Minister's Musings

December 2016

Our work for peace must begin within the private world of each one of us.

Dag Hammarskjold

As months full of turning points and surprises go, this last one was a quite something.  Regardless of where you might fall on the political spectrum, I think we all can agree about the last few weeks being memorable.  I know a lot of members and friends of our congregation had concerns going into the election and have concerns now.  At least one of the most mean-spirited political seasons in living memory is over.

I believe that communities like ours become more important, not less, during times like this.  Our way of being religious, our values, our vision for our community and nation, matter.  They really do matter.

Lest we forget, we have been a community that makes a difference for a very long time.  Members of this congregation were patriots fighting for the founding of this nation.  We were abolitionists struggling to end slavery.  We were reformers advocating for the creation of public education, social relief organizations, and prison reform.  We were suffragists laboring for the right of women to vote.  We are a community that is part of a larger tradition that strives to make our world a better place.

And that tradition continues to this day.  The torch is handed to us at a time like this, as we stand up for our values, our interpretation of religion and scripture, and our belief that diversity does not make us weaker but rather contributes to our vibrancy and strength as a people.  And we are a part of larger tradition that believes God is found in this sort of work.  In the words of a former minister, “Church is the place where you get to practice what it means to be human.”

During this season of Advent, we are invited to reach out to the world in acts of hope, peace, joy and love.  I hope all of us will take one of the many opportunities we each have to do just that, be they large or small.  Our youth are practicing “random acts of kindness” this month.  Our members are finding ways to converse and connect about things that matter to us. (See information about our new “Conversation Circles.”)  During this season of merriment and festival of good tidings, there are so many ways that we can bring light to the lives of others, and then ourselves.  This is what this time of the year is all about.

November 2016

Almost four years ago I found myself travelling around Egypt on a tour bus.  I was on sabbatical visiting Israel and had the opportunity to cross over into Egypt on a special visa, driving through the Sinai Peninsula and then onto Cairo.  This was during the short period of time when the Muslim Brotherhood were in power.  (Since then, there has been another coup…).  Hence there were very few foreigners visiting Egypt at the time.

For the six days I was there, my group travelled with an armed security guard dressed in a dark suit carrying a military style rifle.  We were told this was necessary to protect us.  In addition we travelled with two tour guides and a bus driver, with whom I struck up a “friendship” of sorts. Between Google Translate and their “okay” English we found we were able to communicate.

Apparently I asked my guides unusual questions, to the extent that they both wondered if I were a journalist.  I was curious what it was like to live under a new political regime and what their experience had been growing up under the 30 year leadership of Hosni Mubarak, who had just “stepped down” the year before.  Each time we had one of these conversations, I was struck by their behavior: they would look both ways and ensure that the security guard or any other Egyptian official was not nearby.  They then would lower their voice almost to a whisper as they spoke.  Clearly there were repercussions for having these sorts of conversations with foreigners.

During this tumultuous political season, I have thought about my Egyptian acquaintances every so often.  Amidst this “rough and tumble” election it is clear to me that we still are “blessed” with freedoms and opportunities that many people in other countries do not enjoy.  While our system of government has its problems, I for one still feel fortunate to be here and not somewhere else.  Lord knows there are huge challenges ahead – challenges barely mentioned during this campaign season, (such as climate change and the undue influence of corporate money in our legislative process.)  Even so, there are also many opportunities to express ourselves freely and without the explicit threat of intimidation.  As we turn out attention away from politics and towards the season of giving thanks, this is one of the many blessings that I will count.  Quite often our blessings are revealed amidst the perfunctory details of our everyday lives if we but open our awareness.

November seems like it is bursting with activity, between pancake breakfasts, hosting four homeless families for a week and several talks and programs.


October 2016

Ye shall know them by their fruits.  ~ Matthew 7:16

I know many good people who are Christians, and I know a few not-so-good folks who consider themselves followers of Jesus.  I know many Jews who are wonderful people, and I have met several “mashuganas” over the years.  I know Muslims with whom I would trust with my life and I have met a few others whom I find difficult and mean.  I know Hindus and Buddhists and Pagans all of whom are wonderful people, and I have met others who are selfish and less than honorable.

There are good and decent people living their lives amidst all the world’s major faith traditions, and there are mean people doing the same thing.  There are people who have found ways to use the particular teachings of their faith tradition(s) to inspire them to become better, more loving people, and there are those using their religious faith to justify mean-spirited actions and self-centered agendas.  Sometimes our beliefs inspire our better natures and sometimes they enable our worst tendencies and darker impulses as people.

