Archive for the ‘Leader’s Messages’ Category

Leader’s Message – “They Are All Our Children” – September 2018

August 2, 2018

This summer we watched as one group of children was trapped in, and subsequently rescued from, a flooded cave in Thailand while another group was separated from their parents at the southwest border of the United States and held hostage to a cruel immigration policy called “zero tolerance.” A New Yorker cartoon captured the contrast by depicting children in a detention cage in Texas watching the rescue in Thailand on television.

 

We all watched. From June 23 when twelve members of the Wild Boar soccer team, aged 11 to 16 years, and their coach became trapped in the Tham Luang caves by monsoon rains to July 2 when British divers found them on a rocky ledge to the death of a former Thai Navy Seal on July 6 from lack of oxygen to the successful conclusion of the complex international rescue effort on July 10, we virtually joined their parents, who maintained a constant vigil outside the caves praying for their safe return.

 

Hundreds of experts from around the world flew in to help. Divers described treacherous conditions in the four kilometer passage that took hours to traverse. “This is the hardest mission we’ve ever done. Every step of the extraction is risky,” said Narongsuk Keasub, a diver for the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand. He added, “I’m quite emotional as a father. Everybody has this feeling because we feel like it’s our children who are inside the cave.” Our children.

 

I try to imagine the desperation that drives parents to risk their and their children’s lives to escape from the violence in their home countries, only to be treated as criminals at the U.S. border and have their children ripped from their arms. What I cannot imagine is the trauma these children experience. But Commander Jonathan White of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps could imagine it. He and the Office of Refugee Resettlement told the Trump administration last year that “There’s no question that separation of children from parents entails significant potential for traumatic psychological injury to the child.” The administration’s response was that family separation was not a policy.

 

However, on April 6, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a “zero tolerance” policy and directed federal prosecutors to criminally prosecute all adult migrants entering the country illegally. This policy change resulted in the separation of families because children cannot be held in a detention facility with their parents. Nonetheless, five days later, Homeland Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen testified that there was no policy calling for such separation. Sessions later suggested that children were being “smuggled” and stated, “If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law.”

 

By May, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly was defending the separation as “a necessary evil” and “a tough deterrent” in the administration’s effort to enforce U.S. border laws. Nielsen, however, still denied that Trump had ordered the separation as a deterrent. On June 15, her office revealed that nearly 2,000 children had been separated from their parents from April 19 to May 31. Five days later, facing a national outcry, Trump signed an executive order, drafted by Nielsen, to keep migrant families together at the U.S.-Mexico border. On June 26, U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw in San Diego, who described the Trump administration’s handling of the crisis as attempts “to address a chaotic circumstance of the government’s own making,” ordered U.S. immigration authorities to reunite separated families within 30 days, children younger than 5 years within 14 days.

 

Again, the whole world watched. We watched as the deadlines were passed, court updates were filed, and congressional hearings were held. Judge Sabraw said that the government gave no “forethought as to reunification and keeping track of people, and that’s the fallout we’re seeing. There has to be an accounting.” Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill) said, “Someone, someone in this administration has to accept responsibility. We can have border security without bullying. We can be safe without treating toddlers like terrorists,” and called for Nielsen’s resignation.

 

The boys trapped in the Tham Luang caves are now home with their families. At the end of July, U.S. federal officials said in court that 1,012 migrant parents had been reunited with their children. Six hundred other eligible children had not yet been reunified, and no details were offered on 914 minors deemed “ineligible” for reunification.

 

Don’t we feel like these, too, are our children? I do, and thousands of people who feel the same way are coming to their rescue: attorneys with the ACLU and KIND (Kids In Need of Defense), social workers and psychologists, neighbors offering rides and home hospitality to migrant families, and advocacy groups that are drafting corrective legislation and taking to the streets in protest. From the little girls on my block whose lemonade stand raised money for the ACLU to the caravan of Grannies Respond traveling to McAllen, Texas, where they held rallies and vigils with a message of human decency, Americans are standing up for these children and together with their parents.

 

It is important that we find and nurture hope in these hard times. Children themselves inspire me. On August 10, we hosted a youth-led March for Our Lives rally featuring students from Marjorie Douglas Stoneman High School who traveled by bus across the country to register young people to vote and educate them about elected officials who refuse to stand up to the NRA. On July 30, the U.S. Supreme Court denied the administration’s request to halt proceedings in a landmark lawsuit (Juliana v. United States) brought by young people who argue that government policies have exacerbated global climate change in violation of their constitutional rights and those of future generations.

 

And in July I spent a weekend near Jackson, Mississippi with the Encampment for Citizenship, whose youth spent the month learning about and creating participatory democracy. They visited the Civil Rights Museum in Jackson, the Emmett Till Interpretive Center in Sumner, and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (aka Lynching Museum) in Montgomery, Alabama. They were guests of the Choctaw Nation and engaged in local community service. Then they planned an intergenerational weekend and shared with us adults what they had experienced. I am a mentor to my two buddies, Maryam and Bernice (see photo), who live in the NYC area, but they mentor me in hope.

