About the Author
Rev. Meg Riley

Pre-Election Hope

Amazingly, my partner has been sitting on a zafu cushion in a rural Buddhist retreat center since September 20, and will remain there until November 28. This means that she is sitting out the six weeks before and the three weeks after the election. She occasionally mails out a red leaf, or a haiku on a post-it note, but she does not know the ins and the outs of our lives back here at the home base. And she has not watched debates, encountered news of real and manufactured crises, or otherwise tracked the coming elections. (Relax. She did vote absentee.) I am both envious and incredulous: Were I at the retreat center I suspect I would be preoccupied with, bordering on insane about, wondering what was going on in the world.

Yet I find the thought of her steadfastly sitting on that cushion to be oddly comforting as the election cycle continues to spin. I, and most everyone I know, can hardly live within our own skin at this point. We are nervous wrecks. Being more of what’s called a “Bookstore Buddhist” myself, I opened one of my favorite Buddhist books, Sharon Salzberg’s Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience, for help. I found these words profound and challenging:

To act with faith means not getting seduced by any of its ready replacements. One of the most subtle ways fear can find us, so quietly we hardly know to call it fear, is what the Buddhists call “fixated hope.” Fixated hope, like hope itself, resembles faith in that both sparkle with a sense of possibility. But fixated hope is conditional, circumscribing happiness to getting what we want…

Buddhism regards fixated hope and fear as two sides of the same coin. When we hope for a particular outcome to arise or a desire to be met, we invariably fear that it won’t happen. Thus we move from hope to fear to hope to fear to hope to fear in an endless loop. Fixated hope promises to break us free…only to lead us right back to [fear’s] narrow confines…

In these final days of a very long election cycle, I am struggling to move from fixated hope to a larger, deeper hope which is not looped into a fear cycle. Yes, I have very definite opinions about virtually every box I’ll check on my ballot. I take elections very seriously: my friends and I discuss obscure races at social gatherings. But I can’t tie my hope to the future on any of these convictions. The hope that endures is the hope Theodore Parker and Martin Luther King spoke of: “The moral arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice.” I need to align myself with the life force in everyone around me, be they Democrat, Republican, Green Party or Independent. I need to find spiritual practices which sustain my deeper hope, along with political ones that allow me to exert my best influence towards outcomes I deeply prefer.

In these final days, may we take a moment to remember life beyond election outcomes, even as we work hard to impact elections. May we remember to tell our children that, however the election unfolds, we will create a future together with all of our neighbors. May we remember to breathe! May we sit on an invisible zafu cushion even as we door-knock, canvass, engage in get out the vote work, make phone calls, poll-watch, and ride out these last few pre-election days.

Rev. Meg Riley

Ruminations on California Marriage Equality

When I came out in 1977, there was this really old lesbian couple, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyons, who had been together forever. Or so it seemed then. More than thirty years later, I’m close to their “really old” age, and they are legally married in California after 55 years together.

Sometimes justice takes a while. Del is now 87 and Phyllis is 84. And yet the interviews say that they are happy, not bitter, that after 55 years together they will have the same rights as heterosexual couples can get in Vegas after knowing each other two hours. It’s that positive outlook and their love for each other that’s kept them going all this time.

I wept this morning when I logged onto the computer and saw their elderly forms being joined in holy matrimony. Images like that are what we’ll be promoting through UU information sources as well; happy couples together at last as legal entities. They remind me that it is love, indeed, at the heart of every longterm commitment.

People asked me after Massachusetts, and they’ll ask me again now I’m sure, if my partner and I are considering marriage. My answer is probably not. Kendrick and I met in 1979, and it was pretty much love at first sight. We basically ruined each other for anyone else and assume that this is it for life. We had a commitment ceremony in 1991 at Arlington Street Church in Boston, and since we live in Minnesota it would not tangibly change our lives to go back and do it again, this time legally.

Frankly, now that I’m ‘really old,’ my desire for marriage equality is not particularly about romance. It’s much more basic and economic. I want the federal benefits that California and Massachusetts can’t offer even their own residents, much less me! Kendrick has a chronic illness. Last year she had to quit work early in the year. She earned only $3700 all year and my work supported our family. Unfortunately $3700 is $200 more than the $3500 cap by which I could claim an ‘unrelated person’ as a dependent on my taxes, so I could not. Nor could I deduct about $11,000 of her medical bills. It was as if I had just stood on the corner and thrown that money at a passing stranger.