We are a part of a faith tradition and community that has lived and wrestled with this awareness for a very long time.  While what we believe is important, how our beliefs inform our actions and lives is what is crucial.  We here in Salem have learned from first-hand experience what can happen when we allow uninformed and self-righteous beliefs to influence our actions and decisions.  Maybe that is why we have a long history as a religious community of practicing an open-minded and tolerant faith.  Many of us are still influenced and inspired by the Bible but we are mindful that the real measure of any belief is in how it affects and informs our lives.  How are our religious beliefs and practices salvific in our lives?  How are they inspiring us to become better people?  These are the questions we have learned to ask over the decades and centuries.

This month we continue with our Islam and America Speaker Series whose mission is to foster interfaith understanding and hold up the voices and perspectives of several thoughtful and decent Muslims here in United States.  Prof. Yusef Hayes returns this month with what will be a fascinating presentation about how our major media outlets in this country often inaccurately portray the one billion people around the world who identify as Muslim.  If you missed his talk in September on Sufism, you can check out the recording of it on our new YouTube Channel (set up thanks to the work and talents of Alan Hanscom).  The world is made safer and more compassionate by offering these sorts of events, conversations and opportunities for engagement.  I thank you the members of this congregation for supporting this type of programming in the larger community.  Hosting programs like this is part of our own distinctive path as a congregation in our “walk together.”

We have myriad ways this month to feed your body, mind and soul. 

September 2016

You should not be reading this.  Given the demographic trends in this country and changing opinions about organized religion, you should not have this newsletter in your hand.  And yet you do!  Hurray!  It turns out that while the fastest growing religious category in the U.S. are the "Nones" - those that check "none" when asked about their religious affiliation - there is still a real need and hunger for healthy, active, dynamic religious community in people's lives; in our lives.  I meet a lot of people these days who do not attend any religious service (but are "spiritual") and who don't even realize what they are missing in their lives. 

Part of why I do what I do is that I am convinced that I am a better person and we are a better people when each of us sets aside moments when we remember our best selves and our highest values.  An active and welcoming congregation is a really good way of meeting that tacit need in each of us.  The ancient Jews called this Sabbath.  This was a time each week when people were invited to set aside their daily work (and worries and to-do lists and Outlook Calendars...) and reconnect to something greater than themselves.  Wayne Mueller observes that "Sabbath dissolves the artificial urgency of our days, because it liberates us (for even a short while) from the need to be finished.”  Setting aside even one hour a week for reflection, for rejuvenation, for singing, for laughing, for dreaming and for serving can make a big difference in our lives, not over night but over time.

That is what we do here as a congregation - we gather together and remember what an amazing, crazy, beautiful and challenging life this really is.  And we do all this with good music, inspiring preaching, engaging programs for kids, great fellowship hours, and meaningful ways to serve and make a difference.  There really is a role for progressive-minded organized religion in people’s lives.  We prove it each and every Sunday. Thank you for being part of one countercultural group defying the odds and social trends.

Homecoming Sunday is September 11.  We will gather for our annual Water Communion service as we greet one another after the summer season.  I will look forward to seeing you all. 

Here's to another great season as a community and reaching out to one another and the world in ways that heal, inspire and make a difference. 

June 2016

Six years ago this summer my family and I went to visit my father where I grew up in Greenville, South Carolina.  This pretty area is called the “Piedmont,” as it lies in the foothills of the Appalachain Mountains.  Looking to the north and west, you see “purple mountains majesty” rising in the distance.  To this day I miss the dogwoods and azaleas, the swimming pools and tennis courts, the barbeque and “sweet tea.” I also miss many of the people.  What I don’t miss is the religion.

This brings me back to the visit with my father six years ago with my wife and three children.  We were invited to attend church the Sunday we were in town and we graciously accepted.  They belonged to a large, evangelical “non-denominational” congregation.  To this day there are some wonderful people who are members.  I have known some of them a long time.  My wife and I attended the main service with my father and step-mother while our children were whisked away to Sunday school, “southern style.”  So off went my three Unitarian Universalist children to their respective classrooms in another wing of this large, pre-fabricated metal building.  Things were going relatively well I thought, (I only had to bite my lip twice during the service!), until coffee hour after the service.  It was then that my eight-year old daughter, just dismissed from her Sunday school class, came running over to me with tears in her eyes, clearly upset.  I bent down to see what was the matter and that’s when she blurted out: “Daddy, is it true that gay people can’t get married here?”  Her tone was a mix of sadness and indignation. 

