Tuesday, January 31, 2012

What price tradition?

Sixth in a series of posts about the January UUA Board meeting

My first meeting in the chapel of 25 Beacon had me in awe -- the history of the conversations that had taken place in that room, the "greats" peering down at us from the walls. Any references to leaving these hallowed spaces seemed to plop loudly on the table in front of us, and go no where.

Until now. It is clear that remaining on Beacon Hill makes no financial or mission-related sense. Office staff is spread across 3 buildings that were not designed for collaborative work. One of them does not have good Internet access because of the prohibitive cost of high speed lines. Many of us experience allergies to whatever is lurking in them. Needed renovations would cost between $6 and $10 million, and operating costs of the energy inefficient buildings are high. Selling the buildings for a conversion to residential property and moving to more collaborative and energy efficient space would fetch a premium, allowing us to add millions to our endowment, and save around a half million a year in operating costs - not to mention reducing our carbon footprint.

Yes, I liked the idea of a headquarters right next to the historic Capitol building, the smell of the old wood, and my daily walks down to the Starbucks on the corner of Beacon and St. Charles. I appreciate the "heritage, traditions, and ideals of Unitarian Universalism" that were forged right there in those rooms. Yet I feel a greater responsibility to look forward, and my priority for mission-driven programs is higher than for museums. A straw vote by the board says I am not alone.

So the next question is where? It is seductive to think about us putting our values into action by moving into a blighted area of Detroit, for example, or some place outside of our New England roots. I do not think that is realistic. Headquarters moves take years of productivity loss (per consultants who have worked directly with churches that have done so), and also years to recoup the financial cost. I personally do not believe that we have that kind of time, nor do I believe that moving out of the Boston area would solve the classic "us vs them" issues that the headquarters of any organization has.

There is also the question of what our headquarters will be in 5, 10, or 50 years. About a third of our UUA staff is located outside of Boston, some field staff, and some just remotely located. What does that imply for space needs in the future?

Last year the Board answered the question "what would I need to see to approve a major real estate transaction?" with a policy that incorporated our values around such a transaction. I have added it in its entirety below, as it is the outline of what the current real estate activity.

2.8.12 [The President shall not] Acquire, encumber, make significant renovations to, or dispose of real property, or lease significant amounts of space, without prior Board approval, except that the President may accept and promptly dispose of real property donated to the Association. Before requesting Board approval for any such action, the President shall not fail to provide to the Board a detailed proposal, including an assessment that compares proposed and current facilities, and a plan for communicating the rationale for property decisions to congregations. In preparing such an assessment, the President shall not fail to:
  1. Explain how facilities support the Association’s Shared Vision, including the benefits and impacts of facilities on stakeholders, and including but not limited to historically marginalized voices.
  2. Evaluate facilities needs within a long term strategic plan (at least 10-15 years).
  3. Analyze the financial impact of facilities, including any savings or costs associated with changes.
  4. Assess potential liabilities, including environmental remediation costs.
  5. Ensure that facilities meet defined standards of accessibility, ease of logistics, and welcome.
  6. Consider the symbolic and historic value of facilities in balance with future needs.
  7. Assess the environmental impact of facilities.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Doctrine of Discovery

Fifth in a series of posts about the January UUA board meeting

Quick -- under whose authority did Columbus lay claim to the New World?

a) Elizabeth I of England
b) Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain
c) the Catholic Church
d) the U S Supreme Court

If you answered b and c, you were right -- but strangely enough, a), Elizabeth I, and d) the US Supreme Court, are involved in this drama as well, though after Columbus' "discovery" of inhabited lands.

The Spanish monarchs believed they had a god given right to seize lands and Christianize the inhabitants, forcibly if necessary, because of a series of decrees starting with Pope Urban II that decreed non-Christian lands "empty" (Papal Bull Terra Nullius ) and therefore subject to being seized by Christians. This was strengthened by Pope Nicolas V in 1452 with the Romanus Pontifex, which declared war against all non-Christians throughout the world and authorized the taking their nations and territories. By the time Columbus showed up in the "New World", this "doctrine of discovery" was well established and used by many Christian nations to create and subjugate colonies in far-flung areas of the world -- think British Empire, as well as the work of the French, Portuguese, and Spanish. In fairness, later papal edicts denounced slavery and inhumane treatment of indigenous people, but the damage was done.

