Welcoming Congregations: A Journey, Not a Destination

What does it mean to be a Welcoming Congregation?

When the First Unitarian Congregation of Hamilton voted unanimously to become one in 1998, completing the Canadian Unitarian Council’s program for congregations wishing to be more inclusive of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer or questioning people, it was blazing something of a trail. The church had only one openly LGBTQ congregant. It had been only six years since the Unitarian Church of Edmonton had become the first in Canada to complete this program. Equal marriage rights for same-sex couples were still six years in the future.

 In the almost two decades since, times have changed. Today, Hamilton is one of 99 percent of Unitarian congregations in Canada that have voted to become Welcoming Congregations, and is home to many LGBTQ members. Rev. Linda Thomson, who co-chaired the committee that oversaw the Welcoming Congregation project, credits the slow, deliberate approach the committee took leading up the vote with an affirmation that has produced lasting results.

 “That work really seems to have stood the congregation in good stead for a long time,” she says.

 But the Hamilton congregation also recognizes there’s still work to be done, which is why it decided in recent years that LGBTQ issues would be one of its  main areas of social justice focus. Indeed, the Unitarian Universalist Association recommends congregations reaffirm their welcoming status every five years, and offers additional programs congregations can undertake to “deepen their welcome”.

 While First Unitarian hasn’t formally signed on for any of these yet, the congregation is still pursuing a number of LGBTQ-affirming policies, such as making most of their washrooms gender-neutral. The congregation has also become home to a monthly PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) group and a LGBT social group. Monica Bennett, a longtime member who identifies as bisexual, believes that these and other initiatives are already enhancing the congregation’s welcoming status.

 “There’s more talk about it, there’s more conversation about it, people are more open to it, I can just feel people’s openness and their curiosity and compassion. There’s a bigger sense I have of it,” she says.

 Lyla Miklos, a lay chaplain at First Unitarian agrees that while it might not always be immediately visible to outsiders, the church has made progress on LGBTQ issues. But she also believes that there’s still a ways to go.

 “When you walk in, we’re not all wearing rainbow stickers on our heads,” she says. “It’s understood, without it being said, that we’re a pretty safe space. But how can we make it even safer?” Miklos expresses concern, for instance, over a survey First Unitarian conducted about a decade ago in which some respondents indicated they were uncomfortable with the prospect of a trans minister in their congregation. An education worker with the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, she’s advocated mandatory training on LGBTQ issues for her employer, so that there’s a shared standard of behaviour for all employees that they feel comfortable holding each other accountable for.

 “My vision would be something similar,” she says. “So that we’re all on the same page together, and we all have the same understanding together.”

 On a broader level, Miklos also sees a need to hold the congregation as a whole accountable. Laudable as the unanimous vote to become a welcoming congregation may have been, she says, it’s important to recognize it was just the beginning of a process, not the end. And being a welcoming congregation, she adds, goes beyond simply welcoming the LGBTQ community to tackling the many other forms of discrimination that still persist. In short, the question of what it means to be a Welcoming Congregation is still one everyone should be asking.

 

A Chance to Support the Work of Rev. Fulgence Ndagijimana

Recently the Rev. Fulgence Ndagijimana spoke at a service at the First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto, and met with some of us afterwards to speak about his recent experience as a political dissident and prisoner in his country, Burundi. I’m writing  to share an opportunity to support Unitarians who have fled Burundi for a refugee camp.  This is on my own initiative, not from any official or formal point of view.

In Burundi, it’s dangerous to stand for freedom of religious thought.  Members of the Unitarian Church in Bujumbura have become targets of harassment for participating in peaceful demonstrations, and helping victims of the Burundian regime.  Late in 2015, Rev. Fulgence was picked up by members of a militia representing the government, held and tortured.  After some time he was able to contact the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists.  Within twenty-four hours, 1200 Unitarians and Universalists had signed a petition demanding his release, and sent letters to the regime and its embassies.

