s “Let Your Heart Hold Fast”, a song Tim Atkins used in an RE vesper service.) My purpose for being there? To co-facilitate the newly revised Renaissance module on Worship. And teaching and learning was happening all over the place, in the module and beyond.

Teaching and Learning: practicing “showing, not telling,” as Rev. Meg Barnhouse encouraged us to use stories creatively in worship; remembering what wonder feels like, with help from Baby Evan, fascinated by the tick-tock of the wall clock; receiving Matt Meyer’s demonstration of weaving history and respectful cultural borrowing, reflected in worship presentations throughout the week; and, for those new to The Mountain, being invited to participate in rituals like walking the labyrinth, RE Week Update, and ordering original ice cream concoctions from Sweet Treats (My choice was chocolate ice cream with macadamias, toffee, Oreos, and hot fudge. After all, I am the person with the refrigerator magnet that says “Eat dessert first.”). For me, it was a time of re-learning what it feels like to work and play with our peers.

Nothing feels better than being in the midst of a community where you feel you belong. Where you are free to come sit with others to discuss work or personal lives – or to take a nap or sit on Meditation Rock alone – and not be judged for your choices. Where you can agree and disagree and know that disagreement does not need to lead to dislike, but know that disharmony is a kind of harmony, too.

The reality is that we do not walk alone: You are part of a faith community and a community of religious professionals and volunteers who hold the faith and hold each other. I feel this most strongly when I gather with my community.

For some of you, the new fiscal year is starting. Do you have professional development funds that can be used to spend time with your colleagues? I urge you to do this. Whether it is a week-long conference at one of our UU camps and conference centers, the Liberal Religious Educators Association’s Fall Conference 2014 (registration is open now!), LREDA Fall Conference, or a LREDA chapter retreat, make your plans now. Maybe I’ll see you there!

Next Steps!

Find out about programs offered at The Mountain and other, similar sites across the country on the website of The Council of UU Camps and Conference Centers.

Consider attending the Liberal Religious Educators Association’s Fall Conference 2014.

The UUA’s Renaissance Program provides trainings in topic areas including Worship, Youth Ministry, Multicultural Religious Education, and Adult Faith Development and Planning. In the coming year, look for a new module on UU Theology and a revised UU Identity training. Participation in a Renaissance module in person or in-person/online is a way to learn and share in community.

Unitarian Universalism: Now Serving 31 Kinds of Families

Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
– Rumi

By Karen Bellavance-Grace

Thirty-one. Not Baskin Robbins flavors. Not Heinz varieties. Not even the number of Sources of Unitarian Universalism. That number represents our families.

Last year a group of UU religious educators described different family configurations showing up in their congregations. They counted 31.

Photo courtesy Karen Bellavance-Grace
Photo courtesy Karen Bellavance-Grace

Mom + Dad + kids families. Single parent families. Queer families. Step-families. Grandparents raising grandchildren. Foster families. Families with one parent imprisoned. Immigrant families. Blended families….

Not to mention a healthy mix of lifelong UUs, recent converts, and families dividing time between two faith homes.

How hard it is to plan rich religious education programming for all of these families! To plan curriculum arcs, meet all the spiritual growth and health needs, equip wildly varied parent constituencies to carry faith home… and to fit all of that into a couple dozen Sunday mornings a year. It’s the kind of task that’d make Sisyphus grateful all he has to do is roll a rock uphill forever!

Our times and families have changed. Although our faith formation ministries still largely focus on Sunday morning as though it were the one way we know to kneel and kiss the ground, we are called today to show up in new ways. Religious professionals must show up where our families are, because although they cannot all be with us on Sunday mornings, they are still all our people. Our parents must show up to live Unitarian Universalism at home, in neighborhoods, and even on soccer fields. Our world is moving rapidly from an Age of Enlightenment culture into a new and radically connected Age of Embodiment. We all need to embody our faith in new ways that help our own people understand and live out our theology and help our communities know we are the Love people.

