¿Que pasa? Faith Development Update

I’m three months into my ministry at UUCA and I’m grateful for the warm welcome and support I have received. My transition from living near the ocean to living in the mountains has been exhilarating as I experience the fall colors, bear sightings (three so far!) and awe-inspiring hikes in the mountains around Asheville.

My work with you so far has been challenging and rewarding as I identify priorities in each of my areas of responsibility: pastoral care, faith development and worship. Last month I provided an update on pastoral care. This month I will focus on faith development which includes religious education for children and youth as well as adult programming. But first, an exploration of what faith development is about. I look to the ideas of theologian John Westerhoff summarizing his theory of “how faith happens”[1]. He explains that faith is initially “caught,” like a cold, as children imitate their parents and the adults in church. Children learn: This is what we do. As children grow older, religion is “taught.” Children learn about history, traditions, rituals and other aspects of their faith and the community they are a part of. It is a time of belonging to a group. Children learn: This is what we believe and do.  Later, in adolescence questioning happens, faith is “sought.” It is a time of inquisitiveness and curiosity. Adolescents ask: Is this what I believe? So, faith is first caught, then taught, then sought and, in early adulthood…. faith is “bought.” After much searching and questioning the individual states: This is what I believe. And, throughout our lives that faith is “wrought” as we continue to learn, question and deepen our understanding of what gives meaning to our lives.

Our religious education programs are based on this understanding of faith development. This year K-3rd grades are using stories to explore UU values and sources using wondering questions to engage more deeply with the stories and share their insights in a welcoming space. The activity centers in the rooms around the RE Commons are set up to provide activities that engage multiple learning styles and allow further engagement with the story and their peers. Older elementary youth are using UUA curricula to explore topics such as what it means to be a covenanted community and to develop a greater understanding of right and wrong by answering questions such as, “Why do bad things happen?” or “Is evil or goodness within us?”

Older youth are exploring world religions, learning about healthy sexuality, and articulating their personal credos. High school youth (10-12 grade) are exploring how to bridge from religious education classes to congregational life as they prepare for college or the workforce once they graduate from high school. Whew! There is so much happening at UUCA beyond the faith formation that occurs during worship on Sunday mornings. Faith is being caught, taught and wrought as our youth engage in the programming facilitated by 80 committed volunteers and our RE Coordinators Kim Collins and Jen Johnson. We are grateful for their sharing of their time and talent with our children and youth!

 And adults are also engaging in faith formation as they participate in small group ministry through covenant groups, spiritual deepening groups such as the Buddhist Fellowship and CUUPS (Covenant of UU Pagans) and social justice outreach.  Faith formation is also happening during The Wednesday Thing as volunteers and staff facilitate programs that support the individual search for meaning in the context of a supportive spiritual community. For example, during the last two multigenerational Pageant & Puppetry programs it was uplifting and fun to witness adults and children working together creating posters and a paper mâché unicorn for our holiday pageant. We also experienced the power of story when Bonnie Habel Stone launched the Wednesday Thing Odyssey. This program invites members of the congregation to know each other in greater depth. Too often we only learn about people’s stories at their memorial services. Our goal is to create opportunities to celebrate each other’s lives now. Starting in January there will be a monthly Odyssey speaker. I encourage you to join us!

Another important part of faith development at UUCA has been offering more whole- church services. Religious educator, Kim Sweeney, has written an essay about the importance of families worshipping together.[2]  She advocates for intentional family ministry that welcomes the whole congregation to worship together on Sunday morning and also offers religious education programs. I like the both/and possibility of her proposal: whole-church worship some Sundays and age-appropriate religious education programs other Sundays. It is important for children to attend service with the congregation and participate in the rituals, the songs and the experiences of the gathered community. My goal in implementing the faith development aspect of my portfolio is to co-create with you, the congregation, opportunities for faith to be caught, taught, and wrought in community.  I am available if you have ideas or feedback about our programs. My office hours are Monday, 9:30am-noon and Tuesday-Thursday, 9:30am-2:30pm. Appointments are preferred because I am also at meetings or doing pastoral visits during those times. See you at UUCA!

[1] Meadville Lombard poster: Making Faith Happen by Joy Berry, FAHS Collaborative; additional research https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/f738/75aa0ffc001ebc887fda6e1e19faed080438.pdf

[2] “The Death of Sunday School and the Future of Faith Formation,” Kim Sweeney, p 7-15

Asheville Would Miss Us If We Were Gone

Wouldn’t it be great if we glimpsed the same sort of view of the world that George Bailey got in It’s a Wonderful Life?  It’s really impossible to know what effects you leave in your wake (where is Clarence when you need him?), and it’s just as hard to know how UUCA affects Asheville.  But we do—at least a little!  Here’s how I know.