That action saved his life; Rev. Fulgence was released. He and many members of his congregation fled the country.  Through the intervention of the Canadian Unitarian Council,  Rev. Fulgence came to Canada as a “person in need of protection”, and is living with his family in Saskatoon. Rev. Fulgence completed his internship with the Saskatoon Unitarian congregation, and has recently been confirmed as the Affiliated Community Minister. Fulgence is preparing to be ordained in North America.

In discussions with the refugees, Rev. Fulgence asked them how they see their lives moving forward, and what they thought they could do to make sure war chaos and hatred do not have the last word.  As the discussion wound down,  a young man timidly raised his hand and said “Education is the way to resist war, chaos, and hatred.” Rev. Fulgence promised that he would tell the young man’s story to UUs around the world so that his dream of building peace and harmony through education can happen.

With his supporters in Saskatoon, Rev. Fulgence has established a foundation, the Flaming Chalice International Education Fund, to enable young Burundi refugees to build a new life through education. Usually, the congregation would take a special collection for the work of the foundation.  The foundation has applied for charitable status under the Canada Revenue Agency’s guidelines, but has not yet received it. Under CRA guidelines, charities are not able to send monetary donation to non-charities, therefore, the congregation is unable, under those restrictions, to take up a collection or provide receipts for these donations.

 However, individuals, families and groups who want to change the course of the life of a refugee overseas can commit to sponsor a student for a year. $130 per month will cover safe and comfortable housing, nutritious food, tuition, and other basic expenses for one student.  Students will be in touch several times a year with their sponsors.  The foundation is currently sponsoring five young people.

Our UU congregations generously support refugees from over a dozen countries, including Syria,  Ethiopia, Iran, Pakistan and Burundi.  Can we do the same for young Burundian Unitarians?   It would take twelve donations of $130, or 24 of $65 to do so; any other amount will be helpful.   I know  we can manage this.

If you are able to share in this project, please make out your cheque for any amount to Flaming Chalice International, education fund, and send it to me, Ellen Campbell,  at 555-602 Melita Crescent, Toronto M6G 3Z5.  I’ll send the cheques on and report back to you on our results, and forward news about our student/s.

Thank you for supporting the international family of Unitarians.

The Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly – Reflections of a Canadian Participant

The Unitarian Universalist Association’s (UUA) annual General Assembly (GA) was held in steamy New Orleans this year. Between June 21 – 25, over 4,000 Unitarian Universalists gathered at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Centre.

This was a challenging gathering for American UUs. Following the resignation of former president, Rev. Peter Morales, and multiple resignations of senior staff in leadership positions, and the death of Moderator Jim Key just weeks before GA, the UUA team grappled with the issues of race, inclusion and equity that had precipitated the resignations. The three interim co-presidents who had been appointed by the UUA Board of Trustees to fill in the 11 week vacancy before the election of the new UUA president, addressed the issues in a straightforward manner.

Co-president William G. Sinkford stressed that the challenging time was “a moment of opportunity….. we don’t want anybody to leave because we refused to do the work.” Co-president Sofia Betancourt added, “The risks of failing to engage these issues are enormous for this faith. Change must come if our faith is to thrive.”

UUs of Colour had many opportunities to engage together. Some sessions were specifically for UUs of Colour, in order to create a safe space, and others were open. Diverse Revolutionary UU Multicultural Ministries (DRUUMM) and Religious Professionals of Colour hosted these sessions.

Susan Frederick-Gray was elected as the first woman president of the UUA, and installed in a moving ceremony on June 25. Speaking to the assembly, Frederick-Gray stated, “This is a defining moment, and the stakes are very high. We have deep work to do within our association and our tradition, and critical work to do beyond the association.” She also took time to speak with Vyda Ng, CUC Executive Director, at an international reception to discuss the relationship between the CUC and UUA.

Rev. Diane Rollert of the Unitarian Church of Montreal coordinated the International Worship during GA with Rev. Tet Gallardo of the Philippines. After GA, Rev. Rollert reflected:

I’ve just gotten back from the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly. I’ve been going to GA since 1997, and I have to say this was the most powerful one I’ve attended.

I am encouraged by the significant number of young leaders of colour who said graciously but firmly that they are not leaving, that this faith matters to them and they are stepping into the circle rather than retreating to the margins. I was touched by the open, caring conversations I experienced with a wide range of people who are in this for the long haul. I didn’t get to attend half the workshops I wanted to, but what I did attend profoundly shifted my thinking.