I started talking about a Full Week Faith approach to spark conversations and collaborations around innovative, shared ministries of faith formation. I wanted to encourage the brave souls willing to engage and embody our faith not just on Sundays, but all week long. Because with all of the varieties of people and places that need our Love and the saving Grace of Unitarian Universalism, we must act with the conviction that there are, indeed, hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

Karen Bellavance-GraceDirector of Faith Formation, Mass Bay & Clara Barton Districts of the Unitarian Universalist Association, developed Full Week Faith during her 2013 Fahs Fellowship for Innovation in Multigenerational Faith Formation, supported by the Fahs Collaborative and the Liberal Religious Educators Association (LREDA).

Next Steps!

Read about the Full Week Faith approach and see sample Full Week Faith activity cards (pictured above) on the Full Week Faith website. A video of a presentation on Full Week Faith can be seen online.

To learn more, join the UUA Faith Development Office on Tuesday, July 22, 1 pm or Wednesday, July 23, 9 pm (Eastern time) for a free, one-hour webinar on Full Week Faith presented by Karen Bellavance-Grace with Pat Kahn. To register, email faithdevwebinar@uua.org.

The new Tapestry of Faith Toolkit Book from the UUA, Creating Justice Together, offers 36 family and home activities to “model and encourage ways to step up, even to act up, to share justice and love.” Do you know other sources for faithful acts a family can do together? Please share!

 

 

Love Reaches Out… through Shared Story

“Will you be part of the Gay-Straight Dialogue group?” It was the mid-1980s and I had just become the Director of Religious Education (DRE) at the Universalist Unitarian Church of Haverhill, MA. The Reverend Janet Bowering, after deep reflection, had decided that her Universalist faith called her to begin officiating at services of union for same-gender couples.

Image by Soraya Nulliah, http://sorayanulliah.blogspot.com/; used with permission.
Image by Soraya Nulliah, http://sorayanulliah.blogspot.com/; used with permission.

Aware that her decision was controversial in the congregation and in the community, Rev. Bowering had approached a few gay congregants to share honest stories of their lives as part of a group to include both gay and straight people. The group was an extraordinary, life-changing experience for all of us! We all took some risk, allowed ourselves to be vulnerable, and reached out in love and respect to understand and support one another. And the congregation grew proud and supportive of Rev. Bowering’s stance.

Good leaders know that love and understanding is built on the willingness to share stories; community organizers often begin work with “one to one” conversations that allow people to find out about shared commitments and values. UU religious educators also know how to help people share stories across differences and build coalitions that work for justice. As the Reverend Meg Riley pointed out in a sermon to the Liberal Religious Educators’ (LREDA) Fall Conference last year, “it’s what religious educators have always done.” We create containers that allow people to connect their own lives and experiences with the stories and experiences of others. We persistently teach radical, inclusive love, and we always make room for shared stories. We strive to build communities of love and justice with children, youth, adults, and multigenerational groups—communities where there is always room for one, or many, more.

Sometimes a message of love, acceptance, and inclusion meets the immediate needs of a person in pain. Sometimes a message of love and acceptance invites people to join together and work for justice. Both are part of the implicit and explicit curriculum we offer in our Unitarian Universalist congregations.

As you head into your summer, attending General Assembly, UU camps or conferences, and/or happenings in your congregation, community, and family, remember to be both a teller and a hearer of stories. Share deeply and listen in return—that is a powerful way to share love. Allow yourself to be changed by what you encounter. Make it a spiritual practice to reach out in love and to be touched, perhaps even called, by what you discover. Who knows what great things your love can do?

Next Steps!

If you are with the UUA at General Assembly 2014 in Providence, RI, June 25-29, you will find the theme of “Love Reaches Out” resonates with sharing our faith through our stories. Two opportunities are a workshop on story-sharing on Saturday afternoon, June 28 (Good News! Sharing Your UU Faith through Storytelling) and the Let’s Talk session, Thursday, June 26 from 5:30-6:30 pm, where you can meet new friends and share what your faith has taught you about love. On the Saturday evening of General Assembly, our UUA public witness invites us to share our stories and hear others’ at the public, outdoor Waterfire event in downtown Providence.

