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.

Reflections on Flying

I had managed to clip the ropes into the metal loops on my safety belt, and I began to climb the ladder. I was about to have my first flying trapeze lesson, and the first step was to make it up to the top of the platform. Someone on the ground reminded me to hold onto the rungs ahead of me instead of the sides of the ladder, and a vision of the whole ladder toppling to the ground with me under it flashed through my mind. I felt safer gripping the rungs, though still a little shaky. I kept climbing.

I’m afraid of heights and even more afraid of falling, but I had come to this class with my co-workers determined to face that fear head on. The instructors praised me for making it to the top, affirming that the hardest part, that long climb, was over, and now all I had to do was fly. I didn’t believe them.

For me, the hardest part was believing that my body could do something that I thought was impossible. The hardest part was believing wholeheartedly – enough to jump – that I was strong enough. I wasn’t convinced that my body would listen to me, and I knew myself well enough to know that if I didn’t believe it was possible, it wasn’t going to happen. So I waited for some faith. And when it didn’t come right away, I waited some more, and then I looked for it. I needed a few moments on top of that platform, holding on for dear life before I let go.

My faith started to surface not when I thought and bickered with myself harder and harder, not when I tried to reason myself out of sheer panic, but when I turned off my brain and trusted. The whole experience, the instructor reminded me, was designed to feel like the scariest thing in the world, but to be one of the safest. From the moment I clipped my belt into the ropes on the ground to the moment that my feet were back on the ground, I was completely and totally safe. Someone was holding those ropes, and they were not going to let anything bad happen to me. They promised.

I didn’t think about this until later, and only then with some prompting and prodding, but the work that I do, the hard work of advocacy, is based in large part on faith too. I don’t always have faith in the long and tortuous legislative process, but sometimes it comes through. I do have faith that the ripples of my work help move my corner of the world towards justice.

At the trapeze rig, the instructors gave me a choice. I could turn around and climb back down the ladder to get to the ground, or I could fly down. It was as simple as that. The faith came after I made my choice. Not being one to back down from a challenge, I chose to fly. The faith came when I could close my eyes for a moment, and through the teary panic, see myself flying and landing safely. The faith came when I knew that I would be safe and loved no matter what. And I flew.

I make the choice to conquer the choking fear I feel when the news tells me that the world is un-savable. I make the choice to be an advocate and an ally because so many others are silenced, and I can speak. And I know I’m not working alone. I’m surrounded by smart and passionate colleagues who challenge me to reflect upon and live out my deepest values. I am grateful for their accompaniment on this path.

My faith came from my ability to see through fear and despair into hope. My faith came from my ability to visualize the future, to see where I am in relation to those around me, to locate myself and my gifts and to use them to make change. I will always be learning. At my first trapeze lesion, even though flying only meant swinging from the bar and landing without any fancy tricks, everyone told me that I was the one who had done the most work that night. I was the one who had accomplished the most because I crossed the long distance between fear and flying, and then I made the leap.

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

Looking Back, Looking Forward

The Advocacy and Witness Team has taken a few minutes to reflect on the highlights of this past year and what we are looking forward to in the year ahead. A number of successes have marked this past year and it is exciting to see what the new year holds. Here are our reflections:

Meg Riley
When I think about high points from 2009, the Inauguration glows in my mind. Yes we did! Elect our first African American president. So much hope, so much energy, a real sense of kinship. When I look forward, I commit myself to creating and sustaining more energy like that. It’s so easy to get cynical watching the sausage-making of change. I have to remember to celebrate the positive, as imperfect as it is, and to keep hope alive!

Eric Cherry
While the international office’s 2009 was full of exciting and inspiring moments, the highlight of the year for me was welcoming a large and multiculturally diverse group of Unitarian, Universalist, and/or Unitarian Universalist leaders from around the world to General Assembly in Salt Lake City. The participation of leaders from Nigeria, Romania, India and Uganda in the Opening Worship service at GA was especially meaningful and symbolic of our faith tradition’s future. And, in 2010, I’m looking forward to the increasing collaboration of UU groups focused on international work, particularly promoting “community capacity building” and leadership-training in multiple locations around the world.

