About the Author
Rev. Meg Riley

Right Speech When So Much is Wrong!

We’re all buzzing about the resignation of Van Jones from the White House over the Labor Day weekend. For those of us who spent time with Van last year at General Assembly in Fort Lauderdale, Van became something of a hero. I was privileged to spend a fair amount of time with him and was impressed (as I have been every time I’ve seen him) with his combination of intelligence, insight, and ability to cast a compelling vision. He had UUs ready to receive him in a mosh pit in our often-staid Ware lecture setting. (If you weren’t there, you can watch it online…)

People are posting all kinds of stuff on blogs, facebook, and in private emails. Some folks are mad at the President for not demanding that Jones stay, for not standing up to the attackers. Some people are mad at Jones for going to the White House after a career as an edgy leftist activist, leaving the door open for attacks. Pretty much everyone is furious at Glenn Beck for the scurrilous attacks, filled with lies. Tim Wise is urging Jones to sue for slander.

Here’s what I keep thinking about. At the Ware lecture, Van encouraged us to stop acting like the desperate protestors we’d been for eight years, and begin to act instead in ways that made us worthy of being respected as the people in charge of the nation. I have been wondering, given the types of behavior being encouraged by folks like Glenn Beck, full frontal assault on the legitimate governors of the nation up to and including our President, what it means to act “worthy of respect.”

I fired off a very angry letter to my local paper one sleepless night about the racism I’m seeing around me. I wish I’d decided instead to focus more calmly on what I’m seeing so that I wasn’t fanning the flames of polarization and self-righteousness. But words are hard to come by. (The paper hasn’t yet published my letter; I find I’m ambivalent about whether I want them to! Certainly I did not mention the UUA or my ministry status in it!)

The Buddhists say there are three questions to ask in order to determine if something is ‘right speech’: Is it true? Is it kind? Will it help? It’s hard to know exactly what kind of speech can help us now. But I think we need to fumble around and find it. I sat on a plane today from Minneapolis to Boston, wedged into a seat with two fundamentalist bear hunters from rural Minnesota. My braver self encouraged me to find some way to talk to them about their views of what’s going on right now, and to have a civil conversation with them about it. To act worthy of respect by being respectful.

My more scaredy cat self said, “Yeh, but you’re on the inside seat!” and put on my iPod instead. I keep wondering what would have been said if we had engaged in discourse about health care, the President’s address to schoolchildren, Van Jones’ dismissal. Could we find common ground that brought us together? What kind of language opens doors to real sharing? Without taking risks with each other to find the words, we’ll never know!

Mulling about Family Values

Finally, it comes to this: It’s nice to be included. It’s nice to believe that we matter. That’s the sense of worth that so many of us struggle to find throughout our lives–if we didn’t get it in early years, it’s an uphill climb to claim it later.

This week, I’m aware of many friends who have been at the White House egg roll with their kids. Their beaming photos are posted throughout my facebook page and meetings here in DC are punctuated with adorable tales of things done and said by cute kids on the White House lawn. Everyone who went was delighted to be there, but for the glbt families, being specifically invited was something like breaking a spell. One family I read about at home flew here from Minneapolis just to go! Looking at glbt family photos on the White House lawn brings up both joy and grief for me—my daughter was four years old in 2000, when George W. Bush came into the White House. He immediately eliminated the White House liaison to the glbt community, and told families like ours in every way possible that we weren’t welcome as part of his country. (The proposed federal amendment to the Constitution that he advocated, which excluded us from “We the People” was the most direct statement, but all the smaller things hurt, too.)

The reason that I knew my 12 year old could not miss the Inauguration festivities was so that she could see that her country wanted a President who wanted us to matter again. Every family wants that simple acceptance. Now, the egg roll, she would not be caught dead attending, of course. But I’m delighted to see other kids who are the age she was in 2000 having such a different experience of belonging in their country.

Meanwhile, we struggle with a pre-teen issue around exclusion: As I posted recently, ever a counter-cultural family, we are actually acquiring a few items in this “Shopping is Dead” time. Last week, to reward my daughter for making it through a very tough time, we bought her a Kindle, the electronic book created by Amazon. It was her most desired item; she is constantly hauling heavy books in her backpack and who can argue with a kid’s love of reading? So when the tax refund arrived, that was our splurge.