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Leader’s Message – “Becoming a Humanist” – Summer 2018

July 2, 2018

Twenty years ago this summer, I spent a week at The Mountain Retreat and Learning Center in Highlands, NC atop a peak of the Great Smoky Mountains. It was the second Summer Lay Leadership training offered by the American Ethical Union, and I had heard good reports from friends who participated in 1996. Since my family had abandoned me—son traveling in Europe before entering high school, daughter working as a camp counselor, and husband attending tax law conferences—I felt it was an opportunity to also get away from home and deepen my experience of Ethical Culture. Little did I know that by the end of the week I would seriously consider becoming an Ethical Culture Leader.

 

There have been times in my life, and I imagine in yours as well, when a path seems to be revealed, and a choice must be made. It can be subtle or strong. I’ve used the metaphor of the universe tossing pebbles against my window to get my attention. Sometimes it takes a boulder to come crashing through the pane. It’s easy to ignore an invitation to try something new when old routines and doubts prevail. And yet there is something exciting about change, especially when it holds a promise of transformation: becoming more fully oneself.

 

Lay leadership training that summer, in a setting of wide natural vistas and among people whom I came to love, awakened in me a longing to grow. It was an expansive and inclusive feeling that gained clarity of thought and intention. It remained as I discussed the future with trusted family and friends when I descended from The Mountain. Essential to my personal growth and professional development was The Humanist Institute.

 

For three years, I was a student in the Humanist Studies Program Class X, co-mentored by Ethical Culture Leader Jone Johnson Lewis and Dr. Harvey Sarles, professor of Cultural Studies & Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota. Their pedagogical methodology was informed by Greek philosopher Socrates and pragmatist philosopher John Dewey. Our reading lists were long and our seminar discussions intense. Humanism came alive for me and I embraced it. Here was a philosophy—and, for me, a religion—for life.

 

Humanism has been defined in many ways since the first Humanist Manifesto was published in 1933, followed by Manifestoes II and III, in 1973 and 2003. Every practicing Humanist contributes to its meaning. My favorite definition is on the American Humanist Association’s website: “Humanism is a progressive lifestance that, without theism or other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead meaningful, ethical lives capable of adding to the greater good of humanity.”

 

My study at The Humanist Institute was accepted as the equivalent of a Master of Divinity degree by Hebrew Union College, where I earned a Doctor of Ministry degree in pastoral care. I was also certified by the American Ethical Union as an Ethical Culture Leader. When the Humanist Institute called me back to co-mentor Class XV with Dr. Anthony Pinn, professor of religion at Rice University, I seized another opportunity to grow over the course of three years of seminars. I was also asked to serve as co-Dean with the late Carol Wintermute and later with Rev. David Breeden, Senior Minister, First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis.

 

At the beginning of 2018, The Humanist Institute joined with the American Humanist Association to establish the AHA Center for Education. It’s exciting to see the new opportunities this provides for all humanists. The Humanist Studies Program courses continue to run but students are no longer required to commit to three years of seminars. This provides a more flexible experience and exposure to more Humanist teachers and students. After completing the pre-requisite course, Course 101: The Humanist Lifestance, you are eligible to take any of the other courses or complete them all to become a Certified Humanist Professional.

 

This summer James Croft, Ethical Culture Leader at the Ethical Society of St. Louis, and I are looking forward to co-teaching the next Course 101 August 24-26 at the American Humanist Association (AHA) office in Washington, DC.  Over the weekend, we will address questions of personal meaning, worth, and significance in a naturalistic way through readings, films, and personal storytelling. Anyone interested in gaining a deeper understanding of humanism and how to apply Humanist values to their daily life is welcome to attend. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain, including become more fully yourself.

 

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Leader’s Message – “June Is Torture Awareness Month” – June 2018

May 12, 2018

When you read this, Gina Haspel may be leading the Central Intelligence Agency. I hope not, but the political odds were in her favor. As Acting CIA Director, with over thirty years’ experience, Trump’s nominee was eminently qualified, but her claim, during her Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in May to have a “strong moral compass” was in serious doubt when she refused to answer whether or not she thought the CIA’s torture program developed under President George W. Bush after 9/11 was immoral.

 

“After 9/11, I didn’t look to go sit on the Swiss desk — I stepped up,” Haspel said. “I was not on the sidelines. I was on the front lines in the Cold War, and I was on the front lines in the fight against Al Qaeda.”