Likewise, she is ineligible for SSI, the social security benefits which she could get if she were single, because I am supporting her. Yet, should I die tomorrow, she would not receive a cent of my survivor benefits because we are legally single.

The news about California will be about weddings, and celebration, and fun. That’s as it should be. But as our country’s economy continues to fail, same gender couples will bear an extra burden. The survival of our long term relationships are no more about tuxedos and gowns and cakes than anyone else’s. I am acutely aware as I write this that I am a very privileged lesbian—I work for a place that could not be more supportive with both tangible and intangible measures, I have a graduate degree and white privilege—three things that mitigate against the economic suffering which others know from far more dire circumstances than I do. I am not meaning to whine here!

But my feelings are mixed. Even through my tears of happiness for them, I’m aware of the tangible tax, healthcare, and other benefits that Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon and other same sex couples still cannot offer to each other, even if their marriage is now legal in California. The journey ahead is still long, and Kendrick and I may be in our eighties before we know full equality. May our love and positive outlook sustain us, as it has so many others.

And, Phyllis and Del, Mazel Tov!!!!!!!

Snapshots from the Compassion Forum – part 2

(Continued from April 15…)

Messiah College has more photos on the historic event.

Left to right coalition work

It’s hard. We all give up something to be in the room. And this event would never have happened if everyone across the board had not been willing to do it. Consider who’s on the advisory board of this event: Dr. Frank Page, president of the Southern Baptist Convention. Father Larry Snyder, President of Catholic Charities. Rev. Dr. James Forbes, Jr., senior pastor emeritus from Riverside Church in New York City. Rev. Dr. Barbara Brown Taylor, Episcopal priest and professor of religion. Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Rev. Dr. Bernice Powell Jackson, North American President of the World Council of Churches and a UCC minister. Dr. Syeed Sayeed, national director of the Islamic Society of North America. Thirty six people in all. To clarify my own role: I chair the Board of Faith in Public Life, the resource center which produced this. That board is separate from this event’s Advisory Board.

Seismic shift

Monday morning, I sit in the hotel business center at a computer, next to an evangelical leader at another. I say to him, “I want to thank you for being here. It was courageous and a great model of the risk-taking and reconciliation that religious leadership must embody if we’re to heal this divided nation. I suppose many people will be very upset with you about it.”

He says, “look at this,” and shows me his inbox. There reside angry emails, condemning him for leading his people in the wrong direction. Simply by being civil to and interested in candidates who held different opinions about abortion and sex education (glbt issues were not raised during the forum), he has aroused ire. But he doesn’t seem particularly troubled about this. “There’s been a seismic shift,” he says. He reports that James Dobson of Focus on the Family has initiated meetings with the evangelicals who are demanding that global climate change be taken seriously — the same Dobson who has publicly deriding this ‘liberal agenda.’ Both of us smile into each others face as we go back to our own work.

The woman behind the curtain

“I can confidently assert that I have taken the next President of the United States to the bathroom.” That’s Jenny Backus speaking. She has managed dozens of this year’s presidential debates, and she does it with grace and no attitude. An independent consultant, she’s the coordinating mind holding together all of the moving pieces in this groundbreaking partnership — the candidates and their staff and volunteers, the secular and religious media, the techies and the college campus staff. She welcomes me joyfully as a long-lost friend, gives me a “production” name badge which will take me anywhere in the building, and goes back to work. I spend several afternoon hours in the production room and marvel at how she does it, seemingly with no effort. She never stops. Always she is knitting, using as her yarns and needles an endless supply of banter, information, reassurance, self-deprecating humor. We’re in the hands of a master. (I wish I had thought to take her photo!)

More Links:

Compassionate Progressivism
By Eric Sapp – The Guardian, Opinion
It wasn’t the answers from the politicians that made the event such an historic experience…shattering revelations or memorable one-liners. It was questions that were asked, who was asking them and who was answering.

