Leader’s Message – “Democracy, an Ideal Still Unrealized in the United States” – November 2016

October 15, 2016

You will read this column before the 2016 presidential election season ends. I am weary and imagine that you are, too. This “ultramarathon” – from the forming of exploratory committees to the inauguration – can last two years, far longer than any other country’s campaigns. Canadians were perturbed that their recent election season lasted eleven weeks. The average length in the UK is less than 20 weeks and in France two weeks. In Australia, the average length is eleven weeks, and voting is compulsory.


We rank near the bottom in terms of voter registration because we make it so difficult; strategies include cutting back on early voting, making absentee voting more difficult, and imposing photo-ID requirements at the polls. Even when federal courts rule that their voting processes are unconstitutional, some states (Ohio, NC, Texas and Wisconsin) continue to defiantly suppress votes. New York State does not allow early voting, and requires voters to register at least 25 days before Election Day. Absentee voting requires “snail” mail between the voter and local Board of Elections.


The Founding Fathers were divided on the issue of voting rights. In 1776 John Adams was unwilling to extend voting rights beyond white men who owned property and warned, “There will be no end of it. New claims will arise. Women will demand a vote. Lads from 12 to 21 will think their rights not enough attended to, and every man, who has not a farthing, will demand an equal voice with any other in all acts of state.” Poor Abigail!


According to Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice and author of The Fight to Vote (Simon & Schuster, 2016), a history of the struggle to win voting rights for all citizens, “Often groups fearful of change are most determined to change the rules – to make it harder for others to vote.” Still, he is optimistic about our future. I wish I were.


Instead, I harken back to a time long ago when the Great Law of Peace guaranteed equal rights to men and women in the Six Nation Confederacy of the Iroquois. The impact upon our Constitution of this oldest participatory democracy has been well researched and documented. Senate resolution 331 from the 100th Congress in 1988 “acknowledges the contribution made by the Iroquois Confederacy and other Indian Nations to the formation and development of the United States.” Tragically, our Founding Fathers, even George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, who were “known to have greatly admired the concepts of the Six Nations,” failed to include women. And it took a Civil War to include men born in slavery; Native Americans would wait much longer.


Our Founding Mothers, however, those who met in Seneca Falls, NY in July 1848 to issue The Declaration of Sentiments asserting the equality of women and men, were well aware of the differences in women’s roles between the Iroquois and Americans. For example, Iroquois women selected their chiefs. Elizabeth Cady Stanton described their rights “as proof that the subordinate position of white women was neither natural nor divinely inspired,” said Sally Roesch Wagner, who curated an exhibit in Seneca Falls called “Sisters in Spirit: Celebrating the Iroquois Influence on the Early Women’s Rights Movement.”


So here we are in November 2016, centuries removed from that ideal.


I knew that Hilary Clinton’s run for president would challenge those uncomfortable with women holding positions of power. What I didn’t anticipate was the depth of her opponent’s misogyny. Perhaps I was naïve, and yet I don’t know any woman, including myself, who hasn’t experienced sexual harassment. Trump may epitomize that behavior, but far too many men practice it. In the weeks leading up to this election, we have been subjected to explicit evidence of a presidential candidate’s utter contempt for women.


Susan B. Anthony was thrown to the ground when she tried to cast a ballot in November 1872. Women won suffrage in 1920 after generations of hard-fought battles. We are still fighting for an Equal Rights Amendment. Among all the issues calling for our attention in this election, and there are myriad, in these final days we are being thrown to the ground again. Misogyny is alive and kicking. But so is the ideal of fully participatory democracy. Once upon a time, it thrived in this land. It can again if we don’t lose hope and work together.

Leader’s Message – “Native Americans Rising! – October 2016

October 15, 2016

“In fourteen hundred and ninety-two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”


Do you remember reciting this verse in elementary school when preparing to celebrate Columbus Day? In two-line rhyming stanzas we learned about his voyage from Spain with three ships and ninety sailors to what he thought would be India. It mentions encountering the “Arawak natives” and concludes with “The first American?  No, not quite. But Columbus was brave, and he was bright.” For the quincentennial of his “discovery,” Nancy Schimmel wrote a different song for children – “1492” (http://www.sisterschoice.com/1492.mp3) – with the refrain “someone was already there.”


