About the Author
Rev. Meg Riley

Reflecting Back on the Social Justice Internship Program

Last week I went to the UUA Washington Office for the last time as Director of Advocacy and Witness. I write those words, but I still don’t believe them. We still have GA to live through, and I have endless to-do lists that are yet undone, but still. My last time to the UUA Washington Office.

I grew up Unitarian Universalist. Not a single adult ever told me—including my own parents—that it mattered to them whether or not I remained a Unitarian Universalist in my adulthood. This fact has fueled my lifetime passion for religious education, youth ministry, and young adult mentoring.

When I became Director of the Washington Office in 1994, the office was housed in two small rooms in the Methodist Building on Capitol Hill. Immediately, wonderful young adults began to ask if they could volunteer in the office. Unwilling to say no because of lack of room, we moved to larger (and cheaper) space over in Dupont Circle. Thus began the blessing of my life: young Unitarian Universalists, called by their passion for faith and justice, served as short-term staff in learning positions. Here’s a list of the amazing people who have passed through our offices, and what they’re doing now.

1996, Alyce Gowdy-Wright, now a community organizer, poverty issues, in Florida
1997, Rob Keithan (then in college!), now completing Wesley seminary and preparing for his ministry
1998 Richard Nugent, now Director of Church-Staff Finance at the UUA (Not your usual mode, cooling his heals for a year after seminary)
1999 Rob Keithan came on as an actual staffperson! At the ripe old age of 23)
2001 Kent Doss, now minister in Laguna Beach California
2002 Lissa Gundlach, finishing seminary at Union Theological School
2002 Emily Dulcan, organizer in California, journalist
2002 Grant Smith, community organizer, drug policy reform
2002 Robin Hoecker, graduate school for multi-media journalism, U Chicago
2003 Kierstin Homblette, Union Theological Seminary
2003 Megan Joiner, completed Union Theological Seminary
2003 Amelia Rose, community organizer
2005 Meredith Schonfeld-Hicks, organizer now beginning public health grad school
2005 Elizabeth Bukey, beginning seminary at Union Theological Seminary
2006 Adam Gerhardstein, finishing term as campaign Manager, Standing on the Side of Love, beginning law school, St. Thomas (and marrying Meredith)
2007 Lisa Swanson, law school, Northeasatern
2007 Alex Winnett, beer conosseiur, Washington DC
2007 Grace Garner, community activist
2009, Orelia Busch, finishing internship this summer
2009, Rowan Van Ness, Continuing internship till 2011.

Here are metrics on all of that:
19 interns
3 on to journalism school
7 ministers or seminarians
2 in law school
5 community organizers
1 in public health school
16 are committed Unitarian Universalists

It is that last # I am most delighted by. Every single one of these young people offers the world tremendously gifts. As a group, I offer them my thanks and promise to them, as they have promised to each other, to continue to look for ways in which young people may learn, thrive, and give.

On My Feet in the Phoenix Heat

(Cross-posted from the Standing on the Side of Love blog, originally posted May 29th.)

Rev. Meg Riley is Campaign Director of the Standing on the Side of Love Campaign and a Minnesota resident.

It’s hot here in Phoenix for this Minnesotan, though the locals say it’s just “warm”—mid nineties. Still, spirits are high as people gather from across the nation to protest Arizona Bill 1070.

The folks from Arizona are visibly relieved and buoyed up by the presence of visitors. One after another tell me, many with tears in their eyes, how frightening this bill is and how angry and helpless they feel in its wake. I don’t just mean people who know me, or people of faith, or Unitarian Universalists. I’m talking about waitresses, gas station attendants—strangers.

One waitress, noticing our not-a-bit-subtle Standing on the Side of Love t-shirts, and our buttons which state “I could be illegal,” gets tears in her eyes. “THANK YOU,” she says, “I know just why you’re here, and THANK YOU.” She then goes on to say that she was visiting family in California when the bill passed. To her horror, her family members thought it was a great thing and only wished California would have a similar bill. She says, quietly, “They just don’t know what they’re talking about. I didn’t even know what to say.” And then, even more quietly, “It feels like Nazi Germany.” She is a 60-something Jewish woman, she tells me, and she can’t believe her family could support this legislation, which for her is reminiscent of Nazi Germany.