 

That fight employed brutal torture techniques, including waterboarding detainees, dousing them with ice water, forcing them to stay awake for as long as a week, and subjecting some to medically unnecessary rectal feeding. The program was ended in 2007 and its techniques prohibited by President Barack Obama in 2009. A report issued in 2014 by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence analyzing internal CIA documents related to the torture of terrorism suspects concluded that “the CIA’s use of its enhanced interrogation techniques was not an effective means of acquiring intelligence or gaining cooperation from detainees” and that “multiple CIA detainees fabricated information, resulting in faulty intelligence.”

 

“Having served in that tumultuous time,” Haspel said, “I can offer you my personal commitment, clearly and without reservation, that under my leadership, C.I.A. will not restart such a detention and interrogation program.”

 

When asked if she would stand up to Trump, who apparently believes that torture works, should he order her to resume that program, she replied, “I do not believe the president would ask me to do that,” adding, “I would not restart under any circumstances an interrogation program at C.I.A.” We can only hope that this is true; the evidence isn’t convincing.

 

June was declared Torture Awareness Month by human rights and faith organizations because on June 26, 1987, the nations of the world took a major step against the immoral practice of torture by establishing the Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT). The United Nations later declared June 26th the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture.

 

Why, one wonders, in spite of overwhelming evidence that torture is ineffective in eliciting reliably truthful information, does it persist? In February 2016, forty-two retired generals and admirals wrote in a letter to presidential candidates, “Torture violates our core values as a nation. Our greatest strength is our commitment to the rule of law and to the principles embedded in our Constitution. Our servicemen and women need to know that our leaders do not condone torture of any kind.”

 

Former prisoner of the Vietnam War and the chair of the Armed Services Committee John McCain was brutally tortured for more than five years but refused early release unless other captives were also freed. In a statement he made last month, he said that Haspel’s “refusal to acknowledge torture’s immorality is disqualifying,” urging his colleagues to vote against her. “As I have argued many times, the methods we employ to keep our nation safe must be as right and just as the values we aspire to live up to and promote in the world.”

 

In response, White House aide Kelly Sadler joked, “It doesn’t matter. He’s dying anyway.” Tragically, this is the kind of callous remark we have come to expect from an administration whose chief once said, in declaring that McCain was not a war hero, that he preferred “people who weren’t captured,”

 

The 2014 statement on National Security, Intelligence, and Interrogation Professionals defined torture as “a manifestation of atavistic impulses to denigrate, subjugate, and dehumanize individuals perceived to pose a threat to indivuals’ or society’s safety. It is primitive, unreasoned, and an affirmation of anger.” There is no place for such immorality in our world.

 

To learn more about Torture Awareness Month and to join the effort to end the torture of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons, visit the National Religious Campaign Against Torture at http://www.nrcat.org/.

Leader’s Message – “Mother By Choice Day” – May 2018

April 18, 2018

Leader’s Message – May 2018
Mother by Choice Day

In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson officially proclaimed the second Sunday of May “a public expression of our love and reverence for all mothers.” After seven years of campaigning for Mother’s Day, Anna Jarvis of Philadelphia, beloved daughter of Ann Reeves Jarvis, had finally succeeded. Tragically, rapid commercialization despoiled what she had hoped would be an intimate holiday “to celebrate the best mother you’ve ever known – your mother – as a son or a daughter.” Jarvis dedicated the rest of her life and her considerable inheritance to organizing boycotts, threatening lawsuits, and even attacking First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt for using Mother’s Day to raise funds for charities. She died penniless in 1948 at the age of 84 in Philadelphia’s Marshall Square Sanitarium. Jarvis, who never bore children herself, took great pains to acquire and defend her role as “Mother of Mother’s Day.”

Last year, according to the National Retail Federation’s annual Mother’s Day spending survey, Americans spent over $23 billion paying attention to their mothers. Seventy-seven percent of them sent a greeting card, making Mother’s Day the third most popular card-sending holiday after Christmas and Valentine’s Day. About 69% gave their mothers flowers, and 36% jewelry. The National Restaurant Association reports that Mother’s Day is the most popular holiday of the entire year to dine out, with nearly half of all Americans dining out. Does this mean that commercialization has won out over intimacy?

In recent years, Americans have also recognized the origin of Mother’s Day as International Peace Day. That history began in the 1850s when Jarvis’s mother, West Virginia women’s organizer Ann Reeves Jarvis, convened Mother’s Day work clubs to improve sanitary conditions and lower infant mortality. These clubs also tended wounded soldiers from both sides of the Civil War. In the postwar years, to unite former foes, they organized Mother’s Friendship Day picnics, where, in 1870, Julia Ward Howe’s “Mother’s Day Proclamation,” calling for women to take an active political role in promoting peace, was widely read.

On Mother’s Day at the New York Society, we often quote this proclamation, which begins with these words:

“Arise, all women who have hearts, whether your baptism be that of water or of tears! Say firmly: ‘We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies, our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. . .

‘Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.’”