Transcript: Clinton, Obama put politics aside to discuss faith

“A phenomenal conversation, and it should not be the last time the Democrats begin to deal with this, because it certainly gave me a much better understanding of both candidates and their views on issues facing America.”

Compassion Forum Clings to Religion

By Ted Olsen – Christianity Today
Political candidates’ fortunes aside, the forum likely served as a boon to both Faith in Public Life (FPL) and Messiah College.

Religion and Politics can Mix
By Jacques Berlinerblau – Washington Post, On Faith
There were many winners at Sunday night’s Compassion Forum at Messiah College and no discernible losers as far as I could tell.

Snapshots from the Compassion Forum – part 1

(Continued from April 11…)

Messiah College: Hospitality

Messiah College is a happy place through and through today. The small rural college, affiliated with the United Church of the Brethren, is ecstatic to host this event. Students clearly love their president, Dr. Kim Phipps. I meet Kim early in the day, strolling around with her husband Kelly. Here my sexist biases about religion rear their ugly heads. Though Kim is dressed up and Kelly in a workshirt, I shake his hands first and address my remarks to him, presuming that he is the college president. (My only defense here, if I were a politician having every action scrutinized, would be that both Kim and Kelly are androgynous names and I was a little confused about who was who.) Only gradually as we talk does my mistake become clear to me. Duh. Later, I tell Kim how horrified I am at my own sexism, and she laughs merrily. Her concern, as is that of every Messiah person I meet all day, is simply that we all have everything we need. Indeed, we do!

VIP Event/ Radical Hospitality

Most of the day, I am probably more of a nuisance than assistance. The student army has things well in hand. The one important task I’m assigned is to stand by the ‘will call’ tent and try to find the so-called “VIPs”—about 150 religious leaders who are invited to a pre-event reception, including the advisory board and the speakers who have been designated to ask questions. It is a cold day and I’m to hustle them as quickly as possible into the warm reception. Several of us rotate shifts but my long trenchcoat and Minnesota temperament makes me a good candidate for a long one. To my amazement, people begin lining up at the “Will Call” tent about 2 PM—it won’t open till 4 and our reception begins at 5. Most in line are students, many of whom wear not even so much as a jacket (If you think I don’t scold them for this, you don’t know my “it takes a village and I am willing to act like a village idiot” side, which my own frequently embarrassed daughter will happily tell you about!).

The challenge is that mixed with these students are many Messiah staff and faculty, along with assorted other community leaders. It’s impossible to tell them from “VIPs.” After spending some time standing silently and scrutinizing people, I begin walking up to pretty much everyone and extending my hand. “Hi, I’m Meg Riley, chair of the board of Faith in Public Life. Welcome.” They then introduce themselves back, and unless I know who they are, I say something along the lines of, “What brings you here?” (I can’t say, “Are you a VIP?” can I?) At first I am a little awkward with this. Then I realize that, in the culture of radical hospitality at Messiah College, walking up to a stranger and introducing myself is not uncomfortable in the least. To a person, each one I greet is unsurprised and delighted to welcome me, tell me all about themselves and to ask if I am finding everything I need at Messiah College or in Pennsylvania. I’m not in Kansas anymore!

Viewer Bias/ Media Bias

During and after the event, this is what I notice about viewer bias: People who prefer Hillary believe that she is smarter, funnier, and gives better answers than Obama. People who favor Obama think that he is more vital, visionary, and gives better answers than Hillary. Almost the only people I spoke with who seemed neutral or objective were the ones who supported neither candidate! Since this is true of me as well, there’s little more to say. Watch the event and observe your own biases.
Before, during and after the event, this is what I notice about media bias: Sometimes it’s hard to know when I’m watching Jon Stewart’s Daily Show and when I’m watching actual news shows. On Sunday, the “crisis d’jour” is the “Pennsylvania bitterness” saga. CNN Anchor Campbell Brown does her part of CNN’s 12:30 show from the set of the Compassion Forum, and I go to watch. Because I don’t know who is on the monitor she is watching or what they are saying, I can only see and hear her. She is trying to describe the unusual event which will take place tonight, but in order to do so she must fit it into the frame of how the compassion forum will help us to know if Obama made an elitist comment at a fundraiser far away. I feel for her, and for all of us.