Standing on the Side of Love in Phoenix

She’s not the only one tearing up. I sometimes feel I could wail, watching the beautiful Latino families around me, knowing the fear that many of them live with daily as they pray for one another’s safety. And then I want to cheer, seeing the joy and courage and ease they embody in this hot sun that is melting my neck and feet.

Hundreds of Unitarian Universalists, including dozens of clergy from across the nation, gathered with one broken heart at the UU Church of Phoenix Friday night and then came to rally and march on Saturday morning. Many of the clergy, joining colleagues from other faiths, lined the street where the marchers began to offer prayer, bread for the journey (in this case, tortillas), water, and blessings. It was a great vantage point from which to watch!

In the delightful random moments of such events, I saw Sandy Sorensen, a dear old friend who directs the United Church of Christ’s Washington Office. Sandy was joined by a group of United Church of Christ colleagues.

As the march gathered, the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, who seems to know everyone, introduces me to a veteran Arizona politician and organizer, by the name of Alfredo Gutierrez. Gutierrez nods to the crowd, “That’s what they’re afraid of,” he says to us, pointing to a group of children playing. He goes on, “They’re not afraid of people like me. We’re old. They’re scared because of the children—all the children. And, look at those children! They are happy, they are laughing, they are not afraid. Look at the joy around you! How could this scare people?”

40 Days Without Sugar

Written on April 22, 2010.

That’s a mean plant, my Granny explained to me when I was ten, pointing out the car window as we drove through North Carolina. It’s mean to the folks who try to grow it and sell it. It’s mean to the folks who use it. And it’s mean to the earth.

She was talking about commercially grown tobacco, but it could have been sugar as well. I’ve read enough to know that many of the people growing cane sugar and corn are slaves to the corporations who are mass producing these foods. And I can tell you firsthand that sugar is no friend to me, one of its most devoted users.

But I only suspected that sugar was also not a friend of the earth when I decided to give it up for 40 days as part of the UUA’s 40/40/40 campaign. Preliminary research tells me I was right.

I’m thinking of 40/40/40 as a kind of UU lent. After all, while we honor many theologies and spiritual paths, all of us who are committed to deeds, not creeds, understand that life is lived on a home planet—that would be earth. And we honor that we are part of that planet’s life. As environmentalist John Seed once said, “If you don’t think you are part of the ecosystem, hold your breath right now and see how long you last.”

When the staff in the Washington DC office began to envision what it might mean to commit to a personal change in eating for 40/40/40, I blurted out, “I am going to stop eating processed sugars” before I could stop myself. The earth did not stop spinning on its axis. Even the meeting didn’t slow down. My commitment was simply noted along with others.

As I listened to someone else talk about only eating local and organic meats, which I mostly already do and could without suffering commit myself to doing more, I heard a scream inside my head responding to what I had just said out loud. The scream said, and I quote, “NOOOOOOOOO!” I blurted out, interrupting someone else’s commitment, “That does NOT include local maple syrup and unpasteurized honey, by the way!” People were kind when I said this, but I could tell they were a little bewildered and annoyed, too. Like, sure, whatever, Meg, but stop interrupting! They could not hear that scream, obviously—it was mine.

In the week between making that commitment and now, I have been preparing myself for this journey. No, not by deep reflection and learning about how sugar production impacts the earth. Not by looking up recipes for healthful alternatives, nor by purchasing them at the local co-op. Nope, I’ve been preparing by overeating processed sugar. I think you get my drift. I’m a junkie. I’m scared to admit how challenging this is going to be, and what a wimp I feel like having my soul co-sponsored by something as infantile as Good and Plenty.

I’ll keep you posted on this one. I’m grateful for the opportunity to match my behavior with my values, even though I’m afraid about it. I am grateful for the staff in the Washington Office for being a support system. And I’m grateful that I’ve got enough courage and life-force to be willing to tackle this sugar monster.

It’s interesting how much my fear re-affirms that I am part of the ecosystem. What is not good for me is also not good for the rest of the planet. Allowing myself to know this opens up the support of the earth as I face my fear. When I do that, I become excited to take these next steps towards affirmation of life!

