Archive for May, 2011

Leader’s Message – “Expressions of Faith” – June 2011

May 20, 2011

If you are reading this column, then either you have been left behind while others judged more worthy have been “raptured” into heaven, and you are awaiting the annihilation of the universe on October 21, or there are some very disappointed post-Millerites trying to understand why they are still here with us. Let me explain: According to evangelist Harold Camping, 89-year old founder of Family Radio, a Christian network worth more than $100 million, there was to have been an apocalyptic earthquake heralding the Second Coming of Jesus on May 21. Like William Miller (1782-1849), founder of the Adventist church who predicted October 22, 1844 as Judgment Day, Camping practices a branch of theology called eschatology, a study of “End Times” that relies upon interpreting codes hidden in the Bible.

Camping has gone down this road before, having also predicted September 6, 1994 as Judgment Day, but his 2011 recalculation was trusted by innumerable people across the country, including Adrienne and Joel Martinez, a young couple with a 2-year old daughter and another child due this month. “Knowing the date of the end of the world changes all your future plans,” said Adrienne, who planned on going to medical school until she began tuning in to Family Radio. She and her family moved from New York City to Orlando, FL a year ago, rented a house and passed out tracts about Judgment Day. “Why are we going to work for more money? It just seemed kind of greedy to me. And unnecessary.” They budgeted their savings so that on May 21 they would have nothing left.

The Millerites of the 19th century also attracted many thousands of people, transforming what was an obscure movement in upstate NY into a national campaign by pioneering mass journalism and rallies to disseminate their message. When October 22, 1844 ended like any other day, the “Great Disappointment” left them bewildered and disillusioned. The majority simply gave up their beliefs; others rejoined their previous denominations. They learned an important lesson about the dangers of date setting and returned to scripture to read this warning from Jesus to his disciples: “No man knoweth the day nor the hour of my coming.”

I often wonder what kind of faith motivates people like Camping – not just the date setting, but the doctrine of the Rapture that keeps believers in a state of constant readiness, convinced that they can be snatched from the earth at any moment. Does it encourage ethical behavior or judgment of others who do not share their beliefs? The man who handed me a pamphlet in Grand Central Station warned me to put my life in order before it was too late. I told him that every day offers us opportunities to act ethically. When he said that Jesus was coming to judge me, “end of story,” I rushed to catch my train.

Judgment seems to be an expression of many faiths. On what basis are we judged – beliefs or behavior? What is the purpose of judgment – to win a place in heaven or to learn better ways of living on earth? Who judges and by what authority? Does this judgment lead to punishment or reconciliation? There are so many questions and so many people who think they have the answers.

Ethical Culture founder Felix Adler observed, “Theologians often say that faith must come first, and that morality must be deduced from faith. We say that morality must come first, and faith, to those whose nature fits them to entertain it, will come out of the experience of a deepened moral life as its richest, choicest fruit.”

My faith is in the capacity and desire of people to act out of goodness. I believe that the reality of human mortality, not the hope of an afterlife, calls us to give meaning to our lives by appreciating the wonder of our existence, by learning all that we can about the world around us, and by working with others – no matter what their beliefs – to make life worth living for everyone. We are sorely challenged by environmental and social catastrophes. We can choose to read these as signs of divine judgment and close up shop or we can take responsibility for our lives and roll up our sleeves. I choose to believe in people and look forward to the day when we all do.

And here’s my judgment of Harold Camping: On the morning of May 22, he should have distributed Family Radio’s $100 million dollars among his followers with an abject apology and a sincere promise to never mislead them again. Of course, human nature being what it is, they might readily follow the next Millerite.

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Founder’s Day May 2010 – “Justice for Juveniles”

May 17, 2011

Good morning and welcome to our shared home here in the auditorium of the New York Society for Ethical Culture. Today we commemorate and celebrate our history. An Ethical Movement, begun in 1876 by Felix Adler, gathered to it women and men of conscience who understood that different religious beliefs could pull people apart, but that concerted ethical action could bring them together. What became their “ultimate concern” (in the language of theologian Paul Tillich) was finding ways to make the world a safer, healthier, and more loving place to live for themselves, their families and communities, and for many generations to come. They put their faith in the human capacity for goodness.

This school was one of several institutions founded by members of the New York Society for Ethical Culture. It began as a Workingman’s School with the understanding that everyone deserved an education. The excellent education offered here attracted families from across the city. Indeed, word of the “learning by doing” educational philosophy of the Ethical Culture School reached across the country and drew John Dewey, a philosopher from the University of Chicago and a friend of Ethical Culturist Jane Addams of Hull House renown, to New York City to enroll his children here. Dewey is best known as the Father of Pragmatism. The goal of education for him was to prepare us to become activist citizens in a thriving democracy.