If you watch the show, and note the difference between the questions asked by the religious community leaders, and those asked by the anchors, the gulf is stunning. Religious leaders were not dying to know candidate’s favorite Bible verses, but whether candidates would pledge to eradicate poverty, stop global warming, refuse to torture. On the other hand, people I respect have said that it is helpful to be able to watch how the candidates think, and the bigger questions offer that opportunity. Either way, we have a long way to go to figure out how to talk about the public dimensions of religion in a meaningful way.

Compassion Forum

I laughed out loud when I heard it. I love it when people dream big! So when I first heard that the tiny staff at Faith in Public Life – the resource center for justice and the common good whose board I chair – wanted to host a bipartisan forum for presidential candidates on issues of faith and morality, I laughed. I laughed joyfully and said, “All right! Go for it!” But I never thought it would happen.

At that time, mind you, there were about 27 candidates in each major party and a few more in the minor ones. That was the time when one party’s slate could barely fit on a long stage. But Katie Barge, communications director for Faith in Public Life (FPL), was serious. She began assembling a special advisory board of influential religious leaders across the ideological spectrum, and finding effective avenues for asking all of the candidates if they would speak. She, and the advisory board, worked and worked and worked.

First Clinton said yes. Then McCain, who had looked like a solid bet, said no, and everyone had to regroup. Could it be bipartisan if only one party’s candidates attended? The advisory board decided it could, and that if Obama said yes, they would still roll with it. Thankfully, he did!

It has almost happened twice before, first in South Carolina and then in Chicago. But now, unbelievably, it’s really happening! Sunday night, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the Compassion Forum will take place at Messiah College. You can watch it Sunday night at 8 PM Eastern Time on CNN (even if you’re traveling overseas—they’re showing it all over the world!) To learn more about it, go to www.FaithinPublicLife.org and look at information about the Compassion Forum.

Me, I’ll be grinning in the studio audience. Rob Keithan, director of the UUA Washington Office, and Rev. Howard Dana from the UU Church of Harrisburg, will also be there. So will Mandy Keithan. As far as I know, we’re the UU contingent, but we really have no idea who else might be there with us.

Meanwhile, I can’t stop beaming with pride for the tiny but mighty staff at Faith in Public Life. Dream big, work hard, pray hard, reach out—you never know what might happen!

What We Can Learn from Obama’s Speech – Opinion from Meg A. Riley

Those of us who are part of the UUA’s Advocacy and Witness staff group can’t go two feet without, on a daily basis, stumbling over racism that is not only historic but alive in contemporary public policy decisions. Our legislative priorities range from global AIDS to immigration policy, from reproductive choice to living wages, from Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian and Transgender (BGLT) rights to the war in Iraq. In all of these, and in every other area of priority for us, race is a significant factor. That’s not even to mention the work we do which is labeled racial justice work, such as disparate prison sentences, or racial profiling. Almost without exception, people of color get ‘the most of the worst and the least of the best,’ to use sociologist Dr. William Jones’ language.

Before I go further, let me be clear that good and faithful Unitarian Universalists (UUs) support all three of the remaining contenders for President of our country. But the political climate (and Barack Obama’s recent speech) has given us an opportunity to think together about the issue of race in this country and how we as Unitarian Universalists, and we as citizens, engage with that very large elephant in our room.

I believe that conversation about race in the United States is relevant to every day of all of our lives. While the country actually focuses on race for at least a news-nanosecond, this could be the moment to take the step of amplifying the conversation with every resource we have. And when a Presidential candidate invites us into a meaningful conversation on this topic, we need to accept with heart and soul; such an opportunity is long-overdue and may not soon come again.

I am tremendously thankful that Unitarian Universalism has given me numerous opportunities to learn who I am as a white person. It’s not something I was taught in school, and I’ve learned the hard way that bringing it up in my family is much like mentioning alcoholism or sexual abuse. When I heard Barack Obama speak of his white grandmother’s acknowledged fear Black men, I thought of my own life. I am the parent of an adopted child of color. Her pain about race is a large part of who she is. Were I still unable to ‘see’ race, or to talk about it, we would not have the close trust which allows me to be present to her.