I have never shopped at Amazon.com in my life. Ironically, the women’s bookstore in Minneapolis is Amazon Books, and I order all of my books through them…support your local bookstore! So, how bizarre that the very week that I give Amazon.com a huge chunk of change, they would publicly act out in a homophobic manner. (NOTE TO UNIVERSE: You think this is funny perhaps?)

I am wrestling with whether or not I even mention this to my daughter. At age 12, here’s the deal: If she loses a treasured gift because her parents care about justice, her anger will not be directed at Amazon.com’s homophobia. Rather, it will be directed at her lesbian parents, and the fact that once more she doesn’t get to have the easy, privileged, life of her friends with straight parents. (Never mind that I will tell her that straight friends who share our values are also telling Amazon.com where to get off—at 12, all anger defers to parents.) And I feel whiney about it myself: Couldn’t we just enjoy SOMETHING without homophobia contaminating it?

So this is how family values really sort out. The dozens of conversations we navigate or don’t choose to have, products we buy or return, events we get invited to or don’t, legal privileges we count on or can never acquire—all of these create meaning out of the otherwise random events in our lives. I suspect I’m going to vent my spleen at Amazon.com and keep my mouth shut about it at home. The mantra of every parent of every sexual orientation: Choose your battles. Meanwhile, how bout those cute kids on the White House lawn?

Populist Rage

It’s good to be part of a trend. My family has been countercultural for so long that it’s a nice change. We have shopped exclusively at thrift stores for years and squinted to watch a tiny old TV…then just when shopping was flatly declared a thing of the past, we finally sprang for the giant flatscreen we’d been saving up for, as well as that MacBook. Always against the grain.

But now, finally, a trend emerges which I am solidly part of. Populist Rage. I haven’t been following the media in order to learn more about this, so I don’t know what the rest of the populist is most enraged about, but I’m there. I’m enraged.

Since I haven’t followed the actual news stories on right-wing or mainstream media outlets, I’m not sure if I actually qualify as populist. I know that often in right wing radio I am part of the liberal elite, the non-real America, so pardon me if I’m not sure if my rage is real American rage right now. Certainly, the problems I have are the problems of a privileged person, a person with dollars and hours to lose without ending up on the streets as some people would. So maybe, once again, I’m against the grain.

I think of Agnes Angst, the punk rock character that Lili Tomlin brought to life in the 1980’s, who said, “No matter how much contempt I have for society, it is nothing compared to the contempt society has for me.” It’s hard to feel I can generate enough rage, populist or otherwise, to meet the forces that enrage me.

I’m not even particularly focused at Bernie Madoff, the greedy Wall Street bankers, or any of the other targets of rage du jour. I’m still processing rage that’s been building for decades!

Today, for instance, is April 8. It is also the first day I have woken up knowing that the phone service for which I have been paying BOTH Qwest and Comcast since February 15 finally, actually, works. That someone could call me on my primary phone line and reach me. People will no longer leave baffled messages on my cellphone or email saying, “That number you gave me just rings and rings.” Never mind that I will never know how many people gave up on trying to find me. Because, hey, Comcast has offered me $50 for my trouble.

Repeated calls to both companies have taken me dozens of hours—lunch hours, evening hours, work hours. My AT&T cellphone minutes were over last month for the first time ever—I haven’t studied the bill but I’d be willing to bet I know why.

But where would I turn to alleviate this anger? To another big company? I was a loyal Verizon customer for about seven years, paying my cellphone bills on time each month. When I finally changed providers, I had a heart to heart talk with the woman on the phone, telling her I was leaving for AT&T ONLY because I wanted an iPhone but I had really loved Verizon’s service. She commiserated, told me that she wanted an iPhone herself. I thought we were friends. Was I surprised to receive a $500 bill for terminating my service a week early—it turns out a minor change I had made, unbeknownst to me, had extended my contract with them! Wouldn’t you think my dear friend might have mentioned this to me as we chatted? Again, hours of phone calls throwing tantrums netted me splitting the difference with them—after all, they said, I should have asked. No doubt I should have.

