From the Minister > Minister's Musings

Minister's Musings


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!