Archive for January, 2014

February 2014 – “NAACP Roots in Ethical Culture” – Leader’s Message

January 20, 2014

During the first week of January 1909, three people met in a small room of a New York City apartment and decided that on the centennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday they would issue a call for a national conference on “The Negro question.” They were Ethical Culture Leader Dr. Henry Moskowitz, Unitarian Mary White Ovington and William English Walling, a reporter who covered the race riots the summer before in Lincoln’s home of Springfield, Illinois.

For two days in the summer of 1908, a mob of white people, including some of Springfield’s “best citizens,” raged against the African-Americans of their city. As they killed and wounded them, and destroyed their homes and businesses, these racists shouted, “Lincoln freed you. Now we’ll show you where you belong!” There were other race riots throughout the country, but no one described the atrocities as vividly as Walling did in his article, “Race War in the North.” He also asked an important question: “Yet who realizes the seriousness of the situation, and what large and powerful body of citizens is ready to come to their aid?” After reading Walling’s article, Ovington, who for years had been studying the housing conditions, health, and work opportunities of African-Americans in New York City, and lived in one of their neighborhood tenements, wrote to him: “The spirit of the abolitionists must be revived.”

The trio, having decided to call for a conference, reached out to Oswald Garrison Villard, president of the NY Evening Post, grandson of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, and member of the New York Society for Ethical Culture. It was he who drafted the “Call for the Lincoln Emancipation Conference to Discuss Means for Securing Political and Civil Equality for the Negro” and widely disseminated it. It begins with this challenge:

“The celebration of the centennial of the birth of Abraham Lincoln widespread and grateful as it may be, will fail to justify itself if it takes no note and makes no recognition of the colored men and women to whom the great emancipator labored to assure freedom. Besides a day of rejoicing, Lincoln’s birthday in 1909 should be one of taking stock of the nation’s progress since
1865. How far has it lived up to the obligations imposed upon it by the Emancipation Proclamation? How far has it gone in assuring to each and every citizen, irrespective of color, the equality of opportunity and equality before the law, which underlie our American institutions and are guaranteed by the Constitution?”

Villard catalogued the gross injustices African-Americans continued to endure since the Emancipation Proclamation. The Call ends, as if in anticipation of what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would say almost 60 years later – “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” – with these words:

“Silence under these conditions means tacit approval. . . Discrimination once permitted cannot be bridled; recent history in the South shows that in forging chains for the negroes, the white voters are forging chains for themselves. . . Hence we call upon all the believers in democracy to join in a national conference for the discussion of present evils, the voicing of protests, and the renewal of the struggle for civil and political liberty.”

Among the 53 signers were four Ethical Culture Leaders: Jane Addams and Walter Salter from Chicago and John Lovejoy Elliott and Henry Moskowitz from New York. The proposed conference was opened on the evening of May 30, 1909 with an informal reception at the Henry Street Settlement hosted by Lillian D. Wald, and deliberations began the next day at Cooper Union. According to Mary White Ovington, “These men and women, engaged in religious, social and educational work, for the first time met the Negro who demands, not a pittance, but his full rights in the commonwealth. . . They did not want to leave the meeting.”

Out of this first conference was formed a committee that, by the end of the year, held four mass meetings, distributed thousands of pamphlets and grew to hundreds in membership. At a second conference in May 1910, a permanent body known as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was organized. The most important work of this conference was the appointment of W.E.B. DuBois, leader of the Niagara Movement formed in 1905, to the position of Director of Publicity and Research. Twenty years later, DuBois wrote to Walling about the “cousins” who together founded a mighty movement for civil rights.

As we look back upon our history, let us again stalwartly take up the challenge of “assuring to each and every citizen, irrespective of color, the equality of opportunity and equality before the law, which underlie our American institutions and are guaranteed by the Constitution.” We are, tragically, again facing a moment when the rights of our “cousins” are being attacked. We must not be silent! Take action today by joining a local branch of the NAACP ( and the American Civil Liberties Union (, another organization founded by Ethical Culture.

The very first image of The Crisis, the official journal of the NAACP.


January 2014 – “Sleepless in Solidarity” – Leader’s Message

January 20, 2014

I had to wake up at 4 am, so I had to fall asleep. But I couldn’t. I had to fall asleep, so I drank hot cider with a stick of cinnamon and a shot of bourbon. Delicious, but it didn’t work. So I read. The novel on the top of my nightstand pile had done the trick before, but it wasn’t working. I still couldn’t sleep. I could have easily finished the book, but I couldn’t. I had to wake up at 4 am.

I lay awake in bed, eyes closed, thinking about . . . everything. Nothing escaped my attention; nothing was too small or insignificant to ponder and analyze. A parade of people marched under my eyelids, and every one of them had a story that I was forced to replay, like running a projector on the screen of a darkened and empty movie theater. I was mostly thinking about the workers who would soon be going on strike at fast food restaurants all across the country.

Just relax, I kept telling myself. You’re lying down, your eyes are closed. Even if you’re not sleeping, you’re relaxing. Only I wasn’t. I kept going through the next day’s (now this day’s) agenda:
• Meet clergy colleagues on the corner of 52nd and 8th Avenue in Manhattan at 5:30 am
• Combine forces with workers and community organizers at 6 am and head to the McDonald’s on Broadway
• Enter restaurant by any means possible and take it over by 6:30 am
• Start the program with Ethical Culture Leader Algernon Black’s Invocation and line up the speakers: workers and clergy
• Leave when the police arrive and reconvene on the sidewalk
• Be prepared with living wage chants – and let the politicians speak (but not too much)

Easy peasy. But what if we can’t get into the restaurant? What if the police are already there and arrest us? What if no reporters show up? What if I fail? What if?

