Years from now, I suspect that most of us who "survived" the month of February in Salem will remember these last four weeks with a mix of amazement and pain. This has been the second coldest February and second most snowy winter on record, a remarkable state of affairs given how dry most of January was. "Old Man Winter" arrived in New England near the end of January, grabbed the region by the collar and has not released us from his icy grip.
The toll this has taken on our roads, our houses, our cars, our traffic, and our roofs (!) is perhaps only dwarfed by the impact on our psyches and moods. Many of us are not happy. There are more and more stories of people growing irritated with the weather and with one another. I suppose this is both inevitable and understandable.
There is a silver lining in all this - or silver layer of snow if you will: it is during challenging times like this that people are reminded how very fragile and dependent we all are on the actions and good will of one another. Our individual success and happiness is directly and immanently caught up in the workings of those around us. The winter weather can force us to realize how dependent we all are on one another, even at the mercy of one another. This is something we can sometimes overlook or choose to ignore in our hyper-connected digital society where people seem to spend more time on their Netflix and Facebook accounts than they do with their next door neighbors. It turns out that even if we do not pay attention to such things, what is local and immediately around us really does matter.
There was a time in a bygone era when our neighbors were an integral part of our everyday lives and community. That is not always the case these days. But a winter like this invites us to talk to the people who live near us, even if it is only to argue about where to put the latest round of snow. There are possibilities to make connections and be a part of a community when we are slowed down by the vagaries of frozen precipitation. It is one oft overlooked way to find warmth. Too often in this life, we look at our fellow human beings through the lens of economics or social status. Weather like this can be, like church, an invitation to view those around us as fellow travelers and seekers on the same strange, wacky journey through life as we are, one that has many unanticipated moments for insight and grace. That said, I am ready for spring!!
Our month begins with some great speakers and music and concludes with the beginning of the Easter and Passover Season. Here's to sunshine, crocuses and a grand and muddy thaw!
One of the things I am most proud of here at the First Church is that we are a place where people of all ages want to attend and participate. We have become a community where different generations of people come to worship, sing, talk, think, serve, socialize, and play. These days when we host a night to serve dinner at Lifebridge, the local homeless shelter, we have so many people show up that we have to turn some of them away. (We are actually considering taking on a second night – stay tuned for details.) These days when we announce a yoga program, 12 people show up for the first session. We have not one, not two, but three dinner groups that have formed and fourth on the way. The First Church is a stimulating, enjoyable and inspiring place to be.
Allow me two recent examples. During this last year we have found that we have a growing number of adolescents who continue to come to church and want to be a part of our community. The kids even wrote, produced and directed their very own Winter Pageant last month, which they began to write after they were informed that they were now too old to be in our traditional Christmas Pageant in December. Instead of taking offense or umbrage, they decided to choose another story from the Bible (Jacob and Esau) and perform that with energy, wit and yes, some outright silliness.
While I was impressed with the performance, what I was most struck by was how wonderful it is that so many of our teenagers want to continue to be a part of our liberal religious community. Something is changing in our larger culture and the mindset of these kids, but the fact of the matter is that we have a great community of people and it is wonderful that our older kids want to be a part of this.
And it is not just kids who are having the fun and wanting to be here. Recently I decided to host a book and discussion group dealing with race in America and the North Shore. I was delighted when over 20 people stayed after church for the program and discussion. It was a good conversation and many questions were posed, (such as “Why are there not more people of color here at the First Church?,” that we will no doubt explore in the coming meetings. Our next gathering is scheduled for Sun, Feb 15 after church.
It turns out that a progressive minded church grounded in the Hebrew and Christian Bible and open to many forms of inspiration (and that regularly holds up the UUA’s Seven Principles) is a great and fertile ground on which to build a dynamic community. It makes it both challenging and fun to be the Minister here, and I mean that in a good way! So if you hear about one of our Family Fun or Game Nights, consider joining us. They are aptly named. If you read about one of our book discussion groups, or the monthly yoga class, join us. You will find moments of inspiration and insight. If you are invited to serve dinner at the shelter or bag groceries or help out with one of our social justice committee projects, consider accepting the invitation.
It is amazing how small gestures on all our parts can make a big difference in the lives of others. The Rev. James Luther Adams, one of the more famous ministers of this church, once observed many years ago, “Church is the place where you get to practice what it means to be human.” Indeed!
We have many fun and inspiring items planned for the month of February including Chocolate Sunday on February 8 and a Downton Abbey Fellowship Hour on the 22nd.
We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.
-- The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Speech in St. Louis, Missouri, March 22, 1964
Last month I had the opportunity to participate in a walk and vigil at Salem State University as part of the national Black Lives Matter movement. All over the country, people of various races and ethnic backgrounds have been staging creative protests and sit-ins at shopping malls, highways, restaurants and stores. The largest of these protests have been in New York City and of course Ferguson, Missouri. Almost all of these events have been peaceful, with young people denouncing the unfair treatment of people of color by law enforcement systems all over the country. The goal in most cases is not disruption but attention. Here in Salem that was certainly the case on a cold December night. I watched as students from Salem State lay down for a few minutes on the side of Washington Street chanting “Don’t Shoot” and “I Can’t Breath.” And I chanted along with those assembled calling for an end to unfair treatment of people of color by police officers around the country.
We live in society still separated quite often by race and increasingly divided by class and wealth. While things have improved in some areas and certainly many people have cast off the shackles of racial prejudice, many of us still live in communities separated by race and wealth. If you don’t believe me, I invite you to take a drive through various neighborhoods here on the North Shore.
And certainly if you want to see unintentional separation in action, you need only walk into any house of worship on a Sunday. There is an old saying that the most segregated hour of the week in the U.S. is Sunday at 11 o’clock in the morning. It does not mean that people are racist or prejudice in many churches. (Sometimes it is quite the contrary). What is does mean that we are all products of larger societal forces and habits. If there is going to be any change, it has to be intentional, and it has to be peaceful. It will not happen by accident. Dr. King liked to talk about the beloved community, a vision of a society where justice and compassion reigned supreme and people were judged “by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin.”
Starting January 18, the First Church will be offering a series of short programs on race and class. We plan to discuss excerpts from the book Afraid of the Dark, and watch a few videos. See details on the program inside this newsletter. All of this is for the purpose of simply putting ourselves in a place where we can listen to those with different perspectives and experiences. There is enormous power and possibility in doing just that. Out of this comes understanding and potential for real change in this country.