Indeed someone was! The benign poem I learned didn’t mention the nations of indigenous peoples living in the Americas for millennia before the European invasion. It neither told their stories nor sang their praises. It taught us a myth and hid the devastating truth from us.


In North America alone, between 1776 and the present, our government seized an estimated 1.5 billion acres from Native peoples. Claudio Saunt, associate director of the Institute of Native American Studies at the University of Georgia, created an interactive time-lapse map that can be viewed at http://invasionofamerica.ehistory.org/, to visualize this dispossession. In 1848, gold was discovered in California’s Central Valley, and three years later, in his State of the State address, governor Peter Burnett said, “That a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the races, until the Indian race becomes extinct, must be expected.” For more than a century (1860-1978), Native children were ripped from their families and sent to boarding schools far from their homes. Between 1947 and 2000, an estimated 40,000 children from 60 tribes were placed in Mormon homes.


Many Americans have heard about the Trail of Tears and Wounded Knee, but a vast majority know little about the extent of the atrocities committed against our hosts. It is high time we learned. It is time for a reckoning about the U.S. conquest of sovereign indigenous nations and a serious engagement with people who lost their homelands and future generations of children. Some progress has been made in the truthful teaching of our history and filing of lawsuits to reclaim land, but it is an arduous struggle.


Today we have an opportunity to support Native Americans taking a stand to stop construction of the proposed $3.8 billion Dakota Access pipeline, from North Dakota to Illinois, that threatens to contaminate the Missouri River. Thousands of indigenous activists from dozens of tribes across the country have traveled to the Sacred Stone Spirit Camp (http://sacredstonecamp.org/) launched on April 1 by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to protest this violation of the National Historic Preservation Act. A delegation from Black Lives Matters also participated. Many of us joined a rally in Washington Square Park last month (September 9) and continue to support the tribe’s efforts.


News of this protest and the lawsuits filed by the tribe has been slow reaching the general public. It was carried primarily by the daily independent news program Democracy Now! and through social media. Yet again, it is evident that mainstream news media care little about Native Americans. One notable exception was Lawrence O’Donnell of MSNBC at the end of the August 25th edition of his nightly news show, “The Last Word.” Here is a quotation:


“The original sin of this country is that we invaders shot and murdered our way across the land killing every Native American we could, and making treaties with the rest. This country was founded on genocide before the word genocide was invented, before there was a war crimes tribunal in The Hague. . . [Standing Rock reminds us of] The people who have always known what is truly sacred in this world.”
So this Columbus Day weekend, please make time to consider our country from a different perspective. Imagine what might have been had the European invaders respected the cultures and valued the lives of the people who preceded them. We have much to learn.



Leader’s Message – “Back to School” – September 2016

August 13, 2016

Turn on your television today and you will see commercials for school supplies. They started early last month and often feature parents gleefully singing and dancing as they push shopping carts down aisles loaded with backpacks, notebooks and snacks. In others, children spin around to show off their new school apparel. Yes, it’s that time of year again. Parents may feel relieved, but students and teachers often feel anxious. So much is at stake. Education is perceived as the key to success. Without a good education, students won’t get good jobs, meet the right people, or live in the best neighborhoods.


Public school teachers bemoan that they can do little more than “teach to the test.” All their training and creativity are stifled by an education reform movement, starting in the 1980s, that emphasizes national Common Core standards, having abandoned the progressive pedagogy of John Dewey that many of us experienced. Remember the field trips, school plays and festivals, and the thrill of “learning by doing”? Parents wanting that for their children today shell out tens of thousands of dollars in annual tuition to private schools or compete for scholarships.


Why does our nation have this dichotomy? And why do our students continue to fall “in the middle of the pack” compared to other industrialized nations? Since 1969, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has tracked what our students know and can do in various subject areas. It issues what is known as “the Nation’s Report Card,” and several institutions analyze these data looking for answers and solutions.


In his article, “In Praise of Dewey” (Aeon 7/28/16), Nicholas Tampio holds the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Charles Koch-funded conservative think tank the Heartland Institute responsible. “For both the business community and traditional-values conservatives, Dewey’s pedagogy fails to train workers, and inculcates liberal, even socialistic values.” This year is the centennial of Dewey’s ground-breaking tome, Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of EducationTampio notes that “his pedagogy has been under assault for at least a generation.”