But I’m not singling out Comcast or Verizon. It’s all of them. When I bought my daughter an iPhone for Christmas and went to renegotiate our AT&T family service contract, it turned out that I’d been overbilled by almost a thousand dollars last year! Luckily a guy was honest enough to point this out to me, since I had obviously not tracked that I was paying twice a month in an obscure way too complicated to explain. But after he copped to it, his boss clearly chewed him out, so that after he went to the back room to meet with her, he came back looking quite guarded and told me the maximum they could reimburse me was $250. After all, I should have noticed. No doubt I should have.

So, here’s my rage: It comes from hour after hour of listening to muzak and recorded voices that tell me how much Fill-In-The-Blank Corporation cares about my patronage when I know from firsthand experience that they could care less about me. One of my most desperate, helpless, moments in my ongoing fights with Comcast was when I heard myself say, “I’m going to post this on my facebook page. And I have LOTS of friends!”

I’ll tell you this, which all of my facebook friends and everyone else I’ve ever spoken to knows in their cells and bones: Corporations and their lack of willingness to take responsibility for good service are the source, not the solution, of our rage. No one will be able to tell people like me, who have lost lunch hours and credit ratings and thousands of dollars because of their irresponsibility that our hope for a better life lies in continued favoritism for corporations and privatization of government services. Because we talk to our friends on or off Facebook, and we know better.

– from the mind of the Rev. Meg Riley

Prayer for Wholeness

by Rev. Meg Riley. Inspired by the participants at the Sexuality Education Advocacy Training (SEAT), 2009. For more information about SEAT, see the SEAT FAQ.

Sweet source of hope and healing, longing and life,

We know our first responsibility is to create a world which supports the growth of our world’s children

A world safe for them to explore, and to learn and grow, without being judged or punished.

A world safe for them to make mistakes, knowing there is nothing they can do to lose our love.
May we provide them with tools to protect themselves and those they love from decisions which hurt—information about the physical, spiritual, emotional aspects of sexuality.

May they know it is safe for them to come to us always, and we won’t make it worse.

We wish that life were simple.
We wish that unwanted pregnancies never occurred,

That no one engaged in any kind of sexual activity without protection and real choice, real response-ability,

That all people were equally valued.

We wish that every person knew his or her own beauty and worth, and thus that of the others with whom she or he interacted.

A child I love dearly, aged ten, was struggling with gender identity.

“Do you ever feel,” I prodded gently, trying to understand, “as if you were born into the wrong body?”

The young one paused for a moment of silence, and responded, “Nope, this is my body all right. I feel like I was born into the wrong world!”

We pray that we can make this wrong world a little bit more right for our children.

May they know and cherish their own bodies as sacred, beautiful, true.
May we create a world which reflects this back to them.

May we demand schools, governments, communities, which honor them

And in so doing, be worthy of this gift of life, this beautiful broken world.


Hello from Houston (International Convocation of UU Women)

Hello from Houston, where I have swapped my Minnesota boots for–no, not cowboy boots–sandals! As I talk to folks back home and learn they’ve been dumped with eight more inches of snow, each blooming rose here smells a little sweeter.

And nothing smells as sweet as a roomful of committed activists–okay, I will drop that metaphor right here. We are mostly UU, mostly women, mostly from the US, mostly white, mostly older, BUT around the edges of what is familiar, very interesting differences: Folks here from 20 countries, new voices in plenary with much to say and teach, women listening to one another carefully about the way that many of us have complex identities around international matters and commitments.

Here’s my favorite line from one of the women who worked tirelessly for years to bring this event together: “It all started in the back row of a UU choir practice.”

Here are some of the most interesting questions we have been asked, as we sit in plenary:
“How do we connect capital to community, and distribute it so that everyone can use it?” (from Rebecca Adamson, Cherokee Nation, from First Peoples Worldwide, who engages in amazing advocacy around indigenous people’s rights, including shareholder advocacy.
“How else would we have learned to speak if it wasn’t imitating the sounds of nature?” (Rebecca Adamson)
“What conditions bring out the worst in us? What brings out the best in us?” (Frances Moore Lappe)
“What if God is our baby to bear?” (Rebecca Parker, quoting Annie Dillard)
“What is the antidote to violence centered religion?” (Rebecca Parker)

I could go on and on, but I am late for morning worship and so will not. Look at www.uua.org for more info about what’s going on here; Eric Cherry is writing about it. He and Orelia Busch will also be blogging about it.