We were all leaning into the discomfort around issues of whiteness and racism but we were also leaning toward each other with love. There is much work to be done and no overnight solutions or simple checklists to complete. This is lifetime work and that’s what I’m signing up to do.

At the business meetings, delegates “overwhelmingly voted” to approve language to amend the UUA Bylaws’ Article II Section C-2.1 line 26-28, effectively shifting Unitarian Universalism’s Second Source to no longer read “Words and deeds of prophetic women and men,” but to instead read “Words and deeds of prophetic people.”

In addition, the UUA Board of Trustees will appoint a commission to review Article II of the UUA’s bylaws, which deals with the Principles and Purposes. This is in response to an expressed desire by UUs to have a deeper conversation about the Principles, and to a proposed 8th principle. The commission is to be appointed by the Board’s October 2017 meeting.

The voice of Canadian UUs was also heard. CUC Executive Director Vyda Ng participated in the International Worship and presented as part of a workshop on “Voices of Refugees: Finding Sanctuary,” and took part in international gatherings and meetings. And as is tradition at GA, Canadian UUs and friends gathered for a social evening at the World of Beers!

There were uplifting moments. Of the 4,069 participants at GA, 318 of those were youth. A high energy Synergy Bridging Service welcomed sixty Unitarian Universalist high school youth into young adulthood. Bart Frost, UUA Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministries said, “some of the best church I’ve witnessed lately. Synergy is unique to our faith, honoring these youth like this.”

Rev. Cheryl Walker at the Service of the Living Tradition, held to honour ministerial transitions, talked eloquently about making a difference. She challenged the audience to ask themselves, “Am I trying to make a name or make a difference? Do I just want to make a change, or make a difference?”

The Service of the Living Tradition recognized ministers in preliminary and final fellowship, as well as ministers who have passed away in the last year. In our Canadian context, the following were recognized:

  •       Rev. Rebecca C. “Beckett” Coppola – preliminary fellowship. Rev. Coppola has been called as the new minister at the Kingston Unitarian Fellowship in Kingston, ON
  •       Rev. Meaghann Robern – preliminary fellowship. Rev. Robern has been called as the new minister for the UU Church of Winnipeg in Manitoba
  •       Rev. Norman Horofker – final fellowship, Minister at the UU Church of Halifax
  •       Rev. Samaya Oakley – final fellowship, Minister at South Fraser Unitarian Congregation

Sadly, we said goodbye to Rev. Julie Denny-Hughes and Rev. J. McRee “Mac” Elrod.

The Ware Lecture is a highlight of GA. Each year, a distinguished guest is invited to address the assembly. 2017’s Ware Lecturer, Bryan Stevenson, invigorated the thousands in attendance. Mr. Stevenson is the founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama, and has dedicated his career to helping the poor, the incarcerated and the condemned. He said, “The opposite of poverty isn’t wealth—it is justice. He went on to outline the four things we must do to create a more just and equal world: Get proximate to the poor, the excluded, neglected, and abused; change the narratives that underlie racism and other inequalities; stay hopeful about creating justice; and be willing to do uncomfortable things.

The 2017 Ware Lecture is not available for on-demand viewing.

For more news of GA, visit UUWorld on-line at GA Coverage.

Calgary Choir Director Revitalizes Church Music Program

Jane Perry

As in many other Unitarian congregations, most services at the Unitarian Church of Calgary (UCC) end with everyone singing “Spirit of Life”. But that’s about as predictable as music there gets. During the service, congregants may have heard from one of three resident choirs. After the service, they might gather for the annual chamber music concert. And one weekend every spring, an enthusiastic crowd shows up for the church’s cabaret, a theme-based musical extravaganza that has ranged from “A Rock and Roll Odd-yssey” to “Goofy Greats and Comedy Classics”.