This year I call upon women who choose to be mothers to be tender toward women who choose not to be. It is high time that we respected all reproductive choices.

I chose to give birth to two children. My brother also has two children. Our two siblings have none: cats, but no human children. It’s no big deal. But apparently for many people it is.

“Parenthood as a Moral Imperative? Moral Outrage and the Stigmatization of Voluntarily Childfree Women and Men” is the title of a scholarly article written by Leslie Ashburn-Nardo. Her study, which appeared in the publication Sex Roles, cited 30 years of research that has consistently found that “non-breeders” (as opposed to the infertile) are disliked. For her, then, the question wasn’t whether society hates people who don’t want children, but why it hates them so much. “Having children is obviously a more typical decision, so perhaps people are rightfully surprised when they meet a married adult who, with their partner, has chosen to not have children,” she explained. “That they are also outraged by child-free people is what’s novel about this work.”

My friends who choose not to have children face backlash of an extraordinarily personal nature. People who are outraged that women who seek abortions are subjected to such behavior, often don’t think twice of extolling the joys of parenthood to couples who choose to enjoy their own companionship without adding to the world’s population. I propose renaming this complicated holiday “Mother by Choice Day.” Let us choose to care for one another with all our hearts.

Leader’s Message – “My Father, the Feminist” – March 2018

February 28, 2018

My mother was born a year after women won suffrage and never missed voting in an election. It was as religious to her as going to confession on Saturday and receiving communion on Sunday. She worked full-time as a secretary from the day she graduated high school until she retired and was in charge of our family’s finances. Yet she was not a feminist. She didn’t encourage my sister and me to leave home for college and was embarrassed when we kept our names after marrying. We never experienced her support for our professional lives.

Dad was the feminist in our family. He grew up in western New York State with parents and siblings who shared equally the running of their share-cropping farms: never owning a place of their own, often packing up and moving from one place to another. A family farm economy is demanding and requires that all hands work. A drive with Dad in the country would reveal one field after another in different towns where he had driven a team of horses or mules. Name that crop was a game we played and, of course, Dad always won because I was never a farmer. Dad made sure that my sister and I went to college and traveled to other countries. It was important to him that we make our own ways in the world.

In our Ethics for Families program, children are learning about Malala Yousafzai, whose father Ziauddian also encouraged her education. In an area of Pakistan dominated by the misogynist Taliban, he ran a school for both boys and girls. Most of us adults know how Malala became known around the world. On October 9, 2012, at the age of 15, when she was riding a bus with friends on their way home from school, a masked gunman boarded the bus, demanded to know which girl was Malala, and fired at her; the bullet hit the left side of her head and then traveled down her neck. Two other girls were also injured in the attack.

Following the attack, Malala said, “The terrorists thought that they would change our aims and stop our ambitions, but nothing changed in my life except this: weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage were born.” On her 16th birthday, Malala Yousafzai gave a speech at the United Nations emphasizing education and urging world leaders to change their repressive policies toward women and girls. In 2013 she also published her first book, I Am Malala, and the following year became the youngest person to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

Like my father, hers is a feminist: someone who believes in, supports, and advocates for women’s rights and equality to men.

In a patriarchal society where “women are not known in public and their names are only known to family members,” Ziauddin named his daughter after a legendary 19th Century Pashtun warrior heroine, Malalai of Maiwund. “Malalai had had a voice and I wanted my Malala to have the same,” he said. “That she would have freedom and be brave and be known by her name. . . Don’t ask me what I did. Ask me what I did not do. I did not clip her wings, and that’s all.”

At this year’s World Economic Forum at Davos, Malala said, “Feminism is just another word for equality and no one should object to equality. It just means that women should have equal rights to men. It’s not as complicated as some people have made it.”

It’s not complicated at all and yet another generation of women has taken to the streets demanding rights still denied them. Today more men join women: their mothers, sisters, and daughters, aunts and nieces, friends and lovers. They carry their children on their shoulders, wanting them to see the thousands of people gathered, showing them how the world can be when we march for equality for everyone.

Dad never marched alongside me, but he was, and is, always with me. One expects to hear kind words about the deceased during calling hours at a funeral home, a memorial service, and a burial site. What people told me after my father’s death were the many ways in which they felt loved and supported by him. He didn’t refer to himself as a feminist, but he acted as one, treating everyone with dignity and respect, no exceptions.

Malala and I are lucky.

Leader’s Message – “What the World Needs Now Is Love” – February 2018

January 13, 2018

Remember the 1965 song, “What the World Needs Now Is Love”? Hal David wrote the lyrics, and Burt Bacharach composed the music. Bacharach, who was on quite a roll back then, initially didn’t believe in the song and was reluctant to play it for Jackie DeShannon, who loved it, recorded it and made it popular. It has since been recorded or performed live by over 100 artists and used on many movie soundtracks.