Rev. Meg Riley

Reflections on MILK

This is the first in a series of blog posts this week, inspired by movies high-lighted in last night’s Oscars Awards ceremony. Today, the director of our Advocacy & Witness staff group, Meg Riley, talks about the movie, Milk. Sean Penn won an Oscar for his portrayal of Harvey Milk.

Harvey Milk was murdered the year I came out, 1978. At that time in my life, I ate, drank, worked, volunteered, danced, slept, read, listen, processed and otherwise lived lesbian. Yet I don’t remember hearing a word about Milk’s murder until New Year’s Eve, 1979, when Holly Near and Meg Christian came from California to Minnesota to perform at A Woman’s CoffeeHouse, and I first heard the song, We are a Gentle, Angry People. At that point, Near described the tense scene of thousands of angry people in the streets, and how this song was created to focus and channel their energy nonviolently.

Watching the movie, Milk, it is completely clear why a 24/7 young dyke wouldn’t have heard about Milk and his death. At that point, at least in my neck of the woods, gays were men and lesbians were feminists. My community was much more about processing the relationships between heterosexual women and lesbians, or about white women and women of color, than it was about processing those between gay men and lesbians. Indeed, in my own life and in the life of BGLT culture, it took the AIDS epidemic to really bring lesbians and gay men together in significant ways.

Still, having watched the 1984 documentary The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, I noticed that even the tiny bit of lesbian/gay solidarity that Milk embodied had been edited out of this most recent version of his story. With the exception of the motorcycle riding dyke who was Milk’s campaign manager and longtime assistant, there are no women at all in the story. When Milk grabs the mike and lists groups with whom gay men need to be in solidarity, women are nowhere mentioned.

Having said all that, I loved this movie and was thrilled that Sean Penn got Best Actor for his work, because I thought he was fantastic. Penn moved into a level of comfort with straight-acting-gay work that included kissing and touch—light years ahead of Tom Hanks, who was not allowed to kiss his partner in the movie Philadelphia, for which he also won an Oscar.

Mostly I’m thrilled when I think of the young kids in the middle of adolescent angst about emerging sexual preference who now have a role model for coming out proud, as well as some information about how BGLT rights have evolved to the point where they have. I hope that this movie is tonic for self-hate and for fear, not only for white gay men but for everyone who feels scared and marginalized in this world. May we each imagine shouting fearlessly into a bullhorn, on behalf of those who have no voice, “I’m here to recruit you!”

The UUA offers a study guide to the movie, Milk.

Convocation on Theology of Justice and Ministry

We’ve got snow, ice, slush, sleet… but amazingly, weather didn’t interfere with the arrivals of any of the 35 assembled prophets who are tucked into the Maritime Center, near Baltimore Washington Airport, to wrestle with the deeper questions related to social justice: What is it about Unitarian Universalist history, theology, and practice that calls us to justice? How do we hold brokenness, suffering, oppression? How do we find prophetic voice? How do we build prophetic congregations?

It is a huge treat to gather for reflection. I find myself sucking up bits of what might seem abstract or distant theory, just the way my dry Minnesota skin sucks moisturizing lotions in winter. There’s a deficit here and what a treat to spend some time filling it!

In seminary, my psychology and theology professor used to tell us over and over, we should always have at least two theories to pick from as we made any decision in a counseling session. Absent such good grounding, she warned us, we could damage our clients deeply.

And yet, as the saying goes, “I used to have six theories about childraising and no children. Now I have six children and no theories about childraising.” We get busy. We find ourselves suddenly swimming in deep waters where our only thought is survival. We learn that the plane we boarded for Florida was really heading to North Dakota. And we do the best we can.

So, as I say, this is a huge delight. We are here to create a book and a DVD for others to have the same chance for reflection, and it’s fantastic to be here. The UUA is partnering with All Souls Church, Unitarian in Washington, DC to do this, and received a grant from the UU Funding Panel as well as All Souls’ Beckner Fund. Look for us at the social justice track of UU University at General Assembly in Salt Lake City!