‘Blame the Gays’ and Other Children’s Stories

(Cross-posted from the Huffington Post)

The latest clergy sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church has led to some interesting conversations with my 13-year-old daughter.

Always eager to differentiate herself from her minister mother, this teenage child/demon/Boddhisatva has been telling me for a while that she is “Churchophobic,” hates religion, and is an atheist. This latest scandal gives her a lot of material to work with.

“You see?” she said to me, holding up the front page’s latest allegations about the Pope’s complicity in this scandal. “This is why I hate churches! The world would be a much better place without religion.”

My primary parent-of-teen reflexes are shrug-and-ignore and tense-up-and-argue. Neither of these is ever effective, including now. In the tense mode, I have already told her, many times, about all of the good that religion and the church bring into the world. In this case, however, beyond my reflexive responses, I am called to a deeper listening to what she is telling me and asking me.

This is a 13-year-old child, after all. Underneath her dismissal, underneath the scorn, there is a vulnerable soul wondering about her own safety and well-being in the church and in the world. She is asking me who and what can be trusted. She is asking for reassurance.

It’s hard, as non-Catholic clergy, to know what to say in response to the current scandals. Too often, those of us with verbal privilege simply keep our mouths shut. No one can be smug about clergy sexual abuse, after all. We know far too much about sexual abuse victims of any faith, including our own, whose healing process involves the added trauma of sorting out God from all of the other betrayal and pain.

Yet my own daughter’s scowling countenance makes me realize that there are thousands of kids who are watching this story unfold, not because they care whether the Pope is implicated, but because they wonder if adults truly care about their well-being as vulnerable sexual people. Nothing in the current story lines they are reading would make them believe that anyone does. So I look for ways to speak clearly, with my daughter and with all teenagers, about how to keep themselves safe.

The latest development in the unfolding Catholic story gave me a new angle from which to talk to my daughter about the trustworthiness of adults. According to last Monday’s Washington Post, “the Vatican’s second-highest authority says the sex scandals haunting the Roman Catholic Church are linked to homosexuality … Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican’s secretary of state, made the comments during a news conference Monday in Chile. He said that ‘…there is a relation between homosexuality and pedophilia. That is true. That is the problem.’”

I tell my daughter: don’t trust anyone who completely blames someone else, including you, and especially whole groups of people whom they label as ‘other,’ for problems. Though they say, “That is true,” they are always lying. It doesn’t matter who they are, with what kind of authority they are cloaked, or whom they blame. They are not to be trusted.

When anyone participates in this kind of blaming and distancing, I tell her, they are hurting the world and not helping it. The church, sadly, participates in that because the church is a human institution. The church is no better and no worse than all of the human beings who make it up.
I am particularly concerned by the story from Chile because it involves the Vatican’s second highest authority, and because we already saw an anti-gay witch hunt follow the church’s last pedophilia crisis. I know many fine Catholic clergy and women religious, including gay and lesbian people, whose loss of service would diminish the world and the good work of their church. Forcing them to serve from closets makes the church less honest and more secretive regarding sexual ethics, not a healthier place.

Cardinal Bertone’s words might simply evoke my shrug-and-ignore reflex if he did not have so much power over so many people. Would that we could so easily root out evil — always safely located in other people who are not like us — and dismiss it. Would that we could so easily dismiss the pain that we cause by doing so.

Fortunately for the world, there will always be smart-aleck 13-year-olds to point at us and name our own problematic behavior, just exactly the way that they see it. May every single one of them be safe from harm.