Jane Perry didn’t originate all of these elements of the church’s music program. But she can take credit for many of them, and even those she didn’t invent still bear her imprint. A classically-trained pianist, Perry had served as music director for over a decade at the Unitarian Congregation of Ottawa when a somewhat unexpected move to Calgary coincided with a vacancy in the music director position at UCC. Perry readily applied for the position, which offered her a chance to work again with Rev. Debra Faulk, who’d served alongside her as a student minister in Ottawa and was equally eager to resume their collaboration.

 “Jane [has an] amazing ability to bring out the best in people singing, to honour people wherever they are, and to encourage the whole congregation to be the choir,” says Faulk.

 Indeed, it wasn’t long after Perry arrived that it began to seem as though the whole congregation literally was the choir. From a little over 20 singers when she took up her post, UUphonia — the church’s unauditioned mixed-voice choir — grew to a peak of 45, almost a third the size of the congregation, attracting new members from both within the church and the wider community. The remarkable growth surpassed Perry’s initial hopes of growing the choir “a little”, but she’s modest about the formula for her success.

 “I think that perhaps people were just waiting to see if the new director was any good, and once people realized they could come and have a good time at choir, that their friends were enjoying choir, more people started showing up,” she says.

 Fun is a key element of UUphonia rehearsals, which kick off with a light-hearted warm up in which Perry encourages choristers to “pant like puppies” or attempt any one of a number of musical tongue twisters. Lots of laughing happens at practice, but Perry has also introduced a more serious side with a weekly “joys and concerns” segment, an experience she says choristers look forward to and that has brought them closer together beyond Thursday nights.

 “Choir is more than just choir practice,” confirms Faulk. “It’s a community.”

 Perry’s development of the music program at UCC has featured a mix of tradition and innovation. She knew there was no question about retaining the church cabaret, although she has worked hard to improve its quality with changes such as individual coaching sessions for performers. She also discovered that, as befits a prairie city, the church community likes folk and roots music, something that inspired her to form a tribute band that performs in services devoted to the music and philosophy of artists such as Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, and Nina Simone.

 New features, in turn, have included two choirs in addition to UUphonia: the Multigenerational Choir, a chance for parents and kids to sing together (sometimes with kazoos); and Chor Vida, an auditioned chamber choir that performs everything from Renaissance music to pop and jazz periodically throughout the year. There’s also the chamber concert, which Perry started along with a member of the congregation who’s a cellist in the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra.

 But while Perry’s innovations may be unique within Canadian Unitarianism, the challenges she’s faced are familiar, among them choristers’ discomfort with singing words such as “God”.

 “For me as a choir director, the challenge in this is that there is so much good choral music that includes those sorts of words, and I find myself having either to exclude such pieces or to use them only sparingly through a choral season,” says Perry.  “It’s not that I want Canadian UU choirs to be singing the word “God” every Sunday — it’s just that I’d like the room to be able to choose a piece that moves me and that I think will move my choir and my congregation whether it has the word ‘God’ in it or not.”

 Perry’s goals for the future, however, extend beyond her own congregation. While she’d like to help UCC’s singers and musicians continue to become the best they can be, whether through new music to consider or choral workshops, she’s also eager to see them representing the church at what she sees as a time of increasing insularity.

 “I think that it’s our job as Canadian Unitarians to make sure that we keep extending hands across the walls, keep building bridges, keep reaching out to others, going to where they are, inviting them to come to where we are so that we can learn more about each other. I think that’s really the basis for a healthy community, that we continue to learn about those around us and continue to build and strengthen bonds.”

Calgary Minister Recounts Trip to Jordan to Receive Interfaith Harmony Prize

Rev. Debra Faulk (second from right) and other winners of the prize in Amman, Jordan.

A minister, a rabbi and an imam went to Jordan at the invitation of the King. The minister was Reverend Debra Faulk of the Unitarian Calgary of Church.  The occasion was to accept the 2017 Gold Medal for participation in UN World Interfaith Harmony Week, a global event that promotes co-operation within and between different faiths, on behalf of the Calgary Interfaith Council. The ceremony for the award took place April 30, 2017, at the Royal Palace in Amman Jordan.