I wonder why Bacharach was reluctant. Did the sentiment seem too trite or banal? The song has a simple melody that’s easy to learn. The lyrics tell us (or a creator) that the world has plenty of meadows, cornfields and wheat fields to grow; plenty of sunbeams and moonbeams to shine, too; what it really needs is love. Even today, half a century later, the world still needs love. Such a message is timeless.

What was happening in 1965? On January 2, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. began a drive to register Black voters. Two days later, President Lyndon B. Johnson gave his “Great Society” State of the Union address. Almost a month later, on February 1, Dr. King and 700 demonstrators were arrested in Selma, Alabama. Later that month, on February 21, Malcolm X was assassinated by Nation of Islam followers at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem. And on “Bloody Sunday” (March 7), Alabama troopers and civil rights demonstrators clashed, galvanizing the nation’s leaders to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965. King returned to Alabama on March 21 to lead a march from Selma to Montgomery, arriving in the state capitol on March 25. Riots broke out in the Watts area of southeast Los Angeles on August 11. On the following day, the west side of Chicago also broke out in riots.

Meanwhile, the war in Vietnam escalated, and protesters organized. The U.S. occupied the Dominican Republic in April during its civil war, and stayed over a year. The space and nuclear arms races were also well underway.

It was a precarious year, to say the least. I was fourteen years old and a veteran of school “duck-and-cover” and bomb shelter drills. I was unaware of Malcolm X at that age, but I had loved John F. Kennedy (as did all Irish Catholic girls) and mourned his death. I remember singing “What the World Needs Now is Love” at the top of my voice. It was both a plea and a prayer.

The song was remixed in 1971 by disc jockey Tom Clay, who worked at radio station KGBS in Los Angeles, into a social commentary. He added “Abraham, Martin and John” to the title. It began with a man asking a young boy to define the words bigotry, segregation and hatred, followed by a soundbite of a drill sergeant leading a platoon into training and gunfire sound effects. Then we hear the song, interspersed with excerpts of speeches by Kennedy and King and soundbites of news coverage of each one’s assassination.

What would we hear in a remix of this song today, I wonder. With a racist occupying the White House and the Voting Rights Act in shreds, with prolonged military presence overseas and an administration’s denial of climate change, we are arguably worse off than we were back in 1965.

Still, I refuse to lose hope, and neither should you. Our history is replete with stories of greed and generosity, prejudice and acceptance, hate and love. We must learn from that history. As individuals and as a nation, we must choose love.

That’s the message I heard at this year’s Mayor’s Interfaith Breakfast on January 11 at the New York Public Library. Imagine a great hall filled with clergy representing all the religions of our city. At my table alone were a Mormon (with whom I chatted about my hometown, Palmyra, birthplace of Mormonism), a Muslim woman (sans hijab), a resplendent Baptist African-American couple, two evangelical Christians preparing for a journey to the Holy Land, and two Hindus from Queens. The morning was a veritable lovefest: celebrating our diversity of faiths and a commitment to unity of social justice action.

Rev. Michael A. Walrond, Jr. from First Corinthian Baptist Church gave the introductory invocation. He said, “Take love seriously. Take seriously who you are called to be. Take our humanity seriously,” to which I heartily responded, “Amen!”

What the world needs now, has always needed, and will always need is love, sweet love, because that’s “the only thing that there’s just too little of.” Choose to love not just some, but everyone.

Leader’s Message – “Role of Congregations in the Age of Trump” – October 2017

October 3, 2017

If you are like me, and engaged in social media, you may also have experienced some tension in your online relationships since the presidential election. Political differences have been exacerbated since November and, while I navigate in-person encounters fairly well (sometimes by agreeing to “check my politics – and religion – at the door”), I receive pushback on some articles and memes that I post on my personal Facebook (FB) timeline and sometimes “take the bait” by responding to what I perceive as objectionable content on my friends’ timelines. This was particularly true in the aftermath of this summer’s domestic terrorist attack in Charlottesville, Virginia.

When the KKK literally removed their masks, I metaphorically removed the gloves and called out the racism of Trump supporters. Yes, some of them were single-issue voters whose concerns had been abortion and gun control, about which we vigorously disagreed, but now the stakes had grown exponentially. The President of the United States took the side of white supremacists and neo-Nazis, and there was no middle ground to defend. Anyone who did not condemn his blatant racism was complicit, and I did not hold back.

An online friend whom I’ve known since childhood confronted me on what she called the hypocrisy of calling myself clergy and yet expressing such strong opinions. Although I rarely represent myself as clergy on my personal timeline (reserving that role for the society’s public FB page and the Parenting at Ethical and Weddings at Ethical pages that I host), she knows my profession and felt that I should remain neutral. This called to mind historian Howard Zinn’s famous quote, and the title of his biographical documentary, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.” He also said, “I don’t believe it’s possible to be neutral. The world is already moving in certain directions. And to be neutral, to be passive in a situation like that is to collaborate with whatever is going on. And I, as a teacher, do not want to be a collaborator with whatever is happening in the world. I want myself, as a teacher, and I want you as students, to intercede with whatever is happening in the world.

I want myself, as clergy, and I want the members of our ethical community, to intercede with whatever is happening in the world. Ethical Culture’s commitment to social justice is what drew me to this religion, provided my children with opportunities for community service, and inspired me to become a professional leader. Founder Felix Adler’s passion for addressing the spiritual pain of a divided conscience by making our lives “all of a piece” continues to resonate with me so that mine is a vocation in its true sense of calling forth, calling out, and calling together. His charge to the first gathering of members in 1876 to “at all times respect every honest conviction” and to “be one with us where there is nothing to divide – in action” inspires us today to make ending white supremacy our rallying call.

We are facing unprecedented challenges to our democracy and civil society from an administration that is at best morally ambiguous and at worst promotes a false equivalency between those who advocate white supremacy and those seeing to eliminate it. Lives and livelihoods are put at risk by an uncaring and unstable president who, as we are learning daily, owes his election to Russia.

What are we to do? Take a stand! And we are not alone. Other congregations across the country are taking action, too. While there is appalling hypocrisy on the part of many evangelical Christian clergy and congregations, Jim Wallis of Sojourners calls upon a Christian tradition of commitment to racial and economic justice, encouraging people to require that their pastors preach on the sin of racism from their pulpits and to withhold tithes from churches that won’t speak out and take a stand. African-American clergy remind us of Dr. King’s 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in which he wrote that the “great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice.”

Every day I look for a moment of hope to post on my FB timeline. On Tuesday, September 12, it was legislation, introduced as a joint resolution, passed unanimously in the Senate and the House, and presented to President Trump for his signature that called for a forceful denunciation of his racist extremism. It states: “S.J.Res.49 – A joint resolution condemning the violence and domestic terrorist attack that took place during events between August 11 and August 12, 2017, in Charlottesville, Virginia, recognizing the first responders who lost their lives while monitoring the events, offering deepest condolences to the families and friends of those individuals who were killed and deepest sympathies and support to those individuals who were injured by the violence, expressing support for the Charlottesville community, rejecting White nationalists, White supremacists, the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, and other hate groups, and urging the President and the President’s Cabinet to use all available resources to address the threats posed by those groups.”

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-VA) said, “I hope this bipartisan action will help heal the wounds left in the aftermath of this tragedy and send a clear message to those that seek to divide our country that there is no place for hate and violence.”

To which I can only add “Amen.”

Leader’s Message – “Rally ‘Round the Gay Pride Flag – Again” – June 2017

June 1, 2017

When the result of the 2016 presidential election sank in, many social justice organizations and community groups gathered their members to assess the impact it would have and to mourn. We held circles here at Ethical with our staff and members. The one that I joined at New York University, where I serve as Humanist Chaplain, was especially painful. Members of the campus LGBTQ community wept uncontrollably. They, like other marginalized Americans, Muslims, and undocumented immigrants, knew that they had a great deal to lose with an unsupportive, indeed an antagonistic, administration. Trump’s daughter Ivanka may count LGBTQ people among her friends, but there was no illusion that she could protect them. His unholy alliance with socially conservative evangelical Christians would drive his agenda, as it has other Republicans.

 

Questions flooded the offices of LGBTQ advocacy groups nationwide following Trump’s victory. GLAAD, the world’s largest LGBTQ media advocacy organization, maintains The Trump Accountability Project (TAP at http://www.glaad.org/trump), a resource for journalists which catalogues the anti-LGBTQ statements and actions of Trump and those in his circle.

 

While Vice President Pence has been unequivocal in his opposition to LGBTQ rights (having once supported the use of federal funding to treat people “seeking to change their sexual behavior” and tried unsuccessfully to amend his home state of Indiana’s state constitution to ban same-sex marriage), Trump’s position on this, as on many other issues, varies. His “religious liberty” executive order wasn’t as discriminatory as LGBTQ advocates had feared. Indeed, the conservative Heritage Foundation called it “woefully inadequate,” and Bryan Fischer, radio host for the American Family Association, angry that the order doesn’t allow bakers, florists and adoption agencies to discriminate, blamed Ivanka who “wore out her red pencil eviscerating the original order, leaving us with [an order] which has very nice language but is virtually entirely lacking in substance.” Nonetheless, he reversed Obama-era protections that allowed transgender students in public schools to use bathrooms and locker room facilities that correspond with their gender identity, reigniting the debate on whether guidance on use is a state or federal rights issue.