Please come to Minneapolis in summer…

A good song is one thing that my beloved home town does not have! But there are so many reasons why I love this place that I hardly know where to begin. I’ll spare you all the fantastic things about GA here because ANYONE could tell you those. I’ll tell you, instead, why I love this neck of the woods and how I hope you might enjoy it. Lots of these items require a car, but the bus will get you there too. Here are a few of my favorite things:

  1. The Guthrie Theatre. Oh sure, great if you want to go see a play (I’m going to M. Butterfly in May, looks like A Doll’s House will be there during GA). But even if you don’t have time or money for that, go in anyway. Take the escalator up to the rooms that jut out over the river, hang out in the amber room or go out on the patio. The views are spectacular. (818 South Second Street, about a fifteen minute walk from GA).
  2. All kinds of great theatre . Mu Theatre, Asian American. Mixed Blood Theatre, promoting cultural pluralism. Penumbra Theatre, African American. Or for good comedy, check out the improv or plays at Dudley Riggs’ Brave New Workshop.
  3. Minneapolis is the most literate city in the country. Check out the downtown library (300 Nicollet Mall, about a twenty minute walk from GA). You’ll either love or hate the architecture, but check out the kids’ room or the teens’ room for pure enjoyment.
  4. Minneapolis is the most bike friendly city in the country. (OK, we duke out both of the above with Portland and Seattle, but we win both categories some of the time). There is a 50 mile bike path right in the city. Rent a bike by Lake Calhoun and enjoy! Nice and flat, too.
  5. Minneapolis has great restaurants. Some of my favorite downtown spots: Spoon River, right next to the Guthrie, if you’re a local foodie. Or Brenda’s, run by the same woman. Hell’s Kitchen for a fantastic breakfast. Murray’s Restaurant and Cocktail, for a blast from the past.
  6. Lakes. There are a slew of them right in town, great for canoeing or kayaking, swimming, or the great Minnesota activity: Walking around the Lake. “Where should we meet?” means, “Which lake should we walk around, yours or mine?”
  7. Bookstores. Some of my favorites are Native American author Louise Erdrich’s, Birch Bark Books, local celeb Garrison Keillor’s Corner Books (in St. Paul—great poetry section), one of the few remaining lesbian oriented bookstores, True Colours.
  8. Multicultural diversity. Yes, the Scandinavian presence is here. But Minneapolis also has the largest Hmong population, Somali population, and Native American population of any city in the country.
  9. The Mississippi River. The river runs through both Minneapolis and St. Paul. If you have time to stay a day, drive down the river to Maidenrock/ Pepin/ Stockholm Wisconsin, where the river widens out into Lake Pepin. For my dime, the most beautiful place in the world. You can see the cabin where Laura Ingalls Wilder was born, too. And eat at the Harborview Café in Pepin.
  10. Brand new ballpark. If you stay over till Monday night, there’s a game. I’m going to a game in May. Apparently the food can be quite good—walleye sandwiches and wild rice soup, along with the usual fare.

The best part of any hometown is the people. Folks here tend to be pathologically friendly and helpful—Minnesota nice is not just a joke. In that spirit, I deeply hope you will enjoy your time here!

Personal Message from Rev. Meg Riley

Dear Advocates and Witnesses,

Effective August 15, I have accepted the position of Senior Minister at the Church of the Larger Fellowship.  As thrilled and excited as I am about that, I am sad to leave this work that has been so fulfilling, engaging, and faith-building for me.  The main reason I have loved it is YOU.  I will say much more in the months between now and my departure, but wanted to note this transition here on this blog page.

Please know that this work that I love is not ending, only morphing into a different form.  I look forward to knowing you in future incarnations!

Standing on the Side of Love,
Meg Riley

Creating Change

I hadn’t been in 15 years!  But last week I packed up and headed for Dallas to the Creating Change Conference, an annual gathering of the glbtq clan.

My 13 year old said, “I don’t get it.  What is it, again?  It’s some dance and comedy, some classes, some lectures…”  I said, “It’s kind of GA for gay people.”  “Ohhhh…” she said.

So, how was it?  It was much younger, much less white, and much more ‘genderqueer’ than it was 15 years ago.  Clearly the margins of the margins are being identified as leaders and visionaries, and they are coming into the center of this movement.

There were moments that I really did feel as if I was at GA.  When the youth had a panel, and basically told us oldsters how we had failed them and what we had done wrong, I felt THRILLED.  This is how a movement should work!  New leadership, new vision , constant evolution.

(How have we failed them, you wonder?  Well, they said, focusing on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and marriage equality completely overlooks the realities they are living with.  GLBT youth are estimated to comprise 25-40% of homeless youth, just for instance.  How is the glbt establishment taking leadership in addressing this epidemic?)

