From the Minister > Minister's Musings > 2011 Archive

December 2011

“Paging Mr. Dickens! Mr. Charles Dickens, please report to the corridors of Washington and the
pulpits of the U.S.”

As we turn our attention to the holiday season this year, I cannot help but think about the
outright “Dickensian” situation at work in this country and in this region. After all, in some
ways the best comparison for our current demographic state of affairs is the 19th Century. Asmall group is doing fabulously well. Another group (albeit shrinking) is relatively comfortable
and yet another group (which is growing fast) is finding it increasingly difficult to make
ends meet. The Northshore Mall appears to be full of shoppers doing relatively well, judging
from the packed parking lots and crowded stores. Meanwhile, less than ten minutes
away there are hotels on Route 1 filled to capacity with homeless families. “It was the best
of times, it was the worst of times…”

It has not always been like this in this country. Many of us grew up in a different, more equitable
era. Now, however, more than one in three families (37%) are currently living in
poverty, the highest on record. According to the US Department of Agriculture, nearly one
in four children (23.6%) lives in a family that has had difficulty putting enough food on the
table in the last year. And foreclosures remain near an all time high. The banks that originated
these imprudent loans five to ten years ago have been bailed out to the tune of over
one trillion dollars. Meanwhile, common sense programs to help homeowners restructure
their mortgages languish under red tape and resistance from the many of the same banks.
And our federal government seems poised to cut the programs that help children and lowincome
families, with many arguing that we cannot restore (not increase) the tax rate on the
richest 0.1% of Americans in order to help the least well off among us. Bah Humbug!

I raise these issues in my holiday column for a reason: there are numerous opportunities to
help folks locally and regionally during this holiday season. Our church will be serving dinner
at Lifebridge (aka The Salem Mission) on Christmas Eve. The First Universalist Society
will be giving away food to local families as they do every month and could use assistance,
financial and otherwise. Some members of our church are advocating for fairer, more compassionate treatment of folks at the state and federal level. Others are helping me and a few others commit some not-so-“random acts of kindness” locally for people who really need
the help.

The world has always been a difficult and challenging place. The power of this season resides in how these celebrations and stories inspire our better selves and remind us that the
Divine relies on messengers to do his or her bidding – imperfect messengers like you and
me, who truly can, when we are inspired, bring tidings of great joy. That is really what the
season is all about. God bless us one and all and Merry Christmas!


November 2011

We gather together to ask the Lord's blessing;
he chastens and hastens his will to make known;
the wicked oppressing now cease from distressing:
sing praise to his Name, he forgets not his own.

I came across two short articles buried in the front section of the New York Times this last
week. The first reported that 30 major corporations in this country did not pay any income taxes from 2008 to 2010; companies like General Electric, Boeing and Pepsico. According to a study by Citizens for Tax Justice, the average tax rate for the 300 largest companies in the US was 18.5%, lower than what many individual taxpayers pay. The corporations rightly argue that the loopholes they employ to reduce their tax exposure are entirely legal. This is
true.

The second article, hidden under a giant department store ad, reported that the number of very poor people in this country has grown significantly over the last five years. In fact one
out of every 15 Americans lives in a state of abject poverty, more than 20 million people
overall, one quarter of them children. This stands in stark contrast to the reports about the
wealthiest 1% in the US who continue to gain in their net worth. Many in this wealthy group
pay a relatively low tax rate since much of their income derives from the sale of stocks and
bonds, whose tax rate is capped at 15%. Never before in our country’s recent history (at least
in the lifetime of anyone reading this) has the gap between the haves and have-nots been so
wide. And we are starting to see the inevitable tensions bred by this state of affairs.

There is an old ideal that we celebrate this time of year that we could very much use right
now. It is the notion of a “commonwealth.” It is the belief that, whether we like it or not,
whether we always realize it or not, we are all in this together. Too often we have recently
emphasized the competitive and confrontational aspects of our culture and economy. There
is another side however. Cooperation and some view of the common good are just as important
(if not more so) to the stability of our communities and society. Just look at the history
of the Pilgrims, whose story and mythology we celebrate and hold up this time of year. Their
survival required them to think cooperatively and fairly. While free markets are important,
cooperation and some concern for equity and justice are essential. Right now many people in
this country perceive correctly that there are two sets of rules in our country and this needs to change.

