Risky Business

risk-3576044_640One of the more important parts of my job involves risk management.  That’s why so often I end up looking like a blocker instead of a promoter.  It’s not me, honest!  It’s the job.  “Will that be a trip hazard? Are all volunteers who work with kids background-checked? You want to build a campfire where? Is cash being handled properly? Does our insurance coverage adequately address sexual abuse? Are the fire extinguishers checked regularly?  Copyright permission? Do people know not to use cell phones while driving (in general, but certainly while driving for a church errand)?  Are our hiring policies up-to-date?  Did I just accidentally download a computer virus?  What can we lose if we get attacked by ransomware?”  And on it goes.

One of the ways we manage risk is to create policies (which are all on our website, off of the Board of Trustees page).  Although some of our policies are designed to help people figure out how things are done around here (examples include “Inclement Weather,” “Gift Acceptance,” “New Social Groups”), many of them are created to help manage risk.  Some of these include “Cell Phone Use,” “Childcare at UUCA,” and “Financial Policy and Procedures.”

Probably the most important “risk management” policy is the one entitled, “Healthy Congregation.”  This policy lays out the whys and wherefores of being in healthy relationship with one another. To help with risk management, it also lists the steps that can be taken when an individual acts in a way that is offensive or disruptive.  It is especially attentive to adult-child relationships.

As a best practice for churches, this document describes behaviors that are considered unhealthy or inappropriate, along with alternative appropriate behaviors.  It addresses physical and verbal interactions and describes various forms of bullying that will not be tolerated.  It is extremely detailed in addressing sexual abuse.

This policy requires training in recognizing and preventing sexual abuse for all of our religious education teachers, with formal training programs required of all staff members.  The training that staff members have participated in this year comes from a group called Darkness2Light and is called “Stewards of Children.”  There is an online version of this course that anyone can take for $10.  It is also occasionally available as a live course in Asheville through the Buncombe Partnership for Children.

The policy also is very specific about the actions we take to safeguard our children and youth in other ways, too.  All in all, this is probably the most important policy we have.  I hope you take time to read it.

Linda Topp, Director of Administration

The Spirituality in Fly Fishing

 “All forms of spiritual practice share one fundamental quality; they bring upon the practitioner a sense of peace. This peace does not come from mastery of the practices; a focus on Mastery (while it can be very interesting) is counterproductive (to spirituality). I think of it (fly fishing) as putting ourselves into the way of the world; in the Tao of Life. Not the busy mechanical, technological (electronic) world but the Natural world of which we are a part, the earth that was here before we came and hopefully, will be here after we are gone.”  Rev. Jennifer Brooks, Unitarian Universalist Minister, 4/19/09

Early on you have to make a simple choice: Are you a fly fisherman or a fish catcher. What is important to you, catching fish or fly fishing.

If you choose to become a fish catcher, you become a head hunter, someone looking to catch the most fish, or the biggest fish of the day if that is your preference. Your focus narrows to your fly and the immediate area surrounding it so that you are ready for the “take” and the landing. Your reason for being there is to catch fish and nothing less will do. All that is important is landing the fish. If you don’t plan to eat the fish you throw it back without care to the condition of the fish; you need to catch the next one. You can have a “bad day.” You have missed everything.

If you choose to be a fly fisherman you, above all else, slow down and become naturally more in-tune with the environment, and especially the river. The river is everything, the flow of the currents, the clarity and temperature, the fish you see and don’t see, the shadows that can hold fish, the trees and shrubs lining the bank, the downfalls in the river, the ducks and birds, the position of the sunlight on the water. You watch the fly drift into the feeding lane of the trout and wait to see if you have convinced the fish that the hook with the string, feathers and “dubbing” will look enough like a tasty morsel and that the trout is hungry enough to take it.  You may cast many times before it is all just right. And then “the take.”

When the take happens, you now have a direct line to the fish and the natural living world; you are holding the thin, fine line and the electric shocks come right up from the water and into your fingers and hands. There are so many things that can go wrong and lead you to lose the fish that you must now put all of your focus and concentration on that line and point where it joins the water; the movement of fish and the river.