Not coming to General Assembly this year? Learn how to conduct meaningful, respectful One to One meetings on the website of the UUA’s Standing on the Side of Love campaign. Read more about love, faith, and sharing stories: How We Grow in Faith: Philosophy of Religious Education, Workshop 3 of the Tapestry of Faith adult curriculum, The New UU.

Is “Just Do Your Best” Always Good Advice?

Must we strive for excellence in everything we do? Is there a downside to the message our kids receive that they should always do their best? At a congregational retreat last fall, I found myself immersed in a thoughtful conversation with some parents of teenagers about the pressure on young people to do everything well. The dominant culture message—reinforced by schools, families, media, and nearly every organized activity—is that one may never rest in the quest for excellence. Success is doing your best at math, piano, soccer, history, and tasks assigned by your boss (or parent).Rowing Contest Clipart

Parents seeking to guide their youth are themselves trapped in a dominant culture that fawns over the moral superiority of those who overcome obstacles to achieve success and recognition. Graduation and milestone ceremonies, while offering obligatory words about being “good” people, celebrate and honor achievement and excellence. While each of us can clearly distinguish between being “good” and being accomplished, our society tends to conflate happiness with success and achievement.

But where does that leave a person who isn’t particularly interested in doing their best in math or science or history? who likes to play field hockey but is happy not being a star? who holds a job not because it is a calling that enables them to make a mark on the world but rather because it provides funds to pay the bills? What about those who like to play guitar or write poetry or dance salsa not to achieve perfection but for the joy of engaging? For many of us, at some time in our lives, our struggle to survive a physical, emotional, cognitive, or social challenge leaves little room for striving for excellence in other areas of life. Many have a compelling interest that is not typically measured in school, well-compensated in the workplace, or even, typically, shared with others.

What if sometimes happiness and fulfillment mean not striving for excellence or mastery?

Our third Unitarian Universalist Principle speaks of “acceptance of one another.”Our Universalist heritage tells us we are loved- and worthy of love, just as we are. We are worthy of acceptance and love no matter what we have and have not achieved, whether or not our paid work helps to change the world, whether or not we always (or ever!) strive for excellence in endeavors that interest us. As UUs, may we be curious about one another’s stories, lives, passions, and commitments. In this season of graduations, milestones, and achievement awards, let us share stories across generations of times when striving for mastery or excellence made you feel more alive and when it has been a burden. Let us share stories about times when enjoyment or engagement was our sole goal. Ask one another, “What makes your heart sing?” and allow space and time to truly listen to the answer.

Next Steps!

Read Jennifer Kunst, Ph.D. on “the good-enough mother” in Psychology Today online.

The Tapestry of Faith program The Wi$dom Path offers a Faith in Action activity to reflect for yourself or with a group about the concept of “faithful earning”—that is, focusing one’s working life on a search for daily meaning rather than on an accumulation of credentials or monetary earnings.

The UUA guidebook Bridging: A Handbook for Congregations has resources to help you engage young adults in conversation about life issues; make “striving for excellence” a topic. See the Find Out More section on cross-generational conversations.

The Joys (Not!) of Nature

“So, what are we supposed to do?” My 13-year-old daughter mumbles the question. She and her friend are sitting in the back seat of my car, noodling on their electronic devices. It’s a fresh, almost-summer day and we’re parked at the entrance to Den Rock Park, car doors flung open as we wait for the others.

“I’m going to take some pictures,” I say. “You’ll come along and enjoy being outside in nature.”

“But how long is the hike?”