I hurriedly took her aside and explained to her (with the hushed voice one might use in a library…) that “yes, it was true: South Carolina does not have the same laws as Massachusetts.”  Again, the tears welled up and a flash of anger shot across her face, “But why, Daddy?!  That’s not fair!” 

It’s moments like this when I realize how good our religious education program really is here at the First Church, and the amazing “testimony” we present to our children in our lesson plans and in our lives.  I love being part of a religious community where all couples and all families are welcomed, celebrated and treated equally.  And I love that my children have grown up assuming that this is the way it should be; namely because it is. 

I am very proud of our religious education program.  We teach good values and nurture a healthy faith life here in the 21st century, one that seeks to hold up the themes of justice and compassion we see in the Bible.  I see that in my own children and in the lives of many of the other kids in our midst.  It is also clear to me that our community and what we stand for matters, even if we sometimes take what we do for granted here in eastern Massachusetts. 

Sunday, June 12 is Religious Education Sunday this year.  We will take a few minutes to celebrate our children and their work together this year.  We also will celebrate the principles and values we stand for as a progressive minded congregation; one that believes in religion’s power to encourage love, service and making a difference in this life. 

As I write this, there is a good chance that the Governor of Massachusetts will sign into law protections for the Transgender community.  Once again, I am proud to be part of a movement that inspires this sort of civic response in one of the oldest states in the US.  What we do here in Massachusetts, and the example we set in a community like this one, matters.  It really matters. 

May 2016: From the Standing Committee Chair, John Wathne

On May 1st I will be concluding my tenure as chair of the Standing Committee.

The Standing Committee is essentially the “board of directors” of the Church and according to the bylaws is responsible for the custody and control of the Church building and the property, hiring of all employees and appointing all “agents of the Society” except the Minister, Deacons and Deaconesses, and the officers, and authorizing of all expenditures.

Committee members this past year were Jim Ognibene, Liv Radue, Eric Kenney, David Helen, Ben Waxman, Patti Roka, Carol Hedstrom, Mary Collari as vice chair, and myself.

Some of the items accomplished during the year:

° Expanding our stated mission to the greater community by recognizing our joint Universalist roots with a change in the bylaws that redefines ourselves as the “First Church in Salem, Unitarian Universalist”, after the closure of the First Universalist Society of Salem.

° Allocating funds to update the website, and funds to underwrite the on-going “Islam in America” Lecture Series and a “Black Lives Matter” statement at the front of the Church.

° Starting to work with the Finance Committee and the Religious Education Committee to try to fund a part-time Youth Coordinator to help energize and sustain the Youth Group.

° Endorsing the Citizens’ Climate Lobby Climate Action statement urging the U.S. Congress to sponsor measures that will acknowledge the serious threat posed by climate change; and reduce greenhouse gas emissions in a clear, transparent and effective way.

° Convening a Task Force to research the origins of the Church’s various restricted funds and confirming that budget allocations are consistent the intents of dedicated gifts that created these funds originally, some of which date back more than a century.

In addition, one of my personal “pet” projects, which I will keep involved in even after my SC tenure is done, has been to work on an organizational document that would serve as a master handbook or operational “owner’s manual” for the Church.  Although this will ultimately be a multi-year project, the initial focus has included the compilation of all of the committee missions and a description of their interactions and operations, with information gained from a “Committee Summit” of representatives of all Church Committees.

Out of this I attempted to create a rudimentary, present-state organizational chart that attempts to map interactions and money flow between the various missions, committees and ministries.

If nothing else, this illustrates that the First Church is an organic and complex institution.

I would like to express what an absolute pleasure it has been serving our growing and vital Church Community during the past year.  I leave with the realization that while there are many ways to improve, the First Church is at its core, a 380+ year old collection of interesting, well intended and often inspiring individuals, united in a common goal, and we are at the top of our game.

Thanks and Happy Spring!

John M. Wathne


April 2016

Each morning we must hold out the chalice of our being
to receive, to carry, and give back.

~ Dag Hammarskjöld

Every once in a while I am stopped on the street locally these days by someone who does not come to church here, but has heard about something we are doing at the First Church.  Usually it is a quick question or a comment.  In the last few months, most of the comments have been about the "Ask a Muslim Anything" program we hosted in January and our work with Lifebridge and Family Promise.  We are increasingly known as one of the many groups in town that "does stuff" locally and most people seem to like it.