When you have brought all of it together in that moment in time, the absolute spirituality of that moment is clear.

In the beginning, it’s all about the fish, how many, how big and where. But there is so much more to this fly fishing stuff.

One early fall afternoon I was walking back up the river after a day with zero fish, bummed because all I caught all day were twigs and leaves moving just under the surface. The sky was bright and the sun had warmed me to the point of sweating as I walked up the stones and over the stumps and deadfalls on my way to my car.

My legs felt filled with failure, failures filled my waders and dragged me down as surely as if it were water. Although I was not a stranger to being “skunked,” I still took it personally. I had about 3/4 of a mile to walk back up the free stone river to my car and the long drive home in a car filled with the stench of failure. I found myself going deeply into myself and not really paying attention to the river, the sky, the valley, the birds or anything else. I was in a funk!

I knew this piece of river pretty well and knew that I was about halfway back to the Steel Bridge and the two German shepherds that wait to greet you, hoping for a small treat. I sat on the rock beside the river, overdressed, sweaty and hot in the midday sun on a day that was supposed to be cool-to-cold.

I had known this large rock was a nice place to sit and I just eased myself onto its bright sun-warmed surface. Took a deep breath and waited to cool down a bit before I finished the walk, falling deeper and into those old messages I tell myself about my failures.

At first, I didn’t notice them, turned as inwardly as I was. Then there was just the realization of movement nearby, but turning right I just looked down the river and didn’t focus on anything. Then I noticed movement on the left and then the right again and then right in front of me. Finally, the moving object in front of me came into focus. It was a black-winged butterfly with deep purple highlights on the wing. “Oh, how pretty,” I thought. And just then I realized that these were the movements on each side, above and even behind me that I had felt but did not see.

Then there were twenty or so butterflies and then thirty or so and then I couldn’t count them as they flitted around me. Black and purple floating bits of color. And then they started to land on my hands and arms. They would land then take back off almost immediately.

Then as I quieted myself and sat still, they started to land one-by-one and stay, first for a second or two, then as they folded their wings, for longer and longer. Then opening and closing their wings and tickling my arms, hands, and face they walked, exploring and tasting my sweat only then to lift off in the breeze. I sat with these butterflies for some time although I really have no idea how long it was, and then they left as quickly and quietly as they came.

Today my prize was butterflies!

Tomorrow is another day and there will be some prize for me on the river, and it may or may not be a fish. It will, however, be the time alone in the wild country, listening intently for the sip of the trout taking the fly, for the clacking call of the kingfisher patrolling the river for a meal, watching intently as fish silent slip along through the water. And in that world is the essence of spirituality and the Seventh Principle.

Michael Beech, Board of Trustees

Let’s Tell the Truth

Some of the hardest work in the quest for racial justice is truth-telling: telling the truth about the sea of racial oppression that we live in, where it came from, how it is perpetuated, and how each of us can find ourselves complicit in it, often in ways we are unaware of. So, part of our justice work in this congregation is about making ourselves aware of all this and acting where we can to dismantle it.

There’s an exciting project underway in Asheville that we at UUCA are looking to connect with that is seeking to correct the record and bring a measure of justice to people who suffered as a result of this oppression. It’s linked to a nation-wide effort led by the Equal Justice Institute based in Montgomery, Alabama.

This is the organization started by Bryan Stevenson that has sought to document the thousands of lynchings of African-Americans that occurred in America from 1877 to 1950. A year and a half ago the institute opened the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, where some 800 lynchings are documented on hanging steel monuments. Buncombe County’s plate is inscribed with the names of three men who were lynched here in the 1890s.

Here in Asheville last May, a coalition of community groups joined to form the Buncombe County Community Remembrance Project. Its goal is to raise awareness of racial violence in our area and plan for the creation of a historical monument here that will tell that story.

UUCA member Mary Alm has been attending the group’s meetings on our behalf, and I have offered to have our congregation join a group of what are called “community stakeholders” who support the effort. The group already includes 10 other congregations and community groups.