“You said you wanted to be models, right? So, just act like you’re enjoying yourselves.”IMG_0494 TL and Sosha compressed

More cars arrive. Younger children spring out and launch themselves up the rocky path, a parent chasing behind. Another young teen meanders over with her mother, and the three girls eye one another. If I read them right, their glances say they all wish they were doing something else, preferably indoors.

We share bug spray, lock up our cars, and enter the trail. The terrain is easy. It’s not a long hike to the large rock formations we came to see—in fact, once we wind around to the top of the rocks, our view includes the parking lot at the trail head and a T.J. Maxx store across the highway. The young people climb, touch, and contemplate various rocks on command and I take lots of pictures. Within minutes, even the three girls have gotten into the spirit of exploring rocks, almost in spite of themselves. They marvel at the boulder suspended above them, resting its sides on the two opposing walls of a rock “chimney.” I have to instruct them to turn their faces a little toward me, for a photo.

In the car going home, I ask my daughter how she enjoyed being with the rocks. “I wasn’t able to enjoy nature, at all,” she says. “I was too busy trying to keep nature away from me. There were so many bugs! Disgusting.”

She may be tweaking me a bit (that’s what she does, at this age). She’s also being honest. Insects have always wildly repulsed her and her mosquito bites can swell to the size of golf balls. That’s okay. I do not respond. I’m anticipating the photos I’ve taken. I know they will also tell a truth.

Next Steps!

Read Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods (2005), which introduced the term “nature deficit disorder.” Louv’s website is rich with suggestions for experiencing and teaching appreciation of the natural world.

The UUA Bookstore offers: Early Spring: An Ecologist and Her Children Wake to a Warming World, by Amy Seidl (Beacon Press, 2010); Before They’re Gone: A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks, by Michael Lanza (Beacon, 2013); and the illustrated workbook Journey for the Planet: A Kid’s Five Week Adventure to Create an Earth-friendly Life, by David Gerson.

In the Tapestry of Faith program World of Wonder (grades K-1), the Session 1 story, “The Grumpy Gecko,” illustrates nature’s symbiotic relationships via a dung-rolling beetle, a wise tiger, animal poop, and more! Activities explain how to make paper geckos or beaded geckos. Also see this curriculum’s resource list.

Tapestry of Faith curricula also include two ecology-focused multigenerational programs, Gather the Spirit (focused on water stewardship) and Circle of Trees. Browse activities and “Taking It Home” sections online; you will find many ideas for acquainting young people with nature’s creatures and environments.

Check out the Children and Nature Network (Richard Louv, Chairman Emeritus) and Nature Rocks, a program of The Nature Conservancy aimed at inspiring families to explore nature.

Linda McGurk blogs as “Rain or Shine Mamma,” with the tag line “There’s no bad weather, only bad clothes.”

Resources for Families… So Faith Can Grow, Part II

“…parents are continually asking how they can better understand and interpret UU values during the week. They feel under pressure to respond to such questions as: What is the Bible? What do UU’s believe about God, or about heaven and hell? Parents want to know how they can make their homes stronger centers for UU values. –Makanah Morris and David Hicks McPherson, in Being a UU Parent

As you know if you read “Part 1,” posted on 4/18/14, there are so many resources to share that we created “Part 2.” Here are more wonderful programs and reading selections to support UU parenting, all available from the online UUA Bookstore:
parent trilogy book cover

The Parent Trilogy offers three programs for learning and growing together: Being a UU Parent offers 5 sessions and 17 handouts on theology and real-life child rearing. Parents as Resident Theologians includes 6 sessions and 12 readings to help parents and kids explore together their beliefs about God, prayer and other religious issues. Parents as Social Justice Educators provides 6 sessions on values clarification and how to talk about social issues.

The Gift of Faith by Jean Nieuwejaar celebrates the importance of nurturing our children’s spiritual growth. The book calls parents to make clear, strong choices regarding the messages children receive about religion. By sharing her own stories and experiences, Nieuwejaar shows how religious community can help clarify and deepen the faith of parents, who inevitably are children’s primary religious educators. She explores ways to foster spiritual awareness in the home, including rituals for marking the events in children’s lives as religious occasions. (Discussion Guide online.)