Then there were moments I felt like the chaperone at a dance, standing at the edges watching others have a great time, longing to put on my jammies and hunker in for my own more solitary enjoyment.

It was thrilling to see all of the faith based organizing going on.  MANY UUs were present, and actually there were a number of workshops led by UUs.  The staff from the UU-UNO office led a stellar workshop on their work, and made it very real by introducing two gay men who are refugees from Iraq.

Hated in their own country for their sexual orientation, these two brave souls went to SYRIA—where one spent eight months and the other four years!—waiting to get papers to come to the US.  However, once they arrived here, they were put into a housing complex in Houston with the same people who hated them back home.  Their only place of support in the US?  Catholic Charities!

The UU-UNO folks are focused on creating a registry of gay immigrants so that no one else will be in that kind of situation.  Meanwhile, they have paired up these gay men with the leaders of the glbt center in Houston.  I’d love to see our churches take the lead on this.

That’s what Creating Change always does for me—it makes me rethink what I’m doing, and refocus on what’s important.  To all the UUs who were there, let’s take all that energy to GA in Minneapolis and see what we can build together!

Standing on the Side of Love with a Broken Heart

Cross-posted from the Standing on the Side of Love blog. As many of you may know. our Rev. Meg Riley is director of the UUA’s Advocacy & Witness staff group and also director of the Standing on the Side of Love campaign.

It is the morning after election day. I went to sleep early last night, when results were still unclear in all kinds of races around the country, and learned about them as I learn about many things now—on facebook. The first posting I saw was from a ministerial colleague—I am heartbroken for Maine.

My stomach twisted and my heart sank.

We have faced so many of these ‘mornings after.’ The people who live in the states where their full humanity and their equality has been shouted about, argued about, snickered about, and ultimately voted upon, now have to get up and go about their business.

Those I feel most for are the parents, preparing their children to go to school this morning. Kids who see elections pretty much as they see sporting events, who want to be on the winning team, must now go to school to face the gloating that losers always face. We who parent send our hearts out into the world each day, and those hearts are broken today.

And yet, I know from parenting my own daughter, the strength and resilience and vision of the next generation is what pulls us through. In my daughter’s short lifetime already, we have moved quantum leaps towards marriage equality, towards valuing all families.

Part of me is amazed that 47% of the people in Maine voted for the rights of less than 10%. The whole notion of putting the rights of a minority up to a vote of the majority is blatantly undemocratic, completely counter to the notion of the Constitution as I understand it. I am incredibly proud of the work that people of faith did in Maine to present families of all kinds with dignity and love.

So, on this morning after the election, I am mostly grateful to know that I am in the company of other people of all ages, shapes and sizes whose still stand on the side of love, even with broken hearts.

(And even while my heart breaks for Maine, it lifts for the folks in Kalamazoo and Washington State, where love and justice triumphed over fear.)

Thank You, Forrest Church

Written by Rev. Meg Riley

I had a different topic planned for this morning’s blog, but news of Forrest Church’s death last night—peaceful, at home, surrounded by loved ones—is right in the center of my heart and mind. As I grazed in my raspberry bush this morning, letting the bees sleep while I picked the most luscious dark berries, I felt as if I were in communion with his spirit, savoring the gifts of life as he so often instructed us all to do.

I know that others who were closer to him, more serious and systematic about reading his works, or otherwise more appropriate eulogizers than me have been writing and will continue to write tributes to him. (see UUA.org or www.allsoulsnyc.org).

I also know this: Forrest Church impacted me profoundly. In this way, I join hundreds of thousands of other people who read his books, heard him preach, went to events where he spoke, talked to him, enjoyed his collegiality. I’ll share just three gifts he gave me here.