Reflections from a 12 year old daughter

Meg’s daughter, Jie Wronski-Riley, shares her Inauguration Week impressions.

The Sun was rising, Bright and hopeful,
The people were gathering, light and soulful

As a country, as a nation we have risen to this occasion.

January 16, 2009

From Milwaukee to DC
I was traveling alone which basically meant that I was sat down in a chair and ignored for about two hours. When we finally boarded I was sitting next to a woman who liked solitare and we exchanged small talk. I’ve flown on a plane many times before but this was different from those times, everyone except the stiff-necked businessman used the name Obama in every other sentence and there was an aura of tingling exhilaration that couldn’t be forced down by any number of delays and missed flights. This was a sample of what was to come during my stay in Washington.

January 17, 2009

Today we went to get Obama souvenirs. First we went to the “Official Obama Store.” As we entered the small street shop we were greeted by women, children and men milling around the little tables plucking buttons, pins, and stickers out of metal tubs.

Quilt Show
In the museum of D.C. there was a show of wall hanging quilts from all over the states and world . All of these quilts were inspired by the Obama campaign.

January 19, 2009

Kids Inaugural
My long time friends Lina and Renci have an aunt that was the main commissioner on the obama campaign in the whole state of Michigan. And this aunt just happened to have tickets to the Disney kids inaugural. She had an extra ticket and she insisted that she couldn’t just leave me behind so I went to this Disney concert at the verizon center. It was great! I really admired how all the free tickets went to military families, many whom had a parent overseas. I also liked how they incorporated the inauguration into a kid friendly place.

January 20, 2009

photo by Jie Wronski-Riley

The excitement in the crowd was in-comprehendible we rushed, well as fast as we could which is about as fast as a slug who pulled a muscle. There were long wide masses that muddled along buzzing energetically about where they were from what had brought them here and how long the line was. It was a very bleak, freezing, almost sunless day, this was the day that we had been waiting for. The day which to some was a miracle when Barack H. Obama became our president after 8 long years of the bush reign. We had high hopes and frost-bitten but elated spirits. While we were standing about people were hopping up and down, swaying from side to side, and watching the monitor intently. After about an hour of waiting the jumbo-tron switched from showing pictures of the momentous American flag and high and mighty capitol to the red carpet of the 56th presidential inauguration. There were the powerful house representatives, the mighty senators, the old but noble former presidents and the celebrities. The crowd played a game of guess that big shot and most of the time there was a cry of “An old guy in suit and wearing a tie!”. When the crowd recognized someone other than by the color of their neck garment it was soon accompanied by a unanimous wave of boos or a great mass of encouragement and cheering . Then following hours of waiting in these bone-chilling temperatures and huge face buffeting gusts of wind Barack Obama walks down to his family as rigid as I’ve ever seen him. The mobs go wild! While Joe Biden is sworn in as vice president I wonder aloud what an odd duo Biden and bush would be. Then Obama steps up and places his hand on the bible. Everything is focused on this inspiring man and the oath he is taking. Some of the tension is let out when the jumbo-tron is about ten words behind the speakers and a whole clog of tall people are right in your line of vision, people who have an uncanny knack to sway right when you try to see right and to swing left when you attempt to catch a glimpse left. “So help me god.” repeats Barack Obama, seconds later the picture of Barrack Obama moves his mouth saying “so help me god.” The applause was tremendous! It was like a booming waterfall rushing down and rolling long and deep. There was a small sense of relief, that this actually happened, that Barack Obama is really the president of the United States of America!!!!!!!!!!!!! Now this day we’ve renewed the pride and steadiness that America is famous for.

The time is Now For the Change We Seek Hope is in the air

For more photos of the Inauguration in DC, visit the Advocacy & Witness facebook page.

Standing on the Side of Love, with a broken heart

Flying to Boston yesterday, I set aside my usual tendency to read and stared out the window for some time. A vast field of wispy cirrus clouds created the sense that I could see forever, riding above them. And I thought, as I stared out, how much I take this amazing view and experience for granted, and how other people labored and even died to make this so.

My daughter did a report on the Wright Brothers last year and I learned more about aviation history than I’d frankly ever cared to know. But those scrappy inventors, bicycle mechanics by trade, were also social progressives who worked closely with African Americans to promote equality, and were raised by a bold Mennonite preacher father and feminist mother. I have to wonder: what was the connection between their social values and their willingness, over and over, to hurl themselves into the skies, risking their own safety for a vision of what it could mean to soar?

As I stared out at the skies, I was mulling about the topic of marriage equality. A plane going the other direction was barely visible, tiny at a distance, and with it came Adrienne Rich’s line, “The longer I live, the more I believe two people together is a miracle.” Indeed, what a miracle that in this enormous world, people can find someone whose heart nestles in beside their own! Why would anyone spend their precious lifeforce working to diminish that possibility, when we are in desperate need of more love, not less, to heal our world?

The UUA has created a short video to state clearly that we stand on the side of love. Crank up the sound and enjoy the wonderful music and images! I also urge you to watch Rev. Lindi Ramsden, director of UU Legislative Ministries of California, speaking powerfully at a rally in the aftermath of the election.

Harry Knox, faith guru for the Human Rights Campaign, told me that Lindi was the backbone of all the faith organizing for the No on 8 campaign…that not just UUs but everyone relied on her wisdom, her skill, and her tenacity through this skirmish. “Her name is gold,” Harry told me. I’ve known that for years, but I was proud to learn that so many others know it too.

I am also very proud to say that the UUA has filed a writ petition against Proposition 8, charging that it is a violation of the freedom of our religion, and the religion of other people of faith who hold equality as a central tenet. Episcopal Bishops, UCC and Jewish organizations have co-signed with us. You can see the press release here and the actual petition here. Huge appreciation to hardworking UU lawyer Eric Isaacson whose faith propelled him to author this.

This is a critical time for us to be visible to those people who are hurt and suffering from ballot initiatives created by fear and perpetuated with lies, scare tactics, and ignorance– who are equally hurt by the silence of so many who could have fought it. This is the time for us to be clear and vocal as we stand on the side of love and justice.

– Rev. Meg Riley

UU Republicans

This is from a sermon I preached on Sunday, November 9, 2008, to the UUs in River Falls, Wisconsin. I was preaching about how we include and exclude people in our congregations, in a sermon called “Invisible Fences.”

I want to take a moment to welcome a specific group who, if this congregation resembles every other UU congregation I have visited, are always present but usually silent about their existence. They feel that if they share who they are, they will be judged as immoral, or stupid, or perhaps—though we don’t use the word much—evil. I am talking, of course, of UU Republicans.

We laugh. And yet I am completely serious. Within this congregation, within every one of our congregations, are Republicans, who weekly brave the sight of bumper stickers such as the ones I saw in the parking lot today, “Save the world. Vote democrat.”

I want to say two things to those of you who are here. First of all, thank you. Thanks for being here. Especially this week, you embody courage by showing up, and I hope that this service holds healing for you. Second, I want to tell you that we need you here, now more than ever. Your faith needs you. Unitarian Universalism needs you. Our congregations need to include smart, kind, thoughtful, respectful people from both political parties, who are willing to engage in civil discourse with one another about how to move our country forward. We can’t buy into the media traps that have been laid out to cause us to stop thinking and questioning and learning from everyone around us. We need both parties in order to have hope.

As I preached, I saw one man with tears running down his face. He did not speak with me after the service. As I drove home, I thought about something Jim Wallis, from Sojourners, said after the 2004 election. He said that the media kept calling him and asking something to the effect of, “How does it feel that you lost the election?” His response was, “Prophetic religion was not on the ballot.”

I feel the same way about this election. Many of us were elated with the change in American values symbolized by Obama’s election and broken-hearted by the dehumanization emanating from ballot initiatives designed to deny the worth and dignity of gay and lesbian relationships. But it’s important to remember that Unitarian Universalism was not on the ballot. Unitarian Universalism will never be embodied in any candidate, initiative, or political party. Unitarian Universalism, rather, will always be that deep calling which causes us to align ourselves with the life and love within people of all political parties, and to repudiate the smugness, self-righteousness, and certainty which exists within people of all political parties.

Rev. Meg Riley