Tending the Flame is a practical, proactive guide to Unitarian Universalist parenting by mother and experienced religious educator Michelle Richards. It offers information about children’s developmental stages and suggestions for incorporating spiritual practices into family life, teaching the UU Principles in age-appropriate ways, answering difficult questions on religious matters, and dealing with religious disagreements. (Discussion Guide online.)

Chaos, Wonder and the Spiritual Adventure of Parenting: An Anthology includes essays from authors Barbara Kingsolver, Rosemary Bray McNatt, Anne LaMott and others. In these reflections on the ways parenting challenges, enriches, and magnifies our spiritual selves, parents will find moments of joyful recognition and compassionate understanding for the unique spiritual adventure of raising children. (Discussion Guide online.)

Nurturing Children and Youth: A Developmental Guidebook by Tracey Hurd outlines typical progressions in physical, cognitive, social, emotional, moral, and spiritual development from infancy through early twenties and includes key characteristics typical at each phase of development. The author provides important suggestions for supporting a child or youth in developmentally appropriate ways, in the context of UU values.

Next Steps! 

  • What are some of your favorite parenting resources?
  • Make time to share resources and strategies for your children’s spiritual development with a partner or a close friend.
  • Do you have, or could you start, a book group focused on parenting? Consider reading a selection about UU parenting together. The discussion guides (free online) are designed for both individual and group reflection.

Using the Internet to Create (Virtual) Community

I love to play Sims. In Sims 3, you sometimes find an Unknown Seed. If you have enough gardening skills, your Sims can plant the seed and see what grows. It might be a money tree! In real life, we also plant seeds without knowing what they will ultimately become.

In 2012, I facilitated a conversation among a dozen or so UUs who identified as Latino/a, Hispanic, Multiracial/Multiethnic, Native American, Aboriginal, Asian, Pacific Islander, Arab, Middle Eastern, or of African descent to ask after their faith development needs. I went in thinking the conversation could result in a curriculum. What I heard loud and clear was that people wanted most of all to meet other UUs of color. Instead of a curriculum, I launched a virtual community. online community - from UCC site wwwplymouth-church dot org

What started as a dozen has grown into a community of about 85 people, from California to Toronto to Florida. Our monthly meetings use web-conferencing, allowing ten or 12 of us at a time to hear and see one another. We also use a Google group, between meetings, to post announcements and links to news articles. We share our experiences, which are as diverse as we are. We disagree and debate. We share joys and concerns. We practice forgiveness and share laughs. And we grow.

I have learned a few things over the past two years. Finding free web conferencing was easy. Getting the word out is not. Clearing my schedule to facilitate meetings is rather easy: As UUA staff, serving Unitarian Universalists is my job. For community members to find time for regular, monthly meeting is not so easy. I wish our monthly meetings had better attendance, but numbers are not the only way to measure success. Members routinely email me with the names of new people who want to join. This excites me, not because of a growing email list, but because when a current member invites others to join, that means they find worth in being part of this community. My heart is happy when two members share about their experience growing up Japanese American, or when members’ Google group posts fly back and forth in Spanish…even though I don’t know what they are saying.active_online_communities from www communityspark dot com

My hopes were that the community would flower. I watered it with suggestions about ways to create physical meetings: Community members have held at least four such meetings, piggy-backing onto UUA district meetings and social justice gatherings. A member invited others to join him in a book proposal. Some of us will gather at General Assembly in Providence, Rhode Island next month.

Many members (but not everyone) joined the group thinking they might be the only person who holds a particular identity and instead found that they were not alone. Has that ever happened to you? How did it feel?