You will be hearing more about this as the project gets underway. For now, as a way to get into this work of truth-telling, Mary and I would like to invite you to consider joining us on a UUCA group trip to visit the memorial in Montgomery next spring.

Our idea is that this would be a three-day trip – leaving one day to drive to Montgomery, spending a day at the Memorial, and then driving home the next day. Mary is researching hotels where we could reserve a block of rooms together. For transportation, we’re thinking of making it simple – a caravan of cars, car-pooling where we can. As for timing, we’re thinking of spring break week – April 6 – 10 – so families could make time to come. Scholarships will be available for people who need them.

Look for more details to come and please contact Mary Alm if you’re willing to help organize or are interested in coming. I would welcome your company as we dig into the work of taking ownership for our own journeys of awakening and truth-telling.

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister

Opening Doors, Closing the Opportunity Gap

On September 14, UUCA welcomed the community and hosted four African American scholars Dr. Summer Carrol (Lenoir-Rhyne University), Dr. Brandi Hinnant-Crawford (Western Carolina University), Dr. Tiece Ruffin (UNCA) and Dr. Darrius Stanley (WCU) who spoke to an audience of over 100 about best practices to close the opportunity gap for Black youth in our public schools. I sat in the audience, grateful that UUCA opened its doors to such a diverse group of community members and that some of our members ensured that all were welcome, fed (lunch was provided) and children taken care of in our beautiful RE spaces. Thank you, to members of Recommitting to Black Lives Matter who shared of their time, talent and treasure to support this gathering.

The presenters began with an overview of the history of slavery and discrimination that ignored the richness and resilience of Black culture and resistance. They explained how the system of white supremacy at the root of the American project made it difficult for black children to integrate in the 1960s. Prof. Stanley quoted Rev. Martin Luther King’s analysis that black children were being integrated into a “burning house.” So what can be done in a culture that is still “on fire” with racism and white nationalist fervor?

The speakers provided examples of how teacher training can shape classroom practices that provide culturally relevant instruction that disrupts white supremacy culture. Culturally relevant instruction validates the identity of black children who are often seen as deficient and expected to conform to white middle class norms. The speakers also emphasized the importance of critically conscious educational leaders who disrupt the systemic practices and policies that disproportionately impact black children. We learned about black history and educational possibilities for supporting positive academic outcomes for black youth. Two youth shared their experiences navigating a system that is often hostile to them. They asked: Can you see us? Why don’t you know us? I wonder, how do we get to know the youth in our community?

Most importantly, Dr Carrol spoke about the need for a revolutionary love that treats all youth like human beings, loves them and is radical enough to bring about change. Her message spoke to that doctrine of love we embrace as UUs. What does that love look like in practice when black youth in our community are being left behind? What can our community do so that the differential funding and wealth gap that favor white over black students are diminished? To reduce the prison-to-school pipeline? The challenge of closing the opportunity gap is a challenge for ALL of us.

With that in mind, the second part of the presentation challenged the audience to explore how to leverage community assets to affect change. The audience counted off to form ten groups. Each group discussed and recorded ideas for how to leverage resources from: churches; libraries & research; community organizations, universities & community colleges; common/shared school spaces; elders; businesses & professionals; neighborhood associations, community centers & parks; food access organizations and community gardens; and community organizers and activists. Just hearing the list of all the assets in our community gave me tremendous hope. Wow! I wondered what would happen if these assets were vigorously engaged in closing the opportunity gap for black children?

I don’t know the plans are for next steps are after these engaging presentations and group conversations. I hope to hear from the organizers soon. Until then, I share the ideas from two groups about how churches and elders can be involved. Let me know what you think. Contact me at faithdev@uuasheville.org if you want to explore possibilities. As you read over these suggestions, I invite you to reflect on how these can be carried out with input from those they are intended to uplift. The challenge in justice work is to be allies of those marginalized versus doing for them and seeing ourselves as saviors. We were reminded that “nothing about us (i.e. our black siblings) without us if for us.”