For me, these quick conversations comprise one of the more interesting metrics that assess how we are doing as a free-thinking, religious community.  This church has had a community presence from our founding four centuries ago, (when most of the town were members!).   We have never believed that our spiritual lives happen only within the walls of our Meetinghouse.  This is a place to get "charged up" for the week.  This is a community that supports and inspires one another in finding ways to make a difference.  To use Dag Hammarskjöld famous line above: this is a place to "receive, to carry, and give back."  I would add that this also a place to support each other and simply enjoy one another's company along the journey.

There is a line I quite often use during the service to announce the Offering: "the morning offering for the ongoing life, work and collective ministry of this church will now be given and received."  My wording here is quite intentional and reflects this community effort.  I am privileged to be the Minister of this congregation, but the ministry here is shared, by all of us, in many different ways.  Anyone who has attended a board meeting understands this first hand!

So when I get stopped on the street these days, I try to be open to the brief conversation.  It allows me to hear feedback, get new ideas and occasionally have the opportunity to beam with pride.  There is a growing number of people in our midst finding ways to cultivate soul in their own lives and make a difference in our community.  That is worthy of our applause and support.

There is much happening here this month between story slams, lectures, dinner teams, great services, and yard sales.  We then have our Annual Meeting on May 1.

March 2016

After the final no there comes a yes
And on that yes the future world depends.

                                 - Wallace Stevens

Recently, I was reading a sad account about a family being evicted.  The writer and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates describes the scene in his very popular personal memoir and commentary about American Society, “Between the World and Me.”  In the account, Coates describes visiting a neighborhood in Chicago several years ago when a sheriff’s department was called in to evict forcefully an African American family who had fallen behind on their house payments after the husband lost his job.  It turns out that the wife was caught completely by surprise by the sheriffs banging on the door.  Her husband had never told her of the summons papers he had received warning the family of the impending eviction.  Coates describes the husband running around and screaming at the moving company workers as they proceeded with the difficult job of carrying the family’s furniture and possessions out onto the sidewalk as the family stood by and helplessly watched.  We forget how many families had a similar experience in 2008 and 2009 when the real estate market and economy crashed all at once.

It is hard for me to imagine the feelings of duress and sheer panic that these parents must have felt in such a situation.  Maybe they could have been more proactive and dealt with their situation earlier; maybe not.  Even so, the loss of home and hope must be devastating.  In such a circumstance it is hard not to despair. 

For me, the Easter story deals with this sort of despair.  The account of Jesus’ death can be glossed over with bunny stories and egg decorating, but at its heart it is a tale about a people facing utter despair only to find themselves transformed by an unanticipated and unimaginable hope.  I do not pretend to understand what did or did not occur on Easter, but what I do know is that a traumatized and beleaguered community all of the sudden had their outlook transformed and their prospects enlivened in ways they could not have possibly imagined.  And the direction the whole world took was transformed as well.  

One of the great invitations we can take from the Easter season is to be bearers of hope in this life.  This month we welcome back Family Promise of the North Shore, a non-profit organization that works with churches and synagogues and helps them “take turns” one week at a time hosting three to four homeless families.  The First Church became a host congregation for Family Promise at the end of December.  Starting on March 20, we will once again transform several of our upstairs classrooms into bedrooms so that a few homeless parents and their kids have a place to stay for a week.  Where once there was stress and despair, there is now some hope and possibility for a different and better future.

Some churches observe Holy Week with lots of services and rituals and prayers.  We are going to observe it this year by providing a little hospitality and hope; by being one of the places where people hear “yes” after experiencing “no,” to use the poet Wallace Stevens’ phrase.  For more information about Family Promise and how you can help out, see inside.   I wish you a joyous early Easter season and many blessings as the wheel of the year turns towards spring. 

February 2016

On Sunday, January 10 the First Church hosted a program called “Ask a Muslim Anything.” Robert Azzi, an Arab American Muslim writer, photojournalist and columnist, came and spoke at our morning service and then led an early afternoon “question and answer” forum open to the public.  I am pleased to report that we had close to 140 people attend the afternoon program with a variety of questions being posed to our speaker.  (See the link here and on our website to the front page article in the Salem News.)