Still, I know that there is much that my daughter does not share with me, just as I know that there are certain pains even my closest friends of color will save to share with those who can resonate from the inside. I remember years ago when an African American friend shared an encounter with a white colleague which she experienced as racist. I replied with some convoluted explanation of how she might have misunderstood the colleague. “Oh, stop being so white!” she exclaimed with annoyance. “Could you just listen to me?”

Listening turns out to be incredibly hard for many of us who are white to do—to just listen. The derision with which Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s prophetic words are greeted reflects that very unwillingness. “No,” we respond too often, albeit unconsciously. “We won’t listen, because we don’t have to. We’ve got the pundits, the judges, the rulers on our side. Why listen to you?”

If we’re lucky, we can learn to let the voice of faith speak up in response to the impulse of privilege, and say, “It’s hard, but yes, I want to listen. I need to listen. I can’t be whole unless I listen.” And after we listen, I hope that we will be able to then say, “I need to speak up and be an ally. I want to speak up and be an ally. I can’t be whole unless I am an ally.”

I hope that you will take that first step, either alone or with your family, or with members of your congregation. The Unitarian Universalist Association offers some significant resources to help people make these conversations faithful, helpful, and truthful. Our Related Content section at the bottom of this post offers some possibilities.

I strongly urge you to seize this opportunity. Use covenant groups, adult education classes, religious education for youth, forums, and every other venue possible to do this. Share together some of the questions, and responses these questions elicit, in a structured listening format. Share from your heart and from your faith.

It is hard for those of us who are white to talk about race. I still remember the first time, in seminary, that a professor asked me to write about how being white impacted my theology. I was truly bewildered. In response I wrote about being Appalachian, fat, a lesbian, and in a marginal religious group. “All this is true,” she wrote back in the margins, “But you are still white. You did not answer my question.”

It is time for those of us who are white to struggle with the question. What does it mean to be white in our country at this time? What does it mean to have white privilege? Let us not lose this moment to begin that sacred and saving conversation with one another.

Rev. Meg A. Riley is Director of the UUA Advocacy and Witness staff group. She has served as Director of the UUA’s Office of Lesbian, Bisexual and Gay Concerns, the Washington Office for Advocacy, Youth Programs, and as a religious educator in several Unitarian Universalist congregations. She is currently President of the Board of Faith in Public Life: A Resource Center for Justice and the Common Good.

Resources/Related Content:

Barack Obama’s speech on race and politics (March 18, 2008)

A Long Overdue Conversation About Race: UUA President Rev Bill Sinkford responds to Obama’s speech.

Of National Lies and Racial Amnesia: Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama, and the Audacity of Truth” by Tim Wise

Sample Questions for Discussion on Race, Politics, Religion” by Michael Salwasser

NPR’s On Point Talk Radio (audio): Anna Deavere Smith and Andrew Young, guests, discuss Obama’s speech with host Tom Ashbrook

Religion, Race, and Reverend Wright” – UUA Advocacy and Witness Blog

What Kind of Prophet? – A Statement by United Church of Christ General Minister John H. Thomas

Claiming Our History, Warts and All” by David Pettee (UUA)

Happy International Women’s Day!

Tomorrow, March 8th, is International Women’s Day. On this International Women’s Day, one area of conversation that I hope will re-open for Democrats, Republicans, Independents and Greens, is reinstating funding for the UNFPA (United Nations Fund for Population Activities).

As you’ll recall, President George W. Bush de-funded the U.S. commitment to this program in the early days of his Presidency, on the grounds that Chinese programs sponsored by the UN coerced women into having abortions. Though his own State Department sent a delegation to China which concluded that, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth, U.S. funding for this program has been eliminated ever since.

In fall of 2003, I was privileged to be part of an interfaith delegation to China to scope out the situation. I joined Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims in an extensive tour to remote areas to meet with U.N. sponsored programs. We divided up into subgroups, and between us we met with over fifteen U.N. sponsored family planning programs in 9 provinces.

My group, which primarily toured rural areas, popped in on tiny villages and walked the streets chatting with women home from the rice paddies or cornfields. (Ever since, I have imagined what it would be like if I opened my door one day to a delegation of Chinese women, come to interview me about my own life history related to birth control and abortion. I kind of doubt that my neighbors would offer the immediate and warm hospitality which we received universally, or welcome the open discussions of the pros and cons of IUDs versus the pill!)