Things churches can do:

  • Offer summer camps
  • Tutor
  • Increase leader visibility and advocacy in community e.g. PTA/PTO meetings
  • Use of space on non-Sundays for forums and lectures (black history, community racial history, state of education, arts, etc.)
  • Members can be reading buddies or lunch buddies in schools
  • Adopt a school or classroom
  • Provide scholarships for educational programs, enrichment activities
  • Offer career readiness/Counseling offered at church
  • Provide space and activities during school suspension for nurture/healing/justice
  • Provide after school homework support/participate in existing after school programs
  • Run food pantries
  • Provide transportation using church vans (to parent/teacher meetings, arts events, etc.)
  • Build relationship with the Latinx community /provide a safe zone/ language justice
  • Create and participate in interfaith projects

Things elders can do:

  • Receive training in reading and math strategies
  • Share living history
  • Connect elders with parents for support
  • Provide revolutionary love…engage children & families at church, in neighborhood
  • Disrupt complacency…speak up
  • Alumnae of Stevens Lee can share historical & institutional knowledge
  • Tap into Olli elders that may want to be involved in closing the gap
  • Engage with the schools through conversations, mentoring

Rev. Claudia Jiménez, Minister of Faith Development

A Warm Welcome

Coffee HourPicture this: Someone just walked into a public place where they are hoping to (eventually) know some people. They figure out how to get to a seat but they didn’t make a name tag for themselves because, well, that would be too scary. They certainly didn’t introduce themselves during the event (Egads! Way too scary!) but they do make their way to the very-crowded place where people gather after the event because really, they DO want to meet some people. Now what?

It is YOUR job (yes, you!) to do something about this! Here’s your line: “Hi! My name is _____________. Welcome! This is a big congregation so I’m not sure if we’ve met. Have we?” (Not a great idea to ask, “Are you new?” to a person who’s been a member for the past 30 years.) And if you discover that they are new, your next line could be: “What brought you here today?” Or, “How did you like the service?” Etc.

We on staff are noticing painfully-alone people standing around at Coffee Hour. This is not good. Honestly, it doesn’t matter if the person IS a 30-year member or brand-spanking new, if they are standing alone (or just with their buddy), go up and speak to them. Yes, YOU!

This can be hard, I know. But everyone who is here is a guest of this congregation. Guests (here or at your house) are looking for connection, kindness, and acceptance. They want to be personally recognized and welcomed. You can do this!

Here are helpful hints for being welcoming:

• Start slow. You don’t need to obtain 30 years of backstory in one conversation or invite them over on the first visit.
• Listen well. You will be able to tell if something makes them uncomfortable. You will also learn things that you can mention in future conversations.
• Introduce them to someone else in the church. Think of a member who has something in common with the visitor but be VERY careful about making assumptions.
• Ask a question that doesn’t have a yes or no answer.

Here are some other possible questions to ask of newcomers:

• How did you discover our church?
• Is this your first visit or have you been coming for a while?
• Have you ever been to a UU church before?

Let’s see how you do.

Linda Topp, Director of Administration

Happy New Year Everyone!

Wait. Before you start to wonder how I could be insinuating that it’s the 1st of January when the temperatures outside are hitting 90 degrees, hear me out. You see, as an elementary special education teacher who is married to a high school English and speech teacher and as a parent of a brand new fourth-grader (WHOA! HOW DID THAT HAPPEN?!), there is nothing that says New Year more than heading back to school! That means that in my household, we have spent time reflecting on the past year, set resolutions for the coming year, and have already begun the hard work of making our new year goals come true! 

And if you think the party vibe is strong on December 31st, you have no idea what kind of energy will permeate our household come late May! 

But before you start to feel left out of this off-timed celebration, know that I’m not leaving you out! You see, it’s actually a New Year for all of us here at UUCA! Two-Service Sundays have begun, RE classes are freshly full with students and teachers, and the Wednesday Thing is back in full effect! Yep. It turns out that its a fresh new start for all of us! 

So like I said, Happy New Year Everyone!