 

Here’s some good news. According to Human Rights Campaign Legal Director Sarah Warbelow, “Congress and Trump do not have the power to unilaterally undo marriage equality.” The Supreme Court has deemed same-sex marriage a “fundamental right,” and all five of the judges who ruled in favor of it are still on the bench.

 

There is much that we can do to support LGBTQ rights, from donating to advocacy groups to lobbying our local, state and national representatives. We can also march on Sunday, June 25.

Here’s a reminder of the parade’s history. A year after the police raiding of the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village on the morning of June 28, 1969, the first Gay Pride March was held by the Christopher Street Liberation Day Committee to commemorate the riots. In 1984, Heritage of Pride was founded to take over the planning. Last year, the newly-identified NYC Pride held over a dozen events in addition to the march, which included 350 unique contingents. This year’s Grand Marshals are the American Civil Liberties Union; Brooke Guinan, a 29-year old trans-woman firefighter; Krishna Stone, Director of Community Relations at Gay Men’s Health Crisis; and Geng Le, leader in the movement for LGBTQ equality in the People’s Republic of China.

 

When I interned at the NY Society in 2002, I marched in the Gay Pride Parade with a contingent of members that included Meg Chapman and Mo Malekshahi with their toddler Clara. Much has happened since then. Many gains have been realized over the years, and people haven’t felt the need to march. This year it’s time to rally around the pride flag again. Celebrate the gains and fight for the rights that might be lost.

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Leader’s Message – “Remembering Dr. Spetter in the Trump Era” – April 2017

April 21, 2017

Last month I received the following email from Professor Dr. Youri Devuyst from the Institute for European Studies at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Belgium.
“I am contacting you regarding the remarkable writings by the late Matthew Ies Spetter. . . My now 86 year old father, a humanist leader in Belgium, who was one of the transatlantic friends of Dr. Spetter and Howard Radest, recently drew my attention to Dr. Spetter’s book Man – The Reluctant Brother: An Exploration of Human Courage.

“Starting with a strong plea for ‘truth,’ the analysis (published in 1967 by Fieldston Press) provides a truly outstanding insight in the Trump era. Few of today’s observations match the depth of pages 157-171 on ‘A homebred fascism?’ and ‘The success of unreason.’ At the same time, the book offers a path for living together in human community, as brothers, based on what Dr. Spetter calls a ‘Passio Humana.’

“I think it really matters that the wisdom displayed in Dr. Spetter’s book is remembered, especially in the Ethical Culture movement. While I am sure you do, I also wanted to let you know that Dr. Spetter’s writings have not been forgotten on this side of the Atlantic.”

Dr. Spetter’s inspiring life and words have not been forgotten here, but I confess that I needed this reminder to return to him for guidance in these troubling times.
After seeing Nazis throw children into a truck from a Jewish orphanage in his native Holland, he joined the Dutch Resistance at the age of 23 and worked to help Jewish families escape. He later worked with Allied military intelligence before he was captured, tortured and sentenced to death in 1943. “In Holland you were either on the side of the executioners or the victims,” he said. “You had to make an existential choice.” Two years later, weighing 68 pounds, he fled through the woods to escape the Buchenwald concentration camp and later testified as an Allied witness at the International War Crimes Tribunal in Nuremburg, Germany. Dr. Spetter was awarded the Resistance Cross by the government of the Netherlands.

In 1951, Dr. Spetter and his family moved to the United States where he discovered the Ethical Movement and soon became an Ethical Culture Leader, serving the Riverdale-Yonkers Society, The Encampment for Citizenship, and the Ethical Culture Fieldston Schools for several decades. He also founded the Riverdale Mental Health Clinic in 1960, which remains an important community resource today. Among his many written works, Man, the Reluctant Brother remains my favorite. Dr. Devuyst is right: It does indeed provide insight into the Trump era.

This book illustrates what Dr. Spetter called his “militant humanism” and analyzes the impermissible fanaticism that allows the killing of innocents. From his experience as clergy, counselor, and professor of Social Psychology, he called for a nurturing of trust as the fundamental law of life, a nurturing of the fullness of human capacity, without the delusion of perfectionism.

“I need truth,” he wrote, “because I was an eyewitness to the premeditated murder of children. The killers were men and women of a nation much akin to my own. The children were ours. I need truth because my generation allowed the ultimately impermissible and because such killing continues. Men everywhere, while protesting their abhorrence, are still willing to permit the impermissible, still willing to kill as ‘a necessary evil,’ still willing to appease their conscience with justifications which fasten the tyranny of evil upon their souls. . . I have seen this

[atrocities] and speak of it, not with sentimentality but with outrage and I will not permit it to be locked from your heart.”

Today we are witnessing outrageous acts against fellow Americans and immigrants, against our environment and our children’s future. Some can be attributed directly to our new president in the form of his executive orders and his appointment of cabinet officers. Others are performed by domestic terrorists emboldened by his support of their racism, misogyny, and other forms of hatred. We must not allow this behavior to be locked from our hearts. We must stand up and take action, resisting any policy that treats human beings as “others” to be dismissed, derided and deported.