And the US Supreme Court? The Doctrine of Discovery was codified in US law in 1823 in Johnson vs. McIntosh, and given an American twist with John L. O'Sullivan's coining of the term Manifest Destiny (do we teach this in schools any more?):

".... the right of our manifest destiny to over spread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty… is right such as that of the tree to the space of air and the earth suitable for the full expansion of its principle and destiny of growth."

It was used to justify the breaking of treaties, and taking of lands, as recently as 2001. According to Professor Robert Miller, the doctrine of discover underlies US "Indian law" today: Congress has very broad authority in Indian affairs, which diminishes tribal authority.

The Doctrine of Discovery has been repudiated by most members of the United Nations, excepting Australia, Canada, and the United States, as has the Episcopal Church. The UUA has been silent, despite a number of attempts by various groups to bring it to the floor of the General Assembly.

A resolution about the Doctrine will be on the Phoenix agenda, primarily because our allies and partners in our Justice GA have asked us to do so. It is a good reason to educate ourselves about how this ancient concept continues to impact our "vision of beloved community".

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Animals and children

Fourth in a series of posts about the January 2012 UUA Board meeting

My seat mate on the New Orleans to Houston flight was a 30ish man who looked liked the volunteer fireman he once had been in the small town north of New Orleans where he had lived all his life. Engaging, proud of his wife and two kids, self-deprecating about his “hick” rural accent, he said Katrina hadn’t really impacted him much.

Except – he stopped and drew a breath – psychologically.

With Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) skills, he immediately volunteered and was in New Orleans two days after the levees broke. He lasted four days.

“It wasn’t so much the work”, he said. “We were basically pulling bodies. It was the way they were all treated….” His voice trailed off and he continued. “And nobody seemed to know what they were doing.”

The first day he was sent about 35 miles out to “pull bodies”. The second day his crew sat around on a log – no one knew where to send them. The third day they started again, but were quickly pulled in “because the government was doing something we had to wait for – no one knew what.” The fourth day he was back “pulling bodies” – “mostly animals and children”. That was enough.

The conversation shifted. His family had lived in the same area since 1806, when they bought the land as a land grant from Spain. They “raised cattle – and owned slaves”. “My great grandma was a dress-maker, so she said they would let her know when the ship was coming in with the slaves and concubines.”

Concubines? “Yeah. They would take the prettiest, maybe 13 to 17 years old, and they would be sold for concubines. They would rub them with butter, and my great grandma would dress them up so they looked real pretty. The person who bought the concubine would usually take the dress too. She said she could make two bits on each one.” Their family album includes very old photos of pretty dark girls in colorful dresses.

Rubbed them with butter!? Excuse me?

He paused and said softly “they thought of them like cattle”.

Animals. And children. He went on.

"You know, my 8 year old boy didn't know what slavery was. He plays with all kinds of kids, all colors -- we are a pretty integrated place now. So a few days ago he asked me what a slave was. I had to explain it to him, and he just couldn't understand how..." here his voice cracked and dropped lower, "how anyone could treat a human being that way."

Next post: Do you know where your mineral rights are?

Monday, January 23, 2012

Raw emotion in sacred space

Third in a series of posts about the January 2012 UUA board meeting

Eight of us met on Saturday afternoon with North Shore Unitarian Universalists in Lacombe, LA, about 50 miles outside of New Orleans (and over a v-e-r-y long bridge). Currently lay-led, I was struck by our welcome: their board members first met us in their “feng shui garden”, where we assembled and lit the chalice in a beginning ritual, then walked into the sanctuary with lovely music playing softly (which turned out to be a recording of their choir), setting sacred space.

North Shore was the “lucky” church – their beautiful new building was essentially unscathed by Katrina and its aftermath. Yet each person in the room had a story to tell: losing homes, friends, half of their church members, with a mortgage to pay. Piled on top of the trauma of the storm, was also a story of betrayal. In addition to Katrina, the congregation lost a long time minister to charges of misconduct. Those of us who have gone through this gut-wrenching event know how devastating it can be – add to that the personal trauma of the disaster, the high need for pastoral care at such a time – and two subsequent ministers who were unable to fulfill their charge and left in a very short time. This was a hurting congregation – and the raw emotion was still evident in their voices, their eyes, their faces. They feel both grateful and let down by the UUA – for providing funds and support, though not quite enough and not always the right kind.