Why am I sharing this with you? Two reasons. One, I hope you can help me spread the word to other UUs of color who might like to join. Two, you may be someone who would like to start a virtual community of your own. Perhaps you could use web conferencing to get together with your LREDA chapter more often, or to establish an affinity group across the miles. We’ve all been on a bus or in a restaurant, looked around, and seen almost everyone focused on their phone or tablet and not interacting with those around them. We know that modern technology can lead us to be disengaged. Let’s find the ways it can help us increase our connection to each other.

Next Steps!

To find out more about the Virtual Community of UUs of Color or about starting your own UU virtual community, contact Jessica York at jyork@uua.org.

The UUA Multicultural Growth and Witness staff group offers many resources to help UU communities be more multiculturally welcoming.

Noah: A Sticky Story

Storytellers make choices all the time. We choose which parts of a story to lift up and which to downplay or omit; which characters to develop, and how; and which dilemmas to emphasize. This is especially true when it comes to stories from the Bible. It was so with the great biblical films and dramas of my growing-up years, and so it is with Darren Aranofsky’s recent epic, Noah.

A blog by Ron Seifried goes behind the scenes of the 1928 Warner Bros. epic, "Noah's Ark"--a biblical story appropriated in and for its time: directed by Darryl Zanuck with an all white cast, an anti-war message, and use of both silent and "talkie" scenes.
The 1928 Warner Bros. epic, “Noah’s Ark,” is also a storytelling of and for its time, directed by Darryl Zanuck with an all white cast, an anti-war message, and use of both silent and “talkie” scenes.

When I was growing up, Bible movies dominated the television screen during the Christian Holy Week and the Jewish Passover week. We saw Charlton Heston play Moses in the 1956 film, The Ten Commandments. We watched Barabbas (1961), which depicts the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus and the persecution of early Christians. There were The Robe (1953), Ben-Hur (1959) and others. Made during the Cold War years, these films reflected the sensibilities of the time; the films clearly showed  what (and who) was good and what was evil by adding dramatic details and expanding on the stories told in the original text.  Despite the best attempts of my Sunday School teachers to convey what was written in the Bible, for a long time I understood the Passover story through Heston’s portrayal and Jesus’s last week through the eyes of fictional early Christians. Those stories were sticky. They became part of my religious formation, not to be dislodged until Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell came along.

I recently watched Darren Aronofsky’s Noah.  I think we need to take the film seriously, and to talk about it with older children and youth in our families and congregations. Like the epic Bible movies of old, it is likely to be sticky. It is a direct challenge to the nursery tales of cute, two-by-two animals and all the folklore about who did and did not make it onto Noah’s ark. It engages questions like the tension between justice and mercy, and whether or not human beings are so flawed—so sinful—that we are a threat to creation itself.  While depicting the utter destruction of humanity and other living creatures, it asks, “Are humans worth saving?” Theological questions worth asking.

At the same time, the film uses an all-white cast, a choice that seems a serious flaw, especially when dealing with this story.  In the nineteenth century, extrapolations from the Noah text provided one of the biblical justifications for chattel slavery. In the text, Noah curses his son Ham, saying, “a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.” Apologists for slavery made their own story choices: In their telling, descendants of the cursed Ham became the African race, rightfully destined to be enslaved to white people.

When I was a new DRE, we used a UUA curriculum called Focus on Noah (published in 1974). As I recall, the curriculum explored archeology, Near Eastern mythology, and biblical scholarship as they related to the Noah story. It was good for understanding how this part of the Bible came to be written, but did not engage the theological content of the story.

This new Noah presents not only an opportunity but, arguably, an obligation as religious educators to engage in the theological content with older children, youth, and adults. Because this film will become part of the way our culture understands the story of Noah, we need to talk about it. We need to talk about the all-white cast and why that is a problem. We can recount the use of this story in justifying enslavement of Africans in the United States. We can examine the theological questions inherent in the film, and ask ourselves why we have turned a story about utter destruction into a suitable subject for nursery décor. We can use the film as a vehicle for engaging a complex story and figuring out what, if anything, the biblical story of Noah might say to us today.