This program is the first of a series we plan to host this year on Islam and America.  Currently in American society we see a caricature of Islam often presented; one that focuses on extremist elements of the faith and does not recognize the millions of decent, law-abiding Muslims who live and work in the United States, many of whom are American citizens.  Too often what is reported as Muslim is an extremist ideology espoused by a small minority (given the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims); an ideology whose hateful speech and actions are then presented as a general view of what is Islam is and who Muslims are.  Too often public personalities and media outlets in our country are allowed to get away with inaccurate and sensationalized depictions of Islam for the sake of ratings.

It is clear to many of us that the wars being fought in the Middle East are about land and oil as much, if not more, than they are about Allah and Jehovah or Jesus and Mohammed.  There are extremist elements in all of the great monotheistic religions of the West active today.  While I believe the United States should protect itself, what we need is not more threats and military strikes but rather greater understanding and awareness of different cultures.

Our church has a long history of encouraging interfaith understanding and compassion. Our congregation was the first established Protestant congregation here in the area to welcome Roman Catholic immigrants to Salem in the 1790’s, thanks to the leadership of the Rev. William Bentley.  Bentley also incidentally taught himself to read and write Arabic.  A century later, we welcomed and helped with the formation of the first synagogue in town as well, Temple Shalom, (which sadly closed several years ago).  We have a legacy of welcoming people and fostering understanding and community.

That is why we decided to move ahead with a series of lectures and programs featuring Muslim speakers this spring and summer.  As the rhetoric continues to escalate during this Presidential election year, we think it is vitally important to understand that extremism and ignorance here in this country is just as dangerous as militant extremists agitating outside of it.  Indeed if we as a country are truly honest with ourselves then we will realize that the latest manifestation of Islamic extremism is partly the fruit of our own foreign and military policies.

I invite you to support our efforts here and attend our programs.  Currently we do not have a budget for this “Bentley Lecture Series,” as we are calling it.  We saw a need and an opportunity and decided to sponsor these events as an act of faith of sorts.  Some of us believe that the road to any durable peace here in the 21st century lies in faithful acts like this and many others that facilitate understanding, create connection and foster engagement.  The Rev. William Sloan Coffin once observed that “the World is too dangerous for anything but truth, and too small for anything but love.”

We have a fun and inspiring month of special services, chocolate fundraisers, discussion groups and even a story telling event.  There is a lot happening around here these days. 

January 2016

Last month the First Church became a host congregation for Family Promise of the North Shore.  We are now one of 14 congregations (13 churches and a synagogue) in the area that “take turns” hosting up to four homeless families for a week at a time.  Our first week as a host community began on Sunday, December 27 and concluded on January 3.   We had four homeless families sleeping upstairs in our 2nd floor classrooms.

The effort and planning involved in bringing this program to the First Church was significant.  Jessica Kane led this effort, advocating and working to make this happen for over a year.  Lynn Taggart, Iana Plum, and Hannah Diozzi more recently have all played key roles in transforming the upstairs classrooms into bedrooms and coordinating linen and bedding donations, dinners and volunteers.  Some 42 people stepped up to volunteer or help out in some way, including preparing meals, hosting dinners, and sleeping overnight at the church for the seven nights our guests were here.

And even before we could host these families, we had to make some modifications to our building, including installing carbon monoxide detectors upstairs and obtaining a temporary occupancy permit (like hotels receive) from the City of Salem, which is no easy feat!  In all we spent close to $2,900 in order to welcome these families.  It was sort of a leap of faith that involved key support from the Social Outreach Committee and many others.  Some of the money came from a bequest to the church that “appeared” just at the right time.  Other donations came from members and from a café fundraiser run by the Religious Education program and Youth Group of the First Church.  I even had a six-year-old member of our congregation donate to the cause: he proudly presented me with a small plastic baggie full of change from his piggy bank.

This was truly a congregational effort and I have to say I felt very proud to be the minister of this community.  I knew that it was all worth it the moment I saw those little kids running around the Cleveland Room on the first night, met their parents and heard a little bit about their “story” and situation.  Family Promise of the North Shore is not only a great organization that helps local families down on their luck and truly in need; it is an agency that helps communities like ours remember who we are and who we can truly be, with a little vision, hard work and good will.

The best holiday presents involve presence, not things.  The most memorable gifts are usually the ones you give away, not the ones you receive.  That certainly was true here last month.  Lest we forget, at the heart of the Christmas story is a homeless family looking for a place to stay.  So I thank everyone who participated in our work with Family Promise as well as last month’s Stocking Project (see inside for how we helped 20 local families in a completely unrelated program).  And if you missed the chance to help out, don’t worry: we will be hosting again at the end of March!  Here’s to a happy, healthy and warm-hearted New Year!