“You don’t know how important it was” says worship leader (and frequent board president) Terry Van Brunt, “to have human faces on Unitarian Universalism. The people who came down to be with us.” The generosity of the congregation in light of their own struggles is inspiring – they give away the first Sunday plate, have helped and supported other congregations with more recent disasters, and are active in a variety of social justice projects in their community.

Together later that evening, each board group had a similar story to tell. Stories of gratitude to partner churches across the US that sprang up spontaneously to sent people and money to help. Elated that $3 million in relief was raised through the UUA and UUSC – and crushed when most of it went outside the walls of the three UU congregations. Community Church, which sat under 8 feet of water for three weeks, was bull-dozed. If you look up that address on Google maps, you see an empty lot. Three and a half feet of water on First UU’s first floor destroyed everything but the brick walls and a single hard drive computer. As board members – some of us on the board when this happened – we are saddened that we let them down. They were encouraged to combine, but unwilling to do so, believing they could be more effective in three locations. Out of that tension has come a strong partnership between the three, including the Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice Renewal.

Community’s new, beautiful church stands at the corner of Fleur de Lis and 38th. The stained glass window from pre-Katrina days that had been in storage is installed in First UU, and their kitchen finally restored. A labyrinth, laid by members and volunteers, gleams in the floor of the sanctuary. I walked it each night I stayed at the Center, the path flowing softly in the light of the newly installed exit signs.

And there is so much more to be done, both in the buildings and the souls of those who survived. You can help by sending contributions (of any amount) per the instructions found here. A small amount from a lot of us could make a huge difference to these congregations.

Next post: Children and animals

Sunday, January 22, 2012

If you have come to help, you are wasting your time

Second in a series of posts about the January 2012 UUA Board meeting

The Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice Renewal, a program of the three Greater New Orleans congregations, is located on the second floor of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans. It is a big building for a small congregation, yet the dreams it houses are proof that Margaret Mead was right. It started its work a few days after Katrina.

Ten women trustees from the UUA Board shared the "girls dorm" for three nights, 3' by 6' bunk beds packed in a small room, our gentle snoring making me glad I brought ear plugs. (I understand the "boys dorm room", with seven of the board's men, was substantially louder.) Each group shared one indoor shower (the women also shared with a group of volunteers from Wellesley), and three outside. We were more than aware that such accommodations would be a privilege in many parts of the world.

From this base we split up and worked with a partner organization, sometimes two, in some part of the city each day: pulling weeds in the garden of the African American museum or North Shore Unitarian, chopping switch grass in a nature preserve, serving meals in homeless shelters, cleaning out food pantry (walk in) refrigerators, packing oranges, painting, and "power washing" the exterior of houses. We quickly discovered the "power" for the latter was supplied by our hands firmly grasping scrub brushes.

What struck me was that the organizations we came to spent so much time showing us the history, the operations, and their vision. For most of the groups I joined, there was as much education as work.

Education. For us. So that we are changed and understand our own role in creating a better future. The last line of the quotation in the title (sometimes attributed to Lilla Watson , sometimes to a "tribal elder") is on the wall of the center:

If you have come to help, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.

Next post: Raw emotion in sacred space

Saturday, January 14, 2012

New Orleans Bound

First in a series of posts about the January UUA Board meeting

I have never been to New Orleans -- my stereotype of jazz, booze, and lots of food in the French Quarter has not been a strong pull. In the past few years -- ever since Katrina -- it has represented something else for me. Shame. My own.

There appeared to be a negative undercurrent to all those laughing faces in the tourism ads. Poverty. And the crime associated with desperation. In 2005 families in my Berkeley church opened their homes to those who had lost them -- and co-minister Barbara Hamilton-Holway asked us "why am I willing to open my home to Katrina survivors, but not to those from our own neighborhoods?" There is an undercurrent everywhere -- and many of us choose not to see it.

The Board meeting starts Wednesday, so many of us are going a few days early to work with the Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice Renewal. I expect to spend several days weeding, serving, and cleaning, or whatever needs to be done. I am a late-comer to this particular service project -- many UUs across the country have already walked this path.

The Board packet can be downloaded here. Agenda items include selecting the candidate(s) for moderator, finalizing the agenda for General Assembly, reviewing progress towards our Ends (including the perceptions of a sample of nearly 1300 UUs of how well we are doing this). linkage activities, meeting with the Commission on Social Witness, the Doctrine of Discovery, work on a long term vision, and a request from the District Presidents Association. I will be covering these -- and more -- when I return on the 23rd.