For me personally, this new beginning is marked by one particularly new type of challenge. Back in early June, I became the new President of the Board of Trustees. Shortly thereafter, I took off with my family on a summer-long, 8000+ mile road trip that took me away from the work of the congregation and instead into the homes of countless friends and family members as well beautiful places around the country. It was a great time indeed and while I was gone Cecil Bennett and the rest of the UU Board ran the board flawlessly and for that I am incredibly grateful. But now, with my summer adventure over, my new adventure has begun…as an actual acting Board President. (Does this count as “adulting?”)

So let me start by saying that if there is anything I can confidently proclaim about my new role it is that I AM A NOVICE! Don’t get me wrong. I say that without any self-deprecation or shame. I am just putting it out there that though I can write a mean reading or math lesson and I can create an Individualized Education Plan with my eyes closed, I am not someone who can lay claim to having a 100% clear understanding of how Boards and Self-Governance work. But just like my students, I am eager and ready to learn!

So far, my learning process has included drawing from some of the various roles I have played here at UUCA since joining back in 2006, such as RE teacher, Room in the Inn volunteer, Coming of Age mentor, occasional usher, Sanctuary volunteer, and Book Sale box unpacker as well as Newbie Board Member last year. My homework has also included webinars put on by regional UU leaders as well as personal conversations with Mark and various members of our UUCA community. 

One of the major lessons I have been studying in preparation for the year ahead involves Ministerial Transition. As most everyone knows by now, Mark has announced his retirement come next summer. This leaves the Board and me to begin the congregation’s work of seeking out and selecting an interim minister as well as an eventual called minister. Fortunately, much of this process is laid out by the UUA and in the coming months, we will be sharing more details of when and how this process will work and how you can play a role in it. In the meantime, I would recommend that we all really focus on and appreciate the words, wisdom, and way of Mark Ward. Take some time to show him gratitude. Heck, treat him like a great teacher and don’t be afraid to leave an apple on his desk (pulpit?)! 

As for me, please feel free in this coming year to email me at ryanandwill@gmail.com, to call me at 919-619-7298, or simply to grab me by the arm in Sandburg Hall whenever you have a question or concern or suggestion. One thing I am learning about this role is that that is what I am here for.

The year has begun. And just like I have told my students back at Isaac Dickson, I believe it is going to be a great one! We will face new challenges. We will make mistakes. We will find reasons to celebrate. We will continue to build community. And we will definitely learn a lot!

Happy New Year indeed! 

Ryan Williams, President, Board of Trustees

A Gift To Be With You

In these last few days before we jump into our fall season there’s a kind of wistfulness that it’s been easy for me to slip into. Having announced that this will be my last year at UUCA, I find myself ticking things off – my last this, my last that. But of course, I soon won’t have the luxury for any of that. We have a terrific array of programs, services and events planned that will keep us all hopping. And more than that, rarely has there been a time when passion and commitment for the work of liberal religion was more needed.

 Having spent a good third of my life in journalism before entering the ministry, I’ve made a practice of subscribing to my local paper and the New York Times and each morning spending some time poring through them.

I have friends who shrink at the idea and say, “How can you begin your day with such depressing stuff?” I get that. I see more than enough that drags me down, but I stay with it. Part of the reason is I just want to be in the know, plugged into what’s happening to the world, and random bulletins on my cell phone are not enough.

I want to take time with people – reporters and editors – who have spent time and energy to track down the closest thing they can find to the truth. Seeing the news media under greater assault than at any moment in my lifetime reminds me what a precious gift it is.

A similar sort of feeling comes to me when I think about this religious tradition where I’ve made my home, that is the center of my calling. We determined truth-tellers, when it comes to the life of the spirit, can find ourselves embattled, too. The bullying and shaming that we see in the public sphere has its analog in the religious world, and we desperately need communities like this one that can provide a home for the doubters, for those seeking to make their own path religiously, who cling to their own integrity like a life raft.

I want to take time with people who are struggling to figure it out, who dig deep into their own epiphanies, hopes and fears, who get real with each other and find joy in the journey together. It’s often challenging work that pushes us all outside of our comfort zones, but it is also deeply satisfying to be supported in our struggles and to be part of a community that nudges us to put the values that guide us to work in the larger world.

This, too, is a precious gift. I’m grateful to have been a part of all this with you and look forward to an eventful year together.

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister