Good Friday In Simon’s Words

Recently I preached about what Isaac might have said, if his voice had been part of the story of Abraham’s sacrifice. As we approach Easter Sunday, which, of course, focuses so much on Jesus’ voice and story, here is my imagining of how Simon of Cyrene (the bystander who helped Jesus carry the cross on his way to be crucified) might have described his experience on Good Friday.

You may have heard of a man named Jesus who lived almost two thousand years ago. He taught people to love each other and to, and he also said that he was the Son of God. I had heard of him, too, but at that time we only knew that he traveled around the countryside teaching, and that he had a large following. The leaders in Jerusalem thought that his message was very dangerous.

Early in the morning of the day that I arrived in Jerusalem for the holy feast of Passover, there were crowds and shouting, and many Roman guards in the square. I was in a huge and crushing throng of people, pushing and shoving, shouting and waving their fists. There were three criminals being led up the hill to be executed by crucifixion, which was the way they did things in those days—and this man Jesus was one of them. The Roman guards were impatient with him, because he kept stumbling—dropping the huge wooden cross he was carrying. Suddenly, they yelled into the crowd—and pointed right at me—perhaps because I was not from Jerusalem—I looked different than the other folks who were there—they called to me, and made me help Jesus.

I felt awful. I had stumbled upon the crowd—and the taunting and yelling made me uncomfortable in the first place—and now I was being forced to participate in it. There was something about this man named Jesus, though, an energy that radiated from him—a peace that made me feel lighter somehow, even as I trudged up the hill next to him. I still can’t quite find words to explain it. As soon as we reached the top of the hill, I left as quickly as I could—I did not want to participate any further in this violent act—especially during the most holy week of Passover.

I know that Jesus died later that day, and so did the two thieves, but I tried very hard to put the day’s events out of my mind. Sometimes it is just too difficult to think about how much violence and hurt there is in the world. A few days later, as I was leaving the city, I began to hear rumors about Jesus. They said he had been buried in a tomb—a cave outside the city—and a huge stone had been rolled in front of the opening to the tomb. They said that three days after he died, his body was no longer in the tomb—he had disappeared.

It took me a long time to understand what the events of that day meant to me, and even now, it is hard to find words to describe them. I know that Jesus was a great teacher. I know that I can never be sure of what happened in the cave when Jesus disappeared. I know that his followers stayed together and carried on his teachings. Some said it was a miracle—that he came back to life because he truly was God’s son, others said his friends had taken him and buried him somewhere else. There were so many stories, and these things like God and miracles and faith and justice can be confusing to think about. But I kept remembering how I had felt as I walked next to him, and I realized that it didn’t matter exactly what was true about the story—what mattered was that I might have helped a fellow human being as he walked a difficult path.

Summer Breezes Make Me Feel Fine

We want to try something new and awesome in our summer RE classes this year.  But we need help.

As I write this, the snow is coming down outside as it has been all day, so it’s not unnatural to be daydreaming about summer breezes, drifting down a river, campfires, and fresh herbs and veggies from the garden. One of my other favorite things about the season is Summer Religious Education. First off, RE staff gets to sleep in a little later so that’s nice. We also have a lot more unstructured play time on the playground. There is definitely a more relaxed feel. We might spend time talking about what everyone is up to all summer. Among vacations, camp at The Mountain, sports camps, music camps, and day camps, our kids sure have a lot going on.

You may have noticed some changes to our outdoor spaces lately, including most recently, our new raised-bed garden planters! Jodi Clere has done a wonderful job coordinating and implementing much of this work and has taken the burden of worrying about where to go next with the playground off the shoulders of RE staff. Our kids love spending time outdoors and they especially love our playground. I’m betting they’ll be pretty delighted with the new garden, as it’s a much better and more friendly set up than our past two years of container gardening in an old sandbox.

We’ve been doing some thinking about what our plans are for Summer RE lately and we all agree that we’d like our kids to get the chance to spend as much time outside in our new “outdoor classroom” spaces as possible. What we really need now are some dedicated folks to help us develop a plan for nature-focused religious education this summer. People with knowledge of gardening, local flora and fauna, and other environmental subjects would be great! We have some ideas and have put together some resources to cull from, but we need some nature-minded volunteers to help make it happen! If you can help make this summer dream come true, please get in touch with Jen or me and let us know you’re in!

Kim Collins, Lifespan Religious Education Coordinator

Your Congregation

As you probably know, the UU Asheville membership and Board of Trustees reviewed the congregation‘s overall purpose and reason for being over the last year. The result of this effort was a set of updates to the Mission, Core Values, and Ends Statements.
One of the things that we as a Board wanted to reinforce and which came up organically and repeatedly was that the congregation was a living community that needs your input and energy.  It is not something that can be only passively enjoyed if we want to thrive (or even ultimately survive long term).
From what I can see, this refocusing on the active aspect of engagement with each other in the congregation is making positive change. With the annual budget drive being only the latest example, there seems to be more engagement in all aspects of our congregation. We have added the Wednesday Thing, the preparations for offering sanctuary are progressing, and people are taking part in a variety of roles who have never done so before. 
I acknowledge that one of the challenges of our current society is being “too busy“ all the time. There are countless tasks and superficially interesting things constantly competing for our attention. However, when we can accomplish the feat of finding purpose rather than just being busy we can experience that paradoxical magic that happens where we come out of giving more energized than when we went in.
I thank you and the congregation thanks you for everything that you have done, are doing, and will do. As it has been said:
“Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Mahatma Gandhi
James Schall, Board of Trustees

We’re Not Finished

Do not think we are finished.

Oh no, we will never be finished, never just done

 until the light of justice is lit behind every eye.

I was thinking of those words from my colleague the Rev. Audrey Fulbright this past week as I read coverage in the Asheville Citizen-Times of the assault of Johnnie Jermaine Rush last August by a City of Asheville police officer. Even though the city reported Rush’s injuries as resulting of an arrest, videotape from the officer’s body camera make clear that it was nothing less than an assault of a black man by a white officer.

That’s not an especially new story. In fact, it’s a very old story arising from the legacy of white supremacy in this country, this city that is visited upon people with black or brown bodies. Day by day more details emerge about that encounter – what Mr. Rush is said to have done, what various officers are said to have done, how the chief, district attorney, and various city officials responded. The details matter, in the sense that they help people investigating this incident figure out how to respond. But in important ways, the details don’t really matter. They are just variations on a theme: how the pervasive poison of racism continues to tear at the fabric of civil society.

And each time we see it we are forced to confront again the racism that resides in our own hearts, in the interstices of our daily lives, in the institutions we take part in, our workplaces, our neighborhoods, and, yes, our churches, too. As people of faith who affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person, we disavow any way of thinking or feeling that diminishes any person or people. And yet, as people living in a deeply racist country it’s hard to avoid having it color our perspective. That means that if we are to be true to our values we need to be vigilant about examining our own thinking and about organizing our lives in such a way that contradicts what racism teaches.

A couple of years ago we as a congregation affirmed where we stand on this by adopting a resolution declaring “Black Lives Matter” and committing ourselves to “educating ourselves about and deepening our understanding of white privilege and oppressive systems” and to partner with local organizations “to harness the power of love to combat racism and oppression at all levels within our communities.”

 As a reminder, here’s a link to that resolution.At the time we also put together resource packages including inspiring readings and tips for getting involved. Here are links to a couple of those.

We have made some headway in these goals. Members of our congregation have become active in groups advancing this work – including NAACP, ASURJ, Building Bridges and trainings by the Racial Equity Institute. But attending a meeting or training is only the start. The harder part comes with putting ourselves in places where we can take part in the concrete work of dismantling racism.

Some of us joined in the Hillcrest Motheread Program, where they meet weekly with women in Hillcrest Apartments to talk over stressors in their lives and offer support. Others are taking part in tutoring in public schools. If that sounds interesting, you might look into a new program called the Marvelous Math Club. Here’s a YouTube video about it.

At a recent Wednesday Thing, we heard about a program with the Asheville Housing Authority inviting people to own rental property to make apartments available for Section 8 housing. Here’s a link about that.

And that’s just a start. Others are at work elsewhere, and there’s more to do. Where will you find your work? Because, friends, we’re not finished!

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister


When We Say “Yes”

stories of us

Sunday, the Rev. Mary Katherine Morn said we’ve already had a successful Annual Budget Drive (boy, we hope she’s right).  In truth, Dan and I are not experts on what makes a successful Annual Budget Drive (ABD). Still, we have figured out that one key ingredient is the willingness of people to say “yes.”

A successful Annual Budget Drive happens when the minister and administrator ask you to co-chair the ABD, even though you’ve never done one before, and then say “yes” when you ask to try something new (or several somethings).

It happens when talented people who have managed fundraising efforts for years say “yes” and “we’ll help” when you tell them you’re going to try something “a little different.”

It happens when an Annual Budget Drive Team (Iris Hardin, Anne Harper, Judy Harper, Jerry McLellan, Kristi Miller, Linda Topp, and Larry Wheeler) says “yes, we’ll come to meetings, do the behind-the-scenes work, and put in the long hours to ensure the drive is successful.”

It happens when you go to Les and say, “we have this idea,” which of course means more work for him and he says “yes” and also finds you a drummer.

It happens when you tell “the band” you want the Sunday service to feel like a celebration and they say “yes” and take it all the way and then some.

It happens when an RE staff who could complain that you’re adding to their work, taking away valuable class time, or are making things harder to manage instead say, “yes, we’d love to have the children and youth be a part of Celebration Sunday, how can we help?” (And they help you decorate the Sanctuary on their own time.)

It happens when you ask Tish for reports that the new database isn’t able to run and she says “yes” to spending hours and hours updating the database so we can get the information we need to keep the drive running smoothly.

It happens when members say “yes” to an automated call asking them to attend a stewardship Sunday and they show up to support the community and give joyfully.

It’s a little early to determine if we will hit our financial goal, we still have a number of commitment forms that have yet to be turned in, but we have reason to be optimistic. So far, you’ve said “yes” to giving generously and many of you have said “yes” to being a Plus One by increasing your giving.

Regardless of how the numbers turn out, Dan and I believe that Rev. Mary Katherine Morn is right, UUCA has had a successful drive because so many of you have said “yes” to committing your time, talent and your treasure to UUCA.

Gina and Dan Phairas, Annual Budget Drive Co-Chairs

PS.  There’s a rumor that being the Annual Budget Drive chair is a thankless job, but we can honestly tell you nothing could be further from the truth. You’ve graciously shared your gratitude for our work on the ABD this year and that has touched us deeply.

Wait, Vespers, What?


Have you had a chance to attend Vespers at the Wednesday Thing? If not, have you wondered about the word “vespers” and why we would have such a service at a UU congregation? The overarching goal of the Wednesday Thing is to bring together all ages for fun, fellowship, spiritual growth, and community. Toward that end, we want to create a worship experience that feels different from Sunday mornings and creates space for many more voices to be heard. Every vespers includes music, as well as a chalice lighting, candles of joy & sorrow, and the closing song, but otherwise the services vary.

In any case, a number of you have asked what vespers means, or why we would do a service that “sounds so Catholic.” It’s pretty simple, actually! The ever-helpful Internet (via tells us:

vesper is an evening song. It also refers to evening prayers, and then it’s usually plural as vespers. Whether it’s a church service or a jazz band at sunset, if it’s in the evening, it’s a vesperVesper hasn’t changed much over the years, in Latin it means “evening star,” and in Old English it’s æfen-sang, which sounds a little like “evening song.”

So, basically, we decided to call it Vespers because it’s a worship experience that happens in the evening. It’s a great opportunity to take a pause in the middle of the week, to start to wind down and reflect at the end of the day, and to be in beloved community.

One of the main purposes of this new service here at UUCA is to engage more voices in worship. Les and I are currently looking for people of all ages who are interested in leading, providing music for, or participating in a service. If you have an idea, but aren’t sure where to begin, I’m here to help you figure it out. Let’s get together and do this vespers thing!

Looking for Numbers?

spreadsheet-28205_640During an annual budget drive, most people want to know how much is needed (the goal!) and how their money makes it possible to improve their lives and the lives of others.  However, there are some people who just like to know how we spend their money.  This blog is for you.

I’m going to use the current budget since next year’s isn’t prepared yet (waiting for our “final” commitment number).  Here are some facts for you:

This year’s budget totals $727,500.

Commitments made last year totaled $638,000.  (Our goal for this year is $680,000, a 6.6% increase.)

Of that budget total, $505,200 are invested in our employees (69%) and an additional $17,000 (3%) are invested in their training and education.  (It helps staff members answer that question, “What are other congregations doing about this?”)

Here are samplings of other general expenses:

  • We love our campus. It includes 2 acres of land and 3 buildings with the newest one being over 40 years old.  We invest about $70,600 in caring for it all. (10%)
  • We need to keep our congregation and congregants safe. We pay about $15,000 per year for insurance and background checks. (2%)
  • We use all kinds of expendable supplies in the office and in many of our programs. We also pay for food for various events and meetings.  All this comes to about $19,000. (3%)
  • Everyone always refers to “keeping the lights on” as so much of what our budget covers. That, however, is a red herring.  We pay about $24,000 for all utilities and internet. (3%)

The fact is that once you devote 72% of your income to your staff, no matter how else you slice and dice the rest, they all end up being pretty small percentages compared to that.  As far as I can tell, we do not squander money, we do not overspend, we are careful with your money.

The 2018-19 budget will look a bit different from this year’s since we squeezed a lot of line items in order to maintain one more year of paying 3.75 full-time senior staff members (I worked ¾ time last year).  Since our Director of Lifespan Religious Education left late last church year (and we replaced her with me(!)), we really only supported 3 full-time staff members this year.  Consequently, our spending looks pretty good so far this year, even though we increased hours for our RE part-time staff, have me back working full-time, increased a few salaries to address pay-responsibility mismatches and had extra costs due to the illness of our bookkeeper and the initiation of the Wednesday Thing.

Next year’s budget (the one you are making a commitment toward on (or before) February 25) will look a little different because we will actually budget, on purpose, for 3 senior staff members.  This should result in a raise for the Lead Minister (only the second one in his 14-year tenure), and a restoration of many of the line items we reduced for this year’s budget.  Once we manage to get these goals checked off, the sky will be the limit in what we can do next.  My hope is that in the near future we will be able to continue keeping all of our salaries in step with UUA guidelines AND edge our current 4%-of-expenses donation to the Unitarian Universalist Association toward their wish for 6.5%.  We’re on a roll now and I’m happy to encourage continuing success!

Since I’m pretty sure that ONLY numbers people are still reading, I just want to reiterate our annual budget drive’s co-chairs’ message:  Your pledge makes a difference!  We know that each person’s contribution helped get us to last year’s total of $638,000.  By giving just a little bit more this year, we can sure get to $680,000!  We are grateful for all that takes place here at UUCA and for all who commit their time, talent and treasure to our beloved community.

Dr. Linda M. Topp, Director of Administration

PS  Remember to bring your Commitment Form to Celebration Sunday, February 25!