When the Interfaith Council, a partnership of religious communities in Calgary working tofether for the common good, became aware of the UN World Interfaith Harmony Week, a planning team was quickly formed, responding to the opportunity to join with others around the world in proclaiming that a core value of faith is harmony. At the opening ceremony held at Calgary City Hall, Rev. Faulk, in her words of welcome, said: “Whether one identifies with a particular religious tradition or not, all human beings have faith. Faith is about trust, conviction and hope, these touch each of us. It is faith, whether in a higher power or in fellow beings, that motivates us to ethical action, to work of the common good, to attempt to live in harmony with others and the planet.” Mayor Naheed Nenshi, Canada’s first Muslim mayor, then read the official proclamation making Calgary the third Canadian city to do so, after Toronto and Halifax.

First proposed at the UN General Assembly on September 23, 2010 by His Majesty King Abdullah II of Jordan and unanimously adopted on October 20, 2010, the first week of February is now officially observed as UN World Interfaith Harmony Week. Rooted in the Common Word Initiative, a dialogue between Muslim and Christian leaders, and the recognition of Love of God and Love of Neighbour as foundational religious tenets of all three Abrahamic traditions, this was expanded to Love of Good and Love of Neighbour, a formula that includes all people of goodwill, those practicing a religion or not.

The World Interfaith Harmony Week provides a platform — one week in a year — when all interfaith groups and other groups of goodwill can show the world what a powerful movement we can be. If ever the world needed to be reminded of the power of harmony within our diversity, it is now. In response to the escalation of hate speech, we preach harmony, in response to violence we unify in love, standing with each other in both solidarity and curiosity.

 

At the award ceremony in Amman, Rabbi Shaul Osadchey spoke on behalf of the award winners. In part he said:

that one of the root causes of strife and conflict in our world is religious enmity.  It is my contention that the root cause of such hatred is religious illiteracy.

Ignorance of others’ religious beliefs and practices leads to stereotyping, misinformation and prejudice which precludes the formation of healthy, respectful and collaborative relationships.  We advocate the Biblical principle of “”ואהבת לרעיך כמכה- Love Your Neighbour as Yourself.”  But love cannot take hold when partners do not know each other well.  Actions become suspect when we do not understand the values and beliefs that undergirds them.

Fortunately, the antidote is religious literacy.  … religion can be a powerful and compassionate force for diminishing human suffering. Our faith traditions offer the building blocks upon which a pluralistic order for a globalized world can emerge.  In our highly interconnected and interdependent world, religious literacy is essential for human progress.

And so, in the face of hate, oppression and fear, I stand here today in solidarity with fellow human beings as a force of love and inclusion supporting this effort to befriend and educate ourselves about each other as a route to peace.

In reflecting on the entire experience Debra said the whole time was an incredible learning. In conversation with the 2nd place winners, two professors representing International Forum Bosnia’s Centre for Interfaith Dialogue Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, came deeper recognition that working for interfaith initiatives in Canada is safe and does not involve possible danger as it does in other places in the world. Meeting people who are taking the risks makes it so much more real.

The 3rd place winners, PL84U Al-SUFFA, run by Saira Mir and her family, is a neighbourhood agency in East London, UK that serves meals to the homeless and offers haircuts and companionship with deep respect for their clients’ worth and dignity. Meeting this loving family affirmed that the contributions of every person are needed and matter to do the work of peace and justice as well as the power and inspiration of commitment and living one’s faith.

Some of the winners were accompanied by family members, so the group totaled twelve visiting winners, the two main “handlers”, our bus driver and a couple of extras each day that were probably primarily there for security, though that was very low key. During the long weekend, the group traveled to Bethany Beyond Jordan, the place claimed as the baptism site of Jesus, stood on the Jordanian side of the Jordan River and watched full-immersion baptisms happening on the Israeli side maybe forty feet away, visited the Dead Sea, Dabeen National Park and Petra. Sidebar: Debra, the imam, and his wife rode camels at Petra and paid with Canadian money, the camel owners, all Bedouins, were skeptical about the currency.

They all traveled together, ate together, laughed together, shared stories and formed a bond that can only happen in the face to face befriending that this situation offered. The truth of this is also the inspiration to continue the work, to befriend and to educate themselves about one another is a contribution to peace and harmony everyone can engage.