This should be of great concern to Ethical Culture because, in many ways, Dewey took Felix Adler’s place as the philosopher of our movement. When I attended my first National Leaders Council retreat, I heard one leader heatedly say to another, “You have forsaken your father Felix Adler for your stepfather John Dewey.” Nonetheless, Adler would never have endorsed teaching to Common Core standards and preparing students to get better jobs. Both he and Dewey believed that education was essential to moral development and participatory democracy.

Children should be encouraged to pursue their own interests, find their own voices, and fight for a world where everyone can learn, grow and develop. To be a fully participating member of a democracy means far more than voting on Election Day. It requires a deep understanding of humanity and the ways in which we organize ourselves, an appreciation of history and cultures, and a commitment to the common good. It’s about putting democratic theory into practice every day in all of our relationships.

Tragically, as we can observe from this year’s election process, our national educational system has failed to teach even basic civics. One of our presidential nominees says he will uphold an article of the constitution that doesn’t exist, but his followers neither know nor care enough to correct him. People who expect opinions and policies to be based upon facts are called “intellectual elites” and dismissed by those who feel they are losing their social and economic status to immigrants and people of color. We all live in “bubbles” of different values and influences.

Let us, too, go back to school this fall. Let us learn what education can and should be. Celebrate the centennial of Dewey’s guide to progressive education by reading and discussing it. Then put it into practice. We owe it to ourselves and the future of our democracy.








Leader’s Message – “Summer Reflections” – July & August 2016

July 7, 2016
When I was a child, summer days were long and lazy.  They began early when we tumbled out the porch door: racing to the swing set, leaping up to grab the lowest branch on the black walnut tree, and squealing as we dashed in and out of the water sprinkler. We also had chores: making our beds, sweeping the floors and dusting the furniture, weeding the garden and hanging wet laundry on the clothesline to dry in the hot summer breezes. There was no need for sleep-away camp: we pitched tents in the yard, hiked in the back lot down by the creek, and acted in plays we wrote atop a flatbed wagon moored under an oak tree.

And when we wore ourselves out, we flopped on the grass and tried to make sense out of the clouds. We told each other stories and reflected upon our existence. Who has time to reflect any more? Who even takes a vacation? According to a report by the Center for Economic Policy and Research, the United States is the only advanced economy that doesn’t require employers to provide paid vacation time. Nearly a quarter of all Americans receive no vacation or paid holidays, trailing far behind the rest of the world. And when we do manage to drag our sorry selves out of town, we take our technology with us, arguing that if we don’t keep up with our work there will be an ominous backlog awaiting our return.
In other words, we are always plugged in and turned on. There is never a dull moment in our lives, no time to process what is happening, and no opportunity to reflect.
Perhaps the only time that we reflect as a community is during vigils, of which there are, tragically, too many these days. As I write this, I think about the two vigils I will attend later today: one as a chaplain at New York University, the other as a neighbor in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Last night a vigil was held in front of the Stonewall Inn, birthplace of the gay rights movement.
I wear a shirt bearing the words “LOVE conquers HATE,” because I want to believe that this is true, in spite of overwhelming contradictory evidence. I want to hold fast to a faith in the goodness of humanity. I want to be in the company of people who share that faith. 

But it is so hard. We have gathered too many times and held too many memorials. We have held one another close to cry and to comfort. And we have railed against the moneyed interests that continue to supply the weapons that wreak this havoc.

Hate and fear, fueled by prejudice nurtured in religious, political and ideological communities, are armed to the teeth. How can compassion compete? And yet we must try.
I carry with me, at all times, a Tonglen practice written by Buddhist nun Pema Chodron. Today I took it out and read: “In order to have compassion for others, we have to have compassion for ourselves. . . To have compassion means not to run from the pain of finding hatred and fear in ourselves.”
I traveled back to the summer days of my childhood innocence to reconnect with who I was then. I was lucky to have been given that time and space. Others have not been; they have suffered in ways I cannot imagine. Some recovered; many have not. Take time this summer to reflect upon that reality. Reconnect with who you are and find compassion for yourself so that you can share it with the world.