Thanksgiving is a time when we pause to count our blessings. It is also a time when we remember those ideals that contribute to our common good. That is part of the vision embedded in the words of the famous hymn we sing each year when “we gather together,” with the powerful image of the “wicked oppressing now cease from distressing.” I wish you all a
happy and reflective season of giving thanks. Many of us are far more fortunate that we often
recognize.

October 2011

[In Place of Minister's Musings this month we had a piece from the Standing Committee Chair, Lynn Taggart]

In the Thick of It

On a glorious Sunday in September we returned to church. Not our Meeting House, but
church nonetheless, since “church is the people, not the building”, as Reverend Barz Snell is
fond of saying. A troop of First Church congregants came striding into the brick courtyard with our banner flying, and they were welcomed by an impressive number of people ready to begin the adventure.

As I stood on the steps of the First Universalist Society and watched the chatting groups of
Universalists and Unitarians slowly grow silent as they caught the first snatches of the quartet
singing “Down to the River to Pray”, I was glad to be a part of that historic gathering of
so many good people, so many beautiful children, so much good will.

As the month has progressed, I have again felt pride that my community is willing to try to
make this experiment work - pride in the efforts of the joint RE committees and directors to
make this time meaningful for our children; pride in the focus of the joint Social Justice/
Social Outreach committees to accomplish something more significant than each church
could do alone; pride in the ten or so First Church folks who showed up to help mightily
with the food pantry on an early Wednesday evening; pride in the musicians who are helping
us to worship.

The First Universalists have done so much to make us welcome. What can we all do to
show our gratitude? Our church is paying a weekly stipend for the use of their lovely building
and some of our staff are partnering with FUSS to help them maintain their facilities.
When you put cash in the collection plate above and beyond your check or envelope to First
Church, your money goes to FUSS. But perhaps the most important thing you can do is to
try to connect with the people there by attending services and fellowship and participating in the activities and programs that are taking place. We are weaving our voices, traditions, actions, and prayers into an interesting tapestry, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we take a few ideas for change back with us when we return home.

Ah yes, home. So many things are going on there, and soon you will have a chance to take a
tour and see the progress. We’ve had some interesting “unanticipated site conditions” to
deal with, but what project doesn’t? We are in the middle of the chaos that we knew was
coming, but we are very grateful that our builders and architects have been so creative, professional, and supportive. I think the weather has been our only real adversary.

We are in the thick of it. And it is challenging, nerve-wracking, and exhilarating. What an
exciting time to be a member of First Church in Salem, and what an opportunity we have to
join with other people of good intention and works and to learn to be more comfortable
with change.


September 2011

Here is the church, and here is the steeple,
Open up the doors and see all the people.

It’s funny how a little change and upheaval in your life can get you thinking about the basics.
Some psychologists would describe this as a coping strategy; reacting to a stressful situation by regressing in one’s outlook or behavior. Right now, I prefer to think about all that occurring at
the First Church as a reminder what is important and what values lie at the heart of our community.

Lord knows we are experiencing a lot of change here at the First Church. We began the largest
renovation project in 85 years in July. There is furniture stacked in the pews of the Meetinghouse. Walls and stairwells are being torn down. A huge hole has been dug in what was our
garden. These are all steps in a process to make some long-needed improvements to our building
including universal accessibility in the form of an elevator and ground level entrance, a new,
high efficiency heating system, and new classroom space, not to mention a wonderfully redesigned garden outside.

So far there has been a lot of work and coordination to begin and manage this project. The Project Management Team and the Standing Committee have been working pretty hard for Unitarian Universalists in the summer time! (See inside for listing of folks we thank for volunteering this summer). I am pleased to report that we are managing with some occasional challenges.

As the calendar turns, we now look forward to beginning the second “leg” of our renovation
journey: having church this fall with our friends at the First Universalist Society. Starting on
September 11, we will join our sister church in town for their services. We have a fun and inspiring schedule of events and services planned for the fall. And we have many opportunities to
get to know some new people and be a healing and energetic presence in our larger community.
In the end, that is what churches like ours do.
Shortly after I arrived in Salem, I began a practice that I continue to this day: I reserve the word “church” for our members, not our building. Don’t get me wrong: buildings are important and in many ways they are a physical reflection of the people who care for and operate them. But the lovely, 19th Century gothic style edifice on Essex Street is not our church. It’s our
“Meetinghouse,” a term used by our Puritan forbears that makes a lot of practical and theological sense to  me.

