If Not Church, Then Where?

Author: 
Kathleen McGregor

This is a sermon that I gave at Emerson Unitarian Universalist Church, Canoga Park, Los Angeles, California on August 13, 2017.

Thank you for inviting me to preach today. I am a great fan of Rev. Ann Hines, and I have so enjoyed getting to know Rev. Matthew this past year, We are fortunate to have another woke minister who is committed to social justice in Southern California. That is as much a reflection on this congregation, as on the man himself. I met a number of you at the District Assembly in Tucson and Nogales this year, and I expect a number of you are up at DeBenneville Pines this weekend for the Justice Camp.

When I guest preach, I tend to tackle the difficult topics that often are not spoken of in the pulpit. Today, I am going to address domestic, or intimate partner violence. It relates to the congregational community both as spiritual care issue, and an issue of participating in our larger world. Unitarian Universalists are terrific about wanting to fix our outside world, but for this sermon, we will look within. We will look at domestic violence, and signs to look for. We will look at the wider context of domestic violence in the political sphere, and how that affects us, and we will look at spiritual self care that will be useful to those of us who need it for ourselves and/or to support and sustain our community.

This past weekend has been a hellish example of violence getting out of hand, due in large part to abusive bullying language and actions becoming the norm. Oh, who am I kidding? This weekend it is racism and anti-semitism, but the underlying culture of supremacy, that is kyriarchy, patriarchy, Christian dominionism, a specific kind of white masculine pride of having to be one up and controlling another, are the roots which manifest in the smallest unit of society, a couple or family. I preached on this topic earlier this summer. The circumstances were different with the leader of our country was merely posting mysogynistic tweets about the female half of a news show couple. Words affect on the psyche. We are all surviving domestic style verbal abuse, at this point.

So, starting with some statistics, we'll start with these from the Centers for Disease Control enumerated a little more clearly in the Huffington Post:

  • 3; That is the number of women killed this week by a current or former intimate partner.
  • 18,000; The number of women who have been killed by men in domestic violence disputes since 2003.
  • 6488; That is the number of U.S. military troops killed from 2001 to 2012 in Afghanistan, and Iraq.
  • 1 in 4; The number of women who will be victims of severe violence by an intimate partner in their lifetimes. Not to leave out men,
  • 1 in 7; That is number of men who will be victims of severe violence by an intimate partner in their lifetimes.
  • 8 Million; The number of days of paid work women lose every year because of the abuse perpetrated against them by current or former male partners. This loss is equivalent to over 32,000 full-time jobs.
  • 50; The percentage of lesbian women who will experience domestic violence (not necessarily intimate partner violence) in their lifetimes.
  • 2.6 times; How much more likely a transgender person of color is to become a victim of intimate partner violence than a non-LGBT person.

Unfortunately, we are currently living in a society that is fighting to restore and enforce the binary between women and men. The prior statistics focused mostly on female victims, and rightly so. However, bathroom laws aside, no where is attempt of erasure of gender queer people more apparent than the murder of transwomen and transmen. The number killed in 2016? Twenty three were killed last year, the most EVER recorded. The youngest this year, Ava Le'Ray Barrin, 17, was shot and killed in Athens, Georgia on June 25 during an altercation in an apartment parking lot. Human Rights Campaign reported,, "In an online obituary, friends remembered Barrin as a 'social butterfly' and an "amazing girl" who 'loved to make people laugh.' Last year, nearly two per month were murdered. Sadly, 2017 has already seen at least 16 transgender people fatally shot or killed by other violent means and we are on track to equal or raise last year' number in 2017. Once again, we need to acknowledge race. Every single transperson murdered this year was black, with one exception. She was Native American.