Rob Keithan
My highlight from this past year was establishing a partnership between UU Ministry for Earth and the UUA that resulted in a staffperson dedicated to promoting environmental justice. Looking forward, I am excited about working with a huge, diverse assortment of religious and secular groups to pass comprehensive immigration reform.

Orelia Busch
The biggest highlight of the past year for me was attending the signing of the bill legalizing same sex marriage in the District of Columbia, which was held at All Souls Church, Unitarian. In 2010, I am looking forward to organizing clergy and religious leaders to help pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and leading youth, young adults and allies in their efforts to advocate for federal support and funding of comprehensive sex education programs in schools.

Rowan Van Ness
Looking back at this past year, one of my highlights was the International Day of Climate Action. It was really inspiring to see how many UUs were involved in the more than 5200 events worldwide. In this year ahead, I am hopeful that we may pass a major piece of climate legislation. The US is still a major emitter and the effects of climate change are global, so changes here could make a positive impact all over the world. I am also excited that more and more people are thinking about the impacts of their food choices and are keeping justice and the environment in mind!

Adam Gerhardstein
The Standing on the Side of Love campaign was born in June of 2009. It has been an exciting journey that has led us through a visceral health care debate, an inspiring march for BGLT equality, successfully booting Lou Dobbs off CNN, marriage equality sorrows in Maine and joys in the District of Columbia. Local communities are where the campaign has really been brought to life. In the year ahead we will celebrate the first National Standing on the Side of Love Day, where we will re-imagine Valentine’s Day. Because this campaign is in the hands of the people who bring it down to earth on the local level, we will pursue new tactics and new partnerships, and do everything we can to support congregations who boldly stand on the side of love.

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 or

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.

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!

The UUA Washington Office Remembers Senator Kennedy

It’s unusual to feel a need to reach out to our UU community because a Senator died, but the death of Senator Edward Kennedy casts a long shadow across our nation.

Senator Kennedy’s death is a signal of the passing of the torch from one generation to another in our nation and in the world. It is a call to remember and to honor all of those elders whose struggles for justice have made our lives today possible. It is cause for both grief and for deep celebration.

In the UUA’s Washington Office on Wednesday, staff members spoke to one another quietly, remembering personal encounters with him in labors for shared goals—some which were accomplished and many which remain unfinished.

It is hard to overstate how important Senator Kennedy was to the causes we hold dear. From Voting Rights and Disability Rights to reauthorizing TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families); from more than a decade working to pass anti-hate crimes legislation and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act to ensuring a fair minimum wage, Senator Kennedy was a relentless supporter—if not a champion—for most of our legislative agenda. Few people in this era have done more for the health and welfare of marginalized people.

Among the many lessons we can learn from Senator’s Kennedy’s Senate career is that it is not only possible, it is actually powerful to be both extremely committed to your values and able to work with people and groups that hold different views. Most Americans know Ted Kennedy only as a bastion of liberalism. May he also be remembered as one who understood the importance of relationships and collaboration. As Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) wrote in a reflection which appears in today’s Washington Post, Kennedy “never made his partisanship personal and, most of the time, if he believed you were sincere, he was willing to give ground to reach an agreement. He’ll be missed both for his friendship and personality, as well his ability to get things done even in the most partisan times. “

Senator Kennedy has been present to us—not just as a remote figure represented by staff people—but also as flesh and blood, as a passionate, caring, and flawed human being who strove to connect with the people working on (and affected by) the issues he cared about. A few years ago, he spoke at an event for Martin Luther King Day at our congregation in Quincy, MA, about the need to raise the federal minimum wage. He said, “We have to think, who are the recipients of the minimum wage? They are men and women of dignity…They may be making the minimum wage, but they want to do the job, they want to do it right, and they want to do it well…they deserve our respect.”

This respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every person was at the heart of Senator Kennedy’s desire for our common good. May that respect live on as our legacy for Senator Kennedy—in our families, in our congregations, in our towns and cities, in our struggles for justice. May we find the strength to carry on without him.

–Rob Keithan, Director of the UUA Washington Office for Advocacy

–Rev. Meg Riley, Director, Advocacy & Witness Staff Group, and former Director of the UUAWashington Office

Statement by UUA President the Rev. Peter Morales on the Death of Senator Edward M. Kennedy

Reflection on Senator Kennedy from the Rev. Dr. William F. Schulz, former President of the UUA and Executive Director of Amnesty International USA