Now why am I telling you about John Dewey? Because he was a philosopher of the people, and his classroom was not only in the university but also in the streets. He understood, as the founders of this school did, that education is never private – to benefit oneself alone; it is always public – to benefit everyone in society.

How many of you have heard of Lewis Hine? He taught photography at the Ethical Culture School for many years, and spent his vacations working with Ethical Culture members who founded the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC). Its goal was to take children out of the mills and the fields, the sweat shops and the mines into safe, healthy environments where they could grow up learning. His cameras were not the size of the ones that many of you have in your cell phones. They were huge and weighed a lot. It wasn’t easy sneaking them into the places where children worked so that the Committee could publish the photographs he took and bring this social injustice to the public eye. Lewis Hine risked his life on many occasions.

Child labor ended in the United States, but it continues in many parts of the world: the topic for another talk. Today, right here in New York City and State, one of the greatest challenges we face is reforming the Juvenile Justice system that incarcerates more than 1,600 children – the overwhelming majority of color and from under-privileged families – in facilities, often far away from their homes, at a cost of $240,000 per child per year. At the same time, funds that could put these children into alternative education programs are being slashed. This is a social injustice that members of the New York Society are addressing. On April 24, we held a conference of concerned organizations and individuals demanding immediate changes in the government agencies charged with caring for children in trouble. We will hold a follow-up conference here on July 21 to promote an activist agenda.

Ethical Culture Fieldston School was never meant to be a learning community for only its students and families; it always had a mission to reach out to society and challenge its injustices, especially when they impact children. Let us work together again to right this wrong. Join us back here on July 21 and contact me to learn more about our activities.

And now, let us look to the future and congratulate the Class of 2010!

Founder’s Day May 2011 – “Children Leading the Way”

May 17, 2011

Good morning! I always enjoy welcoming you on Founder’s Day here in the Meeting House of the New York Society for Ethical Culture. It is an occasion to recognize our shared history and ethical aspirations.

After bringing families together to start this Society in 1876, Dr. Felix Adler wanted to establish free kindergartens so that the young children of poor working parents could spend time away from the crowded tenements where they lived and get a better start in life. The Workingman’s School, started in 1878, eventually grew into an eight-grade elementary school and then a high school dedicated to progressive education that combined theory with practice. So successful was Dr. Adler’s plan that members of the Society enrolled their children, too, and it became the Ethical Culture School, bringing together students from different backgrounds who would develop important and lasting relationships. They would realize our founder’s lifelong commitment to social reform.

Over the years our two institutions – the Ethical Culture Society and the Ethical Culture School – have grown apart, something that can happen when people are busy doing important work, and today most of our members enroll their children in public schools. They come here to participate in our ethics program, and I want to tell you about two of their projects this year – one halfway around the world, the other just a couple of blocks away.

A few years ago, Andeisha Farid came here to tell us about the first parwarishga, or “foster haven,” she started to serve the needs of children in Kabul. She had grown up in war-torn Afghanistan and dreamed of helping orphans, victims of child labor and street children who were forced to beg, so she founded The Afghan Child Education and Care Organization (AFCECO). That year our children held a fundraising dance to raise money to help her.

Every year Andeisha returns, and in March she brought three of her students with her. Together the children wrote a song, “Same Dream,” which they performed at an event to encourage families to sponsor students in six new orphanages and schools for 300 new girls and boys. The next Sunday Clara practically flew into her ethics class, excited about a skype conversation she had just had with a student her family sponsors.

In addition to helping out with our homeless women’s shelter downstairs in Social Hall, our teens volunteer at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church Shelter on Thursday evenings to cook a fresh, nutritious, and delicious dinner for the guests. They have a lot of fun cooking and serving the meal, and don’t even mind the cleaning, dishwashing and mopping that follows. Here’s what a couple of them told me:

“Going to the soup kitchen really opened my eyes and helped me appreciate what I have in my life. This group also helped me believe that people of different backgrounds can come together for a specific reason.” – Anabel Sosa

“My favorite experience was getting to meet Afghan orphans who were my age and learning about how they overcame their hardships. I think it’s important to learn about world issues so we can improve people’s lives, starting in our own community and working our way outward until we have a global impact on the world.” – Julia Cohen

“Helping out at the soup kitchen taught me how to have fun while doing something good for our society. This program has let me be someone who I truly am, and let me realize that I can do something good for our community one step at a time.” – Ali Riemer

Since the NY Society is a member of the Interfaith Assembly on Homelessness and Housing, some of the teens will join me on June 1st for “Blessed Night Out,” an annual event when activists spend the night in City Hall Park to call attention to the needs of the homeless. This year we are especially concerned about the drastic cuts in state and city funding that will put more of our neighbors on the streets.

And now from all of our children to all of you, and on behalf of the members of the NY Society, I wish you a Happy Founder’s Day and congratulations to the Class of 2011!