Perhaps that is why I have found myself thinking about that old English nursery rhyme and
hand game: “Here is the church…” Even as we focus on very involved and challenging construction matters, I continue to be reminded that what happens among us and within us, not
around us, is what is essential. As our church season begins, I invite you to come and tour the
progress at our Meetinghouse on Essex Street, (look for upcoming dates), but I also encourage
you to join the First Church as we gather with our fellow UU’s over on Bridge Street. Here’s to
a productive and inspiring fall.

June 2011

The journey of one thousand miles begins with the first step. 

This month marks a turning point here at the First Church.  With the vote at our Annual Meeting on May 1 to move ahead with Phase One of our revised Master Plan for renovating our building, we have all the sudden turned our minds from discussions and blueprints to logistics and boxes.  There is a great deal that must occur in and around our building if we intend to commence a project on July 1. 

It is once every 80 years or so that this church enters into this “mode” of behavior and activity.  After all the last time we made a major modification to our property was 1926.  That was the year that the First Church merged with the North Church in Salem and the combined churches decided to renovate the North Church building here on Essex Street (our current home).  It was then that they excavated under the Meetinghouse, poured a new foundation and created Willson Hall.  It was also when they razed a wood-framed building (called the Parish Hall) behind the Meetinghouse and built a two-story stucco addition in its place, including the Barnard and Cleveland Rooms on the first floor (i.e. what we use for Fellowship Hour) and the classrooms upstairs.  And all this has served us admirably and well for the last 84 years.

In a very real sense, now it is our turn here in the 21st century, to make some very much needed improvements and updates.  We wish to make the church universally accessible, we want to reduce our carbon footprint, and we seek to make alterations to our space that will accommodate our growing, progressive-minded community.  With the construction of a small addition, we will have a new entrance and small elevator on the garden side of the building.  We will also have larger and better program space and have the main office of the church crammed into what was an old bathroom.  In addition, we will rip out our old oil-fired, steam heating system and install a new, high-efficiency hot water system in its place, cutting our emissions and heating costs by half and moving the church away from oil, something all of us will have to do sooner than later.  Downstairs, we will be building some additional classroom space in Willson Hall, while upstairs the bathroom off the Cleveland Room will become universally accessible.

And all this begins now with the hard work and commitment of many church members and staff.  I thank everyone who has helped us get to this point and I thank all of you for your support, work and good humor as we begin this project.  There will undoubtedly be some temporary changes in our typical operations.  (For example, for a period of time this summer and fall, we will be out of our religious home - stay tuned for details!)  Even so, this is an exciting new chapter for our church that has long been a beacon for progressive religious thought and practice here in Salem.  And the next leg in our journey begins now, with a lot of preparations and packing.  Here’s to a productive and energetic summer!


May 2011

A longtime employee of the First Church passed away this last month, Mr. Rene St. Pierre. He turned 87 in January. Rene was more than just the longest running current staff member of the church. He was my friend. 

Rene began work as a Sexton at the First Church in 1992. He used to tell me jokingly that he began working at the church just after “cuckoo” had left – except of course he didn’t just say “cuckoo;” he made the sound of a bird – with a big grin on his face. That was Rene: a man whose “default setting” seemed to be a gleam in his eye and a grin on his face.

I arrived in 1998 and both Rene and Al LaChapelle, the other sexton at the time, took it upon themselves to train me on how to operate and run an old New England church.  And it was good they did, since there are no classes in divinity school on steam boilers, slate roofs, 1920’s wiring and grounds keeping. Along the way, I was regaled with memories about what it was like to fight in World War II in France (from Al) and in the Pacific (from Rene). I heard countless tales about growing up in Salem and being one of 19 children – and “lucky number 13” at that! And I was instructed on how to cook meatballs, clean tile floors with oven cleaner and who really to call at City Hall if I had a problem. Rene would always hold up a pencil to me and announce that the most important part of it was not the lead but the eraser. “Nobody’s perfect,” he would say. He made my first few years here much easier and far more amusing than they would have been otherwise.

Rene retired as our Church Sexton (a title that means “Caretaker of Sacred Objects”) about ten years ago, but he wasn’t done yet. We had a need for someone who would arrive at the church early on school mornings to ensure the heat was on and stairs were shoveled for Henny Penny, our nursery school. Rene accepted the challenge and opportunity with relish. He loved welcoming the youngest members of our community to their school and they loved him back. Each morning he would greet them as they arrived for school and then, once everyone was in, he would always head upstairs and bid them adieu before he left for the day.

It’s funny how we sometimes measure wealth and accomplishment in this society. Rene St. Pierre lived a rather normal life, but did so with a certain grace, tenacity and a “Henny Youngman-esque” sense of humor. Even people who didn’t like him liked him (if you know what I mean.). A devoted family man, he loved his wife of 63 years. He loved his children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He cared greatly for his friends, his community and his country. 

Over the last few years, when I had the occasion to introduce Rene to someone at the church, I would say “This is Mr. St. Pierre, Church Sexton and Resident Philosopher.” People would always chuckle when I said that. Rene would just stand there with a grin on his face. He knew what was important in this life and not everyone does.

A funeral was held on Thursday, April 14 at the Levesque’s Funeral Home here in Salem. Rene was then laid to rest in St. Mary’s Cemetery with multiple friends and family in attendance. Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife Nancy, his children and his many family members. He will be missed.

 

April 2011

I have something of an Easter confession to make: I have the Easter Bunny living in my house. Okay, perhaps it’s not the real Easter Bunny, but he is a bunny nonetheless. We found him scurrying about our street about a year ago. We think he must have been a domestic rabbit that someone set free at the park near our house. When we first spotted him, he was a harried little hare trying to eat dirt, with matted and missing fur. He was clearly starving. He hopped with a limp and had a huge gouge on his back where something had tried to attack him.

After several attempts, we finally caught him (thanks to a cardboard box). We brought him to the veterinarian who confirmed that this was a “runaway bunny,” one with a huge infection in his ear who was severely malnourished. So we did the last thing we had any business doing: we brought him home. And when we realized very quickly that he was "litter box trained," we decided to adopt our first rabbit. His name is “Hare-acles.” I think this bunny thinks he died and went to rabbit heaven. He has certainly transformed into a happy, frolicking little creature that likes to chew on newspaper and low-lying books. It's our own little story of facing death and finding new life.

It's an interesting thing about stories of rebirth and resurrection: they only really make sense in the context of others. Finding new life is always dependent on the care and concern of someone else. For a rebirth to happen, some act of kindnesseven sacrifice must occur. All of us who are alive have ample opportunities to foster life and rebirth in those around us if we but pay attention. The ancient rabbis had a term for this: Tikkun Olan, a Hebrew phrase that can be translated “the ongoing healing of the world.” In a sense, all of us have some part to play in fostering life and the world we wish to see. There are more opportunities for rebirth and healing in this life than there are crocuses bursting through the cold, crusty soil. The coming warmth of springtime and the ancient festivals of Passover and Easter remind us of the blessings we enjoy and the many ways we can be a blessing for others - even amidst the ups and downs of our lives. I am occasionally reminded of this now by the hopping of a happy bunny around my feet.


March 2011

A few years ago, a gang of criminals orchestrated a series of bank robberies in this area. They had apparently mastered the art of “getting in and getting out” very fast, never running out of any bank with more than 7,000. They were quick hit artists who had perfected a method for “the getaway.” For a short time, they were successful and fortunately they never hurt anyone. Through a regional, coordinated effort by local police departments, they were eventually caught. The five men were arrested, tried, sentenced and are now serving prison terms. That is how the justice system worksusually. It can be different with larger heists.

On Thursday, March 24 the church will host a screening of Inside Job, a documentary film by Charles Ferguson that critically examines the causes of the Great Financial Crisis of 2008. What becomes clear in the film and in the accompanying documentation is that the huge financial meltdown that occurred in this country and around the world was the result of a variety of complex systems and products put in place by senior executives at major investment banks in this country. While unsuspecting and sometimes irresponsible investors and homeowners had a part to play, most of these smaller players were responding to and participating in a system that had been rigged. And what is amazing is that it is still being rigged, since no real major reform to the financial system has occurred since the U.S. Government opted to bail out Wall Street firms to the tune of $1.2 trillion. While a large share of this money has been paid back, it is curious that only one person has been charged with any wrongdoing.

 

Meanwhile millions of families have lost their homes in the last 24 months and millions more are faced with a dire set of financial prospects for the foreseeable future. Almost unbelievably, the same system and many of the same individuals are still operating on Wall Street, many of them still taking large risks and most laughing all the way to the bank. While it might be a stretch to assert that a bank was robbed, it is abundantly clear that major fraud was committed and millions were pocketed by certain individuals. Some of us can’t help but conclude there is an enormous injustice being perpetrated on the American people. Why is it that some of the “best and brightest” in the financial industry in this country are currently incentivized to act in ways that are dangerously risky, mean-spirited and contrary to the common good, and why are we as a country accepting that no major reforms to the system are needed? It’s like allowing our bank robber friends to go free with a slap on the wrist and a promise not to do it again. This Oscar-winning film asks these sorts of questions and sheds light on our current situation.

 

February 2011

I once read an observation about people who win the lottery: the newfound money amplifies and enhances who they already are. Suddenly people with restricted options have many more opportunities and their core principles can be more readily seen in the decisions they make. Power brings our values and interests into starker relief.

I have had this thought in my back of my mind in the last few weeks.  As I write this, wide scale political protests are breaking out across the Arab world, first in Tunisia and now in Egypt, Yemen and elsewhere. Long time, strongman dictators (who have been long supported by our country) are being challenged and brought down by widespread popular protests. A new generation in Egypt and elsewhere is clamoring for freedom and they are employing social networking technology to communicate and organize themselves. Just yesterday it was reported that the Egyptian government tried to “turn off” the Internet so as to prevent some of these groups from communicating with one another. Who would have thought ten years ago that wireless networks and text messages would play such a pivotal role in a historic political movement in the most populous country in the Middle East? Times they are a changing.

There is another side to our newfound powers, one that I saw in a local story this month. Last week it was reported that a group of teenagers from Marblehead and Swampscott were arrested after (what was described as) a “bloody brawl” occurred one recent weekday afternoon, involving baseball bats and metal pipes. This was apparently the culmination of series of posts and counter posts on Facebook during which these teens from each town increasingly taunted their rivals. In a story that echoes the plot of West Side Story (or Romeo and Juliet), the mocking insults escalated into the challenge of a gang fight, a suburban “rumble.” Quite often these sorts of aggressive postings stay in cyberspace, but this time the aggression became violent and could have had tragic consequences.

Technology is changing our world, many times for the better but sometimes for the worse. Our powers have increased. We fly through the air, race across the land and now communicate with hundreds (or millions) with the click of a keyboard. What has not changed is the human condition and our values. Even so, with our newfound powers everything we do is potentially amplified, forcing individuals, organizations and even countries to come to terms with what they stand for. In the age of Wikileaks and Twitter “revolutions, who we are and who we choose to be has real impacts and implications.  What a fascinating time to be alive. What a great time to be part of a healthy and progressive minded church.

 
 
January 2011

January is the traditional time for considering the past and resolving about the future. Named for Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and endings, this is the month when we perhaps feel most keenly the passage of time with the turning of the calendar. Here at the outset of a new year many of us naturally find ourselves assessing our direction and marking progress. The First Church is no different. 

In the last few years, the Church has made significant progress in identifying the needs of our community and the challenges of our building. With the help of expert, outside support and committed, competent members, the First Church has assembled a long-term plan for renovating our building and meeting the needs of our growing, multi-generational community. We wish to be a place that welcomes all people regardless of physical mobility. We wish to update our old systems and heat and cool our building using high efficiency equipment that will reduce our carbon footprint. And we wish to be able to meet the growing needs of our members and the larger community. All these wishes were included in the thoughtful and ambitious master plan for our property and wonderful old meetinghouse that was approved by the church in 2009.

There have been challenges along the way. Since approving the Master Plan for renovating our building, we realized that there was a larger water problem than we initially realized in our basement. Now, after 12 months of analysis and study, it is clear we have the information to move forward. And move forward we can.

I realize that for many of us this process has taken longer than we anticipated. Indeed, I had personally hoped we would have already had a building with universal access by the outset of 2011. But these things always take longer than expected. What I can tell you for sure is that the members of the Master Planning and Implementation Committee and the Standing Committee have been working hard to figure out how best to proceed. There are a lot of details still to be determined in the next few months, but it is clear to me that some version of a renovation project could very well beginsoon. This will require the support, goodwill and patience of the whole First Church community. I encourage all of us in the coming weeks to pay attention, read the updates, and get involved. About once every 80 years over our church’s almost 400-year history there is a major update or change to our property. I hope all of us will support this next, unfolding chapter in that history. Here’s to a busy, productive and exciting 2011.

 Rev. Jeff Barz-Snell