If you ever wondered whether building, maintaining, updating and expanding buildings are a good use of your donation, here’s something to think about.  Sure, we use these buildings ourselves.  We have offices, RE classrooms, meeting spaces and of course a worship space for the “work of the congregation.”  But we also rent our spaces for quite low fees, not so much for the income (though of course, that helps us pay for maintaining these spaces) but as a service to the community.

But we go beyond that, too.  We frequently reduce our prices or charge nothing at all for groups such as the Racial Equity Institute, CIMA, Nuestro Centro, Guardian ad Litem, Pisgah Legal Services, and more.  Last month, we offered our space to Congregation Beth Israel for their High Holy Day services.  (Their construction project wasn’t done on time and we know all about that.)  Here’s an excerpt from a lovely note written by Rabbi Goldstein (accompanied by a donation to UUCA):

“It was so moving and confirming for our congregation to be welcomed into your home. All of us benefited immensely from the beautiful space, but most of all we experienced an incredible and unquantifiable spiritual and emotional elation from your having opened your doors to us.

We all know that we live in a special community in Asheville, and your congregation consistently helps make this community special in innumerable ways.  In this instance, your neighborliness and heartfelt community contributions meant, for us, the opportunity to celebrate some of our most significant holy days of the year.  For that, we will be forever indebted and forever grateful.

Be it in our communications in preparing for our holidays, in your willingness to allow us to move in and out of the space as we needed to bring in our items, for the sound engineers who helped amplify our services, and in the general welcoming we were shown, the true nature of your community shined brightly throughout all of our interactions.”

Not quite an It’s a Wonderful Life scene, but pretty good confirmation that we matter to Asheville.  Our presence makes a difference.  And we couldn’t BE that presence without the combined acts of stewardship from all of us; our gifts of time, talent and money. Thank you.

Linda Topp, Director of Administration

I Forgive You, I Forgive Myself

I found myself in the Sunday worship service two weeks ago unable to sing the introductory hymn because I was in tears, a surefire sign that I need to work on something deep within my soul. We moved on to the part where people face each other, often married couples or people domiciled together in other arrangements. I can imagine facing my late husband and saying those words. People who live together frequently trespass against each other in all kinds of ways, most of them small enough to be almost insignificant, some large enough to cause real hurt, but mostly the result of thoughtlessness, not malice.
    The annual forgiveness service is a little awkward for those of us unpaired, but that’s not why I became emotional. I said those familiar words in the responsive reading with a certain close family member in mind but realized that I couldn’t mean them yet. I wanted to mean them (or maybe I just wanted to want to mean them), but the hurt and the anger is so deep that I cannot let go. And I am a person who is not easily offended. So…..why is it so hard to forgive?
    Later in the week, I came across a photograph on Facebook, a beautiful picture of two women sitting solemnly side by side, one in white and one in black, with this caption: “I sat with my anger long enough, until she told me her real name was grief.” As the Southern Baptists would say, I felt a sense of conviction. I recognized myself instantly. I am grieving and have been grieving for almost eight years because someone I thought would always have my back let me down and did so at a very bad time in my life. I have finally realized that the major source of my distress is not anger over what she failed to do, but rather it’s grief over losing a relationship that I thought would last forever.
    She has never explained. She has never apologized. She doesn’t want to talk about it. I am not the only family member from which she has distanced herself. Is it possible to forgive when one’s forgiveness has not been sought? When no apology is forthcoming? When no effort at restitution has been made?
    If you forgive someone but don’t tell them about it, have you really forgiven them? Do I want to forgive, or have I nurtured this hurt for so long that I don’t want to let it go? I will be wrestling with these questions as I try to grow spiritually this year. There is a big stinky weed in my UU garden that needs to be pulled, and I would welcome help from anyone in the congregation who has faced this problem, especially within their own family.

Judy Harper, Board of Trustees

#Not Me

In light of the story of sexual abuse unearthed at the US Senate Judiciary hearings on Brett Kavanaugh, it’s no surprise that a new hashtag has appeared on Twitter for men who managed to go through their high school or college years without having sexually assaulted anybody:  #Not Me.

It seems bizarre to me that we should reach the stage where it should be remarkable that young men made it through their adolescence being kind and respectful to sexual partners – whether women or men. And I frankly don’t think it is. I think that most men are and want to be decent human beings in their sexual relationships. But you might not know that from the comments on social media following Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony of having been thrown down and groped by Kavanaugh. We heard it whispered among some men, “Well, who didn’t?” The answer is: lots of us, most of us, men who recognized that only a predator and a jerk would treat women that way.