Nowhere did we see evidence of the UN supporting coercion. Indeed, the UN used its funding to leverage family planning clinics NOT to coerce abortions! Swamped by many more requests for assistance than they could provide, they only worked with groups who agreed to extensive and detailed contracts related to subtle and nuanced ways in which abortions might be coerced. Any UN program where this was discovered had its funding suspended immediately.

Every time we met with a clinic staff, we would ask them dozens of questions, probing to learn if there was any validity to the rumors of coerced abortion, as well as asking them about their clientele and services. After we were done talking to them, we would always ask if there was anything they wanted to ask us.

In each setting, with clear desire not to offend but also with clear bewilderment, they asked about the prevalence of teen pregnancy in the United States. Why, they wondered, wasn’t the U.S. carrying out the recommendations of the U.N. Conference on Population in Cairo in 1994? Their clear and shining pride in China’s recent admission into the U.N. shone throughout these meetings. They clearly did not understand how we could dismiss our own responsibilities so lightly.

How did it happen they wondered, that teens were so often getting pregnant in the US? Didn’t they have the access to birth control which the conference in Cairo had agreed was essential? Were they getting good education about the implications of the decisions they made? Didn’t teen pregnancy hurt the young parents’ ability to have a good life, and diminish their ability to be good parents?

The humility I felt grew by the day as I saw these remote Chinese villagers holding up an expectation of international cooperation and accountability. It took a number of days for me to realize that I had learned, despite my professions to the contrary, to dismiss such international agreements as optional or secondary. My humility grew as I listened in on conversations of peasant women discussing the pros and cons of birth control options with far more knowledge and thoughtfulness than I had heard among college educated women in my life. It turned to something akin to shame as I began to recognize how deeply I had internalized American superiority; U.S. Supremacy in the world.

On this international women’s day, I’m going to do two things, in which I invite you to join me: First, I’m going to contact my candidate of choice for U.S. President to restate the importance of UNFPA funding. Second, I’m going to check out materials provided by the planning group for the UU International Women’s Convocation, now posted on the web at www.icuuw.com. Happy International Women’s Day, one and all!

Rev. Meg Riley

Faithful America

By now, I think it’s safe to say, we’ve all learned to quit answering the question, “When did you stop beating your wife?” It’s become the clichéd description of media bias that leads to a no-win situation for the one being questioned.

Other biased questions are sometimes less obvious. For instance, in 2004, I was one of many voters who answered, “yes” to a question about whether or not my faith and values had determined my vote. Little did I know that, somehow encoded in that yes answer resided my declaration, “I want a Christian theocracy and I want it now.”

I’ve been wary of polls ever since. They used to seem like benign, information gathering tools, but now I view them more like SPAM or unsolicited credit card applications, not trusting the intent of the questions. This suspicion increased when I learned that special interest groups can literally purchase the questions asked.

Now, it turns out, along with ducking questions that don’t come with decoder rings, I should have been wondering about the questions I’m not asked. For instance, in this primary season, the television network’s exit polls are asking Republican voters many more questions than they are Democratic voters. In some cases they are not asking Democrats a single question about faith and voting! And, when the pundits spin the data from those polls in every state after the elections, they have droned on endlessly about Republican evangelicals and completely ignored Democratic evangelicals!

Faithful America, an interfaith internet organizing effort, is gathering signatures to protest this media bias. As we move into the Ohio and Texas primaries today, they want as many signatures as possible on an internet petition to stop this media bias. Already they are closing their goal of 10,000 signatures of people of all faiths and all political parties.

The petition reads: “The primary exit polls, sponsored by ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox and the AP, must stop stereotyping people of faith. We call on the media pollsters to ask all voters—Republicans and Democrats—the same religion questions on the exit poll surveys.

You can sign this petition at www.faithfulAmerica.org.

This is the first organizing effort through Faithful America under new management at Faith in Public Life after beginning its life at the National Council of Churches. (Full disclosure: I chair the board of Faith in Public Life.) Even if you read this blog long after the primaries are done, log onto the Faithful America website for Move-On style quick, easy, activism from a progressive, interfaith perspective.

Rev. Meg Riley