Leader’s Message – “Bathroom Politics & Ethics” – June 2016

May 13, 2016

There are myriad problems in this country crying out for our attention: poverty, climate change, and racism, to name a few. Surely, which bathroom one uses is of little consequence, right? Not as far as the state of North Carolina is concerned. In March it passed a law restricting public restroom access to the sex cited on a person’s birth certificate. This was a first, and it drew immediate condemnation, but other states and localities are considering similar legislation.


Having lost a long battle to prevent the nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage, social conservatives have turned their attention to transgender rights and efforts to allow certain types of anti-LGBT discrimination based on religious beliefs. They contend that expanding anti-bias protections to bathrooms and locker rooms increases the risk of sexual predators molesting women and girls on those premises.


This myth persists in spite of the fact that experts, including law enforcement officials and advocates for victims of sexual assault, have called it baseless. Research has shown that women are no more vulnerable in public restrooms than in any other public space. Furthermore, since sexual assault and harassment are already illegal, this legislation is unnecessary. Once again, women are used to “shield” social conservatives from their real motivation. It is a strategy used throughout U.S. history to discriminate against marginalized groups for the sake of “women’s safety.” As Dru Levasseur, Transgender Rights Project director for the LGBT-rights group Lambda Legal, said “It gets down to prejudice and it’s not based on any kind of reality.”


In early May, the Justice Department threatened to sue North Carolina, or strip some of its federal funding, if it did not scrap its divisive law. North Carolina’s governor responded by suing the Justice Department, accusing it of “baseless and blatant overreach”—and of  “being a bully.” This prompted a counter suit, describing the restroom restrictions as “impermissibly discriminatory.” Then, on May 13, the Obama administration issued a letter to every public school district in the country directing them to use the bathrooms that match their gender identity. While lacking the force of law, it contains an implicit threat of lawsuits and loss of federal aid.


If you are confused by all of this, I suggest you visit the Lamda Legal website. There is a downloadable FAQ: Answers to Some Common Questions about Equal Access to Public Restrooms at http://www.lambdalegal.org/know-your-rights/transgender/restroom-faq. It includes these definitions: “Transgender refers to people whose gender identity, one’s inner sense of being male, female or something else, differs from their assigned or presumed sex at birth. . . Gender-nonconforming people don’t meet society’s expectations of gender roles.” Identity and expression should also not be confused with sexual orientation. There is a difference between knowing who we are and knowing whom we love.


The odds are great that you know and interact with these people; they don’t wear labels. But now social conservatives want them to wear labels and carry IDs before entering public restrooms.


So much for politics. Now what about ethics? Last month I met with two young transgender men to discuss starting a support group for their peers who feel unwelcome at LGBTQ settings where “We are asked to check our masculinity at the door.” “What does that even mean?” they want to know. They want to be seen as individuals, not as labels. Don’t we all want that? I often think of the words of Ethical Culture founder Felix Adler that I use to close my guided meditation: “The spiritual nature, the best in each person, does not need to be saved, it needs to be recognized.” Everyone longs to be recognized as a person of worth and dignity. We have it within our power to grant that wish.


Finally, the most ethical statement was made by Attorney General Loretta Lynch:


This action is about a great deal more than just bathrooms.  This is about the dignity and respect we accord our fellow citizens and the laws that we, as a people and as a country, have enacted to protect them – indeed, to protect all of us.  And it’s about the founding ideals that have led this country – haltingly but inexorably – in the direction of fairness, inclusion and equality for all Americans.


To which I can only add “Amen.”

Leader’s Message – Lessons Learned? – May 2016

May 13, 2016

On my walk from Union Station in Washington, DC to my lodgings, before participating in Democracy Spring last month, I noticed a memorial and stopped to read what was carved there in stone.


“Here we admit a wrong. Here we affirm our commitment as a nation to equal justice under the law.”

President Ronald W. Reagan, upon signing the Civil Liberties Act of 1988


I had entered a “sacred” space: the Memorial to Japanese-American Patriotism in WWII, designed by Japanese-American artist Nina Akamu and architect Davis Buckley, located at Louisiana Avenue and D Street NW, commemorating Japanese-American soldiers and those held in internment camps. I knew about the camps, as well the annual Day of Remembrance, held on or near February 19, the day in 1942 when President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 that required the internment of all Americans of Japanese ancestry. I had also read about the finding, in 1983, of the federal Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians “that there had been no military necessity for the mass imprisonment of Japanese-Americans and that a grave injustice had been done.” But I had neither heard about nor seen this memorial. I walked slowly through it: taking in its stark beauty, hoping that others had also taken the time to stop, and wondering how often the words “Here we admit a wrong” are spoken, never mind carved in stone. Not often enough, I suspect.


Although I admired the cast bronze sculpture, depicting two Japanese cranes caught in barbed wire, atop a pedestal, I was drawn to the words and numbers inscribed in the semi-circular granite wall curved around it. There are the names of the ten camps where over 120,000 Japanese-Americans were placed. There, too, are the names of those who died serving their country. And there is this quotation from Daniel K. Inouye, US Congressman, US Senator, and Captain of 442nd regional combat team: “The lessons learned must remain as a grave reminder of what we must not allow to happen again to any group.


I carried his words with me when I marched to the steps of the Capitol the next day. A movement is growing. People who have learned those lessons are calling upon politicians to learn them, too. We are demonstrating, and risking arrest, to call attention to the state of our nation: a home to natives and immigrants; diverse in our languages and customs, beliefs and values; and deserving of equal and fair representation. Democracy is both a promise and a responsibility.


As I reluctantly left the memorial, I read this poem written by Akemi Dawn Matsumoto Ehrlich, titled “The Legacy”:

Japanese by Blood

Hearts and Minds American

With Honor Unbowed

Bore the String of Injustice

For Future Generations

Leader’s Message – “Keeping Families Together” – April 2016

March 25, 2016

These lines from Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus” are engraved on a tablet within the pedestal on which the Statue of Liberty stands.


“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”


And these words were spoken by Joao, an undocumented day laborer on Staten Island, earlier this year when rumors were flying throughout the New York area that officials from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would be deporting families, particularly those from Central America.


“For two days I didn’t go out; I just didn’t leave the house. When family called to check on me, I told them, ‘Don’t worry. I’m hiding under the bed.’”


We are all immigrants or descended from immigrants. Do we all have the right to choose where our home will be, to put down roots in another country, to become part of a new community, to make a living and raise a family?


According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948, “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” (Article 14) Furthermore, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.” (Article 25)


Annie Moore was the first immigrant processed at Ellis Island on January 1, 1892, after she arrived from Ireland on the SS Nevada. She was inspected by an employee of the Secretary of the Treasury’s office and given a $10 gold coin by an immigration superintendent. Between 1892 and 1954, 12 million third-class and steerage immigrants passed through the halls of Ellis Island. First- and second-class immigrant travelers were processed on board steamships entering New York harbor.


Today, over 40 million immigrants live in the United States, an all-time high. Our country remains a popular destination for about 20 percent of the world’s international migrants. Unfortunately, the United States has not yet found a kind and fair way to deal with the 11 million unauthorized immigrants living in limbo, with no path to become legal and afraid of becoming separated from millions more of their citizen children. President Obama’s executive orders are stalled in federal court, and Republicans routinely block any reform. It will now be up to the next president and Congress.


The stakes are high, the rhetoric is fierce, and the rumors keep flying. People are afraid that a raid could happen at any time, anywhere. They are attending Know Your Rights meetings held across the New York area and distributing Know Your Rights palm cards (http://www.nyclu.org/publications/palm-card-what-do-if-youre-stopped-immigration-officers-2012)


We support keeping families together. To that end, the Sunday Program Committee is sharing Sunday platform collections in April with organizations that promote immigrant rights and provide services for immigrant families. Please see the information in this newsletter about them. Learn more and donate generously.



Leader’s Message – “Misogyny and Politics” – March 2016

March 25, 2016


“There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.”

Madeline Albright, February 6, 2016


Hell? Really? The former Secretary of State said this when she introduced another former Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton, at a rally in New Hampshire. Of course, she wasn’t suggesting that we women help all women, just her candidate. (On February 10, the other woman running for president, Carly Fiorina, ended her bid.) Maybe there’s another special place in hell for women who support Republican women. At any rate, damning anyone to hell seems like a bad idea to me.


A day earlier, feminist icon and founder of Ms. Magazine Gloria Steinam said in an interview on comedian Bill Maher’s HBO show, “. . . women get more radical because they lose power as they age. And, when you’re young, you’re thinking, where are the boys? The boys are with Bernie.” Maher gave her a chance to reconsider her statement by joking that he wouldn’t be allowed to make such a sexist comment, but she stuck to her guns. It took her a couple of days – and a backlash of tweets – to assert that “I misspoke. . . and apologize for what’s been misinterpreted as implying young women aren’t serious in their politics.” Really? I heard the interview and thought that she spoke very clearly – and condescendingly.


So here we have two Second Wave feminists chiding Millennial women (Fourth Wave feminists) because they have the audacity to assert their right to support the presidential candidate whom they feel best expresses their interests and values. They do look forward to the day when a woman takes her place in the Oval Office, just not Hillary. What do we make of this? Surely shaming and scolding a younger generation of women is not only high-handed, but ineffective.


I, too, am a Second Wave feminist, and, for my Women’s History Month column, was all set to lambast Republicans for their “War on Women” (the topic of my lunch discussion on March 24, with a long list of misogynist legislation). Instead, thanks to Madeline and Gloria, I’m turning back to First Wave feminists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and their (failed) efforts to win suffrage for American women. It wasn’t until 1920, after their deaths, that another generation succeeded. These western New York State friends, and many of their neighbors, were political radicals. Such was not the case for other women. Remember that the women’s suffrage movement grew, in part, out of the Temperance movement that was rife with conservative Christians. Anthony’s organizational skills were put to the test as president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association after Stanton published The Woman’s Bible, a controversial best-seller that attacked the use of the Bible to subjugate women (a practice still prevalent today). Conservative opponents denounced the book, and Anthony started spending more time with her daughter in London.


Gloria Steinem’s goddaughter Rebecca Walker (writer Alice Walker’s daughter), launched a new era of feminism in an essay entitled “Becoming the Third Wave,” published in Ms. Magazine in 1992. In it she wrote, “I am ready to decide, as my mother decided before me, to devote much of my energy to the history, health, and healing of women. Each of my choices will have to hold to my feminist standard of justice. To be a feminist is to integrate an ideology of equality and female empowerment into the very fiber of my life.” Some older women called this new generation “ungrateful daughters.” Not Steinem, though; she listened. It’s time for her to listen again to a generation of women saying that they will decide.

Wondering about feminist waves? It’s confusing! Stop by my office for a chat.


Leader’s Message – “A City of Compassion?” – February 2016

March 25, 2016


On the morning of January 5, Mayor Bill DeBlasio reinstituted an event started by his predecessor, Mayor Michael Bloomberg: the annual Interfaith Breakfast. I’m glad he did. It’s an important tradition that brings together hundreds of clergy, from across all five boroughs, to the New York Public Library to hear about the city’s initiatives to help the neediest New Yorkers – and ask for our support. It’s a call for compassion.


Mayor DeBlasio focused primarily on mental health, affordable housing and homelessness, as well he should, given the appalling statistics. According to the Coalition for the Homeless, “In November 2015, there were 59,929 homeless people, including 14,476 homeless families with 23,912 homeless children, sleeping each night in the New York City municipal shelter system.” Thousands more sleep on city sidewalks. People with serious mental illnesses find the tight shelter quarters, with their rules and regulations and as many as a hundred beds in a single room, daunting. “You are the necessary allies,” he told us.


As I chatted with the clergy at my table – friends I have met through our social justice work – and listened to the reflections of colleagues from different faith traditions on the stage, I recalled the words of Karen Armstrong, founder of the global movement, The Charter for Compassion: “A compassionate city is an uncomfortable city!  A city that is uncomfortable when anyone is homeless or hungry.  Uncomfortable if every child isn’t loved and given rich opportunities to grow and thrive.  Uncomfortable when as a community we don’t treat our neighbors as we would wish to be treated.”


The early work of the Charter, which was launched in 2009, focused on building a network of cities. It has now grown to include other communities, large and small, that want to put compassion at the heart of their activities. The Compassionate Communities program doesn’t issue a certificate or seal of approval. Nor does it promote one way of practicing compassion. Instead it recommends that a process be designed and implemented by a diverse and inclusive coalition of people so that all voices are heard and all needs addressed. Each community conducts its own evaluation of what is “uncomfortable” in its unique culture, recognizing which issues cause pain and suffering to its members. The Charter’s goal is to support communities whose members are moved by empathy to take compassionate action in making the well-being of the entire community their priority.


I entreat our mayor to join this program. He made an excellent start by fulfilling a campaign promise to provide free universal pre-kindergarten. This fall an estimated 65,000 children enrolled in the program, at a cost of $400 million, putting New York City at the forefront of a movement that is slowly catching on in other cities. As DeBlasio said in an interview on National Public Radio, “Look, this is a tough place to do this. This is a school system with a lot of kids living in poverty, a lot of kids who are English-language learners, a lot of kids with special needs, but it’s working.” His administration has also undertaken a comprehensive approach to tackling income inequality by increasing the city’s Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act, expanding paid sick leave to 500,000 more workers, creating new workforce development programs, and working with a broad coalition to secure local control of minimum wage from Albany.


Imagine how much more the Mayor, City Council members, city agency heads and borough presidents could accomplish if they explicitly and intentionally prioritized compassion. Yes, many of his initiatives work, and he faces many challenges to make others work, too. Politics – party and personal – play a major role. What if compassion played a more important role than politics? What if the empathy of every New Yorker could be motivated and mobilized? I believe it could work, and that is why I have requested to be included in the Mayor’s Clergy Advisory Council. I enjoy the annual breakfasts, but Ethical Humanism needs to be added to what is described as “a diverse set of local clergy tasked with liaising between members of the Administration and local faith communities.” Don’t you agree?



Leader’s Message – “Enough Is Enough!” – January 2016

December 16, 2015

We have all heard the expression “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” I have been paying attention, and I am outraged. That emotion has almost paralyzed me as I gasp for breath in between every day’s new revelations of violence, hate and demagoguery.


Today, on the 35th anniversary of John Lennon’s murder, I am trying to imagine the world he described, because I, too, am a dreamer. A world with no heaven or hell, no countries and no religions, no possessions and no need for greed or hunger.


We know that humanity yearns for a world of peace, where we can live together as one, and we are trying our best to join together, but there are people standing in our way. We are dreamers who must take action now. Today and every day we must stand for peace by calling out those who preach hate and teach violence, by confronting those who sell death and pay politicians to deny us safe communities, by responding to those who stand on expensive soapboxes and try to brainwash decent people.


Enough is enough! I call upon the members of this ethical community and the people of this city, state, nation, country and world to make your voices heard. Yell from the highest mountaintops and skyscrapers; let your voices ring from the deepest valleys; call across rivers, oceans and boundaries to one another as together we the people stand for peace, for the end of violence and hatred, and for our joining hands in every way possible – and impossible.


Today I publicly decry the demagoguery of all political candidates who, by their words, demean our democracy and incite violence. The definition of a demagogue is “a political leader who seeks support by appealing to popular desires and prejudices rather than by using rational argument,” (Oxford English Dictionary). We deserve far better from those who hope to serve us as President of the United States, speaking in our name to the people of the world. Not in my name will I allow anyone to wage war against peace, understanding and love. You shouldn’t allow it either.

December 8, 2015

Note: This statement, a clarion call to action, was posted to our website, nysec.org, on 12/8/2015.

Postscript: I always carry a poem, “Choose to Bless the World,” by Rebecca Parker, in my purple plastic action folder. Last year I rearranged some of the lines so that it works as a call-and-response reading, and I have used it at demonstrations and vigils. I return to it, now that I have expressed my outrage, to remind me that we all have gifts – “the mind’s power, the strength of the hands, the reaches of the heart” – that “can be used to bless or curse the world.” There is much work ahead of us, and it cannot be done in anger. We need to discover our gifts and use them wisely. Our community strives to be a place where everyone feels safe, heard, and supported; a place where we learn about, and how to effectively address, the world’s problems. The language we must use is compassion, especially for those with whom we fundamentally disagree. That is perhaps our greatest ethical challenge. This month I’m starting a course called “Democracy Is a Verb” [see page 4] that I offer as a means to learn more about the political system in which we live and the ways in which we can participate to make sure that every voice is heard and every gift is appreciated.