And as long as we’re talking, I need to add:  Not me, either. I was a quiet kid growing up, no social butterfly. But I had girlfriends in high school and college and was sexually active, but all those relationships were consensual. I never forced myself on anyone.

I have to say, though, that in college I did hear about some wilder goings on, places women were warned against going, where some men embarrassed and debased them. This was pretty widely known, but no one did anything to stop it.

What’s frightening today is that with the entertainment industry so sexualized and with porn ubiquitous across the Internet, it can be hard for boys, especially, to make sense of what a healthy sexual relationship even looks like. That is part of what makes it incumbent on us as a caring, compassionate community to help them learn.

The Our Whole Lives classes that we at UUCA convene across age spans are centered in a value-based conversation about sexuality at each age level, up to and including adults. I took the classes years ago. So did our three daughters and now our granddaughters, and I am grateful for this gift to their lives.

Meanwhile, we men need to be upfront in pledging never to be sexual abusers ourselves, to intervene if we see it happening, to directly urge our sons never to engage in it and to confront anyone who would normalize that kind of behavior. Not Me, not any of us, not ever.

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister

Our Caring Community

One of the highlights of my seminary experience was an eight-month hospice chaplaincy internship as part of clinical pastoral education. Although I began my internship with the same fear everyone has about not knowing what to say or how to pray with the mostly-Christian patients that I served, weekly visits with patients while shadowing my mentor taught me that pastoral care was all about striving to be a non-anxious, compassionate listening presence. It wasn’t about me or my theology, it was about being present, listening to another’s story in the context of ultimate meanings and concerns in their lives. I eventually made visits on my own and found it to be truly sacred work. And, I recognized its importance in the life of a religious community. We informally care for each other as we engage in the life of the congregation – attending meetings, coffee hour, social justice projects.

The Pastoral Care Ministry is a more formal expression of our care for each other. It engages the generosity of individuals willing to share their skills to provide compassionate listening, spiritual support and hope for members and friends of the congregation during life’s transitions. Ordained ministers often cannot meet the pastoral needs of the congregation alone and rely on trained and supervised pastoral visitors to be an extension of the minister’s pastoral presence. Working with the Pastoral Visitors at UUCA is one of the most rewarding aspects of my work.

One of the goals of our Pastoral Visitors Team this year is to increase the visibility of this important ministry and provide programming that addresses some of the stressors that many of us face throughout our lives. We invite you to participate in this year’s programs and welcome suggestions for future programs. Here is what we have planned so far:

November 28, 7PM    Domestic Violence Panel & Discussion.
An opportunity to dispel assumptions about domestic violence and learn how it impacts communities. There will be a separate workshop for youth: “Consent is Everything.”

December 5, 7PM Thinking Differently About the Holidays: Moving from Terrible to Tranquil

December 9, 2PM Blue Christmas Service.
A service for those “feeling blue” during the holiday season intended to create a space for reflection, healing, and hope.

During our meetings, we have been exploring the ways in which a caring community behaves. We invite you to join in the conversation. How can all of us be generous with our time and listening skills to support each other? Please visit the bulletin board in Sandburg Hall and contribute your thoughts on how a caring community behaves. It is a collective effort to build and sustain beloved community.  Your input will help us strengthen the shared ministry of pastoral care at UUCA.  You can also share feedback with any member of the Pastoral Visitors Team: Karin Eckert, Iris Hardin, Jill Preyer, Ephraim Schecter, Myrtle Staples, and Carol Taylor.

