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.”

 

https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Democracy_and_Education

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.

Ethical Treatment of Our Homeless Neighbors

December 16, 2015

I usually approach the New York Society for Ethical Culture, where I serve as clergy leader, from Central Park West and look across the street from the park at the words carved into stone on the corner of our meeting house: “Dedicated to the ever-increasing knowledge and practice and love of the right.”

Today “the right” is used to identify a socially conservative political stance, but in 1910, when these words were inscribed, it referred to ethics and a community determined to do the right thing in challenging times. Since founding the Society in 1876, members have sought ways to make the world a better place for everyone, beginning with improving living conditions in tenement housing and forming settlement houses that built affordable housing.

Nearly 140 years later, we still live in challenging times and continue our commitment to treating the homeless as our neighbors and working for affordable housing. Today, we have many partners in the Interfaith Assembly on Homelessness and Affordable Housing. In addition to providing shelter for homeless women for over thirty years, the Society hosts events that gather advocates from across the city and state to work in concert for affordable housing.

The latest event, held on October 23, “Campaign 4 NY/NY Housing,” called upon Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio to work together and with the more than 200 state and local organizations calling for 30,000 new units of supportive housing over the next ten years for our most vulnerable neighbors: the homeless, now about 60,000 people who sleep in city shelters or on city streets every night. This statistic includes over 14,000 families with nearly 24,000 children; and it has reached the highest levels since The Great Depression of the 1930s.

How did this happen? Research compiled by the Coalition for the Homeless from data collected by the city Department of Homeless Services and Human Resources Administration shows that the primary cause of homelessness is lack of affordable housing, triggered by eviction and job loss, severely overcrowded and hazardous housing conditions, domestic violence, and serious mental health disorders. This social “perfect storm” has put a strain on the resources of private and public organizations throughout the city, especially in Manhattan, which holds nearly 60 percent of our unsheltered homeless.

How do we address this community reality? Mayor de Blasio, whose administration recently announced a plan to create 15,000 supportive housing units over fifteen years at a cost of $3 billion, will face pushback from neighborhood leaders who oppose the siting of those units. But, it is absolutely essential. Negotiations with Governor Cuomo over a new “New York/New York” deal, the much-anticipated fourth city-state supportive housing plan, are at an impasse. Local advocates, including we clergy in theInterfaith Assembly, are frustrated with the de Blasio-Cuomo feud and have written to both politicians imploring them to stop playing politics and start acting like the leaders we elected them to be. This is an ethical issue that demands immediate and non-egotistical action.

In the meantime, how can we be the good neighbors that so many of us want to be? NYPD Commissioner Bratton has urged New Yorkers not to give money to homeless people living on the streets, and Mayor de Blasio has said that the best way to help is to donate to nonprofit organizations serving homeless people. I agree, we should donate to shelters and organizations, and I hope that more people will volunteer at shelters, including ours. But I see no harm in making a direct and personal donation to individuals. Offering money can be awkward, but offering a piece of fruit, a wrapped sandwich, or a coupon to a restaurant is appreciated. We can also provide information about local sites that offer meals and hot showers. Interfaith Assembly on Homelessness and Housing offers a helpful resource that can be referenced, printed, or circulated by email or on social media.

The most important way of helping is to see others as people worthy of dignity and respect. Bear in mind that many people who live in shelters are employed, but their income isn’t enough to cover housing; they are not lazy and useless.

When I leave the Society for Ethical Culture’s meeting house, I always stop to read at least one passage from the “sacred” text mounted on the north wall of our lobby: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is a document that set out, for the first time, fundamental human rights to be universally protected, and was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on December 10, 1948, in the wake of World War II.

Today I read very closely Article 25(1): “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.”

No doubt some New Yorkers have become numb to seeing homeless people on our streets. Homelessness in our city has nearly doubled in the last decade, and “compassion fatigue” can occur, especially if we feel there is nothing we can do to make a difference. But when we acknowledge our common humanity, encounter people with an open heart and gentle words, educate ourselves about the resources available in our communities, and resolve to act, we can make a real difference in the lives of our neighbors.Ethical Treatment of Our Homeless Neighbors

Leader’s Message – “2016 Parliament of the World’s Religions” – December 2015

December 16, 2015

“10,000 People, 80 Nations, 50 Faiths”

 

Like Brigadoon, a mysterious Scottish village which appears for only one day every hundred years in the musical by the same name, the Parliament of the World’s Religions, held in Chicago for the first time in 1893, wasn’t convened again until 1993, again in Chicago. That first formal gathering drew representatives from Eastern and Western spiritual traditions and is recognized as the birth of interreligious dialogue worldwide. Although a decision was made at the second Parliament to convene every five years, the next one took place in 1999 in Cape Town; the following parliaments met in Barcelona in 2004, Melbourne in 2009, and Salt Lake City from October 15 to 19 this year. At the closing plenary meeting, we heard the happy news that we will now meet every two years.

 

At the first Parliament, nineteen women, spoke; among them were Ethical Culture “lecturers” Jane Addams and Anna Garlin Spencer. Other women wrote papers, but weren’t allowed by their faiths to publicly present them, so men took their places on stage. At this year’s Parliament, whose theme was “Reclaiming the Heart of Our Humanity – Working Together for a World of Compassion, Peace, Justice and Sustainability,” it was clear that throughout the world and in most of the world’s religions, more women are taking leadership roles. I felt proud to represent Ethical Culture, as I did at the 2009 Parliament, and delighted that my daughter (and NYSEC member) Emily Newman joined me. We were both inspired by the remarkable women we met and heard, including Karen Armstrong, Jane Goodall, and indigenous spiritual grandmothers who shared their traditional wisdom with us.

 

Of course, there is still much work to be done, and that is why we approved a “Declaration for the Dignity and Human Rights of Women,” intended to elicit the commitment and action of the world’s religious leaders, adherents and institutions to improving the quality of life experienced by women and girls everywhere. It states the problem: “The struggle for the dignity and equal rights of women is the global human and civil rights struggle of our time. War and violence, economic disparity and impoverishment, environmental damage and its devastating consequences fall disproportionately upon women and girls who also suffer the most prevalent injustices in our world today.” And it calls for “Commitments of Conscience” that include calls to “alleviate the unwarranted deprivation and suffering of women and girls,. . . challenge and change harmful teachings and practices that justify discrimination and violence against women and girls, . . . and “partner with faith and interfaith organizations working to advance women’s well-being and rights.”

 

Other declarations addressed climate change; income inequality and the widening wealth gap; hate speech, violence and war; and standing with indigenous peoples. Myriad events were held throughout the weekend – lectures, discussions, exhibits, concerts, films – far too many to take in, even with our strategy of attending different sessions and reporting back at meals. The plenary sessions were live-streamed, and videos are available among the resources on the website at http://www.parliamentofreligions.org/.

 

We also encountered humanist friends: NYSEC member Deborah Schlein, AEU  Ethical Education Director Dale McGowan,  American Humanist Association members Mel Lipman and Bob Hannah, Secular Student Alliance member Lori Fazzino, Humanist Institute alumna Vanessa Gomez Brake, and Paula Rochelle and Ben Wade from the Ethical Culture Society of Silicon Valley. We were among the many humanists and nontheists who found common ground with people of more traditional faiths, learning to live with difference and promoting a new era of cooperation for the common good of the world. As one of the grandmothers said, “We are all teachers for one another.”