  1. Forrest and All Souls Church in New York City were bold and courageous during the early days of AIDS in a way which was both steady and lighthearted. It’s hard to describe this time to folks who weren’t alive or conscious yet, but the fear focused on people with AIDS (and, by extension, gay men) was similar to that which came down against Muslims after September 11. Right wing preachers made no apologies for declaring that AIDS was God’s punishment; President Ronald Reagan literally never said the word AIDS from 1980-1988. It was a scary time. The personal witness of someone like Forrest was profound, and all too rare. His lack of fear was contagious. He woke up courage in me, sparked by his own, and led me to understand ministry as much more public than I had previously understood.
  2. Forrest taught me about the profound connection between the pastoral and the public spheres of ministry. He was deeply grounded in the personal relationships that arose from his particular congregation of people in Manhattan, and yet he was always aware that the private and the public, the personal and political, lives of people are inseparable. He had a keen eye for understanding which public issues tapped into people’s deepest places, and he mined those well for sermons, op-eds, and public witness.
  3. Forrest taught me that you’re going to make mistakes—bad mistakes—and you need to keep on going. His own foibles are as public as his triumphs, and I am sure this caused him pain and embarrassment. Yet, he did not fade quietly away, but held to his strength and dignity and ultimately lived a life that was a model of courage, kindness, compassion and integrity. In his last few years with cancer, his very body became the content and context of his theology, and many of us gained immeasurably from being in his presence.

Forrest, thank you for making your life a torch which burned brightly, to help all of us see.

Eight years ago today

Eight years ago today. Like many, I feel compelled to tell the story of where I was.

Eight years ago this morning, it was a gorgeous day in Washington DC, kind of like this one in Minneapolis now—sunny, not too hot, a lovely day to take the brand new UUA President, Bill Sinkford, onto Capitol Hill for the first time.

The occasion was historic. Finally, poor women had created time at the House of Representatives to talk about the impact of the so-called Welfare Reform bill that had gone into effect. I was excited.

But then, just as the first woman got up to speak, a man in a uniform came in, took the mic and said, “You need to evacuate the building now.” I grumbled, “Finally the poor women are going to speak so of course you evacuate the building.” I grumbled all the way out the door.

When we got outside, though, it was clear that something weird was going on. Senators, Aides, miscellaneous visitors like us, cafeteria staff all mingled with panicked looks in their eyes. Bill Sinkford, Rob Keithan, and I stood bewildered on a corner watching everyone run smack dab into gridlock.

Lutheran friends came huffing by about then. They had been in Senator Paul Wellstone’s office to talk about an agriculture bill, when they saw on TV that four planes had been hijacked, three had hit targets (including the Pentagon, from which we could see flames shooting up behind the building where we stood). The fourth was thought to be heading towards the White House, right down the mall from us, or else the Capitol, about 300 yards away.

We were stunned. We stood blankly for a while. I looked again at the flames. “Is the White House burning?” I asked stupidly. “Calm down,” Rob replied. I thought I was calm. Finally, numbly, Bill and Rob and I got into a taxi that was stuck at our corner. We sat in gridlock and listened to the radio. I remember the three of us repeating in unison after the radio announcer, the words, “…where the World Trade Center used to be.” And then repeating it to each other, a question, “Where the World Trade Center used to be?”

Eight years later, above all, I am struck with that sense of impermanence. We never know when something will end. This morning, at the garden, I suddenly realized that my slicing tomatoes are done for the year. I didn’t know that earlier in the week when I picked an enormous bag of them and handed them to a friend as I left town. Today, they’re done. Another year’s harvest is over.

I don’t remember the last time I rocked my young daughter to sleep—one day she must simply have said she didn’t want to do it anymore, but I don’t remember when. I only know now that, since she’s almost thirteen, it’s unlikely to happen again. We never know when something will cease to exist. And so, as I age, it becomes increasingly evident that I don’t know when I will see someone for the last time, and hence must treat them with tenderness. Every moment must be savored.

One of the most heartbreaking aspects of September 11 was that a young UU family—husband, wife, three year old, seven year old—died in the plane that left Washington DC. I brought greetings from the UUA to their memorial service. My daughter was young then, too; I did not know this family but I sobbed in preparation for their memorial. Eight years later, this family I never met remains vividly alive to me. The stories told about them, the love shared by their friends and families, the jokes, the songs…all of it is vivid to me. So, besides the impermanence of all things, there remains in my heart a steadiness about the power of connection. Once the heart is touched, something remains.

May this day be a day of love of impermanent things.