Even after high profile instances of domestic abuse has been witnessed in the media, intimate partner violence continues to be a taboo topic. Professional athletes continue with impunity after public abuse of their intimate or former intimate partners. Once the survivor manages to extricate themselves from the relationship, they enter the most dangerous time in the relationship. Not only are they at risk of being murdered, according to Liz Roberts, the chief program officer at Safe Horizons, "even after a survivor has removed [themself] from their abusive relationship and gotten [the] kids to safety, [they]may be met with hostility and mistrust from the children [they've] been working so hard to protect. . . . Kids sometimes play into the victim-blaming that they learned from the abusive parent who was left behind."

Roberts explains further:

Abusers typically actively undermine the children’s respect for and confidence for the adult victim,” Roberts said. “They’ll say things like, ‘It’s your mommy’s fault that this happened’ or ‘Your mommy is stupid, that’s why she did that.’ Or the children will overhear the put downs directed at the adult victim herself.” Plus, "Victims of intimate partner violence typically face high levels of stress, which can exacerbate any chronic health conditions they may have already had. After they separate from their abusive partner, they remain at risk for mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

In addition to physical violence, here is financial abuse, which is using money to control. Indeed, control a huge part of psychological abuse. I have a list of twenty one warning signs of an emotionally abusive relationship. See if any of these sound familiar. Here is a sampling:

1. Humiliating or embarrassing you.
2. Constant put-downs.
3. Hypercriticism.
4. Refusing to communicate.
5. Ignoring or excluding you.
6. Extramarital affairs.
7. Provocative behavior with opposite sex.
8. Use of sarcasm and unpleasant tone of voice.
9. Unreasonable jealousy.
10. Extreme moodiness.
11. Mean jokes or constantly making fun of you.
12. Domination and control.
13. Making everything your fault.

Is any of this beginning to sound familiar yet? Currently, it feels as if the American public is being held against its will in an abusive relationship. There is this gigantic game of chicken that our leader is gambling our lives by playing with a tiny, admittedly hostile at best, country who does have nuclear technology. Bullying, much? Then, the hateful rhetoric, false equivalencies, and isms of members that have been installed in the administration, have emboldened the angry white men, who at one time had enough shame to wear sheets, to bully those who do not fit that categorizations. The bullying that began during the primaries has ratcheted up, up, up. Now that they are empowered, there is no need for sheets. (Update: 8/14/17, I learned that covering ones face in public is against the law in Virginia, with the exception of Halloween).

Keeping up with the news, I am feeling battered day in and out. This is why I am choosing to focus on self-care and our congregational community. After admittedly relying on the comfort foods method of coping after the election, I'm going to share other methods that are so much more helpful. Contemplative practices are what that I focused on in seminary. Contemplative practices is a blanket term to encompass praying, meditating, keeping one's focus on the immediate present, and task at hand, another form of meditation, which is lately called mindfulness. When I started seminary a number of years ago, I would download pages off the internet, to color and offer fellow students to color as we learned. Now, you cannot leave a check stand without having seen a coloring book. I saw one at the hardware store in Glendale, last weekend.

I learned about, and then taught a Unitarian Universalist form of prayer beads. Having grown up with the rosary, it was natural to look for some equivalent that was not loaded with the baggage I had imbued my early faith. My classmates and I would make stations where our fellow stressed out students could color, draw, sculpt or make prayer beads. We had a drumming group, and because Claremont is a Methodist Seminary, we learned the prayer practices of the early Desert Father Christians, and many other Christian prayer practices that can be adapted, as necessary, to the pluralism that flourishes within Unitarian Universalism.

There is a wonderful book by Rev. Erik Wikstrom, who is a UU minister back east called Simply Pray. This was the most life-giving book through the stressful times that followed during my second year. While he did outline a UU prayer practice, he also suggested rewriting prayers to make them more familiar and beloved. He rewrote the twenty-third psalm substituting dog metaphors for the pastoral imagery of that psalm. That one prayer was worth the price of the book. After all these years, I recently used the structure of the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, to write the prayer in the Zen Buddhist language of Thich Nhat Hanh. That felt good. One of the simplest meditative practices that I use is to make a gratitude list in my head, in alphabetical order. I'm grateful for asparagus, and brussel sprouts, and my cat Chuy, and my dog Celie and electricity, and fiber optic networks... If I really cannot sleep after going through the list twice, I start backwards with "Z." My mind is so focused on finding a word that begins with a particular letter, that there is no room to worry about anything else. I've yet to get through the alphabet backwards.

I am a great admirer of another minister back east, Naomi King. She has a wonderful online ministry of prayers, chalice lightings, chalice closings, and blog posts giving inspiration on Twitter, as @revnaomi, Tumblr, and Facebook. She wrote a blog post recently, that I shared with the other congregation. In it she addressed coping in the fraught world that we find ourselves in. Before I share that, her twitter posts from her account @revnaomi yesterday, 8/12/17, read thus:

  • Love gather us in our grief. Help us hold fast to supporting equality & inclusion. #defendcville #prayer
  • #Love unite us in stopping hate with compassion, care, & hope. #prayer
  • Breath of Being call us into this life of courage, faithful risk, & generous joy. #chaliceout #uu

(Silence, 3 beats)
So, as a UU nerd that one inevitably turns into when pursuing ministry, Rev. Naomi ministers to those tender places that I will admit that I hide while being in a congregation. As a ministerial candidate there is a required distance, but we UU's, in general, do spend a lot of time in our heads rather than our hearts. In these trying times, we must challenge ourselves to make it a both/and, rather than an either/or.

In her blog post called 3 Spiritual Practices for the Long Haul, Rev. Naomi challenges us first to allow ouselved to grieve. Let us acknowledge and mourn for the injustices that grow day after day. Only then can we have compassion. Some days, compassion has been a big challenge for me, probably because I have not allowed myselt to grieve as much as I could. When I am lacking compassion, I do use a Buddhist prayer(practice) for each person to be happy, healthy and free. One must include oneself, which can often be the hardest part. This practice is called metta in the Buddhist tradition.

Next, Rev. Naomi challenges us to practice gratitude. I already gave you the alphabetical practice, but writing down what I am grateful for makes a growing list of the things that have the potential to make me happy in the moment. I cherish the list, and those stolen moments of happiness. I would be of no use, or really help, to others if I was angry all of the time. Another practice is the Ignatian Examen, a Christian practice, in which, one thinks of what one is most grateful for and least grateful for at the end of the day. It is great to do in the family or with a partner. What you are least grateful for will at least give you something to sleep on, or work on the next day. If you want to make your gratitude practice even more spiritual, just light a candle, and be fully present.

Last, Rev. Naomi challenges us to "live with reverence and awe." Back to those tiny moments of happiness: my particular moments inevitably come in nature. Fluffy clouds, a wild animal, trees, I'm a tree hugger literally and figuratively, plants, happy children, beloved pets; All of these are gifts that can heighten our spirituality, and make us aware that we are part of the interconnected whole, the web of life of our seventh principle.

As a part of the interconnected whole, we are part of an association of Unitarian Universalist Congregations. If not at church, where can we discuss the tough topics, like domestic violence, racism, homophobia, islamophobia and anti-semitism? If not at church, where can we build a community that is accountable beyond our family of origin, or our chosen family? If not at church, where can we tend to our spirit, as we face yet another justice issue, and keep faith in humanity? One of my favorite ministers preached that Unitarian Universalism is where we practice right relationship, allowing us to further offer those skills to the rest of the world.

Finally, I'd like to close with a short reading from one of our Unitarian Universalist Minister/Professors, Rev. Dr. Mark Morrison Reed. He writes:

The central task of the religious community is to unveil the bonds that bind each to all. There is a connectedness, a relationship discovered amid the particulars of our own lives and the lives of others. Once felt, it inspires us to act for justice.

It is the church that assures us that we are not struggling for justice on our own, but as members of a larger community. The religious community is essential, for alone our vision is too narrow to see all that must be seen, and our strength too limited to do all that must be done. Together, our vision widens and our strength is renewed.

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