Dr. Spetter ends with a note of hope: “I hold deeply that each life is a gift which the centuries bestow upon the continuity of existence. A Passio Humana, a passion for Man, is what will negate totalitarianism and oppression, it will open the jail-doors of history, provided our mutuality and love outpace our tools.  All of us are constantly close to death and yet we are also in touch with the perpetuation of life through what we create and build.”

 

Dr. Matthew Ies died peacefully at his home on December 30, 2012, surrounded by his family.

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Leader’s Message – “Democracy Is Sacred” – May 2017

April 17, 2017

People who march today in protest of this administration’s policies chant “This is what democracy looks like!” and “This is what democracy sounds like!” It’s a gathering call to witness what is happening and to take action against it. It’s a demonstration of the freedoms of speech and assembly guaranteed us by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. For most of our lives we have taken these freedoms for granted, but no longer, not when police threaten to arrest activists exercising their civil rights.

 

Learning about and actively participating in democracy was considered a sacred duty by Ethical Culture founder Felix Adler. In his idealistic philosophy, democracy was the practical application of his concept of Ethical Manifold, wherein all beings experience themselves fully in their uniqueness, diversity, and inter-relatedness. Community isn’t complete if it doesn’t include everyone. Indeed, even the universe depends upon everyone’s exertions. (Sadly, although he valued women as “moral teachers,” he did not support women’s suffrage. Other early leaders, including John Lovejoy Elliott did, and the NY Society had an active women’s civics club.)

 

Imagine what American democracy was like in 1876, when Ethical Culture was founded, and you will understand its importance to the first generation of leaders and members. Until 2000, the election that year between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel Tilden was our nation’s most contentious, with Tilden carrying the popular vote and 184 of the 185 electoral votes needed for a majority. But nineteen votes from three ex-Confederate states controlled by Republicans were in dispute, so Congress created a Federal Electoral Commission (unprecedented and as-yet unreplicated) to sort it out. Voting along party lines, the commission handed victory to Hayes, a decision Democrats called “the Fraud of the Century.”

 

The election of 1876 drew the highest rate of voter turnout in U.S. history: 81.8 percent nationally and over 90 percent in some states. The fifteenth amendment, adopted in 1870, granted former male slaves the right to vote, but by the late 1870s Southern state governments had effectively nullified both this and the 14th amendment that guaranteed citizenship. It wasn’t until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that these egregious practices were addressed. Today, thanks to a Supreme Court decision (Shelby County v. Holder, 2013) that gutted key provisions of that act, states are again working to disenfranchise African-American voters.

 

The national turnout of eligible voters in 2016 was only 60.2 percent. (During the last NYC mayoral election, voter turnout was only 24 percent.) Democrat Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by close to 2.9 million, and Republican Donald Trump carried the electoral vote by 74. Fortunately, an important backlash to the election of Trump has been an increased interest in civics. Starting in the 1980s, policymakers shifted the focus of public schools’ curriculum from social studies to testable subjects like math and reading. They favored training skilled workers over educating critical thinkers. After all, the previous generation had fueled the civil rights and peace movements, neither of which was deemed good for business. In 2011, all federal funding for civics and social studies was eliminated. State and local funding for these subjects dropped precipitously. According to a recent government study, only 25% of U.S. students reach a proficient standard in civics assessment.

 

And this brings me back to the notion that democracy is sacred in a non-theistic religion of ethics. In March, civil rights attorney Norman Siegel and I co-hosted an event at the NY Society that highlighted and celebrated civics. Our members read key passages from the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Esteemed jurists explained their ramifications in today’s political climate, and an a cappella chorus sang the words of the First Amendment. The audience was encouraged to ask questions and given resources for further study.

 

We also co-hosted an event with Indivisible (https://www.indivisibleguide.com/), first an online guide and now a grassroots movement for local activism, conceived by two former congressional staffers who asked, “What do we do now?” Seeing energy building to resist, they laid out a roadmap to save democracy. The response has been overwhelming. Their guide has been viewed over 18 million times by over 3 million unique users from every state, and almost 6,000 groups, with at least two in every congressional district, have registered. An immediate consequence has been increased attendance at town hall meetings, forcing politicians to be responsible. Last month, Colorado Republican Representative Mike Coffman faced angry constituents who told him more than once, “You can side with us or side with the President.”

 

There is more that we can and must do. Alongside the protests and resistance, we must promote civics education. Our democracy will not survive future generations unaware of their rights and responsibilities. Visit the website of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools (http://www.civicmissionofschools.org/) today. There you will find a quotation from John Dewey: “Democracy needs to be re-born in each generation and education is its mid-wife.”

 

Democracy is sacred, and it is entrusted to us.

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