Enough already! Relax! Oh, yeah, that’s gonna work. I get up to make some more notes, go to the bathroom. Don’t look at the clock! You don’t want to know how late it is and how little sleep you’re going to get. I have to sleep. I have to wake up on time. People are counting on me.

But I’m not the only one; I’m part of a team: The Clergy-Worker Justice Table. We all support one another through breakfast meetings, teleconferences, emails and texts. This is not our first fast food action; we are pros. My heart breaks whenever I hear workers tell their stories about walking to work because they can’t afford public transportation; long shifts or reduced hours; children to feed, clothe and educate; sleepless nights wondering how to pay all the bills. Sleepless nights, just like this one.

The alarm goes off, and I wake up, so I must have slept after all. What was my last thought before I drifted off? Whose face did I see? Now I see my own in the mirror as I brush my teeth. Soon I’ll get dressed, pulling on my Ethical vest over a warm sweater, and head out the door to the subway. I’m ready.

The photographs accompanying this piece document the workers’ strike at McDonald’s early on Thursday, December 5. When I arrived, two NYSEC members, Meg Chapman and Elinore were already there and quickly learned the chants, falling into line for the march and storming the store with scores of other people. It was pure joy to hear the words of Algernon Black’s Invocation repeated back in classic Occupy Wall Street “mike check” fashion and to clear the way for workers’ voices to be heard. Here’s the link to Democracy Now’s video:

December 2013 – “Sunday Assembly at the Ethical Society” – Leader’s Message

January 20, 2014

“Good evening and welcome to the New York Society for Ethical Culture, a non-theist congregation founded in 1876 and dedicated to the practice of ethics.”

I was the speaker at Sunday Assembly’s New York City event (on Monday evening, November 4th) featuring founders Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans. They are comedians from the United Kingdom, and Pippa also sings. The story they tell is that they were en route to a gig when they discussed their shared disbelief in a god and wondered how many people felt, as they did, that they were missing out on some good times singing and clapping and hugging strangers just because they didn’t go to church. So they did something that was new for them (but not, of course, for us) and created Sunday Assembly, a joyful gathering that takes the best parts of church – and leaves god behind. It was a hit in London, and young people in their 20s and 30s flocked to the venues where bands played upbeat music, Sanderson told jokes, and Pippa led them in song. Their celebration of the wonder and awe of life sans the divine went viral on the Internet, and by July there was a gathering at a bar on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Several people from Ethical Culture and local humanists groups checked out the “new” godless congregation, and came away saying, “OK, so they’re atheists. Big deal. What will they do next?” “Next” was my meeting with a graduate student at Columbia University who was on the newly-formed Sunday Assembly board. We began a conversation that culminated in producing an event together: The first U.S. stop in Sanderson and Pippa’s “40 Dates and 40 Nights” tour of taking Sunday Assembly around the world.

The theme of the evening was seasonally appropriate: Harvest. I considered the topic both literally and metaphorically. “How many of you grew up on farm?” I asked the audience. A few hands went up. “Ever lived on one?” – a few more hands. “Visited? Picked apples? Stopped at a farm stand?” It seemed that almost everyone had some concept of a place where seeds were planted and food harvested, where communal work was done. I shared a story from our Family Programs Director, Audrey Kindred, whose public school in Maine started in August so that children could be released in October to help harvest potatoes on local farms. The entire community participated. It was that important to everyone. Sadly, this ritual no longer exists; agribusiness has taken over. Food is no longer a communal affair of reaping what one has sown.

And yet the image of harvesting stays with us as a lively and lovely metaphor. We sow seeds of love or discord and reap the consequences of our behavior. Seasons evoke the cycle of life, reminding us that we are part of nature: evolving and enmeshed with all living things. We can and we must choose how to live and love, aspiring to creating ethical relationships.

Since I relished the opportunity to share with these newcomers the wisdom of Ethical Culture, I quoted Leader A. Eustace Haydon (1880 – 1975):
“The Humanist rarely loses the feeling of at-homeness in the universe. The Humanist is conscious of being an earth-child. There is a mystic glow in this sense of belonging. Memories of one’s long ancestry still linger in muscle and nerve, in brain and germ cell. On moonlit nights, in the renewal of life in the springtime, before the glory of a sunset, in moments of swift insight, people feel the community of their own physical being with the body of mother earth. Rooted in millions of years of planetary history, the earthling has a secure feeling of being at home, and a consciousness of pride and dignity as a bearer of the heritage of the ages.”
The band played on, accompanying our singing of the Beatles’ “Help” and “Lean on Me” by Bill Withers. Sanderson spoke eloquently about developing a practice of gratitude, and Syd Leroy from Center for Inquiry told the story of “Stone Soup” in dulcet tones, accompanied by a mandolin. At the end of the program, we congregated downstairs in social hall to partake of the food and drink members of our team had brought to share.

I am hopeful that Sunday Assembly will fulfill the needs of a younger generation for more music and movement and fewer words. More people want to experience humanism in tactile, not abstract, ways. It’s time to encourage different expressions and modalities of our non-theistic religion of ethics. The next Sunday Assembly meets on Sunday, December 1, at 2 pm in Ceremonial Hall. The theme is “Wonder.” Please join me then and there!