Rev. Claudia Jiménez
Minister of Faith Development

Take Time To Stop and Smell the Dead Roses

I notice a tendency in myself to “just finish a few more things from my to-do list,” to keep grinding, and “once everything is done“ it will be easy to relax and have fun.  While I believe delayed gratification is an honorable and productive strategy, it can be overused.  We live in a society that is productive and inventive and also, in my opinion, overly focused on doing things.  My children serve as inspiration and motivation to accomplish such hard work. Thankfully they have also been inspiration and motivation to sometimes “just be.”  
   The borders of work and play and public and private are in flux these days.  While not all of this is problematic, I think the increase of purposeful- and mindful-living themes is a reaction to these changes and an indication of the needs we have for awareness in the moment.  This doesn’t only mean awareness of the happy thoughts, the calm, the peace.  It may not be as fun or easy, but it is ultimately helpful to truly feel anger, stress, disappointment.  It means not just smelling the pretty red roses – it means getting a little whiff of everything.
   We often label decay and death as necessarily bad or scary.  However, as the very first signs of Fall have started to appear, here is a reminder that a peace can be found in acknowledging the beauty of endings as well as beginnings.  After all, the dead roses fertilize the next generation.
   “Sorrow prepares you for joy. It violently sweeps everything out of your house, so that new joy can find space to enter. It shakes the yellow leaves from the bough of your heart so that fresh, green leaves can grow in their place. It pulls up the rotten roots so that new roots hidden beneath have room to grow. Whatever sorrow shakes from your heart, far better things will take their place.”                             ― Rumi
James “Buck” Schall, Board of Trustees

Creating Sanctuary Everywhere

Last July in worship I introduced a notion to guide our social justice work that I said intrigued me – “Sanctuary Everywhere.” What if we as a congregation committed ourselves to the work of creating safe space for all people, perhaps all beings? What would that mean?

In the last four months, we have had a brief glimpse of what it can mean to provide sanctuary for one person facing life-threatening expulsion. With the help of dozens of friends from neighboring faith communities we have seen to her safety and helped meet her most essential needs. It’s been challenging but intensely rewarding work. For, in providing safe space for La Mariposa we have also built bonds of friendship and love. Reaching across boundaries of language, of culture, of ethnicity we have begun to know the rich and complex caring that is possible between and among people.

It’s a good place to start. So, again, how would it be if we extended that commitment, if we dedicated ourselves to the work of keeping all people safe? It’s a big idea but in many ways not a reach for us. It’s integrated into the social justice work we are involved in already, from our commitment to immigrant sanctuary, to Black Lives Matter, to our work to end hunger and homelessness, to support people of all genders and gender expressions and even our work to protect and sustain the Earth, a safe harbor for all life.

But what I especially like about the notion of “Sanctuary Everywhere” is that it gives us a focus that is centered in our faith, a faith that calls us to affirm the inherent worth and dignity of all people and to work to bring about a beloved community where all are held with compassion and respect. It gives us a grounding for work in many venues.

I look forward to exploring this further in coming months, and I welcome your thoughts around it, too.  But I thought that this month I’d tell you a little bit about where my own thoughts around this are going. I’m thinking that if I’m going to work for sanctuary I need to begin by creating sanctuary in my own mind and heart. That means examining those habits of thinking and feeling within me that hold me back, that keep me from truly extending a sense of sanctuary to others.

I realize that part of this just has to do with my own limited experience of the world and other people. And I’ve come to realize that this lack of experience is actually part of the privilege that I inherited, unknowingly, as a white person in this country. From my earliest days, I was raised in a culture where the white experience was normative – that is, normal, every-day, the regular thing. What I learned of non-white people might have been interesting, even exotic, but it was something out of the ordinary. I know I’m not alone. Perhaps this was your experience, too.

This isn’t anything awful or shameful, but I’ve come to realize that it severely limits me in my efforts to grow as a person and to inhabit a faith I affirm. So, an important part of the work of my own spiritual growth has been to give myself to experiences that will take me outside of that limited context and take in other perspectives.

There are many ways of doing this, and we offer some in this congregation and in the larger Asheville area. These include classes, such as Asheville’s own Building Bridges (the next session runs weekly Sept 10 through November 5, 7-9 pm at Rainbow Community School) or trainings by the Racial Equity Institute. You might also consider sitting in on meetings of Asheville Standing Up for Racial Justice, which are the second Thursday of each month at UUCA. Also, this fall I’ll be leading a discussion of a Beacon Press book by Robin DiAngelo called White Fragility, which explores why white people have such a hard time talking about race.

I’ve also made a point in my private reading of exploring nonwhite authors. Here are some who have produced some amazing works recently. I think of Toni Morrison’s latest novel, Home; Michael Eric Dyson’s powerful essays in Tears We Cannot Stop; Tracy K. Smith’s luminous book of poetry, Wade in the Water, and our own Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed’s astute analysis in Revisiting the Empowerment Controversy.

From the Hispanic perspective, I’d recommend Luis Alberto Urrea’s book of poems, Tijuana Book of the Dead, and his novel, House of Broken Angels. From the Native American perspective, I was impressed by the novel There, There by Tommy Orange and Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, a renowned biologist and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, on weaving together indigenous wisdom and scientific knowledge.

There is such richness out there when we open our lives to diverse perspectives. Let us be about creating sanctuary where we can be in conversation with it all.

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister